Throughout human history, our forebearers bowed before God and asked for protection as they headed out, spear in hand, to kill a bear or to cross a body of water on a rickety sailboat. And why not? Our species has always felt compelled to believe in a deity or a higher power. Asking Him to protect us back then was pretty much all we had had in our tool box when it came to preparing for a safe undertaking.
It's also pretty easy to understand why -- before science, before we knew we lived on a round planet -- humans tended to believe in a literal heaven and hell. The sky above was the source of all that is good and holy -- the warming sun, the life-bringing water, the famous "silver lining" on the clouds at sunset. Beautiful, right? Makes even the most hardened atheist wonder if God really does exist after all. Meanwhile, the ground below was cold and dank, the home of creepy worms and other scary, dirty rodents that would one day engulf our bodies after death. Of course God lived "up there." And the devil -- well, you know (pointing down). But now that we know we live on a tiny round planet circling an obscure star in the far edge of one of trillions of galaxies in the universe -- believing in a literal Heaven or Hell takes more of an act of faith. I'm not even sure which way is up and which is down in our impossibly grand universe!
I've been transfixed and saddened by the two devastating avalanches that have killed countless climbers and Sherpas on Mt. Everest in as many years. Everest base camp is lovingly encircled by Buddhist prayer flags, which are meant to send prayers to God and to the mountain deity with each flutter of breeze, asking for protection as they climb the mountain. The Sherpas say: "We ask the mountain to give us permission to climb her and to protect us as we do so."
Every climbing team participates with the Sherpas in a somber, sacred ceremony before ascending the slopes of the great mountain, asking for protection as the prayer flags flutter and send their entreats up the slope of the Kundu icefall.
Despite the sincere, faithful prayers for protection -- despite asking the mountain to keep them safe -- men were killed. Many, many men.
This morning I read the news of the recent Dauphin Island Regatta disaster in Mobile, Alabama, where 6 sailors lost their lives and many more boats were destroyed or lost in severe weather during the race.
Mobile Bay is where Civil War Admiral Farragut uttered the famous words "Damn the torpedoes -- full speed ahead!" in 1864. Fateful words, indeed.
The Dauphin Island Regatta is a 17 mile sailing race which, in order to complete it, finishes across open ocean. It is advertised as "...a polite dash down Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island, where the party to end all parties is held." Well. Pour me some Southern Comfort and belly up to the bar! Sounds like fun!
I've done yacht racing, and it is not uncommon for races to be cancelled due to wind and weather predictions. Why this race was not cancelled is being debated even as we speak. Everyone agrees that bad weather was predicted.
Several of the entries were Hobie Cats or small sailboats in the 20 foot range. Hobies don't even have VHF radios, let alone sophisticated weather radar mapping or wind speed indicators. And while the press release makes the race sound like just a genteel little get-together of southern gentleman, Dauphin Island is definitely out to sea, and open ocean must be crossed to get there.
I've read that the National Weather Service sent out several warnings before the race start of possible severe weather and wind gusts of 60 knots or worse.
For a Hobie Cat to head to open ocean with this weather forecast would be considered pretty insane by the average thoughtful person.
Now, I've never been to Alabama, but from what I hear, fundamentalist Christianity is very big down there. So I wouldn't be surprised if there was an official group prayer before the race, asking God to keep the sailors safe, deliver them to the finish line, and to provide "fair winds and following seas."
There is one particular verse in the New Testament that is a source of much of this trouble, I think:
"Jesus said: 'If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain: 'Move from there to here,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.'" -- Matthew 17:20
When I was young I fell into the loving arms of a large, loving church group in my hometown. I accepted Jesus into my heart, and for several years the church, my new friends, the music and the ritual provided a respite from the storm that is "the teenage years." I met my husband in those rooms, and though I have long since left the church, I still enjoy lifelong friendships with many I met there.
Once in my early 20's, though, the steely concrete bunker that was my faith began to crack and weaken. I remember well a specific incident that smashed a hammer into that bunker of faith:
After college classes one afternoon, my friend Debbie-Sue and I were praying together in a small room attached to the main church youth area. There were dozens of kids on the grounds hanging out, reading, playing ping pong, running around, etc. Debbie-Sue and I were enjoying a private prayer session together, alone in that side room, and kids kept running in and interrupting us. After it happened several irritating times, Debbie-Sue and I agreed with a gulp that we would take that leap of faith from Matthew 17 and ask God (with faith much larger and greater than that tiny mustard seed!) to keep the kids from running in and interrupting us for just five minutes. "Lord," we humbly prayed, "we ask you with our sincere faith -- to give us just 5 uninterrupted minutes to pray together, in peace. Since we ask with absolute, pure faith, we know it will be done."
About 11 seconds later, a male friend lurched the door open and burst into the room with an ear-piercing yell. I still remember the image of his open, shrieking mouth, filled with braces as menacing as sharks teeth. He quickly apologized with a shrug before bursting back out the door with a slam. He had no idea what damage he had done.
I was crushed.
My faith in a benevolent, protecting God was all downhill after that.
I am a Christian, and I try to live life in the manner that Jesus encouraged. I don't know for sure if God exists, but like my wise husband says:
"If I live my life as if God exists, things tend to go well."
My faith is more in a God that fills our hearts with joy and love if we humble ourselves before Him and pray for compassion for others. But that's about the extent of it.
During our thousands of miles sailing the open ocean, we faced countless dire weather predictions, equipment failures and every other risk you can think of. Never once did I pray to God to protect us.
My husband and I knew that we were completely responsible for our safety at sea. It's Thoreau's vaunted "self-reliance." We alone would make our decisions based on data, facts, and OK -- maybe our gut. And the responsibility of the outcome would also fall solely on our own heads.
Our surviving and arriving safely at our next port was completely up to us.
Yes, this is a daunting realization -- but it's an empowering one. For it cuts away any fanciful images of a benevolent God parting the Red Sea on our behalf with a gigantic holy hand.
Most of us have today at our fingertips countless ways to scientifically gauge any risk involved in any endeavor. Why do some knowingly cast aside the science and the data and still head to sea or start a high-risk business with a shrug, muttering that it's in the Lord's hands now?
The sad result of this phenomenon is that some people take much greater risks than they would normally, because having prayed ahead of time, they insist that "The Lord will protect us."
Look, I'm not saying that intercessional praying never works. Honestly, I have no idea.
But for me, there is a saying that makes much greater sense, that rings deeply true in my heart of hearts, that I used over and over again during our travels at sea:
"Pray to God, but row away from the rocks."