Once upon a time a young man went on a retreat. As a kid he’d been a bully, but he gave that up quickly because his priest had told him it was wrong. On the retreat however he remembered that he had teased a skinny little girl about her buck teeth and her glasses. She cried every time he teased her and then whenever she saw him. He really liked to see her cry. Then she and her family moved away and he grew out of his teasing phase, and quickly forgot it altogether. But at this retreat, a nun gave a talk about bullies. That conveniently repressed phase of his life came back and horrified him. He felt terrible. How could he have been such a jerk. The poor little kid. He might have ruined her life. He talked to the nun about it. “Typical boy behavior,” she observed. “But I stopped doing it. I grew up. I haven’t been a bully for a long time. Will God forgive me?” “Yeah, probably,” said the nun, “but I’m not sure about the little girl.” He went home from the retreat really upset. He had done a terrible thing. He had to find the little girl and apologize.
For a couple of weeks he couldn’t sleep he felt so guilty. So he began to search for the girl. He discovered where she had moved to and then that she was a lawyer and worked for a firm near him. It took him another two weeks to work up the nerve to seek her out. Then by accident he encountered her in the grocery store. She had grown up to be gorgeous. He stumbled and bumbled and muttered and apologized. “You were a bully all right,” she said. “But you were kind of cute too. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?”—That’s the way God is.
Another once upon a time, in cold November, my husband and I were leaving Christ Hospital in Clifton…with our brand-new, delightful, much-beloved baby. We’d been there three days and, though we were terrified by our new responsibility, we were excited to get home, eat some dinner with my folks, and introduce little Abby to her new home. We packed up, checked out, took off. I was more waddling in pain, but whatever. Leighton started driving out of the carpark, but we heard a kind of lub-lub noise. I suddenly remembered that one of my tires had had a slow leak. And it’d had three days to slowly leak and was now flat. Ok, we pulled over and Loving Husband Leighton got out to change the tire. Only he couldn’t. Not that he didn’t know how but that he actually couldn’t. One of the lug-nuts was stripped. Ok, so we call AAA. Meanwhile, little Abby has woken up hungry and with a dirty diaper. Of course. So, while Leighton’s waiting for the guy from AAA, I painfully waddle myself and my new baby through the biting cold into the hospital in search of a bathroom in which to change my first diaper ever. When I returned, I found that the AAA guy had arrived and he, too, couldn’t budge the lug-nut. So another guy had been called to tow the car. By now it was 9pm. We were tired and hungry and just wanted to get home. But how? We racked our brains for people who (a) we had phone numbers for, (b) who had a car seat, and (c) would be willing to come get us. We called friend Mark who dropped everything to help us. He showed up with an almost empty gas tank, but that’s another story. With just a phone call, Mark came and helped us out—That’s the way God is.
Another once upon a time, one of my students at the University of Cincinnati—Edward his name is—was hanging out at our campus ministry house. He was there alone, holding the fort as it were so other students could stop by if they liked. And, while he was in the kitchen fixing a cup of tea, someone came in. But not one of our students. When Edward came back into the living room, Elijah was sitting on the couch, his cell phone plugged in and charging. Edward was a little astonished but took it in stride. They talked about this and that and it became obvious to Edward that Elijah was not on the up-and-up. He said that his brother had forgotten to pick him up from campus, that his car had broken down, that his girlfriend was waiting for him to come home with diapers, and other things. They shared some tea and a soda and when Elijah asked for money, Edward wisely said, “no.” And, while Edward didn’t have the wherewithal to call Elijah on his dishonesty, he offered what hospitality he could, even knowing he was being lied to—That’s the way God is.
What is God like in these stories? In bringing together the people God does, what is God saying? How is God acting in them?
“Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. So I say to you, ‘Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.’ For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”—That’s the way God is.
What is God like here?
Some folk would say that, at the beginning of this passage, when the disciples saw Jesus praying and finally work up the courage to ask him to teach them to pray, Jesus looked at them, and loved them. And didn’t answer their question. They said, “teach us to pray” and Jesus said, “this is what God who you’re praying to is like.”
I’m going to be honest here, folks—I don’t know what to do about Elijah. Or about Bennie, another homeless guy I know. Or any other of the down-and-out folks I run into on campus. Or folks who’ve been abused or are abusers. Or about folks who have it comparatively easy and don’t know what to do about it themselves. And I don’t know how to pray. I mean, of course, I know how to pray, right? The Lord’s Prayer, at least, is an easy one. But you know what I mean—what to say? What words to use to get my point across clearly and convincingly and, of course, beautifully? How do we convince God to do what we think needs doing? What do I do with my hands? We want to do this RIGHT, right? The disciples didn’t know how to do this either and they asked—“teach us to pray.” And we ask that same thing—“Lord God of our fathers and mothers, we hallow and bless your name and we want to talk to you. Teach us how. Teach us to pray.” And then Jesus looks at us and loves us and says, “this is what God is like.”
On my way back, from the Edge House yesterday, I had a little set-to with God. In my car. Out loud. I told God everything I knew about Bennie, this homeless guy who sleeps on the porch of the Edge House, though he’s not supposed to. I told God about how Bennie’s life was surely complicated and about how he drives me crazy. I raised my voice in anger that despite my conversations with him and even regular police sweeps, he stays on the porch, leaving his trash and sometimes peeing in the corner. I cried in frustration that I had to clean up his trash. And then I cried in repentance, knowing that cleaning up other people’s messes, serving our brothers and sisters, is exactly what we’re called to as Christians. What am I supposed to do for Bennie, when he’s been kicked out of every helping agency in Cincinnati, when Jesus tells me to serve him, when I don’t know how? And I asked in desperation, what do you want me to do?—And this was prayer. It wasn’t beautiful and it wasn’t the “right” words, but it was prayer.
All this because the God I know is one who listens. Who perhaps metaphorically rubs my back and murmurs understanding sounds. Who sometimes offers advice and sometimes keeps silent.
God is like many things: like the surprise visitor who may or may not be wanted, like the host falling over himself to offer food and drink no matter the hour, like the sleeping neighbor who first questions the request but ultimately responds. God is like a parent—loving and tearful or even angry but not abusive. God is like a homeless guy sleeping on your porch or asking for change on the corner. God is like a king or queen ruling the realm for the common wealth. God is like a farmer sowing the seed—sending us out to grow in Claremont County or Cincinnati or the Dominican Republic, sending us out as guests in others lives at school, at work, in our neighborhood organizations or sports leagues. And at the heart of this being sent out, God is our creator, is our Father and Mother, is the abba we cling to in the infancy of our faith.
That night Leighton and I struggled to get home from the hospital, that was three days after little Abby had come into our lives. Three days after the night we met her, when, in a delirium of medication and exhaustion, I saw Leighton hold our daughter for the first time, watched him fall in love with her, watched him tell her he’d always protect her and never leave her. I saw him pledge with his eyes and his arms that he would watch and care and challenge and listen no matter what. That’s the way God is. Amen.