One of the most impressive things about our society is the efficiency with which we armor ourselves from one another. Yesterday, I had a run-in with an SUV at an intersection in Utica. Thankfully, no one was injured. What’s even more remarkable is that when we got out to inspect our vehicles, neither of us could find any damage on our cars. On this occasion, efficient armor was most welcome.
Later in the day, I encountered another kind of armor for which I was not so glad. A disabled veteran informed me that his social security check had not arrived since December. His shoes had worn through so that his feet were getting soaked as he limped through the snow, but there was no money in his account for new shoes. After some bureaucratic wrestling, it was determined that the checks were being sent to his previous address. His previous caseworker had quit and paperwork had been lost in the shuffle. The error has been corrected, but he still won’t be able to get money for shoes until Tuesday. I hope the weather warms up this weekend.
Later still, an elderly woman showed me a letter she received from an insurance company. She was in the hospital last month and the company just now decided that her visit would not be covered. The letter was so full of jargon that neither of us could understand it. We had to call someone in North Carolina to serve as interpreter.
Our healthcare and social service systems seem to be designed to isolate the rest of humanity from the suffering of the weak. Whether the system is privatized or government-run, red tape will still protect the person holding the checkbook from the person who needs help. Their paper armor is thin but impenetrable.
I could pontificate about bureaucracy all day, but if I’m truly honest with myself, then I have to admit that I share the desire to run and hide from the suffering of others. I sat with someone today whose perspective on reality is all but lost in a fog of alcohol and insanity. I try to listen attentively, but it’s getting harder and harder to understand. The better part of me wants to believe that I can still be an effective pastor. The rest of me wants to dump him in rehab and come back when he’s sober.
Sometimes, I think it would be so much easier to recite a biblical passage and then be on my way. Who knows? I still might do it. There’s something to be said for the pastoral rites of the church, but they’re not meant to be used as cop-outs. What I want to resist in myself is the desire to put on my own paper armor: whether it’s a bureaucratic form, a liturgical service, or a biblical passage. I want to stay engaged with the real suffering of those who live in the darkest corners of this community.
What I need is for the love of the Suffering Servant, who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases”, to flow through me in fresh ways. His love gave him the strength to stand in solidarity with outcasts, to touch lepers, and to do all that without hiding behind the paper armor of bureaucratic systems.