Grace in the Maybe
There was a time when I knew everything about God. I was young (you’re not surprised) and relatively arrogant (now you’re really not surprised). My team always won when we played Bible trivia games in my church youth group. I knew the stories of Jonah and Daniel and Saul like they were my own family stories; I could quote the most popular Bible verses; I memorized the order of the biblical books and could spell all their names. In the denomination my husband, Scott, was raised in, they had a name for people like me: Bible Quizzers. These Bible Quizzers would enter a districtwide competition. They would learn strategies about how to be the fastest student out of her chair in order to answer a question. They would order customized team shirts. Like marathon runners, these Quizzers would prep and train for months before the big day. I got really jealous when Scott told me about all of this; it could have been my chance for glory.
Somewhere along the way, I lost all that knowledge about God—or at least I began to realize how much there was to learn. Each day that I was a Christian seemed to be a step
backward in understanding my faith. I started acknowledging the questions in my heart, began discussing those questions with friends and fellow saints—as those in the church are called, however undeserving the label may sometimes seem. And I discovered, after whining about how difficult all of this Christian stuff was, that the mystery of not knowing was also absolutely, undeniably wonderful.
It seems that some Christians never come to this realization, and they continue living lives of faith in which the answers about God, the universe, heaven, hell, and existence are abundantly and exceedingly clear. How nice for them. I don’t mean to generalize about this type of person, but I know that the category exists because I come in contact with them often: on television, on blogs, on billboards. “God’s Word is clear!” they often say. And somehow, their interpretations of the Bible are always, obviously the correct ones. Anyone else is wandering off into heretical territory, distorting the true Word of God for a lie.
i discovered that the mystery of not knowing was also absolutely, undeniably wonderful.
I can’t say that I envy people who view God this way, as they tend to miss out on the mystery and beauty of not knowing. This occurred to me recently during discussions I had with some Christians over Internet blogs and social media. Admittedly, this was a terrible idea, and I knew going in that trying to have any sort of honest discourse over hot-button issues via the Internet would land me nowhere but angry. I was right, but more, I was struck by how hollow the arguments sounded.
They were the same things, sometimes the very same words, I had said when I was a young Christian. Defensive, definitive, unrelenting, often arrogant.
A better Christian would probably forgive this sort of person. A better Christian would take Jesus’ They-Know-Not-What-They-Do attitude, point out the goodness in the lives of even people who are irritatingly cocky and judgmental, add that their own sins are so great that they couldn’t possibly fault somebody else for theirs. But I am only a mediocre Christian. I mess up quite often. I struggle with pride and self-loathing, sometimes at the same time. I go around saying, as Anne Lamott has joked that “I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness—that I am one of the other kind.”1
It is, perhaps, dangerous to begin a book on faith with this sort of confession. I should pretend, at least for a few pages, to be a person of substance and inner purity, someone who is nice most of the time, someone who, if painted during the Renaissance, would get a glowing halo. But this would only leave me feeling dishonest, and you, probably, pissed off. Either that or you would take some of the quotations from my book and make bumper stickers out of them.
Writing personal reflections—essays—has been a surprisingly natural fit for me in writing about God. The form is one that wanders, that claims no particularly special knowledge or authority; its grounding is in personal experience, and it seeks to make sense of things by asking questions and telling stories. This appeals to me precisely because, as Flannery O’Connor has noted, if a writer of faith “hopes to reveal mysteries, he
will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is.”2
I’m happy to leave the podium to experts—men and women of faith who have studied hard, who have lived lives of compassion longer than I’ve been alive, and who probably could have beaten me at Bible Quizzing. I enjoy the amateur’s seat. It seems natural to write about God from this perspective—a God whom I know but also one in whom I believe. I’ve never seen Him with physical eyes and certainly don’t claim to always understand Him. Truth be told, even the greats—the specialists we’ve come to regard as experts about God—usually end up feeling like amateurs as they seek to explain God. The good ones, anyway.
• • •
The following reflections are organized around the liturgical church calendar. As a Protestant, I’d not grown up hearing much about such a calendar. Terms like Lent were reserved strictly for Catholics, and I possessed, for a variety of different reasons, a healthy amount of suspicion for anything not exclusively Protestant. Since then, I’ve noticed a longing for a tangible way to order my days, Protestant or not. Most Americans tend to order their lives in other ways: around the academic calendar or the fiscal year or basketball season. While all of these methods have their place, none of them really speaks to the deepest part of me, the part that desires a more spiritual focus, the part that desires to know God. The liturgical church calendar was adopted by the very early church, according to theologian Robert Webber, as a practice for focusing one’s life on Jesus Christ; it is a way of remembering, year after year, his
ministry, his death, his resurrection. Thousands of churches across the globe use passages from the lectionary in tandem to guide their holy day worship, and I like the idea of having this solidarity with worshippers I’ve never met and perhaps never will meet. More than that, it seems important that the way I order my life be in keeping with what I treasure most.
• • •
The first time I went fishing, my dad took my brother and me down to a very meager pond. Actually, it was more like a watering hole. Both Hutch and I had beginner poles—mine was blue and white and had a Snoopy emblazoned on it. Dad taught us how to bait the hooks, and we practiced for weeks the correct way to extend our arms behind us and release the line at just the right time to result in a perfect cast. We were bouncing with excitement, and I remember Dad cautioning us: “Fishing takes patience. We might not catch anything, all day, and that will be fine. We’ll go out again.”
The pebbly shoreline didn’t deter us from running down to the water’s edge, bending over at the waist to peer into the dark.
“I see one!” Hutch declared. He pointed excitedly at a zippy shape in the water, and my dad chuckled.
“Then let’s get those lines in the water!”
I think mine was in first, and within a matter of seconds, I felt a tug at the end of my line. My eyes widened, and I looked immediately to my father for help.
“Give it a little tug,” he said. “Not too much.” Like that, he helped me lure in a glistening fish. My first one, wimpy in size but spunky in fight.
“Don’t get used to that,” Dad said. “They don’t usually come that quickly.”
But when Hutch cast, he got a similar response. We pulled in fish after fish that morning, after a while not even bothering to bait the line; they’d bite whether we tempted them or not. The pond was teeming with fish.
It was an anomaly, to be sure. Since that day, I’ve never had a fishing experience quite like it, even though we went back to that same pond later to try again. Most of my expeditions since have involved few glimpses of actual fish. Was it simply the time of year that made the catch so plentiful? Or maybe the pond had been recently restocked? Some would say we were just lucky, that the season and the weather conditions and the water-to-algae ratio and the stars all aligned and we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Still others would insist that I’m remembering it wrong. I’ll never know the truth.
the surprise might be exactly what makes it worthwhile.
An experienced fisherman will tell you that, no matter how good you are, you will not always catch fish like this. An experienced fisherman will tell you that fishing is a lesson in patience, in being prepared, in learning the circumstances and locations and times most conducive to catching fish, and in being there. But he will also tell you that there’s an element of pure surprise about it all. The surprise might be exactly what makes it worthwhile.
Grace in the Maybe
what to expect when (you have no idea what) you are expecting
Some days, especially in early spring and late fall, the wind in Kansas can’t decide on a direction. It whips around tall grasses, girls’ skirts, and strands of hair, flings them skyward and lets go just as fast, dances with dried leaves and felled blossoms, skips across dirt and concrete. If it’s warm outside, I love these days. Perhaps it comes from growing up near the Pacific Ocean, where wind belongs to the coastlines and smells like water, even if you’re an hour’s drive from the sea. Perhaps it is just the feel of moving air against bare skin, the unfathomable idea that that same air was miles away only moments before.
Most of my friends find this love for the wind odd; they fear tornadoes and bad hair days, and they hate not being able to read their newspapers outside. They like days that are still, and I can’t blame them. The wind mixes things up, gets dirt in your eyes, makes your umbrella flip inside out, causes you to yank at the bottom of your dress so you don’t unintentionally flash passersby. It is inconvenient, but for me, it is powerful
and alive. It makes me think of God and the stories that parents tell their children about how God is in the weather: crying when it rains, smiling through miles of sky in rays of sunshine, moving the clouds around like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In the wind, He must be whispering down to us, reminding us that He is out there, powerful, unpredictable, profoundly and utterly mysterious.
• • •
When I was pregnant with my first child, the term expecting never really sat well with me; it may have even added to the morning sickness.
“Just call me pregnant,” I told people, “or maybe full with child.” Those descriptions seemed more apt. I would even rather have been referred to as having a bun in the oven, and because I am a writer and ardent hater of clichés, that should tell you something. The term expecting suggests to me a sort of certainty or knowledge about what is coming, and since this was my first bun in said oven, I had little of either.
I suppose there are a few things I expected, like having to buy bigger pants, but most of the time I felt ill prepared to expect anything at all. The only baby books I had in my house were borrowed because purchasing one—the right one—seemed too daunting. (The sole exception was the newest edition of Baby Bargains, which was not frightening because it involves only shopping.) On the rare occasion that I did crack open one of those borrowed books, I got only as far as how big the kid was that week, what sort of fruit or vegetable was comparable to it in size. When the author started getting too specific, describing things like how developed the baby’s
lungs are, for instance, I freaked out and moved on to Martha Stewart Living. Keeping hydrangeas alive seemed much simpler than building lungs, even though I had killed the last two plants I owned before the season was over.
Perhaps the overwhelming nature of what it means to be carrying a child plunged me into a state of denial. It was strange, for instance, to call what used to be my stomach—or sometimes, when I am in a Pilates phase, my abs—a “belly.” (As far as I know, only Santa Claus, beer guzzlers, and pregnant women have bellies.) Little bits of change at a time are all I can handle. That’s why, when the sonogram technician asked my husband, Scott, and me if we’d like to know the sex of the baby, I said no. We asked, instead, that she write it down and put it in a sealed envelope. She did, and that envelope was then tucked away in a safe place. Contrary to my dad’s belief that I peeked and was just refusing to tell anybody, I wasn’t even tempted to look. Knowing there would be a little human around in just a few months, an actual living, breathing, crying, growing-up human, was enough information for me at that point. I was still struggling with the big pants.
i suppose there are a few things i expected, like having to buy bigger pants, but most of the time i felt ill prepared to expect anything.
Some women try to tell you what to expect. In fact, once your belly is of the size that even strangers feel comfortable in asking your due date, anyone who answers to the name “mom” will give you advice, solicited or not, on how to get rid of morning sickness, what kind of stroller works best on
rough terrain, and how to deal with nipple chafing. They want to know all about your birth plan, if you are getting the epidural, and whether or not you want to breast-feed. Then, they will offer their opinions regarding (usually) why you are wrong. Although I can acknowledge their good intentions, I mostly ignored their advice.
My birth plan, at that point, was dreadfully incomplete anyway. The work sheet my midwife gave me asked questions ranging from “When (if ever) would you like your health care professional to instigate a C-section?” to “Would you like background music?” and “What sort of lighting is most comfortable for you?” Pardon me for being unable to decide if I’d like James Taylor’s “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)” or Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” playing while I’m pushing, groaning, and sweating out a tiny person. I just didn’t know.
who expects preposterous?
• • •
It really makes me feel for the Virgin Mary when I think about all the news she got at once: (1) You’re pregnant; (2) He’s the Son of God; (3) I know you haven’t had sex yet. We’re calling you “Immaculate”; (4) His name will be Jesus, which means “God with Us”; and (5) You’ll have to buy bigger pants.
It seems ironic to me that Advent, the first season of the church calendar, the season celebrating the events leading up to Christ’s birth, is a time of expectation. What, exactly, was Mary to expect? What was Israel to expect? They had been promised a conquering Savior—and now here was this kid. This kid, born to a virgin, destined to die a ridiculous death on
a cross before his thirty-fifth birthday. It was preposterous. It is preposterous. Who expects preposterous?
The acceptance of the preposterous, the irrational, the unexplainable, the unexpected, shows up frequently in the Bible: when Abraham and Sarah are told to expect a child in the (very) late years of their lives, or when Joseph is sent to prison after being promised that he will be made a leader, or when Saul, a well-known persecutor of Jews, becomes a convert and eventually a major contributor to the New Testament.
It’s difficult to name the baffling and the uncertain as part of the Christian experience, especially when so much of American fundamentalism is based upon being absolutely certain of its tenets of faith. I remember seeing a T-shirt in a Christian-bookstore catalog many years ago that read: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” I wanted that shirt. I cut the picture out of the catalog and hung it up on my bulletin board with other inspirational phrases and verses. It was such a wonderful mantra: confident, bold, assured. It meant that I knew exactly what I was doing in this world, and that is quite a feat to have accomplished by high school. I lived that way, too. I told other people, like my Mormon prom date, that they were going to hell if they didn’t change their ways. I argued with my biology teacher about coming from monkeys. I prayed at the flagpole that American schools wouldn’t continue to keep God out of the classroom. I felt 100 percent sure that I was right. After all, God said it.
As years went by, the “it” that God said began to feel a bit murkier. After all, God didn’t really say anything specific about Mormons or monkeys or flagpoles. I started wondering,
in the smallest, darkest parts of my mind and heart, whether I was right to have believed it and settled it so easily. I couldn’t pretend that God was speaking to me audibly, giving me insight into exactly who could be expected in heaven and how they were formed and created without the help of evolution or school boards. He was only whispering.
• • •
From the beginning of time, when the waters covered the great expanse of the earth, God has been whispering:
And the earth was waste and void;
and darkness was upon the face of the deep:
and the RUACH of God moved upon the face of the waters.1
The Hebrew word ruach is used more than 375 times in the Bible, beginning with the reference in Genesis 1:2. Its root means “moving air,” whether in the form of breath, storm winds, or gentle breezes, and it is usually translated in English as “wind.” Ruach is used when God breathes first life into Adam, when he separates the Red Sea so Moses and the Israelites can pass safely through, and when Jesus breathes his last on the cross. Breath is tied closely to a person’s creation of words, so it’s not too much of a jump to say that ruach, in each of these references, might also indicate the state of God’s heart and mind. It is God’s presence, felt and witnessed in winds great enough to separate a sea and weak enough to be expelled as one’s last gasp as he suffocates during crucifixion.
• • •
My friend Maria, who was pregnant the same time I was, used to get mad at me because my breasts weren’t expanding as rapidly as hers. I was just as mad. She had to buy two new bras within the first couple months of her pregnancy, while I was just beginning to fill out my old one. My pregnant breasts were as dainty as my regular breasts, and my delusions of bountiful cleavage—even cleavage that lasted only a few months—rapidly faded. As we compared things like who had worse morning sickness, whose lower back hurt more, and whose belly button looked less like an actual belly button, we both ended up feeling as though we’d gotten the short end of the pregnancy stick. We shouldn’t have subjected ourselves to these endless comparisons, but all I could expect of pregnancy was what I had seen happen to other women who were, or who had been, pregnant. This isn’t really expectation. Especially considering that every book I read or woman I spoke to summed it up this way: every woman is different.
Although I prepared for pregnancy by reading the books, filling out birth-plan work sheets, comparing my belly button to anyone else’s who would let me, I couldn’t know how to explain or imagine the feel of tiny fists and elbows nudging me from inside my abdomen. And I couldn’t even begin to understand how it would feel to hold my son or daughter for the first time. My expectations of motherhood were astoundingly small and shortsighted, but who could blame me? How could I possibly expect what was in store?
• • •
“Where there is doubt, faith has its reason for being,”2
writes Daniel Taylor in The Myth of Certainty. “Clearly faith is not
needed where certainty supposedly exists, but only in situations where doubt is possible, even present.” When I read this in college, an almost physical sense of relief came over me. I highlighted the sentence, along with most of the other sentences on the page, and went to bed happy that I didn’t have to decide anymore whether any of my former prom dates or the indigenous, un-churched people of the Australian outback would go to heaven. I didn’t even have to be constantly certain that there is a God.
Since then, doubt has been more a solidification of my faith than a hindrance to it. It seems only logical that a God—a God—would far surpass any of my expectations about who He is and how He should behave. If He wants to be preposterous, who am I to tell Him otherwise?
I have never felt God’s presence more completely than I did at the very end of my labor. The baby had crowned (and apparently wanted to stay in that uncomfortable position longer than I’d have liked), and I breathed deeply in the short times between contractions.
In the back of my mind, I remembered stories of other women’s labors I’d heard of or seen. Most of them were on television sitcoms, where women cursed at their husbands for getting them into “this mess” and screamed at the tops of their lungs because some intern had flubbed the epidural. Labor was not as frightening for me. In fact, while it wasn’t a feeling I was anxious to repeat when my second child came along, labor was the best kind of pain because it was not just pain, but work.
“That’s right,” my midwife said, “just breathe that baby
out.” This was one of Debbie’s favorite pieces of encouragement. Though it was mildly offensive to my prelabor self who was certain, after being indoctrinated by enough Friends episodes, that I could expect dramatic pain during (and perfect makeup and hair after) the labor. But the phrase soothed me in the end stages of giving birth. Of course, calling the moaning and puffing I was doing “breathing” is a bit liberal, but the methodic ins and outs of breath did help the baby down the birth canal. Soon, the same tiny fists and elbows I’d felt for months inside me emerged, brand-new, and I felt each one give a final prod before the midwife laid a gasping baby boy on my naked chest. I could feel his heartbeat on mine; both of them were fast with effort, relief, delight.
doubt has been more a solidification of my faith than a hindrance to it.
That moment must be similar to the first few seconds of a free fall, or maybe how Mozart felt when he finished a particularly astonishing sonata: I can’t believe I just did that. The nurses smiled, massaged the blood into his limbs, and worked quickly to suction the gunk out of his air passages so he could breathe.
I’ve heard before that in ancient times, very devout men and women respected the word Yahweh, the name of the Lord, so deeply that they did not speak it or write it; they chose instead a good substitute like Elohim or Adonai. I’ve also heard that those who needed to write it did a cleansing ritual every time they did. (I did not cleanse just then, I confess.) I’ve reminded myself of this serious sacredness whenever I use God’s name in an under-my-breath, offhand way. Although
I am impressed by this respect for God’s holiness, I probably will never understand it well enough to emulate it. I’m not even sure what the cleansing entailed or if there was, perhaps, a limit on the number of times you could physically write it. But Franciscan priest Richard Rohr notes that the Hebrew spelling of God’s name, YHVH, is literally an unspeakable word for the Jewish people. He writes: “Formally the word was not spoken at all, but breathed! Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation. The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God.”3
And this I can understand, especially now, after hearing Miles’s voice for the first time, in an inhalation and wail that resonated and bounced off the walls of the birthing room. It was pure magic, and the closest I have come to audibly hearing God.
Even as I write this, I realize how hopeless it is to attempt to describe the indescribable. It makes me feel like turning in my laptop for good—just get out of this whole writing debacle before people realize what a hack I am. But my complete inadequacy in describing my son’s birth also reconvinces me of God’s presence, because there must be something out there bigger than me, than us, if there are moments like these. And there are. All the time. Inordinate surprises that, most often, are wrapped up in so much love that we wonder where it all came from.
• • •
I used to know a little boy named Jackson who loved to play in the backyard, but never near a big, scary red bush that dominated
one side of it. Although he wanted nothing to do with the bush and would cry if I tried to carry him near it, he did not completely avoid it. Instead, he would orbit it at a distance he’d deemed “safe.” One day, out of bravery or perhaps boredom, he picked up a seed pod that had dropped from a nearby tree, approached the bush, and threw it into the bush’s dark center. Then he waited. His body tense, his face drawn and serious, he could have been gazing down at an army of thousands, daring them to approach. Of course, the bush swallowed up the pod and spat nothing back at the little warrior.
Jackson felt encouraged by the victory and made throwing the prickly seed pods part of his daily routine. It was his encounter with mystery. I still smile at his fascination with the unknown depths of the bush, the way he’d finally given up being afraid but still hadn’t lost the curious wonder regarding that which he didn’t understand.
Perhaps expectation is as much about opening ourselves up to surprise as it is about knowing, or even preparing for, what’s next. As Mary waited for the birth of her son, I’m sure she was scared—no matter how many visits she got from explanatory angels. There probably was no book titled Mothering the Christ Child for Dummies, so she had to trust God even when He did wonky things like using a really bright star as a GPS system. But it all seemed to work out fine for her.
• • •
It’s easier for me to imagine God’s power on windy days, and I’ll often find myself breathing his name, in and out, as I listen for whatever it is he might be whispering. Usually, I have no idea, but even that has become less a means of frustration and
more a means of grace. It seems that we all try to harness the wind in small ways—in hair dryers and leaf blowers and pellet guns. These devices give us a feeling of power for a moment, the ability to put hair and leaves and tin-can targets in their places. Then we turn them off, and even that fragment of the wind is no longer under our control. We leave it up to God again, as we must.
I like it better that way. I much prefer the wind in quantities and strengths larger than the blow-dryer; but I think, on some level, everyone does. How else do you explain the popularity of things like the convertible, the Harley-Davidson, the roller coaster, the bungee jump? The wind whips at us as we barrel along, taking us straight on, hitting us on our faces, giving us a feeling of freedom that is both totally surprising and something we’ve all somehow come to expect.