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Memories. I remember seeing a picture, a photograph maybe, displayed in Mrs. Pennell’s Grade 5-6 classroom at Bel-Aire Elementary School in Calgary. That school is long gone—there were maybe 60 kids from kindergarten to Grade 6. To get there, I walked out my back gate, across the “alleyway” with the HUGE alliance church beside it, and through the soccer field.
Anyway, memories. That photograph. It shows up in my mind’s eye as clearly as the day I first saw it. Shot in black and white, it showed a scene that could have been taken place in any schoolyard, anywhere around the world. Boys kicking a ball, girls playing with dolls. The kids were smiling, the background a whirl of greys, blacks and whites.
It was only as an adult that, in remembering that photo, I began to reflect upon what I was actually was seeing. The boys' “ball” was actually a collection of rags tied up with twine. The “dolls” now looked more like socks and buttons. And the children themselves seemed dingy, grimy, thin.
And it wasn’t until I concentrated on one of the boys in the foreground of my memory—when I focused on the front of his shirt—that I also remembered the word that Mrs. Pennell spoke when talking about the photo. The word snapped like a whip in my mind: Auschwitz.
It was a picture taken by a camp guard and found in his possessions when the Allied liberators arrived at Auschiwitz. And that picture, seen once in a class so long ago, has had a lasting an impact on me and directed my spiritual and academic life since.
“How could children play amidst such horror?”
That question, modified over the years and through different circumstances, has seen me through 20 years of ordained ministry and I continue to wonder, “How we can still play while all this has happened?” Because we do. A resident at a nursing home, ravaged with arthritis and dementia, playing practical jokes with the PSWs; a congregation, just years away from the inevitable closing, decorating its interior with cheerful scenes and loving pictures; knock knock jokes told at funerals. And on and on I could go.
You know what I mean.
That picture has shown me that, despite death, pain, indifference, loneliness, bankruptcy or disappointment, we have to live. And life isn’t just “three hots and a cot.” It isn’t just about making sure Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is being fulfilled.
Jesus, in speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd, says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” It is not enough just to live, we must have an abundant life: To play, to laugh, to love, to say YES when everything and everyone around you is saying NO.
But make no mistake, this message is not about getting more. It is about living more.
A cup of coffee with a dear friend can be abundant living. Sitting down in a church pew after a hectic week, and having someone pat your shoulder and say, “I’m glad to see you” can be abundant living. Having enough to pay all your bills, with enough left over to splurge at the dollar store can be abundant living. Being able to drive someone into the cancer clinic, only months after you had to go yourself, can be abundant living.
Memories. Thank you, God, for Mrs. Pennell and a picture I can’t seem to find anywhere on the web.
But, even so, this photo has made all the difference.