For the Goddess So Loved the World
It had always been my dream to own my own house, with a yard and lots of trees. To have nature in my backyard, teeming with life, and a garden of vegetables I would tend to feed my family. It would connect me more to the Earth, far more than did the apartments and condos I’d been living in for the better part of two decades. But such conquests often come with doomful forebodings.
“That lawn isn’t going to mow itself, ” my Dad warned. “And just wait until the snow starts piling up!”
Dad had been there. Nobody’s quite sure where “there” is, exactly, but one look from Dad told me I’d know I was “there” when I got “there.” Shoveling snow with my father is actually one of my fondest memories of childhood, but therein lies the difference between a child’s memory and an adult’s. I remember it as playing in the snow with Dad, and Mom serving us hot cocoa when we came in. For Dad, it was hard work. These days, my father still perceives nature as work, while I see it as divinity.
This thirty-something Pagan, yours truly, hasn’t always been a city dweller. My graduate studies began at age nineteen, plucking me from the country home where my Mom and Dad raised me. My studies were followed by instructor and professor positions at several universities, all of them in the middle of cities. I lived in a series of apartments and condos. Nature had become a destination, an excursion, a break from the norm. I longed for it to be part of my everyday life again.
Shortly after Samhain of 2008, I finally got my house wish. My wife and newborn son and I moved into the first house we’ve ever owned. We had navigated the troubled waters of the depressed housing market to find a good deal on the perfect house in an area with award-winning schools. If you look up our house on Google Earth, you’ll see our yard has by far the most trees for blocks around. Squirrels, birds, rabbits, raccoons, and at least one groundhog are regular visitors. Ducks and crows pop in from time to time. Of course, most of them enjoy my garden a little too much, and apparently there’s a neighborhood skunk who likes to dig up grubs in the yard at night, but that’s alright – I’ll take a little bad with the good.
During the unpacking process, our computers had emerged first, a necessity since my wife and I both teach for a living. But we had yet to set up wireless or any other office stuff. Just on a lark one evening, I tried to search for a local wireless connection. With a little luck, I might be able to piggyback someone else’s signal long enough to check my work e-mail.
There was one wireless network available; a secure networked named “John316.” Perhaps the most famous Bible verse of them all. The verse well-known for its appearances in sports arenas. For its mystical ability to change the course of a football or baseball in mid-air.
“Oh great, ” I thought. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will have high-speed internet.” Like many eclectic Pagans, I’m actually quite well versed in the Bible, as well as numerous other spiritual texts. Blame it on a Catholic upbringing, or several Theology classes in undergraduate school. I like to keep as many doors to wisdom open as possible.
I thought it was a tacky name for an Internet server, until I remembered the numbers of Witches and Pagans I’d met who’d named their pets Merlin, or Lilith, or Hex. Glass houses and all that. I pictured the neighborhood in my mind, and narrowed it down to three houses close enough for their wireless signal to reach us. There were no outward clues to spoil my shell game of “Find the Evangelical, ” but I was sure I would learn soon.
I confess to having felt a little apprehensive about my new neighbors. As a mathematics professor at a Jesuit University, I’d met more than my share of avid Evangelicals. One year, after introducing myself and handing out the syllabus on the first day of class, I asked the class if they had any questions. One student stood bolt upright and asked, “Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
“Um … does anyone have any ‘math’ questions?” I responded.
Call it an irrational fear, but I admit that it hung in the back of mind, for weeks to come: that being open about who I am and how I live might make me target. Not a target of violence, mind you, but a target of general disdain. The “black sheep” of the neighborhood. I envisioned my children someday being gawked at or picked on by the other children at the playground.
There is certain vulnerability inherent in the practice of a religious path that differs from the community norm. It takes courage to be yourself amidst strangers.
A few months passed, and I had enjoyed Yule, just before celebrating Christmas with the rest of family (everyone else in my family is Christian, Catholic mostly) . It was early January when the first monster storm of winter hit the Detroit area. My northern suburb tallied fifteen inches of snow, which came in three nearly equal waves over two days. My shovel was about to get some good use.
I soon learned that it takes me about 30 minutes to shovel 5 inches of snow off my driveway and sidewalks – quite the workout. For those who live far enough South to have not experienced the joys of snow shoveling, let me explain the effort involved. From a standing position, bend over and pick up a bowling ball. Then stand back up and toss it several feet to your left. Repeat this continually for 30 minutes. A quick tip – toss half of the balls in each direction, to even up the back strain.
When it was time for the second round of shoveling, I bundled back up and stepped out into the garage. My wife was out and my son had just settled in for a nap, so I put the baby monitor in my coat pocket. As the garage door went up and I put my boots on, I noticed curtains moving in the window of the large house across the street. I tried not to notice that I was being watched, and set to my labors.
A few minutes into shoveling, out came the neighbor, similarly bundled and pushing his new snow blower. I waved hello and he waved back. By the time I was halfway done shoveling, he had completely finished removing all of his snow, about twice as much as mine, without much effort. I pretended not to notice as he went back into his garage for a few minutes, talking to someone just out of sight, looking over at me now and then.
Finally he came over, with the blower, and with a few arm gestures asked if I’d like some help. I was happy for it, and together we quickly finished off my shoveling and did a little of another neighbor’s. I shook his hand and invited him for a warm-up coffee, and we introduced ourselves. I can’t remember his name, possibly because this is the only time we’ve ever spoken – I’ll just refer to him as “John316.”
John wasted no time and immediately started talking about the Bible Study his family had hosted the night before. I smiled as I poured the coffees. It quickly became clear that he had what I jokingly refer to as “Jesus Tourette’s” … the inability to have a two-minute conversation without mentioning Jesus three times. It’s the Christian version of “Pagan Tourette’s” … I define this as the inability to attend a Pagan meet-up in normal clothing and without mystical jewelry or flair.
John began steering the conversation in ways intended to draw out whether I was a Christian. I probably could have nimbly avoided his transparent attempts for hours, but I decided not to torment him. I let him know who I am. To blunt the trauma suddenly apparent on his face, I told him that I have a lot of respect for Christians who do Bible Studies. And that’s the truth.
Anytime people get together and talk about their faith and its literature, and then think about the moral and ethical implications, they are far more likely to learn something than if they just listen to a preacher. We could all take a lesson in that.
I have to say I enjoyed the conversation immensely. It’s so rare that I get to talk to someone about a spiritual text that we’ve both studied profusely. Any awkwardness was probably from the difference of our viewpoints. For him, the Bible is indisputable truth, laying down the laws and guidelines for the one true path to salvation. For me, it’s a storybook full of Middle Eastern history, both pacifistic and militaristic philosophies, poetry and prose, and fables that sometimes bear pearls of wisdom.
And let’s admit it, the book of Revelations is just plain cool.
He never discussed anything about Paganism, or Witchcraft, or the occult. He wasn’t interested in my faith at all – he just wanted to tell me about his, on the assumption that his way should be everyone’s way. And that’s fine with me. Pagan tolerance and acceptance means letting people be whoever they need to be, so long as they aren’t harming themselves or others. He was doing me no harm; in fact, from his perspective, his intentions were noble and good.
John needed to “witness” to me, so I let him. I think it’s important, as Pagans, to recognize that there are no wrong gods or goddesses, so long as their worshippers use them to try to become better people.
Our back-and-forth banter continued for about forty minutes. He seemed excited to meet a non-Christian could talk about obscure parables, the authors and histories of the lesser known books, and of course the “End Times.” But he also seemed a little angry that I could have studied the book so thoroughly without accepting it as absolute truth. It was as though he wanted to like me, but couldn’t accept me because I don’t fit into his working definition of “good person.”
Finally, perhaps mercifully, my son woke up from his nap. John shook my hand, thanked me for the coffee, and left.
“Have a blessed day, ” he called over his shoulder, with a tone of irritation and resignation, as he pulled the door shut behind him.
“Blessed day ever, ” I thought, wondering whether I’d made a begrudging new friend.
Apparently not. We haven’t spoken since, and he seldom returns a wave.
His wife once approached my wife, to gossip about that awful Mr. Obama and all the bad things he has planned for our troops. My wife, to her credit, exhibited amazing restraint.
“I feel like they’re constantly judging us, ” my wife has told me, on more than one occasion.
That’s a strange thought, considering that John and his family never interact with us in any way. But I feel it too. It’s hard to say how much of it exists just in our heads. I can’t help but wonder what discussions they have about us. I have the feeling that they look down us, but the irony is that by making this assumption about them, I am in fact passing judgment on them.
It saddens me somewhat, but I take comfort in the little, normal rivalries we neighbors have. John’s lawn is a point of pride for him, and my yard is an altar for me. I see him on his porch sometimes, watching me gather up fallen twigs before I mow the lawn. And in the winter, whenever it snows heavily, he seems to wait until I’m shoveling before he starts, just so I can see him finish faster and more easily.
I catch a shadow of a smirk on his face sometimes, as though he’s thinking, “Look how easy it is when you have the right tools.” In my head, I respond, “Look how nice it is to exercise and be in shape.”
And that’s terrific! That’s normal neighbor stuff. I take it as an affirmation that I’m not considered a pox on humanity.
Tolerance doesn’t always begin with a welcome basket and an invitation to dinner. Sometimes it begins with a few people being just as irritated with each other as they are with everyone else. That’s human nature, and it’s messy, and sticky, and beautiful. Amen.
The Bible, John 3:16 (paraphrased)