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.
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.