"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Answered Prayers For Tubas And Victory–God’s Reward For Vanity

Margaret Turnbull’s house had burned to the ground, and only her 16th century Venetian vase had been spared. “Thanks be to God”, she said as she picked up her treasure, the symbol of both Renaissance beauty and her own good taste.  “He is truly good”.

She stood among the still-smoldering embers of her living room and looked sadly at the Kashmiri rug she had bought from a floating merchant on Dal Lake in Srinagar.  It was barely recognizable.  The fringes had been taken first by the flames and then – she imagined – knot by knot the fire consumed the swirling floral designs and Islamic motifs until it reached the center, the omphalus she had always called it, recalling her days as an Art History major at Smith.

In the corner by the fireplace was the blackened and blistered Chippendale lowboy. On what remained of the Empire table were lumps of melted silver, all that was left of her 18th century Reed & Barton settings for eight.

Everywhere there was destruction.  Carpets had gone up in smoke, antique chairs and tables had been incinerated like so much firewood; silver and gold had melted like wax.  And yet God had spared her Venetian vase. George is who she called the funny-looking Prince painted on the old porcelain.  She became fond of his long, prominent nose, slightly daffy look, and chicken neck.  He might have been someone she could have liked, mothered even, for there was something tentative and unsure about his gaze.  Not a day went by without her saying hello to him, asking how he was, or remarking on the beautiful day outside. “The peach trees are in bloom”, she would say, “and the air is heavy with their perfume”.

Margaret knew that God worked in strange and miraculous ways and had always believed that Jesus was her personal Savior.  She took the common truism to heart, and felt that He was looking after her.  He understood her and was there for her in times of trial. Heaven knows that she had needed him when her husband, William, had gone completely off the rails and began talking to himself.  They lived in polite society where it was bad manners to bring up anything unpleasant; so his golfing partners ignored his long recitations of Milton and questions about Evil.  For a long while they thought that he simply liked to take many practice swings, but soon realized that he played the 4th and the 12th holes without a ball.

Margaret herself chose not to notice his frequent vacuity – an emptiness in his gaze and a dotty smile on his face – or his unusual choice of clothes.  He wore hand-painted fish ties, for example – grotesque images of pickerel and snapper and the worst of all, mackerel.


He wore them whenever the mood suited him.  He appeared at the Sheffield Meadows Country Club annual formal wearing one. He started wearing jaunty boaters and plaid socks to affect a Gatsby look, and sat down to dinner for eight addressing his wife as Daisy.  He splashed on cheap cologne and reeked to high heaven ruining the coquilles St. Jacques and the Spring Salad.

God had helped Margaret through her husband’s long and progressive decline.  Finally people began to talk,  William no longer made any sense at all, and he had to be institutionalized.  Fortunately The Institute of Living, the private facility that cared for the socially well-placed and the famous, was nearby, and he was admitted there.

Margaret’s troubles were not over after William had been removed.  There was still Billy, Jr. who had run off to San Francisco with his lover and was going through his trust fund like there was no tomorrow; and Frieda who was depressed, never left her room, and ballooned up to 250 lbs.

Jesus had helped her through these challenges.  She had prayed to him daily and asked for his intercession, and although she knew that He was always by her side, she could see no sign of His intervention.  Where was He, she asked herself, when William was going around the bend, or when Billy chose a life of buggery and lechery?  She chastised herself for these faithless questions, but her belief ran deep.  When she really needed Him, Christ would be there.

And there he was finally with His protective arms around the Venetian vase with the painting of her friend George.

Margaret Turnbull was not unique in her belief that God intervened directly in human affairs.  In fact that belief is more the rule than the exception.  Ministers give invocations before high school football games, asking for a divine helping hand. Preachers like Billy Graham who knelt with Presidents often invoked God’s grace when it came to the Russians.  “We beseech Thee, O Lord”, Pastor Robert Little of the Atlanta Baptist Convention began as he bowed his head with the President in the Oval Office, “to look favorably on Thy servant and help him to do Thy will and defeat those who deny Thy existence.  Let us pray.”

I used to travel throughout Africa and spent hours in pestilential baggage claim areas, mosquito-infested, choking with airless tropical heat, and shoved and pushed by half-drunk soldiers looking for bribes. More than once I saw pale, frightened passengers make the sign of the cross, mutter prayers and imprecations to Jesus and Mary, and ask God to deliver them from this miasma of horror and misery.

People ask God for big things – “Please don’t let Uncle Harry die” and “I will forever be your dutiful servant if you will save Mary’s leg” – and little ones, like a two percent raise or promotion.  Children are taught early that prayer works and that God is a good listener.  On the night before Christmas in an earlier age children prayed for fire engines, cowboy boots, and dolls with real curly hair.

The Church Resplendent and Glorious had its origins in California, but fearing an imminent disaster – the hiving off of the entire West Coast by a massive earthquake down the San Andreas fault – Esther Booth Simmons, the Church’s spiritual leader, moved the congregation to the Idaho panhandle.  When the cataclysmic earthquake did not happen, she said that it was because the prayers of the faithful had been heard. “God listened to you”, she said, “for you are his chosen people.” 

She was so concerned about a nuclear Armageddon, that she had a warren of bomb shelters built under the valley floor and equipped them with enough supplies to last a decade.  Once the nuclear dust had cleared, her chosen people would emerge into the New World and repopulate it.  The new human race would be pure and unsullied.

Esther Simmons said that the world would end on March 21st, 1989 when the nuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States would begin.  When no such thing happened, for Ronald Reagan was staring the Russians down and exposing the lie of godless Communism, Simmons once again said, “My children, your prayers have been answered”.  She lost not a few skeptics after that, but most Church members remained faithful.  They knew that God was on their side, that Jesus listened to personal and collective pleas, and that Esther Simmons was His envoy on earth.

The argument the faithful give to explain this personalized divine intervention is that because God is all powerful and universal, he can afford the time to spend on individual concerns and requests.  Because he is so potent and magnanimous, he can listen and respond to prayers for football and military victories, World War II defeat of the Nazis, the taking of Jerusalem, and Westward Expansion.  He can listen to a million prayers at once and answer all of them. 

This is logical if you think about it.  If God is all-present, all-powerful, and all-knowing, then of course he listen in on a hundred million prayers at the same time; and because of his limitless generosity, why shouldn’t he grant even the most insignificant requests, like one for a new tuba?

The problem is that His performance is sketchy.  A lot of people die despite hours of prayer, novenas, stations of the cross, triple-baptisms, and laying on of hands.  Not every prayer for a tuba or My Little Pony gets answered. We lost Vietnam and are getting a whacking by the Russians.  In other words only some prayers work.  This should discourage a lot of people because if God is capricious, then why bother?  It’s like a million-to-one shot on a lottery ticket.

No, say the most faithful, God is testing us.  If He answered every prayer, then the value of prayer would go down.  Only the most deserving get their prayers answered.  That argument, however, has a lot of holes in it.  I knew a parishioner at St. Mary’s Church who was a devout, saintly, and truly good person.  She was kind and caring, tolerant and giving, generous and genial.  She was pretty much perfect.  And yet everything happened to her – her house burned down and unlike Margaret Turnbull, everything was reduced to cinders.  Her husband contracted an early, virulent cancer and died before he was fifty. Her tomato plants got a blight than no one else in the neighborhood had. She went bald.

Her plight did not go unnoticed by the  parishioners at St. Mary’s and because of Betty Marshall, a lot of them stopped going to church.  What was the point, they said, when this saintly woman suffered miserably and the likes of Homer Vibberts, a known philanderer and embezzler, got richer and richer and had never said a prayer in his life?

The only reason people continue to pray, it seems, is for the same reason that they play Powerball – they might hold the winning ticket.  The chances are not very good, given the well-known odds, but still, there is a chance.

It also feels good to belong to a prayerful community, one which has willingly ceded personal will and independence to God - a healthy acknowledgement that there is more to life than just a boring routine.

Nevertheless, it still seems amazing that people can continue to bow their heads, fold their hands, and raise their eyes to heaven in prayer and supplication for silly things. From all the Bible tells us about God, Moses, Jesus, and the Saints, would He really reward our vanity?

Religion and dutiful, hopeful prayer have been around for a long time; and despite the rise in the unaffiliated and the skeptical, it will continue to be. Which is all well and good.  Everything balances out in the end – the Russians win some wars, we win others. Christians had their way in the Crusades, and Muslims are finally getting theirs. One boy’s unanswered Christmas prayers are another’s baseball glove and tuba. It’s all good.

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