I sit at the kitchen table with Audrey a few weeks ago. We talk theology a lot these days. She has a lot of dreams about heaven and angels and a lot of questions. “God didn’t want appa to die,” she asserts. “But He can still make something good from it,” she looks at me for assurance. “We just don’t know what yet.”
“No, we don’t know yet,” I answer after clarifying that his death in itself will never be good, and no, God is not the orchestrator, but He is the arranger. We may not see beauty in his arrangement for a long time, or even in this lifetime. I also freely admit that it’s all hard to understand, and we don’t really know.
These are not flippant, pat answers or platitudes. They’re hard-won truths after many long and dark “nights of the soul,” after many meetings with people deemed wise, many hundreds of pages read, and at least a couple of years of turning a cold shoulder to the Arranger. The first words I finally said to Him after my husband died surprised me in their simplicity as I heard them slowly leaving my mouth, “How could you?”
In my twenties and up until he died, I was an auspiciously devoted believer. We led a worship team together at a charismatic church on the Upper West Side. We went to Bible study together weekly. We prayed together on Sunday nights after we were married. My faith was strong, but young. Like the woman who bled and believed if only she touched the hem of His garment she’d be healed, I believed lives could be changed miraculously if someone even stepped into the area where we worshipped on the second floor of the International Youth Hostile on 103rd and Amsterdam. But somewhere deeply rooted in me, was also a very immature, formulaic faith. In the environment I was in, we did a lot of sitting around and saying, “I think this is what God’s trying to tell me because (insert whatever happened)…” So, it’s not surprising that I looked for causes and effects. I believed in the artistry of the Creator and thought I might see only the underside of the tapestry for some time, but eventually there would be those moments when I’d see the true design on the reverse side, and I’d know- and I’d understand.
Here’s an example. As an awkward thirteen-year-old, I was a huge New Kids on the Block fan. I’m not proud of this. I often dreamed of marrying one particular “New kid,” by the name of Joey McIntyre. About seventeen years later, my husband’s band got a gig. They were opening up for Joe McIntyre who was touring solo singing old standards a la Frank Sinatra, mostly attracting an audience of those now grown-up thirteen year olds. My husband shared a tour bus with Joe and when they played at BB Kings in New York, I got to go. And…I got to meet Joe back stage- my husband accidentally waking him from a nap to introduce me. I couldn’t help whispering back to my insecure teenage self- “This is so funny- you will end up meeting him.” And it was a front side tapestry moment for me. The man I loved introducing me to the man I thought I once loved. (hanging my head in shame) I even went so far as to send out an email to friends bragging about my awesome husband and the artistry of God, fulfilling a childhood dream for me.
Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But all narratives do not follow this formula. All narratives do not so obediently bend.
On a Facebook grief group shortly after he dies, I see someone post a quote that goes something like this, “Everything will be OK in the end. If it’s not OK, then it’s not yet the end.” Some people attribute it to John Lennon. Others to Paulo Coehlo, and still others to a Brazilian writer named Fernando Sabino. Someone posted it because they found it catchy or hopeful. I found it irksome because when someone dies, it really does feel like a tragic finish to the narrative you had together. It really does feel like an ending. And who, I wanted to know, is so pompous they think they know that everything will be OK? Why should it be? Formulaic thinking, hopes constrained to this lifetime, and the very false notion that one can understand the mind of God, cannot survive the narrative of sudden tragedy. But this is as it should be. There is no tapestry moment for a tragic death while we’re here on earth. This also, is as it should be.
A couple of months ago, I listen to an interview with the writer Paul Auster. He tells the story of how he became a writer, tongue in cheek. As a little boy he loved the baseball player Willy Mays and ended up seeing him before leaving a game with his parents and their friends. He asked for his autograph and Willy said, “Sure, just give me a pencil.” Neither Auster nor anyone else had one. From that day on, he carried a pencil, and alas became a writer. At the end of the interview though, Auster comes back to the narrative. At a writing conference, author Amy Tan, who had read the story about Mays, tells Auster that Mays, now in his late 70’s, is the neighbor of friends of hers. She asks her friends to get his autograph, and they bring him Auster’s book and let him read the story of Auster as a seven-year old boy, walking away empty-handed. Apparently, Mays sat with tears in his eyes saying over and over again, “52 years…52 years…” Auster tells the story beautifully here. While a bit classier, and longer in its time span than my Joe McIntyre story, it is similar in content. “Sometimes you have to wait a long time before stories find their endings,” says Auster.
“We’re learning about stories,” she says today at dinner. “There’s always a problem and a solution. In mine, Summer (her main character) can’t play the piano with curved fingers- so she learns how to do it. (Something her piano teacher is currently focusing on with her).
That’s right, I tell her, there’s always a conflict and resolution. And I wonder to myself which came first- is there a real pattern of conflict and resolution in life that we reflect in our written words? Or do we look for resolution in our lives because we have come to define narrative that way in our writing, in our stories?
I stopped trying to figure my own narrative out a while ago. I didn’t see God for a while, and then I did. But I saw him as the creator, not just of the earth- the oceans, the sky, the forest, but of the universe- the infinitely expanding universe, which we have not come close to surveying the whole of. I take Audrey to a local observatory to see Saturn’s rings through a large telescope they’ve set up outside on a summer night last summer. I revel in my smallness. I don’t search for those tapestry moments- when all is revealed, but I wish for moments of peace and moments of beauty that somehow might be compounded or collected in some design, but are also whole galaxies of meaning in and of themselves. The arc of the story is long. Much longer than I thought, longer than seventeen years, longer than the 52 years.
You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out, perhaps a little at a time. And how long is that going to take? I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps. That could be a long time. I will tell you a further mystery, he said. It may take longer. Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
“We just don’t know what yet,” she had said. No, no we don’t. I once found comfort in those moments when I believed I was getting a glimpse of how God was “working everything out.” But there is a hopeful comfort, and I believe a vaster one, in this confession of not knowing. Real, genuine faith is after all, not seeing and knowing, or understanding. It is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” There is no smugness involved, only anticipation, only hope. It abides. It is a gift.