Friends: God with Skin On
This morning we said goodbye to some friends who have been visiting from Ohio for the last three days. We only see them once every couple of years. As they drove off, my husband Ted waked into the backyard wiping his eyes. “I’m terrible with goodbyes,” he said. Ron is one of his oldest friends. Ron’s wife, Sharon, and their two teenage daughters, Taylor and Alex,and I really hit it off. I said to Ted,”It is too bad they don’t live closer. I could see myself being really close friends with Sharon and the girls.” The older I get, the more I appreciate the gift of friends.
I am not into “cute.” Please don’t buy me a stuffed animal. The same goes for “cute” stories. But sometimes children say things that, while they may be “cute,” are also profound. Many years ago a friend told me the story of a little boy who was terrified of thunder storms. Whenever it thundered, he would run from his room into his parents’ bedroom, and jump into bed with them, terrified. As he grew older, this got to be a bit much. One night when this happened, his mom said to him, “Joey, this has got to stop. You can’t keep jumping into bed with us every time you get scared. You know that you are never alone. You know God is with you, always.” Joey replied, “Yeah, I know that, but sometimes I need God with skin on.”
I know, I know, “cute” story. But the older I get I realize that there is something profound about children’s realization of “God with skin on.” The older I get the more I appreciate the theology of the Incarnation – God made flesh. For Christians, “God made flesh” is what we celebrate at Christmas with the birth of Jesus. But the early church fathers and mothers emphasized that God-made-flesh also means that we experience God made flesh in our human relationships – that we ARE the body of Christ. Other religions teach something similar. At the end of every yoga practice we hold our hands in prayer posture in front of our hearts, and bow to one another, saying, “Namaste.” “Namaste” literally means “May the holy in me acknowledge the holy in you.” Zen Buddhism teaches us to be mindful, seeing the sacred in all things, in all people, in every moment.
The older I get the more I realize that the most important thing in this life is our relationships. Many years ago as a pastor I came in contact with a young man, fifteen years old, who was dying of leukemia. He wrote a letter to his high school classmates, which I have shared at countless funerals. He wrote: “Facing my death has taught me a lot about life. So many people waste their time and energy focusing on things which, in the grand scheme of things, are truly not that important. Facing death has taught me that really there are only two things that are important in this life: our relationship with God and our relationships with those we love.” Again profound wisdom from a young person. Again, God. God with skin on. God made flesh in you and me and our human relationships.
Yesterday I officiated at the funeral for a beloved friend. Karina was ninety-one years old. I have known her and loved her for nineteen years, ever since I began serving as Pastor at First Lutheran Church. When I met her, she was in the fulness of life, strong, remarkably youthful in her early seventies, vibrant. Our relationship began as pastor and parishioner. Over the years it became something different. We became intimate, beloved friends. She was a brilliant woman, who spoke several languages besides her native Latvian, and had lived a life of amazing hardship and amazing triumphs. She was cultured and well-read. She would always ask me what I have been reading lately. One summer I was reading each of my three young adult children’s favorite books,to gain a deeper understanding of my children and what makes them “tick.” Zach’s was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marquez; Victoria’s was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand; Juliana’s was Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery. I told Karina my favorite of the three was The Fountainhead. Turns out she had read it, and several other of Ayn Rand’s books. She told me the history of the author, about her politics, etc. Then I noticed the massive Atlas Shrugged (another Ayn Rand) on her bookshelf. Last summer I told her I was reading Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. Turns out, she has read everything by Joseph Campbell also! I have only one other friend who has read him; this is NOT light reading! At one of my last visits with Karina in her home, before our more difficult visits in the hospice center, Karina said to me, “Who would have thought that you and I, such different ages and backgrounds and life experiences, would have so much in common, and become such close friends! What a blessing you are to me, my dear friend.” Truly, the blessing was mine. Today on my bicycle ride, I felt deeply sad to have lost her. But the deeper feeling is one of gratitude for having had her as my beloved friend.
Just one year ago, I met a young woman on the opposite end of the age spectrum, Eveling. She is half my age. We met at an anti-racism trip to New York City which our two churches did together. Her church is multi-cultural; mine is predominantly white and suburban. She is half Mexican and half Guatemalan, and speaks Spanish fluently. I have been studying Spanish for one year now, since our anti-racism adventure together. It turns out that Eveling and I are both avid cyclists and both love to read and learn and travel. Last fall we did a one-hundred mile bicycle ride together to raise funds and awareness for a ministry called “The Church Beyond the Walls,” which is an outdoor church which ministers to all kinds of persons, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. I asked my children, who are Eveling’s age, “I know this sounds weird, but do you think it is okay at my age if I have a friend who is your age?” They all concurred that we can have friends of any age.
I see how each of my friends expands me, and I hope that being in relationship with me expands them. Each friend reveals to me another facet of the diamond that is God. (Another friend, Maria Decsy, shared that image with me).
For the next three weeks, I will not blog. My husband Ted and I have each just celebrated a significant birthday. We are celebrating this gift of Life by going on another Spiritual Adventure: to Oregon and California. We will be hiking in many national parks, and driving down the Oregon/California coasts. I promise to share lots of great photos and experiences from our trip when we return, and tales of friends, new and old. Our trip concludes with a visit to my friend Peggy, whom I have known since the seventh grade, longer than any other friend, and her boyfriend Ron. How I love this dear friend, and ache to see her. I have a favorite line from the musical Les Miserables: “To love another is to see the face of God.”
This day, each day, may you see the holy in every friend you encounter,
and may you reflect the holy to every friend you encounter
on the Spiritual Adventure of this Life!
Linda Forsberg, Copyright June 30, 2015
This blog is dedicated to Karina Lucens Hammond, my beloved friend
Photos: Ron, Taylor, Alex and Sharon, at the “Wave” sculpture, Newport; Linda and storm clouds, Turkey; Charlene at yoga; Ted and Sylvie, Karina, Eveling and I @ mile 50 of 100; Ron, Peggy, me and Ted; header photo: Ted and I with our beloved friend, Bob Henderson, who now lives in the fulness of God’s presence