Wednesday, June 16, 2010

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side

Every time I hear Psalm 124, I think of Lawrence.

I can almost count on one hand the number of times I saw him. The first was toward the end of my junior year of college when I was twenty one. I was on my way to a coffee shop, and he was sitting on the street with a cardboard box asking for money. On an impulse I asked him if he was hungry. The next hour involved chicken wings with ranch dressing, stories of his struggle with AIDS and loneliness, and plans to share a ride to church in the morning.

The next day involved picking him up in the parking lot where he was sleeping, letting him borrow my jacket when I noticed the wet man shivering in the air-conditioned church, telling him he could keep it since it fit so well, and promising to pray for him over the summer when I said goodbye. I left campus days later and spent the summer in Europe where my family was living. It rained a lot that summer, and I prayed for Lawrence every time it did.

The third time I saw him was my first Sunday back on campus my senior year of college. When the pastor invited us to greet those sitting near us, I turned around to see the cleanly-shaven, beaming face of Lawrence behind me, and I wept with joy and surprise. All summer as I had been offering prayers I didn’t expect to be heard, folks at my church had been helping Lawrence get off the streets.

“I would be remiss,” he told the Sunday school the next week, the week he also told me would be his last week at the large, middle-class, white, Evangelical church where he would never feel that he belonged, “if I did not sing you a song.” His eyes looked into the distance as if he were seeing God himself, and he sang in his clear, rich, gospel voice:
If it had not been
For the Lord on my side
Tell me where would I
Where would I be...
The last time I saw Lawrence was in my second year after graduation. I happened to be walking down the street near my old alma mater, and saw a man sitting on the street with a cardboard box. “No!” I almost shouted when I recognized him, tears welling up in me to see my lesson in answered prayer overturned so quickly. Lawrence’s optimistic promises that he would be off the streets soon rang hollow in my jaded ears, for I knew that while prayer was powerful, drug addiction was as well.

Every time I hear Psalm 124, I remember the whole story as one event: my young idealism, Lawrence’s loneliness, my gifts of raincoat and hopeless prayers, the church’s aid, the light in Lawrence’s beaming face, the joy of his song, and the cold power of cynicism when I saw him for the last time.

And when Psalm 124 came up again in Monday's evening prayers, I started to realize one of the reasons the Church has been praying through the Psalms over the centuries (or rather the millennia, I suppose, since praying the Psalms had been a Jewish tradition from before the time of Christ). In the body of the Church—the Church throughout the world and the Church throughout history—each desperate cry and joyful celebration in the Psalms exists together simultaneously, just as Lawrence’s entire story exists in my memory of that psalm. Thus even when we are joyful, we pray the words of those who are despairing; even when we despair, we pray the words of those who celebrate God’s salvation.

And on Monday evening, even though I don’t know if Lawrence is even alive anymore or whether he got off the streets again like he had promised me when I last saw him four years ago, I prayed “Blessed be the Lord who did not give us a prey to their teeth! Our life, like a bird, has escaped from the snare of the fowler.” In the Church, I know that the words are being fulfilled.

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