August

It’s funny – the month of August is usually my cue for reflection.  I find myself slowing down, trying to make space to look back into the past, remember where I’ve come from, the people who have touched my life, reevaluate where I’m headed, and generally try to take it easy and remember.  I love this habit, but the reason that it happens during August is because of the great (seismic?) shifts that have happened in this month over the course of my life.

Many years ago I stepped off a plane in Rio de Janeiro, a little confused, home-sick, lost, and overwhelmed, as well as excited, full of anticipation and eager expectation that good things would happen.  One of the things that I didn’t expect was Jeferson.  I’ve shared about him before – snippets of his life and death.  [I think it’s important to remember (and sometimes impossible to forget) that this story doesn’t have a happy ending.]  If he were alive today, we’d be celebrating his 29th birthday.  He’d probably have kids.  

(It’s the might-have-beens that will eat away at your soul…)

Some of you don’t know about Jeferson.  I’m sorry.  He was one of my first friends in Brazil.  A small word-picture of him:  picture a 14-year old kid from one of the rougher favelas with a smile and laugh that drew you in and made you feel as if you were sharing a joke that was on the whole world, a zest for life, a deep curiosity about other ways of life, a sense of humor that loved the absurd and was always looking for something to laugh about (or at), a softness and compassion that years on the street hadn’t managed to deaden, and so much potential for leadership that it made your teeth hurt.  He was by no means unreal – he had a bit of a temper, and made too many poor decisions, and would all too often be high out of his mind – whether out of boredom, or addiction, or just a way to deal with the immense amounts of pain and brokenness and heaviness that was his life day in and day out, or some combination of the three.  But he was deeply, authentically alive, and he was my friend, and he was someone whom God loved, and I loved, and who loved us in return.

There was his voice yelling across the praça when we would arrive, yelling out our names and running to meet us – echoes of the Father running to greet the prodigal son.  He would sing loud and hard, loved to eat spaghetti and pizza, and spent a couple of weeks living with us as we attempted to provide a safe place for him get his life together and off the streets.  He began to teach me what it meant to parent a child – the mix of love and anxiety, the desire to control and force them to make good decisions balancing out the necessity for freedom, autonomy, and the reality that those you love will make their own decisions for good or for ill, leavened with a healthy dollop of hope and apprehension.

That time didn’t stick – he left our home and was back on the streets shortly thereafter.  And the time after that when he went home to live with an older sister who was in over her head in the drug trade didn’t stick either.  And then he was in prison for theft, was gone for a few months, and came back a little wiser, a little more guarded, a little harder…  Yet in the midst of this, flashes of hope would glimmer.  A request for prayer – a tear and a whispered confession and a sincere effort to change and make good decisions – caring for younger kids on the cold wet sidewalks of Rio – a sense of hope – murmured prayers in the dark on the sidewalks and under streetlights.

This went on for two years – two years of shared meals, of spontaneous encounters on the streets and in the favelas, on the beaches and in the churches, sandwiches and hot chocolate while huddled under an overhang from the winter rains, singing songs of hope and life and joy and a reality that must have seemed unimaginable at times.  Two years of growth, of failure, of prayers, of heartache, of dancing and beauty and life, of pouring myself into him, and being poured into in return.  Two years of slow movement, of incremental changes, of three steps forward and two steps back.

Two years…

—–

I remember sitting in my apartment doing something stupid and pointless on the internet when I heard someone knocking on my door.  It was Rich, and he had bad news.  “Jeferson’s dead.”  And things came crumbling down…

Details were fuzzy, yet as they slowly crystallized became more and more horrific – betrayal, ambush, humiliation, torture, murder…  par for the course in our broken world, so full of death, yet real to me in a new and powerful way.  It’s a story that has taken place too many times.  It’s a story that happens daily, sometimes on a much bigger scale – Syria, Egypt, DRC, Colombia, Haiti, Brazil…  It happens here in the US – in Ferguson, in Cincinnati, in Baton Rouge, in Falcon Heights, in Englewood. It’s a story that continues to play itself out here in Chicago today in my very own backyard.  It’s a reality that I find all too easy to forget.

—–

I don’t want to forget.  I can’t really.  I can pretend, I can distract myself with shiny toys and fun games, but YouTube videos and books won’t bring resolution and a sense of closure.  There is work to be done.  Reconciliation.  Justice.  Forgiveness.  Hope.  Safety.  All things new…

I think of friends who are still involved – still kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight – in Kolkata, Katmandu, El Alto, Bangkok, LA, Jacksonville, Antakya, Port-au-Prince, Chicago – and I am thankful.  For their life.  For their example.  For their courage.

I think of all those who keep kicking at the darkness – in Aleppo, Athens, Ferguson, Baltimore, Brownsville, the deserts of the southwest, the container ships full of human lives, those who keep giving and serving and loving and healing, day in, and day out – and I am thankful.

—–

My only response that keeps me moving is hope. Not a hope that ignores the brokenness and ugliness in the world, but that moves forward in spite of it. Not a faith that pretends there is no doubt.  Trust in the midst of doubt.  Not a faith that is blind to uncertainty.  Faith working through uncertainty.  Asking questions, pushing, not settling for the status quo, but in the midst of that holding on to the vision of all things new that gives us hope.  I recognize that this is a choice, but it is a choice that I choose to make.  And maybe that’s where grace comes in – that I choose to hope, that I choose to look for the good, and look for God, that I choose to try and find beauty, that I choose to act and not despair, that I choose to love and not wall myself off from others, from life, from the pain and the joy.

—–

Keep kicking at the darkness friends…  until it bleeds daylight…

The Healing Power of Kenny Loggins: (August and Remembering, vol. 2)

That August Sunday morning when my mom went into a coma from which she would never wake up, Seth and Jeremy drove out from Chicago to spend the day with me.  Two teenagers who saw their friend and his family was hurting, so they did something.  Nothing profound happened – I think we went out and watched a movie at the theater and talked and joked and made bad puns in the way adolescents do, grasping for honesty and connection in the midst of insecurity and uncertainty and a world that has seems to have very few shades of gray.  I loved them for coming out, and reminding me that I was not alone.

One year later, I found myself driving down to Arkansas to visit Seth and his family.  His sister Miriam had just given birth to a baby boy, and there were massive complications.  I didn’t really understand what had happened, but she was close to death, and the whole family was gathered there, reeling from the pain of having this joyful moment of hope and new life be transformed into despair, tears, mourning, death.  I didn’t know what to do, but my friend was hurting, and I just wanted to remind him that he wasn’t alone.

A few weeks later, Jeremy, Michael and I found ourselves driving from Chicago down to Charlotte, North Carolina in my little gray Honda Civic for Miriam’s funeral.  Honestly, much of that trip was a blur.  Death had once again struck close to home – this time with someone barely a few years older than we were.  There was a shell-shocked quality to our journey.  I was really starting to dislike the month of August.  We were going to another funeral.  At least we weren’t going there alone.

We drove through the night.  After all, poor college kids (much less missionary kids) wouldn’t stay at a hotel.  We were climbing over the Smokies as dawn approached, Michael and Jer asleep in the back, me at the wheel alone with my thoughts, music playing softly through the scratchy radio stations that would fade in and out, climbing, climbing on winding roads that reminded me vaguely of trips to the Peruvian highlands.  And in that moment of silence, I remember feeling the darkness around us as a tangible thing.  It obscured, threatened to swallow, and though it could be chased away by my little Honda’s headlamps for a few moments, it always lurked just in the corner of vision waiting to pounce.  It was death, and it was out there.  It would not leave me alone.

But…

Just as the darkness threatened to swallow us completely, I realized that this was not the end.  The sky started to lighten, slowly, incrementally, almost imperceptibly.  It wasn’t light – not yet.  It was just “not-as-dark.”  But that was enough.

I probably prayed.  I probably was silent.  I do remember straining my eyes, trying to catch one more glimpse of the sky as the darkness dissipated and was slowly, every so slowly, replaced with shining, shimmering, resplendent light.  I was in awe.  I was full of joy.  I felt that death had tried once more to snuff out hope, but light and life were not done.  They would have the last word.  Life.

There was this moment of convergence where we reached the high point in the pass and began our descent just as the sun broke over the horizon in pinks and golds and hues that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Thomas Kinkade painting.  The winding road lay out before us, cutting over and through golden valleys drenched with clouds that towered above and below us, parts of the mountainside shimmering in and out of visibility as the clouds refracted the sun into rainbows and scintillating light shows.  It felt like I was flying, piloting my little car through banks of clouds and the oceans of light all around.  I had a hard time keeping my foot from crashing to the floor, coaxing every last bit of speed out of my little Honda – after all, we were trying to arrive in one piece…  But the glorious reminders of beauty and life and not being alone were almost overwhelming.

At that moment, I realized that I had only turned down the radio – it wasn’t completely off.  Faintly, almost too quiet to be heard, there was an epic guitar riff building…  So I did what any child of the 80’s would do when confronted with Kenny Loggins’ masterpiece “Highway to the Danger Zone.”  I cried out (waking up Jer and Michael) “I feel the NEED, the NEED for SPEED!”, turned it up to 11, and let the music carry us home.

I carried that moment for a long time as a talisman.  When things got too dark, too heavy, too hard, I could remember that beauty, that joy, that life that flowed through me and creation and Kenny Loggins, and be thankful to be alive, and be thankful that even in the midst of the dark and winding roads, nothing is beyond redemption…  Even Kenny Loggins and the “Danger Zone.”

Thanks Kenny.