The Night Gunshots Interrupted the Birds’ Song

 

MO 2015

MO 2015

It’s my favorite space in the house- the top story bathroom which has a small, rectangular window perfect for catching evening sunsets or for smiling at the moon while brushing your teeth. During the fall, I’ve spent hours taking sunset pictures, all the while my soul coming closer and closer to the present moment until I am in an entranced, gentle place filled with color, wonder, and no words.

Tonight I was having one of those yearnings as I looked outside the window. I opened it wide, feeling slightly warm March air press lightly against my face. I scanned the trees to find the birds, whose brown feathers matched the still bare trees, blending in, yet standing out because of that infectious song. Their lively chatters echoed my souls’ celebrations of this last week of winter, knowing not just by the dates on the calendar, but by their choirs that spring is indeed coming.

I grabbed my camera and began snapping some sunset shots. There were two birds singing shoulder to shoulder, true love birds perhaps. I wanted them to move just one branch over to get that perfect shot of the birds’ silhouettes against the backdrop of a cascading orange and red sky. Just move over. I begged internally. Come on, move a little to the left. Slightly annoyed at a missed opportunity for a “perfect” shot, a still small voice whispered in. “Just watch. Just enjoy this as it is. Stop trying to make everything so perfect. Embrace this as it is, not how you wish it would be.” With that I closed my eyes, to solely focus on the delight of the birds’ song. I lingered in this space for a good 20 minutes before wandering back to my room that connects to this bathroom. I left the window open to keep enjoying the birds while I worked out. The night darkness came over, chirps turning from a mellifluous sonnet to an evening lullaby.

And then I heard three loud bangs, a pause, and a few more bangs. Could that have been…? No. It wasn’t, I reasoned. I lived in an under-resourced area of Baltimore for a year, in which there were a couple shootings around the block that I was fortunate enough not to have been home for. All the bangs I did hear in that neighborhood ended up being kids playing with firecrackers, something that’s fun to do, apparently, even when it’s not July 4th. But there are few kids in my current neighborhood, and the ones I have seen are toddlers, plus the seldom one or two six-year-olds.

A swarm of police and an online crime alert confirmed my fear. Helicopters circled overhead. My roommates and I looked out the window to find several police cars a block and half up the street, in clear view from this top story window. We gave each other tight hugs, talked about our own privilege, talked about longings for peace and justice, talked about the neighborhood in which we live, met with its quirks and joys, marked by outsiders and many insiders as “up and coming,” a seemingly trite phrase that has some grain of truth if one considers “coming” to mean gentrification.

Within the next hour, the police cars became fewer in number. I can still hear the “bang, bang, bang,” noise sharply in my head. I look out the window one last time, wondering at what point the birds had stopped singing. I supposed they could have gone to sleep before the gun shots could disrupt their song. But even now as I type this, I can still hear an insomniac bird making noise, as if to have some company in his or her sleeplessness.

All of this feels so disparate. How did the view from the window go from lingering in the beauty to facing the reality of violence? It’s so hard to acknowledge that this same experience happened in one night. They seem so incongruous, the latter incident being one of disbelief- did all of that really just happen?

Yes, it did. We live in a world in which it is possible to hear the song of birds and cacophony of gun shots in a single night. We live in a world with incredible shades of red and pink and purple nearly every evening. And we live in a world in which damaging floods and hurricanes can come from that same sky. I live in a body with hands that long to hold another’s, limbs that long to wrap themselves around someone, a smile with an upper lip that shows a lot of gumline. And I live in a body that yelled, “Are you fucking kidding me?” to a driver yesterday who got too close to me while I was biking. A body with a brain that thought demeaning, judgmental thoughts towards someone today. A body that once accidentally drove through a red light and hit another human being, the “How could you!?” narrative reverberating not from outside sources, but internally.

So much darkness.
So much light.
So much life.
And so much of this life is that space between the darkness and light. Finding hope in despair, beauty in the presence of pain, something sacred in the midst of the banality. So much of life is seeing it and feeling it all, and still gazing your head upwards, feeling love for your Maker in the midst of walking away from a particular way of practicing this love. 

Tonight as I lay my head, I’m grateful for this Maker that I’ve come to know as God. Grateful for the light, room in my hands to accept both of these incongruous experiences. Grateful that there is something beyond the darkness, a story whose ending pages read of love over hate, joy beyond suffering, of discovering there is room for all of us in this story, that no one is or will be left out or left behind.

And for now, I’m in that space between. The one that has the synonyms and antonyms in the same sentences, and tonight, even the same breaths, encouraged to “just hold on to the way it is tonight and learn to love through the darkness and the light.”

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On a Cold Winter’s Night That was so Deep

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.

BUT.

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.