“From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun,
There's more to be seen than can ever be seen,
More to do than can ever be done.”
The scene opens with a vibrant burning orange sunrise. Animals fill the stage dancing; their bodies moving like ribbons in wind. With mezzanine seats, the distance makes it look as real as it gets. Rafiki holds baby Simba up with the hope of new life above all. Their costumes are intricate and beautiful. Their voices come deep from their bellies and stretch straight up to the ceiling. My daughter sits beside me, her stomach full of margherita pizza and vanilla cupcakes, and already up past bedtime in the city that never sleeps. Her face is glowing with anticipation even though she knows the story like the back of her hand, and what comes next is no surprise to her.
In my mind, I know what happens next, too. In a theater, full of people, children, mostly, a madman with a gun to reign terror comes next, right? It’s not that I truly believe this is what will happen, but it feels responsible to at least make an escape plan should things go that direction.
Only four days before the show, someone stood 32 stories above a concert and murdered 58 souls within minutes. It would only be a month until someone walked into a Baptist church in Texas and killed 27 more in 15 seconds.
It’s all I think about until intermission.
Where was God?
Why did he let this happen?
Who is next?
Last month, my husband and I hiked through a small forest with our girls strapped to our backs in a historic town a few miles from our home. We decided to tour a couple of the still-standing buildings and came across an Underground Railroad museum. The first room we walked into was full of gorgeous African cultural headdresses and fabrics and pictures. Vibrant colors, piercings, hairstyles. Extravagant pieces alive with color. A devastating look at how things were right before they were stolen. These pictures were quickly replaced by pictures of these same humans packed onto ships, chained to one another and stacked on top of one another. The next room had tools they used to imprison the people and pictures of the abuse they endured. Men hanging from trees ... white hoods, confederate flags, Jim Crow. My daughter’s curious eyes scanned each image without understanding what she was seeing.
“Mommy, what are the stripes on that man’s back?” Her innocent question forced my throat to close.
Maybe she was too young to know, but my heart was screaming to tell the truth. I fumbled with inadequate words to explain a thing I will never be able to fully understand. I told her he was hurt very badly by men who hated him for the color of his skin. I told her how absurd and horrifying it was. I explained that people with that same skin are still treated differently than we are. Her four-year-old understanding likened it to Maleficent and Cinderella’s cruel stepmother. It made her sad, and for once it felt right not to protect her from feeling that way. One day she may have the same questions that I have.
Why did God let people do this to one another?
Why do they still have to suffer so much?
When will the Earth rest?
The Pride Lands are shriveling. A selfish leader has turned a thriving place into one of devastation because of his own hatred. By now, I have stopped thinking about guns. The chocolate I snuck into the theater has replaced the thought of an automatic weapon being under someone’s coat. Timon and Pumbaa sing “Can you feel the love tonight” and I cry and laugh and remember to have fun as I see my daughter beaming.
Rafiki catches me off guard when she starts to sing “He Lives in You.” I am blown away by the pipes that reside in her body. From the pit of her belly the words dance through the entire theater.
“He lives in you, he lives in me
He watches over everything we see
Into the waters, into the truth
In your reflection, he lives in you.”
She is a fictional baboon singing to a fictional lion, but it feels like an answer to a prayer. She is telling the truth. I wonder if Simba realizes how much power he has to change everything for the better, instead of wondering why his father is letting everyone suffer as he watches over from the stars.
It’s not that now I know why horrible things happen, why the world burns and people starve and hurricanes flood entire cities and bad people get away with using guns to steal lives. (Because I don't.) But I do not think God is absent. I believe God is in the wailing and in the weeping. He is waist deep in water finding bodies that are still breathing, and in the lives that ended while draped over the people they loved while bullets were flying. God is in the pain and the anger, in the work it takes to dig through rubble with bare hands, and in the work it takes to fight against wickedness. God is in the refusal to accept injustice. I feel closest to Him when I am most broken and human. Maybe being made in His image is less about His physical features and more about the empathy and compassion and the suffering He allows me to feel when others are hurting.
He is the reason I feel the ache burning within and the desire to put my feet on the ground and help where I can. He is why I choose to tell my daughter the truth and teach her about the darkness so she will feel compelled to be the light.
Rafiki is back, the break of dawn returns, and the people who fought hate with their own strength celebrate the hope of new life held above them.
The theater is dark and I vow to stop asking where God is, and instead ask, “where am I?”
He lives in me.