We have this jar: stout, plastic, the abraded GoodBurry label announcing SPREAD PEANUT BUTTER. Instead of peanut butter, though, it houses a red spice of unknown constitution that I dole out by the teaspoon. Beans, fried rice, curries, sweet pickles — nothing is safe from its piquant reach.
Hassan gave us this spice blend three years back, convinced we’d love its heat and flavor. Despite our lack of common language, that man is rarely wrong about us.
We still hear from Hassan in the spate of messages followed by a month or two of radio silence that we’ve come to recognize as his communication style. “How are you?” he will ask in French. “The virus is not bad here. Are you safe from Covid?”
I make these arbitrary deals with myself that I lack the jurisdiction to keep. By the time we run out of this spice, I vow, Zemio will be pieced together again.
We’re starting to scrape plastic at the bottom of the jar. Most days it’s easier to sigh than weep.
When we were little, my parents would scold my older brother, and I would cry. The best part is that he’d barely register their disapproval. They’d say, “Nathan!” with a sternness that unspooled me, and he’d be all, “What? Okay!” while beelining into the adventure calling from another room.
If you know me, this story makes sense to you. I’m primed for abjection and brokenness to a degree that normal people aren’t. I inhale conflict hanging in the air, and its molecules breach the paper walls in my lungs to saturate my blood.
I tell you this to explain how the last few years have been sinking. My internal pep-talk these days follows a single script. Get it together, already. This heartbreak isn’t yours to own.
Except for, actually? Maybe it is.
The more middle-aged I get, the more I can’t shake the idea that you all belong to me, that every one of the delightful, maddening humans within my reach are — till death do us part — my people. We can draw strangely arbitrary battle lines, but we’re the same nerve endings of hope and pain zipped into human skin. I kindly refuse to be your enemy.
If it’s true that we belong to each other, I make out like a bandit. Because here’s the thing about sharing life with people grown in the soil of suffering. The ground buckles, and they are impossibly functional: clear-eyed and compassionate as they douse fires and sweep debris. Well-practiced in the art of survival, they’ll grasp my arm to steady me when the dirt and sky trade places.
These days opinions swarm like hornets: buzzing, insistent, poised to sting. It’s hard to look them in the eye, my gaze leaden beneath the dread of outrage and stonewalling. But our friends taking refuge in Zapai, DRC are helping each other pull peanuts from their gardens. They’re a collective of contentment, hearts thrilling in the buried treasure of God’s provision.
They live at gut-level what Paul writes about from a Roman prison:
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content,” Paul tells the believers in Philippi. “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4.11-13).
It’s raining again, the kind of rain that flays metal roofs and keeps me awake in the dark. I’ve been listening to sermons positing suffering as a gift, and it makes so much sense in the moment. But then I walk into my life and can’t remember how it’s supposed to work.
“For it has been granted to you for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1.29). It’s been granted to me. Like a gift.
In landscapes of virulent illness and hunger, caste systems, injustice, the wreck and wrath of hurricanes and politics, one name remains: Jesus.
He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. This world broke his heart, too. So I think it’s okay, even rational, to respond to these fractured days with anguish. But whether brought low or abounding, we have the buried and risen treasure of Jesus.
God, give us courage to follow you with postures open to the rasp and hollow of another’s pain. Together is the only way through.