Swampy, Murky Places

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October Hunter’s moon rising over Arkansas’ Mallard Lake. Photography by Debbie Marie Smith.

Life can be swampy and murky at times, with not enough light to see the way forward. Not to mention the danger of being mired in the mud unable to move! You have probably been there. I know I have, and when the journey has taken me through those murky waters, I have despaired. So many circumstances can take us through rough places, but the circumstance that immediately comes to mind for me is indecision.

Indecision is that uncomfortably in-between place where you have no idea how to find the way forward, yet you cannot stay in the place you are. Waiting is born of indecision and waiting can be excruciating. Right about now, I wish I could report that one must simply pray and God will instantly change indecision into forward motion, out of any murky swamp. 

I cannot say, however, that a single prayer can make that happen. At least for me, there have been no instant-miraculous-life-changing answers to my prayers. Not even once in my faith journey of many years! What I can tell you with deep assurance is that, although no single prayer has changed my life, continual prayer has changed my life. It is not the prayer of occasional consolation that changes the course of one’s life journey. It is the life of prayer that seeks God in prayer, abiding in God’s presence, for as long as it takes. Richard Rohr says this wise thing about prayer:

The only people who pray well are those who keep praying! In fact, continued re-connecting is what I mean by prayer, not occasional consolations that we may experience.

No doubt, life’s journey will take us through murky, swampy places without enough light to find our way through them. The murkiness of indecision is real, and with it we may experience confusion, fear, despair, desperation. We may even lose hope and question our faith. But we cannot stay there. People of faith are people of resilience and courage. We have within us all the resilience and courage we need. So we must believe in ourselves enough to take a step forward and out, through the mud and the sludge, trusting in faith that God’s light will light up the dark places and give us the strength to move through to the other side.

That’s what I have to believe about painful, oppressive places of indecision. That’s what I have to believe about getting through swampy, murky places. That’s what I have to believe about God.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

— John 1:1-5

A Prophetic Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

God, Give Us a Prophetic Voice

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Yiayia / Γιαγιά

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In my heart this week, I have held my grandmother, my “Yiayia” who came to America at age 25 with an older husband and two babies. One of them was my mother. December 16, 1916 it was when the ship Guiseppe Verdi reached Ellis Island. My Yiayia — line number 25 on the ship’s passenger manifest — had never envisioned coming to this land. She never considered she might leave the tiny Greek village on the island that was her home.

Her husband, wanted by Mussolini as a political detractor, had no choice but to flee in the dark of night in search of a place of safety and refuge for his little family. He had the courage to survive and to dream. But here’s the thing: my grandparents were welcomed into this country when they arrived to see the brightness of the Lady Liberty’s lighted torch. To be sure, their life in America was not all bright or easy. They worked hard to eek out a living and to become a part of a new community so very far from the home they loved. 

After I was born into the world, a toddler at Yiayia’s knee, I watched her struggling to learn English, to speak English well enough to be understood by her neighbors. One of my most vivid memories was sitting next to her at our kitchen table next to an enormous silver radiator that creaked and groaned, but warmed us famously. With The Birmingham News spread across the table in front of her, she drank her coffee, dipping her Zuieback toast and reading the newspaper, every morning.

She taught herself to read English, but The Birmingham News was not merely a reading primer for Yiayia. She learned from it. She understood the news events of her day. She knew that liberty was a gift worth protecting. So she studied the political climate and the political personalities asking for her vote. She would insist that you MUST vote, that you must know the candidates, that you must cherish the right to free and fair elections.

So Yiayia would dress in her finest clothing, simple but lovely dresses. She would put on her earrings and her brooch, her rings and her watch. Then she would dress me, and off we would go, across the street and down the block to the polling place. We would go together into the booth with the dark brown curtain. She would vote and I would stand in close to her with the view of only that brown curtain and her chunky shoes, heels of course.

Before we exited the booth — every time — she would look down at me and say, “We are Democrats! That’s how we vote, always!” And to this very day, I have followed her voting directive — always. The truth is that her definitive directive about voting had much more to do with the process than the political party she supported. It went deeper than any party loyalty, all the way back to reading The Birmingham News, seeing the beam of the Statue of Liberty, crossing the ominous ocean, remembering how it felt to have to flee from government oppression and grieving the loss of the island of her home.

Today, it’s not so simple for our neighbors who must flee their homes for so many reasons — safety, survival, fear, oppression. Our president says they are not welcome here. Many Americans say they are not welcome here. Just today, The New York Times reported that Mr. Trump’s growing migrant paranoia resulted in the forced resignation of homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who resigned on Sunday. She is part of Trump’s wider “housecleaning” designed to appoint persons who will make sure migrants can not get across our southwestern borders. Only department heads who will enthusiastically implement the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy will keep their jobs. May we never forget the images of thousands of migrant children who were separated from their families.

The president, in a not so presidential tweet, took aim again Sunday night when he tweeted, “Our Country is FULL!” So yes, he says that our neighbors are not welcome here. Yet, millions of us, second generation citizens of the United States of America, will never forget where we came from. We will always remember that our roots spanned the ocean and survived in a new land.

In my friend’s blog last week, I found words that touched me in a profound way and caused me to grieve the land of welcome we once knew. Her words express a startling poignancy. 

“A country that unwelcomes the world,” she writes.

I want to share with you her entire blog post — Jericho Walk — because it is well worth your time to ponder it, but first I emphasize this portion:

Often there is a shofar
to remind us just how deep
are the cracks
in the foundation of a country
that unwelcomes the world . . .

Jericho Walk
by Maren

I return to the Jericho walk,
in Manchester,
having not been well enough
for a couple months,
and it feels like home —
this moving vigil, silent, but with signs
and grateful waving for drivers
who honk their support.

We travel around the large block
of the federal building
where people we love and
some people we have never met
come to discover
if this week they’ll be deported.

We walk around seven times
hoping the walls
will come tumbling down —

around this place
that sends into certain danger
kind, hard-working,
tax paying, family-loving people
who contribute so much
to our community

Often there is a shofar
to remind us just how deep
are the cracks
in the foundation of a country
that unwelcomes the world,

but today there is a flautist
playing “Siyahamba”
over and over again —
walking
in the light of God,

and I think of that less-military
Jericho story —
the one that defines neighbor as

anyone from anywhere
who stops to help vulnerable ones
fallen on the side of the road.

Thank you, Maren. 

Thank you, my dear Yiayia, for teaching me that God grants us the grace gifts of refuge, safe haven and freedom. And no human — not even a big, bad, bully president — can take those gifts from us and from the generations that come after us.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

Two Women

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Painting of Shiphrah and Puah

This blog post is about two brave women who literally changed the world. You may have never heard of them, but they are worth knowing. Here’s how the story of the women begins.

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. (Exodus 1:8-14)

The Hebrew people had immigrated to Egypt because of life-threatening conditions in their homeland. They thrived in the new land and their population grew. For many years, they lived peacefully in Egypt, and made great contributions to its well-being.

Then a new king arose, a king who began to spread fear about the immigrants. They were multiplying, becoming powerful. “Soon this new race will outnumber and overpower our own! So we must close ranks in fear,” he said.

Sadly, we are hearing a similar message from our president. But we won’t expound on that today. This is a story about courage.

We constantly hear leaders talking to us through our televisions — experts on various topics, members of congress, politicians, pundits. One thing shines clearly about most of them: they exhibit not an ounce of courage and conviction. For many of them, maybe most of them, the rhetoric is about their own interests, never about taking a stand against evil or injustice, never about the cost of doing what is right.

So may I tell you a story about two courageous women you may not know? Thousands of years ago two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, said “NO.” Shiphrah and Puah served Hebrew women who were anticipating childbirth. The Pharoah commanded the midwives to kill all the baby boys born to Hebrew women in Egypt. An ancient method of power and control!

There are only six verses in the whole Bible about these women, but their actions led to the salvation of the entire nation of Israel.  Shiphrah and Puah were in charge of all the Hebrew midwives in Egypt while Israel was enslaved in Egypt. One day, Pharaoh called Puah and Shiphrah to him and told them,

When you are helping the Hebrew women to give birth and see them upon the birthstool, if it is a son, then you shall put him to death; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.”

At this point in history, Egypt was the largest kingdom and the Egyptian Pharaoh was considered the most powerful ruler in the world. In fact, the Egyptian people regarded Pharaoh as a leader appointed by their gods. Imagine all the leaders in the world today. Now imagine that all of their power was all given to one single leader and that’s approximately how powerful Pharaoh was — and this particular Pharaoh wasn’t very nice.

Now, the most powerful ruler in the world has just ordered Puah and Shiphrah to kill every baby boy born to a Hebrew woman. What happened next is one of the most courageous things we could imagine. Let’s look at the whole story recorded in Exodus 1:15-22, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.  So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

These two midwives had spent their lives bringing new life into the world, and now they were asked to snuff out that new life as it was about to draw its first breath. “Not a chance!” they declared with courage welling up inside them.

No! Shiphrah and Puah said “No.” Because they were called to choose life, not to end it. They acted swiftly and shrewdly. They lied, in fact, and said this to Pharoah. “What can we do? The Hebrew women are giving birth so fast that the babies are born before we can get to the birthing tents.” 

All the while, they were coaching these immigrant Hebrew women, holding their hands and catching their babies as they made their way into their complicated, inhospitable world.

Shiphrah and Puah said “No!” And among the children they saved was the baby Moses. You know the one. He was chosen and anointed by God to free the Hebrew people from Egyptian oppression and lead them back to their beloved homeland.

Today we have the opportunity to say “No” to all that is unjust. What does that mean for us? What does it mean to summon the courage to help bear life into this complicated time?

Perhaps it means not buying in to the fear some want us to feel about the caravan of refugees who are approaching our borders. Perhaps it means advocating for their well-being in every way we can, declaring that we refuse to demonize them, and understanding the heart of parents who feel they must flee from the dangers of their homeland.

Perhaps it means supporting efforts to reunite the immigrant children that are still separated from their parents.

Perhaps it means that you and I must find ways to choose life instead of death, and hope instead of fear.

I don’t know if the story of Shiphrah and Puah story speaks to you, but I hope you will ponder it and hear its truth.

There will always be new kings who arise among us and decide to deal harshly with certain groups of people. But we do not have to go along with their plans. In fact, we must not go along with their plans and instead follow the courageous path of creating justice for all people.

May God help us to make it so. Amen.

 

 

 

Losing Hope

 

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Dr. Michelle Bengtson

How do we live after we have lost hope? How do we live with brokenness? What do we say to a broken world? What do we do with our broken hearts? The truth is that each day can bring us heartbreak. Any season of life can bring us failure. At times, the struggle is so intense that we do lose hope. 

Khalil Gibran has written that “out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” 

How true that is, that our suffering makes us stronger, that our scars make us resilient. Most of us move through life steeled against any suffering. We bravely put on our body armor to protect us against every assault. We refuse to allow our vulnerability to rise within us.

I have been strengthened by Brené Brown’s book, “Rising Strong.” She points us to wisdom that names hope is a function of struggle, and challenges us to not be afraid to lean into discomfort.

Why would we want to do that, you might ask? Who in their right mind really wants to invite adversity into their lives? Why would we want to be vulnerable? We need to be strong. We need to live into courage. We need to be impenetrable, tough and impervious to anything that might hurt us.

Here’s what Brené Brown says about that:

Hiding out, pretending and armoring up against vulnerability are killing us: killing our spirits, our hope, our potential, our creativity . . . Our love, our faith, our joy. We’re sick of being afraid and sick of hustling for our self-worth. We want to be brave, but deep inside of we know that being brave requires us to be vulnerable.

“No adversity, no hope,” she writes. “Fall. Get up. Try again.”

As people of faith, we can speak, through our own heartbreak, to a broken world. We can offer the message that if you feel that you have to give up, hope whispers, “try one more time.”

When we live in life’s fullness, with our whole hearts, we will always know heartbreak. We will push to try something new, and sometimes we will fail completely. We will experience disappointment. But without those heartbreak times, we will never know that we can get beyond them.

If we never fall, we will never know that we really can get up. If we never lose hope, we will never experience the joy of finding it again.

If we never lose hope, we will never know new hope, fresh and pointing us toward the skies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Light We Will Stand

 

1A6BB78E-B362-4076-8D9A-0F7A98F8B40A“I have perfect attendance pins for Sunday School going back thirty years, and until last week, I never knew that the Bible told the story of someone who had been raped.”

I have heard similar comments many times when preaching from my book about Biblical women, “Voices of Our Sisters.” The truth is that Scriptural passages like those described by Phillis Trible in “Texts of Terror” are not your Mama’s Bible stories. We don’t teach them in our classes and we definitely do not preach on them in church. The stories of violence against women in the Bible are as hushed as the stories of abused women today. Shame on us.

It was one year ago that The New York Times published an investigative article about how Harvey Weinstein had for decades paid off acusers of sexual harassment. 

“Culturally, the article hit like a meteor,” writes Maya Salam in The New York Times Gender Letter, “drastically altering the landscape around how sexual misconduct is perceived, sending the #MeToo hashtag viral and, in turn, triggering an avalanche of accusations against powerful men. It wasn’t long before #MeToo wasn’t just a turn of phrase — it was a movement.”

RAINN*, the country’s largest anti-sexual assault network, experienced a 30 percent increase in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline since the current #MeToo resurgence, and last Friday — the day after Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee — was the busiest day in the hotline’s 24-year history.

The women of this nation will not forget Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Women who have been harmed by sexual violence will revere her for her courage. Because our courage, survivors all, has often been small and our fear very large. We know that people will not believe our stories of abuse, and that instead they will blame us for bringing our terrible stories to light.

We will not forget Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and we will remember Tarana Burke who first spoke #MeToo in 2007 to let young women of color who survive sexual assault know that they are not alone.

We will remember Alyssa Milano and her Tweet that reached dozens of countries and millions of people — over 1.7 million tweets included the hashtag “#MeToo,” and 85 countries had at least 1,000 #MeToo tweets.

So we join hands with those who understand us, hold on tightly, and speak our truth, because we need to move from darkness to light.

And in the light we will stand, hearts and spirits lighter because we have spoken our terror aloud. C47C1264-7179-455D-AA1A-6DF17B4673F8

In the light we will stand, even though staying in silence’s darkness would be easier. 

In the light we will stand, even as the people around us cling stubbornly to their darkness that screams out to us, “We will not hear you!”

In the light we will stand because that’s the only way to survive.

 

* RAINN — Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

 

 

 

Growing Up Inspired: My Granddaughter and The Little Rock Nine

28332D92-A50E-4817-9663-6D13F00790D5June 16, 2012 . . . My three-year-old granddaughter standing among the bronze sculptures of The Little Rock Nine.

Her parents had told her the poignant story of The Little Rock Nine, but at age three she had no idea of the many ways their lives would impact hers. Because they crossed an invisible, but very real, line that divided black children from white children, they opened the door to educational equality in a racially divided state. Because their parents were brave enough to let their children breach the three stately doors of Little Rock Central High School, their world changed in unimaginable ways. And with that change, my granddaughter inherited the highly cherished right to equal education and all the opportunities that would follow. Because of that change, my granddaughter would grow up inspired.

In case you do not know about The Little Rock Nine, here is some background. 

On September 3, 1957, nine African American students — The Little Rock Nine — arrived to enter Little Rock Central High School only to be turned away by the Arkansas National Guard. Governor Orval Faubus had called out the Arkansas National Guard the night before to, as he put it, “maintain and restore order…” The soldiers barred the African American students from entering.

On September 24, 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered units of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division — the “Screaming Eagles”— into Little Rock and federalized the Arkansas National Guard. In a televised speech delivered to the nation, President Eisenhower stated, “Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of the courts.”

On September 25, 1957, under federal troop escort, The Little Rock Nine made it inside for their first full day of school. The 101st Airborne left in October and the federalized Arkansas National Guard troops remained throughout the year.

They were nine solemn figures, nine teenagers just trying to do what every child up to age 18 had been mandated to do: go to school. Nine figures who entered the annals of American history the day they passed through the front door of Little Rock Central High School.

These nine African American students — Melba Pattillo, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Gloria Ray, Carlotta Walls, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas, Minnijean Brown and Thelma Mothershed — are now immortalized in a striking memorial located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol in Little Rock. The life-size bronze statues, entitled “Testament,” were designed and sculpted by Little Rock artist John Deering, assisted by his wife Kathy, also an artist. A comment from each of The Nine is found on individual bronze plaques identifying each student. Across the street sits the State Department of Education, just a few hundred yards from “Testament.” This Arkansas State Agency has been embroiled in this same desegregation lawsuit for over 50 years. 

Nine young students walked bravely, defiantly, yet filled with fear, in an act against prejudice and ignorance. These nine are heroes of every grueling story of segregation and racism in American history, every story we have heard and the millions of stories we will never hear.

So I am deeply moved by these photos of my granddaughter because there is deep meaning in each one. She seems to be looking up at the sculpture of Melba Pattillo (Beals) with what seems like admiration and awe. Dr. Beals grew up surrounded by family members who knew the importance of education. Her mother, Lois, was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Arkansas in 1954. While attending all-black Horace Mann High School, Melba knew that her educational opportunities were not equal to her white counterparts at Central High. And so she became a part of the effort to integrate Central.

B3083DBA-2BEB-4137-B162-B8CB19B4AD64And my granddaughter stands in front of Little Rock Central High, a school she may choose to attend someday, a school she will be able to attend because The Little Rock Nine took a dangerous risk to make it possible.

 

 

CCBDA845-BD2D-42E4-85B2-28749F2EA762Finally, my granddaughter stands playfully on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol. I know that it is possible that she may one day proudly walk through its golden doors as a state senator or representative. That is possible because nine Little Rock students were brave enough to be a part of changing history.

 

At three years old, my granddaughter probably was not very inspired by Central High School, the Little Rock Nine Memorial, or the Arkansas Capitol. But her parents took her there to see and to learn so that she would grow up inspired. When she is older she will remember what she saw and what she learned from that seemingly insignificant sightseeing trip, and she will realize that it wasn’t insignificant at all. It may just be what motivates and inspires her to follow her dreams, because now she knows that all of her dreams are possible. It’s all about growing up inspired. It’s what we want for every child.

Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, Minniejean Brown Trickey, Elizabeth Eckford, Dr. Carlotta Walls LaNier, Mrs. Thelma Mothershed Wair, Dr. Ernest Green, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Dr. Jefferson Thomas, Dr. Terrence J. Roberts, you made sure that every child can grow up inspired. when you were just young teenagers. When you walked through the doors of segregated Little Rock Central High School, you did so much more . . . for every student who came after you and for my granddaughter 

 

The Power of a Whisper

IMG_5727Speak your mind. Don’t be afraid. Don’t whisper in the deep.

These words, composed by Ray Phiri, the South African guitarist and anti-apartheid bandleader who played behind Paul Simon on “Graceland,” opened my mind and heart to a stark reality— that hate hovers ominously all around. That hate’s power can dessimate all that is right and just and good in the world. That hate can be conquered only by a courageous people willing to speak truth and love whatever the cost.

Ray Phiri died last week at age 70, but in this seventy years, his controversial ideas made an impact. His song,”Whispers in the Deep” was banned from broadcast on the South African government-controlled radio station, SABC, when it was released in 1986.

Stand up! Wake up!
Call me angry, call me mad.
A soul that whispers in the deep.
I’m inspired.
But I can’t understand hate.

I imagine that is exactly where we find ourselves, unable to understand hate. We see enough of it, to be sure. We hear about it every day. We know about the dry, brittle bones that remain when a person experiences enough hate.

Hate is war. It is hunger and poverty. It is racism and homophobia and xenophobia. It is violence and abuse. It is unbridled anger. It is injustice in many forms, injustice that shatters lives and leaves dust and ashes in its wake.

Standing amidst hate is not unlike standing in a personal hell. Hate, whether around us or within us, has the power to crush the soul. And yet, always present with us is a protective God who can deliver us from hate’s destruction.

For me, it is true that I do not always know that God is nearby. I seldom see God as my personal vanquishing superhero that destroys the power of hate. Rather, the God I know is much more like the God in the story of Elijah. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

As the story goes, Elijah clings to a cave while God unleashes natural forces far beyond anything Elijah has ever seen or heard. But even in the midst of the tempest, Elijah realizes that something is terribly wrong. The text tells us three times that God is nowhere to be found. But the text also insists that God is passing by.

Elijah looked for God in the great whirlwind, in the shattering earthquake, in the blazing fire. But Elijah did not experience God’s presence in any of those mighty and supernatural happenings. Elijah experienced God in the sound of a light whisper. Biblical translators have often called it “the still, small voice.”

The question I ask myself is whether or not I will gather enough strength from God’s tentative presence with me to wake up, to stand up against hate. As in Ray Phiri’s compelling lyric, I do not understand hate. He warns against whispering in the deep, probably a warning against being too quiet in a world that needs to hear confident voices. But it seems to me that even a whisper can be full of power. A persevering whisper can vanquish hate. A persistent whisper can transform the world.

May God make it so.

 

Divine Dissatisfaction

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Yesterday, the United States launched a military strike on a Syrian government airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians earlier in the week. Today a Russian warship entered the eastern Mediterranean heading toward the area where two U.S. Navy destroyers launched missile strikes into Syria.

It is, indeed, a precarious time. The world is a frightening place. War still holds its sway upon a divided world. The comforting Scripture proclaiming extraordinary peace is not our current reality. Yet we long for that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, every person will sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

As people of God, we should be dissatisfied until that day of peace comes. We should be dissatisfied until every child lives in safety. We should be dissatisfied until the world lives in unity. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. calls us to “Divine Dissatisfaction.”

Let us go out with a divine dissatisfaction.
Let us be dissatisfied
until America will no longer have
a high blood pressure of creeds
and an anemia of deeds.

Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls
that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort
and the inner city of poverty and despair
shall be crushed by the battering rams
of the forces of justice.

Let us be dissatisfied
until those that live on the outskirts of hope
are brought into the metropolis of daily security.
Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast
into the junk heaps of history,
and every family is living
in a decent sanitary home . . .

Let us be dissatisfied until men and women,
however black they may be, will be judged
on the basis of the content of their character
and not on the basis of the color of their skin.
Let us be dissatisfied.

Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol
houses a governor who will do justly, who will love
mercy and who will walk humbly with his God.

Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall,
justice will roll down like waters and righteousness
like a mighty stream.

Let us be dissatisfied
until that day when the lion and the lamb
shall lie down together, and every man
will sit under his own vine and fig tree
and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied . . .

Our dreams will sometimes be shattered and our ethereal hopes blasted.
The road ahead will not always be smooth.
There will be still rocky places of frustration
and meandering points of bewilderment.
There will be inevitable setbacks here and there.
There will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope
will be transformed into the fatigue of despair . . .

Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on
in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future.

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Excerpts from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference address, August 16, 1967.

May God give us the strength and courage to live into divine dissatisfaction until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Bitter Days

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I never had a charmed life. I have lived through bitter days, many of them. I have known sorrow, hopelessness, darkness, emptiness, loneliness, and all manner of emotional angst. But in those bitter times when I thought my world had fallen apart, I always found a fresh measure of faith, certainly enough faith to weather the storm.

It is true that I have often found myself standing alone on shifting sand. It is true that I have experienced loneliness, wondering why God had left me bereft and alone. It is true that, at times, I lost all hope. It is true that my tears fell freely and there was no one to witness my pain.

The words of Bishop Steven Charleston, once again, describe the emotions I have felt along the way.

I don’t know about you, for there are some who live charmed lives, but I have been by that lonely shore, standing alone on shifting sand, looking out to a vast dark emptiness, an ominous and unknown sea stretching out to the cloud covered edge of my world, while waves of sadness crashed around me, stinging my eyes with the salt of ancient tears. How clear and yet how distant is that memory now. Hope is not the absence of sorrow, but the release of that sorrow beside the still waters of faith. The light is right behind you. Turn to find it.

Yes, I did find renewed hope, and I did release my sorrow beside the still waters of faith. I did it many times, always finding that God’s light really was right behind me. Thanks be to God that better days always follow bitter days.