“Live a Little More Beautifully and Dangerously, as Christians Should”: Some Thoughts on Going to Iraq

A normal night in the Smucker household.
A normal night in the Smucker household.

When Father David said what he said on Sunday morning, I immediately grabbed the pen my daughter was drawing with and scribbled his quote at the top of my bulletin. “Hey!” she hissed in quiet protest. Lucy and Cade looked over my shoulder to see what I was doing, what I had stolen from Abra. When I finished writing down Father David’s words, I handed the pen back folded the piece of paper, and tucked it into my pocket. Those words were like a promise to me, like some kind of blessing.

* * * * *

Two years ago, I read a blog post by Ann Voskamp that left me in tears. When Maile came home later that evening, I made her sit down and read it, too. We soaked in Ann’s writing, suddenly aware, awake, to a small part of what was going on in the Middle East, and we were shattered. Empty. We did what we could, we gave what we could, but for the last two years, ever since reading that post, I’ve felt a holy kind of restlessness whenever I thought about the Middle East. It felt, and continues to feel, intensely personal.

This is part of the reason I’ve been so upset by President Trump’s efforts to keep out refugees from the Middle East. This is part of the reason I befriended a Syrian refugee family who recently moved to Lancaster. This is part of the reason I’ve done work with Church World Service and Preemptive Love. The restlessness, the discomfort, has continued to grow. I wanted to do more, but I didn’t know what else I could do.

We all know this sense of helplessness, right? In a world where we see every tragedy, where we witness every injustice, how can we feel anything but helpless? Well, I found a small way to beat back the helplessness, and for me it came in doing small things, whenever I could. You might find this useful, too, when you’re drowning in helplessness, in a sense of smallness.

Ever since reading Ann’s article two years ago, I’ve felt a kind of irresistible pull towards that region of the world. Sometimes I’ve felt impatient to get involved – What’s taking so long, God? At other times, I’ve been content to sit back and wait – after all, our life is busy, and the days fall over each other in their passing. Months get swept away. I can hardly believe two years has passed since I first read that blog post.

Still, there was this invisible trajectory, inevitable in its motion. I think the passing of this time, all these days and weeks and months, have been a grace, God’s way of easing Maile and I into a new movement, one that at first might have been difficult to accept had we not been given so much time for it to grow. I think God knew that if he gave us this opportunity too soon, we might mistakenly pass it up out of fear or practicality or uncertainty. But God gave us time. Two years, to be exact.

I continue to be amazed at God’s adept use of time in my life, this insistence that I wait, that I not have everything precisely when I want it. I’m beginning to think it might be God’s greatest talent, this use of time, this creating of holy space, this invitation into the waiting.

* * * * *

Finally, the penny dropped. I spoke with my agency about a potential project, and that led to a phone conversation with the potential client. I researched her story and what her organization is involved in. What I didn’t expect was the question that came next.

“Would you be willing to travel to Iraq to see the work we’re doing first hand?”

I called Maile as soon as I got off the phone.

“The client wants to know if I’m willing to travel with her to see the work they’re doing.” Maile was quiet on the other end of the line. “So, where do they want you to go?” she finally asked, laughing nervously, because somehow she already knew.

“You’ll never guess,” I said, also starting to laugh, for no reason. We were both giddy with nerves and a sense that what we had dreaded and wanted was upon us.

“Iraq,” she said, and we both stopped laughing. We both grew serious.

“I knew you’d know,” I said.

“The dangerous part of Iraq, or the really dangerous part?” she asked.

“Take your time and think about it. We both have to be okay with this.” I paused. “We’ll talk when I get home.”

Later that day, I walked straight up to the bedroom, past my kids’ greetings and requests for food and shouts to arbitrate some new disagreement. I went up the stairs, back the hall, and into our room, where Maile was folding clothes on the bed and seven-month-old Poppy was sitting, proud of herself, happy to see me.

I started talking, but Maile held up her hand and smiled and there were little seeds of tears in her eyes.

“You’re going to Iraq. We both know it. We’ve both seen this coming for a long time. And I’m okay with it. I don’t know how, or why. But I’m not even worried. It’s the next thing.”

* * * * *

A few days later, Maile and I were up in the study. Through the narrow window, I could see this little city we’ve grown to love. We gathered the kids into the room and they sat down, some on the chair, some on the floor, some on us. We have six, you know, and everyone was there except Poppy.

“So, Daddy has a new writing project,” Maile explained. The kids stared at us. This is nothing new to them. We are constantly talking about having or not having projects, having or not having money, having or not having time. We explain when it’s time to tighten our belts. We explain the value of money and how it relates to time. Then, when a new deposit comes in or a new contract is signed, we celebrate by going out to eat. I hope our honesty with them is a good thing. I don’t want them to be obsessed with money, but I do want them to understand the true cost of a thing.

“To write this book, he has to go to Iraq,” Maile continued. I nodded.

“Is there a war going on there?” Cade asked.

“There’s a lot of conflict,” I conceded. “They’re working on getting rid of ISIS.”

“Is it dangerous?” Lucy asked.

“It’s not the safest place in the world,” I said, shrugging. Maile laughed.

“It is a dangerous place,” Maile said, “but here’s the thing. This is right in line with the purpose of our family. We are adventurous. We try to stand up for people being persecuted. We live differently, or we try to. And when God opens up an opportunity like this, we say yes.”

Maile paused. It was quiet there in that third-floor room.

“Daddy has the opportunity to shed some light in the darkness. He has a chance to share stories people might not otherwise hear.”

Our five oldest kids, including Leo, stared at Maile as if she was explaining the meaning of life. Their eyes were round, their mouths stretched in serious straight lines. I was glad Maile was talking because I felt myself getting choked up. I don’t know if it’s possible to plan a trip to Iraq without at least considering the possibility that you might not come back.

“So Daddy is representing our family, what our family stands for. And that’s why he’s going.”

* * * * *

This writing life, this crazy, beautiful, unpredictable writing life, has led me to so many wonderful places: Sri Lanka, Istanbul, an Iranian community in Los Angeles, middle-of-nowhere Indiana, a Navy SEAL’s house in Maryland, and so many others. I’ve read the sacred diaries of a young woman who committed suicide. I sat across the table and became friends with a father whose young son committed triple homicide. I’ve witnessed firsthand the ridiculous power of forgiveness.

And now, in a few weeks, Jordan and Iraq.

Tonight, I came back early from driving Uber because I’d rather watch some basketball with my son than make another $20 or $30. When facing a trip to a place like Iraq, I am reminded that time is a non-renewable resource. I suddenly see how limited it is, how we hold it without any guarantee, and I find myself spending the minutes more deliberately.

At one point I went into the bathroom and there, on the sink, was my bulletin from Sunday. I unfolded it, square upon folded square, and there at the top were the words I had written down, Father David’s words.

“Live a little more beautifully and dangerously, as Christians should.”

So, I go, and do what I’ve been created to do: tell stories, mine, as well as the stories of those who cannot tell their own. And I represent Maile and my kids and all of us who believe Christ was not about worldly power or cultural success or being first, but about being last, about taking up an Iraq-shaped cross, and going, even when it doesn’t always make sense. Or when it makes perfect sense. And I carry with me the phrase of Father David:

“Live a little more beautifully and dangerously, as Christians should.”

The Secret Power of Shrimp Vindaloo


On our first return to England from the U.S., we made the mistake of giving in to jet lag. On that particular trip, we arrived at our Wendover home and slept all day, a gorgeous, indulgent, heavy sleep that felt more like drowning. We slept from 10am until 4pm in the afternoon.

But that day of sleep had disastrous consequences. For the next three weeks, we could not turn the clock around. We were awake all night, groggy all day. I almost fell asleep in meetings. I watched 2am turn to 3am turn to 4am. We vowed to never do it again. We could be disciplined. We could stay awake until bedtime.

Then we arrived home from the US on the next trip, exhausted and blurry-eyed.

This is a post I wrote for the wonderful site, You Are Here. You can find out how Indian food helped us overcome our jetlag HERE.

Stop Complaining About People in Poverty (At Least Around Me)


I was out shoveling the snow a few days after the most recent blizzard, and it gave me a chance to catch up with my neighbor Aaron. He lives across the street. He’s an older, African-American fellow, really nice, and we always wave and chat for a bit when we see each other.

Anyway, we were out there shoveling, and he was telling me about how he has to get up at 4am to catch his ride to go for dialysis. His kidneys are failing. He had gotten the call just the other week that they had a kidney for him, but then plans changed, and it didn’t happen.

“Man,” he said, taking his time with the shovel, “I went all day without eating or drinking. Then they called and told me I couldn’t have that kidney.”

He shook his head with disappointment.

“That must be rough getting up at 4:30 in this,” I said, motioning to the mountains of snow. “Must be cold at 4:30.”

“Nah,” he said, smiling. “By 4:30? Things are starting to warm up that late in the morning.”

He laughed and shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe how gullible he was, believing his own words.

* * * * *

I walked across the street and gave my shovel to a woman trying to clear her sidewalk of two feet of snow with a dust pan.

“Looks like you could use this,” I said.

She smiled.

“I have to keep this sidewalk clear,” she said, embarrassed that she had to accept my simple offering. “My friend has a lot of medical issues. I have to make sure she can get out to an ambulance, if she needs to.”

“No worries,” I said. “If you need anything, let me know.”

* * * * *

I noticed an older woman two houses down. She was really struggling to clear the snow, so I went down to help her, and we started talking.

“My doctor said it’s okay for me to shovel snow, as long as I take lots of breaks,” she said.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“My husband and I, we both have cancer,” she said quietly. “But I’m doing better.”

* * * * *

This city is full of people in poverty. When you live in among them, when you become friends with them, when you see how hard they work and how little they get in return for that work, it will change the way you think about poverty. It will change the way you think about things like food stamps and disability, minimum wage and benefits.

I know single moms who walk their kids through the snow in the early morning dark, over a mile, just so they can get them to preschool. Then they walk to work at McDonald’s or the convention center or wash dishes for $8.75 an hour. They work as many hours as they can, and they’re always on the lookout for a second job.

I know dads who race home from working construction or warehouse jobs so they can coach their kid’s flag football team. The team my kid plays on.

I know parents who send their kids to these city schools, the ones we flippantly refer to as “failing schools,” because they don’t have other options. They don’t have the money for private school. They’re not in that massive place of privilege you have to inhabit to be able to homeschool. And they stay up late helping their kids do homework, and they wake up early and do it all again. Every. Single. Day.

* * * * *

Don’t talk to me about the people gaming the system. Don’t talk to me about how we should be drug-testing everyone on food stamps. Don’t talk to me about how the economy would collapse if we raised the minimum wage.

I’m tired of listening to my right-wing conservative friends complain about people in poverty while drinking their boutique beer and Instagramming their latest vacations. We live in a dream world, my friends. Of the billions of families on this planet, we were born into a place of extreme wealth. We’ve been given opportunities beyond most people’s wildest dreams.

If we choose to squander those blessings by sitting in cafes and restaurants with our buddies and arguing over theory, arguing about the latest political situation, arguing over why “those people” are taking taking taking too much, well, I’m afraid we will have hell to pay. If not today, someday.

If you have a problem with people in poverty, stop complaining about them. Partner up with them. Make yourself useful.

* * * * *

My friend Aaron got real quiet while we were shoveling. I looked over at him, and I was sweating under all my winter clothes. He stuck his shovel in the snowbank and gazed down the street.

“I sure would love to get out of the city, though. Get a place with a little more space, somewhere there’s not traffic going by all the time.”

His voice trailed off.

“Gotta get this kidney taken care of first, I guess.”

He picked up his shovel, and he went to work clearing a bank that was way taller than him, a bank he could barely see over.

When God Gives Shitty Gifts


In 2009, my wife woke to a ball of anxiety about what was happening, about our business going under and all the debt weighing us down, about us having to leave a place we loved and move our family of six into my parents’ basement 150 miles away. She slid out of bed, down onto the floor, and put her face in the plush carpet.

How can this be happening? God, how can you let this happen?

She heard the closest thing she’s ever heard to an audible voice from heaven, and it echoed in her mind, one phrase reverberating and growing.

This is a gift.

When the phrase faded off into the darkness, disappearing beneath the whirring of the ceiling fan, my wife shook her head.

Well, she muttered, it’s a pretty shitty gift.

She stood up off the floor, crawled back into bed, and went to sleep.

* * * * *

This is a portion of my debut post for the collaborative site, We Are Here. You can read the entire post HERE.

Something My Family’s Been Doing For 60 Years

My dad showing my son how to put together tables built by my grandfather at a fair my family has been going to for the last 60 years or so.

If you have known me or my family for any period of time, you know where I am right now. It was set in motion almost 60 years ago when my grandfather, my grandmother, and two friends of theirs set up a small sandwich stand at the Frederick Fair in Maryland. They were so busy that first year that they sold out, had to go around to the local grocery stores to buy more product. Then they bought out all the grocery stores’ ham and cheese and rolls. Ever since then we’ve been coming here.

Of course, my annual treks to the fair didn’t start until thirty years ago, when I was eight or nine years old, but I quickly fell in love. I have deeply engraved memories of my grandfather discreetly handing me $5 bills (I couldn’t comprehend that amount, not in those days), telling me to go buy whatever I wanted. I remember going on the rides and walking through the animal barns. I remember my mom making me a bed under one of the counters while she and my dad worked late into the night. I feel asleep to the smell of fair food, the sound of footsteps scuffling just past my head on the other side of the counter, and I dreamed of the view of the fair from the top of the Ferris wheel.

* * * * *

These days, it’s a little different. My dad and I show up before the fair begins and work for two days, setting up refrigerators and tables and meat slicers and entire systems for plumbing and electricity. Last year, my son Cade joined us for the first time, three generations together. He’s the fourth generation to work here. Our 40×40 foot tent is a quite a bit larger than the one my grandparents started with sixty years ago. The fair isn’t all fun and games anymore.

Even though it’s different, there are reminders everywhere of all those years past. We still use tables built by my grandfather. We’ll stumble on old photos that never seem to get tossed, photos of me and my sisters and cousins when we were little or old co-workers being silly. We use a trailer that, for all intents and purposes, should have been retired 20 years ago.

But this crazy fair is part of me, as much as Christmas or Thanksgiving or New Year’s. Every September, when the first cold day slips into the end of summer, the same thought sneaks into my mind: It’s almost time for the fair.

* * * * *

Something else – it amazes me what an incredible impact this has had on our lives, this seemingly random thing my grandparents decided to start doing 60 years ago. It makes me open my eyes a little more. It makes me want to do extraordinary things, the kind of things that will start traditions and positively impact the lives of my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren.

What can we do to plant seeds for these future generations?

The Unlikely Gift I Found in a Lancaster City Alley

Sammy, two or three years old, taking a pitch from my dad at my parents’ old house.

On a cool August day, on that particular stretch of Market Street (which is more like an alley than a street), just north of James, you might see the young woman with the empty eyes sitting on the stoop, smoking a cigarette. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t – I’ve seen her there many times, staring at the cracks in the sidewalk. The top half of the storm door behind her is missing the glass.

If she’s sitting there and it’s in the afternoon or on a weekend you’ll probably also see her daughter playing with the dust and the pebbles that have been pushed into the gutter, her own private sandbox. She’s tiny and blonde and has dirt smudges on her face. Her clothes are covered in dust. She makes lines with a discarded straw.

If you walk past them and keep going north on Market, you’ll realize there aren’t any houses on that particular stretch, not between James and Frederick streets – there’s only chain link and tall, brick warehouses and a few long lines of storage units that some people use as a garage for their car and other people use as porches, sitting in front of the open doors, the grill on, their kids riding old trikes around in circles.

But some days, if the sun is out and you listen, you’ll hear a rhythmic !thwop! followed by a small shout, a particular time of silence, and then another !thwop!. If you follow that sound down the alley off of Market Street, you’ll see a narrow swathe of grass beside a brick warehouse that’s being renovated into “high-end apartments.” The grassy stretch is bumpy and littered with bricks from the building and old stones no one has touched for years. Overgrown bushes separate that grassy alley from the backyards of the houses on Prince Street. Cats weave in and out of the shadows.


There it is again. Look closer. It’s a long-haired boy wearing a baseball cap and cleats that are a touch too small. He’s six years old and he throws the ball to his dad (me). His dad throws the ball back. The red seams spin in the air like the rings of a planet and the ball smacks into the leather gloves. When I reach my own arm back and throw there is muscle memory there that goes back thirty years, goes all the way back to a small boy on a farm throwing ball with his dad in 1985, back to a large, lush, green yard shaded by two tall oak trees. Beyond that yard, fields stretching out. A small brick church across the thread-thin back road. A cemetery with its broken-teeth stones. A bending creek with fairy tales on the far bank.

* * * * *

I never would have imagined, in 1985, that thirty years later I’d be throwing baseball with my son on a too-narrow strip of grass just off an alley in the middle of a small city. I never would have imagined having neighbors like Eric or Paul or Jenny. I never would have imagined living across the street from a barber shop and a tattoo parlor.


But life has its own beautiful rhythm, it’s own poignant meanderings, and we resist our life’s natural course at our own peril. When we cling to our present situations, we do so at the risk of an unimaginably beautiful future.

Let go of comfort. Take a right on Market Street. Stop and talk to the empty-eyed woman. Give a smile and a kind word to the small child playing in the gutter. You might just find an unexpected rhythm, or, even more unlikely, a green strip of grass in the middle of a city perfect for playing catch.