One of my New Year’s resolutions was to live bravely, including sharing some of my work, and asking you to share it, as well, if you’re so inclined. Thinking about living bravely, I was pondering my character’s struggle to move beyond feeling lost, and thought I’d start by sharing this excerpt:
The organ music began, and I noticed that while I’d been lost in the past, the pews in front of me had filled up and the choir was lined up in the back of the church, ready to process. I stood with the rest of the congregation and when I caught David’s eye as he walked past, I couldn’t help but grin.
The sermon was about King David in the Bible, and how as king of Israel, David had done some pretty shifty stuff, like send Bathsheba’s husband off to the front lines of battle to get killed so he could have Bathsheba for himself. As flawed as the biblical David was, though, God raised him up to be a great leader. The point being, Father David said, that even when we feel furthest from God, too damaged to be repaired, too far gone to be retrieved, God has us in sight.
“The grace of God extends beyond forgiveness to restoration,” David said. “The story of King David reminds us that while our flaws are known to God, so are our hearts. So is our potential. So are our possibilities. We may feel lost to ourselves, but in God, we are forever found.” He bowed his head for a second. When he raised it, across the sea of heads between us, his eyes met mine. “May this hope of restoration live within you and me, now and forever more. Amen.”
We went to a bistro on the outskirts of Chapel Hill after David said goodbye to all the people who lined up to talk to him on their way out, and returned his vestments to the closet next to his office. As soon as we ordered, David handed our menus to the waiter, turned to me, and smiled.
“How are you, kiddo? I have to say, you look good for someone who never made it home last night.”
“Thanks,” I said, and laughed. “Hopefully that wasn’t obvious to everyone in the church. I feel surprisingly good. I was with Porter, by the way. Not that way – nothing salacious!” I said, in response to David’s raised eyebrows.
I didn’t know what to say that might explain the conversations I’d had with Porter the night before, or how I now felt about him. I alternated between thinking I loved him and wanted to grow old with him and wishing I’d never met him in the first place, sometimes ricocheting from one stance to the other within the span of a single minute. So while I was feeling good about Porter that morning, I didn’t want to go on record. Instead I said, “I liked your sermon. I felt like you were talking directly to me.”
“I was,” David said, nodding. “And to myself, and to everyone in there. Feeling unsalvageable is a universal plight. I think everyone goes through it at one point or another.”
I thought about this for a second. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something, David. Do you believe in fate? Or that there’s some larger meaning or scheme behind what happens to us?”
“If you’re asking whether I think there’s an unseen force that guides our lives to a pre-ordained destiny, the answer is no, not at all.” He shook his head. “But I do believe that God works in our lives, in ways we often don’t recognize and can’t fathom.”
I waited for the waiter to put my iced tea and David’s coffee down before asking what he meant.
“I think God wants the best for us, and often intervenes to put us back on track. Think about how many times you’ve met just the right person at the right time, or had a premonition that kept you safe? The hand of God is all around us, and I believe our lives unfold with intention and purpose, regardless of whether we can see or understand that purpose as things happen.” He gestured towards the small stainless steel pot of cream and I passed it to him.
“Maybe,” I said. “But the weird thing is how often life turns on a decision that seems so small and inconsequential. Good decisions, like if I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t have met this person, who ended up changing my life.” I used my spoon to push a lemon wedge down into my glass. “But bad stuff, too. Like if I hadn’t felt hungry and seen a McDonalds, I wouldn’t have turned left and gotten hit by a train. Hypothetically speaking, of course.”
“That’s what life is,” David said. “A series of small decisions. Small moments that add up to big things. Precisely why we all need to be more intentional about putting truth and kindness and joy out in the world.” He took a sip of his coffee. “You don’t know how the words and actions you choose lightly might affect someone – and affect them profoundly.”
I nodded, thinking of all the times I’d been carelessly, sometimes unintentionally, cruel. For far too long, my life had been an endless attempt to feint and parry and posture and finesse my way out of being vulnerable, and I knew I’d left scars on people I truly loved.
“So how’s the forgiveness going?” David asked. He flipped the lid on the pitcher of cream and peered inside.
“You’d be proud of me, David. I honestly have forgiven Porter. It was stupid, and we were young.”
“Funny, isn’t it,” he said, “how easy it can be to forgive someone else, and how difficult it is to forgive ourselves?”
“What do you mean?”
“Other people disappoint us,” David said, “and we cut them some slack, and grant them another chance. But make that left turn to McDonalds and get hit by a train? You can beat yourself up forever over that, huh?”
“If you’re still alive to do it, yeh, I guess so.”
“Wouldn’t it be smarter to simply rejoice that you survived?”
(The Shallows, 2018.)
As you might guess from the excerpt above, there are some Sundays when the sermon sparks an idea, and I scribble notes on the Visitor card. One sermon that got me scribbling was based on readings from Jeremiah and Luke.
Jeremiah, you’ll remember, is a ‘major’ prophet (a qualification based on quantity) from the late 600s-early 500s BCE. God was unhappy with the Israelites, because they wouldn’t stay faithful (they kept veering off to worship the Baals), and charged Jeremiah with prophesying their destruction.
But in the midst of Jeremiah’s message, there’s a surprising opening, a possibility: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. (Jer 4:27) Even in the face of all of the wanton idolatry and misbehavior, God wouldn’t make a ‘full end,’ allowing those who wanted to return to the covenant to do so.
The Gospel reading was from Luke 15:1-10, the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin.
The shepherd, you remember, leaves the 99 other sheep in order to recover the lost one; the woman who has 9 other silver coins lights a lamp and sweeps her home to find the one coin she has lost. In both stories, what is lost must be found.
Speaking of the shepherd, my priest said, “Now, a good business plan would allow for the loss of one sheep out of one hundred. And morally, we could argue that one could be sacrificed for the safety of the majority. But for God, neither scenario is acceptable….The shepherd searches until the lost sheep is found, and the woman searches until the lost coin is recovered. The story is never over until what is lost has been found.”
I started thinking about how easy it is to believe, when we’re young and shiny and new and full of promise, that we are worth being sought, worth being searched for, worth being recovered. And how very easy it is to believe, when we’re not quite so shiny and new, that we’ve depreciated over time, that our sins have compounded, and that the investment God made in us at the moment of our birth has paid back a really crappy return.
But from everything Scripture tells us, God won’t stop searching until we have been found. And if you think about that — that whatever we’ve done in the past and whatever we are doing now and whatever we will do in the future, God still thinks we are worth time and consideration — you can barely take it in. That’s unconditional love! That’s chesed — the amazing, relentless loyal love that God had for the Israelites, and has for us.
Every single day, God believes we are worthy of being recovered, returned, and restored. Can we make it a goal for 2018 to start believing the same of ourselves, and of each other?