Thursday, January 26, 2017

Lisbon, trump and Prayer

It was a typical All Saints Day on November 1, 1755, in Lisbon, Portugal. Most Lisbonians were at church celebrating this holy day when suddenly one last Halloween trick descended on them with hell's fury.

An earthquake brought the city's numerous churches crumbling down on the worshipers' pious heads. While the churches were crunching the faithful, Lisbon's brothels remained standing, if not in business (there's a hilarious joke to be made here, but I leave that to you). This cataclysm was followed by a tsunami, then an outbreak of fires.*

By the time the earth had steadied and the ashes were drifting quietly across Portugal, anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 souls had departed from their crushed bodies.

As you can imagine, the Lisbon earthquake precipitated a crisis in faith and a deluge of hard questions: 

"Why did God let this happen? We were in church, for His sake!"
"Why did Lisbon's brothels survive, when its churches did not?"
"God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because their inhabitants were perverts. What was he punishing us for?"
"Did God do this to make a point? Did he do it to prevent the criminal proceedings of heretics scheduled for later in the day?"
"Does God hate Catholics?"
"Is God weak in this world? Can he not intervene when the world rises up against us?"
"Does God even exist?"
"Were the earthquakes the inevitable effects of the laws of nature?"
Apparently taken by a cellphone out a brothel window

In November 2016** we experienced a delayed aftershock of the Lisbon quake. While it hasn't yet created as much havoc as the original, it may eventually create much more. And, like the quake, it has been for many a spiritual and emotional apocalypse, in its literal (an uncovering, unveiling, or revealing) and figurative (Holy shit! The world's ending!) meanings. 

Like the earthquake, the election certainly prompted further questioning of That Which Is, especially relating to a an intervening God who hears our prayers. 
Let us bow our heads and pray . . . for Melania!
It also invited reflection on our need to attach to ourselves such labels as Christians, evangelicals, Roman Catholics and the approximately 217 other Christian denominations and the God-only-knows how many denominations that label themselves nondenominational, plus the one that began a new church just last night, splintering from the original due to its use of a banjo and a Jew's harp during the musical portion of the service. 

More about the labeling later. Short version: It's a mistake. It's misleading. 

Let's begin with prayer. First, full disclosure: I'm not a prayer warrior and, like Jesus, I'm not a prayer scholar. I'm not making light of the practice, nor do I deny the efficacy of prayer, sporadic and erratic as it may be. But if we are going to claim religious beliefs for ourselves or our country, we should reflect on our ability to communicate with The Thing Itself. 

Probably a few million people prayed that Trump would lose and would then go away. Based on widespread polling, quite a few more -- including 81% of evangelicals -- prayed that he would become our next president. 

What did the Christian God do with those prayers? Or some other God? 

Did he answer the ones who prayed the hardest? The ones who prayed in greater numbers? The ones he agreed with, which I assume would include evangelicals? 

And if he answered the latter, was he just playing along with them by allowing a card-carrying pussy grabber, an unprepared, misogynistic, lying, hypocritical, egomaniacal, bully to govern the country that he (God) is so often told to bless? (For more on "God bless America," go here). In the words of John McEnroe, he could not have been serious.

Even Christians who see Jesus as a subversive, loving, compassionate fellow who came into the world eating and drinking, can't possibly believe he was okay with the grabber.

So why would God snub those who voted against trump? Was it a way of saying "Sometimes you lose" or "Climate change is a Divine Strategy to hasten Armageddon or the Apocalypse or both" or "I'm against this inclusivity y'all are so worked up about," even though, concerning the latter, Jesus' parable of the dinner party in Luke seems clearly to advocate for such hospitality.

Because I don't trust the reader to look up Luke 14:17-24 -- knowing you, you probably don't even have a bible! -- or to click on a link to the passage, I will give you a condensed version:

     "A man was giving a big dinner party and had sent out many invitations. At dinnertime, he sent his servant with a message for his guests, 'Please come, everything is now ready.' [Those invited] began . . . to excuse themselves. [The excuses were about buying, inspecting and test-driving stuff including land, oxen and women.]
    "When the servant came back, he reported this to his master. The master was angry and said to him, 'Go out quickly in the streets and alleys of the town, and bring me in the poor and the crippled and the blind, and the lame.'" [They show up, but there's still room for more, so the host continues:]
    "'Go out on the highway and along the hedgerows and make them come in; I want my house to be full'." [The host closes by saying that the original invitees can take a hike.]

(This nonthreatening, welcoming parable is unwelcomed by and threatening to some Christians, incidentally, but luckily for them there is an alternatively factual version in Matthew that ends with the king/host getting ticked off at a guy who isn't dressed appropriately, then tossing the poor fellow "into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." 

(It is likely, however, that both versions come from the same source, but Matthew, writing to a different audience and with a different purpose, needed to include a touch of tough love. So chill. Ya Boi was inclusive. But don't take my word for this, because my expertise is limited, and heeding it might well result in your burning for eternity.) 

Well, that sure didn't help solve the prayer question. When I was a child, my spiritual mentors gave me a few ways to lower my expectations about prayer power when, for example, I prayed that Adlai Stevenson would defeat Eisenhower. Their teachings helped me become more realistic about the results of sending out prayers to an invisible God "up there," so maybe they will help you.

For example:  "God always answers our prayers, but sometimes the answer is 'no.'" That being the case, why not tell me 'no' before I go to great lengths to lace my prayers with rhetoric, including pathos and logos, then delivering them eloquently just prior to hitting the sack? I thought this was bullshit, really.

 Also, when the "no's" started adding up, I figured I could just as easily not get what I wanted without wasting time asking for it first. 

And another: "Your faith wasn't strong enough. If you had faith as small as a mustard seed, you could move mountains." I was certain that even my faith was at least as large as a peanut. Did I need to downsize to a mustard seed?

Finally, "The Lord works in mysterious ways to achieve his many wonders (my beloved constantly liquored up uncle revised this to 'The Lord works in mischievous ways to achieve his many blunders'). Does the horse know why he is ridden? The housefly why he is swatted?"

The answer, by the way, is "no," and therefore there is no understanding the Almighty. Anything that happens in the heavens or on earth need not be comprehensible to even the brightest of human beings. God only knows what happens during or after prayer. 

This is why we're having this conversation. There is no certainty here. In the realm of prayer, for dense laypersons like me, all the options are mercurial. Any argument that supports the power of prayer is sick with logical fallacies, primarily "begging the question." Perhaps those that oppose it are, too.

But before you return in hand-wringing anguish to the social medium of your choice, let me give those of you who died in the Lisbon earthquake or voted against trump three views that might ease your despair, even if you're dead:

1. Upbeat Christians, taking their cue from Monty Python's Life of Brian, choose to look on the sunny side of life, and therefore find in catastrophes and tragedies in general an opportunity for spiritual growth and maybe even redemption, should they need it. For example, "The Lord smote Lisbon with that earthquake to initiate scientific research into its natural causes thereby saving many lives in the future. He meant to do it earlier, but, you know, there's one thing, then another." I know you've heard this: "It's all good. Everything happens for a reason."

As for trump, "the Lord handed America's keys to him to ignite a sense of unity and urgency among those who prayed he wouldn't be elected, and in so doing helped us see how much we all have in common and what we can accomplish when we work together. (But we damn sure better hurry.) It also helped us see the other side as it really is." 

2. Those who believe in a God, but not an intervening one, need not waste time trying to justify or rationalize any of this, including reading this post. They can say, "God is as disappointed in this as I am, just as it broke his heart when Lisbon was demolished and my cat disappeared. Therefore, I will work for the good knowing I have his empathy, and from that I can draw spiritual energy and force." 

3. Finally, from what I assume is the atheist view (and someday we will have an atheist president -- God willing, of course), "An earthquake hit Lisbon in the morning of November 1, 1755. Its aftershock hit us (the world) on the morning of November 9, 2016, then again January 20, 2017. It happened. It has nothing to do with what you call God."

And their view (based on the ones I know) would include the following: Now let's get our shit together and do what we can to rebuild what's been torn down, minimize future damage, and let the next generation see we're doing all we can to ensure they make it to adulthood and beyond in an inhabitable world.

*To refresh your memory re: the Lisbon earthquake go here.
**That's when Americans -- the handful that voted -- elected their next president. I'm drawing a blank as to the winner.

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