Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Cardinals and Big Bird

Faith is a funny thing. One minute you can be feeling sturdy in the cruise-ship of life, and then an unforeseen trial in the form of an iceberg creates an upheaval in your life that you never wanted to anticipate, but here it is. You're left treading water, and the question becomes, 'Who can you call for help?' Sometimes it's the opposite scenario: you're barely keeping your head above water and are about to surrender, when suddenly a hand seems to come from nowhere and you suddenly find yourself dripping wet, but plucked aboard a vessel of safety. Through the years, I think I have found myself in both of these scenarios. All I can really conclude is that, as we develop and grow, our lives will take turns that we never anticipated, and our faith has no choice but to do the same. I can wrestle with it, discipline it, and let it wander, but ultimately my faith only belongs to me and it remains my accomplice each day.

Two years ago I went through what I would consider a mildly-sizable crisis of faith. Though I never questioned the existence of God (I've been there in my college years, done that, and come out the other side) or his goodness, I found myself unable to come to terms with the injustice and sadness that life dishes out to many people. Read back, if you want, on my anger and despair over baby Aiden Smith's condition and his eventual passing, and you can easily spell out a girl flooded with grief and doubt about God's capability to change the world's circumstances. I began to believe at that point that prayer can be quite useful in changing us, but it cannot change our circumstances. I reasoned that God, who created love and is love, certainly loved this little boy more than I ever could, for how could he create me to be so without firstly having been so himself? And yet, if he loved Aiden at least as much as I did, why didn't he save him? I can't even pretend to know the answer to this question. I began thinking, I would rather believe in a God who created a world that he disallowed himself to intervene in, than to believe in a God who could save this baby and wouldn't. I wrestled with this new (to me) stance on faith, alternately finding comfort and despair in it. I sought the counsel of people wiser than myself, hoping for easy answers. The most spiritually-mature friend I have told me that I was only arguing with myself over semantics. "Jenny," she said, "This is not a hill to die on." She was right, because arguments about the nature of God are less important than what we do about our lives here on Earth. No easy answers came, and in the meantime, life got tougher.

Last October we lost Owen, and everyone who reads this blog knows that I don't even have to go deep into this pool to convey what his short, but big, life did to those of us who loved him. In my darkest moments I have found myself briefly questioning the idea of heaven and an afterlife. Seeing Owen pass into that place in the matter of a moment left me frantically wondering, 'What is he doing now? Where did he go?' Nearly always I imagine Owen in the autumn leaves, playing and tumbling with an exuberant smile on his face, totally at peace with his creator. Sometimes though, and I don't know why, I begin to wonder: what if the afterlife is something that we have made up to comfort ourselves? We as humans seem hard-wired to believe in something greater than ourselves, which one could argue is an evolutionary advantage that propels us forward as a species and provides us hope, except that it isn't true. I, on the other hand, believe that we're cross-culturally hard-wired to believe in something greater than ourselves because we were created by something greater than ourselves, and thus this sense of yearning was created within us. I will admit that acknowledging the idea of no afterlife--of nothingness--after this life, is a concept that is devastatingly empty and frightening to me. I scramble quickly from these thoughts because I find that no good can come from them.

Since two years ago, I have been praying about my questions, though not consistently. I may only now be finding answers, but perhaps what I am really finding is another curve in the road of progress. The wisdom comes from Mindy Sauer, Ben's mom, who is finding herself struggling with the kind of grief that many moms identify with and that all other moms cry to imagine--the grief that comes when a mother outlives her child. Mindy continues to write posts on her blog about how the family is doing without Ben, and she wrote a post earlier this month that challenged me deeply. Entitled "When God Winks," the post spells out a heartbreaking journey that the Sauer family made, perhaps prematurely, to their favorite vacation spot, but this time without Ben. She records that they could see and feel Ben in all things on their vacation, which brought a grief beyond what she and her husband thought they could endure. They would have gone back home if not for their kids, who were excited to be at the beach. But, Mindy writes, there was this cardinal that just wouldn't leave the family alone. Never in her many, many times at this vacation spot had Mindy ever seen a cardinal, but now, just when their grief was beyond enduring, came this beautiful red bird that accompanied them every day. The bird, which the family saw as a token from God, brought them great comfort and happy thoughts about Ben. Ben's identical twin Jack even called out, "Hello Ben!" and the family took delight in this 'coincidence' from God.

Mindy's quiet time on the beach, with a welcome interruption from daughter Megan, who contributed a neat shell in the heart over Ben's name
Mindy said that she did not think that the cardinal was a coincidence, but was rather a 'wink' from God, placed intentionally to provide comfort and small moments of happiness in her otherwise very sad life right now. Mindy cited a book called "When God Winks: How the Power of Coincidence Guides Your Life" by SQuire Rushnell, which she read at the recommendation of a friend right after Ben's passing. The book's push is that God works through 'winks' in your life to let you know that you're on the right path and provide comfort, and all you have to do is look for these winks.

I find this idea to be so charming and comforting. I so wanted to believe it, but I wasn't sure that I did. Like any true investigator, though, my purpose should be to challenge myself and not only read materials that align with my beliefs. So, I quickly reserved the book from the library and had it read within a few days. The book is divided into sections like "Coincidences in History," "Coincidences in the Arts," and "Coincidence's at Life's End." It is filled with stories of what seem to be amazing flukes or coincidences, both from everyday people as well as celebrities. Much as I detest the idea of testing God, I think I sort of walked into this book with the prayer of, "If this is true, then God please let me see it in this book, because I'm about to give up on this idea."

For the first half of the book, I wasn't terribly impressed. He seemed to be making lots of generalizations and wanted all kinds of participation exercises like journaling about one's past. No, thanks. But then I read a couple of sections that floored me and changed my gears--'coincidentally,' one of them was the section called "Coincidence's at Life's End." Without boring you with too many details, I will say that the book suddenly kept handing me stories and details that were simply uncanny in their relationship to my own life. For instance, SQuire (yes, the Q is also capitalized) Rushnell writes about the lifelong friendship between Jim Henson and Joe Raposo, who was the songwriter for Sesame Street. The author specifically mentions two songs only in that entire section of the book, one of them being the song "Sing;" incidentally, this is the exact song that emotionally brings me to my knees about Owen. See? I'm crying even as I type it. I cannot hear that song or even think about it without feeling literal pain and despair in my heart and welling up with tears. That song was played on loop during my first-ever visit with Owen, which was truly such a sad visit because we already knew his diagnosis and knew his life was to be cut short. Ellie was obsessed with that song at the time, and we must have heard it a hundred times. To read about that song right then and there seemed a powerful 'wink' to me. Within that text was the one song that hurts me the most about the one person I miss the most--and in the "Coincidence's at Life's End" section, no less. And he talked about the airing of the Sing! special and how it all incidentally occurred on the day of Jim Henson's death, which was May 16th, and I'm a little weird about death on the 16th's as it is (Owen, Aiden, and my grandmother all died on 16th's). Huh.

There were also two other coincidences that struck me as really odd. One was that he told this really long story about Jessica Savitch, who I know was famous but I didn't know anything about until a week before I read the book. I read an article that had mentioned Jessica Savitch and, since I wasn't sure who she was, I looked her up. The story of her career and her freak-accident death was interesting, and so I read about Jessica Savitch for like half an hour. Then, a week later I'm reading this "God Wink" book and there she is again! It's not like you read her name every day. Huh.

At present day, I can say that this post has been percolating in my mind for some time. I sat out back on the deck this morning working on reports, and was accompanied the entire time by a cardinal cheeping incessantly, and dare I say, wonderfully. After all, Van and I stepped out on the deck in the quiet morning at 6:15, and I asked God aloud, "One more time, please give me a sign by sending me a cardinal. I really need some help with this." And I began crying, because I was sad and I often feel sad when I'm short on sleep. And I was thinking of Aiden and Owen and Ben, and then I heard the cardinals before I saw them--the male and the female, both of them there, just as I asked God.

Enough is enough. I'm tired of asking God for signs and I'm tired of asking other people what they think about this. Like Heidi said, it isn't a hill to die on anyway. But right now I need the comfort, and for the first time in two years I don't feel like I'm deluding myself. I don't have to read too much into simple things, but I can let myself smile at the idea that God is occasionally intervening just to make me smile or let me know that he is taking care of the people that I need him to. What really seems to hit home is the idea that I need approval from no one in order to believe this, and so I can stop seeking it. Appropriately, Rushnell wrote, "Don't be afraid to be alone. You also need time to listen to your inner self instead of someone else suggesting how you should think."

One more ebb in the faith river. We'll see what's around the next bend.

Owen, March 2012 during the Sing visit

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