When I was eight years old, I knew I was going straight and very fast to hell. I remember kicking a rock down a dirt driveway that led to my house terrorized by the idea of a huge, angry and judgmental God.

It’s odd, my fear of the divine wrath, because my early life was filed with the small and the safe. The fear must have come from the hell-fire and sulfur sermons I was hearing on Sundays, and the Old Testament stories I read to entertain myself when church got boring, which was most of the time. Korah’s rebellion sticks in my mind. Fire from heaven ended Korah and his evil conspirators. But despite developing a terrorizing sense of impending judgment, I was also vaguely aware that the fire flies in the field outside our house were sending me a contrasting signal. 

My brothers and I played on summer nights in that field where tiny flies blinked on and off in the dark, their little yellow bulbs here and there, like happy, flying lighthouses. In between one soft blink and another there was something alive, magically small and good. This astonished me. I wasn’t growing up with thunderbolts of judgment, only safe fire, mini-therms.

In the summer cows were allowed into our field to graze on the grass, and tiny flies buzzed around the cow paddies that the cows left everywhere. These soft, steamy piles provided great sport for us. Out of the house 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 we were aiming at disappeared into the goop, with perhaps a wing left flopping on the surface to signal the kill. “Hit,” said the softly waving wing. It was judgment, but we judged the world, not God, and we decided who would live or die. Mostly it was just fun to celebrate the hunt and the hit and the yell of victory over our small combatants. I remember one fly who, upon being hit, seemingly sunk in the muck, yet after a minute, he 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 they live happily in the diminutive world of small victories and small defeats. Small boys, even ones who fear divine punishment, rule the fields and flies, and also the wild strawberries around them. My brothers and I loved the wild strawberries we gamed for near the house. They hid from us in low leaves and grass, but we found them everywhere.

I still remember the spots where they grew — the field where we played baseball out behind the grade school, the ditch along the highway, and right in front of the shop where we painted my first car. They were different than store-bought strawberries. They were much smaller, about the size of a little fingernail, but they were the same in that they were bright red with little dark seed dots and green leaf hats. 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, and the ones with a bit of white or green on them were tart and tangy in our mouths. Sometimes we piled them into tin cans or paper cups and carried them home with us. God wasn’t angry in the ditches; there was always more manna.

And when we went to school, there too, life was experienced small, safe, and approachable. One page in the encyclopedia housed a tree full of birds and another a field full of flowers. These large, heavy books gave comfortable access to many astonishing things. 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 what God had made 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, because our teachers trafficked only in thin-page reality and because by law they were unarmed. Jonathan Swift pointed out, while on another educational errand, that we were delicious children, so it follows that care had to be taken for our safety. In school, we never took field trips to Jurassic Park where we might be eaten, but we were taught that the terrible lizards had been real somewhere, a long, long time ago. Just because we only saw them in books, that didn’t make us doubt the fundamentally dangerous reality in any way, but the danger never came 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 the world wars ended not in blood baths but in tiny black 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 through such a childhood full of just these kinds of experience and 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 toward a God who gives us “this day our daily bread.”

The daily bread of life has so little harm in it. It is eloquent of the love and patience and safety that I now see that I live and have being in. 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 of loving provision 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, ketchup, 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 every day, 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 choices come 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?” What was God thinking — so many lemons?

Not everyone can shop at Costco. I know that. It’s painful for me. Not everyone has enough. I read recently that an estimated 925 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. 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. 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 I all around me things signal, good. Despite the economic and social 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, and this helps me move forward in the best way possible. This awareness of good is profound and pervasive, no mere metaphysical dabbling in food and nature analogies for temporal anxiety reduction. The divine universal is not just communicated in the material 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 the hell of 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, from our choices to fire away and destroy. Evil does not enter the earth by means of  bolts from above; this I have come to be sure of. And this is where we too have some measure of comfort and hope. I believe that what is above is working to turn our evil to good.

I have seen something bad turn out for some good. I have felt physical pain, surgery pain, nerve pain, emotional pain that wouldn’t end — but it did. I have suffered the effects of competition and power grabbing and jealousy in the market place and come out smashed up by the very people I thought would prop me up.  I know what it’s like to flip a wing in the excreta of life and call out, “Hit.” And passing through all this and coming out the other side, I know how good it feels to be able to say, “Okay now.” I now know something that I knew so much less at eight years old. In what is worse, we often get to experience what is best. Just because our world at times turns painful and stupidly violent and decidedly hellish, doesn’t mean that the source of 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 isn’t looking. I have come to believe in redemption. 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 this has happened to me again and again. I remember my junior year in college so well. All the college years of living apart from my family, studying nihilistic philosophies and fuzzy-edged literatures,  not having safe friends I could disclose myself too and all the looking for refuge in stupid-brain experiences with immature friends —  it caught up with me. 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. Obsessive journaling is often 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, on cool night, on a hill looking at the sky. And I shouted up, “If you are there, do something!” which means something like, “Don’t hate me, don’t condemn me, don’t make shoot at me and make war on me. Don’t 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.” In college, I was eight years old again, looking up toward the ambiguous divine. Was God wrathful or was God loving?

I remember opening the Bible shortly after that and reading something that tasted like good bread and shone like yellow light and felt like holy war on untruth. It was from the prophet Isaiah. I read, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall 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. It’s in the Bible. But I found God 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 God, from his Costco-style emotional plenty for me, and that it was such a perfect picture of his larger safe grip on me.

I found God present again 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, then separating, knowing we will see each other again at night to sit, safe again, and watch TV and eat and talk and go to bed good with each other and life. The dirt road I now kick a rock down, with my wife and daughters here beside of me, speaks encyclopedias to me of the compassion of God.

I have found the largest thing in the smallest things. And I have come to see that small things have been made small for me out of compassion for me. It isn’t all okay, of course, but I am not so much afraid of fire from heaven anymore. A loving maker is suggested, hinted at, gestured to and present in every bit of bread that lands on my plate. And he is there in the warm rectangular glow on the wall, in the next page turned and in the tender hand in my hand on each one of the very particular days of my life, and I know that whatever comes, I will be loved in precisely the small and personal ways that will eventually make everything right.

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