“Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’” Luke 23:34
This week’s snowstorm gave a new resident on my block her true initiation into the neighborhood in the way only a significant snow dumped on a street of Philly row homes can provide. It also gifted me with my Lenten insight for this season.
First, my neighbor’s welcome. Within minutes after it was clear the flakes had stopped falling you could hear neighbors exiting their homes with shovels, ice choppers, and a proud few with snow blowers in hand. Focused on the task before them, they dug themselves out with only the occasional nod and smile shared among fellow furrowers.
But then, it happened – the glances turned to conversations and inquiries about the health and safety of neighbors. Folks started chatting about how the storm didn’t live up to the forecasts, or how they remembered the time when the big tree fell. The old ones schooled the young ones on the best way to clear a path. Names and snow removal equipment were exchanged and the opportunity for my new neighbor to meet a cross-section of the block happened more rapidly than the falling snow.
Yes, there is something about a March snowstorm in Philly that brings out the best in us – and the worst.
You see, I was sick enough on Tuesday that I quickly followed the advice of my housemate to let him do the shoveling for our household. After warning him not to overdo it, I retreated to bed shortly after the ceremonial scrape of the first shovel, slept right through the humanizing near-fall on the rear-end, and before I knew it, a couple hours had past and the residents of my block were in full winter festival Kum Ba Yah mode.
But the next day when we were getting in the car to go to work, my housemate asked if we should put a trashcan in the parking space he’d worked so hard to clear. After all, everyone else seemed to be doing it. On the one hand, I wanted to honor his effort; on the other hand, I remembered my days as a hospice chaplain trying to guess which spot might be safe to park in for that brief visit without risking a confrontation.
Overnight, the neighborliness of the day before had begun to be replaced by self-interests.
We left without a can to stake our claim, with me righteously proclaiming, “No, I’ll leave it in God’s hands” and simultaneously looking around hoping no one would see me and wonder why I hadn’t been out shoveling the day before. But when I returned home that evening, I sheepishly yet gratefully slipped into the same spot I left, thanks to the cone I assumed my next door neighbor had left to hold “our spot.”
The Lord works in mysterious ways?
Literally seconds before I could slink mercifully unnoticed into my front door, my newly-initiated neighbor came out onto her porch and asked me (rather loudly, I thought) to clarify the norm regarding holding spaces. As she went on sharing how she had words earlier in the day with a long-term resident down the block, I felt myself retreating into my memory bank, pulling into view example after example of how, in former years, I was the one who made a point of shoveling out whosoever’s walk as well as my own; who encouraged the teenager down the block to join me in pushing the stranger’s car out of stuck; who carved an extra parking space for Elijah.
I was jolted back to the present by my neighbor’s true assertion, “It is against the law to hold spots,” followed by a silence for me to respond.
Thankfully, before I could say something to try to justify myself to Lord-knows-who, two stories popped clearly through the sea of memories clamoring in my brain: the first, was the story my parents told me of when I was first brought home from the hospital. It was shortly after a record-breaking blizzard, and all the men on the block pitched in to clear the alleyway so that Dad could drive Mom and newborn-me safely to the door. Mom said when she got out the car with me in her arms, the snow was piled shoulder-high.
The second story was of the carpenter’s son who taught that it rains on the just and unjust alike; and if he had lived in Philly instead of Palestine, I guess he would have said the same about the snow. Yet, despite all the love and wisdom he shared, his neighbors jeered at him and called him names as he died in front of them; because of them, and for them. And he used his last breaths to say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
In that moment, I had my Lenten insight: The storms of life dump all kinds of mess on us all, and we spend so much time and energy slinging it on each other, while proclaiming our righteousness in doing so! But both literally and figuratively, I came into this world the recipient of more of the dirty slush of life shoveled away on my behalf than I could ever repay.
Regardless of the circumstances of our birth, as Christians, our very identity revolves around our understanding that we are the recipients of more forgiveness and grace than we could ever offer to any stranger, any neighbor, and yes, even to ourselves. That is the foundational understanding that should inform all our actions this Lent and always.
Father, forgive us when we find ourselves keeping score in the tally of righteousness. Father, forgive us when we forget the more excellent way of living out the love and grace modelled by the Lord whose name we carry as Christians. And Father, forgive us, whenever we forget that the blood Jesus shed that day on Calvary binds us as blood brothers and sisters, all recipients of forgiveness and grace enough to extravagantly extend to strangers, neighbors, and even ourselves.
Thanks be to God!