Category Archives: Bearing Burdens

Suicide Catcher

Who are we responsible to and for?  That’s been a question I’ve explored on this blog, which looks at the Biblical jubilee principles — forgiveness of debt, restitution, letting things lie fallow, and bearing one another’s burdens.

With that question in mind, I commend to you an excellent article in the May, 2010 issue of GQ (yes, Gentleman’s Quarterly).  Michael Paterniti wrote it, and it’s staggeringly beautiful and very important.  Please read it.  Even though it’s not online.  Go find it.  Jake Gyllenhaal is on the cover.

It’s about a man who is a gruff, self-appointed angel who attempts to prevent suicides on a four-mile-long bridge over the Yangtze River in Nanjing, China.  Apparently one-fifth of the world’s suicides are in China, about 200,000 per year.  And Mr. Chen, who keeps statistics on a blog and whom Paterniti visited for this story, has saved 174 people.

Paterniti describes Nanjing, a city of 6 million, thus: “Daytime temperatures regularly topped ninety degrees here — due to hot air being trapped by the mountains at the lower end of the Yangtze River valley… and, oh yeah, because all the trees had been chopped down — and the sun rarely shone.  Meanwhile, the city continued to explode in the noonday of the country’s hungry expansion.  The past was being abandoned at an astonishing rate, the new skyscrapers and apartment buildings replacing the old neighborhoods.  Everything — and everyone — was disposable. Schisms formed.  The bridge loomed.  Loss led to despair, which, in turn, led to Mr. Chen.”

And Paterniti described the community of those saved by Mr. Chen: “Of those he saved, some small number met near the bridge every year around Christmas to celebrate their new lives and ostensibly to offer their thanks.  As part of the ceremony, they calculated their new ages from the date of their salvation.  In this born-again world, no one was older than 6.”

And giving voice to Chen’s reasons for taking on the task of binocular-toting persuasion and suicide prevention, Paterniti writes, “The reason Mr. Chen was in the business of saving lives now was that, as a boy, he’d always gone unanswered. There is a saying in Chinese he used, that he never possessed ‘mother’s shoes.'”

He writes further, “It was from the incompleteness of his own family that he’d built this not-so-secret life as the defender of broken humanity.”

This, people, is a beautiful article.  I’ve only given you a taste.  Go find it.  It’s long, nuanced, important.

GQ has a lot more than cleavage.  I enjoy it immensely.  Don’t miss this article.


Thanks for Sharing Your Mother

Raised in the south, our family employed a maid who came to work for us most weekdays to cook and clean and take care of my sister and me.  And she was one of the most important people in my life.

She died 5 years ago this week.  And I’m missing her mightily.

I’ve written about her a lot in my life, and I’ve written about the unique relationship between black maids and white children in the south.  And I wrote my Masters thesis on that topic.  It’s a complicated one, of course, and one that white girls really don’t know the half of.

But today it’s too tender to share or to give more words to.  What I do want to say today, on this particular blog, is that I benefitted from her care and love because her own children went without as much of her time and energy as they probably would have liked to have had, so that she could support them by taking care of me.

And I want to thank them.  So… “Mary and Howard, Mattie meant the world to me.  Thank you for sharing her.”


Flipsyde is a band I enjoy for catchy tunes, awesome guitar picking, and — especially — social commentary.

Their song “Someday” is poignant, following several people through vignettes in which they pin their hopes on lottery tickets that leave them with only “Make a Wish” sentiments when the scratch-off reveals that no fortune is on the way.

Check out the video for the song (and don’t miss the guitar solo at 2:06 or so).

What do we do with others’ dreams?  What do we do with all the pain we see and know?  Something akin to a lottery ticket or something deeper, Living Water?

Brothers’ Keeper and “The Weight of Glory”

“And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man,” reads Genesis 9:5b.

How responsible are we?  How seriously do we need to take this?  Pretty much so, I’d imagine.

I heard a quote recently and like many good things I read and hear, I am not able to attribute it accurately.  If you know the source, please tell me, and I’ll update.  I think it could have been Rob Bell or Francis Chan.  I listened to books of each of theirs on the same day on a LONG road trip (my favorite kind).  Anyway, the quote was something to the effect that “When we feed someone, it means that we want them to go on living another day.”  It’s an investment in them, a statement of the value of their life.

Here in Big Mac Land, we aren’t talking about sustenance for living or  life-and-death calorie counts.  But it still applies in the sense of desiring to nourish someone, provide something “life-giving.”

So when Genesis admonishes that we are going to be held accountable for the “life” of fellow man, certainly it includes actual life.  So why, when I see someone sprawled out on the sidewalk or on a staircase in the more visibly hurting parts of my city (there is as much pain of a different sort in homes with manicured lawns), looking as if they are dead, do I not go see if they are in fact dead — or living but desperate?  I shudder to think why I don’t.

And C.S. Lewis famously talks about our encounters with each glorious person (full of the glory of being God’s image-bearers) that we meet, and how it is incumbent on each of us to treat the other that way.

Here is an excerpt from Lewis’ Weight of Glory:

The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.  There are no ordinary people.

So when we read in Genesis, “”And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man,” we know that beyond doing anything we can to insure that our fellow man lives bodily, we are also charged with the privilege of taking their dignity and spiritual destiny seriously.  And held accountable for such.

When a Bottle of Hot Sauce Becomes Jesus’ Cup of Cold Water

Jesus said, “And if you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers, you will surely be rewarded.” (Matthew 10:42)   I don’t like this translation (New Living Translation), but I quote this one cause I think it’s how we see the homeless, the poor, those who aren’t the top of the heap in terms of status and favor — as “the least of my followers.”

And they’re often the ones we are least inclined to bother to stop to help, cause they aren’t always easy to cater to.  Maybe they’re not grateful.  Maybe they don’t smell good.  Perhaps they are embittered or act entitled.

But I really do think that one of the sacrifices we can make as we encounter people of any type is to notice them with some specificity and give them what they want if we have it to give, or can get our hands on it.  Without berating them for being picky.

Those of us who can afford to be picky are.  So why do we think “beggars can’t be choosers.”  Why can’t they?  They only can’t choose because we decide for them what they must take.

So I’d like to advocate a campaign where we go out of our way to give beggars (and I’m using that term because the phrase is a familiar one) their choice.  Of anything we have to offer.

Recently I heard a story of a woman who, when offered food from Ben’s Chili Bowl (a D.C. institution) said — although she was sitting in her wheelchair just outside the door of Ben’s — “I don’t like the food here.  I like McDonald’s.”  And the people she was talking to went down the street and got her exactly what she wanted at McDonald’s, bringing it back to her shocked and grateful eyes and trembling hands.  Was she messing with them, to see if they really cared what she wanted or whether they would only do what was easy for themselves?  I don’t know.  Who cares?  Sometimes you crave a fish sandwich and a Diet coke, and a half smoke just won’t do.

So when a guy at a homeless mission grumbles that there’s never any hot sauce with dinner, I personally think that Jesus would get him his own bottle of hot sauce to stash in his shelter locker (and some cold water to go with it) rather than tell him coldly, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

The Boundary Lines Have Fallen for Me in Pleasant Places

“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,” and I can’t deny it.  Psalm 16 is important to me.  I return to it over and over as it explodes with themes that I struggle with — forgetting God’s benefits, doubt, looking to other things for joy and identity besides God (i.e. idolatry).  I return to it to remember that indeed “the boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.  Surely I have a delightful inheritance.”

This morning I was studying John 20 and Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus outside of and in the tomb.  I loved Matthew Henry’s take on it.  His 17th century commentary always, across the centuries, makes Scripture fresh and accessible to me.  He said, “We often perplex ourselves needlessly with imaginary difficulties, which faith would discover to us as real advantages. Many good people complain of the clouds and darkness they are under, which are the necessary methods of grace for the humbling of their souls, the mortifying of their sins, and the endearing of Christ to them.”

That got me thinking about the boundaries of my life being in pleasant places in spite of the fact that I don’t always know it. I often reminded myself, when I had to discipline my children, that it wasn’t my job to be sure they had fun each day but — instead — to raise them for long-term character, so that they could be productive adults and not just temporarily thrilled children.  And that’s a good reminder today that I see circumstances in my life that might seem to be — in Henry’s language — “difficulties” when in fact they are “advantages.”

I made myself (i.e. disciplined myself to) write two columns in a notebook — one for “difficulties” and one for “advantages.” The trick was that I had to imagine potential advantages to those same difficulties.  They are one and the same.

Mary Magdalene, in the passage of John 20: 1-18, was looking for a dead body.  And she was crushed that it wasn’t there. Instead, behind her, was Jesus risen, saying her name.  Listen to Matthew Henry again:

“Christ, in manifesting himself to those that seek him, often outdoes their expectations. Mary longs to see the dead body of Christ, and complains of the loss of that, and behold she sees him alive. Thus he does for his praying people more than they are able to ask or think.”

We often see circumstances in our lives that look intractable.   And yet, they are the very means of deliverance into something better.  With God, the boundary lines (insofar as they are his allowed will) are right where they should be. Which makes them pleasant.  Even if we think the grass is greener elsewhere.

More Wisdom from Jim Palmer’s Divine Nobodies

I want to whet your appetite, not provide you with a reason not to read the whole book.  I love this book, Divine Nobodies.  Go buy it (preferably from an independent bookstore).

I was struck with a chapter on living out our faith day to day, entitled “Where the Rubber Meets the Road,” and this passage in particular:

“For years, I ran with the elk (sometimes led the pack) who were convinced God wanted us to birth movements, shift paradigms, and save the world.  Given the magnitude of it all, I didn’t have the time, energy, or inclination to help the guy wandering into a coffee shop at closing time looking for a hot shower and a warm bed.  I wonder if the good Samaritan story was a secret message to all tire salesmen, truckers, coffee-shop owners, cashiers, waitresses, carpet installers, UPS drivers, accountants, tech-heads, stay-at-home moms, working single moms, bartenders, barbers, and butchers to keep their eyes wide open, because the professionals are too preoccupied with grander things, passing by real people with needs God placed right beneath their noses in everyday life…. Loving the folks in my cul-de-sac wasn’t good enough.  I had to do something bigger and more spectacular.  I mean, come on, how many people do you know who went off on a spiritual retreat and returned with the grand notion of getting to know the people in their neighborhood?”

Small is beautiful. Big can be beautiful too.  But it’s not inherently more beautiful.  One person trumps one program every time.  One story grabs me; 500 stories wear me out.  One person at a time; that’s how love is measured.

Thanks, Jim Palmer!