The Screen House

It was supposed to be a treat to myself when I got the advance for my book--something I'd been dreaming about all through the sad grey tail-end of winter and the grottiness of Spring Mud Season. "It" was a polyethylene screen house, 12 feet square, with a canopy and roll-down storm flaps. Let's get one thing straight: I'm not into spending money, so this is no deluxe model with Dura-Wrap (TM) shock-corded fiberglas poles and tear-resistant UV-Tex Titanium (TM) roof. No; it's a cheap, clumsy-looking thing with dumb-looking aluminum poles. Me, I stay on the trailing edge. My screen house was the second-cheapest in the catalog, and it's *ugly*..

But I am so looking forward to it.... With the screen house, it might be possible to zip myself in, plug laptop and portable CD player into an extension cord to the house, and work away, inhaling peace and pollen, and without having to worry about who's doing the backstroke in my tea or eating my bare feet. It might be possible to have a civilized outdoor dinner without first bathing in DEET. It might be possible to sit with the papers and gaze out at the creek without first shrouding yourself in mosquito netting. Ah bliss....

So I studied the catalog pages, focusing with anticipatory affection on the ugly bugger that I'd set my heart on. And finally, the advance came, and I gave Her Majesty her share and put most of the rest where I can’t spend it quickly--and bought my shelter. I got a cheap white resin table to go in it, too.

And then it snowed.

Second week in April, and we got enough snow that it stuck around and had to be shoveled. We didn't know whether to be furious or depressed. Now, every time I drive into the garage, there are those two unopened boxes with my screen house and the new table, and I get out of the car and kick the snow around.

It's very easy in something small like this to rap your own knuckles and remind yourself of the Stones' song, "You can't always get what you want." After all, we're grownups (well, allegedly, anyway). We've had experience. We know that spring is going to get here sooner or later.

I could also move one small step up the scale of things and tell myself that I don't really need a new laptop. A step further: I could, I suppose, survive another summer without camping....

But then at some point--quite high if we're sensible, not so high if we're not--desire crosses the line from wish to real want, and it gets harder to fend off disappointment. I will not be happy if my upcoming book flops--not because of authorial vanity, but because that means going back to work I really dislike. And there's another step (actually a large quantum leap) between praying that my book does well and saying "God, my child is very ill. Please, Please, please make her be okay." We've crossed another boundary, this one between need and tragedy.

We don't always get what we want, and sometimes that's worth a sigh and a shrug and rueful acceptance; and sometimes it requires screaming and shaking an impotent fist at the heavens, and howling "Why? Why? Why?"

At the screen-house level, it's easy enough: this is Canada in early spring, and anything goes. But when it gets to the heavy-duty stuff, we can't help turning the event inside out, trying to find some sort of meaning--digging into the pockets, looking under the bed. This has to have some point or purpose. God must have heard my prayer and refused to respond. Why?

I refuse to believe that God is getting perverse and playing nasty little mind-games with us; I refuse to believe in a God who inflicts suffering--even minor suffering--just for the sake of seeing us suffer, or as a way of paying us back for some crime or misdemeanour: "Ha! Gotcha!". Nor can I believe in a whimsical God, one who answers this prayer and not that, for no apparently good reason --a partial and unreliable God, who wills the enemy's babies to be smashed to pieces on the rocks because that's what we ask in our bitter vindictiveness. I can't believe in a God who fools around in creation like a three-year-old directing traffic, stopping this, starting that, with no view to the long term and the big pattern. I don't like that kind of theology. It violates all notions of the Abba Jesus talked of, the loving Father who gives bread instead of stones, of the constant eternal One.

So look at the central event, the one in which the person closest to God begged to be let off a horrifying death: "Abba, if it's possible, let me out of this – but your will, not mine, be done." And apparently the prayer went unanswered; Jesus walked through the harsh day of intense suffering and humiliation, and died, and was laid in the tomb. Did he know, really know that he'd rise again? I doubt it. He had the prophecies to rely on, the ones he'd quoted to the disciples on the way to Jerusalem; but words like those are thin soup when you’re actually facing agony. The sacrifice isn't sacrifice if you know that you're going to get it all back in a couple of days. No: I don't think Jesus had real gut-level foreknowledge of the resurrection; I think he went into that horror in pure faith, stepping out into real darkness, trusting that Abba would make all right in the end, but without knowing how or when.

It's almost as though there's a straight inverse relationship between faith and foreknowledge/control. If we're in control of what's going on--if I know I could simply turn a knob and the weather would cooperate--then of course there's no itch of uncertainty and no need to trust in the natural unfolding of the soi-disant Canadian spring (ha! it is to laugh!) I do know spring will happen sometime between now and late June, and so I merely have to be patient.

But the less control we have over things and the less we know it will all turn out okay, the more we have only three alternatives: panic, blind rage, and faith. Faith doesn't mean that God will step in and contravene physics, biology, and human free will. The tornado will behave according to the patterns that govern tornadoes – which may be pretty random, randomness being a major part of creation. The cancer, once established, is apt to spread, and to spread quickly if it's one of the aggressive types; and maybe it can be stopped, but maybe the patient will die. And evil happens because we let it possess us like a virus; it acts with our hands and plans with our minds, because that’s the path we've taken.

Faith does not make things turn out the way we want, even if what we want is impeccably in line with all the positive forces in creation: love, wholeness, joy. But faith says that whatever happens, God will find ways to redeem it. It's not that Bad Things don't happen; they do, and we'd be nuts to think otherwise. But God has a stunning power to make light out of the frozen dimness, to bring life out of death, to create joy out of bleak and sorrowful places – to spin the finest, most glowing gold out of the shittiest straw. That's what we trust; that's what Jesus clung to, even as God seemed to desert him. "Into your hands I commend my spirit." I'm yours, Abba; I trust in your power to set all to rights. Make of me whatever you want.

So we hang tight, trusting in that promise, as Paul tells us to, over and over and over again. We may get off comparatively lightly in this life, with reasonable disappointments and manageable sorrows; or life may be hell indeed. But with faith, we know that there is an end to this present suffering, whatever it is, and the promise of glory, whenever it comes. Our job is to perceive what that redemption is. We may be able to say in time "Aha! That was it!" or we may not, or at least not in this life. But then, the fault's in our sight and in our desire to get what we want, not in God's transforming power.

"All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." The sun's out, and there's the flush of green on my next-door neighbour's lawn. The snow is receding steadily. Maybe in a day or two, I can put the screen house up and spray it with weatherproofing gunk. It's something to hope for, anyway.

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 15 Apr 2000
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