[First posted on Sept 21, 2006]
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does. James 1:22-25
Forgotten places. Desolate faces of America whiz by my window on Amtrak train number 143 this morning. The sky is blue, the air crisp—a beautiful day. But I see many things that haunt me. Rusting steel, broken cars, abandoned buildings with broken windows, graffiti and forgotten parking lots litter my view. A collage of images zip by: a faded orange cone, a shell of a love seat, candy wrappers, and even discarded piles of dirt (probably contaminated at that).
These are sights suburbanites rarely see. We tear down old factories to make room for more Applebee’s restaurants, bookstores, and condos. We cart off rusty fences, brick facades, steel girders, and cement barriers. But where do they go? To be forgotten along our railways. I guess no one lobbies to clean up these “districts.”
Oh sure, I see many living things: plentiful sumac, vines, poplar and scrub pine abound. I’m amazed at how life thrives in these places. Blacktop gives way to grasses and little trees. A blue heron deftly moves among tires in a swamp and nabs a little fish. A man reads a newspaper in the morning sun in front of a burned out building. A beautiful 20 x 10 oasis appears in the midst of a brick and pavement housing development. The graffiti consists of vibrant colors and shapes that could easily be displayed in an art museum if not drawn by discarded and forgotten people.
I can’t decide if life growing amongst rubbish is a good thing or not.
We learn to live with a tremendous amount of debris in our lives. We clean up the exterior. Yet, we hide all sorts of things in the dark and hidden corners of our lives. Sure, we know it’s there and glimpse it as we race on by. But soon we’re on to something else and the desolate places are quickly forgotten again. That angry thought, that gluttony, that jealousy, that surge of despair, that demanding spirit—we see it but quickly move on to the next thing. If it lingers a bit so that others see it too, we have deft excuses: It was a mistake, a reaction caused by exhaustion, or miscommunication.
Somehow a once vibrant street decays and becomes a desolate place. I think it must happen slowly so that we rarely notice it until we are left with nothing. “Quite often,” Leo Tolstoy lamented as he looked back on his life, “a man goes on for years imagining that the religious teaching that had been imparted to him since childhood is still intact, while all the time there is not a trace of it left in him.” How does this happen? Thomas Brooks, a great Puritan writer, says that if sin were presented to us without its usual glitter and paint, we’d surely fly from it. So, self-deception must happen slowly in our hearts until we wake up and notice that rotten and broken things are everywhere, no longer occupying just the secret places of our lives.
I contemplate these thoughts on my trip. I am thankful for the time to reflect on how easy it is to go on without noting the trash that piles up in my life. And I’ve decided that the life that grows up amongst the trash isn’t sad but an amazing sign of God’s grace. This life I see reflects God’s mercy and handiwork and plan for my future. In the words of C.S. Lewis, it’s winter, but Christmas is coming.
Dear Lord, show me those piles of refuse. With your grace, let me linger there so that I may turn from them and fly to you!
Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor on your desolate sanctuary. Give ear, O God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name. Daniel 9:17-19