My family’s earliest memories were born in hell. The hell of a burning steamship on a November-cold lake. A hell where too few lifeboats filled too quickly, where families decided in a sleep-groggy instant which of them should stay behind, where prying the clinging fingers of the young mother from the side of the over-filled lifeboat and watching her sink in the icy water seemed like the right thing to do.
Their journey from Holland had ended on two lifeboats, five miles from shore in the middle of the night. Just two lifeboats, with hundreds left behind, and the ones who didn’t burn in the rigging froze to death in the black water, close enough to see the fires lit for them on the beach.
What was left of them settled far enough from the water so they could just see it over the tops of the trees from the windows of the upstairs bedrooms, close enough so they could never quite shake the cold of it. As if, in the time it took to row those five miles, listening to their flesh burning and screaming, the ice had worked its way under their skin, a permanent layer of cold, a prickly mutation handed down.
We lived there, in an ark of a house set firmly on a hill. Somehow it seemed so right that whoever came to the farm had to climb that hill, the one where every winter more than one car didn’t make it, and had to be towed up the driveway with the tractor. We secretly relished the excitement, relished how hard it sometimes was to be where we were.
We had walled ourselves up in our anguish, until it felt special. Like through our suffering we had saved ourselves. And we had. We had saved ourselves from ordinariness and messiness, from dirt and ugliness. From everything but the cold. Cold that crunches under the skin when we touch it. Cold that forgets that Jesus ate with people who were dirty and ugly and not special, that He suffered, that His anguish is special enough. Cold that doesn’t want to give up our hell for His.