A few weeks back, not too far down the road from me, a huge plywood sign appeared in front of the little house that sits square in the middle of a sharp curve. In large, uneven, paint-dripping letters, someone had scrawled, “GOD SAW YOU TAKE THAT BIKE. GOD WILL MAKE YOU PAY.”
Now, I’m sure some folks snickered as they passed that sign or maybe smiled condescendingly, but not me. In fact, every single time I passed that sign (and I passed it a lot because it was up for a long time), I breathed a prayer for my neighbor. I think I understand his rage, his need to feel that even if the scales of justice are not balanced in this world, they just might tip his way in the next. I remembered him well because soon after we moved here, I waved at him as he sat on his porch, and he was one of the few in this neighborhood that ever waved back. But he doesn’t wave any more.
Years ago, when we lived in another trailer far out in the sticks, we had a burglary. They cut the phone lines, damaged both our doors trying to get in, and pretty much cleaned out the few things we had of value (monetary value, that is). Ariel and Benjamin were 6 and 7, and we picked glass shards out of Ariel’s stuffed animals for weeks, since the perpetrators ultimately broke the window above her bed to gain entry. I discovered all this when I came home alone. I quickly left and drove from neighbor to neighbor, looking for one who would let me use their phone. At least half of them were home (I could hear them inside), but not ONE would come to the door. Later, we had evidence that it was probably one of our own neighbors who broke in, but we could never interest the sheriff’s office in pursuing it. After all, we were just poor trailer trash.
So, I think I understand how my neighbor down the road feels.
There are a number of admonishments in the words of Jesus that are a real challenge to our baser human tendencies (such as turning the other cheek when someone strikes you), but one of the most difficult to me are his instructions to his twelve disciples upon sending them forth to minister to the world. He tells them (in Matthew 10:16), “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” I’ve thought a lot about that lately as Blue Ridge Blue Collar Man and I have faced a number of things that have made it hard not to slip into a dark state of disillusionment and cynicism. Our struggle to get Worker’s Comp benefits without hiring a lawyer (ultimately unsuccessful), our realization that neither his employer nor the state Industrial Commission seem to be there to help us, and even looking at the bill for his recent hospital stay and the ridiculousness of the charges ($3.33 for a single 81mg aspirin!) are just a few things that make us feel disheartened about the state of the human race. Not to mention the goings-on in Washington, D.C.
Sure, the “wise as serpents” part isn’t all that hard. Wariness comes easy now. We are very much like watchful serpents these days, gazing warily through our narrowed eyes, watching for those that might tread upon us, and hoping we can strike before they do. But if you live constantly on guard, suspicious of everyone, your vision will become narrow and jaundiced. And a jaundiced eye never sees clearly. Neither is it possible in this world for a reasonably intelligent adult to be completely “innocent as a dove.” If you don’t feel a little cynical these days, you’re not thinking. I always love watching the mourning doves in our birdbath, but, clearly they’re not the sharpest members of the avian community. When a hawk comes around, all the other birds clear out. Not the doves. I worry about them.
So, to be both “wise as serpents” and “innocent as doves” is one of the many spiritual challenges that I fail at daily. But I keep trying, keep struggling against complete cynicism and bitterness, keep holding fast to faith. Because cynicism may come from facing certain facts, but it doesn’t come from facing truth. Because the real truth is—there is always hope. And the real truth is, there’s still a lot of goodness in this world. Lord knows, I’ve seen that, too. In friends who stick with me (thank you!), even when I’m sad and a little bitter. In my immediate family, who loves me as I am. God is there, whether in the hearts of my beloved or in the mockingbird that sings at night.
So I struggle against darkness—both in the world and in my own head. Cynicism may be an intelligent response to this old world, but there’s nothing particularly wise about it. In darkness, we lose our vision, and it’s easy to conclude that there’s no way out. Real wisdom, I think, sees things as they are, but believes they can be better and looks for ways to make them so. It seeks a way out of the darkness. I’m no theologian, but I believe that may be what Jesus meant. To be wary and discerning, but always open to goodness.
So may we see things as they are but keep a vision for how they can be. May we know real truth when we see it. And may we keep our wary, weary eyes fixed always on the light.