Yesterday I was walking through the woods when a butterfly caught my eye. I wish I could tell you what kind it was; it looked like a yellow monarch. It fluttered ahead of and above me, and I stopped to watch it.
Which is why I looked up.
Up into the trees that surrounded me. At dark trunks speckled with leaves, their fresh shades of green unique to early spring. At the lavender-gray sky beyond.
At risk of sounding trite, I realized that the butterfly, twenty feet above me, had a view further than I could see. And the hawk sitting in a treetop thirty feet higher could look not just beyond the next curve in my path but to whatever lay on the other side of the woods. God’s up there, I thought, in those treetops; I have to remember that God sees further than I can. But then I realized that’s still too limited: God created those treetops. God’s above this and beyond this with a perspective I can’t even imagine.
The Bible assures me that God is good and faithful and loving. Nature tells me that God is creative and beautiful. But my own experience of God leaves plenty of room to doubt those qualities and to wonder whether they exist in ways that are even recognizable to my finite human heart. I’ve had moments of profound peace, of feeling bathed in love. But when those sensations recede, there’s little concrete that I can point to and say, “This is where I know God has acted for good in my life.” In the worst moments, I think the peace and love were illusions, mind games I played with myself because I want so badly to believe. Yes, that’s where faith comes in. But my faith is tentative, tenuous, faltering, fragile, easily crushed. About as resilient as that butterfly would be if it swooped in front of a semi.
My mother tells me to relax because God is in control. But I’m too much like Ivan Karamazov to find that reassuring. If God is in control, that means God has either ordained or permitted (depending on your theology) all of our suffering, individual and collective, great and small, horrifying and mundane. How can I love that God? Trust that God?
These are questions I’ve been hung up on since I was a teenager, scribbling bad poems in the margins of my church bulletins — usually about things like the maggots feasting on my gangrenous soul. (The combination of Edgar Allan Poe, Metallica, and Calvinism gave my imagination a lot to work with.)
I still don’t have answers. I don’t know whether any of us truly does. And I don’t know how useful “answers” would be anyway. Not in the face of suffering and grief and uncertainty. Not while we are adjusting to and anticipating all sorts of losses; mourning, individually and collectively; watching the fissures in relationships deepen into crevices; settling into the indefinite nature of this situation; trying to find ways to cope, to make sense and meaning and maybe, someday, find new opportunities and redemption.
Right now I can’t see through the trees and I can’t see around the next bend in the road. But I’ve already made some resolutions for things that will change in my life on the other side. Now that the only way I can connect with friends and family is virtually, I’m regretting all the times I was with them in person but ignored them because my laptop captured my attention instead. And all the times I silently fumed as someone I was with prioritized their phone over me. Going forward, I plan to be fully present when I’m with my people — and to expect that from them in return.
Before all this went down, I had come to the realization that my circle was too small, but I didn’t know how to change that. I still don’t, but I’m not going to let fear hold me back anymore. Fear has kept me from sharing myself and my passions and my love — with students, with friends, with a new church, with anyone who might either reject me or ask more of me than I’m comfortable giving. On the other side of this, I’m determined to expand the circle of people in my life and to be less scared to risk opening myself up.
I took a break in writing this post to spend some time outside with my dog tonight. As I sat thinking, a flash of light caught my eye: a magnolia leaf on the grass, curled into the perfect shape to cup a tiny pool of rainwater that reflected the light of a nearby streetlamp. I couldn’t see the lamp itself because of the tree that stood between it and me, but the reflection danced like a diamond, twinkled like a star.
And then the clouds flitted and scuttled and fled from the sky, and twilight settled in with a deep and profound sense of peace. I thought of the words attributed to Julian of Norwich but actually spoken to her by Christ in a vision: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.
There is a lot I don’t know. I chafe against not knowing; the uncertainty fuels anxiety and I spiral into my bad place. But the God of butterflies and slow, magnificent sunsets, the God who doesn’t just see from the hawk’s vantage but from a perspective I can’t even fathom — that God is writing this story. I am trying, in my finite and faltering way, one day at a time, to trust. To believe. To let myself rest in the peace. To accept that the way things are right now is one of my nightmare scenarios, but maybe living through it means I’ll have less to fear on the other side. To have faith that the love will be there to hold me when I sob and wipe up the blood when the stars are too sharp and wrap dusk-colored wings around me so I can sleep.
And to forgive myself for all the times when faith fails me, when I stumble and fall, when I crumple onto my face and pound my fists against the ground or wail like a toddler, when life flays me raw and all I can do is rage. Because love is in those moments, too. Love doesn’t fear the truth, no matter how ugly and ignoble and shameful our truths sometimes are. The worst of our truths cannot nullify or erase the love.
Tonight I feel wrapped in the solace of deep peace. I wish the same to you, my friends; even in the midst of our doubt and fear, uncertainty and loss, our limited views, there are butterflies, there are sunsets, there is light.