Tag Archives: Who is God?

Have You Got This, God?

Wayne and MB

Wayne and Mary Beth

We were supposed to retire and write a book together.  It was going to be called Black and White: A Friendship, and it would have alternating chapters in two voices.  My chapters would be the serious ones, since I am terminally thoughtful.  Wayne’s were to be the lighthearted ones.  For as long as I’ve known him, he has joked about writing a book called My Life with the White Peoples, and it was to have chapters called “Hair” and “And They Call Us Cannibals.”

But Wayne’s gift was the spoken word—he filled the room with laughter and light.  I don’t think he ever had plans to actually write that book, but watching his eyes dance as he talked about it was a delight to me.  And when I started talking seriously about co-authoring a book, his wife Mary Beth, one of my best friends who brought him to me as a bonus friend, said, “Well good luck with that.  He can’t sit down long enough to write a book.”

I met Wayne when I was 36, my daughter was six, and I was newly married to my husband.  I had been offered a job as head of the English Department at Parkland Middle School, and I quickly became friends with his generous and gregarious wife, who was head of the Special Education Department.  When she went home and told him she had a new friend named Estelene, he asked, “Is she a sister?”

No, I wasn’t an African-American sister, but in the twenty years we’ve known each other, Wayne and I became what he has variously called his “soul sister,” his “West Virginia sister,” and his “sister by faith.”  We look at our Christian faith through very different lenses and accept each other’s views because we know each other’s hearts.

Yearning to get away from Washington’s sweltering summers, Mary Beth’s parents bought a small house on the Cacapon River near Berkeley Springs in West Virginia when she was a child.  Magnanimous in sharing their blessings with others, Mary Beth and Wayne could hardly wait to show me their little piece of my home state, and they quickly invited us to spend a weekend with them and their son, who is two years older than my daughter.  We rarely allowed my daughter sweets, so Wayne promptly invited her to go down to the little store at Stony Creek and bought her Sour Patch Kids and a bag of chips.  I can still hear his belly laugh when she showed them off to me, already open and half-eaten.

And thus began a friendship that enriched my life in ways I can’t begin to describe in the space of a blog.  For you to really know Wayne, I’ll have to write that book alone, and even then I don’t think I could begin to tell you what a profound impact he has had on my life.  Our families have gone to the beach together nearly every spring break since we met, and when my husband and I bought a condo there, it became one of Wayne’s favorite places to spend a vacation, even though it didn’t have a television with a 60-inch screen.

Wayne told me just last week that he might just buy his own TV and bring it down to our place the next time he came.  It wouldn’t be this year.  Wayne was preparing to have knee surgery and in the tests leading up to the surgery, the doctors decided he had a small spot in his colon that needed to be taken care of first.  And so I told him that my husband and I could use some time with just the two of us this year anyway because our jobs have given us so little time together in recent months.  I worried that his feelings might be hurt, and he responded, “Estelene, what kind of a friend would I be if I didn’t understand that you need some time alone with your husband? You go on and enjoy yourself.  And you make sure Matt gets lot of attention.  You know what I mean?”

I laughed and thanked him for his great big heart.  And then the conversation turned serious, and he told me he was scared about the surgery.  He’s had some issues with his health and his heart in the last year. I brushed his concerns aside and told him that he was going to be fine—that we were going to be around for a long time together to write that book—but that I’d be praying for him all the time, just to be sure.  In a reflective tone that I had been hearing a lot in recent weeks, he said, “I’ve given this to God, and I know that God’s got this.”

We texted yesterday morning, just before they took him down to run some tests because he’d been having difficulty breathing during the night.  He told me he was tired and was going to rest.  An hour or so later I texted his wife so that I wouldn’t wake him, and told her to tell him that I was praying for him and envisioning God’s healing hands hovering over him.  I hit send, closed the door of my office, and bowed my head to pray that God really did have this.  And even then, I didn’t believe the prayer was necessary.  But in those hours when I had no idea his great big heart was failing, I offered a prayer in complete faith that Wayne would be okay.

When I shared this with another close friend today, he said to me, “I don’t talk much about religion or God, and for the most part I really don’t think it’s possible to say what God has in mind. What I believe and feel is . . . well, what I believe and feel. We are small and imperfect, and the mysteries of Heaven are unfathomable. I have faith and hope, and most times I have these in abundance.”

I think he’s probably right.  But I believe the power of stories can help us glimpse the face of God.  And I’m thankful that Wayne and I have travelled some chapters together.

Have you got this, God?  “Yes,” I hear Wayne saying, “We’ve got this.”

Control a Meteor’s Path

After Hurricane Irene

On Friday we earthlings had a crashing reminder of how little of the universe we can actually control when a meteorite, estimated to be about 50 feet in diameter, slammed into a sparsely populated area of Russia.  For the first time in history, the event was captured in a multitude of videos and posted on the Internet almost immediately.

All weekend the news outlets have swirled with explanations and comparisons to past meteor hits.  The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History reported a significant uptick in the number of people visiting to view the meteorite collection.  Geologists interviewed on weekend news shows championed the importance of government funding for the study of minerals embedded in meteorites—most too small to catch the attention of anyone other than scientists.

Of course, attention also turned to the biggest rock of all—the six-mile wide asteroid that left a 150-mile crater off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago.  According to a PBS report—and most scientific studies—that unexpected chunk of space junk produced so much dust that it darkened and chilled the earth.  And when the dust settled, the greenhouse gases produced by the impact caused temperatures to sky-rocket, and the two extremes killed 70% of Earth’s plant and animal life.

At the same time that the tiny piece of rock created chaos in Russia, scientists also had their eye on another much bigger asteroid passing within 17,000 miles of Earth.  And every news outlet acknowledged that, as powerful as we human beings are, should such an event happen today, we could do nothing to stop it, just as the dinosaurs could do nothing to prevent their extinction.

Now for a worrier like me, all this hoopla could have shifted my anxiety into high gear—enough to send me over an emotional cliff.  This time, though, the event coincided with Lent, when I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what the crucifixion means for me in this life and the next. Born into an extended family of evangelicals who filled my mind with the horror of a fiery hell, I was taught that my only measure of control was complete surrender to a God of angry vengeance.

As an adult, I’ve chosen a faith that focuses more on God’s grace.  But it’s taken me a lifetime to put away the fear and anxiety of having so little control.  And now I understand that, for me, focusing so much on the afterlife robs me of the now-life—a sometimes harrowing but mostly joyful journey through an astonishing world.

Writers have been telling us this since the advent of the printed word. Harper Lee’s Miss Maudie described in To Kill a Mockingbird a group of Christians who are so preoccupied with the next world that they’ve forgotten how to live in the present world.  Emily Dickinson wrote that immortality was “So huge, so hopeless to conceive [that] / Parting is all we know of heaven, / and all we need of hell.”

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll try harder to leave the afterlife to God—that I’ll think about it less and make the most of the gift of this present life.  I can no more control how much time I get to have between this known life and that other unknown life than I can change the trajectory of an asteroid that may come crashing into our planet.

But as I focus on the meaning of Lent, the example Christ set for how to live in this world, I understand that I’ve been given a pretty good model.  He broke bread and drank wine with his friends.  He allowed himself the luxury of having his tired feet anointed with expensive oil, even though self-righteous people criticized him for it.  He never forgot the least among us—doing what he could in the time he was given to make a difference for someone in need.  And he found time away from the needy crowd to center himself and commune with the Spirit.

Not a bad example, is it?  Even if you don’t share my faith.  Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife.  Even if you worry about that meteor that might come crashing into the Earth.

So come walk beside me now.  Tell me your stories of the joy of this present journey.

What Lens Helps You See God?

Creche

On my last day of work before the holiday, a colleague sat at a meeting trying not to cough on those of us at the table with him.  He apologized in advance if any of us end up sick on Christmas, which everyone else celebrates.  He’s Jewish, married to a Christian, and his family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah.  His children were sick for part of Hanukkah, and it looks now as if he and his wife will be sick on Christmas.

I shifted my chair a little and laughed nervously.  “I’ve only had one cold in the nine years since I had cancer because the nursing staff taught me to wash my hands fanatically during chemo.”

He smiled and shifted his chair back from the table a little.

“Hey,” I said, “I even use that antibacterial lotion at church after the passing of the peace.”

Another colleague, also Christian but from another denomination, asked, “What’s the passing of the peace?”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise but then realized that the evangelical church of my childhood didn’t engage in this ritual either.  “It’s a point in the service when you shake hands with others in the congregation and say, ‘Peace be with you,’ and they answer, ‘And with you.’  Some people in our congregation don’t even shake hands during cold and flu season,” I explained.  “I do, but then I use hand sanitizer because the nurses taught me to do that during chemo.”

“Wow,” he said, “then you don’t even want to know how my church does communion.”

“How’s that?” I asked, fascinated as always by the traditions of others. “Do you use a common cup?”  He nodded.  “But doesn’t the priest wipe off the chalice between congregants?”

He shook his head.  “And it’s not a chalice.  It’s the same spoon.”

“Hmmm,” I said, tilting my head to think about that.

We went back to work, but I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation in the past 24 hours.  Yesterday evening one of my Facebook friends vented about gun control.  Though my daughter tells me it’s useless to discuss politics on social media, I responded, since my friend and I respect each other and sometimes come to understand each other better when we tell the stories that led us to have the views we hold.  But one of his friends went on a tirade about how we wouldn’t have such a violent world if we went back to having school prayer.

Many of my friends who are far more reasonable than this person agree with him.  But after 30 years in the classroom, I understand, in a way that many of my friends do not, what that would ask of children who are not Christian.  I think particularly of two girls on the debate team I coached who were Muslim.  Debate meets went on for hours, and we always scheduled these two girls around their evening prayer time.  Very quietly, they would go to a room that we had set aside for them and pray as their faith demanded.  They made no one uncomfortable.  They simply observed the tenets of their own faith quietly, without fuss or show.

In my entire life, I have not known a single Christian who is so devoted to prayer as were these two young women.  One of them went on to become a teacher, a woman who patiently explained why she wore a head covering and who, after September 11, explained endlessly that not all Muslims are terrorists.

And if we were in the minority, I wonder how we would feel if we were suddenly asked to participate in the rituals of someone else’s faith.

So in this season when our world is so much in need of a shared peace that we cannot pass to one another with a few words and a handshake, I wonder how we can find a way to share respectfully the lenses through which we are able to see God—to live in peace with one another in spite of our differences.

I see God through the lens of that babe in the manger who grew into a man who urged conscience and compassion.  He has been and is my salvation, over and over again, as I try to live up to the example Christ set for me. And when I read the stories in the Gospels in search of truth for my own life, I read again and again of how he shared meals and conversations with people that others dismissed.

And I wonder what our world would be like if each of us could do the same—not to sit in judgment but to share the good news of our own lives with one another in search of a shared peace.

So peace be with you.  And now tell me your stories of passing on peace to others.

What Brings You Comfort and Joy?

Ash at Christmas

Images of children have been playing behind my closed eyelids this week—images of those dear children in Connecticut—as I’m sure they have for all of us, long after we’ve turned off the television sets.  But I see them sleeping peacefully or waking to dance in joy at the Spirit’s feet, for I can hardly bear to think of them in any other way.  And I pray that their parents can call up images of their children before this terrible tragedy, for I know that my sadness cannot even begin to approach what their loved ones feel.

The pictures I’ve seen in the media have become like the images we see when we’ve looked at the sun for too long and then closed our eyes to still see their silhouettes.  So I’ve been trying to honor their memory and assuage my own sorrow by imagining visions of children dancing from foot to foot in excitement, clapping their hands in delight, squealing happily in the way that only children can do.

I turn to happy memories of my own daughter, who is 26 now and full of life and the promise of young adulthood, and to my stepchildren, one of whom has given us our first grandchild.  As I imagine every parent must, I fight back the fear at how easy it is to have our children torn from us.  Even as I write this, I realize I’m holding my breath as I think about it.

And then I make myself breathe.  And a wave of guilt washes over me that I’ll be able to return to my life, to breathe normally, long before those children’s loved ones who’ve suffered such loss.  How can I be joyful when there is such suffering?  And then I remember a lesson that cancer taught me:  If the fear of dying takes away the joy of living, then tragedy wins.  And I know that it’s okay for me to anticipate laughter and happiness as our children gather in the coming days.

Perhaps this year, more than I’ve ever considered before, I’m thinking of the child in the manger whose life ends in both tragedy and hope.  I think often of a poem I read in college by Howard Nemerov, a former poet laureate, who writes:

Somewhere on his travels the strange Child

Picked up with this overstuffed confidence man,

Affection’s inverted thief, who climbs at night

Down chimneys, into dreams, with this world’s goods.

Bringing all the benevolence of money,

He teaches the innocent to want…

…Now, at the season when the Child is born

To suffer for the world, suffer the world,

His bloated Other, jovial satellite…

This annual savior of the economy

Speaks in parables of the dollar sign:

Suffer the little children to come to Him.

At Easter, he’s anonymous again,

Just one of the crowd lunching on Calvary.

This poem was the beginning of my understanding that not everyone views Christmas through my glasses–that the chubby Santa of my mother, who couldn’t always put the world’s goods under the Christmas tree, represented something very different to the world at large.  But most of all, that reference to the Baby Jesus as a “strange Child” really made me think—about how others view my faith but, more than that, how strange it really is that my faith begins with an innocent baby and could have ended with an instrument of torture.

But it hasn’t.  Whatever one believes about Christ and about what Christians have done to Christmas, for 2000 years our faith has been a search for life.  Abundant life.  It begins in hope.  It sometimes ends in tragedy we can’t even begin to understand.  And in the intervening days and years, most of us do the best we can to bear the pain and celebrate the joy.  And my prayer for the survivors in Connecticut, still in the in-between, is that they can bear the loss, remember the pleasure, and some day, beyond the crucifying tragedy, find hope and life.

We are stronger in bearing pain when we know that others weep and pray for us.  But let us remember, too, that we grow stronger in hope and love by celebrating and sharing our moments of wonder at the beauty of life.

So what brings you tidings of comfort and joy?

Are We Prejudiced?

Harper's Ferry Church

Like most liberals, I like to think I don’t have prejudices.  I have friends of different races—close enough to vacation together.  I have friends of other faiths—close enough to share our faith traditions.  I believe knowing people who come from backgrounds different from my own enriches my life and my understanding of the world.

But occasionally something happens that forces me to admit that I, too, have prejudices.  Like today.  I read in this morning’s paper that Westboro Baptist, the church that pickets at military funerals and believes that tragedies are God’s judgment, plans to protest at the Newtown funerals.

I held my breath as the blood rose to my head.  I was livid.  I became a child again as I read the page, transported back to my early years among church leaders who preached so hard about God’s wrath that they had to gasp for breath in the middle of every sentence.

Reading the string of angry comments from both people who attacked the church members and people who responded by attacking the attackers, I became even more incensed, caught up in a vicious cycle of anger.  I wanted to respond in the same rabid tone to people who I feel have tried to hijack my faith.  And in that moment, I knew that I had a visceral loathing of people who are absolutely certain they know the mind of God.

I took a breath.  And I remembered that Christ, too, got angry—angry enough to knock over tables in a place of worship.  But we don’t really know how that worked out for him because the story shifts immediately to how he helped the blind and the lepers, who deserved his—and our—attention far more than people like this do.

What did work for him, though, was that he often outsmarted the religious leaders who asked him questions just to try to trip him up.  And he did it by quoting their own holy texts back to them and leaving them with a question.

I could do that.  I’ve read the Bible three times in three different translations, and though I have forgotten many of the stories, I’ve read the Gospels again and again—many more than three times.  And never once have I seen a glimpse in the stories of the small god of Westboro Church.

And while I suspect that they will no more listen to me than the know-it-alls in Jesus’ time listened to him, perhaps I’ll try his approach.  Whenever I have the chance to challenge such people, I will swallow my prejudice and challenge them in the same tone that Jesus used when he calmly drew in the sand with a stick before he gave them answers that have reverberated for over 2000 years.

And though I find this church group ludicrous for their web site URL and their clownish videos insisting that God hates, I will tell the stories of how God’s love has come to me many times in my life through the very people they say God hates—through my lesbian girlfriend who drove me to social events when my family didn’t have a car, through my gay pastor who prayed with my family when I had surgery for Stage 3 cancer, through a lesbian neighbor who takes care of my dog when I must leave town to be with my ailing mother, through a lesbian colleague who gave me her mother’s secret recipe for Chocolate Ganache Torte because she wanted me to have it when she was no longer around, almost as if she sensed that she would die an early death a few years later.

Through people who, if I took out the words identifying their sexuality, you would assume to be no different from me than in their eye color or the length of their limbs.

We all have stories.  And our stories are stronger than hate—stronger than small, hate-filled gods and idols.  So let us tell our stories, again and again, even when we feel they can’t hear them.  And maybe 2000 years from now, our descendants will tell stories about how the Spirit became flesh through the love reflected in our faces and in our voices and in our stories.

So come now, tell me your stories of grace and love.