Last month Dean told the story of his friend who fell off a roof in Malta and of a God who did nothing to save him. This post is my reply. It’s an old story from the summer of 1995 when I was a 14 year old infant, still pre-puberty, still ripe to believe.
Keep in mind as you read this story that one year earlier, on the opposite side of the globe, the Rwandan genocide stole 800,000 lives in 100 days of slaughter. Meanwhile, I lived in a tiny farming community in Western New York with my dad and mom and my two little sisters Melody and Micaela.
For eight idyllic summers my dad was the pastor of our purple-steepled-country-bumpkin church. Mister Barney’s pigs lived at the top of our green sloped backyard and every few days we carried a slop-bucket of egg shells and onion skins to treat them. Money was tight, but aside from clipping spaghetti sauce coupons and forcing ourselves to switch brands from week to week, our existence was a spring-bird’s song.
I never lost any sleep about the Hutu extremists who used machine guns and machetes to slay members of the minority Tutsi community. I didn’t even know that an ID card stamped “Hutu” was the only item that could save a man from constant terror, from hiding his family under a bed or fleeing for safety in the night. In my creek-bed community, the nightmare of neighbors killing neighbors, of women captured and kept as sex slaves, of husbands slicing the throats of their off-ethnic wives; that kind of fright was beyond the scope of my imagination. So too, was a God who might look the other way.
But God came into question in my own ordinary story the following summer when dad resigned his sturdy pulpit and my adolescent life plunged into chaos. Until then our evenings had been predictable. Dad prayed over the pasta as it steamed up to heaven. I squinted at my sisters through the steam. They complained, “Hey mom, Matt’s peeking!” and I pinched their palms in reply.
Sometimes after bedtime mom’s voice might spill under our bedroom doors. Her worries were as soft as the hallway light and dad’s voice was low and steady in reply. However muted their voices, phrases like “empty grocery budget” and “another tough church board meeting” kept slipping into the galaxy of my open black bedroom. But we all kept warm in our beds with the safety of ourselves and the hills and the slow moving life that came one faithful day at a time.
Until the Board Meeting when dad spontaneously resigned. That fateful Tuesday night was the first moment when grown-up uncertainty struck me in the chest. I remember staring out the window toward the cow speckled twilight, tears in my eyes, wondering if I would ever see such deep green grass for the rest of my life. It seems obtuse to fuss about it now. But when I was 14 I had no inkling to interrogate a God who permitted milk cows to moo praises in nearby pastures while Rwandan orphans, covered in their mother’s blood, wept. To my cozy palate, the resignation of my father, and the 100 anxious days that followed, were enough to unhinge me from the hope that God was good and that God would take care of my family.
When my father resigned he came home with a flushed face and said “We’ve got three months to get out!” To this day I’m uncertain if mom knew in advance of his resignation. But with that singular revelation our house ceased to be our home and reverted back to “the church’s parsonage.” I kept delivering slop buckets to the pigs, same as always, but there were only so many slop buckets until we had to leave town. It was the end of civilization as I knew it.
A plan materialized anyway. We would move to the outskirts of Rochester, NY, where a small Pentecostal Bible college was known as an oasis to folks who’d been parched in the desert of ministry. (It even said “Oasis” on the cover of their yearbooks, which dad took as confirmation.)
Dad relocated first for interviews while the rest of us stayed behind to pack. He slept in a tiny dorm at the Bible college but neither the school nor the affiliated church could employ dad, who was educated only for operating tanks in the U.S. Army, for preaching the Bible like a Wesleyan, and for teaching American History like a Pilgrim. Between interviews dad installed cable boxes- which evolved into a full time gig partly on account of Rochester’s limited demand for tank drivers.
Back at the parsonage we packed like the devil was at our backs. You should have seen the sweat on mom’s shoulders. I think that sweat was how the fear found a way to leak out since she couldn’t whisper to dad at night. But every weekend she loaded the girls into the back of our station wagon, she handed me a Rand McNally Atlas and a Rochester PennySaver in which she had pre-highlighted the rental properties, and we set off to hug dad and to secure a new home.
Hugging dad was the easy part because he kept getting skinnier. Finding a home was impossible. “Does it have three bedrooms?” Mom would ask without moving her eyes off the road. “Do they take pets?” I’d nod. “How much?” Her chin might twitch toward me for the crucial question. I remember my fingers on the newsprint, following the line again and again to every awful price-point: $1075. $1250. $1495. $925.
“Too much.” I’d say.
“$925 a month.”
We didn’t visit houses priced higher than $600 unless we were in the mood to torture ourselves. One house in particular was nothing more than a condemned hunting cabin. The yard was yellow marsh grass, three feet high, barbed wire in the distance. The porch was rotten wet wood and most of the first floor windows were punched out. We only showed up because the landlord took pets and claimed to be negotiable on his $700 ask. Every weekend we visited a dozen equally depressing options: trailer parks, abandoned foreclosures, high crime neighborhoods.
We always reported back to dad and dad always reminded us that God was preparing an oasis for us. Which is crazy when you think about it. If there ever was a moment to temper your kid’s expectations, this was it. But my parents swung hard the opposite way. Dad believed in an oasis and mom drilled down into the sand to find it.
On one house-hunting expedition mom handed me a pen and a yellow legal pad, she eyed Melody and Micaela in the rear view mirror and announced, “Let’s make a list! We’re gonna tell God our wildest dreams for this new house.”
I gawked and the girls giggled but none of us spoke until mom confessed that she had always wanted a covered porch to watch thundershowers and a dining room for hosting and a deck for dad’s grill. Then she signaled for me to write it down item by item on the legal pad.
Micaela followed mom’s lead by announcing that she had always wanted her own room. At which point Melody exclaimed that she wanted pink wallpaper which I said was ridiculous. I wanted a paved driveway and a real basketball hoop. From there it escalated into one of those Sound of Music sequences where everyone is rosy cheeks and sing-song shouts.
“I want a basement that’s dry!”
“I want a big yard for pets!”
“I want a TWO car garage!”
“I want TWO bathrooms!”
“I want LOTS of kitchen cupboards!”
“I want bay windows with a bench!”
“I want two stories and my bedroom on the second floor!”
Our station wagon cruised up the highway while the summer sun shone down and the ideas kept popping until the legal pad list was three pages long and fifty items deep. We thought of everything but a laundry chute and if we’d thought of it we would have written it down.
Mom was careful to remind us that God was not obligated to our list, that we would maintain an attitude of trust and gratitude regardless of the outcome, and that this was simply an affirmation that God was interested even in our little cares if we would let him be. But still! It felt so dangerous to me. We kept the list on the dashboard in case we thought of something else and I kept a leery eye on it in case it turned into a snake. And if I’d been smart enough to be a cynic back then I might have felt a little selfish too.
Then one Sunday as September crept closer and the long afternoon shadows were promising winter and there was no possibility of any house on the horizon, mom pulled onto the highway toward an address that had appeared in the morning paper with an unlisted price. What was printed in the paper may as well have been a description of the moon: 5 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 acre of land.
Melody and Micaela didn’t seem to realize the disappointment that was about to unfold and I couldn’t bear to tell them. Lately I’d even stopped pinching their hands during mealtime prayer because soon enough they’d have to bow their empty faces into empty plates.
I didn’t notice the paved driveway when we rolled onto it. I saw the basketball hoop but my pulse didn’t rise one tick. What registered was the size of the house and the hulking shadow it cast in the evening sun. It was a giant white box, it could have been a skyscraper, and it stood in a well spaced neighborhood where rollerbladers eased down the lane, waving, until an awning of trees swallowed them up.
A man stood smiling in the driveway. He led us into the house where the air immediately drowned us in an aquarium of cat piss. He rubbed his forehead, he explained that he’d a never rented a house before, that he was moving to Florida, that his wife’s dying cats had expired across all parts of the carpet, and that shucks wouldn’t it be a lot of nasty work to tear up. “Would $650/month be too much to ask?” he wondered aloud.
That one easy comment triggered the springs in my teenage legs. Our legal pad hadn’t even conjured up a house this large and I knew mom and her sweaty shoulders could tear up carpets better than any carpet man who ever lived if she put her mind to it.
I triple jumped to the second floor where Melody was exclaiming that one of the rooms was already pink and Micaela was falling in love with the tiniest room with the cutest windows. And that’s when I saw the laundry chute. Right beside the big bay window bench which overlooked the basketball court. I opened the chute and peeked inside where the wide metal duct ran all the way to the basement which I had not yet visited. It was while my head was in that chute, contemplating all the laundry that I might never have to carry again, that disbelief and belief began to co-mingle through my bloodstream.
I slammed shut the chute and raced to the basement, which was totally dry and which had an extra bedroom for no reason at all. At the back of the house a sliding glass door released me to the biggest wooden deck dad could desire. It overlooked a wide open yard where I opened my stride through the uncut grass like any fourteen year old would do.
The sun was setting and my sisters were squealing behind me. I could feel their energy like the energy of the sunset which was slicing bursts of orange through the deep green shadows stretched out across the lawn. I remember that moment in time with more clarity than any other moment in my life. It was like I was absorbed into something Other, a small particle of an Incomprehensible Whole. I’ve never been so warm before or since and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as close to the Truth as I was at mid-stride on the left side of that house when the tears outraced me, when all I could see in the blinding sunset was the image of that legal pad on the dashboard, no longer a snake and a no longer a gamble, when I believed that no matter how bad everything was that God himself had proved both interest and compassion, and that my family would be safe in September beyond the farm.
We signed the papers at dusk. We ripped out the cat piss carpets. We made a batch of memories I cherish more than others. And then, twelve months later, we moved again.
By then I’d learned about the Rwandan genocide. How the straggling survivors set up camp in Tanzania while I was feeding pigs in my backyard. How the dead were rotting on grave-less dirt while my family was signing for our miracle house. And how when we moved away the following year those ten thousand refugees remained collected in tents, terrified to return home.
It haunted me. Where was God in Africa, you know? He rarely seems predictable when you compare stories.
Don’t get me wrong, I still believe our house was a miracle. All I’m saying is that I don’t understand God. But what I am confident of is that my mom could have accidentally careened us all over a gorge on the way to that house without ruining the miracle at all.
Because the real miracle was something else entirely.
The real miracle was that in the midst of our (mild) suffering my parents took an unlikely posture. They made no demands or negotiations. They rolled up their sleeves by day and their prayers by night and they understood exactly how tall they stood among the stars. They taught us that it’s best to believe in a God who cares. That no matter the stakes, no matter the outcome, if we’re human and we’re breathing we always have an opportunity to look for God in our pain.
I suspect some Tutsis held such a perspective throughout the entire Rwandan genocide. If so, I wonder what they might understand about God that we don’t. I don’t understand why the genocide was so brutal, or why the Bible School never hired my dad, or why my sister-in-law was killed by a drunk driver, or why one of my best friends quit speaking to me without explanation.
I still ask God those questions in the same way mom taught me. I hold them up in the air. Usually nothing happens. But usually I stop feeling alone.