Why I Love Howard Thurman

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I’ve written about my favorite theologian before in this space, but I have to do so again.

Why?

Because no matter whether I’ve heard or read Howard Thurman’s wisdom before, it zaps me in new and different ways upon second or third or even fourth reading. He touches my heart and my soul to a depth where I just thank God for this beloved servant.

Pretty good for someone who died more than 30 years ago! I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have known him or sat in his congregation or been taught by him.

Even the way I was introduced to Howard Thurman has the divine written all over it. I was sitting in centering prayer when suddenly the faces of several older African-American women and men appeared in my vision. The faces sort of circles around until one man’s face came forward and the others faded away. A couple of months later I came across Pastor Thurman’s name during Black History Month. I looked up his writing and it pulled me in from the first. I bought recordings of him giving sermons and leading meditations. I bought his books. I learned everything I could about him.

Yet it wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that his was the face I had seen. I was, quite literally, awestruck. A few days after that revelation came a notice in a diocesan newsletter about a retreat in Sewanee, Tennessee, that would focus on Howard Thurman and contemplative practices. I was signed up and paid within a few minutes. I no longer ignore such synchronicity.

I find such solace in his words, whether he is writing or talking about contemplative practices, racism and the disinherited (Martin Luther King Jr. considered him a mentor), humble ruminations about his own failings, his ecumenicism, and most of all, his deep, deep conviction that we are all united by a loving God who has a dream of whom we are to become.

The passage that prompted this outpouring is “God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that the sensitiveness to your needs cannot be separated from the sensitiveness to my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone – nor are my sorrows.”

Thurman grew up in segregated Fort Lauderdale; his grandmother had been enslaved. He was the first African-American to matriculate at Colegate College’s seminary. He walked the walk, and he also maintained the gentle humility of someone who knows his own worth as developed in him by God.

tagoreIt also gave me great joy to see how Thurman’s witness often coincided with the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I would read a passage by each man every morning and sometimes be amazed at the similar sentiments behind the Christian’s and the Hindu’s words. Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offerings) also came to me by chance long, long ago. They are short poems that can be appreciated by people of any and all (or even no) faiths.

“Thou hast made me endless;
Such is thy pleasure.
This frail vessel thou carriest again and again
Yet fillest it ever with fresh life.
This little flute of a reed
thou hast carried over hills and dales
And hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.
My little heart loses its limits in joy
And gives breath to utterances ineffable.
Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.
Ages pass and still thou pourest,
And still there is room to fill.”

 

 

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Julian of Norwich

Tagore was the elder, and perhaps Thurman gained inspiration from him. They both, I would dare to say, gained inspiration from Julian of Norwich, the 14th century prioress who had a series of divine revelations that she chronicled in “Showings.” Such a flow of love for all of humanity and all of creation can be felt in each person’s witness that one truly can’t help but feel that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

Film producer Arleigh Prelow has spent years making a documentary, “The Psalm of Howard Thurman,” which is now in post-production. She first conceived the idea after Thurman’s death and, amid other producing and directing work through the years, she has interviewed Thurman’s wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and many other people who knew and loved and worked with him. Actor Sterling K. Brown provides the voice of Howard Thurman. Funds are still needed to complete the work and donations may be made here.

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Crimes Against Humanity

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Do you believe the regime when it says that it has reunited all “eligible” children with their parents?

I don’t, but when I saw that volunteer civilians were involved in the work of reuniting families, I felt much better about it. Knowing that neither the ACLU, nor the judge overseeing the lawsuit against the regime, is letting go until every last child is with its parent(s) helps as well.

What bothers me more is the term “eligible.” What a useful term for the government to use. “Eligible,” as if each child had ticked off the right boxes or come up with the right number or fulfilled some other benign requirement.

What “eligible” really means is that the government can’t return hundreds of “ineligible” children because it deported the parents and doesn’t have the will or the care to find them.

Then there’s the children who’ve been sexually abused while in detention and the ICE agents who have told them things such as, “Your mother doesn’t want you anymore.” That’s because they deported Mom and made her sign a complicated form that says she would give up her child without telling her that she had a right to legal counsel to determine whether she would leave her child with relatives in the US and go back to face the horrors of her own country alone.

Of all the scenes of hell that our national nightmare has introduced us to in the past year and a half, surely this one is the most “eligible” to be called a crime against humanity. Since it involves more than one country, I say this crime should be prosecuted in the Hague. Stephen Miller, from whose Satanic mind it was birthed, and Kiersjten Nielsen, who oversaw the program, should be the first defendants.

The attorney general belongs in the dock for avowing that this was a “law” that needs to be upheld. No, it wasn’t a law; it was a policy change that never saw the light of day in Congress and never saw any repudiation by the GOP. So perhaps international lawyers should be questioning Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell as well.

And when they all cry “I was just following orders!”, time for the head of the regime to take his turn in the dock.

 

Published At Last – Barracoon

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Can you imagine being known as the last living African kidnapped by slavers and brought to the US 50 years after the outlawing of the slave trade?

Zora Neale Hurston, novelist, playwright, essayist, and anthropologist, did try to imagine, and her curiosity drove her to patiently tease out of Oluale Kossola (slave name Cudjo Lewis), the story of his ordeal.  When she first met Kossola and told him what she was hoping to learn, he said, “Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go in de Afficky soil some day and somebody say and callee my name and somebody sayn ‘Yeah, I know Kossola’,”

Part of the sadness of Hurston’s book, Barracoon, is that it was never published until this year, when it is so unlikely that anyone in West Africa would remember Kossola’s name. Several publishers refused it when she finished her last draft in the 1930s.

Kossola was a member of a sub-group of the West African Yoruba tribe. The US banned the slave trade in 1808, but people found a way to continue to smuggle enslaved people through the Middle Passage. A major supplier of slaves was the king of Dahomey, who acquired wealth and political dominance through the trade. Kidnapped Africans were held in bondage in barracoons (Spanish for barracks) along the coast, and Ouida (or Whydah) in Dahomey was a major shipping point.

It was there that, in 1860, Timothy Meaher and William Foster sailed the Clotilda to bring 110 lost souls to the “New World.” The 19-year-old Kossola had been captured in a raid on Bante; his family and most of the citizens were slaughtered outright. The young men were yoked and brought to the barracoons of Ouida.

Though Kossola at first expressed joy that Hurston wanted to know his story, in 1927 when she traveled to Plateau, Alabama, to meet him, he was often reluctant to talk to her. He was 86 years old, but his grief at never having been able to go home was still upon him. Some days she would bring peaches and watermelon as bait to get him to sit down with her; other days he would just ignore her presence and continue to garden or pursue other hobbies while she waited patiently.

Her persistence paid off. Reading Barracoon, one feels as if one knows this elderly man who has undergone so much pain, outliving his beloved wife and his sons and daughter. His voice is rendered perfectly, and you can hear him saying “you unnerstand me,” his oft-used interjection.

After emancipation, the Clotilda slaves had no way to earn the money to go home. And home didn’t exist anymore, though they couldn’t have known that. When they were kidnapped, their rest of their entire tribe was killed, and there was no Bante anymore.

So they re-created their home where they were, calling it Africatown (now Plateau). It was meant to be a place for only those born in Africa, but because of intermarriage among slaves there were many black people who were born in the United States as well. Renting land from their former owner until they could buy it, 11 families “created a community that embodied the ethos and traditions of their homeland,” writes editor Deborah G. Plant in her afterword.

Thank goodness this book has finally been published! Most memoirs of formerly enslaved people were born into the “peculiar institution.” To hear firsthand from someone who was actually born in Africa 200 years after the first enslaved people were brought here is to learn more about the horrible mechanics of slavery and how one little band of people created their own homeland in Alabama.

It also teaches about the persistence of memory and the longing for that place called home. This should be an important part of our national conversation about dismantling racism. I have recently seen people who consider themselves “progressive” basically say that African-Americans today have no right to say they are victims of slavery.

Yet, knowing one is descended from people who knew no other home than a slaveowner’s plantation does cause soul damage. Knowing that one’s ancestors were considered sub-human does cause psychic damage. Knowing that the whole history of white supremacy gives white people today a feeling that they the right to trample on the freedoms of African-Americans – whether they’re having a barbecue or mowing someone’s lawn or waiting for someone outside a store – yes, that is victimization. We can’t stop it until we own it

A Map of the World

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As a bumbling, stumbling out-of-control toddler lurches his way across the world, knocking alliances and good will into the trash bin and trying to redraw the map of the world, people wonder how he can still be followed by any sane person, let alone be shown homage by the majority of the one group that’s supposed to keep him in check.

A quote from Oscar Wilde came to mind this week and I was introduced to another from Thoreau by my Facebook friend Christopher. I see similarities in them and also a diagnosis of what is wrong with those who continue to enable a narcissistic, greedy wannabe dictator.

Years ago, I saw a play by David Hare called “A Map of the World.” Hated the play but loved the title’s allusion: “Any map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.” Oscar Wilde

Then this from Thoreau: “Friends . . . they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams.”

Both quotes are about vision and how one sees oneself in relation to the world. First, a person has to have a vision of the map of the world and then acknowledge the billions of other co-inhabitants of what the Book of Common Prayer calls “this fragile earth, our island home.”

How do people grow up thinking that they are the only people on earth who deserve any rights, any privileges, any chance of a fulfilling life? How do they grow up never, ever thinking about the needs of anyone else other than their closed community?

How is their curiosity so suppressed that they don’t ever wonder what it’s like to be an African kidnapped from her homeland and brought to a strange country where she must work and possibly (probably) be raped by someone who thinks he “owns” her?

How is their imagination so stifled that they cannot imagine what it was like to be a Vietnamese or Laotian or Cambodian peasant and suddenly find you’re the “enemy” to airplanes that drop bombs and napalm on your or murder you just because you happen to live where the “enemy” lives?

How did they never develop any sense of empathy that would allow them to imagine having their children kidnapped by the very people they thought would help them?

While “utopia” literally means “nowhere” (from Greek, uonot and topos – place), it was coined by Sir Thomas More to mean a place where all are equal in social status, in economic status, and in political status, a Garden of Eden if you will. More himself, we know now, cared little for the equality of women, whom he scorned, and married only so that he wouldn’t burn in hell for having sexual thoughts and desires.

Still, More’s notion of Utopia lives on, and Wilde’s concern was that our map of the world ought to include a vision for that perfect place. Being gay, and being therefore a criminal who was sent to prison for being gay, Wilde would have had a vested interest in a place where homosexuality was not a crime.

So should we, and let’s include color of skin, religion, language, and ability in there.

As for Thoreau’s beautiful sentiment, shouldn’t we extend cherishing others’ hopes and being kind to other peoples’ dreams to everyone on this planet? Why limit our empathy? Who are we to say that anyone else should not have hopes that we respect and dreams that we do not trample on?

Only willful and determined and carefully cultivated ignorance could possibly account for people to think they are supreme and that anyone not like them is not to be regarded equally. By “ignorance,” I mean ignoring everyone else who does not look, act, or talk like them.

If their ignorance wasn’t so destructive, I might look for excuses why white supremacists grew up without a map of the world or the empathy to cherish other peoples’ hopes and dreams. But that ignorance is evil and deadly, and there is no excuse for it.

 

 

Let the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down

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(Sermon preached on 6/3/18 in Great Barrington, MA)

Did you hear what I heard when Pastor Randy read the gospel? Did you?

Well, here’s what I heard! (I knocked over Lego towers on the altar.)

I heard walls coming down!

So in these two incidents in Mark’s Gospel, what were Jesus and His followers doing wrong that so bothered the Pharisees? It’s difficult even to count the ways in which they were breaking the precious law that the Pharisees hugged to themselves as if the law alone were salvation.

First, we have to understand that, according to the scholars, it was actually corn that they were making their way through and the ears of corn that they were plucking.

Making a path on the Sabbath? Unlawful; it was work.

Plucking the ears of corn on a Sabbath? Unlawful; it was reaping, which was also work.

Shucking the corn? Unlawful.

Plucking the kernels? Unlawful.

Do you notice what Jesus does when He tells the Pharisees about David and his companions? He’s really chiding and mocking them. They were supposed to be the experts on Scripture.

Try to hear Jesus’s voice: “Did you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?”

In other words, you’re the experts yet you ignore that story? What’s wrong with you?

We’re not given the Pharisees’ response, but I’m sure they were very angry at being outed as hypocrites by this man Jesus.

In the next instance, he comes upon a man in the synagogue whose hand was withered. I’m pretty sure Jesus knew he’d find that man there and also that the Pharisees would be watching him. This time, we know the Pharisees’ reaction; they were silent. They could not in public answer Jesus’s question about whether it was lawful to save life or to kill it on the Sabbath.

Why?

walls coming downBecause “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”

We’re told Jesus was angered by their hardness of heart. What is hardness of heart, but a wall a person puts up in order not to have care about other people?

Throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, I hear walls coming down all the time. The biggest wall that came down was the wall between God and God’s people manifested through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

In everything Jesus did, He broke down a wall. Whether he was feeding the five thousand and teaching a lesson about sharing; talking to a Samaritan woman at a well; healing a Samaritan man who had leprosy (and was the only one of several men Jesus healed who came back to thank him!), or healing a woman’s tumor that was causing internal bleeding because she had the courage and faith to think that if she just touched his robe, she could be healed!

And what about the woman taken in adultery? Two walls were taken down that day! First was the wall of the draconian codes that said a woman should be stoned to death if found to have committed adultery. But notice, not the man! So the other wall taken down was the one placed by men between them and women, to treat women as if they were not also human. And Jesus said, Okay, if you’ve never committed a sin, go ahead, stone her, kill her.

So if Jesus spent His ministry breaking down walls that were preventing peopIe from receiving the grace of God, what does that tell us our job on this earth is? Is it not also to break down walls? Is it not that the Kingdom of God has no walls in it?

Because, He’s telling us, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down!”

In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall,” his narrator begins:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;”

He’s talking about nature, of course, which is really the Divine Order of things. The narrator’s companion, intent on picking the stones up and putting them back in place on the wall, will only say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” At this, the narrator says, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees.”

That darkness is the darkness of a hardness of heart wrought by a tradition that the man could not go against, just like the Pharisees. If you’re a gardener, you know that fences throw dead shade, as opposed to shade that trees provide with sunlight filtering  through them. There are flowering plants that just won’t grow in the dead shade, but will grow in tree shade.

This rejection of walls and darkness can be found in other religious denominations and traditions. The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “He whom I enclose with my name is weeping in this dungeon. I am ever busy building this wall all around; and as this wall goes up into the sky, day by day I lose sight of my true being in its dark shadow.

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English mystic Evelyn Underhill knew it too.

“I take pride in this great wall, and I plaster it with dust, and sand lest a least hole should be left in this name; and for all the care I take I lose sight of my true being.”

Why?

Because something there is that doesn’t love wall, that wants it down.

Theologian Howard Thurman wrote about walls in Jesus and the Disinherited, referring to the oppressed and marginalized African –Americans who have been pushed by white society to a point where their backs are against a wall. It was true when Thurman was writing that book in the 1950s and it’s still true today.

I recently had an opportunity to be part of two wall-breaking  events in Georgia and Tennessee. The first was a “Dismantling Racism” training in Griffin, GA. I watched shutters be lifted from people’s eyes as we talked about our white privilege.

I’ve been going to such trainings since the 1990s, and I have come to the realization that I don’t even know how much privilege I have until a news story comes out about police being called because of African-Americans who wanted to use a restroom or were golfing or were taking a nap in their dorm or were just enjoying a barbecue. I’ll be learning about my privilege the rest of my life.

The second event was a retreat at a most beautiful cliff-side spot called St. Mary’s Place in Sewanee, Tennessee. About thirty-eight of us were gathered to learn how to use contemplative practices to foster energy and intent for compassionate action in the world. Using contemplative prayer to break down the walls of what Father Thomas Keating calls the false self that has all the ego mechanisms that keep us from truly experiencing the presence of God is a means by which we can go out into the world to help break down walls that keep other people bound.

Next fall, I will move to Georgia to join others in our common pursuit to break down walls and dismantle racism. My even considering such a move from my rural, settled life in Massachusetts indicates that God has helped me break down walls within myself.

Why?

Because “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

That something is God.

A Modest Proposal

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White Nationalists Hold Rally In GeorgiaFor preventing the White Supremacists in America, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.

It is a melancholy object to those African-Americans, Muslims, Latinos, Native Americans, who walk through this great country, when they see the streets, the roads and cabin doors crowded with people who deny their right to exist on equal terms.

I think it is agreed by all rational parties, that this prodigious number of Fascists is in the present deplorable state of the United States, a very great additional grievance, and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these Nazis sound and useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public, as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

My proposal is thus: Let us empty out all the prisons in the country of those people of the ethnicities mentioned above who have been wrongfully imprisoned, over-sentenced, unfairly convicted, and/or any other fitting reason why those persons are not a danger to society.

This would certainly include all those convicted of low-level drug offenses now that recreational marijuana use is legal in so many states.

These facilities could thus be used as rehabilitation centers for those amongst us who believe they have a grievance because of their white skin and frail egos that make them fear and hate anyone with a different lineage.

Since many who endorse and support neo-fascism believe that homosexuality is a human condition that can be reversed, would it not therefore be profitable to see whether race hatred can also be reversed through a strict deprogramming method?

If the *president* can use terms such as “breeding concept” when referring to immigrants in California, perhaps such a concept could also be used in rehabilitation. That is, initiate a program of breeding among males and females of the guests at such facilities, remove the offspring immediately after birth and foster them in the homes of those marginalized communities that White Supremacists seek to destroy.

The children would thus grow up learning firsthand that they are but one part of the human family, no more, no less.

The closing of so many prisons would undoubtedly provide funding that could help the foster parents of these children. This model would also open up many jobs to people who have been kept out of the job market; it would certainly include a wide range of employment as it has been proven that fascism has no economic boundaries. Indeed, from Congressional and cabinet positions to law enforcement, there will be no end of opportunities.

It would also be provident to have the rehabilitation centers self-supporting; guests will grow their own food (they will have to become vegetarians as they will not be allowed to have any equipment that could kill animals or other human beings). They will thus learn thrift and get a taste of life as a sharecropper.

The de-childrened inhabitants of the rehabilitation centers could be hired out for menial jobs now held necessarily by those who will assume higher levels of employment and their wages used to fund their programs.

Yes, there are many details to be worked out, such as who should work as guards at these rehabilitation centers, etc. But I think that the basic plan should be carefully considered.