Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Songs of a People

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?

Heart of what slave poured out such melody
As 'Steal away to Jesus'? On its strains
His spirit must have nightly floated free,
Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Who heard great 'Jordan roll'? Whose starward eye
Saw chariot 'swing low'? And who was he
That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
'Nobody knows de trouble I see'?

What merely living clod, what captive thing,
Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
And find within its deadened heart to sing
These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?
How did it catch that subtle undertone,
That note in music heard not with the ears?
How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.

Not that great German master in his dream
Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
At the creation, ever heard a theme
Nobler than 'Go down, Moses.' Mark its bars
How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
That helped make history when Time was young.

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and servile toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You - you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.

You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sting far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed
Still live, - but more than this to you belongs:
You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.*  --
James Weldon Johnson


There are people who seem to have so many gifts and talents and abilities that it is almost impossible not to look at them as exceptional. The very brief biography of James Weldon Johnson on the Lectionary page is a long list of positions, talents, and passions that have made him one of those exceptional human beings. During his lifetime (1871-1938), he lived through a period where African Americans were generally not thought of as intelligent or important. Johnson, like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington, among many others, proved scoffers wrong.

Among Johnson's greatest gifts was that of a poet and storyteller. His book, God's Trombones, is a short book of sermons in verse, sermons that carry the tones of Black preachers along with the grace and power of a bard.

I ran across a poem of his the other day, one I'd never read before.  It gave me such a lot to think about, especially in these days and times. Johnson connects the music of the spheres and of creation with the songs of the people which express their feelings, strengthen them in hard times, and bolster their faith in a God who was and is always with them.

We have listened to the sounds of great composers, compositions and songs that lift our hearts and inspire us in various ways. The spirituals, created and sung by slaves in the fields, around the fires in the evening, and in church, spoke of their lives and struggles as well as the stories from the Bible that taught not just the stories themselves but principles of Christian living.

Some spirituals like "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "Wade in the Water," and "Steal Away" gave them directions and signs to look for if they escaped slavery and headed north. What would Christmas be without "The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy"? Or Holy Week without "Were You There?" What would campfires at church camp be without "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" or "Go Down, Moses"? We have learned these songs and love them, but have we ever thought more deeply about them? Have we ever used them in our own struggles and trials and found hope and deepened faith in them?

We all have songs that come to mind in different situations, be they stressful or happy. Maybe it's a musical version of a prayer or a psalm, a hymn or a song we heard on the radio when we were young. It could be a song of our ethnic history or our geographical area. Perhaps even a lullaby or a song we learned from our grandparents. Music is part of our lives, and part of our faith tradition. Johnson understood this as he spoke of the songs of his people, the music of unheralded bards whose names are known to God alone but whose music still echoes in our hearts and minds.

Johnson reminded his readers that the songs their ancestors had sung are still part of the musical literature. From Girl Scouts to high-school choruses to church choirs, even from the floor of the House of Representatives, people still sing them and enjoy the beauty and simplicity of the tunes and the words. But the closing line is perhaps the crux of the entire poem, the explanation of why these songs are so important.

You [the singers] sang a race from wood and stone to Christ. The songs are our guides to freedom in Christ. They are guides for us to live Christian lives, to think, to pray, and to give thanks to God every day. The music will sing us, members of all races, from the slavery of sin to redemption by grace, from idols of wood and stone to faith in the living God.




*"O Black and Unknown Bards," found at Poemhunter.com; accessed 6/16/16

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 25, 2016.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Bernard Mizeki - catechist and martyr

In it was written, ‘It is reported among the nations—and Geshem also says it—that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall; and according to this report you wish to become their king. You have also set up prophets to proclaim in Jerusalem concerning you, “There is a king in Judah!” And now it will be reported to the king according to these words. So come, therefore, and let us confer together.’ Then I sent to him, saying, ‘No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind’; One day when I went into the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his house, he said, ‘Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you; indeed, tonight they are coming to kill you.’ But I said, ‘Should a man like me run away? Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in!’ -- Nehemiah 6:6-11

I'd never really considered it, but the church calendar is more than just a way of marking off days of the year like a regular calendar. For each day there are specific readings: those for following the Daily Office, others for the day's liturgy, and, for many days, there is an event, saint, or group of saints, to be commemorated or feasted. The educational part is finding a saint (or group) I'd never really heard of (outside the Daily Office) and reading about them. It's also possible to see something in their lives and struggles that help me with my own. It's like an exercise in identifying what makes a Christian life and how I can learn from the person or persons to live it more fully.

Take the saint for today, a man born in Mozambique named Mamiyeri Mizeka Gwambe who became a lay catechist and martyr in what was Northern Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe. He began working for a Portuguese storekeeper in his native village and learned the language the storekeeper spoke. He seemed to be gifted at languages because wherever he went, he learned not only the local tongues but also European and Biblical ones. He sought education from the members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE, also called the Cowley Fathers) and wanted to become a priest but that was denied him because of his race. Instead, he became a lay catechist and God-propelled teacher, translator, and missioner. He was baptized in 1886 with the name Bernard.

Bernard established a mission to the Mashona in Northern Rhodesia, establishing this at the village of the local chief and at the request of the Bishop of Mashonaland. He lived a simple, normal life, becoming part of the village life and eventually the school teacher for the children. With the chief's permission, he moved the complex close to a grove of trees sacred to the Mashona, but angered some of  the local religious leaders when he removed some of the trees and carved crosses in others.

Bernard used the faith of the Mashona who already believed in one god, Mwari.  He also utilized the deep spiritual lives the villagers already had to teach Christian belief and practice. The mission lasted from 1891-6 and was tremendously effective.

All missionaries were considered to be European colonial government agents, according to many of the black African nationalists. They began an uprising in 1896 and Bernard was warned to flee for his own safety. He refused, believing that Christ had sent him there for a purpose and that he would not leave the people Christ had led him to. On June 18th, he was speared outside his house and mortally wounded. His wife and a helper ran to get blankets and food for him but later reported that there was a blinding light coming from the place where Bernard lay. When they reached the spot, Bernard's body was gone. It has since become a place of reverence and devotion and a great Christian festival takes place there each year.

Bernard was a bridge-builder, not a wall-maker. He lived a simple life, loved the people he shared a village with, and taught children and adults about the greatness of God. He refused to leave when things got tough and it became the place of his martyrdom. This was a true martyrdom, not a false one where people feel they are being persecuted and injured because others disagree with their beliefs and positions. Bernard didn't seek his own greatness, but was rather invested in proclaiming the greatness of God.

How different things are now for us here in the United States. We hear about building walls. Preachers and would-be prophets proclaim the gospel of fear and segregation, individual rights and approval of the elimination of "undesirables," overtly and covertly. Even those supposedly presenting the will of God have seized on a small group of verses and have made an entire doctrinal platform of them. "Love your neighbor," a central tenet of the gospel of Jesus and the work of Bernard Mizeki, seems to have had a clause added, "...Unless they are not 'like us' and oppose 'our' rights and our 'control' over 'our' country."

We have martyrs in our own land, not always religious ones, but ones who represent those whom some of us fear, hate, or find inconvenient or somehow unworthy of sharing our rights and privileges. Unfortunately, children get caught in the crossfire, as do innocent people simply out to have a Bible study, enjoy an evening out, or even attend school or social events. We aren't just talking about building walls around on our southern border but walls that separate communities and groups of people from those who are different.

Bernard didn't build walls between people. Now we want to put our own stamp on everything. Recently we heard that now gigantic corporations want to "sponsor" parts of our national parks, of course, branding them with their own particular logos. It's like setting up a kingship where the individual or corporation is the ruler over something God created and of which we are only stewards.

So what is the answer? What can I learn from Bernard, given the differences between us, including time and place? Of course, courage and perseverance in the face of danger is a big thing, even if it has death staring me in the face. Then there is bridge building by finding commonalities and working with them. A big thing is love; Bernard loved the children of the village and their parents saw that. It brought many of them to Bernard, to learn from him and to enjoy his company. So many lessons, most especially remaining faithful to God and not building our own kingdoms or following those who seek to do that very thing.

"Should a man like me run away? Would a man like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in."  I think Bernard Mizeki would have agreed with Nehemiah. In fact, he became the example of Nehemiah's words.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Saint of Second Chances

When he [Paul] had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. -- Acts 9:26-27


His name originally was Joseph.  He was born on Cyprus and was a Levite, one of the priestly class. He was considered to be almost an apostle by the people who knew him and his work, and was given the name Barnabas which meant "son of encouragement" because of his gift of oratory.

A rich man, he was among those who sold all that he had and gave it to the apostles as a token of his dedication and obedience. Beyond that we don't know a lot about his life, although we know of his experiences.

I believe Barnabas should be called the patron saint of second chances. He introduced Paul to Peter and the apostles. Because of Paul's previous persecution of the Christians, the apostles were leery of meeting him; Barnabas, however, stood as his reference and as a bridge to acceptance. Later, he and Paul undertook a mission to preach to the Gentiles in Antioch. The mission was so successful that the two were sent back to Jerusalem to present a much-needed contribution to the struggling church.

They worked together well but there were differences between them. After leaving Jerusalem a second time, following agreement about circumcision of the gentiles, Paul wanted to go visit the already-established churches while Barnabas was of another mind. He wanted to take John Mark with them as they had previously. Paul, remembering that John Mark had bailed out on them on a previous journey, refused. Paul finally left with Silas for Syria, while Barnabas and John Mark went to Cyprus. Barnabas gave John Mark a second chance and it paid off.

After that we don't know much about Barnabas. He appeared to be still living when Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul's words (vss. 9:5-6), written somewhere around 56-7 CE, indicated that the breach between Paul and Barnabas had been repaired and also that Paul had made peace with John Mark who, after Barnabas' death, became Paul's disciple during his imprisonment in Rome.

Barnabas was a man who apparently believed in second chances. Not just once, but twice he spoke up for those in need of a second chance. It seems like he would have been a great person to have around, not just with his gift of oratory or for his value as a disciple, but as a kind of peacemaker, a bridge builder. Heaven knows, we need a few more of those in this world. But where are we going to find them?

There are some people we could think of as bridge builders, people willing to give even enemies a second chance to patch the differences. Desmond Tutu, with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, gave victims a second chance. Never before had they had the chance to speak to those who had harmed the and give their personal impact statements. It also gave the oppressors an opportunity to hear the stories of their victims and to repent. It was certainly a landmark event. Many were repentant and even more were forgiving.

Former president Jimmy, at over 90 years of age, still continues to bridge the gap between rich and poor, first-world and third-world communities. Helping to build houses for the poor through Habitat for Humanity, he also serves as a peacemaker and activist, a supporter of the rights of women and children, and whose foundations help search for cures for diseases. These causes help those around the world in places where they are otherwise voiceless. Who says one person can't make a difference.

There are so many others we hear about and many, many more that we don't. But the thing is that giving others a second chance is a Jesus thing. Whether the fault was with them in the first place, or whether it was because of things beyond their control, they deserve a second chance. Give people second chances, and, with great expectation and hope, those people who are helped are able to turn their lives around and often pay it forward.

Everyone needs second chances from time to time. We need them when we hurt other people, which is why we not only must apologize for the hurt, but so we can to repair the breach. We may make a mistake, and we need a second chance to start over, using what we've learned to avoid making another mistake of the same nature.

We are often skeptical about giving second chances to people who have been imprisoned, addicts, prostitutes, or any one of hundreds of things we fear, disapprove of, or feel scandalized by. Barnabas would probably come to their defense and help them turn themselves around. We want second chances for ourselves but not always for others. It's almost too bad we don't follow in the footprints of Jesus that Barnabas did. After all, Jesus set the standard.

Jesus believed in second chances like the woman by the well; he knew what she had done yet gave her a second chance and she became his first evangelist. Jarius's daughter, the woman with the hemorrhage, the centurion's slave, Lazarus--all of these represented people being given a second chance. To those surrounding the receivers Jesus gave the opportunity to turn from unbelief to belief, from the feeling of being lost to one of being found, recognized, and set on a new course. Mistakes happen, errors happen, but there should always be an opportunity for a Barnabas to be around.

We all make mistakes. We all want forgiveness. At times we all need a Barnabas to stand with us and to help us to reestablish ourselves. We also have friends who, God willing, are the kind of friends who will do just that. Hopefully, we have family who will see that we have done but also see the person they knew and loved, even though now they look at someone who has done something horrible.

So who can I give a second chance to today, this week, this year? Jesus and Barnabas would probably be the first to step up and say "Here's one; we stand by them. Go find others."


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 11, 2016.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Overwhelmed

He said not: Thou shalt not be troubled, thou shalt not be tempted, thou shalt not be distressed, but He said: thou shalt not be overcome.  -- Julian of Norwich


We had our next-to-last class meeting of our Education for Ministry (EfM) groups last weekend. It's always sad to come to the end of the year, but we still continue our practice of doing a theological reflection (TR) each week. We take a story, Bible passage, picture, poem, commercial, advertisement, or almost anything, and look at it from a number of different angles. We ask what the artifact means to each of us, what the world of the artifact is like, what is broken about it, and what would make it whole. We explore what culture says about it, where we would find something similar in our Christian tradition (Bible, lives of saints, hymns, readings), what our personal position on the artifact is, and what implication or epiphany we have had as a result of listening to others, voicing our own thoughts, and listening for God to put in a word to us. We take this epiphany out into the world and try to incorporate it into our lives and ministries.

This past weekend we had a picture of a group of kayakers negotiating a whitewater run. There were big black rocks on one side, and lots of swirls, eddies, and turbulence in the water. Each paddler seemed intent on making his/her way down the rapids safely, keeping one eye on the water ahead, the other checking periodically the path of the one paddling ahead of them so they could either follow safely or look for a better way of negotiating the rough water.

One thing all of us agreed on was that all of us find ourselves in whitewater now and then, figuratively if not literally. There are times we all have felt we were not in control of what was going on around us. It was probably like what the disciples felt during the storm on Galilee, powerless and full of fear, even with Jesus in the boat with them. But Jesus was sleeping through the whole thing! So the disciples did what most of us do when we're in over our heads: they called on Jesus to get them out of the danger. Now doesn't that sound like something we would do?

Dame Julian certainly seemed to have gasped the concept of whitewater, whether or not she had ever seen the actuality of a stretch of it. She did understand, though, that we would all face trouble, temptation, and distress. Surely her severe illness at the age of 30 would probably count as one of those whitewater experiences, yet upon her recovery she began to have visions that have come to be known as the beginnings of her Shewings or Revelations of Divine Love, a spiritual classic. The visions lead her to become an anchoress at a local church. Julian may have abandoned living in the world, but the world came to her for counsel and direction.

Illness, like many experiences, make us feel we are not in control, and that we are totally helpless.  It's true; we quite often are. Yet Dame Julian has a word for us: "But He said, thou shalt not be overcome." What on earth does that mean? What if we or someone we love die as a result of illness or accident, despite many fervent prayers and assertions that we believe God will heal? What if we are in deep trouble and it seems like God is far away and totally uninterested?

It's not an easy position to be in.

What is it to be overcome? Is it permanent, or can it be temporary? Are there things we can do to get ourselves out of the maelstrom or are we permanently stuck?

What if we could see whitewater as an opportunity? We can learn from turbulence, even if the experience itself is far from pleasant. We can  learn that overwhelmed doesn't necessarily mean overcome. Like kayakers who learn early in their training to right a kayak that flips over, we can learn to see the rapids as a challenge and an opportunity to grow. It is also an opportunity to learn to trust that God will not abandon us.

That may not mean that God is going to resolve all our problems or pull us safely out of every turbulence even if we shout "Help!" at the top of our lungs. What God will do, however, is be the second person in our kayak, the guide leading us onward, the quiet inlet where we can stop and rest.

It's something we can believe in, and that's what Jesus told us to do. It's something to hold on to, even when we feel overwhelmed.


Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 4, 2016.