A Mighty Front Porch
My own faith journey is messy, complicated, a work-in-progress. But it does exist, it is unfolding. Not long ago, I heard that old stalwart hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” reframed to include thinking of God as a place of protection and shelter rather than an actual ‘fortress’. Not as imposing formidable judge, but as a safe space to relax or ride out a storm. For me, that is a porch.
Being a person who loves sitting on the porch — reading, having coffee, watching the sunrise or the rain, chatting with people I love — it is a sacred place of calm and stillness and quiet. I am all about the patio, the picnic table, the rocking glider, or creaky swing, and even the aspirational porch-bed. As a person who had all her children born in summer, those wee hours of feedings were almost always out on the porch, like a holy bond in summer moonlight or early dawn. The night my dad died, after a long goodbye in our family home, I sat on the porch at midnight, waiting for the funeral directors to arrive on our twisty street in our neighborhood that, not surprisingly, was called ‘Tangle-town’. Only the moon, and porchlight, and their dome-light in their car as they donned neckties before greeting me, made for hallowed reverence in this most surreal time.
When I think of shelter, it is the porches and patios and decks of homes where I’m welcome, of vacation cottages we return to each year, and places I’ve lived or visited. Before air-conditioning, screen-porches were where you felt the cool evening breeze without bother of bugs. In our childhood home, my sister regularly slept on the upstairs screen-porch in summer, as she was certain that my bed next to the window in our room sucked up all the fresh air. The porch is where you are relieved, refreshed, renewed.
On my worst days, I’ve posted up on the porch, deep in thought just sorting it out or trying to understand. This week marks the 22nd anniversary of my being handed a grim cancer diagnosis, with little chance of survival. I sat on our three-season porch that day, and wrote everything down in a journal I’d keep for the full year of that grueling journey. A few days later, coming home after the first of a number of surgeries, there was my sister (who does not live in my state) leaning against the porch, taking a break from raking our leaves. Bless her. We had a hand-me-down couch on that three-season porch, and when I couldn’t sleep at night — from illness or treatment or worry or all-of-the-above — that was my refuge. I had a lot of hard conversations with God in those hours, with more questions than answers, through all the unscripted ups and downs of being a sick mom with young kids and a frightened family.
Despite the odds, and with thanks to science and research, here I still am. It is daunting to think of others with similar diagnoses, who are not. Indeed, there are mysteries I will never understand. It is also daunting to realize, each year at this exact time when we do a benefits-renewal, that if ever lose my insurance, no one — no one — will insure me. I beat a grim disease, am well beyond the survival data, took an experimental drug in a longitudinal study, and am too risky to insure in an open marketplace (despite being one of the healthiest people you know). It is also season of elections, and my diagnosis came on the date of an election that, for the time, was chaotic and divisive. Politicians and lawmakers back policy every day that discounts people like me, and would prefer to cut our benefits entirely as a cost-benefit ROI move. As women here face the reality that politicians want to manage their health choices, understand none of us can say we love or care for someone, then vote against their health and welfare. Women’s health in particular has the lowest funding of research, the fewest longitudinal studies, the longest timeline for approving drugs or medical procedures, and the only developed nation with no universal paid maternity leave — and now our health options are up for public wrangling.
Without question, life is full of hard choices. They are personal, private, and often not easy, and often difficult to verbalize. To have space and grace to weigh options, to be surrounded by the closest people we hold dear, and to be trusted to make decisions that are best for our own selves is a quiet freedom. If we sit in faith on some of those decisions, great — again, it’s so personal. It turns out, faith and science can be partners — a powerful trust in paths unseen. Twenty-two years ago, I had the tiniest window to make a decision — to take on incredible debt (and we had good insurance), empty our savings, be wickedly sick (because the treatment would level me) for a full year — all with an outside shot at maybe being well again. I talked to my doctor, my spouse, my mom, and my sister fresh out of medical school. That’s it, that’s the list. In the hardest decisions, the circle of influence should be so tight, and not open to debate by outside parties. Amen.
There is much I don’t know, especially around faith. To me, I don’t know that God is the actual front porch to a church or religion or faith practice, but I like that image. I think God IS there: on the proverbial porch wherever we find that space and grace to weigh what is heavy, find a path through what is uncertain, breathe through pain and loss, heal a trauma, hope in a sunrise, in noting the warmth and promise and divinity in the daily living of complicated lives. Where we can take a minute and hear ourselves believe in ourselves, and know we can both wrestle with, and rest with, the choices we make, that is sacred ground.
In truth, we have all stood on porches delivering food and flowers and gifts, receiving good news and bad, welcoming and sending forth, as prom date and bride or groom, as new parent or grandparent, and as grieving broken friend; we’ve been on both sides of the door — opening to the bell, or noses pressed against the screen trying to see beyond. We’ve turned the key in the door for the very first time, calling it home, and for the last time, on to the next chapter. Maybe another word is ‘threshold’ and when we are on the threshold — of decisions or feelings, with love and loss — there, letting the breath breathe, is the wonder of God. We might never have all the answers, but as long as we have choices and options, feel safe and valued, we are wholly able. And that in itself is the holiness of a sheltering porch.