Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Power of Prayer

My mother is very religious. For years, she was a church organist and a very good one too. I learned to play the organ from her and still love organ music. But other parts of religion proved problematical for me. Namely, how to deal with a God that likes to use lightning bolts as a communication device.

My mom was aware that I had some significant problems with this and she would try to explain, when I was less than eleven years old, how Christianity works. "You pray to Jesus because he died for you," was her take on the matter.

"God killed him with lightning?" asks the child.

"No. He died on the Cross and was resurrected", mom explained. I thought about this. I think I died, too, and what is more, I came back and wondered if I was going to be hit again.

"Is Jesus the only one to do this?" I asked cautiously. She explained about Lazarus. No lightning in that one, either. I decided to riddle this out alone. The minister of our church was pretty hopeless. He didn't even want to understand this lightning stuff was vital life and death information for this child at that time.

Mom gave me my own Bible when we were in Scottdale, after I survived my million mile march home from that distant bus stop. I read it avidly. After only a few chapters in Genesis, I had serious problems which needed explaining.

"Mommy, why did God kill all the animals except for two of each?" I asked, innocently.

"Because they were bad," said my mom.

"But they are just animals. How can they be bad? What did they do that was bad?" I inquired.

"Go play with your sisters," said mom wisely. This is code for "figure it out, yourself". So I did. God is irritated easily. He lashes out. He likes to use thunderstorms, even to the point of drowning those he doesn't hit with lightning bolts. This made me very uneasy. Surely, there has to be a way to deal with this.

So I asked my mom for help. "Mom, can Jesus stop God from doing things?" I asked, not knowing the hideous implications of this theological line of thought.

"What do you mean?" she asked, blanching.

I got no answer again.

As I read the Bible over the years, my unease grew more rather than less. I kept this up, doggedly, trying to riddle what religon means. This deadly God had to be placated through various means. I tried every one of them. I was a good girl, except when I got into trouble doing things like hanging upside down on the monkey bars while wearing a skirt. Or throwing rocks a boys. Little stuff. Nothing happened to me aside from adults yelling. So I figured, maybe my nightly prayers to Jesus was working. During the ferocious summer violent downpours, I was scared but put on a brave face, knowing I was no longer a target of a vengeful God.

I could then concentrate my spiritual energy on merging with trees or trying to phase out and walk through walls and talking to animals. The talking to animals was very successful. In fact, easy. Talking to humans...much more difficult. Most humans didn't want to talk to me much. I thought adults would love to discuss philosophy and the meaning of divinity with small children.

My grandfather, a well known astronomer like my parents, was the only person who would talk about these matters. He hated Christianity with a passion. When I explained that Jesus was going to save me, he said, "Oh, really? Next time you get hit by lightning, you will see."

"I won't get hit again", I said defiantly.

He snorted. "Quite a few members of our family have been killed by lightning bolts", he said.

Even as an adult, I find that hard to accept, but it is true. In a bookstore in Vermont, I showed a Victorian book from 1875 which was about strange families. I said, "My ancestors are in this book." I looked up some names in the index. Yes, they were there. For example, "The Steeles are very strange people. During thunderstorms, terrible things happen to them."

Grandfather Edison once got mad at me. I was sleeping over at his house in Pasadena and he let me sleep in his observatory. A very fierce thunderstorm hit LA. A lightning bolt hit his observatory. He came outside and went into the dome room and yelled at me. "Can't you leave them in Tucson?"

Tucson. If you ask for "photos of violent lightning in a dramatic setting" you will get page after page, picture after picture of Tucson during thunderstorms. Naturally, when I was hit by lightning in Wisconsin, this is where we moved. My mother told me, "Just sit on the furniture with the glass casters or wear your rubber boots", when storms inched closer. This, I did, most of the time.

My dad's most favorite thing to do in summer was chase thunderstorms. We would pile into the GM SUV, one of the first in America at that time, in the late fifties, and go rambling around the Tucson desert, chasing thunderstorms. "Wow, look at that bolt of lightning", was one of my dad's favorite lines. I loved this. He told us, "We are safer in a car than in a house", and this was certainly true, I was never hit in a car. Only in buildings.

The Arizona desert is beautiful in the rain. The smells intoxicates the nose. The noise of the rain water running over the hard earth is musical. The colors of the desert cacti and the complex mountain landscapes glow with vivid beauty. Truly, if there are gods, they appear when a desert storm passes.

As I grew up, my parents allowed us to come to them at night during thunderstorms. As the one who seldom really slept and who had a very morbid sensitivity to thunderstorms, I was usually the first to seek shelter with them. As the years passed, I began to relax and think, it would never happen again.

Then I turned eleven.

It was a very dark night and there were many thunderstorms roaming around Tucson, bellowing at each other like rival Tyranosaurus Rexes. The landscape strobed with the lightning strikes. I sat by my parents, watching it all through the sliding glass doors to their bedroom.

Suddenly, I felt something walking up my arms. It shivered over my legs. I could barely breathe. The smell of ozone increased. I knew that smell. My teeth began to clack. I realized, my entire family was in grave danger. So I said, "I have to use the bathroom", and I jumped off the bed and ran to the bathroom. I put my hand on the lightswitch when everything exploded and my hand was encased in a ball of blue and white knitted energy. A lightning bolt had struck the power box outside the bathroom wall and some of it penetrated the cement blocks, the cement between the blocks was chemically altered.

I was knocked across the hall.

Nothing my parents could say could make me feel good about things now.

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