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Petitionary prayer in the TiVo era

October 30, 2011

I was going to write another post in my series comparing simulacra to originals (see earlier entries here and here) – specifically in the area of sports and games — but I want to digress onto a side topic first.

Humor me by temporarily allowing some assumptions. 

Let us assume that petitionary prayer is meaningful to God (not merely a psychological crutch to the person praying).


Let us further assume that petitionary prayer for the victory one’s favorite sports team is acceptable to God (and that our petitionary prayers somehow take precedence over those for the other side, and further that is not cheating to use Providential assistance to claim a few extra points on the playing field.)


Now my question is – what is the status of prayer when one is watching a TiVo’d recording of a game?  Perhaps the game is completed, but one is watching a recording and does not yet know the outcome.  Does God, in His infinite wisdom, allow prayer after-the-fact to influence His assistance to one side or the other?

(Perhaps you know of the 1935 gedankenexperiment and paradox by Erwin Schrödinger called Schrödinger’s cat.  Schrödinger considered a cat in a box that may or may not be dead, depending on the state of a quantum particle.  According to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, the particle is a superposition of states which is not determined until the particle is measured.  Schrödinger posited that the cat is both dead and alive until the state is measured.)


Is the state of the game – like a personal Schrödinger’s cat – undetermined until it is discovered by the viewer, so petitionary prayer for a particular team is efficacious?  I could not watch the seventh game of the World Series, inconveniently broadcast on a Friday night, so could I pray for one team or another on Saturday evening until I knew the result? 


Note that because of the way that digital television works (with additional error correcting signals being transmitted) that there is always a latency with live events – and it is typically around 20-30 seconds for sports broadcasts.  (Similarly, with radio broadcasts, there is also latency – if only for the time it takes the broadcaster to formulate words.  If you are listening to an Internet radio broadcast, the latency is even greater.)  Thus if you just saw a questionable decision by a football referee and the play is under review, your petitionary prayer for the booth to rule one way or another is likely after-the-fact!


Now perhaps the example of sports-related petitionary prayer seems frivolous to you; so consider other examples; the LDS Church (Mormons) officially baptized Anne Frank (and other Jewish Holocaust victims) posthumously – which seems to me to be very much like after-the-fact petitionary prayer.

Let’s go back to the just concluded World Series.  Co-blogger Kurk Gayle lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, so it is likely that he is a Texas Rangers fan.  As you know, after one of the most exciting World Series ever, the Rangers lost to the Cardinals, and I would not be surprised if Kurk is still glum about it. (I notice, at least, that he has not posted since the ignominious defeat.)  But if petitionary prayer is efficacious after-the-fact, maybe the problem is that Kurk is not praying hard enough today, tomorrow, and in the coming week for the victory of the Rangers.


Because, there is a paradox here.  On the one hand, watching a game on TiVo (if one does not yet know the result) seems just as exciting as watching it live.  And praying for one’s team (because one knows they are on the side of truth and justice) seems like an integral part of enjoying the game.  But once one knows the result of a game (perhaps because of an injudicious glance at Facebook after the game was over but before one had watched the TiVo recording) prayer seems to be futile. 

(I might try to answer this question by appealing to the many-worlds interpretation and claiming that the universe is branching into different timelines, depending on our prayer – but that hardly solves the problem because it only solves the paradox from a solipsistic perspective [my friend who knows the outcome of the game is presumably already in one timeline or another] and further, it is unsatisfying because it means that for every time that God hears my prayer for our team to smash the other guys, one of my parallel identities is having his prayer ignored.)


The paradox of course is amplified when it comes to games on the Sabbath, when one really should not be watching sports in the first place.  Why would the One Above have arranged events for the TiVo to appear, if not to allow God-fearing sports fans to better observe the Sabbath?


5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2011 5:33 am

    Interesting thoughts! As a perhaps more practical implication of this, consider prayer for healing and health. Suppose a friend of mine has a suspected cancer. Should I pray that the tumour turns out to be benign? Presumably the so far undiagnosed tumour is currently either malign or benign – or can it be a superposition of both, like Schrodinger’s cat? Now I believe God can turn a malign tumour into a benign one, but surely it would make more sense for him to take it away completely. But most people, when they pray this kind of prayer, are in fact praying for something in the past to change, even if they haven’t really thought of it that way. Is that a legitimate thing to pray? I’m not sure. But I’m sure there’s a biblical example somewhere of God saying he answered a prayer even before it was prayed. If he can do that, because he knows in advance what we are going to do, the philosophical paradox is largely resolved.

  2. October 30, 2011 9:22 am


    What an intriguing post! My reply is twofold. First, yes, with my fellow Texas Rangers fans I am still glum. How can I ever write another BLT blogpost again? 🙂

    Second, sometimes the subject of prayer and of timing is a rather serious one, can be a dangerous one. Your post makes it personal for me, and, in fact, I suppose it already was. So please allow me the luxury on this Sunday morning in the buckle of the bible belt to mention 7 stories that come to mind. Further in my comment I’ll give footnotes and hyperlinks for 5 of the 7 here:

    1. Before TiVo there was Betamax and VHS which captured televised sporting events in the USA that were sent via Kilat Pos (“Lightning Mail” literally but slow stuff really) to the American Club in Jakarta, Indonesia, where some of us watched our favorite teams win or lose. And some prayed petitionary prayers back then, after the fact. Thus, this quandary has plagued in earlier eras. (I was a missionary kid in boarding school in that city. Your pic of Howard Cosell and Mohammed Ali takes me back.)

    2. Cherokees in the 1800s who were Christianized by the Euro-American missionaries in the USA and in the Cherokee Nation had a quandary. The men who disrobed to play Anetso (similar to what has lasted as Lacrosse) and those who bet on the outcomes of the male-only sport (only for males in terms of play, and of audience, and of wagering) were not allowed to play – as religious men – and were especially prevented from playing on the Christian sabbath, or Sunday. So I’ve excerpted below something from one of the Euro-American men’s diaries (as recorded in Michael Zogry’s book on this sport, and on its many significances for the Cherokee people), which reminds us of the present-day dilemmas of playing and of watching the World Series on a Sabbath dilemmas.

    3. Peter Kirk thinks there’s a Bible reference to the quandary of your post. I think he’s right. Below is the biblical narrative and a prayer in midrash – a recent Sabbath sermon for us today, a prayer for one who is dead to invigorate the passions and practices of petitionary prayers in the past-present. The sermon has a link to it. It is, if I may judge, excellent!

    4. Toni Morrison tells a parable as her lecture upon being presented with the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her story may well be about Miriam, in slavery, but it is definitely a 1993 variant of the 1935 paradox, which ironically both keeps alive and puts to death the gedankenexperiment, and perhaps she is deconstructing the entire Schrodinger quandary. Her lecture too is excellent!

    5. My own daughter when an infant was diseased with cancer. There were what one reporter caught me calling “dangerous prayers.” My daughter today is alive and well, a bright and brilliant university student. When prayers for her were asked and when they were heard is indeed a philosophical quandary. The medical practitioners at various points agreed she should not survive the horrible disease. You may find the true story from the link provided.

    6. My best friend’s father recently passed away. He had been ill and knew he was going. Both men, the father and the son, are Jewish, moved by this event of a chronic, terminal disease (and recent related ones) from atheism to agnosticism, and to prayers. Toward the end of their final moments together, they were reading Rabbi Kushner, and (a new quandary for them) were praying, often for a quicker passing from the pain. My friend now has lent me the rabbi’s book (heavily highlighted by his father) and is talking about changing professions in life, perhaps to become a patient’s advocate, perhaps to pursue rabbinical school.

    7. One reason I likely will not post much on the blog? My own father has progressed cancer and is living nearby. He cannot get out easily to go to worship services. He does not have TiVo but does read the paper the day after he misses the sporting events on tv. Like my friend’s father he has changed much during the days of his illness and is praying more. He keeps an online journal of his treatments and of the stages of the disease, and many pray for him regularly, some based on his reports, some after the fact. The quandary is how to be current with petitions and whether time and timing makes a difference. (In a purely non-spiritual sense, the quandary occurs in science: the oncologists have been treating the lung tumors while it’s been the lesions in my father’s brain that have been winning more against him. And yet the medicines seem to have won some against the untargetted cancer in his spine.

    That may be too much information for our readers, but your post is intriguing. You had no idea. Maybe that’s not a bad analogy to our ideas about petitionary prayer(s) and when we might pray them. We just sometimes have no idea.

    Excerpts with links are here:


    “Meeting quite full. It is a trying time for Cherokee professors [of Christian faith]. There is on this holy day a kind of [Cherokee] national Ball-Play. Some of the judges & principal men, were seen on their way, yesterday to this scene of national iniquity. Those who truly love Christ better than this wicked amusement will not be corrupt to go.”

    Anetso, the Cherokee Ball Game: At the Center of Ceremony and Identity (First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies) Michael J. Zogry


    …. We’ve never fully incorporated her ideals and her spirit into our Jewish lives. We begin with a prayer to that soothes the wound of loss. The prayer that we’re going to use is the prayer in the Torah that Moshe used to plea with God to heal Miriam when she was punished with leprosy. Page 835 in our Eitz Hayim Chumashim, the end of verse 13. “El nah repha na la. Please God, please heal her.”….

    Miriam the prophetess was born in a bitter time. Our Rabbis teach that her name comes from the Hebrew root, Mar, which means bitter. She was born to a life of slavery, ultimate sorrow, tedium and despair. Despite her oppressive surroundings, or perhaps because of her oppressive surroundings, she developed an inner core built around tenacious faith and extreme courage….

    We thank you the moments of insight and inspiration You provide for those who crave transcendence from the tedium.

    Inspire, O Lord, those of us who yearn; be with us in our struggle. Heal Miriam, by granting us the faith to believe in a better tomorrow. Heal Miriam by granting us the courage to make it happen. And together let us say: Amen.


    “Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.

    “Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.”

    In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.

    One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”

    She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”

    Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.

    The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.

    Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know”, she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”

    Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.

    For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims. The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised.


    “dangerous prayers”

    Click to access liver.buddies.pdf

    6. When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters

  3. October 30, 2011 11:39 pm

    Peter: Your thoughts are apropos, as always. I wanted to keep this post light, so I used the sports analogy, rather than the more emotionally and psychologically taxing issue of health. But with your example, the same paradox remains, it seems to me. We may pray, before knowing the result of a biopsy, for the test to report a benign tumor. But if the test reports malignant a tumor, we somehow change our prayers. We may pray that the test prove to be wrong, or for the cancer to go into remission, but we do not pray that the test itself spontaneously change.

    Kurk: Now that was one heavily documented comment. You were right: I had no idea. It was too rich in ideas, I fear, and I am a bit overwhelmed by it. I’ll have to tackle it bit-by-bit, I think. Perhaps I will start by saying that I hope your father makes a full recovery, and I also hope that he is not in pain. I am cheered to learn that there has been positive progress in the spinal metastisization.

  4. October 31, 2011 11:12 am

    Thank you very much, Theophrastus. I should have simply confessed that at no time did I pray (for the Texas Rangers to win their first World Series) hard enough.


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