Can You Drink This?

Each year on November 1st, All Saint’s Day, I quietly give tribute to Doug Herman and the first book we wrote together (first ever for me, yikes what a learning curve). It was then that I first stepped into the sharing of another’s suffering and the awesome and sometimes awful power of God.

For a young woman wrestling with the distress of failed community and toeing precarious uncertainty, Nouwen’s message in Can You Drink This Cup? proved a radical counterpoint to my own reality. His words provided the missing ingredient to my dry and often perilous church upbringing. I yearned to share from the cup of life together with others; to hear “La Chaim!” and celebrate blessings and salvation even if it meant sharing in suffering as well. I wanted nothing more than to find a place of belonging and to offer others the same. I determined that if I couldn’t find such a place, I would create it.

One day a short time later, I sat across the table at a restaurant in Littleton, Colorado, explaining this to a new acquaintance, a young minister. I’d never met a man more in need of “a shared cup.” Doug Herman had recently lost his congregation. He’d lost just about everything actually. You see, losing his community and church was merely a culmination of his worst losses. As a result of difficulties during the birth of their first son, Doug’s wife Evon received two units of blood. One of those units was infected with HIV. In the early 1980’s the hospital had just acquired equipment to test blood, but had not yet implemented the process. As young parents do, Doug and Evon took their wee son home full of aspiration and hope, and started their family together, unaware that anything was amiss. Two years later, not yet knowing the danger they were in, Doug and Evon conceived a second child, this time a little girl, Ashley, who would be born one of the world’s first AIDS babies. I sat and listened to Doug describing heartbreaking tales of the months that followed during a time when neither the medical nor church communities knew what to do or how to respond to AIDS, during a time when his wife and baby daughter fought for their lives, and lost. 

Doug’s story is written with layer upon layer of pain, questions and failures, as well as the miraculous. The most agonizing miracle being that in spite of unprotected intercourse and Evon nursing her firstborn son, Doug and his little boy remained HIV free. Two innocent, but very sick ones were taken; two others in the wake of devastation with healthy bodies were left to navigate a very sick world. 

And I, a naïve young academic, thought I had words from Henri Nouwen that might somehow enlighten or at least bring some comfort. “Drinking our cup to the bottom is seen as the expression of the full freedom we have as sons and daughters of God,” I said with little comprehension of grief.

Doug paused and turned his face to look somewhere far away. He ran shaking fingers through his hair, and with tears wetting his face, leaned in and locked my gaze across the table. He then did something that would change the course of my life. He reached for his merlot, swirled the deep red wine around the globe and held it out to me. “Can you drink this cup?” He asked. 

We were meeting to consider a new partnership. Doug needed to know if I merely came with writing skills or if I could be a trusted companion on a trek through grief and sorrow, back through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, toward green meadows and still waters. Could I partner with him in offering the world hope during troubled times? Doug was asking if I had what it would take to co-author his book.

Until that moment, I was sure I did, even in spite of the book’s disturbing title, What Good is God? Would I drink? Like Jesus’ friends I had no idea what Doug was asking. His gesture had just ramped the invitation up a few notches. 

Sweat prickled the back of my neck, while I pondered the fact that I did not know this man across the table. I had no certainty, no way of proving in that moment whether Doug was truly HIV negative or a dangerous psychopath. Maybe both. His look was steeled but not cold. I pictured the brief exchange between priest and prisoner in Les Miserables. The angry prisoner, Jean Val Jean, a guest at the parsonage table, is gulping down food when the priest asks if he will spend the night. Val Jean growls, “How do you know I won’t kill you? The priest said, “I might kill you too. I guess we’ll have to trust one another.” 

I reached for the stemmed glass. By now we knew HIV was a blood disease, not shared by saliva. I thought so. I hoped so. I held it with shaking hands. This invitation was unnerving not because of my own mortal danger, but for many reasons I yet did not know. I looked long at its contents, and lifted it to my lips. We would have to trust one another.

Doug reached across the table, took the glass, and set it aside. You don’t know what you are saying, his pained eyes said. He took my hands and bowed his head in a silent, tearful prayer. We discussed then the details of how to get started, contracts and business. When we stood to go, my new collaborator pulled me in. He kissed my face, first my right cheek, slowly and with pause to look into my eyes, he then kissed my left. “We are never guaranteed to see one another again. We only have this moment.” 

The writing was hard, tumultuous. My writing partner asked difficult and angry questions. He terrified me when he shook his fist in the air at God. I didn’t feel safe with a man who’d lost nearly everything, and therefore had no fear of the Almighty. “Give me your worst, God! Oh wait, you already have.”

It was in the pages of that book titled,What Good is God? Finding Hope and Faith in Troubled Times that my theology would first be shaped… and fired in the kiln of shared suffering, and lament. This is the long introduction to my homegrown Theology of Sanctuary and its accompanying spiritual formation complete with pitfalls, trusts, and betrayals. Richard Rohr writes, “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living. We live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”[1]Never was this truer than in the eighteen grueling months I wrote with Doug Herman. His life had moved on in the years since his wife and baby’s deaths. He was now mourning at another level and seeing new truths and re-considering God’s hand at my prodding and hard questions. He was healing and I was being freshly wounded. 

I was faced with rugged disillusionment. What I had taught in seminary classes was no longer neatly packaged and many of my beliefs were coming unraveled. Yet, in time, we came to offer one another sanctuary, the often-illusive safe place for dismantling long-held beliefs and opportunity for God to show up one more time.

Rather than stopping at the image of a consecrated place where sacred objects are kept, where the cup is lifted in high ritual by a priest, I’d rather do so as Henri did, and celebrate Eucharist also in the daily, around a table more familiar to us, as Doug and I did while finding God’s presence in the narrative of our own stories and praying the psalms together. 

[1]Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs.