I should’ve known better than to wear flip-flops. Especially the kind with the higher, wedgy heel. It’s just that they were $0.99 at the Goodwill, had never been worn, and were in my size. What’s a girl to do? Still, I should’ve known better, flip-flops not being what they used to be… or my coordination, either. One or the other was to blame.
Either way, though, I tripped. Or, if not exactly “tripped,” what with nothing in my way to actually trip over, I at least managed to stumble, failed to catch myself, flailed wildly out of control, and, in no time at all, found myself face-down in gravel on the side of a winding road with a perfectly gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean.
I will tell you what; that view of the white sand and the raging waves dashing themselves relentlessly against the rocks, spraying foam into the azure sky is just as pretty whether you’re upright or ass-over-teakettle, friends, so feel free to take it in from any angle. They’re all good.
I was walking with girlfriends on the road with no sidewalk but with a plentiful gravel shoulder, and we’d just finished hanging out at a popular beach to celebrate a 40th birthday, so when I bellyflopped on the ground, I had both plenty of rocks to break my fall and passers-by to witness my rad walking skillz. I managed to embed gravel in my hands and in my knees and press some into my chin, chest and thighs for good measure, because the Bible says if you’re going to do something, you should do it to the best of your ability, and I’m a biblical girl.
I don’t know about you and how you are at doing stupid things in public, but I am, like, an expert at it. An expert who practices and practices and practices and keeps practicing because practice makes perfect, and, not to brag, but I’m getting damn close to being perfect at Stupid Stuff. So not only did I biff it like I meant it – GO BIG, friends! – I also assessed the heck out of the damage to my body once I’d completed my swan dive. With my belly resting on the rocks, my body just a touch bruised and bloody, and my brain a little bit giggly at finding myself spread-eagle in my swimmers, I sat up and checked out every part of me for damage, and, just like a small child who plays at the beach all day and finds sand in all the places later — all, “Oh my gosh!” and “How did this get there?!” and “Mom! CHECK THIS OUT!” — I found gravel down my top and up my inner thighs. WAY up, guys. Way, way up in there. It was amazing, y’all, the places that gravel traveled. That gravel was not kidding around.
Now, my friend Heidi implied I maybe shouldn’t have been looking for all the gravel in all the places in front of all the people walking by, but it wasn’t like I thought about it before I did it. Geez, Heidi. That is NOT how to perfect doing Stupid Stuff, after all; you definitely don’t think first. You just do Stupid Stuff, and it becomes second nature. But Heidi also said when those nice people across the street asked if I was OK, I probably shouldn’t have laughed with delight and hollered across the road, “I’m good! I just have gravel in all my bits! Like, ALL my bits,” while I sat facing them with my legs apart, brushing the rocks off. I mean, no offense to Heidi or anything, but she could use some How to Do Stupid Stuff lessons. Obviously.
It was a little while after the fall and after the assessing of the damage and after brushing off the gravel before I noticed my friends had their hands out, offering help up, but I eventually reached out for them, too, and we hauled me up together and washed me off and moved on, a little more battered and bruised, but in a good way, if that makes sense. In a good way, because I wasn’t sitting alone, after all, and I had a beautiful view while I sat in the mess, but also friends to give me a hand when I was ready to see it and accept it.
I got a message recently from Emma, except Emma isn’t her real name, so we’ll call her Not Emma, instead, like we tend to do around here. When Not Emma wrote, this is what she said:
I just saw this post on Humans of New York. They’re telling stories of immigrants from Syria, Iraq, etc. The last sentence is what got me, and made me think of you…
“This is the man who inspired us to begin helping refugees. We met Father Stratis back in 2008, when refugees began arriving on the island from Afghanistan. We ran a minimarket at the time, and every day this priest would come in to buy juice, croissants, and other supplies to hand out. Eventually we began to follow his lead, and soon we were working side by side. I always joke that God punished me for my atheism by sending a priest to be my best friend. He was always pushing us to do more. The phone never left his hand. He was always looking for new ways to help. He died last month, but even in his final days, he was searching for diapers from his hospital bed. His final post on Facebook said: ‘God is love, without asterisks.’” (Lesvos, Greece)
I just… am a little lost. With faith, or lack thereof, and what do I teach these small children that I’m supposed to be in charge of? I wasn’t raised religious, but I want to find my spirituality now, and honestly don’t know how. I love love love the way you approach it, and it opens my heart to the idea of believing in God and having faith. But often when I try to become involved in a religion, I find so much of it makes me uncomfortable and is off-putting. Then I back away again. Where do I start?? Is it too late for me to find faith that God is Real and Love, the kind of faith I would have if I had learned it from the beginning? So if you could just have all the answers for me, that would be great, thanks.
Oh, and one more question. How am I supposed to pray?
Bear with me here, friends, and Not Emma especially, because I know there are people better equipped to answer these questions without starting with a convoluted story about getting gravel in her bits, but you asked me, so you have only yourself to blame.
I’m going to leave your question about prayer for another day, because I’m sitting again by the ocean as I type this, and the day is misty and overcast with the sun peeking through in fits and starts; the breeze is gentle and the temperature mild, so I’m going to risk walking again by the ocean soon, even though I fell the last time, which, I suppose, is one answer for how to pray, after all.
The question that really captured me, though — the one that stopped me in my tracks and slayed me because I I so resonated with the heart of it — was this: “Is it too late for me to find faith that God is Real and Love; the kind of faith I would have if I had learned it from the beginning?”
I responded, I admit, a little selfishly to your question, because I thought “uh oh,” and “oh no,” because I was raised with faith from the beginning, and I am just a mess, friend. A MESS. Full of faith and doubt and fear and grace, and if you’re looking for more certainty than chaos, I’m not your girl. Not your guru. Not your guide, you know? After all, I, like you, know what it is to ache for “real faith” and wonder if I’ve found it. To think, perhaps, it’s too late, and I’ve missed that boat. To hope that God is Real and God is Love more than I always know it. But I choose it, anyway, over and over; to have faith in the mystery and the magic and the mess. To have faith in the mud and the muck and unreasonable mercy, which are all, in their own way, magnificent.
So I thought I couldn’t answer your questions at first, lacking all the answers as I am, even though I know you were kidding about that part, but then I biffed it on the side of the road, and realized I could answer, after all. It’s just, instead of answering from a place of having faith figured out, I’m going to have to answer spread-eagle in the gravel, a little battered from the fall.
My answer from the gravel-strewn ground is this: it’s not too late, Not Emma.
It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean the kind that’s messy and full of doubt and strange moments of grace.
It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean the pursuit of a Love too deep and wide and high and vast to fit into the boundaries of men.
It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean the kind with questions that lead to answers that lead to far more questions than you thought possible.
It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean a faith that hopes and perseveres, then quits entirely, and hopes and perseveres again.
It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean the kind of thing that isn’t content to exist simply inside of rule books and manuals of conduct, but must spill out to help ease the suffering of others and be with them in their longing and pain, to provide what comfort you can.
It’s not too late for faith if by “faith” you mean a catalyst to mercy and justice for those who are marginalized.
The truth is, I used to expect different things from faith, like for it to be clean, and linear, and never trip me up in my bargain flip-flops. Faith, I thought, was like new sidewalks in safe neighborhoods with manicured lawns, and I had a responsibility to wear my sensible shoes, tightly laced, rather than skirting the rocky shoulder of a winding road with giddy, goofy friends and wobbly steps.
Now I understand that faith is a long road, rockier than I ever knew, full of waypoints, and parts that are tricky to traverse, and the occasional bench for resting, and I don’t always know how my next steps are going to work out. But the view, Not Emma; the view from the rocky shoulder on the winding road! It’s wild out here and rough and raw and beautiful and so worth exploring, even though we don’t have all the answers.
We expect a lot from faith, don’t we? We expect or we seek the near-perfect communities whose ideologies match well with our own, instead of looking for faith among a messy people who think differently than each other and are trying and failing and still trying anyway to love each other well. Listen; we’re not wrong to want our family of faith to already be good at inclusion and kindness and gentleness; our hearts long for belonging, after all, and God knows we each need solace. It’s just that we’re all to some degree each of the people in the story above; at times sitting wounded on the side of the road, at times picking dirt and darkness out of places we didn’t know it had managed to creep, at times needing a hand up and help brushing ourselves off, at times offering it and hollering the “are you OK’s?” from across the street.
You asked, Not Emma, where to start — where to begin looking for faith — and I’m here to tell you, you’ve already begun. You’re already on the road. It’s just that it’s rocky out here, and there’s sometimes flailing and falling involved, but the good news is, you’re not alone.
You asked, Not Emma, what to teach your small children because you want to find your spirituality now and you don’t know how. Oh, girlfriend, I have been there. HOW I have been there. But might I suggest to tell them just that? That you want to teach them? That you don’t know how? And invite them, perhaps, to the gravel road with you, as fellow travelers who are wise and capable of scouting the route alongside their mama? Tell them, maybe, what you told me — that you hope God is Real and God is Love, and that you want to go questing together. What an adventure, Not Emma! Looking for Love together!
I wish I had a tidy conclusion for you here, but I have an ocean to walk beside, so I’m signing off for now. More soon, Not Emma and friends. More soon. But for tonight, know that I’m thinking of you by the ocean shore, and I’m waving in the dark,