I burst into tears on the way home from my bike ride tonight. They were unexpected tears, to be sure. And they had nothing at all to do with the ride.
In fact, the ride had been great. For the fifth time this December, I took a ride in some seriously cold weather. Twenty seven miles in 45-degrees.
I’m finding that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I’m making peace with winter. Those familiar with my love of hot, Texas summers will understand just what a big deal this is.
For example, tonight during the ride, about the time this picture was taken, just as the sun was setting, the iPod gods gave me Pierce Pettis’ version of “If It Wasn’t For the Night.” (from the Blue Rock Christmas Album…). It was a moment, shall we say.
Incredible fading light.
Still one of the shortest days of the year. And lyrics that slayed me in the moment:
I have walked this road alone
My thin coat against the chill
When the light in me was gone
And my winter house was stilled
When I grieved for all I’d made
Out of all I had to give
On the eve of Christmas day
With no reason left to live
Even then somehow in the bitter wind and cold
Impossibly strong I know
Even then a bloom as tender as a rose
Was breaking through the snow
In the dark night of the soul
In the dark night of the soul
I’ve heard this song dozens of times, but it was newly fresh in the moment.
I’m coming to peace with winter…cold…darkness…
In all their forms. It’s a good thing.
So, anyway, on the way back from the ride I was feel really good. Really strong. Really accomplished. I was re-listening to David Wilcox’s version of the the same song, feeling a bit proud for this winter peacemaking.
Just then, I came up on that car wreck. It was the last major intersection before home. An intersection I pass through half a dozen times a day.
I came up over a rise in the road, and there were the ubiquitous flashing red lights everywhere. Three or four squad cars. A couple of ambulances. And something about that scene that just shocked me. Shocked me out of my contemplation, and back into the horror of life.
Precisely because it was so close to home, I had an immediate, unbidden thought.
“What if one of those cars is Maria?”
“What if this is how it happens? Some horrible accident that changes our lives forever?”
“What if this is it?”
It’s a stupid thought, of course. But in that moment, it felt very real. I rolled past the intersection, the flashing reds reflecting off my own car interior now. I could see two cars involved. A Jeep Wrangler, spun round in the intersection. Door open, crumpled, deployed airbags drooping awkwardly inside. A small Honda was perched over the curb with the front bashed in.
A few seconds more, I caught the last of a figure being loaded on to an ambulance, legs lashed down to a wooden cart as they pushed him in.
So, it wasn’t Maria.
But it might be some other kid we know. Or, hell, the kid of somebody I knew years ago when I was her age and was growing up in this very same neighborhood. What if it was the son of some high school friend, home from college for the holidays? The point is, we’ve now been in this neighborhood enough years that even though I knew it wasn’t my kid, I still got caught thinking,
“This could be somebody I know…”
And it reminded me of a short scripture I used in the sermon this morning, from the story of Simeon. Simeon is an old man who gets to meet Jesus when Jesus is but a week old. Simeon sees their meeting as something of the fulfillment of his own life. In a nutshell, he says “So, now I can die in peace.”
He blesses Jesus and hand the baby back to Mary. But just before he does, he says some words that must have hit the young mother like lightning. After basically talking about all the great things Jesus will do, Simeon looks into Mary’s heart and says, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
This, he says to a newborn’s mother, in a baby’s first days of life.
This is his parting wisdom to her.
In way, Jesus’ whole life and death are prefigured in this short phrase that almost nobody ever remembers. But once a year, during the Christmas season, it comes up in the readings again.
“A sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Parenthood is heartbreaking business. There are so many possible things that can go wrong. You go through so many real and imagined dangers with any child. We used to be gymnastics parents, for example. We spent a whole lot of Saturdays watching Maria fling herself through the air on the uneven bars and beam. Being a gymnastics parent is an exercise in learning to be proud for your child, all while hopefully masking your inner terror.
That’s why I so loved Aly Raisman’s parents. If you don’t remember them, they became semi-famous for their arm-chair contortions, as they watched their daughter’s gym routines.
I take them as stand-ins for not just gymnastics parents, but for all parents everywhere:
Being a parent is exactly like that. You watch from afar. Proud, stunned, amazed at what your kid can do. At how high they can jump. How far they can go. And, if you’re really really lucky, it all seems to go so well and you get to breathe a big sigh of relief.
But you never rid yourself of that fear. That fear that at any given moment, some sword might pierce your soul too. That you’ll come over some ridge and the flashing lights will be for your child. Or some child you know.
Speaking of children and parents, I’ve been thinking a lot about the conflicts between police and the African American community these past few weeks, as have we all. These are soul-piercing days, to be sure. I am not African American. I am not a police officer. So the truth is that I don’t know the experience of either one.
But I know the mothers of African-American boys fear for them in ways I have never had to fear for Maria. I know that there are dozens, maybe hundreds more soul-piercing fears they endure as their children grow that get piled on any stack I’ve wrestled with in my life.
I know the mothers in police families fear for their children in ways I never had to fear for Maria also. And, as we heard tragically just the week before Christmas, sometimes police officers don’t come home to their children. Sometimes, their family’s lives are soul-pierced just by their loved ones doing their job.
Looking behind the public facades and posturings, there is fearful flesh, bone, and spirit. So, there is an irony. There is a common ground that perhaps we are missing on the streets of American today. The common ground is the fear of death or the loss of a loved one, that runs through both African-American communities and Police Communities.
So, when African-Americans lash out following the death of a young black man —regardless of the circumstances of that death— we should recognize this as their every-day soul-piercing fear, anger, and frustration understandably bubbling over.
And when police officers and families lash out following the death of a police officer —how ever inappropriate that sounds— we should recognize that as the understandable soul-piercing fear, anger, and frustration of police families bubbling over too.
So, there is much in common. And where there is much in common, perhaps there is a way forward in love, respect, and renewed peace.
It’s still Christmas, in case you’d forgotten. Today is the “4th Day.” (The “Four Calling Birds” day).
Christmas is about the mysterious idea of God’s incarnation in the world as a human being. I’ve always loved incarnational spirituality, perhaps because God’s presence always seems mediated by other human beings to me….through the messy mystery of humans and our beauty, our ugliness, our holiness.
If we’re paying attention, we find God is present…
In words and music of a songwriter singing her song to us for the first time…
In a meal offered to a homeless person…
In the laughter of a meal shared between friends…
In a quiet, antiseptic hospital ICU as a loved one slips into the peace of death…
In the smile of a stranger you pass in the mall…
All these, and thousands of other examples are the meaning of Jesus’ teaching “When you did it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”
We are called to see Jesus, as not just incarnate once-upon-a-time; but instead to see this whole big messy world as chock-full of incarnational moments. Moments we can see, share, and experience.
Which gets me back that car wreck, and a final meaning of the tears.
The final realization was that these injured people are connected to me. And I to them. They may not be my child, or even the child of somebody I know. But we are all connected as God’s children. Grieving mothers on America’s city streets, grieving police officer families, and the families grieving that car wreck tonight. We’re all connected.
It’s very true to say “Black Lives Matter.”
They do, and the sentiment behind the phrase is one that needs to lead to real change in the criminal justice system, for sure.
In recent days, we’ve heard “Police Lives Matter.”
And that is, of course, also true.
But the final truth of Christmas, the incarnational truth of this holiday, is that all lives matter to God.
The final step in an incarnational faith is seeing God in all of these. And that kind of spiritual seeing, compassion, and love is the true meaning of Christmas.
I parked the car in front of the house. Wiped my tears. Came into a warm house, knowing Dennise and Maria could not possibly know or understand all that I was feeling in that moment…the love and compassion I felt for them, and all people….or how badly I wanted to just to hold them both tightly, and never let them go.
So, I kept that Christmas-moment in my heart, and just kissed them both on the heads.
“I love you,” I said.
It was enough.