Because many words have been written, poetry has spoken mourning, music has resounded hope, and prayers have given voice to deep lament — I offer these images.
In your moments of prayer and reflection, please join the people of the world who pray for the people of Ukraine. Perhaps this music will enhance your time of prayer and remind you of the tragedy of war and the finality of violence.
He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.
Ever wonder what’s real and what’s not-so-real? Once in a while, I do look at what’s going on around me and ask myself how real it is. This friendship — is it real? This situation I’m dealing with — is it real? This life I’m living — how real is it, really? Such questions are problematic for one major reason — that we take things so much for granted that we cannot gauge their real value. Friendships just are; situations just happen; life is pretty much a destined routine.
That is, until betrayal breaks friendships, crisis suddenly creates a situation that cannot be ignored and an unplanned event brings total upheaval to our lives. These are the times when we ponder what is real and what is not. These are the times when all things in us and around us are downright messy. These are flash points in life that force us to examine what we believe is real. Maybe these flash point times take us inward to the private space in us, and in that space, we examine and evaluate what is truly real. Problem is that sometimes our examining leads us into mulling over things that are a mess, and looking at our “real” feels like brooding.
Such downcast and disconsolate moments are not the best times for any of us to ponder what we believe to be real. Could we not open our eyes to what is real all the time? Like when we are overcome with nature’s beauty or the sweet melodies of birdsong. Like when our souls are touched by moments of worship or the mesmerizing sounds of a symphony orchestra.
It seems important to face life with listening ears and open eyes ready to embrace “the real!” It seems important to do so in sunshine and in shadow, when our souls are burdened and when our souls are stirred to sing songs of joy. It seems important to look at what’s real even when we have to do so while feeling a deep down melancholy.
Still, I invite you to choose to “see,” the real that surrounds you — the real that is inside you, above you, below you and beside you. As Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt summons us, “take a long, loving look at the real.” That’s how Burghardt characterized contemplation, describing it as a sustained gaze, never merely a glance.
“Flash point times take us inward to the private space in us, and in that space, we examine what is truly real.”
So value “your real.” Do it as you go and as your journey moves forward on varied paths. Look at all that is “your real” — the commotion in your soul, the catastrophes of your relationships, the messes in your life. Take a sustained, contemplative look. Look bravely snd without fear, because whoever or whatever God is for you is waiting to meet you at the crossroads of what is real and what is not real.
More than you think, your soul needs you to open your eyes and “take a long, loving look at the real.” No matter how messy it is!
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. He has exalted me and, humbly, His servant I will be.
All generations, henceforth, shall call be blessed.
For He has done great things for me and holy is His name.
I will probably always remember those words penned by a lyricist whose name I cannot remember. (Apologies to John W. Peterson, Anna Laura Page, Ragan Courtney or whoever helped create this arrangement. I remember the tune and every word, but I can’t remember you.)
I have sung, in my short lifetime, dozens of versions of Mary’s song that we know from the Gospel of Luke. We often call it Mary’s Magnificat. I sang the version quoted above many, many years ago as a part of my church’s Advent music. I looked through the music in our first Advent choir rehearsal and immediately turned the pages to this one that was called “Mary’s Song.” I knew I would sing it since the churches we served seldom had willing sopranos.
As November and December moved along, I rehearsed Mary’s Song over and over again, not to enunciate all the lyrics clearly or to sing all the notes correctly. I sang it again and again because the act of getting into Mary’s skin brought me to tears every time I sang it. Tears were okay, but being unable to sing because I was weeping was not okay with me. And yet, I didn’t want to rehearse the emotion out of it. I wanted to “be” Mary for just those moments and I wanted the hearers in the sanctuary to emotionally connect with her.
In the end, I prayed and left it in God’s hands, because in the end, that’s what people of faith do. Today, as we do every year, we lit the Advent candle of joy — the pink candle, Mary’s candle — hoping that the sheer joy of her news to Elizabeth would ring true enough in us to bring us joy. How? “How can this be?” as Mary said to the angel.
I suppose that in these Advent days, in this particular year, many of us have asked “How?” How will we get through this bewildering time? How can joy fill us, enter into our souls and enliven our spirits, as we bury our loved ones? As we wait for word by phone about the person we love who is hospitalized? As we touch the hand of our grandmother through the window of her nursing home? As health care professionals become almost too weary to go on while people with the virus keep coming? As we know we will not see our family this Christmas — to keep them safe, to keep us safe?
How can we sing, this year, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” — Mary’s magnificat? Joy is a hard thing this year, for 2020 has brought us grief upon grief, fear upon fear and uncertainty upon uncertainty. Yet, we have held one another close, even over Zoom, because together we have found strength to go on. Over the senseless racially motivated violence we saw on our televisions this year, we saw also a people languishing in a pandemic that took so much.
We saw politicians fighting each other over what some of them see as truth and others see as deliberate, hurtful lies. We saw children who wondered about where school would be and parents agonizing over hard decisions. We saw congregations gathering in parking lots and sanctuaries still, silent, without voices. We saw devastating unemployment and small businesses closing their doors. We saw medically vulnerable or immunosuppressed people locked in their homes. We saw people struggling to pay their bills — very poor people wanting and the very rich, as always, continuing their lavish lifestyles. We saw the rich continuing to oppress the poor, if not in their direct actions, then in their greed that, at least indirectly, deprives those among them who are poor.
The young girl Mary spoke about that, too, in the words of her Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:51-53 (NRSV)
The young girl we have called the Virgin Mary, the holy one that accepted the strange and frightening mission from God to bear God’s Son — this Mary is also the subversive one who called out the rich, the powerful and the proud. In her Magnificat? Oh yes, Mary said that God would scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bring down the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty.
Subversive! Courageous! Defiant! Bold! Audacious! Wise! She was all those things when she spoke the kind of subversive truth no young girl in those days would have dared to speak. The miracle of it is that God chose a young girl who possessed the tenderness to nurture a newborn, the wisdom to raise him to live into his mission and the courage to help him stand in a world that would both adore him and hate him — worship him at a manger and then crucify him on a hill. Dr. Marcia Riggs described Mary’s Magnificat like this: “The song sows joy that is the seed of a social revolution.” Indeed!
This was the Mary of our pink candle, the Mary who would be submissive enough to agree to a holy life of chaos and the Mary whose inner strength enabled her to look up and watch her son die.
To be sure, her Magnificat has been read and sung in millions of voices, with thousands of tunes, in cathedral-like sanctuaries and in mud huts. The words have been translated into various versions of the Bible and composers have woven paraphrases of her words into hundreds of melodies and rhythms. Still to this day, one phrase remains . . .
Holy! Holy! Holy is His name.
May Mary’s joy find us on this day and in our own worlds — wherever we are, however we feel, whatever sadness we hold. Amen.
For your quiet, meditative time — one version of Mary’s song:
With your heart of compassion, your mind full of creative force, your spirit empowered with the rush of Spirit wind and fire!
Ah! Women, with your steady and sturdy will that stands straight and tall and moves into the fray — any fray that harms others, devalues human beings, threatens all of God’s created order, brandishes violence and acts against God’s divine desires!
Ah! Women! Silenced, dismissed, diminished from ages past to this very day!
Ah! Women, now you will summon your courage and move forward with hope and grit! Now — in these unfathomable days of pandemic and protest — you will enter the fray in ways only you can. You will enter the fray bringing with you a transformative power for righting wrongs. You will inter the fray bringing your womanwisdom and the insight that is inside you, given by Spirit!
Ah! Women! Daughters of God,
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh, and your daughters shall rise up and find their own voices, dreaming dreams and seeing visions . . . In these days, even on my female slaves, I will pour out my Spirit.
— From the Prophet Joel 2:28-29 NRSV (a feminist paraphrase)
Ah! Women! As you go forth, never forget when you enter any holy fray God has placed before you, that you do not go alone. From the wisdom of Maya Angelou:
Whenever you go forth into a new project, task or vision, remember that you do not go alone. Behind you is Harriet Tubman In front of you is Sojourner Truth. Beside you is Fannie Lou Hamer and next to you is your grandmother.
Fill in the names of your own revered women, and know that you are going forward with the power of other people.
Ah! Women! Perhaps, like Esther, God has called you for such a time as this!
Ah! Women! In you, there is hope and grit! In you, there is unbridled courage! In you, there is transformation of every wrong!!
May God continue to empower your spirit, steel your heart and grace the sound of your own voice! Amen. A*women.
Hear this choral music and contemplate the calling of God:
Are we brave enough to imagine beyond the boundaries of “the real” and then do the hard work of sculpting reality from our dreams?
I read a wonderful article this morning written by Madisyn Taylor, who wrote about being in a fog. I related immediately, having just taken my immunosuppressant medications that create all manner of “foggy-ness” for me. Tayler defined it as a feeling of being “muddled and unfocused, unsure of which way to turn.” I resonate with that definition, but beyond the physical fogginess of my mind, I experience an occasional fogginess of spirit. Know what I’m talking about? I would guess you do, since all of us fall into a spirit-fog once in a while.
A fog can feel downright eerie. It isn’t straightforward like darkness, yet we may feel like we can’t see where we’re going or where we’ve come from. We feel fear, as real as our fear of the darkness, afraid that if we move, we might run into something hidden in the mists that surround us. If we’re brave enough to move at all, we move slowly, feeling our way and keeping our eyes open for shapes emerging from the eerie haze.
Maybe being brave is what spirit fogginess is about. Spirit-fog is, of course, is a season of involuntary inactivity (perhaps even precipitated by coronavirus isolation). Although you and I much prefer to be able to see where we are going and move unwaveringly in that direction, maybe we can encourage our spirits to see that being in a fog often brings gifts to us — gifts of stillness, of doing absolutely nothing, a respite from forward inertia, a time to gather up our “brave” to move with forward inertia, even moments of finding for our spirits the Spirit of Comfort and Peace. We might find in the mists of fog the sacred pause that our spirit needs — the kind of sacred pause that creates resilience in us, and perseverance, and whatever we need to be brave.
In the fog, we really do need to be brave. When we are hidden in the mist, we may look within and find that the source of our fogginess is inside us — perhaps an emotional issue that needs tending before we can safely move ahead with steady resolve. The fog that engulfs us may simply be teaching us important lessons about how to continue moving forward even if we have been brought to a standstill by circumstances of life.
If we’re brave, we do not have to wait for the fog to lift. If we’re brave enough, we can center ourselves in the haze, wait for guidance and then move — move on into the unknown places on the journey. I have been a long-time fan of the song “Brave” sung by Sara Bareilles, written by Sara Bareilles and Jack Antonoff. “Brave” is on her 2013 album, “The Blessed Unrest.” The song hits me hard with these words, “sometimes the shadow wins.” I know that to be the hard truth, but I also latch onto the rest of this song’s message: I can be brave! I often think that this section of the lyrics calls out directly to me — calling me, urging me on, encouraging me to “show everyone how big my brave is.”
I wanna see you be brave
Everybody’s been there, everybody’s been stared down By the enemy Fallen for the fear and done some disappearing
Bow down to the mighty Don’t run, stop holding your tongue
Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is
Say what you wanna say And let the words fall out Honestly
I wanna see you be brave
Spend a few minutes enjoying this Sara Bereilles song and immerse yourself in the thought of how amazingly brave you are.
Plans! We find it almost impossible to make them in a life ruled by COVID19. Currently, school plans are foremost in the minds of parents and students.
“Is it safe to send my child back to school? What safety and social distancing measures will schools have in place? Do I choose to keep them at home, opting for virtual learning? How do I manage online school?”
In light of such critical plans and decisions, consider this current news report:
A document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force but not publicized suggests more than a dozen states should revert to more stringent protective measures, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, closing bars and gyms and asking residents to wear masks at all times.
The document, dated July 14 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, says 18 states are in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week. [Georgia is in the “red zone.”]
Even with troubling reports like this one, Georgia’s governor, Gov. Brian Kemp, signed an order on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 banning localities from requiring masks. On this information, parents have to agonize about what’s best for their children. They simply cannot make firm plans as long as the virus is waxing and waning. Mostly waxing!
Plans are difficult for us for all sorts of reasons and circumstances. Every now and then over the years, my life would take un unexpected pause to contemplate this thought written by the late Mary Oliver:
So tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Unpacking that brief question has been a periodic constant in my life, popping up for me mostly in my down and disheartened times. I hear the poet describing my life as “wild and precious” and it almost shocks me. Yet, my life really has been consistently wild and mostly precious. Anything that urges me to examine my life is a good thing. I can almost always pull up memories of the times when I was wild and free — insistent upon rising higher, realizing a near-impossible dream, charging with courage into new and uncharted places, planning for a future of fresh and sparkling heights, observing just how wild I could dare to be. Unpacking that question has been exhilarating at times, exhausting at other times.
Musing on a life that could be described as precious
Entertaining the thought that my life was precious happened in my deepest soul place. It happened in my moments of introspection, meditative times that urged me to examine all the ways I saw my life as precious, cherished, valued. Of course, I have experienced many precious life moments — my wedding day, my work in Africa, my ordination, awards and recognitions of my work and career and, most of all, the adoption of my one wild and precious son, Jonathan. Examining my precious life was most real when I almost lost my life, my full year of serious illness, five years of dialysis and a kidney transplant made possible by the selflessness of a lovely woman I know only through email.
Such thoughts bring me back to plans. What is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? Even a life precious and wild is a life that requires plans, and right now trying to make plans is an exercise fraught with anxiety. I cannot find any words that can minimize this depth of anxiety. There is not one thing you or I can do about plans that have been ravaged by the pandemic we are experiencing, and yet we must make critical plans in this season of uncertainty.
School plans are most difficult in my state and perhaps in yours. As parents agonize over the safety of their children, Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, offered this unhelpful comment this morning in a press conference:
I am a believer that kids need to be in the classroom and we’re working with the schools to do that. We’re going to have cases that break out in schools, either with personnel or perhaps students, just like you do with a stomach bug or a flu or anything else. Our schools know how to handle those situations.
The parents and teachers in my life know that this coronavirus is not just a run-of-the-mill “stomach bug or flu.” This virus is deadly, and parents and teachers faced with difficult school decisions know that all too well. During these pandemic days, it is a constant reality that many of us are having to make potentially hazardous plans, but just for a moment, I wonder if we can redirect our thoughts to plans we make for our “one wild and precious life.”
Can we rise above the plans we must make today, even for a moment, and instead consider the bold and courageous plans we could make? Can we set our hearts to think about plans we can make when we are our brave, adventurous and fearless selves? Can we contemplate the plans we might make when we feel bold, resolute and undaunted?
I can remember the times when I was able to make such adventurous plans, times when my plans were dreams — high and lofty dreams of changing the world. I can also remember the time when I no longer dreamed any dreams at all. It was a time when I no longer saw my life as a wild and precious one. I still entertained plans, but my plans were definitely not dreams. I believed I could no longer change the world. I believed I could no longer live a life that made a difference. I believed that my soul was dry and my spirit barren. I believed that, in my life, dangerous and noble things were no longer possible
Why can’t you and I dream dreams instead of making plans? Why can’t my “one wild and precious life” rise higher, high enough to make dreams of my plans? Sometimes I will go to one of my many favorite passages of Scripture hoping to find God’s word to me. Being true to my theological education, I always look at the words in context before I do anything else. But after that hermeneutical exercise I learned in New Testament 101, I might twist the text a bit and maybe even paraphrase it, inviting the text to speak to me specifically, just me. For this day, one of the texts found in the book of Acts reaches into my soul, and, yes, I did paraphrase it.
“In your season of most need,” God says,
“I will restore your soul and make your spirit rise within you.
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your youthful hearts will see visions,
your aging hearts will dream dreams.”
— Acts 2:17 (my paraphrase)
May God lift our hearts and spirits, assure us that our lives are precious and help us transform our plans into dreams.
So tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
The civil rights movement and womanist theology? Not much in common between the two, it seems. Maybe, maybe not! The thing is: God’s people are guided by Spirit into an unjust world where people are oppressed, not just through a particular movement, whether it is for civil rights or equity for women. People are oppressed beyond any movement. People are oppressed in everyday life, today, as well as in past struggles for liberation.
God is all about liberation from oppression, now and in the future. The battle for liberation is ongoing and never-ending. And God’s people — you and I — cannot follow Christ in “loving our neighbors as we love ourselves” unless we stand alongside people who are oppressed, unless we pour our lives into building a just society where every person is treated according to the well worn and well loved declaration that “all people are created equal.”
If you believe there is nothing in common between the civil rights movement and womanist theology, then you do not know much about The Rev. Dr. Prathia LauraAnn Hall (1940 – 2002), who was an undersung leader for civil rights, a bulwark of the black church in the United States and an advocate of the womanist vision of equity and equality.
In the recently published book, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, Courtney Cox paints the portrait of Prathia Hall as a woman of deep conviction, courage and eloquence who literally embodied the longing for the rights of every person and the womanist vision of equality.
You may not know much about her, but Prathia Hall electrified audiences through her speaking and preaching.
I say to you our daughters and sons, it is in you! Every time you behold the world as it is and dare to dream of what it must become that’s the fire of freedom’s faith. . . Every time you grab hold of the United States of America and like Israel dare to wrestle and declare to it — We will not let you go until you bless us — That is freedom faith’s fire. It is in you — It’s in us. — Prathia Hall
You may not know much about her, but Prathia Hall was an inspiring leader in the Southwest Georgia Project in Albany, Georgia, in the civil rights struggle in Selma, Alabama, and in the multiorganization Atlanta, Georgia project.
Prathia Hall literally changed the course of the civil rights movement. As a “firebrand” in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hall labored tirelessly under the central guiding principle of her life, her activism and her ministry. Her life’s guiding principle was “Freedom Faith, the belief that God wants people to be free and equips and empowers those who work for freedom.”
In Hall’s work in door-to-door voter registration, in church-based educational programs, inspirational mass meetings, and through her scholarship and preaching, Freedom Faith found its ultimate expression in her womanist vision of the liberation of all people. For Hall, freedom was not only about the goals of the civil rights movement, it was about the many layered forms of oppression — racism, classism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism, denominationalism — all formidable obstacles to human rights.
You may not know her name, but Prathia Hall was listed in Ebony Magazine’s 1997 “15 Greatest Black Women Preachers.” It is said of Prathia Hall that her call to ministry was both her glory and her burden. Yet her preaching electrified masses of people bowed low by oppression.
They called us: ‘nigger,’ ‘winch,’ ‘buck,’ ‘slave,’ but out there in the brush arbors, the wilderness, and the woods, the God of our ancestors, the God we had known on the other side of the waters met us and whispered words in our ears, and stirred a song in our souls . . . — Prathia Hall
You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but she was an indefatigable activist for human rights, a brilliant scholar, an engaging speaker, a compelling preacher, a distinguished theologian. Hall’s theology focused on liberation from all forms of oppression, and she did not shrink from the womanist theology that called out sexism and the duplicity of the Black Church in recognizing the call of women only in narrow and constricted ways. In an absolute articulation of her womanist vision of inclusion, Hall espoused a multidimensional structure of oppression. “Gender-based oppression,” she wrote, “isn’t a trivial inconvenuence. It’s human devastation.” As an insider, choosing to remain in ministry in the Baptist Church, Hall’s courage and conviction never ceased from criticizing a Church that opposedracism, but toleratedsexism.
It absolutely boggles my mind as well as grieves my spirit that brothers, with whom I have stood side by side in the struggle, brothers with whom I have bowed, knelt, prayed, worked, struggled, gone to jail, dodged bullets, and caught bullets, claim to be unable to make the transition from the critique of race-based oppression to the critique of gender and class-based oppression. — Prathia Hall
You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but her very soul was embroiled in the civil rights drama. In the summer of 1962, four black churches in Georgia’s Lee and Terrell Counties, all associated with the movement, were burned by white supremacists.
Hall and other SNCC workers wept together in the ashes of the Mount Olive Baptist Church. The next day the SNCC received a phone call that Martin Luther King, Jr. intended to visit Albany to attend a prayer vigil over the ashes of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Sasser. According to the New York Times, “As the sun sets across the cotton fields, some fifty Negroes and two whites met at Mount Olive for a prayer vigil. Joining hands, they sang softly, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”
After the song, Prathia Hall led the group in prayer, her voice breaking in grief. According to oral tradition, Hall repeated the phrase “I have a dream,” each time followed by a specific vision of racial justice. After the service, King asked for her permission to use the “I have a dream” phrase, which she granted. From the oral evidence gathered from several witnesses, one can definitely make a case for Prathia Hall as the source of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. — Courtney Cox, Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall
You may not know much about Prathia Hall, but in the pages of Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall, author Courtney Cox lays bare the world of this fascinating woman of God. She presents Prathia Hall through various lenses: Christian minister, liberation theologian, civil rights activist and leader, professor and scholar, preacher and speaker, mother, daughter, wife, agitator, womanist theologian.
Until now, you may not have known much about Prathia Hall, but many notables spoke of her abilities:
One in a million . . . A model that needs to be lifted up in every seminary of all races . . . so people can get a glimpse of what someone who has really said yes to ministry and who went to her grave living that ministry daily. — Jeremiah Wright
The best preacher in the United States, possessing proven ability to exegete, illustrate, celebrate and apply the scriptures healingly to the problems, pains and perplexities of the people who sit ready to hear a word from Yahweh. — Charles Adams, former president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention
. . . She was known for her commitment, her dedication, her stick-to-it-ness, for hanging in there, for never giving up or giving in. — Rep. John Lewis
So what about the civil rights movement and womanist equality? Is there any commonality between them? Certainly there is commonality — both are never-ending struggles for justice, because we are a country where various groups of people are still denied their civil rights and woman are still suppressed and oppressed. Both movements — and many other struggles for justice — require our commitment, our resolve, our persistence, our courage, our compassion, our best efforts and our faithfulness to God.
At least for me, Prathia Hall’s life begs several questions:
What is it that I am passionate about, willing to follow God with courage to fulfill that passion?
Is there an injustice I must stand against?
Is there any oppression, any wrong, that I am compelled to confront?
Is there anything I care about deeply enough that I will dig deep into myself to find the courage to defend it?
Fair questions, I think, for those who are trying to follow God into places of need! Compelling questions for those who are trying to follow God in offering compassionate care to the oppressed and hurting people who need us! Compelling questions for those who are trying to follow God in freeing people who live in various forms of bondage!
These are urgent questions for God followers!
I pray that I am able to sit with those questions and respond to them boldly as an act of my faith. I pray that for you, too.
Finally, do we dare we ask what will be our reward for seeking justice for the oppressed people around us? Probably not, yet this beloved passage of Scripture does speak of both our call from God and what we will receive for our commitment to our call.
. . . Remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor. Give clothes to those who have nothing to wear . . .
Then my favor will shine on you like the morning sun, and your wounds will be quickly healed. I will always be with you to save you; my presence will protect you on every side. When you pray, I will answer you. When you call to me, I will respond.
If you put an end to oppression, to every gesture of contempt, and to every evil word; if you give food to the hungry and satisfy those who are in need, then the darkness around you will turn to the brightness of noon. And I will always guide you and satisfy you with good things. I will keep you strong and well. You will be like a garden that has plenty of water, like a spring of water that never goes dry.
— Isaiah 58:6-11 Good News Translation (GNT)
So let us follow God into every place of need, every place of injustice, every place where oppression has raised its evil head. Let us follow God — as an embodiment of Christ’s love and compassion — until that day when “the darkness around us turns to the brightness of noon.”
May God make it so. May God find us faithful. Amen.
I offer you this music to listen to as you spend time in prayer and meditation
When life moves on — from twenty to forty to seventy — you take into your inner place the ominous idea that if ever there was magic in your life, at some point, you left it behind. You know what I mean. The magic of your first love. The magic of the birth of your child. The magic of the time when you believed you could accomplish anything and everything you set your heart on. The magic that you actually did accomplish that thing, that sparkling thing that made you stand tall and celebrate yourself.
You might be wondering what in the world set my mind on life-magic this morning. I think it might have been carryover from my musings on yesterday’s blog post. But mostly, it came from reading a novel by one of my favorite authors, Sue Monk Kidd. This is the passage that captivated me, captured me as if it were some sort of sacred scripture.
There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.”
My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.. She looked at my face, how it flowed with such sorrow and doubt, and she said, “You don’t believe me? Where do you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl?”
Those skinny bones stuck out from my back like nubs. She patted them and said, “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ‘em back.”
I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant.
— Sue Monk Kidd, from her novel, The Invention of Wings
Part of why these words so thoroughly captured me is in the very first sentence that mentions the place I so love, Africa. And even though the words don’t really have all that much to do with Africa, I found myself transported, walking among the banana trees in East Africa — Fort Portal, Uganda to be exact. Walking into a village brimming with people, and oh, the children! So many glimmering eyes, wide smiles and glowing dark faces that expressed everything from sheer delight to excruciating sorrow, and everything in between.
That was in one of my former lives, and pure magic it was! Because when you are able to make a child smile with a sweety (a piece of hard candy), there’s magic in that moment and it is a moment you carry through your day and through the rest of your life. Maybe that’s the grace of growing older — that you carry with you moments of magic from every place you have been, from every soul who touched your life so deeply.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s words, the magic was being able to fly, probably meaning to soar into the clouds above your troubles and woes. It hit me in my deep place, that the Ugandan people we came to know and love did soar into the clouds. Indeed, they left the agonizing hardships of life on the dusty earth below as their wings lifted them up, higher and higher to where life’s pain was replaced by pure exhilaration.
Back on the earth, in their world, not much was very exhilarating. Life was the same, predictable day after predictable day that disheartened them with hunger, malnutrition, thirst for clean water, oppression, soldiers with their machine guns and all the commonplace bad things that formed their lives. But there were better things too, like lush banana groves and children singing; like the music of drums at dusk; like the shimmering embers from their cooking fires rising into the night sky and reminding them that the day’s toil was not so bad when family could still gather together around a centering, comforting fire. There was magic in all of it. It was the magic of surviving war and embracing the loved ones who were still alive. It was the magic of celebrating the extraordinary lives of loved ones who had died and knowing that generations would move forward carrying the family’s magic into the future. It was the magic in their remembering, remembering the holy words they had hidden in their hearts . . .
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord,
“plans for well-being and not for trouble, to give you a future and a hope.”
— Jeremiah 29:11 New Life Version (NLV)
Maybe you, like me, have forgotten that we brought our magic with us to this day from the scenes of our past, from the happenings and the people we have known. This kind of magic never leaves one’s spirit. This kind of magic is holy mystery, really. It is tucked away within us for the times when we most need to take wing. Still, it does take some courage on our part, some brave resolve that we can lift up our heads and embrace “a future and a hope.”
No, we have not left our magic behind! It waits in us for a moment when we are languishing, when we feel sorrow or discouragement, fear or desperation — for a time when we feel disconsolate. It is in that moment we fly, by the grace-filled mercy of God, on the wings of the morning,* forever lifted above the troubles of the world.
I need that sometimes. Don’t you?
For your meditation time, I share with you this beloved hymn, “Come, Ye Disconsolate.”*
* Psalm 139:9
* “Come, Ye Disconsolate”
Lyrics: Thomas Moore (1779-1852); Altered by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872)
Music: Samuel Webbe (1740-1816)
I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings. 
I am continually inspired by Mary Oliver’s poetry, today by her phrase, “as though I had wings.” In the past six months or so — since my kidney transplant — I have felt a little wing-less. Not so unusual, because a transplant — before, during and after — is a rather big deal, like a super colossal deal! If I ever thought the enormous physical challenge would be the surgery itself, I was wrong. I think I deluded myself on that. The aftershocks of the surgery proved to be enormous and enduring. Hence, my lack of wings.
Everywhere, one can see eloquently expressed promises of wings. You and I can “mount up with wings as eagles” or “take the wings of the morning.”  There is even a wing promise that God will “raise you up on eagle’s wings.” 
I know the promises and I love them, but I also love how poet Mary Oliver brings it all down to where I live — on shifting sands in an ever-shifting world. She expresses it like this: “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things . . . to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.” 
All of a sudden, I have a critical assignment, something I must do myself and for myself. It seems to me that I must start by focusing on my mind, thinking again of things noble and dangerous. Then I must allow my mind (my will) to move through my heart and soul, to the very center of my being, because there is the place inside me where dangerous acts are weighed and noble acts can become resolve. In one of the common phrases of my faith — an admonition I heard in church over and over again — a pastor or teacher would say, “count the cost.”
Here’s where I am honest. So I must admit that doing noble things has seemed impossible for me in the past few years. Prior to my illness, my life was a constant journey of determining the danger of noble things and doing them anyway. I miss the life of being a pastoral presence to a dying patient. I miss keeping vigil in the ER family room with grieving parents mourning the death of a child. I miss offering a memorial service for a dear congregant and friend. I miss comforting victims of sexual assault as police officers question them, sometimes brusquely and accusingly. I miss trauma counseling with persons who have endured horrific emotional and physical trauma. I miss forensic interviewing even the youngest child victim of abuse. I miss standing firm as a court advocate for child victims of sexual abuse. I even miss being thrown out of the courtroom by a persnickety judge who did not appreciate the intensity level of my advocacy.
I miss it all. It was dangerous. All of this work was dangerous and it was noble. I could do it because of wings — the wings God gave me when I determined I would do dangerous and noble things and do them with urgency.
What about now, this season of my life? What am I doing that’s dangerous and noble? Should I even expect to be able to face danger at my age, with my physical limitations? Last night, a friend listened to me list all the things I cannot do when very intently she interrupted me and asked, “Kathy, what can you do?” She continued, as she so often does, “Your life is not about the things you can’t do. It’s about the things you can do!”
She nailed it. Perhaps she even nailed me, albeit with some gentleness. So I have to sit awhile with that provoking question: “What can you do?” I have to sit with that question with God close by to guide me and Spirit near to remind me of Spirit-wind and Spirit-fire. I am not precluded from Spirit-wind because of age or Spirit-fire because of physical limitations. It is up to me to discern what I need in my life right now. Will I be satisfied with what I have done in the past and let myself off the hook? What dangerous and noble things will I take on?
I cannot help but think of so many nurses and doctors who are caring for persons with COVID19 — how they enter the ICU knowing that a deadly virus is there, believing that they could take the virus home to their families. Dangerous and noble! Somehow, Spirit-wind is raising them up for the task.
I wonder if you have thought about this for yourself, considering the cost of doing dangerous and noble things. Have you considered that the things you are already doing — feeding the poor, caring for the sick, taking a meal to an elderly person sheltered alone in her home — are all dangerous and noble things? That you show mercy to others as you go? That you weep for a broken world with so many broken people in it? That you share in Christ’s compassion?
“Dangerous and noble things! Afraid of nothing as if we had wings!” 
I’ve given all of this a lot of thought and I think we might get our wings after we have made the determination to give ourselves to noble things, no matter the danger. I think we get wings when we move to the urgency of Christ’s compassion, when our rhythms begin to emulate the rhythms of God. I think we get wings when we have determined in our hearts and souls to act — after we have counted the cost and have said “Yes!”
Again, the eloquence of the poet may most fully express my deepest longing and yours.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings . . .
What I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world. 
May God make it so for us.
1 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
2 Isaiah 40:31
3 Psalm 139:9
4 “On Eagles Wing’s” composed by Michael Joncas
5 Starlings in Winter, a poem by Mary Oliver
6 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
7 The Ponds, a poem by Mary Oliver
She described herself as an unruly woman of God — Mechthild of Magdeburg. “I want also to circle higher still,” she wrote in one of her mystical poems. She had her first vision of the Holy Spirit at the age of twelve. As a young woman, she left her home and “renounced worldly honour and worldly riches.” She was an ascetic, a writer and a mystic who viewed God’s will in unorthodox ways. Her criticism of church dignitaries for religious laxity and claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that some called for the burning of her writings. Her words seemed to have kept her in deep trouble!
Her story reminded me of Sue Monk Kidd’s book, “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter,” a book that set me on a pilgrimage in 1996 that changed my life. This was a book that screamed out to me, “Find your own soul! Nourish it! Protect it! Bind it closer to God’s soul and, for the first time, live out God’s call to you!”
Sue Monk Kidd said this as she reflected on writing the book’s first edition:
“The Dance of the Dissident Daughter” sparked heated, sometimes scathing reactions, including public accusations of heresy, boycotts of my lectures, and a plethora of derisive letters in my mailbox. One of the more memorable began: Dear Whore of Babylon. It was the “Dear” part that made is so indelible.
This statement rings true when I contemplate the life of Mechthild of Magdeburg. Before we get back to her, though, let’s look for a moment at The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, the book that left me with these nuggets of wisdom I will always hold close.
How many times have I denied my innermost wisdom and silenced this voice? How many times can a woman betray her soul before it gives up and ceases calling to her at all?
We must wake up, journey, name, challenge, shed, reclaim, ground, and heal.
When someone tries to put you back into a box from which you’ve already escaped, you might recall a line from the Indian poet Mirabai. She said, “I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders and now you want me to climb on a jackass? Try to be serious!}
As women we have a right to ask the hard questions. The only way I have ever understood, broken free, emerged, healed, forgiven, flourished, and grown powerful is by asking the hardest questions and then living into the answers through opening up to my own terror and transmuting it into creativity. I have gotten nowhere by retreating into hand-me-down sureties or resisting the tensions that truth ignited.
The main thing is to stop struggling and nourish yourself. When you nourish yourself, your creative energy is renewed. You are able to pick up your lyre again and sing.
— Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter
Yes! Sing, and even dance your dissident dance! Your song may sound to all those around you like a revolutionary song, discordant to their ears. Your dancing may scandalize your observers. Still — Sing! Dance! — to the stirrings of Spirit within you!
That’s exactly what Mechthild of Magdeburg did and the religious world labeled her unruly. In her book, Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), she described her visions of God. She could not read and write in Latin, but she is known for being the first mystic to write in German. Her confessor, Heinrich von Halle, finally persuaded her in 1250 to write down her visions and spiritual experiences. She did this in her own hand, in the conviction that it was God’s will.
By 1270, six of the seven books of the “Flowing Light” were brought to parchment, collected and given chapter titles by Heinrich. Mechthild saw her book as a message to both believers and clergy, for she feared the church was in danger of being hollowed out from within; she called the powerful church officials, who often enjoyed worldly luxury, “stinking billy-goats.”
Thus, Mechthild was known as a very unruly woman of God — a defiant, dissident and radical rebel! “Stinking billy-goats!” No wonder she became known for her “rebelliousness and unorthodox ways.” The community she was a part of, the Beguine order, was known for the same kind of unorthodox rebelliousness.
The Beguine order was a Christian religious movement active in Northern Europe during the 13th-16th centuries. The Beguines were women who lived as nuns in semi-monastic communities. Through their intense devotion to God and their somewhat ascetic lifestyle, they came to be known for their acts of rebellion and their unorthodox ways.
Mechthild of Magdeburg definitely danced to her own music!
With her order, she was part of a great spiritual revival movement of the thirteenth century, a time when the Catholic Church was falling into disfavor. The Beguines sought to imitate the life Christ through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion.
With advancing age, Mechthild was blind. She was alone, still the object of much criticism. With singing silenced and dancing impossible, she was left to sing songs in her heart and dance the dances of her imagination, always seeking Spirit promptings.
Some scholars have speculated that, due to increased persecution and failing health, Mechthild was forced to retire to the convent of Helfta around 1270. There, she met three other notable writers of the time, Gertrude of Hackeborne, Mechthild of Hackeborne, and Gertrude the Great. Helfta was a good place for a writer such as Mechthild. Under the leadership of Gertrude of Hackeborne, Helfta had become a hub of learning and writing for women and a center for book collecting, copying and illumination.
Still, Mechthild portrayed herself as a reluctant writer urged on by God and her director to continue her work. She calls her director “my dear schoolmaster,” who taught her, “simple and stupid as I am, to write this book.” About the urging of God she said, “I cannot nor do I wish to write “unless feeling the power of the Holy Spirit.” At one point, Mechthild wondered why God did not choose a priest rather than herself for this work, and she is told that God always seeks out the lowest and smallest so that “unlearned lips can teach the learned tongues of the Holy Spirit.”
In spite of the fact that Mechthild was unable to read and write in Latin, these are some powerful quotes by the graceful mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg, from her book Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (The Flowing Light of Divinity), where she describes her visions of God.
The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw all things in God and God in all things.
If you love the justice of Jesus Christ more than you fear human judgment then you will seek to do compassion. Compassion means that if I see my friend and my enemy in equal need, I shall help them both equally. Justice demands that we seek and find the stranger, the broken, the prisoner and comfort them and offer them our help. Here lies the holy compassion of God that causes the devils much distress.
From suffering I have learned this: that whoever is sore wounded by love will never be made whole unless she embraces the very same love which wounded her.
A Light of utmost splendor glows on the eyes of my soul. Therein have I seen the inexpressible ordering of all things, and recognized God’s unspeakable glory — that incomprehensible wonder — the tender caress between God and the soul . . . the unmingled joy of union, the living love of eternity as it now is and evermore shall be.
I cannot dance, Lord,
unless you lead me.
If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.
Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment
beyond all human sensations.
There I want to remain,
yet want also to circle higher still.
— Mechthild of Magdeburg
Like her, I want to “circle higher still.” I want to escape from chains that shackle the highest expression of my spirit. I want to sing the songs God placed in my heart! I want to dance to the Spirit’s rhythm hidden in my spirit!
Without fear! Without fear . . .
taking the journey set before me to follow Christ into places of poverty, fear, sickness, desperation. Breaking the rules if I must. Taking criticism if I must. Being persecuted if that is in the cards for me. I want to move forward into my calling with the Spirit of God upon me . . .
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.