by John Schuurman
It was January, 1978, on a Friday afternoon near Minot, North Dakota, when I discovered “The Problem of Pain.”
North Dakotans are warm and wonderful people and they live in a lovely place but they have real winter there. If you’ve spent the month of January in North Dakota, you know brute winter and cruel cold and perhaps even the fear of a “Manitoba Mauler” – one of the dangerous winter storms than can roar across the prairie from our Canadian neighbor. I was learning such things on that Friday because I hit ice and I lost control of my van. During the spin, I recall the fleeting thought that I was not prepared for this. When the van came to rest in the ditch beside the road I knew a new kind of pain – the pain of the uninitiated out of his element. I was in trouble. The snow had blinded me, I was in the ditch, and there was no God.
I was in trouble. The snow had blinded me, I was in the ditch, and there was no God.
Let me explain: Though I had grown up in a seriously devout home, now I was having none of it. I had gone to graduate school during the unruly early seventies, had “lost my faith at university,” and was now a secular man, a modern man of reason who had grown past the need for the emotional props that some found in the scriptural fairy tales.
I was a 1970ish nihilist. Life held no meaning; the world – what with the bomb, pollution, pandemic disease, the military-industrial complex, etc. – was so benighted that hope for anything better was merely a pathetic denial of reality. We needed to face it: we were doomed; chaos, the law of the predator, and survival of the fittest were the only ordering principles that fit the facts. My new situation in the ditch seemed a perfect match.
What I was doing with that daunting outlook in January of 1978 takes some explanation too. I was performing “Lyceums” (school assemblies) as an actor/storyteller/folk musician in the upper Midwest. During that school year I was “playing” the Dakotas. I would stop at the two or three schools that my agency had booked for each day and do my show for them.
What I stumbled on next, nearly frozen and virtually blinded by snow and cold, was PAT’S MOTEL.
My show was thoroughly secular (but quite moral), and touted the pleasures of literature, the fun of eccentric characters, and the virtues of tolerance and studying hard. Despite my Spartan world-view, the entertainment was actually entertaining. The reviews were good, laughs and tears came regularly enough, and I loved the work. Suffice to say, that in my calls to responsible living and enjoyment of stories, I used comedy to lampoon the fearful giants that threatened the world and I used stories of courage and derring-do to help the kids see that there were better choices than just going along with “the system.”
At any rate, that January afternoon near Minot, North Dakota, the chaos and random suffering of life took on a new immediacy for me as I struggled out of my van, now tipping precariously on the edge of the ditch. The snow was coming in sideways and the wind growled around me. As I said, I was a novitiate to a North Dakota winter – I was from the much more benign Denver, Colorado – and I foolishly left my car, and trudged forth in search of some help.
What followed next still amazes me for so little of it makes any earthly sense. I had gone only about fifty yards and was newly aware that I had done a foolish thing by leaving the car. Unless some fairly dramatic thing happened quickly my level of trouble would soon multiply. But some fifty yards away I faintly saw some blinking lights and struck off in that direction.
What I stumbled on next, nearly frozen and virtually blinded by snow and cold, was PAT’S MOTEL. Pat’s was one of those little trucker motels that were probably built in the 1930’s. It consisted of a small frame house that had the blinking, “Pat’s Motel” sign on it, and then a small row of four or five single motel rooms in a row alongside the road.
I clambered to the porch, searched out the door, and fell into a place that I still can’t believe. There was a counter and a little silver palm bell to ring for assistance, but that was about the only thing that resembled any business establishment I had ever seen. To be concise, the place was filled with what I can only call, “Jesus kitsch.” A small tape player played sweet Bible school songs. The room was lined with shelves that were jam-packed with pamphlets, small books, little ornamental crosses, tiny Christmas crèches, lots of small statuettes of Jesus the tender shepherd, Jesus teaching the children, and Jesus calming the storm. In short, the place was floor to ceiling with thousands of pieces of pious devotion. As I think back on it now, it must have doubled as a religious trinkets gift shop.
And here it gets really very wondrous: behind the counter was a sweet grandmother knitting. Really. As I stumbled in – so very glad to be alive – she kindly looked up and said, “Hello. Jesus told me you were coming.”
I must have simply stood and gasped and tried to stay upright.
The book was, The Problem of Pain. “That is by C.S. Lewis. Do you know him? He can be a trifle deep, but sometimes I like someone that makes me sit up straight. I think you might like him.”
“You are in trouble, aren’t you?” she said, standing. She minced over and guided me into a chair. “I’ll fix you some tea. Have you eaten?”
The details of what happened next are sort of blurred for me. She fed me and asked what I needed. “A tow-truck? We’ll see to that after the storm. The Post Office to get your check? Oh, you can’t do that until Monday. You’ll stay in Number Three. Here’s the key. That’s OK, you can pay me when you can.”
When I was warmed and fed, she took me out again into the storm but now the short way to Number Three. The wind still growled but it was different somehow. She opened the door, checked the thermostat, gave me the key, and turned to go. She stopped at the door and from her pocket pulled a small book and handed it to me. The book was, The Problem of Pain.
“That is by C.S. Lewis. Do you know him? He can be a trifle deep, but sometimes I like someone that makes me sit up straight. I think you might like him.”
Later, I laid on the bed and turned to the introduction. “… when I was an atheist, if anyone had asked me, ‘Why do you not believe in God?’ my reply would have run something like this: ‘Look at the universe we live in … if you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.” and Lewis “had me at ‘hello’.”
So on the bed in Pat’s Motel, still trembling from my brawl with deadly winter, and flabbergast at the amazing love and wisdom of this woman at whose piety I was wont to sneer, I found a new way to think that ultimately led to a new way to live.
As I read, I felt as if someone was working an old-fashioned can opener on my brain. Each of these main thrusts was a challenge and then a cranking and then a release. I felt set upon and then uncuffed. It was winter and spring over and over.
So I don’t know. But that Friday provided the grist for a new humility for me. I also acquired from it a wonderful hunger for full-throttle belief that was unafraid of piety or intellect.
Lewis was right, the universality of a moral law can’t be denied or reasoned away with nonsense about pre-scientific superstitions. Our sense of ought is an irrepressibly human thing.
It is true! Working only with the data of humanity’s relentless experience of suffering, man would never have come up with the notion of a benevolent omnipotent deity. Such a concept could only come from elsewhere, from outside. It could only come from revelation.
How it is that God worked all this out for me?
He took this loquacious young performer with a chip on his shoulder and put him in a Manitoba Mauler and then for refuge in a treacly roadside motel with a brilliant grandma. She handed him a little book she’d clearly chosen from out of her pile of Jesus stuff. I’m not one who regularly claims the unusual and remarkable circumstances I encounter as “miraculous.” I prefer to try to simply live a life of gratitude for God’s ongoing care and plan of redemption. So I don’t know. But that Friday provided the grist for a new humility for me. I also acquired from it a wonderful hunger for full-throttle belief that was unafraid of piety or intellect.