Voices
Andy Crawford & Steve Gorton/Dorling Kindersley

Into the poison thicket

Struggles foreign and domestic change us as we enter in

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

In a wooded area between my house and the neighbor's we have poison ivy. Not a few sprigs or even a cluster, but poison ivy running beneath the maples and poplars as far as the eye can see.

Lest anyone doubt how potent is my poison thicket, allow me: Poison ivy and its cousins, poison oak and poison sumac, produce an oily allergen called urushiol. From the Japanese word urushi, the word is for sap that makes lacquer. Hard stuff. It takes only one billionth of a gram of urushiol produced via the leaves to cause a rash. I have enough to plague an army.

Among Americans about 90 percent of us will be allergic to poison ivy at one time or another, and no one is forever immune, say the experts. In fact, the more you're exposed to poison ivy, the more likely you are to develop the rash.

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So on a warm Saturday with no wind I headed to the thicket, fully cloaked and armed with a name-brand, expert-recommended herbicide. I sprayed with determination, saw vines also twisting up trees and decided I could risk the trees so I sprayed those too (I realize I will get mail about this).

Two realizations quickly surfaced. One, I knew as I launched this chemical weapon I could be killing treasured plants. Sprouting in those damp woods are rare jack-in-the-pulpits and blackberry vines we will miss come cobbler season. Two, I could not be certain I was finishing the job without stepping into the poisoned thicket. Until I stood in the middle of it, surrounded, immersed, I couldn't really measure its size, or know whether I'd reached all of it.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!

What fights with us is so great!

It's not only the neo-modernist poet Rainer Maria Rilke (in "The Man Walking"), but everyone at some point recognizes that we lack the ability to enter all the way in and the perception to see the scope of what troubles us-whether it's finding a solution toward peace in the Middle East (p. 60) or doing battle with gay activist groups (p. 74). We may not even know when we live in a food desert (p. 94).

So we chip away at half-hearted solutions, grow cynical, ask overarching questions with no apparent answer: Will Egypt become a radical Islamic state? How can the United States side with rare democrats in a thicket of poisonous elements? Has the housing market bottomed out? Can the U.S. economy outlast the federal debt crisis? And then we fire our salvos-real or rhetorical, helpful or hurtful-hopefully from a safe distance.

My parable of poison ivy is a poor projection on the work of Jesus: He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. But there is a way in this life to follow Him, if not into the heart of the grief and affliction-the poison-He took on, then at least as far as He has made us to go-and as He goes before us we may follow lustily. That's one reason we are eager to begin our sixth annual series on effective compassion-so that you can meet people like Wally Bryan, who traded his home in a nice Kentucky neighborhood for a roach-infested apartment in a poor area where he can help "fix up the people." It's why we bring reports of hope from Haiti (p. 56), and even Missouri's tornado zone.

We cannot be Jesus but we might be Jacob. He wrestled the angel of God all night and by morning went "limping because of his hip," according to Genesis. Yet in the face of struggle Jacob could say, "I have seen the face of God, and yet my life has been saved." Or as Rilke continues in his poem, "Whoever was beaten by this Angel . . . went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand, that kneaded him as if to change his shape." Who in this life, I ask you, isn't desperate to change his shape?

Email Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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