I like my faith big. Wide as a summer sky. Beyond. Way way beyond the scope of my mind. I like my heart to know trembling awe, and my soul to be blown away. I want to be stretched. I wish to grow. I need my faith to reflect my deepest longings and my most impossible yearnings.
I want my God to be unafraid of my doubts, or my myriad questions, or my cynical snide moods. I need a God who knows how hard it is to surrender control, or choose to be like a child. I desire a God who loves me for all the ways I seek to explain or disprove Him / Her. I cherish a God I cannot possibly comprehend, and for which there are truly no words – not even in the Bible.
I seek the sum and substance of God. The infinite mercy. The endless compassion. The creative force. The incomprehensible forgiveness. The magnificent love of those the world deems unlovable. For me, it is Jesus Christ who puts a name and face to this God. Yet, I remain confident, others have also found names and faces just as worthy.
I want a faith and a God which threaten to make me burst. To burst the bubble of my silly pride. To burst open the foolishness of my answers. To burst forth like the sun with a call to live life fully and honestly. To burst with freshness every day. To burst the illusion of certainty. To offer a thunder burst to sweep away the hot steamy agony of Life’s losses.
The faith I witness in so many today, is just so small. Tight and rigid. Frightened. So wary of being wrong. So put off by this world, that all they can speak of is the next. Their words are repetitive. Formulaic. Like bumper stickers. Advertising slogans. It all sounds too easy for them. Too cross-less. No change or transformation required. Just Life on their terms. Even God is on their terms. In fact, their God looks and sounds and behaves a lot like them.
I wince a lot at what I hear these days, at what pretends to be faith. It sounds, well, dead certain. It sound like it emits from a know it all. It sounds fool proof, but foolish. It sounds American. Most of all, it sounds like waves of answers from a sea of questions I am not asking. I have grown deaf to all the Jesus talk. All the born-again stuff. To the countless ways TV evangelists find to allow for being rich and Christian at the same time. Knowing and believing are simply not the same.
But, then, there is my own judgmental side rearing its ugly head. I don’t like that either, and I can feel its prickly heat on the back of my neck. Those people are not my kind of people. Those silly uniformed folks. Those simple critters. Those creatures of habit and law and tradition. Those damn conservatives. I told you – it isn’t a pretty side.
Still, I know this. I must claim my own need for a God I cannot fit in my hip pocket; a God who is not always on my side, or on any side for that matter ; a God who is way too large to be fit inside one faith or one religion. I feel compelled to claim this gut spiritual impulse. This survival instinct? This view from what I hope is higher ground.
More than most of what I think or feel, it is what centers me in the Grace of God, and what keeps me focused on finding the eternity in the here and now, and not wasting time planning for it after I die. I still must love those who cannot understand a word I write or say.
Keeps it all interesting. And painful. And chaotic. Keeps me human. Keeps me knowing God’s will is to celebrate that humanity, and not squander the fortune of Life on trying to be anything but human. Every human effort to build or climb a tower, has only resulted in the tower tumbling down. Isn’t it time to lift up the rubble at our feet, and say, “Here it is. This is the Truth. The bits and pieces. The shambles. The ruins.”
I once saw a most ironic sign in Devon, on England’s southeast coast. It read, DON’T DAMAGE THE RUINS. It made me laugh. Out loud. How silly, I thought. How crazily necessary. This massive fortress called faith must be protected at all costs, in spite of the fact that from day one it was smashed to smithereens.
The snow had sugared the earth. The wind was wild. Walking against it required leaning into it. The snow spun about in tiny tornados. The street and holiday lights swayed. Tree branches groaned in profound pain. My Mom had bundled me up; which included mittens, boots, and a thick old scarf about my mouth. My lips froze against the scarf within minutes of leaving home.
I was to deliver a present to Margaret. Margaret lived alone, and my Mom told me it was important she receive this beautifully wrapped package from Zahn’s. Margaret, she explained, was a widow now, and this would be her first Christmas without Ernie, her partner of 47 years.
I was shocked. Mom never ever shopped at Zahn’s or Eitel’s. She told me these stores were out of our league, and that Penny’s and Robert Hall were plenty good enough. I guess I agreed, although this only served to sow the seed of desire to someday do my shopping at Zahn’s. I had no idea what was in the package, just that it was wrapped in shiny foil, with a bow the size of a basketball. I clutched the package to my chest, and trudged down Yout Street to Margaret’s. The moon played hide and seek behind fast moving bulbous clouds of black and blue. The light of this night was like a flickering candle, or a lamp just about to burn out.
By the time I arrived at Margaret’s, I was frozen, and furious with my Mom for insisting on delivery tonight. Margaret ushered me in with a giggle and abundant warmth, extolling the virtue of my having braved the wicked winter outside. She told me she had hot chocolate on the stove, and had made a fresh batch of pecan dream cookies. She brought me a steaming mug, and a plate full of my favorite cookies in the whole world. She then went to what I assumed was her bedroom, and brought out a huge scrap book. Clippings hung out from all sides. The Milwaukee Braves 1957 was emblazoned upon its cover. She asked if I would like to see it. I assured her I would like nothing more.
The scrapbook was full to the brim. All my favorite players were there. Eddie Matthews. Johnny Logan. Henry Aaron. Wes Covington. Joe Adcock. The guy named Red. Billy Bruton. Del Crandall. And, of course, loads of stuff about Lou Burdette, the pitcher who beat the Yankees three times, and led our Braves to the World Series title. There were articles and autographs and ticket stubs and baseball cards and pennants. It was a veritable gold mine for a boy my age. I went slowly. Took my time. Savored every page and sip and cookie. It was pure bliss.
Margaret brought me my coat and winter fighting clothing. She thanked me for coming. I asked her what she got. I wasn’t sure if I was being rude, but I wanted to know what was in the package with the mammoth red bow.
“Should I open it now?” she asked with enthusiasm, foreshadowing the fact that she was about to do just that.
“Yep!” I said. I had just stopped believing in Santa Claus, and was still a bit crestfallen. However, this new gift giving thing was kind of catchy.
She shook the box. It made no sound. She then slowly, painfully, opened up her gift. She removed a shiny wooden frame, which held a photo of my Mom and Dad and Margaret and Ernie. This familiar quartet held barbeque chicken legs to their mouths ; mouths smothered in sauce ; laughing uproariously. Margaret began to weep. She told me it was a magnificent gift, which puzzled me, due to her tears. She clutched it to her chest, and then placed it on an end table which appeared to be some type of shrine to Ernie.
“I will treasure that Billy,” she said proudly. “Good memories are what will get me through. I guess that is the end of my barbeque chicken picnics at your house. I think we had one every weekend of July and August for twenty years. We always laughed and laughed. Your father was a great chef, and could he crack me up. And your Mom, well, she is too kind for words.”
“But you have to come,” I spoke up in sincerity. “This summer. We'll still have picnics, and I want you to come. You tell the best jokes, and Ernie told great stories. You have to take over for him.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Well, then I guess I will have to plan on it.”
Margaret smiled and hugged me, and gave me a wet whiskery kiss on the cheek. I didn’t hate it though. It somehow felt right. I put on my mittens, hat and boots, and headed for the door.
“You forgot something,” Margaret said with a teary laugh. She then handed me a huge shopping bag --stapled shut. “This is for you. From Ernie…and I.” I thanked her, and told her I hoped she would come and see me in this year’s pageant at church. I was a goat, I told her. She burst out laughing, caught herself, and told me it was a most important part.
The walk home was scary. The wind stronger and meaner. The snow like shards of glass. Everything howled. I made it home in record time. I had run as far and fast as I could in those stupid snow pants and boots. I raced inside and went straight to my room. I yelled to my mother that the mission had been accomplished, and that Margaret thanked her. I chose not to tell her I had talked Margaret into opening her gift. Mom shouted a thank-you back. Anyway, I was too excited to see what was in the bag. I yanked open the top of the bag, ripping off about 12 staples in the process.
It was the scrap book. All of it. I held it out in front of me, and could not believe my good fortune. I could not wait to call every boy on my block and grade, and tell them about all of the Braves loot it contained. I was in the midst of wondering why I had received this gift, when my parents opened the door to my room.
“Do you like it?” Mom asked knowingly.
“Did you know I was getting it?” I asked with a pinch of shock.
“Ernie worked on it all November. He was so proud of it. He knew you loved the Braves, and he had no son of his own, so….” My father’s voice trailed off and his eyes watered. He walked away. He told me he needed to sneeze.
“Ernie and Margaret couldn’t have kids Billy, and I think they took a real shine to you.” My Mom spoke with noticeable pride.
“Why?” I asked. “What did I do?”
“I just think they thought you were a good boy. A real good boy.”
Being a good boy. I learned that here in Racine. On Yout Street. At backyard barbeques. Just around the block. At Roosevelt Elementary School. At Holy Communion. I do believe, however, I learned most of it from a Mom who was wise enough to know when to shop at Zahn’s.
I did a small watercolor today. A very vivid sunset sky. A snow sugared pine tree. I wasn’t satisfied. I got frustrated, and ripped it in half. Suddenly, it looked right. My rip had cropped the painting into focus. I placed the much smaller painting into a pre-cut card holder. It fit perfect, and the effect was lovely. Smaller. Simpler. Lonelier. The impact I had hoped for all along.
In some respects this same process is at work in my life. My spiritual life. I still wake up most days with big plans. I daily expect and ask and demand too much of my Self. I remain determined to have it all, which consistently drains me dry of all energy and excitement. My time becomes a hopeless blur. Chaotic. Confused. A spinning top. I live in a fog of busy, and wander aimlessly in pursuit of perfection.
I have just lost a second wife, and a beloved colleague. My best friend and my long-time literary agent both battle cancer. I am still fragile after a heart attack and open heart surgery. I did let myself go physically, and I am paying the price. So, my future may not seem bleak, but it does come with a good sized portion of wary. I am conscious of needing to make good choices. Don’t waste time or talent! Try to do less and be more. Please God, not the crowd.
Aging is truly tenacious about getting our lives into focus. Reminding us of what matters and what does not. Advising us to clear out the clutter and cut the crap. Mentoring us on the wisdom in downsizing our dreams. Life has taught me a good deal about acceptance and tolerance, and in Patty and Walter, I studied with two masters of forgiveness. All and all, it is time to simplify. Narrow the lists. Put myself and my God on the list --- daily. Dream little. Make a little difference. Feel a little bit better.
I remain anxious about retirement. However, I can see the pieces beginning to fall into place. There are a few books I still wish to write and read. I love creating small paintings, and photos for personalized greeting cards. I want to develop 12 Step worship services, and I hope to find a way to help teens locate their souls. I want to enjoy a few friends. I want to take a few trips during Spring and Autumn. I want to preach my guts out. I want to teach whenever and wherever I am wanted. That is about it. More than enough.
Something else has come into focus recently. Something I have experienced mainly in the church. A faith which cannot forgive is not much of a faith. It is more a position or a posture than a faith. I work hard every day to forgive. I do so because I have come to realize that holding a grudge is Life’s premier waster of time. Life is way too short to hold tightly to how we have been wronged.
As Christians, we are called to be like Christ. Can you imagine Christ refusing to speak to someone on the basis of some presumed slight or failing? Ridiculous! There is nothing which puts us at greater distance from Christ, than a prideful choice to not forgive. No excuses here. When we hold onto our anger or hurt or disappointment, we are at odds with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is literally locked out of our lives.
I am shrinking. Some days shriveling. I am trying to embrace my age with dignity, and my retirement with integrity. I want my life to reflect a focus. To offer my gifts when and where I can. To keep on maturing – which is often the equivalent of practicing acceptance and forgiveness. To love as extravagantly and as often as I am able.
I will approach these quieter days with some watercolor wisdom. I will remember that every day can be cropped. A snip here and there. A new perspective. Even a shocking rip can transform something bland into something beautiful. Less is indeed more. Never give up. Find a way to enjoy every day. Somewhere inside each day, eternity is hidden. Out in the open. Under your nose. In your heart. Within a smile or chuckle or tear.
Here. Now. Focus. Then take the picture. Then find the heaven in it. Then put it up. Stare at it now and then, and remember. You can do this every day. You are older and wiser and have all the tools. At my age, I know better than to chase my worries and grudges around all day, it is time to chase only the beauty. Behold!
I love Dickens. The magical spells he wove with words. Places far way that feel like home. People I could not relate to, but knew intimately and well. A cast of characters too big, a plot equally massive. A point so precise it was no more than a single dot burned into Life’s hide.
I love Scrooge most of all. I love the all of him. The dark dwelling cynic who cannot get out of his own way. The greedy bastard who never offered a reason for his disdain for the poor, other than they were miserable and poor. His black bitterness. The foreshadowing of his hideously beaten and bruised heart.
We have all been him. This beast of a man. This cold codger with a withering stare and hands barked in pain. This presence of an absence. No faith. No hope. No love. Just work and money and stuff. We all have quietly wished for Christmas to pass quickly. To take its sugary schmaltzy hands off our neck. To stop jingling in our ear. To stop twinkling in the night. To stop trying so damn hard to ignite something which long ago died.
Yes, I know this man. I am this man, too many days to count. I know his life mugging mood. I have been claimed by his twisted perspective. I have been consumed in darkness so thick, they needed to pipe light to me.
I am also that man at the window, screaming at a baffled boy to go get the prize turkey. The man who was jarred loose from the grip of his despair, by a visitation from three spirits we can just as easily call remembrance. The weary old man who found rest for his soul on his nightly spiritual travels, and woke up to a Life frosted in sun. A man who came back to life. His own life. And lifted Tiny Tim up to higher ground. And was transformed from greed to generosity. And was made whole by the Grace of a God – which somehow managed to take him home. I too am that man who has at some time inspired the words, “God bless us everyone!”
We are Scrooge. The all of him. We are. We truly are. We always will be. We will always be in awe at the truest miracle of Dicken’s classic tale of darkness and light. The fact that we are told Scrooge continued to be a most amazing chap for the rest of his life. His was not a one time Christmas, or a Christmas in name only. Scrooge became Christmas. That is the secret to it. A secret we cannot keep. A secret we simply must share.
“God Bless us every one!”
They spring from the same soul, and the same deep yearning to find in Life, that God has a point to make with us. The very same longing to make a difference. The very same faith, which wears Christ like a cloak, and doubt like a vest.
Reverend William R. Grimbol has spent the past 30+ years helping people create and develop strong spiritual connections with loved ones and God. He is also a published author, with over a dozen books to his credit.