A fundamentalist turned freedom chaser with an obnoxiously stubborn faith.

Open Handed Hope

No alarm told me to creep downstairs while everyone slept and beat the Easter morning candy rush. But my dog was on my mind and I needed to get eyes on him. If he’d died, I thought, I would want to get him outside before the kids came down. I’d want to wait until after they had their morning fun before I told them. I’d want a minute to cry with him before sharing the grief with my children. I rehearsed it, just in case (which I do a lot, but the cases rarely unfold according to my script).

He’d been sick the night before. The kind of sick I’ve seen before. I’d tried to get him up for a bath and he wouldn’t stand so I pleaded with him, tears forming, to get up. and come here. Please, Ollie. Please.

I don’t need to waste words now telling you what he means to me and what a loss it will be when he’s gone—or name that the cruelty of loving a dog is how sure you are that you’ll outlive them. I just need to tell you that when I found him downstairs and saw his tail flop at the sound of my voice, it felt like Easter morning.

Because I know well enough that pain doesn’t wait for a kind moment. It comes with the candy and the celebration. It comes regardless of the plans you laid the night before, however carefully and sweetly, whatever hope or happiness guided them. I know there are twins of moments for all of us—Before & After—that we’ll never shake. They will tag along with us and bark or whine when you pass that hospital on the freeway or hear that song or when the dog looks at you like he doesn’t want to walk anymore.

The worst things come when they damn well please, and there are too many pleas for pardon for God to answer them all—even Jesus chucked his up to no avail. The ones that do bend things only confuse the rest of us and make us wonder what hidden sin is keeping God from wanting to bend things in our favor.

There’s this famous experiment where you pray to a milk jug and see how often it answers you. Apparently, just making your request known—even to a milk jug—makes a difference. It is probably the case that when you name things which you want to have happen and then they do, you feel involved and you give credit wherever you think you should so it’ll happen again. The universe. God. A milk jug.

And if the focus is merely on evading pain, prayer is a depressing thing. It doesn’t seem like God cares much more about you than a milk jug does. Which I suppose could give you hope and affect toward milk jugs, but for me, makes me wonder what’s the point. The Bible says “ask” so I do and then my heart is broken twice.

When we got Mom’s terminal diagnosis, I didn’t spend much time asking for a miracle. I got to work accepting it. Sometimes I let myself hope—I just read words from myself about how I had a sense she would live and they felt foreign to me—and I asked God to heal her, to keep her here, to make the tumor disappear. I did. But most of me abstained from too much hope. Stay sober. Get through. I let my mother keep her optimism, her trust, I let her carry the banner for hope and I cheered her on. But inside I was biding time. I was rational. I saw the statistics.

And if I’m honest, some part of me wonders what could have been different if I had let myself assume it more. Is that what God needed? One more believer? Or would it have made no difference in the outcome, but may have given her and I more common footing, more shared experience, more time together not on a calendar, but in union with eternal things?

Anyway, I asked God to heal my dog. And I think he’s going to be okay, this time was just rehearsal. I don’t know if it would have been any different if I hadn’t asked. I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t, and partly because if it did, I’m inclined to wonder as I do so often, “then why not her?”

I’m not really mad anymore and I am finding generous space in the mystery of hope deferred. As if God’s hope is, too, and that is a lovely, terrible thought. Like when you realize as a child that your parents don’t always get things their way either.

There is also a sense (and I say this hesitant to “wrap it up too neatly,” as my friend Darin expresses frequently) in which we did get what we prayed for. Despite my best logic, I know she is okay now. Free and healthy and full of joy. Because if the worst moments come when they want to, the best ones do, too. And I swear to you I’m sharing them with her even now.

And I’ll share them with Ollie now, grateful for his life while I hold all these moments with open hands.

Update: Oliver passed away about a month after this post was mostly written and, maybe surprisingly, I do not feel even the slightest bit betrayed by hope—or God. 🙂

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