One of the legacies of some of our cultural trends concerning where and how we live has been decreased proximity and contact with actual human need. Whether it is the pain of neighbors, fleshed out secretly behind manicured lawns or security gates, or the pain of strangers in neighborhoods we can simply choose to avoid, it has become a matter of choice for many whether or not they will encounter the woundedness of others. I think often of the story of the rich man who persisted in disregarding the drastic neediness of one ever in his line of vision. How much greater is the judgment for those of us who can construct life where Lazarus is never even allowed near our gates.
Every day I choose whether to acknowledge the pain I encounter here in my community. Like the homeless man, garbage bag full of random possessions, clutching a stereo and a pair of shoes, who passed by on our way home from the park. Or the white-tank-top youth, riding his souped up bike up and down the streets adjacent to the park while we were there, stopping occasionally at certain cars. Or the two women, hardly dressed, walking quickly and talking loudly past my house. And while I may not be making the choice to live physically far from the kinds of needs that plague my community, how I respond to them reveals the geography of my spirit on any given day. And there are enough days when my flesh wins and I do not choose proximity: I deny them the status of neighbor.
My friend, Tyler Watson, has shared some thoughts on what it means to follow the God who “has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?â€ He closes his reflection with a quotation from William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army.
While women weep, as they do now, Iâ€™ll fight; while little children go hungry, as they do now, Iâ€™ll fight; while men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, Iâ€™ll fight; while there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, Iâ€™ll fightâ€”Iâ€™ll fight to the very end!
And another friend (whom I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting this past week) offered this perspective:
A friend of mine has this wonderful quote by poet Adam Zagajewski on her facebook profile page: â€Try to praise the mutilated world.â€ In all our Utopian fantasies, we find the cure, solve the problem, escape the pain. Praising the mutilated world is so much more invigorating. It connects us to God and others in ways no revolution can. There is hubris in our revolutions. Weâ€™re frequently shaking our fist at God for the way things are, when in truth, it is only infrequently that he shares his genius. When he does, we rejoice. When he hordes it, we pray and give thanks and worship. This is why I have come to love the weekly Eucharist. Itâ€™s the creaturely thing to do. It is praising the mutilated world by partaking of its crucified and risen king. Let others have their revolutions; Iâ€™ll take Jesus.
Will Willimon had some interesting things to say about human need in the brief hour I spent in his classroom last week. He claimed that what masquerades as need for people in most of our churches today is nothing more than desires elevated to needs that ultimately come to be understood as rights or entitlements. And as clergy (I love the way he says ‘clergy’) we are so worked up trying to meet a bunch of “needs” that he suggested will be endless for, in his words, “I am a bottomless pit of desires…” To illustrate his point, he described the kinds of things we pray for and pointed out how far we have come from the petitions given to us in the Lord’s prayer. He said there are few places where what the church is busy doing is actually tending to real human needs, not simply inflated desires.
As I mentioned yesterday, I am committing to participate in Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed challenge during Lent. And tonight I am praying that as I recite those words about loving my neighbor over and over in the weeks to come, my flesh will die a bit and my heart will be circumcised in some new ways. My brother-in-law, one of the founding members of our church, moved into this community more than fifteen years ago because he realized that, as a student at USC, he did not love his neighbor, and he believed that Jesus really had the words of eternal life. As we enter this time of Lent, I need to remember anew that the kingdom I seek is no stranger to Lazarus and at the center of its reign sits a mutilated One.
I am not just praying for my own conversion tonight. I am praying tonight for my community to be given some new life as well: I would like to see some dry bones dancing…