Please, God, help us with 'this awful oil spill'

At first glance, it sure seems like The New York Times' make-fun-of-prayer squad is at it again.

Earlier this month, GetReligion went behind the scenes of a Times story on unidentified faith groups seeking "divine wisdom" (scare quotes courtesy of the "Old Gray Lady") to close a California state budget gap of biblical proportions.

Now comes a Times story from the Gulf Coast that opens like this:

BON SECOUR, Ala. -- In a small white building along the baptizing Bon Secour River, a building that once housed a shrimp-net business, the congregation of the Fishermen Baptist Church gathered for another Sunday service, with the preacher presiding from a pulpit designed to look like a ship captain's wheel.

After the singing of the opening hymn, "Ring the Bells of Heaven," and the announcement that an engaged couple was now registered at Wal-Mart, the preacher read aloud a proclamation from Gov. Bob Riley that declared this to be a "day of prayer" -- a day of entreaties to address the ominous threat to the way of life just outside the church's white doors.

Whereas, and whereas, and whereas, the proclamation read. People of Alabama, please pray for your fellow citizens, for other states hurt by this disaster, for all those who are responding. And pray "that a solution that stops the oil leak is completed soon."

In other words, dear God, thank you for your blessings and guidance. And one other thing, dear God:


That snarky enough for you?

You've got the baptizing river (seriously, what does that mean?). You've got the obligatory Wal-Mart reference (I'm guessing there's not a Macy's or even a Target in that small town). You've got the scare quotes around the "day of prayer." The only thing missing is Forrest Gump's mama saying, "You have to do the best with what God gave you."

Get past the condescending approach, though, and this story actually is a hundred times better than the California piece.

Yes, it manages to include the word "mortals," just like the story from the West Coast. Yawn. But this time, when the Times refers to divine intervention, there are no scare quotes. Let's chalk that up as progress.

Even better, there's some actual religion meat in here -- specific details on the wording used by each of five states' governors who declared days of prayer Sunday:

In the two months since the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion began a ceaseless leak of oil into the gulf, damaging the ecosystem and disrupting the economy, the efforts by mortals to stem the flow have failed. Robots and golf balls and even the massive capping dome all seem small in retrospect.

So, then, a supplementary method was attempted: coordinated prayer.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry encouraged Texans to ask God "for his merciful intervention and healing in this time of crisis." In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour declared that prayer "allows us an opportunity to reflect and to seek guidance, strength, comfort and inspiration from Almighty God." In Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal invoked the word "whereas" a dozen times -- as well as the state bird, the brown pelican -- but made no direct mention of God. In Florida, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp asked people to pray that God "would guide and direct our civil leaders and provide them with wisdom and divinely inspired solutions."

I could get all nitpicky and complain that the story never tells me whether the Fishermen Baptist Church has any ties to the Southern Baptist Convention or another denomination. I could complain that the piece uses the term "Bible Baptist" and doesn't explain what that means. But I won't. Unless, of course, I just did.

The story ends this way:

A missionary about to leave for Brazil was waiting to make a multimedia presentation, but first these kneeling men, led by Brother Harry -- Harry Mund, a relative of the pastor's -- needed to finish their prayer.

Please God, help us with "this awful oil spill," he said. In Jesus' name. Amen.

The men rose from their knees and returned to their pews, a couple of them rubbing the salty wet from their eyes.

So there you go. A prayer story from the Times that's not half bad. I think I'll rub the salty wet from my eyes, too.

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