Saturday, August 31, 2013

An Atheist Story

My parents divorced in late 1971. It wasn't a long time after that my mother remarried. (My dad did not remarry for over a decade, although he was a busy little romantic bee during the interim.) My new stepfather was known as "Slim." We all called him that, even my mother. He stood 5'10" but weighed only 130 pounds in his prime. A rural boy from Fort Payne, Alabama, he was a character. Prematurely gray, he gave off the impression of being world wise although limited in formal education. And he was a great story teller. The stories he told of his rural upbringing would hold my little brother and me spellbound. He was from another place and time, when life was studied in perhaps a less critical way than now, but still rigorously explored for meaning. The people he knew from his youth became parables for us sometimes. He wasn't my stepfather for long as he died in 1979, after a brief but brutal battle with cancer.

I will relate now one of those stories he used to tell. I didn't make much of it the time and, to be frank with you, still don't today. There's no real moral to it, I believe, unless you attempt to force one upon it - which he always did. I don't doubt it was really based on his recollection of a man he knew in his community, just as he assured us it was. I also don't doubt that he may have "spiced it up" a bit, in his inimitable way. But anyway...

There was a man in Slim's community who was the typical village atheist - an outspoken unbeliever in a community of devout Christian believers. He told us that one of this fellow's shticks was to go out in summer thunderstorms with a metal rod and cry out to the sky that if God really exists and is there, then "strike me dead with a bolt of lightning." That village atheist was noted for doing this and for surviving time and time again.

But then one summer day as a storm formed in the summer sky over Alabama, this man grabbed an umbrella and performed for some folks as the rain fell, the lightning streaked across the sky and thunder shook the ground. After the brief deluge was spent he sat down on a porch with some friends and acquaintances to rest. A mosquito landed on his forearm and after smacking it into oblivion, the man suddenly toppled over, dead - taken out not by a display of God's mighty power, but rather by one of His smallest and least significant critters. 

As I said, this story didn't resonate with me either then or now, but I still think I would give a week's wages if I could return to our old front porch and listen to Slim tell it again. It was fun in a homey sort of way. And that poor fellow probably just died of a heart attack after getting himself all worked up. Hey, maybe there is a moral there: Let's not get ourselves too worked up arguing over God's existence or nonexistence.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Essence Of Religion (For Me)

Religion is a feeling, an aspiration, an attitude, a spiritual temper; and in the attempt to define it exactly in creed or doctrine, its essence exhales and escapes. - Henry Wood (Businessman turned New Thought author.)
It was a long road back to "religion" for me. I used scare quotes there because the word religion is notoriously hard to define.

I was raised in particular strand of conservative, fundamentalist Christianity. Growing up I would have thought of that as religion and all the other flavors of Christianity perhaps as people "walking in all the light they see," as Mom used to put it, or maybe even as counterfeit religions in the case Judaism, Hinduism and so on.

In a story I've told more than once in my blogging, my faith was shattered by the divorce of my parents and then took a final blow when my marriage to my high school sweetheart collapsed. It was then, in all my pain and mental distress, that I really noticed the intellectual difficulties my belief system attempted to gloss over.  I moved to Deism, then to Atheism, then to Agnosticism, then back to Atheism, then ... well, you get the idea.
Through it all there was this deep, heartfelt sense inside me that life was something more than atoms swirling around aimlessly through space, purposelessly; that life might have something that for lack of a better word I could call purpose.

I guess that is the whole of my faith, the essence of my religion. So I have finally decided to allow my heart a place in my thinking. I may be mistaken, I admit. But then, I'm certain there are many things I'm probably mistaken about. That's what we humans do, after all, make mistakes while navigating our way through life.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Myth Of The Sacred Goat Herders

I saved this item the other day while I was reading a newspaper from nearby Knoxville, Tennessee. It caught my attention and I thought it might make a good blog post. There was an ongoing letters-to-the-editor discussion about the question: Does God hear the prayers of non-Christians.
One fellow, while giving his thoughts, opined:
I am constantly amazed at the fact that people still believe in the myths, legends, and superstitions of a bunch of Bronze Age goat herders.
"Now, hold on there," I thought to myself.
I'm not superstitious (at least I don't think so), although I find the study of superstitions fascinating. But I have come to greatly appreciate what Joseph Campbell called "The Power of Myth." If you think of myth as mere silliness, I think you don't understand the subject very well.
And fables are a source of wisdom I have found useful my whole life. My personal opinion is that we are poorer as people because story telling has fallen out of fashion.
When I was in grammar school I had been given a book of Aesop's fables. How I loved that book! I read from it nearly everyday. Now that I think about it, at that particular period of my life, I read Aesop more than I read the Bible - and I got more out of it!
Our angry rationalist in his above letter may or may not be aware that the concept of a Bronze Age comes from a rather ancient book - which is dated back to a time during which parts of the Old Testament was being written and well before any of the New Testament was - which itself is steeped in mythology and legend, Hesiod's Ages of Man.
But that is probably a big never-mind for many because historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have validated something like Hesiod's concept of a Bronze Age, minus the legendary elements, of course. The point is that practically nothing old can be truly useful, I suppose. These poor, ignorant ancients supposedly had such a poor understanding of life and human nature they could hardly give us any truly useful insights. That is the supposed point.
However, I would ask if it isn't a skeptical myth that the Bible was written by "a bunch of Bronze Age goat herders"?
Seriously, who really believes such a thing? Do the skeptics who spout that meme so frequently? Of course not. It is a myth in the sense that it is presented as a tale of how ignorant ancients lacked understanding about life in the Cosmos and so can be safely ignored. Yet many still find the ancient concept of a Bronze Age valid, and many other ancient ideas still have currency (think of how ancient the concept of biological evolution is).
So what's the real problem?
Of course knowledge is ever increasing. Should human life continue a few more millennia our present state of knowledge will appear primitive. However, I venture to say the beauty of our art and vitality of our spirit will live on. I also suspect the human quest for an understanding of a divine reality will continue, no doubt refined by better understanding of the Cosmos, but still vibrant as a part of the human psyche.  

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Seeming Unreality Of Death

The real person is so very real, so obviously living and different from what is left that one cannot believe something has turned into nothing. It is not faith, it is not reason–just a "feeling." "Feelings" are in the long run a pretty good match for what we call our beliefs. - C.S. Lewis
It was Sunday, June 19, 2005, Father's Day. I arrived at the funeral home to meet my mother, my younger brother, and my older brother's wife and children for the purpose of planning his funeral. My brother had died suddenly of a massive heart attack the night before .
He was to be cremated, but there was one more task after the arrangements were finalized which had to be performed: a brief viewing of my brother's remains. This was necessary because of my mother's insistence. She is one who has to actually see and handle the corpse of a loved one in order to assure herself that some horrible mistake has not been made. 
This was something I could have done without, I suppose. I passed on the opportunity to view my father's corpse before his cremation. I wanted to remember him the way he was in life, not as a lifeless "nothing" who had just recently been a living person. 
I asked my mother if she was sure this is what she wanted to do. Earl, after all, would not be enhanced the way funeral directors usually enhance a corpse before normal viewings. We would be looking at death in all its unadorned starkness. But she insisted.
We were led to a room where my brother's remains were laid out in a cardboard box - the box, in fact, which would be used during the cremation. Inside my brother lay wrapped in the hospital sheet he was pronounced dead upon a short while earlier, his arms awkwardly folded across his chest. He was cold and stiff from the freezer and was the most hideous shade of pale. Not a pretty sight. Yet my mom kissed him and loved him and cried the tears of a grieving mother. In fact, we all cried.
When it was my turn to spend a moment alone with my brother one last time, I took hold of his forearm and looked at his face - that face that had made me and those of us who knew him laugh so many times. His wit and ability to find something funny in just about every aspect of life were a main theme in the eulogies offered at his funeral. 
As I looked into his face I thought back to when we were teenagers and had listened to a promo for the old Tomorrow Show which host Tom Snyder announced was going to feature someone who "talked to the dead." My brother and I looked at each other and snickered. Of course, the show was about a medium. But my brother, who was reclining on his bed at the time, dutifully mimicked a corpse as I asked questions to this unresponsive "dead person."
Only now he wasn't playing, and there was no laughter to be had. 
My brother wore a neatly trimmed beard. But I noticed the newly emerged whiskers from around his trimming. Life had been going on as usual for him when the end came and no doubt he planned to shave that very day, his day off (he worked the day he died but left early because he felt bad). My brother was always careful about his appearance. But now he was no longer in a position to be.
It's odd the thoughts one has when looking upon the remains of a loved one. I didn't really discuss mine with the others. My mom's thoughts were obvious as she told us the very minute of the very day she gave birth to Earl and just what his birth weight had been. She was there to bring him into the world and now she was there to see him off. Then Earl's wife looked at his remains and then at me and tearfully said: "He promised me we were going to grow old together ... and now look what he's done."
Does something indeed turn into nothing? Human hearts have overwhelmingly answered "No!" down through the centuries of recorded history. Even so devout a rationalist as Robert Ingersoll observed:
The idea of immortality, that like a sea has ebbed and flowed in the human heart, with its countless waves of hope and fear, beating against the shores and rocks of time and fate, was not born of any book, nor of any creed, nor of any religion. It was born of human affection, and it will continue to ebb and flow beneath the mists and clouds of doubt and darkness as long as love kisses the lips of death. It is the rainbow – Hope shining upon the tears of grief.

I can't bring myself to douse that hope or ignore that rainbow, even as I stand face-to-face with doubt.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

One Handed People

I lost one of my hands someplace along the way. It now seems to be regrowing, strong and useful. Not literally; I am referring to some lines from John Donne's To The Countess of Bedford:
Reason is our soul's left hand, faith her right;
By these we reach divinity...
Pain took away my right hand when I was a young man. Along the way I came to believe my left hand had attacked and removed it. But no, I was so strongly right-handed as a youngster because of the way my parents raised me, my left hand was practically useless. This caused me great emotional distress.
Ooooh, I see that type of thing every day. These right-handed faith people who rarely use their left hands. I live among them; work with them; I've even been challenged to debates by them (see my last post).
Of course I also know a few folks who are so strongly left-handed they think their right hands are a joke. Such I was well on my way to becoming.

Now I am seeking a more ambidextrous approach

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

I Got Challenged To A Debate

Living as I do here in the Bible Belt, religion is a big topic. One could even say that for the majority, it is the most important thing going on here. This is true even among those who don't attend church on a regular basis. Around these parts it is generally considered bad form not to at least give lip service to the God of the Bible. 
Also, religious fundamentalism thrives here. By that I mean that most Bible believers are really Bible believers, who think the sixty-six books collected between leather covers which they call The Holy Bible represents God's actual revelation to humankind - to be understood literally (unless it is apparent figurative speech is being used) and taken to be the great repository of the world's truth.
One of my good friends at work is a more progressive type of Christian. He at least entertains the idea that the Bible is not infallible. He is drawn to me because while I hold a certain respect for the Bible and its place in history, I am not bound to a theory about divine inspiration. 
The other day he came to me and asked if I believe the story of Noah as contained in the Bible. I told him that over long years of contemplation I had arrived at the conclusion that the first eleven chapters of Genesis contained religious myth rather than literal history. (Not to mention the fact that I do find credible the theory that that material shows distinct traces of being merged traditions.)
Within fifteen minutes my friend returned to my work area to let me know that one of his fundamentalist coworkers wanted to debate me about the historicity of Noah and the great flood. That fundamentalist's big point, I was told, is that Jesus referenced Noah, therefore it must have happened as the Bible says. 
I politely declined the opportunity to take part in such a debate. I told my friend it would be akin to arguing with his coworker about which of us has the better mother. In other words, the debate wouldn't be so much about Noah and the flood, but rather about the issue of biblical inspiration and whether Jesus is God. Those issues are highly personal and self-validating. Without a willingness or ability to at least allow that the alternative might be true (and if a fundamentalist Christian did that he would not be a real Christian) there could be no legitimate way to argue the point. All we would be doing is airing our opinions.
Of course I would be happy, I told my friend, to discuss my reasons for thinking along the lines I do. But my friend's coworker was a no-show during our lunch break. Just as well, as I doubt much would have been accomplished.
I know very well the arguments of the Creation Scientists, having read many of their books back when I was trying to hold on to my dwindling faith. I have tried to entertain their thoughts with an open mind. I concluded I would have to grant too many assumptions to take their ideas seriously. My problem with that is I would be conceding too much for one reason only: to keep intact the plausibility of a literal reading of the Bible.
On the other hand, I'm not convinced my would-be debate opponent has given the "secular science" evidence a fair study. I'm fairly certain he, too, would feel as if he were conceding too much by allowing that the Bible version (read: God's version) of Genesis might be wrong. And there the matter stands.
My position is more accommodating: I believe myth can be true in a different way than scientific knowledge generally is. But it was a long journey indeed from my Christian fundamentalism to my present way of thinking.
Do I think I have finally arrived at The Truth now? No way, man! I'm only seeking a way to make sense of life in the Cosmos. No need to debate anything, nor to needlessly exclude people from my circle of fellowship.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Umbrella

During my college time I struck up a friendship with a man a decade or so older than I. He also was a Baptist preacher and had been a missionary to the Philippines. He had found himself abandoned there when his local mission board and the churches sponsoring him declined to bless his marriage to a Filipino lady he had met there. Poor health and a brush with death led him back to the states. When he recovered his health enough to find secular employment, he eventually saved enough money and waded through the red tape necessary to bring his wife and two children to the states. He then returned to preaching.
Ours was an odd friendship, but a good one. I was in my deistic phase, which later took a turn towards cold atheism when my marriage collapsed shortly after our friendship began. He was there for me, really the only one who was there besides my family, during this difficult time of my life. His warm spirituality and genuine kindness probably did much to keep my heart from totally icing over.
Out of friendship I did attend his church services on occasion. He hoped I would again see the light. He worked hard to keep me from lapsing into total unbelief. I was busy just trying to cope with emptiness that had now engulfed me.
During one of the occasions he had taken me to church with him, I had the opportunity to meet his in-laws, who themselves had finally made it over after many years of saving for the event. They did not speak good English at all, but with their hearts they spoke the same language I did, the language of kindness. 
It was drizzly evening as I climbed out of my friend's car which was parked in front of the church. I had noticed I wasn't getting wet and it was then I saw his father in-law had rushed over to me with his umbrella. He stood in the rain while he kept me dry, all the while with a warm smile on his face. It was the first time he had ever laid eyes on me, yet he was concerned that I not get wet on my way into the church. 
Now it was summertime and I wasn't the least concerned about the drizzle of rain that was falling. But this man's kindness towards a stranger touched me in a way I can't put into words. My friend's wife and her parents were extremely kind and loving people.
Well, sure, there was great gulf that existed between the religiosity of my friend and his family and what religiosity I was struggling to hold on to. But that underlying bond of human compassion struck a deep chord in me.
Religions differ as to the particulars of what they hold to be true about life, but all hold to the spirit of human compassion (although, admittedly, they often hold it stronger in theory than they do in practice). When I began to incorporate the spirit of mythology into my religious thinking, I became better able to overlook religious differences in search of the stronger, unifying stream that lies beneath the rushing, tumultuous current above.

That umbrella proved a powerful symbol to me. It is drizzling outside right now as I'm typing this. My thoughts are carried back over many to years to that evening I met my friend's in-laws. I didn't really need protection from the rain, but I did then and do now so very much need compassionate protection against the rains of sorrow that falls on me from time to time. Through the practice of compassion we can offer something of a shield, even to total strangers, against the storms of life. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Father Dowling To The Rescue

So now we know who the mystery priest was who prayed at the Katie Lentz accident and then disappeared.
According to this news story from Yahoo News, the mystery priest was Rev. Patrick Dowling, who is indeed a Catholic priest of the Jefferson County Diocese.
Father Dowling made the following comment:

I had Mass in Ewing MO as the regular priest was sick. As I was returning, I arrived at the scene. The authorities were redirecting traffic. I waited till it was possible to drive up closer. I parked behind a large vehicle about 150 yards from the scene. I asked the Sheriff's permission and approached the scene of the accident. I absolved and anointed Katie, and, at her request, prayed that her leg would not hurt. Then I stepped aside to where some rescue personnel and the pilot were waiting, and prayed the rosary silently. I left when the helicopter was about to take off, and before I got to my car it was on its way to Quincy. I was amazed at the calmness of the two Highway patrol men. The sergeant was completely in control, amazingly calm. Everybody worked as harmoniously as a Swiss watch despite the critical nature of the scene. I gave my name to one of the authorities, perhaps to the sergeant of Highway Patrol, explaining that I was returning having celebrated Mass at Ewing. It was the sergeant who, at the Sheriff's request, gave me Katie's name as I was leaving, so I could visit her in hospital--I assumed she would be taken to Columbia. I think there may have been angels there too and, in this context, I congratulate the fire team from New London and Hannibal, the Sheriff/deputies of Ralls County, the Highway Patrol personnel, the helicopter team, the nurses and all who worked so professionally. God has blessed your work. I hope the credit goes where it is due.

Some had speculated the good father was really an angel (as in the heavenly beings) in disguise. I saw one article that suggested he might have been Padre Pio (the well known mystic priest who exhibited stigmata) returned from the dead. But I have been watching the news waiting to see when more information would be forthcoming. I suspected there would be a more earthly explanation, and now we know. Highway To Heaven this wasn't, but gosh how I loved that show!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Messiah Has Come

What's in a name? Much, it seems. And here's a little story that was all over my local news yesterday about some East Tennessee parents who were told by Tennessee Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew that they would have to change their child's first name - which is Messiah - because that is a title which fits Jesus of Nazareth alone:

The word Messiah is a title, and it's a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ.

This story is doubly silly because the parents were before the judge in the first place because they couldn't agree on what the child's last name should be. But evidently the first name of Messiah offended the religious sensibilities of Magistrate Ballew; although Ballew did offer the additional rationale that because the child would be growing in such a Christianized portion of the country, "It could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is."

This reminds of the spring of 1968. My older brother, on a whim, had stopped off at our local mom & pop store and picked up a pack of Topp's Baseball Cards. This soon led to our following the sport closely as we continued amassing a collection of baseball cards.

And then one day my brother opened a pack he had bought and looked at me all wild-eyed and said "holy moley, Doug, here's a guy named Jesus!" It was Jesus Alou, a then Giants outfielder, and we were astounded at his hubris. We wondered what kind of parents would do a thing like name their child Jesus. We stared at the name on that card for a long while in disbelief. But we were kids, too.

Here in the Bible Belt biblical names are common. I have one. My middle name is Nathan. Mom deliberately chose that in honor of the Old Testament prophet. I had childhood friends named Timothy, Thomas, Matthew and so forth. As children we made fun of our friends' names no matter what they were.

My best friend when I was 8 had made up a little rhyme about my first name (I never went by Nathan, although my mom called me that almost exclusively when I was a kid and still does now on occasion). It went like this:

Doug, Doug the beetle-bug,
the rotten apple cider jug.

Funny, right? But it caught on. I was just frustrated because, at eight, my poetic skills were such that I couldn't return the "favor" by thinking of a rhyme for his first name, which was Jimmy (still another biblical name, James). In fact, I don't think my poetic skills are adequate for that task today. But also I've outgrown that type of thing.

So back to Messiah. Of course the mom is outraged and is going to appeal. I was heartened that most of the feedback on the forced name change has been negative. Even here in the Bible Belt the idea of a judge overruling parental rights in choosing a child's name is unpopular - even with a controversial name such as this.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Snake Salvation: The Television Show

Just about the time you think reality TV has reached it limits, another slice of reality finds its way to the airwaves. This time the National Geographic Channel is going to follow the antics of certain Christians who believe "it's as much a commandment from God when He said 'they shall take up serpents,' as it was when he said 'thou shall not commit adultery.'"
Indeed Mark's Gospel does state:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:18)
However, I'm fairly confident there are more Christians breaking the commandment against committing adultery than there are Christians keeping that one about taking up serpents!
My traditional religion was once closely allied with those holiness folks who "took up serpents." It was outlawed around these parts by the time I was born. But we knew a few old timers who occasionally attended our services and who once handled snakes in worship. It was rumored that sometimes they would still slip off into the hills in order to worship that way. 
So I never experienced anything like that in person. I have seen documentaries that dealt with it. Fascinating stuff. I will even admit to having a sort of respect for people who have that type of faith. But I also tend to think that like my mom used to say, "these folks are tempting God."
I can't imagine a series such as Snake Salvation lasting very long. It also seems to me that this will give southern rural folks yet another black eye. But I don't know. I don't have cable so I will have to rely on the reviews.

I'm afraid I'll have to stick with less sensational ways of practicing my spirituality! 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

An Atheist View Of The Mystery Priest Story

This story of the mysteriously appearing and then disappearing priest who comes along to anoint young car crash victim Katie Lentz and pray for her and her rescuers is continuing to get a lot of press coverage.
The Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta blogs about this and his response, which, while somewhat friendly I suppose, is typical of the unbeliever. That isn't a criticism. Of course the person who doesn't believe in God or the supernatural is limited to natural explanations. But it is also the case that atheists do not always have a good understanding of the religious mind, and I think we see that in his blog. 
For example, Mehta points out that this story can be reported less sensationally:
The priest said the crew’s equipment would work… and it didn’t. In fact, another crew showed up and — surprise! — they had working equipment. If the priest hadn’t been there, the second crew would still have showed up. That’s not a miracle, that’s just good timing
The problem there of course - as anyone who is familiar with the Judeo-Christian worldview and the Bible itself can attest - is that believers do not limit their understanding of the word miracle to: acts which are contrary to the laws of nature.
I'm quite certain that Ms. Lentz, who was requesting prayer, would consider the "good timing" of the second rescue crew arriving in time to save her before she succumbed to her injuries both an answer to her prayers and a miraculous occurrence.
Mehta also has a little to say about the anointing with oil and again he displays his lack of understanding of the Judeo-Christian traditions:
Well, there’s no evidence it had any effect on Lentz’s condition. The priest could just as easily have spun around in circles three times and we would’ve seen the same results. But anointing sounds religious, mysterious, and magical, so people are quick to assume it had an effect.
But Christians do not think of the oil or anointing therewith to be magical or mysterious. The oil is thought of as a symbol of the Holy Spirit of God, the force through which God acts in His creation. That is why the Christian Epistle of James says:
Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. (James 5:14,15 - NIV)  
Thus it is the faith signified by this ritual that is the means of healing, not some magic or mystery.
So as I pointed in a comment on my original post, this story is going to be interpreted according to the biases of the reader. It is either a "miracle" or a just one of life's odd coincidences. Just as the Cosmos we are all a part of is either a happy little natural accident or a purposeful creation.
Looking at things through the eyes of faith might (or might not) be a wrong way of looking at things, but it is certainly a broader scope than those who lack faith have. There, I suppose, is where a quote left yesterday anonymously in the comments section of my original post fits in:

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible. (Thomas Aquinas)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Mystery Priest

Odd story. The victim of a head-on car crash, nineteen year old Katie Lentz, was rescued from the wreckage after a mysterious Catholic priest seemingly appeared out of nowhere, armed with a bottle of anointing oil, and said a prayer for the victim. Now what is interesting is that rescuers had apparently been struggling for an hour trying to extricate Lentz when this happened. After the prayer - and after another fire department showed up - the rescue was finally successful.

The story is here in this Yahoo news item, and a fire chief involved explained it this way:

He came up and approached the patient, and offered a prayer, New London Fire Chief Raymond Reed told KHQA-TV. It was a Catholic priest who had anointing oil with him. A sense of calmness came over her, and it did us as well...I can't be for certain how it was said, but myself and another firefighter, we very plainly heard that we should remain calm, that our tools would now work and that we would get her out of that vehicle.

The strangeness continued when rescuers turned to thank the priest and found he had apparently returned to the nowhere from which he came. As happens with people of a religious turn of mind, soon speculation began that this mystery priest might have been an angel instead of a priest.

USA Today also reported the story and also quotes Reed:

I think it's a miracle...I would say whether it was an angel that was sent to us in the form of a priest or a priest that became our angel, I don't know. Either way, I'm good with it.

Additional details were given, such as that the Lentz, the crash victim, asked for someone to pray with her. That was when the mysterious priest appeared. No one recognized the priest as being one of the locals. And then there is this, Chief Reed added: "I have 69 photographs that were taken from minutes after that accident happened — bystanders, the extrication, our final cleanup — and he's not in them."
The good news is that Katie Lentz is well on the road to recovery. Everyone involved in her rescue are reporting that she never screamed or cried, but just asked that she be prayed for and out loud.

Time was - and rather recently at that - that I would have picked this account apart and poked a little fun at it. But even if prayer is no more than a placebo, I think that isn't a small thing.

I suspect there is a more "natural" explanation than that the priest was really an angel. But to those involved in the rescue, and I'm sure to Katie's family, this was a brush with the divine. Had I been in Katie's shoes, I would have prayed, too.

Monday, August 5, 2013

"Mom, What Is That?"

I was eight or nine years old and working my way through (not straight through, but rather fast-forwarding through) my maternal grandmother's old encyclopedia set which came into Mom's possession at Grandma's death.
Face to face I found myself with the mysterious - and to a child, rather scary - sphinx. Not like the one in the illustration above, but rather an old black and white picture of the Great Sphinx of Giza - before it had been dug out of centuries worth of sand.
I didn't know how to begin to pronounce the word. I had never encountered that mix of consonants in any of my school readers. Mom put her face close to mine so I could I watch her mouth, and she slowly pronounced it for me.
Egypt held an especial fascination for me, no doubt because I was fascinated (and terrified) by the old Universal Mummy movies. I still remember strolling up my grammar school librarian and asking for a book about mummies. She told me that subject was a bit too gruesome for children, but she did give me a child's mystery novel that involved a whispering mummy. Yay! (Not really.) It was some years later, as a teenager, that I was able to check out some real books on the subject at our large public library.
I didn't realize that the Sphinx of Giza was missing it's nose. That face haunted me and actually figured in a recurring nightmare that featured that face atop a mummy's wrapped body. As if that wasn't terrifying enough, the Sphmummy of my nightmares was as tall as a tree. (Boy, was I glad when I outgrew that dream!)
Sometimes I think I stretched my limits as a child. (Sometimes I probably still do.)

Sunday, August 4, 2013

"I'm After Bill's Mind!"

Shortly before my parents' divorced, when my folks were drowning in debt which they had foolishly gone deeply into because Dad had taken a higher paying job at his factory, when the systematic harassment of their creditors became overwhelming, when my parents were arguing almost constantly, Mom blaming Dad for having given up his higher paying position because the stress of it was overwhelming him, when my Dad had become a totally different man - all sullen and withdrawn, a sudden non-attender of church with his family, a man who spent long hours sitting and staring into space - during the time all this going on in their lives, my mom beheld a vision.
I heard her tell it in church at the time and heard her tell it to me personally many times. One quiet evening as my dad dozed in his easy chair my mother looked at him and saw a demon, which she always described as having the appearance of huge crab, crawling around his forehead, tightening a band which was wrapped around his head. The words came to her: "I'm after Bill's mind."
Now it wouldn't have taken a rocket scientist to figure out that my dad was in trouble. Mom blamed him for our financial woes because he gave up a job which brought an extra hundred dollars a month into our budget (not exactly small change in 1969/1970). I'm sure Dad blamed himself. When I think back now, with the wisdom which comes with age, to the troubled soul my dad had become during all that mess, it surprises me he did not take his life. I'm sure he thought of it more than once. Probably his deep abiding faith in his God and fear of Hell (which our church believed was the outcome of suicides) are what kept him from it. 
This is an example of what I wrote about the other day: people who believe in angels and demons tend to see them from time to time. I don't doubt in the least my mom saw - at least in her mind's eye - the thing she says she saw. It was a fitting picture, I think.
She had the church come and lay hands on my dad and pray, but he was too far gone for that. The noose of financial debt was lightning and very soon we as a family would experience the embarrassment of trucks backing up to our front door in order to remove the furniture and appliances that my parents had bought just months previously, when my dad's pay raise was in effect.
The demon did get my dad's mind, and I remember the night he cracked up. Long, loud, heaving sobs erupted from his throat as he banged his head on the floor and begged to be put away. I was ten years old. I was terrified. My dad had always been the very picture of calm, even in the face of trouble. Mom was the high-strung one. Dad was always mellow. Not only that, he had a sense of humor that wouldn't quit. But now I was looking at a totally broken man - and it scared me beyond words to describe.
Dad was institutionalized and drugged up. He was a stranger for a long time. He was released back to us in a few months, but he came back a different man. It was years before he was his old self again. (Well, maybe he truly never was his old self again, only similar.) In a move which I held against Mom for many years (and in fact still find distasteful to talk or think about), she filed for divorce and left him.
The divorce devastated my father, but he didn't exactly have a relapse. He did start hanging out with his brother, who conveniently enough also owned a local beer joint. In short order my dad was a drunk and a womanizer. He dropped his "nerve medicine" in favor of alcohol. It was two years or so before my dad sobered up and got back into church.
If the devil got Dad's mind it was only for a short time. Once restored to his faith, he never left it again and remained deeply committed, deeply serene until the time of his death. In fact, I used to marvel at how well he coped with the many physical and emotional trials that followed him in his last decades. 
I lost my dad in 1997 and have to say the loss was enormous. Because of the divorce my dad wasn't around nearly enough for me from the time I was eleven until I was eighteen. Then we lost touch again when I was in my twenties because he married a much younger woman who was jealous of my brother and me. When his health broke the final time I was finally able to really get to know my dad on a man-to-man basis. I'm biased, I'm sure, but I think he was a wonderful man. Had he not had the pressures of a wife and three kids, I'm certain he would not have fallen off the log that one time. His mind did eventually begin to give way to the strokes that robbed him of his health and the encroaching dementia. He never totally lost it, but towards the end I had to catch on his "good days."  

On the day I had my last visit with him at the nursing home, shortly before he died, I told him I loved him. The last words he ever spoke to me were "I love you, too, son" and with that he waved good-bye to me. I refused a final view of my daddy in death. I wanted my last memory of him to be sweet, and it is. He was cremated and his ashes are with me still. I think a large portion of his mind resides in my mind to this day. And fortunately for me I inherited a large portion of his kind, sweet spirit.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Cross Of Jesus In The News

Yesterday evening as I was sitting here in my favorite chair relaxing after a hard day's work and watching the evening news, a story came on that caught my attention. Some archaeologist digging around at an old church in Turkey have found, they claim, what could be a piece of the very cross Jesus of Nazareth was crucified upon. Certainly you don't hear that type of thing often!
Oddly enough, one of the few things on my agenda for this weekend was to watch a new DVD I recently purchased (at a huge discount!), The Lost Tomb of Jesus. These kinds of "discoveries" and stories go on endlessly, always educing much buzz among believers and unbelievers alike.
As a former Christian I do recall the excitement these stories would generate, yet we never placed our faith in such artifacts. Christian apologists do place great stock in some of the findings of archaeologists, but only in a confirmatory way. Faith for the Christian is rooted in tradition and The Book.
The nonbelievers will "make hay" of this opportunity to poke fun at the folks they consider simpletons for accepting the Gospel story. Authenticating this piece of wood as a chunk of Jesus' cross is surely a virtual impossibility, so there is great occasion here for the Christians to appear foolish.
This story, therefore, is that archaeology Professor Gülgün Koroglu claims to have found a piece of wood she believes might have been part of Jesus' cross. Woo-hoo! (Right; I was being sarcastic.)
Of course many secular historians have conceded that Jesus of Nazareth probably did exist and likely was crucified in the barbaric manner described in the New Testament. Even if it were possible to authenticate a piece of Jesus' cross, it wouldn't prove the grander elements of Gospel story. That is the point at which faith takes charge in order to breath life into the subject.

There came a point in my life when my doubts overcame my faith. No news story or archaeological finding will ever restore it. Perhaps that could only be affected by a personal Damascan Road experience. And life goes on.... 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Personal Demonology

(The Obscene Kiss)

My teen years were troubled, but also very much a time of discovery - both about myself and the world around me. The conservative Christianity that had been so much a part of my earliest years had taken a back seat to my explorations. My parents were "kicked out" of our church upon their divorce and, that being the case, although one doesn't emerge from a worldview overnight, I then felt very much "outside the gate." But my interest in Christianity (the only way I knew it at the time) didn't wane.
Growing up Pentecostal meant an encounter with demonology. I grew up hearing strange and fantastic tales about demons, supposedly from those who had encountered them. For the most part demons were invisible - unless they chose to appear to us. Our pastor told us that the very space surrounding us was filled with invisible demons, so horrid looking that if we could see them as they are we would be too terrified to stare.
Rumor had it that there was an actual cult of Devil worshippers who met in a remote area of Chattanooga's famous Lookout Mountain. So remote, in fact, that I've never been able to find it, despite the fact I've been all over that mountain! I never met anyone who claimed to be a Satanist (I did encounter one self-described Warlock when I worked part-time at a local magic shop, and he claimed to be able to place curses and cast evil spells; I thought he had delusions of grandeur), but I knew many Christians who claimed to have actually stared demons in the eye.
Because Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I grew up and lived for nearly the first forty years of my life, had a fantastic public library, I was able to do a lot of research about subjects that aroused my curiosity. Demonology was one of those subjects. In the summer months when I was out of school I would check out books and often read late into the night, even early into the morning.  
There was a surprising amount of information about Demonology at my local library, and I checked these books out and devoured them voraciously. The illustration above came from a book I had checked out (although I can't now recall the title) and which kept me awake into the early morning hours. Was this "obscene kiss" a part of what went on up on Lookout Mountain?
According to our world view, demons were the cause (though not the only cause) of many of the evils of life. Demons could afflict one with illness. I more than once saw "tobacco demons" allegedly "cast out" of people who came forward to pray at our church altar. Demons could even affect the weather and cause natural disasters. Satan was always on the prowl, it seemed, and his minions kept very busy. It's little wonder I grew up with a love of horror movies. These were mostly morality tales about the eternal battle between good and evil.

On reflection after many years thought about the matter, I do think demons are real for the people who believe in them. They are a part of that imaginal realm, from which springs myth and legends. We can laugh at the "stupid and superstitious" people who still hold these "primitive beliefs" in this modern and enlightened age. Or we can try to understand what goes inside the troubled human psyche. Sometimes it may even be helpful to give face to some of the "demons" that trouble our lives. I know I would like to exorcise the demons that have bedeviled me down through the years. Some I think I have, other still torture me with an almost unrelenting fury.