When I was little, I had a Jewish friend named Sally. When it came time for me to be baptized, I told my mom how excited I was to tell Sally about my decision. My thrill was smashed by one of those adult ideas that 10 year-olds don’t understand. She told me that Jewish folks don’t believe Jesus was the son of God.
Wait a minute. Isn’t that what this whole dunk is all about? I profess my faith that Jesus was the Messiah. I am cleansed of my sins and find eternal life in heaven. And more pressing here, those that don’t adhere to the Good News are doomed to eternal damnation in the flaming pits of hell. That’s what you guys said, right?
I’m going to heaven, right?
And you’re telling me that Sally, my nice and pleasant friend, is going down on the eternal elevator because she’s Jewish?
My young mind rocked with spiritual confusion. And that’s when it all began. My personal war with the concept of God.
I’ve never been an atheist. I claimed agnosticism when God refused to grant me my requests. It was my way of taunting Him. And God, being the Omniscient Being that he or she is, knew exactly what I was doing. I should skip all the racy parts about how I came to the following conclusion and just tell you that today that my concept of God is a conglomeration of several religions and spiritual teachings.
Our galaxy is a hundred thousand light years across. That’s pretty big. Our universe is made up of billions of galaxies. That’s even bigger. Space is infinite, and Man – cantankerous, violent and oftentimes confused – is finite. Don’t tell me God (that word being used here to describe the founder all of all religions), a Being far more vast than space itself, is selective in where the love is supposed to go.
Anyway, that’s what I think about that. And after nearly dying myself, I found a group of people that had all washed ashore in the same wrecked boat, had all come to believe in a Power greater than themselves, and had all come to different conclusions about what that Power is.
It was among these fellow travelers that I laid down my sword on the blood soaked field of theology. I had concluded that God is too big for anyone to understand, and God loves me. And God loves my Jewish friend Sally. And God loves the Dalai Lama.
Back to the people I met when my boat finally hit the rocks…
I hadn’t been accustomed to living life without chemical control, but these people… these people had. In their own particular way, they had weathered the spinning hurricane at sea, and with some kind of supernatural help they had landed “safely” in the same place I was. They were to become my teachers and my friends. It was a New Land of opportunity and altruism. And I had no clue what I was doing.
Harry Wood III had washed ashore 16 years before I did. He was a tall, dark haired man who walked with a limp. And he was Jewish. Harry had lived a life of assorted troubles, had hobbled his way to the sand when God pulled him from the lonely sea, and now, he had a reason to smile. During long talks over coffee about God and life, he helped many men get to a place of peace. He didn’t do that because he was a spiritual giant, but because someone had been kind enough to do it for him. “He was as fine a specimen as anyone could wish to meet.”
I’m human, too. Sometimes I can’t hear or feel God. So it’s nice that I have a collection of like-minded people to talk to during these times. Sometimes I need “God with skin on.” Harry was that guy for me on a lot of days. He liked to talk about gratitude when I wanted to think about myself and my little problems. He reminded me on a lot of occasions that spirituality is simple. “There just ain’t no big deals.”
And in his 20th year of life in this New Land my friends and I had found, Harry found out that he had pancreatic cancer.
Fear is a sneaky thing. One time I found a lump during a self-administered breast exam. I called the clinic right away, but during the week before my appointment, I planned my funeral at least a dozen times. Fear is paralyzing, and self-pity is its BFF. I’ve waltzed with these two evils more times that I can count. And I’ve learned a little more about myself and life after the music stopped. And because Harry and I share a lot in common, I know he danced with these things too. But I learned something about Harry through all of this. I’ll get to that in a minute.
We used to hang out in the same place a lot. It’s this old, yellow building with no sign out front, and you can smoke INSIDE. I’d walk in the door and there he’d be, just sitting and smiling. After his diagnosis, I took the same approach that I do with family members of mine who wind up in nursing homes: I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything about it. Suddenly his “hellos” sounded like an angel’s hallelujah. His words became like scripture. Each interaction held in it some kind of indescribable importance. Harry knew he was taking a long walk away from the earth, and the threshold to what’s next was right around the corner. I knew it, too.
When I’d walk in the door after I learned the news, Harry would always ask me how I was doing. And looking at him, knowing cancer was multiplying his cells at an unnatural rate, I’d realize whatever problem I walked in thinking about wasn’t big at all. “I’m fine. How are you, Harry?” His response was always something positive. “I’m doing good!” I suppose he didn’t want to worry people.
And for the last four months of his life, Harry shouldered his burden with a level of grace and dignity that most people could only hope for. He helped more men and women remember that most of the time, things are simple. And there really are just no big deals today. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how a man dying of cancer could still say that as often as he did. I might ask him what he meant the next time I see him.
I see God most in people. And looks like I’m stuck here with all of you for a while. Since my worldliness clouds up my chat line to a Higher Power a lot of the time, I’m grateful to have had people like Harry to clear things up a bit.
Harry stared fear and death right in the eye. Even though he knew he was leaving soon, he didn’t let his defects incapacitate him. He remained diligent and helpful. He carried a message of hope when he knew there was none for him. He loved those about him like God loves all of us. He finished his race.
I visited him in the hospital two days ago. He was unconscious and a machine was filling his air with lungs. Up, down, up, down. As the machines beeped and nurses chattered outside his room in ICU, I said a prayer to that Power that loved Harry and I – Jew and Universalist – all the same. I knew Harry was on his way to Heaven any minute.
And with tears running down my face, sadness and gratitude swirling around in my chest, I closed my eyes and said to that Power that had been gracious enough to save us both: “Thank you .”