SCOTUS, Shootings, and Summer Nights

The eve of July fourth was the perfect summer night. A group of us had gathered for a cookout and water balloon fight in a friend’s backyard to celebrate the holiday. I’d forgotten what it felt like to run barefoot through drought-dried grass, to squeal as I dodged balloons and shriek at their icy impact.

We wrapped ourselves in beach towels and ate cookie dough ice cream and strawberry cheesecake for dessert. At dusk we piled into a minivan with all the seats removed but the driver’s and front passenger’s, sitting back-to-back and thigh-to-thigh on the floor—a practice no more illegal than other Independence Day traditions that would be bursting from backyards all night long.

It was hot and stuffy and loud and glorious. Though no one spoke louder than usual, eleven adults packed into a minivan multiplied the decibel levels of conversation and laughter. I stuffed pieces of tissue into my ears and belted along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Too soon we arrived at the park and joined the crowd, spreading blankets and unfolding chairs. Waiting for the first rocket to crack the sky. Oohing and ahhhing over the colorful splays of light. Some providing live commentary, others laughing at an inside joke, and one wishing the rest of us would just shut up and watch the show.

Moments like these can give the illusion that all is right in the world, but storms of more than one kind were in the forecast. The family cookout the following day would be indoors, sheltered from threatening skies, a heat index in the triple digits, and breaking headlines of a parade shooting not thirty miles away.

* * * * *

Another one?

Questions swirl faster than sparks across the black sky. What compels someone to aim an assault weapon at another who breathes the same humid air and walks the same crowded streets? Why would anyone want to end lives and grieve others? How can we celebrate the holiday with family and friends, knowing that other families and friends are suffering trauma and loss?

Knowing that, at any moment of any day, we too could cross the path of a sniper’s bullet?

This question haunted me while walking into church for Sunday worship the week prior. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Dobbs v. Jackson case provoked threats of violent protest, especially towards churches. My parish was taking the threat seriously. I walked up the six front steps to the center doors—the only unlocked set out of five entrances. Ushers stood on both sides like sentinels, and even their friendly “good morning” failed to conceal their heightened alertness, which mirrored mine as I entered the air-conditioned building and sat in a pew.

How long would walking into church feel like wearing a bullseye?

Losing the constitutional protection to end unborn lives was provoking some to threaten others—an alarming but logical progression. If an unborn life doesn’t matter, why should mine?

Even for those who believe life doesn’t begin at conception, that abortion doesn’t end a life but only prevents one from developing, the result is the same: no life. Pro-abortion, pro-choice, call it whatever. It’s all no-life.

While there is a practical difference between someone who supports abortion and someone who fires an assault rifle, both fail to see life as a gift. Sadder still is that, by denying the gift of another’s life, they miss the gift of their own.

Either life is a gift, or it’s a curse. Either life matters infinitely, or it doesn’t matter one iota. 

If life is a curse, then those who live are no better than mere beasts hunted as prey. The question then becomes, why not end a life? If life is not good, then what’s the harm in taking it—from yourself or someone else? If life is a curse, then ending it is a relief. 

But if life is a gift, then every life is a gift, whether unborn, unwanted, or untimely. And if every life is a gift, it is a gift from beginning to end: each moment sacred, the painful and heartbreaking as well as the joyful and hope-giving. And as a gift, life should be received with gratitude and celebration, with awe and reverence for this heavenly bestowing. 

Maybe if people spent more time celebrating their own lives, they’d have less time (or reason) to end the lives of others.

But before I point any accusations and pull the trigger of judgment, I must ask myself: do I truly believe every life is a gift, including my own? Every moment, including this one? Do I live like I believe it?

Do you?

Inhale, exhale. Repeat. Gift, gift, gift.

* * * * *

Events like mass shootings and court rulings make watching fireworks with friends seem insignificant. Why would summer evenings matter when the headlines are relentlessly heavy?

Or do shootings and rulings make these moments vitally important?

I crane my neck to catch every flare across the sky. I listen to my friends laugh and feel the humid July air embrace my skin. I think how quickly the summer passes, how fireworks fade too soon after bursting into being. How quickly life passes.

But moments like these remind me why I am alive, that life is a gift. And in this moment, I am alive to receive it with the giddy gratitude of a lavished child.

Tomorrow lies beyond my knowledge and control. I may never be able to save a life from being taken, snuffed out like the last ember of a firecracker. But I can affirm the gift of life by receiving the gift of now.

And maybe, like one sparkler’s flame igniting another, it will inspire others to recognize and celebrate the gift of their own.

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Car Story: A Lesson in the School of Hard Knocks

“My . . . car . . . is gone.” The words came out weak as I forced my lips to admit what my eyes refused to recognize. The space where I’d parked my car on the street only hours earlier was eerily empty.

“What? Where did you park it?” my brother’s voice sounded as confused as I felt. I’d carpooled with him and another friend to a party. We’d returned later than expected, but well before the overnight parking ban took effect. Why would my car have been towed?

My brother pulled into the parking lot of his apartment complex and looked up the phone number for the local tow yard. I waited and wondered how long it would be before I could retrieve my car and go home.

Had it been daylight, we would have seen the debris field.

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Lenten Reflection: Memento Mori

Near-Death Experience

Warm rays of sunlight illuminated the hazy kitchen. Every stove burner was occupied with a cast iron skillet whose sizzling contents would supply Sunday brunch for the young adult group from my church. The kitchen was aflurry with activity as our host managed to fry bacon and furnish friends with various utensils and condiments needed for our feast. I was in charge of flipping pancakes.

When everything was ready, we piled our plates and sat around the living room chattering between bites. Conversation roamed from the morning’s sermon to the afternoon’s game before detouring to near-death experiences. Our host shared how he had almost died in a biking accident, relating in graphic detail the effects of going through the windshield of a car (we were mostly done eating by that point). Laughing at the experience in hindsight, he chuckled and ended his story with “Memento mori!”

Memento mori. It’s Latin for “remember that you will die.”

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Confessions of a Former Art Major: Painting Again

“I’m painting again!” I announce to my workout group as we stretch sweaty limbs in the basement of a friend’s home. Various affirmations of “That’s great!” or “Cool!” mingle with slightly confused looks. Oh right, they don’t know that I used to paint at all—or that I stopped.

These friends had only known me for a year or two; how were they to understand the significance behind that statement? I’d made it sound like I started dating again after a bad breakup. It’d be more accurate to say that I’d gotten back together with my first love after a long separation.

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Thoughts on The Book Thief

Whether films surpass the books on which they are based is much debated among readers and moviegoers alike, but despite my bias for books I try keep an open mind on the subject. It helps when I see the movie before reading the book, which was the case with The Book Thief. I didn’t plan it that way, but when a friend loaned me the DVD, I wasn’t going to wait for my reading list to shrink before indulging in this story.

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A Girl and a Gun: Mid-Year, Same Fear

The shop was quiet and chilled, a welcome oasis from the unseasonably humid evening. Chest-high merchandise racks loosely broke up the space between the cobalt carpeting and the fluorescent lighting. Distant voices drifted from the far end of the shop as the only three customers conversed with a clerk behind a counter. Behind them a wall lined with windows offered a view of a longer and narrower part of the building, separated into lanes by thin black dividers.

The calm aura was enveloping, but I wouldn’t let it deceive me. I was prepared for the muffled BANGs coming from the other side of the windows, but not for the BOOM that rattled their frames, like an invisible atomic force trying to burst through every wall and window and door all at once.

I could do this. I’d done it before, and I would do it again. But why did each time feel almost as challenging as the last?

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Grace to Die by (and Live for)

Every lifetime has its pivotal moments. You know the ones—those landmarks your memory looks for when retracing your life’s journey, trying to figure out how you got to here from there. Those points of reference that divide your story into before and after. Those moments that have so shaped who you’ve become that, for better or worse, you know you’d be a very different person had they never happened.

Many pivotal moments have shaped my story, but the one I think about most is the time I witnessed my grandfather’s final breath.

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Words for a Snowy Day

It’s still snowing. You can hardly tell though, except for the streetlight illuminating the tiny flakes that fall within the perimeter of its ember glow, catching them in their clandestine activity. I’m standing at the kitchen window beholding the dark and wintry scene, sipping hot bone broth from the lone Christmas mug in the cupboard, even though it’s mid-February. The oven clock reads 5:32 in dull green digits. My alarm wouldn’t go off for another eighty-eight minutes (but who’s counting?), yet I couldn’t sleep.

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New Year’s, Old Fears, & the Courage to Do It Scared

The sound of muffled gunshots penetrated the walls of a long, one-story building—a jarring contrast to the overcast calm of the snow-blanketed farmland surrounding it. My brother and two of my guy friends were taking me shooting on this first Saturday morning of the New Year, and though I had exuded confidence with an almost shameless bravado, my anxiety heightened as I imagined how loud it would be within those walls.

As we walked through the slushy parking lot towards the entrance, I decided to come clean. “Hey, um, guys? I’m terrified of guns.”

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Silent Night of the Soul

His voice rang out in the high-ceilinged room, the guitar strumming along: “May my heart by torn in two, until Your will is mine, Dearly Beloved of my soul…” 1

One week before Christmas, I was at a friend’s home for an evening of praise and worship. A small group of 20-and-30-somethings circled the high-ceilinged living room, with the piano at one side and two guitarists sitting opposite each other, rising chords and voices reminiscent of heavenly hosts.

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