Holding someone’s hand through hell

radnor24I have been reading Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard and the opening lines still hang on my mind and my lips: “Every day is a god,” she writes, “I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors.” And in this season of Ordinary Time, I, too, praise the splintered days wrapped in time and dig into them deeply.

Last month, I was sitting on the banks of the Cumberland River in a quiet spot that no one knows about, a quiet spot where the sounds of the city merge with the sounds of the river and I can watch herons and cranes winging by. I was sitting on the banks and reading Holy the Firm when something caught my eye—it was the dead body of a robin bobbing at the water’s edge. The robin’s body was bloated and upturned and I couldn’t reach her because of the rocks. Each wave pounded her tiny body into the rocks, raking her lifeless wings this way and that. When the huge wake of a barge made it to my place on the shore, I held my breath. I thought the larger waves would rip her apart but they didn’t—they just rolled her, threw her, thrashed her about and I had to look away. The god of that day was harsh, exacting, merciless. Plants die, birds die, people die, yes, but can’t we have some dignity in the meantime?

Since then, there have been so many highs and lows in our work that it has left me spinning, rolling like the robin in the waves. We’ve had breakthroughs, wins, and move-ins, yes. But the losses, defeats, and hospitalizations have, like the wake of the barge, pummeled my body and heart. If this last week was a god, it was a softer god of tired, puffy eyes and splintered hope.

ezekiel iconAlong with Holy the Firm, I have been reading through the book of Ezekiel because I never have, because I, too, have see fire and suffering and visions. The god of those days was also harsh and exacting and I want to look away. I don’t want to read how the God of Israel was willing to scatter people’s bones, to give them up to famine and pestilence, to sword and decay. Men, women, and children—feel the wrath of God pounding and thrashing your bodies on rocks! How can I believe that anyone deserves this? I am only a dozen chapters in, but I had to stop, had to breathe, had to look around at the plants and trees to remember—to re-member—a God who loves and heals and puts the pieces back together. This will come later in Ezekiel, I know, but for now, this is what I have to hold, to wrestle with, and no easy answers can make sense of it for me. “Luke,” one of the men at a local encampment who has suffered tremendously recently told me, “I don’t believe in hell. If there is one, we’re living in it now.” So I sit with these things.

Of the people I’m working with, four have relapsed in recent weeks. They tried to hold on, but the disease was too powerful and the streets are toxic—grounds for a losing battle. Without housing, without hope, they gave in to the pull of the drink and it raked their bodies, pounding them on rocks, leaving them sick and miserable. Addictions and relapses like these are devastatingly complex. “I drink to cover up the pain,” said one. “I drink and pass out and that’s when I don’t feel it anymore, that’s the only time I can escape.” Another said, “I drink cause I’m going through hell. I’m in hell right now.” I visit them in the back alleys, the camps, the parks, “the beehive,” and bring them water, tend their wounds, listen to their despair, and talk about life, about housing, about treatment, about hope. I went to a training on Trauma-Informed Care last week and the trainer, Matt Bennett, asked, “When we are holding someone’s hand through hell, where does that put us?”

ezekiel and the scrollAfter Ezekiel saw the vision of the wheel in the sky, God gave him a scroll of lamentation and mourning and woe and told him to eat it. He ate the scroll and it filled his belly. It is said that the scroll tasted sweet like honey and I don’t know what to do with that. I’ve sat with the passage for weeks and I still don’t know what to do with it. Here we are the week after Pentecost with newness exploding all around us and we hold the scrolls of woe and wonder what in the world to do with them. Take the suffering into our bodies? Chew it, taste it, have it become part of the fabric of our being? And why honey?

Sometimes I sit and stare at my herb garden that is now in full bloom—lavender, hyssop, basil, thyme, feverfew, oregano, mint, sage, curry, echinacea, patchouli, and lemon balm (though I can’t grow cilantro to save my life). I stare at the herbs and the trees above them and I recite the names and places where people are bought and sold and bloodied, where people are thrashed on rocks, where their bones are scattered. The psych ward. 5th and Main. Riverbend. Palestine. Nigeria. Ukraine. I remember—re-member—them as best I can, both distant and near, and carry them in the soft stinging shell of my heart. And this is my prayer.


As I sit with these questions and prayers, as I sit with the thought of so many living in hell on earth, as I sit with the trauma and suffering and loss, I feel a seed of something else stretching inside me, I see it taking root and blooming around me. The other week, amid the hospitalizations and relapses, a family of seven I’ve worked with since last October finally moved into permanent housing and were beside themselves with joy. There was the Saturday spent with friends and a sweet baby mockingbird that perched on my shoulder, and then we saw Luke come back to life after entering an intensive outpatient treatment program. Luke is living with one of our friends and has started volunteering with us. He’s reading Dorothy Day, learning about people like Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu, and is realizing that he is most fully alive when he is helping others. “I hope you have a lot of water, because I’m on fire,” he said. “Fan the flames,” I told him, “and learn to channel them.”

Nearly a month into his sobriety, Luke sent me a note. He sent me a note and when I read it, I cried. It said, “Thank you for letting me be a part of all of your lives. Thank you for taking me in for shelter. For allowing me to flourish. For showing forgiveness, grace and patience. Thank you for offering me more of a life than I could have ever expected to receive again. For wanting to wake up to the very best I have inside of me and craving the chance to give it away to someone in need. Someone lost, alone, afraid. I’ve known that all too well my whole life and at this very moment I can only recall those clouds, rain and turbulence as a passing storm from some distant dream. As if it’s all been washed away. Thank you all for loving me, when I could not love myself. Caring, when I couldn’t anymore. Giving when all I could do was take. Today, I want to give what was so freely given to me. My gratitude overwhelms me at times. But here I stand. Solid, Strong, and Willing to give of myself, expecting nothing in return but to know that on this day, and because of this family… this community… because of very amazing people like you, I have something special and genuine to offer. Something worth living for.”


If hell is on earth, then heaven begins here, too. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to heaven or the kingdom of God as “the beloved community” and this resonates with me in a way that mansions and streets of gold never will. So yes. Even in the midst of hell, the beloved community is blooming around us. Like a horizon, it is under our very feet yet always beyond us. It is a community that re-members that God is, by nature, Love, and that love wades into the crashing waves with us, that love seeks to heal, to show mercy, and to bind the broken, thrashed, and tattered things back together. This love, as Luke so poignantly described, is one that washes away the shame and guilt, that welcomes and accepts us where we are, that awakens something deep in our souls, and that helps us to find life and meaning and one another.

The Psalm for the other day was Psalm 66 and verse 12 still lingers on my mind and my lips, as well: “We went through fire and through water,” says the psalmist, “yet you have brought us out to a place that overflows.” If today is a god, it is a god who loves fully, who awakens those who slumber, who pours breath back into the slain, and who can even cause suffering and woe to sometimes, somehow, lose their bitterness and taste like honey on our lips.


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