Roses and Religion

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Over the past few weeks I’ve learned to look at people in a new way. Call it creepy or call it empirical, it makes little difference. The fact is that I’ve found a glimmer of hope left in humanity. And so what if preserving that glimmer requires candid photos through curtains and glass?

The story begins at my desk—central station for all things gloomy. At least, that’s how it’s seemed the past little while. The bulk of the time I spend at my desk (a grand chunk of each twenty-four hour block) generally consists of my reading through documents linked to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, Nazism, pogroms, etc. After all, it’s what I study. But that doesn’t make it any less difficult to process emotionally. And when I need a quick break from homework I’ll pull up a tab on an Internet browser to see if new developments have broken in Ukraine or in Gaza.

Frankly, sometimes I’m not sure what’s more dismal—the past or the present.

Life can seem a tad dreary at times, despite all our best intentions to keep stiff upper lips or to whistle or sing. And although I’m not a naturally sad person, every now and then things just don’t look terribly hopeful—and perhaps my addiction to current events isn’t helping this prognosis.

It was on one of those bleak days that I saw a cliché come to life and my whole mood changed. I was chatting with someone online—a friend or a sibling, I can’t quite remember—when a shuffling old woman entered my view through the window at my desk. I watched her hobble along the sidewalk across the street from my hostel, and she kept up her slow pace until she reached the large rosebush that clings to the building on that side of the road.

She reached up a rheumatic hand, gently took hold of a flower, and drew it close to her face.

Yes, friends. That woman literally stopped and smelled the roses.

I can’t explain why, but that experience struck me deeply. Despite my normal aversion to all things trite, I really admired that woman and suddenly felt the urge to go up to that rosebush myself and take a big whiff of the scent God infused into His creation. The view from my window gained meaning, and the world seemed a little less gray.

Imagine my surprise, then, when a day or two later a group of four passersby took the liberty to do the same thing—to stop for a moment, put their journey on hold, and sniff at the yellow rose petals.

That’s when I lost all sense of propriety. Glancing at the digital camera near my laptop on the desk, I made an impulsive decision and snapped shots of the group in order to document that people really do enact the adage we’ve all heard too often.

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It became a new hobby. Every day I would look up from my readings from time to time to see how people reacted to the rosebush as they passed. If they stopped, I whipped out my camera for the photo, proving to the world (or at least to myself) that there really is beauty left on the earth, and that there really are people who relish it. I started to trust humanity just a bit more than I have in the past. In each passing pedestrian I imagined a closet philosopher enraptured by aesthetics, or a budding theologian whose mind and soul rejoiced in the glories of God.

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But one day the motion that caught my eye through the window surprised me. An older man trudged along to the steps of a porch near the rosebush. He slouched onto the cement and leaned his guitar against the handrail, then pulled a can out of a crumpled grocery bag and poured the fermented drink into a bottle.

I watched him down round after round of the stuff. His face flushed, and still he pulled out new cans to fill his bottle when the old tins were empty. One time he got up, staggered to the nearby dumpster, and proceeded to relieve himself publicly. I quickly looked away, feeling embarrassed on behalf of this man who had numbed himself past the ability to feel. Clearly he yearned for the comfort—no matter how transient—that can come only after all senses are dead. Soon he stumbled back to his spot on the steps and eventually lost consciousness for a time.

The sight jerked me out of my idealizing and forced me to remember reality. Right next to the rosebush—that symbol I’d invented to stand for hope and goodness—there lay a drunken beggar who not only could not take time to smell the flowers, but probably had too much pressing on his soul to even see them or care. The immediacies of hunger, of hatred, of loss, unemployment, divorce, destitution, depression—who knows—crowded out the roses. And I understand why.

For some reason, I felt that I needed to capture this image. After a moment’s hesitation, I took up my digital camera, climbed under my desk in order to lift the curtain for a clearer view, and clandestinely snapped a portrait of the person whose pain I’d been watching.

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I prayed for that man. There wasn’t much else I could do.

The next day he was back, and he sat on the porch even though it was raining and the steps had no awning to shield him from the drizzle. I ached for him—especially when he pulled out a can.

But this day turned out a bit differently than the previous one had. After about ten minutes or so, I saw a young woman approach the man. In one hand she grasped the handle of a mug covered in pink and red hearts; in the other she held a banana. She leaned over the man and insisted he take the fruit and coffee, then she stood for a while, chatting, laughing, smiling with the man who had set his beer can aside to make room for the gifts.

The two were so consumed with their conversation that I’m sure neither of them noticed the camera lens across the street, snatching the moment, preserving the scene of true love in action.

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I’m not sure if the rosebush really is the symbol I’d made it out to be all those times that I watched people stop and observe it, or smell it, or touch it, or maybe just stand in its shade for a while. Sure, it’s beautiful, and I’m glad there are people who notice beauty in the world.

But there’s something more lovely than flowers.

Cliché and all, I think I’m in favor of the maxim to “stop and smell the roses,” just so long as we’re willing to notice the men who sit under the bushes. Just so long as we’re willing to grab our bananas and mugs and go stand in the rain for the sake of God’s sons and His daughters. That’s what makes this world beautiful–men and women and caring and love.

I’ll let you decide whether it’s wrong for a person to hide in her room taking pictures of strangers. But now, on those days when the present and past seem a little too heavy to handle, I’ve got proof that good people still walk on the earth—people who understand that “[p]ure religion and undefiled before God . . . is this[:] To visit [people] in their afflictions, and to keep [themselves] unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

 

“Your Life is Null and Void”: Thoughts on Futility

ukraine

Washington DC, February 2014

On 27 October 1942 Nazi guards at Plötzensee Prison brought Helmuth Hübener into a darkened room bisected by a black curtain. A pastor whispered the words “Your life is null and void,” one guard drew back the curtain and the others led Hübener to the guillotine where they executed him. He was seventeen years old—the youngest person condemned for organized resistance against the Nazi regime.[1]

One of my professors once led a class discussion about Helmuth Hübener. He chose to focus the conversation on one question: Was it worth it? Did Helmuth’s death have meaning? Or, more important still, did his life and his actions have meaning?

Helmuth had been the ringleader of a tiny resistance movement in the north-Germany port city Hamburg. His brother had gifted him an illegal short-wave radio, which Helmuth had used to listen to BBC broadcasts that contradicted German propaganda. Using the typewriter he’d been permitted access to for ecclesiastical duties in his local church group, Helmuth began writing leaflets that he and two friends distributed throughout the town. Eventually one other friend joined the group. The four teenage boys continued their work until Helmuth made one fatal slip that led the Gestapo to arrest the participants. Three of the boys received sentences to hard labor in the Third Reich’s notorious prison camps. Helmuth Hübener received condemnation—and the Führer himself denied pleas to have the sentence commuted.

More than seventy years later, what does all of this mean? Sure, the Hübener Gruppe was one of the earliest organized movements opposed to the Nazis, so kudos to them. But did anyone actually read what Helmuth wrote? And if they did, then why didn’t they do anything about it? The war and the horrors of Hitler’s empire went on for years following Hübener’s death. Was that worth dying for—especially at such a young age?

Perhaps Helmuth Hübener could have been of more use to Germany if he’d kept quiet, held back, and not risked his neck on a movement that yielded no measurable success. Maybe he could have contributed to rebuilding his nation after the war. He was bright. He was talented. And post-Hitler Germany needed all the brightness and talent it could get to pull through the Cold War and the efforts to construct a new life in a battered, bombed-out shell of a historic land. Maybe he should have waited a bit. Maybe then he could have made a difference.

— At least, that’s what most of my classmates had to say.

And I guess I can understand their logic. After all, we come from a generation infused with a sense of futility.

We have access to information from all over the world—twenty-four-hour news coverage, Internet contacts, Pinterest and YouTube and probably a slew of new trinkets Google is cooking up out in Silicon Valley. It’s exciting to see, learn, and know so much. But the most poignant side-effect of this broad range of information is the smallness we feel when we realize how vast the whole world is. And in such a big place, surrounded by such big-name players with power and actual influence—well, what could I possibly do to make so much as a ripple beyond my own family, my intimate circle of friends?

If you’ll allow for a personal example: I was living in Washington DC during Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. I followed the issue closely since I had lived in Crimea’s capital city for a year-and-a-half and had many friends still living there. Glued to my laptop, I sat for hours reading news from Moscow, Kyiv, Simferopol, London, New York, and any other location that ran stories about the fate of my second home. For the first time in my life I became addicted to Facebook, since that proved my one forum to receive direct information from eyewitnesses—all my Crimean friends who wrote about their experiences.

I wanted to do something. Caught up in the zingy excitement that courses through my veins whenever I read of important events, I made a flag out of blue and yellow construction paper, wrote “I PRAY FOR UKRAINE” on it, and pinned it to my backpack. I wore that flag proudly as I trekked to and from work along a path that took me past the White House every day.

Talk about futile efforts. Believe me, no earth-shattering political movement began as a result of my backpack campaign. Russian tanks still patrolled the streets of Crimea, the infamous referendum still took place in March, and the Ukrainian army was forced to flee to avoid all-out combat against the invaders. It seemed that Putin just couldn’t care less if a twenty-three-year-old unpaid intern in DC thought his actions were wrong and unjust. And no one else in DC seemed to care that much either.

One day near the end of my internship my paper flag got ruined in the rain. I unpinned it and threw it away, frustrated with my inability and powerlessness.

I know the hollow sense of futility. And so, I think, do most people today—which explains low voter turnout results at the polls, among other things. We recognize that there’s an awful lot that needs to be done in the world. And we recognize that we are not in positions to do it.

It’s enough to make you want to throw up your hands, to “curse God, and die” (Job 2:9), or to cancel your newspaper subscriptions.

Sometimes I feel like the butterfly I observed the other day in the library at Cambridge University. It had flown in somehow, but it desperately regretted the decision and struggled to get out. I heard it drive its exoskeleton against an enormous stained-glass window, beating its wings in a hopeless effort to reach beyond the glass to the sun, trees, and flowers in the courtyard two stories below. Again and again it attempted to breach the barrier. Thump, flutter flutter. Thump, flutter flutter.

And I knew it could never get out.

But I felt sort of proud of the poor thing for trying so hard. Every minute or two it would rest, then resume its battle for freedom. I put aside my homework as I watched the insect, and I thought back to my class’s discussion about Helmuth Hübener and a fruitless, fatal resistance. I recalled my professor’s voice choking as he insisted that the teenager’s death had not been in vain. The boy had spoken out for what’s right and true, Dr. C—- asserted with tears in his eyes. He had done it when no one else would, and that’s worth it. Truth is always worth it.

Helmuth’s leaflets didn’t bring down the Reich. My backpack didn’t stop an invasion. And that butterfly—which eventually flew to a different window outside of my vantage point—didn’t break through to freedom. Perhaps you could argue that our efforts were futile and vain.

But I think there’s something to be said for the actions themselves, independent of any potential results. After all, isn’t a poem still worth writing even if no one reads it? Isn’t a person worth loving even if the relationship might not work out? Aren’t there plans still worth making despite the confusion and changes that will spring up somewhere down the line? Isn’t life still worth living even though we’ll all die?

One woman expressed her thoughts on this matter shortly after the Nazis executed her husband and her brother for their work to organize an assassination to murder the Führer. “I have to go my way,” Emmi Bonhoeffer said in an interview. “But at least I feel, at least my children will never have to be ashamed of their father. That he had known about [all the horrible things going on] and hadn’t done anything.”

For the sake of our children, our examples, or at least for the sake of our consciences, we must not give in to the frustration of futility. After all, God made us “things to act [as well as] things to be acted upon” (2 Nephi 2:14). And by His power, according to His will, when the books are opened as we stand before Him to be “judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to [our] works,” then at last we may see the results of our actions (Revelation 20:12). Then at last we may see how we changed as we lived, learned, and loved.

Then at last we may realize that no life spent in the pursuit of righteousness can ever be pronounced “null and void.”

 

 

 


[1] I had the blessed privilege of meeting Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, the last surviving member of the Hübener Group (who has since passed away) in 2005.