I noticed the wry of my smile after it happened. It wasn’t for anyone: I was alone. It came of its own as I read Margaret Downey’s public-alert e-mail announcement on the Mayday for Humanity event to be sponsored May 6, 2021, by the National Day of Reason.
Most striking to me was Downey’s line that read, “The Freethought Society is proud to be a cosponsor of an event that celebrates the National Day of Reason in sharp contrast to the National Day of Prayer.” It’s the sharpness of that blade of contrast that I feel obligated to find, even if it slices my searching hand. On the day of reason-instead-of-prayer, participants will hold a three-hour fundraiser in support of shelters for the homeless and food distribution centers. Safe Harbor, a nonprofit organization in Chester County, Pennsylvania, that has worked for the needy through 25 years, is set to be the principal beneficiary of the nontheist exercise that will include “a free online entertainment extravaganza featuring celebrities, comedians, musicians, poets, and an auction.” Downey explains that nontheists must take action on behalf of the needy “because prayers simply don’t work to solve human problems.”
Downey has a point, of course, about the limits of reverential behavior. The Bible, also pointedly, has laid down the principle, in James’s rhetorical query: if someone “is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit?” (James 2:15, 16). And verse 18: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
Early Christian church leader James was here echoing his Master and younger sibling Jesus, Christianity’s Founder. Jesus takes no responsibility for Downey’s misunderstanding or mine as to Christian obligation toward the needy. One story of His that bears repeating here uses the same stark categorization that Downey reaches for in her announcement, only that instead of theist and nontheist, instead of reason in sharp contrast to prayer, He talks about simple sheep in contrast with smart and sprightly goats (Matt. 25:31-46). The sheep’s oblivion stands in sharp contrast to the goats’ self-consciousness. Affirmed for their goodness in caring for His needs, the sheep can manage only, in effect, “‘When did we ever do that stuff for You, Lord?” (see verses 37-39). The goats are entirely more confident: “There has never been a time, Lord, when we failed to do our duty toward You” (see verse 44).
The goats’ insight—contrast the sheep’s stark lack of it—is more than anything else a function of their commitment to visible, material, scientifically controllable evaluation. Much like Downey’s dismissal of the efficacy of prayer. For prayer—audible as it may be—is decidedly less in-your-face than our society’s problems of injustice, income inequality, homelessness, etc. Another thing is that lots of prayer literally takes place behind closed doors as per guidance from the One in whose name Christians pray (Matt. 6:6).
But moving right along, here are two thoughts:
First, Christianity’s Founder was Himself both homeless and servant of us all (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58; Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45), which in no way diminished His prayer life (Luke 6:12). For His schedule of living, being homeless, serving the needy, and praying fervently all fit very well together.
And a second thought, which requires me to tell a very sad story. It’s the kind of story that Downey would likely cite to demonstrate that “prayers simply don’t work to solve human problems.”
The evening after I read Downey’s nontheist announcement it was my lot to attend one of the most heartrending goodbye services I ever have. It was Friday evening, at the beginning hours of a time of surrender to serenity and repose, when I’d normally be sending greetings and best wishes to people rescued for a season of a single day from the tyranny of labor by the sacred institution of Sabbath rest. This time around, though, everyone attending across the country, Zoomed together into a single room at the center of America, was losing a bitter struggle. It was a struggle to reconcile effervescent video clips with oblivion, with the silence of death. None of us could reconcile cruel and current truth with the scenes of youthful and familial delight, of joy and success in living, that passed across the screen. None of us knew how to stomach the unpalatable fact that the loved and talented young woman reveling with her family, accomplishing more than her years might indicate, pushing the boundaries of maximum in those pictures, was gone. Gone. We’d have to live the rest of life without her. How would we? How would Dad and Mom and kid sister do that?
I describe confounding tragedy when I say that at barely 40, this couple have buried three of their four children. The moment, the hour, the occasion, felt utterly incompatible with any concept of rest or stability, or anything remotely related to my and our customary “Happy Sabbath!” greetings.
During the program one grieving uncle listed the individuals and groups he could recall who had prayed for the saving of the life now lost. Downey may even appreciate the way he summarized at the end of his lengthy list of pray-ers. He said, “If there was one case that could have been solved by prayer, this was it.” Was he referencing evidence that prayer doesn’t work to solve human problems?
One note of mine to the grieving father included a question, variously stated, but requiring no answer: “So, should I dare say, does it make anything but mockery of sense to say today, to a grieving father, ‘Happy Sabbath!’? Is being bereaved, heartbroken, and weeping proof that there’s nothing to celebrate this time around? Is exposure of my violated soul, or the demonstration of human limitations, the basis for repudiating such language or sentiment? What would God do on a Sabbath like this?”
What did He do? It turns out that Christianity’s Founder always had Downey’s specific concerns in mind in setting aside an entire day for prayer and other acts of worship. He has already and often enough seen the gamut of problems humans encounter, problems that run much further than hunger and homelessness. His program addresses them and much more: service to the marginalized, society’s overlooked, and underserved; ultimate liberation from poverty, broken hearts, blindness, captivity, and oppression of every sort, inclusive of the otherwise-unbreakable tyranny of death (see Luke 4:16-21; 1 Cor. 15:20-22).
Many of His closest colleagues, the ones who loved Him most, lived that Sabbath as the ultimate gloomy day, the day of ultimate gloom. Like the nontheists, His friends and followers did not yet understand better. But He was showing that when we get to our worst, rest is a better response than panic.
Then, very early in the morning on the day after, following His participatory and exemplary rest on behalf of us all, He blew up hell, blasted it to smithereens or to oblivion or to whatever other state of ultimate and irreversible elimination may be conceived or declared. By the gaping door of His assigned hellhole He demonstrated what He once announced at another death-door: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Death and hell and hunger are children of the evil one. Because of Christ their days are numbered. Christianity’s Founder feeds the hungry, frees the dead, and everything good for life before that, beyond that, and in between. As He Himself announced when He came two millennia ago: “The thief does not come except to steal, and
to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
Once again, just like Downey, sharp contrast. But unlike Downey, the contrast is not between reason and prayer. It is between the self-seeker and the Servant, between the incarnation of integrity and the thief, between the fraudulent exploiter and the one who gives all there is to give so that we might have all there is to have—life in the fullness of its abundance. God so much loved that He gave His Son so that all of us, theist and nontheist, might be won by that love to experience real life—not an interlude between eternities spent in doubt; not an interception of nonentity measured in decades; not the brief, bleak season of Macbeth’s sentiment, “a walking shadow” circumscribed by the ends of mortality. What God’s love gives is not life punctuated by loss. No. It is life. Life is now life because death is no more, and there are no more tears; life is now life because “the former things have passed away” and nobody hurts anymore (Rev. 21:4).
Christ, the Lord and Founder and Incarnation of Christianity, is the Source beyond all society’s need; He is the Resurrection and the Life that counts in forever joy. He would welcome Downey into His program, and show her how to accomplish so much vastly more than nobly helping a 25-year-old Pennsylvania nonprofit. And His program works right well with prayer.
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.