2020, the perfect year to linger in the major and minor prophets. The waning years of the Kingdom of Israel, the intersecting sorrows of the modern globe. Last week I finished Jeremiah with his long acrostic poem, Lamentations. Each chapter works through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5 paint the demise of Israel and the tumult of the nations in poetic terms. But chapter 3 turns personal, a deep dive into Jeremiah's own heart in the midst of international events. And tucked into the middle of the middle chapter, a very Hebrew form of emphasis, are some of the most well-known lines in the Bible.
Sunday, August 30, 2020
Of portions and leanness: #COVID-19UGANDA day 163
Remember my affliction and roaming, the wormwood and the gall.
My soul still remembers and sinks within me.
This I recall to mind, and therefore I have hope.
Through the LORD's mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.
They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.
"The LORD is my portion", says my soul, "Therefore I hope in Him."
We all like to claim the comfort; but it is important to remember the context. Jeremiah was accused of being unpatriotic because he told the truth about his country's injustices and the peoples' sins. He was starved, thrown in a pit, despised, ridiculed . . . while his country was attacked and over-run. His betrayal by friends and by the governing authorities breaks his heart; then he attributes the storyline to God's direct bone-breaking siege on his soul.
Yet, this line. The LORD is my portion, therefore I have hope.
Personally, this idea of satisfaction in God alone, not God + health, or God + people who love me, or God + some agency and accomplishment in the day . . . I find very challenging.
I suspect almost all of us are finding the portions of 2020 lacking. We lament the relentless march of this virus. Who can even grasp the boggling 180,000 USA deaths, let alone 5x that many globally? Where do we even begin to mourn the babies cut off from seeing grandparents, the students interacting only with screens (in some places) or with empty days of waiting and manual labor (majority world), the absence of a hand to hold on a death bed, the fact that it is September in two days yet none of us know whether we can spend Thanksgiving or Christmas together? Then we mourn the rising fragmentation of fear, the politics of scarcity, from a new DRC ethnic militia just over our border here to polarising suspicion-mongering speeches on every continent. Frightened people who feel they must protect their own survival lash out, and every day brings more stories of shootings, deaths, hatefulness. Closely entwined with both the pandemic and the politics is the poverty that is driven by both. Gains in measures of longevity lost, jobs wobbling, medicines not delivered, safety nets punctured. And let's not forget the acts-of-nature craziness this year either, the fires consuming California, the hurricane pounding Mississippi, the floods sliding Bundibugyo down the mountainside, the heat waves and power-outages. All of that is big-picture. Like Jeremiah, though, it's the up-close and personal mid-chapter afflictions that really get my attention. I would like to be nobly distraught over distant disasters, but I am really just tired of the daily indignities.
So, if I could be honest, I'd pad my portion for sure. With mothers in their 80's, subtracting this season of seeing them is time not easily replaced. We love our team and our work, but when we examine our hearts we thought that God's portion was going to include more respite as we plod on through a third decade of it. I am deeply grateful for and respectful of the Ugandans with whom we labor, but the brokenness of the system stacked against all of us pounds me. Friday, multiple people melted away to the burial of a nurse who died, which is culturally crucial. But evaluating 54 admitted kids alone (discharged 17, kept 35 even as new ones started flowing in, and listed 14 that should have been in monitored higher-level-of-care, ICU or step-down beds, those breathing 80 times or more a minute, those with way less than half the normal blood capacity, not including covering the 8 NICU patients whose survival is so fragile). . . . took me a long long day. Scott was doing two emergency surgeries, the second one in a not-really-sterile gown that he literally took OFF a nurse's body because there were no others available. Wednesday, a student nurse walked in with a baby waiting to be admitted, who when I unwrapped the blankets was cold dead. The point is, that while I like the aspirational poetic sentiment of "the LORD is my portion," I am not really under the illusion that my heart is fully there.
But that gap is where we live. Sure, we can try to pad our portion with protective comforts. It's not wrong to ask for good things. But demanding them as necessary for life risks the most chilling verse of all, from Psalm 106, reviewing the complaints of the Israelites in the post-Exodus desert: they forgot God's delivering power, craved the comforts they thought they were due . . . and "He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul." And then, equally chillingly, how can I even feel a modicum of self-pity when looking umpteen times a day into eyes of human beings whose portion is, by any earthly measure, so much slimmer than mine? How soon I forget. (two examples pictured below).
Lord, have mercy, those new-morning mercies, in 2020. Let us pray that the trials of a pandemic, of violence and protest and confession and justice, of upheaval and loss of our plans . . . would result in us, in me, paring away all the false-hopes of my portion and leaving me satisfied with the part that can't fade. Let us pray we enter 2021 with souls that are shinier, deeper, more grounded, more generous and communal, for all we are going through now. Let us have hope.