06/03/2013 11:15 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

Prayer in the Aftermath of Tornadoes

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"If it makes you feel better, go ahead: say a prayer. But if you want to help survivors recover, open up your wallet and do something that will actually help." -- Mark Joseph Stern, "Don't Pray for Oklahoma" in Slate Magazine

In the aftermath of the tornadoes in Oklahoma, Stern suggests an almost competitive view of recovery efforts. While he directs the majority of his scorn at the God-talk of politicians and journalists, he nevertheless wants to make a point: If you want to be part of the solution, pray if you must, but please don't confuse prayer with reality.

Prayer does not rise much higher than your therapeutic need and may even make matters worse. The gods of empiricism are more powerful than the invisible God revealed through love and hope, compassion and transformation.

So goes the taunt. It hearkens back to the memorable story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:20-39.

Elijah faces a lop-sided field: "I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal's prophets number four hundred fifty" (22b). Baal's prophets produced results if numbers are any indication. They certainly enjoyed political favor and that itself can make it appear as if results are on your side.

The reckless disregard for environmental degradation as the U.S. reaches for oil dominance through fracking is a case in point. The science of fracking seems on the surface to produce results but, on closer examination, it resembles nothing so much as the rape of the earth, only exacerbating the conditions that increase the likelihood of mega-storms like the ones that struck in Oklahoma.

But maybe there was a doubt that made the people waiver between these apparent rivals. So Elijah says, "Let's get this rivalry out in the open. You call on your god and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire wins the intellectual rights to be called God."

And so the prophets of Baal called on their god. From morning to noon, they cried, "O Baal, answer us!" But there was nothing: no voice and no answer (26b). Believing they had not yet done enough to satisfy their reclusive god, they began to slash their bodies, until they were limping with exhaustion. By noon, Elijah could no longer contain himself: "Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened" (27b).

Undeterred, they howled late into the day and yet, according to the narrator, "there was no voice, no answer, and no response" (29b).

Then it was Elijah's turn. Elijah builds the altar out of the memory of Israel's favor with God, symbolized by twelve stones. And from these he builds an altar in the name of the Lord. "Next he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood." So far so good. But then something peculiar: "Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood." Now do it again. And then do it a third time: "...the water ran all round the altar, and filled the trench also with water" (33-35).

Finally, he calls out to God. And God answers. Immediately. With fire. As the Lord of fire: "The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench" (38).

No contest, the text seems to say. No rivalry, either. One Lord lives, answers, acts and delivers -- even in the most adverse circumstances.

Of course, Elijah's prayer was never for mere fire. It was for a change of heart, something arguably more potent than stone-devouring flames or suburb-devastating storms or world-destroying armies.

"Answer me" cries Elijah, "so that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back" (37b).

In the idiom of Scripture, to change one's heart is to be transformed by God's mercy, love and hope so deeply that it is impossible to relate to the world in any other way. To be changed in this way is to be forged into a new creation.

In her book, "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster," Rebecca Solnit insists that local churches and "counterculture communities" that rise up to act amid terrible tragedy are not objectively the best equipped, or most powerful, or even the most knowledgeable as respondents. "They are" she says, "constructed by beliefs, commitments, and communities, not by weather, seismology, or bombs."

Perhaps ironically, when Stern exhorts people to get off their knees and open their wallets, he supplies a link to the Red Cross.

While its visionary founder, Clara Barton (1821-1912), sometimes described herself as a "well-disposed pagan" she nevertheless used the language of faith to explain her call to oppose modern warfare:

The war side of war could never have called me to the field. All through and through, thought and act, body and soul -- I hate it. ... Only the desire to soften some of its hardships and allay some of its miseries ever induced me ... to dare its pestilent and unholy breath.

As a woman, many viewed her as the least equipped to confront war, to "understand" the science and necessity of war. She mocked her detractors: "[They] say of me, 'what does she know about war' and because she doesn't know anything about it, [they reason] she mustn't say or do anything about it.'" Nevertheless, she adds, "I pray for peace."

Stern is, of course, correct: recovery without scientific sense and hands-on knowledge is impossible. But what he does not understand is that scientific skill and knowledge alone will not help us rise up to the challenges that confront us today.

We need something more and deeper than mere knowledge, perhaps the very kind of thing represented in the hope that inspired Barton both to pray and to work. Her prayer rose higher than her therapeutic needs. It was a prayer for healing and it was a prayer answered in a movement larger than even she could imagine.

We need such prayers today, not because prayers "do" anything but because our prayers are given to the God who answers us with something vastly larger and more concrete than we alone could imagine.