As we join with other Christians around the world for the Week of Prayer we pray that our hearts will be open to see and hear the many ways in which racism continues to destroy lives, and to discern the steps we can take as individuals and communities to heal the hurts and build a better future for everyone.
Day 4 Lament
Lament requires us to really look and see. A young woman looked and saw the tears of the oppressed. The video she shot on her phone of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 was seen all around the world and unleashed a holy rage as people witnessed, and finally acknowledged, what African Americans have experienced for centuries: subjugation by oppressive systems in the midst of privileged blind bystanders.In the UK, black men between 18 and 25 years are five times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police and black women are four times more likely to die during childbirth. We have much to lament.
The two passages today speak of lament. Jesus, and David, the brutally honest psalmist, set this example for us of what to do when we’re in pain.
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” is a pain-filled cry at the very beginning of Psalm 22 that is mirrored by Jesus himself on the cross in Matthew 27.
The pain is not sanitised and polished for us. It is raw and honest.
Lament is a hard practice to embrace. Our society wants us to rush towards positivity and victory. What does it mean to truly lament? To sit with the pain. Lament demands that we open ourselves, it demands from all of us, that we no longer ignore the pain.
“Lament is a protest so deep that it must become a prayer, for only God can provide needed hope that justice will prevail and that the future will be different.”
Rachel’s Cry: Prayer of Lament and Rebirth of Hope, Kathleen D Bilman and Daniel L Migliore, The Pilgrim Press 1999
God of justice and of grace,
remove the scales from my eyes
so I can truly see the oppression around me,
and give me courage not only to name it, but to fight it
while providing authentic presence, witness, and compassion to the oppressed.
I can recall my heart leaping when we drove through an area of the Scottish borders where I had spent a year as a teenager. That visitation was unplanned and quite unexpected, our route had been determined by the morning traffic in Edinburgh. Wordsworth came to his old haunts, distressed with a burden of sad anticipation. But he like me, was surprised by joy.
It had not been the happiest year of my life but it was in the beautiful Tweed Valley, beauty that resonated with my adult self decades later, all unexpectedly. A moment to be grateful for. Now here’s Wordsworth.
“Beloved Vale!” I said, “when I shall con Those many records of my childish years, Remembrance of myself and of my peers Will press me down: to think of what is gone Will be an awful thought, if life have one.” But, when into the Vale I came, no fears Distress’d me; I look’d round, I shed no tears; Deep thought, or awful vision, I had none. By thousand petty fancies I was cross’d, To see the Trees, which I had thought so tall, Mere dwarfs; the Brooks so narrow, Fields so small. A Juggler’s Balls old Time about him toss’d; I looked, I stared, I smiled, I laughed; and all The weight of sadness was in wonder lost. From “Poems in Two Volumes, Volume 1” by William Wordsworth)
Good Morning! We make a big mistake if we say that the sacrifice of Christ was what happened on Calvary Hill and leave it at that. As Rowan Williams said, he lived a life-long passion. A passion caught from his parents, Mary and Joseph.
We know that Jesus suffered hardship on the road, but he kept going. As an infant seeking emergency refuge in Egypt, he still had what he most needed, the intimate love of Mary and Joseph. As an adult itinerant preacher, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head.
As an infant he went where his parents chose in order to preserve his life, while for his sake they accepted exile, anxiety, pain, and a double dose of the exhaustion that every new parent knows. No doubt the magi’s gold ran out soon enough, spent on wayside inns, renting a place in Cairo, buying new tools for Joseph. Meagre rations until Joseph had an income.
Every parent can relate to these sacrifices, though many would not recognise their own daily grind as sacrificial, but it is a grind at times, and so it was for the Holy Family too. For some of us exile is leaving, if only for a while, an enjoyable job with interesting and funny colleagues and customers. It is a sacrifice, as is accepting the waves of tiredness, boredom, loneliness, depression that can knock a new father as well as a mother off-balance.
Jesus learned about sacrifice from the sacrificial love of his parents. They prepared him to be about his Father’s business even if they did not realise what it meant in practice to a 12 year old boy, let alone the man he grew into.
We have come to the final element in the encounter between the rich young man and Jesus (Mark 10:17-22). It is significant that Jesus, despite – or because of – his love for the young man, does not make an exception for him, does not say, ‘Okay. I like you. I’ll make you a deal. You can keep all your wealth in reserve somewhere. Follow me anyway.’ No. Following Jesus and hoarding wealth are diametrically opposed. The poor have a claim on our material prosperity, according to Jesus (Mk 10: 21). A complete life-change must be undertaken by the wealthy that accommodates itself to others’ needs before a life lived with Jesus can be undertaken.
So: it looks pretty bad for the rich young man, whom I, too, have now begun to love. In losing Jesus he loses everything worth having, and his previously easy life suddenly becomes drenched in sorrow. Mark tells us that his face falls and he ‘goes away sad.’ I am certain that this is true.
But I still wonder: is it as bad as it looks for the rich young man? Is everything really over for him? I think of him reflecting on what he experienced with Jesus. He will not forget this encounter. He will remember it to the end of his life. And this may be his salvation.
Some final thoughts begin to take shape in my mind as I mentally say good-bye to a much-loved young man. I reflect that, ordinarily, the gospels show that some profound sorrow or disease – or both – is actually what opens people up to receive Jesus’ life, his love, his healing, his teaching about the Kingdom. For them, their woundedness, whether physical or moral or spiritual, is an unexpected blessing that enables them to gain the true treasure, which is Jesus.
But for others, the whole thing works in reverse–or it can. In the case of the rich young man, he comes to Jesus ‘nearly perfect,’ not conscious of woundedness or moral failings. When he leaves Jesus he feels much worse than he did when he arrived. He has been afflicted with a profound wound of sorrow. There are many, many untold stories in the gospels. We do not know exactly what happens to the rich young man after he ‘goes away sad.’ We know only that Jesus gives him the gift of a deep sorrow, the likes of which the young man had probably never known before in his life of wealth, comfort and cheer.
But wait. We know something else, too. Jesus gives him another gift to take away–and just as important: a moment of the most perfect human fulfilment. Jesus had been filled with love for him, and had looked at him with love. We are back to the idea with which we began our reflection: Mark’s insistence on Jesus’ look of love. This is of vital importance to Mark and it is even easier now to see why. We are talking about God-made-man looking at the rich young man with love. This look will be deeper and more profoundly moving than anything else he will ever experience. This combination of sorrow and love, it seems to me, is a combination that, given time, cannot fail to have affected the young man, to have opened him up, to have made him rethink his priorities, reconsider his actions. True, there is nothing in Jesus’ loving look to force the young man into acquiescence: he was free to refuse Jesus and he did. But, let’s note that he refused Jesus’ invitation right then. A door remains open to him; Jesus doesn’t stop loving people. There was still a chance to become a Christian later and to be healed of his sorrow and receive the joy of life in Christ. His life after this experience need not be a complete tragedy.
For those of us who may recognise ourselves in this story, who fear we may have lost the love of Christ forever along with our chance to be his follower, I think we can assume that Mark would hold that it doesn’t work like that. Jesus’ look of love lasts forever. The rich young man was eager, open and willing, but unprepared for the cost involved in following Jesus. He needed to grow up, to grow into Jesus’ love. The gift–the ‘package’–of sorrow and of love is powerful. The young man arrived at Jesus’ feet unprepared, he went away both loved and sorrowing. Through this gift, and over time, preparation for life with Christ was possible to him, as it is for anyone. Let’s hope he made that preparation and returned later, maybe after Jesus’ death, to join the growing community of Christians. Shall we join, too?
Goldwyn Smith, a 19th Century Professor of History at Oxford, commented: The lines on the two disciples going to Emmaus convey pleasantly the Evangelical idea of the Divine Friend. Cowper says in one of his letters that a man who had confessed to him that though he could not subscribe to the truth of Christianity, he could never read this passage of St. Luke without being deeply affected by it, and feeling that if the stamp of divinity was impressed upon anything in the Scriptures, it was upon that passage.
It is a favourite passage for many, one we have reflected upon in Agnellus Mirror – do a search for Emmaus – and one to return to gladly. William Cowper’s work is more than pleasant, it is respectful toward the two disciples, bringing out their humanity and friendship, and shows the courtesy of the stranger who gathered up the broken thread, and opened their eyes and ears.
It happen'd on a solemn eventide,
Soon after He that was our surety died,
Two bosom friends, each pensively inclined,
The scene of all those sorrows left behind,
Sought their own village, busied as they went
In musings worthy of the great event:
They spake of him they loved, of him whose life,
Though blameless, had incurr'd perpetual strife,
Whose deeds had left, in spite of hostile arts,
A deep memorial graven on their hearts.
The recollection, like a vein of ore,
The farther traced enrich'd them still the more;
They thought him, and they justly thought him, one
Sent to do more than he appear'd to have done,
To exalt a people, and to place them high
Above all else, and wonder'd he should die.
Ere yet they brought their journey to an ends,
A stranger join'd them, courteous as a friend,
And ask'd them with a kind engaging air
What their affliction was, and begg'd a share.
Inform'd, he gathered up the broken thread,
And truth and wisdom gracing all he said,
Explain'd, illustrated, and search'd so well
The tender theme on which they chose to dwell,
That reaching home, the night, they said is near,
We must not now be parted, sojourn here.—
The new acquaintance soon became a guest,
And made so welcome at their simple feast,
He bless'd the bread, but vanish'd at the word,
And left them both exclaiming, 'Twas the Lord!
Did not our hearts feel all he deign'd to say,
Did they not burn within us by the way?"
William Cowper (1731–1800)
It is possible to be too conscious of certain realities, perceptions, or maybe illusions. What have we here? Loneliness, pain, self absorption, emotional and spiritual shipwreck, a longing for peace. John Clare descended into the hell of mental illness for the last years of his life – he died in 1864 – and the clarity of his language in ‘I am!’ points up the confusion of his mind. A mind churning, churning, all through the night; little wonder he craves a place where God can let him sleep, untroubling to others, untroubled by their intrusions into his life, or the mills of his mind.
God grant peace to all in affliction.
I Am! by John Clare
I am—yet what I am none cares or knows; My friends forsake me like a memory lost: I am the self-consumer of my woes— They rise and vanish in oblivious host, Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed
Into the nothingness of scorn and noise, Into the living sea of waking dreams, Where there is neither sense of life or joys, But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems; Even the dearest that I loved the best Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.
I long for scenes where man hath never trod A place where woman never smiled or wept There to abide with my Creator, God, And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept, Untroubling and untroubled where I lie The grass below—above the vaulted sky.
The present moment terminates our sight;
Clouds thick as those on doomsday, drown the next;
We penetrate, we prophesy in vain.
Time is dealt out by particles; and each,
Ere mingled with the streaming sands of life,
By fate’s inviolable oath is sworn
Deep silence, “where eternity begins.”
By nature’s law, what may be, may be now;
There’s no prerogative in human hours.
In human hearts what bolder thought can rise,
Than man’s presumption on to-morrow’s dawn!
Where is to-morrow? In another world.
From Night Thoughts by Edward Young.
Tomorrow is in another world. One man who saw the dawn of the new world was Simeon, who met the Holy Family in Jerusalem’s Temple.
He had received an answer from the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Christ of the Lord. And he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when his parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he also took him into his arms, and blessed God, and said:
Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord, according to thy word in peace; because my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples: a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
And his father and mother were wondering at those things which were spoken concerning him. And Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary his mother: Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; And thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed.
It was never going to be all sweetness and sleigh-bells, but there were those who were given a broader vision, including:
Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser; she was far advanced in years, and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity. And she was a widow until fourscore and four years; who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day.Now she, at the same hour, coming in, confessed to the Lord; and spoke of him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel.
As latter-day gentiles, let us pray that our eyes and hearts may see and recognise Jesus in the child next door and the cold infant in Syria or Belarus, as well as in our own family members.
. I shall know why, when time is over, And I have ceased to wonder why; Christ will explain each separate anguish In the fair schoolroom of the sky.
He will tell me what Peter promised, And I, for wonder at his woe, I shall forget the drop of anguish That scalds me now, that scalds me now.
XXXIX from Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete, via KIndle
Peter, whose feast we celebrate today, famously went out and wept bitterly. His woe was put behind him by Christ’s forgiveness (John 21) which gave him the grace to preach the good news far from the Sea of Galilee, the grace to be Saint Peter. But that was after the Ascension, when the Good News was totally entrusted to Jesus’ followers.
Tomorrow and the next day we welcome back Sister Johanna from Minster Abbey, who opens up the disciples’ first taste of ministry and what they learned from Jesus’ reaction to their experience. Let us remember all those who will be ordained priest or deacon this Petertide.
That a man is beloved of God, should melt him all into esteem and holy veneration. It should make him so courageous as an angel of God. It should make him delight in calamities and distresses for God’s sake. By giving me all things else, He hath made even afflictions themselves my treasures. The sharpest trials, are the finest furbishing. The most tempestuous weather is the best seed-time. A Christian is an oak flourishing in winter.
God hath so magnified and glorified His servant, and exalted him so highly in His eternal bosom, that no other joy should be able to move us but that alone. All sorrows should appear but shadows, beside that of His absence, and all the greatness of riches and estates swallowed up in the light of His favour. Incredible Goodness lies in His Love. And it should be joy enough to us to contemplate and possess it. He is poor whom God hates: ‘tis a true proverb. And besides that, we should so love Him, that the joy alone of approving ourselves to Him, and making ourselves amiable and beautiful before Him should be a continual feast, were we starving. A beloved cannot feel hunger in the presence of his beloved.
Where martyrdom is pleasant, what can be distasteful. To fight, to famish, to die for one’s beloved, especially with one’s beloved, and in his excellent company, unless it be for his trouble, is truly delightful. God is always present, and always seeth us.
Notice how the all-seeing God is, for Traherne, a cause for rejoicing, not a threat from an angry, fearsome avenger of sin, such as many were led to believe. Would martyrdom have been possible or honourable if you believed in a god who hated his own creation?
Tudor times were wintry for men and women of conscience who dissented from whichever variety of Christianity was politically expedient at any time, yet they accepted the sharpest trials even unto death, out of loyalty to God’s love.
We can rejoice in all English and Welsh martyrs, not just the Catholic ones, and may we all meet merrily in heaven, as Thomas More said.
by A. E. Housman
The orchards half the way
From home to Ludlow fair
Flowered on the first of May
In Mays when I was there;
And seen from stile or turning
The plume of smoke would show
Where fires were burning
That went out long ago.
The plum broke forth in green,
The pear stood high and snowed,
My friends and I between
Would take the Ludlow road;
Dressed to the nines and drinking
And light in heart and limb,
And each chap thinking
The fair was held for him.
Between the trees in flower
New friends at fairtime tread
The way where Ludlow tower
Stands planted on the dead.
Our thoughts, a long while after,
They think, our words they say;
Theirs now's the laughter,
The fair, the first of May.
Ay, yonder lads are yet
The fools that we were then;
For oh, the sons we get
Are still the sons of men.
The sumless tale of sorrow
Is all unrolled in vain:
May comes to-morrow
And Ludlow fair again.
From Last Poems by A. E. Housman.
It is as well to acknowledge the other side of the coin. Not everyone accepts the Christian or any other religious view of life. Housman was an atheist, and here seems close to despair: the sumless tale of sorrow is all unrolled in vain. Sorrow is beyond calculation: May fair at Ludlow repeats May fair at Ludlow, repeats May fair at Ludlow; and the sons of men learn sense only when it is too late. The poet was writing in the years after the Great War, and like many of his lyrics The First of May alludes to the futility of war and the price of war in human suffering.
No skating over these questions of human sinfulness and apparent divine indifference!