Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Arm's Length Away

The intermittent flashes of lightning seemed to have caused a strobe light, casting odd shadows across my room.  And in the far corner, the chair with the pile of clothes heaped on its back ceased to be a chair, but some deformed, demonic being, shape-shifted from what I had seen in the light of day.  It just stood there, waiting.  Perhaps waiting for me to make the first move, any move, breathe even.  Finally, after one crack of thunder, I slid out of bed and through the doorway, my pillow and blanket clutched in each fist.  I ran down the hall and entered my parents‘ bedroom.  They were sleeping soundly.  My father, who was deaf, couldn’t hear the storm at all without his hearing aid.  He was lightly snoring.  I stood next to his bed, staring down at him, about to wake him; but I didn’t.  I laid out my blanket and pillow on the floor next to him.  I lay down, an arm’s length away, and I went to sleep.   

At first light, I crept back into my room, where the beast had shape-shifted back into an old wooden chair with dirty laundry heaped onto its back, never to return.  Who knows what got into me?  From some unknown place, a fear took a stranglehold over my seven-year-old mind that night, which I could not shake.  Waking up to such an image, I cried out in the silence for my father.  Wherever he was, it was the only safe place in the world.  If I was going to have any peace that night, it would only be when I was with him, even if it was lying on the floor next to him, feeling him close in my life.  Knowing, not hoping or believing, but knowing that when I’m with him I’m okay.  It is this knowing, far beyond faith or belief, but this actual truism that concerns Jesus in The Book of Mark. 

In Mark, 12:30, “Jesus was asked which is the most important commandment of all, He replied, ‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’”  One could read this passage and think, Okay, I love God…easy enough.  But what Jesus is saying here is not something to be taken lightly at all.  He is saying love the LORD in such an absolute and complete way that it may be impossible for most.  How many of us can say that we have such a genuine love like that for more than a few immediate family members, or maybe even friends?  How many can say that about just one other person?  And, how is a love like that even possible?  Can it be genuine just because it’s God?  Because a love like that just isn’t possible in an instant, just because Jesus commands it.  A love like that is only possible through a cultivated relationship.  It’s the unquestioning love of a child.  It’s the unconditional love of a father.  It’s the love my dad had for me.  And it’s the love he had for God, a love that stretched across a lifetime.   
I remember one of the earliest times I witnessed the relationship between God and Dad.  One afternoon, I walked into my parents’ bedroom, looking for my father.   He was sitting with his back to me on the far edge of the bed, and his head was down, and his hands were together and shaking.  With his “good ear” turned away from me, I could tell that he hadn’t heard me come in.  I just slowly backed out without him seeing me.  Days later I asked him what he was doing.  He said, "Praying."  I didn’t know he prayed.  So of course I asked what he was praying for. 

“Well since you asked, right now things are really tight and we have to pay the rent and buy groceries and I didn’t have any money coming in.” 

“So you were praying for money,” I asked.   

“Nonono.  I was praying for help.  I don’t pray for specific things, just help or guidance.  And then I stay open to however God answers.  I put it in His hands.  And He always has an answer.”  He said this with a confidence that was not for my benefit, but because he was genuinely at peace with his trust in God.  He spoke with the assurance of someone who was speaking about someone close, an old friend, a parent even.  He was speaking about someone he didn’t just believe in, but someone he trusted because God was someone with whom he had had a long, close relationship.  There was no distance between them.  And, there was no question that God wouldn’t come through. 

Consequently, the next day after I saw my father praying, there was a knock at our door.  It was my father’s sister.  She had dropped by, unannounced. She couldn’t stay long.  She just wanted to share a bit of her good fortune.  It turns out that the day before my aunt bought a lottery ticket or scratch off or something and won some money and she decided to share some of her winnings.  I know prayer usually doesn’t work that way, and it’s even dangerous to want it to; but on that day, it did.  My aunt put $500 in my father’s hand, and was gone soon after.  My father was proud of his sister, and he often spoke of her generosity; however, I don’t think he was surprised.  Why would he be?  Why should we be surprised when we get the love, help, and support from those closest to us?  My father was close with God.  They had a relationship, like father and son.  So why should a son be surprised when a father helps him out?  He wasn’t.

In his final days, bedridden and in and out of long bouts of light sleep, my father would call out, “I want Jesus!”  He wasn’t saying it like he wanted the faith he didn’t have.  Nor was he saying it as a wish to welcome Jesus into his heart just in time, as some sort of feeble loophole to gain salvation at the 11th hour.  He was crying out for Jesus, wanting him close.  Knowing that the safest place in the world is with him.  Feeling that any possible comfort is with him.  Admitting that any peace to be had is with him.  My father summoned Jesus as a scared child would cry out for one whom he loved above all, one whom he has known all his life, one with whom he has had a relationship of unwavering trust, as one would cry out for his father, alone in a thunder storm, desperate, needing only to sleep on the floor, an arm’s length away.        

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