God the Trickster?

Our son brought Marge Abbott’s essay "In the Belly of the Whale" to me during my stay in a South African hospital. The piece had already been accepted for publication by Quaker Books in London, as part of an anthology entitled God the Trickster?

The accident had occurred some three weeks before, and I had come out of intensive care only recently. I’d not yet been able to read anything but I was anxious to tackle the typewritten version of Marge’s essay. The concept intrigued me—she was examining Jonah’s experience of God in light of her own, and vice versa. Her note said she wanted to share the article and wondered how it fit into my own experience.

My immediate experience had been difficult. I was still largely immobile, restricted by metal bars screwed into my legs; by bandages on arms, hands, and feet; and by the seven broken ribs that meant sheer agony whenever the team of nurses gathered to turn me in bed. Tubes of various sorts and purposes were still attached to my body: one to drain my lungs; others to drip glucose, albumin, and antibiotics into my system; another to feed the oxygen mask; and one hooking me to a machine that constantly monitored my breathing. The accident remained fresh and clear in my mind—like a video clip playing over and over. It had taken me days to puzzle out its meaning. What was that white truck doing, suddenly coming toward us in our lane?

A pile of magazines and books, brought by caring friends, lay untouched on the table beside my bed. I had difficulty even deciphering the many cards and notes that arrived from friends in Lesotho, southern Africa, America, and all over the world. Kirby, our son, helped me do that, and then he taped them on the closet door to give me strength and comfort. During those 11 days in the intensive care unit he had taped photos of my husband Jack and our family near my bed—I had clung to them tenaciously as I moved in and out of consciousness, fighting my way back into life.

Despite the difficulty, I wanted very much to read Marge’s essay. I had long admired her for her part in the efforts of a handful of Oregon Quaker women to build bridges across the chasm separating evangelical and liberal unprogrammed Friends in the region. I’d read bits and pieces of her writing before, and it had resonated with me. I had scarcely met her. Jack and I had left Portland and Multnomah Meeting 35 years ago to work in the poorer countries of this world. Marge Abbott and her husband had arrived long after that. Now I would be returning to the U.S. and Portland—and that made me want to read her writing even more. I hoped I would become one of her friends.

But it was a struggle to read. My glasses had shattered in the accident, along with many of my bones. I had to blink and squint and force the tear droplets through which I could see the words more clearly. But the struggle was more than that. I recoiled at the title of the yet-to-be-published anthology: God the Trickster? And I drew back from the opening words of Marge’s essay: "What kind of God creates beauty and peace in an instant, then takes it away? What kind of God uses creation to torment humanity? Arbitrary, capricious, and distant. That is how God seems at times—especially the distant part."

None of this description fit how I felt about God. Not even at that moment. Yet the words were an opening into a cold darkness. God the trickster. God who seems to make promises, and then breaks them; God the planner who would deliberately set a trap. God the schemer who would purposely kill my husband. I almost didn’t read on. These were foreign thoughts I did not want to think.

I hadn’t felt distant from God, not for years, and certainly not in these past 24 months since I’d begun working with Transformation Resource Centre (TRC), a human rights and advocacy organization in Lesotho. Of course I know that what I call God is in totality far beyond my comprehension, but there is a part I do know and that knows me. For these past two years, especially, I had felt held in God’s heart and hand, doing exactly what was asked of me. I worked as a Quaker volunteer under Central and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting, in my favorite Basotho ecumenical organization. TRC staff worked as a team, as a base for Christian communities. Tasks were inwardly laid upon me, and I went forward into the unknown. Doors opened; I walked in; more doors opened. Ideas and visions popped in my brain. I followed; I acted; more visions came. Act on the light that you have. Proceed as the way opens. The kingdom of heaven is within. You are the salt, and the light, and the yeast of the world. It all seemed so right, so planned, so expected, so ordained.

And it had all ended so suddenly. My husband’s life had ended with it, when the white pickup truck, for no known reason, crossed over into our lane. Life turned upside down, Jack was gone, and I could do nothing but accept it. We had both learned long ago to live with uncertainty and to stay in each other’s love and in God’s hands. But now the words "trickster" triggered a cold fear. Why? Capricious—was the task now set before me only an illusion? Would the hope of a few more years to work be taken away even before I could rise from my hospital bed? And my husband? Had his death been a capricious trick—or worse, the result of a plan or a scheme, a setup job?

I was trembling on the edge of thoughts I did not want to think.

But I did read on. After the introductory page I soon found I liked what Marge wrote. She interweaves a powerful interpretation of the story of Jonah with her own experiences, and she writes "The answer is not about God’s purposes, but about the stubbornness and hardheadedness of humanity." She highlights the anger and hatred in Jonah that keeps him from responding to God’s call to spare his enemies, and she shares candidly from her own spiritual journey, weaving it into the story of the reluctant prophet.

My journey was from a different place, but I can respond to and identify with hers. She finds that God is not, after all, a capricious trickster but a loving teacher, seeking by all means to be heard, to break through our "protective shell." She tells of her own inward anger and darkness that had persisted for years. The deaths of her parents, and the resultant mix of pain and joy, were what had broken through her own shell and opened her to the voice within. She found God set hard tasks for her and asked for her "yes." "We never know where the ‘yes’ will take us," Marge writes. (Oh, that is something I have learned well!) She concludes the essay with, "Out of the darkest periods of our lives comes profound learning. Jonah encountered, as I have, a God who is always present, even to the ends of the Earth: a God who wants us to learn compassion for the whole world."

I’ve never pretended to know how God works. I know that God is the word I use to name the most real of all realities, but I do not pretend to understand or define that reality. There was a time long ago, during the intellectual and spiritual chaos of my college years, when I read theologies in the search for firm foundations. Read them until I learned that many of those theologians could not claim ever to have had a religious experience, or known that deep, overwhelming sense of the active Presence of God. After that discovery I turned instead to those who had experienced and lived more fully what I had caught as a glimmer in early childhood. I found Francis of Assisi first, and then George Fox, John Woolman, William Penn, Gandhi, Theresa of Avila, Martin Luther King, Teresa of Calcutta, Lucretia Mott, and Jesus himself. I clung to my community of saints and looked through their lives to find both affirmation and clarification of the God I had known since childhood.

I had come to think of God—or of that part of God known internally to me—as a teacher, a prodder, a guide. In the early days of adulthood, especially, I had sometimes felt called beyond my ability to respond and then, when I did respond, I was pushed beyond my own strength, used, loved, lifted up, and thrust into places where I had feared to go.

It was in this process of being honed, harrowed, and used that I came to know God, not as a Being I could describe or define, but through experience. I came into this knowing gradually, step by step, and I can date and remember many of the individual turning points. One of the most powerful came when I was 34, raising my children and immersed in the women’s peace movement, sensing myself used in the hands of God, pushing open doors, rushing forward into strange and difficult experiences, trying to stop the bomb, the nuclear tests, the civil defense movement, the war in Vietnam, the cold war itself, militarization, the choice of death.

And one day, sitting in my windowless little den behind the kitchen, working on the national Economics of Disarmament newsletter I edited, I felt myself suddenly lifted up as though in powerful arms, and a prayer poem rose up in me. I was alone in the house, so the prayer was able to sing aloud through me:

Oh God . . .
I love, I live,
I shout, I sing,
I know!
I am yours,
Yours whose faceless face I cannot fully see,
Yet whose love I feel
Around about me.
Sometimes a torrent rushing through,
Sometimes a calmer sea
That lifts, and holds, and washes me.
Oh God, whose name I say but know not,
Oh God I feel but cannot yet define.
Oh God!
I shout! I cry! And I am wholly thine.
My hands, my feet are yours.
Use me as you will . . .
My voice, my life, my heart . . .
Oh God! The failures are all mine
But the successes, they are yours alone to
count or judge . . .
Take me! Use me!
Light that glows
And seed that bursts within!
I would be a seeker after Truth
A channel for the Love that does not cease.
I would be a Child of the Light
An instrument of peace.

I never could define this reality for others, but I could seek to live and grow in it. Later, when I looked back through the years of my life, it seemed that there was sense and a plan both before that moment and after it. This event led to that one, this period served as preparation for the next. God as the love that surrounded me, God as the truth that would be made manifest; God as creative force that broke down and built us up and sought to use each one of us as instrument and channel—it seemed so. God the teacher, God the guide, God the utilizer—yes. Even God the planner, perhaps, though I had more a sense of God the experimenter and God the creator, who walks with us into the darkness, side by side, bringing light and love and truth to bear upon the often twisted ways of humankind.

But God the trickster? No! In fact, I’d said just that to my son Kirby a few days previously, and before I knew about Marge’s article. I said that God wouldn’t deliberately lead my husband into death. It happened. We could only accept it. But it wasn’t a setup job!

But if I let myself brood on the accident, that was how it seemed, and Marge’s opening words and the book’s title were like salt rubbed into the hidden wounds of my wondering.

Lying there in a South African hospital, surrounded by Afrikaner nurses only underlined the sense of inevitability, the planned nature of the accident. They were Dutch Calvinist, almost to a woman. They had grown up accepting predestination as a given, and their words of comfort almost always carried the same message: "There was a reason, dear. We don’t know it, but there was a reason." "His time had come. We have to accept that. Each of us has a time to go." "It’s hard, my love, but God had a reason."

But that is what I didn’t want: a reason, a plan. Why would God plan to kill my husband, to take him in an instant without opportunity to reflect or come to terms with his own life and death? Why? Why take him at a time when he was increasingly at peace within himself and still so useful in the world around him? Yet that was the abyss into which the words "God the Trickster" made me peer. Like a plan. A trick. A carefully set trap. A setup job. And I didn’t like at all the thought that there might be a reason! Because then maybe I was the reason. I had emerged from coma already certain that God had laid a new task upon me. I knew why I was still alive. But did Jack have to die for me to go forward?

These were dark and terrible thoughts, and not the ones that had been with me from the beginning.

I had lost consciousness when my lungs and heart stopped functioning several hours after the accident. When I came to, three days later, the doctors were afraid to tell me that Jack was dead but I already knew. I suppose I had realized it at the time of the accident. Many people who had stopped on the road to help that day came to visit me in the hospital. One woman told me that I was conscious then and answered questions, and that Jack, who died instantly, was beside me with his head on my shoulder. I can remember nothing now of those hours after the accident except the excruciating pain when the paramedics cut my broken body out of the car, but I suppose if I was conscious then, that is how I knew.

The hospital notified no one, perhaps because I still hung precariously between life and death. It took three days for my friends in Lesotho to find me, still unconscious—and of course, once they did, they immediately contacted my son in Oregon. When Kirby arrived five days after the accident I was climbing out of darkness. He immediately confirmed what I already knew, and gave me the words I could cling to and build upon. "We know, at least, Mom, that he lived an amazingly full and useful life doing exactly what he felt called to do."

And that was how I could accept it. We could not bring him back. I had to accept that, but I could be thankful that the life he had lived had been so full and rich, all 70 years of it. He was a good man who had realized in college days that he could not serve in the military, wage war, or kill. He was to build, and not destroy. During that same period he received a clear calling to become "a doctor to sick countries." And he spent years in training and preparation. For the past 35 years he had served in the poorest nations of the world, helping governments and people solve their own problems and develop their infrastructures and educational systems. In the process he had formed many lasting relationships with people of varying cultures, often transforming potential adversaries into friends. He had traveled widely on this planet he so loved; touching down in over 100 of its countries and determined, we in his family felt sure, to see them all while he still lived. He was not a mystic by nature. He had been raised an atheist, and feeling close to God did not come naturally to him. But through the years he accepted the discipline of silent meeting, and he always felt at home among Friends.

When he retired he did not want to return to the United States. He found the contrasts of unrestricted wealth and dire poverty obscene, and he had never wanted to pay the taxes that supported the U.S. military. We agreed to stay in Lesotho and Southern Africa where both of us could continue to be useful. In his retirement years he continued to take short-term development consultancies, and we served together as clerks of Central and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting. It was a formidable task for two raw outsiders, but he thrived on the challenges. We enjoyed working together as a team, and I could see the inward growth in new areas of his being.

I did not want him to go. We both recognized our mortality and knew our way of life carried extra risks, but we had already lived long and looked forward to moving into our 80s together. Yet I could accept that he was taken and rejoice that he had lived so many years and been used for so much good. Admittedly, I could also accept it because I still felt close to him. After almost 50 years of life with him as both lover and best friend I could not feel that he was really gone. I tried to explain that to one of the young nurses in intensive care who was angry because I did not cry.

I told our son Kirby later. Kirby had grieved deeply and felt rage at his father’s needless death. He said the other nurses understood my lack of tears, but they thought I was still in shock.

God the schemer; God the trickster. Must I look into the darkness? And was there a reason, as my Afrikaner nurses had said? Did God ordain this death?

At moments, that was how it seemed, when I looked back. Everything had been timed that day, happened so precisely at the right moment, almost as though we were destined for that split-second encounter on one of South Africa’s more dangerous highways.

I had just come back from Addis Ababa on a Monday, four days before. I had been at meetings arranged by AFSC in Kenya and Ethiopia. It had been an exciting period: doors opening for more fruitful cooperation in Africa among Friends of all nations. I had also come home with a promised partnership between AFSC and Transformation Resource Centre. Key leaders in the Lesotho government were interested in following the Costa Rican model of demilitarization, and TRC and AFSC wanted to support them by raising the issue for public discussion.

Because I had been away Jack and I had not had much chance to communicate with each other about our plans. When he told me he had scheduled a Friday appointment with his South African cardiologist and that he wanted me to come with him and stay the weekend, I said no, I couldn’t possibly. That day, Friday the 13th, my Basotho teammate and I had already arranged to hold our first teachers’ workshop introducing materials we’d produced for teaching democracy in the high schools. Another door opening: this was culmination of years of careful development. The democratic government was new in Lesotho after years of strongman dictatorship and military rule. The country had just passed through post-election riots in which teenagers had been used to torch stores and government buildings. We felt our efforts were important to the life of the country. I had to be there.

But I saw the look of disappointment on my husband’s face. He really wanted and needed me. So I hastily rearranged the workshop with my teammates so that they could handle the final session themselves and I could leave at 2:30 in the afternoon. It was an exciting and successful workshop—more opening doors—but I left as planned and arrived home at exactly 2:45 as Jack and I had agreed. We left just before 3:00, again as we’d agreed, crossed over the border into South Africa, and headed for the hospital in Bloemfontein.

Jack always drove at exactly the same speeds, faster and slower according to the traffic zones—I’ve never known anyone else with a foot so steady on the accelerator. So, an hour out of Lesotho with half an hour remaining to make the appointment at the hospital in Bloemfontein we arrived just in time for that split-second aberration. We were crossing through a former homeland under the apartheid system: acres of less fertile farmland where black South Africans had been moved decades before. Hundreds of thousands still lived there, some in small but decent houses and others in squatters’ shacks. We had slowed for a population center and were just regaining speed as we started up the hill on a clear highway. Then, suddenly, the truck appeared in front of us where no vehicle should have been. I watched it approaching, felt our car swerve as Jack tried futilely to escape, witnessed the moment of impact . . . . I watched it all as in slow motion during that brief instant, and for days afterward I saw the accident over and over again and wondered where the vehicle had come from, and what it was doing there.

A doctor, who had been driving just behind us and who stopped to help us at the scene, came some three weeks later to my hospital room. He was obviously still shaken, knowing that with a few seconds difference he could have been the one. He said that he had seen clearly what happened and that he would testify to anyone. He actually knew the driver of the truck. She was a nursing instructor returning from work in the provincial hospital which served the former homeland. She couldn’t have fallen asleep, he thought, since she had just come on the road. Maybe she was groping for a cell phone or an audio tape. Anyway, with no explicable reason, her truck left the oncoming lane and crossed into ours. There was absolutely nothing, he said, that my husband could have done to avoid the accident, which killed him outright.

Absolutely nothing. At just that moment. Like a trick. A setup job.

I didn’t like the notion at all. And even if it were foreordained, what could have been the reason? I knew God as teacher, but there was nothing to teach Jack now. He was dead. How can God teach people by killing them? Surely God would not kill my husband just to teach me! Why, in the greater scheme of things . . . ?

God the trickster! I liked the concept even less because I had emerged from unconsciousness already knowing what I was called to do. My husband had not wanted to leave our work in developing countries. I agreed we could be of more use there, and as long as he lived it was right to stay with him. But it was also true I was a mother and grandmother as well as a wife, and there were times I felt our children had needed us when we couldn’t be there. Now he was gone, and my body was broken; I could no longer climb the stairs to the TRC offices or lead teacher workshops or travel on those narrow, cliffhanging tracks to mountain schools or fly around our ten-country yearly meeting visiting among Friends. The time had come when I was to return home to the United States. I would be with family. I would write from our experiences. And I would continue working on the same concerns both Jack and I had carried through the years.

But most of all I would work in whatever ways might open on the demilitarization of the U.S. economy, foreign policy, and psyche. I would join the thousands of other committed souls working for the same ends. This, I felt clearly, was a concern laid upon me and was to be the main reason for my existence in the years left to me. Again and again I had seen military solutions fail where conflict resolution and poverty alleviation could succeed. There is an America I love which should be leading the world toward democracy, human rights, and the enabling of the world’s poor. This is the America that led the world into the United Nations, helped formulate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, answered to the destruction of World War II with the Marshall Plan. I have to help call my own country away from the worship of weapons and war. The words of Jesus sounded in my head: we cannot worship both God and mammon. The words of the prophets spoke to me. "I set before you life and death, said the Lord. Choose life that you and your children may live."

But no! Jack’s death wasn’t required to send me home to America. There could have been other ways. And trickster, planner, schemer—those just don’t fit my own experience of God. My charge and the concern that was laid upon me I could also accept. But not that my husband’s death was planned and for a reason.

In the end it was a younger American friend who gave me ease. Our paths had crossed when I was working for the U.S. Embassy with small self-help community development projects and with NGO human rights programs. She did similar work for the Irish, and we became friends. I also took some short consultancies for her husband, who headed the Irish Aid program. He was now directing Irish Aid in Mozambique, and she was in Maputo with him and her young children. She missed Lesotho and was still settling in, looking for openings to creative work. She called me every week from Maputo, and we would talk for close to an hour.

She told me she was sure that during those three days I lay unconscious after the accident Jack and I had been together. He was already dead, so he and I both knew he could not come back. I was hovering between death and life. Jack and I sorted it out and decided together that I should stay and live for both of us in the short time left to me, and work as hard as I could on the concerns we shared.

I don’t know how God works, and I don’t say that is how it happened, but what she said felt right. It fit the reality of my experience. God the trickster didn’t arrange that accident. A woman, tired after her day of work, made a tragic mistake—a moment of inattention while driving that cost her own life as well as my husband’s.

I am glad I made the choice to go with Jack that day, and that I was with him up until the moment of his death. I saw what he saw, felt what he felt, until the instant when the safety belt ripped the pacemaker from his heart. In a way I even crossed the line with him, and I feel that a part of me is already with him wherever we all go after death. I suspect that sense will make my own death easier when the moment comes. I’ve been given the gift of a little longer to live and a task that has been laid upon me. And I cannot put away the feeling that Jack is still alive with me. Without understanding how it works or how it can be I take strength from his presence and his quiet "being there."

That reality to which I give the name of God is never a capricious trickster. God teaches. God loves. God experiments. God seeks us out, calls us, and requires much of us. We are to listen, we are to say "Yes," and, as Marge Abbott observes, we never know where the "Yes" will lead. It will often lead us into suffering, for we must accompany others in their suffering if healing is to occur. But the other side of suffering is joy, and we know much joy—the joy of the kingdom. I like the paradoxes Jesus gives us. The way is hard and narrow, but at the same time it is easy and the yoke is light. I hope Jesus, who we are told cried out "God! Why have you forsaken me?" knew, in the end, God’s presence through the pain and darkness when his own unequivocal "Yes" led him to the cross. And I like what Gandhi says: "God is the hardest taskmaster I have known on Earth, and he tries you through and through. And when you find that your faith is failing you, and you are sinking, He comes to your assistance somehow or other and proves to you that you must not lose faith, and that he is at your beck and call. But on his terms, not on your terms. I cannot recall a single instance when he has failed me in the eleventh hour."

Carol Reilly Urner

Carol Reilley Urner, who now spends winters with her daughter in Whittier, Calif., and summers with her son and family in Portland, Oreg., is a member of Central and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting and of Sarasota (Fla.) Meeting. She is working on issues of demilitarization with Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.