One of my tinies has a particularly sensitive spirit. (Well, to be honest, I tend to think most kids do. Maybe some of us just get really good at dulling our sensitivity early.) One night, he couldn’t sleep and seemed very rumpled in his soul. Finally, hardly able to speak the words for how they gripped his mind, he told me about a poster he had seen at a community event. He had been out with his dad for the day. And there were booths set up at the event, not only for local businesses but also for local charities. And I guess one of them was for a charity that works to prevent child trafficking.
“It was a kid, Mum, and he had chains wrapped all around his body and he was scared.”
My son was devastated at just the memory of this poster, unable to sleep. He was too young to see such a thing perhaps, because he didn’t understand marketing materials. He was just at a little community event and was confronted there with an image that now tortured his sleep. We didn’t notice it and so couldn’t help him understand or process it at the time.
That night, I wrapped him in my arms. We prayed and talked about it and prayed more. He curled up into our strength. He slept with us all night.
But I admit that I lay awake wondering why I’m not more bothered – especially because I know the truth behind images like that. And so many others.
A religious minority chased up a mountain to starve to death in Iraq, their children being beheaded and crucified. Forced female genital mutilation. The girls still in the clutches of Boko Haram. The situation in Israel and Gaza, so many Palestinian civilians dead, their children weeping or injured or worse. There’s the Russian escalation, planes being shot out of the sky, the spectre of people littered in a field without proper care for days, 24 hours news coverage of carnage. There are the kids caught in the midst of the central American refugee crisis, pouring over borders and now being kept in detention centres. Lonely, sad-eyed children trapped in airless buildings without hope. Ferocious ebola outbreaks in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and now into Nigeria it seems. Unarmed young African-American men killed o the street or in the Walmart toy section without provocation as they move through their daily lives.
And the list goes on. and on. and on.
I scroll through Twitter and in between snippets of snark and jokes, people are posting pictures of someone else’s dead kids.
With the news coming out of Iraq, I remembered – almost against my will – every single sermon I have heard in my life around Easter, a preacher usually describing in terrible detail the crucifixion of Christ in gory nuance (why do preachers do that?) and then I found myself applying all of those same descriptions to someone else’s child in the cradle of civilization just yesterday, and my stomach heaves and then I shut down my entire mind and heart, unable to bear it.
I can’t think of it, I can’t think of it, I can’t think of it. No one could. This is evil, this is hell.
I hear of these things and then I cannot bear it so I stop thinking of them. I simply close the gates of my mind and heart to it, it’s too terrible. And yet I move through my day somehow. I sleep well. I eat meals. I am consumed with my own concerns.
But on the night one of my children came to me, utterly devastated by just the sight of marketing materials having to do with child trafficking, I knew he was more right than me.
I should be devastated. We should all be devastated. It should disturb my sleep.
Perhaps lament and anger and grief is the most godly response and posture.
Grief and lament and anger is the beginning point of hope, it seems.
I lay in bed with my broken-hearted boy and saw the truth of this. His heart was broken by just the glimpse of injustice towards children, and I had to wonder why my heart is not more broken, why my sleep is not more disturbed when I know and have seen so much more.
My son was right in his response. I have become too callous to suffering.
It’s been a hard summer in this old world of ours. The Kingdom of God seem so far away in these days. It feels foolish to pray and hope sometimes.
The dream of turning swords into ploughshares seems laughable. Who could turn tanks and missiles into farming equipment? Who could dare speak of a day when all tears will be wiped away? Who is foolish enough to hope for the desert to burst forth into bloom, for streams of water to flow in the parched and barren places?
I turned to the words of the great Desmond Tutu, who carries both hope and sadness like an anointing. He wrote, “Dear Child of God, I write these words because we all experience sadness, we all come at times to despair, and we all lose hope that the suffering in our lives and in the world will ever end. I want to share with you my faith and my understanding that this suffering can be transformed and redeemed. There is no such thing as a totally hopeless case. Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine. God created order out of disorder, cosmos out of chaos, and God can do so always, can do so now–in our personal lives and in our lives as nations, globally. … Indeed, God is transforming the world now–through us–because God loves us.”
And so I find myself hoping.
Foolishly, perhaps. But it’s a company of holy fools, spreading like yeast. Small seeds grow to mighty oaks.
We feel small in these days. And that smallness makes us feel powerless in the face of such suffering. Even stretching out our opinions from the place of disinterest and objectivity on each story is a privilege.
So how do I hold onto that hope that God is transforming the world now through us?
We can’t willfully push away the suffering of humanity and the terribleness of the world out of selfishness and discomfort with the truth.
We can listen – truly listen – to the stories that people need to tell. Maya Angelou wrote that there is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.
We can kick against the injustices and amplify the voices of those who are suffering. We can read the prophets like Isaiah and Amos and Jeremiah. We can educate ourselves and seek to understand complexity outside of our pet sources. We can light candles and, oh, we can pray.
We can write letters and advocate. We can be teachable. We can hold space for the suffering. We can both prayerfully and practically support people and organizations who are working towards peace and shalom in the front lines. We can do that work ourselves, daily small and unsexy as it is.
We can let our children lead us back to the right response – compassion and tenderness of heart again.
In the words of Isaiah, we can sweep our lives clean of evildoings, say no to wrong, learn to do good, work for justice, help the down-and-out, stand up for the homeless, go to bat for the defenseless. (Isaiah 1:12-17)
If we want the light of God to be the light by which we live, let that light shine in our lives and let it expose the truth. The truth shall set us free. We can give myself over to a sleepless night, holding vigil with all those who weep and watch and wait. We can create beauty. We can be what Kathy Escobar calls a “pocket of freedom and love,” setting up prophetic outposts of the Kingdom of God in our right-now lives.
And we can pray with our children and then raise them to listen, and to work, and to partner with God in the work of truth-telling and reconciliation and justice. This is God’s work, to love well.
Sometimes, absolutely, mountains move in a great sweep, picked up and cast out into the sea.
But these days I find that God often asks us to move a mountain one small stone a time.
Faithfulness is picking up my small stones, instead of screwing my eyes shut and denying the existence of the mountain.
Sometimes it all begins with the terrible prayer: Lord, break my heart for what breaks yours.
Be careful, because when your heart breaks, everything and everyone can tumble right in, right where they belong, right to the centre of your love and your hope.
Kyrie eléison. Lord, have mercy.