Good Friday

By Pastor Seth 

The Son of God has been betrayed and arrested, tried and denied, beaten, mocked,  spat upon and corralled to the undignified outskirts of town to the tune of the crowd’s taunting and his followers’ distant weeping. Christ the savior, the Divine incarnate, is crucified. Unlike the willingness of Jesus to offer up his spirit to God before his final breath in Luke’s account or the stoic and omniscient Christ who claims, “it is finished” in John’s account, the Gospel of Mark casts the crucified Christ in a different light. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we hear Jesus shout before drinking the sour wine, wailing in agony, and succumbing to the injuries of his execution. In Mark’s account of the passion of Christ, we stand at the foot of the cross and gaze upon the scene through the lens of lament to witness the incarnation of almighty God crying out in utter vulnerability.

Theological Reflection:

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and the holy chaos of Haywood Street is well underway. The dining room downstairs is seating the hungry stragglers stumbling in from their campsites and shelter beds; the lobby floor is a decorated with soiled clothes and sleeping bags while the song of snores and psychotic outbursts lift to the heavens  and reverberate off the lofted ceiling; and the sanctuary is full of eager souls come to be fed in spirit, the remnants of cigarette smoke and sweat wafting down the aisle like incense on the ragged unlaundered coattails of a woman looking for a bathroom. It’s time for worship. As a dog barks along to the opening hymn and a child squeals their delight, the young man seated in the back pew shifts to the edge of his seat — awaiting the final note of the piano to ring so that he can raise his hand to speak.

During worship at Haywood, we have a time in our service called, “blessings and testimonials.” It’s an opportunity for anyone who has the desire to share something to do so — be it a song, poem, story, testimony, or something else laid upon one’s heart. For many in our church, this is the only time during the week when individuals have a platform to speak in front of others and do so knowing that their offering will be heard and held by a community who loves them regardless of their housing status, addiction, mental illness, criminal record, or appearance. We believe that everyone has a voice that deserves to be heard, that all have something to offer the world that only each individual uniquely can. Participation is paramount in our ministry, and folks are usually far from shy about accepting the invitation. The time for sharing comes, and before he is called upon, the young man stands up while raising his hand, proceeding to walk down the side aisle of the pews and stand in front of an expectant congregation, gathering his thoughts.

To the uninitiated, the range of what comes out of people’s mouths during our services can be a little overwhelming. It is not uncommon for folks to come to service intoxicated and sleep deprived, unmedicated and uninhibited, which can sometimes result in seemingly off the wall statements, offensive language, heartwarming melodies, and beautifully insightful reflections, too. The young man begins to speak, and for the next few minutes, paints snapshots of the tale of tragedy, abuse, and rejection that is his life’s story intermixed with spiritual riffs.

Bouncing around foster care then adopted by a religious family hell bent on beating shame into him in he name of Heaven, he was eventually kicked out — left to fend for himself and navigate the complexities, confusion, and conviction that come with mental illness and substance use. His witness sprinkled with projecting understandable condemnation of organized religion, and he concludes with a question: “Is God even here?” he asks. Satisfied with his accounting, he walks back down the aisle and returns to his seat in silence, accompanied by the the gratitude of the congregation for his courage and vulnerability.

Over the next few months, the young man became a staple in worship — oftentimes speaking up whether invited to or not — and we all made it a point to check in with him whenever he came to eat and to witness. Unbelievably bright and theologically adept, he would spend the better part of an hour conversing with me or the other pastors in the hall or the sanctuary before worship, each time unveiling more of his story, how the capital “C” Church had hurt him, and spouting off prophesy and philosophy. He would question the existence of God one day, speak against God’s lack of care for him on a different day, and be utterly grateful and convinced of providence on another. And he kept coming back, knowing that when he spoke, people would listen without trying to save him, and I wonder if that was part of the reason why.

I’m often inspired by the vulnerability with which our community shares in worship. The courage people have to admit struggle and testify to the depths of their suffering. And as difficult as it might be to simply hold space for the heaviness of trauma, discrimination, psychosis, and addiction, I consider it one of the greatest privileges of my job — that someone would take the risk of authenticity and model for us all the courage it takes to be human complete with all our questions and doubts, sorrows and grievances. In my experience, I have found that one of the most faithful acts of love we can show one another is being with someone in their pain — not jumping to fix it but rather holding space for the horrors and heaviness. For it is in the validation of another’s experience that we embody the message that you are worthy enough for me to sacrifice my own comfort for the sake of being with you in your discomfort. Your humanity matters, including the parts of you that suffer. But so often, we do not show ourselves that same act of love.

We have an aversion to being with our own pain, especially the kind that hurts the deepest. It makes sense, though, for such an act of self solidarity can be scary, overwhelmingly uncomfortable, and not to mention riddled with societal expectations to grit, bear, and get over it. And as the church, we tend to take the expression of sorrow even one step further as a symptom of deficiency. We feel that lamenting is a mark against our faith, that crying out against God means we must not believe enough; but it is the exact opposite. Lamenting and crying out and questioning says that I have faith in a God big enough to handle the full weight of my suffering. It is not a sign of faithlessness but a remarkable act of faith in the love of God — a love for us that cannot be reduced even when we are reduced to grief, a love that is never in question even when we have questions, a love that says I am with you in this even when you are convinced that I am not. Perhaps unconsciously, I think we are hesitant to feel the fullness of what we need to feel because we are afraid that it will be too much for us or others to handle, that it will make us look weak or vulnerable, and we’ll be left alone in the dark. But, my friends, if the Son of God laments, I think we can too.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? — This haunting plea for help echoing from the mouth of Christ is a quote from the Psalms. Psalm 22 cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” It is a Psalm of despair, characteristic of many others in this collection of poems and songs depicting the depth and breadth of the human experience, and Jesus recites it on the cross. Bruised and bleeding, suffocating under the weight of holding his body up by his wounded limbs, Immanuel, God with us, laments in agony that God is not with him. It’s a confusing turn of events. How could Jesus claim that God has forsaken the very incarnation of God? How could the Divine experience the absence of the Divine?

I wonder, though, if Jesus is not speaking to the reality of God’s absence amidst his suffering but, rather, speaking to a level of suffering so bedrock deep it feels as if God could not possibly be there. I wonder, in this moment, if Jesus is speaking for us all, speaking to the very human experience of feeling like God has forsaken us — modeling lament and the bravery of vulnerability as a faithful response to our suffering and, in so doing, dissolving the myth that the absence of joy and positivity does not equate to the absence of faith nor does it equate to the absence of God.

Jesus did not hang up the role of Immanuel when he was hung upon the beams. Christ did not stop being “God with us” when he cries out that God is not with him. Rather, as the incarnation of the Divine, Jesus reciting this Psalm seemingly implies that God’s own self is intimate with the deepest pit of despair, yet such suffering does not dissuade God from dwelling within it, even as the nails drive deeper.

Before we reach the heights of contentment in Psalm 23, “the Lord is my Shepherd,” we must first tend to the anguish of Psalm 22. Before we celebrate the resurrection, we must first grieve the crucifixion. But on this day of death and darkness, hear the good news: there is no depth of suffering too deep for God to journey there with us, even the suffering we experience from feeling like God is nowhere to be found. When we reach those depths, may we, too, cry out when our suffering demands our love and attention — for lament is a holy act of faith, not a mark against it, and God is with us even then.