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Vast as the sea is your ruin


A death leads to lament and the importance of the poor: "blazing, unique icons of the living God whose existence should stir up a raging for justice that shapes the entire expression of our faith." By Michael Manning

Vast sea

A man died on Boxing Day. He was rushed into intensive care after suffering multiple heart attacks. He was placed on a respirator. He died overnight. He was 40 years old.
This man, Vincent, was a regular at Graih's drop-in. He had struggled throughout the year with periods of hope and periods of darkness when he wrestled with the substances and addictions that compelled him. From an early age Vincent knew little but rejection. His mother gave him up soon after birth. He spent his childhood in care suffering various forms of abuse. When he got out of the care system he found his mother in America, which meant a period on the streets over there, only for her to tell him that she didn't want to know him. He returned to spells in prison for drugs and violence and the inexorable, circling descent towards the abyss. He fought it; he fought for a stable relationship and custody of one of his daughters (another one had been adopted), carving out a time of stability and possibility. It all came crashing down and he began to struggle again.

And then, ten days after wearing a novelty Christmas hat and laughing at our Christmas meal, he died.
There is nothing remarkable in any of this. There is sorrow, pity, perhaps a relief that our lives do not have to bear the burden of so much pain. There is a period of mourning for those who knew him. And then life and time goes on. There are countless situations, countless deaths, like this all the time.

And yet...
The prophets had a sense of what Abraham Heschel called 'the importance of trivialities'[1]. The whole weight of God and creation hung on how a poor, impoverished peasant in an ancient society was treated. It seems ridiculous to give the vulnerable such power. Yes, of course it's sad that a young, broken and rejected man dies, but it hardly gives cause for the whole direction of societies to be reconsidered. There are pressing and important issues to be addressed and the great ships of state and church must give their grave attention to them.

Of how much preciousness is an individual life? The answer, you would think from how we live with such suffering and death, is not much.

Lives such as Vincent's, and deaths, confused and fractured and angry and frustrated, constitute a failure of God. A failure of love. A failure of us all to build societies where life flourishes rather than sputters out in pain. If we have the ears to hear we might catch the depths of lament, ascending to the throne of God.

We live daily in the midst of the poor, locally and globally. They are not objects of pity or charity or aid. They are blazing, unique icons of the living God and their existence should stir up a raging for justice that shapes the entire expression of our faith. Until and unless we see and hear what they have to teach us we remain blind. It is painful to move beyond temporary sadness and pity and to allow ourselves and our homes and our churches to be shaped by the exigency of these lives.

We should not fear admitting the failure, of ourselves or of God. In a culture that idolises success we have become unused, unable, to mouth the doubt that failure evokes. Faith without failure becomes brittle, unable to truly enter into the pain of the poor and make their struggles for life our own. Our fragile faith offers certain answers that cannot live up to the horrible, embodied reality of poverty. And so we prefer to give to charity, to remain essentially untouched. We move swiftly on, preoccupied with our own lives and the tasks that seem both easier and more important than engaging with the stubborn difficulties of the poor. Yet the movement of God in incarnation and resurrection speaks of one who is unafraid of failure, who goes to the place of deepest loss and pain and finds there a hopeful whispering of new life. There are no easy answers, but there is a presence for the journey.

Jesus was a poor, broken and rejected young man. If we want to follow, him we have to get close to the poor. When we look at history we often wonder how people lived with such injustice without knowing and acting. 'How did they not realise the horror of slavery?' 'How did they not glimpse the evil of totalitarian fascist and communist regimes?' 'How did they not realise the denial of rights and the pernicious hierarchies of class and wealth?' 'How did they not act?' How we respond to the poor is how we respond to God. Like parables the poor are always in our midst, disturbing our reality, rocking our certainty, and offering for those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear a chance to repent and be transformed and seek a more human life.

And Vincent? I pray that he now knows fully the reality of love that escaped him in this life, and that he rests fully known by love (1 Corinthians 13).

[1]    Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, pp 3-6

Image | Unsplash

Michael Manning is a co-ordinator of Graih (www.graih.org.im), a charity serving those who are homeless and in insecure accommodation on the Isle of Man. He lives with his family in a shared household and belongs to Broadway Baptist Church in Douglas 


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Baptist Times, 06/02/2019
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