One of my favourite pieces of art is a sketch draw by a little refugee girl from Syria. It’s a picture of her family, complete with a bright yellow sun and each family member wearing eclectically mismatched outfits. It’s pretty unspectacular on its own actually, varying little from the typical colourful and quirky drawing that might be produced by any little kid around the globe. But there’s something about it that stands out so powerfully to me: beside the family, there’s a cute little snowman holding an umbrella.
A snowman holding an umbrella? It’s particularly endearing mostly because it’s just ridiculous. But what makes it so noteworthy to me is the context from which this drawing came. It was part of a collection created as part of an art therapy program for young refugees caught in the midst of the ongoing Syrian conflict. A large group of refugee youth were asked to draw their experiences with war and forced migration, primarily as a non-invasive and non-verbal way for them to tell their stories and begin to process the trauma they had endured. The collection is illuminating and entirely heart-breaking. The vast majority of the pictures depict death and separation, with varying degrees of severity and detail. Some pictures are harrowingly clear in what they represent, some are quite abstract. Red is the most used colour - because blood was the most consistent detail across the pictures. Almost every print includes a weapon of some kind.
And then, tucked away in the middle of the collection of prints is the drawing of the colourfully dressed family, the bright yellow sun, and the snowman holding an umbrella. In stark contrast to the pervasive bloodshed: imagination and wonder. In the midst of war and wreckage: the joy of being together. In the midst of “the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time”: the childlike ridiculousness of a snowman in a desert and an umbrella in a drought.
I don’t know exactly why I fell in love with that print like I did, but I framed a copy for my wall and in the past few months since discovering it have often found myself looking at it and reminded of the audacious hope and childlike vision that it represents. It got packed away with all of my other art a few months ago when I moved, but I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot recently. So much of me wants to be like that little girl: relentlessly and authentically optimistic in the midst of complete heartache.
I think a lot of me used to be. But when I’m honest, I often feel a thousand kilometres down a scenic and bumpy road from that little girl. almost unable to recognize that version of myself in my own story. Gone is the girl who was characterized by ambition, romanticism, and optimistic drive. I can still remember how it felt to have resolve and passion to step into darkness and make a difference: where I used to believe that there no place was too far, no dream too big, no research too complicated, and no issue too dark. But I’m not that girl anymore. I find myself feeling less like someone strong and ready to fight and more like a scared little girl who just wants to climb up into my Daddy’s lap and settle into the comfort of His strong embrace: still wide-eyed and dreaming - but also broken & tired, looking upward into His face, desperate to know that it will all be okay.
I could be wrong, but somewhere along the line, we seem to have become so accustomed to living as fighters that we almost don’t know how to live any other way. Like scrawny little boys wearing superman costumes with fake muscles, we fight to appear strong, fight to belong, and fight to prove ourselves to ourselves and to anyone around us who will listen.
We try so desperately to cover up our fears and failures and our well-hidden secrets. We spin and move without pause because we’re so afraid that if we slow down or stop for a minute that they might see that we’re not as put together as we’d often like to believe and we don’t have all the answers we’d like to think we do. We’re searching endlessly for a place and person/people to call home and the comfort of being known, and yet - with each scene of our “perfected” act - are scared to admit that sometimes, sometimes we’re just scared. And scared to acknowledge that even though we’ve outgrown our fears of monsters under our beds - that we still hardly know how to effectively step into the pain and mess that surrounds us and is within us without it swallowing us whole.
We might grow(ing) up, you and I, but I don’t think we ever get that far away from the starry-eyed kids who dream that life will be an epic adventure fully of wonder and whimsy and that we’ll always be safe and loved. With our degrees and our paycheques and our greying hairs, we might get better at tricking ourselves into thinking we have (some of) the answers, but I think we’re all still a lot like those kids: looking upwards with both sadness and sparkle in our eyes, desperate for someone to tell us that it’s all going to be okay.
Desperate for someone to reassure us that our hearts won’t break past the point of being able to recover. That this pain isn’t the end of this story. That these losses aren’t for nothing. That this goodness is just a glimpse of what’s coming. That this rawness and this brokenness isn’t all there is. That someday it won’t hurt so much or feel so overwhelming. That the risk is worth it. Desperate to know that what we’re doing matters. That we matter. That we’re worth choosing and loving and celebrating and not just spinning here without purpose. That we’re not alone. That the way we’re spending our time and money and emotional and mental energy is making the world better somewhere, somehow. That God is always good and always in the business of making all things new. & that especially that when it seems to like He might not be that it’s okay to feel that and talk about that and wrestle with Him about that.
Tell me that the light will always shine into the darkness and that the darkness will never win. Tell me again that love alone is worth the fight.
I’ve been thinking about the incarnation a lot lately: about the crazy beauty and audacity of a God who came to be with us. The God who moved into our neighbourhood(s) and made his home on these broken streets. The God who subjected himself to rejection and pain and isolation and loneliness and loss and ache and temptation so that he could not only rescue us out of those things, but so He could also be with us - in the tears and the ache and the frustration - and weep with us.
Because sometimes I wonder if the almost overwhelming pain we feel and the anger that rises up in us about injustice and disease and violence and loss and babies who have to go to sleep hungry or kiddos that growing up in families where they don’t know love is just the tiniest glimpse of how much God feels about all of that and the tiniest taste of how much His heart aches with every tear and cut and bruise.
Sometimes I wonder if He just so badly wants to be the kind of Dad who just gets to lavishly spoil His kids and shelter us from ever knowing the pain of rejection or the sting of loss. Or if sometimes - sometimes - He just wants to wrap us up and hold us tight and take away everything that makes life here so hard.
As appealing as it sometimes feels or seems, we don’t have a God who waved a magic wand and made everything easy for us. But I think we have something so much better: the God who promised us that no matter what we would face: He’ll be with us. And the God who showed us by example that there is something so much deeper and more beautiful and more powerful going on here that what we can see or yet understand.
He's the God who is here: In the broken real life places. Not removed from the hurt, but right in the depths of it with us. In all those places so painful we don’t have words to speak of them. In the cracks and bruises. The shadows and secrets. The wonder and the wilderness and the waiting. The ache that comes from the people we loved who didn’t love us back and the dreams we dreamed that imploded rather than took off. The rawness of hope deferred. The consistent and jarring pain of loss. The uncertainty and the monotony. On the nights filled with tears and the days when we feel so numb we almost wonder if we’re actually living.
And the God who – in the midst of all of that - still wows us and sustains us and sweeps us off our feet. Who strings snow-capped mountains into ranges and fills the vastness of the ocean with life so diverse and colourful and who lights the sky on fire with sunsets so vibrant. Almost as if to tell us, even when we feel like we’re barely putting one foot in front of the other or hardly keeping our heads above water, that life is still crazy beautiful here. The God who surrounds us with people who show us, in a million tiny ways and some really bit ones too, what love is and who gives us chances to do/be the same for others. Who never promises that the road will be easy, but does promise that no matter how many bruised elbows, scraped knees, or broken hearts, we will never walk alone.
There’s something eye-opening, a bit humbling, and also really beautiful about realizing that you’re not the person you used to be any more: that you’ve changed and grown and weathered storms you never expected to face. That you’re stronger than you ever thought you were or could be, but also weaker too (in a good way), far more sensitive than you used to let on, & a lot less concerned with having all the answers. That you’re slowly getting better at rest and grace and that means you’re also getting better at letting go of ambition and more quickly seeing through the unforgiving and unsatisfying lies of achievement. That your heart still beats with the same fierce passion, but that it’s also been broken and bruised a bit because of that, and so, both out of necessity and out of growing wisdom, it finds itself a little bit more careful about where and to whom it pours its energy. That, even after learning and seeing and experiencing more about evil and pain than you wanted to or thought you could handle, you still believe the world to be insanely beautiful, even almost magical at times, and humanity still capable of incredible good.
Here's the deal: I don’t know why we face days and weeks and months and even years sometimes that feel like endless downpours or why life is full of moments when it feels like the darkness just might not lift. I don’t know why the big picture is often far too much for us to handle, why the economy always seems broken, why politicians are so hard to trust, and why the traffic always seems to be particularly terrible when when need to be somewhere quickly.
But I do know and have come to believe this with all that I am: that there’s always enough light to keep putting one foot in front of the other if we look for it and if we’re willing to shine a little light on the path in front of each other once and a while. I know that as much as it hurts to hurt, that pain does open our hearts to love in far deeper ways than we are able to love when we still thought the world was only safe and good. I know that because I’ve seen and felt it happen in my own heart and slowly - as days turn into weeks and weeks turn into years - it even starts to feel like freedom somehow. I know that even when we can’t muster up enough optimism and hope for the big picture, that we can combat extraordinary pain with ordinary goodness when we go at it moment after moment and day after day.
We can only start where we are. So we do that. Over and over and over. One step, one moment, one person, and one conversation at a time. We own up to our fear. We love fiercely. And hope with abandon. We learn to dance without hesitation and we learn to cry without shame (which I’m starting to think are some of the truest signs of being fully alive).
We wake up each morning and celebrate the wonder and the miracle of being here: of getting another day to be alive and to feel and ache and dream and laugh. We give ourselves more grace than we think we need and we give even more grace than that to the people around us. We laugh and we dance and we wear silly hats on our heads collapse into fits of giggles on the floor when we're hanging out with 3-year-olds. We make cup after cup of tea, listen to music that makes us feel alive, and go for long walks on city sidewalks covered in colourful autumn leaves. We stay up late talking with our roommates, wake up early to catch sunrise(s), and take lazy Sunday afternoon naps. We get on planes to visit people that we love, drop handwritten notes in the mail, and curl up in our favourite chairs with our favourite blankets in our favourite corners of the houses and urban apartments that we make our homes.
We read the news as much as we can to be reminded that the world is vast and beautiful and broken and that we’re part of something so much bigger than ourselves, but not so intensely that we lose the beauty, possibility, and invitation of that reality. We drink red wine slowly and roast vegetables and wild Pacific salmon in the oven. We deliver meals to friends who just had babies and we cry with friends who want babies and don’t have them. We paint and do our laundry and read and go for bike rides and we escape to the mountains and drink coffee by the ocean and we host dinner parties and we scream at the TV when our team is losing and even louder when they pull off the win. And, we pray slowly and honestly, not because we feel that have to, but because we need to and we want to and because it’s the safest and best place in the entire world.
Someday it will all be okay.
Someday the same God who never abandons us to the darkness and who even teaches us to dance in the rain will tear open the sky and make everything okay again. everything.
But we're not there yet. And so we hold on tight. We start where we are. And we fight - not to prove ourselves or to hold it all together - but to keep choosing love, to keep choosing hope, and keep choosing each other. Step by step. Day by day. Moment by moment.