A Really Real God


I heard the scream first. Then the soft chuff of an idling engine, quickly switched off, and silence. I rounded the corner. Oh, garbage truck, I thought. And what, a trike? I stepped closer.

The metal was mangled, a toddler’s tricycle under heavy wheels, and something red and white: the body of a small child, crushed beyond recognition.

I looked up.

A young woman was standing on the sidewalk. Her hands were in her hair, eyes wide with horror, mouth open in soundless agony. Beside her was a heavy-set man in tan uniform. His shoulders were slumped, palms outstretched. His breath was low, wheezing, shuddering.

I didn’t know what to do. So I trudged up the hill to my house.

My mother was on the phone. “Hang on,” she said, facing me. “A two-year-old was just killed one street over. A garbage truck backed over him.” Then she returned to her call.

I stared for a moment. I didn’t eat an afternoon snack. Instead, I went to my room and lay down. Looking at the ceiling, I revisited the tableau in my mind.

The mother’s terrible scream and stunned silence. A helpless driver. His truck. The white, as much white as red, so much red.

It was December, 1970. I was seven years old.

I never told anyone what I had seen. My mother was only thirty-two at the time, a child in many ways, as stunned and unable to process what had happened as I had been. Over the years I’ve worked in the death care field, seen friends and family die, lectured to thousands of students, and today offer support to fellow mourners.

But until now I’ve kept this story to myself. There is a reason. It’s a question of God.

Witnessing such horror was traumatic, but not in the way one might think. My seven-year-old mind did not ponder the mysteries of theodicy—such a paltry word, like biting into a lemon—and I had no doubts about the existence of the divine. In my pre-teen years, I remained convinced that there is an invisible world that interacts with ours. There must be, I thought, but I’m not so sure they’re very nice on the other side.

That old chestnut of a god that exists but doesn’t care didn’t suit me either. Even I could see that despite its rationalistic trappings, deism is nonsense. If God is really real, I mused as a boy, then he thinks and feels. Sure, such thoughts and emotions would be beyond our understanding, but they are palpable, they are alive. But maybe he doesn’t care about what we care about. How could he? A toddler’s body had been crushed under wheels that held no belligerence in themselves. Tires were uncaring; a living god was not.

Still, I wasn’t certain that he was a reliable god.

This is when I came to the Holy Bible. I had never been to Sunday School. My reading did not have the benefit of easy answers, or any answers at all, for that matter. The King James Version was no picnic to a pre-teen. I did a lot of skimming, but once I got the hang of the language, I found the stories irresistible.

I was struck by how fun it was. I had subscribed to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine when I was twelve, and the Bible wasn’t all that different to the irreligious eye: an anthology of tangentially related “books.” When read without the burden of reverent instruction, they can be thrilling and more than a little hard to take.

Much of what I read confirmed my suspicions.

When Abraham tried to sacrifice his son, for example, I shook my head and scrawled in the margin: “No way that’s God. Freak job. God sent that angel to stop him. I bet Isaac hated his dad.”

I had much the same thought when I read about Joshua and Jericho, then that creepy business with Samuel swearing that God told him they should kill all the Amalekite children. Bloody and terrible—and pretty exciting to a young boy, I admit—but if this was God, I didn’t see much difference between him and the other gods the Bible tells us to despise.

No one had informed me that people don’t bother reading the prophets. So I dove in. I loved them. “They’re so weird!” I wrote. And the Book of Revelation? “He’s mean. Maybe crazy.”

Young people are often frustrated that adults don’t seem to listen to them. God, apparently, doesn’t mind. Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets were a talkative bunch, but God let them ramble and demand and wheedle. I liked that.

The gospels were gentle, tender, and heartbreaking to the last. “No happy ending,” I scribbled. Yes, the resurrection was a great day, perhaps the great day, but I kept thinking about how Mary watched her son die.

And about a young mother one street over in December of 1970, her mouth open in a scream cut short because no sound could possibly be big enough.

Death is no stranger to us. We need only look around. My daughter died on January 16, 2015. I too know silent keening, sorrow too vast for utterance until roars of anguish rip from my throat. I too know the helplessness of causing unintended harm.

Today I write on grief and facilitate bereavement support groups. “Grief is love,” I say, and indeed it is. Grief is also horror, paralysis, and shock. There is no good news at the death of a child, no assurance to silence the screams. “This separation vexes one way beyond all measure,” Martin Luther said after his thirteen-year-old daughter died in his arms in 1542, “It is a marvelous thing to know that she is certainly at peace and that all is well with her and yet to be so sad!”

If an invisible world is a reality, then a creator is probable, as the deists suggest, and perhaps even plausible. God may well be really real, just as I had supposed in my childhood years. I believe so.

For me, God is personal and reliable, concerned with us, mindful of us, though it may be difficult to comprehend the extent and expression of such divine compassion. I have an idea that we know much, much less than we think. Maybe that’s how it should be.

The existence of a really real God answers the only question that matters to me now. “Most precious of all joys are those that come from love,” wrote Benedict Groeschel of the Christ Child. “More than all else we do not want to be separated forever from those we love. He came that we may be forever with Him—and with them.”

This is my sole consolation. Our loved ones continue on. We will see them again. They are with us now, as God is with us, walking beside us in the face of another day. Sometimes it takes courage to believe, but I do. Over many years of joys and sorrows, I have learned nothing to contradict my summation of the Bible, jotted in pencil when I was a child:

“Life stinks. God cares.”

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