Loving our enemies in an age of fear

Recently, I have heard a lot of people say “If that person becomes our president, I am seriously terrified about what might happen to our world.” Each time I’ve heard this, I have noticed I am quick to empathize with them, to nod in agreement, to let my own fears be voiced and magnify the concern in their comment. Basically, I keep finding that I tend to contribute to the fear mongering and help make a mountain of fear from a molehill of concern.

This recent pattern has left me wondering: What happened to my tendency to be an optimistic person? Why are we all so afraid? And, how is Christ really inviting us to respond during this Lenten season?

I don’t think I have it all figured out. But, I am pretty sure about this: practically everyone I know — including myself — is…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

Photo credit: http://tom1st.com/2014/03/30/big-fear-little-fear-fear-fear-fear/

The frailty of my faith (or, How losing my daughter in the park gave me a glimpse of my own hypocrisy)

I only took my eyes off of her for a few seconds …

It’s so cliché, but so damn true.

This summer was an unusually sweltering one in the Pacific Northwest, and our local splash park offered a welcome reprieve from the relentless heat. Facing yet another 90+ degree day in mid-August, I brought my girls there to fill the post-nap/pre-dinner block of time. They were happily rotating among the splash park, playground and sandpit.

My younger daughter, still beaming from her weeklong reign as the Birthday Girl (“I two! I two!”), was thirsty, so I told my older daughter that I was going to fill up our water bottle. The water fountain is perhaps twenty feet from the splash park. It took me less than a minute to walk to the fountain, position my two-year-old’s fingers so that she could “help” fill the bottle, and look back up to where I had left my almost four-year-old.

… and she was gone.

 

Image courtesy of www.freeimages.com
Image courtesy of www.freeimages.com

I scanned the whole of the splash area, noting the rambunctious “big kids” manning the frog squirter, the joyful birthday party at a nearby picnic table, the toddler crying in his mother’s arms. This was by no means the first time I’d ever lost sight of my daughter, so I was confident she would emerge from behind another child or a big water toy. But she didn’t. I stopped filling the bottle and scooped up my youngest. It occurred to me that perhaps her sister had decided to run back to the sandbox, and as I made my way there, I considered potential punishments for running off without my permission.

But she wasn’t in the sandbox … or at the swings … or in the bathroom.

I had now looked everywhere I could imagine her going by herself. Several minutes had passed, and panic was creeping in.

I ran up to the birthday party and asked if any of them had seen a little girl matching my daughter’s description. Though they hadn’t seen her, they recognized the fear in my eyes and sprang into action, each heading to a different part of the park.

I stayed close to one of the moms, clutching my two-year-old and sputtering useless details about my oldest daughter’s swimsuit, as if the tiny cupcake design on the front of it would be the deciding factor in locating her. I was starting to go in circles, looking in the same places over and over again; afraid to stray too far from where I’d last seen her in case she was looking for me too.

I glanced at my watch; I had been searching for too long. At what point do I call the police, if the first hour is so key? Do I dial 911, or is there some kind of hotline?

My thoughts were scrambled. My capacity for rational thought was unable to overcome the horrific “what-ifs” emerging from the periphery of my mind where I, like all parents, try to banish them. This community park is large and uncontained, encompassing not only the splash park and playground, but sports fields, a walking trail, and several open fields adjacent to parking lots. It would be impossible to lock it down.

This is also the park where many of the people experiencing homelessness in our community spend their days. To my utter shame these “least among us,” for whom I claim to have such great compassion, were featured prominently in the horror reel of “what-ifs” flashing through my mind. I could feel myself starting to lose it.

And then we found her.

A woman from our makeshift search party directed my attention to an anonymous dad waving in a distant field. Beyond him … my sweet girl; running happily with her arms wide open and her ponytail flying behind her. We were separated by 200 yards and—much further—by the ability to be turned completely upside down by an incapacitating fear of the worst-case scenario.

She had been missing for a total of 10 minutes.

I have no idea who (or even how many) helped me search for my daughter that day. By the time I reached her, I could barely choke out “thank you” to the people in front of me, never mind the others who had spread across the park. They are nameless, faceless heroes of mine.

I had been right, as it turns out, to relegate those insidious and terrifying “what-ifs” to the fringes of my consciousness. My daughter went missing, but there was no “stranger danger.”  The only strangers with whom I interacted were doggedly working to help me find her. This story has no villains: no stalkers, no kidnappers, no opportunistic perverts.

By all accounts, my faith in humanity should be renewed. I should be a more optimistic mother.

Except I’m not.

Ever since that day, I have found myself keeping a tighter grip on my daughters as we walk through crowded areas. I have been looking more suspiciously at almost-certainly decent, help-you-find-your-daughter sorts of people in the park. I have been questioning the presence and motives of anyone who doesn’t fit my image of someone who belongs at kids’ events: young, involved, “vanilla” sorts of people … people like me.

In those ten minutes, the horrific “what-ifs” of parenthood became real to me in a way they had never been before. I began seeing enemies where they didn’t exist. It makes me wonder: What kind of person would I be if they really did?

The expression “there but for the grace of God go I” has really been resonating with me in the wake of those excruciating 10 minutes. If even I—with my privileged life and my happy ending—if even I have become more mistrustful and judgmental of others as a result of 10 minutes of unrealized “what-ifs,” then where but for the grace of God would I be?

If I had spent my life as an undocumented immigrant, or an unwelcome refugee, or an impoverished person of color, would I see the people around me as my brothers and sisters in Christ … or would I see them only as potential threats to myself and my children?

I majored in peace studies, so I can wax philosophical about “unmasking the other” and ubuntu and restorative justice until my lips turn blue. But I have never had to do so in the face of pervasive violence, instability, or oppression. Thanks be to God, I do not have to do so in the face of every parent’s worst nightmare.

But if that weren’t the case? If my worst-case scenarios dwelled not in the fringes of my mind but in my lived experience, would I be capable of the sort of compassion, hospitality, and goodwill that Jesus demands of his followers?

I seriously doubt it.

And so I do the only thing I can: I turn once more to Jesus, and say a prayer of gratitude for His grace, which has truly saved a wretch like me.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge lives in the Seattle area with her husband and two daughters. She hopes that her daughters do as she says, and not as she does … and that her emotional aversion to the local splash park has waned by the time next summer comes around.

An empty tomb

Happy Easter!

On this Holy Saturday the Easter story, read from the Gospel of Mark, left me more confused than comforted. This is how Mark tells it: early on the third morning, three women come to the tomb with spices to care for Jesus’ corpse. They worry about how they’re going to move that impossible stone. But what do they find? An empty tomb. No angel. No Jesus. No blinding light or writing in the sky. Just a man in white telling them that Jesus is gone, that he has been raised and has gone before them to Galilee. What do the women do? “Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).

Sculpture image printed with permission of artist M.J. Anderson
Image of sculpture (created for Church of the Resurrection, Solon, Ohio) printed with permission of artist M.J. Anderson

And that’s it. The very last words in our earliest written Gospel. “Afraid.” What are we supposed to do with that? Well, usually we skip over it. We prefer the confident glorified Jesus in the Gospel of John. We just don’t know what to do with an empty tomb and silent women that run away. The early Gospel writers even tacked on an ending (Mark 16:9-20) crafted from bits of other Gospel passages, to make people feel better. In this added ending there is a resurrected Jesus standing at the tomb. The disciples still struggle to believe but at least Jesus is visible. What are we to do with silence, and darkness, and an empty tomb?

But what if the Gospel of Mark was meant to end that way? What if the empty tomb itself is enough proof that Jesus is raised from the dead? What if the women’s reaction was actually an expression of faithful witness? What if it is all right that sometimes you cannot find words for the “bewildering” mystery of God? What if to flee the tomb in “utter amazement” is a legitimate way to live our Gospel faith? What if we just speak really poor Greek (which definitely describes me) and the word translated here as “fear” is more accurately and consistently described as God-inspired awe?

Mary, Mary, and Salome did not fail. Because, actually, they did tell someone the good news of Jesus’ victory over death. They told it with their lives. How do we know that? Because the church started, which is something the first readers of Mark would have known for sure. They were the church. They were gathering in homes and telling these mind-blowing stories, breaking bread, healing the sick, and willing to risk their lives for this Jesus they talked about. Sometimes, they even died for him—just ask our brothers and sisters in Syria, Kenya, and Libya what they know about that.

What is enough for me to believe that Jesus has smashed death to pieces? I do not need to see his risen body in front of me. I do not even need any archeological or scientific proof. The overpowering awe that shook those three women on that early morning still reverberates in my own small heart. Their utter amazement was a spark that started a wildfire that cannot be stopped. I know Jesus is alive. I know that he brings freedom, light, and truth to all, usually in unexpected ways. As unexpected as an empty tomb. That is enough.