I have been quietly grieving. Death has been demanding my attention. Two men were recently gunned down in Memphis. One this past weekend, and one last night. One was a prominent and wealthy white Memphian. The other was a young African American in the Frayser area wanted on several warrants. The first was murdered by an as yet unknown assailant in an apparent robbery. The other by Federal Marshals as they sought to arrest the young man. Family and friends of these men are grieving. I am saying prayers and wondering about justice in this city.
Last week, I went to a wake and a funeral for a friend who committed suicide. His long struggle with depression ended the same way as with six other friends, one of them a cousin of mine. I am grieving. I am saying prayers for my friend, his family, and friends.
In the past week, several friends have shared that they have lost a parent to death. Another has lost a brother. I am remembering my friends and their grieving in my prayers.
And death on a larger scale dominates the front pages. “100 Killed in Sudan and Dozens of Bodies Are Pulled From Nile, Opposition Says” (New York Times, June 4, 2019). “Afghan War Casualty Report: May 31-June 6,” with this first sentence, “At least 50 pro-government forces and 19 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during the past week” (New York Times, June 6, 2019). “Russian jets carry out deadly bombings in Syria’s Idlib,” with this first sentence, “At least 25 people have been killed in aerial bombardment carried out by Russian jet fighters in Idlib region, with schools and medical centers knocked down during a continued Syrian military offensive” (Aljazeera, June 10, 2019). I am grieving and saying prayers and wondering if war will ever end.
With all this death and grieving on my heart, I saw one of our guests at Manna House looking closely at the crucifix that hangs in the “chapel” at Manna House. The chapel is an open space set apart by a storage shed on one side that creates a wall, with the other three “sides” open but under a roof supported by wooden beams. The crucifix hangs on the shed wall. A small wooden statue of St. Francis stands just to the right of the crucifix.
The chapel is often where our most vulnerable guests gather. Set apart by the shed and the roof the chapel has distinct boundaries, creating a sense of refuge that draws those who find other people’s company difficult, those who are loners and/or those whose mental illness makes them uncomfortable in a crowd of people.
The guest staring at the crucifix is one of those vulnerable guests. He was shot and paralyzed from the waist down several years ago. At the same time he tries to project invulnerability. He is a young African American man known on the streets for his anger, his bitterness, and his quick resort to violence and threats of violence. He makes his way in the world through the dangerous work of selling drugs. He is a seller who also uses. There he sat, gazing intently at the cross. He knows death and was staring at this symbol of death—the cross.
“The God of Jesus’ cross,” James Cone wrote in The Cross and The Lynching Tree, “is found among the least, the crucified people of the world” (Cone, 23). And yet the particularity of Jesus’ death by execution also includes the broader human experience of death. As a disciple of Jesus I am called to be in solidarity with the crucified—those whose deaths have come from injustice, and those whose deaths come from our human condition. As a disciple of Jesus, I am to embrace the shared vulnerability of death so that I can practice compassion and self-giving in resistance to the power of death. As Jesus himself said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
Here is where I am faltering right now. I am trying to resist death (and its close friend injustice), but feel overwhelmed by its power. I am trying in prayer to listen to and for God’s graciousness. But I am not hearing much. I am trying to say my prayers that those who are grieving will be comforted. But I am wondering if such condolences offer only empty words. I am like the man in the Gospel who said, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
So I am meditating on this scripture, and on this line I came across recently, “At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death. And this feather of grace weighs more in the balance than any political gain.”—Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” Atlantic Monthly, April 2018
May God help me, may God help the man in the wheelchair at Manna House, may God help the family and friends of Brandon Webber, and of Glenn Cofield, and may God help all of us, to feel loved by God, to live in the hope of the feather of God’s grace. “I believe, help my unbelief.”