Do You Believe?
I received an e-mail yesterday that has stuck in my mind all day. I haven’t yet answered it because I want to make sure I say everything the right way, preferably the first time, and that I don’t forget anything. Lots of readers who e-mail me do so with bright and thoughtful questions. Lots do so with heartbreaking stories of their own. Very few, however, ask for details of my life. They comment on what they know without prying for more. Every once in awhile, though, I get a note from somewhere who needs something more personal; someone who is fighting hard to believe and just needs that extra something.
This was one of those.
The e-mail, in its entirety except for names, read:
I read your website, your blog and three of your books. You think and sound like someone very special to me. It seems like faith is important to you and I wanted to ask if you really do believe in God and why you do. It just seems so pointless. Thanks
When I was little, there used to be one thing that I waited for: the site of the Nashville interstate. I could always tell we were coming into Nashville because, just outside it, were these huge gray hillsides of rock. When we would pass these, my heart would leap a beat, I’d sit up nice and straight with a renewed spirit after x number of days/weeks/months of being gone. My heart soared when we crossed the bridge and the Batman building came into view: I was home. For me, though, it was even more than that: it was a priceless gift from God because what I so desperately wanted was peace and stability.
The writing of “Mountains of Hope”was perhaps one of the most emotional for me. We were tucked away in a cabin in Georgia, and I had recently finished reading “The Holocaust”. Horrific, mind numbing, earth shattering stories of unimaginable suffering filled my brain and struck me so passionately that I would awake in the middle of the night crying over the deaths of people I had never known. One night was particularly awful… My father came, I was left an emotional wreck so I started writing in my book. I hadn’t got far when I felt a real—almost tangible–presence directly in front of me. No one was there…. But they were. I could feel them. I knew what they were wearing, even though there were no physical beings in the room. They were laughing at me. I cannot convey with mere words how frightened I was. I rolled over, trying to get away from their laughter, but they were instantly on front of me again. Laughing. I started praying, as hard as I could. I quoted the armor that the Bible talks about. Still, the beings stayed. Laughing. This absolutely stone cold terrified me. Eventually, as my character Jessie would say, I found the braveness to jump up and flip on the bathroom light. I raced back to bed, hoping they were gone. Nope. They weren’t. As a last resort, I prayed again and this time, all I asked was that He hold my hand. I turned my palm up to the ceiling and steadfastly pretended the laughing demons were gone. Moments later, a distinct feeling of warmth settled over my open palm.
I knew it was God, holding my hand. And, comforted by the realization He was there too, I managed to fall asleep. Soon thereafter, on the cusp of daybreak, my mother awoke me. She led me to the front porch where, at the edge of our yard, stood two deer, wrapped in pre-dawn fog and grazing our grass. Something happened to my heart as I looked at those deer. It softened. I knew they were meant for me, that they were God’s way of telling me it was all going to be ok. I was fifteen, sixteen years old but I knew that what I’d felt the night before–all of it–had truly been real. And I knew that God was watching me.
Do I believe that God is real?
There have been multiple people who have called me strong. I’m always amazed and a little confused by this description. I am just a woman, made of flesh and bone. If you cut my skin, I bleed. There have been numerous events in my life that have caused my heart to break. I made it out of a childhood that hurt me in more ways than I can enumerate, a childhood that was ripe with abuse, instability, violence and very little peace. I know what it is like to totally not care about your own welfare, and I know personally the kind of damaging soul scars that can leave on someone. As an adult, I have loved, and I have lost. I have experienced myriad of health issues, including cancer itself, and iron levels so low my doctor gave me the option of being hospitalized to correct it. I have lost a deeply loved home, and priceless things dear to my heart that no amount of money can replace. There is no way I could have possibly come out of all that still standing without help. I am a very long way from being made of steel. If God weren’t real, I promise you, I would have never seen the age of 30. I probably would not have seen 20.
Every single time I hit rock bottom, I’d stumble my way through another day and then, out of nowhere, a sliver of light would dance into my view–just in time to keep me from jumping off an emotional cliff. As I needed an example of love, He gave me my mother. When I needed an example of a friend, He gave me my sister. When I was in that cabin, it was the deer. When I was eight and my father told me to remember that there was nothing he could not do, that my body meant nothing, I held out a timid hand and asked a God I thought hated me to hold it. He always did. I never asked Him to hold my hand without feeling that inexplicable heat settle over my palm. When I was in college, using brushes to create bruises on my skin, deliberately denying myself food, and doing other self-destroying things, I met a homeless man whose smile was so bright it made me want to see what he saw in the world. He made me believe joy was possible, because be was homeless and yet so full of inexplicable peace. When I needed to feel needed in the worst way, He guided me to volunteerism, opened doors to teaching. When I was a breath away from giving up on people, when I thought none of them cared about me, a stranger opened a door for me, convincing me that there were good people still alive. When I needed to feel remembered, He gave me a teacher who hugged me and told me he cared about me. When I needed healing, He gave me writing. When I needed peace more than I needed people, He led me to a synagogue and babka, challah and precious new prayers. When I needed a leaders who would forgive and show me the love of an extended family, He gave me my pastor and my church. When I felt discarded, used and insignificant, a sweet miracle I never saw coming made me think that maybe I wasn’t really broken. When I needed truth, He gave me in my daughters a reason to tell it.
And I’m not even worthy of all this. I mean, I’ve got my share of blame. As a teenage/young adult, I exaggerated truth and out and out fabricated because I needed for others to understand how traumatized my seemingly ‘sadly normal’ life was. I am so good at keeping others at an emotional distance that I am likely to always be alone. I do it because I don’t want anyone to feel responsible for me, I want them to be happy and I don’t think knowing me really makes many people happy—especially if they know about all my ‘baggage.’ Also, I really stink at intimacy, and that can hurt someone I care about. I have lots of flaws. And God knows about every single one. He really has no reason to help me.
But He does. And the only reason He would do that, given me, is because He loves me. I don’t know why. But I believe it because I know my life has been saved because of it. I don’t know why, but I know that I wouldn’t be okay. I wouldn’t be happy.
I haven’t seen His face. But I know He’s real like I know there’s wind on a hot day. Some people want to know if I’ve ever been mad at Him. No, I’ve always been deeply humbled by His continued presence. He’s one of the only best friends I’ve ever had. He is the only one who has never left, who has always known exactly what I needed even when I didn’t, and placed it in my path.
Faith is not about proof, faith is a relationship based on trust. I have an extremely difficult time trusting others. In fact, you can count that as one of my flaws because I can know someone very well for many years and still not trust them. God is the only one I really trust without question. My pastor said to me once: “Have you told God what happened?” I was taken aback, and didn’t know how to respond. Why would I have to tell God? My pastor continued, saying as if it were a given: “Because He was there too. He saw it happen.” Immediately, I was struck with tears. I walked out of his office and promptly broke down. God had been in the room, He had seen everything. He knew I didn’t kick or scream, not even once. How, in the name of all that’s holy, could He have seen all that and still care? Especially after, as an adult, I still messed up time after time?
I can only answer ‘grace.’ I haven’t earned it… But that’s what grace is. Loving someone and trusting her and comforting her and shielding her even when she doesn’t deserve it. Maybe especially then.
I tell my girls that one of our jobs in life is to be gatherers of light. If a friend gives us a compliment, it is a ray of light. Gather it. If you make a new friend, it is a ray of light. Gather it. If you have passion for something, it is light. Gather it. God puts these rays of light in our lives, our job is to find it all and gather it up. When enough light has been gathered, sadness and loneliness is pushed into the shadows. Shame too. If we start feeling those sad feelings again, we need to start looking for more light to gather.
Do I believe in God?
I have felt Him. I have felt His voice in my life. But that isn’t the only reason I believe. Mainly, I believe because He inspires me to want to be a good person. Mainly, I believe because, when I talk to Him, I feel better about being me. Mainly, then, I believe because I feel loved by Him and if He is ever distant, I feel a loss like none other I’ve ever known. The God I know exists is a personal God. He doesn’t hold grudges, He isn’t angry all the time (or even most of the time) and He follows me around like an adoring younger sibling might follow an older sister. He wants to play, He wants to talk, He wants time with me. I can’t prove it, but I can feel it.
I am a writer with a rather intense imagination and a vocabulary to match. The dusty, manure-filled stench of a barn on a summer day, I can easily describe. Why the prick of its thorns is a modest price to pay for the joy of holding a rose bouquet in your hands and inhaling it’s sweet and strong scent—this, I can describe. I am fairly adept at conveying emotion and pain through the written word. But the power of prayer, or what the Holy Spirit’s voice sounds like… These things, I can only describe as real. The way my soul shifts when He’s close… That’s all the proof I need.
I never had sleepovers as a child. I never giggled with a friend over a cute boy. I never passed notes in Biology. I’ve never been invited to a Girl’s Night Out. Honestly, sometimes I wish I knew what all that and more was like. But I don’t have the time to focus on it too much because there are always too many rays of light left for me to gather.