Some of my (subjectively) better pieces

Eleven Days

Eleven days.

I’m sitting here on top of the chapel, back to one of the pylons, looking out over the drillfield. I can barely see this page to write, let alone legibly.

How many times have I wandered around this drillfield, this campus, at night like this? Seen Burruss Hall all lit up like that, those lamps lining the asphalt footpaths that crisscross the grass, that semicircle of 32 lights on 32 memorial stones? I remember walking around here freshman year, almost eight years ago, missing my home, lamenting on the phone or in my own head, wanting nothing more than to be back overseas.

And now I’m eleven days away from that flight I pined for, that flight leaving America behind for a new life elsewhere in the world. I never imagined then that I would be this torn up about it.

I’m really excited that within two weeks I’ll be on a terrace within sight of at least a small patch of the Mediterranean, with a fresh start and opportunities stretching out before me. Most of what I’m feeling this week—and will be for the next week and a half—is overwhelmed and terrified, as I sprint to the finish line of moving out of my apartment and to another continent. But an undercurrent I’ve been feeling for weeks, for months, ever since I started planning to move somewhere almost a year ago, is sadness. I’ve felt it as I’ve done a lot of things for the last time with friends and with my church. I felt it when I gave my cat away on Saturday, and as my apartment has felt a lot emptier without him. And I’m feeling it now, as I look out over this campus that became home after all. I’m glad I took this moment to walk over here and sit for a while.

I’ve left a lot of pieces of my heart in a lot of homes over the years. And now I’m burying yet another piece in this field. And when the plane lifts off the runway in eleven days, and when I’m sitting on that terrace or walking along the Mediterranean, I’m going to miss the piece of my heart that I left in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Fifteen Years

I wrote the first draft of this on Sunday, September 11. Normally I write, edit, and publish in the space of a few hours at most, but I decided to hold off on posting this that day. I wanted to give myself time to reflect, and to let a few others read it and give me their thoughts. I really wanted to make sure I was communicating clearly, and that the message that is most important is the thing that’s getting through. I’ve really questioned whether I should publish it at all, but I—and those I shared it with—think it is an important perspective to share. I hope I am able to effectively communicate the way I see these things.

So you’re probably aware it’s September 11. Fifteen years on, it seems like much of the internet is paying tribute in some way. Honestly, I’m pretty tired this weekend and don’t really feel like writing right now, but as we were praying for the families of the victims both before church as the worship/production team, and again at the end of the service with the entire congregation, I found myself thinking about it and feeling like maybe I should chime in with my perspective, which—as with most things—is a bit different from the average American’s.

As I said, many, many people today have already called that day a tragedy, and prayed for the families of victims, first responders, and others affected. I agree with all of them, but I’m not writing to say what has been said a lot today already. What struck me today is what’s happened in the fifteen years since. How the world has changed. The loss of thousands of lives that day was tragic, but that tragedy has rippled across the years, in many more thousands of lives lost, in the way people think, and in the way people treat those around them. And frankly I think that is just as tragic if not more so.

You may be aware I grew up in the Muslim part of the world, but we happened to be back in the States in September 2001. By the time we went back a year later, air travel and airport security had tightened up like never before. The US had sent troops into Afghanistan, which affected that entire region, including where we lived. And Americans had become far more suspicious and fearful of the rest of the world, particularly Muslims—a trend that has only continued in the decade and a half since.

Since that day my family and I have been torn between two worlds—the country my passport says I’m from and where I’ve found myself living for the past six years now, and the country that at least a part of me still calls home all these years later, even though most Americans seem to think we’re crazy to have lived there. And I’ve seen a lot of misunderstanding, distrust, even hatred from both sides towards the other. Many Americans now equate Islam with small, right-wing, militant groups of Muslims, assuming all Muslims are out to kill them. And many Muslims see America as the country that has deployed troops and drone strikes against much of the Muslim world—killing their friends and loved ones, civilians who happen to be near the militants.

But the stark, night and day difference is that the Muslims who we lived among never once directed their anger at America towards us, but instead welcomed us into their homes, fed us, called us guests in their country. How many Americans who claim to follow Jesus have done the same for the Muslims who live among us and feel more isolated and vulnerable than ever right now?

In the fifteen years since 9/11, I’ve seen the world rally around not only New York, but Paris, Haiti, Japan, and other places where tragedy has struck in the form of either violence or natural disasters. And yet when disasters or extremists strike the Muslim world,[1] the rest of the world either (a) doesn’t notice, or (b) shrugs and says “They’re all terrorists anyways.”

Or worse, expresses the sentiment that this is somehow God’s judgment on the unbelievers.

I can’t really think of anything that makes me more angry than reading that. (Though maybe it was my fault for being in the YouTube comments.)

When we say that, how are we any better than the fundamentalists we fear, yelling “God is great; death to the infidel”?

And now, to top it all off, we have running for president a man who is not only praised for his blatant racism, but has built a platform that takes this fear of the outsider to its natural conclusion—throwing out foreigners, building a wall, separating ourselves from the rest of the scary, scary world, and punishing people for things they had nothing to do with, things done by others who claim to follow the same beliefs. What’s shocking is not that such a person exists. What’s frightening and disturbing is that enough of the country agrees with him that he is one of two people with a shot at the White House in two months. I hope to God this country is not so hateful and fearful as to let him get there. I hope we all realize the danger of electing such a person and vote for someone else.

I’m realizing now this has become way more politically charged than I first intended when I sat down to write what was meant to be a tribute—not just to the violence of fifteen years ago, but to the war-torn and distrustful world that has resulted from that in the years since. I meant this to be more wholesome, more contemplative. But I guess as I got writing, a lot has come out that I’ve felt the need to say for a long time now. I hope what I’ve said isn’t too distasteful on this day, though it almost certainly will offend or even anger some people.

But for those of you still reading, join me in praying—yes, for those affected by the attack of fifteen years ago, and for the people who continue to be misled to think these things are right, but also for those who face persecution simply because they are Muslim or appear to be. And ultimately, for peace, for God’s kingdom to come, his will to be done. For love and reconciliation to win out over fear and hatred.

Come, Lord Jesus

  1. I feel the need to point out that terrorists have killed far more Muslims than non-Muslims worldwide. At the same time, most mass shootings within the US—all of which are acts of terror—have been at the hands of non-immigrant Americans. Though the media seems to reserve the label of terrorism for violence committed by Muslims. ↩︎

Forth, and fear no darkness!

When I last posted I was nearing the end of The Two Towers. I’ve finished The Return of the King now, and I’m working on the appendices. And yes, I’m going to write about The Lord of the Rings again. (Don’t be surprised if this ends up becoming a series.)

Something I’ve noticed this time through the books and the movies, more than before, is the theme of despair. I saw looks of despair and horror on characters’ faces time and time again, as things go from bad to worse. I saw characters lose all hope in the face of overwhelming odds—Denethor is the prime example of this. Even Sam, arguably the most courageous and hopeful character of them all, begins to doubt that, even if he and Frodo make it to Mount Doom, there will be a return journey.

Despair is a key weapon of the Dark Lord. His nine deadliest servants are masters of driving their enemies to fear and despair:

In vain men shook their fists at the pitiless foes that swarmed before the Gate. Curses they heeded not, nor understood the tongues of western men, crying with harsh voices like beasts and carrion-birds. But soon there were few left in Minas Tirith who had the heart to stand up and defy the hosts of Mordor. For yet another weapon, swifter than hunger, the Lord of the Dark Tower had: dread and despair.

The Nazgûl came again, and as their Dark Lord now grew and put forth his strength, so their voices, which uttered only his will and his malice, were filled with evil and horror. Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry. At length even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, or they would stand, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war; but only of hiding and of crawling, and of death.

Or take the words of the Witch-king, the greatest of the Nine, to Gandalf, when they come face to face on the streets of Minas Tirith:

“Do you not know death when you see it, old man? This is my hour…You have failed. The world of Men will fall.”

Cloaked in black, faceless, mounted on winged steeds, with piercing cries that drive man and beast to madness and despair, the Nazgûl are pure evil. I can think of no better picture of our own opponents.

For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12

And like the Nazgûl, one of their favorite weapons is despair. Despair that the evil in the world could ever be made right. Despair that the evil in us could ever be made right.

Take these two songs. The first is a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the Civil War. It has become the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” (By the way, the Casting Crowns version of this is awesome.) It tells the story of the competing sounds of the church bells ringing for Christmas day, and the cannons being fired in nearby battlefields. As the cannons drown out the bells, he loses hope.

And in despair I hung my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men”

But it doesn’t end there. Listen to the finale:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth he sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men

The other is the well-known hymn, “Before the Throne of God Above.” Here is the second verse:

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see him there,
Who made an end of all my sin
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me

In the midst of despair, hope shines through. Indeed, we have more reason to hope than the free peoples of Middle-earth did. Because we know that God is firmly in control, and Jesus already won the decisive victory at the cross and at the tomb. And while the war rages on, we await the return of the King, when he will finish the enemy and establish his reign forever.

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war…The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses…

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast…Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse.

Revelation 19:11-21

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!”

Revelation 21:1-5

Or, as Théoden says to his niece before leading the Rohirrim to the aid of Minas Tirith, “You shall live to see these days renewed, and no more despair.”

Going back to that scene where the Witch-king confronts Gandalf: Gandalf is thrown from his horse, and his staff explodes in his hands. Even as the Witch-king raises his sword to strike, a horn is heard. The horns of Rohan.

As the Rohirrim come over the hill, with the rising sun, and look at the vast army of Orcs before them, Théoden gives his six thousand horsemen a rousing speech, building to the most epic charge in movie history. One line sticks out to me, in the face of despair:

“Forth, and fear no darkness!”