Monday, April 13, 2009

Message Received

I think I must look like someone who is looking for a spiritual message, because people keep giving them to me. Last year, for instance, something reminded me of my grandmother's rosary, then two days later a rosary arrived in the mail, prompting me to explore the history and use of this religious artifact. What are the odds?

Several years ago I had a brief meeting at work with a carpenter about possibly doing some work for our company. Apparently giving him my business card was enough to get me added to his Christmas card list, because for the next two years I received cards from him that were beautiful reproductions of early Renaissance triptychs, with little paper doors that opened up to show the inner panels. Even though they are Catholic images I have kept them atop my piano because they're just too good to be thrown away.

One day I was helping one of my coworkers with her computer when I noticed a Biblical chapter and verse on a little note attached to her monitor. That sent me to look it up because I was curious what was so important to her that she would want to be reminded of it every day.

Sometimes on Saturdays we are visited at home by the Jehovah's Witnesses, those quiet and earnest people whose main concern seems to be giving their good news to as many people as possible. I used to just smile at them and say "thanks anyway" before closing the door, because there was no need to be rude. But now I have a grandchild who likes to talk about God and doesn't get the chance often enough. On his behalf my wife has invited the Witnesses to sit on the porch and show him their pretty pictures of paradise on Earth, while she stands by to make sure he doesn't get the wrong idea.

What do I mean by that? Well, for example, there is a long leap from saying God loves you to saying that the world is only six thousand years old. While the first statement can be considered at least metaphorically or poetically true, if not literally, the second is so patently false that it drives me to climb walls to get away from it.

This is why I don't sit in on these discussions myself. Once my wife alluded to "millions of years ago when the world began," and one of the sweet ladies in white protested, "Oh, it ain't no millions." At which point I throw up my hands and say, Here we go again. It's back to the Scopes trial and Inherit the Wind and the recent confrontations with creation Creative Designers in the public schools. If only they could just content themselves with the God-loves-you part. So I guess there are some messages I still refuse.

But what I really want to talk about is the most recent example. While I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room a woman came up to me, handed me a card, and said "God bless you." Now, it used to be when someone came at me that way I would get defensive and say "no thanks" to their offer. But these days I tend to accept the gift and give thanks for it. So I found myself holding a little card about the same size as one of those Chance cards that you pull from the deck in the game of Monopoly, and this one came up "Forgiveness."

On one side was a Biblical quotation on the subject. On the other was one of those melodramatic religious paintings designed to induce a Thought. In this case I found an intriguing puzzle. The painting shows a fairly young, well-built man holding a mallet in one hand as if he has been pounding away at something. Evidently that thing was so difficult or so frustrating or so impossible that he has collapsed from the effort. Jesus, standing behind him, has caught him in his arms. You can tell that Jesus is really strong, because this strapping young man must weigh a good 170 pounds and Jesus has no trouble holding him up.

I still have the card, and I still haven't figured out how to take it, but I'm enjoying contemplating the mystery and the questions it evokes: What was the man doing that was so difficult that he had to give up, to surrender like that? If I tried it, would someone catch me? Do I need forgiveness? Who can grant forgiveness? What would it mean to be forgiven? Somehow I'm enriched just by having the questions on my mind.

I'm sure I'll be keeping this card, too, along with another one that I found one morning lying on top of a hedge near the sidewalk, just waiting to be plucked like a bloom. I don't remember the message on that one -- something in Spanish about a Saint -- but it must have been intended for me because I'm the one who picked it up, and put it in my pocket, and took it home, as if it were a seashell from the beach.

Such things must be coming at us all the time, not always clad in religious garb. It's up to us to accept them, and accept, and accept.

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