We all have stories about our friends; crazy things they have done and things they’ve said that no one will let them forget. These stories get told again and again until they become a kind of shorthand, a collection of inside jokes that pull us together, that differentiate friends from acquaintances. Through this we build up living foundations for our friendships and feed them stories to keep them alive. But when it comes to my relationship with God I seem to rely on a fossilized collection of stories that happened to people centuries and half a world away.
There is, however, one living story that springs to mind when I think of my family’s history with God. It’s a story I grew up with, a story that is as much a part of my past as my own memories. I will always remember that an angel visited my Mom’s house when she was young.
It was 1961; their first Christmas in a (very) small town in Northern Alberta. My future Grandma, Mom and Aunts were doing housework and waiting for my Grandpa to come home from his Saturday grocery-shopping trip with the eldest sister. My grandpa, like my dad now, was no businessman and seldom charged enough for his services as an electrician and general handyman. As a result money was tight. But that day a man drove up the snowy road to their house in a beige Studebaker pickup and made an impact that would be felt all the way down through generations.
I wasn’t even an idea when it happened, but I can see it in my mind’s eye: clear as if I was there. The beige pickup carrying a well-dressed man, the room with a window so my mother could peer out and drink in these details as the man knocks on the door. I can see the man trying to give my Grandma a twenty-dollar bill (twenty dollars!), a rarity for them at the time. And I can hear my Grandma’s voice, an old voice when it should be young, telling him she couldn’t accept money from a stranger. She may not know him, he assured her, but he knew all about them (a claim that would give rise to warning flags now). Eventually, seeing that the stranger would not be deterred, she gave in and took the bill. I can see the excitement of the children, my Mom and Aunts, my Grandma perhaps keeping them inside until the man drives away. Then, when it’s deemed safe by my Grandma, two of the girls pour forth from the house looking for proof of this extraordinary happening, only to be disappointed and astounded by snow that held no tracks from the man and his Studebaker pickup.
Later, when my Grandpa came home he was told the tale of the man and his pickup. After much discussion they decided the man must have been an angel. Thinking this a strange event he would ask around town that week regarding the Studebaker. This pickup, he found, was unrecognized in the small community: an apparition only seen by those few with my Mom that day.
The gift given that day didn’t change the world, no life was saved and no one brought in front of the altar. Some people may even not like the story, accusing it of promoting a Santa Clause version of God. But the story’s not about the money or the presents. I have, scanned and emailed to me by my Mom, a typed account of this incident by one of my Mom’s sisters written twenty years after the fact. She doesn’t remember what that twenty dollar bill bought, or if the Christmas was made that much jollier by the bill, but she remembers that magic of that day. She remembers God’s love.
The Israelites too had stories about God in their lives that they passed down generation to generation. In the Holy of Holies the Israelites stored physical reminders of these stories: the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s sprouted staff, and a pot of manna were there to remind God’s people of their story.
God is not a ninja that sneaks in and out of our lives unseen. He wants to be known intimately by the world. And I think of how now, because I so rarely hear these stories from the people around me, we minimize these stories and forget about them because it’s just twenty bucks, or it’s just a little whisper, a strengthening hand on my back. It could be just a trick of my mind after all.
So we try to justify why God doesn’t do miracles anymore. Stop a minute and think about it. I can think of a couple more stories of comfort and guidance in my own life, and some passed down from my Mom. Maybe they’re not much, but they’re mine and they’re God’s and they’re proof (to me) that God has been there working in my life, in my family. They tie me to God instead of leaving me floating around in some intellectual aether of theology.
Sure I hear stories of miracles at church, but every one seems so far away so unconnected to my life. Not just distance or time, but the ways the people live. It’s hard to feel connected to people I’ve never seen, living lives so different from my own, but here I have a story I’m connected to by blood. It’s this story that I’m going to cling to when my faith shakes and I have to stand out there vulnerable to all kinds of mistakes and miscalculations. Then I can pull them from their slots in my brain and revel in the details (a beige pickup, a twenty dollar bill, a bus stop just outside my University where I chose to follow God’s prompting) of my ties with God.
Jonas Gagnon is an aspiring writer living in Vancouver B.C.