The World Is Always Burning

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” – Frederick […]

Stephanie Phillips / 1.14.20

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”

– Frederick Buechner

Warning: extremely first world problems dissected ahead.

Sydney is burning. And I don’t like my house. These problems are not equal, but they are both real.

The rest of the world has finally caught on to what people in Australia have been dealing with for months: bushfires are ravaging the country and its wildlife, people are losing their homes (and in over two dozen cases, their lives) and the air is filled with smoke. This is a disaster.

Meanwhile, repeated earthquakes have rocked an already-fragile Puerto Rico, and tensions have skyrocketed between the US and Iran. Add to that all the rest of the pain and strife occurring across the globe, and one might be forgiven for thinking the world is truly falling apart.

But here’s a spoiler alert for the past million seasons of The World: it’s always been this way.

Even a cursory glance through the annals of the past tells us that humans have always, well, kinda sucked. We’ve been through countless wars, disasters, a few plagues here and there, and Gigli. When, for example, has it ever been safe to be a black male in the South? Or one of Henry VIII’s wives? Anyone who can feel impenetrable on this planet is privileged at best, delusional at worst. We are in a world gone wrong, a world that has deviated far from its original plan. There are just some times in which this deviation is more obvious than others. Pain that cannot be readily dismissed must be acknowledged.

Which is why I want to talk about my living situation. 

When my husband was offered a position three years ago with his company in Australia, I responded to him and God with a polite no. Like an improv partner, though, God always responds to my polite nos with his own “Yes, and.” The yes was an ensuing move to Sydney, away from dear family and friends into an unknown habitat across the world. Fast forward to the and three years later: we are thriving. We love it here, our kids love it here, and we recently chose to add at least two more years onto our stay.

But we’ve had to move every single year and are now on our fourth house; like all the others, a rental. This is insanity for a couple of planners and savers like my husband and me. We owned a home with a mortgage back in Atlanta; we were grownups there! Responsible ones who saved, like, a lot (my husband is the financial one; consult him for the numbers) and knew what our future looked like. Now we don’t even know where we’ll be in a couple of years.

Which is funny, because no one else does, either. They just think they do. Like we did. Before we moved to Australia.

Do you know what it costs to rent (aka throw your money down the toilet and flush) in Sydney? Again, I’m not the financial one in our family, but it is roughly an assload. It’s so much that they charge by the week rather than the month, to fool you into thinking it’s less staggering. And what do you get for that weekly fee? Well, where we are, you get proximity to the ocean, great schools, no yard, and about a quarter of the space we had in Atlanta. Cheers, mate!

I should preface this next part with a bit of background. I have always been funny about my surroundings; my space if you will. I’ve spoken before about nightmare camp experiences — the sights and smells that scarred me for life — and I still carry memories of the sulfur water at my grandparents’ house in the country (“IT SMELLS LIKE FARTS! LIKE FARTS!!!” – my sister, circa 1985). I am…funny about cleanliness, and particular about smells and other signs of wear and tear and age in homes. And our present home — a compromise born of cost, supply, and time crunch — while lovely, also has some downsides. Let’s just put it this way — I’ve given myself a headache with diffusers, and the carpet (a liability in humid Sydney) is always a bit…moist.

Look, I know the truth: I am privileged. I am blessed. I am ungrateful. (I should probably go on a short-term mission trip to reset my attitude at the expense of the locals who will teach me so much more than I’ll teach them.) Fortunately, I am also loved, which gives me the freedom of honesty with my feelings and leads me to the deeper ones, because what I really am is a person seeking comfort. I want to feel safe. I want to feel clean. I want to take a hot bath at the end of the day in a tub that is not shared with my kids’ piss trails. And the reality is that no house is ever going to provide the comfort I seek, which is not about smells or surfaces but more

When I commiserated with a fellow expat about our house search, she responded kindly and gently while also managing to make the point that nowhere on this earth is our true home — and Sydney real estate is a great reminder of that.

So are bushfires. So are family get-togethers at the holidays. So is war. So is…the world.

I’m trying to carry over the truths of Christmas into this new year, into this new home, into this hemisphere and this year-by-year life we’re absurdly leading. Because one of the things that always jumps out to me about the Nativity is Mary’s role in it, and how awful it must have been to be stuck with a bunch of men and animals right after giving birth. And to have all accounts of it rendered by dudes. I have to trust, though, that — in spite of the discomfort (and smells) she had to have been experiencing — she was the one who told Luke that bit about her manner of dealing with it all:

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Because that? That I can do. Pondering is my jam. I can do it on social media, I can do it in therapy, I can do it on a plane above the Pacific, and I can do it sitting in my “new” house as the smoke seeps in and I contemplate new flooring. I can ponder, which I believe leads to treasuring — a true process, and one that I need to honor by giving it the time it deserves.

I can ponder my kids’ faces as our plane descended into a smoky Sydney: faces full of recognition and delight. I can ponder the pantry I just organized and the overweening satisfaction it gives me. I can ponder the outdoor space my husband and I have made nightly use of for talks. I can ponder the new closeness this smaller space gives our family. I can ponder the lack of room it gives us to host long-term guests (praise Jesus).

I can ponder how complaint and lament are very different things, and only one is productively directional, and God in his grace welcomes my lament, no matter how silly it feels to me in light of fires and wars (which I also lament; fun fact, you can lament more than one thing at a time).

I can ponder that, as humans with eternity written on our hearts, we are in the unique position of having an awareness of how things should be, which deepens our grief over how far they are from that — while providing hope that they won’t always be this way. The grief and hope are somehow both in sharp relief against, and deeply connected to, each other. Inhabiting that space can be painful.

I can ponder that truth playing out on my younger son’s face as we said yet another goodbye when we visited America over Christmas. As it crumpled, I held his hand and told him what’s been told to me throughout my life; what Fleabag’s dad told her about big hearts that feel so much:

“You know how to love better than any of us. That’s why you find it all so painful.”

We know how it should be. That’s why we find it all so painful. That’s why we can find beauty to treasure and ponder. That’s why grace is, and always leads us to, our true home — and through the fires on the way there.