Fairy tales often carry truths in small packages. Familiar to all is the tale of Cinderella — a young woman put upon by a wicked stepmother and two horrible stepsisters.
She must clean the kitchen, scrub the toilets, empty the ashtrays and walk the dog. Required to do more than her share of the cooking, she must scrape and wash the dishes, then wrestle the pots and pans into their assigned slots. She hauls the wood, sets the fire and carries out the ashes. She spends so much time by the fireplace that her clothes take on the color of cinders and soot. Out of spite, further humiliating her and with malicious intent, she is called Cinder/ella.
It is not a good world for this cinder-covered woman. It is as if she lived in an asylum where the inmates were doing the therapy. This is, however, a fairy tale and fairy tales are fictions about the reversal of fortunes; they are a reminder that justice is the ultimate goal of the universe.
Here we are told that one day a handsome prince travels to Cinderella’s part of his father’s kingdom. He is bent upon finding a bride and has planned a fashionable ball to which he invites all the eligible young women of the province. As you might expect, the horrible sisters make arrangements to attend the ball. Cinderella, on the other hand, is reminded of her low estate and told that she must stay at home. She would merely be a distraction at such a fashionable event. Sadly, Cinderella, betrayed by events and her family, accepts her fate, and tearfully helps her wicked stepsisters get ready for the ball.
We are not far into our fairy tale when we learn that Cinderella has a friend in high places — a fairy godmother who sees that Cinderella goes to the party, though Cinderella is cautioned that she must leave before the midnight hour. Arriving in a splendid coach with numerous attendants, Cinderella is the sensation of the evening — though a guest of mystery. She is beautiful beyond all description. Hovering about her is a delicious air of enchantment. Who is this wondrous beauty? Every song seems to be a song about her. Midmost in the evening, the prince sees this beautiful stranger across the crowded room (you know the song). Captivated by this mystifying young woman, the prince dances with her the whole evening. Cinderella, also smitten in heart, is so enraptured by the handsome prince that she loses track of time right up to the fateful moment of midnight. Desperately, she asks to be excused. Thinking she needed only to powder her nose, the prince is startled to see a few moments later Cinderella fleeing down the castle steps into the night. In vain, he hurries after her, but finds on the palace steps only a small and delicate glass slipper that has fallen from Cinderella’s foot. Well, you know the rest of the story. The prince after a time finds Cinderella and they are married.
Whoever first created that story shared an important secret about this unsounded creation with the rest of us. It is a story about a universe that ultimately honors earthly faith in the triumph of what is true and good even when the odds are mightily against it. A fairy tale is the perfect machine of our dreams and our hopes. Fairy tales exist to remind us that the world is an improbable and curious place and that in the last life really means us well. Fairy tales inevitably gain my attention. These wondrous oracles I choose to pass on to anyone listening.
Are you listening? As Cinderella had a friend in high places, so we are persuaded by our faith that God is busy in our lives. Undeniably, as in Cinderella’s world, the scenery of our world is vulnerable, constantly shifting — things are not always what at first they seemed. I am inclined to name this The Cinderella Effect — present experience may be colored by disappointment; then suddenly, we know a reversal of fortunes. Something all wrong becomes an open door to a different kind of future. In this life, nothing is guaranteed. We are, as poet Wilfred Owen allowed, vulnerable to “chance’s strange arithmetic.” As lovely and wonderful the world may be most of the time, it is not necessarily a safe place. There are threats. Events may find us off guard. Here, insecurity is the default position of our lives. Nevertheless …
The message of faith, as in the fairy tale, is that in the final wash of events all shall be well. There is no darkness so dark — in this world or the next — but that God can finally bring light to it. We can entrust the outcome to God who has given us being. That is the essential message of the Christian story for our world. Events may sometimes take us down. God, on the other hand, is prepared to stay with us in and through all disappointments and challenges that may encompass us. Distresses and challenges often become the foundations of a more vital relationship with God. God can lead us through frustrating events to a new way of becoming.
Now the question: Are we up to living confidently in light of this faith? Life with God means that we must be prepared for surprise, even chaos…sometimes inviting it. It is leaving room for the unintended. It is to be vulnerable to the uncertain event and quite possibly its benedictions and its refusals. It is recognizing that this is God’s world. God’s purposes will often override our little orderings. Still, not to worry, for God can strengthen us in our faith, enabling us to handle the turnings, the twisting, the heights and depths of our lives. We are persuaded that we have a prayer-hearing God looking out for us. It may not always seem a safe world; however, it is the best kind of world for becoming.
The more curious of you, dear readers, may wish to read God’s action story in Jeremiah 18:1-6. Our lives are indeed very much like clay in the hands of a capable potter. God can bring unimagined possibility, even from a spoiled beginning.
The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation at the First Parish Church in Saco.