I went to an overnight a number of years ago with a bunch of adult women. It was held at the Canadian cabin of an opera friend and I knew about half of the 15 or so women present. Everyone was told to bring a question they would like the group to discuss. We put them in a basket anonymously and the hostess pulled them out randomly. The one I remember best was “What is your image of God?” It seemed silly to me. Everyone knows what God looks like—old guy, beard, kindly manner—just a grandpa version of all those Jesus pictures. But it turned out I was the ONLY person in the room who pictured that. People talked about light, energy waves, collective goodness. Nobody even said “a chubby black woman” which was the form God took in the book The Shack. This whole exchange not only shocked me but made me feel childish. My atheist ex-husband had once hurt me deeply by referring to my belief in God as nothing more than an infantile longing for daddy. Suddenly it seemed he might be right!
In the book The Lovely Bones the murdered young girl who narrates from heaven says that each person’s heaven is exactly what they most loved or had always dreamed of. As I recall, hers contained a gazebo in a park as that was what she liked best. That means my dad’s has an awesome golf course and Tom’s a killer guitar. This somehow freed me to be ok with my babyish God image. It’s alright that I picture God as a loving father who holds us and says kind and encouraging things and wants only what is in our very best interests—in the long-term, grow-your-soul kind of way. Thinking of energy fields or “the universe” as my higher power just doesn’t resonate so I am sticking with Grandpa.
My new minister is tackling the toughest of all sermon topics right now. He is preaching a series on why there is evil in the world; basically the Why Bad Things Happen to Good People quandry. He isn’t promising answers (smart, because if there were any I think we’d all be sitting fatter and happier than we are) but just a thorough examination. I think it takes an enormous amount of courage to take on this topic, especially during Lent when attendance and expectations are both pretty high. He laid out the big four seemingly incompatible assumptions:
- There is a God
- God is all powerful
- God is loving and good
- There is suffering in the world
He says that most people of faith have to let go of one of those four things in order to make any sense of the world. Rabbi Kushner who wrote the famous book Why Bad Things Happen to Good People had to let go of #2. God exists, loves us and weeps with us when horrible things happen, but doesn’t have the power to prevent or fix them. Others let go of #3. There is a God who is all powerful but he does not always seem loving because, like any good parent, he needs to teach us difficult lessons. Non-believers have already let go of #1 in favor of belief in humanity or chaos or pure science (no intelligent design here, thank you very much). Some people seem to be able to let go of #4 by what looks to me like denial—there is no real suffering because nothing of this world is real. At the “real” level we all exist as just spirit and thus none of what goes on here is of any lasting import. YIKES! I hate all of those choices. I am literally taking notes during this sermon series as I really want to know where a super smart and cool guy like my minister comes down on this question.
In the meantime I am going to compromise. I am sticking with Grandpa who loves me and does sometimes need to teach me stuff but not by inflicting horrible tragedies. Like most people I am compiling a very long list of questions for him when I get to heaven. But after Tom died I read virtually every book ever written by people who have had near-death experiences and it seems that’s not really how it goes down. Everybody describes the same scenario—the white light, the angel guide, being greeted by loved ones and a feeling of love, warmth, happiness and well-being so powerful that in one of the books a devoted mother of four with a great life on earth reports being devastated at the news that she had to go back to earth as it was not yet her time to die. She said all those questions you want to ask God just VANISH. The answers are suddenly so clear or maybe so unnecessary that there is just no need to pose the questions at all.
We live in our heads. We value our intellect above all else. We really want to figure stuff out and when we can’t it makes us bat-shit crazy! We are smart, we are resourceful. We can do this! Somebody must be withholding information like when the CIA and FBI both had pieces that could’ve prevented 9/11 if only they’d had a working relationship. But I am ok with the part of this conundrum that says “We may not actually know everything. We may not even be able to know everything”. It is maddening and a little insulting considering how highly we value our fine minds. I am not a patient person. I want answers and I want them now. But when my kids get to a certain point in explaining technology to me, where I feel like a 100 year-old woman whose brain is about to explode, I put my fingers in my ears and sing “la la la” at full volume. It is too much. I cannot take it in and make sense of it and that’s ok. Others can. I am really good with two year-olds and could teach pretty much anybody to play the piano. I don’t have to understand every last thing in our complicated world.
And there is this: Most deep, profound, lasting, life-changing growth seems to be a by-product of suffering. Alcoholics can’t recover before hitting rock bottom. Fields have to be burned to renew the earth for future planting. It may take some very deep digging, but usually even the most horrible event has some tiny kernel of hope or renewal buried in it. In Hanya Yanagihara’s beautiful but dark novel A Little Life, a character writes of the accidental breaking of a cherished keepsake by saying “This whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.” Does God do that rearranging? I don’t know. But I am keeping my chips on that square, because it brings me comfort. Because it makes me feel less alone. And yes, maybe because even at age 61, I could use a grandpa. Couldn’t we all? Amen.