Sunday, November 14, 2004

Nudged by God

Do you ever have the feeling that God is trying to get your attention?

My father’s grandfather was a Methodist minister, a family tradition that ended with his passing. Perhaps that was due to his hard sell approach to conversion, which my father experienced during childhood summers with his grandparents that led to a long-term rebellion against organized religion. My mother was raised in the sacraments of the Catholic Church but rejected them as an adult until she eagerly received the last rites before her death. Around the time I was born, my parents found a Congregational Church to their liking long enough for me to be baptized as a baby.

I grew up in an environment of staunch Judeo-Christian values. My parents were the most ethical people I have ever known, but they were not church-goers. I first began to attend church regularly with my Kindergarten boyfriend and his family, which stopped when they moved away. After we relocated to Orange County, our next-door neighbors would take me sometimes to their church, as I had befriended their younger son. In junior high school, one of my friends invited our crowd to her Lutheran Church and some of us stayed long enough to be confirmed, including me. I must confess that the initial attraction was the cute boys (do you detect a pattern here?), although along the way I began to seek something less shallow.

During my Lutheran period, I uncovered a personal flaw that has bedeviled me ever since, so to speak. While I could believe intellectually in the Bible, I never felt the Holy Spirit in my heart. Every Sunday for three years I would bow my head and pray to God, “Please let your Holy Spirit fill my heart today.” I did not blame God; I blamed myself. I understood that it was my own failing that kept me from a leap of faith. I have known many atheists who worship science and scoff at religion with a sense of moral superiority. I have never been one of them. Evidence of God is everywhere around us. Every system of life bears a perfection that surpasses the best works of our most brilliant human minds.

When I was pregnant with my son, my dear friend Julie suffered the loss of her only son, Vasily, who died from complications of brain cancer a week before his third birthday. The tape recorder in his hospital room played his favorite Christian songs on a continuous loop and the feeling of faith there was palpable, providing solace to a devastated family. My grief was real, but my secular words sounded hollow to my own ears. Over the years, I have tried to comfort many tormented by pain or loss. Oh, how I wished I could pray for them. “I will think good thoughts for you” is an inadequate substitute for the power of prayer.

As my father was dying of multiple myeloma, cancer of the bone marrow, my sister and I took staggered shifts at his bedside to prevent the nurses from doing anything, even the slightest move, that might cause his bones to fracture. My son was three years old and quite attached to his cloth Lowly Worm toy, a character in the popular books of Richard Scarry. Somehow he had lost his Lowly Worm, which he needed more than ever, so on the afternoon of Thursday, May 7, 1987, we drove 13 miles to the specialty store to buy a replacement. I was scheduled to take the night shift, so we stopped on our way home at a market to pick up some snacks for the long evening ahead. As we shopped, I noticed that a woman was following us. She was wearing an old-fashioned housedress in the style of the 1950s. She had no purse and no shopping basket. After we took our place in line at one of the cash registers, the woman walked up to me, handed me a piece of paper, said “I think you need this,” and quickly left the store. The paper read, "Yea though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Psalm 23:4.” My father died three hours later.

You might think that would have caught my attention, but I was a hard case. I could not believe that I had enough significance in the universe for God to send me a personal message via special delivery. Seven years later, my mother died. For the next five years, I was haunted by her passing with no faith to comfort me. I got myself into quite a funk. At my lowest point, I decided to reclaim my life and actively search for God. That is when I met my husband, Luis. Becoming a couple was a leap of faith for both of us due to differences in age, culture, and experience. Luis is like my father in my ways, including his childhood rebellion against religion. As our bond strengthened, I confided my fear that I would find faith and it would come between us. After we married, I renewed my quest, reading and re-reading books by C. S. Lewis, Harold Kushner, Dennis Prager, et al. I hoped that my leap of faith in human love would lead to a leap of faith in godly love. I continued my conversations with God that started when I was a teenager.

My long-held concept of religion is that churches (small c) at best are clubs that support our faith and that each believer is the Church (big C). I realized that looking for a lightning bolt of faith inside a church was a wrong-headed, outside-in approach. I needed to nurture the seeds of faith within and live accordingly. Meanwhile, my friend Alicia began to attend the church, Lutheran strictly by coincidence, where her daughter Aimee found her calling. Aimee is studying at the local Lutheran university to be a youth minister. Alicia repeatedly encouraged me to attend, but I kept procrastinating. In December 2002, once again Alicia invited us to the Christmas service. My husband became ill with a bad cold, so I declined. Two days after Christmas, I found a lump in my breast.

Some people facing a life-threatening illness find that the obstacles to their faith crumble magically. I am not one of them. One of my biggest obstacles has been the sense of unworthiness that has dogged me since my formative years. I found myself thinking, if I didn’t come to God before I realized how much I need Him, how can I ask for His blessings now. And so I continued to struggle while my husband was rediscovering his own faith.

September 2003 was an amazing month. I started chemotherapy the month before but had remained positive and upbeat. Then I got into trouble with higher-ups for working half-time since my surgery, even though I had used my backlog of vacation time to supplement my schedule. I was bald, bloated from steroids, and quite scared that in my damaged condition I would have to look for a new job. The stress drained me of my positive attitude. Then my sister died unexpectedly, leaving my oldest brother without a caretaker. Within days, Luis and I had to find a house large enough for all of us. By the following week, Luis flew to Florida to move my brother and his service Doberman back to Califoria. Less than two weeks after my sister’s death, we were living in our new house.

When I summarized these events for a co-worker, she said, “Wow! God is really trying to get your attention.”

Okay, I got it. Finally. No more playing at being a believer. No more procrastinating. I guess it took a lightning bolt after all.

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