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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.

Laura Sheppard Song

Laura Sheppard Song is a Calvin College graduate living in Toronto with her husband, Josh, and dog, Rainy. In her spare time she enjoys painting, playing board games, and exploring the city.

13 Comments

  • mstair says:

    Brutally honest…!
    Please follow up on this obstacle of faith.
    I’m curious, after now sharing this with a bunch us in The Body of Christ, if Our Father considers our added prayers for HIs Spirit to break through and explain to you “all about the trees…”

  • What a powerful reflection. Thank you for this. I am reading this three days prior to the one year anniversary of my sister’s death. It was a death brought on by her depression and lack of self-care. Thank you. This is meaningful to me.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    My breath prayer is the statement of the father of the epileptic boy in Mark 9: “I believe, help my unbelief.”

  • Kathy says:

    I had a tree. It was a Douglas Fir. I got the sapling when I was a Blue Bird. It grew in my parents back yard. It flourished. I never measured it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was 20 ft. tall. I loved that tree, and I was so proud of it.

    As a young woman, I went home to tell my parents that my marriage of two and a half years had failed. (My relationship with God wasn’t so great either, but I didn’t tell them that.) I looked out the kitchen window and saw that my beautiful tree was dying. I thought God was punishing me for not trying hard enough at my marriage. I thought I deserved it. But the tree didn’t.

    It’s funny. I thought of that tree just this week on Earth Day. And now again today. Thankfully, I live in a corner of the world surrounded by Evergreen trees that flourish and grow amazingly tall. I now see God in those beautiful trees. I’m lucky, I guess.

  • Gretchen Schoon Tanis says:

    Thank you for this beautiful reflection. After my dad died from injuries sustained in a car accident I also felt the the deep double pain when the flowers died that people gave for the funeral. Dying flowers reinforced the pain of death that seemed to surround me. So I don’t give flowers for funerals anymore – it added to my sense of loss and I don’t want to inflict that on anyone. This may or may not help, but I’m wondering if you have any sense of God as mother and if that image might help? As protestants we’re a little short on this, but when I was traveling I came across an image of Mary holding baby Jesus nursing him and I was stopped in my tracks. The tenderness and nurture that was held in that picture was so touching to me of God’s care and tenderness towards us. Thanks again for your words – I’m grateful for the shared experience.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      Gretchen,
      Those were my thoughts exactly. Learning to pray to God as Mother has helped me set aside the toxic relationship I had with my father and let it define what I thought of God and God’s absence. I can’t say that my personal prayer life has flourished or that God is somehow magically present, but there is something different, and it brought some level of healing between my father and me, at least for me. I don’t know if it is a cure all, but it helped me.
      Thanks Laura, and thanks Gretchen.

  • John K says:

    Deep trauma Laura. Thank you for sharing of yourself. When you father died of his own hand, it’s like God died. You are still wrestling with it. In Jesus, God died too. The new creation is coming to birth in you, I wager. Again, thank you for making yourself known, to us (and to you).

  • Nancy VandenBerg says:

    Thank you, Laura, for honestly sharing your hurt that began years ago but still remains. You represent many people who feel so abandoned by an all-present, all-loving and all-powerful God that didn’t seem to show up.
    In regard to the character of God, it doesn’t make sense, I admit, but I pray that you continue to work through this “scar tissue” and discover the pearl of great worth. (I like Gretchen’s suggestion of God with motherly qualities, which He has.)
    I predict that God will use your hurt, your honesty, your vulnerability to reach others who hunger for healing and thirst for the ability to trust Him. Don’t give up on this journey to resurrection!

  • Yes. This is where I have lived for most of my seventy years, somehow hanging on or being hung on to. I’m not sure what the difference is. Trust is a long, lonely road. But I’m still here. In the words of the disciples, where else would I go.
    Thank you,
    Steve

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Laura,
    Your painful and honest reflection reminded me of Jonah 4. It is certainly not a direct correlation. I would never imply or say that the young you or your present struggle with God’s presence or absence is like Jonah’s struggle, and yet I wonder if there is something in God’s actions and character that grows the bush and causes the bush to perish. We spend a lot of time imagining God as loving and gracious and all that lovely stuff, and I believe that God does or is those characteristics, but I’m not sure that is the complete description of who God is. For me the struggle is accepting or finding faith in the God who grows the bush in a night and then brings it to an end the next night. I join you in the struggle, and I want to name it in its fullness. If we can’t enter the fullness of the dark, how can we ever experience something like the light of dawn?

  • Karl VanDyke says:

    I have a hard time praying for myself. I now have a prayer partner who prays for me and I for him. I need that help. If you have someone to pray with, or pray for you when you cannot, try asking for help. You are not alone as the notes above tell.

  • Rodger Rice says:

    I know the struggle with prayer after losing a loved one to death. Thanks for sharing your struggle. You are an encourager.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Laura, for the thoughtful reflection. I think perhaps you’re expecting too much of God. Leave it to others to rationalize and make excuses for God. Your story is the reality for a good share of, maybe the majority of people in times of hardship. Face it, God just seems absent as often as he may seem present or involved in our lives. It seems obvious, the deists have it right when they suggest that after creation and putting natural law in place, God simply has stepped away from his personal involvement in our world. At least, it obvious that his personal involvement is not what most Christians make it out to be. So what you have and are experiencing seems to be the norm. Christians (some on this website) are fond of making excuses for God and quoting Scripture. But experience and reality tell a different story. Instead of looking to God for solace, Laura, maybe the best hope we have is, “time heals most wounds.” Wishing you well.

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