December 16, 2011
It was Friday night and I took in a breath, smiling, as we were driving around to Coldplay on the way to running Christmas errands. You know those Friday nights, where the moon is out, stars-are-shining kinds of nights that give you that “God-it’s-good-to-be-alive” feeling.
And then it shifted.
Flashing lights in Baltimore City are not an uncommon sight. But this time, there were three police cars pulled over and a silent ambulance, lights still flashing. I held in my breath, nervously taking a closer look. In the middle of the adjacent street was a man, lying on his side, not moving. A couple of officers stood over him. A crowd gathered on the sidewalk.
Brian and I were probably behind a red light, looking at this scene for less than a minute. But it felt long, drawn out, like a thick fog of stagnant barrenness surrounding the streets and air. Laughter turned to solemness, like a train derailing, catching its passengers off guard, trying to keep them stuck in that moment. Flashbacks of kids on my block showing me a bullet came to my mind. I saw scenes of conflict and yelling that I’ve observed in neighboring streets. The essence of depravity, as though God himself in heaven was crying, stretching out his arm to rescue, saying, “no, this cannot be, this is not what I have intended for my people.” Perhaps the only thing you can do in such moments is instinctively pray. So we prayed. Prayed for peace. Prayed for reconciliation between whatever and whomever led up to that man lying in the street. We prayed for this city, that God would shed that redeeming love upon in scandalous grace that only a father up above could provide.
We were quiet for a little while.
I’m not sure what you’re supposed to say after you pass by a scene like that.
The green light forced us to move on. We ran some Christmas errands and strolled through the city to dazzle over Christmas lights. But for some reason, my mind kept drifting back to the man in the street. I didn’t know why; I knew this kind of stuff happens in the city. But this wouldn’t leave my mind. Perhaps it was because it was Christmastime, and I’m used to seeing people exchange in acts of good cheer, but instead, this exchange felt dismal. I don’t know how to describe it, exactly, but it felt like that scene was trying to take over, wanting to steal away the joy, the peace, the love that this season so beautifully epitomizes.
We drove home and stepped inside. Slowly, gently, God began showing me what he had to say about that scene that wouldn’t leave my mind.
I began to cry. I stopped fighting to keep the ears from spilling over the corners of my eyes, and let them fall down like rain. I didn’t have to pretend that one could be completely numb to violence, or homelessness, or poverty.
I didn’t have to pretend that I wasn’t scared. I didn’t have to play that game of shoulder-shrugging complacency or ignorance.
I felt it full force. And grieved.
I grieved over the depravity of this world. I grieved over the 193 needless homicides this city experienced this year. I grieved over the fact that perhaps if those men in conflict had grown up their whole life with positive role models guiding them, encouraging them, challenging them, and most importantly, doing life alongside them in a way that lifts up, allowing each individual to remember that we all have so very much to live for; perhaps then things could have been different that night. I grieved over the voices that all too often get stuck in our minds, voices that negate self-worth, that tell us to give up trying, that tell us things can’t change.
No. Surely that’s not what we were created to believe.
I grieved over all the ways in which The Church has directly and indirectly expressed who is “in” and who is “out”, who is “right,” and who is “wrong.” I grieved because I think it is possible for The Church to be synonymous with love, but right now, unfortunately, words such as “judgmental” and “fragmented” can be painstakingly accurate too. I’m sure you can envision such an image or news story right now. Missing the point completely, I am crushed when the world is presented with an incomplete Gospel of the One who loved us before we were born, who says that there is no condemnation for His children.
I grieved harder as I looked inward at myself. I mean, not just a surface check, but a guttural check inside all of those little parts of myself that no one sees, the parts that store my own layers of contempt and self-centeredness. The part that acknowledges how quick I am to dismiss those who don’t see my perspective, the part who still doesn’t love others with a completely unconditional love (like Christ), and who still holds my purse tight when walking around the inner city, because, after all,“they” could be trying to steal, “they” might have a gun, or “they” might otherwise harm me (see the self-centeredness and assumption making?). I grieved over just how stubborn and cynical I’d become over the past few years. I grieved over evil. I grieved because it is still here and present in this world, trying to take life out of our years. I grieved that after living in the inner city, I couldn’t deny the reality of racial polarization and that there is still much work to do if we want to see races completely reconciled one to another. I grieved over ignorance and apathy. That there are voices out there that get us caught up in things that don’t matter, distracted from our purpose. That demean us. That demean others.
That’s. Not. How. The. Story. Ends.
That’s not how the story ends.
Dozens of times, I’ve heard the Bible described as something like, “the divinely inspired word of God.” I get that. But I can no longer concede to say the things that I’ve been spoon-fed to say. Instead, I find the Bible …difficult. It’s challenging; it’s beautiful. It’s simple; it’s confusing. I read things that make me angry and never want to open another page again. I read things that seem so unlike the God I know. Then I read things so beautiful that leave me amazed and feeling connected to something that has sustained and enriched millions of lives over the course of hundreds of years. I read of a redemption that can cover every wrong, of a companion, a guide, a friend, who desires nothing more than to journey life with you… or rather, you with Him. To come, as you are, and experience a kind of Kingdom incomparable to this world, but desperate to be experienced in the here and now.
I stop crying; I see it now. Faith, hope and love. Love of God, love of others. We can stop there and leave the rest out. I don’t care anymore. I was drawn to Christ and came back to the message that I can always, always come back to time and time again: love God, love others. That hope entered this world innocent… as innocent as a child in a manger. That hope entered this world naked, comforted by swaddling cloth to keep warm… and I too need to let myself “be naked” and vulnerable and allow others into my heart and life to show God’s love for me through their warmth, their love, their embrace and acceptance in both my weakest and my strongest moments.
Evil never stopped that hope, that joy, that comfort from coming into this world. And evil will never stop what is to come. Evil did not have the last word that Friday night. Evil didn’t win. It never will. Hope won. Love conquered. It always will. Undeterred and more drawn into this redemptive, unable-to-be-stopped kind of love, I knew God had the final say that night and always will. And that final say when we meet with our Creator will be, “welcome home, my child” with music, dancing, and song.
And just then, a familiar tune popped in my head. …On a cold winter’s night that was so deep…. Noel, noel, the soft angelic murmurs sang.
It was a cold winter’s night.
And it was deep.
And just like in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago, hope was still very much alive.