And yet, here I am telling my four-year-old granddaughter Lucy that God made the rock she just asked about. We’ve climbed up on this granite outcropping surrounded by water and reeds on the marsh overlooking the Merrimack Bay near my house. We’ve brought chalk to draw on the rock. Her arms are around my neck. It’s low tide and the small of the mud flats is wonderful, so alive!
I say “and yet” because there’s this internal conversation. “You don’t know anything,” I say to myself, “why lie to her?” The other me answers, “But why pass on your doubts? She deserves a chance at certainty no matter how fleeting, and anyway you still beg God for help even on days when you don’t believe. For instance you’re on your face often enough praying for protection for Lucy.”
And that begging, called prayer keeps beckoning me back. Old habits die hard. Nothing kills faith faster than being or having been a so-called Christian leader. Mix in the bitter politics of the religious right, let a few years pass, change careers and get out of the God business, and pretty soon you ask – rather I asked myself – who needs this God nonsense?
It turns out that I do.
Who can I thank for my grandchild? Who can I ask to help my friend?
My granddaughter has questions. My friend H—- is dying. I pray all the time irrespective of “belief” levels or sincerity.
God doesn’t seem to care what I believe. He/She/It moves me by beauty, by grandchildren, by children, by love, by gratitude for my deluxe guardian angel Genie – I’ve been married to her for 42 years and unlike (most) angels she has sex with me – and by something else real and nagging: a longing in the heart for the tune I knew but forgot.
This “tune” is a melody of faith retained. It isn’t about right belief. It is about the experience of meaning in the context of short mortal life.
So I told Lucy “God made that rock.” This was after she asked me where it came from and who made it.
You see Lucy watches me build. So she assumes someone made whatever she sees because she sees me make things. I’ve been a mason and carpenter since I was a teen and thus Lucy is used to the idea of coming home after her “Ba” (that’s me) has built an addition to her house for her parents, or renovated a bathroom, or poured concrete for a new deck. When I took Lucy to a hardware store when she was three a sales person asked her – in a talk-down-to-children sugary sweet voice — “and what would you like?” She was probably expecting an answer along the lines of candy or dolls. Without missing a beat Lucy (that blond lovely bright eyed child) answered “A chain saw.”
I could see that the sales person now had to rethink certain assumptions. I also got a weird look as in “Just what sort of people are you?” I could have told the bemused sales lady that Lucy lives across the street from me. I could have said that she is a gift along with her little brother Jack, a gift to her parents but also to Genie and me.
Lucy the daughter of a returned-from-war Marine, my son John. To see Lucy and Jack walk down the same driveway that held such terror for me is the gift. The drive held terror while John fought in Afghanistan and Iraq back in the early days of our interminable misbegotten wars. What I expected every day was the sound of tires crunching on the piece stone and the knock on the door by two Marines in dress blue uniforms one of whom would say, “I regret to inform you…”
Instead Lucy and Jack walk down that cracked old drive to the house and we “dine,” as Lucy likes to call it. We listen to Beethoven’s 9th (fourth movement) full blast where the choir kicks in and we all pretend we’re directing the orchestra. This is the heaven of life rather than the hell of loss.
Which brings up the question: Why am I a nicer person than God? I mean there’s nothing John or my other two children Jessica and Francis could do, let alone my four grandchildren could do to me that would make me condemn them forever. And that brings up another question, then maybe there is no God, or maybe my ideas about that God – or should I say the ideas I was indoctrinated with – were wrong.
On the other hand between the politicizing of right wing churches, the theology of retribution – Jesus died to satisfy an angry two-faced god (sometimes kind, sometimes mean), the commercialization of the God Business, my own horrible sins – I slapped my children, screamed at my wife, have been selfish, nasty and petty — what can be left of faith?
This is especially a question that relates to the Wizard of Oz: pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! But what if you’re that man? What if you were good at fooling most of the people (in your corner of the evangelical ghetto) most of the time, were even sincere – at least at first – and believed your own BS?
How to find faith, or even consider God again, when so much of what you’ve touched, let alone have been, is God-awful in the name of God?
Is there a God? If there is does he hate you? Did Jesus “die for our sins”? What sort of a “god” would continue the terrible cycle of sin, retribution and sacrifice up to such a crazy point as the murder of his own child to satisfy some sort of blood lust masquerading as justice?
But my grandchildren, Lucy and Jack and Ben and Amanda, love me. And my children (now grown) are my best friends and forgave me for my youthful Calvinism-fueled certainties that led to such domineering stupidity. And Genie stayed.
And they did all this without having to choose one of their number to die for any of us on a cross so I would not be angry. They did this because of the goodness in their hearts, because they rewarded repentance with forgiveness.
How does brain science explain that? Maybe the truth of something greater than ourselves is in fact true, that “something” being the voice, the way, the teaching best embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—who did not take revenge but forgave even his killers.
Maybe his death wasn’t about satisfying an angry God but about breaking the cycle of revenge forever and answering the murder of innocence and an innocent victim with forgiveness for all. If that Jesus, that God is the creator then he’s worth telling Lucy about — even on days I don’t believe, which on many days I don’t.
Belief, faith, ideas, let alone certainties are a dime a dozen and go up and down. Sincerity is an overrated virtue.
We pick and choose. And I pick Jesus to follow – correction — try to follow, fail to follow, wish I could follow and hope to follow. I pick that person and his life even when I know that the accounts about him can’t always be trusted because the Bible is a leaky sieve of a document.
Yes, there is clear cool water there but the container is full of holes. The water still tastes good though, when you can get some– say when Lucy looks into your eyes and trusts you even though you don’t deserve it. Sometimes it’s almost possible to believe in second chances.
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