Good Friday: Paradox of faith
The tradition is special to me because meditations are typically given by the laity — members and visitors alike — and represent a humble and democratic expression of the faith.
On Good Friday Christians around the world reflect on Christ’s suffering and sacrifice before He was crucified and resurrected to absolve the sins of the world.
As an observant Christian, I certainly love the grandeur and celebration of Easter, but my heart is closer to the somber reflection of Good Friday. The Episcopal church that I attend, St. Mary’s House in Greensboro, has maintained a tradition since the mid-1980s of celebrating Good Friday with individual meditations on the 14 stations of the cross.
The tradition is special to me because the meditations are typically given by the laity — members and visitors alike — and represent a humble and democratic expression of the faith. The meditations range from poetry to music, sculpture to video. They present opportunities for us to develop our creative abilities, and the fact that they are delivered by non-professionals gives them a feel of sincerity.
I chose the seventh station in which Jesus falls for the second time for my meditation.
I have been struggling with my faith over the past couple years. Paradoxically, my life has qualitatively improved as my faith has waned. I have found a wonderful, intelligent and beautiful woman to spend the rest of my life with. I have a job that gives me respect and recognition from my community. And my wife and I enjoy a level of financial stability relative to many of our peers.
So I am reflecting on how I came to my faith almost a decade ago when I decided to pursue a graduate degree in journalism to make myself viable in the profession. I read a book about 20th century Catholic intellectuals such as Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton called The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie. On an intellectual level I did not acknowledge a relationship between myself and God, but in my heart I knew that God was there.
My first job out of grad school was at a weekly community newspaper in northern New Mexico. The county served by the newspaper had the dubious distinction then and probably still today of having the highest rates of death by heroin overdose and by drunken driving in the country. The people of northern New Mexico are some of the most genuine, funny, compassionate and resourceful that I have met.
Their lack of material wealth is compensated in sustaining ties of faith, culture and family. Spanish settlement in northern New Mexico goes back to 1598 — decades before the English set foot in Virginia. My home was within 20 miles of five sovereign Indian nations. The valley is swaddled between two majestic mountain ranges. A New York Times food critic once wrote about a local restaurant that it was “a place on which a food critic can stake his reputation.” Arts from traditional weaving to automobile modification are expressed with flair. I could go on.
Sadly, this is a place beset by the kind of sudden and frequent violence that comes with grinding, entrenched poverty. My nextdoor neighbor sent her 12-year-old daughter to use my cell phone because her boyfriend was attempting to rape her. Violent arguments by the couple living in the adjacent duplex were common. I hung out with young people who openly discussed heroin and crack addiction by family members, friends and intimate partners. My landlord was in and out of rehab for cocaine addition. Our crime reporter frequently wrote about young women who were murdered in gruesome fashion. Teenage suicide, particularly in the Indian pueblos, was at epidemic levels.
Being surrounded by such pain and chaos, it’s hard to not be individually affected.
But I knew that God was with these people who suffer daily and carry the scars of 400 years of oppression.
I found a social-conservative Catholic priest, and while his views on contraception, abortion and homosexuality were not sympatico with my own, he did help me in my faith journey. Ironically, my situation seemed to deteriorate as my exploration of Christianity deepened. He told me that this was my time in the desert — an observation true on more than one level.
I had challenges of my own. The newspaper that employed me has been aptly described as a sweatshop, and I was required to grind out 12 stories a week in a community in which I was unfamiliar and with inadequate training. Looking back, it’s no surprise to me that I started racking up errors and having to run corrections. I was also lonely and isolated.
I broke down mentally and physically, leaning on the crutch of a tobacco addiction while experiencing insomnia and blacking out on one occasion. I read Animal Dream by Barbara Kingsolver on one particular sleepless night, experiencing terror and magic, and wondering if I would die.
Through all of that, I knew that God was there. A Christ who willingly gives himself up to the cross must surely understand every difficult experience that confronts us.
Imagine how humiliated I felt: I had gone into debt by $45,000 to get a fancy advanced degree, and here I was working at a newspaper no one had ever heard of, earning a pittance salary that it seemed would never allow me to climb out of debt. And I was totally flunking out.
I tried to resign, but my editor persuaded me to stick it out. Eventually, it came as a huge relief when I was fired after numerous corrections. Because of that turn of events, I ended up in North Carolina, where many good things have happened for me.
The Gospels tell us that God has a special preference for the poor, those who mourn and the most vulnerable of our society. Faith is more difficult for those of us who are burdened with privilege.
Yet even now, when my faith wanes because of the intractability of the political situation, because of feelings that my gestures to do justice and help the poor are shallow and self-serving, I know that God must be here.