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At the end of the movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” Ethel Merman (playing her usual role, a loudmouthed nag) slips on a banana peel. The entire cast bursts into laughter. But the beauty of the scene is the state of those characters — they have been through unimaginable awfulness. They are bandaged, their limbs in casts, their marriages frayed, their careers at an end. And they laugh. Because what else is there left to do?

The scene is a metaphor my brother used recently in summing up what keeps him going. It was an extraordinarily bad week for his family, and his usual sunny disposition had cracked under the pressure. He had every right to throw in the towel, but he didn’t. He took a deep breath and pictured Ethel Merman slipping on a banana peel. In the midst of our greatest darkness, there is a ray of light. We just have to find it.

My personal perk-me-ups come from literature. I am terribly fond of this line from Joan Didion’s Democracy: “I’d be leery of those ice cubes if I were you, Frances. Ice cubes are not a national craft.” You have to know the context, of course, but it always makes me smile. As does the word “grape.” (Ellen Raskin fans will know why.) Sometimes I think God gave the author her entire oeuvre just so I could yell, “Grape Mrs. Carillon!” when necessary.

Oxymoronically, these “banana slip” moments don’t happen by accident. I truly believe the hand of God is in them, providing us with a glimpse of absurdity so as to leaven the loaf/load. It is when we fail to see these glimmers and allow ourselves to plunge into darkness that we have a real problem.

This is increasingly easy to do in a world that seems overrun by greed, lies, violence and terror. So I am suggesting this: Arm yourself in advance. Find your Ethel Merman moment and hold onto it. Then, when the chips are down, you have something to bring you back from the brink.

Of course, prayer does this marvelously well, too. But it’s nice to have options.

I like to think that one of my gifts — my ministries, really — is prayer. I’ve always prayed vigorously for others, and I believe that prayer is powerful. That’s why I was so affected by a recent situation, one that dramatically revealed the limits of my charity.

“Pray for them,” my friend asked me. But I couldn’t do it; not the way she wanted me to. She was speaking of her employers, oil investors who grew used to a lifestyle that includes three mansions, dozens of vintage automobiles and a lifetime of lavish spending. And why not? They were making in the mid-five figures every month. Then the oil market took a downturn.

Suddenly, they find themselves having to contemplate selling one of their homes, liquidating a coin collection, borrowing from family. They’ve hinted that they might have to cut my friend’s hours. (My friend is 76 years old, supporting her grown children, with no retirement date on the horizon.)

I don’t mean to disparage these people. They may very well be much better people than I can ever hope to be. My friend certainly idolizes them. So what was my problem? Why did I say, “Yes,” even as my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth?

Praying for the oil market to return to its former profitability wouldn’t just help my friend’s employers. There are lots of good people who work hard for oil companies, who deserve raises and steady employment. It would be good for the economy of certain states whose coffers could use a nudge. But I still can’t mouth the words that would potentially help them.

I don’t think reliance on oil is good for the environment. But that’s not my real reason for not praying. It’s this: I simply cannot pray for the rich to get richer. And that says more about me than them.

Am I jealous? Maybe. It would be nice to have that kind of money. Am I too busy judging them to pray? Yes, certainly. That they did not save money, that they frittered it away, bothers me. But who am I to judge someone else’s spending habits? My own savings are ludicrously small.

In the end, it comes down to this: I am at ease praying for those on the margins, the struggling, the poor. White, wealthy and powerful? Not so much. God doesn’t judge, but apparently, I do. And that’s a problem.

Like my post of two weeks ago, I didn’t write this for assurances that I’ve done the right thing; it’s a genuine wonderment: When someone asks you to pray for something you don’t like/condone/care for, what do you do? If you do pray, do you worry that it is inauthentic? How do you keep judgment out of it?

I’ve settled for praying that my friends’ employers will find a way to live within their means without causing deprivation for my friend. It’s not what she asked for. It may even be sinful of me. But it did provide me with a moment of self-revelation.

I’m not altogether comfortable with the results. Maybe I need my own miracle, of the heart-softening variety. Maybe someone should pray for me.

Boy oh boy, are we in trouble. A 22-year-old Russian man is on trial for playing Pokemon Go in church. A politician in Indonesia is being charged with blasphemy against Islam. Stephen Fry, noted British comedian, is being investigated in Ireland for scathing remarks he made on a talk show, about God — if He exists — being something of a sadist.

I could make more or less well-constructed arguments in each of these cases. No, you shouldn’t play games in church, but if we sentenced every kid who didn’t pay attention during Mass, we’d have very few children left to fill the pews. God is infinitely compassionate, but the British tend to be a bit suspect on such matters, what with having endured hundreds of years of religious-based harassment and executions. And though I don’t always understand Islam, maybe some people just need to settle down a bit. In fact, maybe we all should.

I’m no fan of blasphemy. It riles me up when people make suppositions about God based on limited human experience. But then again, I do this, too. We all do. The thing we so often forget is that God can take it. God’s no hothouse flower, withering away at the scald of an unkind Tweet. God is bigger than we are. We take offense at slights against ourselves and against God. God does not.

In fact, God loves us even at our worst. Especially at our worst. God loves dopey people who do dopey things when they ought to be praying. God loves Islam, even when those who practice its tenets make God into a tyrant. And God loves anyone who makes others laugh — laughter being one of God’s most wondrous inventions.

So lay off, folks. The one thing you can say without a doubt about our species is that we make mistakes. We are error-ridden, clumsy, maladroit, blabber-mouthed idiots on a near-constant basis. And that’s okay, because God made us that way. Out of a pile of dirt and hubris, male and female, we were formed. We make mistakes, but hopefully, we learn from them. We see God only in glimpses, but if we make an effort, those glimpses can be glorious. And we constantly discount God’s capacity — for goodness, for miracles, for compassion and love. We really shouldn’t do that.

But it’s okay. God’s got tough skin. We’d do well to remember that.

He was sitting on the curb in front of the barbecue restaurant. White haired, simply dressed but clean. Alone. Was he trying to catch my eye? It was hard to tell. His glance was quick, pleading, afraid. “Do you need some help?” I asked him, seeing that he was shivering. (It was cool, but not cold — was it Parkinson’s? Delirium tremens?)

“I have nowhere to go,” he said. “I’ve been living under that bridge [gesturing]. I don’t have any money. I can’t even catch a bus.”

As my husband trotted off to the car to get one of the bags we carry with us to give to those less fortunate than ourselves (we haven’t got the right ingredients down just yet; the ones we’re carrying now hold money, a first aid kit, a hands-free flashlight, wet wipes, breath mints, a meal replacement bar and an emergency camping blanket), I listened.

“I’m scared,” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”

“We’re going to give you some things you might need.”

“I’ve been trying to get someone to buy me something to eat.”

“Oh! What would you like?”

“Anything! A sandwich. Anything.”

I gave him a “blessing bag” and went inside, where we ordered him a large sandwich with slaw and a bottle of water. When I went out to give it to him, he seemed startled. He kept saying, “Thank you.” I kept saying, “I’ll pray for you.” By the time we finished eating, he was gone.

This is not about doing a good deed for someone. In fact, it’s rather the opposite. In this man, I saw the face of God. What would you do for God? What wouldn’t you do? And yet I know what I did was not enough. Could I have taken him to a shelter? Where is our local shelter? Would they have had a bed for him? How would that have helped him tomorrow or the next day or the next?

I realize, of course, that most of the people we’ve given bags to are panhandlers rather than actual homeless people. They probably throw away everything but the money. But I have a feeling the man we met last night was the real McCoy. And I failed him.

Yes, I believe prayer is powerful. And I am keeping my promise to him by praying for him. But I could see in his eyes, even as I said the words, “How is that going to help me right now?”

I saw the face of God and was unprepared. But isn’t that the way of things? Won’t we always be surprised by where and how we see God? Won’t we always be unready?

As we drove home, I noticed a garbage bag tucked into the corner of the underpass he’d earlier indicated. Were those his belongings? Maybe. If I go back there, will I find him? What do I have to offer him? Am I willing to open my home to him? (And if I’m not, aren’t I saying, “You are the face of God except maybe not”?)

I wish I had answers. Instead I can only tell you: Look for him — not the man I described, but for God. And try to do what you can. May you fare better than I.

Yesterday was a crummy day. Fortunately, Tuesday was wonderful — chock-full of blessings and outright miracles. That’s the way life is sometimes. Pondering Tuesday’s beneficence, I keep thinking, “I didn’t deserve all that.” But isn’t that the point? Grace is unearned. God bestows it freely, even lavishly. All this generosity got me thinking about God’s love for each of us. It’s a little overwhelming. And there is no “why” or “because” about it. It just is. Here are some loose, unrefined thoughts on the matter:

Someone has a crush on you and it’s God.
Someone gave you a candy heart that said
LOVE YOU and meant it and it was God.
Someone sends ridiculous declarations,
love songs on the radio,
twenty dozen long-stemmed roses,
chocolates hand-dipped by blind monks,
a stuffed plush bear the size of a Volkswagen.
And it’s God.
God says you get a car and you and you and you
and they’re all dream cars even if yours is a Mercedes
and mine is a Porsche.
Someone swoons over you, knees knocking, heart
ticking quick as a metronome at full speed,
chest so tight breath barely breaks,
and it’s God.
To God, you are marvelous. Amazing. A wonder.
A sonnet with legs and arms and a face.
God will never get over you.
You might as well sign for the package;
take it in your hands. Guess its worth.
You will always come up short.

Was there ever a time when “poet” was a legitimate job description? Maybe, centuries ago, you could get a gig as a court poet, or have a de Medici support you as a contribution to the arts. Sadly, today, the de Medicis among us have very little use for poetry. It is a gift, but not a commodity. And spiritual poetry, alas, with its propensity to probe and question, comfort yet cause unease, is relegated to the bottom of the artistic heap. This can disheartening, yet I can’t stop an intense desire to live within the world of words (however imperfectly I receive them) that God supplies so temptingly and freely.

I ask for tongues of fire:
ashes appear.
Underneath there is heat,
seething, sufficient
to melt me to the bone.
If I could bury myself in poetry,
I might burn righteously,
pure as glass, pious as
a Lutheran steeple.
But poetry is no place to live,
even for church mice.
No one subsists on words,
even if they roll off the tongue
like buttered toffee.
I must be content
to live in the world of man.
Secretly, however, I burn.

 

 

Life is hard. There’s no denying it. But during this Easter season, we are reminded that there is proof of the resurrection all around us.

Fact:
Friends will betray you
they will dine beside you
then sell you out for silver.
The road will always be uphill
and the load will nearly break you.
(Others can ease it, briefly,
but they cannot die for you.)
You will taste sweat, blood, bitter
liquid; your body will snap, sag,
breach and be broken. You will die,
ultimately, alone.

Fortunately, friend,
One has gone before
holding hope in his hands like a loaf of bread.
Even as you close your eyes
to all of this, you will open them again.
Like an Easter lily, you will wear white.
Like Easter morning, you will be born.

There is a very real phenomenon called “Jerusalem Syndrome”: Someone visits the Holy Land and experiences a psychotic break, fraught with religious obsession. Obviously, this isn’t something one would wish on anyone, but it illustrates rather vividly how some places can overwhelm us with their deep spiritual “footprints.” Some places simply seem more touched by God than others. I was in one of these places last weekend, and it provoked a poetic response:

There are places God has glanced
with lightest touch of hand, some swept,
palm to earth, and some in which God’s hand
sinks into soil like a sculptor’s hand in clay, that shout,
“Here I’ve sent saints; look the proof is all around you.”
And the heart stills, stops, halts — no, you are not
on the moon; the ground grasses green, sky pulses blue,
the smell of the place is ancient but known. And yet.
The silence is deeper, divine, the air crowded with
exemplary souls, and you want to join them —
shrug off your body like an old coat and disappear
into ether. Pierced to the root, overcome by a sun
that seems more heavenward than most, you
fill your lungs with quavering promise and slide
between worlds as easy as a body entering water.
If you could only stay, you would be saved.

“I had to break away from her,” my friend Alice tells me over the phone about someone she once called a friend. Alice isn’t the only one. Lots of folks lately seem to be dealing with toxic people. You know them. We meet them everywhere in the jungle of life. Some are outright predators; others hang back, like vultures, waiting to sink their talons into the weak and weary. The hardest part of dealing with toxic people is that maybe only you see that person for what they truly are. The rest of the gnus keep grazing, blissfully unaware. Yet God commands us to love everyone. It may take time to find a way to love our enemies — difficult things always do — but it also demands of us a certain primal common sense. To wit, the following poem:

This is not a litany of sins.
You have taught me things,
a veritable National Geographic
special. Some creatures,
for whom all touch is enemy,
strike — even if the stroke
is light, a caress.
Some people know pain,
and let it go, others
grow it and sow it,
sweat it from their pores
like tropical frogs or
hold it in their craws
like komodos who will
pursue you, slash you with their claws,
consume you or, in a pinch, lick you,
(a flick of the tongue, breathlessly quick),
let the poison in their maws do its work.
Whichever way they come for you, you die.
How do you love a komodo?
From afar, perhaps, and pityingly.

There’s a commercial making the rounds (for an investment firm, I believe) that asks, “How do you measure success?” The point being, you ought to be saving for your retirement so that you can do bucket list-y things like climb rocks or volunteer teach. But there is a finer point to be discussed: What makes a life successful?

Is it the accumulation of money or things? As nice as things can be, they cannot be taken with you after you shuffle off this mortal coil. (Unless you’re a pharaoh, and even then, tomb robbing can really put a dent in your feline sarcophagi collection.) People talk about “successful businessmen.” I assume they mean a person who has made more than he’s lost. But often that’s not really the case. The “successful businessman” has often accomplished his feats through financial manipulation, the sweat of other people’s brows, or outright chicanery. That doesn’t spell “success” to me. More like “not caught in the act and appropriately punished.”

So what is success? I posit to you that it means being a good person. Specifically, if you were to die tomorrow, could others remember one good deed you did? It’s not as easy as it sounds. Start digging and see what you come up with: “I loved my parents” (except when you didn’t); “I gave to charity” (sometimes, and maybe only for the tax break); “I cared about the environment” (unless you’re that one young woman who hasn’t created any garbage in three years — and you’re an American — you probably flunk this one outright); “I wasn’t actively hurtful to people” (congratulations, you’ve lived up to the minimum requirement for morality). The list, disappointingly, goes on.

I don’t say these things to make you feel bad, Unspecified Reader. I put myself through this test and came up with a review not much to my liking. Most of us have not done one shining, unselfish deed in our whole lives. Mostly we do good because it makes us feel good. But is that enough?

Is it enough to require of ourselves that we more often do right than wrong? Will our lives be summed up on an old-timey scale, balancing the good against the bad? Will it take more than a preponderance of evidence to convict or acquit us in the final scheme of things?

I think we were put on this earth to be our best selves, to live up to our God-given potential not as athletes or businesspeople or celebrities, but as fully functioning, empathetic, loving humans. And whatever we do that does not push us closer to that goal is probably a diversion at best and a trap at worst.

So, I put it to you: Are you a success? Have you done one good thing? Name it.

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