"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves -- goes itself; 'myself' it speaks and spells, / Crying 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

10 August 2006

Of Risks and Tragedies

It would be so easy to condemn. She left her three-year-old child in the running truck, no car seat, no seat belt. He managed to pull it out of park, just playing around while waiting for his mom as she ran back into the laundromat to grab something she’d left behind. Somehow – maybe she hadn’t quite closed her door – he was thrown to the pavement as the truck lurched forward into the building’s wall . . . and then rolled back, crushing his skull.

So easy to point a finger, to think, “How could anyone be so negligent, so foolish?” So easy to despise her, to condemn her for the risk she took. So easy to think we’d never have done such a thing, never been so thoughtless with our own child.

But we are all of us this young woman. In this broken world, in this place where sin and the flesh cloud our reason (even when we have been made new in Christ; how much more if we have not), where we are so foolish and self-centered as to think – however subconsciously – “it won’t happen to me” or “it won’t happen this time,” we are all takers of foolish risks, meaning no harm yet daily courting tragedy.

The wonder is how often we avoid it, how often we “luck out” (or God lets our guardian angels intervene). As I listened to my daughter’s choked voice telling me of her next-door neighbor’s accident, the horrific death of her own son’s regular playmate, my mind replayed the hundred close calls with her and her four siblings, so many of them caused by little errors of judgment, little acts of commission or omission, never intentional desire to harm anyone.

We are all of us this young woman. We forget to replace the batteries in the smoke detector, because so many other urgent tasks crowd our minds; push above the speed limit, because we really don’t want to arrive at church late again; run alone despite warnings, because we need the time to think and nothing’s ever happened anyway; neglect the safety glasses, because they’re hard to see through and look silly besides . . . leave a child in a running vehicle, because our errand will take only a minute.

But these only mirror the more devastating spiritual risks we constantly take. We mean no harm; just as we can’t grasp that the logical consequences of our physical negligences may one day befall us, we are oblivious to the ways we court much worse disaster, disaster stemming from the self-absorption and pride which lead us to make little compromises with righteousness until our hearts are seared to Truth.

We are all of us this cavalier in our character. We neglect to pray for someone because our own harried concerns drive him from our thoughts; tell an authority we were ill when we have really been procrastinating, because we don’t want to appear lazy or irresponsible; allow a morsel of gossip to slide off the tongue, because we need to feel better about ourselves; follow the world’s fads and fashions, because it’s inconvenient and embarrassing to look or act “differently” . . . leave a friend alone in his sin, because we are afraid to offend.

And when someone else gets caught in some similar unnecessary risk, when it doesn’t pay off and tragedy ensues, we frown and self-righteously note how he should have known better, should never have been so foolish in the first place.

Perhaps so. And perhaps tomorrow or next week or next year, meaning no harm, we who condemn will take one risk too many, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. And in the ensuing tragedy, what will we hope for, crave, desperately need? Mercy, comfort, forgiveness – and someone to walk with us through the valley and point us to the One who offers true consolation.

“Judge not, that you be not judged,” our Lord warns us. “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1-2 ESV).

We are all of us that young woman. We cannot avoid being human, taking calculated but unnecessary risks at times, at times being entirely oblivious that a choice we make even is risky. May we always remember, when we hear of tragedies that could so easily have been prevented, that it could so easily have been any one of us. And, as believers in a God of mercy, may we obey the Scriptures, “put[ting] on . . . compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . .” (Col. 3:12 ESV).

{This post refers to an incident which happened over a year ago. The laundromat is in the same building as my son-in-law's convenience store; his mom owns it. My daughter sat in the waiting room at the hospital with her neighbor until her child died. She doesn't live next door to the family anymore; she doesn't know how it's going with them now. We pray for her.}

07 August 2006

Red Hats and Social Conventions

Yesterday I chose a black skirt and a new red short-sleeved jacket to wear to church. I thought I would wear the red hat my mother-in-law gave me years ago; I love it but don’t have a lot of chance to wear it, and this seemed perfect. Then I remembered the Red Hat Society. I’d never heard of it till recently, when I discovered that several ladies in my church are part of it. They’re great women, always looking for ways to minister to others, especially younger women who need a friend or a meal or whatever.

But they wear red hats. And I began to wonder what others would think if I wore my red hat to church. I’m not a Red Hat lady, after all. Would members think I was flouting them somehow? Would others think I was flaunting a membership I don’t actually have? The Red Hat ladies don’t wear their red hats to church, you see; they reserve them to wear with their purple dresses in their meetings or when they explain the Society at retreats and so on. They are meant to symbolize eccentricity, and Southern ladies are not eccentric in church.

So I didn’t wear my red hat, which just a few years ago would have been merely a fashion choice but has suddenly become more than that: wearing it may send messages I don’t intend; not wearing it makes me a coward. Frustrating.

However, there’s a greater irony here. The Red Hat Society takes its name from a poem by Jenny Johnson called “Warning.” The first lines read “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple / with a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.” The speaker goes on to tell the other things she will do unconventionally to “make up for the sobriety of [her] youth,” such as spending her pension on “brandy and summer gloves,” “gobbl [ing] up samples in shops,” and “learn[ing] to spit.”

For now, she knows “we must have clothes that keep us dry / and pay our rent and not swear in the street / and set a good example for the children,” though she ends the poem pondering if she shouldn’t begin to practice her unconventionality a bit so that “people who know me are not too shocked and surprised / When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.”

In other words, it’s all about choosing to do those things that she enjoys without having to bow to the conventions of the culture. She knows she’s got to be at least mostly conventional now, while she has children and needs to be a responsible adult in raising them. But someday, she knows too, she will be free of that responsibility and intends to be “shocking” by doing or having some of those “silly” or “extravagant” things that appeal to her.

So . . . now we have a whole Society devoted to the convention of wearing red hats and purple dresses, and making me – whom red suits quite well, thank you – feel that I can’t make a personal fashion choice that I used to make without much thought. In other words, they’ve undermined the whole point.

People are really strange.

(And yes, I include myself. If I really believed anything I say I believe, I’d have worn that hat yesterday.)