I found myself in a tense, combustible situation—standing between two groups of angry people who were nose to nose, boiling over with rage and hatred. One group spewed vile, dehumanizing words at the other; then that group spewed vile, dehumanizing words back. In that volatile space, both groups completely lost perspective of the other’s humanity. Locked in an intractable posture of opposition, neither side would acknowledge any common ground. Neither side would consider there might be some way to resolve their differences or even begin any kind of constructive conversation. Both sides felt wronged and wanted only to punish their foe.
On 30 April 2019, Japan’s Emperor Akihito will mark his 85th birthday with a historic act: he will abdicate the throne, something that hasn’t happened in the nation for more than two centuries. While the emperor’s plans are controversial, the larger concern is that the royal line has a diminishing number of heirs, a situation that may eventually develop into a constitutional crisis. These realities are all the more unnerving because the Japanese dynasty is the oldest monarchy in the world, tracing its lineage back to the year 660.
Many years ago, a hurricane forced my wife Miska and me to evacuate a resort in Cancun, Mexico, where we were celebrating our tenth anniversary. On our way to the airport, I got lost and stopped for directions. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand the people who tried to help since they were speaking in Spanish. Finally, I called a bilingual friend and had them talk to the clerk at a service station. Fortunately, we made it in time for the last flight out that day.
Last summer, my city was embroiled, yet again, in a confrontation with the ongoing realities of racism in our nation. To protest the removal of a local statue honoring a general who fought to preserve slavery, some white-supremacist groups descended on our town. The pain caused by the hate-filled demonstration opened wounds that were hidden below the surface. In the US, we like to pretend that these issues are ancient history, but until we deal head on with these sins, we’ll never be healed of the evil.
After the cross finished its cruel work, Jesus’ bewildered friends laid His ravaged body in a cold tomb. Night fell, and an eerie silence descended. Jesus’ followers huddled in grief and confusion. What do you do when your entire world crumbles with violent implosion? What’s left when everything you thought you knew, everything you’d hoped in, lies smoldering in ashes? What do you do when God has died?
In 1882, Antoni Gaudí began construction on the Sagrada Família, a basilica in Barcelona slated for completion in 2026. The National Geographic reports that at the time of Gaudí’s unexpected death, less than 25 percent of the exterior was finished. Even if he had not died prematurely, Gaudí knew he’d never see the completed work; but it didn’t bother him. He believed he was working for God. Whenever asked about the immense time for the project, he answered, “My client is not in a hurry.”
Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-winning author of Gilead and Home, has, in addition to her marvelous fiction, also spent much time pondering the current plight of modern America. Robinson has especially contemplated Christian faith in these times, and how modern pressures erode and distort our faith in insidious ways. Though there are numerous causes for our predicament, Robinson suggests that these questions always return her to a two-part conviction: “First, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”
The 1986 film The Mission narrates the story of Father Gabriel and Rodrigo Mendoza, a former slave trader, who served together in the jungle bordering Argentina and Paraguay. The two moved into this remote country to befriend a tribe with little contact to the outside world. When powerful slavers descended on the village, Gabriel and Mendoza determined to stay. They were called to suffer with—rather than escape from—the tribe’s agonies and violence. Mendoza and Gabriel lost their lives, though their witness echoed with resounding force.
My grandmother was famous for her cornbread. She poured golden batter into cast iron skillets and slipped them into the oven, making all the grandkids wait and salivate until half an hour later, when she’d retrieve the piping hot cornbread. Typically, Grandma used standard circular skillets, but sometimes she’d pour the batter into a skillet shaped like the state of Texas or one with rows shaped like corn on the cob. But no matter what shape the cornbread was in, it tasted amazing!
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.