In church yesterday I told the congregation about a request I had the week before. A woman, well known and respected in Peterborough’s anti-poverty circles, asked me if I thought George Street Church might allow a school portable to be put on the property. It would house a friend of hers. A man who is homeless and unable to stay at the local shelter.
I asked the congregation how many thought this would be a good idea and I was surprised by the number of hands that went up. I had to confess that I hadn’t even taken the request to the Church Council (like I told her I would) because I was sure that the practicalities of insurance, by-laws, and fire-safety would have prevented the Council’s favourable acceptance of the proposal.
I saw her the day after the Council meeting and she asked me what they’d said? Having to confess my inaction wasn’t easy. Seeing her response was even tougher. She explained that her friend was suffering from cancer and in a lot of pain. Because he had no I.D., he had no OHIP and so couldn’t get pain medication.
I looked into her eyes and saw, just for an instant, the pain of that man’s suffering. She was carrying his suffering and in that instant, I shared in it too. Awe-full. The pain of being a helpless witness to another’s pain is heartbreaking. Tears welled up as I told the story.
The ones who’d put their hands up were willing Good Samaritans.
The others were more practical like their Priest – wanting to help but quickly calculating the cost and passing by with thoughts like…
…house one and how many others will line up to find shelter behind him?
…having said “yes” to one, how could we turn others away?
…this is a social problem – not an individual problem – and we need the government to create a social solution…more affordable housing with more support workers.
…we can’t carry around other people’s pain with us. It doesn’t help them and it only weakens us.
Some might say that sharing in another’s pain has a redemptive quality. That Jesus entered into a world of pain and by doing so offered a redeeming, saving grace to the human, universal experience of suffering.
I’m more likely to agree with Simone Weil who, herself a lifelong sufferer of debilitating migraine headaches, saw no redemption in suffering. What she did see – in the midst of a brutal assault on her senses – was a vision of Jesus in the midst of that pain.
Born into a secular Jewish family and an intellectually devoted communist, Weil experienced Christ in the midst of suffering. It became the cornerstone of her mystic philosophy and political theory. Her short life echoes still as a song for the hope of peace in this world.
The Bhudda says “all life is suffering”. Pema Chodron encourages us to walk towards that which we fear most. Jesus tells his followers that they will experience his presence as they reach out to the hurting, hungry, and imprisoned.
My choice to follow Jesus nearly thirty years ago began by walking alongside people who were homeless.
My decision to enter the professional Ministry was shaped by a passion to create community where people – all kinds of people – might find a place to share both suffering and celebrations, both hardships and the joys of working together thru the challenges.
I’m still on that path. I’ve burned out so many times along the way that I’m beginning to see. I’m beginning to see that no matter how hard I work, how loud I speak, how furiously I scheme – I cannot bring about the Jubilee Vision of wealth redistribution.
Not even with all the cooperation of all the ministers in Peterborough will this happen. Not even with all the Good Samaritans in the pews will this change occur.
No amount of guilt leverage. No amount of good Christian charity. No amount of protest or public outcry. (although all these efforts are somewhat effective)
It is only a spiritual awakening to the dual forces converging upon us that will bring about the miracle of wealth redistribution.
The first is our collective awakening – a steadily growing awareness - that as the forces of greed pull this planet into pieces and re-order them into the false hope of consumer-driven mono-culture – our survival depends on our ancient capacities to organize ourselves locally, organically, cooperatively to find unity in the midst of diversity.
The other Spiritual awakening is that in spite of the fear-mongering rhetoric of belt-tightening politicians, there is more than enough to go around. Always has been.
Jeremiah knew the power of a good metaphor. Jesus knew the power of a good story. Hosea knew the power of symbolic action. Our actions and our stories have the power to put into people’s imaginations an awakening to a new metaphor. More powerful and more impossibly hopeful than a virgin birth. More potent than God being killed by religion and resurrecting in the broken hearts of people no longer afraid and thus freed to radically share.
How can a Church be that metaphor?
What is the story a Church tells to a suffering soul?
When will our actions match our prayers?