I was reminded of an old joke, arguably mildly humorous, this morning about a guy who lived by a river. Heavy rains come and the river rises quickly. A neighbor come by with a rope. “Come on,” the neighbor says. “We can tie ourselves together and make it out of here.”
“No,” the homeowner replied, “I have faith in God and he will deliver me a miracle.” As the neighbor wades away to safety and the homeowner keeps waiting and praying. As the water keeps rising up to the man’s neck, a man comes by in a boat and says “Get in!” but the homeowner demurs, “No, I have faith in the Lord and he will bring me a miracle.”
Finally, the man is forced onto his roof as the waters swamp his home. The National Guard patrolling in a helicopter spots him and drops him a rope, but he again refuses the rescue, citing his faith that God will deliver a miracle. The water continues to rise and eventually drowns the faithful homeowner, who arrives at the gates of heaven, shaken by the fact that God failed to deliver the miracle he so faithfully sought. He tells Saint Peter of his great faith and frustration that his prayers were not answered.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” St. Peter told him. “The Big Guy sent you a guy with a rope, a boat and a helicopter but you were too stupid to accept the help.”
Whatever mild humor that existed in this tale ceased to amuse me this morning as I read this story about the sentencing of a Wisconsin couple who chose prayer over medical treatment for their 11-year old diabetic daughter. The child, Madeline Kara Neumann died on March 23, 2008, unable to walk or talk in the days leading up to her death. (This is not a story I’d heard before, as early 2008 is a period that I can only recall being at work trying to save my little corner of the banking industry. I succeeded in one sense and failed in another, but that’s another story).
The miracle these parents were praying for appeared in the form of pharmaceuticals, myriad doctors, nurses and hospitals within a 25-mile radius of their suburban Wausau, Wisconsin home that had the means and ability to treat their daughter. Their prayers were answered, they just didn’t get the message in the form that they wanted it, and their child died as a result.
I know this is a sensitive topic for people and I’m sorry if there’s something about this story that I’m missing from a faith perspective. I am a person of faith. I’m not criticizing these people for having faith. I’ve been wearing out the prayer rug myself lately, but this is an achingly sad story. These folks missed the rope, boat and helicopter that God sent for them. I fear that the only lesson they took away from this (because they expressed no remorse at the sentencing according to the New York Times piece) is that they should have prayed harder and victory would have come their way. It’s not unlike athletes coming off the field after a game. The winners often thank God for answering their prayers with victory, implying that the losing team isn’t getting their prayers heard or that they’re insufficiently faithful.
I understand that structuring a penalty as they judge did in this case is not uncommon when there are other children to be cared for, but I can’t help feeling that the judge was unnecessarily generous to them after they failed the first responsibility of parenting—protect the child.
If I were one of their remaining children, I know what I’d be praying for: “Please God, don’t let me get sick.”