As had become custom, the mother would go to bingo on Monday nights, leaving her young husband to mind their two young boys, and as had become custom, the three of them would eat their TV dinners, with the gravy covered salisbury steak, and the mashed potatoes and if they were lucky, the chocolate brownie in the tiny square at the top of the tray. In the mind of the older boy, then 5 years old, they were rich beyond imagination. Monday’s were a treat for the young boy; a world with fewer rules. And as was custom, after dinner, the father, a young man of 28 years himself, would make a giant bowl of Jiffy-Pop popcorn, and would let the two young boys watch the 1st quarter of Monday Night Football before sending them off to bed, despite their protestations.
The young boy always has a curious mind, and rather than fall asleep, he lay there in the darkness, staring out his bedroom window at the lights of the Verazzano Bridge off in the distance, and he would contemplate the unthinkable and the impossible:
“What if God never made people?”
Even at his young age, his mind would race, filled with anxiety.
What if there was no life at all? No stars, No sun. No planets. Just vast, interminable darkness.
It made no sense to the young child, but he couldn’t turn it off either, so he lay there in the darkness, filled with fear, unable to leave his bed to explain his fears to his father, knowing that any disturbance of the customs of a Monday night would be met with a thunderous chorus of:
“Get back to bed!”
So he lay there, waiting for her to return.
And as was custom, when she arrived home, she would check on her two children, just to say goodnight, and she found her oldest, her first born, crying in the darkness. When she inquired about what was wrong, he was unable to articulate the unimaginable, so he resorted to what he knew would make the most sense.
“I missed you Mommy.”
She would kiss him and comfort him as any good mother would, but the fear would remain. 50 years later, the fear would remain.
Several years later, when the boy was eight, after his parents had separated, he would retreat to his room every night, and pray that his daddy would return home. When that prayer wasn’t answered, he no longer had a use for prayer.
He knew he was alone.
Faith has always been a struggle for me. It’s much like the tide; sometimes it comes in, sometimes it goes out, but for the most part, when it came to god, the tide was out. I remember as a young adult sharing my doubts with my mother, and her responding, “you need to have faith.” My arrogant response was always the same, “Where do I get this faith, ma? Where do they sell it?”
It’s not like I didn’t search for it. I read every book, and went to a variety of churches, and took a variety of psychedelic drugs, and said a variety of prayers, all in the hopes that I would be rewarded; not with all the answers to life, but just the knowledge that there was something out there in the ether, watching us, guiding us, but that faith, and the answers to the prayers remained elusive.
There were other prayers of course. I’ve prayed for love, and for sex, and for money and Cadillacs. I’ve prayed for health, and for strength and for knowledge, but the response has pretty much been the same,
“Mohammad will help you move the mountain, but you better bring a shovel.”
When we were still young, we were faced with terrible financial difficulties including the possibility of eviction. The three of us prayed and prayed and prayed, and the next day, my mother had a dream. A dream of a number: 930.
So she went to the local bookie, and played the number, 930, and of course, the number came out, and we escaped eviction.
Our prayers were answered.
God sure does work in mysterious ways.
In 1981, I become enamored with a long-dead singer whose deep baritone voice bellowed out to the heavens:
“You Can Not Petition The Lord, with Prayer!”
It took me a while to fully understand the meaning of that passage. At the time, it just sounded cool, but underneath, there was real meaning behind it;
Does god reward the faithful based on their prayers, or their actions?
Or was it neither?
At the end of the 20th century, I had what you might call a crisis of faith. I was 35, and single, and living a life without direction or meaning, and I was falling into a deep depression, all predicated on the unshakable feeling that we were alone on this journey; that there was no plan, no meaning to life at all. I joined a weekly bible study with two friends of mine who I greatly admired and respected. Over the months, the bible study grew in size, and the faith of its members grew as well.
I remained the group skeptic, even to the point where they jokingly started to call me Thomas, after the apostle who doubted the resurrection until he saw the risen Christ in the flesh. The cynic in me always pointed out that Thomas didn’t need faith, he had his proof standing in front of him. I didn’t have any such luxury.
Shortly after that, I prayed again. It was a terrible Tuesday morning, and as I stood in my living room, shaking and screaming and crying, watching the horrific images flash before me, I prayed as hard as I could; echoing the prayers of millions of people around the world.
“Please come and help us.”
The second tower came down anyway, despite the prayers of millions and millions. Evil won the day.
After that, whatever vestige of faith that I had left, vanished.
I never returned to the bible-study group.
There were prayers after that, but faith has remained elusive at best; proof of course, has been non-existent, but the fact remains, most of the rest of the world believes in something James, you are in the minority.
So what do they know that I can’t seem to find? How come when they ring the doorbell, the door gets opened, but I’m continually standing on the porch, waiting in the rain like some unwanted guest?
Which brings us to today, March 20, 2020. This planet, the one we call earth, is caught in the grips of a global pandemic. I’m sure you’ve heard about it. A new strain of virus is making its way across the globe, infecting people by the tens of thousands, with predictions of millions, if not billions more to come. Some call it a hoax, some call it a plague, like the ones of biblical lore, sent from the heavens to smite those who displeased the God of the old testament.
Is that what this is? I wondered as a lay in my bed at 2am, staring out into the darkness, much like the 5-year-old of 1970.
Truth be told, part of me thinks that man deserves a plague of this nature. In man’s lust for power and money, in our collective greed and gluttony, we have lost whatever integrity we might have once had. Rather than conserve resources, we exploit them for every dollar we can suck out of the planet. We are practically worshiping the Golden Calf.
Rather than seeking to help each other, as we saw on 9/11 and after Katrina, and Sandy, we line up at box stores to hoard goods that we don’t need, denying it to those that do.
Maybe we do deserve a plaque, one that seeks out the evil among us, smiting those who have offended God. I’d be ok with that.
But that’s not how it works. For as the bible says:
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”
“He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
I’ve always been angered by those passages. It made me question, what’s the point of doing the right thing if you’re just as likely to get cancer as the child murderer or the politician who sells his stock holdings on the eve of a pandemic? If only the plague was called “justice”, then maybe my faith would be restored.
It was with these questions in mind that I stared out the window last night, wondering;
What do those of faith think of this? Does it make their faith stronger, or does doubt creep in, like a ghost, whispering in the night.
I have no answers today, only questions. The same questions I had as a terrified 5-year-old waiting in the dark for his mother to come and comfort him. I’m still that same boy; a little more cynical, but still questioning.
Feel free to respond. I’ll do my best to listen.
Peace, and be safe.
And wash your hands.