My entrée to knowing God was through my best friend, Jesus. Earliest toddler memories consist of sitting in a circle in Sunday School singing What a Friend We Have in Jesus and This Little Light of Mine. In the sanctuary, I would gaze at the arched stained- glass tableaus that graced the sanctuary windows of my Methodist Church, placing myself in the picture, me sitting at the feet of a loving Jesus along with the other children as lambs wandered about.  Above the door leading to our fellowship hall was a towering painting of Jesus knocking on the door of a modest cottage, midnight approaching, cowl drawn up over his head- a stranger seeking shelter from the darkness.

Reciting the ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ prayer, filled my 10-year-old body with comfort and protection; an assurance that I was being looked after, even though the household I lived in was often chaotic and unpredictable.  I sensed a presence surrounding me- greater than myself- an inexplicable mystery that spoke to me through stories and prayers. And for some wonderful reason, that peace that passes understanding, that unspeakable knowing made perfect sense to me.  I knew Jesus loved me, and I loved him right back. Jesus was my first crush.

As a teenager, my feelings for Jesus deepened, became richer and invited an insatiable desire to understand his teachings more completely.  No longer a child, I began to question the values and interpretations I sometimes heard others use when speaking of Jesus. When Jesus’ words were explained in ways that were judgmental or punitive, rather than expansive and loving, I knew in my bones how upset Jesus would be. ‘This wasn’t what he meant at all’, I’d say to myself. The Jesus I knew invited me to see my own sacredness, my own divinity, and most importantly, the divine nature of everything and everyone around me. I knew this because the parables of Jesus came alive in my house almost every day.

My only brother, Eddie, who was 7 years older than me, was born severely cognitively impaired; he possessed the body of a ‘normal’ looking boy, but his mind would forever be 4 years old. Growing up with a brother who had wildly different, and often destructive behaviors and capabilities, forever shifted the lens through which I saw the world. I knew Eddie had many layers of awareness and a very rich emotional life, capable of deep compassion and joy. The outside world rarely saw this, but I knew there was more to him than meets the eye.

Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, my mother was the head volunteer of our county Salvation Army. She was responsible for reaching out and assisting those in need of shelter, medical care, food and any other support required. In our small town, our home became the hub. People showed up at our house, day and night, unannounced, and the door was always open. The stories I heard from Sunday School about kindness to strangers, the sick and those living on the edges of society were played out at our kitchen table day after day, year after year after year. I often hovered quietly just beyond the doorway to listen to their stories, eavesdropping on conversations I could scarcely comprehend.  I learned compassion in my mother’s kitchen. I saw God in action, God in the meekest and most vulnerable. I saw the many faces of God made man, and in my mother, how God witnessed, served and listened with presence.

I loved being in the grey middle of the blessed in between as that is exactly where Jesus taught.  I learned early on that when a label was assigned to my brother or the myriad of needy people who came to our home, that label was shattered the moment we sat down together with a cup of tea, or a bowl of Cream of Wheat.

As painful as it was sharing my mother and our home with strangers, a part of me knew I was witnessing the words of Jesus coming to life.  I grew into adulthood with the wisdom of countless stories stitched into the fabric of my being, knowing that we are all more alike than otherwise.  We are not one attribute…. compassion lives alongside cruelty, heartbreak alongside joy. The beginning of this Rumi poem speaks to this most eloquently:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense….

Sometimes I live up to my heart’s wisdom, often I do not. Even then, I am gratified to know that I only have to turn to my best friend, who I know walks right beside me. “I’ve got you,” I can almost hear him saying. And I continue on.

Nancy Herbst