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April 12, 2015

I have been reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. The book, best described as historical fiction, is set in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early nineteenth century. It is inspired by the true story of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, early leaders in the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movement. The book relates the coming-of-age story of two characters. Sarah is the daughter of a prominent lawyer. Hetty is a slave assigned to Sarah. Neither is a wilting magnolia. Both are determined women, each with a strong defiant streak. I am not surprised that questions of God and Christian ethics arise throughout the novel.

Years ago, even while I was a seminary student, I realized that some of the best theology is not written by theologians. Works of fiction often require the reader to struggle with religious as well as moral issues. Theology and ethics are best learned through enrolling in the proverbial college of hard knocks. Fiction is one of the best ways to tell the truth about life.

Among the more memorable novels with theological themes are Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850), Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851), Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1876), Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929), Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940), Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1955), Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time (1962), Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev (1972), Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987), and Marilynne Robinson, the trilogy, Gilead (2004), Home (2008), and Lilia (2014). This is a partial list, to be sure, but it is a respectable sampling.

Last week I came across a book title I had never heard before. Talking with the Angels is the true story of four young Hungarians during the Holocaust. Over a seventeen-month period the four encountered luminous forces that helped them find courage and hope in a time of uncertainty. These angels, as they were described, accompanied the group until three of them met their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. Gitta Mallasz had recorded the instructions given to her in eighty-eight times of revelation. Gitta was the only survivor among the friends. Her journals were preserved. After the war Gitta shared these remarkable dialogues with the world through her book. Gitta always rejected any notion of authorship for the book, saying, “I am merely the scribe of the angels.”

Gitta’s story reminded me of the many Biblical accounts of encounters with angels. For example the Christian celebration of Easter includes the recounting of a conversation between the women who went to the tomb very early on Sunday morning. They discovered an empty tomb and talked there with angels.

One story from my own family came to mind.

My nephew David Kreswell Suits came into the world in October 1981, the fourth of eight children born to my sister Mamie and her husband, Dr. Steve Suits. Kres was a twin. His twin brother, William Haynsworth Suits, was stillborn.

Mamie knew immediately that something was wrong with Kres. He screamed and seemed to shake uncontrollably. Mamie could do little to console her baby boy. Several pediatricians examined Kres. An older physician suggested that Mamie and Steve take their infant son to a pediatric neurologist for an ultrasound of his brain.

When the results of the scan were revealed, the doctor asked several questions: “Do you have other children?”

“Yes, answered Mamie, “three.”

“Are they all normal?”

“As normal as they can be,” replied Steve.

After a long pause, the physician advised, “Take this child to a facility just down the street here. Leave him there and try to forget that you ever had him. Go home and take care of your other three children.”

Reluctant to hear more of his advice, Mamie escaped to the restroom. She stared into the mirror and prayed.

When she returned moments later, she asserted, “Steve, it’s time to take our baby home.”

Mamie and Steve presented Kres to their three older children – Steven, age four, Burk, age three, and Neely, one-and-a-half. The children greeted their new little brother with love and joy. Mamie knew from that moment that Kres would be a part of their family as long as he lived.

Kres was diagnosed with hydranencephaly. Quite simply, he had no brain, only a brain stem. He had no vision. His hearing was extremely limited. He had no motor abilities. Though Kres lived for twelve years, he was profoundly retarded. His tiny body could not develop. Caring for him was a constant challenge.

Mamie commented, “Each time I had another child, it was like having two newborn babies to care for.”

Many times people advised Steve and Mamie to find a place for Kres so that they could provide their other children with the attention they needed. Mamie simply noted, “Kres was a part of our family. He was God’s gift to all of us, and he made a profound impact on every one of us.”

I asked Mamie about any highpoints in the twelve years that she cared for Kres. She explained that Kres could make no positive response and that every reaction was a cry or a scream except on very rare occasions.

In Mamie’s words, “Once in a while Kres had a peaceful angelic expression on his face and a very faint smile. When that happened, I would tell my other children, ‘Kres is talking with the angels.’”

Mamie added, “Just before his twelfth birthday, I went in to check on him. He had the biggest grin on his face. It was as if the angels had told him a wonderful secret.”

My parents had the custom of giving each of their forty-six grandchildren a very special present on their twelfth birthday. When asked what they could give Kres, Mamie and Steve told them that Kres had been accustomed to sleeping on a waterbed. His brothers loved to bounce on the bed. It had finally burst. And so for Kres’ birthday, Mamie suggested that Mom and Dad buy a new waterbed, Kres-size in length.

Dad purchased some fine walnut lumber and asked Ray Harris to build a waterbed frame, countertop height so that Mamie would not have to bend down when tending to Kres. Ray Harris has been a family friend for many years. He is a carpenter and a master cabinet maker. The gift was to be ready sometime before Christmas 1993.

Two weeks after his twelfth birthday, November 8, 1993, David Kreswell Suits died. Dad and I went to the home to be with the family. Dad stayed with Mamie while I drove Steve to the hospital. He wanted a physician friend to sign the death certificate. I will never forget turning in the darkness toward Steve who was in the passenger’s seat. As he cradled his tiny twelve-year-old son in his arms, I saw that rare smile on Kres’ face that Mamie had mentioned. I thought, He’s talking with the angels. Steve and I both wept tears of grief and tears of joy.

When Mamie found out that the bed frame had not yet been built, she asked Dad, “Could the lumber be used to make a coffin for Kres instead?”

The night before the funeral, Ray Harris stayed up all night long, fashioning a fine walnut casket. Mama lined the casket with a quilt; one that she had made by hand.

Gathered around Kres’ grave, our thoughts turned to a twelve-year-old boy, so limited in this life, but now made whole.

We were all sure that Kres was talking, and singing, with the angels.

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