A few days back, I sat down with a woman who is an avowed atheist.
She shared where she was on the spectrum of faith without apology. I found that I respected and liked her immediately for her forthrightness. Indeed, I am confident this was not the first (or the last time) I will sit down for such as this with one who does not hold the belief I do. She was just more honest about it.
We came to be together because on Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, her too young husband of 15 years went to work and collapsed. And died.
The funeral home called me Wednesday afternoon to see if I would officiate at his memorial service. I said I would.
So it was we sat down to do what needed to be done. We talked about what a service might look like. We spoke of music he loved, his wide range of talents, gifts he shared, the dogs they both loved. She shared that he struggled with faith, turning to it in times of need in a way she never had. She told me, too, that she was open to me doing the ‘usual service’ for even if she did not believe it, she knew it would be a great comfort to others.
It was a good hour well spent. I was glad to be part of the conversation. Although this is so. I struggled to communicate comfort to one whose view of the world differs so from my own. Even so, I spoke of a God whose love had held her husband before he was born and throughout his far too short life. I spoke of that same love which held him now, for as I said to her, I cannot imagine a world where after their deaths, my own loved ones were simply ‘gone.’ This is not even a faith statement for me. Rather it is a human one. Indeed, where do those very particular gifts, that deep laughter, that wondrous joy, that love given and received, where does all of that go now that the earthly body is no longer? How can they just be gone?
I saw a glimmer of recognition in her eyes then as she acknowledged the truth of this. I only hope we have the chance to continue the conversation once the memorial service is behind us in a few short days.
But for now at least? It seems she has no concept of what Abram must have felt when he looked to the night sky and tried to count the stars — when he and Sarai were promised that their lives held possibility beyond what they could then imagine.
The same thing goes for Paul’s reminder that while our lives might be lived on this earthly ground, we claim and are claimed by another citizenship altogether: one that enables us to ‘stand firm in the Lord’ both in times of unspeakable suffering and in times of inexplicable joy.
And as for the image of a God who would weep for us and who, in Jesus, yearns to gather us close? I imagine such as this has never crossed her mind.
And yet, as I said before, this was also so. It is hard to put into words what I hold dear and what has held me all of my life long. Even as one who has been called to this very work of ‘putting into words,’ I find I am still learning to share this in a way that is helpful to those for whom these words and their meaning are foreign. Indeed, perhaps it is so — and I take no small comfort in this — in those times what I do matters more than what I say.
Even so, it is powerful gift to be invited to lift one’s eyes to the night sky and to begin to imagine all that God has in store, wouldn’t you say?
Indeed, what a wondrous thing it is to know that the limitations and boundaries which keep us apart and at odds with one another in this life are essentially obliterated by a ‘citizenship’ in another realm which gives us the courage and wisdom, the strength and the hope to ‘stand firm in the Lord’ — in what matters most in times of struggle and in times of ease both.
And to imagine God gathering us close with the fierce, protective love of a mother hen? What could be more powerful especially in times of struggle or loss?
I yearn to give this to a young widow whose life turned upside down a few days back and whose path is hard to imagine now.
I so wish she could experience what I have in these last days as I have seen again and again the difference this way of understanding the world and God’s call for us in it makes in the lives of God’s people.
For surely as I listened in on the life story of an 85 year old, I heard one who has known what it is to ‘look to the night sky’ and see God’s wondrous intent for him. So much so that in his wife’s last years as she struggled with a disease which took her life inch by inch, hour by hour, he considered it all privilege to care for her.
And again, as I sat with another who shared the story of her daughter’s first years and how that time was marked by one surgery after another. She told me that in those years people would look at her and say, “I don’t know how you do it. I could not do what you are doing.” She told me this puzzled her for she would think to herself, “And what would that look like?” What would it mean to give birth to a child and then not do what needed to be done? And oh, in her sharing this, she reminded me of what it is to be able to ‘stand firm in the Lord’ in times of great struggle. She spoke with a clarity of what she is ‘here for’ which was powerfully accepting of what was hers.
And yet again as I sat in the hard plastic chair in the visiting room at the County Jail with one who had just been sentenced and who would soon be taken elsewhere. One who had no grounding in the faith before I walked into that space months before, but who welcomed the gift of a Bible and asked me to get one for her son for it has been comfort to her in these past months: a comfort she wants to share. When I could not offer anything else, I could offer the promise of a God who loves and never lets go and who yearns to gather her close like that mother hen in Luke’s Gospel.
To be sure, the promise and invitation of our faith gives us foundation and purpose, meaning and hope. These stories we hold so dear give our lives and our lives of faith texture as they intersect with our own. This is not to say that those who do not share our faith do not live their lives with kindness and fidelity. This is not to say that they are also not guided and shaped by other stories. It is just that I do not know a more powerful one than the one, the ones, you and I hold close.
And so it is that my deepest prayer these days is that I might be given words to share these gifts with those for whom the stories are not yet their own. Because, you see, I have not yet met anyone who has not been blessed by being able to see God’s promise in their life: in the night sky or here on the ground. Indeed, over and over I have witnessed the truth that our ‘citizenship in heaven’ is all gift to us as we seek to live out our ‘citizenship’ here. And oh, who among us hasn’t needed the sort of love which weeps over us and which yearns to gather us close as Jesus describes it now?
Indeed, what might it look like to share all this with the world? Even just one broken-hearted person at a time…
- I had trouble choosing just one reading this week, for they all came alive through different stories shared with me in these last days. Is there one of these that speaks to you more than another? Which one resounds in your mind and heart today?
- When did you last look at the night sky and recalling God’s promise to Abram and Sarai, remember God’s abundant promises to you?
- What has it meant to you that you hold ‘citizenship in heaven?’ How has that changed everything?
- When have you needed to feel the fierce love of Jesus like a mother hen holding you close? How did you come to sense that love for you?
- How have you found it best to try to share this gift of faith with one for whom (so far) it holds no meaning? What has that looked like/sounded like in your life and witness?