One of my favorite scenes from Lord of the Rings.
“I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened in my time,” Frodo says to himself.
Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
I’ve always wished I had control over the world, or at least some superpower, with a stunning costume of course. But I do not. (Have the control, or the costume.)
Gandalf’s reminder is apropos and worth heeding. We don’t choose the times we live in, but it’s often the case that the times choose us, to live out our faith, our resistance and our healing. It is seldom, if ever, fun. Or easy.
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer told us, “we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
This week I read A long way gone; memoirs of a boy solider, Ishmael Beah’s heartbreaking account of his time as a 13 yr. old, conscripted to fight in Sierra Leone’s Civil War. At the age of twelve, Ishmael eluded attacking rebels in his native war torn Sierra Leone. The rebels had killed his family and most from his village. At thirteen, he’d been “recruited “ by the government army, a gentle hearted boy, now prompted to do terrible acts. He writes honestly about how easy it was to surrender to what would be abhorrent. “My face, my hands, my shirt and gun were covered with blood. I raised my gun and pulled the trigger, and I killed a man. Suddenly, as if someone was shooting them inside my brain, all the massacres I had seen since the day I was touched by war began flashing in my head.”
Killing, Ishmael told himself, “Just another rebel responsible for the death of my family.”
Mercifully, at sixteen, he was removed from fighting by UNICEF, and through the help of the staff at his rehabilitation center, Ishmael learned how to forgive himself, to regain his humanity, and finally, to heal.
I’ve never been in a real war. (Although I almost was almost sent to Vietnam.) And reading accounts of war shake me. Everything we count on is upside down. And what happens when our own world is out of control? I can tell you from my experience that when I feel at the mercy of, I allow exhaustion or frustration or emotions on “tilt” to be the final word in my perception of reality.
Of course, I’m not equating our world with the war in Sierra Leone.
But when we perceive the world as a dark, savage place, we will believe that ruthlessness, selfishness and callousness are required to survive in it.
And we never see the good. Or hope. We never see the power of the ring.
People stop trusting each other, and every stranger (or immigrant) becomes an enemy. Even people who know you become extremely careful about how they relate or speak.
Just look at half my Facebook feed. There is someone linking to a video with the headline: Watch X demolish Y. Or destroy. Or humiliate. Does that sound like civility to you?
I’ll be honest. I don’t like what this is doing to me, as if I’m sucked into a vortex where I’ve lost my way, my true north.
Here’s the deal: Words matter. Rhetoric matters. And a cruel worldview diminishes us. It diminishes me. And I will tell you that I don’t want to lose passion, resilience, faith, compassion, kindness, courage, empathy, character, creativity, generosity or pluck.
Yes, I may wish the ring had never come. But with it, is the invitation to step up, and play our part in any great transformation.
So. Where do we find the reset button?
There is a heartrending scene early on, when Ishmael and his friends are on the run from the rebels.
We had traveled for more than six days when we came in contact with a very old man who could barely walk. He sat on the verandah of a house in the middle of the village. His face was too wrinkled to still be alive, yet his dark skin was shiny and he spoke slowly, gobbling the words in his jaws before he let them out. As he spoke, the veins on the forehead became visible through this skin.
“Everyone ran when they heard of the seven boys on their way here. I could not run at all. So they left me behind. No one was willing to carry me and I didn’t want to be a burden,” he said.
We explained to him where we were from and where we wanted to go. He asked us to stay for a while and keep him company.
“You young fellows must be hungry. There are some yams in the hut over there. Can you boys cook some for me and yourselves,” he politely asked. When we were almost finished eating the yams, he said slowly, “My children, this country has lost its good heart. People don’t trust each other anymore. Years ago you would have been heartily welcomed in this village. I hope that you boys can find safety before this untrustworthiness and fear causes someone to harm you.”
He drew a map on the ground with his walking stick “This is how you get to Yele,” he said.
“What is your name,” Kanei asked the old man.
He smiled as if he knew that one of us would ask this question. “There is no need to know my name. Just refer to me as the old man who got left behind when you get to the next village.” He looked at all of our faces and spoke softly, with no sadness in his voice.
“I will not be alive to see the end of this war. So, to save a place in your memories for other things, I won’t tell you my name. If you survive this war, just remember me as the old man you met. You boys should be on your way.” He pointed his staff toward the path that lay ahead of us. As we walked away, he erased the map with his foot and waved us off with a raised right hand and a nod. Before the village disappeared from our sight, I turned around to take one last look at the old man. His head was down and he had both hands on his staff. It was clear to me that he knew his days would soon be over, and he didn’t bother to be afraid for himself. But he was for us.
God bless that old man.
I love hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My favorite, an old Cherokee Indian trail, where we make our way up to Hemphill Bald, the highest point in the Cataloochee Divide.
On the ascent, we will pass an old misshapen white-oak tree. While stately, it’s easy to walk on by, and save for noticing the bent trunk in the shape of a lightening bolt, giving it little thought.
Until I learned the story of the tree.
The 70-foot tall oak – somewhere between two and three hundred years old – is not merely a freak of nature. As a sapling, the tree was “trained” (intentionally bent) by Cherokee Indians. The purpose? To communicate with every trail-walker. The tree is literally, a signpost, or a message for generations of Cherokee travelers to let them know that they could stop here, and from the shape of the tree, find their bearings.
Those who know the park, simply call it the Cherokee Tree.
It is easy to lose our bearings.
And yes, with Frodo, we wish none of this incivility had ever happened in our time, which means that we need the invitation of the Cherokee Tree.
And to those young boys, the old man is a Cherokee tree.
A reminder to find our bearing for resilience…
That regardless of fear, we can choose hope.
That regardless of uncertainty, we can choose to trust other people.
That regardless of ugliness, we can choose to give and receive grace.
That regardless of discord, we can choose to seek harmony.
That regardless of animosity, we can choose kindness.
That regardless of intolerance, we can choose inclusion.
I spent two days this week at Warm Beach Conference Center with the teachers and staff from Seattle’s Bishop Blanchet high school. I tip my cap to educators everywhere. Thank you for doing what you do. We were there to replenish from a world that takes a toll. To choose to live and teach and give from a vulnerable and undefended heart.
In my garden today, tidying up and prepping for spring. And I chatted with Fred and Ethel, our resident Mallard pair. They tell me it’s just about nesting season. They give me hope.
Quote for your week…
As I get older I realize that the thing I value the most is good-heartedness. Alice Walker
POEMS AND PRAYERS
I stood there taking in the sheen on the crow’s beaks,
the heaving of the horse,
the sire and fall of my father’s voice,
the breeze driving clouds and tousling my hair,
and the aroma of freshly turned soil as of something right our of the oven.
These sensations went deep into me,
along with the shapes and textures of skin, shell,
scales, feathers, leaves, bark and fur.
They were the first alphabet I learned, before letters of words.
I still don’t have words to say what attracted me to the life of woods and fields,
except to call it the holy shimmer at the heart of things.
Scott Russell Sanders
Calm me, quiet me, settle me…
Steady me, balance me, ground me…
Plant me, root me, embed me…
Support me, sustain me, protect me…
Forgive me, pardon me, free me…
Refresh me, restore me, heal me…
Enfold me, embrace me, hold me…
Lord, hear my prayer today!
Fr. Austin Fleming