The first time I saw this shirt, I was with my cousin, window shopping in NYC. It caught both our eyes, but she’s the one who said it first.
“You need that shirt! That is you!”
I agreed. That shirt was me all over. At the time, I was traveling back and forth from NYC to Louisiana to be with my sister who was in the final days of her life. Watching her die, by small degrees, over the course of a year, would have been painful enough.
But, truth be told, that was only half the story. There was another battle, one more important than even her physical life, that was underway, and I was embroiled in it, up to my eyeballs in it, barely keeping my head above violent waters in it.
The battle was for my sister’s soul, for things eternal: love, peace, forgiveness, redemption.
I’ve failed at many things in my life, but I didn’t fail at this one thing. I stayed by her, fighting with her and for her, until her very last breath.
When she left this world, her soul was ready to go.
I didn’t save my sister. That’s something far beyond even my greatest capability.
But I fought beside her while her soul was being saved by the Creator of galaxies and oceans and human hearts. I held on to her and with her, as He vanquished every foe that threatened her from within.
He gave me a job and I did it, though I walked away battered and broken as a result.
Spiritual gangster indeed.
At the soup kitchen, the line is dwindling. We’ve worked our way through forty residents, serving them each a hot evening meal, and there are less than twenty still in line. I take my time plating the food, arranging the salad and the lasagna just so, getting fussy with the placement of the brownies and the bread.
The head of the kitchen, Clem (we’ll call him), shoots me an impatient look. We have a schedule to keep and I’m putting us behind. As each resident comes forward, I intentionally make eye contact, smile broadly, and engage in conversation. I don’t do this so much out of enthusiasm, as I do because I’ve glanced at the clock a thousand times and I know the moment is nearing where my services here will no longer be required. My time as the spiritual gangster of the soup kitchen will come to an end and I will hang up the apron and be forced to move on to the next place I’m scheduled to be.
My next stop is a grief support group I’ve been attending weekly since my sister died.
Perhaps if I prolong my time here, I will naturally run out of time to get there.
But my plan is thwarted by Clem’s insistence that we speed things up. It’s been a long day and he’s ready to be finished meeting the needs of others and would like to have a hot meal of his own.
As I walk out of the building, the residents bid me farewell with clapping and smiling and a profusion of thanks. My heart swells. I’m right at home here, in this place, helping others.
Spiritual Gangster all day.
As I drive to the support group, the warmth I’d experienced at the soup kitchen begins to chill. My hands begin to shake as I turn into the parking lot. I sit in my car until the absolute last minute, after I’ve watched everyone else traipse in, workbooks in hand, familiar burdens on their brows.
I know that as soon as I walk through those doors, a transformation will occur. It happens every time. The Spiritual Gangster collapses and has to be triaged right there under the fluorescent lights of the church nursery.
But I’m compelled to go anyway, because the grief threatens to swallow me whole, to suck the very life out of me, if I don’t do something with it.
But I don’t want these people’s pain. They’ve all got broken hearts. A row of unassuming, demure women sit across from me. Quiet, pain-stricken men sit on either side of me.
Wives lost. Children gone. Husbands and parents and best friends – no more.
Each week I try to be invisible, to go unnoticed, but these people – in spite of, or is it because of their own pain – see me.
And before I can stop it, they tap something in me and I fall apart.
The Spiritual Gangster, the One Who Helps, the Put-Together One admits that she’s helpless and fearful and needy and weak.
This army of Quiet, Pain-Enduring Saints then wrap their arms around me and speak life and truth into my soul. Women old enough to be my grandmother, men with tears streaking down their faces, mothers who have lost their children, children who are now orphaned in this world – this unexpected group of Spiritual Gangsters affirm me, drive hope right down into me, latch onto me and lend me their own hard-won strength.
It’s one of the most powerful and beautiful experiences of my life, this casting of myself onto others who are willing and able to relieve me for a moment.
Here we are, a group of people with nothing between us but the commonalities of similar pain and a desperate hope in the Lord, finding a place of vulnerability and relief, where each person is at once Spiritual Gangster and Broken Heart. I realize that if I stayed in my car or found some excuse not to come, we’d all be robbed of this beauty. I would never know what it’s like to be held up by wise ones who have the very experience I need to get through this time in my life. And they would never be able to watch the miracle of their pain becoming a tool in the hand of God for someone else’s healing.
So each week I walk in with dread and walk out with gratitude. I still bristle at the thought of my weakness; but I’m learning to embrace the perplexing truth that this weakness is the only real sort of strength. My mourning is my joy. My brokenness is the path to my wholeness.
I continue to scratch my head at this unlikely army of Spiritual Gangsters with Broken Hearts, of which I am a certain part. I can’t help but think, though, that this is precisely the sort of army we all really need.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. – Matthew 5:3-9