ACTS 8:26-40; PSALM 22:24-30; 1 JOHN 4:7-21; JOHN 15:1-8
THE REV. CARISSA BALDWIN-MCGINNIS
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the first verse of the psalm for today - psalm 22. Another faithful translation would be, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” This is Jewish poetry that Jesus is said to have cried out at the time of his crucifixion. It is a sentiment that also bellows from the the dark nights of our own souls. Dark nights of the soul are spiritual seasons in which we can not find our true self, our life force or even our God. In these times it can seem as if there is neither past nor future, while the present is pure agony. Dark nights of the soul are understood by some in the faith tradition to be the true manifestation of Hell.
You can hear a dark night soul’s lament in the poetry of Katie Ford, who writes as a mother about her premature babe. She conveys that the baby was born with barely enough substance to register on a weight scale much less to survive. She describes the weightless weight of her human child in terms of dimes, paperclips, and teaspoons of sugar. The baby is, she declares, a “child of grams.”
For the child is born an unbreathing scripture
and her broken authors wait
on one gurney together.
And what is prayer from a gurney
but lantern-glow for God or demon
to fly toward the lonely in this deathly hour
Her words depict an obviously terrifying and and seemingly desolate place “Of a Child Early Born.” Prayer from a gurney, she says, might have been dangerous. It might have been like shining a light for death to find her family in which case it was better not to pray.
Many of us understand her. We have felt in our spiritually desolate seasons that it is better not to pray lest we in attempting to attract the force that gives life instead invoke the force that takes it away. A child early born, depression, separation from employment, infidelity, chronic illness, the death of a parent can all bring on dark spiritual seasons in which our life force is overwhelmed and in which we we become weak and feel defenseless. Often in those seasons we also feel confusion about who God is or what God should be - or is or is not doing for us. This can feel like a crisis of faith on top of a crisis of psychology or spirituality.
The baby’s mother essentially says, “Why pray?! It can only attract death.” She calls her child an “unbreathing scripture” as if the baby’s predicament is evidence that the promise of faith has no life. But in so doing she is telling the story of her fear and desolation in faith terms. Her ambivalence about prayer is a prayer. Though we rarely perceive it at the time, people of faith most often look back and observe that God and faith are in fact to have been found dwelling in the vacancies of our strength and our hope.
The ancient, Jewish poet of psalm 22 describes a similar agony.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a piece of rock,
and my tongue sticks to my jowls;
(yet) you (God) (are the one who) lay(s) me in the dust of death
You, God, are the one who makes our bed in times of desolation. “You don’t abandon”, says the psalmist. “You accompany.” Faith is not a matter of belief statements. Faith is matter of how we tell our stories both in times of glory and in times of desolation.
Sometimes, we suffer collective or communal dark nights of the soul. A family may grieve together the loss of a loved one. A high school community may suffer shock in a case of a youth who has taken his or her own life. Many of us in the United States are experiencing a dark night of our collective soul as we discover that the system slavery was not dismantled but rather replaced by a system of mass incarceration.
This painful discover is the revelation that Michelle Alexander, lawyer and author, has been teaching as she has travelled our nation for a few, short years. In her work she has peeled back for us the lid from history to unveil a direct link from centuries ago plantation enslavement of black and immigrant labor to the present day policing and incarceration of people - and I will add children - of color. If you have not studied this phenomenon for yourself beyond what you are getting from the nightly news, I encourage you to do so. The book is titled, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness.” As we grieve Baltimore and the homicide of Marcus Gray we suffer knowing that they are only the latest manifestation of this truth which seems unwilling to be suppressed any longer and which is busting through all over the skin of our society.
I leave us with what I read to be a love letter from a black mother who with her white husband is raising their black son in the City of Baltimore. This was written the morning following the violence and looting that came in tandem with the death of Freddie Gray. She writes:
It's a beautiful day in my neighborhood. I can see a rainbow of all classes and races and backgrounds out on the stoops of marble and stone. I/We congregate in OK Natural Foods, Neal's Hair Studio, Spirits Wine Store, Jo Ann's Eatery, The Bun Shop, Eddie's Grocery Store, and a new pottery studio. I/We stop to shake hands, hug, kiss, laugh… just say "hi".
I/We show up with trash bags and brooms to help with the clean up in the places that we affected on a scale ranging from minor to major.
The sounds of sirens waft in the background along with (the) hum of the choppers. I/We know what happened last night, and there is uncertainty as to what is to come. One thing I/we do know and feel is the palpable love that I/we, the citizens of Baltimore, feel for our city.
This is where I live, and this is where I am becoming one of many stitches mending unrest and restoring peace, one step and one day at a time.
May our uncertainty be our prayer, an may our love be our praises in this temple and at this difficult time.