As part of my training for ministry I served an internship in a street ministry in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) neighbourhood of Vancouver, “Canada’s poorest postal code.” This was a neighbourhood ravaged by homelessness, drug addiction, prostitution, abuse, mental illness and disease. I had never witnessed or even barely imagined the kind of challenges and suffering that people in that community faced every day, and the experience was transformative.
One moment in that year-long journey remains with me. It was December 1, World AIDS Day, and I had been asked to represent the Lutheran Urban Mission Society at a community vigil commemorating those who had been affected by HIV/AIDS. Everyone in the DTES knew someone who had died of the disease, often caught from the sharing of needles. Everyone, that is, except me. I knew little of AIDS beyond the news headlines, and yet there I was being asked to address this group of sufferers as the Lutheran Street Vicar. I was utterly at a loss.
So what do you do? If you’re a pastor-in-training you open your Bible and frantically, almost randomly search for a pious verse to read. I settled on a psalm, one that happens to be designated for Palm Sunday every year, Psalm 31. Since I could think of nothing else to say, I just introduced it by saying I had an ancient poem to read to them. Then I opened up my Bible and read to this group of AIDS sufferers, drug addicts, social workers, and homeless men and women:
Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am in trouble;
my eyes is consumed with sorrow, and also my throat and my belly.
For my life is wasted with grief, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails me because of affliction, and my bones are consumed.
I am the scorn of all my enemies, a disgrace to my neighbors, a dismay to my acquaintances;
when they see me in the street they avoid me.
Like the dead I am forgotten, out of mind;
I am as useless as a broken pot.
My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.
When I finished there was silence in the room. As it stretched on I nervously wondered if it was considered wrong to read the Bible at a secular gathering. And then someone at the back of the room pumped his fist in the air and yelled, “Yeah!” Suddenly everyone was cheering and clapping. The psalm had perfectly named the experience of these people who had been through so much. Grief. Failing strength. Affliction. Stigma. Helplessness. Uselessness. And in its opening and closing lines it had also named their deepest longings. “Have mercy on me.” “Save me in your steadfast love.” The silence when I finished reading was not an awkward moment of non-understanding, rather the opposite; it was the grateful acknowledgement of having an experience known and named out loud, and the desire to linger with that feeling of fullness.
This moment became a lasting reminder for me of the power of the Word to speak to human experience, and to transform it. For in the moment of that cheer a room of people who had been alone in their suffering suddenly became united and aware at a deep level that they had company. In a way, the naming and sharing of their experience caused it to have less power over them. It was a small moment of redemption.
The church believes that the voice of the psalmist is the voice of Jesus. We hear his own longings and prayers as we read the psalms. And we hear our own hearts’ prayers too. This is what it means for Jesus to take empty himself, be born in human likeness, and take unto himself our whole condition, suffering and death included. (Philippians 2) The voice of the psalmist was the voice of Jesus, was the voice of the DTES community, and is the voice of you and I and everyone who knows suffering and longing.
During the services of Holy Week this year I hope you will listen for the voice of Jesus who is present with you in whatever trial, great or small, that you may be going through. Because he was obedient to God, even to the point of dying on the cross, he can relate to anything we might be experiencing. Not only that, he wraps up our experience with his and in doing so, redeems it.
God’s blessings and peace go with you as we contemplate together the mysteries of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection in this holy week.