Thursday, June 28, 2007

Clapping for Tinkerbell

Down at the Caveat Christian Emptorium, you can get all kinds of weird stuff -- every home should have one -- including bumper stickers that announce: "Prayer Changes Things!"

This is not unique to Christians. Most of my New Age friends believe in an intervening God or universal god-mind, and the power of prayer. We ask for, and offer to others, prayers for surgeries and troubled kids and safe travel.

Unbelievers think we're delusional. That's OK. I'm not sure we aren't. After all, the other condescending sticker at the Jesus Junk-tique says: "God always answers but sometimes the answer is no."

Maybe so, but Cute Little Sayings are usually bullshit, and especially when they try to explain God. A deeply worried friend asked for prayers when her father was admitted into the hospital. We all prayed like crazy. Nothing stopped the relentless parade of medical malpractice that misdiagnosed a simple malady, mistreated him and caused both his death and maybe some suffering, too, though maybe God's one gift was that the man was unconscious for most of it.

It's a reasonable question. Is it delusional to pray to a God who acts like Lucy?

I was raised by two people who had each experienced some degree of childhood trauma, from being sent away during the life-threatening illness of a parent, to ugly abuse. They both believed firmly in a loving God anyway and maybe their understanding of life's full spectrum of joy and shittiness gave that belief plausibility for me. They may not have reconciled the concepts of a loving God and the things he allows, but they are willing to not understand. They were also OK with anger toward God, and this may be one of the greatest gifts one can give a child.

Mary Martin's Peter Pan aired every year. My first viewing was memorable. There we all sat, the folks on the couch and 6-ish year old me on my favorite cushion pile on the floor, in my nightgown and robe and clutching my chocolate milk, about to see this great event in kiddie television.

Something in it disturbed me at gut level. There's Tinkerbell about to croak because not enough of us believe in fairies. Um...God will let her die because we don't believe?! Clap, kids. Save her life.

I clapped and scowled. Okay, I was always a testy little kid. I certainly didn't think out all this stuff, but disquiet began blooming in my mind: Does God punish somebody over somebody else's disbelief?! God will favor the clapped-for?

When Peter Pan aired the next year I tested the waters. Here we went again, Tinkerbell flickering out, while my parents said, "Aren't you going to clap?" No, by damn. Already, at age 7, I was gonna divest myself of this responsibility and put it right back on God where it belonged. And as Tinkerbell's light began to blaze more brightly I realized two things:

ONE: God may not save us in response to each other's prayers, but he won't smite us over lack of them, either.

TWO was that it was a film. OK, video. Either way, burned unchangeably onto celluloid forever. Even if every kid in the US took a bathroom break right then.

It took Alcoholics Anonymous to tell me the real reason for prayer.

I quit drinking so that I would never have to go to AA, but ended up there anyway and learned a lot about how to stay grounded in a high wind.

I run into two common misconceptions about AA, and they are, interestingly, polar opposites. One is that it teaches us how to have power over the addiction.

Well, kinda. Well, no, not really. In the first of the twelve steps, "we admit that we are powerless over alcohol and that our lives have become unmanageable."

That leads some people to the other misconception: that we're dumping responsibility for our actions, calling it a "disease" and ourselves "victims" of it, excusing our behavior. Wrong again. A huge responsibility is demanded of us, that of self-honesty. It starts with the next step, that of "turning to a Power greater than ourselves."

AA does not presume to define that Power for us. Do you believe in any power greater than yourself? they ask us. Anything? I know a few atheists who did fine in AA.

I found that, however bad a job God did with the world, he could make better decisions than I could. This was not saying a lot.

I learned about letting go, about not using God to control outcomes. To slowly learn the balance -- a lifelong process that I earn about a C- in -- of seeing when I can make a difference, but never driving myself to drink over things I could not control or change. AA teaches neither passivity, nor the illusion of control. It teaches Reinhold Niebuhr's prayer: "God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."

AA simplifies the wording:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

I keep praying because it reminds me to turn things over. To accept the burden of doing what it's in my power to do and to free myself from the burden of things I can't change. If I let go of the outcome, then, at best, I've added my drizzle of healing energy to the great river of light. And at worst, God seems to say, stay in touch with me but live your own life. Do what you can, then make a milkshake, do the laundry, cut your nails. You can't cure someone's cancer, but you can make a donation, help a kid stay in school, recycle, vote. Be fully in your life.

Pray for Callie, if you're inclined to do that sort of thing.


thisismarkheath said...

I'm not a believer, but I liked your post. It struck my ears as reasonable faith. My wife is more inclined to believe in God, but her take on prayer and its intent is this: don't pray for change, pray for the strength to handle change.

Anonymous said...

I pray for Callie every day. Thanks. She needs all our prayers right now. We can't change her fate, but we can help her live her life to its fullest each day she lives it.