For years, I’ve considered myself an atheist. Jew-“ish” so to speak. A cultural Jew with no real desire to practice the faith in which I was raised because, quite honestly, I felt Will’s autism was proof enough for me that there is no God. People would tell me that God doesn’t choose who gets autism or cancer or diabetes; He simply helps and guides us along the way as we handle these challenges. Yet in the next breath, they would tell me that God has a plan for Will; a “special plan for these special children.” People would tell me that, “God chooses special parents for special kids,” and that, “God chose you to be Will’s mom because He knew you could handle it.” None of that jived with God not choosing who gets what in life. And so, I saw all of that — 100%, absolutely, positively all of that — as completely false. I took them as the social niceties that people say when there really is nothing one can say. It’s an untenable situation. What else could a person politely say? The sentiment and empathy I appreciated, truly. I knew many people who shared these thoughts with me meant them from the depths of their hearts, and I was grateful. But from a practical standpoint, I just didn’t buy it.
I went along for quite a while that way, my atheistic Jew-“ish” self, living without God but with morals, and doing just fine. And then one night, I got into a conversation with my friend, Nathan, whose spiritual journey is one that fascinates me more each time we discuss it. And Nathan made some very good points about what a terrible atheist I was, seeing as I still believed, having experienced it myself, that there is more to this world than simply that which we can normally see and feel and hear. He suggested that perhaps I was not so much an atheist but someone who didn’t believe in the Judeo-Christian “version” of God.
It was such a simple concept. What if the energy of the universe, the force of life itself, what if THAT is God? Because even for someone like me who believes in evolution and the Big Bang Theory (Bazinga!), even from a scientific standpoint, I agree that there has to be more. If we all evolved from the initial Big Bang, what precipitated that event? From what did that first bit of space dust emerge? That is, if we know it is true that we can neither create nor destroy matter, then where did the first matter come from? What started everything that led up to the Big Bang? Nathan really had me thinking.
Even with those conversations, though, I still considered myself Jew-“ish.” I didn’t worship or go to temple. I didn’t pray. I didn’t see a point.
And then Julia started asking to go to church. I attributed this to the fact that my boyfriend, Rob, has three kids, and they love their church and go regularly. So Julia had heard a lot from them about how fun church is, and I’m pretty sure she imagined it to be some kind of indoor park where kids go to do fun stuff and grownups aren’t allowed. We hadn’t been to synagogue in Kansas City yet, and as much as I am open to my children adopting the faith and belief systems that work for them and bring peace to their souls, I wasn’t quite ready to take Julia to church when we hadn’t even gone to temple. It seemed … wrong.
Time passed, and suddenly, it was Spring, and we had been in Kansas City nearly a year. Rob’s parents invited us to join them at church for Easter services, which I had never attended before, and just like that, Julia and I went to church.
I anticipated spending a couple of hours sitting politely, perhaps staying busy keeping Julia quietly occupied. I thought it would be interesting to see what Easter services entailed, but more from an anthropological standpoint than anything else. I have rarely been so pleased to be wrong.
From the very beginning, I felt a sense of warmth and welcome at the United Methodist Church of The Resurrection. Simply walking into the building as people flowed in, smiling and welcoming one another, was uplifting and peaceful. The orchestra and choir music felt oddly familiar and comforting, despite the fact that I had never heard most of the songs before. But there was more.
The pastor began to speak, and I was completely focused on his words. There had been shootings in the area that made national news the previous week when a man killed innocent people at a Jewish retirement home and then on the steps of the local Jewish Community Center. The pastor had met with the Center’s Rabbi, a longtime friend, to discuss how they could support the community through the tragedy. They were both particularly invested, as the shootings took place on the Rabbi’s turf, so to speak, yet the man and his grandson killed at the JCC were not Jewish. In fact, they were members of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection.
It was no surprise, then, when the pastor explained that he had altered his planned Easter sermon, taking into account the fact that he had presided over the funerals of two members just two days prior. His sermon, however, was still seamless. He flowed from his discussion of the week’s events into the importance of unity, acceptance, community, and compassion. He talked about civil rights and the blights of bigotry, hate, and prejudice. He spoke of the need to meet such evil with love so that every act of violence or discrimination creates an unintentionally positive ripple effect of love, tolerance, and peace.
This, I felt, was what God is about, whatever form God may take. Even if God is only the collective concept of good, existing like Santa Claus as a motivating force that inspires people to be better, kinder, more loving and accepting, then so be it. Perhaps, I thought, the idea of God is enough.
Of course, the pastor was nowhere near done. He segued into what was likely the bulk of his planned sermon, making the eloquent connections of a seasoned public speaker, discussing Jesus and his works. In particular, he focused on the women in Jesus’s life and how they supported his ministry both logistically and financially. He spoke of Mary Magdalene and how she was an unmarried woman, living alone, which, at the time, would have meant she was both without any male relatives to take her in and without any man willing to, “take her to wife.” Based on other accounts of her life, the pastor posited that Mary likely suffered from a psychological, behavioral, or personality disorder, and that contributed to her unmarried state. The result was that Mary was wretched in society’s view. She was of the lowest status, an unmarried, unmarriageable, unstable woman, living alone. And yet, when Christ was resurrected, the pastor continued, Mary was the first person to whom he reportedly revealed himself.
This led to a discussion of Jesus and how he valued and surrounded himself with those whom society would often dismiss or undervalue. This, for me, was of particular interest. What would society have done with Will at the time? How does society view and value him now? In the pastor’s words, I heard loud and clear that Jesus would see the value — the inherent, individual good — in my son.
Of course, this was all well and good. It didn’t suddenly make me a Christian or a person of religion at all. It was inspiring and thought-provoking, but a single sermon was not going to shift my world view.
And then the pastor spoke about the very issue that had, for so long, been the crux of my psedudo-atheism: when bad things happen to good people and how that jives (or doesn’t) with God’s plan. I really could not get over how many of my personal challenges with religion were being addressed in this single sermon.
The pastor circled back to the week’s events, talking about how these horrendous, unthinkable things had happened in our community. People had been killed. People were mourning. People were searching for answers, and one of the questions was, inevitably, “Why?” Why would God allow this to happen? How could this be part of God’s plan? I expected the pastor to say that it’s not for us to know, or that God works in mysterious ways, or that all would be revealed in the next life — essentially, nothing helpful, because these were the answers I had always gotten about Will’s autism. And again, I was wrong.
The pastor said, essentially, that this was not God. Did any of us think, truly, that God wanted a young man and his grandfather to be murdered? Did any of us think that God wanted someone’s heart to be so hardened and twisted and filled with hate that he would go out and commit such a crime? No, he said, this was not God. This was man. This was a result of man exercising free will, and, he said, it grieves God to see it.
And therein lies something I have also long believed: Man has free will (whether granted by God or a product of evolution). And we have free-willed ourselves and our planet into such a toxic state that we have rampant challenges such as no generation before. Cancer and autism and all manner of autoimmune disorders and on and on and on in numbers never before seen in human existence. And that’s not God. That’s man. That’s man going around without regard for the consequences, abusing his free will all over the place.
So, we had finally gotten to the heart of my conflict with religion. Free will versus God’s plan. And suddenly, I saw that the two could co-exist. The pastor spoke so confidently about the fact that God mourns, God grieves, at the horrible things we do to one another and the planet, and yet He does not revoke our free will. Instead, He continually gives us the tools we need and the opportunities to move in the right direction and make better choices.
God grieves. That’s what I heard. God grieves. He has this grand plan that we go about disrupting, and he continues to pave new paths to help us achieve His desired ends. This made sense to me, because I had long since dismissed the, “All things happen for a reason,” way of life. But with this twist, I thought, ok, everything happens for a reason, but sometimes the reason is because man has exercised free will. Just because things happen for a reason doesn’t mean it’s God’s reason. Fair enough. And I realized, therefore, just because there is bad in the world, just because bad things happen that I cannot reconcile with a merciful God’s plan, that does not negate the existence of God in some form, whether it be a sentient being or a collective idea or the balance, energy, and force of the universe.
The entire sermon left me in deep contemplation. Not only had the sermon itself left me with much to consider, but the feeling I had in the church was transcendent. I felt closer to God, the energy of the universe, the center of it all, than I had felt in years and years. I felt connected. Changed.
Over the next few days, I spoke to nearly everyone about having gone to church. I couldn’t get the experience out of my mind. I wasn’t suddenly converting to Christianity or anything, but I was more open to the concept of God than I had been in a very long time. I sat one evening with a dear friend whose Christian faith is central to her life, and I asked her, honestly, if she thought something special happened at church that day. “Do you think I had a special experience? Do you think there’s something different about how I responded to that sermon?” I asked. And what she said was so impactful. She replied with the slightest tears in her eyes, “Yes. I think God had you right where He wanted you. God had a message for you, and He made sure you heard it.” She drew my attention to the fact that I never go to any house of worship and hadn’t been to a church since I was a teenager. She said that church is certainly not always like that, and when it is, we should listen.
Less than a month later, Marty called and said Will had fallen down, something that was truly unprecedented. He had collapsed on the floor of a restaurant, seeming exhausted and unbalanced, and he had narrowed himself down to one food: gluten-free pretzels. The initial blood work came back, showing life-threateningly low potassium levels, among other issues, and the result was that Will needed to be hospitalized. The thing is, that blood work came back Thursday morning, May 22nd. I needed to be in Gainesville, but I was home in Kansas City. It was two days before Julia’s 7th birthday and her birthday party, and my mom, who had only visited for one long weekend in the past year and a half, was on a plane, en route from California.
And then I realized, a bad thing was happening, something I would truly hope is well outside of God’s plan. Will had exercised his free will in starving himself, and yet I had everything I needed in order to handle the emergency. My mom, who is so rarely with us, was literally an hour away and planning to be with us for several days. She could care for Julia and manage the birthday party and give Julia all the special love and attention she deserved while I went to tend to Will. Once my mom arrived, she told me she could stay longer than planned if need be, and off I went to Florida.
I flew out Thursday night, leaving KC on time, breezing through Charlotte, NC, landing easily in Orlando, and hitting no traffic or issues as I rented a car and drove up to Gainesville. Later, Rob told me that not one hour after I left Kansas City, a horrendous storm rolled in that delayed air traffic for hours. But I missed it.
From the airport, I touched base with my friend, Cathy, at the Center For Autism and Related Disabilities at UF. I knew we would need some help during and after this hospitalization. It turned out that Cathy was already in talks with Shands Children’s Hospital to try to make hospitalizations easier on children with autism and other challenges. There was no autism protocol in place, she explained, and one was sorely needed. She had a meeting set up for mid-June, and she could really use a parent’s perspective on what would help. So from the start, we were able to start paying back all this good karma, serving as a bit of a case study to help make an admission less traumatic on future patients.
After a few days in the hospital, it was clear that I was not going home on Tuesday as planned because Will was having surgery to place a g-tube. If I hadn’t started working for Lauren’s Hope, I would have been far more freaked out by this than I was (which was still plenty), because in the past year I had worked with a mom whose company makes real-food blends for tube-fed people. I knew it was manageable and safe. I wasn’t totally blindsided by the very concept. But I do work for Lauren’s Hope, and as a result, I immediately had someone to call for advice about feeding tubes.
My mom rearranged her schedule and stayed in Kansas City long enough to allow Julia to finish the school year, and then she flew Julia to Orlando before heading home to LA. As Julia and I had already planned to be in Gainesville just a couple of weeks later, I had already taken Nugget, our new dog, over to a friend’s house a couple of times to get acclimated and meet her dog, so she could watch Nugget during our planned trip. That friend took Nugget from my mom, so he was cared for. And as I had already planned to be working remotely from Florida while Marty was supposed to be on his annual Bonnaroo excursion, I had plenty of projects to tackle that didn’t require me to be in the office.
Everything came together, even in this massive crisis. My mom was there. Work was handled. The dog even had somewhere to go. On the Gainesville side, my friends came out in high style, watching Julia and Neville (our Gainesville pooch) for days, bringing meals to the hospital round the clock, and running errands we couldn’t leave the hospital to do. And through it all, in the quiet moments while Will slept and I watched him through the nights, in the scary moments of procedures and waiting, I felt very certain that we were supported, held, and not remotely alone. I was oddly sure that the message I had heard and received at Easter came when it did in preparation for this trial. It was a notion that was both uncomfortable and indescribably comforting. Believing required a leap of faith on my part, but when I allowed for it, a peace flowed through me that I cannot properly describe.
The way things came together went beyond the logistics of running our lives while Marty and I focused on Will, though. If Will’s low potassium had been caught earlier, he wouldn’t have been hospitalized, so he wouldn’t have gotten the g-tube and extensive therapy he’s now been granted. He would be stuck in a cycle of taking oral potassium while continuing to refuse food through months and months of waiting for and undergoing feeding aversion therapy, and even then, he would likely have ended up in the hospital for some other issue related to not eating. If it had been caught any later, literally within a few days, our 9-year-old son would likely have had a heart attack, which could well have killed him. Will got exactly the help he needed, exactly when it would help him the most.
There are coincidences, and then there are times when it seems that something else is so obviously at work that we would be fools to ignore it. In this crisis, my family has been blessed. Blessed with help, with support, with hope, with healing hands of skilled physicians, with opportunities and resources and strength and love.
I still don’t really know what to call this force that’s at work in my life. God or the universe or the Divine… truly whatever that big giant force is that moves things around in this world is meant to be called, it is present in my life and blessing me with abundance and gratitude, gentle guidance, and answers. And it occurs to me that this is nothing new. It’s just that now, I’m listening.