When I was eight years old, I kicked a rock down a road in anguish that I was going straight and very fast to hell. I saw myself as a muscle car on a straight road with the gas pedal stomped – tires burning and screaming, hood rising, trunk hunkering down, speedometer needle swinging hard to the right, the road blurring on either side, the focus narrowing down to a small, tiny bit of hard hot asphalt ahead that was going to rip me apart when I flipped at 130 miles per hour.
Someone’s life was going to end in a gruesome crash of punishment because someone was pressing foolishly on an evil gas pedal — me. Anxiety was among my earliest theologically inspired emotions. When I thought of a force in the world greater than myself, I had a decidedly ancient Greco-Southern-Baptist response. God judged failures; large fire bolts were aimed at me.
It’s odd, my fear of the divine wrath, because in actuality my early life was filed with the small and the safe. When my brothers and I were little, we liked to play outside at night in the summer in the large field in front of the house. On warm night, in the field, I remember tiny fire flies blinked on and off. Their tiny yellow lights flashed here and there, like Christmas lights moving in the air. In between one soft blink and another there was their flight, but we only saw the pulse and in that was the beauty of the thing. There was something there, alive, magically small, miniature light houses that could fly. It was astonishing to me. This was no thunderbolt; it was safe fire. There were also other things which I remember from the field that were small and fun, and we took charge of some of those.
In the summer the cow were allowed into the field to graze on the grass, and there were tiny flies that buzzed around the cow paddies. And on their soft, steamy piles, the flies landed, which provided great sport for us. Out we came with our B-B guns, and the fun began. Each shot made a splash and left a gashing crater. If the shiny copper B-B’s were on the mark, then the fly disappeared into the goop, with perhaps a wing left flopping on the surface to signal the kill. “Hit” said the softly waving wing. There was no tragedy in this, only the hunt and the hit and the yell of victory over our small combatants. I remember one fly hit and seemingly sunk in the muck who rose and flew again, and in that moment I celebrated his escape and told his heroic story to my brothers. “He was down, in the B-B tunnel, and he crawled out, and he flew off!” We loved the bold, triumphal comeback of the other side.
Small boys love to wage war on small things, and live happily in the diminutive world of small victories and small defeats and they do so without fear. Small boys, even ones who fear punishments, take dominion over fields and flies and wild strawberries and such . My brothers and I loved the tiny, wild strawberries as we did the flies and gamed for them too. They hid from us in low leaves and grass, but we found them everywhere.
I still remember the spots where they grew, the field were we played baseball out behind the grade school and the ditch along the highway, right in front of the shop where we painted my first car. They were different than store-bought strawberries in that they were much smaller, about the size of a little finger nail, but they were the same in that they were bright red with little brown seed dots and green leaf hats and tasty. The fun was in the hunt, and in the find, and the reward was immediate because we ate them unwashed, on the spot. The ripe ones were ambrosia, juicy and sweet, the ones with a bit of white or green on them were tart and tangy in the mouth. We learned quickly which to pick and which to not. Sometimes we piled the bright red ones high in discarded tin cans or in paper cups and carried them home with us, an attempt to save the manna for another day. But God wasn’t angry in the ditches; there was always more manna.
And when we went to school, there too, life was experienced small, and safe and approachable. One page in the encyclopedia housed a tree full of birds and another a field full of flowers, and the book told their names. The terrible “Tyrannosaurus” took up only a part of a page and was so small and smooth that I never remember being afraid of his open mouth. The saber toothed tiger with long teeth and sharp claws was glossy and flat. The vast ocean that looked so wet and wild was dry and calm, and the fearsome war heroes and their horrific battles were silent.
School books made life small, fly-like, quiet, safe — one dimensional. Life was presented to us flat, of course, for our safety and for the preservation of our teachers. No physical harm could come to us, even from our powerful teachers, because they were, by law, unarmed. Jonathan Swift pointed out, while on another educational errand, that we were delicious children, and so care had been taken. And we never took field trips to Jurassic Park, but we were taught that the terrible lizards were real, or that they had been somewhere at some time. Just because we only saw them in books, that didn’t make us doubt the fundamentally dangerous reality in any way, but the danger hadn’t come close to us.
In school, the hunt and the find and the shot and the hit were all confined to the quiet of the page and so even international conflicts ended not in blood baths but in tiny back dots at the end of paragraphs. It was there on the page and at the desk and under the press of the pen that the huge and dangerous universals became the small and safe particulars. The small became the safe-large by virtue of repetition and the large became the small again by the example at hand. In short, we discovered the knowledge of the largest things in the knowledge of the smallest things. We found math in two plus two. We found art in Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” And we found war in George Washington crossing the Delaware at night. And this was our way of life, as we discovered it, and though such a childhood full of just this kind of page turning I gradually came to change my metaphysics.
Today, I ate at piece of toast with my strong coffee. I put milk in the coffee to bring it to just the right light brown and smooth flavor that I like. I smeared homemade strawberry jam on my bread, covering my toast, my small field of wheat in bright fruit, my childhood on a plate. The strawberries were tamed a bit by all the added sugar, but they came through for me as they always have. The rosy sweetness kissed the buds on my tongue awake. In just moments, I could feel the sugar and caffeine hit my brain, that familiar ready-for-more, bring-on-whatever-is-next feeling. It is so fine. Small things have such powerful effects, suggesting the larger things of life to us with nod and hint and a semiotic gesture.
The bread of life has so little harm in it. It is eloquent of the love and patience and safety that surrounds me. Every bite is communion, and every day I eat it. My life is bludgeoned with soft bread. I crunched Special K for breakfast today. I had some frosted mini-wheats for a snack. In the evening, I tore small pieces of French bread off a loaf and dipped them in a creamy spinach dip. The evidence is overwhelming.
Before lunch today I went to Costco. I shopped, then before leaving, I picked up a Hebrew National hot dog and diet Coke. I covered the inside of the bun with relish, mustard, catsup and fresh onions. Then I found a seat on the strawberry red and white picnic tables and looked out over the store. Costco, like the bread I eat everyday is the absence of scarcity. It is a fragile shell around a substantial pile of food. If a tornado hit a Costco, the big, thin box of wall and roof and ducts and pipes would fly away, but the food would remain, on the medal shelves, stacked four pallets high. It is the food that makes the store. It is head-high everywhere, and in most places it towers twenty feet above the shoppers. It comes in such large quantities that the issue in choosing things comes down to, “Can we eat that much before we die?” I considered the lemon juice recently, but the deal was two huge bottles linked together by a plastic strip. I passed it up. It was an excellent price, but only for a younger person with more time. I don’t want my children to go through my stuff after I die and say things like, “Wow, Dad was weirder that we thought. Look at all this lemon juice. What was he thinking?”
Not everyone can shop at Costco. I know that. It’s painful for me. Not everyone has enough. I read recently that an estimated 800 million people don’t have enough to eat each day. The information was flat on the page, but there is a terrible reality to this and it is one to grieve. There is enough land to produce the needed food, the amount of food, an abundance of food. And there is enough muscle and money to produce the food. But, what we do with this is our business and our responsibility, and what we have not done about this is to our shame, but the facts still stand. The world has been well-stocked. We have done each other wrong, but what we need has been provided. The gods are not simply angry. The smallest bits and pieces of good that we receive each day point eloquently to a profound compassion. The good just keeps showing up, even in the tragic, and my theology is leaning hard in a different direction now than when I was eight.
It comes to a basic bit of logic, really. There is so much that is good and beautiful in life – the varieties of bread, the glowing fire flies, the red strawberries, the dark brown caffeine, the familiar people we forage besides, the potential to provide for everyone. And if there is an original source that all these fine and excellent things come from, a divine and amazingly creative source, and I have come to believe that there is, then all the good things come to my hands and my mouth and my mind from that source, and as a result, I just can‘t stop thinking lately that I am loved, not punished, and that I will not be punished in the future. And I just can’t stop noticing that I am safe today, for the moment, and that all around me things signal, good. Despite the mess the world is in, it is massive really, the evidence of good.
This evening my wife and I lay on the bed in our room as the sun set, debriefing the day. I noticed a warm block of yellow light on the northwest facing wall. Odd, how did the sun get on this surface considering it was setting almost directly behind it? We looked around. I got up and walked over to the southwest facing window and put my hand in front of the glass to see where the sun was entering. My hand shadowed the bright sun patch on the wall, and then I noticed the mirror on the southeast wall. The sun was passing through the window, hitting the mirror and reflecting onto the northwest wall. The evidence of a loving warmth, at the close of day, was present, cleverly cast into our room, in the form of light. Something in me wanted to clap and not stop.
Fireflies, glitter paths, candles, light bulbs, lightening, computer screens, headlights, stop lights glittering on the pavement in the rain, luminescent fish and every other small patch or spot or gleam of light in the universe shouts, “Life, illuminated, good, safe, more!” Small lights gesture toward the presence of large lights. Radiance is a gift and it reminds us that we are loved. I no longer fear that the future will be lightning bolts frying me; I now feel it will be an evening sky warming me and charming me and seducing me to more starry light still.
I am thinking more and more this way now. This matters greatly, and it helps me move forward in the best way possible. This is no mere dabbling in metaphysics for temporary reassurance. This is no intellectual dilettantism, no spiritual reductionism, no oversimplification, no facile claim that the divine universal is only spoken in the trivial positive. No, it’s bigger than that; everything implies the divine, the whole of life, the horror too.
Take war. Boyhood battles with flies pass, and boys turn into men and this turns into hitting in high school’s hallways, shouting in family living spaces and ego thrashing in glass windowed offices. And young men go to war and send smart bombs rushing to do collateral damage, which is a euphemism for brain damage, which ends with unending weeping because the destruction can’t be fixed by any means that we know of once the mission is accomplished. Conflict may be flat history on a thin page for young school children, but it in reality it is three-dimensional, scary and bloody ugly. We contend, and we will contend, with each other, seemingly forever. Nothing is more certain than the changes that will come from the battles we will wage against nature and against each other and against the source. There will be more B-B guns fired at flies and there will be more concussive explosions on the human battle fields and more arms will fly off and more heads will spin across the dirt and family will rise up against family and nation against nation and more hearts will be broken and minds twisted into fear and unending hate before this is all done.
And more children will starve to death. They did today. And some of us will be drowned in the excrement of others, and it couldn’t be uglier than it is and than it will be. Before it is over, too many of us will flop a wing in the excreta of hate and revenge, and we will grimace with mouths full of filth and pain and we will again be so broken and fouled that we won’t want bread, and we will put our heads in our arms and close our eyes so that we won’t see the yellow patch of fading light on the wall of the bedroom.
Do we understand this? We must. Everything communicates something. In the small dose of violence that it has been our lot to witness comes to us the larger, more universal issues of systemic violence and racial hate and recurring wars. It is the same as the good. The small speaks of the large, both in the good and the evil. But the evil is from us, not from above, and this I have come to be sure of. This much is true. And this is where we too have some measure of comfort and hope. I believe that what is above is working to turn evil to good.
I have seen something bad turn out for some good. I have felt like pain wouldn’t end, but it did. Yes. I now know something I knew so much less at eight years old. In what is worse, I have a chance to see some of what is best. Just because my world is stupidly violent, doesn’t mean that the source of all that is good and right is so. That source is not. Instead the source of life is steeped in the politics of redemption and the passion for renewal.
I have come to believe that evil things can be recovered from, and to believe that the small good can defeat the large bad. Good has a way of leaking back in when one is open to it and the end doesn’t have to be dark. I have come to believe in redemption. We can be down, hit, mucking about in the goop with only one wing free, and yet fly again. Once, one who was strong kneeled close to one who was weak, and lifted up what was broken and carried it to a place where it became strong again.
This happened, and it has happened to me; it has happened to me again and again. I remember my junior year in college so well. All the loneliness of growing up and living apart from my family and studying nihilistic philosophies and fuzzy-edged literatures and not having safe friends and family that I could disclose myself too and looking for refuge in stupid-brain experiences with immature friends, it caught up with me, and I was so hungry for soft bread and warm light and something tender and good and loving to believe in and to believe in me. I wrote in my journal too much that year. Writing in journals is sometimes eloquent of missing relationships, ones that offer safe places for transparency and truth.
And it culminated in me standing in a park in the city at cool night on a hill looking at the sky and shouting, “If you are there, do something!”
“Do something,” which means something like, “Don’t hate me, don’t condemn me, don’t make war on me, do not, not understand me, don’t leave me alone like this, don’t not pursue me, don’t not make right what I have made wrong, don’t be a distant and judgmental father, and don’t above all things, don’t leave me unchanged.”
I remember reading something in that time that tasted like good bread and shone like yellow light winging through the dark and felt like holy war on untruth. It was from the prophet Isaiah. “In returning and rest shall you be saved and in quietness and confidence will be your strength.”
These words weren’t frozen in print as I read them, they weren’t dead on the page, but instead they were as alive and real as they came off the flat, thin page and they formulated into something three-dimensional and sharp that entered me square between the eyes and proceeded into my frontal lobe at high speed. These words pierced my thoughts like an arrow fired from a bow pulled all the way back at close range, and they knocked back something that I hated and wanted to be rid of – scary religious noise. The words struck me quiet, and they created a space inside for silent confidence to begin again.
The specialists of the heart call this redemption. It means that something lost is retrieved, something sold is bought back and something ruined is restored. And this is that way that redemption happens, like it happened to me, in a shout into the night and bit of truth on a page. It came to me as one bite of soft bread, one small light flashing in a field and one small line of truth struck deep.
What is it? It is God.
The religious sing, “Great is our God.” I have no quarrel with that. But I found him first and I find him most in what is small and safe.
I found him that way yesterday as my wife and I lay on the bed together and talked over our day, as we always do. And as I held my wife’s hand I knew that her small hand in mine was from him, from his Costco-style plenty for me and that it was such a perfect picture of his larger safe grip on me.
I found him today as my daughter Rosalind and I drove away from the house. She is learning disabled, and this has been hard for her and for me, but in the car, we talked about how many times we had ridden together in the morning, her off to school, me off to work, buddies shoving off together, from kindergarten to college, holding hands in the car, starting the day connected, and then going our own ways, knowing we would see each other again at night to sit, safe again, and watch TV and eat and talk and go to bed at peace with each other and life. This ride, this shared ride, slow not furious and fast, ending in safety, speaks books to me of the compassion of God that I have come to hold on to.
I have found the largest thing in the smallest things. And these things have been made small for me out of compassion for me. A loving maker is suggested, hinted at, gestured to and present in, the smooth, slow ride to school, in the small tasty bite at noon, in the warm rectangular glow on the wall as he day closes, in the next page turned and in the tender hand in my hand on each one of the very particular days of my life.