Behind the Black Curtain
I sat in my car in the parking lot, waiting for the rain to stop. The sound was soothing so I sat there for close to an hour. No one noticed.
I looked at the building, arms crossed. Deciding. It had been a long time since I’d walked through those doors. Could I still call it “my church” if I hadn’t been inside in months?
Church is inside you, I thought. When the rain finally stopped, I went in.
The lights were off in the hallway and the clonk–clonk–clonk of my heels bounced off the painted concrete floors and thirty-foot ceilings. I almost expected eerie organ music to start playing. It felt like a scene in a horror movie. Probably not the emotion the elders hoped to evoke.
It’s cold. I thought. Cold, big, modern, church. Unfeeling. I’d always felt a bit of that in these hallways or in the classrooms; somehow all alone even when it was full of people. The only place I didn’t feel that way was backstage for the children’s theatre production.
There in the dark, behind the black curtain waiting on my cue, I had seen God. While I peeked through the thick, velvety folds at the faces of the children, he was there. In those sacred seconds stranded between my times onstage I had talked to him. Felt him.
Maybe he was here again today?
Someone had to be working or else the front door wouldn’t have been unlocked, but the building felt empty. I thought of going into the tiny closet of a prayer room, but worried about people leaving and being locked inside the church, setting off the alarm as I left. “Really, really, officer, I came here to pray!” I’d say when cops swarmed the building. Would they believe me?
I opted for the “sanctuary.” Our pastor made fun of that word. We’re a rock-n-roll kind of church, not a sanctuary kind of church, but that day it felt like one to me. I sat in one of the chairs in the second row and leaned my head against the chair in front of me and started to pray. It was barely audible. My lips moved, but less than a whisper escaped them.
I remember praying, “God. Please. Please heal Molly. You can. Why haven’t you? Why haven’t you? Have you quit doing miracles? I don’t’ believe you have! Please Lord, ‘I believe, help my unbelief.’ I need my sister!”
And the rest of the prayer was washed away by my soft, heartbroken sobs. My baby sister had stage 4 brain cancer.
A noise brought me out of my plea and I looked up to see the rotating stage slowly turning. But, I didn’t see anyone turning it. The stage was giant, heavy and round; it usually took at least three of us to turn it.
“You need help with that?” I asked the invisible mover.
Reed, the youth minister, came out sheepishly from behind the black stage curtain. “I didn’t want to disturb you,” he said. “You seemed to be praying so hard.”
I swallowed, unable to speak without crying. He must have guessed my sister’s cancer was worse since I hadn’t been to church in nearly three months.
“Molly?” he asked.
I nodded and he hugged me then prayed while I cried. He also asked for Molly to be healed, but in my heart, I knew the answer was a “no.”
“How do you know?” asked Reed.
“It’s our gift; my family’s curse or blessing…depending on how you view it,” I explained. “We just know stuff. ”
“Hmm?” he raised a single eyebrow, arching high above the other one.
“I wish I could do that,” I said.
“You’re changing the subject,” said Reed, smiling.
“Okay, okay. I don’t tell many people this. One, because it’s kind of kooky and two, because most people would think I’m crazy. But it’s true. Some people in my family, including me, can sense things. We know when things are going to happen and I sense that God’s answer about Mol is ‘No.’ And I’m mad at him.”
“Well, you know, Robin….” he began, but I raised my hand to stop him.
“Yes. Yes I do know. Whatever Bible story you’re about to feed me, save it. I grew up choking on it,” I snapped.
He sighed and patted my arm. I could see him mentally saving his wisdom for another day. Then he met me where I was at. So, if you know you know, and God knows you know, then why are you bothering to pray?”
“Because, sometimes, God surprises you,” I told him. “I used to walk behind that stage and the whole morning would have gone wrong: mics acting up, props falling down, actors missing rehearsal…. so many things, so many times. But in that chaos, there would suddenly be peace, like God said, ‘Okay, I got this.’ He can always change His mind, Reed.”
“That’s what hope is all about,” he said with a smile.
I remember suddenly feeling nauseous and my chest feeling like an anchor falling to the floor. All hope left me. A few minutes later my cell phone rang. Molly was gone.
She had died in a car wreck and people who meant well said ridiculous things like “She’s in a better place,” or “God wanted her with him.” But what better place could she be than here with me? PLEASE STOP! I wanted to scream. If God’s really eternal like he says he is then he’ll have her long enough.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around her abrupt absence, how I would never feel her silky hair against my cheek when I hugged her. I wouldn’t forgive God for stealing her away from me without a sendoff. I’d been preparing my goodbye since her diagnosis. I’d been imploring with God to save her. And he just yanked her away. I begged, even dared God to visit me—just so I could punch him.
I didn’t see Reed again for six months. Six months and ten days since I’d stood in my church and cursed God. God forgave me. I know because he sent me a message that day.
I was at Mol’s grave. It was her birthday. She would have been 24. I gave her yellow roses—her favorite—and bright red spider mums—because she would have thought they looked cool. I noticed another family leaving the graveside of their loved one. One of the men glanced my way then stopped. He headed straight towards me. It was Reed.
I could tell that someone he loved dearly was laying in the ground. His face was haunted with pain. I hugged him.
“Who was it?” I asked softly. I didn’t say anything else, just kept holding his hand in both of mine. He was hurting.
“Mom,” he sniffed. Then cleared his throat. “I was just thinking about you and praying for you,” he said.
He nodded. “I’m sorry I said all the wrong things to you that day. I didn’t know what to say, I guess.” He looked down at his foot, rocking a pebble back and forth with his toe.
“But this past week, when Mom was in so much pain, I actually prayed for God to take her. And I realized, maybe God did answer your prayer that day, just not how you expected.”
I eyed him doubtfully.
“What if he took them in order to spare them pain, Robin? To spare them suffering. Sometimes, like with my Mom, like with Molly, God rescues people from pain. For their sake, not for ours. I never thought about that before,” said Reed, his eyes finally meeting mine.
I hadn’t either. My jaw dropped and it felt like the lead bird that had been nesting inside my heart flew away. Both Molly and Reed’s mom had been miserable. Molly hated long, mushy goodbyes. She’d despised gushy movies and more than anything, she had a low tolerance for pain or feeling sick. Allowing her to die instantly in a car wreck had been the biggest mercy God could show her. And I’d been mad at him for doing it.
Reed and I cried and talked some more and I think we both felt better afterwards.
We got coffee the next day. And again the week after that. Over the next months a friendship brewed that saw us through the darkness of the first holiday season without those we loved.
Today, I’m standing behind the black curtain again. I’m the stage manager this Sunday and Reed is out there making the kids laugh while he tells them a Bible story. The stage lights are shining out on their innocent little faces.
And I swear, I can see God in them.