“Maybe Jesus knew you’d read the word ‘beagle’ today!” I said to her after she sounded it out and we remembered that those two matching beagles had walked by the house just that morning so she had heard this strange word before.
“Or maybe the owner just wanted to walk his dogs…” she says, empirically, with all the rational exposition 300 years of Enlightenment Thinking can produce in it’s youngest prodigies.
I laugh and nod, “Both things can be true, you know.”
My mother thanked the Lord for sunsets. She attributed good parking spots and choice seats at the movies to Jesus. Bonus fries at the bottom of the bag from McDonald’s and a few extra bucks for gas in the glove box got a sincere, enthusiastic, “Thanks, God!” I can still just about hear it in her voice. Sometimes she laughed at the absurdity and sometimes she just took the gift, however trite or banal it might seem to anyone else. Before I learned to roll my eyes I learned that the creator of the universe cared about things like bonus fries.
When she was sick she trusted God to heal her, to make the tumor shrink and when scans came back showing no new growth she gave God credit. But then one ordinary day in January, when scans like these were nothing noteworthy, but we gathered up on FaceTime anyway and talked about what we planned to do with our hair, the doctor whose smile we’d memorized walked in somber.
Sunsets and parking spots seemed to me not like evidence of a caring divinity, but cruelty disguised as kindness – I will give you good seats to watch Gerard Butler in his hunky glory, but abandon you at brain cancer – ooookay. Thanks, God?
Does God Care About Your Happiness?
That’s how it seemed to me, but not to her. I don’t know what she would say about it because I never asked her. I didn’t need to and she didn’t owe me an explanation anyway. I am long for explanations that do me no good.
Instead I bear witness.
That her faith did not have much to do at all with what she got or what God fixed or what worked out for her or didn’t.
Once when I was a scared barely-adult-child of divorcing parents, she told me that God wanted her to be happy and I thought it was ridiculous. God wants you to stick with your commitments. Until years later when I had the same fleeting hope that maybe God did not want me to be miserable and the letters of the law had to space apart and make room for the spirit of the God who is love and does, actually, want all of us to be at peace, have joy, find rest… be happy.
Dusty Questions and No Answers
Which is fine and good for things you have even some amount of say in – whether or not to get a divorce, have a baby, go to college, buy a house. You can be part of the weighing of those options and lining up your choices with your highest values. But when things are entirely out of your control – when your spouse doesn’t love you anymore or you are diagnosed infertile or the school you planned to attend doesn’t want you or the bank won’t approve the loan or you think you have a sinus infection only to find out it’s brain cancer and your prognosis is grim. What then?
She was scared, angry, sad, disappointed. She said “why” into the air of the room decorated with bunnies where we laid in the guest bed together and her question joined 30 years of dust into the old green carpet. We vacuumed it up, no answer.
In between appointments and regimented medications she caught naps and especially in those early weeks she had reports. Jesus met her on a paddle board, she said. She was in the ocean afraid of the waves and then there he was, too, calm, smiling, telling her to enjoy the float. She spoke to him at her bedside and not about the things I would have asked if Jesus Christ was sitting next to me. “What did he look like?” I asked, eagerly. “You know… like Jesus. Middle eastern I guess, dark hair…” she shrugged. It reminded me of the accounts in the New Testament where people around Jesus ask him what it will be like after we die or what this or that law means and he says something like, “Don’t worry about it.” I picture him shrugging, too.
Abundance and Scarcity
Because my mother’s relationship with the divine was just that: relational. She felt all the things any human feels when life seems stacked against them, but beneath it all she had trust in the Goodness of this place, trust in God’s love for her, trust in a bigger picture she did not need to see. Trust from a life of knowing God, loving God, listening for God – not to get it right, she was never nearly as disturbed by her mistakes as I was – she loved God because God loved her. Trust was foundational, cyclical, not entirely explainable.
Jesus walked around talking about, pointing out, a world of abundance in the midst of scarcity. While people experienced oppression, he told them they could be free. While people were hungry, he said there was enough food. While people suffered disease, he promised healing was available. While people died from all these things, he offered the hope of life.
It seemed then – it seems now – somewhat foolish to believe him. We look around today at a time when so many things are so much better than they used to be and it still seems so far from whole. Babies are starved by government officials with power in their hearts, men and women forced into camps by the end of a gun, refugees flee to closed borders, children taught to strap bombs on themselves. And that’s just out there. The tragedies that fall into our personal lives count, too: strained relationships, cancer, financial trouble, mental health, etc. etc. It is not hard to lose sight of anything beautiful in a world full of so much ugly.
Still, my mom believed him.
Both Things Can Be True
I am learning that I can choose to focus on the abundance without lying about the scarcity. All of the awfulness is true. That does not have to change for the good to be true, too. That so much is better than it used to be and, God help us, humanity can keep pushing for more Better. That the tragedies of my own life don’t have to be justified, but they can be mined. That under all of this unrest, all this chaos, all this pain and not-as-it-should-be are the promises of hope, the big universal Source showing up on a paddle board or in a teddy bear ballon or under a fig tree, the peace that comes from trusting the Light because you’ve seen it show up in dark places before. The Love that whispers in those moments to lean in, come close, choose hope.
So that yes, some person walked his dogs today and that is why we saw beagles. But also, this is the first time that word has been presented to you and you just happened to see that type of dog today. So listen, yes, God cares about your reading lesson and those dogs and that man and the mom who looks for too many connections for her own good sometimes, but needs reminding that the truest connections, the ones worth a “Thanks, God,” are the ones that bring us home to Love.