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.

When Branches Are Flimsy and Songs Cannot Be Sung

I have a certain fondness for sparrows and the spiritual stories we have ascribed to them. That my blog is named “God of the Sparrow” is no accident. I have aspired many times in my life to live like the sparrow lives. I wanted my human, adult, mature and seasoned self to know, beyond any doubt, that God is watching over me. I do not live the simple, sparrow-like life I always hoped to live. But my unshakable faith has always told me that the God who watches over my every moment is also the God of the sparrow. I remember well the words written in the Gospel of Matthew . . .

So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 
— Matthew 10:41 NRSV

Such a comforting passage of Scripture! Yet, its message to us often pales in comparison to all the things that so frighten us. The state of the world that surrounds us in these days seems to have even more power over us than Matthew’s words about our value to God.

How is it that we are valuable to God when God does not act to protect us from all of life’s slings and arrows? Yesterday in my blog post I listed our world’s bad and scary things, so I won’t list them again today. But I will venture a prognosis that many, many people are suffering in many ways in this confusing season. I am one of those suffering people, feeling a bit of hopelessness in these days of racial unrest, coronavirus unsettledness and political divisions.

I heard a moving choral performance this morning. Its text lifted up my helplessness before me and turned it into a prayer so attuned to where I find myself.

God of the sparrow, sing through us
Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. 
Helpless we seek You, God our joy, 
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. 

Jonathan Cook

I need the sparrow’s God to sing through me. Perhaps you do, too. I need that God-given song because my own music seems to have become quiet, my singing turned to mourning. (Amos 8:10) But this week, I took hold of that mourning. With strong intention, I spent most of one day this week singing my heart out. 

You need to know that I had to choose a day when my husband would be away so that I could sing loud, with abandon. Why did he have to be away? That’s a long story, but in a nutshell, my singing is awful these days. Probably my vocal cords have lost some of their youthful elasticity and, on top of that, I did not sing at all for more than a year. Serious illness took my music.

When I (literally) came back from the dead in 2015, I realized that I had lost so many of my former abilities. Singing was one of them. It felt strange to me when I realized I could no longer sing. My former life was filled with song. Since childhood, there was never a choir I did not join, never a solo I did not sing.

Acknowledging my inability to sing was difficult, just as my life after kidney transplant and this coronavirus is difficult. My isolation has been lengthy, most of nine months, and it is taking its toll on my spirit. Prayer has become both a burden and a grace to me. My singing was my prayer for so many years, and I really need my singing in these hard days. I need to sing my praises to God. I need to sing my lamentations. I need to sing like the sparrow who doesn’t worry about her vocal chords. I need to be like the sparrow who sits on her branch — without fear, without worry — because she knows that if she happens to light on a flimsy branch that does not hold her, her wings will lift her. 

The end of this story is that I need the God of the sparrow to sing through me once again — to sing through me in shadowy days, in times of trouble, in isolation, in fear, in hopelessness. That’s what God does, after all. In a troubled and despairing soul, God creates music, tucking it into every crevice, filling it with songs that can sing out both mourning and celebration. As an added bonus, I have it on good authority that God also turns mourning into dancing.

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30 11-12 NRSV

So as you sing, dance to the new rhythms of your soul! Because you can!

Thanks be to God.

Please spend your meditation time today listening to this beautiful song with text written by Jonathan Cook and music by Craig Courtney. The video follows the text.

God of the Sparrow

God of the sparrow, sing through us,
Songs of deliverance, songs of peace.
Helpless we seek You, God our joy,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease.
Alleluia.

God of the sparrow, God of hope,
Tenderly guide us, be our song,
God of affliction, pain and hurt,
Comfort Your children, make us strong.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

God of the sparrow, care for us.
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

God, like the sparrow, we abide
In Your protection, love and grace.
Just as the sparrow in Your care,

May Your love keep us all our days.

Amen.

Hope and the Soul’s Struggle

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Struggles abound in this unwelcome COVID19 season we are experiencing. Most of us are touched by this virus in some way. We have struggled with so many life changes. I have watched strugglers of the soul work through the illness, others deal with the suffering and death of a friend or family member, often being unable to be with them at their death. Some parents are struggling with decisions affecting school for their children and teachers fear they will be unable to keep their students (and themselves) safe. Others long to see loved they have not seen in months of social distancing.

My circle of friends and family are feeling short on hope while they experience struggles of the soul. Yet, Herman Melville asserts that “Hope is the struggle of the soul.” I have been wondering what exactly that might mean. Perhaps hope gives us the courage we need to move boldly and full of hope into the place where the soul struggles, moving there with the assurance that the hope that led us there will also lead us to healing.

As I look closer at Melville’s words, I begin to see and understand that hope’s struggle eventually empowers us to break loose from the perishable things we hold on to — our wealth, our home, our “things” like cars, boats, RVs, whatever “things” we cherish. Looking at what this virus could bring, knowing that we are facing real life and death situations, cannot help but move our souls to throw off the things that don’t seem so critical anymore — perishable things we do not need. This thought prompts me to look at two of my favorite passages of Scripture.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors . . .

— 1 Peter 1:18-19 (New International Version)

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

— 1 Corinthians 15:54 (New International Version)

How do we get there? How do we get through the soul struggles that can bring us to our knees?

I don’t think there is a well developed plan or a series of definite steps to take. The path, the plan, will be unique to each struggler. But the soul struggles I have felt throughout my life have taught me to place hope where hope must be: in Comforter Spirit who hovers over me with her sheltering wings; in the Christ who lives in and through me guiding me as a good shepherd and empowering me to walk with courage in his footsteps; in the Eternal God who holds before me, always, my own eternity.

This is what is available to you as well as you lean into hope’s struggle of the soul and break loose from things that are not important as you bear witness to your own eternity.

May God make it so.

As you leave these words and move with hope into your soul struggles,

May the God of hope go with you and fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in God, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

— Romans 15:13 (New International Version)

Amen.

I hope you can spend a few minutes in prayer and contemplation as you watch this beautiful, comforting music video, “Still with Thee,” with text written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Remembering John Lewis

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Because I am a citizen of the state of Georgia, I can call him mine — my congressman, my conscience, my inspiration.

John Lewis
A warrior in building the soul of America

Representative John Lewis, a son of sharecroppers and an apostle of nonviolence who was bloodied at Selma and across the Jim Crow South in the historic struggle for racial equality, and who then carried a mantle of moral authority into Congress, died on Friday. He was 80.*

Twice he was beaten to an inch of his life.

I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life.    — John Lewis

On the front lines of the bloody campaign to end Jim Crow laws, with blows to his body and a fractured skull to prove it, Mr. Lewis was a valiant stalwart of the civil rights movement and the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington — where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech — but Lewis was almost refused to be allowed to speak by march organizers because of his strident criticism of the Kennedy administration.

Lewis went on to serve 17 terms in the US House of Representatives, where he was considered the north star of conscience in Congress.**

Tributes to the life and legacy of John Lewis came from hundreds of voices.

“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did,” former President Obama said in a written tribute. “And thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders — to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise.”

Joe Biden, and his wife, Jill, issued a statement that began, “We are made in the image of God, and then there is John Lewis. How could someone in flesh and blood be so courageous, so full of hope and love in the face of so much hate, violence, and vengeance?”

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said: “His courage helped transform this country. He won’t ever be forgotten by those who believe America can change when the people stand together and demand it.”

Sen. Kamala Harris of California said of Lewis, “He carried the baton of progress and justice to the very end. It now falls on us to pick it up and march on.” ***

And so we will, to honor his memory and to persist in the fight against injustice.


John Lewis.

America’s inspiration for getting into “good trouble”

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.
— A tweet from June 2018

I appeal to all of you to get into this great revolution that is sweeping this nation.  Get in and stay in the streets of every city, every village and hamlet of this nation until true freedom comes, until the revolution of 1776 is complete.
— At the 1963 March on Washington

Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.
From his 2017 memoir, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America”

My dear friends: Your vote is precious, almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union.
— From a 2012 speech in Charlotte, North Carolina

You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone—any person or any force—dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant.
From his 2017 memoir, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America”

We have been too quiet for too long. There comes a time when you have to say something. You have to make a little noise. You have to move your feet. This is the time.
— At a 2016 House sit-in following the Pulse shooting in Orlando

When you see something that is not right, not just, not fair, you have a moral obligation to say something. To do something. Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.
— 2019 remarks in the House on impeachment of President Trump

 

May his words echo in our hearts and reach the soul of every American. 

May he rest in peace and — from above — inspire us to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” as he did.

 

John Lewis
Servant of God and champion for justice, now called to his heavenly home

 

 
With thanks to:
* Katharine Q. Seelye, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/17/us/john-lewis-dead.html

** Ken Sehested, http://www.prayerandpolitiks.org/

*** Janet Hook, https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-07-18/tributes-rep-john-lewis-dies-civil-rights

 

 

 

When Plans Are Dreams

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Plans!
We find it almost impossible to make them in a life ruled by COVID19. Currently, school  plans are foremost in the minds of parents and students.

“Is it safe to send my child back to school? What safety and social distancing measures will schools have in place? Do I choose to keep them at home, opting for virtual learning? How do I manage online school?”

In light of such critical plans and decisions, consider this current news report:

A document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force but not publicized suggests more than a dozen states should revert to more stringent protective measures, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, closing bars and gyms and asking residents to wear masks at all times.

The document, dated July 14 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, says 18 states are in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week. [Georgia is in the “red zone.”]

Eleven states are in the “red zone” for test positivity, meaning more than 10 percent of diagnostic test results came back positive. [Georgia is in this “red zone” too.] https://publicintegrity.org/health/coronavirus-and-inequality/exclusive-white-house-document-shows-18-states-in-coronavirus-red-zone-covid-19/

Even with troubling reports like this one, Georgia’s governor, Gov. Brian Kemp, signed an order on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 banning localities from requiring masks. On this information, parents have to agonize about what’s best for their children. They simply cannot make firm plans as long as the virus is waxing and waning. Mostly waxing!

Plans are difficult for us for all sorts of reasons and circumstances. Every now and then over the years, my life would take un unexpected pause to contemplate this thought written by the late Mary Oliver:

 So tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Unpacking that brief question has been a periodic constant in my life, popping up for me mostly in my down and disheartened times. I hear the poet describing my life as “wild and precious” and it almost shocks me. Yet, my life really has been consistently wild and mostly precious. Anything that urges me to examine my life is a good thing. I can almost always pull up memories of the times when I was wild and free — insistent upon rising higher, realizing a near-impossible dream, charging with courage into new and uncharted places, planning for a future of fresh and sparkling heights, observing just how wild I could dare to be. Unpacking that question has been exhilarating at times, exhausting at other times.

Musing on a life that could be described as precious

Entertaining the thought that my life was precious happened in my deepest soul place. It happened in my moments of introspection, meditative times that urged me to examine all the ways I saw my life as precious, cherished, valued. Of course, I have experienced many precious life moments — my wedding day, my work in Africa, my ordination, awards and recognitions of my work and career and, most of all, the adoption of my one wild and precious son, JonathanExamining my precious life was most real when I almost lost my life, my full year of serious illness, five years of dialysis and a kidney transplant made possible by the selflessness of a lovely woman I know only through email.

Such thoughts bring me back to plans. What is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? Even a life precious and wild is a life that requires plans, and right now trying to make plans is an exercise fraught with anxiety. I cannot find any words that can minimize this depth of anxiety. There is not one thing you or I can do about plans that have been ravaged by the pandemic we are experiencing, and yet we must make critical plans in this season of uncertainty. 

School plans are most difficult in my state and perhaps in yours. As parents agonize over the safety of their children, Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, offered this unhelpful comment this morning in a press conference:

I am a believer that kids need to be in the classroom and we’re working with the schools to do that. We’re going to have cases that break out in schools, either with personnel or perhaps students, just like you do with a stomach bug or a flu or anything else. Our schools know how to handle those situations.

The parents and teachers in my life know that this coronavirus is not just a run-of-the-mill “stomach bug or flu.” This virus is deadly, and parents and teachers faced with difficult school decisions know that all too well. During these pandemic days, it is a constant reality that many of us are having to make potentially hazardous plans, but just for a moment, I wonder if we can redirect our thoughts to plans we make for our “one wild and precious life.”

Can we rise above the plans we must make today, even for a moment, and instead consider the bold and courageous plans we could make? Can we set our hearts to think about plans we can make when we are our brave, adventurous and fearless selves? Can we contemplate the plans we might make when we feel bold, resolute and undaunted?

I can remember the times when I was able to make such adventurous plans, times when my plans were dreams — high and lofty dreams of changing the world. I can also remember the time when I no longer dreamed any dreams at all. It was a time when I no longer saw my life as a wild and precious one. I still entertained plans, but my plans were definitely not dreams. I believed I could no longer change the world. I believed I could no longer live a life that made a difference. I believed that my soul was dry and my spirit barren. I believed that, in my life, dangerous and noble things were no longer possible

Why can’t you and I dream dreams instead of making plans? Why can’t my “one wild and precious life” rise higher, high enough to make dreams of my plans? Sometimes I will go to one of my many favorite passages of Scripture hoping to find God’s word to me. Being true to my theological education, I always look at the words in context before I do anything else. But after that hermeneutical exercise I learned in New Testament 101, I might twist the text a bit and maybe even paraphrase it, inviting the text to speak to me specifically, just me. For this day, one of the texts found in the book of Acts reaches into my soul, and, yes, I did paraphrase it.

“In your season of most need,” God says,
“I will restore your soul and make your spirit rise within you.
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your youthful hearts will see visions,
your aging hearts will dream dreams.”

— Acts 2:17 (my paraphrase)

Amen. 

May God lift our hearts and spirits, assure us that our lives are precious and help us transform our plans into dreams.

So tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

 

That Mysterious and Mystical Reality

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Watercolor art by Kalliope, Holy Ghosts

You might be thinking that both mysterious and mystical are the antithesis of reality. If you are thinking that, you might be wrong. So might I. But in my experience, life itself is a mysterious and mystical reality. That reality fills my spirit with hope in my darkest moments. Dark moments, hours of grief, dark nights of the soul, lamentations of the spirit — all have been part of my life journey. My pathways have often been rough and rocky. My life’s travel has often taken me to disconcerting forks in the road and confusing crossroads. I have known times of despairing and times of uncertainty — reluctance, despondency, angst, heartbreak, fear — “break-out-in-a-sweat times” that forced me into dangerous depths of anguish. For me, taking my own life was not something I could consider. Yet there was that one day — that span of just a few moments — when I was alone, afraid and very far from home.

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Japan’s Aokigahara Suicide Forest

One of the most thoughtful and intriguing movies I have ever experienced is The Sea of Trees. I was captivated by the film that tells the story of a despondent professor. After the death of his wife, he despaired of life and searched for a way to end his. His reflective, angst-filled search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as The Sea of Trees or The Suicide Forest. Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

Don’t worry. This post is not about suicide. Rather it is about the people who loved us in life and continue to love us in death, those who watch over us in our times of deepest anguish. It is about the mysterious and mystical reality that between us and our loved ones in heaven, there is but a thin separation. Heaven and earth,” the Celtic saying goes, “are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”

To know that my sweet Yiayia (grandmother in Greek) and my Thea Koula might still be protecting me from harm and life disaster is soul-comforting for me. Perhaps the strength and hope I felt as I was chaplain to disheartened hospital patients came from them. Perhaps they sent me the staying power to comfort, protect and advocate for thousands of abused women and children. Maybe the deep grief of losing my brother to cancer was eased by their prayers from heaven.

I often wondered if my mourning of the loss of the life I knew — replaced by daily dialysis — was lightened by their loving presence with me in a horrible time. I wonder, Yiayia, were you watching over me on November 12th when I closed my eyes in the operating room to receive my kidney transplant? I wonder, Thea Koula, did your intercession save my life on those times when my life literally hung in the balance?

This life is not an easy one. No person gets through life unscathed. No one travels a path smooth and straight. Like me, you have more than likely walked on a rough pathway with stones in the road, dangerous curves and life-altering crossroads. Robert Frost wrote eloquently in his poem, The Road Not Taken, about someone standing at a fork in the road pondering a life-altering choice:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .

Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear . . .

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

My life is filled with “roads not taken,” some not taken by my choice, others thwarted by chance or fate or maybe even God. It is almost like traveling through a “sea of trees” that hide our view of the way ahead, causing us to lose our way. For my art today, I chose one of my watercolor paintings. A few years ago, I painted this “sea” of leafless trees against an ethereal, melancholy wash of color. Interspersed among the trees are ghost-like figures hovering. Actually I titled the painting Holy Ghosts. The painting was inspired by the words of a friend.

When the dead come to mind, they are like holy ghosts, as real as hope or faith, as tangible as trust and love.  – Ragan Courtney

This painting was never meant to be disconcerting or morbid. It represents just the opposite for me. It represents the souls who hover over me for protection, those with whom I shared love and life. It represents my aunt and my Yiayia and my brother because I am certain they protect me, pray for me, lift me up and cheer me on.

Who knows! Maybe my brother Pete, who died of renal cell carcinoma, hovered above me in a kind of holy kidney disease kinship and protected me when I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease in 2014. Maybe he prayed for me during my transplant surgery in 2019. I can, of course, never know that for sure. The veil between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is a mystery we simply do not understand. Our understanding does not reach that far, but what we feel in our spirit does reach that far.

In the end, my spirit senses that between us there is but a thin separation, that the spirits of my loved ones are are connected to mine, especially when I am disconsolate and in despair.

In the comfort of that mysterious and mystical reality, I can heal. I can rest. I can continue my journey of dangers, toils and snares. I can know the amazing grace that comes from sacred connections. I can know peace after sorrow. And so can you.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

Juneteenth 2020 — Oh Freedom!

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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.”

Together!

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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

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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.

 

 

 

The Whirlwind Is Here

 

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Moon Over Harlem, William H. johnson, 1943-1944. © Washington, DC,                           Smithsonian American Art Museum

I share this blog post today in memory of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed in the state of Georgia, the state in which I live in full and free safety. Ahmaud Arbery did not know such safety. But today we say his name and honor his memory. There are so many names we could speak today: Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd. Breonna Taylor and hundreds more, even thousands. What can black parents possibly tell their kids now about staying safe? I also honor the parents who try to find the right words, the right admonitions to say to their children. Most of all, I honor the strong and powerful voices who continually cry out: “Justice!” My friend and pastor, Wendell Griffen, is one who cries “justice” with a particular eloquence.

Wendell Griffen is a pastor, state court trial judge, and social justice activist in Little Rock, Arkansas who lectures and writes about social justice. I am pleased to share with you his most recent article. He will call you out. He will speak plainly to those of us who are white. He will call you to act against injustice, drawing your courage from God, who whose children are deeply loved — all of them!


 

For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
Hosea 8:7 (NRSV)

Have you viewed the ten minute and twelve second video of the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd by former members of the Minneapolis Police Department?

Why haven’t you? What are you afraid you will see? What are you unwilling to see? What are you unwilling to admit?

Have the four now former members of the Minneapolis Police Department responsible for killing George Floyd in broad daylight before onlookers who also videotaped their conduct been arrested on suspicion of committing a homicide (causing the death of another person) of George Floyd?

Why haven’t they been arrested? Why have they not been held in custody and required to post bond? Who decided they should not be arrested? What message was sent when they were not arrested?

The killing of George Floyd was a criminal act. There are witnesses to the act. The fact of Mr. Floyd’s death is indisputable.  Mr. Floyd was not threatening anyone — none of the officers nor anyone else — when he was killed. The actions of the officers were not taken or necessary to prevent him from threatening anyone.

In other words, there is no legal justification for the actions of the four former police officers who killed George Floyd.  None.  Period.  Full stop.

We should not be surprised that people around the world, including Minneapolis, are furious. George Floyd was slain by agents of the state. His killers are still at large. They have not been arrested. We should not be surprised that people in Minneapolis are outraged by statements on Thursday from local and federal prosecutors calling for “patience.” Why should they be patient about deliberate refusals to arrest known homicide suspects? Why should they “trust” a “process” that reeks with corruption and injustice?

We should not be surprised that people are outraged by the decision of the Minnesota Governor to mobilize the state militia — the Minnesota National Guard. Minneapolis is not under siege or being attacked. The “peace” and “order” of the Minneapolis area is not threatened by the civilians who protested while four Minneapolis police officers killed Mr. Floyd.  It is not threatened by Mr. Floyd’s family members and friends. It is not threatened by the many people who took to the streets to protest his death and how local authorities refused to arrest his killers.

Do the Mayor of Minneapolis and Governor of Minnesota believe that it takes 500 National Guard soldiers to arrest four suspected killers?

And does anyone really believe that the fiery protests seen tonight would have happened if the four suspected killers had been already arrested?

Let’s talk plainly. George Floyd was killed. At minimum, he was recklessly killed. At worse, he was knowingly killed. In Minnesota and every other US jurisdiction, recklessly causing the death of another person is manslaughter. In Minnesota, state prosecutors can charge people who commit manslaughter without convening a grand jury.

Let’s talk plainly. In Minnesota and elsewhere in the United States, a person who cooperates with, assists, helps to conceal, or otherwise interferes with efforts to stop a homicide is liable for the homicide as an accomplice. Each of the officers involved in the homicide of George Floyd should have been arrested and charged days ago with manslaughter! The prosecutors can later seek grand jury indictments for murder if other evidence is uncovered.

Let’s talk plainly.  The Minnesota Governor and Minneapolis Police Department, and the Hennepin County prosecutor are demonstrating their cultural incompetence. That incompetence is not merely personal. It is institutional, pervasive, pernicious, and infuriating!

The same cultural incompetence happened when Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Georgia.

The same cultural incompetence happened when Breonna Taylor was killed in Kentucky.

The same cultural incompetence happened when a white woman named Amy Cooper falsely accused a black man named Christian Cooper (no relationship) of threatening her life.

That cultural incompetence is not new.

The Louisville Police officers who killed Breonna Taylor in her home have not been arrested – yet!

The killers of Ahmaud Arbery were not arrested for months after he was attacked and slain. They were only arrested after (and because) a video was exposed that chronicled how he was killed and who killed him.

We should also demand that the former police officers involved in the Floyd matter be arrested immediately on suspicion of manslaughter. There is plainly probable cause for arresting the officer who held his knees on Floyd.  However, there is also probable cause for arresting the other officers as accessories (accomplices) because of their active presence and complicity in the homicide (manslaughter).

Few statements to date have stressed this fundamental issue. Arrests do not need simultaneous charging actions. There is no need to await charges before each of the former officers who were involved in the homicide of George Floyd is arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. There is no requirement that the autopsy be completed before persons suspected of manslaughter are arrested. There is no requirement that ALL possible information be gathered before suspected killers are arrested.

Each former officer should be arrested on suspicion of having committed manslaughter in the death of George Floyd.

Prophetic people know that refusal to arrest of the former officers is a political statement by the Minneapolis Police Department. The Department has chosen to not arrest killers.  That fact should be strongly proclaimed. Prosecutors do not arrest suspects. That is a policing decision, and the police have deliberately exercised their discretion to NOT arrest four homicide suspects.

Telling people to “trust the process” is infuriating when “the process” is openly working to perpetuate a blatant injustice.

Stop saying “you feel the anger” of people in Minneapolis, and especially “feel the anger” of black and brown people. No, you don’t!  You haven’t suffered this mess. You haven’t dealt with it every day and night.

You haven’t seen people be called “lawless” for loudly protesting a homicide except when the victim is a person of color.

You don’t “feel our anger.” You may feel your own anger. Good. But don’t claim that you “feel our anger” or “share our anger.” You don’t unless you have shared our pain, shared our discrimination, and shared the centuries of blatant state sanctioned slaughter of black and brown people by law enforcement officials. We know you don’t feel and share our anger. Stop fooling yourselves and stop trying to fool us!

Black people are not fools. The U.S. Justice Department is headed by William Barr, the same person who decided that the United States would not charge Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner by choking him to death, with violating Garner’s civil rights.

We live with discrimination every day. We do not have to act like we like it. We do not have to put on a good face about it. And we will not do so. If you aren’t comfortable with our anger and the way we express it, get out of the way. If you aren’t turning over the institutions responsible for our anger and angry behavior, get out of the way.

As the prophet Hosea wrote concerning the ancient Hebrew nation of Israel, this society has always sown the wind of white supremacy with its tolerance of state-sponsored terrorism and slaughter of black, brown, red, yellow, and poor white people. People of color have long known that this society “shall reap the whirlwind.”

The whirlwind from the seeds of long pent-up outrage about systemic law enforcement abusive and homicidal conduct has arrived at the same time the nation and world are gripped by the global Covid 19 pandemic which highlights racial disparities in countless areas of life. The whirlwind from generations of corrupt and racist political leadership now has arrived when the US is led by a vicious idiot, despot, racist, and sociopath named Donald John Trump.

The whirlwind is here. The United States cannot, should not, and will not escape.

©Wendell Griffen, 2020


Amen, my brother. Yes, our country has reaped the whirlwind. We have reaped the whirlwind. Let us gather our resolve and look to our faith to guide us, and then let each of us work to break the bonds of injustice in whatever ways we are able. Today I committed to using my art and writing to portray the rise of white supremacy and the oppression of non-white persons. What gifts could you use to enter the struggle for justice? Can each of us work for justice with a sense of urgency?

May our God find us faithful to the creation of Beloved Community.  Amen.

KMF

Musings on Unfaith

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Unfaith! Such an unsettling word that may well describe where we sometimes find ourselves! I am certain that unfaith applies to me, to the times when my soul is troubled, to the seasons when my faith becomes small. Unfaith most definitely takes over in my heart at times, and in those times, my journey is a struggle. So I battle against unfaith, all the while simply wanting to understand it. This is my truth: I fight unfaith, praying to be rid of it, writing down my emotions around it, reading my Bible when I cannot live with unfaith another minute. My skirmish with unfaith often leads me to the words of the Psalmist.

In yesterday’s struggle with unfaith, I happened upon Psalm 73. It is a rather lengthy Psalm, as Psalms go, and it spends a great deal of time describing wicked people. I rushed through it, I think, because I was searching for inspiring words about unfaith and because I all already know a lot about wicked people. I can, in fact, describe wicked people almost as passionately as does the Psalmist. On top of that, my description of wicked people often includes some choice and inappropriate words.

I plowed on through the Psalm when, out of the blue, one particular verse “hit me upside the head!” (That’s southern slang!) Verse 14 came much too close to my soul. It described my emotions and showed me myself.

All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.

— Psalm 73:14 NIV

Oh my! There it is: a succinct statement that so fully reflects what I had been feeling for the past week. It is unpleasant to read, as if it is stating my disconcerting reality and then forcing me to ask myself a question I would rather avoid. Still, I dare to ask myself — “So what are you going to do about your current state?” — knowing that I will likely not have an immediate answer nor a reassuring one. Sometimes I think that all of my feelings and responses come from my unfaith.

I should give you the backdrop for my Psalm 73 experience. I have felt unwell for several days — unrelenting fatigue, deep muscle aches, shortness of breath, trembling, hand tremors and several other troubling symptoms. The reality is that since my kidney transplant in November, I have been plagued with less than perfect health and a very compromised immune system.

Last week, my immunosuppressant medication dosage was increased, something I always dread because I know the distress that usually follows. This time, the side-effects seem worse than they have ever been. I struggle with the reality that so many parts of my body are just not working normally and despair is one of my recurring feelings, despair that, on most days, I have to fight against.

I have learned that I can fight against despair and that often I must. Despair does a number on the soul and spirit, on the place where my emotions live. So, yes, I can fight it, but the fight is exhausting. I can stand courageously and face off with despair. At times, I can even rise above it, but the encounter leaves me deep-down weary.

As for my spirit? Well, my spirit constantly searches for God’s comfort, for holy relief and answers to my questions. I try to attend to my spiritual health, as well as my emotional and physical health, often without much success. I sometimes experience God as a comforter who is far away. I do not often hear God’s voice, and I am not one to beg God for healing. Is all of this struggle because of my unfaith?

I have shared far more confession and self-revelation than anyone needs to hear. I do it because sometimes I believe that release might come if I can give voice to my pain and discouragement, if I can own my weariness and tell my story. Telling is not a quick-fix miracle cure, but telling another person how I feel gives me an extra measure of strength and resolve. And telling all of you who read my blog always means that many of you will offer prayers for me.

After sharing with you that I sometimes feel distant from God, this morning I caught an unexpected glimpse of God. It was just a tiny glimpse, though it was also a comforting, healing glimpse. I caught a glimpse of God in the place I find God most often — through the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is my go-to place when I find myself so weary that I feel as if I cannot take another step.

Selected passages from Isaiah 40 and 41:

Do you not know?  Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31 NIV

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you; 
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

— Isaiah 41:10,13 NIV

For some reason, I felt an urging to read Psalm 73 again. As I read it again, I found a clear and enduring declaration of God’s presence that rings so true to me on my best days.

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
 and my portion forever.

—Psalm 73:23-26 NIV

This is the spiritual place I want to be — the place where I know that God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever — in spite of pain, in spite of discomfort, in spite of uncertainty, in spite of the life reality that my questions will not always have answers, in spite of my unfaith. I am convinced that unfaith is always with us like “a thorn in the flesh,” an ever-present oppressor, a silent demon that steals into the soul. But I am even more certain that, along with unfaith, there is pure and true faith. Perhaps we cannot know abiding faith without also knowing the disconcerting seasons of unfaith.

So these are my musings about unfaith, prompted by a Psalm. Isn’t that just like God, though, offering me a grace gift by gently guiding me through a Psalm that reaffirms God’s protection? Isn’t that like God, to freely give me reassuring grace? Isn’t it just like God, to give me the gift of presence, a gift freely given to me even when I doubt, even when I am struggling with a season of unfaith?

Thanks be to God for the epiphany that, in my heart and soul, faith has most assuredly come, though bringing unfaith with it. Thanks be to God for this insight: that growing in faith means descending into my unfaith for as long as it takes for its oppressive darkness to give way to God’s wonderful light.

As I walked through this part of my faith journey, I could not help but remember the words of a hymn that declares that we are held by a firm foundation and, through words spoken by God, promises us protection, strength and grace.

* Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

In your quiet time, spend a few moments hearing this hymn as you worship with the congregation of First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

*Author: George Keith 1787; R. Keen, 1787
Source: Rippon’s A Selection of Hymns, 1787
Copyright: Public Domain