Free To See

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI still have trouble framing my experience in the Middle East. Trying to communicate it results in collections of sentences that do little to capture what I actually felt. But I look back at the photos I took, and I’m there again.

The trip was unique in many ways, but the most profound was that I was simply an observer. My job often takes me to unique places, but I’m always there with a mission in mind, a story tell that comes with a timeline to meet. Those constraints dictate every decision, usually keeping me at arms length from the place itself.

Just past the security line in Chicago one of my supervisors stopped me. “I’m hoping you can turn off your storyteller’s brain on this trip,” she said. “There’s certainly a story to tell here, but this time around, just experience it.” 

She could have given me no greater gift than those few words. I was free to see, really see.` 

And I did.

I took only my iPhone. I thought about taking more, but as a father of two I saw this as one of my rare opportunities to travel light. I also wondered if everything might feel that much more immediate if I limited myself to a singular and simple tool. I easily get bogged down with arranging the perfect equipment, dialing in the perfect settings, and composing the perfect shot. I miss moments that way. Travelling with just my phone allowed me to just shoot.

Don’t think, just snap. 

Along with the pictures I took I tried to jot down a few questions, thoughts, and emotions as often as I could. In all of these writings a few words and themes seemed to repeat themselves again and again. I wanted to share a few of those.

Tension

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Reminders of the tensions that partly define this place are everywhere. This device, used by security forces to detonate bombs that may be discovered on the premises, sits just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Pride

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Normal History

There’s no region more rich with history. All of humankind can trace our beginnings back to this area, and there are near-constant reminders of what this place means to the people of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths alike. Yet there are very real people here living very real lives, normal lives. Their daily activities take place amidst the constant collision of old and new.

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Division & Disparity

I sat sipping tea, while contemplating the view from my sixth-floor room at the Jacir Palace Hotel in Bethlehem. Though the Jacir may be a little worse for wear in places, it still provided a sharp relief to the slums of the Aida Refugee Camp outside my window.
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Holy

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The trip involved several visits to holy sites, unrecognizable places crawling with tourists, trinkets, and ornate icons. Across the crowded plaza from the wide wooden doors at the entrance the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—the cathedral that stands over the place where many believe Jesus was crucified and buried—was a tiny open archway. Curious, a friend and I stepped through into the quiet of a little courtyard, peaceful and bathed in sunlight.

I was reminded that sacredness can invade any place and every place… if we’ll let it. 

The Kingdom In Ferguson

Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done.
On earth as it is in heaven.

Oh God, please come
because what’s being done
seems so far from heaven.

Do you know that kids are killed in playgrounds and streets
and hope is beat
with the club of injustice?
Can you abide this?

Do you see that in games of he-said he-said
the blood that’s been bled
again and again
usually flows from beneath black/brown skin?

Father, may your kingdom come.
May justice be done.
May we live as one.
But not through a war where one
has won
and another lost
made to bear the cost.

Jesus, bring here to this roiling hate
a cure for this ill, something to satiate
the cry for blood,
this overflowed flood—
the sum of years of aggression
dammed up by oppression.

Spirit, break the the untenable position
whereby a mathematical supposition
says an eye demands an eye
never pausing to try
and see.

Our Father, can the scales of blind justice ever tip toward both
as we learn that the most
we can do for one another to be well
is to value each other and indwell
every mister
and sister
with the likeness of the divine?
There in their eyes and mine
is our God’s pleasure
in equal measure!

So God, we are waiting for you,
hoping you’ll go ahead and do
what you have clearly called us to.
For what we long to see
is already possible since you’ve set us free
to be
your people, a mighty faction
called to be disciples of action.

So we ask…
To whom can we turn to become friends
to make amends
and bring thy kingdom
even here, hundreds of miles from Ferguson?

No more waiting,
or sideline-contemplating.
We must make peace
at least
in the orbits of our lives
all wars must cease.

So may thy kingdom come
thy will be done
in me
through me
let me be
as you are
in heaven.

Courage

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetI leaned my head against the cold of the bus window as Bethlehem slid by outside. My cheeks were wet with tears, unexpected and unbidden and there nonetheless. I was tired, tired of hearing and tired of seeing so much hardship and hardness. I was weary of information and weary of stories, weary of caring so much. I wished my empathy would run dry, but it was always there, a bottomless well in a land with little water.

The land. Israel. That hard, holy land.

I was on day seven of a ten day trip, and each one of them had been full of full things. This was no ordinary trip to the holy land. It was an excursion into the depths of the conflict and tragedy that darken the storyline of this newish nation. Along with many others I spent every waking hour meeting with people from every point of view—Israelis, Palestinians, activists, rabbis, sheiks, pastors, refugees, farmers, settlers, etc. They were gracious and hospitable, and they were often funny and endearing. And each of them held opinions and lived stories that could change your mind or break your heart or both. Add in the newness of experiencing a new country and a unique culture, seeing ancient sites and “walking where Jesus walked,” and it had fashioned itself into a harrowing adventure. It was guerrilla tourism.

On that seventh day, as the trip neared its end, I could finally see the finish line. When you’re running a race they say that you have to push through to the end, but if you’ve ever run you know how hard that is. As you round the last corner you can feel your breath getting away from you and your form beginning to falter. Then, when the white line is in sight, your body begs you to slow down and trot to the end. You have to push. The trip’s itinerary was going to demand a mad sprint to the end, but I could feel my own mental and emotional footing beginning to slip.

So I sat there and cried. And at the time I couldn’t have articulated a lick of this, so I just looked like a basket case crying in the back of the bus, my forehead bouncing against the window glass.

And then a verse was in my head, scrolling by like the headlines of a news ticker.

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!”

I wish I could say that this sudden memory of Psalm 31:24 made me sit up, wipe away the tears, and smile. Instead I started crying harder. Ugly kind of crying. I knew instantly that this wasn’t God cooing, “Don’t worry, it’s alright.” No. Far from it. He was whispering, “Be strong. Keep going. The finish line is a long way off yet.” In that moment I realized that the plane ride home was anything but a finish line. In fact, my courage was going to be most needed when the trip was over.

Deep down I think I believed that the trip would be incredible but that it would be something I could easily set aside when I got home. What I found was that it *was* incredible … and very difficult, difficult in a way that one might want to hide from. I suddenly saw in myself the instinct to have my cry here in Bethlehem and then do my best to pretend it never happened, to repress it, to come home and for the next couple weeks tell a few good stories, nod soberly as I recounted the toll of the conflict, and then move on.

But I was being told to be strong. I was being told to have courage. And courage often requires action. I took out my journal and wrote.

My heart has been broken for this place and these people. God, give me the courage not to set them aside.

The next afternoon a friend I’d made on the trip leaned across the aisle of the bus and handed me a bag full of bracelets. She told me I could pick one if I liked. Each of them was emblazoned with a word: hope, love, peace, etc. I reached in and indiscriminately grabbed a handful. Every single one of them read: COURAGE.

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State Your Intentions

PlaygroundIntroverted or not, we all crave relationships of some kind. Nowhere do I see the evidence of this more than in my own children, particularly in our five-year-old, Finnden. He’s a sensitive boy, in tune with the needs and moods of those around him while, somehow, being mostly immersed in his own world. He can play for an hour by himself, talking, singing, and making up stories as he crashes his Matchbox cars together. Given the choice he would never leave the house because leaving the house means changing out of his pajamas.

But even my home-bodied, introverted little boy craves friendships.

Not long after he started talking we noticed Finn was having awkward moments on the playground. He and a few other children would be in line for the slide, or chasing one another up and down the playground steps, when suddenly all activity would cease for a moment. The children would all look at Finn, their brows knit together, listening. From the “parent bench” on the other side of the playground we could see his mouth moving, but couldn’t make out what he was saying. We saw this happen again and again.

I went into spy mode.

I started sneaking up on him, staying just out of sight, waiting for “the moment.” I’m sure I looked like some kind of creeper. I guess I actually was. But it paid off. Eventually I was able to witness one of these moments.

All of the kids were running back and forth wielding sticks, immersed in some game of knights and princesses. Then one of them suggested they run for the swings, and they all agreed. Out of nowhere, Finnden suddenly shouted, “Wait!”

Everyone stopped. They looked at him expectantly.

Finally, in a voice hardly above a whisper, he asked, “Will you be my friends?” The other children stood there, looking from one to the other until a boy about Finn’s age finally shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Sure!” And then, together, they all ran off to the swings.

I don’t know where he learned this. I don’t know why he’s developed this awkward way of forging friendships, but we’ve seen it play out again and again even as he’s grown older. He’ll meet a kid at a park, or the library, or a Chick-fil-a play area, and he’ll suddenly stop whatever it is he’s doing, tilt his head to the side a little, and conspiratorially whisper, “Will you be my friend?” Other children’s responses to this rather forward request have run the gamut, from furtive glances at anyone who might be listening to tacit nods. Some have ignored the question completely while others have answered with a hearty, “Of course!”

His request is anything but suave, but it is so very honest and earnest. He desires relationships.

I know the feeling.

Inside is that angst, that desire, that longing for close friendships, and it’s often coupled with fear, self-doubt, and a complete loss of where exactly to begin.

When you move to a new place you’re faced with the prospect of meeting new people. But beyond the need to become familiar with co-workers and friendly with neighbors, there grows a steadily more urgent need to make friends. Real friends. The friends who will become “your people.” These are the people who become your go-to’s, your impromptu deep-conversationalist, and your open-the-fridge-and-grab-a-whatever people. These are the kinds of relationships we all crave and are so rarely able to craft. We want these people, and we want to be these people for other people.

I’ve often waited for friendships to come to me. I’ve waited for someone to show an interest, or to be thrown into a situation that demands friendship. But when we moved almost 11 months ago I started taking a few cues from Finn. Instead of stumbling through the pseudo-dating rituals of forming new friendships, I’ve begun trying to be more honest, forthright, and clear. I’ve done the adult version of: Will you be my friend? And I’ve been amazed how a little daring, a little self-disclosure, and a little feigned-ignorance of social norms is often appreciated and even reciprocated. In addition to some very awkward moments honesty also garners you some very fast and meaningful friends, those rare people who will push past what feels normal to find what is right.

Morning’s Little Choices

Morning

Each morning I make a choice.

If I get out of bed at 6 I will have the house to myself. I will tiptoe around the bedroom, stumble my way toward the bathroom, and eventually find my running clothes. Once everything has been strapped on or laced up I will step out into a cold and still morning and have not just the house but the whole world to myself, or so it seems. The trail will be empty, just me and the deer who reflect me in their black-globe eyes, standing still as stones as I run by.

Silent except my breath, and the fall of my feet on the crushed gravel. The morning will be the magic of mist hanging low somewhere between the dew-covered grass and the sunrise.

If I get out of bed at 7, or a little after really, I’ll hear the shuffle of pajama-clad feet padding down the hallway and the near-silent scuffle of a little boy climbing up on the side of the bed. He’ll crawl in beside me, and I’ll hear the tiny ticks of static as he slides close as close can be under the covers. I’ll feel the tender weight of his tiny hand as he sets it on my shoulder. I’ll turn my face toward him, eyes still closed, and my hand will find his chest to feel the beat of his heart and the rise and fall of his breath under my palm all at once.

This is a hard little choice, though either outcome makes the day a little easier.

Reading Poetry

Two weeks of
turning the pages
and turning down corners of
Billy Collins, and Wendell Berry, and Mary Oliver.

Sitting with three old souls,
who speak in soft tones,
murmuring and mulling over the things most true.

Just us four.
Each one, in turn, looks at me square
and sees my soul and
tells me who I am,
that I’m peculiar in all the right ways and
quite right in celebrating the world the way I do.

“Be not bridled by the
unromantic ritual of daily life,”
says Mary, with a conspiratorial lean.

“Yes,” nods Billy. “The Devil is in the doldrums,
so romanticize the hell out of them.”

“Right out,” smiles Wendell
between puffs of his pipe.
“Right out.”

These three and me
with tea between us.
Talking about little things
that are the biggest things in the world.