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When People Say ‘We’ve Made it Through Worse Before’: A Lenten Prayer

When people say 

‘we’ve made it through worse before’ . . . 

all I hear is the wind slapping against the gravestones

of those who did not make it, those who did not

survive to see the confetti fall from the sky, those who

did not live to watch the parade roll down the street.

So begins Clint Smith’s 2019 poem ‘When people say “we’ve made it through worse before”’.  I’ve been thinking about Smith’s poem during these early months of 2021 as Canadians and Americans eagerly anticipate scheduling their COVID-19 vaccinations and permit themselves – however hesitantly - to imagine life after the pandemic.  Some have dared to begin dreaming of a more peaceable, more equitable world after the pandemic, with hopes for everything from a re-imagined market system, to a better tech industry, to the smashing of glass ceilings for marginalized communities.   

Many do not live to see those changes.  

In his reflections on his poem, Smith says “When I hear people say ‘We’ve made it through worse before’, I am always curious who the ‘we’ is.”  Put otherwise, when we say ‘we’ve made it through worse before’ or ‘we’re in a better place now’, we need to remember those who did not live to see things change and those who still do not enjoy the ‘better place’ in which we find ourselves.  Smith’s experiences as an anti-racism activist after the 2014 Ferguson protests and his education as a teacher, historian, and writer on race in America make him acutely aware that things do not always change for the better and, when they do, many do not live to see those changes.  

Smith does not mean for us to confuse his realism with hopelessness.  The poem goes on:

Please, dear reader,

do not say I am hopeless, I believe there is a better future

to fight for, I simply accept the possibility that I may not

live to see it. I have grown weary of telling myself lies

that I might one day begin to believe. We are not all left

standing after the war has ended.

Smith’s words resonate with me.  I, too, am not ready to join the optimists charging happily into a better future.  There are too many people around the world for whom a COVID-19 vaccine is a far-too distant dream because of the prioritization of countries that can pay.  There are too many around the world still grieving the loss of their loved ones to describe the pandemic as ‘a great cultural reset’.  There are too many whose voices are excluded from our communities and whose bodies are not welcomed at our tables to speak optimistically about our communities as places of deep welcome or justice.  The groans of the created world are too loud to speak easily of a sustainable future.  To use theological language, the power of sin and death are too real for us to speak too quickly of progress.  

I hope they encourage us in our long journey of faithfulness to Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.  

That is not to say we shouldn’t celebrate the glimpses of newness that we see.  We should celebrate any hint of grace that comes our way!  But I hope that those glimpses of grace will not distract us from the work before us.  Instead, I hope they encourage us in our long journey of faithfulness to Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.  

In other words, I hope for real honesty that rests on real hope. 

Real honesty: bearing witness to the truth of the way things are, including the very real suffering, brokenness, and pain of life in this world.  

Real hope: not a shallow optimism that things will get better, but a deep hope that is willing to tell the hard truth about our world and yet insist that the God who was at work in Jesus’ resurrection is still at work today.

My Lenten prayer is two-fold:

I pray that I will have the courage to look our world’s suffering in the face, as painful as it may be.  

And I pray that I will allow the presence of Christ’s Spirit and the surprising gifts of newness around me to ‘kindle a new force of longing for generous, equitable, joyful living together’*. 

*Words drawn from Rowan Williams pandemic-season sermon from September 2020, from his collection Candles in the Dark: Faith, Hope, and Love in a Time of Pandemic. 

Photo by Jill Dimond on Unsplash

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