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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The Cross & The Lynching Tree

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I didn’t know anything about James H. Cone until the day he died, April 28, 2018.

I was at a “Dismantling Racism” training in Georgia. His name was on the syllabus. When I went online at the end of the training, the first thing I saw was Dr. Cone’s obituary.

I subsequently learned that he was considered one of the fathers of Black Liberation Theology. It was recommended to me that I read his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011).

As the title suggests, Dr. Cone makes the case that “until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a “recrucified” black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

Others have written about the nexus between Christianity and the avid way in which the oppressors’ religion was taken up by slaves. But Dr. Cone is the first I have come across to directly identify the broken body of a lynched person with the broken Christ on the cross.

He says that the cross has always been central to African-American worship because “the cross inverts the world’s value system” when it turns death into hope. Death doesn’t have the last word.

Enslaved blacks seized on the transcendent power of the cross; the cross is God’s critique of white supremacy, he claims.

This may seem like cold comfort at first, but for people whose lives were made to seem meaningless, the cross gave meaning to life and promised a life after death. And it did give hope. Dr. Cone quotes Richard Wright as saying, “Our churches are where we dip our tired bodies in cool springs of hope.”

Dr. Cone gives a long chapter to discussing how black artists were often able to make the connection between the cross and the lynching tree better than theologians and pastors. The blues were another way to transcend suffering, he says, and the poets, particularly Countee Cullen, who wrote about the “Black Christ” recrucified are many (see a portion of the poem below). He also writes about the famed Billy Holiday song “Strange Fruit,” written ironically by the Jewish Abel Meeropol many years before the Holocaust. Mr. Meeropol and his wife were the couple who adopted the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

A long chapter is given to the most famous theologian of the lynching era, Reinhold Niebuhr, who was well-known as a social justice activist but who never spoke out personally or theologically about the sin of lynching. Many white supporters of equal status for blacks still used the argument at the time that “their day would come.” Martin Luther King Jr. would later say, “It is hardly a moral act to encourage others patiently to accept injustice which he himself does not endure.”

Of course, a whole system of theology cannot be explained in a one- or two-page blog. I hope to give readers a curiosity to read The Cross and the Lynching Tree for themselves. But as Dr. Cone says, “Though we are not fully free and the dream not fully realized, yet we are not what we used to be and not what we will be. . .We continue to seek an ultimate meaning that cannot be expressed in rational historical language and that cannot be denied by white supremacy.”

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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.

How The Light Gets In

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In 1977, my friend Caroline and I made a pact. We were coming home from Pittsfield after having seen “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Driving down Route 183 by Gould Meadows overlooking Stockbridge Bowl, a full moon shone on the white and frigid earth. Everything was crystal clear. A perfect place to see a UFO!

We agreed then and there that if either of us ever told the other we had seen a UFO or met an alien, we would believe each other.

Perhaps Mary Magdalene, who seems to have understood Jesus’s message better than the male disciples, should have made a similar pact with them.

There are so many concepts to ponder in today’s Gospel, and for me, the least of them is Thomas.

Poor Thomas, whose name has come down through the centuries to be synonymous with “doubt.” Derivation of doubt? In fact, most of the disciples were doubters at that point.

A week before, with Thomas absent, they were living behind locked doors. Jesus appeared to them, they rejoiced, then said good-bye and re-locked the doors. Hmmmm.

There is also the question of why, when Mary saw him, Jesus told her not to touch him because he was in an in-between state of life and death. Yet when he appeared to those in the locked room, he invited them all to touch him.

Each of the Gospels has different versions of Jesus’s post-Resurrection, pre-Ascension appearances to the disciples, and you can find quite a lot written on whether these were dreams, or visions, or hallucinations.

Regardless, John’s is the Gospel in which everything is a metaphor for something else. So for me, the locked doors and the image of seeing Jesus’s wounds are what John wants us to focus on here, and they are closely related.

They are also crucial to our own responses both to Jesus and to the world we live in.

Have you ever seen a horror movie where the heroine couldn’t get out of the house because, in her panic, she couldn’t unlock the door. When you lock your door at night, it’s so that no one can enter. But what if the thing you fear is already in the house?

When we lock a door, we also lock ourselves in.

When we lock our minds, we lock out knowledge that might be helpful. When we close our consciousness to realities we don’t want to deal with, when we are fearful and won’t let ourselves admit to that which scares us, we keep that fear locked inside. The realities are there no matter what.

The Good News is that Jesus can break through the locks and bolts and closed minds and let in the light of understanding, of comfort, of guidance, of reassurance. If we let Him.

The Rev. Michael March, an Episcopal priest from Texas, points out on his blog the irony that while Jesus’s tomb was empty, the disciples had created their own tomb in which they had interred themselves. But Jesus found a way in anyway; Mr. March called it “eastering in us” and every year we have this most wonderful reminder that Jesus can break through any barrier.

For the disciples, this took place just one week after the Resurrection. We are now just one week after Easter. Are we different from the disciples? Are our lives perceptibly changed? Or have our minds and hearts gone back on lockdown?

Here’s where Jesus’s wounds come in.

During Lent, those who participated in the gatherings at Crissy Farm watched a short video of a TED talk by Brene Brown, in which she suggested that faith depends upon vulnerability.

She didn’t say it, but the word “vulnerable” comes from Latin roots meaning the capacity to be wounded. In no other instance do we make ourselves more vulnerable than when we dare to show our wounds.

Jesus the Christ is the ultimate archetype of vulnerability. First, he became human. Second, he came as a homeless baby. Third, he spoke truth to power in a dangerous age. Fourth, he willingly accepted a painful, horrifying death. Fifth, He loved us all the while and loves us still.

Inviting someone to touch a wound is an extremely intimate and vulnerable act. Do we allow ourselves to be that vulnerable? Do we allow ourselves to be fully human? Do we allow our spiritual or emotional wounds to show, or do we put on a stoic face and act as if we have everything together?

If we saw someone walking around with a physical wound, wouldn’t we take that person to the ER or get gauze and bandages? What about all the people, including ourselves, walking around with psychic wounds; how do we help them?

Why should we show our wounds? What’s the point in that?

Well, John’s Gospel today answers that. Jesus showing His wounds is how the light got in to the disciples’ minds. Jesus is also showing us that showing our wounds is how we let Him in so that we can advance to full Easter life and bring His message out into a broken Good Friday world.

Leonard Cohen knew it. He said it in the refrain to his song “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

We have many examples of people who were given what I believe was divine strength to use the cracks in their own worlds to bring light to the world. From Mamie Till-Mobley insisting that her son Emmett’s casket be opened so that people could see what Jim Crow really meant to Twelve-Step groups where people share their “experience, strength and hope” right up to Margery Stoneman Douglas students using their grief to spark a worldwide movement  to call a halt to the proliferation of military-style weapons that can murder 17 people in a few minutes.

From #BlackLives Matter to #MeToo to #NeverAgain, young people are making themselves vulnerable in the public square, risking insults, slurs and even death threats to shine a spotlight on the injustices of our society.

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” said the Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston. She knew a lot about pain.

We’ll turn, though, to James’s letter for the last word. He says that “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.”

In that fellowship with God is the sanctification of our own wounds that gives us the strength to bring Jesus’s light to others. So “forget your perfect offering”  and “ring the bells that still can ring.” “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Amen.

The 21st Century Pieta

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On Good Friday, Christians around the world assume an attitude of mourning as they commemorate the steps to the cross that Jesus took.

When I say “assume,” I don’t mean they’re pretending. For millions of people, this day reminds them of the suffering of an innocent man who took on the world’s darkness and allowed himself to be sacrificed. The Roman-ruled world could not understand his message of a new compact between God and human beings.

As I follow the cross through my own little village in the rain later today, I shall be mourning other sacrifices as well: the sacrifices of the souls of Margery Stoneman Douglas High School, of Stephon Clark, of Danny Ray Thomas, of Anthony Stephan House, of Draylen Mason.

Sacrificial lambs of a country that refuses to deal with racism, the NRA, white supremacy, police who refuse to consider less than lethal force when dealing with black men.

Sacrificial lambs of a society that espouses “right to life” but doesn’t blink when children’s lives and black lives are taken.

stephon clarkStephon Clark was standing in his grandmother’s backyard holding a cell phone when he was shot 20 times. At a Sacramento Council meeting, a protestor said that a grandmother’s backyard was “a sacred space.”

 

Danny Ray Thomas was for unknown reasons walking with his pants down and his hands in view when he was murdered by police. Two years ago, while he was in jail on a drug charge, his girlfriend drowned their two young children. His was already a life of unendurable pain.

anthony houseAnthony Stephan House was getting ready to go to work when he picked up a package on his porch that exploded and killed him. His young daughter was in the house.

 

draylen masonDraylen Mason was a high school senior and classical musician who had not yet heard that he was to receive a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio to continue his studies when he too picked up a package on his porch.

The 17 children and staff of MSD were just going about their daily routine at school.

I was only 8 years old when I saw Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Pieta” at the World’s Fair. It made me cry.

From now on when I think “Pieta,” I will see the mothers of all the children killed in massacres and the black men, women, and children killed by police who act as judge, jury, and executioner.

How long will we let our society continue to condemn them to death?

The GOP’s War on Christmas

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Yes, Virginia, there is a War on Christmas.

It’s just not being waged by those who the “president” and Bill O’Reilly have accused.

You see, Virginia, the “president” and the Congressional GOP mostly identify as Christians. Yet, less than a week before the celebration of the birth of Jesus, they have shown themselves to either blatantly disregard, or not believe in, any of Jesus’s teachings.

Rather than feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit those in prison, or heal the sick, the “president” and the GOP want to enrich the already wealthy, steal from the poor, arrest the protesters. and let the sick get sicker even to the point of death.

Take care of widows and orphans? Oh no, they say with their actions, we need that money to pay for the billions of dollars we are giving our donors and ourselves.

Not only that, your children and your children’s children will have to deal with the mess of the trillion-dollar deficit and the ruined environment.

We don’t really know whether Jesus was born in a barn, but we have faith that this story reflects God’s message to human kind.

Wealth, earthly power, and political authority are not what God wants for God’s people. Sharing one’s heart and soul with all God’s children – and therefore our sisters and brothers – and caring for the most vulnerable in any society is what brings the kingdom of heaven to earth.

If we fight the GOP’s War on Christmas, we have righteousness on our side, Virginia. Never forget that loving the outcast, welcoming the stranger, and walking side by side with those who have met with discrimination are our weapons.

This is a war we can win if we believe in the sanctity of our cause. Christians, Jews, Muslims, and humanists can all agree and come together to form a great army that is on the side of justice.

Let it be so.

 

 

 

Howard Thurman’s Vision

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howardthurmanTheologian Howard Thurman might not have wished his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, would be as important today as it was when he wrote it in 1949.

Sadly, the African-American mystic would have hoped that his vision of Jesus’s love overpowering fear and hatred of the marginalized and most vulnerable people in our society would have been taken to heart by all who call themselves Christians.

Thurman grew up in Florida in the early 1900s, in a segregated Daytona. His grandmother had been enslaved and told him stories of slave preachers. Much of his young life was centered around the church and people who came to speak there. He remembered Mary Mcleod Bethune singing and talking about her dreams for education for Negro youth.

He was an exceptionally smart youth; since there were only three high schools for black youth in all of Florida, he boarded with relatives in order to go to the Florida Baptist Academy. Because he graduated as valedictorian, he earned a scholarship to Morehouse College. He eventually went to Rochester Theological Seminary in New York (many other seminaries did not accept Negroes).

Thurman was considered a mystic because of his ability to put himself into a place where he felt himself to be in the presence of God. In Disciplines of the Spirit, he calls that place the Inner Sea. Over a long career with many distinguishing chapters, including being dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, founding the interdenominational Fellowship Church in San Francisco, being honored by Eleanor Roosevelt, and being an influence on Martin Luther King Jr., there was yet one painful issue that he came back to again and again.

In 1935, Thurman chaired a delegation sent on a pilgrimage of American students to India, Burma, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). After a talk at the Law College of the University of Colombo, he had tea with the principle. The principle said this to him:

“. . . During all the period since then [Emancipation] you have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. . . I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.”

While referring to this painful episode in his memoir, With Head and Heart, as “the paradox of being a black Christian minister who was representing and, by implication, defending a religion associated in the minds of many of these nonwhite peoples with racism and colonialism,” Jesus and the Disinherited was his book-length answer.

In this time when Christianity has been hijacked by political agendas that again marginalize people of color, the poor and the powerless – and all the intersections of those categories – Jesus and the Disinherited should be a wake-up call to members of the Jesus Movement and those who would be part of the Beloved Community.

Jesus, a radical outcast, preached a radical love, and especially radical love for those, in Thurman’s words, with their backs against the wall. Why, then, “is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?” he asks.

And in just 102 pages, he gives a prescription for doing so.