The Civil Rights Movement and Womanist Theology

 

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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 opposed racism, but tolerated sexism.

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

 

Leaving Our MAGIC Behind

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Ugandan Washday at the River. Watercolor art by Kathy Manis Findley

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)

As Though I Had Wings

 

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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. [1]

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”[2] or “take the wings of the morning.” [3]  There is even a wing promise that God will “raise you up on eagle’s wings.” [4]

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.” [5]

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!” [6]

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. [7]

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

A Very Unruly Woman of God

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Watercolor by Kathy Manis Findley

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!

2869C069-C448-475D-87A3-447D55A041B6That’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.

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Watercolor art: 2019; by Kathy Manis Findley

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!

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Acrylic art by Kathy Manis Findley

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.

 — Luke 4:18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

May God make it so for us. Amen.

 

 

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When I was a teenager, I was conscripted many times to “watch” my younger brothers. It was a loathsome task for me! Yet, occasionally the two of them were interesting to watch, especially through their superhero fascination. They seemed to favor the superheroes who could fly, like Superman or Batman (who could sort of fly, but was likely to perish when attempting to land). It occurred to me that in the scene I watched in the back yard, the two young guys looked much more like flight-challenged Batman!

One afternoon after school, the boys were outside playing. Through the window, I watched them as they donned their makeshift capes. Then — without a care in the world and believing that they really could take flight — they stood tall on wooden boxes and launched themselves, arms extended, looking up to the sky. They didn’t fly that day, but they believed, they dreamed. And they had great fun!

I also noticed during those days that I never saw girls stand on boxes with arms outstretched ready to launch into flight. I certainly never thought of doing it myself. But it made me wonder if girls had dreams like the boys did. That thought brought my mood low and, looking back on it, I think I might have felt a bit of heaviness and disillusionment. I didn’t believe I could fly, but rather that I would leap off the box straight into the ground with a thud that probably resulted in a skinned knee. As the years passed, I learned for sure that if women had dreams, they would not likely realize them in our reality, which was “a man’s world.” Dreaming, hoping, flying may not be possible for a “girl.”

When my son was growing up, we saw the motion picture, Space Jam, a terrific movie for son Jonathan, who was an avid Michael Jordan fanatic. No doubt, my 6’6” son wanted to “Be Like Mike.” In Space Jam’s soundtrack was the song, I Believe I Can Fly, a 1996 song written and performed by American singer, songwriter and former professional basketball player R. Kelly.  This mom was not very fond of R. Kelly, but the song he wrote literally moved me and filled me up with hopes and dreams for my son. R. Kelly’s message was a great one:

I used to think that I could not go on
And life was nothing but an awful song
But now I know the meaning of true love
I’m leaning on the everlasting arms

If I can see it, then I can do it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it

I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day (Night and day)
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly

See I was on the verge of breaking down
Sometimes silence can seem so loud

There are miracles in life I must achieve
But first I know it starts inside of me

If I can see it, then I can be it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it
I believe I can fly

believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly
Oh, I believe I can fly ‘cause I believe in me . . .

I hope you will enjoy the video below, which I place here in honor of my son, Jonathan .

If God would grant me just one request, it would be that every boy — and every girl — would climb on their wooden box and believe in their souls that flying is possible. I would want them to stand tall, with hope and courage, dreaming their dreams and seeing the magic of watching them grow.

Link

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Jesus and the Stubbornly Tenacious Woman from Canaan


Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”

Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”

He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied,

“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.

(Matthew 15:21-28)

I wonder . . . was it her faith or her stubborn tenacity that led to her daughter’s healing? Stubbornness is typically not one of the virtues to which Christians aspire. In fact most of Christendom would rebuke a stubborn woman, in ages past as well as in our day. I know this to be truth! I have been rebuked a time or two, or at least received “strong suggestions” that I should dial back my demeanor. The woman of Canaan, though, returned to Jesus again and again until he healed her suffering daughter.

I can be a bit tenacious, but no one would describe me as stubborn. I typically have a very calm and quiet demeanor, but I remember well one of the few times in my life when I was fierce and stubborn. Our son Jonathan was quite young and very sick with severe vomiting, along with strong spasms that caused him to be unable to breathe. The loud inhalations as he struggled to get a breath were extremely frightening to us, especially to him. Jonathan was a strong boy, an athlete, and very self-sufficient, but these long episodes brought him directly to his Momma. We had been to the hospital emergency room and were now in his pediatrician’s office. This violent gasping for air had been going on for hours, and it should have been obvious to the office staff that Jonathan was in trouble.

Now they would know real trouble!

Jonathan had another violent attack. I jumped up from my chair, went to the desk, and had some strong words to say, in a loud voice, with the passion of a mother desperate to protect her child. I got the familiar line about the doctor running behind.

You know, I don’t care if the doctor is behind! (in my loudest voice) Can you not see and hear that my child is throwing up all over your waiting area and is unable to breathe? Do you realize that he could be infecting every child in here? Take us to an exam room, NOW, and get the doctor away from whatever he’s doing! Because if you don’t, I am headed to the president of Baptist Medical Center who knows me very well because I am a chaplain in this hospital!

Not like me at all! But that is a “Momma response” that almost always erupts when her child is hurting or in trouble. We were in a desperate place and were being ignored. Jonathan was terribly frightened and had been dealing with these spasms for hours. In time (too much time) it was resolved and we were able to get Jonathan settled and resting.

And about the “Canaanite Momma” . . . well, she was definitely stubborn and persistent that day. Clearly, Jesus did not realize who he was dealing with. Maybe he did know! Perhaps Jesus knew precisely what he was doing and chose to use his encounter with the woman from Canaan as a teaching moment for his hearers. Or perhaps he was simply in a stubborn mood and found himself facing someone who could easily match him, stubborn for stubborn!

Either way, the story shows us that when it comes to saving what needs to be saved, being merely nice and calm won’t usually win the day. Sometimes we need to dig in our heels and do some hollering! The text simply portrays the Canaanite woman as a stubborn, persistent mother of a very sick daughter.

Remember, the disciples urged Jesus to send her away. She was obviously making a lot of noise, crying out and disturbing their quietude! On top of that, Jesus was somewhat stubborn himself, saying that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.

But this “Canaanite Momma” went back to Jesus straightaway, knelt down before him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

And we know what Jesus finally did. He praised her faith and healed her daughter. So was it faith or was it stubbornness, persistence? Maybe it was both, that her faith empowered her to stubborn persistence. Clearly, she believed Jesus was able to heal her daughter, so she tried to convince Jesus more than once. The disciples didn’t deter her. Jesus Could not dissuade her with his statement about dogs!

“Woman, you have great faith.”

A wonderful portrayal of what this woman might have said about her encounter with Jesus is a poem written by Jan Richardson entitled “Stubborn Blessing.”

Stubborn Blessing

Don’t tell me no.
i have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill from your hands like water, like wine,
seen you with circles and circles of crowds pressed around you
and not one soul turned away.

Don’t start with me.

i am saying
you can close the door
but i will keep knocking.
You can go silent
but i will keep shouting.
You can tighten the circle
but i will trace a bigger one
around you,
around the life of my child
who will tell you
no one surpasses a mother for stubbornness.

i am saying
i know what you
can do with crumbs
and i am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.
unclench your hand,
your heart.
let the scraps fall
like manna,
like mercy
for the life
of my child,
the life of
the world.

Don’t you tell me no.

— Jan Richardson
https://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/08/11/stubborn-blessing/

The work of protection is definitely not for the faint of heart. The work of advocacy on behalf of another person may take some stubborn persistence, the kind of stubborn persistence that Jesus seemed to call by another name — “great faith.” When we advocate for people who are suffering, especially people in need of profound physical healing or deep spiritual healing, their greatest need calls us to our greatest resolve, a fierce resolve. Maybe a touch of defiance! It is in those moments that we call on our hearts to give us strength for sacred stubbornness that will heal the broken, comfort the brokenhearted, restore justice to those who are oppressed.

That is faith! “Great faith!”

“I Can Do This Hard Thing!”

I can do this hard thing, this recovery from a kidney transplant. But sometimes I need to shed some tears about it all. Tears do not come out of weakness. In fact, tears are the mark of power. Called “the soap of the soul,” tears can help diminish the angst my soul clings to so tightly. Unfortunately, I tend to fight back tears as if they will hurt as they slip down my cheeks. I also nurse the irrational desire to not let anyone see my tears. After all, someone might consider them a sign of my weakness.

Yet, God has another thought about our tears. God counts our tears, keeps up with them, gathers them up and stores them in a bottle. I can imagine the scene of a loving God gently catching every tear and preserving it as a precious elixir worth saving.

Still I avoid weeping at all costs, portraying a false, less-than-honest strength — especially if someone might see.

Today, I am so aware that if I could just cry, the hard time I am going through would feel easier. If I could cry, my tears would cleanse my heart and help minimize my physical, emotional and spiritual pain. If I could just let my tears fall, I would be reclaiming my power.

The truth is that I did not fully understand how hard it would be to endure a kidney transplant and the very, very difficult aftercare regimen. Nor could I have ever imagined the range of emotions I would experience. This is one of life’s hard things.

Last night though, a dear friend sent me a video of a song she chose just for me, just for this moment of my life. I had never heard the song before, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. A mesmerizing tune and simple lyrics written and performed by Carrie Newcomer, “You Can Do This Hard Thing” brought me to tears, tears that really needed to flow.

You can do this hard thing.
You can do this hard thing.
It’s not easy I know,
But I believe that its so.
You can do this hard thing.

My faith tells me that I really can do this hard thing, although most of the time I don’t feel that I can. The friends and family who surround me with love remind me that I can. My heart tells me I can do this, but my rational mind tries to convince me that I cannot. I am reminded by the hymn writer that grace for this hard thing comes from God . . .

God giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater;
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

So perhaps it does require our tears, our lament that humbles us before our God of grace. The writer of the Book of James seems to suggest that grieving and weeping brings God near and that our mourning actually strengthens us to live through hard things.

God gives all the more grace . . .
Submit yourselves therefore to God . . .
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you . . .
Lament and mourn and weep.
Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.

— From James 4 (NRSV)

It doesn’t make much sense that mourning is a good thing, that flowing tears actually cleanse the soul. But I need to see things this way: Life brings changes — hard changes sometimes. Along with the miracle of my kidney transplant comes the end of one season of life and the advent of a new season of life. While I do celebrate the transplant and the ways it will be life-giving for me, I must also grieve the loss of my previous life that had become so comfortable, so easy.

I will call out to my buried tears. I will open up my heart’s pain, grieve my losses and let my tears fall freely down my cheeks. It seems to be the best way to make sure I can do this hard thing.

Transplant Day Four

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Transplant Day Four
November 16, 2019

Transplant Day Four was a blur. There are no words to adequately describe the volume of information we had to digest just to know how to protect this new kidney. So with all the education we had to learn, both Fred and I are on overload. The pain continues, and hopefully the healing.

But hovering over all the physical and emotional pain are the prayers of the people — my people — my dear friends and family members who are holding hope up high so I can see it. Their love and their compassionate concern is grace for me.

I have few words of my own today, but this prayer shared by Joanna Harader speaks exactly what I need God to hear from me today.

Holy One,

This day may I know
Your health in my body;
Your enlightenment in my mind;
Your grace in my missteps;
Your patience in my frustrations;
Your inspiration where I am stuck
And your tranquility where I need to slow down and rest.

This day may I
Breathe each breath with gratitude,
See each color with wonder,
Hear the hum of the Divine beneath the noise,
Feel your solid presence with each step I take.
Let me live out of your joy
And within your power.

Amen.


Rev. Joanna Harader serves as pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, KS, and blogs at SpaciousFaith.com.

A Prophetic Voice

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There was never a time when God’s people needed a prophetic voice more than in these days. We keep hearing the phrase, “children locked up in cages,” and we continually feel righteous anger rising up within us. At the same time, we nurse a sense of hopelessness that holds us captive. 

We ask, what has happened that has created the environment in which we now live? How do we respond to this toxic environmental of racial division, harsh words and name-calling? Why is there such a blindness to gun violence? Wh is white supremacy now acceptable? When did we stop caring about the lives of immigrant families who flee for safe haven to our country? How did it happen that hate and meanness has all but replaced love and kindness?

As we watch these things happen, we recognize that voices of reason give silent ascent to the evils of the day as our leaders fail to stand for the values we hold dear. Where is their courage? Where is their ability to lead and govern? Where is their willingness to speak truth and champion change? Why are self-proclaimed people of faith giving permission for words and acts of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and just plain out hate?

And as for us — the people of faith who see the ills of our world so clearly — where is our prophetic voice, and when and where will we use it? Yes, we may be feeling the kind of hopelessness that breeds apathy and inaction. That feeling is normal when evil looms large over us and when the wrongs and the injustices we observe far outweigh what is right and just. We are understandably overwhelmed with all that is happening in these challenging days:

The president is escalating his racist attacks against everyone from women of color in Congress to the people of Baltimore.

Attorney General William Barr is bringing back the federal death penalty.

The Trump administration wants to ban new asylum requests and new refugees, closing America’s doors to families fleeing violence and seeking a safe place of refuge.

And almost constantly, Trump’s allies on the religious right, people who call themselves Christians, continue cheering him on, constantly twisting the Gospel to help re-elect him.

It is no accident that these actions came at us all at once. The president and his allies think that if he does enough hateful things all at once, they can overwhelm and silence us. What they cannot seem to understand is that, as God’s people and as followers of Jesus Christ, we are not listening to their message of fear and hatred. Instead, we hear the voice of God proclaiming a call for justice, mercy and compassion. We are listening to Christ’s message of hope and love, and that is our clarion call to act.

Of course, there are so many things we cannot make happen, so many wrongs we cannot right. Many of the remedies for the evil that assails us are out of our hands. Yet, we must not feel disempowered. Though we may feel that we have no recourse and that there is simply nothing we can do to create real change, we must remember that our voices hold a certain power, the power of the Spirit of God. Words are powerful tools. There is deep wisdom in the quotation, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” 

As for me, I pray that God will grant me a prophetic voice, and that with boldness, courage and perseverance, I will use my voice . . . 

To speak truth to power through constant letters, phone calls and messages to members of Congress and to the President. 

To confront those who maintain silent ascent to the evils happening at our Southern border. 

To challenge a president who speaks ill of people, who demonizes his enemies, who acts with blatant disregard for humanity and who ignores the suffering of the migrant families he has abused.

And to speak with deep compassion and caring to all who suffer injustice, oppression and harm.

Finally, I pray for my brothers and sisters of faith, that God will grant a prophetic voice, and that with that voice, you are able to speak God’s message of Good News with courage, boldness and perseverance. 

At times, words find their most powerful expression in music. To that end, I have included the following hymn text, which is actually a prayer. Please use it with my permission in any way that is empowering to you.

 

God, Give Us a Prophetic Voice

God, give us a prophetic voice that speaks of harm and pain;
A voice that claims injustice wrong, that calls the hurt by name.
God, give us a courageous voice that speaks against all wrong;
A voice that sees when harm is done and sings oppression’s song.

Our Mother God, we seek your grace to offer words of life,
To reach our hands toward hurting hearts who live in endless strife.
We ask for courage to persist when violence owns the day,
When children live in fear and want, protect them, God, we pray.

Empower us for good, we pray, that justice may increase;   
Ennoble us to speak your Word that pain may find release;
Give us a voice to speak your truth in places of despair;
Grant wisdom, God, and make us bold with courage, is our prayer.

God, give us now compassion’s voice that we might offer peace;
A voice that comforts through the night, that bids the darkness cease.
God, help us find our voice again when silence words erase,
When evil overtakes the words of righteousness and grace. 

Words: Kathy Manis Findley, 2019
Hymn Tune: Kingsfold
Meter: 8.6.8.6.
Source: English Traditional; English Country Songs, 1893
Copyright: Public Domain

 

 

Moving Elephants

1d7ce45b-06ac-4a0a-92a0-8d51176ca80fThe wisdom for this day comes from Hannibal of Carthage: “We will either find a way or make one.” It was a Latin proverb, most commonly attributed to Hannibal in response to his generals who had declared it impossible to cross the Alps with elephants.

We need this wisdom for today because for the past two years, racism and other divisions have been promoted by the extremist in the White House and his enablers in the Congress. In general, Congressional leaders are creating policies that enforce systemic poverty. Plain and simple!

The truth is that this country has a long and tragic history of classicism, sexism, misogyny, and violence against women. And those who participate in oppression against women are often on the same side as racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and fascism.

This is not the way a nation and government should be moving, and the masses have said it will not be tolerated. They have looked squarely at the injustices and have determined to “find a way or make one.” They cannot be deterred or thwarted. They will persist as they have always done. “A change is gonna’ come,” sisters!

What are the signs? 

Sign number 1: a record number women were elected to seats in the House of Representatives, many of them flipping districts from red to blue. This nation elected the first Native American and Muslim women to Congress, and the first openly bisexual woman to the Senate. South Dakota elected its first female governor. North Carolina elected another African American woman to the state supreme court.

Sign number 2: the powers that be fear women who persist. As Rev. William Barber points out, they are afraid of women like Rosa Parks. They cower in the presence of women like Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign’s who has fought to tear down systemic poverty and oppression. They are terrified of women like Women’s March national co-chairs ― Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory ― who are bringing women together across every race, creed, color, religion, sexuality, and class. They fear women like Sister Simone who fights for affordable health care or like Lucy Parsons who fought for labor rights and living wages.

They’re afraid we’ll march, or vote, or advocate, or speak the truth, or run for office, or persist. But “a change is gonna’ come,” sisters! It won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But if any people can find a way to cross the Alps with elephants, sisters standing together in solidarity can do it! Women have shown that they will “either find a way or make one!”

But there is one caveat: stick together! Forget about infighting.

Yes, There may be realities of real conflict that need to be addressed head on. No social justice movement is without conflict, and disagreements around the Women’s March were there from the start: Should the march include anti-abortion women? Were the needs of women of color overshadowed by the priorities of white women? What about transgender women? Is it true that accusations of anti-semitism hang over the march?

Let us pray that women and those who support women will find ways to mitigate these concerns and show up on Saturday ready to march. After all, we made history together. That was our stellar beginning. Remember?

It started just days after the fateful 2016 election. A small group of women who feared the Trump presidency joined together at a New York restaurant to plan a demonstration. What resulted from that meeting was the largest single-day protest in U.S history, the Women’s March, which took place in about 600 American cities and towns and on every continent in the world. And that march was a part of what inspired a record number of women to run for office and win. Elephants or not, we “will either find a way or make one!”

So let us march on Saturday and if we cannot march, send positive energy in solidarity with those who do march. Be encouraged. Be encouraged by the words of Dr. William J. Barber:

As you march this weekend and as you step into the new year, I urge you to keep fighting. Do not relax until poverty is eradicated, until every American receives a living wage for their work, until racism, bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny are words of the past. Continue to register your friends and family and neighbors to vote. Continue to run for office. Continue to march, protest, and make your voices heard.

Keep the faith. Keep fighting.