Paul Olsen

on the way…not there yet

I heard they welcomed you with those words,
“Welcome to the people’s house.”

But it is not your house;
it is our house.
It is not my house, either;
it is our house.

It is where I live, you live,
in a sense.
But it is not my possession or yours.
It is not a possession.

It belongs to no individual,
it belongs to no individual cause.
No group may claim it,
no party stay for long.

Yet it is open to all people.

At least, it was.

All the people make a home there;
it is all the people’s house.

We had no idea we cared so much about it,
most of us never having seen it,
its rotunda, perhaps,
the rest of its rooms but history to us.

It is the people’s house,
yet we are all guests there,
guests of one another.

And our purpose in being here,
in this house being here at all,
is not to claim some personal space,
some room of our own,
a note on the door telling our siblings to stay out,
this is ours not yours.
Its purpose, our purpose,
is to stand for something much more than ourselves,
our needs, our wants,
our petulant causes.
We are much more than that.

We built this house to serve a nation,
and to build a nation to serve the world.

It was the servants’ entrance you entered.

It was like coming home to see
our guest, our sibling, our neighbor
had forced the doors of our home,
tracked mud on the floor,
broken our grandmother’s china,
put their feet on the furniture,
snuffed out smokes on the table,
taken whatever they wanted without asking,
left the refrigerator door hanging open.

Leaving the rest of us to clean up this mess.

I can hardly bring myself to mention:
driven the children from their beds,
beat them, left them for dead.

You had been here before,
invited over even,
served what we could offer,
tried to make you feel at home
in our home.

We felt what anyone would feel:
disrespect for your house is disrespect for you;
attacking your family is attacking you.

We want to know why.
Really—I want to listen,
I want to understand;
what possible hurt could there be
that could justify for you
inflicting such hurt on others?

I want to listen.
But storming the people’s house
is not a message;
it is an assault.

You cannot believe,
I do not think you can
though I hope somehow to convey it,
our sadness and shame before all the world.

We are aghast;
the world is aghast.
You see it, surely you see it,
don’t you?
The nation, the people, your people
are ashamed.

Our sadness.
You are our sadness.

When I was seventeen,
about to graduate and already heady with freedom,
I came home drunk one night.

I entered my parent’s house,
crawled, to be honest,
up the stairs,
making some monstrous noise
to which I was oblivious in my stupor,
and fell on my bed.
But I was just enough aware
of my mother coming out to see me on the stairs
like a drunk in the gutter,
and my dad finding me
all but unconscious on the bed.

In the morning, when I finally roused myself,
head splitting and hungover,
in more trouble than I knew,
I made myself as presentable as I could,
and walked into the kitchen.

My mother did not turn, did not look up, did not speak.
She finally said, “Your father wants to talk to you.”
Not another word.

My dad ran his business from his home office,
I knew I’d find him there.
“Mom said you wanted to see me.”

“Sit down.”

He did not hurry.
He took his time, finished what he was doing.
Then he turned, looked at me across his desk, and said,
“You know, your mother cried last night.”

No, never, never in my life had I seen my mother cry.
I had been the one to cause it.

Maybe he had a plan,
a withering speech prepared,
a discipline, a punishment,
a lesson to teach.

Maybe he saw my face fall,
regret, remorse,
the humiliation,
the shame.

I had broken the heart of the woman he loved,
and so had broken his heart also.

Maybe he saw my heart break,
and beyond that there was nothing more to do
but wait to see
what the amendment of my life would be.

Maybe he was unbelievably gracious—
that would be like him.

He let me sit there some time in my misery, and then,
“You can go now.”

I have been a fool many times since,
but I have never been such a fool.
I sought thereafter to be the son of their pride not their shame.

Your country cried that night,
it has cried for seven days.

You say you are proud.
But you showed yourselves children
who lack discipline, respect, or kindness,
and you have nothing to be proud of.

Perhaps you are hurting;
hurting others will not heal you.
You have broken our hearts;
but that will not mend yours.

Between my parents and I
there was forgiveness and grace.
But also unspoken was the expectation,
not only theirs but mine,
that there would be
and amendment of life.

I would be held accountable;
I would hold myself accountable.
No excuses.
My freedom was given back to me,
but it came with responsibility,
and service.

If there is one thing we have learned in this pandemic year,
it is that freedom is not a possession but a calling
to serve others.

It turns out to be astonishingly simple:
Just wash your hands,
keep your distance,
wear a mask.
As it happens, loving our neighbor
is the best way to love ourselves;
their safety is our safety.

And that is what freedom is for.
Individual liberty is an oxymoron;
liberty is always shared.
It is how we live together.
Whatever power we have been given,
its only just use is to serve others.
Any freedom I have that does not take your need into account
is but a prison.

We will hold you accountable;
we will hold ourselves accountable.
No excuses;
freedom comes only with responsibility
and calls for amendment of life.

It is the people’s house.
We built this house to serve a nation,
and to build a nation to serve the world.

It is the servants’ entrance you entered.

We, the people, will stand for nothing else.

#          #          #

7 thoughts on “The People’s House

  1. David Petersen says:

    That’s a good piece Paul, and a great perspective.



  2. Ron Nearman says:

    Thank you for sending this. This puts into words many of the frustrations and concerns I have had regarding the events of the past week and answered how best to respond to those who want to selective adhere to only the laws they feel are ‘right’. Amen.


  3. Lin Carlson says:

    Well said, Paul. It moves me to tear, this heartbreak in our nation. Your description hits home. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Gail Lindquist says:

    Thank you, for writing this, Pastor Paul! I have been so sad since the attack on the Capital! Moved to tears I should say! I could not believe how the capital could be attacked and desecrated like it was. Having walked through there several years ago, when our children were in Jr. high and Elem school, it was a magnificent experience to say the least. We had so much respect for this place and were so awestruck by the sheer beauty of the many halls, offices, and the large rotundra area, which was too beautiful for words. It saddens me to know that we have so many people who are so evil and destructive that they can do this sort of damage to a place we all should love and respect.


  5. Jim Schacht says:

    Well said


  6. This piece was full of profound meaning, thank you!


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