6.18.2011

Things as they are / should be

We have quite a story.  Quite a history.  Do you ever wonder how you are contributing to the history of the world?  I believe in a world of wonders, and I believe that all of our lives contribute to the world's story one way or the other.  Maybe it's just naivety or my trusting and positive nature, but I like to think that my life makes a difference and that we truly can change the world for the better (even if worse comes first).  I hesitate to confess this to people sometimes, knowing that it makes me look small, young, green, and stupid.  But it doesn't come from a lack of knowledge, experience, or insight.  I may be young, but I have seen a bit of mess and horror in the world.  I have seen poverty more closely than most of my neighbors, and I am humbled by it.  It plagues me and the way that I live.  It is all too easy to sit in despair - in fact, sometimes I welcome it.  Despair and knowledge of the world can be so real, so raw, you can hardly imagine beauty and goodness.  Reality is just that - real, tangible, experiential.  I like to feel things, experience them fully.  I like what I know and want to know and feel more of what is real.  I am thankful for these raw and startling experiences of wretchedness.  They keep me grounded, humbled, and simple.  But I am incredibly grateful for the interruptions of wonder, of being surprised by grace, that hope makes its way into my spirit in some magical way.

I recently finished reading John Steinbeck's account of travels across the country with his dog, "Travels with Charley."  He embarks on an unusual journey of wandering intention, with an ambition to learn something about America and the nature of humanity, ultimately wondering, "What are Americans like today?"  

Near the end of his travels with Charley (a French standard poodle who responds best to commands in French and will capture your heart with his peculiar personality and empathetic nature), Steinbeck makes his way through the south.  This is 1960, when the turmoil between races was at its peak.  Despite his best efforts, Steinbeck encounters racism in its rawest form when compelled to see firsthand the so-called "Cheerleaders," a group of white women protesting the integration of black children in a New Orleans school.  Steinbeck's account of the scene is chilling.  He recounts the scene of "Cheerleaders" as "bestial and filthy", unable to repeat the language used in jeers and shouts at the children.  He describes the arrival of a "small, scared black mite," a little girl who must make her way to school through a crowd of hate.  Following the little black mite, Steinbeck recalls the appearance of a white man in a gray suit, who walks alongside his little white child through a sea of even greater contempt.

Appalled at such hatred, Steinbeck remembers that he has met good people in New Orleans as well.  There are others, who live lives of integrity and grace, who contribute to the advancement and creativity of humanity. 

"But where were the others - the ones who would be proud they were of a species with the gray man - the ones whose arms would ache to gather up the small, scared black mite?"

Such people had left New Orleans "misrepresented to the world."  
He concludes that Southern people were afraid to change their way of life.  
Fear.  It always comes back to fear, doesn't it.  Fear of who and what we don't know. That which makes us uncomfortable and forces us to change.  Fear can make people forget who they are.  Furthermore, it has the power to cause people to forget who they were created to be.

Me.  You.  The "Cheerleaders."  John Steinbeck.  The scared black mite.  The gray man.
It can overwhelm any of us.

My question is, what kind of story are we living?  How are we contributing to the history of the world?  If someone like John Steinbeck were to travel across America with his dog now, what would he find Americans are like today?  Would he find that we've changed much in 50 years?  Mercy, I hope so.  I think it is the belief that we have changed that keeps me going.  

I am sorry that this "bestial and filthy" record is a part of our history.  I do not want to be a city or a nation or a people misrepresented to the world.  I am grateful that we are a responsive people, with the ability to remember, acknowledge, confess, and forgive.

And then, “Somehow we realize that great stories are told in conflict, but we are unwilling to embrace the potential greatness of the story we are actually in. We think God is unjust, rather than a master storyteller" (Donald Miller, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years).

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