I hate that I had to tuck my kids into the darkness of a terrible world this weekend. I could see fear creep over them as they witnessed the dark hearts of men drunk with hatred, propelled by the power of distorted ideas. It broke my heart to see them instinctively gather extra blankets, trying to find cover from an inscrutable world.
What sort of world do we hand to our children? Where ordinary public spaces, like restaurants and concert venues, are targets and good ordinary things, like planes and bodies, are bent into instruments of death through some sin-warped imagination, where Jihadi Johnny is not a sick character in an ugly film but a real person doing unthinkable things.
I wish for a different time for my kids but the truth is that what has played out in Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris is simply more of the tired story of sin in our beautiful but broken world. I can’t avoid it so I wonder, how do I equip my kids to live in this moment, to rise up to the call to live well in these times we are given?
I’m hopeful for what I see in them, the deep-in-the-bones awareness that these acts saw against the grain of the universe. I’m glad they find it incomprehensible that humans can do these things. But I wish I had better answers for them about what to do. These realities are so daunting, so overwhelming.
And yet, I also don’t want them to feel powerless in this world, to live as if fear rules or that they have to possess political clout or position to make a difference.
In one of his letters, C.S. Lewis writes, “Lord, how I loathe big issues!” It was an echo of a stream of wisdom in the gospel. Jesus repeatedly highlighted the remarkable potency of small things; whenever he spoke of God’s Kingdom at work in the world, he used images like salt, children, yeast, and seeds.
I’m finding in the small, ordinary practices of Jesus a way for me and my kids to protest violence. I do believe there’s a limited place for the larger exercise of force to curb evil, and I pray for those leaders who bear the weight of the world, praying for a wisdom beyond themselves to guide and direct. Those big acts of savvy diplomacy and military engagement are necessary as corrective responses to a world that has lost its way. But the foundations of a world set right are found elsewhere, in smaller, ordinary acts and practices.
Small acts are so needed because they possess a nuance that the big can never deliver – and the complexity of our world demands subtlety and nuance. An institutional response or national action just doesn’t communicate the needed relational subtlety and personal nuance that a face-to-face conversation or act of hospitality does. When I listen to the story of a refugee instead of the chatter and rage of social media, I’m thrust into a very nuanced and personal engagement. There’s nothing abstract in the personal act of extending and receiving forgiveness – the up-close tears and expressions of regret are part of the reweaving of a frayed social fabric.
So I’m encouraging my kids to respond in small acts as a way to respond to this world they’ve inherited:
Turn me tender: when we prayed as a family this weekend, it was the most basic and important small-act response: to pray for all those who vandalize goodness and are enemies to peace; to pray for the hurting, the victims; to pray and long for a world where there is peace for all. It looks, even feels, so small, so useless. But as we bring our aching hearts, our bruised hopes, our rush to judgment before God, what happens is our hearts are turned tender, to borrow a line from folk artist Martyn Joseph. Our world doesn’t need more brittle hearts and curdled spirits – praying keeps us humble, inviting God to be the judge on the injustice we see all around us, freeing us instead to pursue the singular call to love.
Swift to understand: every morning as my kids head off to school, I tell them: “Learn lots but love more.” That’s not a little pep talk for them each day but a reminder of a good way to live. Those small acts of understanding – taking time to listen well, becoming students of those different from us, listening to and telling the stories of our lives – all are catalysts for compassion, respect and goodwill.
Love generously: and then, even when they don’t understand, I hope my kids will show generous love. This is hard, especially when something like hate or fear feels so much stronger and real. So I hope they practice love, small acts of love for others even when they don’t feel like it. Those regular acts of love, civility and common courtesy shape a disposition of good will towards others and help establish a wider common good.
Delight as defiance: Could it be that our best protest to all that is evil and wrong is to deeply delight in all that is good? Here’s the thing about evil – it only exists as a parasite on the good in the world. Evil is a vandal of all that’s right in God’s beautiful world. A defiantly good protest to evil, often the antidote to fear, is to delight in what is good.
The day after the Paris attacks, I was driving my son to his ball hockey game. We were listening to the Vinyl Cafe (a Canadian radio show of story and music – Americans, think Prairie Home Companion) and we laughed hard and long at the cracking good story of Stuart Mclean. It was a joy that tapped into something truer than evil, something deeper that heals.
Isn’t this part of why Jesus invited us to be like children, because their small acts of delight and beauty form a counter witness to the violent cycle of insult, offense and harm.
Perhaps the most subversive act is beautiful and small – to go play hockey on the street; read stories that delight; sing (it’s really hard to remain enemies with people you’ve joined in a song) and dance (same for those you’ve linked arms with in a dance) and enjoy a good meal (and same for those you break bread with). Defiantly play, create and laugh – because joy is stronger than evil, love always bests fear, and as the story of Jesus reminds us: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
And here is that beautiful song of Martyn Joseph, “Turn me tender.”