Tag Archives: santa

Tsunamis and the Irksomeness of Prayer

This is the continuation of a conversation that began with my frustrated (and none-too-gently worded) outburst on Facebook that I’m not going to pray for Japan because the best thing that God could have done is prevent the tragedy to begin with, and if he’s not interested in doing that, I don’t see the point in trying to talk him into helping with the clean-up.  Yes–shocking, I know.  Please feel free to assign me whatever label seems fitting.

One of my friends wrote something in response which prompted me to write a string of sentences too long for Facebook, so I’m posting it here, with everyone’s names omitted or obscured so I don’t implicate innocents in my own heresy.

Your comparison of the church’s explanations for God’s lack of visible activity to the explanations that allow children to maintain belief in a non-existent Santa Claus—which I denounce as heretical and well beyond the bounds of civil discourse, and for which I label you a heathen and miscreant—gets close to what is troubling me.  Everyone’s belief system is internally consistent.  It might have huge gaps, it might be based on error, it might pointedly fail to notice certain phenomena and it might consign a great deal of important questions to the category of unknowable mystery, but it’s internally consistent.  This is true of Republicans and Democrats, Anarchists and Fascists, Hindus and Buddhists and Christians whether fundamentalist, evangelical or liberal.  I once preached for a church that had two members who were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Their beliefs were irrational, but completely consistent.  One dropped by my office on a pleasant Monday, complaining of having been shot by a spy who had taken over the body of one of our elders.  I was willing to go along with the idea that the elder in question was an enemy agent bent on destroying the church—it explained a lot of what I had experienced, too—but it was obvious that my troubled friend had not actually been shot.  When I asked him to show me the wound so I could help him bandage it (because I’m sneaky that way) he told me that it was a new kind of bullet whose wounds closed immediately, leaving no trace.  Completely internally consistent.  There weren’t in cracks in his worldview; or if there were, they didn’t last long before an explanation was devised.  The human mind is remarkably good at resolving inconsistency.  That’s even true for very troubled minds.  Actually, it’s probably especially true for very troubled minds.  Healthy people can temporarily carry inconsistent conclusions around before they find a way to resolve them, but they will resolve them, eventually.

I’m open to persuasion (maybe too open, some would say) and I’d be happy to reassess this conclusion, but it looks to me like what most Christians say about the work of God in the world is exactly what they would say if there were no God at all.  Well, no, he doesn’t intervene to prevent tragedy because (1) he honors our free will, (2) he wants us to learn from our suffering, (3) he works through the church to love and comfort people, (4) the age of miracles has passed.…etc.  Well, no, there’s no obvious sign of his existence because (1) you have to have the eyes of faith to see it, (2) he doesn’t want to coerce anyone’s faith, (3) faith does mean believing in the unseen, after all….etc.  You ask me how I know he lives?  He lives within my heart.  Several times I’ve been in a situation where a young (under 45) person was dealing with a potentially fatal illness or accident, and, inevitably, every possible sign of good news was taken as evidence that God was healing the beloved person.  Most of the time, the patient eventually died, and when he or she did, the new story was that “God has answered our prayers by healing our friend completely, and taking them into the presence of Jesus.”  No one ever seems to notice that just yesterday, death would have been seen as a complete failure on the part of God to give us what we were asking for, which was full, physical, right-here-on-earth healing.  Once death comes, it’s like we all agree to forget what we really wanted, and act like that’s what we had in mind all along.  No one says (even me, although I’m thinking it) “just two days ago, the consensus was that the new test results meant that God was healing our beloved!  Either God was just toying with us, (in which case, he’s a sadist more deserving of rebellion than worship) or we were interpreting ordinary, natural fluctuations as divine intervention without sufficient cause to do so.  We were prayerfully, honorably, reverently wrong.”

Well, it’s a new kind of bullet, you see.  Not one that you’ve heard of before.  This is the kind of bullet that leaves no wound.  This is the kind of healing that looks just like death.  This is the kind of love that looks just like apathy.  This is the kind of intervention that looks just like stillness.

Once you decide to accept the truth of Christianity, you learn to make these little adjustments.  Nothing can disprove the faith, because either we’ve already got an orthodox reason why it looks (to people who don’t have the eyes of faith!)  like God isn’t doing anything or we announce that we don’t need to try to defend or explain God anyway, and it’s ultimately a mystery.

But if you step outside of the internally consistent Christian worldview (of whichever variety) and ask: what about other ways of viewing the world?  If I adopt the mindset of an atheist—just to try it on for a second and see how things look—it turns out that’s it’s internally consistent, too!  It also accounts for everything I see.  It also explains the world.

And, as everyone now knows, I get a little frustrated on occasion (just a teensy bit, mind you) with pious pronouncements in the wake of horrific tragedy.  This week, I’m even frustrated with prayer.  Not yours or D—’s or anyone else’s, but certainly with mine.  I look at the images coming in from Japan and start to try to form some petition to a God that, if he exists, certainly could have stopped it all from happening, and I don’t even know what to say.  His kind of caring is so different and alien from anything that I know as caring that communication seems impossible.  (Yes, I know, we have an answer for that one too–the Holy Spirit will intercede on my behalf, with groanings I can’t hear.)  What I want to pray is for him to undo the whole mess, and maybe give us that unshakeable Earth that the psalmists are always singing about.  But we all know that that isn’t going to happen, so we’re left praying for things that we can’t see either fulfilled or unfulfilled, or things that are sufficiently vague that we can interpret the evidence to fit our desired outcomes—comfort, peace, healing.  If you’re the kind of person who is calmed and made peaceful by prayer anyway (i.e. the polar opposite of me), then your outcome is sure from the start.

I’m more like the pastor that Annie Dillard describes in Holy the Firm except not so obviously full of Jesus.  She writes:

There is one church here, so I go to it. On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia. The members are of mixed denominations; the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world–for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all–in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much.

I’m having my own outburst at the moment, “Lord we bring you these same petitions every week!”  And yet this week looks like last week, and like the one before that, and the one before that, and on and on and on for as far into the past as we can see.

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Filed under Church Culture, Personal, Rants, Reflections

The Santa Claus Dilemma

Santa Claus with a little girl

Image via Wikipedia

Speaking of problems that too much theological education creates: our household is having some difficulty getting our story straight on Christmas.

It’s important to understand that I have been self-diagnosed with hyperaletheiality, a condition which makes it psychologically painful for me to knowingly deceive my children.  And while I am a huge fan of imaginative play and happy to be a dinosaur, pirate or alien, it crosses a line for me to tell my kids that their presents are actually from an old man who lives in the North Pole.  The line between imagination and reality gets blurred, and I move from joining my child’s pretend world to creating a deception.

Naively, I thought that it would be relatively simple to sideline Santa Claus.  My plan was to tell the kids that we give gifts to each other to remember the gifts that were brought to Jesus as a child, and because God wants us to be generous and to share with each other.  Easy peasy, that’s Christmas at the Cowell house.

The problem is that my daughter is now four.  And she’s talking to other kids, who are all excited about Santa. And the Hollywood-North Pole alliance is killing us.  You’d almost have to cut her off from all kids’ shows this month to avoid her seeing one that strongly emphasizes how important it is to believe that Santa is real.  Isn’t that the last act of every single Santa movie?  Christmas was almost ruined, but then people believed in Santa again!  The kid heard the jingle bell ring!  The reindeer were able to fly over Central Park!  Just believe!

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that pushes belief in Jesus as hard as the Polar Express pushes belief in Santa.

This is complicating my plans.  I had hoped to just be Santa-agnostic and not really even mention the jolly old elf, but then my beloved daughter, the apple of my eye, my never-waning delight, asked me, with hope-filled eyes, “is Santa coming to our house?”

This is an development I hadn’t anticipated.  Now we can’t just ignore Santa and do our own thing.  We have to take some kind of a stand.

I was put on the spot by the question and wasn’t willing to just say “yes,” (and a simple “no” wouldn’t have worked either!)  So we had a little conversation in which I told her that a long, long time ago there was a person named Nicholas, and he loved God and cared about other people, so he gave good gifts to families that couldn’t afford to buy nice things.  He was such a good man that people have told stories about him for hundreds and hundreds of years, but in different parts of the world they called him different names.  Now, a lot of people call him Santa Claus.  But there isn’t just one Santa Claus, there are thousands and thousands of people who do the same thing that Nicholas did: they take the extra things and money they have and give them to people who need them.  So this Christmas, Mommy and Daddy and Grammy and Grandaddy and Uncle Kasey will be Santa Claus for her, and also for some poorer families who need our help.  It’s our turn to do what Nicholas did.

I admit, this is all a bit much for a four-year-old, even the world’s brightest four-year-old, which is what we’re dealing with here, but I did manage to avoid pointing out that the modern conception of Santa Claus is largely the creation of the Coca-Cola company, and is basically an advertising gimmick which has further been co-opted and twisted for the benefit of the entire capitalist world and the aforementioned Hollywood-North Pole complex.  Sure, I’m a compulsive truth-teller, but some things are just to horrible to expose to the innocents.

And then I ordered Saint Nicholas: The Real Story of the Christmas Legend, which I hope will help us navigate this conversation next time.

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Filed under Personal, Reflections