The funeral home gave us a memory tree to plant in my dad’s honor. A pine sapling, barely two feet high, which we set reverently in the earth behind our home. It even came with a tiny plaque that we staked into the ground: “In Loving Memory of Richard Sheppard.” I was eight, and sometimes visited the tree to talk to it, rub my fingers on the plaque and think about my dad. The tree was beautifully alive, and I imagined it growing tall and strong like he had been.
Within a year, the tree shriveled and died.
When I was ten, I forgave my father for taking his life. At sixteen, I forgave the people whose cruel words had driven him over the edge. At twenty, I forgave God for letting it happen.
I don’t know if I can forgive God for the tree.
It seems almost worse, somehow, that he let the tree die. Protecting a man from death—sure, that’s a big ask. The world is full of sorrow and evil, and stopping these things from happening creates a huge ripple. After all, God works in Mysterious Ways™. But saving the life of a measly tree, to protect the heart of the little girl who had almost nothing left from which to draw hope? It would have been such a small task for a powerful God.
That little girl, seeing the browned and falling needles of the dead memory tree, felt utterly abandoned. Her suspicions seemed confirmed: she did not matter to God.
Do I still believe that?
I suppose I know logically that God cares. That he was there with me. That the grieving little girl was precious to him. In Matthew 18:10, Jesus promises that the angels who guard young children “always see the face of my father.” God is there, watching over us. “His eye is on the sparrow,” says the carefree old hymn. But is that supposed to be enough? If his eye is on us, why not also his comforting hands?
Most of us remember the extrabiblical little fable that seems to hang in some kitschy form or another on every grandmother’s bathroom wall: the story of the footprints in the sand. In short, the man in the story asks Jesus why he appeared to be absent during the man’s most difficult trials. Jesus responds that he was not in fact absent—“It was then that I carried you.”
I suppose that’s comforting, until you think about it too long. It actually raises a darker question: if God really is present with us in suffering, why is that presence often indistinguishable from total abandonment? Is there a point in believing in this perpetually invisible God?
I’m a Christian, and I probably always will be. But my faith usually consists of more frustration and tension than any sort of certainty. I don’t have a prayer life and never have. In groups I can pray eloquently, petitioning God on behalf of others. But in personal prayer I can barely choke out “hi God” without my throat seeming to close up. God’s like a guy in my friend group who, when we accidentally end up alone together, I don’t know what to say.
God is supposed to be my father, but when I think of a father I think of an empty space. I think of someone who leaves without returning and the next day a bunch of women come over to your house bearing casseroles. I think of a box of old shirts that slowly stop smelling like the person you once loved.
Before the pandemic there was a class for women at my church, taught by someone whose wisdom I respect. As an exercise she told us, “Write down something you want to happen in your life that seems impossible.” Ladies at my table wrote about forgiving someone who hurt them, growing in their marriages, their wayward children returning to faith. Then the speaker said, “What would it look like to trust that God can make that impossible thing possible?” The other women nodded, closed their eyes, took encouragement. They were ready to trust that God would bring about the impossible. But I laughed, because the impossible thing I’d written was “Me trusting God.” Once again, I’d blocked myself from connecting with him.
I’ve been stuck in this rut of faith for years, cycling between guilt, resentment, apathy, shame, longing, and just about everything in between. Sometimes I try talking to different persons of the Trinity instead of the seemingly-frigid Father. Jesus felt forsaken by him, too, and tore open the veil for us. The Holy Spirit is the helper who prays even when I don’t, in groans too deep for words. I could write a thesis about why God is logically still worth it. But I’m not sure how to get that to sink in past my scar tissue. I’m not sure where to find a mustard seed of faith when I’m all out.
After the first one died, we planted a second memory tree. It thrived. My family doesn’t live in that town anymore, but I stopped by the old house a few summers back. The tree was nearly twenty feet tall. I snuck into the yard to photograph it, but a neighbor came out and eyed me suspiciously. He asked what I was doing. I tried, awkwardly, to explain myself as I left.
“That’s my tree,” I told him. “That’s my tree.”
This first appeared on the post calvin, April 17, 2021.