God in The Storm

Like you, I’ve currently been trying to move through season three of House of Cards […]

Ethan Richardson / 3.11.15

perry2Like you, I’ve currently been trying to move through season three of House of Cards as slowly as possible, and not watch the whole thing in one sitting. It’s hard to do, even though this season is a lot less binge-friendly than the first two. And it’s hard to do predominantly because the Underwood’s ‘house of cards’ is nearly finished, and also never finished. While manipulative play after manipulative play proves time and again that control is only one move ahead of them, the thrill in watching the show comes from this precise tension–that one slip of the hand, or one gust of wind, is all fate needs to wipe it all away. (The episode with the Tibetan monks is a jarring visual!)

As I’m watching, I also finished reading about a man whose cards have already blown off the table. In The Storm, a novel by the much-beloved Frederick Buechner, Kenzie Maxwell’s fate is already sealed. A highly regarded writer in New York City, Kenzie becomes involved with a shelter for runaway youth and, as ‘fate’ would have it, falls in love with a seventeen-year-old girl there, Kia, with whom he soon after begins a relationship. Kia gets pregnant, the tabloids find out, and Kenzie is ruined. During delivery, Kia dies, her child lives, and Kenzie is now the despised father of a scandalous child. Unable to care for the baby himself, he entrusts her to his own sister, and escapes to Florida, where no one will know him.

Now in his third marriage and living off his third wife’s fortune, Kenzie is a man coping with downfall. They live on Plantation Island–a modern translation of Prospero’s island in The Tempest–a ritzy golf-cart community for retirees. 20 years have passed and, despite being an utter succubus and ragamuffin, Kenzie is coping well. He likes being married to Willow, living with her son (from another marriage) Averill, a New Agey windsurfer–and he’s still got a relationship with that scandalous daughter of his, Bree, who happens to be flying in this weekend for his 70th birthday.

Yes, Kenzie’s crash has landed him on some relatively solid ground, except for one thing: he still cannot forgive his brother Dalton. 20 years ago, his older brother Dalton, a lawyer (and board member at the runaway shelter), decided to quell the rumors by releasing a note of apology to the press. Kenzie’s reputation–and the girl’s–were destroyed. They’ve hardly spoken since, and while Dalton will make no move towards reconciliation, work is calling him to Plantation Island–work that just so happens to coincide with his prodigal brother’s 70th birthday party.

Dalton easily fulfills the biblical trope of the elder brother. He is an inveterate scorekeeper. He counts the steps he takes each morning, he puts on his PhiKapp lapel pin just to take the garbage to the curb. He stalwartly defends the belief that order means control, and people who have lost control, like his brother, need only re-find order to “get to where they’re going again.” One of these “getting somewhere” projects is his stepson, the orphaned boy Nandy, who was left in his mother’s death with no one but Dalton to look out for him.

Dalton was…very exacting. He gave Nandy a small notebook in which he had him keep track of how he spent his weekly allowance down to the last penny, and if, on looking it over every few days, he found any discrepancies, there would be no allowance the following week. When Nandy got interested in birds, he had him keep a life list, and this too he would go over with him at regular intervals to make sure it was up to date and that he hadn’t listed the same bird twice or omitted one that Dalton believed should be there. In both rewarding him and punishing him, he went out of his way to be scrupulously just and would have been appalled to think that he had ever treated him with anything but kindness.


It is no surprise, then, that Nandy becomes something of a vagabond, a drifting cross-country cyclist and, now, on the grounds crew in a country club in Miami, far away from his stepfather’s influence. At the same time, Nandy is providentially well-adjusted. As Dalton makes the decision to come to Florida, he pragmatically figures he could hit two birds with a single stone–time with the boy, time with his long-adjourned brother–and fix everything. Nandy, on the other hand, just feels bad for his step-dad.

All in all, it seemed to Nandy as if his stepfather had fallen into the hands of some heartless tyrant like Mr. Murdstone in David Copperfield…the trouble was that the tyrant was his stepfather himself, and Nandy had no idea how to save him from himself any more than he knew how to save himself from him either…Nandy resolved that he would arrange it somehow and take him to Plantation Island for the weekend as he had asked. One way or another, he thought, he would get him where he was going…

Without giving too much away, the book is not entitled The 70th Birthday Party, but The Storm. And this wouldn’t be a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s great play without a calamitous squall. But I will say this: a violent storm is precisely the chaotic intrusion that a house of cards needs. What happens in a storm is a total and offensive interruption to the order we tend to rely on in life–the strong become weak, the rich become poor, the wise become fools. And sometimes only calamity will clear the way for atonement.

A sermon I heard this Sunday talked about the aeolian structure of life–a life that is shaped by the wind–the spirit of God. This is not altogether good news at first; this wind is the wind that blows down our perceived notions of control, even our tightly clenched entitlement to the happiness and fulfillment we know. An aeolian structure of life is deconstructive: it is life defined by wind erosion. It is ultimately good news, though, in that it directs our leveled and hollowed houses back to the heavens again, to the God who held anything together in the first place, and to the God that is still there along the shore of what remains.


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