I sit in stillness but my mind cannot rest. It loops over and over the names and stories of people who struggle and the recitation of their names becomes my prayer. My mind, as always, is drawn to the streets, to the wounded, to the people yearning to be whole and free. Two people held their arms out to me last week to show me the recent and not-so-recent self-inflicted gashes and scars they bore. They pulled blades down their own flesh, opening fresh wounds. They wrote red lines on their bodies, spelling out the depths of their hidden torment. Were they trying to chase away the numbness or mask a deeper pain?
I tended “Lee’s” not-so-recent wounds and listened to her story while the line of people grew who wanted me to tend their battered feet, their broken spirits. One man’s fingers had cracked so badly from the dry winter air that they formed deep cuts that ran to the bone. Another man’s foot had an ulcer the size of a quarter that was so infected it no longer hurt.
We all bear our wounds differently. Some are laid out for all to see, written on our arms, our feet, or etched in the lines of our faces. Others burrow in knots in our shoulders, backs, and bellies. Still others hide so deeply in our hearts that we deny their existence, even when they surface again and again. Some of us hide our wounds and our brokenness well, masking them with smiles and nice clothes and respectable lives. If a wound closes before it heals, it festers. But when laid bare in the open air, cleaned, and dressed, it can heal.
So yes, my mind is drawn to the wounds—those of others and my own—and I look for open air to let them breathe. I am here again in the stillness of the Abbey of Gethsemani seeking open air, watching the last of the late-morning mist lift out of the valleys. I am here with mixed attention, here when so much is left undone despite my best efforts. “I am moved by all I cannot save,” writes the poet Adrienne Rich.
Yes, this is why we do our work in community—because none of us can bear the weight alone. As long as there is human suffering, as long as there are wounds to be tended, our work calls to us and remains unfinished. But the calling to Sabbath persists as well, and this is my Lenten practice. So I pray that God will keep watch over all and teach me how to trust, how to let go. “If it is not the Lord who watches over the city, the guards are wasting their time” says the psalmist.
Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter, is now upon us so I turn my sullied attention to the gospel of John. I watch as the blind receive sight, Lazarus is raised, palm leaves are spread out. I watch as tensions heighten, tables are overturned, arrests and deaths are plotted. I watch as feet are washed, bread is broken, blood is spilled. I watch and I wonder what it all means for us today.
The other week, I awoke in the early morning hours to a violent storm. It came upon us quickly with 60 mph winds. The lightning was so bright it lit our entire room, burning my eyes. The flashes were only seconds apart, the thunder sharpening as it raced towards us. The storm passed as quickly as it came, but the forecast hinted at possible storms throughout the day.
That day, the air was damp, alive, and charged, the clouds a deep blue-gray, fierce like the color of my eyes after I cry. Every second felt like the moment just before the downpour, but the heavy clouds somehow held until evening. That morning carried news of more police raids on homeless encampments. Police had ridden along the tracks on four-wheelers stopping at each site, threatening the next day would bring arrests for anyone who didn’t leave. “They said we would get 11/29,” said “Tracy” with fear in her eyes. On the streets, 11/29 means 11 months and 29 days in jail. Yes, nearly a year for simply surviving on someone else’s property, a charge and sentence wholly possible under our current Tennessee state laws.
I had just heard a story about the police burning a man’s tent the night of the ice storm. He had seen them at his camp that morning and fled, hoping to avoid a ticket or arrest. When he came back that evening seeking shelter and warmth, he found a pile of ashes with the charred remains of his tent poles and belongings. Hours later, all of Nashville froze, every drop of water on streets and sidewalks and trees turned to slick ice and his blankets and home were burnt to the ground.
The day before I left for Gethsemani, we received word of even more impending police raids. The next camp slated for shutdown, unlike some of the others, is pristine. It is nestled on the banks of the Cumberland and houses driftwood art, bird nests and bird feeders, a skillfully-built brick stove, and colorful tarps held up and laced together by bungee cords. The men and women there bear their own wounds, but they are survivors with free spirits that cannot be caged. They are there for a myriad of reasons: overcrowded shelters, long waiting lists, nearly insurmountable barriers to housing, and the human desire to assert some amount of agency, creativity, and control over their lives. After all, their only options for housing at this point are seedy motels or slums where they will be exploited for every penny or overcrowded, dehumanizing housing projects. And there are always jail and prison cells. Where would you rather live?
I talked to some of the guys in one of the camps and they told me at least they can store their belongings in their tents, at least they can look out for one another, at least they don’t have someone breathing down their neck every second, barking orders like they did in jail. “I want to be free, too,” I said. They smiled.
After I visited one of the camps to document their belongings in case of another raid, I had a group of students from American Baptist College for an educational session downtown. We were talking about power and politics when the topic of police came up and we began to dive into the history of the police force in the South. The roots of Southern police stem from poor whites hired by plantation owners to patrol the surrounding areas for runaway slaves. These poor white men seeking bread for their families made a living hunting down poor black men and their families who were seeking freedom.
The poor were—and still are—pinned against the poor for the sake of property, profit, and power. What would happen if we came together? Who knew bread and freedom were so costly? Perhaps this is what it looks like when our collective and systemic wounds fester. Yes, we pull the blade down each other’s arms and shrug. We kill our prophets and lay palm leaves before Jesus just days before he is betrayed, mocked, and executed. We place property rights over human rights. We pull federal funding from housing and throw it to prisons. We pin brother against brother for profit and, so often, for mere survival. We arrest my friend “Kentucky” for stealing a package of baloney but bail out bankers for predatory lending and stealing millions upon millions of dollars and homes from struggling families. We are devout capitalists, and whenever the bottom line is maximizing profit, the well-being of humanity and the earth are trampled and exploited. The problem is the same as it has always been: the misuse of power, the commoditization of bodies and the earth. Even air, even water, can come with a price tag now.
So what is to be done? On Palm Sunday, in the midst of rising tensions, Jesus entered into the gates of Jerusalem, wept over the city, and embraced the conflict and suffering that would lead to his death. He was a walking site of resurrection even before his death, healing wound after wound and even raising a dead man who lay reeking in a tomb. “I am the resurrection,” he said, and every ounce of air around him was charged. The poor and wounded were drawn to him like moths to light, but the high priests and money changers despised him. He threatened their power, their ability to turn a dollar, to maintain the status quo where they were on top. It was only a matter of time before the wounds opened on Jesus’ flesh.
Wounded God, teach us to draw near to you by entering the gates of our city, by stepping into the conflict, by embracing the suffering. Teach us to be gentle enough to wash feet but fierce enough to overturn tables. Help us to roll away the stones and lay bare our personal and collective wounds to your healing. Teach us what it looks like to live out Jubilee—to forgive debts, to free slaves, to return the land. And teach us O God, as Wendell Berry says, to “practice resurrection,” spreading healing and love and holy flame wherever we go. Amen.