Jesus gave us a litany of last words as a Sufferer; we refer to them as the Seven Last Words of Christ. The deathbed words of the Suffering Servant provide a framework for the stories of lament we share here this Holy Week.
I count it a high privilege to know -- at least in a small part -- the writers of the mourning stories I'll be sharing here during Holy Week. Their lives walk the path of celebration, yes, but also suffering -- illness, relational disillusionment, anxiety, joblessness, the death of loved ones, and the death of dearly-held dreams. Their stories have helped form me in my understanding of suffering and I believe they could also encourage you too.
Today’s guest is a new friend who made her way a year-and-a-half ago from the west coast to Manhattan in order to marry her husband Drake. I’m so grateful for the handful of opportunities we’ve had to be in each other’s company - over gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches in the East Village or among a group of artists here in Connecticut. Kirstin is the sort of person that immediately makes each person she meets feel welcomed and comfortable but simultaneously invited into deep, meaningful conversation. For that reason, I especially lament the loneliness she’s experienced during her first year in Manhattan. Have you ever experienced this kind of relational desert?
Would you read Kirstin’s story with me, and listen with an open heart for any words Christ might be speaking to you?
Friendless (in NYC)
by Kirstin Dowsett
"I thirst.” This simple phrase has taken on such profound meaning for me in this past year. I’m humbled and challenged by Christ’s ability to be present in the moment and to voice his lack, to affirm his need. He could have remained silent. He was actively dying and knew this; his thirst was temporal. He could have dismissed it, waved away this need, let his followers mourn uninterrupted. He could have avoided being a burden to them. Yet, Christ humbly submitted to his human limits, verbally acknowledged them, and invited his community to respond to his needs.
Recently I’ve found myself taking notice and marveling at God’s ability to engage fully in reciprocal interactions with humans, even mirroring their limits though he is limitless. Whenever I’ve read the story in John 4 about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, I’m always amazed that the encounter starts with him asking for something from her! The Very Source of Living Water asks her for a drink. There’s a beautiful grace in Christ’s willingness to engage those around him – his community – in giving to him and providing for his needs.
His acknowledgment of his physical thirst emboldens me to acknowledge my own spiritual thirst.
I thirst. As the church calendar rolled into Lent this year, I found myself laid low under a prolonged season of loneliness, a parching lack of deeply relational community. Eighteen months ago, I left a home place where I had been embedded in a richly Christ-embodied community to join my now-husband in Manhattan. The first several months of life here were dizzying with transition in every arena; it was a season of survival. My husband and I were married last Eastertide and the celebratory spirit of our new union carried us high for several months. As life finally started to settle and relatively still (as much as life can in New York!) last autumn, we began to notice and grieve the lack of intentional community and deep knowing in our social spheres. My husband had been living in New York for two years prior to my move and was already experiencing a deficiency in deep friendships.
This experience of loneliness in New York City is not unique to my husband and myself. It is a well-covered subject. I came across Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City last year which chronicles her own and other NY artists’ experiences of loneliness. She writes:
“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd.”
One of my favorite authors, bell hooks, lived in New York for several years. She eventually moved back to her native Kentucky and in her book, Belonging: A Culture of Place, she reflects on the years she spent in Manhattan: “New York City was one of the few places in the world where I experienced loneliness for the first time. I attributed this to the fact that there one lives in close proximity to so many people engaging in a kind of pseudo intimacy but rarely a genuine making of community. To live in close contact with neighbors, to see them every day but to never engage in fellowship was downright depressing. People I knew in the city often ridiculed the idea that one would want to live in community – what they loved about the city was the intense anonymity, not knowing and not being accountable.”
My own feelings of loneliness and lack echo these women’s narratives as I’ve faced many of the dynamics they’re describing at play in New York. I’m tempted to provide a narrative of all my individual actions and the joint efforts with my spouse to promote deep relating among our peers, but this is not a reflection on my competencies or capabilities. Rather this is about me sad and at my wit’s end and unable to do a damn thing about it.
And this is how I came into Lent: thirsty. As Epiphany was winding down and I was praying about how I would participate with Lent, I was already feeling like a failure and pretty sure I was going to fail my perceived spirit of this season. The unfortunate conceptualization of Lent as a time to increase our performances of piety has long-maligned the Church’s (and my own) interaction with the gospel. Many of my previous experiences with Lent have involved a failure to perform: so many prescriptive good intentions, so many devotional studies abandoned part-way through, so many fasts broken.
I felt increasingly convicted that the Lord was asking me to commit to a fast this season and I became anxious that I would (again) be unable to keep it. As I brought this anxiety to him in prayer, I felt the Spirit asking, what has led you to break fasts in the past? What has been so frightening about allowing yourself to hunger and thirst? Why have you hurried to escape your hunger or tried to satiate it with false coping mechanisms? This time, why not remain in it and invite me into it. Tell me you thirst.
O Lord and Savior, I thirst!
So I’ve spent this Lenten season sitting face-to-face with my loneliness and thirst for community and confessing this to Christ. On Ash Wednesday I took a post-it note and scribbled, “Lent 2019: I acknowledge I thirst, I cannot sate it on my own, and I need Jesus” and stuck it in my wallet where I see it multiple times each day. A few days later on the first Sunday of Lent, after receiving Eucharist, I shuffled over to a fellow congregant who was serving in prayer ministry that day. With tears in my eyes, I told him I am lonely for friends. I confessed my thirst and acknowledged my need. And this member of the embodied Christ prayed over me.
My loneliness and thirst have served to remind me that all is not right with this world. I’ll conclude with the words of another New Yorker, Robert Farrar Capon: “For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself – and it is our glory to see it so and to thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.” I thirst because I - and my city - need resurrection.
Kirstin Dowsett is a woman continuing to learn what it means to follow Jesus as her true self. She is a native Oregonian who is currently living in the East Village of Manhattan and thrilled to find it just as eccentric as Portland. Kirstin is grateful to share her life with her favorite person, Drake, and they are considering getting a cat.
(See all of the Retrieve Lament stories from this year here.)