Shelter from the Storm

We are all a long way from home, dithering and dallying, trancelike automatons until something small or large loosens a stone in the foundation. Lost, but not completely lost. Found, but not yet found. Half-heartedly seeking what Bob Dylan called a lethal dose of salvation. Always a little messed up, though occasionally well-intended. For instance, I didn’t mean to leave the rice in the microwave overnight or the fish on the counter. I didn’t set out to drink all the cold brew and not start the next batch. But mea culpa—these are among my many thoughtless mistakes, and I hereby offer myself conditional forgiveness. I tell myself You’ve got to stay focused. And I add Straighten up and die right. Or is it lie right? Or fly right?

“I prefer fly right,” God says, settling in on the couch beside me. “And who put you in charge of forgiveness?

“Well, I’ve always assumed it was you,” I say, “And it’s a hell of a job.”

God smiles sympathetically and rifles through the mail, lists, receipts, masks, and rubber bands on the coffee table. I sit quietly, hoping for a bit of advice or assistance. My recent efforts to be more organized have fallen woefully short. The demons of distraction are delighted as I try various methods to get centered: Deep breathing (smoky air); beer (disorienting); garden (needs weeding, watering system not working); sticky notes (they lose their effectiveness when they’re everywhere). Lovingkindness meditation (too hard). I’m full of excuses and self-pity. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

“I wish I lived somewhere that forgiveness wasn’t even a necessary thing,” I say.

“Hmmm,” God says, absorbed in a sale flyer for energy-efficient window replacement. “I doubt it.”

And to top things off, the Text Predictions function in Word has suddenly turned itself on. I hate Word guessing at what I’m trying to say. I hate automatic updates. I hate passwords. I hate warring search engines. I hate smoky air, suicide bombers, drought, rice in the microwave, weeds in the garden, turkeys in the straw, refugees in the ocean, people willing to infect each other with viral hatred, flagrant ignorance, and this long and winding road that always leads me here. To the here and now of an ever-eroding present tense. I’m a child of the 60s.

That prophetic Beatles song locks down in my brain. “Don’t leave me waiting here,” I sing to God. I think I’m being funny, but God and I choke up. The Long and Winding Road was their last number-one single in the USA. So fitting. The unattainable. The end is the beginning, and the beginning is the end. The wandering is the journey. The trying is the failing. The failing reveals grace, and our last job is to die forgiven.

“I do know how hard it is, honey,” God says. I nod. We sit, staring out the recycled windows at the waning but beautiful garden.

The Dance

Sometimes, I don’t get along with the co-author of this blog all that well. We argue, give each other the silent treatment, and land low blows, but then we usually find our way to uncomfortable compromises. It isn’t exactly quiet desperation, but close. We’re like the gruesome twosome in the couples counseling literature—together for the long haul, though there are days it isn’t pretty. Arguing with God is a thankless task and there is scant evidence it does much good, but what are the alternatives? Eat curses and enemies for breakfast with loaded guns across our laps? Slide blithely toward extinction? Give shallow thanks for our short-sighted blessings, imagined or real? Die alienated, resentful, or afraid? No.

For instance, this morning I say, “Hear my prayers, oh mighty and all-knowing God.” (I only start this way when I’m in a certain mood.) “I implore you to move most of earth’s population to other planets. Provide everyone with birth control, shelter, and nutritious food. Let the artists do art. Let the lovers love. Let the earth recover its incredible balance. Disable all weaponry. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Amen.”

My co-author responds. “Hear my suggestions, oh puny human,” she says. “Feed the hungry. Provide shelter and comfort to one another. Limit your offspring. Visit those who are ill or imprisoned. Give cheerfully and pay your taxes willingly. Elect rulers with integrity and compassion. Stop relying on that which is nonrenewable. Stop using poisons and short-cuts. Stop using weapons. Stop acting like you own the place. You’re just passing through. Learn an instrument and play for us every evening. Sing for us every morning, and at noon, dance. Selah.”

Our longings are similar, but we disagree about who’s responsible. Many of us can’t even carry a tune. Who should take the lead?  

“Not me,” God says. “I’ve already given you all you need.”

“I don’t think so,” I say.

“Of course you’d say that,” God says, in a firm mother’s voice. “You’ve made a royal mess. Clean your room.”

“I would,” I claim, shamefaced. “But I don’t know which one’s mine.”

“Doesn’t matter,” God says. She hands me a dust cloth, a mop, a broom, knee pads, a toolkit, water bottles…

“Stop!” I say, “I already have all that stuff.”

God grabs a can of oven cleaner. “Then let’s get going,” she says. “I need time to practice. I’m combining tap with some exquisite break-dance moves for my next performance.”

This is a great motivator. I love watching God dance, her muscular body supple and yielding, her hair snapping like lightning. Sometimes, she invites the universe to be her partner, and spectacular forces shape themselves to her. Sometimes, she dances solo. Either way, it is magnificent. I gather rags and rubber gloves, and away we go. I’m not sure what, but something will be shiny clean by noon.

Lava and Fresh Fruit

The air is cool and nasty this morning, thick with particulate, willful ignorance, lost causes, and the frenzied breathing of people frantic to escape regression. I need to make some difficult decisions, but first I will walk the path beaten into visibility by wildlife; I will find water and wash away my sins. If I were inclined to invite anyone along, it would be God; she’s known for all sorts of rituals and baptisms, but today, she’s messed up. I’m not sure what she found to ingest, but she’s blotto. Disconnected. The chasm, the steep slopes, God’s self-inflicted wounds; all too much for me today. I’ll leave God unchallenged. Otherwise, it could get ugly.

On the skyline, four saddled horses paw the ground, eyes wide, nostrils flaring. Most likely, the riders partied with God last night and are sleeping it off somewhere. I wonder if the horses will find their way through the scrub brush, invasive species, and backlit sky to this apparently level terrain on which I stand. Intuitively, horses know that even solid ground can only be trusted to a certain extent because at its core, the earth is a restless sea of lava. They may choose to stay put or spin and disappear. I wouldn’t blame them.

Meanwhile, the other God has serenely mingled itself into a box of perfectly ripened peaches from Colorado, so tender, so delicious they make me cry. It’s a privilege to touch their velvety outer layer, smell the embodiment of grace, and partake of the deep yellow flesh.

“God,” I say. “You are beyond comprehension, but I’m not giving up. I’m not backing down.”

“Too bad,” Golden God whispers. “Pride goeth before the fall…but come to think of it, meekness goeth before the fall. It is the nature of things to fall. Don’t be afraid. You’ll find us there, among the descended and drowned, the defenseless, the clowns–among the decidedly ugly and vastly imprisoned. We’re there as much as we’re anywhere.”

“I don’t want to find you there,” I whisper back.

“I know,” God says.

I offer nothing else. I have peaches to freeze. Beans to pick. Onions to dry. Cucumbers to pickle. And an unknown number of inhalations with my name on them. And what’s God got to tend to? Recovery? Irrelevance? Water? I’m not sure of their entire list, but I know the molten lava must be stirred. Otherwise, it will cool to stone, and that will be the end.

What God Thinks is Funny

Out of nowhere, the pouty voice of God declared, “Most people don’t appreciate my sense of humor.” I managed to look interested rather than startled. God continued, “…and they rarely get my sarcasm either. You people are too literal.”

This seemed unfair. How, exactly, are we supposed to recognize a cosmic joke? Or respond to a sarcastic God? Sarcasm is a defensive, often insulting manner of getting a laugh or hurting someone.

“Why would you even want to be sarcastic?” I asked.

“It’s cheap and easy,” God said. “Good way to cut someone down to size.”

“Ah, c’mon God,” I said. “You seem a little off today. What’s up?”

“What’s up?” God mocked. “What’s up, God? Why is this happening, God? Bless me now, God. Make us another planet, God. Clean this up, God. Give us one more gold metal so we know we’re better than the communists, God. Make my day, God.”

“Well, someone’s a little grumpy this morning,” I said. “Bad night?”

“Bad night?” God said. “No night. Never night. No rest. Not the plan. The seventh day, I was going to chill. I said it was good and tried to relax, but no. It wasn’t entirely good. It was mostly good, but I missed a few details. My bad.”

God beat her chest and shook her wild hair loose, the demons screamed, and the world rolled like a bowling ball down the alley of a galaxy with trillions of exquisite pins quivering in hot anticipation. The impact promised to be utterly spectacular. An ending unheard of. Unimagined. Untenable. Acting on instinct, I threw myself across the expanse, gasping when my body hit the cold hard surface of nothingness.

“Nice try.” God’s voice was warm, approving. I was too dazed to respond. I just stared. “No, really,” God added. “Nice one.” She held up a rating card with a 9 on it and said, “Now let’s warm you back up a little.” She led me to the fire. I was naked beyond bone, floating without form. The small things that had tethered me to what I thought I knew glistened like gossamer. It didn’t seem possible to hold on anymore.

“Easy, there,” God said. “I think we’ve had enough for now.”

I rallied. “Oh, you think so, huh?” I crossed what would have been my arms if I had arms. I was not going to give up that easily. I’d just thrown myself across the abyss, hadn’t I? “Hold my beer,” I said.

God cracked up. Tears rolled down her wizened cheeks as laughter nudged the earth back in place. She laughed so hard that the demons paused in their misery and the angels in their dancing. And I managed to laugh a little too. I knew the joke was on me, but I laughed anyway. God and I have found that this is the best way to handle situations like this. Laugh. And then leap again.

Shoulder Rub

Big History Project

“Why do you bother with me anyway?” God asked, petulant. It was still dark, but I could see the hazy outline of his dejected posture. He sounded depressed and antagonistic. Oh, great, I thought. One of those moods.

“Do I have a choice?” I mumbled from my twisted blankets. I didn’t want to play this game. The answers never change. I bother with God because God bothers me, and dealing with the plague of God is my way of chopping a path through the underbrush of life.

People who believe in some form of a creator tend to give thanks for the good things or ask for favors. They bank on God’s better side, fawning over him with praise, thanksgiving, or strange offerings that range from doves to virgins. Some twirl, some tithe. Some pray constantly, some five times a day. Some use ancient supplications, others improvise. I assume they think this will please or appease. Perhaps they imagine they can influence The Entity to send rain, heal a loved one, or save us from making the planet uninhabitable. I guess it’s worth a shot. But I’ve grown more and more familiar with the underbelly of God–the tender, desperate Alpha, the grief-stricken Omega, the wily Wonderment, the inexplicable Everlasting–and I’m not so sure.

I held perfectly still under the covers, waiting for God to intrude into my head with a comment or retort, but for once, God didn’t seem to be tuned in. He was folded, self-absorbed. This did not bode well for the hours of light and toil ahead of us. Was God going to sulk all day, slimy and bleak like pond mud? Would he harden by evening, cracking in the heat of a merciless sun? And when night falls, will he leave this planet, once and for all, tired of the ignorance and blame?

I sat up. “Come here,” I said. “You know a lot of us are sorry, don’t you?” My eyes were open and steady. I motioned for him to sit on the floor beside the bed. He looked suspicious but complied, and I began rubbing his shoulders. My hands tingled as they sank down into the trapezius muscles of a tense God. I kneaded the flesh like I knead bread, my fingers probing the sore spots, my palm pressing down into the transient tangibility; a form of prayer. Easy, without words.

The body of God relaxed and bravely gave way, softening into malleable clay. I let my hands rest on the uneven, brooding surface of dawn. Billions of years stood by, talking among themselves, just loud enough to remind me that there was work to do. Today. This day.

“Let’s get a move on Sweetheart,” I said to God, giving the shoulders one last squeeze.

God shrugged, stood, and straightened himself to his full height. “Fine,” he said. “You’re the boss.”

Tender

God jokes around so much it’s tempting to think that maybe the whole damn universe is a plaything: an elaborate war game, a psychological thriller, a slo-mo drama for the viewing pleasure of a warped creator. Look around. There’s a decent chance we’re on our way to extinction or global misery so ubiquitous that many will wish we were already extinct. Every day, I fight off the satanic seduction of the glib slogans or easy answers generated by the hateful to justify greed.

It’s wild turkey mating season. The turkeys in the yard are flirtatious, energized in the ways of turkeys in heat. Generally, I don’t admire turkeys, but they’re scrappy and they adapt. I suspect cockroaches and turkeys will outlast most other species on earth. In Montana, wild turkey mating season coincides with our efforts to legislate. Both are awkward to observe.

Who can carry guns, where, and why are questions in play. Even though God is allowed to pack, weapons are not the answer. Spread randomly among the populace, they provide neither safety nor security. Yes, they provide a means of killing. But from what I can tell, God is not a big fan of killing or even of self-defense. Self-sacrifice, yes. Self-defense, no. This is very hard to contemplate. Maybe God’s creation has a lot of humorous quirks embedded to make life a little more mysterious, but it is very, very unlikely God approves of killing in God’s name–or anyone’s name.

How do I know this?

In one of my unfinished novels, the main character’s name is Tender. An unusual name for a strapping young man, the son of a tall American soldier. But his Korean mother liked the sound and meaning as she considered various English words to name this unlikely offspring. Of course, I’m the author of this novel, so I invented this Korean mother and named her child myself.

Tender: Fragile, sensitive, easily hurt, often bruised, gentle: the tender green of newly sprouted seeds. With my ranch background, tender also means easy to chew. A tender cut of beef, vegetables cooked until they’re tender… And then there’s the transactional meaning; you can tender your resignation—always a tempting option. And finally, there’s legal tender–anything recognized by law as a means to settle debt or meet a financial obligation.

The novel isn’t finished and may never be. This is due in part to the fact that God emerged from the pages, and I realized God’s name is Tender, and it frightened me. It still does. God is gentle and kind, easily bruised, willing to let us flounder and resign from even our most basic human duties. God sprouts vulnerable in the deep purple light. And God steps in repeatedly to settle serious debt. Sure, God jokes around. God chases turkeys. God rocks herself to sleep among a million spinning planets. But this is the awful truth; one of God’s names is Tender.

There is No Why

Some people claim we are supposed to be stewards of this planet which is hurdling through space at speeds we don’t often consider. Others say the earth is ours to use up indiscriminately, regardless of how fast we’re racing through the Universe. Me? God? Today, we’re just along for the ride. I’m listening as deeply as I dare. God’s whispering in that still, small voice. It’s maddening, but that’s what we do sometimes. I’m game. God’s game. The day arrived without my asking. It will depart the same.

“You’re a little bit afraid, aren’t you?” God’s voice was gentle.

“Afraid?” I said. “Ah, yeah. Duh.  It’s not easy hanging out with you. It’s like a single-celled organism snuggling up with a herd of elephants. Like an atom in the ocean. Like I took my tongue and licked Neptune, and now I’m stuck.”

“Hmmm,” God said, distracted. “Do something redemptive. It’ll ground you a little.”

“I could try, but isn’t that mostly your job?” I paused. There’s a corner on our property that’s in bad shape. I’d need gloves, a sledgehammer, a truck, wire snippers, and ultimately fire. But no fire today. Way too dry out there. There’s a time for fire and a time for restraint.

“My job, your job, who cares?” God said. “There’s no end of things that need to be rescued or renewed. Of course, there’s an easier way. You could tell some lies, hoard some money, ruin some pristine land for a nice profit, stone someone, or shoot them in the back. Destruction and cruelty will drive the fear underground and give you a little break.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Like hitting my thumb with a hammer. Like hearing a fatal diagnosis. Like an oil slick taking down a dolphin. Like torturing a captive, raping a woman, or genocide…” I stopped with a gasp. God was writhing on the floor in pain.

“Oh, God,” I said, kneeling. “I’m so sorry. C’mon. Don’t cry.” I handed God a hanky. “It’ll be okay. I forgot how bad that stuff hurts. I won’t do those things. Or not many. Not often. Let’s head down to that corner, O.K.? We can pick up trash, and rake, and make a difference. C’mon God. I’ll let you drive the Hulk.” The Hulk is a Japanese delivery truck, one of my prized possessions. I don’t make that offer to just anyone.

God gave me a little smile, wiped his nose, and nodded. I handed him the keys. He handed me a pair of gloves. But then, he gave the keys back. “You’re not coming, are you?” I said sadly. It was more of a statement than a question.

“That’s how it will seem sometimes,” God said.

“Then why should I clean up that corner?” I said, fear rising again.

 God surrounded me with my own thin longings and murmured, “Relax, honey. There is no why.”

Why You Should Avoid Small Talk with God

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“Hey big fella,” I said, making small talk with my co-author–the entity commonly referred to as God in many parts of the world. “What’s your favorite name for yourself?” At that moment, one of God’s legs was flung across the valley, the other tucked up like a mountain under his stubbly chin. Wild, unruly hair scrambled the stratosphere, sapphire eyes too big for the sky bore into my own.

“Hey yourself, tiny creature,” God said, smiling wide enough to swallow the whole solar system. “You know I’m unnameable, but today, you can call me Dirt.” God paused. “No, wait. Make that Topsoil.”

“Aw, c’mon God,” I protested, but I decided to go with it. “I mean Topsoil. I was hoping you’d say Love. Or Alpha Omega. Or Immanuel. Or People First. Three-In-One, or even Savior.”

“Yeah, I know,” Topsoil said. “I notice you didn’t say Allah. Or Gaia. Or Father.”

I snorted. Topsoil grinned. “I don’t mind being called most things, as long as it isn’t  a trap or an excuse to do harm. I hate exclusivity, and I’m weary of the limits of human imagination.”

“Who’s fault is that?” I asked. “You’re the patent-holder. You could tinker a bit and maybe increase some capacities or something.”

“Oh, I’m tinkering,” Topsoil said. “But remember tiny creature, I invented consciousness and choice. These things take time.”

I knew this was true (as pretty much anything Topsoil says is true), but I felt sad. I don’t have much time left, and I’m worried that even the youngest of my fellow tiny creatures may not have much time left either. We continue to choose disposables and nonrenewable sources of comfort, not realizing that in the great circle of life, we are making ourselves disposable. And I don’t think we represent anything all that renewable.

“Mostly correct, but wrong on one key point,” Topsoil said, invading my head as usual. “You are renewable. It’s always an option.”

“I sincerely doubt that,” I said.

“Oh ye of little faith,” Topsoil said with a laugh. “You wouldn’t believe the miracles I’ve seen.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I wouldn’t. You know that old saying ‘seeing is believing’? Well…”

“Ah, tiny creature,” God said, transforming  from Topsoil into midnight. “Call me Darkest Hour and open your eyes.”

“I can’t open them any further,” I admitted. “I’m too afraid.”

“True that,” Darkest Hour said, rolling the earth into a tight ball. “Your honesty becomes you. I’m going to take a little nap now. Spring is exhausting. So much going on. You can call me Rest if you’d like. ”

“Wait!” I shouted. “No. I’m not calling you that. No. Please. Come back here. Tell me what you want me to do.”

The God of Rest, of Sabbath, of Consciousness and Choice, the God of Letting Go yawned as big as a thousand cyclones and stretched, knocking a few planets out of orbit. “You’ll figure it out, tiny creature,” The Entity said. “I believe in you. And I’m 100% renewable.”

“Nooooo,” I wailed. But God was snoring too loud to even notice.

Known

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“It won’t always be like this,” God said, perched high in the cottonwoods near the river. And sure enough, even as I watched, God lifted into the sky and disappeared. The wind spread a translucent blanket of snow across the field, and bitter cold blew into my bones while I fantasized flying after him. I sent what I could spare aloft and turned toward home, diminished.

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“It’s better to grow smaller,” God said, meeting me at the door with dark beer and bread fresh from the oven. I drank and ate and crawled into God’s warm chest, which is always cracked wide open.

“Why do you expose your heart like this?” I asked in a critical voice, even while I let the pulsing blood restore me. I could smell my own hypocrisy, taste my own selfishness. But I stayed anyway.

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“You’re tenacious,” God said. “I’ll give you that. But you’re not as tough as you think.”

“Yes I am,” I said. I heard the sound of cloth torn, stitches ripped, fire snapping and hungry. I heard waves crashing, thunder roaring, the shriek of fallen prey, the whimper of starvation. Stones rolled, ice cracked, rifles fired, and the earth groaned with the weight of voracious appetites and malignant neglect.

“Paint me a picture,” God said. “With lots of lavender and green.”

“All I have is this awful gray,” I said, apologetically. “And maybe a little brown.”

“Don’t lie to me,” God said.

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A broken sun climbed into limited sky. The foolish snow refused to do anything but reflect light–as if it could stay cold and drifted forever. “You have to melt sometime,” I said to the snow with an evil sneer.

“And so do you,” God said, rubbing my stiffened neck. Reluctantly, I nodded and went to the basement where I keep my secret supplies of recycled canvas and secondhand paint.

“Perfect,” God said, as I emerged, laden with a rainbow of options. I shrugged, trying to hide the awful relief, the fearsome comfort, of being known.

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Not a Snowball’s Chance

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This week I heard a priest declare we should look to the birdness of birds and the treeness of trees to discern natural law and thus discern what it might mean to be human, in the humanness sense of human. Strangely, I’ve heard this reasoning used to claim that no one should be gay, but in my view, we should look to the gayness of gay people to better understand this amazing expression of God’s creativity and love of diversity. I realize there may be a religion or two that disagree with me, but the thing is, God has been spoken for and spoken of since there were words. God has been interpreted, proclaimed, defamed, elevated, and killed by various thinkers, writers, and con artists the world over. Unthinkable cruelty is done in the name of God, and astonishing kindness happens without God mentioned in the least. Weird claims are made, political agendas promoted. From a global viewpoint, God is not all that coherent.

“I try to be,” God protested, as this observation formed in my mind.

I’d had my half-beer and my mood was steady and contemplative. “You don’t try that hard,” I said. “That’s why I like you so much. You’re bewildering, illogical, eccentric, peculiar, inexplicable, perplexing, and absurd. You’re preposterous, disconcerting, untamable, unstoppable, and we can only see an infinitesimal fraction of you at any given time. I like that in the Ultimate Authority of the Universe. If you were a lesser being, it might be more aggravating.”

God looked pleased. “Okay, I guess you’re right,” God said. “But I do have a certain consistency.” God looked straight at me. This is an aspect of God I like less well: personal accountability. I am painfully aware that honesty and compassion are behaviors available to all, and equally aware that fancy words and complex philosophies are used to twist these simple truths into flimsy excuses for crusaders of all stripes who maim, torture, extract, extort, cheat, lie, and murder in the name of God.

“God,” I said. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“Like what?” God asked, all innocent and mild. My defensive anger flared.

“Step outside,” I said.

God followed me out the back door. I made a snowball and threw it hard. God caught it as if I were just playing around. She rolled it in the blue of sky and ash from our wood stove, waved a turkey feather over it and waited. It took on the hues of our wounded earth and shimmered with a hopeful light. I was sure God was going to throw it back, but I was wrong.

God kept the snowball cradled in her hand, offered me a supportive elbow, and we walked through the deep snow to the river. I forgot my indignation and shame. The splendor of creation shrank my sense of failure and futility. Crusty ice gave the water a sharp winter melody, and we sang along for a while, God and me, arm in arm. As the sun sank, God slipped under the surface and floated away. I waved and wandered home.

There, I found the snowball earth, soft and mushy in my pocket. I was tempted to put it in the freezer and keep it forever, but I knew that would never work. Instead, I put it in my favorite cup and sat by the fire as night descended and the glowing snowball melted into holy water. With considerable trepidation, I knew I would drink it before I went to sleep.