“Maybe Jesus knew you’d read the word ‘beagle’ today!” I say to her after sounding it out and our remembering that those two matching beagles just walked by the house this morning so she got to hear this strange word.
“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 its youngest prodigies.
I laugh and nod, “Both things can be true, you know.” Because the question I am convinced is built into the factory settings, is Are you there and do you care? That is, is there a “you” to care at all and if there is… do you?
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 in the McDonald’s drive thru or a few extra bucks for gas in the glove box got a sincere, enthusiastic, “Thanks, God!”
I can still hear it in her voice. Sometimes she laughed at the absurdity and sometimes she just took the gift, however trite or banal. Nothing just so happened. Coincidence was a love note.
Before I learned to roll my eyes I learned that the creator of the universe cares about bonus fries.
When she was sick she trusted God to heal her, to make the tumor shrink, to make her well. When scans came back showing no new growth she gave God credit. But then one ordinary day in January, when scans like these were almost boring, but an excuse to hang out, we gathered up on FaceTime and talked about what we planned to do with our hair later while we waited for the doctor whose smile we’d memorized.
Only that day she walked in somber.
Sunsets and parking spots then did not seem to me like great evidence of a caring divinity, but of cruelty disguised as kindness. I will give you good seats in the theater in which to drool over Gerard Butler, but abandon you at brain cancer. Ooookay.
But that’s not how she saw it. 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 whatsoever.
Instead I bore witness.
To her faith which had very little to do at all with what she got or what God fixed or what worked out for her or didn’t. And that was not just true then, when the stakes were life and death.
Once when I was a scared barely-adult-child of divorcing parents, begging the universe to make sense again, I confronted her. Why are you getting a divorce, I asked, when you know God hates divorce?
“Because God wants me to be happy, too.”
I thought it was ridiculous. God wants you to stick with your commitments.
But years later I had the same fleeting hope that maybe God did not want me to be miserable, when the letters of the law spaced apart to 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.
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 weigh those options and line your choices up against 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…
Does God want you happy then?
She was scared, angry, sad, disappointed. She said “why” into the air of Gramma’s “garden room” 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 woke up with reports.
God put his hands on her head, she said. They were so warm.
The Holy Spirit had wings and they wrapped around her like a hug, she said. She felt safe.
Jesus met her on a paddle board, she said. He joined her on a choppy ocean and told her to enjoy the float.
She spoke to Jesus 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 really meant and he says something like, “Don’t worry about it.”
I picture him shrugging, too. With dark hair, I guess.
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 not borrowed, but earned, 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), but because it was like breathing. She loved God because God loved her. 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.
And it seemed then—it seems now—somewhat foolish to believe him, to accept his version of reality.
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 dramatically less than 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 onto themselves, to hate what they don’t know.
And that’s just out there. The tragedies that fall into our personal lives count, too: strained relationships, cancer, financial trouble, mental health battles, etc. etc. It is not hard to lose sight of anything beautiful in a world full of so much ugly.
Still, my mom believed his story.
I am learning now that I can choose to focus on the abundance without lying about the scarcity.
All of the awfulness is true.
So is all the good.
God help us, humanity can keep pushing for Better and the tragedies of my own life don’t have to be justified, but they can be mined for gold.
Under all of this chaos, all this pain and not-as-it-should-be are promises of hope, the big universal Source showing up on a paddle board or in a teddy bear ballon or under a fig tree.
Under all of the unrest: rest. Peace, which comes from trusting the Light because you’ve seen it show up in dark places before even if it has never been this dark. 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 the beagles.
And also, this is the first time that word has been presented to you, child, and you just happened to see that type of dog today. So lean in: 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 is learning once again to take the love notes.