Margaret was a devout Presbyterian 95 year old bedbound lady whose loving family had nicknamed her “Bulldog.” Barely five foot and maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, this little spitfire of a woman had helped guide and shape her family for four generations. She was deeply loved and cared for by her offspring.
I wasn’t in her home five minutes when she started badgering me, “Why am I still here? Why won’t God take me? I’m ready to die … I’ve lived a wonderful life and I’m ready to go. What’s taking God so long?”
I looked her right in the eye and told her, “Look, I’ve been a minister for over 40 years and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this – God is horrible …” She was stunned and I had her full attention, “God is horrible” I said, “at taking orders.” She laughed hard. I continued, “Margaret, I’ve tried to teach God how to take orders. I really have. I’ve screamed, and yelled, and threatened – it just doesn’t work. God shows no interest to learn.”
We became instant friends.
That short conversation helped alleviate her existential pain for a little while. But when I returned the following week it was back.
“I’m ready to go. Why won’t God take me? I hate just laying here and waiting …” Margaret complained.
I replied, “Look you’re dying. But, you’re not in pain, you’re in a comfortable bed, you’re safe and warm and the people that love you most are caring for you. At this time of life it just doesn’t get any better than this. Quit your bitchin’.”
“Thanks,” she said and then laughingly, “I needed that.” Margaret was a bulldog after all.
Being with wise teachers like Margaret has taught me that sometimes suffering can transform us. By shattering the illusion we have inherited or created, that we are somehow in control of our lives, dying can liberate us by enabling us to see life as it really is. And living in reality is heroic living.
During my work as a minister, I have discovered another benefit of living in reality: it is there that we are most likely to bump into God. Christian theology has for centuries affirmed the belief that God is everywhere all the time. This concept called omnipresence is based in large part on the lines from Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.[i]
But I have discovered one place in which God does not exist—in our fantasies. Because in our fantasies, we play God. I’ve learned the real God does not dwell in unreality. If we hope to encounter the living Creator, the only place that occurs is in reality. And sometimes, reality can just plain be a scary place.
[i] Psalm 139:7-8, New International Version (NIV).