Harry, The Lord Gives and the Lord Takes Away and The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow

For the most part, I focus on posting stories in this blog that point to paths towards respect for all human beings and the increase of justice in the world.  As I type the words “point to paths” I am reminded of the Buddhist injunction to not mistake the teacher’s finger for the moon. Of course we need to pay attention to the pointing, but we need to keep our focus on the goal. Our eyes should be on the moon. (Which is not to say that we should be mooning over justice and human rights, but then, this may be that kind of free associating blog? So stay awake. Watch out for slippery slopes!)

 So, here is a story for you. A bit of an old chestnut (well worn story) I think.

 Once upon a time in middle America there was a god fearing farmer named Harry. Harry was a devout member of his church, a well respected and generous member of his community, married with a son and daughter. He and his wife, Matilda, were deeply in love. They worked together tending the farm that had been in Harry’s family for untold generations. From the farming, some crafts they sold, they managed a comfortable living. They worked hard, but by and large life was sweet.

 And then Harry’s wife was taken ill. They used up all of their medical benefits, and still the doctors could not diagnose her illness. She just kept wasting away. Harry prayed. All the members of the church and community prayed. But Matilda’s illness persisted. Harry consulted with the local pharmacist to see if Kohlberg might be right, but the pharmacist had no remedy to suggest, not for any price. And all too soon, Matilda passed gently into the light at the end of the dark night.  Harry was bereft. And then his faith carried him, he dried his eyes, looked up to the moon, and with a heavy heart said to his children, “the good lord gives and the good lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the lord.” And life on the farm went on.

 And as time went on, Harry Junior was walking down the road to school when a drunk driver struck the boy and killed him. Harry Junior’s death was instantaneous. Harry Senior was inconsolable for a time. And then, he heaved a sigh, looked up to the moon, and said to his daughter, “the good lord gives and the good lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the lord.” And life on the farm went on.

 And life went on for a while. And then the draught came. And Harry had to take out a mortgage on the farm. And he and his daughter worked even harder to make ends meet. And then the daughter got wanderlust, enlisted in the army, was sent to Afghanistan and was killed when her truck drove over an IED.  Harry was devastated. He wept – an act that was unheard of for a middle American farmer, but he wept. And then, sighing deeply, he looked up to the moon, and said to no one in particular, “the good lord gives and the good lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the lord.” And his life on the farm went on.

 And then a draught came, Harry had to take out a mortgage on the farm to pay the bills. His heart was breaking. One day he was out in the middle of the fields working the land that he loved. The land that he had grown up with. The land that had nurtured him body and soul. The land that was now so dry he could barely coax subsistence from it.  And the winds began to pick up. Soon the winds were howling.  As Harry looked up from the field where he was working, he saw a tornado the size of a New York skyscraper thundering right towards him. Before Harry could think to react, the tornado was on him. It lifted Harry and the tractor like they were bits of wheat, tossed them about like a child playing with her first baseball, and then dropped them like a hot potato – with the tractor landing squarely on top of Harry squishing him like a pancake. Harry died, walked toward the light, and found himself at the Pearly Gates where indeed he met his maker. Harry looked up, took a deep breath, and said, “Dear god, why? Didn’t I honor you? Didn’t I follow all your commandments? Didn’t I …”

 And at that point, god grimaced, and said, “Harry, I don’t know, there’s just something about you that pissed me off.”

 Now, that was a too long story. And what does it have to do with respect for human dignity, what does it have to do with human rights and social justice? Not much – except that sometimes we just can’t know. Sometimes you do all the right things and everything goes wrong. Sometimes there is no knowing why. But all the time, you just have to dust yourself off and keep going. Because even as we gaze at the moon, even at the time of the waning moon, we can always know that the sun will come out tomorrow!

 Be of stout heart and good cheer … the sun will come out tomorrow. And then together we can sing our songs of hope and peace.

Sister Ludwika Hurricane Sandy and faith versus action

Back at the cloister of the good Sisters of Mary Magdalene in Flemington, word went around that Hurricane Sandy was coming and the sisters should prepare to evacuate since the South Branch of the Raritan was expected to reach catastrophic flood levels. The sisters had never received such a challenge before, and some of them interpreted the warning as a test of their faith. As you might expect, there was a small group (a very small group, maybe two or three) of sisters who proclaimed their unwavering faith, and said they would weather the storm in the cloister, trusting in God and their faith to keep them well. The other sisters methodically brought inside anything that could be moved, pack up a bag each and relocated to higher and drier ground.

And the winds began, and the rain came.

As the wind and rain were beginning, a state police officer came by in a patrol car, and offered to drive them to safety. Our friend Sister Septimus, the pragmatist, thought for a moment, and got in the vehicle urging the others to join her. The two remaining sisters looked askance at her and the state trooper, and proclaimed their faith and trust in God, saying, “God will protect us. We will stay here. Firm in our faith we will be fine.”

And the wind and the rain increase in intensity and strength. The night wore on and just after midnight, driving through two feet of flood water, a volunteer fire fighter drove up in a humvee and offered to take the two sisters to safety at the shelter that had been opened near the public library. The sisters looked at each other, and Sister Bryda told Sister Ludwika that she was going to go to the shelter. Sister Ludwika laughed at Bryda, and told her that her trust in the Lord could not be shaken by a little water and some wind. Sister Ludwika said she would remain strong in her faith. She was staying even if she would stay alone.

And the wind and the rain howled through the night. Just after midnight Mother Magdalene herself, the sister superior of the cloister returned in a borrowed SUV and entreated Sister Ludwika to come with her to a safer location. Ludwika refused, again inveighing against the failure of faith of the other sisters, and proclaiming that her faith would shine like a beacon to them all. And so, Mother Magdalene left Ludwika to her own private vigil.

As the night wore on, Sister Ludwika became ever more resolute in her vigil, her faith growing ever stronger even as the winds howled, and the rain waters engorged the normally quiescent South Branch of the Raritan River. As the winds raged, the cottage that Sister Ludwika had chosen for her shelter was lifted off its foundation by the winds and tossed like so much flotsam into the raging waters of the Raritan. The cottage and its contents – including Sister Ludwika – were tossed by the raging waters and batter along the river banks. Early that morning before sunrise, Sister Ludwika met her maker.

Upon arriving at the Pearly Gates (which Ludwika thought to herself were not quite as pearlescent as she had expected), Sister Ludwika saw a ragged looking fellow wearing a contractors’ tool belt. Since no one else was around to greet her, she approached him, introduced herself, and asked who he was. He smiled, and said that he had been was waiting for her. “I am Jesus” he said simply.

“Oh, my God!” Ludwika said, and blushed.

He smiled and said, “Yes.”

Then Ludwika’s anger got the best of her, and she burst out, “but why did you fail me? Why did you not save me after all my years of prayers and my unwavering faith in you! How could you let me down when I needed you the most?”

Jesus looked at her with a mixture of compassion and frustration. “Ludwika, dear, I did reach out to protect and save you. I sent the state police, the fire department and Mother Magdalene. I sent you a car, a Humvee, and an SUV! What did you want a Chariot of Fire? Your prayers may propose, but up here we are the ones to dispose! Indeed, praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition. Not that I am advocating fighting (since you can be kind of literal, Ludwika) but it really is about developing your god given skills and abilities and building communities of love and interdependence. It is not faith versus action, it is faith and action.”

(the heart of this story is a bit of an old chestnut that often centers on a man of faith caught in a tree as flood waters swirl around him. I hope you enjoy my version.)