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.
When I was younger, shame or guilt would often overwhelm me. The trigger could be an obvious area where I had failed, and I simply could not shake the gloom as I desperately sought forgiveness. Other times, I endured a suffocating fear that something was wrong or that I needed to confess something. I assumed this weighty guilt was the Spirit’s conviction as I sank deeper into despair.
In his short story “The Hurt Man,” Wendell Berry recounts how Nancy Beechum welcomed a complete stranger into her home after he stumbled up the street, bloodied, with a crowd of fierce, angry men chasing him. Nancy opened her door and washed the clotted blood from his body. She pressed the white rags, now crimson, onto his cuts. The hurt man trembled as Nancy spoke gently to him: ”You’re going to be all right.”
I remember where I was sitting in the cramped living room of our apartment when Miska told me she was pregnant with our first son, Wyatt. I must have sat mute for several moments because Miska asked, “Are you okay? What are you thinking?” In theory, I wanted to be a dad someday, but it had seemed like a distant possibility. But here it was . . . I was going to be a dad, and I was dumbstruck.
The Swedish writer Fredrick Backman’s 2012 debut novel A Man Called Ove is the tale of a man who sees no reason to live. After the death of his wife (the one person who brought him laughter, intimacy, and joy) and after losing his job, Ove plots his suicide. But then he’s drawn into the larger story around him: There’s a pregnant woman who needs his support, a neighbor in conflict with authorities who are trying to force him into a nursing home, and a young man estranged from his father. Ove discovers reasons to live as he moves beyond himself and toward others.
During the 2016 Olympics in Rio, one of the brightest stories was the International Olympic Committee’s decision to field the first-ever team of Refugee Olympic Athletes, a team of athletes who have no country. Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, explained the decision: “Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic Anthem. They will have a home together with all the other 11,000 athletes.” Ten Olympians comprised the squad—refugees from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Syria.