- by Larry Marshall Sams
Raised Up By Love
This short story has been reprinted from the Ancient Paths archives. It originally appeared in Issue 8 (Spring 2002). In the printed Ancient Paths, this short story is masterfully illustrated by Mark Kilvington.
Raised Up by Love by Larry Marshall Sams
Yes, I know a large number of Christian people–even way over here in Worcester–may be interested in Mr. Taylor’s losing a second daughter in so short a time, and in Mr. Taylor’s manner of standing up to God’s striking him. Well, it wasn’t a pretty sight, but it finally had a glorious outcome. Good brothers and good sisters, God’s Providence is like a blanket unfurled over a bed: it’s going to sink down the way it sinks down, and it doesn’t matter whether a person’s a minister at the head of the church, or a member sitting in a pew, or someone unregenerate outside the church. If Providence settles down on a person, the person’s going to answer to God. John Calvin says it’s so.
You’d have to look long and hard up and down the Valley to find a person less likely to take the brunt of God’s pain. He appears to be an angel visiting earth for a little stay, or maybe a rare human being steadily progressing along the road to sainthood. I’ve know him eleven years. Didn’t I carry the call to him at Harvard in ‘71 to be our minister? We trudged through knee-deep snow from Boston to Westfield in that terrible November, and he’d made clear he wasn’t sure about accepting the call, and he’s a little man in size: doesn’t look as though–you know–he could stick, but he walked those hundred miles in the snow and kept up with me and never cursed the weather. That effort typifies every action I’ve ever know from him.
He may not have been sure, but when he got into harness, he pulled and pulled for the church, and other people in Westfield, and God. People of Westfield and even other towns now revere him. I’m proud to say I’m a deacon in his church, and hearing his sermons, watching him farm, associating with him on church matters and other matters have all steadily raised him in my estimation. I could almost swear that sometimes I see a little space between his feet and the ground where he treads.
This is the kind of man that’s got it filled to the brim and running over. A couple of weeks after Abigail got sick, the usual glowing mood in the house dimmed way down. Mr. Taylor and his wife Elizabeth still hadn’t talked to me and other townspeople about baby Elizabeth, who died nearly one year old, but the town couldn’t forget–here’s Abigail about a year old.
Abigail was a pretty child, with big, alert, brown eyes that she fastened on you and took your measure with. As serious and eagle-eyed as her father. She screamed and vomited for six weeks, fever up most of that time. A good physician himself, Mr. Taylor quit tending her after the second week, for another, less involved person. I’d visit, and when she’d scream, Mr. Taylor sometimes would visibly flinch, or other times shrink up into himself. The pain in the man’s face lodged in my heart and made my heart seem too small.
"When Elizabeth died," he finally told me toward the end of the sixth week, "I thought my brain would burn down to a cinder. And here it comes again." This was the first time I’d heard him mention the two together in terms of dying. Or another time: "If I’m the sinner covered with filth, why is God making my children suffer?" And again: "I know God is a loving God, but why, Deacon Dewy, does he now appear to be such a hating God?"
The man in our Bible study group, akin to this one of yours here in Worcester, taught me the shining glory of God’s word. He knows every verse of the Bible and is educated in theology. His mind and understanding are keen and large. What am I going to do to help this man but fumble blindly around?
"You yourself have preached us the message, Mr. Taylor: we can’t know if we’re chosen. If we can’t know this critical detail, how can we know why God does what He does?"
Recognition started up in his eyes, as though he now considered some point he knew like breathing, but hadn’t understood it applied in this instance. "God took Elizabeth so quickly that I didn’t have time to gauge the loss beforehand. And before I could agonize about her loss afterward, I’d already told God that Elizabeth belonged to Him, so taking her was part of the scheme. Maybe He thought that I too easily accepted what He’d done, so He’d test me again with Abigail. But, Thomas, I loved that little girl! She’d be six now, and God alone knows the ache I’ve carried inside for five years."
"Edward! Edward!" Elizabeth lunged through the door, and continued speaking in a much lower, tense voice: "Abigail will hear you if you don’t quiet down."
Penitent, subdued, he replied, "I’m sorry, dear; I was feeling only my own grief. I don’t know if I can bear this agony a second time."
"Shush now." She laid a hand on the point of his shoulder. "Abigail’s still alive. Her fever might break tomorrow. God works as He works."
Their eyes locked together; Mr. Taylor and Elizabeth tried to generate some strength. Then Abigail screamed. Mr. Taylor jerked, a bit wild-eyed, even as many times as he’d heard such in six weeks, and Elizabeth, turning, left him an afflicted glance, and bolted out the door. Mr. Taylor quietly excused them and in a kind of slouch followed Elizabeth.
Abigail died the next day. That would be about the third week of last August. No one reported any weeping and screaming from Mr. Taylor. He did look red eyed, now and again. The big change was he got quiet. Normally willing to talk about his bees, his Sunday sermon, his corn, his books, John Calvin–he edged away from people. If he saw you approaching in the street, he turned around and hurried off. He looked distant and mean. His face set in a slight sneer and looked hard as rock.
He asked Reverend Winslow to come from Chicopee to deliver the funeral sermon. Probably, Mr. Taylor didn’t trust himself not to deliver blasphemous words to his own congregation. After the funeral everybody gathered at his house. By this time he was more outgoing than he’d been for several days, but he looked as though he’d rather chew on a rock than talk. I’d seen him take several glasses of wine, the sneer becoming more pronounced. He and I ended up in a corner, where by turns he stared out the window or distantly observed the goings-on in the room.
Suddenly, without any warm up, he launched off. "Oh, what a wonderful Providence God has blasted the world with!"
The sound of every word confirmed the sneer. The room was instantly silent, afraid.
"In this world the sinner walks freely, breathing long life, whereas the year-old child, closer to being a saint than possessing any grasp of how to be a sinner, is ripped into death without even the basic courtesy of ‘Prepare thyself.’"
Most people had their faces lowered, as if in rapt prayer, but the feeling from them was fear, shame, uncertainty. If the man who was their spiritual base verged on blasphemy, then boards under their feet had commenced to tremble and shift.
"No, this world does not seem a world overflowing with God’s grace. This seems a cruel, inverted world where the innocent are demolished."
Several moaned, several begged him to stop. "Mr. Taylor, please. . . ." It was my voice: I didn’t know what to say, but a compelling need pushed me on: " . . . please don’t leave your flock without a shepherd."
"Only a person who’s lost two beloved year-old daughters within five years to a being he’s loved as the center of existence can even begin to understand the terrain I speak from."
I felt hurt and resentful. "You preached the funeral sermon for my Abraham."
"Anybody can experience flooding grief over the death of a child. But two is ten times worse than one. A hundred times! And girls seem more pitiable than boys. And one year old seems more pitiable than eight. Is any crime in the world any more horrifying than infanticide? Yet this being I loved and tried to lead people to as the most glorious being to embrace and love has killed my children to reward my effort.
"I stood the loss of one daughter fairly well. I deplored it, but I tried to focus on the certainty that God had a reason, and I believed, and analyzed, and wrestled myself to acceptance. His claiming Abigail now, however, seems particularly vicious. I fault the mold of this world, and I fault the caster. God has failed me."
After a pause of loud silence, Mr. Taylor strode from the room. The stunned silence lingered on for several moments, then collapsed into Bedlam noise, with people questioning what he’d said and what it’d meant, and arguing what the outcome would be. Maybe Elizabeth didn’t care to hear the immediate talk about dismissing Mr. Taylor; more likely, she wanted to be with him: she padded out the door.
I agreed with the rest: it was a terrible thing to hear your minister blaspheme God in his own parlor. I didn’t like my troubled feeling that the coach had lost its driver. But I knew Mr. Taylor’s heart and mind, and everything the church in Westfield was, he’d led the building of, so I only listened to the dismissal talk with half an ear.
I’ve already said a glorious outcome, and you know now in March he’s again, since last October or November, been delivering those sermons he’s noted for. Given his state the day of Abigail’s funeral, I’d say it’s a miracle that God brought Mr. Taylor back into the driver’s seat so soon, encoached for heaven.
The first two Sundays after Abigail’s death, Mr. Taylor had the Reverend Winslow to speak. The third Sunday, Mr. Taylor sent word around and posted a notice there’d be no service, but at the same time he canceled service he told the deacons that he’d be back in the pulpit and he was about ready. On the fourth Sunday, there he stood, good as his word, taking as his text Canticles, second chapter, fourth verse: "He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love."
Mr. Taylor has ever loved Canticles. I think because the book fits the kind of man and preacher he is.
He’s no raging, thrashing, brimstone kind of preacher. "That method," he told me in Boston, "doesn’t express doctrine’s view of God’s grace. God would never speak to a regenerate person that way, so why should a preacher?" He was and is an intense preacher, but he doesn’t beat his arms about in the air and rage against people about hell’s fire licking at their souls. Speaking about the wonder and glory of grace is his preference, and love doesn’t want rage. He uses feeling and logic to make vivid the beautiful existence of one turning wholeheartedly to Christ and God for salvation.
So that Sunday in late September, when he again stood in the pulpit that he’d stood in so many times, he started like a man with a purpose. "I apologize to every church member. I apologize to anyone in my house after Abigail’s funeral, who heard my misguided words. I apologize to all church members who have lost a beloved child young, and I specifically apologize to Deacon Dewy for belittling the death of his fine son Abraham, taken from us several years ago.
"Hurt, anger, and pride drove me wild. I was crazed, I spoke sinful words, I refused to accept God’s working as He works. That the being I love above all else took a second daughter from me hurt me more than I could express, and the devastation I felt, without understanding why God did it again, transformed into anger. My pride carried me the rest of the way into sin. How could God conceive of doing it again to me? My pride was the only vehicle traveling that route. Why me? so easily transforms into How dare it be me? and further into You must be a fool, or a devil, or a monster to make it be me.
"After my anger cooled in a few days and logic ascended to its rightful place, I saw God had brought me to the banqueting house, and I had missed the banner. He chose my daughter Abigail, my blood to be with him–nobody else’s–because of His love for us. So I, in my daughter’s soul, am already partly with God. Abigail compounds Elizabeth to create an unquestionable feast of love. So I sit in hall at table, and partake of the banquet. How much more brilliantly blazes God’s Providence if I can testify that what mortal man usually labels a banner of loss and agony transforms in reality, in God’s realm, into a banner of love.
"So we fathers and mothers losing children young must be clear that God isn’t smiting us. He’s favoring us, giving us a foretaste of salvation. Our children are already living in light, whereas we remain here in the dark world, aspiring ourselves to reach the light–the full and true banquet of love."
The sermon went on, but this beginning lets you grasp how God turned Mr. Taylor from rebellion and blasphemy to shepherding the flock again, and turned the flock from considering dismissal to speculating that this shepherd might be a saint. Mr. Taylor remains a passionate preacher, but he’s more subdued and reflective, and at the same time more certain than he used to be. The congregation was all happiness, completely welcoming his return. If this man had been into the pit of rebellion for a common-enough reason–the loss of a young child, and determined at the depth that God endured as the only reason, then he’d made the journey for the congregation, and corroborated the stability of belief.
His radiance blinded me. He tore me down. I admired him; I loved him; I was stunned by what he brought out of himself into the church; I couldn’t believe he breathed the same air other human beings did. For four years my mind had accepted the loss of Abraham, and as I listened to Mr. Taylor that day I discovered that my heart never had. When he finished the sermon, my heart knew that Abraham’s soul fared better in pastures of light than his body would chained to the dark world. After that sermon a number of church members burdened from children dying young exchanged some weight for joy.
Now I know talk is only words. Out of the pulpit, though, he’s lived what he’d set up in the pulpit. A week or so after Abigail’s funeral, the sneer had vanished. The flesh of his face no longer looked like stone. He stopped to talk with people in the street.
After Mr. Winslow’s second sermon, Mr. Taylor told me in front of the church, "Loving’s better than hating. I hated everything for several days. I hated the light of the sun. I hated the idea that God with impunity could inflict any pain He chose to. I hated that I’d never hold Abigail again and hear her giggle. I felt totally wretched all the time–no moments of happiness. This wasn’t the way I wanted to live.
"Light far surpasses gloom as the base for living. If God was in power a month ago, then by His nature He Must be still in power, His grace raining down to us. Hate keeps a person festering in darkness, tangled in the covers, hoping dawn never comes, because then he has to leave his bed of misery. Love furnishes a reason to greet the sun, and the sun manifests God’s finite majesty. From the finite, a person can contemplate the infinite–boundless love. I didn’t have finally to choose: the nature of light assimilated me."
The straying shepherd returned to the fold. I felt myself vindicated for keeping faith in him while the dispute in the church unfurled over several weeks. Mostly, though, I was elated that he went into the wilderness–so to speak, wrestled with God and himself, and arrived at a conclusion suitable for him. Naturally, I was overjoyed about the terrain he ended up in, but I believe I could be happy for him if he’d stayed a rebel, providing that’s what he really wanted. But if he’d stayed in that terrain, I wouldn’t sit here and offer him as a model of saintly behavior.
Now some of you may recall Mr. Taylor as Edward Taylor has a reputation as a poet in Massachusetts. By late October or early November, he’d written a poem entitled "Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children." A cold rain had fallen for two days, with snow flurries, and kept people inside, except for chores that had to be done. On the third day, it was still cold and overcast, but the wind was drying things out, so I went to Mr. Taylor’s house about a matter dealing with Sunday’s sermon.
The instant I entered the house, I thought it felt warm. The fireplace didn’t seem to be producing any more heat than usual, but there was the feeling. Mr. Taylor came from his study area, holding several pages of paper, enthusiastic and proud.
"I’ve just got this poem to say what I want it to"–and he held out the pages to me.
First, I’ll tell you that the person in the poem is the same as the preacher in the pulpit. Second, I’ll tell you it tore me down all over again. Again, I felt uplifted, awed. My chest got tight. I marveled at the man’s ability to fight his way through double agony and come out celebrating God’s Providence.
If the poem is ever put into print or a copy’s ever brought to Worcester, rush to read it–for an experience you’ll always remember. The first time God takes a daughter, the man thanks God and tells God He takes nothing belonging to the man. After God takes the second daughter, the man again tells God to take the daughters: they belong to God, not the man. I suppose some might say the outcome amounts to resigned acceptance. But knowing Mr. Taylor as I do, I say the feeling is a calm, reasoned joy. I read the poem three or four times–one after another–getting myself torn down each time, then I asked him how he got himself to his position.
"These losses have taught me I love God more than the world and anything in it."
These are the facts as I know them about Mr. Taylor’s falling off–or running off–the path, and getting back on. I hope the story repays the warm hospitality and fellowship you’ve shown me during the last few days. I feel you to be devout people, and I judged you might like to hear about the most devout person I’ve ever known.
I’ve bought the first-rate horse I came for, from Goodman Jacob Atkins, sitting right here beside me, and I leave for Westfield in the morning. If any of you come to be in that vicinity, I’d take great pride in welcoming you. And you’ve got to hear Mr. Taylor preach. You’ll recognize a man raised up by love, glowing from love, and after the sermon, when he’s walking to his house, or striding along the road going with a church member for Sabbath dinner, you won’t be able to stop yourself: you’ll check to see the empty air between his shoes and the ground.