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.” 

11 Comments

  1. Onize

    Laura, shit!

    Everything you wrote here perfectly encapsulates my struggles with the “perpetually invisible” God.

    I’ve been a Christian my whole life and just cannot contemplate anything else. But it is so hard!

    My constant encouragement is that the struggling and striving and despair – and occasional bouts of rejoicing and heartfelt worship – are all part of this journey. We must continue to press forward, somehow. One foot in front of the other.

    I love this piece so much and I love you! ❤️

    Reply
  2. Shirley Diederich

    You have much in common with many Christians, including me, but you have a gift of sharing it that draws people in.

    Reply
  3. Dietrich Gruen

    Laura, I too plated a memory tree after the death of a parent, my mom in 2005, and with a plaque. But I have not gone back (to Philly area) to check to see if it was still alive and thriving (the tree, that is). So you have inspired me to do that much, at least by phone, then by zoom, so I can see for myself.

    Reply
  4. Marilyn Wells

    Laura, thank you for sharing. You wonderful family has been so much in my thoughts and prayers these past 19 1/2 years❤️ Your Dad was our much loved and respected Pastor. His tragic death left a hole in my heart, too. Even tho I had taught Sunday School for many years, the Bible Study your Dad led the year before he died was the first adult Bible study I had ever undertaken and it was powerful. Then, I was blessed to be a part of the wonderful ladies Bibles studies your Mom led for many years. We still miss and think fondly of your family. Our God is an awesome God. Thank you for sharing your honest and courageous journey through your grief. . God loves you and so do we❤️. (When I go downtown I plan to look for your Dad’s Memorial tree!). Love, Marilyn

    Reply
  5. Pat Middlin

    Laura, your gift is rare and capable of moving hearts. This is so insightful…honest…vulnerable. Thank you. Your dad gave me the lasting gift of knowing how to forgive someone and have peace when I was going through a time of conflict. He made a difference in this world in his too short time here. It appears you may have inherited a good measure of that skill yourself. Love you!

    Reply
  6. Debra K Rienstra

    Oh Laura, this is a stunning piece. I remember some of things you wrote back in Calvin days, essays on the way to this kind of eloquent honesty. Out of your pain comes this gift, your writing. That, too, is God in you. That, too, is resurrection.

    Reply
  7. Sharon Miller

    Thank you, Laura, for so clearly articulating my experience with the absent God. My dad died when I was six years old and it was no comfort to me when people said, “God is your father now.” God as ‘father’ meant nothing to me, and never has. The simplistic, trite Christian trope that is offered at times of tragedy is more alienating than comforting.

    Reply
  8. Tom Kelly

    Laura, your shared thoughts on your faith journey are so beautiful and raw. I appreciate that you have the strength to open up your deepest wounds and share them. So many examples in the world making us wonder how a loving God could have a hand in them like children getting cancer and dying. My thoughts are with you as you go through this difficult faith journey.

    Reply
  9. Kathryn Van Zanen

    There are so many glimmering, poignant moments here, Laura– God as a guy in your friend group is a favorite– but I’m stunned by the ending: a second tree still growing in a town you don’t live in anymore.

    Reply
  10. Alex Johnson

    “I could write a thesis about why God is logically still worth it.” Wow, yeah, hit me like a freight train. Grief is so weird that it’s unimaginable to not believe in God after losing someone, but paradoxically that belief doesn’t fix all the questions that were there before or that come afterwards.

    I also want to give your nine-year-old self a hug after the first tree dying.

    Reply
  11. Kyric Koning

    You really have such excellent things to say regarding our relationship to God and the struggle of difficult experiences. Many people who commented here and who remained silent can empathize with those kinds of feelings, and your ability to color that truly has power.

    I don’t think it will get any easier. Extremes, both evil and good, are difficult to explain. But in spite of the tension, in spite of the pain, the questions, the seeking, the slow understanding we still choose it anyway because “That’s my tree.”

    Reply

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