Monday, May 23rd, 2011

"Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart"

Yesterday morning we woke up here on Earth and got dressed for church. Our youngest daughter, who is in year two of a dogged princess phase, wanted to wear a particularly awful pair of costume shoes, hot pink heels with little tufts of fur at the toes. “I think you should wear other shoes,” I told her.

“Mommy said I can wear these!”

“It’s true, I did,” Alia said.

“I just don’t think she should wear h-o-o-k-e-r shoes to church,” I groused.

“I’m trying not to fight with her about this on weekends,” Alia said.

“I know, I know.”

“It’s not the end of the world," she said.

It was a glorious morning. We sat on the left side of the sanctuary because on sunny days the right side gets snoozily hot. I’d been wondering if we’d have a rapture-themed sermon, perhaps congratulating us on our common-sense progressivism and poking gentle fun at those who think they can count off days through the Old Testament and declare the End Times nigh.

But it was Confirmation Sunday, so four nervous-looking eighth-graders delivered the sermon, one at a time, reading statements about what church means to them. Some stumbled their way through ill-prepared notes that went nowhere; others proclaimed with the polish of well-trained Forensics geeks. (“Some other words for faith are acceptance, belief, and trust.”) As you might expect from a group of uncertain 15-year-olds, though, the unifying theme in the four messages was that none of them—none of us—really know who or what God is, or Jesus, or faith, or the spirit.

We stood for the hymn, No. 265. I sang the first two verses on autopilot—just plain-vanilla 19th-century hymn action—but something about the third verse caught my attention:

Teach me to feel that you are always nigh.
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear:
to check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

As the organ faded, Pastor Hank stepped forward. Hank, the jovial youth and family minister, is a former camp counselor who still gives off the air of someone who just dropped in to teach everyone how to make friendship bracelets. He’d spent the past year teaching the Confirmation students, and was clearly moved to be leading the service in which they’d be ushered into the congregation. It was time for the prayers of the people.

“Ever-living God,” Hank began, “we have a number of prayers for friends and family in need today. But first, let us pray for those who feel this weekend that their faith has let them down.”

I looked up. Hank’s head was not bowed. His ruddy face was solemn. “We don’t all believe the same things,” he said, “but we all know what it’s like to have our faith shaken. Let us prayerfully be with those who don’t quite understand what God is doing.”

The day before, a small crowd had gathered in front of the Oakland headquarters of radio doomsayer Harold Camping. “There were atheists blowing up balloons in human form, which were released into the sky just after 6 p.m. in a mockery of the rapture,” the LA Times said. And: “Someone played a CD of ‘The End’ by the Doors, amid much laughter.”

And for much of the day, my Twitter feed was a cornucopia of rapture humor, much of it very witty. “I feel fine,” one friend dryly noted. But the net effect of so many people writing on the same topic meant that jokes (Blondie, raptors, Randy Savage) got overplayed, and the overall tone was aggressively mocking—a roomful of comedians one-upping each other to belittle the morons and hysterics who’d wrapped their lives around the notion of apocalypse.

As the weekend closed last night, I was reading about disappointed believers when my mom called, frantic with worry. The town where her brother lives, Joplin, Missouri, had been struck by one or more gigantic tornadoes, and reports were coming in that swaths of the city had been leveled. “Can you look on the computer?” she asked. “I don’t know if Mike lives near that hospital that was destroyed.”

After I did, and we hung up, I Googled the hymn from that morning, ”Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” Rereading the second verse, which I’d sung unthinking the first time around, I found it Midwestern in its modesty: We ask God to make himself known, to descend upon our hearts, but want to make sure that he doesn’t put himself out too much.

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no opening skies;
but take the dimness of my soul away.

A few minutes later, my mom called back. Mike was okay, she said. He’d called his brother Ed and told him that he’d taken cover in the bathtub, only to see his whole house blow into the sky above him.

“The bathtub?” I asked in disbelief.

“That’s what Eddie said,” my mom said. The edge of panic had not yet left her voice. “Maybe it was, you know, it was attached to the plumbing or I don’t know what.”

What did those believers hope to see on Saturday? Tractor beams from space? Pneumatic tubes to Nirvana? A whirlwind, sucking them into the clouds? The struggles their souls now had to bear were unthinkable to someone who kept his beliefs hazy and inchoate, perhaps in order never to risk disenchantment. I heave the rebel sigh every day, of course, dissatisfied with my extremely satisfying life, but do not often feel that rising doubt.

My uncle Mike was born in Wisconsin over seventy years ago. As a teenager, I thought of him as sort of the loser uncle, the one who lived with his parents well into middle age. To my great shame it wasn’t til much later that I realized that my grandparents weren’t really taking care of him, even if that was how my grandmother saw it; he was, of course, caring for them, and he did until the end of their days. My grandparents died just months apart, and are buried together in Joplin. Mike, left behind, built a new life without them. I haven’t seen him since the funerals.

Some other words for spirit are air, breath and wind.

When the storm came last night, and the fingers of cloud descended from the sky, Mike faced it alone. I wonder what it was like, watching his house break apart and scatter across the earth. I wonder what he saw, crouched in that bathtub with his life swirling around him. The opening skies? The angel visitant?

Dan Kois is probably watching "Phineas and Ferb" right now.

37 Comments / Post A Comment

gumplr (#66)


David Roth (#4,429)

Yeah, really beautiful stuff, Dan Kois.

sunnyciegos (#551)

I have sometimes wondered at the aggressively mocking anti-faith diatribes, how they must affect your thoughtful just-trying-to-do-good Midwestern-type Christians, a tribe I used to belong to before moving east. Thanks for this really nice, subtle piece, Dan.

Bittersweet (#765)

@sunnyciegos: We take a deep breath, and smile, and continue just trying to do good.

(Loved this, Dan, thanks so much.)

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@sunnyciegos I can tell you how I as a thoughtful just-trying-to-do-good Williamsburg-type atheist feel like every time I read about something that anyone said or did "from the position of an atheist" (even if it's just playing a song by The Doors): like I've put my hand on something sticky on a handlebar in the subway – eww! I don't want any of it sticking on me.

this is really lovely — a thoughtful, soulful piece.

barnhouse (#1,326)

So beautiful, thank you. Also I really hope you will come back and tell us exactly what it was your uncle saw, when you find out.

Murgatroid (#2,904)

@barnhouse I'd rather leave it be not knowing.

But yes, thanks for this, Dan. Really beautiful writing.

C_Webb (#855)

This is really lovely, and makes me wish I could get over my childhood crazy church enough to go to nice normal church.

(Also, as the mother of two girls … there's such a fine line between "princess" and "hooker," isn't there?)

Mr. B (#10,093)

You wrote all that this morning? I'm impressed and jealous, especially with the ending, which is like something out of Yeats.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

PS – the bathtub is where you're supposed to take cover in a tornado if a basement is not available.

GailPink (#9,712)

It was nice of you to let your daughter wear the pink shoes to church.

Annie K. (#3,563)

Oh just excellent and beautiful and perfectly done.

roboloki (#1,724)

this was wonderful and i found its simple beauty more inspiring than a thousand sermons i endured as a youth. thank you.

Phil Koesterer (#2,708)

I have something in my eye.

deepomega (#1,720)

Wonderful stuff. My bright line for comedy is novelty – is someone telling a joke I haven't heard before? That hasn't been told before? The rapture bullshit failed this test very very quickly, which left it in the same category as jokes about cab drivers who don't speak english and jokes about pedophile priests. (I ended up not going to a party because it was "rapture themed" and I didn't want to put up with that shit for a whole night.)

iantenna (#5,160)

@deepomega the only good rapture joke to show up in my facebook feed last week was "the only rapture jokes i wanna hear are ones about the band."

What a beautiful column, Dan. It's tempting, as an atheist, to allow myself to be sneering and dismissive of the people who believe in angels, devils, and judgment day. Thanks for inspiring a little compassion.

SeanP (#4,058)

@Jeff Scherer@facebook My problem (and it's undoubtedly a character weakness of mine) is that as hard as I try, I can't summon up a lot of sympathy for the rapture crowd. Yes, I understand they're probably hurting right now. I also understand that they're hurting because they were expecting themselves to be saved, while getting the satisfaction of seeing the rest of us cast into eternal torment. And not just "expecting" it – actively looking forward to it. So although I won't be rude to anyone's face, I won't be shedding a lot of tears privately either over the suffering of the poor religious whackjobs.

Aatom (#74)

They're still morons and hysterics, by and large, but this was a lovely piece.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Aatom: By and large, we all are.

Aatom (#74)

@deepomega fair point.

I am a non-believer, and this wonderful text has moved me to the point of tears. On Friday I reposted funny articles on my facebook account, and one or two silly jokes. Saturday was spent mostly offline, doing family stuff. Sunday morning I actually stopped to think about those whose worldview had just crumbled the night before, and I felt for them.

Graydon Gordian (#3,206)

Thank you for this, Dan. It was lovely.

hockeymom (#143)

Thank you.

Dave Bry (#422)


Also, and feeling sort of related in tone, I want to see "The Tree of Life."

lily bart (#4,656)

I'm sending this to my Mom, a Protestant pastor who taught me that the answer is usually compassion.

Edith Zimmerman (#5,210)


Tulletilsynet (#333)

The ending is good enough to be made up by a genius. Liked this better every time I read it. Thanks.

Annie K. (#3,563)

@Tulletilsynet I know, I kept reading it too. I just read it to my husband. Dan just nailed it.


It's so good to be reminded to be compassionate.

Craig Brownson (#4,257)

This is just so terrific.

carpetblogger (#306)

this is quite nice. Thanks.

Kismet182 (#12,962)

I wish my prayers will be heard too!!!!! :(

BobbyJim (#1,942)

Are you really suggesting that "aggressive" atheists don't sympathize with the people who've been conned by Harold Camping? Give me a fucking break. People gave up their homes, their life-savings, their jobs—even their lives, in some cases. In a fit of apocalyptic terror, one woman slashed her daughters' throats with a boxcutter before turning the blade on herself.

With your glib, self-satisfied tone, you pat your congregation on the back for being "gentle" with the apocalypse-believers and you tut-tut us for loudly, angrily mocking Harold Camping? You criticize disbelievers when you're forced to look at the destructive results of too much belief? I find that deeply, deeply insulting.

The louder we all mock this apocalyptic prediction, the less victims there will be when the next one comes around—this October, as it happens.

There are true believers who are already too far gone, who are not going to change their minds one way or another. Of course they have our sympathy. But their beliefs should be mocked—loudly—lest other people get the idea that their dangerous, destructive ideas are legitimate and credible.

I despise Harold Camping and I openly mock the apocalypse in the same way that I despise and mock, say, pyschics. And I sympathize deeply with the people who psychics take advantage of—people who have lost loved ones and given all their money to those con-artists in desperation. And you know what? Loudly, aggressively mocking psychics and mocking belief in psychics is a great way to delegitimize the "craft" and prevent more victims. But I suppose you'd be tut-tutting me for being so uncaring to psychics' victims. No mockery, please! That "belittles" the victims.

Perhaps we should write more self-satisfied little articles that gently ponder (and not-so-subtly glorify) the tragic beauty of their victims' tenacity of faith. Because that's not "belitting" at all.

Oh fucking brother!

zorica (#4,135)

@BobbyJim I didn't get the feeling this writer was scolding non-believers and I didn't read this as a piece proclaiming what faith should be. I felt the author intended it to be an exploration of how difficult and slippery a thing is faith and how frightening it can be to live with it OR to live without it. I don't think there was an admonishment implied in the piece. Of course I could be wrong about that, but I'd be interested to hear what draws you to that conclusion, because I don't see it.

As for apologizing for the crazies . . . it's a hard issue. I don't believe in "letting things go" that are cuckoo, especially not if they are harmful or have the potential to be. But I also very deeply don't believe in ridicule and mockery as a curative tool, mostly because I don't believe they fix anything. Shame can be an effective controlling force but I don't think it fixes the underlying problem, it stifles behavior but the motives for that behavior, once suppressed, will only find outlet elsewhere. It's an age-old pattern and I've seen it over and over again in my own life and history. Controlling people with fear of being laughed at creates hard, cold edges in a person's life and eventually they cut themselves some place or other. Essentially, I think mockery and shame are a form of violence, just not a physical kind, and I really believe in non-violence not because I hate violence (if you've ever had a sleepover with me you'd know how much I enjoy a no-holds-barred wrestling match) but because I don't think it works in a lasting way, and I do think if it works, that no matter what it works in a way that sows the seeds of future problems. It leaves people feeling wronged and wanting revenge on some level or other, and next year's problems are begun.

But I think you have a point about not tolerating craziness, because it is dangerous and allows people to cross lines in ways that are impossible to defend. But I don't think that mockery is the way to confront it, especially not where there is "strong belief" at play, because one of the best ways to prove that you really believe something is to hold fast to it in the face of mockery. If we're going to destroy something insidious I think we need to undermine it at the roots, and I think the roots of craziness in the name of faith comes at least in part from a deep disturbance about the safety and protection provided (or rather, not provided) by our government. I don't think socialized countries have anywhere near as many crazy cults and religious blindnesses (yes they have them! But in my experience living in Europe for several years, craziness in the name of religious fervor is much more fringe than here) in their political system because there's this idea that when they get sick NO MATTER WHAT the state is going to take care of them. They don't need to prove blind faith to something irrational so that they have a miracle in their back pocket to help if their kid gets cancer. Their faith is free to be bestowed not out of desperation but out of true belief.

But I don't think this piece was about what anyone "should" or "shouldn't" do, it was about the personal journey of one's own faith, and a quiet acknowledgement that it's that same journey that takes some people toward things that seem absurd and others toward things that seem flippant and others toward things that seem pathetic, that we're all in the ocean whether we're swimming, drowning, or clinging to driftwood and trying our best to fashion it into some kind of boat.

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