The Cross, a short story by Jacob Andrew Wilson
It was a normal church gathering: worship, talking, worship, talking, worship. People greeted one another with smiles, they closed their eyes a lot, their spirits were lifted. Yet in that final stretch of worship—as if to emphasize the sermon—amidst sounds of exasperation and exultation, it happened.
The sermon was about repentance that day; grappling with the sin inherent in our hearts. What are we without God? The preacher kept repeating.
What are we without God?
That Sunday a community was left shaken, the scope of that question shattered and stretched into the resulting forms: where is God, or, although illogically worded, why is God?
For the faithful every moment is weighed in relation to the supreme being. At times this can make life quite absurd—oh holy one, what color socks should I wear today? This question is never important but may at any moment be granted the pathos of the eternal.
This makes tragedy at once the simplest and most complex experience to deal with. In a world subservient to a divine being, one is merely a life raft in a raging sea, caught in all the ebbs and flows the divine desires. But why does the divine choose our suffering? And what is our role to play if we are all proverbially without a paddle?
That Sunday when the holiest of Christian symbols crashed down upon Catrina, the 23 year old prodigal daughter, striking a blow that would result in her passing, the effect was far grander than the mourning of friends and family–it sent questions flooding through an entire community. These are the accounts of three members.
He gives and He takes away. Johanna had believed that her entire life. She had comforted many with those very words, staying up late nights with those whose wick was about to expire. She had always prided herself as being one who comforts the mourner–it had been her gift.
In this moment, she wondered why no one had told her how this phrase scratched at infested wounds, the words shot at her like one spitting in her face.
Johanna’s relationship with Catrina was strong, she counted herself (and The Lord) among the reasons she had been on the return home. Catrina’s disobedience had been similar to her own, late high school popularity outshone spiritual diligence and college experimentation quickly eclipsed any need for a God.
God had called her back, out of depravity and into His arms. He woke her up by placing her through a torrent of difficulties–an unwanted pregnancy that would become her beloved son, an assault by a stranger, and an overwhelming depression. The church, this church, is where she was lead. The Lord had allowed these things and He had glorified Himself through His body.
All these years later she really had seen herself in Catrina. Johanna was friends with her mother, a praying woman who worried for her daughter daily. Catrina had been to college and come back with that college know-it-all attitude they all dreaded. She hadn’t really heard about Catrina in some time, although her mother had mentioned her in some prayers and there were those Facebook photos that had shown up.
But then Johanna had ran into her one night in a bout of predestined grace just after she had graduated from college. She had a vulnerability about her, one Johanna recognized from her own pre-grace days, like a cocooned caterpillar whose only hope is that breaking free is just around the corner. Again it can only be counted to God’s grace that Catrina was so receptive. Johanna invited her to coffee and she had accepted–the following Tuesday.
That Tuesday Catrina was open with her wounds and Johanna had listened, remembering the state of her heart at that age. She let Catrina speak her mind, but then in one instant, Johanna had felt a tug from the Spirit to challenge her to go to church. Catrina, taken aback, said yes and that very Sunday was there, albeit late and separate from her family.
Three weeks later she had begun attending Johanna’s small group. She was tentative about speaking her mind and some weeks refused to show up at all, but her presence was a welcome one and her arc toward grace was blossoming.
That was just over a year ago and the imminence of clear cut repentance had never been seen.
Her redemption story was cut short.
It was all over. “Neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God,” but in this instance that’s exactly what it had done. Death, in fact, had ruined everything. All those moments leading toward the forgiveness required to save her soul were seemingly for naught.
Why would God end the life of one about to be saved? Before, Johanna had seen her entire life as an archetype of the way God moves in the world, creating situations to draw His children toward Him, but what was He making of this? He had literally cut off one of His children from grace!
There was one more creeping question, one nobody wanted to talk about: the question of hell.
What the hell? Really, what the hell? Divine punishment always seemed fair when it was fair, but this was God as tyrant–as Lucy taking away the football as soon as she had regained Charlie Brown’s trust. All this time has God just been messing with us?
Well, Johanna thought, if God wanted to act this way, then God could do it alone.
Trenton woke up. His dream had terrified him to the point of waking. He had been swimming in a pool when crocodiles appeared. He swam in fright as their jaws reached for his feet, inches away from shredding him to bits. Then he awoke.
Dreams had always given Trenton insight to his life. When he was young he dreamt of a burning fire encapsulating a forest–this was weeks before his father left in a violent drunken rage; he still had scars to remind him of the moment. The dream had given him a sense of anticipation, partial dread, but partial guardedness to everything that would occur. When he had found The Lord, he recognized it as that same presence that protected him as a boy, the presence that comforted him as he slept.
The meaning of this dream was obvious; after the events that had occurred, how could it not be? Unlike before, these dreams The Lord was giving him were not anticipatory, they instead haunted him, reminded him of that great loss.
The Lord was the great comforter, He had always been. Through his dad’s abandonment, his mom’s inexplicable capability to survive alone, the accidents and failures that had made up his life. God was the only thread of good in the world, the only reason his light still shone.
The Bible had many stories of this deep loss, The Lord Himself had been through the deepest suffering of all, purposefully so, that His followers should live in abundance. Job had revered God though his life had crumbled; it was a test of his faithfulness.
Was their faith being tested now? Trenton had come too far to doubt God’s plan. When he had started attending this church, he knew he immediately wanted to be a part of the youth ministry. His own childhood was difficult, a perpetual set of woundings that only the most immaculate of healers could fix. That’s what Jesus had done, piercing through a calloused soul to mend parts of himself that hadn’t been exposed in years. He wanted to be a part of this for others, a counselor to healing before the pain even began.
He had started in the Junior High group, the same year Catrina began 7th grade. She was an easy one, a potential pillar that every youth leader hoped would appear to stabilize the whole group. As she grew older and those hopes disintegrated the leadership spoke in whispers, wallowing in what went wrong. What did it mean to fail as a youth leader?
But now all Trenton could think is what if they had succeeded, would Catrina be gone today?
“Even so it is well with my soul”
A later Sunday they sang “It is Well” and told the story of its author. A man beaten down by life, who chose providence in the wake of tragedy. He had penned a great hymn, one
that had inspired many. God would move like this in His church, Trenton knew it. He looked at his scars again, forever proof of God’s love toward him, he could never be a doubting Thomas.
God was all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful, it was foolish to think anything that happened was outside His will. Even in this, Catrina’s death, he must submit all the glory to God.
Otherwise he would be on his own, and Trenton knew what man would do when left to his own devices. He saw it in himself every single day. God is good and He always would be. When he preached at their next youth meeting, he declared this to all the youth, they stared back, tears in their eyes.
Andrea sat in her room praying. When she did pray she always concluded with The Lord’s Prayer. She felt it best represented how God worked—of course it was fickle to pick and choose parts of the Bible—that was obvious, but the ways those around her had used prayer to justify their own desires always irked her. The Lord’s Prayer covered the simplest of theology: worship, guidance, dependence, forgiveness. Others spent too much time seeking the Lord’s wisdom in the mundane—even the most personal of all gods cannot be blamed for your bad day at work. This version of God was arbitrarily placed into the current emotional state of the individual. She found it amazing that the way God interacted with people was so in line with their hormones.
When Catrina died, Andrea took it hard. She had been close friends with her. They had spent high school nights worshipping side by side at youth group and summer camp. When they each went away to college they had kept in touch through occasional Skype chats and group texts. She saw Catrina abandoning her faith and had mourned it, something that paled to how she now mourned over her.
Their relationship had been rekindled when Catrina returned to the church. Others had called her a prodigal, Andrea saw her as a Samaritan, an outsider bringing life into the community.
Andrea’s own faith had stalled a bit, spending week after week within a religious community can cause one to become indifferent to the words and motions. That’s where she was when she met up with Catrina again. They had surprisingly long discussions, mostly about dating and relationships, but eventually a subtle depth leaked into their discussions.
Catrina was yearning for truth, one that Andrea knew but had lost years ago. Catrina’s search for faith that went beyond what she knew in high school had awakened Andrea. They explored the depths of their souls and even occasionally read the Scriptures.
Catrina was gone now, but this wasn’t God’s fault. God was no monster in the sky causing crosses to fall to teach a community how to mourn. He wasn’t Zeus, throwing lightning down at whatever sinner last caused him to be angry. Reaching for this explanation called attention to the most primitive parts of humanity. Imagine a God who would destroy His creation on the basis of misunderstanding the Bible—a 2,000 year old book that’s been translated multiple times and has layers upon layers of ancient cultural context. God was not teaching a lesson, he hadn’t rigged the system against His own creation.
She truly believed God was love. He was a compassionate redeemer allowing for the freedom of humanity, pursuing and forgiving along the way. Catrina’s death was not God’s choice. The plethora of factors that went into Catrina’s death: light/building manufacturers, building code inspectors, church workers who had set up the cross, and the ultimate un-luck of picking row 7, seat 12 were more to blame than the creator of the universe.
She accepted the position that God wanted to bring glory to Himself and would use this tragedy to do so, but did not think God had caused it for His own purposes. As if God was some glory hungry being who set up situations for His own success. He is no man, filled with pride.
She read the words written so long ago:
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
Whatever form life would take after death, she knew it would be better than this one and, ultimately, she knew Catrina would be there.
The church would end years after Catrina’s death. Its doors were never shut, but a burned out pastor, constantly changing eldership team, and influx of new members saw the church evolve into an entirely new being. The new pastor focused on leadership and a happiness prosperity message and the church grew a lot. For those who had been there before it seemed like a willful ignorance. The pain had been glossed over and all that was left were smiling greeters in the doorway.
The drifting was not an entirely negative experience, some found new life and spiritual health as they landed at varying congregations. For others the load had been too great to bear and agnostic voices crept in, the comfort of sleep became louder than the voice of the Spirit.
Tragedy is the great presser of corporate belief, trampling all epistemological inconsistencies, and plowing through those places where unity once seemed to reside.
It asks what God’s cause is in this world and the answer to this question can lead any individual down numerous paths.
Life is often erratic, avoiding logic whenever it can. When confronted with this reality humanity will do anything to find that place of steadiness in their souls once again.
When Catrina died it shook up foundations once deemed solid, but if any being were equipped to handle this shaken space certainly it would be the author of life. The purpose of the Divine is to remain steady even as we fall.