Real and present danger

A few summers ago, when my son Graham was interning at a local newspaper, he began subscribing to the police scanner newsfeeds to track developing stories. I thought it was kind of creepy. From time to time he’d send me updates about shootings near our house; nothing stops the rhythm of the day like the knowledge of violent death within your own pasture. When I joined Twitter, he wanted me to subscribe to @Venice311, our area feed for up-to-the-minute crime reporting. I told him I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want my head filled with all that noise and negativity. Still, every time I heard the helicopters circling—-and there have been a lot of late—-I would text him. “What’s happening?” And sure enough, he could check and tell me who and what and where— how close— and I began to find comfort in knowing, enough so that I finally subscribed myself.

My newsfeed is a strange and burgeoning mix of heaven and earth. Tweet after tweet will remind me of the promises of God, of grace, of mercy, of the best ways for writers to connect with an audience, of the latest in science, the arts, education, the economy. And then, just when my eyes have begun to gloss over with a sense of problems too big or promises too distant, there it is: Venice311. A Break-in in progress two blocks from my house. A teenager shot dead on the road I travel to church. A troubled soul raging incoherently, needing restraint, bleeding. And suddenly all the other news seems smaller somehow, overshadowed by the sure knowledge of immediate danger and suffering.

A wise soul once said we should begin every day by reminding ourselves that we will die. That sort of clarity really helps in reworking the ol’ to-do list. I like my lists for the most part. My weakness would be in the evening hours when I’ve crossed everything off and am content to curl up with a glass of red wine and The Good Wife or the Mentalist or back-to-back-to-back Netflix episodes of Friday Night Lights. I can be a little lazy that way. Now, each time I see one of these alerts I am reminded that it could be me and if it was——if someone were to break into my home and hold me at gunpoint as I wrote these words——would the things I had spent the day doing represented the life I had hoped to lead. Did I plan to become more disciplined? More attentive to the poor or the environment? Did I hope to be a better wife, a better mother? Did the things I gave my life to represent my best shot at using the gifts God gave me?

An hour ago the newsfeed reported that a neighbor I never met just died. Don’t know who or how or what they believed about where they might be going from here. Family members will likely say Heaven, because we all tend to say that—-believers and non-believers alike. It sounds nice. It helps soften the blow. But if the claim of heaven hasn’t had any foundation in the life of the departed, it’s ultimately very confusing to children, this sudden wrapping things up in a celestial bow. I had a difficult conversation about this once with a 9-year girl I know well. She knew that neither her parents or her grandparents believed in the things she was coming to believe at her little Lutheran elementary school. Still, when the grandparents died the parents were quick to say that they had gone to Heaven. One day, she asked me if I thought that was true. If I thought that people who didn’t believe in Heaven would get to go there anyway. We were in a large group of people and the room suddenly got very quiet. I told her I didn’t know why people who didn’t believe in Heaven would want to go there. Do you think they would?

A helicopter is beginning to circle outside, part of the new soundtrack of prolonged unemployment in California. I don’t know who is in jeopardy at this moment, but I do know that they— and you and I— will one day die. Knowing that, I lift up the words of the psalmist, “Teach us to number our days so that we may recognize how few they are; help us to spend them as we should.” (Psalm 90:12)

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