Life

They Came Marching: Charlottesville

They came marching,
heels clicking perfectly
in step with the most shameful shadows of history
while disbelievingly,
we watched
and were awakened
to a rank and
wretched evil,
a cabal of hell. 

They came brandishing torches,
marshaling the vilest of forces,
their faces contorted
with sordid
fear cast in the flickering fire
they held in hand
and eyes
and hearts.

I could not comprehend
how I was witnessing these men
in my own time
and not in one resigned
to archaic and tedious tomes
and black and white photos.

But no,
these scenes blaze
with beet-red bigotry,
with white-hot hatred and insanity,
with blue-flamed depravity,
all under the tri-color banner
before which we cover our hearts and laud,
One nation, under God.

Again, don't scenes like these
belong to other chronologies,
back when we
were less enlightened,
more frightened
by bogeymen,
superstitions,
and folklore fictions?

And... by the color of other skins? 

Yet these scenes
confront us upon the glowing screens
of the little machines
we hold in our hands.
They are not estranged
by grain,
or glossing
and monochrome processing.

We cannot dissociate
due to a veneer of black and white,
for black versus white
is still a fight, and even bigger and broader now than then.
Really, it always has been.

Because our world has always been willing
to accommodate hate,
a manifold spate
of vitriol
toward any and all
manner of men and women.
Black, brown, and every other color is ground in
to the soil of which we were once formed
and then adorned
with His image.

Color and hue,
heritage and views,
beliefs and religion,
sexual identification,
and gender
continue to render
us as something less than human,
the targets of the most craven havens
of hate, slander,
murder, and all manner
of reprehensible
and untenable
confederals.

So I will march,
in step with the God who trod this earth,
giving birth to the flame of hope.
For love—
that eternal torch—
can surely forge
a way through the scourge
of evil.

I don't yet know the way,
but I'll follow,
trusting this:
there will be a day
when the hate-filled hollows
of those mouths that stretch wide like open graves
will reckon with a God who blazes
with Love and also with Justice.

The Privileged Avenue

There’s a peace lily on a stand in the corner of our dining room that’s twice the size it was the last time I took notice of it. It has new, white flowers unfurling themselves. I stopped and admired it for a few moments. 

I stopped and looked.

The alarm goes off. The day flies by. Breakfast together. Drive to work. Home from work. Dinner together. Stories. Bed. Our rhythms are the stuff life is made of, but the familiarity means I can all too easily miss the beauty. 

Looking and seeing aren’t exactly the same thing. Everyday I look at my family, my kids. I don’t always see them. This week I’ve had a few moments when I’ve stopped and really admired my kids for a moment. I’ve seen them. 

Finnden: Dad, can I tell you a joke?
Me: (Half listening) Sure. 

My expectations were low. His jokes are usually ones he makes up, things like What did the moon say to the sun? Stop shining! You’re too bright! They’re not really funny because they’re not really jokes. But this one…

Finnden: What do you call a pirate with two eyes, two hands and two legs?
Me: I don’t know.
Finnden: A beginner. 

A little laugh escaped my lips, not so much at the joke but at my astonishment. When did you learn to tell a joke?

I came home from work and Ona, the youngest, barely two, came running from the kitchen, yelling, Daddy, hurry, I hungry for dinner!

I paused in the process of putting down my bag and looked at her. That was a full sentence, I thought. Sure it was a garbled mess, unintelligible to anyone but Karen and me, but she’d given us a glimpse of just how much her mind was at work. 

The most profound moment came while I was putting together a little photo book to send to both grandpas for Father’s Day. I scoured through all our pictures over the past year or so and put them in an album, and as I looked at them all there together I was seeing my kids anew. I saw them when they thought no one was watching and when they were putting on a show. I saw them being silly and being kind. I saw them being pensive and deliciously weird. Each of them came through so clearly, and in a way that was so definitively them, that it took my breath away. Frozen in place like that I finally stopped and saw and admired them in all their created glory, marveling at how much they were not mine but their own.

Perhaps there is nothing in this world as powerful to break selfishness as is the simple act of looking at our own children. In our love for them we are given a privileged avenue to feel as God feels—to burst in unselfishness, in joy, in delight, and in the desire to let another’s life be more real and important than our own.
-Ronald Rolheiser

Almost There

He squinted, deepening the creases at the corners of his eyes as he raised his hand to shield them from the late afternoon sun. In the distance, past the lake that lay silvery and shimmering in the valley, he could see the shore rise up to a ridge, and beyond that the rolling hills that lost themselves to haze and the horizon. He realized he’d been standing there for quite some time, almost afraid to blink, worried that the world laid out before him would wave into a mirage and be gone. The heat rising up unrelentingly from the desert sand underneath his feet was suddenly tempered by a breeze, and he finally dared to close his eyes. 

He remembered all the miles, the distance, the heat and the thirst, the wondering and wandering. He thought of the climb up this mountain, an ascent to an end that would mark a new beginning. His breath was slowing, finally coming back to its regular rhythm after the exertion. He opened his eyes again, thankful that they hadn’t dimmed in his old age. Surely it must be some kind of grace that they’d stayed true enough to let him see the land before him undiminished. 

Then he heard a voice, one he knew well.

“This is the land I promised. I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”

A journey not yet complete had come to an inexorable end. Almost there, but not quite. Still, Moses would not be the only one of God’s people who would never lay foundations in the soil of the promised land. There was, of course, a whole generation that had squandered the favor of God, who had been forced to wander until the last of them had passed. Also, there were the tribes of Gad and Reuben. 

Months before, when the Israelites had first encamped on the eastern shore of Jordan near the opening to the Dead Sea, the leaders of these two tribes noted that the land in which they’d stopped might be favorable for a permanent settlement. They’d gone to Moses and asked if they might be allowed to stay, preferring to make this land, situated so close to the promised land, their lasting home. 

At first, Moses had been incensed. He accused them of trying to abandon the rest of the nation. He worried it would demoralize the whole population. After all, the work would not be over once the people had crossed over the Jordan. The promised land was full of people and cities that needed to be fought and conquered. He saw history repeating itself, remembering that this exact kind of cowardice had forced them to wander for forty years. He confronted them, saying, “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here?” 

But Moses had misunderstood their intentions. The leaders of Gad and Reuben assured Moses that they weren’t abandoning their brothers. In fact, though they wanted to call the land east of the Jordan home, they pledged to cross over with the rest and fight mightily to free the land the Lord had promised. Then and only then would they return to live in the land they’d grown to love, the land they longed to call home. With this promise of bravery and valor, Moses agreed to let them live in this place that was not quite the promised land, this place that was almost there. 

Today, that place is modern day Jordan. A couple weeks ago I spent some time in Jordan. I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by a profound sense of “place,” a feeling made even more acute by the fact that I happened to be reading through the end of Deuteronomy during my time there. That part of the biblical narrative tells the story of hundreds of thousands of Israelites, refugees, people who were fleeing blatant oppression in the hopes of making a new life somewhere else. Then they find themselves on the cusp of that new life, camped on it’s shores, as they prepare to cross the Jordan into the promised land. 

Over the last decade, Jordan has been inundated with refugees from Sudan, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria, people who have fled their homelands to escape persecution, warfare, and oppression. The population of Jordan has boomed, with some estimates claiming that more than 40% of people who now live in Jordan are refugees. 

But many of them don’t want to be there, at least not forever. Many of them have a dream of making it somewhere else, or of being able to go home; they hope to make it to their promised land. They’re almost there, but not quite.

And what I saw during my time there is that there are many Jordanians who are committed to helping them, Jordanians who are proud to call the land east of the Jordan their home, but who are willing to fight to help others find their own place in the world. I saw many Christians—churches, pastors, volunteers, translators, and case workers—who are like the modern-day tribes of Gad and Reuben, heroes who are trading their own comfort in order to go to battle on behalf of their brothers and sisters.

Perhaps it is the legacy of the land that causes this beautiful piece of history to repeat itself. But more likely, it’s because of the love that the Spirit of God puts in the hearts of his people, a love that considers the pain of others and that fights for our sisters and brothers even though they may hail from different nations or from different beliefs. 

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
Matthew 25:35

Sanctuary

I pushed on the red wooden door, and it pivoted forward heavily on its hinges. I stepped over the threshold and closed the door behind me as quietly as I could. I stood blinking in the darkness, and it took me a little while to see that I was standing in a kind of foyer decorated in dark wood paneling. I pressed against another door to my right, and it swung into the cavernous room with a creak. I took a few more tentative steps, my shoes squeaking slightly on the polished stone floor.

I sidestepped into the last row and knelt down, the old wood complaining under my weight. I’d just come in from the blinding light of the plaza, and as my eyes adjusted the room slowly expanded in all directions. For the first time I saw I wasn’t alone. A handful of other people were kneeling in a few of the farther pews. 

The cathedral was a stark contrast to the streets outside. 

I’d woken up early my first morning in La Paz, my sheets too scratchy and the bed too hard to turn over and fall back asleep. I’d dressed quickly, had a quick breakfast in the lobby of the hotel, and stepped out into the morning sunshine. It seemed as though I’d been the last to wake. The streets were already full of people. Men in their suits and on their cell phones. Teenagers in school uniforms with backpacks slung over one shoulder. Mothers with sunglasses tipped back on their heads, holding a coffee in one hand and tightly gripping their child’s shoulder with the other. Old women bent over under the weight of huge bags of potatoes and fabric. And everyone running every which way, everyone in a hurry. 

I stepped into the swarm and began exploring. I wandered up streets and down alleys, and since La Paz is built into the hills of the Andes, I walked up and down a lot of hills. The city seemed chaotic with cars and people. Black exhaust poured into the morning sun on every street. Cars at a standstill honked needlessly at one another like a pack of geese. 

I came into a sunny plaza full of hundreds of pigeons making a cacophony of cooing as they fought over the seed being spread by a mother and her three little ones. The storefronts along the edge of the plaza rattled noisily as they rolled up their metal gates. And the traffic that swung around the circle revved and honked at random. 

And then I spotted the cathedral on the far side of the plaza. I felt like it was calling me.

A few moments later, as I knelt there in the the back, I could still hear the honking and the occasional motorcycle roaring by, but it was all muffled. The chaos felt a million miles away. The massive room was quiet enough that I found myself a little self-conscious over the sound of my own breathing, hoping I wasn’t disturbing anyone. In the quiet I could even hear the sounds of the paintbrush a workman was using to revarnish the woodwork along the base of a nearby wall. 

I looked up and realized that the room wasn’t really dark at all. Light streamed in through the round windows high up in the arches, and the stained glass windows were lit up in every imaginable color. 

In the quiet and in that multicolored light I realized that I’d been running. The last week had been spent in the city of Oruro capturing a story so that we could share it with people back home. Our small team and I had spent day after day running here and there, hunting down locations, hurrying to catch the sunrise or the sunset, and ticking off our to-do list. And I hadn’t had a chance to sit and soak it all in. In the course of the week we’d done so much. We’d shared laughter and tears. We’d seen hope. And we’d heard heartbreaking stories. 

And like the world outside that cathedral it was noisy and blinding and choking and beautiful and alive. But to really take it in I’d needed to step inside a sanctuary. I’d needed a little quiet. I’d needed a place where I could contemplate, and cry, and break it all down, and put myself back together again. Part of me wanted to stay there, take up residence in that quiet place. But outside the world was still spinning around in that plaza, and I was destined to join it again. As I stepped out into the sunshine again I felt fresh, and free, and ready again, not nearly as weary as when I’d first entered. Back when I didn’t even know I was weary. 

My home. My life. Our world. It all seems a little chaotic right now. Some of us are right in the middle of it. We’re running. We’re hurrying up hills and down dark alleys. We’re fighting good fights, and sometimes we’re just fighting. We’re laughing and crying and shaking our heads and shouting. And that’s life. And we’re doing all we can. 

But sometimes we just need quiet. Sometimes we have to seek out a sanctuary. Sometimes we need to let our eyes adjust and let our breathing be heard and let the beating of our hearts slow down while the world spins as wild as it wants. 

And we’ll step out into the sunshine again, to be sure. We can’t live in the sanctuary forever because, frankly, we’re called into the chaos. But for our own good, for goodness sake, before we let chaos consume us, look for a sanctuary.