From the 32nd chapter of Jeremiah…
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. (So, the story we enter takes place during war time, in the middle of the fighting, and the guy we’re listening to is in prison.)
Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.
And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
They said traffic is always terrible in that city, but that particular morning, there was an additional cause for delay – all those kids. There were kids – about one hundred of them, boys and girls, snaking their way through the street like a parade. Some people had lined up on the street and some people were watching out of their windows and some people were asking one another, “What is this?”
The kids wore so much color, that it was like a birthday celebration had exploded on the dusty street. Primary colored shirts and pants – reds and yellows, some blue, some green, all oversized, so lots of room to move – and some of their sandals were worn and torn but others had jewels woven into theirs – these were party clothes.
Most of the kids were walking, almost skipping, but some walked on stilts, and some rode unicycles. It really was like a scene from a circus. And all of them were juggling. Some made it look really easy, really so natural; for others it took more concentrated effort. They threw tennis balls and batons and what looked like giant carnival-game bats into the air, the balls, at least, like five or six at a time, and they threw them under their legs, or sent them out like they were leading them on a string – because it wasn’t just people leaning out of their apartment windows or drivers on their way to work that were watching – there were judges nearby, too, awarding points for endurance and for tricks.
These kids were finalists from their regions, and they’d come to this competition to see if they could win the whole thing, the competition put on the by the Afghan Mini Mobile Circus for Children.
See all this color, all this fun, all this celebration, was winding down the streets of Kabul. I forgot to say that the kids also wore festive, brightly-colored headscarves. Because this parade was in Kabul. In Afghanistan. Where war raged for so long. And still does.
I mean, it’s over, we know. Or we say. And by the end of next year Americans will be home. But those streets still see violence. The children’s laughter of that circus morning, their cheering each other on, those sounds still are not louder than the cries that echo in those streets on other mornings.
But this was the EIGHTH ANNUAL children’s juggling competition. The non-profit that runs the circus – and invites all kids in Afghanistan to participate, if they can keep a certain grade point average in school – that organization was founded ten years ago. That’s two years after the war started. When there was, really, no end in sight. Plenty of opposition, but no end in sight.
It’s almost as if,
The word came to Berit and David from the Lord in the first year of interim head of state Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, which was the second year of president George W. Bush of the United States. At that time the army of the United States and a NATO-led International Security force were besieging Kabul, and beginning a protracted fight against the Taliban. At that time fewer than one third of Afghan children were in school, and the infrastructure to support their education was badly lacking.
Berit and David noticed that both governmental and non-governmental assistance programs were hard at work delivering food, and creating shelters, and other necessities for the people of Afghanistan. But the call they heard was to bring children together and create joyful communities.
The word that came to them was a call to deliver essential education about health and safety and landmines and to create ways for artistic expression to pave roads to survival and to peacemaking.
So they didn’t buy a field, like Jeremiah. They bought what they call “fun-tainers” – shipping containers that they’ve painted red and yellow and blue and green and transformed into rehearsal and performance spaces in local communities. Kids gather there to learn to juggle, or do acrobatics, or sing, or produce radio shows, or even just play. And they bought a center in Kabul that they invite those kids to each year, because it’s in the coming together, when the kids can teach each other, that so much of the learning happens.
It’s as if, even in the worst days of the war, these two prophets heard a voice saying, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land. There is a future here, filled with color and laughter and children.”
There are boys, to the side of the judges’ station, engaged in their own competition. They juggle their pins for more than two solid hours. They are in tears from the strain but they do not stop.
Which means – forgive me for how obvious this is – but it means they have been practicing. These kids do not just come together one morning to parade through the street, bringing a bit of joy to a path, and a city, that can also be scary, or dangerous, or sad. They have been working for this moment. They have been juggling in their homes, in their yards, in their classes with the mini-circus. A war has been raging and children have been learning to juggle.
And it just strikes me what a testimony of hope that is. What a statement of trust in the future, to spend your time developing a new skill – one of the boys, a twelve-year-old, says juggling is teaching him about lines and angles, and that will help as he pursues his dream of becoming an architect. What an act of resistance, to war, to violence, to say that the tools these children will learn to work with are tennis balls and performance batons and foam bats.
It does not cancel out the horrors of war. It does not erase them or cover over them and maybe it does it even soothe them. But it does say, in a powerful way, that there is more. It does say, like Jeremiah’s purchase of the field, that no place, however stricken, deserves to be given up on. It does say that people’s lived realities are so much more complex – even in war, which would seem to level and simplify everything – it does say that the truth is people are deep and layered and so much more than we might anticipate, able to hold together the sadness of mourning and the fear of violence and the thrill of learning and the joy of community and the rush of accomplishment and the hope of tomorrow all within their tender hearts.
How do we hold so much? How does the word of the Lord come to us in our pain, in our fear, and ask us to act with hope?
There’s a strange stress in the scripture for today on all the paperwork – sign these documents, put them here, so that everyone knows – the prophet’s way of making sure that there are witnesses to his wild and unreasonable act. If he purchases land, and keeps the deed, and years later returns during peace time to claim it, he’s really done nothing. But if a big sold sign appears on the land during the midst of the siege, if Jeremiah starts to hang out, if he plants a couple of trees around the edge of the property…. People know. They know they have a new neighbor. And when they know that, they know they have a future. What moves in is not just a prophet, but a sign that God loves them and will not let them go.
Where do you see those signs? When you, or those you love, are besieged, how does God’s love come close?
It’s not always in big ways, right? Those of you who know my husband, who know how much he loves our children, might be surprised to learn that he was not always as thrilled about the idea of having kids as he is today. When I found out I was pregnant the first time, I was surprised – this was not something we had been planning on – but it wasn’t long after I saw the plus sign on the stick that I got used to the idea. I rode my bike up to his work and found him and pulled him aside and said, “Hey…” … And his face fell. … For the sake of my oldest child, who may read this someday, I’ll say my husband was not… ready. And he was not ready for a long time. I wanted to talk about names and he was not ready. I wanted us to read books together and he was not ready. I wanted to buy things and he was not ready. It was a scary and lonely time for both of us.
And then one day, about six months into my pregnancy, he came home with a small bag, handed it to me without saying a word. I pulled out these tiny black and white striped knit leg warmers, and a black onesie that said “Chics dig me” in white across the chest.
And I was really torn. … I mean, of course I was offended. I hated the outfit on sight. Even Rick’s protesting that we didn’t know the gender of our baby, so “Chics dig me” couldn’t be seen as a sexist, or even a heterosexist, phrase – I wasn’t convinced.
But it was an outfit for the baby. I don’t know how he understood what he had done, but I understood it as Rick’s act of hope, his way of saying that he trusted in tomorrow, a tangible sign that he was ready to step into this unknown future with me. So, as tacky as the outfit was… I also sort of loved it.
How are we called to be prophetic, to be imaginative, to act in ways that witness to our hope? When the word of the Lord comes to us, in this year, in this place, what does it ask of us? How does it challenge us?
Jeremiah bought a field in defiance of the violence that raged in the land, to say that life would return to that place.
And Berit and David founded a children’s circus in the midst of a hopeless situation, to say that we can create a different kind of future, if we invest in a different kind of present.
And five years ago, Rick brought home that terrible outfit, in spite of his fear, to say he would lean toward hope.
What will you do?