National Geographic has detailed the unimaginable killing force of pythons. These snakes have been known to kill large creatures: crocodiles, hyenas, and sometimes—even humans. According to experts, pythons kill their prey by cutting off the blood flow, a quick though agonizing death. “The heart . . . doesn’t have enough strength to push against the pressure,” one vertebrate ecologist said. The deadly snake literally squeezes the life out of its victims.
Recently, several books have helped me grapple with systemic injustices woven into many social systems. One book cataloged how our criminal justice system can often be stacked against those at the margins. Another shared how the working poor have often been neglected and abused while those in power have profited from their misfortune. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when we wade into this disturbing information. And these are only two urgent issues. What are we to do? How are we to make things right?
In recent years, the refugee crisis has shocked the world over. Images like that of three-year-old Kurdish boy Alan Kurdi, his lifeless body washed onto the shore after the refugees’ inflatable rubber boat capsized, horrified us. Too often, however, outrage has yielded little action. A year after his son’s death, Alan’s father told reporters: “Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now? People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it.”
My wife and I have numerous friends who’ve struggled to have a baby. They’ve endured multiple trips to doctors, different kinds of infertility procedures, and the grief of losing children to miscarriages. It’s obvious how painful this has been for them—how much it’s filled them with doubts about themselves and about the God who promises to care for us.
The novelist Flannery O’Connor once referred to faith as a way of walking in darkness, a determined insistence on moving forward even when we’re uncertain what lies ahead. It’s an insight that resonates with the experience of John the Baptist, who found himself in a situation in which the challenges he faced threatened to steal his faith and hope.
From the time I first encountered Magic Eye stereograms (posters that show one obvious picture, but supposedly reveal more if you stare at them long enough), they’ve only frustrated me. I sat in front of one for what seemed like hours while everyone coached me, telling me to look through the image, then past the image, and then telling me to cross my eyes and look harder. No matter what I tried, I simply couldn’t see what, I’m told, was right there in front of me.
I have a friend, a nurse, who recently went to Thessaloniki, Greece, to work in three refugee camps, primarily serving mothers and young babies who were far from home in the bitter cold. The overwhelming majority of the refugees are from Syria, where their villages and cities, once places of laughter and life, are now mostly rubble. In an email, my friend attached an image of one of the refugee tents where someone had scribbled on the outside: “We are not refugees, we are prisoners here. We want a better life.”
Over the past few years, we’ve experienced a great deal of political upheaval. While such turmoil isn’t new, many are wrestling with what kind of leaders to trust and how to hold our leaders accountable for governing in ways that are good for everyone—not merely for a select few who hold the purse strings or wield power.
For nearly a century, two towering ash trees have shaded our house and stood like sentinels watching over it. Within the last decade, however, one of the ashes suffered a mortal wound, and in the intervening years the rot and carpenter ants did their business. The arborist told us there was no saving the tree and we took it down. Since we wanted to plant another seedling (a weeping willow) in its place, we had to grind the stump completely out of the ground. “You’ll have to get rid of that stump,” the arborist said, “or nothing else will grow there.”
Recently, my two sons (both in their early teens) and I, along with a few friends, gathered in our front yard with one mission: to take down our massive, old ash tree and turn it into firewood. The tree was perhaps forty feet tall, with a trunk the size of a small car. For an entire day, with axes and a hydraulic log-splitter, we labored with pure joy. But the moment I’ll cherish forever was watching my boys, each for the first time, heave an axe overhead and bring it down with fury. In those moments, I saw their strength in new ways. I saw their fierceness. I saw them becoming men. Wasn’t it only yesterday that they were babies and I held them in my arms?
After every election, whether for British parliament or Venezuelan president or US Congress, there are always winners and losers. Supporters of victorious candidates feel vindicated and triumphant, while supporters of losing candidates feel rebuffed and defeated. Politics, bound as it is to flawed arrangements of power, always divides people. It always pits one’s hopes and visions for the future against the hopes and visions of another.
Unlike mystery novels where you never know who the villain in the story is until the final pages, in Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow, we’re clued in right at the beginning that the judge is a shady character. Jesus sets the stage by informing us that there “was a judge in a certain city . . . who neither feared God nor cared about people” (Luke 18:2). This judge didn’t waste a moment thinking about God or about anybody other than himself. He was selfish, small-minded, and power-hungry.
I recently witnessed an encounter where someone entirely dismissed and degraded another person. “Leave now,” the instigator said, “you’re not wanted here.” I took great offense for the person who received such cruel treatment. But I also felt profound sadness for the individual who spewed such mean-spirited words. I know how to help one who’s been rejected, but it’s far more difficult to know how to help one whose soul has been poisoned by contempt for another.
In his memoir Townie, novelist Andre Dubus III shared that his father, also a renowned writer, would write every single morning. After he finished, “He’d count how many words he’d gotten and record the number. After each total, whether it was fifteen hundred or fifty, he wrote ‘Thank you.’ ” This writer had learned the art of gratitude, and it shaped his work—allowing him to see and then write about rich experiences of hope, humanity, and grace.
For decades I’ve had a fascination with Scotland. Perhaps it’s the depiction of William Wallace’s heroics in the movie Braveheart or the scenery of the Highlands. Maybe it’s because my dad once talked about the Scottish clan from which we trace our family history. I’ve thought often of the place and carried numerous perceptions about the people and the land. However, perceptions and reality are always different. I had to put my feet on that lush soil, hear the cadence of the language, and eat Scottish food in order to know what the place is truly like. To know anything true, we have to experience the reality—not merely read or think about it.