The God I Love: A Letter to My Friends

Dear Friends:

A little after 9:00 this morning I called Denise at church and told her I’d be laying low today. Low happens to be my usual perch at Starbucks with an iced decaf coffee deepened by a shot of espresso and lifted by cream and Splenda. Bittersweet.

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Out on the boulevard, a maple with buds smaller than capers.

This Easter Monday, which we pastors often take off, looks and feels like spring—bright, but with enough chill in the air that you’d never mistake it for July. After a confounding winter, the trees might actually get around to budding, provided we can string some gentle days together.

April 21, 2014, is the kind of day you’d walk out your front door, take in a breath that makes your lungs unfurl, and believe for a second that joy might carry you away.

My watch says 10:23; its hands ask in their dying language, “What’s wrong with you? A sweet sky is being wasted.” I close my eyes, keep company with the mud in my chest and the catch in my throat. Then the Eternal Voice whispers, “Don’t worry, John. I’ll keep you.” (Some of you think I’m listening to nothing but my own desperate hope. And I’m fine with that. Honest. You might be right.)

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Gladness has its own hands, I guess.

To all of you taking five minutes to read this letter, please consider this an offering. I believe in God because of mornings like this, when nothing more could be asked of weather and circumstance, but when sorrow still throbs like a toothache in the soul.

Sorrow. Okay, sorrow about what? That’s the rub. Who knows? I’m convinced the sadness I’ve experienced over the years regards itself as family that is obligated to visit when my calendar clears and my emotional doors are ajar. So which blue relative is reclining in my spirit, looking at me with watery eyes?

June of 1998? Mom’s hand was purple, swollen three times normal. I held it, cold and taut. “If you want to go, Mom,” I said, “I understand. But I want you to know I love how gentle you are, how you’ve loved Elena and Micah, how you always tried to help me. And if there’s anything you feel bad about, I love you and believe you always tried as hard as you could to do what was right. And if you can get better and live, that would be really great.” I should have stayed until she died two days later, but I went back to seminary in Columbus. What was I thinking? “I’m sorry, Mom.”

January of 2012? Pleasant Ridge. Nothing against the place, but what an insulting name! Two physical therapists tried to get loopy Dad out of his wheelchair for a walk. They held him up by his waistband, but his knees wobbled and a diaper sagged from his boney ass. Why? What for? “I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell them to let you be, Dad. I’m sorry.” A couple days later, he lay in bed, howling and grabbing at the air. For what? More time? Another chance? “I left after an hour because my loving voice made you thrash like a drowning man, so I’m not sorry, Dad. Just haunted.”

A thousand other losses, failures, injuries? Who knows? They refuse to identify themselves, and I’m terrible with their faces and names. Still, they are relatives. More than that, I have the feeling God is holding their hand when they show up.

Sure, I believe in God because of this day’s wonder and my current nave full of blessings, especially grandson Cole. But sorrow—inconvenient kin—is my faith’s mast, at least on these present existential breakers. Without sorrow, my sails have nothing to hang from.

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My Wagnerian Cole. You fill my sails, chubby cheeks, but I’m also trusting God not to forget your first week of life in the ICU.

Here’s my confession: a God who can blossom as healthy babies, Grand Canyons, and love-making deserves worship. But a God who cradles misery and refuses to let it slip away into denial or insignificance deserves love. This is the God I believe in.

I often sit with people who are being sucked under by worry and turmoil. As I join them in ashes, a quiet joy rises up in the sacred conversation. Just as nothing tangible in creation is wasted, so I think God takes hold of everything. Everything! No waste.

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Ashes. One of the many homes God makes with us?

When Cole was born, Micah looked at him and cried. What a great belief moment. How could God waste the grace of those tears? If the fluid and chemicals I haul around as whiskers and cellulite will change form for eternity but never disappear, why shouldn’t I also assume that the fullness of human experience is in its own way cosmically material, never to be lost?

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Spring flowers. Autumn’s fallen leaves. Love. Disappointment. All cosmic matter?

And I mean all experience, an idea that demands a dark, holy logic. When I was in fifth grade, Mom met me at the door after school. “John, you knew your father and I would split up someday,” she said. “He is down at the courthouse now filing the papers.” I think I cried for a minute as she held me. I’m not sure. Then I ran to Eddie’s house. “Holy hell,” he kept saying. “Holy hell.” We climbed our usual tree in his backyard and sat in silence. “No, Mom, I didn’t know.” And, my friends, this memory still has me longing for a hug I don’t expect to enjoy this side of glory. (Don’t feel sad for me. We all have our pockets stuffed with scraps of life we figured were in the waste basket or attic. Right?)

Is this my visitor now, as morning bleeds into afternoon? A day when I was a lost boy? Maybe so. In an hour, odds are decent I’ll walk outside and be light enough for the warm wind to shock me with new life. Whatever happens, I believe in the God who remembers a kid sitting shaken and afraid forty years ago up a tree. A God who remembers how I couldn’t stop crying at Mom’s funeral when we sang, “Abide with Me, Fast Falls the Eventide.”

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Elena and Micah in 2006, as the rough years were starting up. They’re both great now, a fact I celebrate daily. But I believe our struggles add compost to the flowering universe.

“God,” I pray right now, “remember your creation’s joy, but especially how spring shines on our grieving hearts. You do remember, right? That day in 1990 when Kathy and I buried mutt Bandit’s ashes at Wintergreen Gorge? Just a dog, but we were hurting. Amazing how we still miss him. I trust that you recall Bandit’s hundreds of seizures and step out of time with me and watch the way Kathy holds his head and wipes away drool. I love how you remember. Amen.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. I hear silence in my chest, which is a good answer. Until we find out the Great Mystery, stay with me: join in all of my comforting embraces; sit with me in a tree when I am a stunned boy; hold my hand as my father howls.

Love,

John

A Poem: Exodus

Exodus

March: these three

song sparrows

head in a line–

wing to wing

and keeping their counsel–

toward the leafless hills,

which themselves follow

one another

into the distance.

Trailing this delicate

gray exodus,

I hear the wind

for an instant

unburdened by

trucks or voices.

Only the mist

from my own lungs

offers the necessary

whisper in the silence.

Sparrows far off now,

I watch for others,

praying they’ll sing

me a route I can

thoughtlessly recall.

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When you take off, please sing to me. (Credit: Patryk Osmola / National Geographic My Shot / National Geographic Society / Corbis)

Note: This poem originally appeared in slightly different form in Southern Poetry Review (Fall 1991).