Monday, February 14, 2011

Money For the Gods

The Rigel spent the summer months criss-crossing the Mediterranean.  Upon that great inland sea of the Roman Empire, she hauled cargo after cargo to seaport after seaport on a seemingly unending series of short voyages that covered relatively few miles but touched on a wide range of cultures and nationalities.  One of the most fascinating bodies of water in the world, the Mediterranean, the Mare Nostrum of the ancient Romans, held the promise of both something old and mysterious and something new and mysterious at every turn.  A battleground for many centuries of human history, the great Mediterranean was fought over by the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome as well.  Just as the civilizations that the ancients established have never become completely extinct, neither have their deities.  On the contrary, they found an admirer aboard the Rigel.

James James had come aboard the Rigel in Norfolk.  A colorful character, he sailed as second mate.  With his disheveled shoulder-length mop of salt-and-pepper hair, his food-stained gray beard, his freshly wrinkled grease-stained khakis, and his ever-present cigar that jutted out from his brown teeth, James James looked every inch the professional American Merchant Marine officer.  Originally from the Pamlico Sound shoreline of North Carolina, he had studied physics and engineering at Harvard University, and shortly after graduation decided to go to sea.  Aboard the Rigel, he was regarded as the smartest man on the ship.  This was a fitting accolade, for he really was extremely intelligent.  He had been educated in both the sciences and the humanities, was conversant in several languages, and could read Greek and Latin.  He also maintained lively interests in history and classical music.  On long bridge watches he would often hum the great symphonic masterpieces to himself.  Much of this music was religious in nature, yet religion was a subject that he wrote off as complete nonsense.  In an ironic twist of character, then, James James would entertain himself with Handel’s Messiah or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and simultaneously mutter about the folly of the human race in inventing something as ridiculous as religion.

But he did do one thing religiously.  As the primary navigational officer aboard the Rigel, James James was always very concerned about the state of the weather.  In addition to depending on the scientific methods of forecasting the weather, he relied on a very ancient practice of ensuring good weather for the Rigel’s voyages.  Essentially, he bought good weather.

Almost daily, James James would stride across the wing of the bridge, gaze fiercely upon the sea, extract several coins from his pockets, and with great drama throw them overboard.  The coins would catch the wind and tumble edge over edge into the water making small but distinct splashes.  They would be left behind to sink to the bottom of the Mediterranean as the Rigel plowed inexorably on to her next destination.  This small sacrifice having been made, the ship would enjoy smooth sailing through a calm sea under a sunny sky for the next day or two.  Then it would be time once again to render another payment unto the gods in order that the good weather and the smooth sea would continue.

When asked about this practice, James James was always happy to explain.  He would hold forth on the necessity of appeasing the gods for good weather for the safety of the ship and its crew.  But, he would always add, one had to do this intelligently or else it wouldn’t work.

“The gods are very particular,” he taught.  “You need to give them something, but you don’t want to throw in too much.  A few lire, a few pesetas, a few escudos, some drachmas.  You can even give them some American money, but nothing over half a buck or they’ll think you’re trying to buy them out, and they don’t like that.  They’ll get mad at you then, and they’ll send you bad weather instead of good.  But don’t throw in too little, either.  Then they’ll think you’re a cheapskate.  The gods are very sensitive that way.”

“What gods?” Someone challenged him once.  “You don’t even believe in God.  Why do you do this?”

“This is different,” James James retorted.  “The safety of the ship is at stake.”

This point made an impression.  Thereafter it became common to see one or two other fellows thoughtfully tossing coins into the water as well.  None followed this practice as religiously as James James, although one did come close.  That was Schnickelfritz, the cadet.  He was a student at the New York State Maritime College and was assigned to the Rigel for the summer for his apprenticeship.  James James worked closely with this young man to teach him the ways of the sea, and the financial appeasement of the gods formed an important part of his training.  Often on overcast mornings, James James and sometimes Schnickelfritz as well would dutifully throw a handful of coins overboard.  Within an hour, the clouds would part, the sky would become a clear blue, and the sun would shine down upon the Rigel for the rest of the day.  When this happened repeatedly, it went a long way toward convincing a largely uneducated crew of the brilliance of James James’ methods.

Captain Viera, however, was not fooled by any of it.  He was every bit as intelligent as James James, and he believed in God—not the Roman gods or the Greek gods, but the real God.  He watched and smiled as his conscientious second mate threw several coins overboard one sunny and clear afternoon.  “This poor guy!” He exclaimed, laughing.  “He’s throwing all his money into the water.  We’d better have good weather now, or all that money will be wasted!”

The Rigel did enjoy good weather that summer, but not because of James James’ contributions to the gods.  The fact is that the Mediterranean is a mild body of water.  Storms only occasionally arise, and they are short in duration.  The Rigel experienced once such storm.  It was intense, but it was over quickly.  When asked how this could happen after all the money he had donated to the gods, James James exclaimed, “I must have thrown in too much!  Now they’re mad at me!  I’ll have to give them less next time!”  And he did.  After the storm subsided, he went out on the leeward bridge wing, carefully counted out some coins, and tossed them overboard.  The rest he put back in his pocket.  Never make the same mistake twice.

            James James’ protégé, Schnickelfritz, continued to be intrigued by this practice, however.  One weekend the Rigel lay idle at a pier in Napoli with no cargo to move and almost no work for the crew to do.  Several of us decided to ride the train up to Rome early Saturday morning for a weekend visit.  On the way, the weather looked very unattractive for a day of sightseeing.  As the train got closer to Rome, the sky became increasingly dark and threatening.  Then it started to rain lightly.  Finally, as the train reached the outskirts of Rome, Schnickelfritz decided that he should do something about the situation.  Opening a window, he withdrew several lire coins from his pocket and flung them outside and onto the adjacent railroad tracks.  The rest of us watched and waited.  After ten minutes at most, the train came out of the rain and overcast.  A bright blue and sunny sky opened up.  When the train arrived in Rome, not a trace of clouds or rain remained.  The rest of the day was gorgeous, and we wandered around Rome warm and dry.  James James’ method had triumphed again.

Of course, we all know that the rain stopped not because Schnickelfritz sacrificed money to the gods but because the train, travelling north, passed through and then out of a weather system that was situated south of Rome.  And of course, we all know that there’s a better way—tithing.  A very simple and straightforward principle, tithing carries with it the promise of blessings not from arbitrary and capricious gods who don’t exist but from a real God who loves and cares about his children.  Despite his obvious intelligence and his Ivy League education, James James unfortunately did not know this.  We who do know this, however, can depend on it.  

“Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse,” we were instructed anciently, and then challenged: “and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of Hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (3 Nephi 24:10).  In more recent times, when this law of tithing was reactivated, the Lord further explained that “those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually; and this shall be a standing law unto them forever” (D&C 119:4).  So tithing will not go away, and neither will the blessings that follow from it.  In my own experience, these blessings have proved invaluable and have included basic but important things such as better employment, better budgeting, and better food storage.  Also, more abstractly, these blessings have included an improved and less materialistic outlook on life and a sense of satisfaction born of supporting a good cause, i.e., the Church and all that it does for people.

In all fairness to James James, I did not know any more about the law of tithing in my time aboard the Rigel than he did.  But I did realize that all that money sitting on the seabed did no one any good whatsoever.  He would never have given it to a church, of course, but if he insisted on throwing his money away, it would have made more sense to donate it to a secular charity where someone would have benefitted from it.  Money, after all, is like everything else in life.  No one has an infinite supply of it; therefore, it must be used wisely and not wasted.  Paying a full and honest tithe is the first step in the wise use of money.

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