When I was 5 years old, my father took me to the circus. The day is forever etched in my mind, more than 40 years later. It was one of those traumatically eventful days I will never forget. Before he died, my father and I talked occasionally about it, but we always did so uneasily, knowing we were fortunate to laugh about it.
The day is intensely personal, almost as if the only two people present were my father and me. It was the first father-son outing I remember. Even today, I can feel the built up anticipation of the week prior to the circus. Commercials promised elephants and lions. Posters teased of clowns and cotton candy. I do not know that I had ever been in an arena that big. It was equally exciting and scary, almost more than I could imagine. To a little boy, especially one who was to spend the day with his father, the day could not come soon enough.
The day of, I could barely contain myself. I spent most of it, the afternoon at least, running from my mom’s heels to the living room window, willing my dad’s car up the drive. When he finally arrived, I was on him before he could turn the engine off.
When we got to the circus, I was in awe. The circus controlled the arena, spreading itself from wall to wall and floor to ceiling. It was even bigger than my 5-year-old dreams had imagined. We walked in and could smell the popcorn and funnel cakes cooking. Vendors carried trays of cotton candy. Others yelled to us, begging us to buy programs, shirts, anything to remember the day. It was sensory overload!
As the night unfolded, we saw everything, including animals that seemed too big for the building, people defying gravity as they flew through the air, tigers jumping through hoops and elephants that were graceful enough to balance on one foot. I got cotton candy and a Coke. It could not possibly have been better!
As we walked down the aisle through the tunnel to leave, I told my dad I had to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately, he did not hear me. To this day, I do not know why. We never talked about why, just about what could have been.
Maybe it was the noise of the crowd that drowned out my voice. Perhaps, it was that we were so focused on avoiding the crowds that nothing else registered. What I know is that when I emerged from the bathroom, my dad was nowhere to be found. I searched, scanning left and right, longing for the security of his face. I had never been lost before, and I was not sure how to look. People flew by, focusing on the exits and escaping the chaos. Fear rushed over me, completely overwhelming me. Tears rushed down my face, clouding my vision, silencing my voice from calling out.
It is rare that we are so emotional we cannot speak. We pride ourselves on having more control, on not being so defenseless. Yet, we all know what it is like to cry out in vulnerability. Tears of fear and isolation, of not wanting to be alone, are familiar tears. They are tears that most, if not all of us, have shed. They are the tears of parents dropping off their children at school that first time. They are the tears of parents watching those same children drive away years later. They are the tears of people leaving the security of their home to move to a new town or country. They are the tears of lost children searching for their father. They are the tears of exile.
Exile manifests itself in myriad ways. For some, it is an abusive relationship, a relationship that, in theory, holds so much promise, yet, in reality, causes so much pain. For others, it is the loss of a loved one and the questions that inevitably arise as life goes on. For some, it is the denial of freedoms — freedoms that are promised to all, but not experienced by all. We are a country that knows exile. Of course, we always have. Some have long been attune to it. Others are just now becoming so.
We are not alone in this. Humans, from the beginning of time, have known exile. Because of this, we celebrate those times and stories that remind us exile is never permanent, in spite of how it might seem at the time.
One such story centers around a woman. This particular woman had been bleeding for 12 years — 12 years! Can you even begin to imagine how miserable this was? If you would like to read her story, it can be found in Matthew 9:18-22.
According to the laws and customs of the time, 12 years of life ebbing from this woman made her an outcast. She had been sentenced to life outside, forever on the fringes, away from the crowds, from anything that might connect her to another. She was made for more than fringe living. Even on the outside, she heard of a wandering preacher, one with the power to heal. He came to her region. She braved the crowds, snuck up behind him, and touched, not him, but the fringe of his garment. She touched it, secretly, hoping no one would notice, all the while begging to be noticed, to be whole, to be part, again, of life.
The story is told in ways that do not do her justice. She comes across as secretive, almost sneaky. She was neither. It took great courage to brave the crowds. It took even more to hope. There is nothing secretive or sneaky about true bravery. The preacher felt power surge from within. He turned and, recognizing her pain, talked directly to her, stealing the shadows from her. Yet, instead of rebuking her, he called out to her. “Daughter,” he said. With that one word, he labeled her a woman of his flesh, no longer an outsider, but one beckoned home.
After what seemed like an eternity, but it was probably not even five minutes, my dad parted the crowds. We rushed together, overcome with relief. I threw my arms around his legs and can still feel the security in that moment. He picked me up, held me and wiped away my tears. In that moment, the world could have stopped and I do not think I would have cared.
There is power in acceptance that soothes and calms fear. It calms the fear of little boys lost in circus tents. It calmed the fear of a hemorrhaging woman. It will calm the fear we know only too well, as well as the fear of lost nations in search of hope.
In a world that seems more divided by the day, faith is that doorway to acceptance. It is the healing voice that unites us with one another and with our Redeemer. It is what guides us home, reminding us, again and again, that we do not just belong, but are beloved children of a loving God. This season, my hope is that we all might find a bit of faith and help lead another home.