When I was nineteen years old I fell on my knees and gave my life to Jesus. It was the culmination of six months of impassioned 2:00 a.m. arguments in overheated dormitory rooms, of feeling alone and isolated, of being shaken to my core, of watching my family unravel to the tune of adultery and alcoholism and suicide attempts. It was based on an inarticulate groaning, a wordless acknowledgement of the inadequacy of my little storehouse of optimism and self-assurance. It was, in fact, surrender: I can’t deal with this. Here, you take it.
That was, wow, thirty-two years ago, and in the meantime I’ve learned precisely nothing more about optimism and self-assurance. All I know is that some people die tragically young, and other people grow old and die of the usual, horrific suspects: cancer mostly, but also heart attacks and diabetes, strokes and good old pneumonia. I’m no expert on these things, but I think you’d have to be a fool to feel much optimism and self-assurance about your future, at least on this planet.
I have diabetes, and in addition to swallowing four pills each day, I get to stick myself with a needle every night before bedtime. The insulin keeps me alive, and I’m grateful for big favors. But when I read about the long-term prognosis for this disease, I learn that what I have to look forward to probably includes heart disease, stroke, blindness, amputation of limbs, kidney failure, and nerve damage. It’s a nasty little fucker. Sorry if my language offends you, but if you’re going to swear, what better thing to swear at than the notion of your bad self becoming a blind amputee? So about the only thing I know with much certainty is that it’s going to get worse. Here’s that little piece of paper inside my personalized Chinese fortune cookie: “You will be Stump Man on a dialysis machine. You don’t have time to screw around.” So I’m trying not to screw around.
When I was a student at Ohio University I used to hang out with a goofy, Napoleon-Dynamite-looking guy named Jeff Treffney. The day I met him he told me that he had an enlarged heart, and that doctors didn’t expect him to live past 25. He was 21 years old at the time. Sure enough, right on cue, four years later he died, and his funeral was the first time I think I truly experienced that great, aching void that accompanies the loss of someone you cherish, and will never see again. I was a new Christian when I met him, and Jeff had been at it for, oh, two or three years, and he told me to memorize the following Bible verse: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.” Had he lived, Jeff would have been approaching “ancient” status by now. He would have been in his mid-fifties, old enough to start worrying about the big C and diabetes. But he didn’t. He died tragically young.
At his funeral a well-meaning pastor assured us that Jeff was in heaven, that his pain and suffering were over. I certainly hoped he was right. I prayed he was right, and I believed, as best I could believe, that he was right. But I wasn’t sure he was right. Jeff probably would have been disappointed in me. But then again, I’ve never quite understood the apostle Paul in that passage Jeff loved so well, either. If you’re absolutely sure of something, why do you need faith? I don’t need faith to believe that an exploding car bomb in Baghdad can end the lives of innocent men and women and children. I do need faith to believe that God can work good out of it anyway.
It’s ridiculous, this thing called faith, if I think about it logically. On one hand we have the vastness of space and the microscopic tinyness of my individual life, one of six billion people on one of the smaller, inconsequential stars off in an obscure corner of a galaxy, surrounded by billions of other galaxies. On the other hand we have the Creator of the universe, who is said to know and care about the most intimate details of my tiny life, including the number of hairs on my balding head. Impossibly, I get intimations that this is so. What are the chances? Only an infinite God would place bets given such infinitesimally small odds. And so I choose to believe, and acknowledge my uncertainty and doubt, and hope and pray for love and mercy. It’s what I need. And it’s what I hope I will believe even if I am lying in a bed, blind, without my legs. Then, if that dire day comes to pass, I will recite the same old mantra I’ve recited, sometimes faintly and halfheartedly, sometimes desperately and pleadingly, for the past thirty-two years: I can’t deal with this. Here, you take it. Hour by hour, day by day.
I recall with some sorrow and embarrassment what I experienced during my college years at Ohio University. I wish I knew then what I know now. And I wish I knew now what I’d like to know. But I’m holding on to the notion that I might know just enough. And, as I am wont to do, I play a song that mirrors my mood, one by the great Joe Henry, whose songs resonate with me regardless of current meteorological conditions, but which seem particularly appropriate on cold, dreary Midwestern winter days like this one:
One day when the weather is warm
I’ll wake up on a hill
And hold the morning like it was a plow
And cut myself a row
And I’ll follow it until
I know better, by God, than I know now
The apostle Paul states the same thing another way: “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” But I like Joe Henry better, and I believe, although I’m not entirely sure, that warm weather is coming.