Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Scattered Deck of Playing Cards

When I was six years old, my father died and I was terrified. I wasn’t afraid of my father, but I was afraid of the pasty corpse with the ghoulish face and the rubbery fingers that I saw sleeping in a box at the funeral home. I had never seen a dead body before and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was afraid to look out a window at night, because, in the darkness, I saw my dead father’s face staring at me. I was afraid of the basement and the attic, because I sensed the body lurking in the shadows. All of the closets were off limits because I thought that if I opened a door, the corpse would fall out on top of me. In my own bedroom, I imagined the dead body stretched out on the top bunk bed. My home, which should have been the safest place I knew, became a house of horror.

I didn’t know what to do about this fear that filled my life. I was not raised in a family that ever talked about God, nor had I ever been inside a church building. And there I was, with no faith background, deeply troubled about death, thinking about it a lot more than any young child should.

From the culture around me, I was aware of the concept of God and heaven and wanted desperately to believe in both of those things. But when I heard that if I was good, someday I would get to go to heaven and see my father again, it reminded me too much of Santa Claus. I had already figured out that Santa Claus was a make-believe person adults had created to keep children in line. Was God like Santa Claus?

This was the first faith crisis that I can recall in my life, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Within this crisis, I had an awareness of the connection between faith and fear, because I remember thinking that if I could really believe in God and heaven, then I wouldn’t have to be afraid of death any more. What I didn’t quite understand was the nature of faith. I thought it meant knowing something for sure, so that you could prove it beyond a doubt. So I decided to run a little experiment in order to find out once and for all if there really was a God or not.

It was a solid plan. I had an upstairs bedroom that was left undisturbed all through the day while I was at school, and I decided it would be the perfect place for God to leave me a sign. I took a deck of playing cards and laid them out on top of my bedspread, face down, in neat rows. And then I gave my instructions to God: “OK, God. If you’re really there, I want you to show me.”

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Maybe God would spell out “Hi!” with the cards, or he would turn some of them over. I didn’t have a specific sign that I was anticipating, but I was hoping for something that would tell me God was more than a variation on Santa Claus. I needed a sign that God was real. So, I carefully placed the cards on the bed, I gave my instructions to God, and I went to school.

That afternoon, as I was walking home from school, I was anxious to see what was waiting for me on my bed. And I was a little afraid because I was finally going to know for sure if there really was a God and I sensed that what I found on my bed could change my whole life.

As I opened the front door to the house, I was greeted by my black cocker spaniel, Inky. He was so glad to see me that he jumped up to lick my face. But I wasn’t interested in Inky at the moment; I wanted to get to my bedroom. Inky saw me walking in that direction and he bounded up the stairs ahead of me, then jumped up on my bed before I had the chance to get there. The cards flew all over the room and I was furious. “Inky, look what you’ve done!”

I cried that day when I realized that I would never know if God had given me a sign with the cards I left on my bed. I felt this had been my one chance and I wouldn’t try again. If God had answered my prayer, I couldn’t very well go back to him and ask him to do it all over again. And if God had not answered my prayer, I would never have a way of knowing.

This may seem like a silly little childish activity that I should have forgotten by now, but it continues to be one of the most significant events of my life. It took me a long time to realize that God had answered my prayer after all. It wasn’t the answer that I had expected, so I missed it. But it was an answer that has been repeated many times in my life. When I’m seeking God’s guidance, the answer often appears to be no answer at all.

Whenever I struggle so much with important faith issues in my life that the process becomes painful, there is great appeal in relinquishing my struggle to a higher power. If I can’t find a solution to the spiritual conundrum that keeps me awake nights, I can let God do it for me! When I’m groping in the dark, trying to figure out where God wants me to go, I often find myself praying for some kind of a directional sign from God, even though I’ve learned not to expect a detailed roadmap. But when I pray for signs, it seems that those prayers are more about me telling God what to do than they are about God telling me what to do. God doesn’t jump when I say jump. God doesn’t give me an answer just because I tell him to. That’s just not the way God works, and I honestly wouldn’t want a God I could control like that.

At another significant time of my life, as an adult, I found myself praying much the same prayer that I had prayed to God as a child running an experiment with a deck of playing cards. I was deeply troubled by a life-changing decision I was facing, and desperate for a sign from God. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Which way, Lord?
I want you to ease and enslave me
Lead me blindfolded
with ears muffled
by the nose
down a
to a
into a tiny cell
I can only inhabit in
fetal crampedness.
Slam me shut,
deadbolted from the outside
with a keyless lock.

Which way, Lord?
You choose to torture me with freedom.
I dance with limbs outstretched
in an open field
yielding only to the bright sky
with no landmarks in sight.
Your subtle whisper is the soft breeze
in my face
and to my back
and on either side.

Cruel grace! For once limit me
With THE answer…
Which way, Lord?

It can be maddening to pray to God so fervently about something that is critical to your life and hear what only seems to be silence coming back at you. Yet, it’s often in silence that God speaks to us. A God of grace does not take us by the nose and lead us to where he wants us to be. God sets us loose in an open field and gives us the freedom to make our own decisions.

Thankfully, God doesn’t leave us stranded without any resources to help us find our way. God gives us all the gifts we need to live by faith: the scriptures, our faith communities, experience, the brains we were born with and the divine Spirit within us. When we pray for God’s guidance and open ourselves up to use all the resources he’s given us, it is a prayer that never goes unanswered.

The life of faith is not about removing our doubts so that we can know God with certainty. And it is not about removing our fears so that we can effortlessly follow where God leads us without struggle. The life of faith wouldn’t be possible without our doubts and our fears. God began teaching me that truth many years ago through a black cocker spaniel named Inky. Whenever I seek answers from God, I am reminded of the lesson I learned from a scattered deck of playing cards.

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