Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

Dear Will:

If you’re in a hurry and trying to get from wherever you are to someplace else, you might think twice before you decide to bring Nacho. Our dimwitted family mutt, the Mexican orphan, has a tendency to lose focus within the first three steps of any walk. Everything around us is just so . . . sniffy. Take that wall over there. Sniffy. That rhododendron? Also sniffy. That random patch of grass in the middle of a much larger patch of grass? Sniffier than you can imagine.

In fairness, historical records indicate that we do eventually make it around the block. But if you’re trying get out, get back, and get on with your evening, forget about it. Between the sniffing and the peeing (and the peeing and the peeing), there isn’t a lot of time for, say, walking. Were it not for the frantic flaring of his sniffomatic snout, sometimes we might find it hard to trigger a motion sensor. The wild bunnies in the neighborhood don’t even bother to flee when this bloodhound approaches. Mostly they just blink in whiskery bemusement.

These “walks” often remind me of when my kids were little. We didn’t call them walks back then. They were “explores.” Luke typically found it necessary to load up on gear and supplies before we stuck his little sister (temporarily) in the stroller to cruise the neighborhood. On one occasion when he was maybe five or six, before we could leave the house he filled his backpack with the following (I kid you not): calculator, kaleidoscope, dice, popgun, flashlight, toy car, koosh ball, two plastic coins, stuffed lion, plastic dimetrodon, top, magnet, football, trumpet, rubber snake, wristwatch, shell lei, knight in armor, and, of course, a brochure entitled Wildflowers of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Forget the ten essentials; this kid was prepared.

What he needn’t have been prepared for was a lot of walking. With Bryn along, we tended to stop and start, lurching here, wandering there, constantly pausing so that she could hand us things to fill the abandoned stroller: sticks, rocks, leaves, snail shells—the sort of neighborhood whatnot that is treasure only to a two-year-old. I once cracked that if Bryn had been along when the pioneers were crossing the plains they would still be in Nebraska. At which point Dana surely would have reminded me that, on these family treks, getting “there” was not really the point.

True story: On one such explore, I was growing increasingly impatient with my children’s lack of forward momentum. When I turned to snap at Luke to pick up the pace, I discovered that he had—literally—stopped to smell the roses. (For my children, this is the sort of thing that qualified as “parenting.”) This scene played itself out again recently while Bryn and I were backpacking in the Uintas. While I was tromping through a meadow, frantically searching (again) for the poorly-marked trail, Bryn was standing gobsmacked in a gentle rain, admiring a mother moose and her baby. I was trying to get from wherever I was to someplace else; Bryn was having an explore.

Bryn gets it. And perhaps Nacho does too. For me his twice-a-days can be a bit of a chore; but for him, every time he senses potential pre-walk activity he’s all a-jitter for what might come next. He paces and paces, eager to get going so that we can . . . not go much of anywhere, as it always turns out. But the going and then not going and then going again, sniff-sniff-sniffing along the way, makes him deliriously happy. While I’m charging through the neighborhood with, I don’t know, “Radar Love” or something as my inner soundtrack, Nacho is sniffing to the beat of “The 59th Street Bridge Song.” And by the time we return home, it’s not hard to guess which of us is feeling groovy.

Pretty smart for a dumb dog.

PW

Our Defining Moment

Dear Will:

In March of 2020, my friends Khalil and Najia* said a tearful goodbye to family, bade farewell to home and homeland, and boarded a plane bound for the United States. It may have been the last flight out of Kabul before the pandemic brought a temporary end to international travel. What they now owned they carried in two large suitcases; everything (and everyone) else they left behind.

They had been married for barely over a year. With the assistance of the US government and various charitable organizations, the newlyweds made their way to California where they were welcomed (temporarily) into a two-bedroom apartment already occupied by a cousin, his wife, and two small children. Soon after their arrival, they learned that Najia was pregnant with their first child. So exciting. So terrifying.

This is how a new life begins: no job, very little money, almost no possessions, struggling with a second language and unfamiliar culture, surrounded by people and things you can barely understand. “Settling in” hardly seems possible, but you adapt and adjust and try your best to make do. So Khalil now works night security, and when he gets off at 4 a.m. he spends an additional four or five hours driving for Lyft. He and Najia have moved into their own apartment, and somehow they manage to cover their bills while trying also to go to school to qualify for something better. In December they added baby Camila* (so cute!) to the mix.

The outpouring of support from people from within our church and elsewhere has been overwhelming to them. Donations have poured in—furniture, clothing, appliances, gift cards—so many basic necessities that have helped them get on their feet. Still, the road ahead will not be easy. Given the odds and endless obstacles, you might wonder why anyone would even attempt it.

But then, you more or less know the answer to that question.

In this specific case, Kahlil spent several years working as an interpreter and cultural adviser to the US Army stationed near Jalalabad. His work with the Special Forces put him at the center of many combat missions and compelled him to interact frequently with enemy combatants from ISIS and the Taliban. Perhaps inevitably, he was wounded in battle, taking several rounds in the ankle and thigh. Were it not for impressive work by a US Army surgeon, Khalil could easily have lost his foot. He deals with constant pain to this day, but you will never hear him complain about what he’s lost or given up. Mostly he and Najia remain inexpressibly grateful.

Had he stayed in Afghanistan, Khalil’s life would surely be in jeopardy—now more than ever. The Taliban do not look kindly on those who assisted the Americans during their 20 years in the country—especially those as active and visible as Khalil. Although he was fortunate to get out, he left behind parents and siblings whose own lives are now threatened because of their association with him. It’s impossible to know what will become of them. For now, you can be certain that Khalil and Najia worry and pray and hope for some sort of bureaucratic miracle that will enable their loved ones to escape to someplace safer. Needless to say, these days they don’t sleep much.

Of course, there are thousands more in Afghanistan just like Khalil and Najia, full of fear, grasping for hope, trying beyond reason to believe that it might be possible to somehow, somewhere live without the constant fear that at any moment a knock on the door could change everything—irreparably—for the worse. All they want is what you and I want: to raise their kids, to dwell in peace, to laugh and love and live.

“This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”

Patrick Kearon

Tens of thousands of displaced, hungry, frightened people will be arriving in the United States in the months ahead, and we must do what we can to welcome them. In the words of Elder Patrick Kearon: “Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them. Like countless thousands before them, this will be a period—we hope a short period—in their lives. Some of them will go on to be Nobel laureates, public servants, physicians, scientists, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and contributors in other fields. Indeed, many of them were these things before they lost everything. This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”

If you can help, please do. You might start here or here. Or simply drop me a line and you can join me and Dana and many others in the effort to turn strangers into neighbors, foreigners into friends, refugees into fellowcitizens as they try to find a place that feels a little bit like home.

PW

*not their real names

This Mile’s for You

Dear Will:

Say you were a Jew living in Palestine in the days of Cæsar Augustus. On any given day, you could just be going about your business—heading to the market to pick up some fish, let’s say—and a Roman soldier could interrupt you mid-errand to compel you to do his bidding instead. If he felt like it, Roman law permitted him to hand you his heavy gear and force you to carry it for him a mile up the road. Even if your hands were full and you were headed in the opposite direction, it didn’t matter. You’d have to put down your stuff, hoist his load, and trudge off with him. Here’s guessing you’d be late for dinner.

Any self-respecting person would be understandably resistant to such state-sanctioned overreach. Think of the indignity and the public humiliation of being turned into a beast of burden by some young conscript on a power trip. If it were me, I imagine I’d be thinking: “It’s clear who the ass is in this situation, and it’s not me. Who are you to tell me what to do? If I comply, I’ll be acquiescing to illegitimate authority. This is an assault on my freedom.” At which point I’d have been faced with two options: swallow my dignity and comply, or defy authority and suffer the consequences. Given what we know about Roman soldiers, I imagine that “the consequences” in this case would be, shall we say, unpleasant.

Jesus was around in those days, so I suppose it’s reasonable to wonder what He might have done if one day He caught the attention of some indolent legionary looking for someone to carry his gear. Given the scrutiny under which He often found Himself, we might understand if Jesus had avoided this highly-charged political question altogether. But that wasn’t really Jesus’s style, now was it? In His Gospel-defining Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave explicit instructions on this very question: “Whoever compels you to go one mile,” He said, “go with him two” (Matthew 5:41).

Wait, what? Why would Jesus expect His followers to comply with an unjust order from a gentile oppressor? More to the point, why would He then add indignity to indignity by suggesting that His true followers would willingly go an additional mile beyond that which was required by law?

For starters, I imagine there was the whole “don’t get yourself beat up or killed” thing. At its most basic level, Jesus must have known that refusing the soldier’s order would put an indignant Jew in great personal danger. Beyond that, He would have also known that defiance could put an entire community at risk. The Romans were not above overreacting in order to keep their subjects under control. More than anything, they wanted peace and civility, and they weren’t averse to violence in order to enforce it.

That makes sense, right? As a purely practical act of self-preservation, complying with the law was the logical choice. But if that explanation satisfies you, you haven’t really understood the teachings of Jesus.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus emphasized the importance of putting the needs of others above your own. Time and again He urged His disciples to sacrifice self-interest and convenience in order to show love and compassion to those nearby—even (especially?) those who might seem unworthy of kindness and service. Wasn’t that, in fact, the whole point of the parable of the Good Samaritan, who went well out of his way to carry and care for a fallen stranger? At the very core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the expectation that our day-to-day choices will be informed by a desire to do what’s best for other people, even if it results in a little personal hardship.

So why go that extra, unrequired mile? Because in doing so, you spare your neighbor that selfsame humiliation. Every mile you go, carrying that Roman burden, is one mile someone else doesn’t have to. What’s more, doing so transforms an hour of oppression into an act of selfless service. For a Christian, the labor and inconvenience cannot be required when the miles are freely given. It’s one of the ultimate lessons of the cross: When I willingly do good on behalf of someone else, I don’t relinquish my free will; I celebrate it.

So next time someone asks you to do something you don’t really want to do, something truly inconvenient that may feel like an assault on your liberty, consider the teachings of Jesus. Surely He would urge you to surrender your pride, put aside personal preference and freely do what’s best for others—especially when doing so would ultimately be in your best interests as well. To me it’s worth a shot . . . or two, depending on the brand.

PW