A week ago Sunday, February 22nd 2015 at two in the morning, my precious nineteen-year-old cousin hung herself in her parent’s basement closet.
I say “precious” not simply because she was beautiful and hilarious and witty, not simply because she was my cousin. Lexi was precious to me because her mother bore her to term exactly one month after my sister, Lauren, came out of my mom in stile á la Caesar. Or however the French say it.
Nine years old, I was holding my one-month-old baby sister in one arm and my one-week-old baby cousin in the other. They grew up less like cousins and more like fraternal twins, their mothers exacerbating the effect through the power of matching outfits, joint birthday parties, and alliterated names. As you can imagine, the hundreds of pictures at her funeral featured two nearly-identical baby girls growing up together, pruning my grandmother’s toes, posing together for selfies in the bathroom mirror, swimming. The body of one of them now weeping in my cedar pew. The body of the other one now supine in her oaken casket.
Got the news at 8:45 am. Left my house to catch the N northward to the Roulette where I would serve alongside many of you at Forefront Brooklyn. We were starting Lent. I knew this, had in some small way helped the church prepare for this, but I myself came ultimately unprepared. Lent – and Ruth – trend towards the kind of self-exposure we see in Ephesians 5 and so we sat upstairs exposing the lies that the enemy was injecting into our minds. I named mine aloud. “Despair,” I said. Then I shared about Lexi. Despair’s a family sin, an ancestral curse as some would have it, so I asked for prayers of hope and prayer of peace. Prayers for the breaking of a civic trend, if you will.
These prayers would be answered in power through means physical (people bought plane tickets, gas, made it possible for me to have free meals and do physical labor to blow off steam), emotional (weep with those who weep, laugh with those who laugh), mental (dozens gave me advice on the sermon I would preach two days later), and spiritual (I cannot tell you how many prayers we heard, received, prayed ourselves).
After the funeral, the amount of messages I’ve received in the past week may take the cake for the Most Intense Pastoral Counseling And Ministry in my life. My inbox and Facebook message system is flooded, all by messages of hope and peace and the breaking of our civic trend — our ancestral sin — named "despair."
You see, in the shadow of the noose your life is laid bare.
Every single person at that visitation –there were two-thousand of them, this in a town of only eight-thousand – opened their mouths and their guts fell out: confession after confession, repentance upon repentance. In the shadow of the noose, I heard people talk of how they wanted to love more, to hope more, to take even better care of one another. And in the shadow of the noose, I heard others amplify their own despair – their true colors came out and those colors matched that of any decaying thing. Lewis mentioned how near the end of life, the elderly already look like the beatific or miserific visions – more like an angel of heaven full of joy or more like the demons of hell. When I saw two-thousand hearts laid bare in the shadow of the noose, too many of them obviously did not like what they saw inside the dark corners of their own being.
So they committed to change. More specifically, to let Jesus change them.
One of them in particular, a close family member, said at Lexi’s wake:
Countless others echoed him before, during, and in the wake of Lexi’s funeral. You see, in Lent we do this self-examination. On Ash Wednesday, we make the sign of the cross on our foreheads using the ashes from last year’s palm leaves, the ones we used to usher in Jesus as King during last year’s Palm Sunday. This action carries the weight of stuffing the Academy Award red carpet in a colossal blender and then painting its scarlet fibers upon your forehead in the sign of Robin William’s noose.
Puts things into perspective.
We do ashes because we realize all of the ways we’ve refused to live the life where we know – we own – that we’re saved by grace through faith, not of ourselves but as a gift of God in order to do good works that last on long after we’re dead. That’s the verse in John’s Revelation: blessed are they who die in the Lord from now on for their deeds live on after them. I’ve been to tons of funerals for people from every worldview and background and life situation – bar none, the funerals of Christians are the most hopeful and most well-attended of any. That’s because their deeds live on after them. They have accepted the grace of Jesus the moment their hearts have been laid bare in the shadow of the noose and that grace – the same power that raised Jesus from the dead – empowers those Christians to supernaturally take great care of their neighbors, their families, their enemies. I saw two-thousand people laid bare last week, many of whom didn’t like what they saw scratched into the walls of their hearts there in the shadow of the noose. Those people woke up and said, “No more. There’s only room for love or hate in here. I choose love. I choose grace. I choose hope.”
Because the decision’s really simple in Lent.
Here we’re examining ourselves right along with Naomi. How will we respond to the gift offered to us in our grief? Here we are exposed like Ruth. How will we respond to the gift offered to us in the midst of systemic injustice? Here we are exposed like Boaz. How will we respond to these fleeting opportunities to amplify the good we glimpse in the world?
Last Wednesday with the help of dozens of you, I tried my best to help turn on the light. I tried my best to show that every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Heavenly Lights – to show my friends and family and childhood neighbors and classmates how “every good and perfect gift” includes the good things we glimpsed in Lexi’s life. Amplify the good.
Yeah, it’s a simple choice. Dumbledore said to Harry, “The time will come when you will have to choose between what is right and what is easy.” That’s a no-joke dilemma. Old people who end up with lines of bitterness scored upon their brows at eighty-years-old didn’t get there because they had to choose between right and wrong. They got there because they choose what’s easy over what’s right.
Did you know Hitler started out asking, “Now where are we gonna put the Jews? Madagascar?”
It’s a slow fade. In the shadow of the noose, the little choices look a whole lot bigger. Life and death, even.
The choice between filling your heart with love or filling it with hate ends up more subtle in the day-to-day trench warefare we call “life.” It never comes to us as a choice between right and wrong. It shows up as a choice between what’s right and what’s easy. Between hard and wrong. Between good and great. Between violence and sacrifice. Between giving a loan or a gift. Between keeping track of the things you’re thankful for in a person or keeping track of the things about them that irritate you. Between abstaining for the sake of godly and greater pleasure later — indulging in God himself — or indulging in a lesser pleasure now, an addiction masquerading as pleasure. Between kindness and nicety. Between courage and apathy. Between what’s petty and what’s vital.
Lent is the choice between two small steps: one that moves towards and one that moves away from that dark part of our hearts where grows whatever’s ruthless.
In the shadow of the noose, in the wake of everything good my precious cousin Lexi did over the course of the rest of her life before despair finally came to claim her, I watched the hearts of nearly two-thousand people commit to living like Ruth.
What about you?