The faith communities of Laredo, Texas, help immigrants. All too often, Lent is about 'my' personal journey to the cross:
I'm giving up...
My Lenten discipline is...
During Lent, I'm trying to....
During Lent, I'm fasting from...
But Psalm 107 will have none of that "me, my and I."
Even when attempts are made to live beyond this presumption of self, we still land all too often in our own backyard. Instead of giving up chocolate, we add compassion on my terms. Instead of detoxing from coffee, we add a spoonful of caring when we have the time. Instead of abstinence from alcohol, we try as Pope Francis encourages to "fast from indifference." As much as these invite us to reconsider our hearts, at the end of the day - these are still "our" hearts.
Psalm 107 nudges us from our backyards to imagine the hearts and lives of those in transit - the refugee, the wayfarer, the pilgrim, the immigrant, the sojourner, the alien, the wanderer - all of those en route to the cross from the four compass points of the north, the south, the east and the west.
The United Nations Refugee Agency reports, "Every 4 seconds someone is forced to flee." Whether along the border of Mexico, in Syria or the South Sudan, whether in Europe or the Ukraine; this statistic is staggering. Psalm 107 asks us this Lent to remember those in transit - in all their fear, their grief, their suffering - and to pray to the Lord to save them from their distress, and to trust in the Lord who will lead them from places of stress and violence toward a story of redemption and liberation.
This Lent, Psalm 107 begs us to remember those in transit. Whether it's the 4.3 million "removable aliens" from America who wait a Texas judge's decision after rising to Obama's referendum of hope, or the Jews in Europe packing their bags toward a mass exodus to Jerusalem in fear of persecution, or whether it's the sojourners at the Holding Institute in Laredo, Texas comforting an exhausted child, or Syrian Christians finding refuge for their dying mother or dehydrated newborn; these pilgrims from north and south and east and west must journey along with us this Lent.
The structure of Psalm 107 begins with an intersection of three verses: an imperative of gratitude - Give thanks to the Lord, a narrative of redemption - Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, and a picture of people on the move - Gathered in from the lands, from the east and west, from the north and south.
As the psalm unfolds, with four consecutive narratives of struggle, we hear what Biblical scholar James May calls "a catalog of adversity" transformed into the powerful liturgy of testimony. Each of the four stanzas begins with a mysterious, but oddly inclusive, "some." Some wandered (107:4), some sat (107:10), some became fools (107:17), some set out to sea (Psalm 107:23). Here are four compass points for life's adversity. They cried, they despised, they loathed, they reeled and staggered. They were, as verse 27 attests, "at their wits end." As stagnant as each of these contexts suggest - the desert, the darkness of prison, the depths of affliction, the deep turmoil of the sea - the Psalmist assures us that God has gathered in from the north and the south, the east and the west, each of these wayfarers.
Then, as the wayfarer begins to tell the "wonderful works" of the Lord (Psalm 107:8, 15, 21, 31) their lives are transformed through redemption and deliverance into pilgrim people. We who read the Psalmist feel the pulse of their lives on the page. We who sing the tunes of the Psalmist internalize the footstep of the pilgrim in transit knowing full well their journey from oppression to liberation.
This Lent, the world in which we live needs us to get past ourselves. We need the collective redemption that Psalm 107 depicts by way of each compass point wherein sorrow, grief, fear, intolerance, hate and oppression reside.
Moses Maimonides argued that the first of the ten commandments really should be the very first injunction of Exodus 20:2, "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." As funny as this command might sound amid all the other "ought nots," here is the first commandment for all of us in transit this Lent. If we too forget that we have been in bondage, then we will have no compassion for all the other pilgrims who are. Psalm 107 in its incredible liturgy builds on this central command to remember our own deliverance, and even more so, to persist in our prayers for all who are in transit today.
Psalm 107 is a testament to redemption and a reminder of our collective immigration. Each of us has been gathered in from a distant land, toward the shadow of the cross. Whether in the desert wasteland or a prisoner of darkness, whether one who was afflicted and rebelling in iniquities, or lost and staggering out at sea; these landscapes metaphorically name where we once were. Each testimony names a personal deliverance and celebrates redemption. But the power and the purpose of this Psalm lies in its trajectory toward something greater, a collective that can not stay put in particular places but must instead immigrate to a new location to stand alongside all the others who celebrate the same liberation.
I'm giving up giving up for Lent. My Lenten discipline is solely this: to look to the north, the south, the east and the west and to remember the despair of my neighbor and carry the weight of that load on my shoulders, and the grief of their hearts in my own.
Bible Study Questions
1. As you journey to the cross this Lent, who is a community of people you want to remember in prayer and why?
2. Try using the four compass points as places of prayer. If you think of the north, the south, the east and the west, what groups of people are struggling and how might the church respond to their grief?
3. Does it change your position on immigration to consider the words of Moses Maimonides?
4. Where does Psalm 107 intersect the testimony of your life and your journey of faith?
For Further Reading
Gemma Tulud Cruz, Toward A Theology of Migration: Social Justice and Religious Experience (Content and Context in Theological Ethics), (New York, NY: Palgrave McMillan Press, 2014).
Kristin Heyer, Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration, (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2012).
James L. Mays, Psalms (The Interpretation Series), (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1994).
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