Zacky barked at every entrance during my first two and a half years of living in this house.
I had thought he would get used to me, since I frequently came in and out of the front gate to get to my basement apartment, and spent hours with his owners upstairs. Excitable and determined to guard the family, the tiny terrier never let familiarity be an excuse not to bark.
His bark woke the family up when an electrical fire had started in the living room, and was quickly filling the rest of the house with smoke. His bark deterred stray cats and warned off desert dogs. His bark let us know every time someone was entering that gate, and the family could tell by his tone whether it was a stranger or a friend. Like a baby’s parents know the difference between a hunger cry and a hurt cry.
He was strangely subdued when we took him, and the rest of the family, to the airport. That could have been the result of the meds that were given to him to keep him calm on the plane; his human counterparts had no such outside influence. Emotionally spent, celebrated and packed and grieved beyond the place of breaking, the family stood in a long security line and hugged us one more short time.
And then we left.
Empty handed on the way to the parking lot, we were weighed down more heavily than we had been by the suitcases and carry-ons. The family eventually managed to get all 17 bags, and their dog, through security, and then flew away.
When we returned to the house, it looked the same as it had an hour earlier. But there was no bark when I entered the gate.
“I understand why they are afraid,” Najua told me. “I would be afraid too if I were them.”
And then she added, “We are afraid here also.”
Najua had asked me about America’s current political state, and I had commented that both in my home country and in many other places around the world, politics right then seemed to be driven by fear. As a minority woman in her own country, Najua understands what it feels like to be marginalized.
It’s part of what makes her empathetic, determined to help end stereotypes and racism, and committed to developing Young Leaders (she teaches for this program at our center). But she faces those fears daily.
In the face of the false dichotomy that fear presents– fight or flight– sometimes a nefarious third option emerges, to entice those forced to endure sustained stress: hope less (ness). Giving up. Thinking, I cannot fight successfully against this, and I cannot run away from it.
So I will allow the bitterness of despair to come over me .
We talked about how the power of God is seen in the death and crucifixion that brought life and resurrection. And asked, What if there are options other than putting up a wall, being a doormat, or finding an escape hatch? Is this upside-down kingdom possible to apply to us and our world?
Does love have something to do with it?
I sit in the empty house often in the weeks after Zacky and my housemates move back to the U.S. I brought my belongings from the basement to the second story, but the sounds of their youngest on his pogo stick, of at least one of six family members rustling in the kitchen for food, of the music that someone was always playing, have ceased. My own small sounds echo off of walls without their paintings.
Every night I go back to another area of town, where I am staying with an Aussie friend until August. Then my new housemate will arrive, and a new season will begin as she and I live together in the second story house which once was occupied by four kids, two parents, and various four-legged creatures.
I converse with most of my teammates via Skype (as they are in America for the summer). I study, plan for Young Leaders, read good books. I eat unpronounceable things in the homes of local friends, laugh at stories in Arabic a little more often than I did before, attend the wedding of good friends. When I invite the newlyweds to the second story for breakfast, there is no dog to alert me of their presence, so they text to say they are outside. We eat my crepes and drink the coffee that my old housemates left behind. When they leave, I lock the gate.
Before my housemates moved, they prayed for me. May she not fear the loneliness.
And yet I fear more than isolation. I fear closeness being withdrawn, due to choices or changing circumstances. And changes are invariably looming on the horizon, like tides that pull back the water to leave the shore exposed, only to return with rock-splitting force time and time again. In this sustained stress I reflect: I cannot fight this. I refuse flight.
But there is a bitter taste of inevitability, of hopelessness, on my tongue.
Trying to wash away that bitter taste with familiar promises proved to be more difficult than I anticipated. Until this one cut through: For I am convinced that… neither the present nor the future… nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
An empty house, so it happens, provides a perfect atmosphere for singing. I draw my guitar out of its case. The sounds of the strings echo off of empty walls, creating acoustics that are a musician’s dream. I lift my voice as loud as I like, knowing that no other ears, human or hound, can hear.
Your love never fails, never gives up, never runs out on me.* Words I sung with my housemates the week before they left. Words I sung with my small group the night before I moved to the Middle East.
Despair, fight, and flight are options that cloud the vision so that it is hard to see one’s own hand in front of one’s face. But even then, His hand remains on our shoulders.
Constant through the trial and the change.*
And I am starting to taste a fourth option. Love. To the God who knows my hungry cries and my hurt cries, from the God who fills this empty home with His songs.
*Lyrics of One Thing Remains, by Bethel Music