Ever since her discussion with Johannes, Sophie had been reconsidering faith. She realised now that the great outdoors could not provide the peace she craved. True, life on the farm settled her mind more than a day in the office, but the possibility of unease still lingered.
And she couldn’t spend her life fighting such a threat; it would break her down eventually. Motivated by this fear, she spent her final day at ECOKAMP in pursuit of God. She sought His presence in the hay she gathered, in the bark she snapped, in the children she tried to understand. And it was easy to find him once she started looking, even if her A-Level German proved no help at all. Indeed, there were moments that day when a flutter of hope touched Sophie. If she could keep her mind on the Creator, perhaps His creation would reveal its purpose. Of course, this would be no easy task: her brain needed rewiring after its recent short circuit, but the laughter of these children inspired her to find the master technician. She wondered if God had ever been described in such terms.
But then Rosa and Bert’s argument had come along to confuse her. On the one hand, Sophie felt certain that God lamented Bert’s stubbornness, just as she did. On the other, she couldn’t help desiring Bert. Yes, despite his total lack of emotional intelligence, her chest pounded for the young Christian. She remembered how her fourteen-year-old stomach used to butterfly when the Cambridge lads strutted past (with hindsight, she realised that there was no such thing as a Cambridge lad, however much their shoulders sashayed). The only difference between then and now, besides the fact that Bert didn’t have blackheads and chin fluff, was that romance inevitably made Sophie think of marriage, and marriage inevitably made her think of having children, and oh boy she was really getting ahead of herself. The point was, Sophie’s desire was hindering her communion with God. She wanted to be compassionate, as the Creator surely was, but her body told her to forget all that and listen to its needs.
Of course, Sophie could not see that belief had tied Bert’s hands, even as it freed his soul. Avoiding the question of sin would have meant rupturing his very being, with the fear of man conquering his faith. Bert did not want to cause Rosa pain, but he believed that truth came before emotions. If that were not the case, then who was to stop humankind living according to its will?
He wished he hadn’t said all people deserved to go to Hell. This was where he’d gone wrong in the past, not least on social media: he was too quick to condemn. Whilst such criticism was necessary at times, the promise of grace had to be his starting point. He would begin with the good in people, declaring that God made them for a purpose; that they were made in His image. Once this was established, perhaps they would understand his dedication to God’s plan. And, lest he forget, that dedication did not absolve him from the weight of sin.
And so, as he and Sophie approached the heart of Zurich, Bert started his mission afresh. Discernment was the key: knowing when to be gentle, and when to wield the sword of the Spirit. Of course, the two could go hand in hand. This was, in fact, what made Christianity so beautiful in his eyes: believers were called to be strong yet humble, firm but loving.
Bert knew that Sophie was a beacon of joy when her teeth were silent. She was a lacrosse-stick-wielding, Norse-verb-conjugating, pale-ale-drinking Sacagawea. Then again, she didn’t exactly look like a member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, a.k.a the “Eaters of Salmon” (Bert couldn’t get enough of this sobriquet). Regardless of her oily-fish-consumption tendencies, Bert wanted nothing more than to help Sophie see the joy of God. Which was a relief, since they were on their way to a church service on their first day in Switzerland. Their route took them through a university park, and Bert, who was oblivious to Sophie’s meditations on God, hoped she might finally broach the subject of faith.
‘So, Bert, I was wondering if we could just not talk about last night?’ was what she actually said. ‘I need to relax.’
He breathed a sigh of relief. Now was the time to be gentle. ‘You’ve got yourself a deal, Ms Shaw.’
They walked in silence for a minute, listening to the birdsong. It was a little Swiss for Bert’s liking: pretty but unmemorable. And then Sophie asked, ‘What’s your biggest fear?’
‘I thought you wanted to relax!’ Bert’s grin made Sophie ache. She watched his lips slide back into place, scarcely believing how quickly she had fallen for him. Unlike Ernest, she’d never been the head over heels type; she was more head over pages of Anglo-Saxon poetry. She wondered if her fragility was partly to blame; if her mind saw respite in romance. But was blame the right word? Was this yearning not sweeter than it was bitter? A few miles away, after a silent flight alongside her love, Rosa reminded herself that she was the nectarine to Ernest’s kiwi. But the days of Yellow and Brown seemed long ago.
‘Oh, right, sorry. I thought it might take our minds off yesterday.’
‘Do it like there’s no yesterday, Sophie. That’s what I like to say.’ Given that he’d never said this before, Bert had to think about this. ‘After you’ve repented, of course.’
‘Ha, ha, always coming back to God.’
‘You know me. I’m in that phase where it all seems so exciting and impenetrable.’
‘Ah, yes, that classic phase.’
They laughed their way through a tree-lined avenue. The park was more modest than the Englischer Garten, and the weather milder. It felt a long time since Sophie had read her poem to Rosa. She’d managed a few shorter pieces in the nine days since, but she still hadn’t mentioned them to Bert – mostly because they were starting to resemble Shakespeare’s love sonnets, at least in theme if not in quality.
‘Come on, then, what’s your biggest fear? And don’t worry if you have to get all religious. I’ve actually been exploring that line of enquiry…’
‘Gosh, Bert, I’ve never seen you look so excited. But, yes, I may occasionally have pondered the meaning of life since your baptism.’
‘That’s awesome.’ He gave her another stomach-tightening smile. ‘I’m really glad.’
In this second exploration of Christianity, Sophie had tried a different approach, having reached the conclusion that Genesis was, paradoxically, not the place to begin. Scholars offered such varied interpretations that there was no use worrying about its precise meaning; all she needed to understand was the Christian notion of sin. Sin. The word brought to mind Rosa’s torment last night. Determined not to dwell, Sophie watched a swallow through the air. Its wings quivered, narrowly avoiding a telephone line.
The place to begin was surely Jesus’ resurrection. Sophie couldn’t picture the scene without hearing her father: the disciples stole the body, Jesus wasn’t dead but unconscious, the ‘witnesses’ suffered mass hallucination. For a naturalist like him, the latter seemed a strange suggestion. Besides, all three of these couldn’t be true; her father’s uncertainty made Sophie doubt his position. Still, she had no reason to believe in this miracle – unless her monomania could be called a reason. But human weakness couldn’t be the foundation for a worldview. It had to come from a position of strength; even if that strength was a man dying on a cross.
‘Sometimes it’s awesome,’ she said. ‘But there are moments where I feel like I’m going insane.’ Pedalos bobbed across the lake. Sophie had never understood pedalos; they were so unwieldy.
‘I had that, too. But you’ve got to keep searching.’
‘No pain, no gain, as they say.’
‘Aren’t many truer words than that.’
‘Besides the Bible, of course?’ Sophie grinned, and Bert was surprised to find his body asking for attention. It was nothing more than a flash of lust, and so proved unable to break through his defences, but controlling his libido was still a struggle for Bert. He felt no craving so long as he maintained a safe distance from attractive women, but, funnily enough, he didn’t want to spend the next few years running away from the likes of Sophie. He’d been reading the other day about the 1918 flu pandemic, and how social distancing measures had been introduced to stop the spread of the virus. Bert smiled darkly: from a lust perspective, life must have been a whole lot easier for young Christians that year.
But he was prepared to wait for the future Mrs Eynsham. In the meantime, he would pick Sophie’s brain: ‘So what have you been reading?’
‘Afraid I’ll have to get back to you on that one, cause I think we’re here.’ Turning to his right, Bert saw a fortress-like church breaking through the clouds. In its symmetry he saw divine perfection; Sophie looked first to its aesthetic value, but she was learning to see beauty through a spiritual lens. They spent time admiring the door, which, although brown, managed to glow. Above it, on grey stone, hung an anchor. Only two windows were visible, each in the shape of a three-leaf clover.
‘I can’t wait to hear more. And, who knows, maybe church will shed some light.’
‘That’s the idea. Anyway, I’m always up for some cultural immersion.’
Which was a shame, given that they’d come to Zurich’s International Protestant Church. Indeed, most of the congregation was formed of UK ex-pats, and Bert and Sophie were soon introducing themselves to men and women even more British than they were. But this helped their conversation, and, after five minutes, Sophie noticed something: it didn’t matter that she and Bert were unlikely to return; these people valued their company no matter the length of their stay.
The service opened with a prayer for soft hearts and keen minds. Sophie settled into her seat, echoing this request. She was determined to respond using her own life experience, rather than her parents’. And unlike at Bert’s baptism, where the intensity of faith had unsettled her, she would avoid mocking Christian piety. How easy it was to stare blankly at a screen and only say ‘amen’; how hard to confess the supremacy of Christ.
And whether it was her recent reflection on Jesus or the joy of today’s community, Sophie felt moved by their upraised arms, their clapping hands, their prayerful heads. She watched a young man stomping his foot as the crowd sang ‘Hallelujah’; a woman dropping to her knees at the simplicity of the Creed; a Bert Eynsham beating his chest because nothing could separate them from the love of God. Sophie had to marvel at this. Even if her teeth turned black, the creator of the universe would still love her. Even if Bert just wanted to be friends, the creator of the universe would still love her. She tried to believe this claim. In fact, she did believe it. But, for some reason, it could not take hold of her. She felt the same pressure in the depth of her neck, where her anxious thoughts dwelt. There was no fear in Bert’s smile. He had found his purpose, and that purpose lay beyond himself.
Halfway through the service, the members of the congregation offered each other a sign of peace. Although unsure that she, lacking peace, had anything to give, Sophie drew fellowship from the exchange of handshakes and ‘Peace be with yous’. There followed a few minutes in which the congregation were invited to talk amongst themselves; Bert, it seemed, had something on his mind.
‘You know how you asked what my biggest fear was?’
‘Well, I know what it is.’ Why were his dramatic pauses so appealing? ‘It would be getting to the gates of Heaven and hearing Jesus say, “I never knew you.” I’d beg and I’d grovel, but He’d simply say that I never surrendered.’
These were the times when Sophie felt distant from God and Bert. ‘You know, I was actually enjoying this service quite a lot. You really need to choose your moments better.’
‘Sorry, you’re right.’ Bert remembered Rosa. ‘But I wanted to make a positive point out of it. When I’m in here worshipping, I know what I have to do: I just need to live like this all the time.’
‘“Just”? That sounds pretty exhausting to me.’
‘Oh, we can’t do it alone, Sophie. But we’ve got God on our side.’ And just like that, with a cheeky grin, God and Bert returned to Sophie. She wished she was better at separating faith from romance, but they’d grown so tangled in her mind that, a few minutes later, she caught herself imagining Bert’s touch whilst praying for faith. The wrongness of this discord struck Sophie. And yet, she could find no solution: Christianity meant Bert, and Bert meant romantic love. Sadly, Christianity did not mean romantic love, at least not the way she experienced it. Her love was too self-seeking, too carnal. She knew this from the tightness in her stomach – a tightness she felt whenever Bert was near. And given that he was sitting right next to her, Sophie’s stomach felt really rather tight.
As if in answer to her confusion, the minister returned to the microphone. ‘I’d like to pray about a matter very dear to all of us here at IPC-Zurich.’ His South African accent rang through the church. He wore a suit and tie. ‘As some of you may have heard, our youth leader Gabriel went into hospital a week ago after he found that he was having difficulty walking. Unfortunately, the scans showed that he had a tumour on his spine, and the doctors decided that they needed to operate immediately. The first half of the operation took place on Thursday, and it went well, with Gabriel showing signs of improvement. But on Friday Gabriel suffered a severe stroke, seemingly as a result of the operation, and he went into a coma not long later. As of yet, he’s not responding, and the doctors fear that the damage to his brain means he won’t be able to see again. Gabriel’s wife, Nicole, has been sitting alongside him for the past thirty-six hours, and their three children, Mathis, Jacques, and Léa visited last night.’ The minister paused. ‘This has come as a huge shock to their family, and to all of us at the church; we know how difficult this has been for Nicole especially. But we’ve already had such an incredible response from members of our church, and Nicole told me yesterday how much it meant to have all of you praying for Gabriel.’
Sophie was no longer thinking about her longing for Bert. She was looking at the photo on the screen in front of her: it showed Gabriel and his family smiling in front of the Eiffel Tower. The sky was impossibly blue, and Gabriel could not have looked healthier. His hair was dark and thick, his forehead clear. His daughter Léa was giving a thumbs-up, and one of the boys was wearing the sweetest pair of sunglasses, with purple lenses. As for Nicole, she looked so calm. She was the glue keeping this happy bunch together; the one deciding whether the children could have a flake with their ice cream; the one checking whether Gabriel had packed a toothbrush; the one making sure that Mathis did his holiday work. Sophie imagined Nicole sitting by her husband’s bed, as his eyes gave a silent warning. She imagined all the years she would spend alone. And what about the children? What about piggy-backs from papa? What about the sweets he used to sneak them when maman wasn’t looking? Or the way he sang God Only Knows in the car? Sophie stared at the photo.
‘As followers of Christ,’ the minister went on, ‘we believe that God can heal Gabriel. We believe that he will heal Gabriel. Jesus died on the cross and rose again so that we could enjoy new life with him.’ He turned to his notes. ‘One of my favourite scriptures comes from the Book of Lamentations. I’m sure many of you know it: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” So let us take up our calling and bring new life to Gabriel. Let us move mountains, like Jesus said we would.’ The minister shut his eyes. Without hesitation, Sophie followed suit. ‘Heavenly Father, we ask that you would restore Gabriel’s health. We ask that you would heal him from his affliction; we trust that you will do this for your glory. Fill Gabriel with your Holy Spirit, Father; pour out Christ’s spirit upon your servant. And may you provide peace to Nicole, Mathis, Jacques and Léa in this time. May you provide peace to Gabriel’s family and friends. And may you help us to trust you, Father; to trust that you will work things for your glory, so long as our faith remains strong. And so we ask you to strengthen our faith, Father; we ask you to remove our unbelief. We are truly sorry for the times we have doubted you, but we trust in your awesome power; we trust that you will make Gabriel whole. Raise him back to life, Father. For your glory. We ask this in the name of your only begotten son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, amen.’
And Sophie said ‘amen’.
She looked at the eyes of those around her and saw how their hearts wept for Gabriel. Their tears were not born of despair, but of belief: it was God’s love kindling their compassion. Studying the dust on their knees, Sophie did not doubt their sincerity. These people truly believed that God could heal Gabriel. And as she watched two women in prayer, Sophie understood that this belief was the most reasonable thing in the world. How could a coma be too much for God? How could the creator of the human eye lack the means to heal it? Bert recognised Sophie’s smile. It was the smile of faith.
But the Bible said that Jesus alone could lead her to God. And so, Sophie did her utmost to comprehend his life. Perhaps she was unusual in this respect, but she had no qualms about the idea of God assuming human form. What better way to reveal the path to Heaven than to be the paragon of those who sought it? And if Jesus was divine, then of course he could rise from the dead.
What Sophie had never understood was how there could be any uncertainty on this point. If God had really lived among us, then why wasn’t everyone a Christian? The ability to walk on water and defeat the grave seemed like pretty damning evidence – or saving evidence, perhaps.
But then Sophie looked around her. She was surrounded by men and women from Britain, France, Australia, Malaysia. There ought to be nothing connecting them. And yet, they had all put their trust in a man who’d lived in a small region of the Middle East over two thousand years ago, when history was recorded through word of mouth and papyrus. And not only them: over two billion people believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, although they lived in the age of evolution, psychology and 8K T.V. screens. Surely there was something in that? Surely this was more than humanity’s longing for hope?
Sophie reconsidered why more people did not believe. For whatever reason, God had chosen to partially conceal His son’s divinity. She drummed her fingers, picturing the alternative: Jesus could have revealed himself to the entire human race. But what would the point be? Sophie’s main takeaway from this service was that God wanted to have a loving relationship with His people. But if God made His existence plain, how could we be anything but obliged to love him? If Jesus rose from the dead, cured cancer, and wrote ‘Made By God’ on every atom in the world, then any honest person would drop to their knees in worship. But how could that be called love? How could love be mere common sense?
Sophie realised that love required some kind of risk. She tried to work out where this risk might lie in the Christian life. In the case of those who had never seen Jesus, the danger was that they were wrong. But how much more powerful to love someone you couldn’t see than to revere a visible God. Sophie flicked through the Bible in front of her and, after a great deal of searching, found those words for Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” According to this, God had offered Sophie a chance at true love.
But what about those who’d seen Jesus? Did Sophie really think that the twelve disciples were excluded from such love? She turned the pages, desperate for help. Her fingers stopped at Acts, where she found one answer: there was still great risk in their relationship with Jesus since they faced persecution. And then, as if awakened by this realisation, her mind returned to Doubting Thomas. Part of the point of that cautionary tale was that, throughout the Gospel, people trusted Jesus before they’d witnessed his full power. And so Sophie understood: whilst Thomas could still love Jesus because he faced the risk of persecution, or simply the risk of being laughed at, those who believed without seeing were the happiest of all. Which put the members of this congregation in a rather privileged position.
As Sophie’s heartbeat shot through her neck, she wondered about life beyond the grave. Surely there was no risk in Heaven? And yet, Heaven had to be a place of love. However she approached this final hurdle, Sophie couldn’t surmount it. With Bert looking on in fascination, she pored through the Bible, searching for an answer. Her page-leafing grew louder, and heads turned to see this young woman begging God for clarity. She scanned the pages like a student cramming for a history exam. But Sophie was not trying to memorise dates. She was trying to work out if those dates had any meaning; if God had created her for a purpose; if her love for Bert was more than a spike of dopamine. Eventually, she reached the Letter to the Hebrews – unfamiliar territory. She grew confused at the references to Melchizedek and the Levitical priesthood. On the verge of seeking guidance from James, Sophie glimpsed the word that had inspired her search in the first place: joy.
“Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
And it was here that Sophie found relief. Yes, relief above all else. She knew that Heaven was the reward for a life of love in the face of fear. Heaven could be enjoyed because each believer had overcome the risk of faith. God’s people could love Him even whilst standing in His presence because they had once loved Him without seeing. Sophie thought about the word perfecter. She rattled through the pages, remembering something she’d read in another letter. Was it Romans? No, one of the longer names. Yes, Thessalonians! Oblivious to the fact that the minister was preaching on the exact verse she needed, she found it just as her faith was wavering: “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.“ Sophie realised that love could in fact be experienced without risk, but it was necessary for the lover to be pure. With her mind reeling, she made the connection between God and the pure believer refined by Jesus. Such beings could love fearlessly, but only through divine perfection. Sophie closed the Bible. Her body and mind begged to collapse, but her spirit soared in a way she had never known. An external force had steered her through that labyrinth, first warning of dead-ends, then providing a bird’s-eye view. Like Ariadne, it had guided out of love. Sophie, having felt this presence, could not fathom a Thesean betrayal.
Bert turned to her as the congregation stood. ‘Everything okay?’
‘Oh, more than okay.’ Sophie beamed like a proud schoolgirl. Bert was slightly concerned by how much she was sweating. But then she said, ‘I think I believe,’ and he had to stop himself from shouting.
Sophie burst into laughter, and more heads turned. ‘Yes, I’m serious. I believe in Jesus.’ Her lips became unbound as acoustic guitar filled the church. On the screen were the words: “What A Beautiful Name”.
Bert could not remember seeing such a happy face in all his years. Sophie’s grin revealed her beautiful, crooked incisor. He raised his wings, pleasing God with their shadow. “What a wonderful name it is,” he sang.
Sophie tested the lyrics on her tongue: “The name of Jesus Christ, my king.” She couldn’t say it felt natural, but it certainly felt right. She tried lifting her arms in praise. Oh, wow, if her dad could see her now… With her hands beside her chest, she felt vulnerable on her own terms. But she welcomed this vulnerability because it revealed the depth of her need.
They left the church ten minutes later to find that the clouds had burst. Sophie tasted the drops with childlike glee. ‘Oh, Bert, this is so wonderful. I can finally feel happy again.’
‘Isn’t it the greatest feeling in the world?’
‘I can’t imagine anything greater.’ With complete seriousness, Sophie jumped up and down for joy. ‘Aaah, I just want to go smile at people.’
Bert laughed without holding back. ‘I know how you feel! Don’t worry, there are plenty of people who need you.’
Those two words – need you – made Sophie’s love for Bert jump within her. Suddenly it felt possible to be romantic yet devout. Loving Bert would be the first act in her Christian journey. She would love him with body, mind and spirit. She would encourage him to be humble. She would support him in his faith. ‘Bert, I love you.’
Bert chuckled. ‘I love you too, Sophie. A fellow soldier of Christ!’
The rain didn’t taste so sweet anymore. With these words, Sophie remembered that committing her life to Jesus would not solve all her problems. There would still be pain along the way. Perhaps there would be more pain, in fact; more joy, certainly, but also a greater burden. She remembered her teeth, and the tension in her chest returned. She looked at Bert, who understood.
‘Oh, no, Sophie.’ His voice crackled. ‘I’m so sorry. It’s just-.’
‘You don’t see me in that way. I know how it goes.’
Bert continued to meet her gaze. ‘I’m sorry.’ Neither of them spoke as members of the congregation hurried to their cars. Sophie could have done with an umbrella right then. ‘When did this start?’
‘Oh, well, you know… At your baptism.’
A few eyes were watching them. ‘That really wasn’t what I was going for.’
They managed to smile. ‘It was your darned goat-like hair, Bert. You were annoyingly attractive that day.’
‘What do you mean, that day!’ Oh, why did he have to make her laugh? Why couldn’t he just be dull?
Bert sighed. For whatever reason, he would never love Sophie like that. He just hoped she was more confused than she realised. ‘I thought you were being awkward because you wanted to talk about faith.’ He chuckled at himself. ‘Classic me, always thinking about Jesus…’
‘No, that was part of it. I’ve been having a weird time trying to juggle faith and romance.’ Their clothes were heavy from the downpour. Sophie shivered. ‘It’s a messy combination.’
‘Tell me about it.’
She hesitated. No, she could say it: ‘Well, at least Jesus loves me.’ However foreign they sounded to her, these words had a calming effect.
‘You don’t know how happy it makes me to hear you say that.’
The door continued to glow in all its beige glory. Sophie wiped the water from her cheeks. She tried to bring back the liberation of her newfound faith. She remembered the line – “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” – and her rejection seemed manageable. Yes, it hurt far more than her recent anxiety, for the simple fact that there was a basis to this pain. But she was able to see the bigger picture: thanks to the promise of joy, misery would never be all-consuming. She loved Bert. She loved the way his eyes lit up when he smiled. She loved his sense of humour and his courage. But, eventually, this pain would subside. And even as it lingered, Sophie knew a steadfast peace.