Trusting In The Power Of Prayer

St. Mary, our neighborhood Catholic Church, is concerned about the direction of the country. It has set up a tent on a brisk autumn day and is asking people to pray for America. When I walked by this afternoon, about two dozen people had answered the call.

I’m not a religious person, but I applaud efforts by those of faith to help the country in their own way. I don’t know if prayer will help, but it sure can’t hurt. And as we try to deal with the hurt and rage many people are feeling right now, we can use all of the help we can get.

The Right Way To Proselytize

On Saturday afternoon Richard, Russell and I went to the Strawberry Festival at the St. Florian Catholic Church in Hamtramck.  After goggling at the church, which is a huge, beautiful, quasi-Gothic structure that looks like it should be in a European capital rather than towering over a modest American working class neighborhood, we walked downstairs to watch younger people from the congregation enthusiastically and energetically perform some native Polish dances wearing colorful native costumes.

After applauding the dancers until a break came, we went back outside to check out the rest of the festival.  On a walkway between the church and a neighboring school, we were approached by a pleasant-faced woman who appeared to be in her 40s.  She was holding an array of prayer cards.  “Uh oh,” I thought.  “Here we go.”

She asked if we were enjoying the festival, and we said we were.  Then she asked if we were Catholic, and after we confessed that we weren’t, she asked if we were Christian.  We stammered a bit in response to that one, because none of us are churchgoers.  Then she proceeded to talk, in a very polite way, about her faith and how important she thought it was, and eventually asked it we would pray with her, right there.  Richard said he didn’t feel comfortable doing that, and Russell and I agreed — and she let it go.  She thanked us for coming, gave us each a prayer card, and said she would pray for us, and we thanked her for that and went on our way.

When you go to a church festival, you’ve got to expect to be approached about religion.  Often it isn’t a particularly pleasant experience, because the proselytizer comes on way too strong about how you’ll burn in hell if you don’t convert, right then.  In this case, I was struck by the gentle way in which the woman raised the question, made her points, and then let us go without an unkind word.  It made me admire the woman and her determined, resolute faith, even though I don’t share her beliefs.

There’s a right way to talk to complete strangers about religion, and lots of wrong ways.  This pleasant woman did it the right way.  I don’t have a problem with people who are religious talking about their beliefs and often admire their commitment to their faith, and I hope that religious people don’t have a problem with those of us who aren’t true believers.  We’ve all got to get along.

What The Hell?

According to an aging Italian journalist — so take it with a grain of salt – Pope Francis has declared that there is no hell.  The Vatican has denied that he said that, exactly.  Apparently, the Vatican says he has been misquoted.  Hard to believe that any Italian would misquote the Pope, but there it is.

825150531185141541Not being a Catholic, or particularly religious, I must nevertheless admit that the Pope’s declaration is a bit of a relief.  I’ve been spending the evening listening to Beatles music, downing Lite beers, and trying to follow the Cavs game, and my understanding of Catholic theology is that my actions have probably involve a number of sins.  Like sloth, for example, or gluttony because I’ve downed a few brewskis, or maybe envy too because I’m a Cleveland sports fan and, well, envy is about all we’ve got to go on.

I’m not saying that I thought I was going to hell because I’ve downed a few beers, but it’s nice to have some reassurance from the Ultimate Authority on that front.  But having quaffed a few beers I wonder:  If you’re Catholic and you don’t have to worry about going to a fiery hell, doesn’t that cause you to revisit the very basic tenets of your faith?

Heaven Or Hell

Yesterday Kish and I were walking home after watching a movie.  As we passed the Ohio Statehouse, an earnest young man wearing a coat and tie handed us a small pamphlet entitled Heaven or Hell — Which One Will You Choose?

img_2904I don’t think I’ve ever actually read a religious tract handed out by a street corner Bible thumper.  This time, though, rather than immediately toss the pamphlet into the trash — which is what the woman walking directly in front of us did — I decided to put it in my pocket to review later.

Admittedly, the colorful cover page is provocative, with its depiction of Earth in the balance between an ethereal heaven and a fiery-lettered hell.  Printed in nearby Lebanon, Ohio, by the Fellowship Tract League, the pamphlet clearly had some decent production values.  But, in my view, the contents weren’t exactly written to persuade the presumed audience.

The pamphlet begins with the words  “Are you going to heaven or to hell?  The Bible teaches . . . . ” and then launches into quotes about lost souls being tossed into a lake of fire and how to be saved from that grim fate.   But if you don’t already believe in heaven or hell, why would you worry about this threshold question?  And if you aren’t already a believer, why would anything written in the Bible be considered especially compelling — any more than, say, the words found in some Hindu religious treatise?  Fortunately, the publishers ask anyone who is saved by the pamphlet to write and let the publishers know, so at least there is data being gathered that will let us know whether the pamphlet is doing its job.

Well, at least now I can say that I’ve read a street corner religious tract.

The Pope And The Donald

While aboard the papal plane today, flying back from an appearance in Mexico, Pope Francis was asked about Donald Trump’s notion of building a wall between Mexico and the United States.  The Pope said that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”  When Trump heard about the Pope’s comment, he replied that it was “disgraceful” for “a religious leader to question a person’s faith.”

pope-mexicoI suspect that the Pope will soon regret his response, if he doesn’t regret it already.  It’s not that the Pope doesn’t have every right to give his opinion on what qualities or actions are “Christian” and what are not — of course he does, because after all this is the Pope we’re talking about.  As the head of a Christian denomination with millions of members spanning the globe, he obviously can, and regularly does, speak about such topics.

In this instance, though, I think the Pope’s comments were ill-advised, because they come in the middle of an American presidential campaign and obviously were directed at a particular candidate.  It seems to diminish the Pope, somehow, for him to weigh in on something so secular and tawdry as an American political campaign.  We’ve come a long way since the days of the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960 — when John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was a big issue, because opponents whispered that he would be taking direction from Vatican City — but the Pope’s comments on a candidate still seem . . . unwise.  When most people associate the Pope with a focus on the spiritual, even a brief foray by him into an increasingly bitter, mud-slinging political campaign is a bit jarring.

And, of course, Pope Francis’ comments just serve to allow Donald Trump to mount his high horse, clothe himself in righteous indignation, and further burnish his reputation as the anti-establishment candidate.  I’m afraid that Pope Francis will learn that anyone who associates or interacts with Donald Trump ends up being tarnished by the experience.  Why stoop to comment about such a person?

 

An Ancient Perspective On War

Why do human beings make war on each other?  It’s a question that has intrigued philosophers and scientists, poets and peasants for centuries.

A more interesting question, though, might be not why, but when — because figuring out when the mass killings began might help us to isolate why the human species fights wars in the first place.

prehistoric-skull-discovered-nataruk-kenya-reuters-640x480A recent archaeological dig indicates that war is, unfortunately, much more ancient than we might have suspected.  The find at Nataruk, Kenya, on the east coast of Africa, reveals a horrific battle between two tribes of hunter-gatherers that happened 10,000 years ago.  One band captured the other, tied them up, and ruthlessly slaughtered every man, woman and child, including a woman whose pregnancy was far advanced.  The 12 victims of the attack were shot with arrows, beaten, and suffered crushed skulls and broken necks.  Their bodies were then shoved into a lagoon, where they sank into sediment and were preserved, to be found and studied by modern-day scientists.

Modern wars have been blamed on religion, nationalism, ideology, and quests for political power and glory by ruthless leaders.  One school of thought — reflected in John Lennon’s Imagine — postulates that if those causes of conflict were somehow removed, people would live in peace.  But the find in Kenya undercuts that simple premise, because 10,000 years ago was before the development of towns and villages, much less nation states, before the development of agriculture that caused humans to settle and begin to accumulate wealth, before the development of any known organized religion, and before any of the other attributes of modern culture that are typically cited as the causes of war.

The slaughter on the banks of the lagoon long ago occurred between two roaming bands of hunter-gatherers on what must have been a fertile and sparsely populated plain, with plenty of food for everyone.  So, why the slaughter of an entire tribe, rather than the decision to reach an accord, share the land, and live in peace?  It may be that humans, as a species, are just predisposed to war — which is a sobering thought, indeed.

The Leftovers, Season 2

Look, I knew that The Leftovers was a bizarre show.  Kish and I watched it faithfully (pun intended) last year, found it weird but fascinating, and were primed for this season — which has turned out, if anything, be even stranger and more inexplicable than the first.

In season two, we get glimpses of a social order, and people, falling apart, now years after part of the world’s population suddenly vanished.  People are still trying to figure out what happened, and one set of investigators suggests that its simply geometry run amok — and that it will probably happen again.  A man digs up a body of a woman who dies from a punctured jugular vein, goes to the police to confess his presence when she dies, and is simply released by a police officer because the woman is a member of a hated cult.  People are flocking to Miracle, Texas, because no one supposedly vanished from that town, but not everyone can get in.  And the encampment of the unfortunate — who have been left behind, in effect, a second time — is a toxic mix of filth, perversion, and religion.

The characters each are moving along their own arc, too.  Kevin Garvey continues to sleepwalk, now seems to be suicidal in his slumber, and is routinely counseled by the dead cultist — and now he’s starting to talk back to her.  His daughter seems at peace with the weirdness, but his son looks to be on the cusp of starting his own hug-based evangelical movement.  And his girlfriend Nora Durst — our favorite character — is willing to do just about anything to try to get back to a normal life, from spending $3 million on a ramshackle house in Miracle to adopting a baby left on her doorstep to handcuffing herself to her sleepwalking boyfriend before they go to bed at night to making anonymous phone calls that will allow her to smuggle her brother and his comatose wife back into Miracle.  Her moxie and her willingness to do whatever it takes to try to have a real life are enormously appealing.

And speaking of Miracle . . . well, something’s not right there.  There are earthquakes, and a hermit who lives on a downtown flagpole, and a kind of armed camp feel.  High school girls are glimpsed running naked through the woods.  People have disappeared, even though the general public won’t admit it yet, and one of the chief citizens is just angry at the world and his predicament.  He’s willing to burn down the house of a friend who he thinks is a charlatan, and he lurches between normalcy and simmering rage — and he nevertheless is somehow one of the most likable people in the town.

And then a guy with a goat appears.  Sometimes the goat gets its throat cut in a busy cafe during lunch hour for no readily apparent reason, sometimes the goat trots by without incident, and sometimes the goat is hit by a car.

We watch the show with keen interest (and some dread) and we wonder:  what the heck is up with the goats?  We really are enjoying this season’s voyage into weirdness.

In The Glow Of Available Light

I’ve lived in Columbus for 30 years, but I keep learning interesting things about our fair city.  This recurring experience always leaves me with mixed emotions — I’m glad I finally got clued in, but I also wish I’d been attentive enough to find out a lot sooner.

So it was last night, when Kish and I, along with Dr. Science and his lovely wife The Runner, went to see the Available Light Theatre performance of The Christians at one of the small studio venues at the Riffe Center.  I’d never heard of Available Light Theatre before yesterday, but it turns out that next year they will celebrate their 10th anniversary.  Shame on me!  After watching last night’s performance, I’m glad they’re here.

IMG_5641The Christians is a play by Lucas Hnath, one of the up and coming new dramatists in America.  It’s about the interplay of a pastor, his wife, an associate pastor, and a trustee and member of a rapidly growing Christian church who must deal with the aftermath of the pastor’s epiphany about the existence of hell, announced in a riveting sermon that begins the play.  The play could be viewed as an odd entertainment choice for our foursome, since three of us aren’t churchgoers and the fourth is Catholic, but drama is drama — and this play at its core is about five people struggling with very basic issues about their faith and, in the case of the pastor and his wife, the bedrock underpinnings of their marriage.

It’s a challenging topic, but the play is one of the most even-handed presentations of different Christian beliefs I’ve seen, and the cast did a convincing job of presenting multi-faceted characters who are wrestling with core personal beliefs and issues.  It was an interesting and thought-provoking play that kept Kish and me talking as we walked home.  Unfortunately for those of you who haven’t seen it, last night’s performance was the last one in the play’s run.

Last night also marked the end of Available Light’s season, and as they were taking their bows the cast members announced that next year, to celebrate the troupe’s 10th anniversary, the performances will focus on Columbus.  If you’re in town and you like theater, make a point to keep an eye out for the next season of Available Light Theatre.

The Presumed Adventures Of Bibleman

Last week I was getting into my car at a public parking lot.  The person in the neighboring space had parked too close, so I had to squeeze into the front seat past the door.  As I did so, I looked down inside their car and saw a magazine called Bibleman, with a stern looking guy in a superhero costume on the cover, in the back seat.

Bibleman?

IMG_2914It turns out that there was a kids’ video series called Bibleman that was produced for a number of years.  I never saw it or heard of it, but it’s obviously a more recent effort to get kids interested in the Bible; the modern successor to those boring Davy and Goliath TV shows and Bible Illustrated comic books.  But I found myself wondering:  what does Bibleman do?

Given Bibleman’s outfit, he is obviously a fighting hero.  If he draws upon the Old Testament, he could go around armed with a sling and some smooth stones, or perhaps a staff that allows him to part the water when necessary.  The Old Testament was full of smiting and suffering and turning people into pillars of salt, so Bibleman beating the snot out of evildoers would fit right in.  (And, if Bibleman ever got to the Song of Solomon, he might have even more diverse and interesting adventures.)

Of course, no good hero can be without supervillains to defeat against all odds.  I’m guessing that Bibleman’s arch-nemeses were Mr. Sin and Foul Temptress, both of whom were agents of Satan — who was never seen but who clearly was always pulling the strings behind the scenes as part of some dimly perceived master plan.  Mr. Sin would find people during their moments of sloth and weakness and sweet-talk them into straying from the path of righteousness, and Foul Temptress, using her Forbidden Fruit ray, would try to entice the faithful into listening to rock ‘n roll or wearing immodest clothing.  And, given the unalterable norms for fighting heroes, did Bibleman have a youthful sidekick — perhaps Commandment Boy?

Counting On The Alien Life Discovery Game-Changing Effect

In Gaza, Palestinians and Israelis are lobbing rockets and missiles at each others’ homes.  In Syria and Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are murdering and beheading each other.  In Africa, Boko Haram continues its campaign of religious-based slaughter and kidnapping.  In central Asia, sectarian and tribal animosities have produced a wave of bombings and violence.  And in central America, conditions apparently are so bad that tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have traveled hundreds of miles in a bid to cross the border into the U.S.

That’s why the best news of the last week was the announcement by NASA scientists that they believe that, within 20 years, humans will be able to confirm the existence of alien life.  They believe that current telescope technology, and new devices like the Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite that will launch in 2017 and the James Webb Space Telescope that will launch in 2018, will allow us to detect the presence of liquid water and indications of life on other moons and planets in our solar system and elsewhere in the universe.  Could the scientists be wrong?  Certainly . . . but the rapid advancements in planet discoveries and related detection technologies make their prediction plausible.

Science fiction writers have long posited that the discovery of alien life would have a unifying effect on the fractured world of humanity.  Such a discovery, they theorize, would cause humans to realize that the tribal, ethnic, religious, and political differences between them are trivial in comparison to the differences between humans and other intelligent life forms.  The ancient animosities would end and all of humanity would band together and venture out into the galaxy on vehicles like the starship Enterprise.

Is it really possible that a discovery that humans are not alone might have such a game-changing effect?  It seems far-fetched that anything could alter the benighted mindsets of religious fanatics who want to enslave women or restore medieval caliphates, or penetrate the rigid ideologies of people who cling to tribal or sectarian hatreds that are centuries old.  But, after decades of experience, we know that other approaches — like countless peace talks, the toppling of governments, the expenditure of billions of dollars in aid and training and infrastructure improvement, and the issuance of toothless UN Security Council resolutions — don’t get at the core problems.

Sure, counting on the alien discovery game-changing effect may be pinning our hopes on an improbable scenario.  As we read about an angry and bitterly divided world, however, it may be all we’ve got.

Sunday Night TV Apocalypse

Many Americans begin their Sundays with a visit to the church of their choice and end them with apocalyptic visions — watching TV characters struggle with catastrophic scenarios that have put the human race on the brink of extinction.

Sunday night is the prime TV viewing period in the Webner household and across America.  Lately, though, it seems like every show has an apocalyptic theme.  On Falling Skies, the Earth has been invaded by multiple alien species who are hoping to wipe us off the face of the planet.  On The Last Ship, a weaponized virus has swept across the globe, killing and infecting 80 percent of humans, toppling governments, and leaving only one American ship and one scientist as humanity’s last, best hope for a cure.  And on The Leftovers, two percent of the world’s population has mysteriously vanished, leaving the remaining population to wonder why, struggle with the aftermath, and witness a slow breakdown of the entire social order.  (I recognize there are other apocalyptic TV shows out there, but one couple can only endure so much televised disaster.)

Why are these shows so popular?  For one, Americans like to see people in peril, and have enjoyed it since The Perils of Pauline.  Apocalyptic shows just allow the peril to occur on a much grander scale.  Too, the broad plot lines give ample room for action and adventure, heroism and cowardice, charismatic leaders, people finding inner strength, romance amidst the carnage, and acts of sacrifice and betrayal, and therefore can appeal to just about everyone.  If you like battles, you can watch the freedom fighters on Falling Skies gun down “skitterers” or the Navy personnel on The Last Ship fight al-Qaeda terrorists and rogue Russians.  And occasionally bigger picture questions can be addressed, too.  What is the role of hope in life?  How would ordinary people react to Armageddon?  What role, if any, would religion play when people are dealing with the end of life as we know it?

It’s all very interesting, and it makes for a good night of TV viewing.  And, having immersed ourselves in catastrophe on Sunday night, we awaken on Monday morning refreshed and well positioned to face another week of work.

The Black Death And The Modern World

In the older cities of the world, any modern excavation could quickly turn into an architectural dig. This happened recently in London, where some railway project unearthed a number of skeletons — leading researchers to believe they have found one of the major burial pits for the victims of the Black Death.

The Black Death had an unimaginable impact on medieval Europe. It first arrived in England in 1348, but resurfaced periodically for many decades. There was no medical science, and no one understood how the plague spread — but they did know that it was incredibly deadly. In England, the plague is estimated to have wiped out 60 percent of the population. People died by the thousands, and in places like London were buried in common mass graves. The railway project workers apparently found one of them.

It’s hard to conceive what the world was like during the plague years. One of my favorite books, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, brilliantly captures the impact of the Black Death. Many people concluded that the plague was some form of heavenly retribution for earthly wickedness, and different religious cults adopted different approaches — such as self-scourging — to try to erase the sin that they believed was producing such horrible punishment. Others concluded that they were doomed anyway and adopted lives of carefree hedonism. As the death toll mounted, social order broke down. Priests refused to give absolution to dying plague victims. Families abandoned stricken relatives. Long-cultivated fields returned to wilderness because there weren’t enough serfs to tend to them. Gangs of robbers and mercenaries patrolled the countryside. And explicit representations of death and dying, complete with worm-eaten corpses, became commonplace in art and literature.

The 14th century was long ago, but the discovery of the mass grave in London makes me wonder — if a terrible pandemic struck the modern world, decimating the population and making death a constant, everyday reality, would our reaction be so different?

The Mystics Among Us

Kish and I really enjoyed watching True Detective on HBO — more on it later, I think — but one aspect of the show that I really enjoyed was Rustin Cohle. Matthews McConaughey was fabulous in depicting Cohle as one of the mystics among us.

My guess is that you’ve known some of these mystics, just as I have. They’re offbeat characters. What’s more, they know they’re offbeat, and they don’t care. They usually work at jobs that leave them plenty of time to explore the world and their varied interests. They’re freed from all standard societal constraints, and are open to just about anything. And yet, there lurks a certain skepticism beneath the oddball veneer, too. They’re willing to consider just about any religion or philosophical construct, but they’ll do so thoughtfully and after some very careful consideration.

The mystics think seriously, and at length, about things like the possibility of life after death and the concept of the soul. They might accept part of Buddhism, or animism, or Taoist beliefs, incorporate it into their worldview, and reject the rest. They usually read avidly, and their choices are wide-ranging. They’re not afraid to tackle some of the tough scientific or philosophical texts, and often they’ll want to talk to you about it.

Some people don’t like to hear their thoughts, as was the case, initially, with Woody Harrelson’s terrific Martin Hart on True Detective. The rush of ideas and the connections between them are just too jarring. But if you can get beyond the initial jangle, the conversations with these mystics can be fascinating. I remember being entertained for a beer-soaked evening, listening raptly to one of these modern-day mystics during the summer I worked in Lake George, New York. I don’t remember, now, exactly what we discussed, but I do remember coming away with the distinct understanding that there is more than one way to look at the world. It was an important and very useful realization.

“I’m Blessed”

In my travels, I regularly park in a downtown Cleveland garage. It’s one of those somewhat old-fashioned garages where you pay an attendant on your way out.

IMG_0852The attendant’s booth is usually staffed by an African-American woman who appears to be in her 40s. I always say hello and ask her how she’s doing as I pull up, and she always — always — responds with a cheerful “I’m blessed” and a smile. You can tell that she absolutely means it, too. Then she wishes me a good day, and I drive on — always feeling better, and uplifted, by our interaction.

Her short phrase and attitude has really stuck with me. I am not a religious person, but there obviously is something about this woman’s faith that allows her to be a radiating source of infectious positivity. Some people might look at her job and wonder whether working in a parking garage is all that great a blessing, but I don’t. I don’t know the woman’s personal circumstances, but she’s got a job and is physically able to do that job, and she is happy about that. Viewed from that perspective, she is blessed, and she’s not shy about telling people so.

I’m not saying that the power of positive thinking will turn your life into a beautiful dream, but I do think perspective matters. Often, people can choose to be positive or negative about their lives, and their choices in that regard have consequences. If I’m offered a choice about interacting with someone who is a downer or someone who is upbeat, I’ll take the person who says “I’m blessed,” and means it, every time.

Benedictines of Mary, Queen Of Apostles

I love choral music, and recently I discovered the CD Advent at Ephesus by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles choir. It is an astonishingly beautiful piece of work that should appeal to anyone — regardless of their religious affiliation — who loves the sound of the human voice.

I knew nothing about the Benedictines of Mary when I discovered their music. They are a monastic order of nuns that began in the diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania and then transferred to the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri. The order follows the monastic directives of St. Benedict, which includes regular singing and chanting. The video above tells a little bit more about the life of these nuns and gives a taste of their exquisite music. Advent at Ephesus is just one of their CDs, and coincidentally a new CD is coming out this week.

There is a ethereal, transcendent quality to the blended voices of these nuns that is enormously appealing and deeply peaceful. Of the songs on Advent at Ephesus, my favorite selections are Like the Dawning, Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth, Maria Walks Amid The Thorn, and Benedixisti Domine, but all of the songs on the CD are wonderful. I recommend it highly to anyone who is a fan of choral music.