Once we’ve seen them, we can’t unsee or forget them. All those people crowding onto the station platform in Kiev, waiting in the cold to squeeze one more person onto the train. Some are not even sure where it will take them, just so it’s going west, having left everything behind that would not fit in a backpack or suitcase.
We can’t unsee them, huddled in a subway station or bomb shelter, being carried from a bombed-out hospital, or staring in shock at their obliterated apartment buildings while gripping the hand of a child, or cradling an infant in their arms.
We can’t unsee the cold, heartless stare of an isolated President who is determined to restore the past glory of the Russian empire with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church.
While it’s sacrilegious for anyone as comfortable as I am to make even the faintest comparison to what they are experiencing, the pictures we can’t unsee leave me a question.
What if I had to leave it all behind?
What if I lost all the things I’ve accumulated; the things that have identified who I am and what I’ve done, the places that have shaped the person I’ve become, the things I’ve known in the past or hoped for the future? What if I had to leave it all behind, not knowing if or when I would return and if the things I left behind might be reduced to dust like the ashes that were imposed on my forehead on Ash Wednesday?
What if I had to cross the border into another country, not sure which road to take or where it would lead? How would I deal with all I had lost? How would I find my way ahead?
I’d like to hope that I could face it in any way similar to Paul who, as a prisoner in Rome, really had lost everything.
“Every advantage that I had gained I considered lost for Christ’s sake. Yes, and I look upon everything as loss compared with the overwhelming gain of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord. For his sake I did in actual fact suffer the loss of everything, but I considered it useless rubbish compared with being able to win Christ. For now my place is in him … How changed are my ambitions! Now I long to know Christ and the power shown by his resurrection: now I long to share his sufferings, even to die as he died, so that I may perhaps attain as he did, the resurrection from the dead.
“I do not consider myself to have ‘arrived’, spiritually, nor do I consider myself already perfect. But I keep going on, grasping ever more firmly that purpose for which Christ grasped me. I do not consider myself to have fully grasped it even now. But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal—my reward the honour of being called by God in Christ.” (Philippians 3:10-18)
What’s the thread?
Wrestling with the question led me back to a poem by William Stafford who, in 1970, was named Poet Laureate of the US. Stafford was a pacifist who registered as a conscientious objector during WWII. He performed alternative service from 1942 to 1946 in the Civilian Public Service camps, doing forestry and soil conservation. It was there that he honed his discipline as a poet. The title of the poem is “The Way It Is.”
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Fortunately, most of us have not faced that question the way folks in Ukraine have been forced to face it. But in our own way, sooner or later, our crises may be smaller, but they are still critical moments for each of us.
Whatever form they take, and however they come, they create a disorienting crisis that leaves us grasping for that thread, the one thing we can hold onto that will see us through.
So, the question becomes, What’s the thread we hold onto when everything else is shaken or taken away? Lent is a good time to be asking it.
Grace and peace,
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