A Dusty Syrian Boy Presents Me with Questions

Dear America,

My God, we’re all so sad, enraged, and perplexed, at least those of us not inclined to strap on explosive vests. I’m not talking about people directly traumatized in Paris or, on this morning of November 20, 2015, victims in Bamako, Mali. Their suffering is beyond our poor power to add or detract.

But I probably shouldn’t speak for you, only for myself, an American who will have to try not to eat too much for supper tonight. I’m not worried about bullets and bombs in my nonchalant town, though shrapnel is far more likely to come my way than lottery winnings. And nobody on the shores of Lake Erie has grumbled lately about a swarm of Syrian migrants.

In short, the Coleman family is viewing developments from the bleachers, which is plenty close. Last evening wife Kathy and I watched a video of a rubber boat full of refugees from Syria via Turkey landing on Greece’s Lesbos Island. Folks from Samaritans Purse, a Christian organization run by Franklin Graham, waited to receive them. Of course, like UNICEF and the Red Cross, SP will gladly take checks or credit cards, so I get that.

But you can’t stage the tears of cold, soaked toddlers. And they were lucky, unlike Aylan Kurdi and his brother and mother, whose boat overturned on September 2, 2015.

Sobbing live kids and dead ones facedown on the sand get my attention. I ache for the adults, but babies make me get real. You might be able to get pissed at Abdelhamid Abaaoud, but not at the boy I saw shouting, “Asma! Karima!” This dusty little Syrian wailing his dead sisters’ names presents me with questions. Maybe they’re your questions, too. My rants and lamentations are bottomless, but they call forth only anger and grief.

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A dusty Syrian boy (Credit: YouTube)

Asma and Karima deserve more from this American in the stands. The least I can do is wonder about myself.

I wonder . . .

  • what it means to say that I’m a Christian. How high up in the nosebleed seats can a follower of Jesus sit? At what point am I compelled to move down closer to the action, to risk my own wellbeing for a child? When do little ones falling off of rubber rafts make me take the baby step of believing—not acting, mind you, only thinking—that imperiled foreigners have a claim on my safety?
  • if ISIS is my lion. The historical accuracy of Christians being torn apart by beasts is now in question, but the story remains instructive for contemporary believers. Certain moments in history decisive for followers of Jesus. For at least some early Christians, sacrificing to Jupiter and Juno was a line they refused to cross. German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer climbed the gallows because he realized that a church cooperating with Nazis was no church at all. He used the term status confessionis to label a situation that forces a Christian’s hand. On a personal level I summarize the discernment as a question: Can I call myself a Christian if I agree that it’s okay to refuse sanctuary to refugee children? From my safe seat, I acknowledge that my soul can be devoured even if my flesh is intact.
  • how long anger and fear should voice my convictions. On the evening of the Paris attacks I paced and said to Kathy, “I won’t think this tomorrow, but I can understand people who say we should bomb the hell out of terrorists. Tell them if anybody else gets killed, that’s on them.” But that was my reptile brain talking, the one that creates faint pilgrims and lonely brothers. What kind of American am I if negative human emotions clog my heart? Regardless of my beliefs, shouldn’t courage and compassion have my last word?
  • how to respond to a question from my son Micah, who actually is on my side. In just a few words, he took all remaining slack out of my deliberations. No way to finesse myself out of the bottom line. “You’re for letting in refugees,” he said, “but are you willing to risk [grandson] Cole’s life?” Well played, son. It took days to work out my answer—or rather, my question. I should say that in a week the Coleman family will celebrate Cole’s second birthday. He has turned me into a complete bore. He is practically all I talk and write about. I’d dive on a bucket of live grenades for the kid. So my question is devastating: “If I were a grandfather in a rubber boat, trying to comfort a soaked and sobbing Cole, wouldn’t I want a nation to risk welcoming me in for his sake?”
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My grandson: Is he worth risking your life for? And if him, why not the dusty Syrian boy? (Credit: Rachel Kaye)

There’s no joy in my questions, much less my answers, which are probably clear enough to thoughtful fellow Americans. But a man in the bleachers eating his fill of ballpark franks and sipping draft beer shouldn’t complain.

Syrian refugees are only in my thoughts, not much of an inconvenience, really. As a spectator I am a passable American and a legitimate Christian.

Peace and love,

John

Beheadings, Exploited Children, Uzis, Nudies, and the Hope of Garage Light

A tame one from a Blue Mountain Brewery growler was just right for last night, Tuesday, September 2nd, with its high dew point. Wife Kathy and daughter Elena picked it up for me when they were in Virginia for a baby shower. As son Micah and Kathy used power tools in the garage, I stood in front of the Kmart box fan in boxers—try to get that picture out of your head!—grateful that the neighbors can’t spot me when I’m in the kitchen. ABC’s David Muir anchored yet another day of withering news, and I sipped toward buzzdom, which was a wise course of action, considering the state of affairs.

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George “Gabby” Hayes, an actor in old westerns (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I should note that I really get up in the face of the evening news, my eyes twelve to eighteen inches from the screen. My jaw probably hangs open, too. Such a bizarre relationship we have, the news and I. Just when I decide to retreat from current events, take up residence in a media-free desert cave, and start to look like a Zen-Christian-hermit Gabby Hayes, another story grabs me by the beard. Check that: it’s not the story that takes hold of me, but the people. Maybe that’s why I’m nose to nose with what’s happening. I see faces and feel obligated to witness on their behalf, as if it’s my calling to stand with them in the only way I can: watch, don’t turn away.

Yesterday was heartbreaking. A brief recap:

ISIS militants followed through with their threat and hacked off journalist Steven J. Sotloff’s head. “I’m back, Obama,” the executioner said. Yeah, no kidding, tough guy. The victim was thirty-one. His mother begged for his release. I would have done the same. Worth a shot.

 

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Kiddos just like these are forced to work the fields to support their families. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Refugee children in Syria have to work in the fields to support their families. Parents, many of them professionals, can’t work because kids are a cheaper pay-date. So they get up at the crack and fill bags of potatoes so full they can hardly lift them. We’re talking seven-, eight-year-olds. Babies! They have lovely, sweet faces that for some time now haven’t been in schoolrooms.

A nine-year-old girl lost control of an Uzi at a shooting range and shot her instructor in the head, killing him. The gun was too much for her, she said. The report went on to show other little kids under adult supervision firing big-ass moxie weapons.

Finally, photographs of naked celebrities are being hacked and made public. This, of course, is wrong as wrong can be. The surprise for me is how many people take nude pictures of themselves or let somebody else do so. Out of consideration for public safety, I would never be undressed around a camera or smartphone.

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The best work for a child in a field . . . pretending to fly (Credit: Radius Images / Corbis)

These stories, a whiplash crash of barbaric and absurd, put me in a fog that the beer didn’t create: another beheading, babies the age of my church kiddos rushing to get potatoes into sacks to their overseer’s satisfaction, a girl who will have to live with malignant guilt forever, and nudies. The result was malaise and paralysis: a chunky guy in boxers with a nice beer in his hand, slack-face glowing in the television’s light. With a fat cigar, I would have been a poor man’s Winston Churchill. I stood there for the longest time, a blob of middle-age wishing there were a way to take those refugee children into my arms, tell them that they’re beloved, tuck them between clean sheets, and sit with them for breakfast before walking them to school. Children, damn it! I didn’t have any prayer in that moment other than sorrowful curses, weary four-letter words.

Of course, sad or pissed or ennui-drunk as you can be, there comes a point when continuing to stand around in your underwear is letting the %$&*@! with the knife win. I had done due diligence as a witness to my sisters’ and brothers’ realities, but was powerless to move on. Then, a whine rescued me.

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All it takes is two people and a drawer, and you can find hope for the world.

Out in the garage, Kathy and Micah were running sanders over our kitchen cabinet doors, getting them ready for a fresh coat. The Coleman family kitchen has seen lots of action in the last thirteen years. Ah, if cabinetry could tell stories: daughter Elena’s rants and twilight escapes and slashes on the wrists; Micah’s howling girlfriend dramas and heroin and felony and house arrest; Kathy’s toil in nursing school and glad landing as a chemotherapy nurse; my own wrestling with anxiety and depression and hours of joyful, messy cooking. The kitchen was there for it all.

So the sanders’ whine took me to the back window, where I watched my wife and son working in the garage, the light spilling out over the silhouettes of sunflowers. During one tough stretch, they went months without speaking. Micah’s hands were perpetual fists, the veins in his forearms popping. Kathy and I just tried to make it through each day.

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Love made visible an hour before dusk.

“Work is love made visible,” Khalil Gibran said. As I received the anointing of Kathy and Micah working away happily together and talking over the whine, joy sat down beside my malaise. No, my spirit wasn’t all better, but hope had taken paralysis in its arms.

I wasn’t moved by a woman and man sanding cabinet doors in a garage. My son had worked his painting job all day. He takes his responsibilities seriously and comes home tired. But he was out with his mom, not because he wanted to put shoulder to wheel for a couple more hours, but because he loves her. That was what I saw: love made visible.

When I went to bed, I kept watching in my mind Kathy and Micah in the garage under gentle light. I have a well in my chest where tears come from, and I could feel my wife and son’s love filling it with peace.

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Dear Light, please comfort your people. (Credit: Sigurdas / Wikimedia Commons)

The older I get, the more flummoxed I am in the face of evil. If the world is always going to have rancor and brutality, maybe the best I can do is make sure that one tipsy man in boxers in one house in one neighborhood in one city will never—by God!—hold the knife or make children gather potatoes. That light from the garage, fragile, delicate as a candle flame: if I could just lift it up high enough for the world to see.

P. S. At lunch today Kathy called me. She was having a crazy, frustrating day, but she knew hearing my voice would make her feel better. That’s love for you. A glance at its light, a whisper from its lips, and the world is mysteriously fit for habitation again.