I can’t stop looking at Aylan. And I’m sure you’ve seen it, too, the image of a tiny little body with his face down on the sand. I can’t stop looking because if I trade the sand for a light green bed sheet, the waves for the safety of crib rails, and the shoes for the pajama feet, that is what my little Cannon looks like when he sleeps: arms to his side, on his tummy, no care in the world.
But that was never Aylan’s story. At three years old he has never known a life that wasn’t marred by ISIS and civil war. He was born into fear, and bless him and keep him forever, Jesus, he died in fear. As a mama, the thought of having my babies on my lap one moment and then reaching and screaming and crying out for them in the rough waters of the ocean the next is enough to put my heart in panic mode even as I sit at my kitchen table. And she couldn’t swim herself, Aylan’s mama. She had to have felt the panic before she and her husband paid most of their life savings to someone they did not know to put everything precious in the world on a boat for the journey towards a land where bombs were not going off and terrorists were not coming to their door to rape, kill, and torture them. She must have felt in her heart not to do it. But what choice was there? Possible death or certain death? Oh friends, that is no choice at all for our Syrian sisters and brothers.
Five years ago, God put a fire in my belly, this burden to do something. I heard stories I can’t un-hear, I saw images, like Aylan, that I cannot un-see. I feel guilt that I cannot for anything in me un-feel. And I wish you truly knew how much I want to un-feel! Because some days, like yesterday, it paralyzes me. I have to be a mom and get lesson plans for my students ready and put dinner on the table and wear actual clothes for a four hour night class and all I can do is read, research, email trusted friends and mentors, listen, sob, look again at Aylan. And I want to walk away from it, I do. I want to stop crying when I smell Cannon’s beach-wavy hair. I can’t.
So I pray, and I search scripture, and I write. At one point yesterday Alex and I had three bibles and two commentaries open, because if we know anything it is that God’s word has the answers and we have to start with him. But scripture only confirms what I have known for years to be true: we are supposed to feel others’ pain this much. The system is rigged, friends. The more we desire to be like Jesus, the more the pain of our friends, community, and the world will wreck us. There is no pressing in hard to a life following Jesus that will not come with a terrible burden for the well-being of others. It just is not there.
A great tensions exists in the life of a Christ-follower: the desire for wholeness, self-worth, healing in our broken pasts, thriving marriages, godly children, and hospitable homes set up against the backdrop of a very, very broken world. The fact that a young girl in Cambodia was just bought for the price of a few of my caramel macchiatos. The ‘abundant life’ Jesus said he came to bring us juxtaposed with the reality that life is anything but abundant for so, so many. I have spent so many weeks and months of the past few years feeling like I cannot manage this kind of tension, it’s too thick and heavy. I wonder if many of us feel like this: we don’t know what to do so we mostly look away. Or, you may or may not go into the kind of crazy cycle I did a few years ago and throw away all the lavish purchases you had ever made in the name of repentance—my personal sackcloth and ashes moments. But I don’t think either of those are right, because the former is an attempt to justify ourselves with the “there’s nothing I can really do" mentality and the later is an attempt to justify ourselves by saying “look what I just did!” Neither line up biblically, where justification is found only in Jesus and his work on the cross.
God did not accidentally put us in this place and time in history. I did not end up in Spokane, Washington with a husband, two babies, and one on the way outside of what he ordained or allowed in my life. And I don’t believe that God wants me walking through life apologizing for everything I have that so much of the world does not. Salvation through poverty is not his plan for beautiful redemption. But I am also convinced of this to my very core: we are supposed to feel pain for others as much as we feel it for ourselves. And I think this means fighting back. It means using my resources in any and every creative manner that I can come up with. It means prayer, the on our knees, groaning because we don’t know what to say to Aylan’s father kind of prayer. It means giving sacrificially, considering what our family can do without this month and sending that amount away with trust that God will use it. It means pushing my daughter on the swing and talking to other mamas about refugees at the same time. It means Voxing conversations back and fourth all day with a friend talking about dentist appointments and justice in consecutive thoughts. It means buying pretty flowers at Trader Joe’s for my table and looking at devastatingly painful pictures on the same day.
I can only think of this tension as a rather narrow ridge we are walking on. But friends, we have to try. We have to. In so many ways the footing is a bit more sure on one side or the other, but the life of Jesus was one of both celebration and mourning, and I think he showed us how to do both so that we could do both. We must do both. We can be mamas who playdate and advocate. We can be wives who serve dinner and the homeless, fatherless, or anyone with less. We can be business owners who make money and a mark in the world. We can be girlfriends who have wine nights and prayer nights. We can be parents who sign homework folders and petitions. We can enjoy every beautiful thing God gave us, and we can work tirelessly to help others experience that beauty, too. There is no formula. There is just an unapologetic pursuit of Jesus, and the way he shows each of us as we do.
And to our church and faith leaders: you can ask hard things of us. You can beg us to look, to empty our wallets, to know what the world is facing outside of our walls. I promise we can handle it. We can clap joyfully at the baptism of new family and celebrate wildly when wayward children come back; and we can cry for Syria and Nigeria and so much of the world on the very same day. We can do both, because Jesus did both. We will follow your lead on this. Please, ask us to do hard things for others. Give us scripture to sustain us when we are weary and offer a place to rest when we need it, but don’t go easy on us. If our faith in Jesus is real, it can stand up to pain in the most raw places. Teach us how to be like our Savior.
William Wilberforce, one of my heroes of history, will always be famous in our home for his tireless effort to use his position to speak for those who were not allowed a voice. I think he found that narrow ridge, and history is different because of him. He also said these words, which I leave you with today: “You can choose to look the other way, but you cannot say you didn’t know.” Let’s keep looking friends.