The Fire and the Flame
Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.– Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour, And for me, now as then, it is too much. There is too much world. -Czeslaw Milosz, The Separate Notebooks, quoted at the beginning of Station Eleven
Does anyone really blog anymore? I, apparently, do not.
It may be true that people only have the attention for speedy, tweetable pithiness, or well-curated Instagram shots, and there isn’t much space left for rambling reflectiveness. Except that my brain wants to carve out the space, to put words to things that don’t seem to resolve without the discipline of spelling it out. And also, I need to bear witness, in this small corner of the internet, to what is happening in this “too much world.”
A series of twists and turns have landed me back in the States a little earlier than I anticipated, and after 6 years of life in East Africa, the beginning of this 7th year is for me a sabbatical of sorts, a time to reconnect and reengage with friends, family, and supporters in the US as I pray about the future and evaluate plans to return to East Africa.
It’s strange that one way to reconnect with actual people means disconnecting from most things internet-based. I’ve loved exchanging Skype and Facetime and Facebook for actual coffee dates and walks and dinners. There’s nothing like reconnecting face to face after years away.
For the first time since 2009, I am also enjoying the actual experience of North American Autumn. And ya’ll, the hype is true! Changing leaves are amazing!
A couple of weeks ago, I was able to travel through the Northeastern United States and up into Canada just as the leaves were changing colors. And in the blink of an eye, whole forests went from basic green to blazing. Reds and oranges and yellows, burning bushes all around. I hiked and camped and marveled, and I rarely checked my e-mail.
In Montreal, near the end of my travels, I learned that Mundri, South Sudan, was burning. The little Sudanese town that I love had been besieged by the unimaginable: shooting and violence, looting and burning of homes. My friends (who had fairly recently returned home after violence this summer) were once again fleeing out into the wilderness, this time with less hope of a quick end to the instability. After getting this shattering news in a summary e-mail on my phone, my friend Catharine and I headed out to brunch at a lovely restaurant called The Sparrow.
As we sat over artfully presented pancakes and eggs, I found myself torn. Part of me felt so much joy to be exactly where I was, in a cozy cafe with one of my best friends, eating good food and practicing my non-existent French with kind Canadian waitresses. And another part of me felt desperately guilty both for not being in Mundri (where I was actually scheduled to be before June’s fighting meant I couldn’t return for the Fall) and for being so relieved at not being there. But mostly, I just felt wearily angry that things don’t seem to get better, or if they do, they don’t stay better for long.
It wasn’t lost on me that we were in a place called the Sparrow, and in my head I thought about Jesus saying, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Somehow this often quoted verse doesn’t feel so reassuring, thinking of how houses and people are falling in South Sudan while Jesus says not even a sparrow falls to the ground outside of the Father’s care. I wonder how to interpret God’s care for beautiful, burning South Sudan, and how in the world is it possible to not be afraid?
My friend Catharine talked me through brunch, reminding me of things Wise and True, and I am grateful again to bear sorrow in the context of community, and to have friends who remind me that things won’t always be this way, and that there is more grace at work in Mundri than I can imagine, and that there is space to be both grieved for my friends and grateful for safety.
The Psalm I memorized early on in my days in Bundibugyo has stayed with me through all my travels, and it says,“How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young- a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you. Blessed are those whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.“
I can relate to the psalmist, who sees that even sparrows have found home and family in the shelter of God, while he still longs to find his place. He knows that those who dwell in God’s house have the gift of praising God. But then he says my favorite missional line, “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” In contrast to those who are already there, we pilgrims wait for resolution, and in the waiting find strength and are somehow blessed. Is it possible that the only way to find our strength in Him is to first realize our own weakness as we walk through pilgrim days and into stories that are just too much to understand on our own?
Perhaps today, you find yourself and your family at home in God, praising Him easily. Or maybe you are feeling more and more the weakness and uncertainty of this wandering world. Either way, in the burning and the flame at the end of October, may you and I have eyes to see the world afire with God, and may we pause to take off our shoes, and open our hearts to the beauty and the brokenness of this “too much world.”