No safe paths

‘There are no safe paths in this part of the world.’

So says Gandalf, as he prepares to leave Bilbo and the dwarves, who are about to enter Mirkwood. Bilbo wished for another way, a way around the dark and sinister-looking forest. But even the very long way around the forest–hundreds of miles out of the way–isn’t safe. And so it seems for us,  in a time of political uncertainty, social unrest and moral conflict–not to mention the constant threat of terrorism: there are no safe paths.

So little of our world is like the Shire and so much of it is like Mirkwood. But few are the Gandalfs in our world, warning us not to leave the path. It seems to me that we have forgotten what the real dangers are. Suffering and death are not the real dangers: they will come anyway; they are a part of life. The real danger is that of spending all our time and effort in avoiding suffering and keeping death at a distance. In so doing, I think we miss so much of what life is about. Too much concern with safety and comfort is perilous.

Gandalf understood this, perhaps. Tolkien seems to have grasped it, anyway. I am afraid, however, that we who live without hunger and fear are too easily persuaded to prize safety and comfort unduly. It is hard, when we are concerned for our children and our way of life, not to believe that safety and comfort are of the utmost importance. Two things ought to be said, though. The first is that I believe in safety: I make my children sit in car seats and wear seat belts, I don’t let them wander, and I probably protect and comfort them to a fault. Even so,  I cannot protect them from skinned knees and broken bones, or from disappointments or failures. And even the comfort a mother can offer does not take the pain away. But they are remarkably resilient. They recover. And they’re not afraid of trying again when the first time was painful or even disastrous. I think of my 5-year-old daughter’s constant cartwheeling. She improves gradually. Sometimes she bangs a foot or ankle, or her arms give way and she crumples to the mat. But she gets up, always, and tries again.

So–and this is the second thing–there’s nothing wrong with valuing safety and comfort. The danger is that the concern for our own safety and comfort, so natural and understandable, begins to shape our attention to the world in ways we are no longer able to see. Then, we fail to move beyond the confines of our safe, comfortable world. We become blinded to the way in which our safety and comfort come at the expense of others’ basic needs. It doesn’t have to be so, obviously. But it’s pretty hard to know how far my comfortable life, and the products and privileges that make it so, would not be possible without the unevenness of the distribution of wealth and power that keeps millions of people in poverty. My having more than enough cannot be completely unrelated to others’ lack.

Let me be clear, though: I am not inviting you to join me on a guilt trip. I eat meat. I drive a car, even sometimes for pretty short trips. I buy snacks for the children that are packaged in too much plastic film. I don’t always recycle everything I should. I drink coffee from Starbucks and even occasionally let the kids eat McDonald’s. I live in the middle-class world and I won’t pretend I don’t like my safety and comfort as much as the next person.

What frightens me, though, is the idolization of safety and comfort. Comfort is no longer a privilege, but a right, and safety as basic a need as hunger. None of us are wholly safe, and we don’t even realize the dangers that threaten us. What we will pay for safety or false security–that worries me. And the expectation of comfort so common in the children of the middle class (like mine)–that worries me.

It’s the lights of the fire and the smell of elvish food that ultimately lure Bilbo and the dwarves from the path through Mirkwood. Were they enticed by safety and comfort? Perhaps. And they almost get eaten by spiders, and they’re captured by the elven king, and they nearly lose their way entirely. Staying on the path is hard, and you don’t even have to believe that it’s the “narrow path” of being a disciple of Jesus to know that that’s true.

Our lives are a journey. There is a path. It leads through dark forests. We will not always be safe. We will not always be comfortable. But what we need is not more cushion and more protection. We need courage. We need hope. Because, really, there are no safe paths in this part of the world.

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hope in difficult times

11986612_1707051179515358_7868352098734767431_nI cried when I saw the photo of that very small boy washed up on the beach in Turkey. How could I not? My own so small girl went to school this morning, dressed in her uniform, curls bouncing behind her. That is how it should be. Yet so many parents are struggling just to get their children to safety. As a parent, I am heartbroken. As a citizen of the so-called developed world (developed technologically, perhaps, but downright backward in its values), I am ashamed of us. How did the world get to be like this? In the words of Cardinal Altamirano at the end of The Mission: ‘Thus we have made the world. Thus have made it.’

But I cannot stay here: babies are being born in safety, people are finding their way, and the little things must still be occasions for joy, even in the midst of such powerful and deep grief. Though I mourn for this small boy, his only-slightly-less-small brother, and his parents, I must hope. I must hope and allow joy to break through. So I turn to one of my very favorite passages in a very good book: The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen. He talks in this passage about ‘a friend’ whom I have always admired. (I think it is Jean Vanier, but Jean doesn’t admit it!) I pray that we can all find this joy and allow it to give us courage as we work to make the world a place in which small boys and girls play and sleep and laugh in safety.

I have a friend who is so deeply connected with God that he can see joy where I expect only sadness. He travels much and meets countless people. When he returns home, I always expect him to tell me about the difficult economic situation of the countries he visited, about the great injustices he heard about, and the pain he has seen. But even though he is very aware of the great upheaval of the world, he seldom speaks of it. When he shares his experiences, he tells about the hidden joys he has discovered. He tells about a man, a woman, of a child who brought him hope and peace. He tells about little groups of people who are faithful to each other in the midst of all the turmoil. He tells about the small wonders of God. At times I realize I am disappointed because I want to hear “newspaper news,” exciting and exhilarating stories that can be talked about among friends. But he never responds to my need for sensationalism. He keeps saying: “I saw something very small and very beautiful, something that gave me much joy.”

The father of the prodigal son gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings to him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to “steal” all the real joy there is to steal and lift it up for others to see. Yes, I know that not everybody has been converted yet, that there is not yet peace everywhere, that all pain has not yet been taken away, but still, I see people turning and returning home; I hear voices that pray; I notice moments of forgiveness, and I witness many signs of hope. I don’t have to wait until all is well, but I can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand.

This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life when even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded with lies. I am tempted to be so impressed by the obvious sadness of the human condition that I no longer claim the joy manifesting itself in many small but very real ways. The reward of choosing joy is joy itself. Living among people with mental disabilities has convinced me of that. There is so much rejection, pain, and, woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration. Joy never denies the sadness, but transforms it to a fertile soil for more joy. 

I don’t know how to celebrate in the midst of this deep sadness. I don’t know how not to feel guilty about the comfort and safety of my situation. So for the dead, I pray, let perpetual light shine on them; may they rest in peace. And for myself and all the world, I pray, kyrie eleison.11990663_1707154162838393_6753303827297769423_n

Stating the obvious: Black Lives Matter

The news seems never to be cheering. Watching the US news (mostly vicariously, through my friends who post links) from the UK, I sometimes wonder whether these things are really happening. A white kids shoots nine good people in a black church? I know it happened: the President’s rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ made it across the Atlantic. Black churches were burning, one after the other, and I wondered which decade I was in–which century, even. A young black woman with a beautiful smile makes a police officer angry–and the rest is all over social media and way too sad to recount.

Today, I came across this, which once again made me wonder whether I was still in the year 2015–a blog post in which the author describes common misconceptions about slavery. Some of the things people said would be laughable, if they didn’t contribute to all the horrible things I have been reading about on the news. Owning other people is just wrong, and when you think you own people, you don’t treat them as people. That just doesn’t seem difficult to grasp. That wrong persists every time a black person is insulted, slighted, or ignored, much less beaten or killed, because of his/her race. I know I am not saying anything here that isn’t blindingly obvious.

I feel a little as if I am living in a Dr Seuss story–Horton Hears a Who. You know the one. Horton the Elephant is trying to convince a kangaroo and some gorillas (I think) that there are people alive on a speck of dust. All the whos in Who-ville are out making a noise, trying to be heard and thereby saved. All except that one kid, bouncing his yo-yo in a corner somewhere. He doesn’t have anything much to say; still, he must add his voice to the others’ in order for them to be heard. “Yopp!” he says–not even a real word, but it does the trick. Following the “yopp,” all the cries of “We are here! We are here! We are here!” come through clearly. 

Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter.

It’s time to put down the yo-yo and speak up.

Syria and St Augustine

A few weeks ago, my heart turned toward the situation in Syria in a new way. I thought: I don’t know very much about Syria, and I am neither politically nor militarily savvy. But I know that if my kids were fighting, and the stronger one(s) hurt the weaker one(s), my first move would be to attend to those who were hurt and keep the others away from them until I could sort it out. I was really worried about the prospects of a US military strike. On the same day, which just happened to be the feast of St Augustine, Lewis (who is much more knowledgeable about such things) offered the following: ‘…if we were prepared to do the dirty and get lots of boots on the ground and establish protected areas for civilian refugees with decent medical care inside Syria, I would say ‘great’. But this, no boots just bombing the bad guys so the bad guys can take over don’t seem wise. Damn, this is enough politics on facebook for about a year! As you know my attitude toward Turks and the French leaves much to be desired, but let’s hear a word for the Ottomans and for the French mandate after WWI. {Admitting that he isn’t against bombing in every case, he added:]  I’ll own up to the campaign in 2001 in Afghanistan and the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia as examples where (horrific as it of course was) it seemed to do the job. It’s a fallen world folks: Saint Augustine, pray for us.’

I was encouraged: if it isn’t just the mama in me talking, if this ‘looking after the injured’ is something that makes sense to someone like Lewis, well, maybe there is hope. But as the US moved towards a military strike, I faltered. What will become of Syria? and what will happen to the world? Even Jean Vanier, with whom a (nun) friend of mine had spoken last November, echoed what Lewis said: it’s a fallen world; these things happen.

In the most technical and articulate language: bummer.

So when Pope Francis called for prayer and fasting for Syria on the 7th of September, my heart leapt. Yes, I am that sort of person. I thought prayer (St Augustine’s and ours) was a clear and practical step in the right direction. I happened to be on retreat last weekend, which afforded me far greater opportunities for prayer than a Saturday at home would have, from vigils to compline, with an extra hour of adoration after vespers. I’ve no idea what I thought would happen; indeed I had no idea of what would count as an ‘answer’ to prayer.

On Monday, Lewis was in the kitchen criticizing Obama, for having had to change course in the face of Putin’s intervention. Stepping back made Obama look weak. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I did wonder: ‘But doesn’t it make God look strong?’

Maybe it is to the credit of Christians everywhere, who’ve prayed for Syria, and who joined the worldwide prayer vigil last Saturday, that no one is celebrating the triumph of our God. I’ve not heard a soul claiming that this change in the situation is an answer to prayer. But I see hope where before there seemed to be no hope, and in my experience, only God can do that.

I will keep praying for Syria and for the middle east, with hope in my heart, and giving thanks to God.

Deo gratias!