Thursday, April 17, 2008

Two Boats and a Helicopter

Those of you who sat through Protestant Sunday school for the first few years of existence can skip this paragraph. But if you have not heard the story of the man and the flood, here it is: A man is sitting on his porch as flood waters rise. A woman floats by in a boat, asking if the man needs help. "No, thank you," says the man, "I'm trusting in the Lord." The waters rise higher, sending the man upstairs. A raft full of people floats by his second story window. "Get in," they say, "there's plenty of room." "No thanks," says the man, "I'm trusting in the Lord." The flood waters keep rising, pushing the man up to the roof. A helicopter swoops in, lowering its ladder for the man. "Thanks anyway," shouts the man, "I'm trusting in the Lord." Finally, the man is swept away in the torrent and drowns. At the gates of Heaven, the man asks God, "Why didn't you save me?" "What do you mean?'' replies God, "I sent two boats and a helicopter."

I am reminded of this story because in the nearby town of Oregon City, a tragically familiar drama is playing itself out, with the indictment of a faith healing couple for medical neglect in the death of their fifteen month old daughter. Until 1999, the use of prayer in lieu of medical care could be used as a defense in Oregon courts. This case will be the first real test since the shield law was rescinded. And although I do agree that these cases must be prosecuted, I am torn between empathy for a couple grieving the loss of their child, and utter mystification at their parental choices. What wrong-headed logic could produce this catastrophe?

The idea the "The Lord will provide" (paraphrased from Philippians 4:19, or Genesis 22:14, depending on who you ask) is a thorny one for the faithful. The usual rebuttal, that "God helps those that help themselves," may be apt, but of course it's not biblical (most of us know it from Benjamin Franklin, though versions of the quote date back to Sophocles). There have been those who have taken the concept of the Lord providing to its logical extreme, with predictable results. But mainstream readers of the Bible use the lens of experience to find meaning in these words. Clearly, food must be grown and clothing must be sewn and shelter must be built. These things don't magically appear. Even faith healing families don't stand outside waiting for showers of manna.

So why is medical care different? It seems to me that there are two interrelated aspects that keep faith healing alive. The first is that its efficacy is difficult to disprove (if you don't look at statistics, that is); sometimes sufferers really do get better with no medical intervention, just as those of us who go to doctors are often told to go home and sleep it off. But an even more compelling reason may be that for all it has given us, modern medicine cannot yet cure everything (just ask Chris Rock). The truth is that you can see all the doctors with all the hi-tech equipment in the world and still not be cured. Most of us greet this reality with a shrug of the shoulders--or a visit to the acupuncturist. Still, it's easy to see why one might turn to God when medicine fails you. Perhaps prayer won't work either, but at least you'll get the brownie points for showing God some respect.

The control over one's own body is one of our most important freedoms. Far be it from me to be critical of the decision to forgo medical care; it could very well be that the comfort a believer in faith healing gets from prayer has actual restorative power. But when they inflict this choice on their families, my sympathy evaporates. How can God be testing the faith of an infant? Or do the adults fear judgment by proxy? Let the flood waters wash you away if you wish; but get your children into that boat.

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