KENNER, La. (BP)–Nancy Kress is a novelist. In the March 2001 issue of Writer’s Digest, she gives her rules for writing a good book: “Get the people in big trouble.”
Writer Maureen McHugh, Kress says, has a sign above her computer that reads, “THINGS GET WORSE.” McHugh explains, “It’s the only thing I know about how to plot.” For a full-length novel, Kress says, it’s not enough that “things get worse” for the protagonist, but they also deteriorate for the secondary characters. One of the questions guiding her as the story unfolds is, “What else can go wrong?”
In real life, Kress says, we want no problems and for life to proceed smoothly, but no one wants to read a book of someone like that. People read novels for the crises.
Ever feel like a player in one of those novels? Some of us seem to go from one disaster to another. I once stood by a hospital bed where a precious lady was dying of cancer. She has been one of our city’s preeminent elementary school teachers and had taught one of my three children. She had painted excellent watercolors and written great poetry. A year earlier we had buried her husband, and numerous other troubles had settled upon her household.
Now, she was dying. Her sister-in-law, never one for subtlety, stood on the other side of the hospital bed and said to me, “I tell you, Joe, it’s like the fellow who looked up to heaven and held out his hands and said, ‘What else can go wrong, God?’ and a bird went over and left a dropping in his hand.” She said that; I’m not making this up. It’s as though a novelist said, “What else can go wrong in this lady’s life? I know — let’s send over a thoughtless relative to say crude things.”
When we preachers look for comfort to share with folks like my dying friend whose life was unraveling before our eyes, we do not tell them we understand because we don’t. We don’t say we’ve been there because we haven’t. We resort to one of two persons in Scripture, sometimes both: Job and Jesus.
Job lost in one day all his children — seven sons and three daughters — as well as all his sheep and camels and oxen. He began the day a rich man and ended it as a pauper. What else could go wrong? Soon he lost his health and it appeared he would die. What else? His wife taunted him. More? Friends who arrived to comfort him ended up heaping accusations and blame upon poor Job.
Question: Why do we think this story will comfort our friend who has his/her own miseries to deal with and does not need to borrow more from a biblical character? Because the underlying theme of the story is that “God knows.” He’s in charge. None of this has happened without his involvement. You do not understand now. But trust him. If not even a sparrow can fall to the ground without his knowledge, then we should be comforted, Jesus said, because “you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Or Jesus. The theme of his earthly life and ministry could well be “What else could go wrong?” Starting with his birth in a disease-infested stable, to poor parents, Jewish at that, he was hunted by the government before he was a year old. Opposed by the religious authorities, misunderstood by his friends and betrayed by a disciple, Jesus ended his earthly ministry on a cross.
Only then did God do what every novelist delights in pulling off — giving a plot twist that people are still talking about: He surprised everyone by raising Jesus from the dead and showing that in going to the cross, he had defeated the archenemy and achieved a lasting victory over death, hell and the grave. So, we tell them of Jesus. Jesus. In order to remind them that God has his purposes that do not always make sense to us. Trust him and go forward.
Job said, “Even though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” Jesus said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Finally … things start to get better.
McKeever is pastor of First Baptist Church, Kenner, La.