Category Archives: Friendship

Spicy Encounter?

Hello Sound

Reaching the Currituck Sound in record time, we drove across the bridge, and I posted a picture of the waves on social media with my husband’s traditional greeting that still makes me laugh, though he’s been saying it for more than twenty years:  “Hear the Sound?”

(He also asks for a burger and fries at the ATM machine, but that’s a story for another time.)

As we neared the Duck sign that marks the turn to our street, I dug into my purse for the keys to our favorite place to relax.

Just as my fingers found the keys, Matt said, “Hey, look at that.”

“What?” I asked, looking up but seeing nothing unusual.

“There,” he said, gesturing to the delivery van in front of us.

And there it was—the image for my favorite Outer Banks Seasonings—a lighthouse surrounded by blue waves in a circular frame of golden yellow.

He grinned as the imaginary beams from the lighthouse logo lit up my face.  “You want to follow him?” he asked.

“Yes!” I exclaimed.  But I thought he was teasing me.  Born in the city, he is not one to speak easily to strangers on the street.  He’s grown used to his wife’s propensity to engage in gregarious conversations with strangers, but he’s not one to actively pursue a person he doesn’t know.

But he passed our turn and focused on the van, saying only, “I hope he isn’t going all the way to Corolla.”  Matt knew how much I loved those spices.  I’d been buying them for ten years, and one year I even bought them to put into a holiday gift basket for each of the secretaries in my office.

But the spices had recently disappeared from the shelves of the local seafood market.  I’d searched the Internet and found them only available in, oddly, the Duck Post Office.  I’d sent Matt to the post office, but he came back empty-handed.  For almost a year I’d been unable to find them.  I still have one bottle of garlic pepper on my spice shelf, but my favorite, Pamlico Bay Seasoning, was emptied months ago.  Matt has heard me mourn its loss every time I make Maryland crab soup, as I whine about the fact that ordinary bay seasoning just isn’t as good.

Luckily, the driver stopped at one of Duck’s most famous visitor sites, the Duck Deli, a little cottage that was once the only restaurant in town.  Matt found a rare parking space in front, and I jumped from the car and hurried toward the van, waiting for its driver to come back from the kitchen.

The driver returned, opened the door of the van, and tossed a bread rack into the back.  My face fell when I saw no spices in the van.

“Hey!” I said.  As he turned and looked at me warily, I hurried on, “I love those spices!  And I haven’t been able to find them in months.”

I blurted out my story, and he began to smile.  He introduced himself to me and told me that he and his son had recently opened Proof Bakery and that I could get the spices there—that they had changed the packaging.  When I told him how much more I liked his spice blend than that more famous seafood seasoning from Maryland and how my crab soup hadn’t tasted the same since, he laughed and told me that he was originally from Maryland, too.  He gave me his business card and invited me to visit, laughing when I told him my name.  “Well, now, that’s a mouthful of name, isn’t it.”

I laughed and promised to pay the bakery a visit.

“So did he think you were a stalker?” Matt asked as I slid into the passenger side of our SUV.

“Nah.  We’re in the south,” I grinned and told my husband the spicy story of my encounter.

Had we seen that delivery van at home, where a few years ago two snipers alleged to be in the same sort of van terrorized our residents for months, we would never have considered chasing the Spice Man down.

Don’t talk to strangers.  It’s the mantra we use to protect ourselves and our children.  But when I think of all the friends who started out as strangers to me, I’m reminded again that nothing is either/or.  We live in a both/and world, and sometimes it’s worth the risk to talk with a stranger.

And as we turned onto our street and drove toward the water, the Sound was perfectly silent.  But I could hear it, just the same, reminding me that life happens in the in-between.

So tell me your stories of silent sound.

Ordinary Time?

Whatever Clock

A reminder from a friend that time is never ordinary

God feels distant—not absent, just a little farther away.  It’s okay, really, because the church bulletin last Sunday assured me that this is 25th week in Ordinary Time—one of those everyday weeks that isn’t part of Lent, Easter, Advent, or Christmas.

Twenty-five weeks of Ordinary Time so far this year—that coincides almost exactly with the number of weeks since I lost a close friend who died unexpectedly.  Easter came about a month after he died, and for that week, God felt a little more accessible in the rituals and reminders of why I practice my faith.

But in those weeks of Ordinary Time, when I usually feel a Presence hovering, I’ve struggled.

Are you there, God?

Of course, I hear.  But the sound is muffled.

I go to my women’s circle meeting, where we have two new members.  Both are grappling with why God would take their children—a 16-year-old son and a 26-year-old daughter.

Another member is exhausted from a string of debilitating challenges.  She rages at God, asking why, and in the next breath talks of how God used her to bring comfort to a teenager she barely knows.

When one woman apologizes for crying, a long-time circle member who recently lost her mother reassures her.  “It’s okay.  You get to cry here.”

I learn today of another member of the circle who lost her mother this morning.  I learn from social media that my friend’s 15-year-old daughter lost her grandfather, who was 92.  That wouldn’t be such a tragedy if this 15-year-old hadn’t lost her mother, my friend, last September—in the middle of Ordinary Time that was anything but ordinary for a girl who lost her mother.

In the face of their pain, I feel ashamed that I haven’t regained my balance yet from losing two close friends in a year.

I talked this week with an acquaintance who grew up in a faith tradition similarly rigid to my own childhood tradition.  After the devotion of her early years and the anger of her young adulthood, she chose meditation as a way of finding peace.  Like me, she’s living in Ordinary Time right now—and ordinary is satisfying.

Both of us acknowledged that when life is good, we tend to feel guilty in the presence of people who are in the midst of challenges.  And a little hesitantly, we admitted that when we’re loving life, there is a part of us that is frightened, that keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop—for that moment when we lose everything to a tempest too awful to contemplate.

I suspect we aren’t the only ones who are better at forging ahead when times are tough than we are at accepting the grace of life’s gifts.

One of today’s lectionary readings comes from Psalm 143:  “Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me…” (7)

It falls among some of my favorite psalms that speak of a God who is gracious and merciful, who executes justice for the oppressed and feeds the hungry, who heals the brokenhearted and wounded, who gives refuge in the shadow of his wings.

I stand in awe yet again that, though the world has changed much in the thousands of years since these songs were written, human beings have not.

How is it that God executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry?  God doesn’t rain down manna from heaven these days.  But when people come together, it’s our wings that provide the shadow to a person in need until the storms pass by.

How is it that God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds?  When I’ve been brokenhearted and wounded, it’s the people who’ve helped take care of me who’ve helped me glimpse the face of God again.

So, yes, all of us have times when God feels distant and maybe even absent.  But when we flail, it’s the strength of others that can help us feel the Presence of the Spirit that is in us all.

This I know.

And maybe, if I keep reminding myself, one of these days I’ll get better at knowing and accepting the grace of the Ordinary.

Tell me your stories of the Ordinary, the Extraordinary.

What is Communion?

Dali Last Supper

Salvador Dali’s The Last Supper, National Gallery of Art

Today marks the six-month anniversary of my friend Wayne’s death.  My family will gather with his wife, his son, his mother, and a circle of close friends to place the marker and remember what Wayne meant to each of us.

My husbands’ parents are buried in the same cemetery, one where the gravestones are all at ground level for ease of grounds-keeping.  Rich and poor, black and white, Christian and atheist—all become anonymous and equal to everyone except those they’ve left to mourn them in this suburban cemetery.

After our remembrance, we will break bread together at Mary Beth’s home.  Both masterful cooks, Mary Beth and Wayne prepared every recipe with energy and creativity and served the meal to their family and friends with equal measures of love and merriment.  Both adhered to the principle that their guests should walk away satiated and carry home enough for another meal.

Their style of cooking was very different from my own.  If we had four people to dinner, we made four steaks and four baked potatoes.  Not so in the Waits-Whigham home, where leftover steak became the protein Mary Beth ate for breakfast the next morning.  While I always followed a recipe the first time and varied it only on the second try, I watched them pour spices into their cupped hands and sprinkle it with a shake of the hand that looked like a gambler readying to roll the dice.

But the gamble never resulted in a bad meal tossed onto the table.  On the other hand, Wayne never let me live down the time we were on vacation and I made white-bean chicken chili that tasted nothing like the chili made by the person who gave me the recipe.  It was the only time in 20 years of friendship that Wayne stood up from the table and strode to the refrigerator in search of something else with the pronouncement, “I ain’t eatin’ that sh#@!”

I secretly agreed with him, but there was no way I was going to let him know it.  I ate the chili.  So did everyone else at the table, including our two very picky-eater children and their friends.  At the end of that meal, my husband, who doesn’t like to cook but doesn’t at all mind the clean-up, headed to the dishwasher without his usual compliments to the cook.

Usually, though, Wayne smacked his lips and pulled away from my table with satisfaction.  Over the years, no matter which of us cooked, the guest would bring some specialty that was a favorite of the host.  And though Wayne usually turned down dessert in favor of the main course, he often came away from the table saying, “Man, for some white girls, you sure can cook!”

I’ve missed those meals.  In our grief, we haven’t been able to bring ourselves to get together in quite the same way.

Though Wayne wouldn’t want to admit it, Mary Beth and his son Chris can probably replicate most of his recipes.  In fact, when she was on vacation a month or so ago, Mary Beth made Wayne’s famous barbecue sauce, giving it just a bit sweeter flavor than he liked to make.

And, Wayne, it’s delicious.  You’d be proud of her, as you always were.

As I’ve looked forward to our meal together this evening, I’ve come to understand that this is what communion means.  Too often, we think of communion as that small piece of bread we dip into the wine at church.  We enjoy the ritual, but we think little of what it means to commune with people who in their humanness may have let each other down or hurt each other’s feelings since the last meal we shared together.

We are so different, those of us who will break bread together today.  And it is precisely those differences that make the family we’ve created so wonderful.  We will gather in our friends’ home to laugh and cry, to eat and drink, to offer grace and share our love.

As I picture Wayne looking down at us today, I’ll be thinking about him sitting at God’s communion table and talking animatedly, hardly giving any of those other disciples a chance to get a word in.  He’ll tell the story of that chicken chili, but he’ll also brag about the wife and son he loves and the diverse friendships he has temporarily left behind.

So I’ll treasure the joyful eating and drinking and fellowship.  As we say in the Apostle’s Creed, we’ll celebrate the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  And I’ll understand that this is what Christ really meant when he told the people at his last table, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Just War?

Ash and Friends Sketch

Frantic, I herded my daughter and her closest high school friends into a cove beneath high, perfectly trimmed hedges, surrounded by blood-red geraniums that were at odds with the smoke that was beginning to turn the sky a dull gray.

“No, not in there!” my neighbor shouted.  “That’s the first place they’ll target when they see people running from the street!”

She had served in the military, but this was the first time I’d seen her carry a gun—the kind with a magazine of ammunition that until now I’d only seen in war movies.

Pointing the muzzle of the gun in the opposite direction, she gestured with the barrel toward the beautiful brick mansion, painted white, that I’d always admired on my morning walks.

Thankful again that I’d become friends with someone so different from me, I allowed her to herd my precious young people toward the house.  She opened an unlocked door and directed the children inside, her eyes darting from them to the smoky sky.

Just as she gestured me in and reached to pull the door closed, a flash of fire exploded near the hedges, and I thanked God for our precarious safety.

My daughter and her friends stood in a huddle in the center of what appeared to be a giant ballroom as my neighbor sprinted toward the first of a series of tall windows that ran from ceiling to floor.  As I hurried toward the children to wrap them in my peace-loving arms, my neighbor reprimanded me.  “Help me close these drapes!”

I woke up panting.  “Oh, God, oh, God!  Thank you!”

Reaching over to lay my hand on my husband’s arm, I touched flesh to assure myself that I’d only been dreaming—playing out my anxiety about chemical weapons and the safety of the children I love, now all adults.

I had no doubts about the catalyst for my subconscious imagination.  For weeks now I’ve anguished over the situation in Syria.  I’ve watched horrifying images of dead children lined up in rows, their skin melted.  I’ve read countless articles by pundits who argue both the merits and the pitfalls of engaging the U.S. military in another country’s civil war.  I’ve read posts by friends, nieces, and nephews my daughter’s age who rage against U.S. involvement.

They remind me of another war in another time, when I was the precise age they were in my nightmare.  A high school student who watched footage of napalm attacks in Viet Nam, I wore the bracelet of a soldier whose plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.  He and his pilot spent nearly six years in captivity.

Lieutenant Gary Anderson came home alive on my birthday in 1973, and I sat in front of the television and cried as he walked down the steps of the plane.  And in one of those crushing ironies of life, he died three years later in a military training exercise.

I still remember his name.  I still have the silver bracelet.  I remember feeling just the way today’s young people feel—helpless in the face of leaders in whom we have little trust.  Wearing that bracelet and watching college students demonstrate seemed all that I could do to protest a war that seemed far away from the bucolic town where I grew up, knowing no one personally whose boots marched the ground in that jungle on the other side of the world.

Certain then that we were not fighting a just war, I wish I could be so certain now.  Last week I posted a question I was asking myself—wondering whether future generations would ask, as my generation has asked about the extermination of the Jews, How could the world stand by and watch the slaughter of innocents?

Instead of finding certainty, I read about the complexities of the conflict—that many of the slaughtered are jihadists and the children of jihadists.

But they are children.  And many of the adults are innocent of any wrongdoing—parents who likely feel as helpless to protect their children as I felt in that vivid nightmare.

I don’t know where the answer lies.  I know that if enemies come for our children as they did in my dream, I want someone to be able to protect them as my neighbor did when I had no idea how to wield a weapon.

I do trust President Obama in a way that I did not trust Richard Nixon.  Our president seems sincere.  He’s smart.  He’s willing to anger the people who voted him into office if he thinks what he’s doing is right.  And come what may, I don’t think we’ll hear him say, “I am not a crook,” only to learn later that that, too, was a lie.

And I find myself hoping that Secretary of State Kerry’s remark about what Syria can do to avoid war was anything but an off-the-cuff remark.  I’m willing to grant our leaders some secrecy and some carefully calculated political dissembling if it leads to diplomacy that resolves this conflict in a way that allows everyone to save face.

Some loving parents’ precious children are dead.  And I can’t quite get past feeling that the murderers should pay.  But at this point I’ll settle for bringing a world together to ensure that the perpetrators don’t have the means to use chemical weapons again.

President Obama, members of Congress, I’m willing to wait a few years for you to tell me a story.  Just not the kind of story my mother meant when she was trying to get at the truth and insisted, “Now don’t you tell me a story!”

Tell us a story that isn’t a lie.  A story of how you tried your best to do the right thing.  A story that will make us believe in you again.

Can Literature Save a Life?

Harper's Ferry Statues

Literature saved my life.  Not in the way science saved my life when I had Stage 3 cancer.  But, nonetheless, literature saved my life.

I wish I could point to a single dramatic moment when it happened—like that moment when I lay on the gurney, my body marked up by the two surgeons who would take me apart and put me back together in their eternal faith that they could give me life.

Watching as they scribbled on my skin and explained to my family and me what they would do in the next six hours as I lay in an anesthetized slumber, I had a fleeting thought about all the times I’d marked up essays and explained what needed to be done to bring the writing to life.

That was nearly ten years ago, and in that time I’ve come to understand that the doctors gave my body life.  But it was up to me to live.

I marvel at the advancements in science that have changed the face—and the force—of cancer.  But even more, I look at the stars and the moon now with more of a sense of awe.  I revel in the feeling of ocean waves lapping across my feet.  I treasure the time I spend with the people I love.  Like most people who survive a life-threatening experience, I’ve learned the difference between existing and living.

Literature has always helped me live—has always made my life about more than mere existence.

During a childhood marked by poverty, I traveled to other places long before I left the state of my birth for the first time the summer after ninth grade.  In a culture where religious practice was limited to evangelical Christianity, I understood the stories of people of other faiths.  In a town completely lacking in racial diversity, I talked with writers of other races who spoke to me from the printed page.

Nikki Giovanni dances forth as the most powerful memory.  I read her poem “Nikki-Rosa” in a literature class, which begins, “childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you’re Black.”  Though I was not black, Giovanni’s images, which could have come from my own early childhood, gripped me.  Like me, she had spent part of her childhood in a house with no indoor plumbing, and she took baths in “one of those / big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in.”

I remember closing my eyes after I read the first few lines, picturing the toilet in the back yard of a house we lived in for a few months when my father lost his job, thinking of my own baths in an aluminum tub in front of the open stove in the home my parents rented when Dad got his job back.  I opened my eyes and read on to discover that Giovanni and I also had in common that we had a father who drank, a sister we loved, and happy memories of birthdays and Christmases.

But I also learned from Giovanni that we were different and that those differences can loom large and make us angry at people we don’t even know—and maybe especially at people we don’t know.  She ends the poem by saying, “I really hope no white person ever has cause / to write about me / because they never understand…”

My blood rushed to my head and I held my breath when I first read those lines.  I was furious.  I felt as if she had lured me in with the secret story of the childhood we shared and then punched me in the gut.  She had hijacked my childhood and relegated me to a world of white people who couldn’t possibly understand her “hard childhood.”

When I could breathe again, I considered what might make her regard white people in such a way.  And in the days and weeks that followed, that poem sang in my head, and I began to understand that just as I didn’t know anyone who shared Giovanni’s skin color, she probably didn’t know anyone of my skin color who grew up in a house like her own.  And as I read more about her, I came to understand her a little better.

I also began to read more literature written by people of other cultures, and when I moved out of the state and became a teacher in the very diverse D.C. suburbs, I knew my students of color in a way that I would not have without Giovanni and Hurston, Allende and Anaya, and others.  And I understood that even the students who shared my skin color were often strangers to me.

Books are never a substitute for experience.  But great books can make a person who owns only a library card into a world traveler.  Great literature can lure us out of our comfortable co-existence into a jubilant celebration of the life we share on this planet.

Yes, literature really can save a life.  And in a time when we’re too often angry at those we don’t understand, perhaps literature can even save the world.

So tell me a story.  When has a great writer lured you into life?

History, Myth, or Story?

Kennedy Center

Engraving on the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

I love stories.  And this week I was reminded again of just how important stories are to us.

I live in an “active adult” community.  I used to laugh to my younger friends that I could only live here because my husband’s age qualified us.  But now I, too, am over 55, and refer to all of us with affection as “the old folks’ community.”  I love it here because it’s the friendliest place I’ve lived since I moved from the small town of my childhood.

We moved here because the community lay just outside the congestion of the DC suburbs—close enough to drive in for the wealth of activities a city provides but far enough out to see the stars at night and to go for a walk in the early morning without seeing another human being.

This week our social committee arranged for us to take a small bus into the city to the Kennedy Center to see The Book of Mormon, a highly irreverent musical by the creators of South Park, about our penchant for attempting to create God in our own image.

I squirmed a little at the language—especially when the profanity was directed toward a God who allows pestilence and disease.  But I haven’t laughed so hard in a very long time.  I never watched South Park, but I knew enough about it to know that I’d be seeing an outrageous satire about the way we humans approach our faith.

My favorite line appears near the end of the musical when the first convert has become disillusioned by the flaws in her bumbling hero’s faith.  One of her neighbors says to her—and I may not have the line verbatim here—You didn’t really believe that sh#*that a man f—d a frogdid you? It’s a METAPHOR!

After reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot the week before seeing this play, I belly-laughed at that line.  For anyone who’s avoided reading about the controversy surrounding Dr. Aslan, he outlines what scholars know about the history of Jesus the man and draws the conclusion that Jesus the Christ is a myth.

And while I found Dr. Aslan’s line of reasoning thought-provoking—and not in any way an insult to what I believe—I have to say that I was more drawn to the story of Parker, Lopez, and Stone, the creators of The Book of Mormon.  It doesn’t claim to be history, and it pokes fun at the myths we create.

In short, it is a story—a story that makes much the same point as Dr. Aslan—that we human beings tend to see God in the image we want to see.

On the bus ride back home, I reveled in listening to the reactions of my fellow active adults.  Some were quiet, and I wondered whether they had known just what they’d see on that stage of joyful characters.

The chatter I enjoyed most came from the couple sitting behind my husband and me.  On the ride to the theater, we had talked with them about their tennis game and their children, and I’d listened to their constant stream of conversation with each other.  Though they are in their 80s, both are still vibrant, and they truly enjoy talking with each other.  I had whispered into my husband’s ear earlier that I hoped we’d still have as much to talk with each other about when we were their age, and my husband had responded that he hoped he could still play tennis.

On the return trip they talked about the language in the play, and though I’ve never heard either of them curse, they didn’t seem at all offended by the license of the playwrights in regard to profanity.  And then my neighbor talked about the play in terms of his own life.  “I used to cuss a lot, even after the kids were born,” he said.  And then he launched into a story about when he finally learned to reign in his tendency to blurt out a stream of expletives.

I smiled.  That’s what I love about literature and story.  We can’t read or hear stories in a vacuum.  We bring our own lives and experiences to the world that story opens up to us.

And, ultimately, our lives write the story of the God we want to believe in.

So tell me your story.

Do Unto Others?

Osprey Family

Osprey Family, Duck, North Carolina, 2013

Last summer our grandson, then four-years-old, came to stay with us for the first time.  His parents were working long hours to open a dental practice, and they grudgingly consented to allow us to fly him from Denver for an extended summer visit.  We shared him with my husband’s ex-wife, and for several weeks, he enjoyed two trips to the beach and visits to nearly every kid-friendly attraction in the DC area.

A picky eater, our grandson had learned to try new things, much to the delight of his two grandmothers.  When I discovered he loved my homemade blueberry muffins, I sent him back to his other grandmother with some of them.  She told him he could have one after dinner, and when she couldn’t find them, she discovered that he had hidden the container underneath his bed so that he could have one whenever he wanted.

For most of the visit, we had great fun, and when one set of grandparents needed a break, the other stepped in and took over.  But near the end of the visit, all of us were tired, and our grandson was more than a little homesick.  One morning at breakfast, I made pancakes, a food he had always loved, but this time he wailed, “I don’t want pancakes!”

My husband tried reason, and when that didn’t work, I knelt by his chair, at eye-level with him, and said, “Honey, you love pancakes.”

He said nothing.  But as I waited, he pursed his lips and pushed the tip of his tongue through just slightly.

At first, thinking he was going to stick his tongue out at me, I stifled a smile.

But then he began to push spittle through his lips and with a slight Pfft, he spat just enough to land the spit in the space between us.

“Honey!  Would you like it if Nana spit at you?” I asked.

To my dismay, he worked up more drool and spit again, this time a little farther but still just short of hitting me.  While I had to admire his aim, I had no intention of allowing him to work up the courage to spit a third time.

And for the first time in the long visit, my husband and I went into parent-mode instead of grandparent-mode.  My husband picked him up from the chair and put him in time-out, and the ensuing battle exhausted all three of us.

Before it was even dark that evening, our grandson asked to go to bed.  My husband helped him brush his teeth and change into his pajamas and then retreated to the kitchen to clean up the dinner dishes while I helped our grandson choose a bed-time story.

But before we started reading, he looked up at me, his lips trembling slightly.  “I’m sorry I didn’t treat you the way I want to be treated, Nana.”

I hugged him to me and thanked him for apologizing.  And I realized that he had actually heard all those times that I had reasoned with him using some version of the Golden Rule.

I thought about my grandson’s behavior a lot this week.  I had my feelings hurt on two separate occasions, once by a colleague and once by an acquaintance on social media.  I’ll spare you the details, but in one instance the Golden Rule eventually prevailed, and in the other, it did not.

Someone who knows me well said to me—not for the first time—that I “take things too personally.”  And I do.  In fact, I’m not sure how not to.  I try very hard to treat others as I would like them to treat me, and when I fail, as we all do at times, I’m usually pretty quick to apologize.

Though I have to work a little harder at forgiving someone who doesn’t employ the Golden Rule, I believe there’s a reason that concept is expressed not just in Christianity, but in every major religion.  Here are some of my favorites from other faiths:

One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts. (Yoruba proverb)

One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire. (Hinduism—Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8)

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn. (Judaism—Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

As we prepare for our grandson’s summer visit next week—a much shorter one than last summer—I look forward to seeing how a year has changed the way he approaches the world.  And I’ll remind him, as I sometimes need to remind myself, that our love and care for each other is the true story and that all the rest is commentary.

So tell me a story of your baby birds.

Have Unspeakable Doubt?


“I’m not all that sure I believe in the virgin birth.”

“Really,” I said, raising my eyebrows in surprise.  “Why not?”

Not an unusual conversation, certainly.  But close your eyes and picture one of those silhouettes on a news show, speaking in a voice that’s been digitally disguised to protect the identity of the speaker.

“Well,” said the silhouette, “that’s not exactly something you say if you feel called to be God’s minister in the world.”

I smiled a rueful acknowledgment and waited.  I don’t know how many others this minister confided in, but even now, years later, I feel privileged that this person I respect so much was honest enough to admit to questioning the faith we share.  It is one of the dialogues that has shaped my own faith journey.

I thought of this conversation again today when a friend of mine called and asked how I was doing.  She knows that I’ve been wrestling with why God suddenly took a close friend who was making a difference in the world and yet left my mom in a nursing home, trapped and confused inside a body debilitated by two strokes.

Having had the wind knocked out of me by my friend’s death three months ago, I have regained some equilibrium.  For me, it always helps to dump the unanswerable questions on the floor and wade through them with people I trust to understand.  I told my friend that my only certainty sometimes is that the Spirit is in the muck with me.  I study the holy texts of my faith every day, as best I can in my limited understanding.  Ultimately, I’ve decided to leave the details of what happened 2000 years ago and what will happen after I die up to an unfathomable God.  I can’t control either of those things, so I’ve decided that I will live my life as abundantly as I can for as long as I can.

“Funny you should mention control,” my friend responded.  She shared that she heard a sermon at her church recently where the minister explained that we must give up control—and that it’s not in our nature in the modern world to give up control.  She said, “So what am I supposed to do—quit my job and sit on my butt and wait for God to put food on my table?”

I laughed.  We both knew how ridiculous that sounded and that that isn’t what her pastor meant.  And like all human beings, we understand the struggle to find balance in a faith full of contradictions.

She laughed.  “I do struggle with that.  You and I are going to have to sit down over a bottle of wine some time and talk about all the questions.  I just don’t get why things like Sandy Hook happen.  And if God doesn’t answer our prayers to keep that from happening, why do we pray?”

“I know,” I said.  “For me, all I really know is that praying somehow brings me closer to that Spirit that is in us all.  And I know that every single time I’ve cried out, I’ve felt that Presence, and I can’t chalk that up to coincidence.  And when I cry out, I’ve seen the face of God in the people who love and comfort me.”

We both admitted that we pray we are never tested in the way the Sandy Hook parents have been.  It’s hard to breathe when I think about that.  Would I still cling to my faith?  I honestly don’t know, and I pray that I never have to find out.  But I do know with certainty that if the unspeakable happened, I’d see the face of God in people of any faith and no faith who would gather ‘round me and wrap me in their arms, just as they did ten years ago when I had cancer.

Today’s lectionary reading is the passage from the Book of Acts where the apostles choose a replacement for Judas.  And do you know how they do it?  They cast lots.  I’ve read that passage many times, but it is only recently that I really paid attention to that detail.  These men—who have seen Jesus perform miracles, who should understand God better than any of us ever will—ultimately leave the decision up to chance.  I chuckle.  And I suspect I’m not the only one who finds humor in the stories of ordinary human beings in the face of the uncertainty.

I think again of that silhouetted minister, admitting doubts just as Thomas did and spending a lifetime in search of the answers–and along the way, being the face and hands and feet of God in the world in spite of all the personal doubts.

And I wonder what would happen if we allowed our ministers and our leaders and ourselves to voice the unspeakable questions that—if we’re honest—we all ask.

Speak.  Tell me the stories of your own questioning.

A Mother’s Day Bargain?

Ash's Grad

I once made a Mother’s Day bargain with God.  Well, we didn’t exactly shake on it, but my heart was in the right place, and I was thinking about that whole ask and you shall receive thing, so at the time I thought it was a deal.

My daughter was three years old, and my marriage to her father had ended.  I was still in that angry stage—where almost everything was his fault.  We promised to be amicable for our child’s sake, agreeing to share custody but to have her live with me.  The dissolution of our marriage was surprisingly civil because we both adored our child.  But in my head I believed that I was the only one who could help her navigate the tortuous path of childhood.

I pleaded, God, just please let me live until she’s an adult!

And I did.

Pretty pleased that God was keeping the bargain, I looked forward with joy to my daughter’s senior year in high school.  The year began with all the excitement of senior year and college visits and planning for her future.

But just before Homecoming, at the beginning of October, I realized that the lump that I had long felt in my breast—the one that had never shown as anything on my yearly mammograms—wasn’t just another of those lumps I felt all the time.  I had once said to my doctor that I did self-exams but that my breasts always felt lumpy to me.  She told me she understood but that I should keep doing them because one day I might feel a difference.

And I did.

But not until it had time to grow much larger than the others.  I went to the doctor, and she ordered a mammogram and a sonogram.  The sonogram showed that it was cancer, and by the end of October of my daughter’s senior year, we knew it was early Stage 3, and I began a course of therapy that would end two weeks before my daughter graduated.

I was terrified.  Yes, the cancer was scary.  But even more scary was the thought that God was calling in the chips on the mom’s bargain I had made when she was three.

I didn’t tell anyone my fears for a couple of weeks.  As my daughter and my husband kept assuring me that I was going to be fine, I had a sinking feeling that I was done for.  I thanked God for keeping the bargain and asked for the strength to get through what lay ahead.

Finally, on the night before the surgery, just before I fell asleep, I turned to my husband and told him why I was so terrified.  He listened quietly while I sobbed and told him about my deal with God.

Then he hugged me to him and made me laugh for the first time in weeks.  “Honey,” he said, “I think you’re confusing God with a character in ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster.’”

Now for those of you who don’t remember that story from your literature classes, Stephen Vincent Benet tells of a farmer who, after a string of bad luck, sells his soul to the devil.  When the devil calls in the deal, the farmer is defended by a fictional version of one of America’s most famous lawyers, Daniel Webster, who bases his defense on the fact that the farmer is an American while the devil is a foreign prince.  The devil points to numerous examples of his presence and citizenship on American soil, and so Webster argues for all the beautiful things, ending with “the new day that’s every day when you’re a child.”  The jury sides with him, and Webster twists the devil’s arm behind his back and makes him promise to leave the farmer alone.  He also asks the devil to tell him his own future, and the devil tells him all the disappointments he’ll face.  Webster just wants to know whether our country, in spite of all its flaws, will prevail, and the devil grudgingly admits that it will.  Webster laughs and kicks the devil out of the farmer’s house.

On that night as I prepared for the loss of so much, I prayed a very different prayer than I usually prayed after my husband reminded me that life isn’t fiction.  I thanked the Spirit for a presence with me in the muck and asked for courage for myself and my loved ones who would take this journey with me.

It’s been nearly ten years since the night I offered that prayer—a Mother’s Day I didn’t expect back then to see—and over twenty years since I thought I was making a bargain with God.

On this Mother’s Day, I offer a prayer of thanks—for the chance to see my daughter grow up to be not only a fine young woman but a wonderful friend.  And unlike that Mother’s Day so long ago when I thought I was certain about the nature of God, I’m thankful, too, for the opportunities to learn that I’ll never have a Mother’s Day when life is a crystal vision of clarity.

Tomorrow after church my daughter, her boyfriend, and my husband will make brunch for me, and we’ll spend some time savoring what it means to be a family.  And I’ll thank God for whatever bargain landed her in my arms almost 27 years ago.  It’s a bargain I can’t even begin to understand but one that fills me with awe and joy.

So tell me of your grand bargains.