Every Friday at noon our staff community gathers to pray. Sometimes, if the weather is nice, we share prayer requests and then disperse outside to pray alone or in pairs, then gather back together for lunch. This past Friday, the weather was foul, so we prayed together. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I will be in the midst of them.”
I could not understand why the woman leading devotions seemed somewhat irritated at having been scheduled for that day. She read the date, April 17, and her chin began to tremble as she asked if anyone knew what had happened forty years ago. She spoke so softly that a person at the other end of the room didn’t hear the “forty years” part and remembered what they had heard on the news that morning – “The Oklahoma City bombing?” No, that was twenty years ago.
It was on April 17, 1975 that Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge began a reign of terror that left roughly 2 million Cambodian people dead and forced my friend and her family to become refugees. “It left a wound that was very deep and a scar, a very large scar.” She read from the book of Isaiah and then read the Lord’s prayer, urging us to listen carefully to the power of the words that Jesus taught us to pray.
With the shadow of death before us and the words of Jesus within us, we prayed. One young woman remembered this was the week three years ago when her mother died of cancer. Another remembered that it was this week last year when Boko Haram kidnapped 234 Nigerian school girls. I had just been reading a memoir about Liberia and realized it was 35 years ago this April that a coup d’etat unleashed decades of bloodshed and civil unrest. So we prayed for Liberia and friends who survived that war. We prayed for the Rwandan genocide that erupted on April 7, 1994.
Punctuated with a few prayers of thanksgiving, this prayer time became a litany to memorialize the April anniversaries of death and misery. After the prayers more lamentations kept flooding my mind–Rev. King’s assassination, the Boston marathon bombing, the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres all occurred in April. During the prayers I said, “God, what is it about April?” A retired pastor told me later that April is the highest month for suicide, not winter when the days are darkest but in the spring as the light is returning.
It seems so cruel in April. At least in the northern hemisphere where I live, dogwoods are blooming, birds build nests and greens and yellows scream hallelujah. It’s a strange time to remember people tortured, suffering, and dead just as new life is bursting forth.
I am not the first to make this observation. TS Eliot wrote, “April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”
It seems each April that the powers of death try again to claim victory and we are forced to remember and reclaim the power of the resurrection. I watch my friend from Cambodia hold her Bible and speak of her 40-year journey toward forgiveness, and I see Jesus’ nail-pierced hands in hers. I see another friend moving from death toward life because that is what her mother would have wanted, and I see Jesus drawing her close to his spear-pierced side. When we gather to pray as Jesus taught us, he joins us. We look upon the beauty of His face, shining brighter than the ugly face of death. Somehow, despair can turn to hope.
With wet eyes closed, we ended our time together with the words Jesus taught us to pray:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom
and the power
and the glory
forever and ever.
We sat down to eat together, and the rain finally broke.