I can’t fall asleep with the TV on if political commentators and campaign surrogates are debating the implications of the latest speech, poll, tweet or primary result. It gives me nightmares. I could point to a particular candidate getting under my skin or a campaign issue that causes me great concern, but neither is truly what agitates my soul in that moment and keeps me from rest.
It’s the rhetoric and the rancor. The polarizing and demonizing that are now so commonplace, no longer contained to cable news programs or talk radio. The hostility that festers just beneath the surface of everyday conversations and the fortress of fear, not faith, that we have built as our refuge and our strength. These are the things that disturb my sleep. Every late night panel of pundits reminds of me of who we are becoming. We the people.
It’s a spiritual issue.
Sometimes I change the channel and seek comfort in a rerun of Fixer Upper. More often in those moments I close my eyes and pray. Lately, I think about my friend Chuck.
Everyone thought Chuck was homeless. Many who come on Tuesday nights to prepare a meal for hungry people in our community thought he was a guest, not a volunteer. The new neighbor on his block called Chuck’s brother concerned about a disheveled man wandering around in the alleyway, unaware that Chuck lived in the guest house out back. Even church members sometimes wondered if he was an alcoholic from the recovery program down the street, as Chuck often invited folks from the program to join him in worship on Sunday mornings, where he was a fixture on the third row — and in the aisle if the music really got him swaying and the pew couldn’t contain him.
When the fire chief spoke at Chuck’s funeral last month he talked about the first time Chuck appeared in the doorway of his office at the fire station. The chief made a mental note that the guys needed to do a better job of keeping the front door locked.
But in the days and weeks that followed, the chief became ever grateful for that day.
Our local fire department had been trying to raise money to build a memorial to fire fighters who had been killed in the line of duty. That plan was expanded to include those who lost their lives on 9/11. A piece of steel from the North Tower of the World Trade Center was donated and sent to Wilmington for the project. But with that bigger vision came a bigger price tag. The chief and those helping to plan the work decided that their best way to solicit funds was to commission a painting that captured the spirit of these lost fire fighters and sell a limited number of prints. The only problem was that every artist they approached had turned them down and their deadline for funds was fast approaching.
When Chuck wandered into the fire station that day, they had no way of knowing that he was an accomplished illustrator and painter, or that he would have such a profound impact on their lives.
“I have a calling to paint a fireman and I don’t know why,” Chuck told the chief. Thinking the guys had put this stranger up to pulling a prank on him, the chief looked up and down the hall, certain there was a good laugh about to be had at his expense. But the hallway was empty.
“Sit down,” he said to Chuck. “I have a funny story to tell you.”
Over the next several months, Chuck lived life in the midst of these men and taught them about the mystery of faith and following God’s calling.
Chuck taught them about generosity as they drove him back and forth to the memorial site so he could make sketches. It’s not that Chuck didn’t know how to drive. He had a car and was frequently using it to help a single mom with her errands and getting her children from place to place. Finally, Chuck decided she needed the car more than he did, and so he gave it to her.
Chuck taught them about empathy as they observed him weeping as he sat with the piece of steel from the North Tower, wanting to know and to care about these firefighters who were gone before he put one stroke to the canvas — the same way he wanted to know and to care about each one of them.
And Chuck taught them about humility. The painting was to be revealed at a dinner for big donors to the memorial. The chief wanted to introduce the artist at the dinner but Chuck said he could only attend if they could promise to get him to the church by 6:30. For weeks he had been fascinating the children on Wednesday nights as he sketched out characters from bible stories as they were read aloud. He would take the sketches home and fill them out and paint them and bring them back to show the children the following week. The donor dinner was on a Wednesday night and he would never want to disappoint the children by not being there. They loved Mr. Chuck.
Those paintings of bible characters filled the sanctuary on the day of his funeral.
Mystery, generosity, empathy, humility — they are four spiritual essentials that point us to the kingdom; that, when we live them out, can make the kingdom present, even and especially in the divided world in which we live. In them, we will truly find rest and hope.