103 degrees. 105 degrees. 103 degrees. Days and days of these three digit temperatures, stringing together the hottest, longest heatwave in Indianapolis history, or so they say. The heat hasn’t even really broken in the evening. Hours after the sun goes down it’s still like trying to breathe through wool outside. In the middle of it all, our car with air conditioning went into the shop, leaving us to drive the car that has no AC and goes about as fast as a lawn mower.
And I confess, sometimes driving around to meet clients in heat so oppressive that I could barely breathe, where even having the windows down was like sitting in front of a blast furnace…sometimes it made me really cranky.
Until last week. Last week we drove by Davidson St. There under a bridge is a small nation of men. You can see them if you go. That day they looked like a still-life, a frozen tableau. Men sitting and laying in front of the sea of cardboard and red tent vinyl, motionless under the stifling weight of the heat.
If you’re from Indianapolis you might know that the encampment on Davidson is of one of the largest homeless camps in the city.
Knowing and understanding are two different things
Suddenly, all I can think about is the fact that I get to go home to my air conditioning and my ice water. I may have to suffer a short amount of time in the heat (in my working vehicle, lawnmower-esque or otherwise) but then I get to escape it. And even if I had been at the bottom of my luck, I have family and friends that I could go to, people who would shelter me from the harshness of unfortunate circumstance. Escape. Those men have no real escape. This year there is not even the kindness of night to cool them. Have you ever tried to sleep when it’s hot? I have. If it is too hot, it wakes me up. Keeps me up. It is miserable.
So, riding by those men in my blast furnace lawn mower car, louder than the crankiness from the heat, or the wind in my face and even louder than the sound of the car body slamming onto the chassis where the struts were broken, feeling stirred by compassion for the men in the heat with no escape, came this thought about my life and the things I’ve called hardship.
Maybe, given the option, few and fewer would choose to walk in the lowest valleys. I confess to having been content to stare over the edge from my high places, looking on with a mixture of self-preservation and pity. Not many choose to slide down the sides of the mountain to walk hand in hand with the low. But the footfalls of the proud are never stable, and slide I did.
My hardships have been times when we didn’t know where the next seventy dollars to go to the grocery store would come from, much less the next mortgage payment. There was the winter when I had no heat in my car and more than one Summer with no air conditioning in the house. There were times when we seemed all alone, removed from everyone. Times of illness, and of longing, loneliness and despair. Times which seemed utterly purposeless.
There. There in the underfoot lowlands I learned what its like to need. To wait in desperate hope for the improbable and invisible. I learned to look around and to look up but most especially I learned the joy of looking up and finding Jesus standing there ready to walk with me, bag packed full of all the the provision, the love and the joy that a person needs to go through the valley. As if he says “If you’re going, I’m going too. Don’t worry, I came prepared”
“yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. For you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
The hot air rushed in the car window, but I breathed it in deeply as if it were a more precious breath. These ideas about what it means to go low, to endure, clarifying at a thousand miles an hour. My heart was on fire.
Hardship. My training ground.
Hardship. My miracles.
Valleys. Sacred places.
I had wanted to go back to my air conditioning? Suddenly I wondered why. I have only just now escaped from the apathetic and irreverent walls of comfort, outside and into the world. Finally free the small enclosure of myself and my comfort. My hardship and poverty, such as it was, sent me clumsy and foolish to a place where you are no longer ignorant of need. It is a place which draws a clear line between knowing and understanding.
In truth, I still live on the mountain. To say that I didn’t would make a mockery of the true poor. For as low as I’ve been, the depths never cost me more than I was able to bear. Aaron and I have spoken often about giving up comfort, willfully running headlong into the deeper places. But sometimes we wonder why.
Why, when we won’t be able to change the circumstances, fix the addictions, or heal what has broken.
Our culture always wants to know the point, where the point is calculable and the results are measurable.
We want to say “I took 7 people from homeless on the streets and put them back into society like the rest of us, with a house and a job and a car”. Or in other words “I took them from something I can’t relate to and inserted them neatly back into something I can relate to”
When there is no formulaic way to do that ….when, sometimes the problem has metastasized from one root into many parts we look at the problem and say “I cannot solve that, so what’s the point”
I answer myself by remembering this;
When my mother was dying, Aaron was there.
He listened to me as I ranted about this thing that was happening, outside of my control. He held me when I cried. He stayed up in the hospital room all night, watching over mom, so dad and K and I could get some sleep. One day in the middle of it all he heard a quote on talk radio while he was driving. The speaker said “A joy shared is a joy doubled and a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved”. My husband, then boyfriend took that to heart and chose to do everything he could to SHARE my sorrow, even though it wasn’t his mother and it wasn’t his loss. His presence in my life is why I came out on the other side of the great tragedy able to heal. Him assuming a portion of the weight is the only reason I wasn’t utterly crushed.
And this is the kicker.
Aaron wasn’t able to fix the problem I had. He wasn’t able to cure the cancer that was raging in my mom. He wasn’t able to keep her from slipping from this world.
But he slid down into that filthy, brokenhearted valley with me as if it were the only road in the world. He said “If you’re going, Jesus and I are going, too. Don’t worry, we came prepared”
I realize there is a world of people out there, everyone of them with a valley of their own to walk in one way or another. Some of them know Jesus goes with them and some of them need Jesus’ followers to go running headlong into those low places like it was the only road in the world. To dig into the long, tedious trenches and not look to escape back to comfort. To clear the path when people are too weak, to listen, and sometimes to just to spare someone the bitter cruel sting of going alone. To say “If you’re going, Jesus and I are going too. Don’t worry, I came prepared”. This. This is how we point people to Him.
This is why.
This is why living with the heat is a salvation and not a curse. Because it teaches me that I’m not above the valley and neither is anyone else. The heat lights a fire, and the fire burns hot and bright and nothing needs a fire like cold, dark places.
So, I love my little lawnmower car. Because it meets a need, but mostly because it is my hardship.
My Holy ground. My sacred place.