Things have been very difficult the last few weeks. Personally, professionally, family-wise - things have been difficult. Not that this is highly unusual. I think that there are always good things to be grateful for and always challenges that give us the opportunity to grow and learn. The last few weeks have been particularly difficult, but there are going to be times like that, there just are. Sometimes things are better, sometimes things are harder. When I compare this to what is going on for people around the world, I know I remain lucky, that my survival is not being threatened and that this, too, will pass. I know that the nature of my own challenges are such that I have the possibility of growing through and from them, rather than being ruined or devastated by them.
Still, in the midst of difficult times I strive to see the signs of love, of God's presence, of hope in the world. I'm not alone in this. When I shared with my spiritual director about the family of doves that had built a nest in the eaves outside my front window, she felt it was a clear message from God of peace coming, of preace present despite the other things going on, of love and hope.
So what happens when the signs you turn to for reassurance go south? My kids and I have watched the Doves build their nest, lay their eggs, hatch their eggs. We have seen the cute baby chicks being fed and nurtured. And then this morning we saw that no one was in the nest anymore. Instead, there were two dead chicks under the nest and the parents had left, leaving the nest empty and abandoned. And I found myself left with the larger question: what happens when the signs of hope become another example of pain, death, rejection and despair?
The very practical and the very skeptical parts of me rally easily with self talk such as "Well, that wasn't really a sign. It was just a couple birds making a messy nest under the eave, birds who lost their babies and left." And "Well, that is reality, right? Look at what's happening in your personal world and in the larger world, too. Stuff happens. One day things look good and the next they don't. It's just the way it is."
I've found myself thinking about all the very positive (or Pollyanna-ish, depending on how you see it) memes and sayings out there. The one that always sticks with me most being the line from Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, "Everything will turn out right in the end. If it's not all right, it is not yet the end". I've hung on to that, despite the world which shows me something very different. I think about the end of the movie Life of Brian, and the profoundly humorous ending song. Everyone is crucified at the end; Brian, who has really done nothing of any value either good or bad, being among them. And they are all on their crosses, in agony, about to die, singing, "Always look on the bright side of life". It's funny because it's true. There ARE times when there is little to no good to be found. Not, perhaps, for us middle class, white, heterosexual, privileged comfortable folk. But there are people being bombed and killed, there are children kidnapped into sexual slavery, there are people living in extreme poverty, without food and in some places without water, there are people who suffer hate crimes and there are many others suffering beyond the possibility of survival through no fault of their own. There are situations when folk simply cannot "always look on the bright side of life" because there are situations in which there isn't a bright side of life. Again, this isn't the case for me or for people I personally know. I am in a privileged group of folk. I know this. But I am all too aware that it is from a place of privilege only that we can declare that "everything will be all right in the end..." or that we can sing, "always look on the bright side of life." Likewise, it is only people who have never seen a community of children literally starving to death, or have never listened to a person who has just been raped, or have never heard the stories of someone who has been in a war, or have never talked with someone who has experienced human trafficking who can say "everything happens for a reason" because once you have seen, heard or experienced first hand those kinds of atrocities, you know that there can be NO reason, ever, for those terrible things to happen. There can be no kind of loving God, ever, who would tolerate the kind of suffering that goes on in this world. No, God doesn't plan this. There is no reason for this. People do this to each other. And it is awful. And God weeps and works to bring the highest good out of these horrible things. But no good, loving God would ever inflict that kind of pain on another human being.
So I look for the signs of God's presence. I look for the signs of God's love that are there despite the suffering. And I see three things. First, the doves do come. They do. Awful things happen, but beauty happens too. Second, we are called, as always, to refrain from turning away from the hard things and instead to see them, working hard to be the bearers of the kindom (no, that's not a typo) to the world. We are called to see the pain and strive to create a world where the horrors and cuelties no longer take place. Third, that no matter what we do, there will be pain we can't prevent. We can only do what we can do. We are still called to rejoice in the good, to grieve with those who suffer, to remember them, to carry their messages forward, and to continue to work for a better world, despite the results, despite the setbacks, despite the times when the plans we hatch end up in death on the rocks below. Sometimes that will happen. And sometimes the plans will grow into birds who soar and bring messages of peace to others. Giving up is the worst we can do. Looking forward to new possibilities and new life, with Love as our guide, on the other hand, is the best.
Since writing the above, we had an amazing thing happen. As we went outside to get rid of the birds that had died (this happened right outside our front door and a smell was beginning to creep inside), we discovered that one of the two baby chicks had NOT died. We called the nearby wildlife hospital and brought this baby chick to them to care for. I found myself reflecting in a very different way on all of this. I had written above about the importance of keeping our eyes open and working to prevent pain, to help bring about healing. And then we were given the opportunity to do exactly that: to help this little chick recover, despite falling from the nest and despite its parents abandoning the nest. And this time I was truly struck, convicted, by the lesson present in such a concrete way before me. We must pay attention. Because if we had not taken the time to really look at that which seemed painful and perhaps even unbearable, if we had not stopped to see, the chick would not have gotten the help it needed. It sometimes seems easier to ignore the tragedies in our world. But our willingness to look, to engage even the tragedies can also give to us insight about how we can help. That help is needed - everywhere there is pain that help is needed. Turning away will not stop the pain. And while it is still true that there are things we cannot fix, there are also things we can. There are places and people and situations that need us. Without our willingness to be present with the painful realities of life the gifts we have been given for the good of all the world are useless.
I hope that bird, that sign of peace, will fly one day. Either way, I am trusting that the choice to do good, to offer care where it was needed, makes a difference in some small way. And I also have faith that many small ways and small choices add up in the end.