Restoring My Faith

night sky filled with stars

My front porch has become my sanctuary, my “altar in the world,” to quote theologian Barbara Brown Taylor. I like to sit on the ledge late at night, my back against the brick. I take in the gardens below: purple petunias mixed with red salvia, marigolds hugging the heart-shaped coleus, bursts of orange sitting atop the milkweed. I look up at the moon and the distant constellations. A bunny hops across the grass.

Out here is where I talk to God. Sometimes I use words. Most nights, I sit in silence. Breathing in that fresh night air, something in me expands beyond myself and reconnects me to the larger world, beyond the limits of my mind. That expansion, it seems, is God. 

Tonight, I look across the street and see my son’s old cozy coupe, that classic red and yellow plastic car with the painted smile on the front. Warm memories wash over me. My son passed it on to our neighbor’s two-year-old son who is now rather smitten with his new wheels. I smile as I think about the gaggle of neighborhood friends my son calls “his crew.” How they did the limbo in the middle of the street on the fourth of July, followed by an epic water fight, barbeque, and late-night sparklers. 

I rekindle that joy as my mind recalls that earlier that same day, a dear friend had to mark “safe” on her Facebook page so the authorities in Highland Park knew she and her sons were accounted for after the mass shooting. The juxtaposition is too much for me.

Like Job, who famously puts God to the test in the Bible, I cannot help but question the divine and the existence of such endless suffering, even when I know our pain and our joy do not negate each other, they sit side by side. It’s God’s response that puts Job to the test.

No, God, I think to myself, I was not there when you laid the earth’s foundation and marked off its dimensions. Nor have I given orders to the morning or shown the dawn its place.

More than 70 questions later, Job is changed. His understanding of God shifts completely. Like Job, I am humbled by what God reveals about the reach and tenderness of divine action. I realize, once again, that there is so much I do not know, and how remembering that can be a deeply spiritual practice. Even here, from my front porch, I trust in the depth of our stories, beyond what I can see, that weave together the daily contradictions of beauty, pain, sorrow, and joy.

Lost in this swirl of thought, and pondering the inner workings of the divine, I forget about my looming work deadline, a misplaced soccer cleat, and that grocery list I never did write. Somehow, like the distant constellations, my to-do list falls into its rightful place in the wide expanse of the night sky and the mysteries of the galaxies beyond. I pray for all those who hurt, for all those who weep, for all those whose pain has yet to be transformed.

“No, God, I think to myself, I do not know the way to the  place where the lightning is dispersed. Nor do I know how to cut a channel for the torrents of rain or satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass.”

I do know that lightning and torrents of rain will eventually pass. This spring my mother had a second stroke. Its magnitude rendered her unable to walk, to lift her arm, to use her hand. At 85 years of age, she could no more write her name than she could lift both sides of her face to smile. Her left side had come undone. We feared she might not be able to return to the retirement community where she and my dad live.

“I am trying with all my heart,” my mother told me one day on the phone when she was feeling discouraged about not being able to do everyday things. I wanted to honor her loss and at the same time cheer on her gains. First, I listened. Then we celebrated. Putting on her shoe became a victory. Holding Uno cards, a triumph. Taking several steps down the hospital corridor without a nurse trailing her with a wheelchair (should she fall unexpectedly), a cause for great celebration.

Hour by hour, day by day, my mother’s brain healed itself. Hour by hour, day by day, therapists of every kind (occupational, speech, physical) helped my mother regain her sense of herself. And hour by hour, day by day, I began to see her more fully. I was humbled and in awe.

I have at times described my mother as a force to be reckoned with. (I am told I am the same way.) But this second stroke revealed her strength for what it is: the willingness to walk through the pain, to engage with it, and to prayerfully be changed by it. Like fresh sprouts of grass, a new appreciation of my mother is taking root inside of me. And all I had to do was be present. To call her every day (something I’ve never done) and bear witness, especially when she walked through her front door three months later, triumphant.

“No, God, I did not give the ibis its wisdom or the rooster its understanding. Nor do I know the way to the abode of light or know where the darkness resides.”

What I have come to understand is that no matter how much I want to avoid the dark, the dark and the light work together in a transformative dance, bringing out the more of who we are. After nearly three years of health restrictions, isolation, and fear of contagion, I find myself in awe of how the sacred gives the ibis wisdom and somehow still knows the longings in my own heart—and yours as well—inviting each of us out beyond the limits of our imaginations. 

Sitting on my porch, in the light of the moon, I ponder the vastness of God and am reminded of the tenderness of God too. Together, they restore my faith.