I SURE HOPE SO

It was an ordinary walk on the nature trail with my seven-year-old grandson and his almost four-year-old brother. I had the younger one by the hand, but his older brother walked untethered, propelling himself in his normal fashion, which means arms swinging like machetes, whacking at the tall grass beside the path. In no time at all he acquired a tiny finger cut, which bled entirely out of proportion to the seriousness of the injury.

Fortunately, I had stuck a band aid behind his ear before leaving the house, to cover an unexplained oozing thing there. The band aid was no longer needed behind his ear, so being out in the wild and all, and having no access to a clean one, I removed it from his ear and applied it to his finger.

“I don’t have any blood,” almost-four announced.

“Actually you do,” I said. “You are full of blood.”

“And if I get a cut, will it come out?”

“It will.”

“What happens if it all comes out?”

“Then you’d be dead,” the seven-year-old offered helpfully. Thought for a moment. “But not really.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He shrugged and said, “Well, you know. Heaven.”

I was impressed with his knowledge. “Right,” I said. “And then someday you’ll get a new body and live forever with Jesus.”

My seven-year-old theologian sighed and said, “Well, I sure hope so.” He was serious, and I’d guess he’s been giving this subject some consideration. But then he was on to something else, so theology class was over.

I had two thoughts. First, you never know when an everyday discussion is going to veer to the eternal, invisible things that are hovering over daily life. You have to pay attention. What you say or don’t say might be important later.

Second, my grandson so perfectly expressed what it’s like to grapple with faith, to hold faith and doubt in the same space. If we’re honest, we adult Christians will admit this isn’t unfamiliar territory. Sometimes we live in deep down, unshakeable certainty, and sometimes we live in “I sure hope so” mode. But if we’ve been hanging around church and other Christians long enough, we end up feeling guilty when we’re in “I sure hope so” mode. We don’t feel free to share our half-baked condition with anyone. What will they think of us if we do?

But here’s the thing. The feelings of tenderness I have for my grandsons have given me a glimpse of God’s tenderness toward his broken, doubting children, who sometimes struggle to line up certainty with theology.

In the moment my grandson said, “I sure hope so,” I have never loved him more. I was happy he was going deeper than regurgitating right answers. I hope and pray he’ll come to a bedrock conviction of God’s power and promises, but I loved him no less for his not-quite-sureness. If I, a mere human, feel and act this way toward another human, how much more so does God treat us with us tenderness and understanding in our “I sure hope so” moments?

The Gospel of Mark gives us a shocking, un-churchy, account of this human mixture of belief and unbelief. A desperate dad asks Jesus to heal his demon possessed son. Can you even imagine the desperation of living with a son who regularly rolls on the ground and foams at the mouth, gnashing his teeth? He asks Jesus for help, but the ask is slightly insulting: “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Not a stellar proclamation of faith, is it? If you can do anything? We are waiting for the Lord of the universe to tell him to come back when he’s more sure.

Jesus’ answer says there’s no limit to what he can do if the dad has faith. If I was the father, I might have felt in that moment that everything depended on my faith, but I was running short, and now there absolutely was no hope. I might have given up and gone home to figure out how to live with my son rolling on the ground, gnashing his teeth, and foaming at the mouth.

The story takes an interesting turn. The man decides to go for complete honesty. “I do believe,” he tells Jesus. But part of him doesn’t believe. So he adds, “Please help me overcome my unbelief.”

I love that this dad lays his unbelief alongside his belief. He’s brave enough to admit that he has both things going on at once. And I love that Jesus loves and welcomes this desperate dad in exactly the faith condition he’s in. He shows his love by acting decisively, with no partial measures in response to what appears to be partial faith. Jesus blows this one out of the water. Not only is there an exorcism, it comes with a lifetime guarantee. The evil spirit is ordered to leave the boy and never return again.

Bless Mark for including this account, and for reassuring us that there’s room for doubt and struggle and being honest. Our God loves us no less in those times, and in fact rejoices that we are coming to him, no matter how thin the thread of faith. Our desperate dad was, even in his doubt, still looking in the right direction. And Mark shows us that the suffering boy’s healing was dependent on the power of God, not on how much faith his father had. He had faith to ask, and it was enough.

We need to have faith in our incredible, almighty God. Not faith in our faith. Let us welcome the doubters and the questioners, even when they are us, and be open to honest discussion. God gives us the gift of freedom to name the doubt and to work through it. It’s a gift we ought to give each other.

UGLY DRESSES

Dear Fashion Industry,

Why do you hate short women? It seems to me that you despise us, and want us to look like fat little tree stumps, feeling unattractive as much of the time as possible. Here’s why I think you hate us:

1. You don’t make clothes for actual petite women. You seem to design your clothing for a mythical petite woman with a flat chest and a 15-inch waist, which in reality is a 10-year old. Have any of you ever seen a real-life petite woman? (For tall women, the mythical measurements are the same, just taller. They would fit a tall 10-year old).

2. You’re stuck in a Dark Age of ugly dresses. I hoped it would have passed by now, but you keep offering me huge flowery prints that make me look like a curtain on two feet. Also, horizontal stripes are a non-starter for me. I’m trying to look taller, not wider. And the latest ugly dress incarnation – swingy, balloon-like dresses, designed for baby elephants. These styles can be carried off by my tall sisters, but for petites like me, these dresses are demoralizing.

Here are some other things that bug me, and they’re not only petite-woman complaints:

3. Why do you have colors of the year? I suspect that someone in an office somewhere in New York City, or wherever they make these decisions, sticks their hand in a box of various colored fabric samples, pulls out a couple, and announces, “OK everybody, here are the colors of the year.” Let’s say they’re purple and black. Every item of clothing manufactured for that season will be purple or black. I happen to like purple and black, but seriously?

4. And why are there no consistent sizes? If I was a man I could walk into a store, select my clothing by exact measurements, and take it home without even trying it on. A man I know well does this all the time. But not me. I can go from being Extra Small to Large in the space of 10 minutes in the same store. And if, after hours of trying on clothes, I find a purple something that miraculously looks good on me, why does the same-sized item in black fit differently than the purple one? Why, why, why?

5. Rethink your brand labels. The shopping process is already sufficiently horrifying, what with clothes that don’t flatter and yellow lighting that turns my face sickly green. Why then must I be confronted with a clothing label like Sag Harbor? Who thought it was a good marketing strategy to attempt to sell anything to a woman with the word “sag” in it? Certainly there are other harbors? What’s next? Fat Mama and Old Hag?

6. Could you please put more fabric at the necklines of all tops and dresses? I like v-necks, but I want them to end well above my waist. I’m not a Hollywood starlet trying to amp up my career.

7. You have an unhealthy relationship with polyester. You can call it microfiber if you want, but it’s still polyester. It doesn’t breathe and it makes me sweat buckets. So do all of your synthetic fibers. Yes, I know people don’t iron anymore, and synthetics are easy to pack, but in heat and humidity I long for cotton blends. There used to be something called PermaPrest, a blend of cotton and polyester. Where did it go?

8. Before I die I want a white summer blouse that doesn’t look like a men’s dress shirt, isn’t all fluttery and ruffly, and most of all isn’t transparent. I don’t think this is too much to ask, but so far you’ve failed me.

In closing, dear fashion industry, I have some advice for you. Leave your mythical woman on the drafting table and go find some real petite women. Familiarize yourself with the variety of shapes and sizes we come in – thin, not so thin, curvy, straight, and all combinations thereof. Maybe sit down with some of us and ask us what we want to wear.

I promise that if you start designing clothing for actual petite women, I will buy it and tell everyone in my petite tribe. I will love you forever. Until then, I continue my unending safari in the fashion jungle, hunting for Something That Looks Good.

PRAYER AND CASSEROLES

I love Easter – springtime, chocolate bunnies, Easter baskets, fresh breezes, victory! Easter is for celebrating, for massive joy. But Easter is also for those who suffer, because incredible suffering, rejection and pain come before the joy.

A victory with no fighting is hollow. We need to contemplate Jesus’ suffering before we celebrate the victory of resurrection. And that’s what we do during Lent, and especially on Good Friday. Good Friday services normally emphasize the intense physical suffering of Jesus, which is appropriate. But we ought to give equal attention to his emotional and spiritual suffering.

Think about your circle of friends. If someone breaks a bone or has cancer or a heart attack, a lot of sympathy is garnered in the form of prayer and casseroles. But emotional suffering, aside from experiencing the death of someone close to you, is often invisible, and engenders no casseroles. You suffer no less than if you have to alter your life to accommodate a cast and crutches, or go through chemo and radiation, but since most of us have learned to soldier on, hiding inner turmoil, nobody has a clue of the pain within.

I’m not suggesting that you wear a sign that says “I’m suffering, too”, or that you figuratively bleed all over everyone in your path. Some things are meant to be endured alone, or shared with a very few people. But we learn early in life to wear smiling masks. A lot of us – you, me, we – live with various degrees of emotional pain, trauma, and anguish. We are broken and struggling, all of us, not all the time, but enough of the time. We need guidance on how to suffer.

Much has been written on how to suffer well, and I likely won’t add anything new. But as we approach Good Friday, it seems good to think about how Jesus went about his suffering, and how that suffering began at Gethsemane. Jesus has asked his disciples to go with him there, but they are unfocused, sleepy, and no support at all. Jesus is praying. But this isn’t just any prayer; this is anguished, agonized, suffering prayer as Jesus contemplates what lies ahead. He’s about to take on the sin of the world, to actually become sin for us, and thus to experience a depth of rejection, shame, and humiliation that nobody before or since has ever experienced. It’s completely indescribable.

As Martin Luther said, “No one ever feared death so much as this Man.”

Luther’s statement is right on, I believe. In Gethsemane we are given an unvarnished picture of the Lord of the universe struggling to accept what is coming, even looking for an alternative way to save the souls of humanity. In coming to grips with his suffering, Jesus’ first instinct is to pray. And he prays honestly. No platitudes, no fake spirituality, no splashing in the shallows. Jesus is pleading, sweating drops of blood. and asks his father, “Is there any other way? Do I have to do it this way – the shame and tortuous pain of crucifixion, the weight of the world’s sin? Father, find another way, I beg you.” The whole thing was a lot messier than we want to deal with.

There was no other way. And Jesus fights against the fear, the dread, the knowledge that the only way out of this is to slog straight through to the glory on the other side. In the end he says, “Not what I want, but what you want, my father.” Jesus was trained and practiced in obedience, and so there alone in Gethsemane, he sealed his fate.

Jesus was honest on the cross, as well. The final, crushing weight of sin, combined with excruciating pain and suffocation led him to a moment of total rejection by the one who loved him most. God the Father, looking on his son, who became sin, turned away, leaving Jesus completely alone. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Jesus shows us what to do with our own anguish.He prayed honestly. He struggled, and pleaded and begged. And in the end he was obedient. He did what he needed to do in spite of the fear. He suffered well. So that needs to be our way, too. Our natural way is to look for an easy way out, or to pretend we aren’t suffering, or to surrender to bitterness when the pain won’t leave. We like to give easy answers to others who suffer – throw a couple Bible verses at them, pat them on the head, pray for them once or twice. We don’t like to be real with God about our suffering, and we don’t like the messiness of others’ suffering.

So please do contemplate all the aspects of Jesus’ suffering this Easter, suffering that led to unprecedented victory and joy. By all means keep praying for and making casseroles for the physically suffering. And as you walk around bumping into smiling people who may be suffering invisibly, offer them a casserole of kindness and patience. We are all strugglers together.