The other night at dinner, my sons wanted to know about a genie in a bottle. They were initially interested in the physics of a large frame in a such small space, but when I could offer no explanation, they moved to the three wishes. Three wishes and no more, I clarified. After several minutes in a huddled conference, they announced they would wish for the following: their very own video game arcade, a huge bounce house where they could live, and another house for “that man who stands on the corner.”
I was touched by this last wish. But they began arguing over which video games would be in their arcade, and we had to move on before they came to blows. (I mention this detail lest my readers mistakenly believe that I am raising a second coming of Francis of Assisi.)
Still, I appreciate the specificity of their wish. My sons did not give a vague answer like a beauty pageant contestant — “I wish for world peace.” These two kids named one single individual. Someone they recognized and had greeted by name. Someone whose lunch we had bought from the McDonald’s across the intersection.
The lack of affordable housing is one of the most urgent challenges in my community. Home prices have shot through the roof, but not all boats are rising with the tide. That is a mixed metaphor — this is a multifaceted issue. We need a lot more than one dad and his kids handing out the occasional cheeseburger.
I don’t believe God is like a genie in a bottle. I believe God’s Spirit works in and through us, inspiring creative solutions with dedicated community partners. But none of this is rub-the-bottle magic. The suffering is real and the obstacles are huge, including fatigue and apathy among even the faithful. When problems seem overwhelming and suffering unjust, when I feel tired and frustrated and think I can’t make a snowball’s difference in hell, my kids remind me to make my prayers and actions personal. St. Francis they are not, but they are in good company.
Kate Bowler was a successful academic and happily-married mother of a young child when she received a devastating cancer diagnosis. She has since spent a lot of time in cancer clinics. In the brilliantly titled memoir, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, Bowler wrote, “I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her love.”
I’m sure that mother would wish for the immediate healing of her child. With subsequent wishes, she might ask for a cure for all cancer and an end to everyone’s suffering. Yet, in the absence of a divine genie, this mother did something remarkable for its sheer humanness: she loved in the pain.
I suppose some might consider her gesture as futile as buying an unsheltered person a meal. But her tenacious love drew a laugh from her sick child and inspiration for Bowler: “Joy persists somehow and I soak it in.”
I browsed the Religion section of a used bookstore like one might scan a room for old friends. Sure enough, my eyes fell upon a slender volume by a writer I had once known and greatly admired. I held this book with attention and care like my late friend Brian Doyle had once placed his hands on my shoulders and gazed at me.
I noticed that one page of Brian’s book had been earmarked by folding down the upper righthand corner, and I eagerly opened to it, excited to learn what a previous reader had deemed most meaningful out of the hundreds of pages of wonderful, headlong prose that my friend had written before his untimely death.
On that page, a single word had been circled, a simple preposition. How odd, I thought, and examining it, realized that the word had been mistakenly capitalized.
My heart sank. Out of all the witty, inspiring, gorgeous language in this gem of a book, a reader had chosen to highlight a single typo! Talk about missing the forest for the tree. More like the gorgeous redwood for a measly poison ivy plant!
I turned several pages to an essay in which Brian wrote about a worship service in his college chapel. This essay is titled “Haunting Friday,” referring to what is commonly known as Good Friday. Some say that the death of Jesus is “good” because it led to an eventual answer of ultimate redemption. …
But, how are we to continue to live as Easter people in this Good Friday world haunted by suffering and pain?
We can live in service to others, our loved ones and strangers in need. Live knowing that joy persists somehow. And inspiration.
After Brian wrote of “the sheer human pain and grace” of the worship service that remembered the crucifixion, his essay described a young girl, age seven. She approached the large cross and, rather than merely stooping to touch it like all the other worshippers, knelt and “hugged it tight, as tight as she would her mother or father or brother, as tight as she would hug someone loved and trusted with all her perfect unbroken heart.”
That afternoon in the bookstore, I pulled a pen from my shirt pocket and circled that sentence. I folded the corner of that page and returned Brian’s book to the shelf — my wish for yet another heart to soak in the same words.