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June 07, 2015

a name and a tower

It's 23:11 on the Paris metro. After a long day of seeing nearly every classic Paris postcard shot (and about 10,000 mini Tour d'Eiffel keychains) we're running our index fingers along colourful maps to figure our way back to our hotel.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see a lanky black lady fit herself into the seat next to me. She's busy on her phone, playing a game where she feeds and washes a poorly-rendered cartoon potato. (You read that correctly.) I look at her more directly and realize that her arms are scarred, and her fingernails have worn, chipped maroon polish, like the hands of a lady who works hard.

A few seats away a man carrying a large toolbox perches on a small seat all by himself. He looks a bit dusty, like he could be a labourer at a construction site. I wonder about the time, Is he just coming home from work now, so late? He's in another world, talking to someone named Mahmod on his phone.

In the metro car ahead of us, loud music starts and teenagers are dancing and yelping. The commotion goes on for 5 or 10 minutes, and when the crowd of teenagers begins to clear, the instigator surfaces. She's a chunky girl travelling with a portable boom box on wheels, jovial as all get out. I wonder at her obvious courage and charisma, to start a dance party with strangers in a public place, and then pester metro travellers for coins.

The Paris metro feeds my curiosity about people and life, with its never-ending procession of people coming and going through its doors. I wonder about their histories, heartaches, hopes....

It's my second time in Paris, and this time I'm less concerned with getting the perfect picture of the Louvre or the city skyline. I have more time to sit on metro seats and park benches and take in the swarms of people. Under the Eiffel Tower it looks and sounds like a gathering from all nations. As does all of Paris: here the Jamaican and African street dancers, there the Lebanese kebab or crepe shops manned by tired-looking immigrants. Here the dolled-up Americans and Brazilians living the dream on the Champs d'Elyses, there an Eastern-looking lady with her hair under wraps, begging for coins. Local school children carry wreaths alongside veterans near the Arc de Triomphe, and I can't help but notice than only a minimal percentage of them "look French" (read: are Caucasian).

Big cities make promises, of fun, of glamour, of riches, of famemillions have gathered in Paris to make good on those promises. No matter how many years we are from Babel, the human heart moves in the same direction:
"Come, let us build ourselves a city,
and a tower whose top is in the heavens;
let us make a name for ourselves,
lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth."

I see a city pulsating with souls. Small images of God:
...locking padlocks on chain-link bridges to somehow immortalize their mortal love.
...longing to remember and be remembered, and taking pictures of themselves with world-renowned monuments like their lives depend on it.
...pushing their way to the front of the line, or the top of the tower.

I see a city pulsating with souls who choose either their own glory, name or tower, or His glory, His name, His tower. I don't have to look too far to see it; I have seen my own heart, desiring my own glory in the form a me-centered conversation, schedule,

The big city with the big tower can't keep all it has pledged, and there is more disappointment here than there is joy, as always happens when humans set out to seek their own glory.

A few weekends ago we were in a quieter place, hiking in the forest, and a friend of a friend came along. I had never met him before, but we covered a kilometre or two of the hike side-by-side and he told me bits of his story. He is 31, but feels old, because his story is already too long and too complicated.The hike tired him, but this was only because life tired him first: he knows firsthand about being scattered because of others who try to make a name for themselves.

He escaped Syria about two years ago, and couldn't tell his family or friends which day he was leaving. He miraculously made it through an extraordinary number of checkpoints, and has been bouncing around Europe for 18 months now, trying to learn a new language, and starting a new Master's degree. I say a new Master's degree because he already had one such degree and his own business in Damascus. He had no desire to start over in Europe. But neither did he wish to live in a city where death descended too often, where daily goodbyes had to be said like final farewells, because they might be. So he lives somewhat unwillingly here, with a dream of returning to a peaceful Syria.

My companion told me that he is wearied of moving, tired of changing places and stories and languages. He blamed the ongoing war in Syria on bad politics. I told him that deeper than the politics, the problem is the corrupt heart of every man, wanting to build his own tower or kingdom at the expense of others, to make a name for himself, to seek his own glory. I wish I had told him, too, how I abuse my power and dominion in smaller ways, how the sinners are not just the ones killing 130,000+ Syrians, but the two of us, too, wandering on that path under a peaceful canopy of trees.

Until we recognize our personal part in the problem that afflicts all mankind, we will find no solution.

In Europe it's not hard to travel, and while my sister-in-law was here, other than visiting Paris and going hiking, we also visited Strasbourg, France. We took in the gently-flowing canals, bridges with flower boxes, traditional houses and stone streets. I thought: for most of the world, to live in a place like this would be a dream. It is quiet, clean, organized, and gorgeous. It is probably almost as safe as you can get on earth.

But I was not satisfied, even with this city. I wondered to myself, "Why do I stand in the kingdoms  that man has built, unsatisfied? Why, the more sights I see and the more places I visit, do I long more for the strong tower of God? Why am I not satisfied with the hustle, history and heights of Paris, the organized feel of our home city, or the quiet rest of Strasbourg, as so many appear to be?"

Perhaps because in Paris, in a metro station with state-of-the-art scheduling and a brand new train, there is a woman who is wearing a shirt but no pants, spreading a bag of garbage open on the ledge, as a dog would do. On the river promenade in our city, there's a man yelling at his girlfriend, waving his arms violently. In the homes with the lovely flower boxes and traditional wooden trim in Strasbourg, I'm sure there are still divorces, rebellious children, and broken hearts. Indeed, what spoils the beautiful kingdoms of men is the very men who build them, the very men who seek to enjoy them for their own glory. I stand where many come to make a name for themselves, unsatisfied, because I long for these crowds to enter the city with His name, forever.

On a personal note, what can spoil the fineries of Europe for me is that my heart is still plagued with sin. The biggest threat to these beautiful places is in me, I cannot fully enjoy them because I am still in this self-glorifying body of deathI stand under the tower I have built for myself, unsatisfied, because I long to be brought into His strong tower, forever.

As C.S. Lewis so aptly put it, "...we were made for another world." Maranathaour Lord, come!

The name of the Lord is a strong tower; 
the righteous man runs into it and is safe.

To Calvary, Lord, in spirit now,
Our weary souls repair,
To dwell upon Thy dying love,
And taste its sweetness there.

Sweet resting place of every heart,
That feels the plague of sin,
Yet knows that deep mysterious joy,
The peace with God, within.

There, through Thine hour of deepest woe,
Thy suffering spirit passed;
Grace there its wondrous victory gained,
And love endured its last.

Dear suffering Lamb! Thy bleeding wounds,
With cords of love divine,
Have drawn our willing hearts to Thee,
And linked our life with Thine.

Thy sympathies and hopes are ours:
Dear Lord! we wait to see
Creation, all below, above,
Redeemed and blest by Thee.

Our longing eyes would fain behold
That bright and blessèd brow,
Once wrung with bitterest anguish, wear
Its crown of glory now.

Why linger then? Come, Savior, come,
Responsive to our call;
Come, claim Thine ancient power, and reign 
The Heir and Lord of all.

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