Wednesday, May 25, 2011

the Las Vegas god


At first, all goes well.
He marries an outstanding woman, he invests money wisely, he becomes a millionaire. He makes international news early on when he hands Mother Theresa a check for for fifty million dollars. “My tithe,” he laughs.
All the Christian talk shows want to interview him. “God made me rich,” he tells them. “I give the good Lord the credit. There are certain universal laws that God has laid down. Provided you go along with them and don’t commit any violations, God will bless you. It’s as sure as gravity. And we’re not just talking about spiritual blessings, as important as those are, of course. We’re talking about the material world. The Lord knows we need money. He used money when he was on the Earth. He had flesh and bones to feed. He had to put clothes on his back. He needed money. So he gives us money too. My favorite Bible verse is that one where Paul says, ‘My God will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory.’ Yes, amen. My own life proves the truth of that. I made my first million selling pews to churches. Now that’s a fact.”
James Oscar Buttering; his face on TIME, NEWSWEEK, and CHRISTIANITY TODAY. A model home. A model wife. A model car. All postpaid from God.
He played God the way some men play VLTs or the machines at a casino. He reasoned that if he pumped in enough prayers, enough worship services, enough charity and tithe money, sooner or later God would come across with paydirt - the right business merger when Buttering needed it, the right car, the right solution for a critical family problem. He was not an insincere man. He considered that his tithing and his church attendance and his humanitarian deeds were investing in God - he expected a return on his investment. And God always came through. He was not only practical with his blessings but dependable. You might even say predictable. You live holy and give God ten percent of your income and don’t swear or smoke and sure as the sun would rise God would fix you up like the Prince or Princess of Wales on their wedding day. He had another favorite Bible verse, “Come unto me all you that labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” but he always misquoted it, saying instead, quite innocently, “Come unto me all you that labor and are heavy-laden and I will give you the rest.”
But troubles will attend even the most rock-solid investment. And after you’ve lived a while you know, as William Shakespeare said, that troubles prefer to travel in bunches, they like to keep each other company. So it was for James Oscar Buttering.
First it was his wife. She left to find herself. Then it was his home: half his children wound up on drugs and the other half disappeared. Then it was his car, or at least one of his cars - it broke down, utterly fell apart, on his way to work. When he finally got another limousine out to where he was stranded on a traffic-jammed freeway, it was only to pick up his car phone and learn that oil prices had plunged, ruining a third of all his investments. But not to worry. Diversification. Unfortunately, the troubles had learned all about diversification themselves.
A revolution the government had sworn to him would never get off the ground did, destroying his coffee stocks. His airline went bankrupt. South Africa froze his diamond assets. His fleet of luxury liners all went down in the same harbour on the same day due to a freak out-of-season storm. He couldn’t collect on the insurance because none of his vessels was carrying coverage for that kind of storm. “It wasn’t an act of God,” said the broker, “it was a typhoon, and as you see, clause F.4 specifically rules out coverage in the event of a typhoon.”
By the time James Oscar Buttering got to his office, it was all he could do to push through the reporters, the stock brokers, the government officials, the politicians, the bank managers, and last, but not least, the lawyers, and get into his private washroom to take the rumpled, sweat-stained shirt off his back - the state in which James Oscar Buttering remained the rest of his life. Peeking out behind the washroom door, he wondered that there wasn’t a clergyman or two on hand in the crowd to administer last rites. There wasn’t, but they showed up soon enough.
It was a week later and James Oscar Buttering had just finished lining up at the food bank and he had his feet up because they hurt like blazes. He had a cold room in a warehouse with a hot plate and a seaweed green fridge. He had been living on macaroni and Libby’s beans for five days and was resting a bit before he got back on his feet and started to boil the macaroni for the required seven minutes. His thumb was bandaged, sliced open on a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, a low calorie can, as a matter of fact. James Oscar Buttering still had enough left in him to snicker at someone’s concern for the poor’s cholestrol intake. He’d forgotten what butter and eggs and red meat looked like and he’d already lost thirteen pounds.
The clergymen, however, three or four of them, had not lost any weight in a long time. In fact, they were quite plump - a sign of grace according to James Oscar Buttering’s pre-bankruptcy theology. All of them had known him in his earlier life. Now they sat around on such things as they could find to sit around on. They coughed and smiled and mentioned the weather. Finally, they got to the point: Did James Oscar Buttering want to pray?
“Not particularly,” said Buttering.
The clergymen exchanged glances. One of them leaned forward.
“James,” he said, “this mess won’t straighten itself out until you lay it all before God and ask for forgiveness.”
“Me?” snorted Buttering. “Why should I be asking God for forgiveness? God should be asking me.”
That started it. The clergymen began to accuse Buttering of arrogance and blasphemy and of having a cold heart towards God. They probed for the sins that had led God to punish him with his bankruptcy. When he answered one, another immediately began to argue with him.
“You have said it yourself a thousand times,” they cried. “If you are good and holy, God will take care of you and bless you. But if you break God’s laws in some way you can expect trouble and a miserable life. Isn’t this what has been happening to you?”
“I did nothing wrong!” Buttering raged. “I did no sin. I never shirked any of my responsibilities. I went to church. I tithed. I prayed. And this is how God repays me. He ruins an innocent man. I loved God but where has it gotten me? You think I’m corrupt, my former business colleagues sneer at me when I shuffle by in the streets, people look the other way when they see me sitting in the park, even children call me names and throw things at me. This is how God rewards his friends. I shouldn’t have wasted my time being so good and religious.”
“Ungrateful man!” the clergymen responded. “After all God has done for you!”
“God was just playing with me the way a cat plays with a bird,” snarled Buttering. “He was setting me up for the fall. Now I’m here, right where he wants me. God betrayed me!”
Buttering made a fist and raised it towards heaven, shaking it, his face clenched in anger.
“Who do you think you are?” roared Buttering. “Who do you think you are?” Prayer can be an interesting thing, for certainly, shouted as it may have been at the top of his lungs, what Buttering had uttered had still been a prayer. We often pray because we were raised by our parents to pray, or because the Bible and the minister say we ought, or because it makes us feel good inside, or because we’re desperate. Whatever prayer means or doesn’t mean to us, we certainly would be surprised to realize God was actually listening, God, the Maker of the worlds, the Spirit beyond time and beyond earth. Imagine if God talked back. There we are, mumbling something over our chicken and salad, and a voice comes back at us out of thin air.
In this respect, James Oscar Buttering was very little different from any of us. Prayer was fine, but there was work to do, and even Jesus had said he had to be about his Father’s “business”. So James Oscar Buttering had prayed dutifully and worked heartily and when he raised his fist to God and raged it was, if not exactly rhetorical, certainly a personal indulgence, a venting of his emotions. He did not expect an answer. He got one.
It is difficult to relate exactly what happened. Talking to the clergy about it later, they merely glanced away and muttered a few indistinct phrases. James Oscar Buttering would nod and sometimes smile and say things like: “I looked into my soul.” Or even worse: “I looked into God’s soul.”
Apparently, what had occurred was this: As James Oscar Buttering shook his fist at the sky, or to be precise in this instance, the warehouse ceiling, a voice came crashing out of the rafters, “I am not a Las Vegas slot machine, James Oscar Buttering.” Then, instead of the usual Hollywood pyrotechnics, a breeze fresh with the smell of earth, and forest in the rain, and salt sea blew through the warehouse. Nor was the voice a bass.
What God said in that warehouse full of wonderful breezes and scents went something like this: “I’m not your good luck charm. I do not fit into your wallet with your credit cards. I am not a bank. You do not find me in toy stores. You do not find me in pet stores. You cannot put a leash on me. I do not do tricks. I am not for sale. I am not a Pisces or a Capricorn or an Aquarius. You cannot predict me. I am not your employee. You cannot hire me. I do not answer to your laws. I do not answer to you. I am, James Oscar Buttering, the living God, and you are not my equal.”
When I was piecing all this together, I looked Buttering up. He was hoeing a modest squash patch behind his small home. He had remarried and his children, one still struggling with an addiction, lived with him and his new wife. It had been an extremely warm fall and a thunderstorm was coming on. It was that still and calm half-hour before it broke that we talked, he leaning on his hoe, I leaning against the white picket fence.
“I’ll tell you what came out of it,” he said. “We hear a lot about wife abuse and child abuse these days. We even hear about animal abuse. But we never hear about God abuse. I was using God. I couldn’t take him as he was. I could only have a relationship with him if he was the kind of God I would be if I was God. He had to measure up to my standards. He had to be my “yes” man. Or he wasn’t worth having. I’ve learned since then to get to know him. I’ve learned to value him for who he is, not for what I can get out of him.”
Buttering died a few years later of leukemia. The pain was intense. I visited him once in hospital and his face was shriveled and far away. He was muttering under his breath. Then he looked up at me. “I am angry about this disease,” he whispered. “At the warehouse God told me he had answered me because it was the first time I’d been honest with him. He said he could handle criticism and he told me to keep it up. I have.”
I was the only one at the cremation. His new wife had lost interest in him when he had contracted his illness and his children were living their own lives in other parts of the country. I kept the urn and buried it in my garden to see what would grow over it. But I kept a handful of ashes in my pocket and climbed a hill near my home. I threw the ashes into the air and the wind snatched them, sifted them, and carried a few of them off. It seemed appropriate.

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