Resistance

I think I’ve mentioned before that I totally get where Jonah was coming from. Or going to. Or not going to, to be specific. I connect with his reluctance to tackle a job he doesn’t especially want. Or to work with people he doesn’t particularly like. Or maybe Jonah is loathe to go there because he doesn’t like who he becomes (self-righteous, angry, vindictive) in that hostile, foreign place, and the only way through the situation requires humility, creativity, flexibility and a willingness to change – not just the Ninevites – but himself, which is infinitely less fun. And super stinking hot.

I’m sitting on a hard, cold bench in a wide, noisy hallway downtown, and I’m really, really trying to pray that I will be exactly where God needs me, but I don’t want to be here. It’s my sacred Tuesday, and I want to be curled up in a cozy chair, wearing jeans and a favorite sweater, with a hot cup of tea at my side and a new book (or two) in my lap, the dogs at my feet. I would enjoy a little rain outside, especially if it’s not my day to drive carpool. I would settle for tennis shoes and running gear, even if the morning’s tasks require picking up the puppy prizes, paying bills and answering emails.

Neither of these scenarios, however, appears to be where God wants me today.

I’ve been summoned for jury duty. In the criminal courthouse. On a domestic ugliness charge. There will be testimony from a dentist. It’s not going to be pretty. I’m honestly, truly trying to bloom where I’m planted, and to be attentive, optimistic, and whole-hearted, but I’m already sick to my stomach. The judge then informs us that the defendant will be representing himself, which, of course, he is entitled to do. Apparently his experience having been convicted of two prior felonies has provided him with the confidence to act as his own counsel. My intellect and my instinct are wrestling, each struggling to be the first through the closest exit.

I do believe in due process, but it’s never convenient. I’ve appeared more than a few times and even served on a couple juries, and when the system works, it’s enormously satisfying. It restores my faith in our countrymen. When the system fails, it makes me think we should seriously consider a system of professional jurors, because the defendant’s peers are wholly unqualified to tell the time (evidenced by their consistent tardiness), let alone make a rational judgment on the matter of guilt.

It is not always easy for me to surrender to where I’m supposed to be. Sometimes I don’t want to bring the best version of myself to the table. I want to bring the sloppy, grouchy version so she will be excused early and sent home to read her book, and let everybody else sort out the mess. But I know what a bad day looks like, and it’s not jury duty. Not even on a Tuesday.

Surrendering was an entirely different matter as a newly-widow. I don’t believe in a God who plans every single detail of our lives. I bristle at the words “God’s plan.” After Sam’s suicide, well-meaning, faithful people often uttered their belief in life and God’s plan, but I got stuck on that phrase, God’s plan. God planned this? I have more than a few thoughts on God’s so-called plan. Honestly. I am not in charge, but maybe I should be. I can think of hundreds of better plans than pushing a kind and caring husband and father off the top of a four-story structure. This is His divine commission for Sam? For me?

No, thank you.

I don’t believe in a God who plans tragedy, but I do believe in a God who is present with us in the muddle. I believe in the One who holds us firmly and safely while we wage our internal struggle to come to terms with the gap between what we wish was and what in fact is. I trust the God who loves each one of us for who we are – our flawed, reluctant, beautiful selves. I pray to the God who gently catches the man who, in his pain and illness and despair, commits a terribly tragic act, leaving his wife and two little boys abandoned, confused and devastated. And I have come to know the God who scoops up those little boys and their mother and holds their broken hearts together in the palm of His hand.

Jury service should be comparatively easy.

Two blocks from the criminal courthouse is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. I have been there a couple times, and each time I am arrested by the stunning tapestries displayed along the walls of the sanctuary. Saints, regular old people and young people, line the walls, all of them radiant and focused. Each person an original. A reminder of the saints living among us, and the living saints we are, not because of our perfection, but by virtue of our participation.

When the judge releases us for lunch, I dash up the hill to the cathedral, hoping to catch the daily 12:10 mass and a sense of peace and clarity. The priest is young, with a heavy accent, and it is clear that, while English is his second (or third or fourth, more likely) language, he has invested a lot of time preparing for this service. The Gospel reading covers one of the many times that Jesus disagreed with the lawyers on a point of law. The priest’s homily was about four sentences long, with the simple message that lovingkindness is more important than legalism, which thoroughly amuses me because you can see the courthouse steps from the cathedral steps. But the most profound truth the priest uttered was at the very beginning of the service, when he smiled and opened his arms wide, in a gesture of greeting and inclusion. He said: “Welcome to this holy mess.”

Indeed.

It is a mess. God may not have planned every sordid detail ahead of time, He might not control all the particulars, but He is here with us in the mix, and we need all hands on deck. Like all the individual saints lined up on the tapestries, heading in the same direction, united in purpose, each wearing a unique style of shoe. We need each other’s differences, perspectives and skills. We will not see eye to eye on every issue. Probably not on most issues. But when you look at the eyes of the saints on the tapestries, their eyes are not on each other. All eyes are forward, looking toward Jesus. Looking toward the light.

I can do that.

I take my most authentic self to the place where I am. Today, that’s a criminal courtroom downtown. I bring a smile, an open mind, attentive ears and a book. Because chances are good that my patience will be tried in this holy mess.

***

Wishing you light and strength on today’s path. Welcome to this holy mess.

The Hard Questions

I was presented with many difficult questions in the wake of Sam’s death. Single plot or double? How would you like the obituary to read? Did you have any clue he was in so much pain? Will you stay in the house? What are you going to tell the children? Are you going to change your name? And, of course, the ubiquitous Why?

But the hardest questions come from the children. Usually at bedtime, when it’s dark (in both the physical and metaphorical sense), and we are tired and vulnerable. This is also the time when the world recedes to the background, and we settle into our own space, reflect and breathe. “Mommy,” the little boy asks, looking at me from his father’s brown eyes, “Do you think that if Daddy had loved me more, he wouldn’t have committed suicide?” And then, “Mommy, is Daddy in heaven?”

On the one hand, I feel wholly unqualified to answer these questions. Parenting books and several diplomas did not prepare me for this discussion. Complicated enough for a master’s thesis, but with a six-year old audience. On the other hand, the platitudes and sometimes hurtful responses that we hear in our daily walk are not what I want to feed my kids. I’m not a trained theologian, I’m just a mom. But I do love my sons, and I understand their sensitivities, and maybe these are all the credentials I need to provide honest, thoughtful answers (or at a minimum, a compassionate response) to questions that young children should not ever have to contemplate.

I put aside my own bitterness at life’s unfairness and my resentment toward the kid who told my little boy that his father didn’t love him enough and that people who commit suicide automatically go straight to hell. We snuggle under a blanket, and together my son and I unravel the hard questions.

I inhale slowly and start with what I know.

I know your father loved you with every fiber of his being. You are his delight, his defining moment, his compass. Your daddy was kind and smart and helpful and honest and funny and hard-working and faithful and everything that good people are supposed to be. If, by loving more, Sam could have fended off the Angel of Death, he would have. There is no doubt in my mind on this point. Unfortunately, love is not the deciding factor here. This is hard for me to say out loud, because I really do believe in the power of love to restore, heal and redeem. But love is not enough to stop the cancer from spreading, love alone does not preclude all suffering, and love does not stop death from knocking on the door. Love does not stop good men from dying, it does not keep little boys’ hearts from breaking. Or an adult man’s heart either.

Oh and there’s this, too, based primarily on my experience in the local Urgent Care (and yes, with four sons, this is not an insignificant investment of time). Every part of the human physiology is geared for self-preservation. From the moment an injury occurs, the body begins the healing process. It is no small miracle. Suicidal thoughts and actions are not signs of a normal, healthy human biology; there must be some kind of hormonal, chemical or psychological imbalance. Daddy had to have been sick. Clearly, he was not himself. And isn’t the anguish of depression and suicidal brooding hell enough? If he can be faulted for making a mistake, his mistake was that he didn’t ask for help. But he was a human being, in a human body, with a human mind. The combination of which has been known to result in mistakes.

I cannot believe that a loving God (and I do believe in a loving God) would punish us for being sick (or by making us sick), and furthermore God forgives us for making mistakes. Here’s the thing. I’m a pretty good mother, but I’m not perfect. My children get sick and my children make mistakes and even I  — in my imperfect, glitchy state — still love them. I have to believe that God is a more loving parent than I am. At least, I hope so. 

So, no. I do not believe that if he had loved you more, he would have stayed. He loved you with all that he had, and he is gone anyway. And yes, yes, yes, I tell my heartbroken little boy, your father is indeed in heaven.

For added theological support, I run the question by our family priest (who also holds a degree in psychology), and he said yes, too. In fact, he added that “God is all the more merciful at such a tragic moment. This is mercy. This is our God.”

To which my son and I both say Amen.

Of course, I might have exercised my maternal discretion to edit the good Father’s version if he had drawn a different conclusion. Believe me, the visual I have created for myself of my late Jewish husband hanging out with St. Peter brings me great joy.

As a mother to grieving children, I do my best to provide authentic answers to all of their difficult questions, and to honor each boy’s unique healing journey.

At times, my words spill out naturally, without conscious thought, and yet I recognize their truth. When the policemen were still in my house, having just delivered the news of Sam’s death, I heard myself saying, with one child tucked under each of my arms, in a clear, unwavering voice, “Your father’s love for you will protect you for your entire lives.” I had not previously considered this idea. After all, I had known I was widowed for about 17 minutes, but in the moment I heard those words coming out of my own mouth, I knew them to be true.

And there are times, when the most accurate truth I can speak is, “I don’t know.” But I will think about it. I will read about it. I might even ask a professional about it. Most importantly, the boys and I will stumble forward in the darkness of not-knowing, and together we will live our way to the answer. We find our own way through this uncharted territory. In this place, we discover that love’s true strength lies in the power of its presence. Love’s tender presence, even in the absence of fairness, logic and understanding. And we become aware that not only my love, but Sam’s love for his children is with them still.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the voice to answer life’s hard questions.

Holiday Hangover

I am struggling to crawl out from under the holiday rock. I am not entirely unhappy to leave the holidays in my rear view mirror, but I am relatively unprepared to face the New Year. Although we successfully navigated another December – with much joy, some sorrow and altogether too many sweets – the January road appears to hold a few pitfalls and some steep terrain of its own. Not to mention a special somebody who is adding a touch of toxic to my day.

I suffer from teeny perfectionist tendencies, and I really do not care to be bullied. My inner control freak is terrified of failure and its evil twin sister, criticism. Three years in law school, along with several years in the practice, might have exacerbated this particular character flaw. Coincidentally, my son and I are experiencing parallel courses of intestinal distress: he has the flu and I am sick to my stomach with dread while my hackles are rising with the feeling of being unjustly attacked.

I think about a friend of mine, a faithful woman who has known her share of unfair persecution (is there any other kind?). With an impish sparkle in her blue eyes, she tells me that she refers to individuals who engage such an aggressive posture as “God’s beloved.”

At least God loves the undeserving wretch, because I am not feeling it.

The whole situation with my “God’s beloved” reminds me why I got out of the litigation game. The hostility makes me sick to my stomach. In an attempt to regain a sense of calm and perspective, I try all my favorite techniques. I pray, meditate, and walk the dog. I wear kick-ass pointy cowboy boots and a cozy sweater. I flirt with my husband. I ask a girlfriend to pray for me, and I pray for her. I wrap the gifts I brought home for the boys when I was traveling last week. Nothing seems to quiet my head or my heart. Or my stomach.

As I am running errands in the late afternoon, I notice a woman who lives in town filling up her gas tank. I know her from my former life as a lawyer. She hasn’t recognized me in years, not since I traded my suit and heels for maternity wear and a designer dog, but she knows my name. Way back when, she and her brother landed themselves in an ugly dispute over their mother’s estate. I represented her brother in the lawsuit. While the good news for me was that my client won, this outcome also resulted in a couple of very nasty interactions. I do not appreciate being blasted in my hometown Ralphs, especially when I am right. I didn’t react, but my insides were churning with the bitterness of injustice. I can’t exactly remember what she said, but I’m sure it would have been preferable if she had simply called me “God’s beloved.” The problem with the litigation paradigm is that it’s about right and wrong, winners and losers. And everybody is left with ulcers.

My mother calls to check up on the sick kid and to confirm I’ve returned home safely. I assure her that the boy is feeling better, and I confide in her that the disappointments and ceaseless woes are at it again. My mother is sympathetic, but she hardly ever says anything negative. As in, never. Not even against bullies who are creating angst and misery in her daughter’s life, which to be honest I was sort of hoping she would. Instead, she says, “Oh dear.”

The edgiest thing she says is, “You just have to love the hell out of him.” And I can hear her smiling, blue eyes twinkling like a mischievous little girl, because she just said “hell.”

This love business can be downright infuriating. I do not WANT to love somebody who doesn’t DESERVE it. My instinct is to blast several choice words in the direction of God’s beloved, throwing in a few cheap insults for good measure. I don’t actually do it, but I do fantasize about it. My poor mother would wonder where I came from, except that my physical resemblance to her is striking. I imagine that more than once she has sighed, turned to my father, and said, “We just have to love the hell out of her.”

I stumble across this quote from Vincent Van Gogh: “Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well.”

I’m not sure I’m up to the whole love bit, but I do want to perform well. Maybe I could be loving, not because somebody else deserves it, but because I do. Because by choosing to love, I bring out my best effort, my own best self.

A few years ago, I saw the sister from the long ago litigation, in a place I didn’t expect to see her. She had become the crossing guard at my kids’ elementary school. The woman who used to flip me off at the local grocery store would now be entrusted with the safety and well-being of my sons. I wanted to throw up.

But she didn’t seem to recognize me.

I introduced myself and asked her name. She still didn’t register that I was the one who had represented her brother, and she ushered my kids safely across the intersection. We chatted briefly several mornings a week. I brought her See’s Candies for Christmas, and she gave me tangerines from her tree. She continued to protect my children for several years until my youngest son graduated. Now when we see each other in town, she smiles and waves.

Our brief interaction reminds me that Love’s dynamic is ultimately more powerful than the path of anger and aggression. In fact, we are, each one of us, God’s very own. Beloved.

I finally reach that sacred place, feeling the assurance that I am loved. Perhaps not by “God’s beloved,” but by God Herself. Even when vindictive people spew intentionally hurtful venom. Safe in the arms of Love, I find my peace. Not because I am right, but because I belong to Love. My own blue eyes sparkle again.

And I am ready to head into January with renewed confidence, strength and love.

***

Wishing you strength and light on your New Year’s path. And a sparkle in your eyes.