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Thursday, July 31, 2014
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    When Bad Things Happen To Good People

    by | Jan 7, 2013

    godSince we’re only a few days into the new year, I thought it was a good time to think of renewal, resolution, and perhaps even rebirth, if we insist on sticking to the figurative and not literal meaning. In so doing, though, I was blindsided by a bigger issue – the return of the eternal question of why bad things happen to good people.

    Jeff Cochran, a fellow Dew writer, recently addressed this question in his essay entitled “Supergroup: Jim Morrison, T.S. Eliot, Darryl Rhoades and God.” St Paul is even tossed in toward the end. That’s quite a grouping by anyone’s standards. The thrust of the article is a lot of pondering over the many mysteries of life and death and the concept of prayer.

    In the essay, he says that Morrison, in his song The Soft Parade, alluded, as did T.S. Eliot in Ash Wednesday, to a journey in search of solace. As Morrison sought “sanctuary” from the rat race and materialism of the mid ‘60s, Eliot sought a spiritual sanctuary. He sought a peace ordained by God.

    Jeff’s essay prompted me to pursue deeper ideas about prayer and how people fall back on it in times of great sorrow and loss. When we think of the Newtown murders, “prayers have crowded the skies” but to what avail? What happens in the minds of those parents and all the rest of us when we ask why such horrific slaughter could happen to the innocent if we are to believe in a God that we wish to think looks after the well-being of his faithful followers? Where is the solace when nothing is offered but the empty platitudes of dogma?

    In The Soft Parade, Morrison sings…

    “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!”

    I came into this story when Jeff introduced Rhoades’ line “I’m Sliding Off the Edge of the World and I Might Not Make It Back.” The song “is a prayer of sorts; one that questions God having ‘a plan.’ Rhoades is talking to God, if not petitioning him.” He’s attempting to grasp for some answers to the many mysteries of life and death and why some of us are taken in our prime and some even in childhood. As he says, Rhoades was not tearing down anyone’s religion, just trying to understand aspects of faith, if not all mysteries.

    In this wrestling match, I have found myself reading more about Morrison, Rhoades, Eliot, and the Apostle Paul in hope of shedding more of the light of understanding that I have been seeking.

    Paul plays his role by defining faith as “the evidence of things not seen.”

    Just the day before I read the essay, I had taken a call from a lady nearby who many years before had worked for my late cousin’s husband in the library of a small liberal arts college in the panhandle of West Virginia. She had called to ask me if I could clarify his new address on a Christmas card she had received from him.

    In our conversation, I innocently asked what excitement had occurred in her life since we had last talked. She then proceeded to tell me how her 46-year old daughter had just returned that day from Charlottesville where she had had her portal removed, since her chemotherapy treatments had come to an end. Earlier in the summer she had been diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and had undergone extensive and debilitating treatment. She had now been given a tentative bill of good health, but orders to return in 3 months for a follow-up exam. Before she hung up, she made a point of saying the experience had reaffirmed the power of prayer and her family’s faith in God.

    Not being a church goer but still a man who is open to spiritual matters, I couldn’t fathom a path through or around the “faith” concept in light of what had happened to my friend’s daughter, let alone in Newtown. It just seemed that the artifice of faith was so wanting as a form of comfort, if not acceptance and ultimately resignation.

    At the same time, I began to think further of the Apostle Paul’s message, especially as my friend had fallen back on her faith to sustain her in light of what has happened in her own family. When awful things happen to any of us, I guess the natural question we often ask is why they happen in the first place. In listening to her, I was hearing the same soul-searching plaint of legions before her who had also tried to live good lives but had been felled by unspeakable misfortune. I heard the eternal human plea for an answer which will probably always hover out there beyond the reach of the understanding of most of us. All we can expect is the wind from the wings of madness.

    The challenge to me, though, remained how to comprehend why people can pray to some divine being when events have let their worlds crumble and turn to rubble. When you’re “sliding off the edge of the world,” I guess your natural inclination is to cling to whatever you can get your hands around. But I find this answer superficial and condescending to those who perhaps see something outside my vision. And I know the official church line is that God’s will is beyond our understanding. When human suffering becomes unbearable, though, I have always found that sentiment particularly off-putting.

    In rereading Jeff’s article, I was intrigued how he wove T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, the great religious poem of “a journey in search of solace,” into his story. I stopped on these lines from the poem, however…

    O my people, what have I done unto thee.

    Where shall the word be found, where will the word
    Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
    Not on the sea or on the islands, not
    On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
    For those who walk in darkness
    Both in the day time and in the night time
    The right time and the right place are not here
    No place of grace for those who avoid the face
    No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice…
    Will the veiled sister pray for
    Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
    Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
    Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
    In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
    For children at the gate
    Who will not go away and cannot pray:
    Pray for those who chose and oppose
    O my people, what have I done unto thee.

    I found these words haunting and more than a bit unsettling. As a secularist, they contain a groundwork of orthodox Christianity that many find discomfiting. Simply stated, I had trouble getting around the not too veiled threat that without faith there is no hope or meaning to life.

    In so many of Eliot’s earlier poems, especially The Wasteland and Prufrock, he articulated suffering, the world’s desolation, and the mental and spiritual breakdown of our culture. The various forms of estrangement, the particularities of loneliness, and the yearning for serenity dominate his mental landscape. No wonder that he sought a religious path, if nothing more than to comprehend devotion and a form of peace rather than just to clutch to some form of institutional religion.

    Although there are many lines in Eliot’s poetry that support the darkness of his world view, his ideas of time and memory appear finally as ways to understand the past and to transcend beyond their limitations. In the end, he falls back on his religious sense of redemption and the need to go outside our own time and place in order to experience God directly so long as people know that they cannot fully understand or comprehend him.

    With the snow on the ground outside my window and more to come later today, I was directed this morning to James Joyce’s story The Dead, which is set at this time of year to mark The Feast of the Epiphany. As Gabriel, the anti-hero of the story, comes to his own epiphany at the end, he finally realizes his failure at love and artistic achievement. He has accepted the ineluctable that death comes for all of us eventually in one form of suffering or another and that we must treasure that which we have and those we hold close. It is only a matter of time before we are all vanished under the white-like death of snow, “snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

    It is in the use of this word epiphany in its Greek derivation of “to reveal” or to literally “shine upon” that I am now able to understand a bit more of how my friend can say her power of prayer has delivered her daughter from her plight. Perhaps I can now stumble my way closer to understanding the concept of the “faith” another friend has fallen back on. She had a double mastectomy in late summer and has now told us she’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

    To bring this story full circle round, I think I have gained a new appreciation for people who pray and live their faith. Although I doubt I will ever have a foxhole conversion, I “pray” that when my time comes that I’ll be shown a tender mercy or two and not go out screaming and hollering. In the meantime, I might not be “petitioning the Lord,” but I’ll be there to hold a wanting hand in someone’s hour of need.

    So if prayer and faith give off that special radiance and offer an Epiphany of solace to those whose lives are broken, who mourn without comfort, more power to it. As the Apostle Paul preached, faith is “the evidence of things not seen.”

    ###
    • Image: Variations of this are all over the web - the photo is a promotional photo, so that is fair use; the quote's fair game - this particular version is from Bobbiblogger –the quote was also recently used without the photo promoting the Global Atheist Convention's Facebook Page.
    David Evans

    David Evans

    I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one little and two big dogs and a diminishing pride of two cats and other critters who come along the path from time to time. I retired one morning years ago when I woke up and said, "This is the day." It was simply time to do something new with my life. I had done whatever I did long enough, and now it was time to do something else. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I believe I have found something to cherish that I never had before. Retirement may be dull and boring, but that's true only if you are dull and boring. But if you’re like I was, and am, I saw a lot of things as I went along the trail that I would have liked to linger over a lot longer if I had had the time to spare. Above all, I wanted to think about what they meant and have the chance to go back over them and figure them out. I'm not abashed to say that today I lead a life of real luxury. I also recognize that I'm a lucky boy. In the words of Katherine Anne Porter: "My life has been incredible, I don't believe a word of it." I am the author of the recently published collection of essays entitled Tunes of Glory: The Ticking of the Heart. Earlier I self-published Cradle My Soul: Glimpses Into Other Lives, and Unscheduled Stops: Essays on Love, Loss and Other Roadside Attractions. All are available on either Amazon or Create Space, a subsidiary of Amazon. Another book is in the offing. Proceeds go to the Almost Heaven Golden Retriever Rescue and Sanctuary in Capon Bridge, West Virginia.

     

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    • Lorraine

      Pray for faith. If you receive it, and I think you will, you will be awed by your understanding of what you need to understand. Your life will change, as if you had been blind and suddenly can see. Don’t just pray once… pray until you have faith.

    • Delpha Dee Shaver-Wolf

      Dear David,
      My sister Becky shared this with me this morning. I was happy to have an update on you and your thoughts. Having grown up in the same early spiritual environment as you, this was well-written and interesting reading. I have fond memories of your family and their friendliness. I am a pastoral visitor now and have the opportunity to visit those reaching their “wanting hands”. As you are also available to do this, remember to enlist the Creator God to help you. He has wonderful resources and loves them more than we ever could.
      Happy New Year!!
      DD Shaver-Wolf

    • Hannah

      Bad people do bad things to good people because they are also cowards and count on the innocent to be surprised and not likely to put up a strong defense. Cancers are more pervasive because industry has been given the same pass as a natural person, whose behavior is presumably good until it is proven to be bad. Besides, spewing toxins into the environment is not perceived as very different from man and beast using Mother Nature as their toilet.

      On the other hand, the belief that prayer is efficacious is better than the alternative. Feeling even marginally potent is better than feeling impotent. Self-deception is a comfort because that is its intent.

    • Tom

      I have been reading Pema Chodron and a quote by here seems very related to what you have said in this piece: “If your mind is expansive and unfettered,
      you will find yourself in a more accommodating world, a place that’s
      endlessly interesting and alive. That quality isn’t inherent in the
      place but in your state of mind. The warrior longs to communicate that
      all of us have access to our basic goodness and that genuine freedom
      comes from going beyond labels and projections, beyond bias and
      prejudice, and taking care of each other.” (From Pema’s book Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change)

    • Tom

      An addendum on the pain and suffering mentioned in your article:

      Many, the Buddha and others, have pointed out that there is pain and suffering in the world. That is reality. The world is full of it. A mother wolf loves her pups but goes out and violently kills baby rabbits to feed her pups. People love their country and feel a loving camaraderie but then go out and kill citizens of other country whom they see as a threat to their country-tribe. People who enjoy life get old, diseased, and die. Stars burn out and collapse. Our planet will one day die. The mind gets confused as it tries to understand discover why this violence, turbulence, and pain exists. It tries to create a perfect entity where this painful division does not exist. They call this deity by various names and create concepts about “His” nature. Then they try to kill off those who have conceived of a different deity with different names and natures. The unrest does not stop so long as the mind continues in its confusion to try to figure it out.

      Now is this a “belief” or “fear” on my part about how ordinary consciousness works?

      Those who have been fortunate enough to step outside of this mental anguish and suffering even for a moment and have Paul’s “peace that surpasses all understanding” know that this “moment”, this “epiphany” to use your words, does not come from figuring it out intellectually or by being a perfect disciple of someone or something. It comes from the direct experience of
      something occurring outside of our mental or religious efforts that opens the heart. One experiences an abiding love, compassion, and beauty that touches all one is beholding. A compassion is felt for all the hatred, pain, and violence that
      is witness, but it is now seen as a turning away from the inner wholeness and stillness. A power lies in this mystery of
      wholeness. But the danger lies in the intellects efforts to understand this moment after the fact, even in nanoseconds of
      time. The end result is a mind that is again divided against itself and fighting to understand, that is, to make one idea
      supreme and lay the others to rest (i.e., a process of inner violence).

      An example is that of your use of Woody Allen as a figure who is (typically) caught up in his efforts to believe in a God but is
      also frustrated with this created God concept because, if “He” is perfect why does He permit violence…… that is, if He
      exists!”. That is Woody’s schtick that runs through all of his movies.

      As I have mentioned before, I have come to mistrust intellectual ideas and most of my philosophy books now gather dust on my book shelves. Naturally this renders me mostly mute and ignorant when I get around people such as you who are continuing to read voraciously. And a part of me does admire that sort of intelligence. My belief, if you can call it that, is of the
      existence of that ineffable moment of direct experience when I look at another person, a beautiful tree, hear a passage of
      music, see my cat Sheena looking at me, study an impressionist painting, etc. and feel that mysterious force of wholeness that
      heals the inner pain and connects everything I behold as being of one dynamic force. So is that “expectation” classifiable as
      “faith”? Search me!. One thing I know is that I I neither own it or can claim it as coming from anything meritorious that I
      have done.

      Many have referred to this simply as the opening of the heart. After confessing your doubt that you will ever have a foxhole
      conversion, namely a standard religious conversion, you go on to say “I ‘pray’ that when my time comes that I’ll be shown a
      tender mercy or two and not go out screaming and hollering. In the meantime, I might not be ‘petitioning the Lord’, but I’ll be
      there to hold a wanting hand in someone’s hour of need.” That, of course, is a perfect example of the “bodhisattva warrior”
      that gives up attempting to achieve his own personal enlightenment in favor of opening his heart with compassion for
      others to help them end their suffering.

      Tom

    • tom ferguson

      I like to say that in order to answer the question, “do you believe in god?” one has to know what the questioner means, how they define god. so if they mean jerry falwell’s god, i’m an atheist. if they mean spinoza’s god, i’m a believer. religious talk is an attempt to pin down an experience we all have to varying degrees, a sense of interconnectedness, of ONEness… (spinoza’s pantheism) which can only happen when the mind (thought) is stilled. goodness or ethics aren’t what you strive to do but what you ARE when you sense interconnection.

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    Glenn Beck as "The Music Man," Playing on the Fears of Parents

    By: Andy Schmookler

    On Tuesday, July 22, Glenn Beck spoke from some 700 movie screens to Americans who paid admission to hear him attack the "Common Core." The "Common Core" consists of standards, offered to the states, defining the knowledge and skills that American school-children should learn at each stage of their education. Beck's move here reminded me of "The Music Man," the con man in the musical of that name who comes to an Iowa town to fleece the good people there. What Beck and the con artist in "The Music Man" have in common is that to accomplish their own hidden aims  Read on →

    The Post Office as status symbol

    The Post Office as status symbol

    By: Monica Smith

    Who knew? We've got some snotty residents on St. Simons Island who collect their mail at the Sea Island Post Office so they can pretend they live where they don't. Now they've been discombobulated by the armed guards at the gates and collecting their mail has proved an inconvenience. Not to worry. The Sea Island Acquisitions people will just move the P. O. out of their exclusive enclave and give it a new home on St. Simons while they continue to pretend that the Sea Island Road is as exclusive as that cesspool on the dunes known as Sea Island.  Read on →