I don't watch acrobats very often, but I'm quite taken by their willingness to work without a net. There is something captivating about watching someone walking on the high wire or grasping at a swinging bar . . . knowing full well that catastrophe is just a slip away. Unless we have a truly twisted heart, we're not actually hoping for that slip. Instead, we want to see someone soar and fly and succeed . . . and, yes, survive . . . without a net.
It's the same with theatre. I absolutely love movies, but I love theatre even more. Actors work without a net. Even if the lines were perfectly delivered the night before and even if the song has been beautifully sung a thousand times, the next performance is brand new. And there's no net. Again, unless we have a twisted heart, we're not hoping for a misstep, Instead, we want to see the heart and the courage and the risk that comes to life when there is no net.
It's the same with life, with your life and with mine. We live without a net. We do our best to do the right thing, the good thing, the best thing. But we also know how easy it is to choose the wrong path, to stumble, to fall. We might wish for a world where gravity can be suspended for just that instant before we hit the ground, where ill-advised words somehow disappear in space before they can be heard, and where stationary objects suddenly move out of the path of our car - but that's not the real world. Instead, we sometimes fall, our ill-advised words are almost always heard, and accidents can't always be avoided.
How great it would be to wake up each morning and simply un-do all of our mistakes from the day before! But that kind of thing only happens in movies, fantasies at that.
To make this even more challenging, we never get to see how things would work out if we were to choose a different path or act in a different way. We have to leave that sort of speculation to cinema or literature. For our part, we can only see where this particular path leads, and we can only wonder about what might have been, what could have been, or what should have been.
We live without a net.
And without a net, we deal with every soaring success and every stupid stumble. Sometimes our hand slips from the bar and we crash to the ground, and sometimes we get pushed from the platform. Sometimes we miss our cue, and sometimes the orchestra gives us the wrong note. Sometimes we trip on stage, and sometimes we are in the middle of our leap only to discover that the arms intended to catch us aren't in the right place.
There are so many ways to stumble.
And God could keep that from happening. Honestly, he could. But generally, he simply allows the play to continue.
What are we to make of this God who grants us this terrible and wonderful freedom to try, to soar, to fail, to fall? What are we to make of this God who will allow us to fall, allow us to choose what's less than best, allow us to act in ways that do damage to ourselves and to others? What are we to make of this God who refuses to put out a net - but who forever says that he loves us and that he will never leave us? What are we to make of this God who is right here with us when we fall . . . however it is that we fell?
It's tempting to think that it would be so much better to have a net. But God, I think, loves it when we live with heart and courage and risk. I think God loves it when we try to do impossible things. I think God loves it when we act in ways that we believe will please him -- even if we aren't completely sure.
Maybe he cares more about the desire that's in our heart than whether we get every little thing exactly right.
So . . . do you adopt the baby even though you're told how risky and expensive that will be and even though you're assured that adopting a baby will pretty much ruin your safe and comfortable life?
Do you stay at the school that has loved you and cared for you for your gradaute degree even though other schools would ensure much better prospects for your future?
Do you move your family across the country to a place you've never heard of? Do you give up a life you love and ask your children to say goodbye to their friends simply because you have this sense of guidance and call deep in your heart?
Do you walk away from a destructive work situation even though you know that you have nowhere else to go and even though there is simply no way that you'll be able to pay your bills and even though your daughter has three years of college left? Or do you stay and fight? Or do you simply deny your convictions and go along to get along?
Do you huddle with a small group of people and decide to start a new church even though you have no place to meet and even though you have no tangible resources and even though you know almost nothing about starting a church?
And will you do all of that without a net?
Those are the questions that have pretty much shaped my entire adult life.
Did I make the right choices? Did I do the right thing? Did I come up with the right answers?
I think so. I hope so.
But whether I did or not, I found this God who stayed true to me no matter what. He doesn't always protect me from even my own foolishness, but he is always there to say, "Let's take one more step."
For my part, here's what I say: Adopt the baby. Choose the school that doesn't have the best reputation. Make the move. Walk away from the bad work situation. Start the new church.
And go out in front of people and sing the song. And dance on stage. And get out on that high wire.
Live with heart. Live with courage. Live with risk.
True, there's no net.
But you will never be alone.
I remember studying the politics of war when I was a college student. It might have been obvious to everybody else at the time, but I was amazed to learn about the need to dehumanize enemies in situations of conflict. Since (at least for most people) it's difficult to act violently toward other human beings, in a conflict it is essential to see other human beings as less than human. Once we do that, we are able to belittle and demean and even kill.
One of the best ways to dehumanize others, I learned, is through the use of labels. Frankly, most of the labels are pretty offensive and I'm not about to use them here. If you're old enough, you can remember what enemy combatants were called during World War Two. And you probably can remember some of the labels that were used during the Vietnam War. Even if you're not old, you have surely heard (and probably used) labels during more recent conflicts and disagreements. I suspect that you know exactly what I'm talking about.
Interestingly, these destructive labels are not reserved for the people we happen to be fighting in wars. Today, anyone who disagrees with us deserves a label. And once we've pinned on the label, that person becomes a little less than human (and eventually not human at all) - which, of course, is exactly what we intend.
There might have been a day when titles and descriptions simply provided definition, but today even the simplest word carries judgment and criticism and disdain.
If you're not exactly like me, you deserve a label. And that label doesn't merely describe; it demeans and destroys and dehumanizes.
I'm as guilty as anybody else. Especially in our world today, I see a lot of people I'd like to fix. And frankly, if they are not open to being fixed, I'm quick to judge.
But with each new tragedy and with each shocking display of inhumanity, I'm realizing that my attitude is simply wrong.
Nobody needs to be fixed more than me. And nobody deserves judgment more than I do.
If you're compelled to use a label, let me suggest person or human being. If you come from my background, try somebody made by God or someone for whom Christ died.
For pronouns, we'd be better off with we and us, rather than they and them.
Whatever our politics . . . whatever our religious convictions . . . whatever it is that we fear and feel the need to fight against . . . we are talking about people. Just people. Human beings declared to be of immense worth by our Creator. Human beings loved profoundly by God.
Humans beings whom God refuses to label.
When G.K. Chesterton was asked what was wrong with the world, he answered quite simply, "I am."
What's wrong with the world today? I am.
My desire to fix other people and my need to judge is getting in the way of the work that God wants to do.
I'm pretty sure that when God gets down to business, the heart that he'll start changing first is mine.
And you might be next.
When our family moved to northern Michigan almost ten years ago, we were aiming for urban living in a rural setting, something like what we had seen in the magazines. We wanted to plant gardens and raise chickens and breathe the fresh air . . . and at the same time enjoy all the amenities of the city. And honestly, we got pretty close. We live on six acres right in the middle of a cow field. Sometimes we act like we've brought our wild world into submission, but more often we just hold on for the ride and hope that our mistakes don't turn out to be deadly.
Almost a decade into our adventure, I continue to be amazed by the veritable animal kingdom that surrounds our home. Most days, I could offer a graduate zoology seminar on our back porch. I have a pair of binoculars handy, but I rarely use them. Instead, I simply look outside and watch. A few years ago I watched the wolves pass by. I haven't seen bears close to the house yet, but I'm told that they are in the area. What I have seen are coyotes, foxes, porcupines, skunks, raccoons, vultures, owls, hawks, hares, deer, possums, feral cats, and all manner of rodents of various shapes and sizes. Bald eagles come so close and show up so often that we've given them names. Right now, there are swarms of dragonflies outside devouring clouds of mosquitoes. If you add to all of that the neighbor's herd of forty cows and our docile but curious black lab, you have quite a menagerie.
It's enough to wish that I were the essayist Wendell Berry. If he were here, he would write quite a story!
I've gotten quite an education this spring. I'll save you the graphic details, but I have seen both wondrous and gruesome sights. As tempted as I am to wax poetic about all that circle of life stuff, it's not as pretty as all that. One day I watched the birth of a calf, and I stood for hours while the mama cow did her work. The next morning, I was crushed to discover that the baby calf (and one other) had frozen to death in the night. For three solid days, the mama cow moaned for her lost baby, and only then did she consider leaving its side. From increasing distances across the field, she watched for predators and raced back to the baby at every threat. Eventually, she gave in to what was inevitable and other animals appeared to enjoy what they considered a feast.
It was as if the animals were following a prescribed order. First, the coyotes came. They showed up in twos and threes during the day, and then came as a ravenous pack at night. Next came the birds. Lesser scavenger birds arrived only after the bald eagles left. And despite what I expected, I saw both coyotes and eagles scatter quickly whenever the mama cow charged across the field toward them. In a confrontation between a grieving mama cow and a hungry eagle, the cow has her way.
It all brought back childhood memories. I could almost hear the subdued voice of Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom telling us about the lion in pursuit of the wildebeest.
Every day I woke up wondering what would happen next.
Within a few days, a deer carcass appeared on the highway in front of our house, the victim of an encounter with a car. The very same process unfolded there. The same animals appeared in exactly the same order and seemed content with the bad fortune of another creature that had become good fortune for them.
As I watched all of this high drama, I looked for lessons.
The whole circle of life thing didn't seem sufficient. I wasn't all that happy about what I was seeing and I couldn't imagine that adding a backdrop of Disney music would help.
Some days I watched my little zoo while listening to political news in the background -- and I imagined which presidential candidates would be represented by the different animals that I was watching. (What I was seeing outside was not all that different from what was being reported on television.)
Eventually, I settled on that old biblical promise of a day when lions and lambs would live in peace together. And I figured that the prophet's promise would also likely include mama cows and coyotes and eagles.
And maybe even people.
This peaceable kingdom that we read about and dream about and hope for isn't yet here. That much is certain.
But one day things will be different.
One day we will, in fact, enjoy the peaceable kingdom.
In the meantime, we would do well to make our little kingdom as peaceful as we can.
Even if the animals around my house don't seem to know how to do that.