I’d just picked up my daughter Harper from preschool. When she was safely buckled into the car and we were headed toward home, we turned onto the main thoroughfare that runs from downtown to our neighborhood, and there she was: the homeless woman we see standing on that corner nearly every day. She stands holding a cardboard sign, her bicycle propped against the fence next to her, and stares with vacant eyes at the rows of cars stopped at the light. She is thin, with short graying hair, which, last winter, she tucked into a thick wool hat. She stands up straight, feet together and shoulders back, as if she learned mountain pose in a yoga class and is practicing.
I avoided making eye contact. I don’t even know what her cardboard sign said.
I tried to keep Harper chatting away so she wouldn’t ask me (again) why the woman was there, and I wouldn’t have to come up with an explanation. I don’t know what her story is, what leads her to stand on the street corner as driver after driver avoids eye contact on the way home to a comfortable house and a hearty dinner.
The light turned green, finally, and we left her behind as we turned toward home. When we slipped into the air conditioned coolness of the house, as Harper went off to her room to get out her paints and I turned toward our full cupboards to pull out some dinner, I felt — not for the first time — the incredible disconnect between the crushing needs of the world around me and the incredible abundance of my life.
Sometimes, I don’t know how to live in this world.
I’m writing this in the days before the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. The attacks that day not only killed nearly 3,000 people but also woke many Americans from a deep and isolated ignorance that had convinced us the world’s troubles had nothing to do with us. The ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have killed many thousands more, including civilians whose names never make it onto our newscasts. Now, soldiers who were just children at the time of the attacks are joining the ranks of those who die on those battlefields. Just this morning, CNN announced that there’s a new terror threat being investigated. The country and the world remain deeply broken.
Harper woke up with giggles this morning, discovering that she had flipped herself around during the night and was sleeping with her feet on her pillow. She sang her way through breakfast and danced out the door to school, where she’ll be surrounded by friends and highly qualified teachers who are teaching her to read. We made cookies last night to share on a play date this afternoon. We’re full of excitement about the baby who is about to invade our lives, whose arrival could happen any time, after a very normal and uncomplicated pregnancy. Here in this little corner of the world, life is very good indeed. We want for nothing, and we are grateful.
But gratitude can’t be the last word, can it? It can’t be enough for us to compare our lives to the lives of most families in the world and simply be thankful for what we have. There must be something else, some other way of responding to the chasm between rich and poor, between the haves and have-nots, between the lives of abundance we lead and the scarcity and pain around us. Surely we are called to do more than give thanks that we are not one of those families being turned away from the homeless shelter because there aren’t any more beds available.
We have an abundance, and we are grateful — but that’s not enough. Gratitude is only the first step.
One of the most compelling chapters in Bonnie Miller-McLemore’s book on parenting, In the Midst of Chaos, is her chapter on justice. In it, Miller-McLemore wrestles with the negotiation needed to honor her commitment to her own children and her commitment to justice beyond the family. “Christian parenting,” she writes, “means not only balancing our own needs and those of our children, but also the needs of our own children and those of other children.” She describes the decision she and her husband faced when moving to a new town and choosing where to live: “Should we live in an area where people of different economic classes or races or sexual orientation would be our near neighbors? Or should we focus on good schools? . . . What would we convey to our kids by choosing a safer route? If we made the riskier choice, how would we handle the extra demands it would bring when we were already so busy with other things?” 1
The choices we make in our daily tasks as parents do matter to the world beyond ourselves.
The choices we make in our daily tasks as parents do matter to the world beyond ourselves. Decisions about where to live and what schools to send our children to, where we shop and how we spend our money — all these choices impact not only our own families but also our neighbors, globally and locally.
But making these choices gets tricky. Living with other people even in the context of family is already one long negotiation. Who’s responsible for doing the dishes? Preparing the meals? Making sure the electric bill gets paid on time? Throwing in a commitment to justice in the world beyond our family just complicates matters further.
Rob and I have wrestled with these dilemmas, and I’d like to be able to tell you about all the good choices we’ve made. I could tell you about washing the cloth diapers in an attempt to keep all those non-biodegradable disposable diapers out of the landfills. I could tell you how I buy most of our produce at the local farmers’ market, or about how we’ve made a commitment to giving a percentage of our income to the church and other organizations we feel are making a real difference.
But then I’d have to also tell you that we have two cars, which we drive even to places close enough to walk. We own a house that has more space than three — even soon-to-be four — people need, with a garage and an attic filled with stuff we get out maybe once a year. We are taking up too much space on the planet. We may buy local produce, but we also eat our share of frozen pizzas, and our recycling can is always overflowing with cardboard cereal boxes. We can give away a good portion of our income because Rob and I both have jobs that pay well, because we were born into families that could afford to give us good educations, and because we’ve been lucky enough to avoid the layoffs of the last several years.
And even the things that feel like sacrifices are not really. We can use cloth diapers easily because we live in a house with a washer and dryer. We shop at the farmers’ market because we can afford it, and because we have free time on Saturday mornings, and because we can drive there and carry the produce home in our car, and because the food tastes better anyway. My choice to support a local bakery instead of our neighborhood Starbucks is hardly a hardship.
What happens when the choice to do something good for the world competes with the commitment to do something good for our family?
But still, even those small choices bring up the quandary Miller-McLemore addresses: What happens when the choice to do something good for the world competes with the commitment to do something good for our family?
For us, this dilemma manifests itself in the diapers. Or it might, when this new baby arrives.
A while back, when Rob and I were just starting to imagine what it might be like to have a second baby, I reminded him that we still had the diapers from last time around. I knew right where they were, I said, and we just had to get them out and wash them, and they’d be ready.
Rob nodded, but then said, “I think we should decide now that if it gets to be too much, we’ll stop. I don’t want it to make us crazy.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said, because it was late, and there was no sense in getting into an argument about what might hypothetically drive us crazy several months down the road. And I appreciated his intentions: He’s looking out for me, for the good of our family. He knows my tendency to stubbornly grab on to an idea and not let go. He wants us to be happy and healthy and sane — and if that means not staying up until after midnight to wash the diapers, then so be it.
But I’m not so sure.
Because right there is the dilemma, I think: What happens when the choice to do right by the world (washing the diapers) means compromising a priority for our family (a rested, less-crazed mom)? And what if the choice isn’t even clear? More than one person, on hearing that we’re using cloth diapers, has suggested that maybe the environmental impact of cloth diapers, with all the extra water and energy required to wash them, was actually worse than that of disposables. (The truth seems to depend on whom you ask; I’ll err on the side of keeping the disposables out of the landfill.)
But it gets even more complicated: What happens when the very things that bring us joy cause pain for someone else? This spring, we bought a new patio table for our backyard. It has an umbrella and comfortable chairs, big enough for just our family, or for Rob and me and a few friends. We’ve spent several lovely evenings out there, talking and eating and watching Harper play. It has enhanced our lives, and we’ve been grateful to have it.
We bought it from a big box store. It didn’t cost much. I’m sure it was made in a factory far away and shipped here, using I don’t know how much fuel and energy along the way. I’d looked for a used one — though I admit it was a half-hearted attempt, a couple glances at Craigslist and one or two trips to consignment stores. I couldn’t find what we wanted, so we went the easy route. I’m well aware that things like that patio table, or the Slip’N Slide we got for Harper’s birthday party, things that bring joy into our lives — and actual, real joy, I might add, not the fleeting kind that isn’t worth it — things like that are possible for us because of the exploitation of others, workers in conditions I don’t even want to think about.
There’s a chasm here I can’t get across.
The baby squirms and stretches and kicks me in the ribs as I click over to CNN to see the continuing coverage of the September 11 anniversary. It occurs to me that to this baby I’m carrying, the attacks of September 11, 2001, will feel like ancient history. Even this ten-year anniversary will simply be something he or she will only read about in history books.
Maybe there’s some truth to the old saying that babies are God’s promise that the world will go on.
Like her sibling, Harper isn’t aware of the September 11 anniversary. She was a mere figment of our imaginations ten years ago, and we’ve not talked about it with her, so while I imagine she’ll pay attention to the twentieth anniversary, she won’t remember this one. She won’t remember that night back in May, either, when the President interrupted late-night television to inform the nation that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after that news broke, Bromleigh wrote an article about how to talk to kids about such a difficult topic. (Another of my life’s many blessings: wise friends who know how to put their wisdom into words.) In the article she wrestled with how to reconcile the fact that we have taught our children that killing is wrong but then we — our president, our military, on our behalf — kill someone, on purpose. She wrote, “In the world God wants us to have, no one would kill anyone. We would not be in any danger, not ever. There would be no war. [But] in this world, all of our solutions to problems are imperfect, and we do the best we can. With God’s help, things get better.”2
The storybook Bible we’ve been reading to Harper, the one written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, talks about “God’s dream.” It’s what Jesus came to show us: the world God wants us to have.
In God’s dream for the world, airplanes don’t fly into buildings. Towers don’t collapse while rescue workers are rushing into them. In God’s dream for the world, women don’t have to stand on street corners and beg for food. Children don’t have to live with their families on top of garbage dumps.
We live in the gap here, between this world and God’s dream for the world, still working and praying and yearning for the world God wants us to have.
But in this world, sorrow and grief and pain and scarcity live on. We live in the gap here, between this world and God’s dream for the world, still working and praying and yearning for the world God wants us to have. I want Harper to know that God made this world, that it is very, very good, and that God delights in our delight of creation and one another. I want her to be grateful for everything she has. But I also want her to understand that we live in the gap between this world and the one God dreams for us, that we are not yet there.
I want her to understand this — and then I want her to do something about it.
We’ll help her, of course. She walked with us in the CROP Walk last year. As we talked with her about why we were raising money — to support Church World Service in its hunger ministries around the world — I was reminded of walking in the CROP Walk when I was a kid. I didn’t know many hungry people then, or at least I didn’t know I did, and participating made me aware that I had food when some other people didn’t, and maybe, even did a little good along the way.
Harper has become my regular grocery-shopping companion, now that she’s old enough to refrain from pulling all the cereal boxes off the shelf when we walk by. I kind of like having her along. It gives me someone to talk to and keeps me from standing too long in the toilet paper aisle, trying to figure out which package is the best deal. Occasionally, I pick up some extra cans of soup or beans to add to our church’s contribution to the local food bank. It occurs to me that I ought to do that every time, and I ought to let her carry the food into the church and put it in the donation bin herself. And when she’s a little older, or maybe even now, we ought to talk with her about why people are hungry in the first place.
My denomination’s humanitarian aid ministry, the Week of Compassion, puts out a “Sharing Calendar” every year, with facts and reminders and challenges such as, “More than a billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water. Give one unit [a quarter or a dollar, or some other amount] for each faucet in your home.”3 Harper would have fun with a project like that. Or we could get involved with an organization like the Heifer Project, which gives hungry families not just food, but the gift of an animal and the resources to support themselves. It would be a good way to talk about where our food comes from, and the difference we can make by making good choices about what we eat. That cuddly sheep on the cover of their alternative gift catalog? She’d love that, too.
And we can talk with her about why we don’t need another toy, why library books are just as good as the ones at the bookstore. We can take her with us to the polls on the next election day, even though she’s too young to vote, and tell her about what we’re doing. We can tell her to turn off the water while she’s brushing her teeth and explain why we’re washing all those smelly diapers.
There’s much more we can do, and I am not willing to wrap up this chapter neatly and tie it with a bow that makes us feel better. I am not going to let myself or my family off the hook. I am not going to say that I’ll just keep being thankful for all we have, that I’ll just keep buying local produce, that we’ll just keep washing the diapers and making the best choices we can, and hope that it’s enough. It isn’t enough. It might be all we can do, but it’s not enough. As long as there are children sleeping in garbage dumps and sons and daughters dying in battle, as long as this chasm exists between the world in which we live and the world God dreams for us, it’s not enough.
So, yes, we’ll practice gratitude. We’ll make choices that are good for other people’s children and not just our own. We’ll teach our kids how they can help, how they can live faithfully and responsibly in this broken world of ours. But we’ll also lift our voices in the words of the psalmist, in those ancient words of lament that for centuries have captured the despair of those who can see that we are not living in the world God wants us to have:
How long, O Lord, how long?
Join the Conversation:
Are there particular instances of brokenness that you and your children encounter on a regular basis? If so, how do you talk with your children about these difficult realities?