It’s easy to condemn those who are suffering, when you have no troubles.
- (Job 12:5)
Over pecan pie and orange pekoe, Isabella and the Kearnes watched the world fall apart. News came in from Italy, Sudan, America, Canada, and Egypt about which major buildings had been bombed, which media stars and politicians had been killed, and how the people rose against their governments to get them to do more about it.
Greece was secured against the minor attack in only a few days, and when Isabella got home, her parents were sleeping on separate floors of the house. They greeted her tightly as she slipped through the door, expressing relief at her safe return. Then they retreated to their respective rooms.
“What happened?” Isabella whispered to Rhoda in the living room, leery of how empty their house suddenly felt.
“I’m not sure, really,” Rhoda replied, programming the delivery chute to bring her a cheesecake. “One minute Dad makes a comment about not having to invite the neighbours over for dinner after all, and then the next, Mom says he’s a selfish churl and he says she a priggish mule, and they screamed each other to opposite ends of the house.”
Their parents argued of course. Frequently, even. But usually it was through politely tightened lips and strained voices. Isabella was sorry she had missed the screaming match. She was beginning to wonder what honesty looked like.
She and Timothy went on like nothing was different between them, but after talking to Olivia, Isabella felt something sliding within her. The shy, hopeful words “why do you stay with him?” nudged at her like Platinum nudged at her hand the day she left the Kearnes’. She slapped the thought violently down, but whenever her mind wandered, it ended up right back there.
School reopened the week after, and only half of the students showed up. Isabella’s parents all but kicked her out of the house, saying she couldn’t let the “civil unrest” distract her from her studies. They still thought she was an honours student.
Timothy reached over to kiss Isabella as he hopped into her car. Olivia slowly got in back, not saying anything. She had barely glanced Isabella or Timothy’s way during the rest of Isabella’s stay at her house. Since Carmella had a job interview at one of the bakeries, she told Olivia to ride to school with Timothy and Isabella. Olivia’s classes didn’t start until the afternoon, though.
“I wonder how much homework we’ll have now,” Timothy chattered as they drove through the quiet, empty streets. “Surely they won’t have any compassion for our difficult situation. I bet five hours, each class.” Isabella smiled vaguely, nodded to show she was listening. “Whatever. I’ve got a game later, so I doubt I will get it done no matter how much it is. Championships are coming up and I can’t afford…”
Isabella tuned out of his usual spiel about sacrificing homework for the soccer team. He was so full of energy and creativity. Was there a way to put him to constructive use? All week, she had watched the empty faces of people all over the world looking at their dead family members. She had watched lost children wander around with no shoes, and people trapped for days in whatever building they happened to be in. They lived the definition of a difficult situation.
The groups at the schools and churches that were still intact were holding charity drives and fundraisers to try and alleviate the suffering of their fellow humans. Isabella had never felt the need to donate to charity, but she had gotten first-hand taste of what those other people were going through. And she had to admit there was a small part of her that wanted to do something, even if it only helped one person.
“Timothy, I’m thinking of starting a fundraiser.” She cut him off mid-sentence as he recounted the soccer team’s scoring record. For about the third time that week.
“A what? Why?” He looked as interested as he did when prom-dress shopping.
“Why do you think? Don’t you see what’s going on? People need our help.”
Olivia came to life in the back seat. “Yea! That’s a great idea. We could have a bake sale. I’m sure Auntie would love to bake for it.”
Timothy held up his hands. “Whoa, whoa. Will you guys listen to yourselves? What do you think you are, saints or something? Do you really think a little bake sale is going to make a teaspoon of difference?”
“That’s not the point, Timothy. I just feel like I need to be doing something instead of sitting around watching people suffer. Every bit counts.” Isabella had heard the words several times during infomercials for different charity groups. She liked the thought of ten of her dollars helping a mother buy a couple cans of baby food.
Timothy laughed, though. “Do you really believe that? Think about it. People have been trying to save the world for years, doing much more than a little bit. End hunger, save the rainforest, eradicate the common cold. And you know what I see? About ten thousand more problems than when these so-called ‘world-changers’ got started. And most people don’t even know what a rainforest is. There’s no point trying to help, Isabella. The problem – the world – is just too big.”
Isabella was surprised. Though petty and cynical, his little speech held a hint of ruefulness. Maybe there was hope for him yet.
They rode in silence all the way to school. The parking lot contained only a sparse scattering of cars. For the first time, they were able to park near the entrance to the school even though they were almost late.
Timothy was aghast, of course, as he made note of certain missing cars. “What? The guys ditched and they didn’t even tell me?” Huffing, he slammed out of the car before Isabella could suggest that maybe their friends were actually tending to their families or helping their neighbours instead of worrying about soccer and homework.
Olivia said goodbye to Isabella and ignored Timothy, walking in the opposite direction. Isabella and Timothy crossed the football field to get to the science building, where they would have biology first class.
While usually the morning was so full of students it was hard to walk without stepping on anyone, today Isabella counted five people, as far as her eyes could see. The students walked woodenly, or didn’t move at all, simply stood and stared into space. And it was silent. So silent that Timothy’s whining about “those stupid skippers” seemed like it came over a megaphone.
As they climbed up the steps to the science building, Isabella noticed someone sitting against the side of the stairs, shadowed in darkness. Leaning over, Isabella could make out Cassandra Houston huddled on the gravel, hugging her backpack to her chest. She glanced up at Isabella and Timothy, then quickly back down again. “Come on, Isabella, what are you doing?” Timothy asked, tugging on one of her belt loops. Automatically, Isabella pushed down her concern and started to follow him, then stopped again. Usually, she tried to push herself aside. But Cassandra just sat there, alone.
“Go on, I’ll catch up,” Isabella insisted, instantly regretting it when he rolled his eyes and threw up his hands.
“Why ,Isabella? Why are you suddenly taking such an interest in freaks and losers?”
Isabella had had enough. “Timothy, you’re getting ridiculous. Don’t you realize that we’re at war here? Things are changing! Fine, you don’t want to have a fundraiser. Whatever. But there are things we can do right here to help! Get your head out of your goddamn ass!” She screamed at him now, feeling a little of her pent up rage whooshing out of her like air out of a blown tire.
“You get your head out of the clouds!” he shouted back. “I thought we already went over this. There’s no point in trying to help! Whether you do or don’t, it doesn’t make a difference in the long run!”
“That’s a damn lie!” Isabella shrieked, and heard someone running up the stairs.
“Hey, hey, what’s going on?” William appeared between them, and Isabella realized Timothy had been gripping her arm. When William pulled her away, she could see the beginnings of bruises.
“You stay out of this!” Timothy growled, moving toward William, who protectively encircled Isabella’s waist.
“Whoa, calm down, Big Tim, before you hurt somebody. What’s this all about?”
Isabella tried to resist the urge to turn into William’s shoulder and hide from Timothy, but she couldn’t keep from relaxing into him. Timothy saw, and his expression darkened. “That’s none of your business. Come on, Isabella. Let’s talk somewhere else.” Frozen, Isabella stared at the marks on her arm. Both boys noticed. “Come on, Is. You know I didn’t mean to hurt you.” But Timothy still growled, always angry when he was called out for something he did wrong.
Isabella wrapped an arm around William. “No, Timothy. You need to go calm down. You will never speak to me that way again.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he snapped, turning away. “You’re getting soft,” Isabella heard him mutter. For a moment she stood, feeling like a kite with its string suddenly cut.
She and William still held on to each other. Quickly, Isabella stepped away from him, avoiding looking at him. “Isabella?” he called softly as she hurried away, down the stairs to the main building of the school. She didn’t look back, and cradled her arm against her as she walked. Rounding the corner, she ran smack into Cassandra, knocking all of her books onto the sidewalk.
Cassandra’s face went from surprised, to angry, to tired, and without a word, she bent to pick everything up.
“I’m so sorry,” Isabella muttered vainly, standing and watching. “I…” She couldn’t go on though, because all of a sudden she was crying.
Seeming to exert a great effort, Cassandra turned her head and reluctantly met Isabella’s eye. “Are you okay?” she asked warily, holding her books against her like a shield.
Even though it was totally gross, Isabella wiped her hand over her nose. “No, I – but that’s not what…I wanted to see how you were doing. I’m sorry.”
Pursing her lips, Cassandra regarded her. “Want to sit down?” she asked finally, motioning to a bench near the entrance. Isabella nodded, sniffling. Class was to start in about five minutes, but she doubted the teachers would care if the few students here actually showed up on time. It had been a rough week, after all.
Isabella sat down, and Cassandra sat as far away as possible, pushing the books under the bench. Playing with the strings on her sweater, Isabella tried to think of what to say. In her mind she had wanted to selflessly put aside her loyalty to Timothy and act like a friend to Cassandra, but doing the right thing was just awkward.
“So what’s up?” Cassandra asked.
Isabella sniffled again. “Timothy thinks I’m trying to save the world or something. Just because I want to do something nice once in a while. He thinks it’s not our responsibility.”
“It’s everyone’s responsibility to save the world,” Cassandra replied, her demeanor remaining stiff and affected. Isabella knew she deserved nothing less. In the back of her mind she had thought maybe Cassandra would feel a little bit honoured that Isabella would go through so much trouble to talk to her. With mounting embarrassment, Isabella saw how crooked of a notion this was.
“How are you holding up?” Isabella finally asked lamely. Cassandra stared straight ahead.
“It’s hard to have faith in times like these,” she replied, “but prevailing in times of trouble brings the most satisfaction.”
Since she had wanted to reach out, Isabella decided to humour the strange girl. “Is that in the Bible?”
Was that a faint smile on Cassandra’s drawn lips? “No, my brothers tell me that all the time. Mostly when they don’t want me to quit playing video games with them, since I suck so bad. How are you doing, Isabella?”
“Better now. Nothing bad actually happened to us, after all. But watching all those people on the news is really bringing me down.” She realized how this sounded, and quickly added, “I can’t imagine how scared they must be right now, for themselves and for their families.”
Cassandra nodded. Isabella’s mind ran frantic analyses of the situation, trying to decide if this was a companionable or stiff silence, whether she should let Cassandra speak next or keep talking, whether she should change the subject or continue the talk about the world’s problems.
“You’ve got that look again,” Cassandra observed, though she didn’t appear to be looking at Isabella.
“It’s like you’re trying to figure something out. You had that same look just before you came and talked to Kalin and me the other day.”
“Oh. Well, I’m just not ready to go in yet. I’m trying to think of what to say to you.”
“The other day in the office,” Cassandra went on, still looking at the parking lot. “You sounded like you wanted to ask something, but you kept saying random, stupid stuff instead like you were chickening out.”
“Well, what was it?”
“I still haven’t really figured it out. I just…you and your friends treat each other so differently than mine do. You guys always seem so – oh, I don’t know, comfortable, or something. Like you don’t need to pretend about anything. I don’t really know what question I could ask about it, but I just wanted to talk to you guys, even if only for a little bit.” Honesty? Maybe? It felt strange, but a good strange. Like tasting a delicious, foreign dessert.
Cassandra nodded. “Okay, it’s good to know you’re not really that shallow, then. I’ve been praying and praying for you, and I was pretty disappointed when I thought that you had completely turned into…one of them.”
The label was dramatic. It was the only fitting description. It was Timothy and his friends against the rest of the school, staff included. It seemed that Cassandra had no reservations about what she said, even when she talked about personal things like prayer. Isabella was instantly uncomfortable, but she decided to stick the conversation out, just to see where it would go. “Why would you pray for me? We hate each other, remember?” Isabella asked. There was a touch of bitterness in her voice that she couldn’t explain. But she couldn’t push it aside, either.
A flock of birds landed in the parking lot, joyously going through the buffet of student litter. Even though it was morning and less than half of the student body had arrived, the lot was already a landfill. “I never hated you, Isabella,” Cassandra objected. “I’m angered by you, saddened, disappointed, and disgusted sometimes. But I know you. I don’t hate you.”
Reddening, Isabella cast down her eyes. She had never thought of being disgusting. She supposed they were. Disgusting disappointments. Who else felt that way about them? About her? “Well, thanks I guess. I don’t know why you wouldn’t though. I know me, and I hate me sometimes.” The words were out before she could stop them. She cleared her throat and straightened. “So, what’s your secret? What’s all the anti-hype about your little Christian club? You seem like nothing more than a happy bunch of do-gooders to me.”
“People have been against Christians since the minute they existed. We want things that governments and rule-makers don’t want, it would mean fighting against every part of human nature. Big-wigs want quick results, and Christianity is about patiently doing the right thing even when everyone is against you. The benefits last for eternity, but they aren’t always immediate or obvious.”
“But if being a Christian is so great and makes things go so well for everyone, why don’t people just do it?”
Cassandra shrugged. “Because being a Christian is hard.”
“I don’t know how it is for others. But I know for me it’s a constant fight against myself. At the same time, I’m constantly trying to let go of everything and let God take over. And even though I know that it’s the best thing no matter what, there’s usually a part of me kicking and screaming to do things my way.”
“Sounds exhausting,” Isabella murmured, because she knew. She constantly pushed aside her screaming self to be part of Timothy’s group.
“It can be, at first. But God is always with you, and you just need to make the choice to acknowledge and trust Him. Imagine someone that can do absolutely anything, things that are plausible and things that you couldn’t possibly wrap your mind around. Imagine someone like that on your side, helping you deal with your raging control issues, always encouraging, always patient.” Cassandra started to sound a little less cryptic and almost reverent. “He loves you so much, no matter what, and everything He asks you to do will bring about good for yourself and others.”
“Doesn’t look that way to me,” Isabella countered. “If this God person is so powerful and loving and whatever, why are innocent people being blown into the sky right now? Why can’t some parents afford to feed their kids, and why are some kids completely alone and dying without anybody knowing that they ever lived?”
A grim smile darkened Cassandra’s face. “It’s a question as old as time. ‘If God is so powerful and loving, why does He let bad things happen?’ A lot of people think that he either isn’t all that powerful, or He doesn’t actually give a crap about us.”
“Or that he obviously doesn’t exist,” Isabella added.
“That too. And when it comes to certain people, there’s little anyone can do to explain. Some people are simply too afraid to admit that the Bible is the truth. Do you want me to try and explain it to you, Isabella?”
The bell rang. “Whatever, it’s not like I’ve got anywhere to be.” She tucked her legs onto the bench and sat back. “Impress me.”
Cassandra smirked. “Okay, let’s assume for right now that the Bible is true. God is completely powerful and He loves us so, so deeply.”
“Sure thing. I’m always up for a game of pretend.”
“He’s everywhere at once, including right here where we’re sitting right now. He’s not only everywhere in space, he’s everywhere in time. He sees everything, beginning to end, right now.”
The thought made Isabella shudder a little. That would be kind of cool, and a little scary. Her entire life like a long panoramic photo, from birth to gruesome end.
“So, say there’s a war going on. People are getting blown into the sky, kids are going hungry, parents are desperate, things are grim. Schools are being locked down, people are trapped wherever they happen to be. People die doing everyday things that they never thought would be the last thing they do. Imagine there’s a bomb about to go off in the school right now. We’ll be sitting here, innocently minding our own business and having no reason to suspect that we’re not going to see our family or friends ever again.”
Nervously, Isabella shifted. She knew that it was how a lot of people died, doing ordinary things that they had been doing every day for as long as they could remember. Pouring a glass of milk. Changing the radio station. Sitting on a bench, skipping class. “Are you trying to scare me, or what?”
“That’s the idea, yes. Anyway, when people die, especially doing nothing out of the ordinary, their family and friends might be really angry. And Christians are also angry and heartbroken when they lose people they know and love. But enough about humans. God knows things that we don’t. He knows it like you know you’re wearing a green sweater, like I know my favorite pencil is in the second draw of my desk at home. He knows that no one is innocent. And He knows that this life is not the only one there is. He knows that this life is so, so short compared to eternity that it’s ridiculous. So while God values every single life here on earth, and He doesn’t want anybody to die, He also knows that this isn’t it. I can tell you with absolute certainty that not one single person dies before they are ready. God not only sees everything from beginning to end, right now, he also sees the things that might have been. God sees every possible reality there is.”
Isabella felt a knot forming in her brain. “Okay, I get it, he sees all. What about it?”
“He knew from the beginning who would turn to Him and who would refuse Him. Before He laid one grain of sand on the earth He knew.”
“Then what’s the point of all this?”
Isabella made a vague motion with her hands, trying to encompass the universe with a gesture. “I don’t know! Living. Why just not create the people who would never choose God, and let the people who would choose him go to heaven or whatever? Why bother with this short little life that we get here on earth?”
“Well, that’s also the answer to why God let’s bad things happen. A better question would be, ‘Why does God let us have rainbows and sunshine and chocolate cheese cake when we do little more than screw Him over every day?’ Why does he let good things happen? Why doesn’t God simply do away with us?”
“Yeah. Why doesn’t he?”
“Because God’s all about choice. It’s why we’re here. It’s why life is so short. This life is simply to give us a choice. Another thing that God knows is that looking beyond yourself and putting your trust in Him when you have the option of getting immediate gratification is much more valuable than having no other options at all. For example, if you were just bored and wanted to talk to me to pass the time, I wouldn’t be as grateful than if you had to argue with your long-time boyfriend and get into a little trouble because you wanted to talk to me. It’s more meaningful if you choose someone when it means you have to give something up.”
Isabella couldn’t think of an argument. “I guess so.”
“God’s kind of the same way. He doesn’t want us to simply obey because there’s nothing else to do. He wants us to choose Him because we want Him. There would be no joy for us if following God was simply our only option. The gratification comes from knowing that we’ve overcome something. That before there was light there was darkness. That –”
“Alright, alright! I get the picture. But I still don’t understand why God would bother. If he knew all the horrible things we would do to each other, how we would mess up the planet and all that, why not cut us off earlier than this? What’s he waiting for, for us to completely destroy ourselves?”
“He will let us choose until our choices bring about our end, yes. I don’t think we will be completely destroyed when Jesus comes the second time, but it will be pretty close. The world will be so horrible by then that you’d be crazy to want to live there.”
“And this is all for what? To prove a point that humans are stupid?”
Cassandra laughed. “It doesn’t take much to prove that. Just look inside the window of the school.” She laughed again. “You know, I’ve thought about the beginning of time so often. Did God talk to the angels about His plan to make humans? Did He show them a little of all the havoc we would wreak? I bet they asked Him why. They might have thought He was crazy. But of course God followed through with His plans, anyway, like He always does. He probably said, ‘Wait and see.’ They might have argued some more, but it didn’t make a shred of difference. In the end, God created the heavens and the earth.”