Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Avoid Large Crowds

"Darkness and Light"
- At the Desert Retreat House -

In light of all the recent global terrorism, the U.S. State Department has just issued a rather odd and somewhat confusing warning to the American public as we approach this upcoming holiday season. We are being told not to change any travel plans and at the same time we are also being warned to “avoid large crowds and crowded places.”

Now here is my dilemma: How is it even remotely possible to travel almost anywhere at this time of year and yet “avoid large crowds?” The airports are more crowded than ever, many people attend crowded movie theaters, concerts and sporting events with families over the holiday season,  and of course the malls are always crowded with hordes of people doing their “Christmas”  shopping.  So how are we supposed to celebrate the holidays without any change of plans and at the same time “avoid large crowds and crowded places?" — the warning makes no sense and even borders on the ludicrous.

As I reflect upon it, I think that perhaps this newly issued “terrorism alert” is actually quite iconic of how many of us approach “life in the time of terror.” We know the danger exists, we are even warned against it and at the same time we want to pretend that no problem exists - all is calm and all is bright.

I am reminded of a very astute observation by Episcopal priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor:

To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight,
admitting limits and transcending them,
falling down and rising up.
To want life with only half of these things in it is to embrace only half of life,
shutting the other half away
where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.

None of us wants pain or suffering, loss, misfortune, violence or terror to happen to us in our lives, but suffering exists and no amount of running away, no bottles of pills or artificial lights or hiding in a corner will help to eliminate the chaos and darkness that inevitably resides alongside the brightness of the light in life.

In the Christian Scriptures, as Jesus is about to leave this earth he commissions his followers to continue his work of peace, justice and reconciliation in this divided and broken world. Jesus stands in the midst of his assembled disciples who are paralyzed by fear, “scared to death” over what will happen to them now that Jesus is going away, and he tells them:

Do not let your hearts be troubled.

He never says, Don’t be afraid. He doesn’t comfort them by saying Don’t worry, be happy because everything is all ok. No, he stands among them in the midst of all the chaos, the violence and hatred the world has to offer and he tells them not to have anxious hearts as they go out and face this troubled world. He tells them that they will always have one another and he promises that his spirit will always abide, so their hearts need not be troubled.

Jesus’ final admonition to his fearful disciples sounds a lot like something Nelson Mandela once wrote about the years he spent in a prison cell in South Africa:

I learned that courage is not the absence of fear
but triumph over it.

None of us wants this “holiday” time to be a season of terror but regardless of what we may want or desire, the danger still exists. In a time of heightened alert, we can and should be watchful in large crowds but we can’t ever avoid the crowded spaces unless we wish to sit alone at home with the doors locked and the lights turned out for the rest of our lives.

This is not a season to avoid crowds, this is a time for all of us to muster up our courage.

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