A Time for Lament

It has been a hellish week.

Too many innocent victims. Too much unfathomable violence. Too much hate on far too public display.

Beneath it all is a spiritual disorder: Too many of us are letting our fears, our preconceptions, our talking points and maybe even our paranoia obscure the common humanity that we all share.

In the midst of our failure, Jesus weeps.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is unequivocal: ALL lives matter. Yet Jesus’ identification with those who were marginalized and oppressed calls us to name those who are at imminent risk: BLACK lives matter. BLUE lives matter. This especially needs to be said by those of us who can trust that our white lives always matter.

There are powerful forces that use weeks like this to further distrust and division. It’s understandable that some feel pushed into an us-or-them mentality. Police officers and African-American males are especially on alert now. But this fear draws us deeper into our spiritual disorder.

Our tilted criminal justice system, the rampant economic inequality, our impulse to focus on small differences instead of the vast similarities we share — all of these we have come to accept (however grudgingly) as the status quo. In this week of innocent victims we remember Jesus, who was arrested with overwhelming force, and was executed for the crime of threatening the status quo of his time.

The message of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is that we are all in this together. He consistently challenged systems of superiority, exclusion and oppression. He did not victimize others or play the victim, and he neither minimized suffering nor advocated “eye-for-an-eye” retaliation. Richard Rohr notes that Jesus rejected the natural human response to transmit our pain — which aptly describes our culture cycle of violence, outrage, divisive argument, then complacency followed by more violence — and instead chose to transform it, by holding it in himself on the cross.

A first step towards transforming the pain we feel this week is to lament, to sit with the pain and just acknowledge it for what it is. Experience the anger and frustration, and recognize our powerlessness in the face of pain. 

By stepping back we can see that by holding the world’s pain Jesus transformed an unjust execution into the path to a new way of life. And by looking past the urgent rush to criticize and co-opt — which dissipates just as quickly leaving us where we were — and bringing a different energy to the struggle, we gird ourselves for the slow, backbreaking work of bending the moral arc of our society towards justice.


Holy Thursday

“…Mary was an only child…”

Art Garfunkel’s high tenor gently filled the car as we turned onto Sixth Street, on the way to take a meal to The Well, a women’s shelter run by The Welcome Church. 

“…but she shone like a gem in a five-and-dime store.”

In the basement of a small Episcopal church on a side street, two of the women of The Well looked up from the movie they watched on a tiny screen to greet us warmly. As we busied ourselves in the kitchen preparing a beef stir-fry, other women arrived. They put down their carts or bags after a long day on the streets, free for a while from the burdens of homelessness. Most then went off and took a few minutes to themselves before joining the others around the table,

It was a familiar, domestic scene — except their “private” space was half of the tiny fellowship hall, jammed with cots hidden from the rest of the room by a makeshift curtain. And “home” didn’t open until 7:30 pm, and would send them back to the streets 12 hours later.

While the meal cooked we sat and talked over fresh vegetables and dip. Their concerns were heartbreakingly ordinary: The difficulties of getting to medical appointments. How hard it was to find fresh, healthy food. Missing the camaraderie of singing in the church choir.

Suzanne broke out her guitar and we sang old chestnut hymns. Shall We Gather at the River? Precious Lord, Take My Hand — “Oh, that’s my favorite,” Carol* said. Alice recalled a song from the old hymnals in the basement that she and a couple others had read the other night. “Could we hear what it sounds like?” Shirley passed out the worn books and we sang Lord of All Hopefulness. 

The women sang with joy and gusto. One voiced an especially gorgeous soprano. “God gave the the gift I wanted, the ability to sing,” she said. This eclectic congregation shared church. Where many would have experienced despair, the dingy basement hall was truly a place of hope.

During dinner, more stories. Carol shared her multiple medical conditions. But instead of whining, she offered gratitude for finding good doctors who care about her. Most are south of the airport, so she has to take a bus multiple times a week. “God has really provided for me,” she said.

Over pear cake with caramel sauce, Lisa shared that she had once lived and worked in New York City, and still enjoyed listening to NPR. Her situation, she hoped, was temporary. “I feel bad that I haven’t given up anything for Lent,” she said. “I guess being homeless is my Lent,” she allowed.

Before we knew it it was time to leave. After hasty goodbyes, and see-you-again-soons, we started the long drive back on the winding roads of Bucks County. 

During the drive, and since, I’ve been reflecting on this unexpected Holy Thursday. 

I was chastened to realize how little gratitude I feel every day for simple gifts — a healthy meal, health care, songs to sing, a comfortable home. 

I was a bit uncomfortable with the realization that, like Lisa, I (and any of us) could be an unlucky turn away from poverty. Or that, like Carol, health concerns can snowball into larger issues.

Mostly I was aware that Christ was truly present in that room — and that had more to do with the women’s joy and honesty than anything I brought to the table.

God showed up here — and can show up anywhere — even if we don’t have eyes to see. As the Garfunkel song concludes:

“…then you might have seen Jesus, and not have known what you saw.
“Who would notice a gem in a five-and-dime store.”

*The women are not identified by their real names.