A dirty mattress, covered in blankets, on a street corner along the Seine River. Perched on this cushion in the middle of the crowds sat a young mother, head covered, a toddler unsteadily tottering toward the busy street. Her voice weak, resigned, calling to the boy. We walked by. I smiled, remembering those early days. The exhaustion, the stoic call, slightly pleading in tone.
Twenty-two hours in Paris, the duration of our stay. Sirens from police vehicles on constant recording, just days after attacks on the beautiful city known for art, culture, love. A haven for creators. Police and military wielded guns, serious guns, ones that would rip apart a limb, surprising me as a welcome comfort.
Fear threatened our plans as we learned of the attacks while in Barcelona, the unknown filled me with questions in the night’s middle as jet-lag interrupted normal sleeping. Checking my phone, the concern of friends, Twitter and Facebook detailed headlines that slowly filled in the outlines of theory and questions. The threat of terrorism a solid reality for all of us, none immune. We relived the suffering and uncertainty from our own 9/11. A stress response submerged slightly beneath the surface.
The fear, however, instead of preventing travel, strengthened our resolve, reminding us of the deep importance for Christians to enter in, to appear rather than run. Our work nominal, but significant in defying the desires of the terrorists, to let fear win, to let fear have the last word. To let fear close off the flow of beauty through love’s expression of mercy and compassion. Our presence, our dollars, our patronage a small act of defiance, a small act of empathy.
The pew of Notre Dame hard, unyielding, a welcome relief from the burden of touristing. Red, white, blue lights splayed upon the domed, ancient ceiling. We participated from afar in the prayerful seeking, the grieving of congregants. Walking the stone banks of the Seine River, meandering the courtyards of the Louvre, pausing under the gold gilding of statues. A moment of reverence and wordless prayer at the Bataclan Concert Hall, the memorial overflowing with candles, notes, pictures, quotes, Bible verses. A ten-speed still u-locked to the wrought iron fence upon which the elements were propped, central to the memorial, indicating the owner would not return. Camera crews, a large Muslim contingent offering unified support – equally horrified by the acts of religious extremism in the name of their treasured faith.
Strolling along, distracted by the foreign, grandiose expanse of light, sound – the city on display, the mattress once again in our path. Seated now was a worn young man. In an attempt to avoid the cushion, my eyes glanced downward, resting briefly upon the serene, sleeping faces of mother and child. Nestled in the folds of blankets, hidden, ensconced. Nursing, the child attached at the young woman’s breast, the intermittent suckling an opportunity to provide a small offering of comfort to the young life. A gift of nourishment, a sacrifice of love for this life, born on the run, born into pain, born into conflict.
I uttered meager words after walking past, Could this be a refugee family?
Eric returned, deposited a few Euros into the plastic water cup. We continued on, my thoughts faraway. The young family revisiting me in the sleepless bits of night, in the quiet of train and airplane, in the return to the safety and warmth of my home, my land.
I passed by Jesus. I passed by the least of these, the ones discussed in scripture, the ones in debate after debate on the news. The ones dying in icy waters, drowning, the young and old marching for miles, rejected.
I passed Jesus. His family, his nursing form, mother curled about him, father pleading for coins.
I passed Jesus, this cornerstone of my faith, the benchmark upon which everything is predicated. I kept on walking.
I am Peter. I am Paul. I am the rich man. I am the Pharisee.
The powerlessness of it all, the hopelessness. The fear yearning to creep in, to become hard and sinister and braced. Except, the Christ came and died to be grace, grace that yields pliable and hopeful and beautiful. Grace allows us to live loved, to live well, to live seeing.
Jesus is all around, in the serene face of the nursing child, the worn mother, the hungry father. Jesus is in the mourning, grieving faces at the Bataclan. Jesus in the relief of Carol, our bed and breakfast owner, knowing we came. In the heart of our cab driver in London who confessed his desire to end his life after the conclusion of his professional soccer career.
Jesus is all around, in our children, our friends, neighbors, our schools and churches. Jesus is in the meals, the days, the sleeps, the celebrations. Jesus is in the debates, the votes, the disagreements. He always goes ahead, preparing a place.
Let us not be so enamored with the creation of man, the desperation in the cruelty of evil doers, the fear that threatens to topple and break our comfortable lives. Let us live loosely, our eyes upward, our eyes downward, bowed, recognizing the opportunities before us to shine and provide relief.