Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:3).
After school on a rainy spring afternoon in 1969, my brother, Rees, and I sat in the TV’s glow watching the Apollo 10 spacecraft mission. My sister, Jane, puny with a fever, rested in her room down the hall while Mom folded laundry nearby. A heating and air conditioning repairman worked in the house’s crawl space below, out of sight, out of mind. A large vent at the corner of the den faced the closed hallway door that separated us from Mom and Jane.
Suddenly, through the vent burst flames and the repairman’s voice yelling, “Get out!” Rees and I scampered next door and called the fire department. Soon enough, we heard our mother call for us.
For all she knew, Rees and I remained in that burning room. She stood in the smoke billowing into the hall from beneath the door unsure for a moment what to do, then in an instant she knew, leaving that door closed and leading Jane to their left out the front door and into the pouring rain. The badly burned repairman met her there and told her where to find us.
Years later, Mom told me she felt led by God to leave that door and take Jane outside. But how can you say God did that, I asked, when others around the world don’t survive? Somewhere some mother searching for her children opened a door in a burning house and perished instantly in the backdraft. I couldn’t interpret the event that way. My God had to be fair.
Kierkegaard said that whether one denies contradictions or learns from them determines the authenticity of one’s life. I continue to live with the problem of suffering, how a loving and powerful God can allow mothers to die in backdrafts. If I were an atheist, I would have to live with the problem of grace, why my mother lives. Neither belief nor unbelief resolves the paradox.
Moreover when I faced real failure and agonizing loss years later, I started to thank God for every blessing, including the ones that I knew others lacked. The food on my plate in a hungry world, my job amid high unemployment, my health while so many suffered without healthcare. But I hold the joy of gratitude with the anguish of compassion in the same heart.
Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me…[T]here can really be life only when there is, in just this sense, love.
Gratitude does not cancel but rather piques my concern for those who suffer as I do not. Thanking God makes me all the more eager to reach out and give from what I get. Perhaps I needed to hit bottom to sense our common plight and see that my gift is yours, your anguish and joy are mine, and vice-versa.
More from living the truth of her claim than from figuring it out, I know Mom was right.