The Hard Way Forward

5834D9E4-A63C-485C-9129-9BDB644B6113

Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
The Hard Way Forward

A sermon preached in virtual worship for New Millennium Church
Little Rock, Arkansas
October 11, 2020
Scripture: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106 (selected verses)

Have you ever come to a point in your life when you had to take the hard way forward? You had no other choices! In fact, the phrase “the hard way forward” paints a an unvarnished picture of these tumultuous days, and the paints on the artist’s brush are dark and foreboding.

What a journey 2020 has been! I have often called it a journey of lament — a journey that has forced us to be in places we never wanted to be and to see things we never wanted to see. 

We look around and watch people in shock and dismay — disillusioned and despondent. So many have been personally touched, even ravaged, by the deadly coronavirus, while others are overcome with fear of it. We have witnessed evil, racist assaults; watched police brutality and murder on our television screens; we have grieved over wildfires that threaten to swallow up forests, animals, homes and lives; and over it all we have felt contempt for the reprehensible leadership of an incompetent, insensitive, egocentric, self-serving president. I think it’s safe to assume that many people in this broken nation feel hopeless and heartbroken.

I often ask: 
God, are you still leading us on this hard journey?  Or have you forsaken us?
Do you have some kind of plan we do not yet see?

These months for so many people have definitely been a hard way forward. As we try to put one foot in front of the other on this journey, perhaps we can imagine ourselves walking with the people of Israel.

So let us listen and hear the Word of God in Holy Scripture

From Exodus, Chapter 32, (selected verses):

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said, “Come, make us gods who shall go before us.”

“As for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 

Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 

So the people took off the gold rings and gave them to Aaron. He took the gold, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and the people said, 

“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before the calf and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices; and they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose up to carouse. [my word choice]

(Now the scene changes locations.)

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people have acted perversely . . . they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it. I have seen how stiff-necked these people are. Now leave me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”

But Moses implored the Lord, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

And from Psalm 106 (selected verses):

O give thanks to the LORD . . . for God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have acted wickedly. They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

Therefore he said he would destroy them — had not Moses stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath.

This is the word of God for the people of God.

The story of the Israelites reminds us that our kindred sojourners also traveled some rough paths. The text gives a glimpse of just one snippet of their journey. We see the Israelites on their wilderness pilgrimage, complaining, as they often did — and as we often do.

Apparently, Moses who had just received the ten commandments, stayed on Mount Horeb for a long time, patiently listening as God engaged him in a presentation of all manner of laws, rules and instructions. It took awhile — 40 days and forty nights, a very long time. And the Israelites started complaining about it to the one Moses left in charge — Aaron.

What has become of Moses?

What would he eat on that mountain, anyway?

This Moses, that brought us out here in this mess — where is he?

And then their fateful request to Aaron:

You are the one who is here with us now — make us something we can see. Make us something that will lead us forward, and we will follow it.

Now you probably remember that the Israelites had complained before:

Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To kill us with thirst?
Why have you led us into this forsaken, dangerous wilderness? To kill us with hunger?

Their complaints may sound a bit like our own complaining during the terrible months of pandemic, racial unrest, political rancor, and all manner of upheaval. 

Hey God! Are you planning to obliterate this coronavirus, or not?

Are you still with us, God, or not? 

Have you brought us to this season for some purpose? 

Like the Israelites, we sometimes lose sight of our leader — the God that would give us the courage to move. We are left as a wandering, unsettled people that simply cannot see our way forward.

As Wendell asked in last Sunday’s sermon, “Shouldn’t God do something?”

Shouldn’t a God of enduring, everlasting love do something?

Now remember — we are in good company with several holy bible people. The prophet Isaiah, for one, who asked:

“How long, O Lord
And God actually replied to him:

Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant,
until the land is desolate and ravaged,
until the land is utterly forsaken.

Not so reassuring!

The Psalm singer asked, too, in Psalm 94.

How much longer will the wicked be glad?
How much longer, Lord?
How much longer will criminals boast about their crimes?

They crush your people, Lord; they oppress those who belong to you.
They kill widows and orphans, and murder the strangers who live in our land.

Who stood up for me against the wicked? Who took my side against evil?

If God hadn’t been there for me, I never would have made it.
The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling!
Your love, God, took hold and held me fast.”

Like those holy bible people, we ask — in our impatience and fear — “How long, O Lord? 

And even as we ask, we have a wee inkling that God’s love is still holding us in safe arms of grace. George Matheson was a Scottish clergyman and theologian who lived in the late 1800’s. He was blind by the age of 18. Matheson wrote something quite profound about God’s love — the text of the hymn, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The hymn text formed in his mind during a “dark night of the soul” he experienced, a deeply emotional and spiritual crisis. He tells us about it in his own words.

My hymn was composed in the manse on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882. Something happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life . . . the whole work was completed in five minutes, and it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this one came like a dayspring from on high.

In a time of emotional anguish, God’s creative grace rose up in George Matheson and he wrote about the kind of divine love that would never let him go. I think we owe Rev. George for reminding us about God’s unwavering love. The hymn text is most assuredly Gospel Good News that people throughout the centuries have desperately needed to remember

As you and I walk this journey, we need to know that God’s love will hold us fast, but sometimes we don’t know it. Like George Matheson, we could use a visit from the Dayspring from on high!

In truth, we need assurance — that no matter how hard the way forward, God’s love will not let us go. Threatened by a deadly virus, God’s love will not let us go. In our most disconsolate moments, God’s love will not let us go. When we courageously stand up to denounce racism, white supremacy, police violence and all manner of evil that surrounds us, God’s stubborn love will never let us go!

But that kind of love also places before us a holy mission undergirded with the foundational principle that evil cannot be reformed, it must be transformed — transformed within us before it can be transformed in the world, and transformed in the way described by Dr. King:

Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the Israelites and their golden calf, or the psalm singer who sang something about God’s steadfast love enduring forever, or the idea that someone might possibly stand in the breach for us.

My friends, each of us are traveling through these days with at least some fear and anxiety. It is a hard way forward, and as some clever people have said, “The light at the end of the tunnel is probably a freight train!” 

Still, we are inheritors of the hope and grit of so many others who have journeyed hard roads before us — walking, marching, sometimes crawling — at times standing tall, at other times falling face-down in the dust of a hard rocky ground. We have navigated perilous roads and turbulent waters in this season. Yet we walk on, just as those who walked before us and who walk beside us.

I recently saw a news report about a little girl walking with her family among crowds of protesters. She stops at a makeshift memorial to George Floyd. As she pauses there, we can read the sign she carries — a hand printed cardboard sign that says:

My daddy plays with me. My daddy reads to me.
My daddy tucks me in at night. Please don’t kill my daddy.

The little girl walks on with her family.

Tamika Palmer walks on too, tears flowing freely. Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mother, vows she will never stop walking forward towards justice for the daughter she lost.

It strengthens us to remember those who walked before us in years past and those who walk with us today who are those sparkling examples of hope and grit: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Oscar Romero, Fannie Lou Hamer, Prathia Hall, Greta Thunberg, Rev Dr. William J. Barber, II, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., Dorothy Day, Bishop Michael Curry, Nelson Mandela, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Jr,. US Representative John Lewis, Rev. Pastor Judge Wendell Griffen and countless others whose names we revere, as well as so many whose names we do not even know.

Walking, marching, protesting, advocating, praying, writing, speaking, weeping — throughout centuries and to this very time. Compelled by prevailing, persisting injustice, they walk on — we walk on —taking the hard way forward.

So having eavesdropped on a people constructing a golden calf to worship, will we allow their story to call our attention to our own idols? Those idols we have made for ourselves out of our own Egyptian gold?  “Idols” might just be the next sermon point, if I used sermon points!

It’s tempting to mistake our own creations for our God. It’s tempting to shape our self-made idols into an image that soothes our anxiety, feeds our anger and our egos, and convinces us it will demolish whatever is evil around us. I don’t know about you, but I can get obsessed at times. My tasks, my work, my advocacy sometimes rise up out of my obsessions. I don’t like that, but have to admit the truth.

So I have to ask myself: Is my work to dismantle injustice part of God’s call and my holy mission, or have I made it my idol?

Whatever that thing is that we have made from Egypt’s gold is not our god. That thing we idolize may symbolize strength and power. It may personify bravery. It may embody rebellion or protest. But as close as we draw to it and place it at the center of our lives, we must understand that it will not lead us to transformation, just as the Israelites’ golden calf could have never led them to the land of promise. 

Instead it will shackle us in our impatience, audacity and self-importance. It will shackle us because of our insistence on following our own way instead of God’s way. 

Here is another honest confession:  It is tempting for me to let hate become my idol, to allow my desire for retribution to goad me into facing off against injustice with hate. But God’s way is always love. 

Is it possible that our idol is our hate for people, people who may actually deserve it like white supremacists, neo-Nazis, violent police officers, men wielding projectiles and tear gas, corrupt politicians and leaders? Do we rise up against such people with hate as our weapon, while all the time, God calls us to love our enemies!

The hard way forward is the way of higher ground that invites us to turn away from the idols created by our lesser angels and walk forward in the persistent love that will never let us go. 

The hard way forward knows the pain of fear and doubt, but still chooses to follow cloud and fire through the desert-landscape and on to freedom. The hard way forward is to live into God’s abiding, never-ending love.

For you see, seekers of justice who marched the hard way before us faced firehoses and dogs because they longed for holy transformation and because they trusted that God’s love would not let them go. Seekers of justice protesting in the streets of Louisville and in other cities in these hard days face tear gas, police brutality, violent government intervention because they long for holy transformation and because their faith whispers to them, “God’s love will not let you go.”

You and I, in whatever ways we are dismantling injustice, MUST take the hard way forward — facing censure, criticism, indifference, ridicule, disrespect, even violence, because we long for holy transformation and because deep-down, we believe in our hearts that God’s love will never let us go.

That hard way forward is the path to transforming injustice! Doing the same things we’ve done the same way we’ve done them might bring some manner of reform. But we must not settle for reformation. We must set our eyes on transformation. 

One last caveat: the change we seek may never be realized even if we are brave enough to take the hard way forward, because the saved up baggage we carry weighs us down — the anger we hold on to, the hatred we feel, the impatience that makes us volatile, the fear that besets us, the hostility we refuse to let go of. Isn’t it time for you and me to kneel before God, confess our sins and accept the healing grace that wipes away our tears and transforms us into a new creation?

Kneeling at the altar of repentance, we will stand up straight and tall and brave — and most importantly, forgiven — and we will take the hard way forward, knowing in our souls that we cannot just act to reform evil, we must resolve to transform it. 

So let us bravely and confidently take the hard way forward, knowing that God is standing in the breach on our behalf and that the Dayspring from on high visits us, giving light when we walk through the darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.

Let us take the hard way forward, proclaiming from the depths of our being that no matter how dark and difficult and long the journey is, God’s love will never let us go. Amen.

I invite you now to spend a few moments of reflection and prayer as you listen to a benediction of choral music in the video below. May you listen in the music for the whisper of God, for Christ’s blessing of grace, for the brush of Spirit wings. 

And as you leave this time of holy worship, persevering on the hard way forward, may the God of love go with you and fill you with gentle peace through every tribulation, so that your soul may rise up in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Prayers of Lament



This morning, I prayed a prayer of lament. Lament was the only prayer in my spirit. It is difficult to express the deep sorrow I felt yesterday when I learned that no charges were brought against the police who shot six bullets into Breonna Taylor’s body.

Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, Louisville police officers used a battering ram to enter the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician who had dreams of a bright career ahead. She and her boyfriend had settled in to watch a movie in her bedroom on that tragic night. Police came to her door and minutes later, she was fatally shot. Her death sparked months of protests in Louisville.

Yesterday, six months after the fatal shooting — six bullets — a grand jury indicted a former Louisville police officer on Wednesday for wanton endangerment for his actions during the raid. A grand jury delivered the long-awaited answer about whether the officers would be punished. No charges were announced against the other two officers who fired shots, and no one was charged for causing Breonna Taylor’s death.

For me, there was only lament. I imagine that for Breonna’s family, there was the deepest kind of lament. For her mother, lament was the only response she could express as she wept uncontrollably. And, even for the protesters who filled the streets, I believe there was lament. 

Theologian Soong-Chan Rah explains in his book, Prophetic Lament, that in the Bible lament is “a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and suffering.” He goes on to say that it is a way to “express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering.” Racism has inflicted incalculable suffering on black people throughout the history of the United States, and in such a context, lament is not only understandable but necessary.

Perhaps white Christians and all people of faith have an opportunity to mourn with those who mourn and to help bear the burden that racism has heaped on black people. (Romans 12:15)    — Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise


In the end, many people see only the rage, anger, impatience, violence of the protesters. Can we also see their lament for Breonna, as well as for centuries of racially motivated murder — beatings, burnings, lynchings and murder committed by police officers? 

People of faith — white people of faith — will we try to understand the rage of our black and brown sisters and brothers? Will we join them in righteous anger? Will we mourn with them? Will we lament when lament fills their souls and overflows in cries for justice?

We must, in the name of our God who created every person in God’s own image!

Last night, I heard an interview with Brittany Packnett Cunningham on MSNBC. Her words were eloquent pleas for justice. She spoke about how persistent and all-encompassing racism is in our country and about the murders and the protests and the political rancor that fuels it. She acknowledged racism’s strong, unrelenting hold on this nation, a hold that is virtually impossible to break. And she said something I have said for a long time, “Racism cannot be reformed. It must be transformed.”

To me that means a transformation of the heart and soul that compels each of us to lament, to comfort, to speak truth in government’s halls of power, to stand openly against any form of racial injustice.

May God make it so.

Will you pray this prayer of lament with me?

O God, who heals our brokenness, Receive our cries of lament and teach us how to mourn with those who mourn. Receive even our angry lament and transform our anger into righteous action. Hear the anguish of every mother assaulted by violence against her child. Hear the angry shouts of young people as shouts of frustration, fear and despair. Grant us the courage to persist in shouting out your demand for justice, for as long as it takes. When deepest suffering causes us to lament, grant us Spirit wind and help us soar. If we resist your call for justice, compel us to holy action. May our soul’s lament stir us to transform injustice, in every place, for every person, whenever racism threatens, for this is your will and our holy mission. Amen.

From Insanity’s Bondage to Creativity’s Freedom

68C9C79A-BF63-420C-A135-37505D96C6C5
INSANITY
 

Not a word we are fond of. Nothing inspiring about the word. And when the word insanity is more than just a word, we shudder in its grasp. Insanity brings its own bondage, stealing one’s freedom to live, confiscating one’s creative expression. Insanity can be a complete, all-encompassing mental breakdown, even bordering on madness, OR it can be a state of being that most of us have experienced — irrationality, instability, disorientation, mania. Many people (noted scholars) have mused that “the definition of insanity is the most overused expression of all time.” (Salon.com)

Remember the declaration about “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?” Yes, I know you remember that definition, probably have said it yourself in an exasperating moment!

Where am I going with these bizarre introductory words?

I’m actually going to a place you may not expect. I’m going to the rush and swirl of color in one of my favorite paintings, A Starry Night by the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. The painting draws me in — into the little village with its steepled church, into a sky filled with sparkling stars, into the glorious luminance of the crescent moon, into the swirls of blues and whites and yellows. I have pondered many times what sort of mind and soul could have created a painting like this one.

The story behind A Starry Night is the unnerving story of Van Gogh. A few months after experiencing a mental breakdown on December 23, 1988 that resulted in the self-mutilation of his left ear, Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Lunatic Asylum. During the year Van Gogh stayed at the asylum, his prolific output of paintings continued and he produced some of the best-known works of his career. A Starry Night was painted by around June 18, the date he wrote to his brother Theo to say he had a new study of a starry sky.

A Starry Night was the only nocturnal painting in the series of views he saw from his bedroom window. In early June, Vincent wrote to Theo, “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big”. Researchers have determined that Venus was indeed visible at dawn in Provence in the spring of 1889, and was at that time nearly as bright as it could be. So the brightest “star” in the painting, just to the viewer’s right of the cypress tree, is actually Venus.

Too much information? Probably, but here’s my point that is not really about insanity at all. Rather, it’s about breaking free from bondage and taking back my life. You see, sometimes the sight of a big, bright morning star can replace whatever fear or angst I am feeling. Sometimes looking into the deep of a starry night can carry me to resplendent places. Sometimes even my slight insanity can transport me to my deepest expressions of creativity.

For me, insanity is my incessant scurrying around with too many things to do, a kind of mania. That frenzied scurrying is of my own choosing and therefore, leans a little too close to self-imposed insanity. I wonder if instead of that scurrying life of bondage, I could make time for moments of thought that would enable me to say something like what Vincent Van Gogh said from his asylum: 

“This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star — the brightest star — which looked very big!“

Contemplate for a moment the insanity of a life encumbered — filled to overflowing with too many things to do — compared with a life of stargazing that might just awaken fresh and bright creativity in you.

As for me, I’m heading toward a spiritual transformation — a life of sacred pauses, a stargazing life, a grace-filled re-awakening!

I hope you are, too.

Roots Intertwined

I think often about roots — current family roots, ancestry roots and roots in my life that were created from various communities. I can’t help but recall the very first church we served in Arab, Alabama. My husband, Fred, was the minister of music and I was (unofficially) counselor and guide for our youth group. The young people of that church surged into our hearts and, along with most of their families, became a very close community — a deeper bond than even family. I thought my heart would literally break into tiny pieces, and I grieved the loss of leaving them for years.

I was sure that I would never form that kind of bond with anyone ever again. But I did, time and time again, in new places with new people — Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Uganda, East Africa. Every time, deep roots of friendship would reach deeper — reaching Into the soil, reaching toward each other, tangled and intertwined in love. And every time when we pulled up roots to move on to places God was calling us to go, I grieved in the very depths of my soul. Here’s the picture: digging up a tree and pulling it out of the soil is not easy with roots so twisted and connected. Pulling up a plant or a tree does not destroy its roots, but often injures and damages them.

I freely admit that this post is not really about trees and roots. It’s about belonging, forming attachments, community, love. Yet, it’s about more than belonging; it’s about walking away from your belonging, moving away, losing the relationships that mean so much to you, feeling the disconcerting feeling that comes from injuring the roots of your beloved community. A poignant quote by Beryl Markham explains the emotions of pulling up roots.

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way. Leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.
Beryl Markham, West with the Night

“The future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.” There it is: our fear of a future that holds new experiences and new people. For sure, moving forward truly is formidable. But when all is said and done, it seems that the best way to live is to cherish the roots we have every single day, every moment. Love them. Nourish them. Rest in them. And in some future time in your life, when you must pull up roots and move away, go ahead and grieve your loss, but also let yourself grow deep, spreading roots in another place.

With faith and hope, throw off the fear and uncertainty of an unknown future and plant yourself in a new garden. For there, you may well flourish again, grow deeply with a new community, form new attachments. You may even stumble over a life serendipity and find yourself in a place where you love all over again.

Hemmed In!


There are large scale, widespread forces that can trap thousands of people, even millions. Dachau, Katrina, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, natural disasters all over the world and the Coronavirus of 2020. Enormous, catastrophic events can trap people. COVID19 has literally trapped me inside my home. I have to admit, the isolation has taken a toll on my spirit. No visitors! No visits with friends or family. No trips! No haircuts! I have been trapped at some level since my kidney transplant in November. Just at the March milestone that would have allowed me to break the isolation of the transplant, I was even more fully trapped by the infectiousness of this pervasive, unrelenting virus.

Being trapped for so many months has raised up in me feelings of loneliness, isolation, powerlessness, despair, anxiety, even abandonment. And yet, often there is something very good in the center of something very bad. It has been so for me. Yes, I feel trapped in the pervasive power of the coronavirus, but I also sense the arms of God and the embrace of Spirit hemming me in even further. Such a grace-gift it has been to me, as if God has said, “l am hemming you in, and in this space you will hear me clearer and sense me more fully.”

God’s words were truth. Hemmed in, my mind flourished, my heart leapt and my soul entered spaces of calm. I felt enhanced awareness! Even awakening. I saw nature in a different way and basked in the beauty of the rising sun. The sound of the hummingbirds’ trill and the rapid fluttering of their translucent wings were sounds meant just for me. I began to write and paint, to listen more carefully to God’s voice, to allow my spirit to overflow with Holy Spirit. To my hemmed-in call from God, I was compelled to answer, “Here I am, Lord!” When I finally answered God, my hemmed-in place became Holy Ground — a very good place to be that feels more like a holy mystery than a state of being.

Was this pandemic a good thing for me and for millions of people? Absolutely not! But trapped in its dark cloud, God hemmed me in further in ways I am just now beginning to understand. I can say with all honesty that being hemmed in by God has been grace to me.

If I could even begin to choose a favorite Psalm from among the many that inspire me, I would choose Psalm 139. In its weaving of words, there are many passages that are full of comfort. From childhood, I memorized a lot of Scripture and throughout Psalm 139 I memorized several snippets that I often call to mind. One verse that I did not memorize is verse 5: “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.”

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.

— Psalm 139:1-5 NIV

I deplore the coronavirus and what it has done to so many people. I deplore the ways it was able to trap me, physically and emotionally. But the virus, with all its ominous, far-reaching force could not trap me spiritually. That was God’s work — hemming me in so that my spirit could rise to fresh, new heights of spiritual consciousness. Being hemmed in by our Creator has been grace for me in these days of isolation. It has become a transforming sacred pause. For in my hemmed-in space, the Creator helped me create — from my mind, from my heart, from my soul. Thanks be to God.

Juneteenth 2020 — Oh Freedom!

0B59C2F5-2267-4507-A9EE-44CDC0B315B1
Today may be a Juneteenth like no other.

Juneteenth is a celebration. It’s not solemn, it’s filled with joy and pageantry. It’s not a funeral. But 2020 Juneteenth is uncomfortably juxtaposed with police violence against Black people, protesters in cities all over the nation and funerals — too many funerals.

A Bit of History . . . 

Juneteenth is one of America’s oldest holidays and is observed each year on June 19 to mark the official end of slavery in the United States. The day has long been celebrated by black Americans as a symbol of their long-awaited emancipation. But the story behind the holiday starts 155 years ago today in Galveston, Texas.

On June 19, 1865, Union troops led by General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to break the news to the last remaining Confederate sympathizers that they had lost the Civil War and that all slaves must be freed. The Union general read aloud to the residents of Galveston:

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.

The newly freed slaves celebrated emancipation with prayer, feasting, song, and dance, and the following year, the first official Juneteenth celebration was born. But the importance of Juneteenth is that it is rooted in a long history of struggle for freedom and then perhaps the greater struggle to maintain freedom in the face of the enormous repression that was to come.

The Struggle for Freedom Continued

7DC48528-34CF-47FA-9272-ED91E800C437It turned out that being free did not mean being being treated with respect. Yes, it was the true end of the Civil War, but it was also the beginning of Reconstruction, a time that was supposed to be very happy and hopeful. Yet the period of Reconstruction became a miserable time for freed Black people because Reconstruction became part of the redemption of the South. As such, it set out to move African Americans to indentured servitude. While President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in his Jan. 1, 1863, Emancipation Proclamation, rebellious Confederate strongholds dotted across the South delayed the widespread implementation.

The South would not hear of the end of slavery, and landowners moved heaven and earth to make sure they had plenty of indentured servants. They were determined to continue the ostentatious lifestyle that they believed was their right and their legacy. They were resolute in their quest to maintain their master/servant status.

Still Today, Elusive Freedom

Juneteenth has been “passed down” through black communities since 1866, but in this year — 2020 — this nation seems to be at the height of a modern-day civil rights movement. My friend says, “2020 is the year of reset!” People throughout this nation of every race and creed hope beyond hope the 2020 will go even beyond “reset” to reconciliation, transformation and rebirth. So that every person is free, respected and cherished as a part of beloved community.

B8EBCA53-AF97-42DD-AA97-BAB122368430The cruel and violent death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer might mean that this year Juneteenth may not be only about festivals, parades and cookouts. It may well be somewhat of a silent, reflective vigil for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Caine Van Pelt, Michael Thomas, Lewis Ruffin, Kamal Flowers, Momodou Lamin Sisay, Ruben Smith, Modesto Reyes . . . and the list could continue.

It is a list of tragedy and horror. It is a list that is a stain that will ever remain on this nation, an indelible mark of shame. It is a list of names we must never forget. So in your commemoration of Juneteenth today, honor those names, pray for their mourning families, and pray that you will confront racial injustice with an unshakeable resolve.

Juneteenth was meant to be a celebration, although many people might not be able to celebrate today. Heartbreak and horror have a tendency to override celebration and joy. Even with hearts broken, I hope we will find in our hearts even a tiny desire to celebrate this day that was, and is, all about freedom.

May the change that comes from the “2020 movement for racial justice” cause us to celebrate, not mourn, every time Juneteenth comes around — today and forevermore. And may each of us and all of us — a people of God’s creation — witness the rebirth of a nation where every person lives under a worldwide canopy of justice, peace, equality, respect and freedom.

May God make it so through us. Amen.


Celebrate, or mourn, today as you spend a few moments watching this moving and poignant video, “Oh Freedom.”

Our Smallest Dreams Can Change the Big World

E43FB412-D00A-458E-8DA7-561F269CCC27

Art by Catrin Welz-Stein, from The Cosmic Dancer Facebook community

A friend sent me a lovely blessing today and I want to share it with you. These days, many neighbors and friends — people all over the world actually — have a new dream, a new calling to change the world. It’s an important dream right about now. Pandemic and protests — and all the causes lying underneath them — desperately need to change, and it will take huge dreams to change them. Trouble is, most people like me and you have only small dreams, a few small dreams that sometimes seem so insignificant. Certainly, they are dreams too small to change the big world.

But maybe not!

The message my friend sent me (actually she posted it on Facebook) reminded me that huge change can most certainly come from small acts. The message was today’s grace for me. So I share the message with you. It comes from The Cosmic Dancer* and is written by Scott Stabile.

She felt like doing her part to change the world, so she started by giving thanks for all of the blessings in her life, rather than bemoaning all that was missing from it.

Then she complimented her reflection in the mirror, instead of criticizing it as she usually did.

Next she walked into her neighborhood and offered her smile to everyone she passed, whether or not they offered theirs to her.

Each day she did these things, and soon they became a habit. Each day she lived with more gratitude, more acceptance, more kindness. And sure enough, the world around her began to change.

Because she had decided so, she was single-handedly doing her part to change it.
— Scott Stabile

Hope is tucked into these words, hidden there and bringing to mind that God highly values gratitude, acceptance, kindness and our smallest, powerful dreams. My dreams and yours can change a world filled with violence, hate, grief, fear and so many more hurts and harms.

EC0B46CE-B762-4C67-933A-BEC6BDE65077

Tikkun Olam Together provides cultural learning opportunities for mothers and  daughters’ grades 6-9 as they work to improve the world – Tikkun Olam.

There is a lovely Hebrew phrase, Tikkun Olam, that means “repair the world” or “heal the world.” The call of Tikkun Olam has always inspired me to more fully offer my life to be a part of the healing God desires for creation, for the earth’s protection and for kindness, equality and justice for all people.

Can we heal the big world with even the smallest acts of kindness and compassion? Doesn’t God whisper to us that we should begin healing the injustice, the violence, the hate, the fear, the mistrust and the deep divisions in the world? Doesn’t God inspire us to know the truth that our dreams are never too small? And doesn’t God promise to guide us and to lead us in following the compassionate footprints of Jesus until we see the world begin to change?

Resting in the grace of inspiration given to us by God, we truly can cast off the gloomy thoughts that our dreams are too small, too weak and too insignificant. And we can hide inside our hearts God’s promise that our dreams can become reality, that our tiny dreams really can change this big world. God will enlarge our smallest dreams if we offer them. We can count on it!

May each of us live “with more gratitude, more acceptance, more kindness” and may even our smallest dreams change — heal — the world.

 


* The Cosmic Dancer is a Facebook community that shares insights through art, poetry, dance and other “revolutionary rhythms.”

 

 

 

This Liminal Time

FDAFE7CF-FBCA-47E5-A560-EFA6C17EEC75


liminal

in American English
(ˈlɪmɪnəl ; ˈlaɪmɪnəl )

ADJECTIVE

1.  Relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.

2.  At a boundary or transitional point between two conditions, stages in a process, ways of life, etc.

“Liminal” used in a sentence: We are in a transitional and liminal time: this makes everything unsettled and awkward, and most of us feel tremendous unrest and a sense of urgency.


I choose to mark this particular time in history as a liminal time that demands my courage to stand — to stand in solidarity with every person who is demanding an end to racial injustice. I cannot choose my partners in this struggle. Instead, I have to accept those that appear in my life, bringing with them a determined will to stand for justice.

I must understand that liminal time does not last forever. Liminal time is a place of transition, a liminal stage between justice and oppression, between life and death. So my choices and yours in this liminal time might very well affect what’s going on in the streets of American cities, in police precincts in every community and rural hamlet, in the halls of Congress and in the White House, in our hearts and in the hearts of those we could see as our “enemies.“

CB60C28A-A33B-4386-9B35-C3DC950FC905Here is where I must focus. My heart must long for an end to injustice. So must yours, because God’s heart grieves over the mayhem in our streets and the violence that has its way when a white police officer murders a black man or woman, even a black child.

You and I must yearn for an end to racial injustice — any kind of injustice and oppression — because God’s heart yearns to see us living in holy unity as brothers and sisters.

These days have dramatically shown us our liminal time, and it is NOW.

I have a strong sense that this liminal time has brought the widespread unrest we are witnessing, and that unrest emerges directly from a deep desire for change and transformation. It must be now!

Those of us who remember, know that the Civil Rights Movement came to its boiling point when every marcher, every protester, every non-violent activist and every violent one knew when their liminal time had come. Some people, of course, did not like that time at all, but even those who resisted that movement towards justice knew in their hearts that it was the liminal time, the time of NOW.

The fight was fought by people who spoke and marched, prayed and worshipped, who resisted and stood their ground, who preached and sang their freedom songs. Ah, how those songs of the civil rights movement helped motivate people of all ages and races, from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activists and Freedom Riders to the thousands who marched on Washington, Selma, and Montgomery!

Yet not one person — Civil Rights leader or non-violent protester — could achieve civil rights alone. It required persons living in the poorest neighborhoods and their affluent neighbors across town. It took white folk and black folk, protestors and preachers, eloquent advocates and those who fought silently, lawyers and congresspeople and attorneys general and presidents. It required a community in solidarity. In fact, during the Civil Rights Movement, the creation of community was the quintessential coming-of-age story for Black people. 

Of that historically significant time, Father Richard Rohr writes this:

It was the particular time in history when nonviolent initiatives seeded with contemplative worship practices became acts of public theology and activism. You see, activism and contemplation are not functional opposites. Rather, contemplation is the heart’s reflective activity that is always seeking the spiritual balance between individual piety and communal justice-seeking.

Who could have predicted that America’s apartheid would fall as decisively as the walls of Jericho, when the people marched around the bastions of power carrying little more than their faith and resolve? How audacious it was to take just the remnants of a chattel community, the vague memories of mother Africa, and a desperate need to be free, and translate those wisps into a liberating vision of community. The idea of a beloved community emerged from the deeply contemplative activities of a besieged people — the people of the Civil Rights movement.
— Fr. Richard Rohr

One would think that such a movement that was so powerful, so eloquent and so determined would see its dream become reality, and that such a stunning reality would last forever. So that every person, from that time to this, would live as beneficiaries of beloved community. But here we are in another liminal space of racial indignity, cities in chaos and families mourning the death of their loved ones in Minnesota, in Georgia, in Kentucky and beyond. We did not really believe we would be in this time and space, a time that would demand a civil rights movement of its own.

The in-between liminal spaces of Scripture are pregnant with God’s transformational possibilities:

Noah and his family rebuilding the world after the flood; Abraham holding the knife above Isaac; Jacob’s struggle with the angel; Joseph in the pit; Moses and the Israelites at the edge of the Reed Sea; Israel in the wilderness; Joshua crossing the Jordan; Jesus suffering on the tree; the women at His tomb; the disciples waiting in Jerusalem.

Scripture indeed is fraught with liminal moments – moments of imminent expectation, infused with both hope and doubt — that lead to transformation and change. So change involves tension, and those of us who are longing for a paradigm shift that insists on justice, know that tension all too well.

Betwixt and Between — neither here nor there. It would be safe to say that this liminal time is mostly uncomfortable and confusing. Liminal time is the time between what was and what will be. And not one of us can predict what will be, either in this struggle against injustice or in the uncertain waxing and waning of the deadly coronavirus. The convergence of virus and death and sickness and distancing with racial injustice, violence and protest is almost too much uncertainty for us to navigate.

In the end, I want to believe that this liminal time and every liminal space is the dwelling place of God, the place where God meets us and says, “I will never leave you or forsake you . . . And remember, the Spirit of the Lord is upon you and has anointed you to announce Good News to the poor, to proclaim freedom for the imprisoned and renewed sight for the blind, to release those who have been oppressed. [my paraphrase]

Even in our current time of disconcerting fluid borders, God is with us in this liminal time. God is inseparably bound with us in this moment, and it is in this liminal space where heaven and earth, life and death, joy and sorrow, ecstasy and despair, sleeping and waking, justice and injustice, commingle.

So here’s my challenge to myself and to all of us. What if we choose to experience this liminal time, this uncomfortable now, as a time for insisting upon full solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters? What if we choose to make this particular time — with all of its pandemic and death, chaos and destruction, fire and protest, upheaval and violence as if no lives matter — a liminal time for construction and deconstruction, choice and transformation? What if you and I choose to hold hands and march on in solidarity and community until we reach the mountaintop where injustice is no more?

I want to. Do you?

 

Together!

74F3F032-5117-4474-98A7-A2171243B45E

A blending of two photos: One is an image of protesters in Minneapolis. The second image is a portrayal of people raising their hands to celebrate Pentecost.

This morning I have no words. I have tears. I have sadness. I even have some anger that the people I love whose skin is not “white” are living in grief and frustration. I say only that injustice and oppression cling so close to my friends, today and in centuries past.

F0ABFCC6-C312-44E2-A39F-35F520174256I hear my dear friends cry out for justice. I hear them using words to make sense of it all, and I hear their voices fall silent. Silent, with just these words, “I’m tired.” A dear friend posted the words on the left this morning. I want to see her face to face. I want to be together. I want to comfort her, hoping beyond hope that it is not too late for comfort.

I read this horrific headline this morning.

Prosecutors in Hennepin County, Minnesota, say evidence shows Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including two minutes and 53 seconds of which Floyd was non-responsive.   — ABC News

99398631-7958-42F7-9F51-718EE1C289DD

Artists honor George Floyd by painting a mural in Minneapolis on Thursday, May 28, 2020. Artists began work on the mural that morning. (Photo: Jacqueline Devine/Sun-News)

Today I find myself deeply in mourning for the violence that happens in our country. I find myself trying to share in the grief of my friend and knowing I cannot fully feel the depth of it. Today I find myself unable to emotionally move away from it all. Today I contemplate George Floyd’s cry, “I can’t breathe.”

If there is any comfort at all, it comes as a gift of the artists pictured here. In an act of caring, they offer this mural at a memorial for George Floyd.

The names of other victims of violence are painted in the background. The words, “I can’t breathe!” will remain in our memories. Today we are together in mourning.

But tomorrow, I will celebrate Pentecost. I wonder how to celebrate in a time when lamentation feels more appropriate. I wonder how to celebrate when brothers and sisters have died violent deaths and when thousands of protesters line the streets of many U.S. cities. I wonder how to celebrate when protesters are obviously exposing themselves to COVID19.

Still, tomorrow — even in such a time as this — I will celebrate the breath of the Spirit. Tomorrow I will join the celebration that has something to do with being together, being one. To juxtapose the joyous celebration of Pentecost with the horrible picture of what we saw in cities throughout our country for the past few nights seems an impossible undertaking. What does one have to do with the other?

Perhaps they do share a common message. From those who protest, this message:

“We bring our broken hearts and our anger for the killing of our people, for the murders across the ages of people who are not like you. You treat us differently than you treat the people who look like you. For as long as we can remember, you have visited upon us oppression, slavery, racist violence, injustice. And we are tired. We are spent. We are beside ourselves with collective mourning. We can’t breathe!“

From those who celebrate Pentecost, this message:

18bbdca6-8ece-4df4-aa13-fe110e3298cb“How we celebrate the day when the Holy Spirit breathed upon those gathered together, with gifts of wind and fire!

How we celebrate the story told in the 2nd chapter of Acts!”

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, last days, God says,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.’”   —
Acts 2:1-18 NIV

The people did not, in fact, have too much wine. Peter made it clear that wine did not empower the people who gathered in Jerusalem —  “every people under heaven” — to speak and understand as they heard every word spoken in their own language. That would be a start, would it not, if we could speak the same language and truly understand — people who have flesh-colored skin, and brown and bronze, and red and black . . . every skin color under the sun. If only we could understand each other.

And then, what if we could gather together, welcoming every person? What if we could truly gather together and wait for Spirit to fall upon us with empowerment like we have never known before? What if we allowed the Spirit to give us breath, together?

41F5FD83-6B7A-4393-BF9E-57F0E4D51023In the end, there is a tiny bit of joy in George Floyd’s tragic story. It is a joy much deeper than reality’s sorrow. The artists completed their mural, and in the very center near the bottom, they had painted words that express the greatest truth of all.

Can you see it behind the little girl? “I can breathe now!”

What if we welcome Spirit Breath that will change us? What if we embrace empowerment from the Holy Spirit to help us change our world? What if we end oppression and injustice, together? What if holy perseverance could inspire us to live and act in solidarity with our sisters and brothers, all of them?

What if we dare to give our soul’s very breath to help bring about Beloved Community, together?

Together! Together!

May my God — and the God of every other person — make it so. Amen.

 

 

 

My Soul’s Muse

13FC4C26-1160-4312-AED4-47DCD8DD80A9

The Muse Terpsichore, the Muse of Dance in Greek Mythology; Rare Ancient Greek art pottery plate. https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/muse-goddess-terpsichore-greek-1868160296

I never dance anymore, and that’s a real shame. It’s about losing a part of my soul, really. Letting persnickety circumstances overshadow what my soul loves and desires, maybe even needs. Persnickety circumstances like . . . My back hurts. I’m too old now. I can’t remember how to do it anymore. There’s no room in my living room. It’s just no fun dancing when I’m dancing by myself. But those thoughts describe now! In the past? Well, as you might expect, my past was very different! I lived to dance whether the music was Rock ‘n Roll, Soul, Greek Folk Dancing or Motown. Especially Motown!

If my friends from the past described me, they would most certainly declare that I was a dancing fiend. I think that would be a fairly accurate description. As a young child, I cut my teeth on what I would describe as Big Fat Greek Dances. There was simply no place to be that was as much fun as those Greek dances that could last well past midnight. Did I fall asleep in a chair in a corner as the music filled the hall? Not a chance! When I heard music, I had to dance! Greek dances in big halls or hotel ballrooms included a lot of Greek dancing, which is probably more fun than any dancing known to humankind. But when the band played American music, I waited in my chair, smiling, and waiting for a boy (or a man) to ask me to dance. The men usually came through — favorite uncles, my Godfather, my Godbrother, family friends. It is no exaggeration to say that I traveled far and wide with my Aunt Koula and Uncle John to go to Greek dances — Montgomery, Atlanta, Mobile and, of course, at home in Birmingham.

So that’s my dance-filled childhood. My teenage years were another story altogether! I continued to dance at Greek weddings and other ballroom dances with my friends Suzanne, Frank, Demetra, Xane, Greg, Terry, Sammy and Gussie, to name only a few that come to mind.

96975CE0-82A4-4CCA-BCD3-2010E385F224

Here’s Proof: I’m posing with my best friend, Suzanne . . . as Ancient Greek Goddesses 

But my best friend, Suzanne, and I were all about Motown! With Motown, there was no holding back, and we didn’t hold back. We scandalized every Motown venue we could find with our slick and sultry dance moves.

On one day, we might be depicting beautiful and stately Ancient Greek Goddesses, golden laurels in our hair. On another day, you might find us at The Hangout in Panama City dancing to the sounds of Motown.

And that’s how I earned the reputation of being a “dancing fiend.”

 
Now that I think back on those years, I don’t accept the title “Dancing Fiend!” Especially now that I am remembering the ABBA song . . .

Friday night and the lights are low, looking out for a place to go
Where they play the right music, getting in the swing
You come to look for a king.

Anybody could be that guy
Night is young and the music’s high
With a bit of rock music, everything is fine.

You’re in the mood for a dance, and when you get the chance . . .

You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen.
Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine.

You can dance! You can jive!
Having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene
Dig in the dancing queen!

With that ABBA inspiration, I declare myself, not a dancing fiend, but (Wait for it!) “The Dancing Queen!”

But that was then and this is now. I don’t dance anymore, and that is beginning to trouble me. What troubles me isn’t really about the dancing. It’s that something that was a part of my soul has withered away. That can happen to all of us when, at some point in time, we stop hearing our soul’s music. When a certain life circumstance, a crossroads maybe, cuts us off from our muse,* we lose a part of ourselves. We awaken one morning with the stark realization that something that was important to us is lost. So I ask you, as I ask myself, what important thing have you? What does your soul long for, something that you have lost that was once so healing, so comforting, so fulfilling, so much fun?

These are the pressing questions I am asking myself: What has my soul lost? When did I lose it and how did I lose it? For some it might be singing, dancing, teaching, painting, writing, walking, reading. We could list dozens, maybe hundreds, of things that once nourished our souls and we sometimes deeply regret those soul losses.

Sometimes we seem doomed to feel nostalgic despair or disappointment. OR . . . might we find a way to unearth whatever we have lost? Could we reclaim our ability to once again do what we love, in spite of any limitation that the passing years have brought us? It is indeed a question worth pondering.

So you see, this post isn’t just about dancing. It’s about embracing whatever your soul has lost and allowing your muse to spark within you the creative spirit that nourishes the soul. So go ahead and take a chance. Dance! Sing! Teach! Preach! Garden! Read! Paint! Throw yourself again into whatever your soul loves and needs. I predict you will find comfort, peace, joy and a new refreshing of your soul.

As for me . . . If we ever break out of our social distancing mode and you drop by my house, you might just catch a glimpse of me dancing in the living room!

Motown, of course!

 

SPECIAL BONUS: I want to leave you with a “social distancing video” that will lift you up and inspire your soul. It isn’t Motown music at all, but its music will probably inspire you to celebrate the gift of ballet. Take a few minutes to enjoy it and to celebrate the enormous talent it brings to us from all over the world.

 
* The Muses were the nine Greek goddesses who presided over the arts, including music and dance. An artist or poet about to begin work would call on his particular Muse to inspire him, and a poem itself might begin with such a call; thus, Homer’s Odyssey begins, “Sing to me of the man, Muse” (that is, of Odysseus). Today a muse may be one’s special creative spirit, but some artists and writers have also chosen living human beings to serve as their muses.