As we drove away from our place in Idaho, we listened to the soundtrack of Alexander Hamilton, belting out, “How lucky we are to be alive right now!” I have felt that deeply and weep pretty much every time I hear Lin-Manuel Miranda sing it.
I didn’t know what to expect of our trip between the place we stayed after Yellowstone and Boise; the main objective had been to just get to the Brethren church conference. It was the first time I had viewed the drive as the necessary evil in order to get to a place instead of part of the adventure.
That was a mistake.
Idaho is another otherworldly landscape of wind and barren, open fields, intense heat, and the recent(-ish) remnants of volcanic eruptions that created the Craters of the Moon, a national park in Idaho that extends for 1,100 square miles, roughly the size of Rhode Island. To us, along the highway, it looks like the place the globe has chosen to dump ground-up asphalt, for miles and miles, except there’s also mounds of volcanic rock that have cracked and sprouted.
Sandwiched between Yellowstone and the Craters of the Moon is the Idaho National Laboratory, a DOE national laboratory, “the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development.” It’s unsurprising that this wide open plane with sustained wind of 35 MPH and gusts that nearly knock us off our feet would be virtually uninhabitable by humans. Being creative creatures, we’ve found a use for those wide open spaces. The farther we travel across the country, the more I am grateful we’ve dedicated land as wilderness, protected land from further development, so that the wild things might still grow and unfold in their own time, relatively unaffected by us. Because we affect everything.
A tumbleweed tumbled across the highway as we made our final entrance into Boise, where after being together 24/7 for six days straight, we suddenly split apart, my boys going with a youth group for their conference, and me off to business meetings and vision statements, worship and plenary speakers. Among many highlights, I got to worship with hundreds of other people from across the United States who are all a part of my denomination, in one place, singing the same songs, worshiping the same God.
After what felt like a very quick four days, the conference ended, and the boys and I packed up our stuff from the hotel to drive to a beautiful Airbnb apartment in Salt Lake City in what seemed like a not-so-great neighborhood when we pulled in. It was 9 o’clock or so on a Thursday night, and the sidewalks outside were busy with homeless people. It was the first time I felt nervous and that tingly awareness of the presence of “other people.”
During the conference, we talked about “other people.” Rickey Bolden challenged his audience, “It’s not unconditional love, until there’s a condition.” What is the condition that you have to overcome in order to love the way God so loved the world, unconditionally?
“Lock the doors when I get out,” I told the boys. “I have to get the key for the place.” Instead, naturally, Henry got out. “Get back in the car!” I shrieked, irrationally.
Later, I saw the city in the light of day. Homeless people seemed to be everywhere, on every corner, walking or waiting for a bus, hoping for food. In the spring, I read Dreamland by Sam Quinones, so I know that one possible reason for an uptick in homelessness is the way drug addiction destroys an addict’s life, making them slaves to heroin and opiates. Leaving the grocery store at one in the afternoon, someone asked me for $2.50 for a bus fare to Layton. Normally, I claim to have no change—I know there are shelters and nonprofits that exist to support and help people, and I know every tale of the addict taking cash to go and buy their drugs or alcohol instead of what they actually asked for. Normally, I have no cash and don’t have to lie about the money bit.
But I had cash. And Rickey Bolden’s words were fresh in my heart.
“Thank you,” the man said, scurrying away. “And God bless!”
“You too,” I said. God bless. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Later still, after we picked up Lydia and Brandon from the airport (Praise God, after 11 days, my family is all together again!), we walked around Salt Lake City, grabbing a meal from a place called From Scratch (delicious!). Even Brandon noticed the number of homeless. We had leftover containers to take back with us to our place.
“Excuse me,” a voice said. “Do you have any change for food? I’m super hungry.”
“No, sorry,” Brandon said. I didn’t even turn around, I started to cross the street.
“How about your leftovers?” the man asked. The cartons swung from my hand. I paused and looked over my shoulder. The young man had long, straight, brown hair, about as tall as my son.
My son. He’s hungry.
“Of course!” we said. “Here you go—there’s a burger and fries and some pasta in here.”
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.
“Thanks!” he said, and we walked back to our car, our nerves still on alert, because Jesus sends us like sheep among wolves, and we are to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. It’s hard to be this way, with all of the messaging we receive about others, to hold the tension between shrewdness and innocence, to not become as the wolf, ravenous and cynical. But that is what Jesus calls us to, over and over again, love love love. God is love. There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.
Our family made our way to the Great Salt Lake, only to be disappointed by its low levels and long, scaly beach. According to Science.com, the lake has lost half its water in the last 170 years, and much of its shrinkage is due to human water consumption. Henry and I ventured out on the beach in our bare feet, because the water didn’t look that far away, and paid for it, the shoreline a long stretch of painful rocks, dried, cracked sand, and barb-like dried grasses all the way until we reached the mucky shore, where salt crystallized on the sand.
It was still stunning, this massive expanse of water and mountain and sky. But we’ve touched this place, too. There are unseen consequences to our own survival, unseen until they aren’t unseen anymore.
Once we’ve seen, you can’t unsee. So what conditions are we going to put upon our love for this land? What conditions do we have for loving humanity, the body of Christ?
How lucky we are to be alive right now.