LAYERS OF CLAY
Something terrible happened in the Virginia wilderness 150 years ago. The Civil War had already been raging for about three years when Americans from the North and Americans from the South opened fire against one another to spill blood over beliefs, ideas, and for many participants little more than confused and vague notions.
During this Battle of the Wilderness much of the brush in the area caught fire. Disoriented in the smoky chaos, many soldiers lost their bearings and began shooting at their own side. Confederate General James Longstreet was even shot in the shoulder by his own troops.
Both sides dug in as night fell over the grim arena between them. No one could go into the middle where wounded men writhed in pain, calling for help, calling for their mothers. Some mercifully succumbed to suffocating smoke. The less fortunate were left to face the flames. What an awful noise they must have made as their friends sat through the night listening to dying voices that would haunt them for as long as they lived.
At battle’s end neither side had made any advance. All the fighting and suffering was for nothing.
I was at the Q Conference earlier this spring when Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam and Nashville’s Democratic Mayor Karl Dean sat together on stage to talk about their friendship and working political relationship in a divided society. They believe some fundamentally different things yet have worked together to achieve some positive outcomes.
One of the things Mayor Dean said was this:
“When it comes to fixing potholes it doesn’t matter whether you’re Democrat or Republican.”
This statement captured my attention for a couple of reasons.
First, I live in Pennsylvania where our state motto is “Under Construction” and our state flowers are any orange obstruction set along the road to indicate said construction. Seriously, if you planted an orange tree orchard in every penitentiary in America and made all the prisoners wear jumpsuits while watching the Dutch soccer team play, Pennsylvania would still have more orange just on its highways alone.
The second, and more important, thing about Dean’s statement is the obvious:
We will fix a lot more problems if we spend less time trying to be right about everything on the planet and more time trying to fix the problems right in front of us.
Potholes are worst in springtime, just after the rough cold season. We try to avoid them because when you run over one you feel the impact, a jarring sensation capable of doing some damage and prohibiting your progress. We just want the things patched up and don’t really care if the mayor or road crew members are Democrats or Republicans. At least we shouldn’t.
We are divided in so many ways these days, forever choosing sides in never-ending culture wars. We get caught up in all these arguments and nobody can believe how clueless people on the other side are. Meanwhile, the holes in people’s lives all around us (not to mention our own) are getting deeper and will require more painstaking and costly repairs as they worsen.
Like those doomed men in 1864, too many of us are fighting in the wilderness and gaining nothing while suffering people around us linger between life and death.
Some of us are so spun around in all these conflicts we can’t even see who we’re hurting. We harm people on every side just to feel involved.
There is something right and spiritual in our immediate reaction to human suffering. For a moment we feel sympathy for our friends, neighbors, and even people on the other side of the globe. We may go on with our lives a second later or almost instantly start to wonder what they did to deserve the pain, but that initial moment is compassion without thought.
God’s conscious can be glimpsed in our unconscious response to human suffering.
Most of us become better people when faced with suffering neighbors. We step up and do good. We find purpose and forget our familiar pettiness.
Do you worry about someone’s political affiliation when they tell you they’ve just been diagnosed with cancer?
If a family needs food do you care about their views on the death penalty?
Do you ask whether or not someone is gay before offering comfort when they lose a loved one?
What if instead of arguing about who made the problems, we acknowledge that the world is always going to be filled with holes and simply worked to patch them up? Shovels can be used to fill in voids or make them worse. Maybe it’s fitting then that our tongues are shovel shaped.
The biggest decision we make each day is whether or not to be loving to others.
We have gobs of work to do, but that’s okay. Whether Christian or atheist, straight or gay, Democrat or Republican, we are the right crew for the job.