Sunday, January 27, 2013

Conversions and De-Conversions - Powerless

I knew of only a single way to be a good person.  As I have stressed several times in the last few chapters of this series, I returned to my religious beliefs out of my desire to be the best husband that I could be.  I had believed at that time, that there was only one path to living a morally virtuous life, and that was through the divine empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  The particular set of religious beliefs and spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit chose to manifest Himself through was probably irrelevant, I figured, at least it was not for me to say.  I had come to think that God probably revealed Himself through any number of human contrivances that we chose to call religions.  I had become liberal enough in my beliefs not to any longer think that the exclusive path to Salvation was found in any single religion.  But I still had enough residual fundamentalist dogma that remained lodged in my brain, that I still believed adherence to one of those religions was necessary for moral behavior.  Christianity taught me that without God, I was naturally a wicked, deceitful, corrupt and sinful creature.  Any good that I did was not of myself, but was to be credited solely to God working through me.  That belief, which I now consider to be superstitious and poisonous, survived years of university physics education, and years of exposure to various cultures that were different from my own.  It survived my increasing liberality.  It even survived my proper understanding and application of rational and critical thought.  There were still some things in my life that I was not willing to hold up to scrutiny.  So in my desperate desire to be good, I had to believe that I was evil.

I don’t know what the motivations were for my new friends in our home Bible Study group.  They were all fervent believers in various stages of personal spiritual maturity.  Rick Warren constantly told us, in his 40 Days of Purpose video series, that as believers our main purpose in life was to serve others for the greater glory of God.  One way to serve, he told us, was to organize our small Bible Study group to minister at a homeless shelter, a retirement home, or even a soup kitchen.  We needed to serve those people who happened to be less fortunate than ourselves, and serve them in the name of Jesus Christ, if we were to understand true purpose and fulfillment.  Christianity was the path to be a good husband for my new wife.  Jesus showed us the way, and Rick Warren simplified the message for us.  We would serve others.

In our mission to serve others, I mostly enjoyed going to the retirement home.  I was very frustrated that none of my other Christian brothers and sisters ever showed up to minister to the elderly with Rosemary and me.  We spent quite a bit of time at our Bible Study making arrangements over where to go, and where we would like to minister, followed by a prayer circle, where we all held hands and asked for divine empowerment and blessing.  With this in mind, it was always discouraging for Rosemary and me to arrive at the retirement home, with plenty of gifts to dispense among the elderly, to be continually disappointed by my fellow believers.  They never showed up to help us.  We tried to be understanding.  We knew that they all had their own separate lives and busy schedules and obligations.  But it was still discouraging to spend all that time planning, making arrangements, praying for strength and guidance, only to be disappointed time and again by their absence.  What were they praying for if they were not going to participate?  Why did they squander the divine numinous power that they constantly prayed for?  I enjoyed visiting the retirement home, but I told Rosemary that I was tired of us carrying the burden ourselves.  I finally told our group that we needed to find a way of serving that everybody would be willing to support.

So our small group decided to solicit the help of our parent church, La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church.  The poverty stricken, of which there are many in the border regions of Texas, sometimes solicited help from the Church, so we were able to get several locations where help was needed.  We selected an area that we were told was in desperate need of help.  Their meager home needed some basic repairs, which the inhabitants were not able to afford.

In my youth, growing up in San Ysidro, I had seen desperate poverty, especially among the Pueblo Natives.  I knew what it looked like.  When I attended Calvary Chapel, I had made a habit of inviting homeless men into my apartment to sleep on my couch and share what food I could.  Rosemary had certainly seen much poverty during her frequent missions to the miserable and filthy slums of Pasay City.  The Catholic Church in the Philippines was no stranger to dealing with poverty.

Since Rosemary and I had seen such poverty we decided to prepare ourselves for the worst.  We had the address where we were to meet the rest of our team for the day’s work.  Rosemary and I wore our sturdiest work clothes, and prayed together, asking God for His strength for the struggles we would face that day.  I was a little nervous.  After so many years away from Calvary Chapel, I hoped that I could regain what it would take to be a servant for God. 

We found the address on a city map, and immediately found there was something wrong when we drove through a moderately affluent residential area.  “These houses look kind of nice for a poor area”, Rosemary told me.  I agreed.  I was expecting more of a border slum area, of which there are many in this part of Texas.  But instead, the address lead to a large brick home with an antique show car parked in front of the garage.  “This can’t be right”.

But it was.  We waited just in case, and we soon saw some of our friends arrive.  We all met in the front for group prayer, asking again for the strength of the Holy Spirit to be witnesses for Jesus Christ.  Then we knocked on the door.  Ana, an elderly Hispanic lady was waiting for us.  First she led us to her husband José, who was sick in bed with a huge neck brace.  We all gathered his bed, held hands and prayed for José’s health.  After our prayer duties were finished, we followed Ana out to her kitchen, leaving José alone on the bed, as sick as ever.

Ana, through an interpreter, told us what she needed done.  There was some backed up plumbing.  A hole in one of the interior walls.  Some bricks had wedged loose from her back yard wall.  Everybody immediately got to work.

Rosemary and I were simply astounded.  I wandered around the house and looked at some of the projects that we were going to be doing for Ana, who was obviously not as poverty stricken as we were led to believe.  “Rosemary, this house is nicer than ours!  What are we doing here?”  Rosemary looked for something meaningful to do, but found nothing.  Rosemary was used to feeding families who made their homes under bridges in Manila.  She could not bring herself to be a maid for the affluent in the name of Jesus Christ.  I was angered, not so much with Ana and José but at the fact that none of my Spirit empowered brethren were protesting.  Ana and José were plainly wealthy enough to afford the plumbers and carpenters necessary to do this kind of work, but they instead appealed to the Church, and we, in our obsequious weakness, became pusillanimous pushovers in the name of Jesus Christ.  They were taking advantage of our free labor, and we were complying by turning the other cheek.

I walked outside to the back yard, ready to minister to the poorest of the poor, and I laid eyes on one young lady in our Bible Study group trimming roses.  Trimming roses!  That was the limit.  “C’mon Rosemary, let’s get out of here.”

Later that week, we all met again in our house for the next session in Rick Warren’s 40 Days of Purpose video series.  People started making arrangements for a follow-up visit to José and Ana’s house.  One man was available later the next week to hang some sheetrock and plaster.  Somebody else purchased some plumbing supplies and could work on the pipes late after work...

“Those were the richest poor people I have ever seen,” I protested.  “I am not going back there.”

The wife of the group leader answered back, “well true, they we’re not exactly as poor as we expected.  But they did ask, and we are called to be servants and witnesses for the Gospel...”

She could excuse their timorous behavior all she wanted.  None of that mattered to me any more.  I suddenly found that all the virtuous rationale that they gave made no sense to me any more.  Christian or no Christian, these people clearly intended to take full advantage of us as willing Christians.  We were their tools.  They were not in any desperate need.  They just appealed to our church in the hope to get some free labor.  But this was nothing new.  I saw this as familiar behavior for the Christian who is desperate to share their Gospel of Jesus at any cost.  I had known many Christians with backbones and who would not be taken advantage of, but selling out for the Gospel was a behavior pattern that I was all too familiar with.  We were called to serve, but the ultimate goal was to share the Gospel and win souls for Jesus.  No price was too high to achieve that aim.  Jesus told us to turn the other cheek if we were struck, so we did free manual labor for a wealthy woman, all in the hope that she would somehow see our love of Jesus through our actions.  But I was cynical enough to know that she would not suddenly become convicted by our demonstrations of Jesus’ love.  She just wanted suckers to fix her leaky pipes.

This sort of thing had never bothered me before.  But for some reason, this otherwise trivial episode affected me deeply.  I was embarrassed because Rosemary and I had prepared for the worst, and we felt like we were wasting time ministering to those who were not in need.  I was exasperated with my friends because they seemed so weak that they could only follow our group leader’s decision to willingly be taken advantage of.

As long as I got a chance to share the Gospel, I was told, I was doing the will of The Lord.  Ana and José requested the services of the church, the pastors accepted their plea, and who were Rosemary and I to turn it down?  But Rosemary and I had not yet become members of La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church, and we felt no pressure from Church authority.  There was once such a time when I would have agreed that any rationale was justified if the end goal was to spread the Gospel.  I was finished with sharing the Gospel.  I wanted to serve people who were less fortunate than myself, and let the Gospel speak through my actions.  I was not going to be a doormat for Jesus.  

How could my fellow Christians let strangers take complete advantage of them in this weak and cowardly way?  I got a small insight into this question when Rosemary and I were invited by to our group leader’s house for a party.  Rosemary and I hosted the Bible studies in our house, but we were led by an assistant pastor at La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church named Dave Schultz.  I really liked the Schultz family.  Dave was a smart and educated ER physician and his wife Kate was always bright and lively.  Both were extremely devout in their Christian Faith.  Their 18 year old son Henry was a cause for concern.  He was mildly autistic, and would probably never be able to live an independent life.  Henry was also very large, and he worried his family when he would occasionally break into a confused fit.  He could easily overpower his mother Kate, and she sometimes expressed the fear that Henry would hurt her someday.  But they did love him.  Rosemary and I sometimes took Henry out for a day of miniature golf and pizza, and a chance to give Dave and Kate some much needed time to themselves.  He was a difficult but sweet kid.  I miss the Schultz family.

As bright and educated as they were, their house party gave me a small insight into their stifled world.  Every picture on the wall was either of family portraits or framed Bible quotes.  The sheet music on the piano consisted of nothing but hymns.  The only books that I saw on their shelves were Bibles and a few pious novels like CS Lewis’ Narnia series.  The only magazines in the living room were World and Creation, both news magazines published by Fundamentalists for Fundamentalists.  The party was for friends, but everybody I saw was from the church.  Were Dave and Kate’s only friends other Fundamentalist Christians?  Surely Dave would have known many people at the hospital where he worked.  Why were none of them invited?  I asked Dave if anybody from the hospital would be there.  “No, they are non-believers,” he told me frankly.  “I pray for their salvation, and talk with them, but they are so difficult.”  Red flags alarmed immediately.

With so many believers together in one house, and non-believers uninvited and safe from spoiling the piety, the Jesus lingo spewed thick and fluent.  The small talk was saturated with Jesus talk and Christianese.  There was no room for any mundane talk.  One and only one Person dominated the minds of every person there.  “Jesus is so good to me, we love Jesus, Jesus is lovely and worthy to be worshipped, Jesus answered this prayer, Jesus answered that prayer, I talked to Jesus this morning, I am trying to find God’s will for my life…” 

The El Paso sun was intense as usual as we stood out on the back patio.  A small cloud rolled over the sun and momentarily cooled us off.  A young, Spirit filled girl stood from her chair with sudden glorified inspiration, spread out her arms and enthusiastically declared, “Look!  Jesus put a cloud over the sun!  Jesus is giving us shade!  Isn’t Jesus wonderful?!?  I love you Jesus!”  I cringed inside.  This Christian girl struck me as unbelievably immature and childish!  To think that Jesus, the Creator of the Universe, looked upon us puny humans so favorably that He would smile down on us from the Heavens and generously place a cloud over the sun to shade our eyes!  That the All-Mighty would pass trivial favors upon us believers in the midst of countless prayers to relive untold suffering that went unanswered!  The boundaries of eternity were breached for the sake of momentarily cooling off our backyard party!  Never mind the countless victims of endless disasters who were at that very moment suffering in other parts of the world.  Jesus passes goodwill only on His favored!  The myopic arrogance of these Christians!  These Christian friends of mine were so presumptuous of God, and so confident and aware of their own favor in His eyes!  The more I thought about it, the more disgusted I felt.  I am still disgusted by it to this very day. 

Later that evening, Rosemary and I were discussing the party.  The overwhelming piety was too much for my Catholic wife, who still viewed God in a more traditional sense.  “I do not understand this ‘Personal Relationship with Jesus’ talk from these Baptists!  Jesus is my Holy Redeemer.  I do not want Him to be my friend!”  I was disturbed by the behavior of my friends, and even more disturbed that it was behavior that I had once found so normal for us Christians.  We thanked God for the most trivial of things that just happened to occur in our lives, but He never seemed to do anything about our most desperate requests.  He could momentarily place a cloud over the sun to shade our eyes, but He could never remove the autism that crippled young Henry’s brain.  Of all the things we prayed for during our prayer sessions, help on school tests, financial relief, common colds, sore backs, we never once bothered to pray for a healing for poor Henry.  Why was it that we born again Christians never asked this All-Powerful Deity for a healing of Henry’s autism?  We never prayed for something that would require an actual miracle from God.  We only prayed for things that had a chance of occurring without any prayer at all.  This refusal to request the miraculous from Jesus was a tacit admission that I and all my Spirit filled friends really secretly believed Jesus was completely, thoroughly powerless. 

This disturbing realization became most apparent to me when one of Rosemary’s friends got very sick.  Another teacher from Philippines, who had come to the United States with Rosemary, had suddenly developed stomach cancer.

The tumor in Irma’s stomach was discovered too late to save her.  She was very sick, and spent her last days languishing in the hospital room.  She was beyond hope.  All we could do was visit her and keep her company during her remaining time left.  If God could trouble himself to shade the eyes of His favored people on a sunny day, surely He could also remove cancer from a suffering friend.  Irma was not even asking for that much.  All she wanted from God was to get healthy enough to fly back to Philippines so she could die in her own home and with her family.  There were several times when I met with Rosemary’s Catholic friends before visiting Irma in the hospital.  I wanted to ask them all, together, to pray with me to God, the All-Mighty physician, to heal Irma and remove the deadly cancer from her body.  God could do that if we were Faithful.  All things are possible to him that believeth.   Jesus told us so!  We were told to expect miracles!  But I never did ask my Catholic friends to join me in prayer for Irma.  I wanted to shake them out of their stupor!  I wanted to ask them if they really believed the God of the Catholic Faith could perform real miracles.  Did they believe that Irma could be healed or not?

Apparently not.  Irma died in El Paso, painfully and alone, in a foreign land, over 8000 miles from her home.  God could not honor even her most basic request to die in her own home.  I became very angry with God at this point, and I was even angrier at His Faithful.  The death of this woman was senseless.    Like so many things during this troubled time of my life, I was torn between two opposing views of my faith.  Is God who He says He is?  And if He is, then why can’t we petition Him with our most urgent requests, as He says we should?  Worse yet, do we Christians really believe God could perform miracles?  We prayed to Him for everything but the truly miraculous.  It was almost as if we were intentionally setting the bar for His performance very low so we would not be disappointed when we never saw miraculous answers to our prayers. 

I asked Rosemary why we did not pray for a miraculous healing of cancer.  Why did we never expect instant recoveries and considered mere remissions to be miraculous?  Why did it seem that we never prayed for anything that actually took faith?  She replied, “As we say back home, nasa tao ang gawa, nasa Diyos ang awa.  We should not expect God to do everything.  We have to work hard ourselves before we can see God's mercy.”  Perhaps, but again, that leaves God powerless.  It is a tacit admission that the ones doing the actual work is - us.  God is a superfluous fifth wheel.  But if God is truly the All-Mighty, then breaking the bounds of time and space to perform the miraculous would be just as trivial as me lifting my foot to take a step.  If God has infinite power, the power to do absolutely anything then it would be no more difficult for Him to speak the universe into existence with the blast of His nostrils than it would be to soothe the pain in my sore back.  Why could we not expect the miraculous if His unbounded power made performing the miraculous to be trivial?

Why do we ask God to help us with our headaches but do not ask Him to cure autism?  Why do I believe a testimony that He cured a relieved an aching back, but I would never believe a testimony that he regenerated a severed limb, cured a child of cerebral palsy, fused the spinal cord of a quadriplegic.  Why do we pray as if the power of God is no better than a pair of aspirin?  Either God has infinite power, or He has none.  He is All-Mighty or He is Powerless.

It was only after hearing a sermon from Pastor Alvarez of La Puerta del Cielo Baptist Church that I finally realized that even if God had all the power the universe could hold, the rules He played by made Him as good as powerless.  Pastor Alvarez’s sermon was one I had heard many times over the years.  Pastor Alvarez was comforting the Christians of his congregation who doubted a God who seemingly left their prayers unanswered.  “God hears your prayers,” he said, “and he answers every single one of them.  You may just not recognize the answer when you get it.  God answers each of your prayers in one of three ways.  God will sometimes say ‘Yes’.  God will sometimes say ‘No’.  And sometimes God will say ‘Wait’.  The answers that He gives to your prayers are always consistent with His most perfect will.”  I finally snapped.  After hearing that same sermon so many times over the previous 40 years, after years of believing that God would answer ‘Yes’ only to those things that were bound to happen by chance or my own effort, I finally figured out why my God was so powerless.  If God was allowed to answer ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Wait’ to every prayer made to Him, the effect was just as if He never heard a single one of those prayers.  There becomes no difference between a God who answers every request made to Him ‘No’ or ‘Wait’, and a God who does not hear or act to any prayer at all.  I could just as well make the same excuse over superstitious prayer to a stone idol and the effect would be the same.  The stone idol does not hear, but we can just convince ourselves that the idol is telling us, in its primal wisdom, to wait before our request is granted.  We are not really ready to receive what we are requesting of the stone idol, so it tells us to wait, because it knows what is better for us.  Nothing happens, and we worship the stone idol for its loving wisdom.  There is no difference between believing the stone idol answers our prayers with ‘No’ or ‘Wait’, and the stone idol having no power at all.  The God I was worshiping might as well be powerless.  If God had any power, he refused to show us.  And if He could not demonstrate His power with the miraculous, then I had no business believing that He would answer even the most trivial of my prayers.  I had been kidding myself for over 40 years.   I had never before understood how God’s own rules made Him a thoroughly impotent and unnecessary creature.  It was deceptive subterfuge to claim that God was answering every prayer, when the act of doing everything was indistinguishable from the act of doing nothing.

I brought this problem up to Christian friend of mine.  “Why do we never see God perform miracles when we ask?  Beneficial miracles, like a healing for poor Irma.  ‘Yes, No or Wait’ does not seem to answer the question “

She replied, “Perhaps the miracles we see today are the sanctified lives we see in believers in Jesus.  Remember what Jesus said, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do”.  What work is greater than what Jesus did on while on Earth?  It must be the Comforter who came to the world in His absence, and it is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus performs the miracle of bringing us closer to His image.  Think of all the lives Jesus has changed!”

There was once a time when this answer would have satisfied me.  No more.  I blurted out the first objection that came to mind.  “But my Dad converted years ago.  He is a Mormon now.  Believe me, he was a monster when I was growing up, but he has become a much better man over the years.  And he is not a Christian!”

She gasped, “A Mormon?  If his life is changed because he became a Mormon, don’t you understand that he is being deceived by Satan?” 

My newly critical mind demanded to find problems with excuses that I was being given.  God always answers ‘Yes, No or Wait’.  Changed lives in the Christian were evidence of His miraculous power, but changed lives in non-Christians were evidence of Satan’s deceptive power.  The game was rigged.  With rules like these, it was impossible for God to ever lose.  It was impossible to know if and when He was doing anything.  It was impossible to falsify any claim made in His name, and therefore it was possible to justify any absurdity.

The spell was slowly breaking.  But I held on to my Faith for dear life.  Dear Jesus, give me the Faith to believe!

1 comment:

... Zoe ~ said...

"The game was rigged."

I don't know how many times I said to my husband, "This feels like a game."