Updated: May 5, 2022
When the sea's rough and the wind is whipping and the threat of sinking seems really real, boaters are grateful for any refuge. Any port will do. We don’t care if it has good restaurants, well-appointed moorings, or even fuel or freshwater. We just want a safe place to get out of danger in a jiffy. But beyond the immediate threat, are all ports equal and equally safe?
They're calling for thunderstorms here in sunny Florida. My cellphone pinged weather alerts all night long. It's pretty quiet now, but the wind is whipping up and dark clouds are gathering ominously. When it storms in Florida, it really storms.
It's not hurricane season, but they're warning of severe thunderstorms, tornados, 41-degree wind-chills (it's 78 degrees this minute), and possible waterspouts (a fantastic sight to behold).
Even if it's just thunderstorms, we're the U.S. lightning capital and you've never seen rain like it rains here. Picture the tropical downpours that doused Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon, one of my favs. Floridians usually eat hurricanes for breakfast, but there are certainly storms that give us pause and send us running for shelter.
I live in a townhouse made of cinderblock and stucco, sandwiched between four other units, and above the flood zone. I feel very safe. When Irma rolled through back in 2017, we stayed put, albeit with life vests I Sharpied with our names and phone number just in case they had to identify our lifeless bodies bobbing down the main drag after the storm. Thankfully, that didn't happen.
My last house was a stick-built rancher up on a grassy ridge. The rare tornadoes that touched down were threatening, but we were spared. However, elevation didn't help protect us against some storm flooding, since our land was full of springs. At least twice we had several inches of water in the basement. Still, no big deal.
My first home in Ellicott City, Maryland was a 100-year-old row house inches above the Patapsco River flood plain. The duplex lower on the hill than mine flooded during the famous 1972 Hurricane Andrew, long before I moved in. I lived there for ten years with a dirt basement that stayed good and dry the entire time. Since then, the village has had two completely devastating floods. Heartbreaking. I don't know if my former home was affected, but I was pained by the news image of the funky Main Street store where I shopped festooned with patriotic banners and completely underwater.
All my homes have weathered storms, as have I. I've weathered a very difficult childhood, the thorny lives and premature deaths of my older brother and two parents, a trying marriage and divorce, the ascent and failure of a business, other assorted unusual injuries, and many more ordinary difficulties.
In fact, more than endured! Just like The Book predicts in James 1, I have prospered through these trials. I am stronger, more resourceful, more faithful, braver, more resilient, and have a greater capacity for joy and peace as a direct result of these challenges.
There are other perks that are difficult to quantify, but I'm keenly aware. I absolutely, positively believe there's a direct correlation between the outcome and the source of my security.
It wasn't always that way.
From my earliest memory, I’ve had a conspicuous interest in spirituality. I’ve always sought to connect with God. I like that one of the meanings of my name is "consecrated to God." That and "beautiful." I like them both.
I was raised nominally Catholic. Nominally because my Italian Catholic mom didn't embrace America’s version of the sweeping changes by 1965's Vatican II. I didn't get the indoctrination that seems to have injured some, but Mamma was able to instill a sense of a God who cared, though He was distant and imponderable.
Mamma also taught me the Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary, and Requiem in Latin. Lovely, but their rote repetition rarely gave me much solace, so I talked to God instead. When our homelife got stormy, my father absent, and my mentally ill mother ill-equipped to cope, my talking to God got more urgent.
With a doctorate in philosophy, Mamma had a well-reasoned and abiding faith, but lacked the sort of accessible, grassroots spirituality one needs when the poop hits the fan. Nor did she have a sense of how to create community in a foreign land. As family life got stormier and stormier, this remote, esoteric, and elusive God didn't seem very helpful, but I kept praying.
When my brother died of a drug overdose at 25 and our family imploded, this God appeared altogether absent. Those years were such a train wreck, it was hard to see God. I didn't find him a safe place to rest my head. I turned away, taking a prolonged vacay from this God who solved very painful problems in such very painful ways. I wasn’t angry, really. I was just wary and leveled with grief.
I sought some kind of anchor. At first, less lofty gods seemed best: Jobs, ambition, acquisition, money, friends, and fellas. Eventually, I sought shelter with one fella in particular, who served well as a higher power for a while. Problem was, he was merely human and had a few flaws. Imagine! Turns out, the poor guy was a rather poor substitute for God, absent a lot and most often it seemed, when I needed him most. Not unlike my own father, or that original god I'd abandoned years before.
This fresh heartbreak surfaced years of accumulated and repressed grief, and all my false gods seemed to fail me at once, so I renewed my search for a more spiritual divinity who could shoulder such burdens.
While family, friends, and loves can be supportive, they're definitely not designed to be God. That's a lot of pressure for everybody.
I tried Buddhism, and while I appreciate detachment from the material world in pursuit of enlightenment, I found its essential nihilism was at odds with real life, certainly here in the West where we're so attached to stuff.
I tried Siddha Yoga for a year or so, and it was beautiful in so many ways and struck a sweet chord, but something significant and nameless seemed lacking.
I explored a variety of New Age paths. A Course in Miracles drew my attention for a time, and I still appreciate its leader Marianne Williamson and some of the teachings. However, I wonder about our human qualifications to freely redefine the God of the Universe. As a writer, I was also irritated with the outright plagiarism and poetic liberties taken with Scripture, usually without citing the source.
Same with The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, who uses key fragments from the Bible and other sacred texts without attribution. Yes, the Bible is in the public domain, but at least give credit where it's due.
It's probably not meant to be sneaky, but it bugs me.
Given our idolatrous tendencies, I'm also uneasy with mortal faith leaders--whether pastors, gurus, or celebrities.
I took a quick detour with random spiritualism including psychics, but I have to say, it gave me the heebie-jeebies from the get-go. I remember clearly the psychic had a tiny, stony nook of one of those historic Ellicott City buildings. At our initial meeting, she recommended I put a broomstick, straw, and coins under my bed and repeat a strange incantation. Too weird, too dark, and somehow too scary to be tinkering with unknown forces. On a gut level, I sensed it was dangerous, so I dropped it. Many years later, I learned the Bible warns intensely against any kind of occult practices. Whew.
In general, custom-configuring God to suit our preferences seems as presumptuous and dangerous as it gets. No doubt tempting, especially for me. I'm smart, creative, and thoughtful. I could take a fine crack at creating a god with convenient parameters. Oh, boy! Let me at it! My best thinking has gotten me in some messes. To be fair, I don't know anyone who seems qualified to define god.
Bummer! The ability to select God's characteristics à la carte is very appealing.
This diligent rotation of surrogate gods kept me busy for a time.
"I don't want to be a nun!"
Meanwhile, my life and I were fraying at the edges. Thus, I was more vulnerable when the impossibly and irritatingly happy neighbors, with their 27 kids (more like 8), invited me to a neighborhood Bible study.
Reading the Gospel of Mark line by line, something--or someone--started working on
my heart. This was a bothersome intrusion on my busy life. The corporate ladder, the discoes, the assorted behaviors that will not be disclosed here. As I felt myself lovingly drawn to Christ, I resisted mightily, actually saying aloud, "I don't want to be a nun!"
This was the idea I had at the time, that this powerful pull on my heartstrings would inevitably lead to a convent--the only expression of fervent faith I had in mind. Now 20 years in, it still hasn't led to a nunnery, though I have moments when I'm truly tempted to live in a quiet little cloister.
This journey with Jesus has not been easy. The problem is not, has not, and will never be Jesus. It's me and others like me, meaning all of humanity, with our mortal foibles and tendency to complicate or distort the life-giving, liberating truth of The Gospel. Plus, of course, the fact that this is a fallen world where all kinds of messed up stuff happens all the time.
Whatever my misunderstandings or missteps or the mayhem that occurs here on earth, Jesus is an anchor, the totally safe port in the storm.
Is He the only safe port?
This is such a thorny question. The answer is both difficult and extremely easy. The Bible says--He says--He is.
What then do we make of all the other beautiful ports? The many other beautiful faith traditions brimming with wisdom and faithful followers? Knowing, admiring, and respecting people of many religions, I've struggled with that so much. Yet that's what this carefully vetted, inherently powerful, mysteriously enduring, and far-far-bestselling book says. Apart from Jesus saying it Himself more than once, it's asserted repeatedly elsewhere.
I don't like it and I don't understand it. Yet I'm compelled to accept it as truth.
In fact, the idea of truth as an absolute is what has enabled me to accept this inclusive exclusivity.
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Jesus, John 14:6
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as the eternal, omnipresent Word of truth. Truth is truth. If Christ Himself is omnipresent truth, then wherever we encounter truth, we encounter Christ. It's tempting to interpret this as a kind of spiritual carte blanche and I guess we're all free to do that, if we choose. I get stuck on this pointed verse from Acts 4:
"Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (v.12, NIV)
This seems clear to me. Again, it makes me squirm, but that's what The Book says.
A God of your understanding.
Twelve step programs invite members to find a "God of your own understanding." This is widely believed to mean any god goes or even surrogates like "Good Orderly Direction," "Gift of Desperation," or "Group of Drunks." I absolutely respect people's right inside and outside the rooms to select their own god. But everyone knows twelve step programs are built on the Bible. Meetings faithful to the founder's format always close with the Lord's Prayer, too.
Moreover, The Preamble, a core document read at most meetings, states "A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution." Note that it says "sect and denomination," not religion.
As I like to say, it's "God of your understanding, not of your own invention." The implication is when you finally meet this God, you'll immediately recognize Him for who He is. Unless you deliberately choose to reject Him, that is.
A port in every storm.
Other faith ports of safe shelter may not feel lacking at all. Maybe they even offer ample comfort during difficult times. But does it really matter if they aren’t the real deal? Or the whole thing? If they aren't really safe? And what is true safety anyway?
I wish being Christian meant certain safety from the perils of life. Not so.
Christians have been wrongfully imprisoned, persecuted, crucified, fed to lions, hated, ridiculed, beheaded, sliced and diced since the very beginning.
The promise is access to supernatural peace, power, and grace here and now, and eternal bliss forever.
In these stormy times, I'll take it.
Grace and peace,
Dear Jesus, I believe. Help my unbelief. Amen.