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Like many of you out there, I’ve always had questions about the parable of the Prodigal Son. For instance, why was it such a big deal that he asked for his inheritance early? My pastor put an end to my wonderings: to the Jewish people of the time, asking for your inheritance was tantamount to wishing your father dead. It was a breach in relationship that could not be mended. Except that the father in the story does mend it — just as God mends the breaks we make with God, over and over, on a daily basis.

Does God make it too easy for us to return home? Maybe. But if God made it harder, we’d never come. Imagine the waiting God does for us! Perhaps a modern perspective will help:

Waiting became habit;
habit became a life.
Day after day,
your father longed for you.
His world became one chair,
one single pane of glass.
Through the window,
he could track the hour
of every package delivery,
chart the bladder capacity
of every dog on the block.
He missed nothing.
When you came,
he was out of his seat in a shot,
prepared to embrace
even your apparition.
Your real flesh,
on the welcome mat,
made him weep.
Yet all the time
you embrace him,
your eye is on the door.

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The Lyft driver drove me to my doctor’s appointment, and as we pulled into the parking lot, he told me he was a pastor, and asked, “Do you mind if I pray for you? Because I believe Jesus heals.”

“So do I,” I said. “I’ll take all the prayers I can get.”

He came around to help me out and held the car door open. I said, “‘Preciate that, son. And thanks for your prayers.” I went into the building. As I got onto the elevator, I realized he was still standing by the open car door. He finally – reluctantly – went back to the driver’s seat.

Oh. Did he intend to stand there next to the car and hold hands to pray with me? Right there? That would have been different. In that case, I would have declined. It wasn’t just the issue of praying in public, but also of its being done in that location. Blocking the doorway where ambulances drop off sick patients for their medical appointments.

In some ways, his prayer would have been a performance. Publicity for his church. He could just as easily have prayed for me as he drove away. It reminded me of the time an acquaintance zeroed in on me at a gathering. Said she really wanted to talk to me. She’d heard about my health issues. That I’d gotten separated. She said, “I really think you could benefit from my support group.” It turned out to be Transcendental Meditation. So she’d sought me out, thinking I was a mess. Huh. I literally said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and left.

You can help people in a way that really benefits them, or you can meet the quota of your clique. Souls saved. Public prayers accomplished. Check.

The best way to represent your beliefs is to be a human being. Offer an ear to listen. A word of kindness. If you keep pushing your product despite resistance, you’re just another door-to-door salesperson.

I thought my dear friend (and pet-sitter of 19 years) had disappeared. I couldn’t reach her by phone. My messages went unanswered. The number I found in the white pages had been disconnected. I was so miserable, I wept.

Turns out it was all a product of a faulty telephone and some bad timing. I am understandably relieved, but in those moments of panic, I realized just how delicate life can be….

The world is a fragile place,
held together by gravity and spit,
like a spider’s web or soap bubble,
ever poised to fly into fragments
at the least puff of wind.
We can build a shell of sorts
by holding hands — prayer will
brace the dam more firmly
than cement. If someone is standing
alone, we must pull them in
like a wandering balloon.
Be gentle with your hands
and with your words:
You never know who
might be crumbling.

“We seek what we are.” – Richard Rohr

I find myself surrounded by soulful souls. I guess it’s true that you find what you’re looking for — I’ve always been a spiritual seeker. That the people I hold most dear to me are deeply spiritual people should come as no surprise. Yet I’ve always been surprised at the quality of my friends and family. They are good people: Loving, smart, strong, gracious, talented. Could it be that somewhere in me these same qualities exist? Does like always attract like?

Maybe, but what I think Rohr is saying is that we seek the God we find in ourselves. I suppose that’s why some people’s gods are so small. I prefer to imagine a big God who loves extravagantly to a little god who quibbles over minutiae and hates people who don’t fit into his own teeny, tiny mold. We are all limited in our view of God (who is too big for any of us to really apprehend), but our own limitations (to love, to forgive, to accept) appear to narrow our perceptions even further. And that’s just sad.

In truth, we are all small. We’re a bunch of shrieking atoms on a blue dot hurtling through the vastness of space. What mark we make on this earth will almost surely be washed away by the tides of time. Why on earth would any of want to make ourselves smaller?

God challenges us to be big. Not by any of the markers of society, of course — not in wealth, social status, physicality. God wants us to grow our hearts. And the bigger we grow them, the more we’ll find ourselves surrounded by big-hearted people. Love begets love.

Of course, if you find yourself surrounded by bigots and haters, finger-pointers and middle finger-lifters, you just might want to take a good long look at yourself. Is that kind of smallness really what you’re seeking? And if so, why?

I watched last night (by way of television) an Ethiopian couple scale a sheer cliff side in order to reach an ancient church hewn into the mountain. There they would baptize their son. The churches in the village were not good enough. In order for God to really bless their child, they had to seek tiny handholds in the worn rock, teeter across the thinnest of ridges — without the aid of ropes or harnesses. With a tiny baby strapped to their backs.

Then I watched an indigenous rain forest people dance for eight hours straight in order to appease one of their many gods. The vigor of their dance would determine how blessed they would be in the upcoming year. The dancers included small children. Imagine: Eight long hours, no rest.

My God does not require much of me — certainly no long, prolonged dance sessions or life-endangering climbs. But what if s/he did? I fear I would fail. Even life as a Puritan, as one of the settlers of this country in its first 100 years, would have been beyond me. Imagine sitting in church for hours on end, being shrieked at (mostly) for being a sinning worm of a human being, breaking for lunch, then going right back for more. Every Sabbath. Puritan life was joyless and gray, and that’s the way they liked it.

Where along the line did we humans lose the simple thread of God’s love and concern for us? At what point did we take the good news of the New Testament and turn it into an episode of “Survivor”? When did we turn God into one of us — demanding, hard-hearted, aloof? Maybe from the very start.

I like to think that God is easier than that. God simply wants us to love — to love God and to love each other. The rest of it is window dressing.

Or maybe not. What if God calls on me to do something terribly risky — what would my answer be? That Ethiopian couple and those jungle warriors must have faith the size of a whale to do what they do for God. My faith seems like a shrunken, withered bean in comparison.

Do we climb the mountain? Or do we convince ourselves that God wouldn’t ask us to and proceed to huddle under the nearest bed? When faith and fear collide, who wins?

I pray I never have to answer that question.

A noisy blue jay is claiming my yard as his own. I could go out and tell him otherwise — or, better yet, my cat could — but I’m going to let the bird have his little triumph, just for a moment. We all need some light in our lives, even if it is short-lived.

I guess the trick to faith (and hope) is noting light where you see it, even if it’s reflected, or dim, or possibly artificial. At least it gives you a moment to see things more clearly, to assess where you are. At best, it reminds you that life is worth living.

What are your most reliable light sources? Mine are my husband and family, my friends, my faith. Nothing shores me up like the words “Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen.” It reminds me of God’s constancy, which will endure long past the moments of darkness.

Choose your light carefully: Don’t look exclusively to people or places to buoy you up. Make sure the light is grounded in something more permanent — like love. People fail you; love doesn’t. Places change; love is eternal. Anything you depend on for light that is not fundamentally anchored in love will not sustain you.

When you find light, turn to it like a plant seeking sun. Bask. Store up sense memory for those times when you doubt the presence of light again.

Also, share the light with others. Please. This may be our greatest charge as humans and our biggest source of failure. I don’t know you, but I love you. I think you are a good person. Come stand in the light with me; our togetherness will make it grow.

The magnetic poles have disappeared. Compasses are spinning wildly, madly. There is no true north. Or at least there isn’t in America.

We are losing our grasp on the difference between right and wrong. Worse yet, we can’t even agree on what is right or wrong. For instance: It is either always wrong to deny service to someone in a public place or it is not. Case in point (and without naming names), a Virginia restaurant that recently turned away a public official. Some people are fine with this decision. Others are irate to the point of flinging human waste. Several years ago, a bakery refused service to a former Democratic Vice President. Its owner was lauded as a hero and champion of first amendment rights and invited to speak at a rally for the current Speaker of the House. So which is it? Is it right (in which case apologies are due to the Virginia restaurant) or not (in which case apologies are due to the offended patrons)?

Because here’s the thing: It can’t be both. So often I read (usually in the comments section of a news article, which I should never, ever read) “well, it was okay when so-and-so did it.” Or “you didn’t get mad when [your guy] did it.” Morality is not built on “buts” and “yets.” Either a thing is wrong, and we all treat it that way, or it is right — and we accept it.

The problem is, we’ve lost all ability to suss out what we collectively believe to be right or wrong. Is it wrong to take children from their parents if they commit a misdemeanor (like shoplifting or illegally crossing the border) or no crime at all (seeking asylum, just walking down the street)? If so, it is always wrong, no matter what the skin tone of the child or parent. If it is always right, God help us.

I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. However, I think a country should have a moral backbone; we should stand for something. So what does America stand for? If it is civility and decency, those things must come from the top down. If it is making money and closing our ears to the plights of the less fortunate, it is time to own that position. Because if we don’t — if we don’t come together to decide what is acceptable moral behavior and what is not — not only do we become the biggest hypocrites on earth, we fail one another. We also fail God.

We are picking our teams
(red team, blue team)
with alacrity (rushing to
curry favor with the captain
of choice) in louder and louder
voices (playground voices;
no one listens to inside voices anymore)
touting superiority of size, of mind, of soul,
of strength and riches and greed and hatred.
We are choosing sides for a most important game.

The only trouble is
Jesus keeps getting picked last.

My friend Alice is collecting answers to the above question. Feel free to chime in. As for me, I always speak most clearly in poetry.

Providence is the hand of God in the world.
It is like the wind: You cannot see it,
you can only see what it does
(stir a sailboat, rustle a leaf
loosed from a tree),
and even this is best glimpsed
in your memory’s rear view mirror.
It is a confetti storm of pieces of paper,
a single word printed on each,
that somehow settles into a book.
You could have read it weeks ago,
but your eyes were not ready.
It is the tiniest movement of a fly
on a leaf that sends a drop of water
skittering to the ground below where
a seed has been mislaid, unlikely to ever
make anything of itself. Instead it flowers.
Perhaps it will be a rose, perhaps a cactus.
But even that will make sense when you are
lost in the desert, and in falling over, parched,
you break open the limb of a saguaro and there is water
cool and reviving, inside.*

 

 

* Just a metaphor. Do not do this in real life.

 

 

Clue: “Kid with X-Box changes left for right and makes an appeal.” Answer: Prayer, of course! As anyone who loves cryptic (or British) crosswords knows, the solution is right there in front of you. In cryptics, part of the clue provides the answer; the rest consists of the mechanics to get there. In this case, a kid with an X-Box is a “player”; you then exchange the “l” (“left”) for “r” (“right”) to get “an appeal,” which is “prayer.”

But why am I bothering to explain this? Either you already love cryptics (and found the answer annoyingly easy) or you have developed an antipathy merely from reading the opening paragraph of this post. I am obsessed with them, often creating my own clues (see above) just for the fun of playing with language. But I wonder, why do I so adore these puzzles? They are frustrating, hilarious, stupid, wickedly difficult, unfair and deeply satisfying. They are like my mind.

They are also a link to my family. When I was very young, I’d hear, from my bedroom at night, my mother and my Aunt Beverly working cryptics in the living room. They’d shriek with laughter. I wanted in. So I taught myself how to do them (there are a finite number of ways to solve the clues, such as hidden words, anagrams, charades, double meanings, etc.). I have spent many a happy hour since then unraveling these puzzles with my mom (with my father often playing straight man and voice of reason) or alone.

Maybe that’s why I’m so comfortable with the many mysteries of faith. Jesus is both God and man? Sure, why not? The Eucharist contains the real presence of Jesus? Stranger things have happened. Cryptic crosswords have opened my mind to the possibilities and seeming impossibilities of creation. I get why God made aardvarks and platypuses. I’ve never struggled with the lack of reason sometimes involved in spirituality. Because I believe the reason is there; it’s just hidden — cryptic, but present.

When I run into a problem with my faith, it does me good to remember my puzzles. I’ve often stared at a clue for hours before the answer clicks into place (“murder victim sounds qualified” had me stumped until I remembered our biblical friend Abel). Maybe faith is like that. Maybe our frustrations come not from a God who is inconsistent, but from our own inability to decipher his clues.

Because you gotta know that God is far more complicated than a crossword puzzle. But the joy of understanding God? A million times more rewarding than any puzzle could be.

 

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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