The parson had known her close to twenty years. Long ago, when she was a single girl, working in the growing IT industry, she moved into a house seven doors from the parson's church. It was then she became a lurker.
She was a lurker but not in the lurk around the blog sense. She lurked around the parson's church. She might have attended a couple of times in the decade the parson served that parish, but, if she did, the parson couldn't remember it. Nevertheless, she was spiritual; she was a seeker; she was what the parson termed a “non-church going Christian.” She wasn't afraid to ask questions, hard questions about God and Jesus, and sometimes she asked unanswerable questions about the organized church.
It took a while for her to discover that right fellow. But he was the right fellow, the very right fellow. The parson married them at a wonderful celebration at a country retreat not far from where the parson would retire.
When the parson did retire, he didn't seem them as much. But there came that day when the call came, “We're pregnant!” There was rejoicing, anticipation, trepidation. And within months they brought their child to the country where the parson supplied the pulpit in his retirement to be baptized. There was lunch following the baptism accompanied with Ms. Parson rocking the baby in a rocker on the front porch of the restaurant, rocking him and rocking him and rocking him, cooing and smiling and, unknown to the parson then, creating a precious memory for him. A memory she too had and which she shared with the parson.
Two years later they were back. The second child was baptized. Lunch was shared again. Ms. Parson was happy to have another child to rock.
It wasn't long after the tragic call came. Her fellow, her knight in shining armor, had cancer. It was a horrible cancer. It was a devastating cancer. There was no cure. The parson and she shared flowing tears. The parson and she talked a lot about bad things happening to good people. But there was no adequate answer. “Why do these things happen?” she asked. The parson told her he didn't know.
There was hope. There was an experimental treatment he could volunteer for. He did. It wasn't the easiest treatment to be borne, but he endured it and he got better. He was better for a few years. And then it happened. Things when from bad to worse. The boys were now five and seven. Their daddy was dying.
The phone call came. The parson answered. She told the parson he was home now. Hospice had been called. The doctors said maybe it would be two weeks. She told the parson she thought it would be two days. The parson told her he'd be there the next day.
It was a beautiful spring day in the inner city of Atlanta. The youngest boy met the parson at the door. He wasn't in kindergarten that day. Her high school friend who was there to help her told the parson she'd let them know he was there. So the parson and the five-year-old played games on the floor. Then the hospice nurse came out. She talked a while. Then the oxygen technician came by. Then the contractor remodeling the basement came up. Then the ….
Finally, she came out. She told the parson they'd just given him some morphine and he was out of it. She and the parson went out on the deck, into the bright spring sun, the budding flowers, and the promise of new life. The dog accompanied them, assuring their conversations would punctuated by periodic tossing of the tennis balls which were quickly retrieved and dropped at their feet.
That conversation bounced from one thing to another, from talks of death, of her acceptance of what was coming, of the fact she'd already been grieving for years. They talked of funny things that had happened back when she lurked around the parson's parish. They talked about the children and the counseling they'd been put into to prepare them for what was coming. They laughed about children, and Christians, and the absurdity of it all, of the wedding when the parson danced a jig with her eighty-year-old grandmother.
Four hours later the parson left. He headed home, knowing he'd retrace his steps soon to return and talk some more, if she wanted; but to be there because he wanted. Navigating through the traffic the parson thought of how she was so typical of the new Christians. Church membership is secondary to faith. She is full of faith; she is well-acquainted with God. The parson remembered how when she and her fellow, having not seen the parson for a year or so, were there when Ms. Parson died, being pastors to their pastor.
She'll lose her fellow soon. The parson is experienced with what that will feel like. She'll go on, probably facing it much better than did the parson. And maybe that's the miracle of it all: even in the shadow of death life goes on.
Below is the unedited interview Krista Tippett conducted with Rabbi David Hartman, in which he confronts God in the modern world, and the deepest meaning of the Jewish state as a sacred obligation. The interview aired on "On Being" on American Public Media / National Public Radio.
The parson answered the phone and was delighted to hear his daughter's voice. “Hi, Sweetheart,” the parson said. “What's up?”
“I have a little girl here who wants to talk to you.”
“Okay,” the parson responded feeling a bit of expectation that his three-year-old granddaughter wanted to talk to him. “Put her on.”
“Hi,” said a sweet voice.
“Hi, yourself,” said the parson. “It sure is nice to talk to you.”
“I know,” she said. “You preach; don't you?”
“I do preach,” the parson answered.
“Okay, I told my Mom I wanted to talk to you because she won't talk to me serious. I need to ask you something about God.”
“I'll try my best to answer,” the parson said. “What about God?”
“Do you think God is a boy or a girl?”
This one caught the parson by surprise. Being the gender sensitive cleric he is he realized the answer to the question was important to her. He began talking as he searched for the right way to answer this for a three-year-old.
“Well, little girl, most of the time people talk about God like God is a boy. But there are other people who ….”
“I just want to know if you think God is a boy or a girl,” she interrupted.
The parson said, “I was trying to get to that. You see ….”
“I'm sorry,” she said. “You are answering this just like my Mom. I just want to know if you think God is a boy or a girl. All you guys have to say is 'yes' or 'no'. But you don't do that. I guess I just have to tell you. If you want to know, I have decided that God is a girl.”
The parson marveled at the firmness of her voice. And before he could reply, she continued.
“That's all. God is a girl. I have to go now. Bye.”
“Call ended” popped up on the parson's iPhone. He turned his eyes upward and whispered, “You smile just like my mother.”
Sara Brown, a twelve-year-old who occasionally visited the parson's church with her aunt, came tearing through the church parking lot on her bike. Seeing the parson, she skidded to a stop.
“Hi, Parson,” she greeted.
“Hi, yourself, Sara,” said the parson. “What brings you to this side of town on a school day?”
“Mom had to take Granny to the hospital for some tests so Aunt Lillian picked me up at school. I'm staying at Aunt Lillian's tonight 'cause Mom's staying with Granny at the hospital.”
“What's wrong with your grandmother?”
“They're talking about replacing her knee. It's funny, Granny is all excited about it.”
“Well I'll say a prayer for her. I hope she does well.”
Sara studied the parson a minute then asked, “Parson, can I talk to you a minute.”
“Sure,” said the parson. The two made their way to a bench in garden beside the front entrance to the church. “What's on your mind?” asked the parson when they sat down.
“Okay,” said Sara, after taking a deep breath. “There's this boy in our class who's been telling those of us that don't go to church every Sunday that we're going to go to hell. So I told him that he was wrong. I told him that a lot of people who don't go to church are really good people and they believe in God and everything but they just didn't go to church.”
The parson started to say something, but Sara was on a tear. “He really made me mad. Here's the thing, Parson. I don't know if I would go to church every Sunday or not if I could get there. But right now I can't drive a car so the only way I could get to church if I wanted to would be …. Oh, I'm sorry, Parson. Look I really like it here when I come with Aunt Lillian, I mean, if I was going to go to church every Sunday, I'd come here. I didn't mean anything about you or this church.”
“That's no problem, Sara,” said the parson, as he silently confessed that he and Sara had a lot in common.
“So anyway, I couldn't go to church if I wanted to because my folks just don't do that. And my Mom and Dad are really good people. So I don't appreciate him saying those things about me and my parents.”
The parson waited.
After a moment, she said, “Well?”
“Are people who don't go to church going to go to hell?”
“You know, Sara,” said the parson, “I think maybe that if that young man in your class is going to believe in that kind of God he should realize that a lot of people who do go to church may go to hell, too.”
Sara smiled. The parson continued.
“Let me tell you a story, Sara. My son doesn't go to church very much. In fact, he probably doesn't go unless he's visiting with me. One day I got on him about that. You know what he told me?”
“He told me that he really believed that you could worship God by hiking in the woods and appreciating God's creation. He told me he though you could learn about God by reading a book. He told me he thought you could be a follower of Jesus without being a church-going Christian.”
“So what did you tell him?” Sara asked.
“I didn't tell him anything, Sara. I just call him on Sunday every once in a while and ask him if he's hiking or reading a book.”
The parson leaned toward her and said, “The important thing Sara is that you're looking for God. And I hope the God you find is too big a God to be locked up inside a church.”
“Listen, Parson,” she said with a wrinkled forehead and deep consternation reflected in her features, “I've prayed about this and prayed about this, but I haven't gotten an answer to my prayers. I'm about as frustrated as anyone could be.”
She was a sophomore in college. She'd always been active in her church. Years ago, as a teenager, she'd told the parson, when he was the pastor of her church, she knew she personally wanted to go into fulltime Christian service. But she didn't think God had called her to it. Now, in her second year of college, she'd driven across the state to talk to him of her frustration.”
“Look, Parson, I have to declare my major next semester. If I'm going to go to seminary I need to start taking courses that will help me there. But as much as I pray I'm still waiting for that assurance that God is calling me.”
The parson let her talk, asking questions here and there to let her get it all out. After they'd talked for over an hour, the parson took her to the local Java establishment. The conversation there strayed to her parents and then to people in the church where she'd grown up. The parson enjoyed being able to catch up on the people who'd been so much a part of his life for so long.
When they'd finished their coffee and were leaving she grabbed the parson's arm on the walkway, pulling him to a stop.
“Parson, you still haven't said anything about my not having heard the call of God.”
The parson smiled at this young woman, so intent on hearing God's voice leading her into a vocation she already knew would be her's.
“Sweetheart,” he said, “one of the most frustrating things about God is that God is so, so slow. But one of the more joyful things about God is that God is always on time.”
It seemed appropriate that, being the professional person he
is, it would not be an indulgence but a necessity for the parson to stock up on
some new fashionable attire. And so the day found him making the rounds of the
clothing stores at the Prime Outlet Mall. A nice day it was to shop, the
weather not blistering but teetering on the cusp between hot and warm. he made
his way steadily from store to store collecting some shirts, slacks and a
couple pair of shoes. The collection of new duds was sure to make him feel like
Shopping completed he stored the packages in the trunk. He looked around. The Java Junction was open
and they have some of the best sandwiches in town. Heading that way he
calculated with each step a reason why, after the sandwich, he should treat himself
to a double dip ice cream cone. The sandwich was ordered. Feast devoured, ice
cream ordered, licked and consumed, it had been a good day.
Stepping outside the walk to the car had just begun when she
called to him. His head turned; his eyes rested on her; the parson’s mind
fought just a moment for recognition. And then he knew. She was the sister of a
former student at an academy where the parson once served as chaplain.
They sat down on a bench and exchanged news. She was a
striking woman, the granddaughter of immigrants who’d come here in search of a
better life. Unlike many who migrated to this country, her family came not from
poverty but a relatively middle class existence in their home country. They
came because they believed in what this land stood for.
After the news had been shared and they’d laughed at shared
remembrances, the parson asked, “How are things for you these days?”
She looked at him silently for a moment, as though searching
for the meaning behind the words. Her eyes turned toward the ground. “It is
strange, is it not, that people can be so different from what you thought. My family
has been here all these years. My grandparents worked hard to provide for what
their grandchildren enjoy today. My brother serves in the Army. We pay taxes.
We vote. But lately things have changed.”
The parson felt the pain in her voice. He remembered back
when she, along with her parents, visited her brother at the academy, the pride
in his accomplishments. He recalled the day her brother decided to make a
career of service in the United States Army. She looked at the parson and continued.
“Why is it people want to paint things with such broad
strokes. Why is it that the actions of a few can paint the larger group with
such negative thoughts? How can the accomplishments of three generations be
swept aside and people be condemned as less than deserving, looked on with
suspicion, despised because they immigrated here to be part of this glorious
They were quiet for a moment. The parson didn’t have an
answer for her. She knew he didn’t have an answer. She changed the subject and
they talked for a while about her being the staff doctor at a medical clinic
for the poor.
After a while she had to leave. They stood. She took the
parson’s hand, looked around to see if anyone was listening, and said quietly
in the language of her ancestors, “Rabbina ma’aak.”
The parson smiled and replied, “Allaah ma’aaaki.” God go
with you, too.
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