Prayer As Action

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For people in power to respond to a disaster by saying “My thoughts and prayers are with them” is a meaningless gesture unless that person follows it up with action to avert another disaster.

Yet there are times when prayer is the best action one can take.

I was privileged to see Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry last week and hear his powerful preaching. It was in a city I’m not really familiar with, and as I wandered around trying to find the place where the post-service luncheon was to be held, I was approached by a man.

He asked whether I would donate something toward bringing his brother from Puerto Rico to the mainland in exchange for a chocolate bar. I hadn’t brought sufficient cash with me to do so, and I explained this to him and also that I had now made two donations to the Hispanic Federation to help Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Marie.

Then I told him that I would pray for his brother, and the man’s face lit up as if he’d just been told he’d won a lottery. “Will you?” he exclaimed with joy. “Absolutely!” I said. “May I hug you?” he asked. “Absolutely!” I said. And we hugged.

I’m not sure who felt more blessed.

We talked a while about Puerto Rico’s travails, and he told me that he himself had only moved to the mainland shortly before the hurricane. He seemed glad to be here, and I hoped the mainland was treating him well. When we parted, something special was going on for each of us.

I believe that prayer is action; sometimes it is the only action one can take. I don’t pray for specifics much these days, and I don’t pray for a situation to go “according to God’s will.” Many people, and I have been one of them, hear in those words that God’s will might be that one has to endure a crisis without complaint; that suffering lies ahead and one just has to suck it up.

What comes after “Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer is the most important part: “on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

In other words, may God’s will for perfect reconciliation, perfect love, perfect peace, and perfect understanding come to human beings as it has come to those who have met God “not through a glass darkly,” but face to face.

I do pray that an afflicted person will know themselves to be surrounded with love and support and encouragement. I do pray that that person’s heart will be open to accepting help that might be unrecognizable at first. I do pray that they be strengthened and inspired by the Holy Spirit to see a solution where there wasn’t one before. And I do pray that Jesus may break down any barriers to healing inner wounds that prevent someone from accepting all the help that is available, divine and earthly.

At the luncheon I went up to the head table to get a picture of Bishop Curry, who had that morning preached prophetically about going to the mountaintop where heaven and earth come together to get strength to return to the trials and tribulations of our world and seek solutions to them.

An elderly woman next to me was telling the bishop that she prayed for him every day. The same light shone out in his face as I had witnessed a short time before on the Puerto Rican man. The bishop fairly lunged across the table to grasp her hands and thank her and then insisted she come up onto the dais and have her picture taken with him.

I’m not sure who felt more blessed.

You can hear the Bishop’s prophetic preaching below. The video was started long, long before sermon time, so you might want to advance it.

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Haroon Moghul: How to be a Muslim

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I heard Haroon Moghul speak about his new book, How to be a Muslim, on “Fresh Air” and was moved to read it.

Little did I know how much his story would teach me about myself.

Mr. Moghul is a Fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a contributor at the Center for Global Policy, and an academic and speaker on Islam. He grew up in a traditional Muslim-American family in Western Massachusetts. That traditional upbringing caused a great deal of inner turmoil in his youth as he navigated adolescence and all the usual hormonal conflicts that arise.

Being eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder did not help. His guilt about questioning his faith, questioning Allah, questioning relationships with non-Muslim girls, and having a neuro-biological disease brought him to the brink of suicide.

How he pushed through it all, and despite (or because) of it all being a successful organizer of Islamic centers for students and speaker on Islam, is important reading for understanding not only Islam, but also for understanding any faith journey.

Perhaps Mr. Moghul didn’t plan his book so, but that is what it brought to this reader.

Even as I listened to his interview with Terry Gross, I couldn’t help but think about being raised Catholic in the 1950s and ‘60s and the tremendous burden of guilt weekly sermons told me I must shoulder. The guilt was enhanced, I have since learned, by the disease of depression from which I have suffered since a small child.

It was when an elderly priest yanked me from a praying position and slapped me for not wearing a hat in church, not long before Vatican II decreed that women didn’t need to wear hats in church, that I vowed to brush Catholicism off my feet and move on.

The trouble was, I confused Christianity with Catholicism. And even as I trumpeted my unbelief, I realized that I wouldn’t be yelling at God if I didn’t fundamentally believe in God. And through it all, I still knew in my heart and soul that Jesus the Christ was my shepherd.

At one point in Mr. Moghul’s seeking for health and wholeness, a therapist told him to try spending just five minutes a day with Allah. As I was reading the book, and believing myself happily faithful now in my Episcopal/Lutheran church, I realized that my anger about American politics and racism and white supremacy was undermining my faith. I had lulled myself into thinking that the prayers I say each morning were holding me in a good place. But many days the prayers were said automatically and without intention.

So I took a cue from Mr. Moghul and started reading Morning Prayer from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer again. I started talking to Jesus about my anger and my anguish at the state of the nation. Oh, what a blessed difference it made! I’m still angry and my Twitter account shows it, but beginning the day with an organized routine of prayer has allowed light in that helps me channel the anger and keep depression from overwhelming me. I can push back against the darkness; as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Of course, Mr. Moghul’s book is not about me, and the world’s problems are not about me. Yet it is impossible to resist the darkness when everything around seems dark, whether that darkness comes from neuro-biological illnesses or the state of the world. I do think that is what Mr. Moghul writes about, and it is what he helped me see.

So I thank Mr. Moghul and I thank Him/Her, the Eternal Spirit, the Father and Mother of us all who draws us from darkness into light.

“By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them”

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I am just plain sick and tired of being discriminated against because I’m white and I’m not going to take it anymore!

Oh wait, I’m not discriminated against because I’m white.

Never mind.

I’m really getting very good at levitating when news breaks while I’m watching MSNBC.

And of course I turned to Twitter and #affirmativeaction to see how other people were expressing their horror and revulsion at the thought of Jeff Sessions using the Civil Rights Division to investigate the non-discrimination of white people at universities.

Heart-sickeningly, what I found were mostly accolades for Sessions and his decision, which I personally think is his way of trying to get back into Donald Trump’s good graces.

I responded to only a couple of the tweets, pointing out that Affirmative Action is a really tiny step that the US has made toward reparations and should be kept strong.

Here are the tweets, starting with the one I initially replied to:

#AffirmativeAction is a racist cancer. Paternalistic whites who think blacks can only get ahead if they’re given a head start. Toxic.

 

(Me: Not paternalism, just a tiny step toward reparations.)

Same tweeter:

So many socks.https://twitter.com/Radicalgrrrrl/status/892736574059884544 

Not sure what that means, but he posted my twitter profile.

A different tweeter:

Take your tablets and go back to bed now, Cynthia.

 

Yet another:

Does welfare count?

 

The next few are from the same person:

  • For dead people by people that didn’t have crap to do with it? Lol. Nope.
  • People who blame others for their failures are destined to stay failures.
  • It’s a discriminatory law.
  • The government shouldn’t be involved AT ALL with hiring decisions.

 

From the tweeter who told me to take my tablets and go to bed:

Yes. Go on now, dear.

 

The most recent:

Only 3% of the white people living today had ancestors who owned slaves! WHY SHOULD WE ALL PAY FOR THE EVIL OF THE FEW?! YOU ARE SICK!!!!!

 

It was interesting to note that all four of the respondents use made-up names and pictures of well-known people or cartoons in their profiles.

The Scripture “By their fruits ye shall know them” becomes more meaningful to me day by day. I am blessed to know the compassionate, loving, peace-filled, generous fruits of many, many people on Twitter and in person. Sadly, this can make them the target of people who hide behind fake images and names. At least we have the courage of our convictions.

PS: It’s time to rename the Department of Justice.

Pentecost in the Age of Trump

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A sermon preached on 6/4/17 at Christ Trinity Church in Sheffield, MA

O Holy Spirit of God, abide with us.
Inspire all our thoughts.
Pervade our imaginations.
Suggest all our decisions.
Order all our doings.
Be with us in our silence and in our speech,
In our haste and in our leisure,
In company and in solitude,
In the freshness of the morning and in the weariness of the evening,
And give us grace at all times
Humbly to receive thy mysterious companionships.

If the apostles thought they were in danger before Jesus came and breathed on them, thus imparting to them His Holy Spirit, they were in even more danger afterward.

To let God use your mind, your heart, and your hands is indeed a perilous venture, my friends. For when you do, you open yourselves to ridicule, to mocking, to having to place yourself at both physical and spiritual risk.

I have always thought of the mysterious companionships mentioned in the prayer as creatures of the natural world. Indeed, I believe that God used such creatures to draw me closer and closer to Her. I can’t tell you the number of times that, in moments of deep discouragement, a swallowtail butterfly has swirled around me, or a wolf, though attached to a chain, has come up to me and licked my hand, or a dragonfly has landed on my arm, and immediately all bad thoughts have evaporated and I have felt comforted and loved.

Kissed on Both Eyelids

I have felt as the actor Walter Slezak felt when he wrote in his autobiography that upon meeting his future wife, he felt as if God had kissed him on both eyelids. Isn’t that warm and cozy and comforting?

As I get older, however, and look at the patterns of my life, and if we look at the patterns of the apostles’ lives after Pentecost, we can see that there is much more to the working of the Holy Spirit in ourselves, in the church, and in the world.

There comes saying the unpopular thing that needs to be heard. There comes daring to love the unlovable. There comes befriending one’s enemies. There comes, at all times and in all places, an involuntary urge to do the right thing, no matter the cost.

 There comes action, according to the gifts the Spirit gives each one of us.

The original Pentecost was a Jewish holiday called Shavuot. Fifty days after Passover, Jews still celebrate the day on which God gave the Israelites the Torah and they became His people. This year it was celebrated on June 1.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for spirit is “ruah,” meaning wind, power, strength. In the New Testament, the Greek word “pneuma” is used for the Holy Spirit, meaning breath. We see them both used in the readings from Acts and in John’s Gospel. Notice the differences in them, though. In Acts, Jerusalem is filled with people who have come to celebrate Shavuot, which has now morphed into a harvest festival. Suddenly a violent wind comes into the house where the apostles are staying and tongues of fire rest on them. Suddenly they are able to speak in other languages, and every person in the city hears them speak in their own language.

John’s Pentecost is taking place on the same day as the Resurrection. The frightened Apostles are barricaded behind locked doors. Jesus comes to them and breathes on them, recalling Genesis and God’s breath into the first human being. Jesus said to the apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The Real Kiss of Life

What ties the two Scriptures together is not obvious. One depicts the Apostles in the middle of a micro-storm and includes hundreds of other people. The second shows a very quiet moment in which Jesus is not only breathing on them, but into them. This is no artificial respiration, but it is the real kiss of life, the sealing of them as His own and marking them forever as people who are commissioned to go out into the world and be Jesus in the world. And as he did it to the apostles, he did it to us.

When the Spirit comes, Jesus tells the Apostles in Chapter 16 of John, “. . .he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.”

Matt Skinner of the Lutheran Theological Seminary puts it this way: “That is, in the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ followers receive nothing less than the fullness of the glorified Son. Their lives (ours, too) can therefore accomplish ends similar to his life’s, insofar as they reveal God.”

The world that the Spirit comes to prove wrong, through the Apostles and through us, “usually indicates a hostile and ignorant response to the truth that Jesus embodies,” Mr. Skinner says. And by the most intimate divine act possible, that of breathing into us, Jesus assures us that His peace is not that of the world, not just the cozy and comforting view I’ve had, but peace that gives confidence that no matter how bad it gets, Jesus is with us through it all.

But what do we make of the final verse of today’s gospel reading? Quoting Mr. Skinner again, “The Johannine Pentecost” goes like this:

Jesus bestows peace upon his worried followers. Great!

Jesus fills them with the Holy Spirit. Great!

Jesus tells them they can forgive or retain other people’s sins. Huh?”

We have to look back at the verse from Chapter 16 and throughout the rest of John to understand that, no, we are not given the responsibility of coming up with a balance sheet of other people’s rights and wrongs.

Sin As Estrangement

Over and over again in John, Jesus talks about Himself and his relationship to the Father, and that if one can’t believe what he says, one remains separated from God, and so the word “sin” here in today’s reading refers to that estrangement, that separation. To forgive people’s sins here doesn’t mean that we are to give absolution for others’ moral failings, but that we, as commissioned by Jesus and through the power of the Holy Spirit, can help set people free from their unbelief by bearing witness to Jesus in our lives. If we don’t, the estrangement from God is “retained” in the world.

In a way, Jesus is really pointing out cause and effect: If you, my apostles, my followers, my church, bear witness to me, you will help to free people from their unbelief. If you don’t, that unbelief will continue.

To relate this back to Acts, I have to address the elephant in the room. Yesterday, seven people were killed by terrorists in London. At least 28 others were wounded, some life-threateningly so. This is the second terrorist attack in England in two weeks.

At least 90 people, mostly women and children, died in Kabul, Afghanistan this week in a terrorist attack, and several killed at a funeral Friday for a young man who was protesting the lack of security in Kabul and was shot by police.

In the US, there have been two fatal incidents of domestic terrorism in the past two weeks. A white supremacist fatally stabbed Ricky Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche were fatally stabbed and Micah Fletcher wounded in Portland when they intervened with a white supremacist who was harassing two young women whom he believed were Muslim.

African-American college student Richard Collins III was fatally stabbed by a white supremacist student on his college campus two weeks ago.

Our President condemns attacks on white Westerners and uses them to push his travel ban. We hear very little from him about the domestic terroristic attacks, which I believe were empowered by this government, or when Muslims are killed by others who call themselves Muslims but pervert the faith of Islam.

Luke writes at least twice about God’s unifying vision of all people, about anti-discrimination if you will. Today’s scripture, which is always read on Pentecost, shows people from dozens of nations able to understand each other, able to hear each other, after the Holy Spirit comes in wind and fire.

Is this then the true work of the Holy Spirit? To empower us to set others’ free from the deadly sins of extremism and racism? To radically learn to UNDERSTAND each other and HEAR each other, no matter who we are and where we’re from. To radically DEFEND those who are attacked and to intervene when we witness the discrimination, the hate of those who have rejected the Kingdom of God?

I would have preferred to dwell on the cozy and comforting aspects of the mysterious companionships today, my friends. I would rather not have to ask you, or myself, if you had been on that train in Portland, would you have intervened? I would rather have played Pollyanna’s “glad game” and left you with rosy and optimistic thoughts.

But our world, and our country, becomes more dangerous every day as the sins of racism on all sides do their evil work, inside our country and out of it. So today, I say, the mysterious companionships are courage, strength, and fortitude to resist the evil work at every pass. This is what Jesus is breathing into us today. Will we accept the grace to do that?

Everyone Belongs in the Kingdom

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My little garden in a little town in a little state is my refuge, my haven, my glimpse of the Kingdom.

It is in shade, yet there are flowering plants and lots of green foliage. I did a little work and nature did the rest. In the near distance are trees dappled in sunlight in the late afternoon and a glimpse of the churchyard next door.

Robins and catbirds and sparrows and swifts sit on the fence and call to the universe or fly and dart about. Honeybees cover the cimicifuga and they are more than welcome. Fat bumblebees fly up into the heart of the hosta blossoms. I sit with my coffee and my book and my mature, overweight cat lazes nearby.

A chipmunk runs across the paving stones from one clump of vegetation to another. A poodle pup named Rory charges up the path from next door, tail wagging, to greet me. Onyx flips her tail and eyes him warily. I give him a good patting and send him back to his owner.

Yes, the Kingdom, the harmony, the peace despite a busy major route just yards away. For 45 minutes a day most days I can come to my retreat and, ideally, shed the tensions of the work day.

It is more difficult to shed the tensions of the world. Even more difficult is that I am ever mindful of the fact that there is no haven, no blessed retreat, no Kingdom for so many people on this Earth, our island home spinning through a universe of wonders and horrors.

Is it neurosis or social conscience that never lets me forget how privileged my life has been? I have known loss and grief. My mother died when she was the age I’ll be in September, a short, violent battle with liver cancer that took her before we could even get our minds around what was happening to her. My beloved brother died when he was the age I am now, a long, drawn-out battle with pancreatic cancer that left him a bag of bones loosely covered in flesh, and it was almost impossible to recognize the athletic, handsome, dignified youth and man he had been.

People, pets, jobs, relationships, the losses that are the normal stuff of most lives.

But no one I love has ever been executed because of the color of his skin. No one I love has so far been in the path of a terrorist. No child of mine has ever lived in a war zone or had to risk drowning to reach a shore of safety.

In the late 1980s, the African National Congress toured the world with a documentary called “Every Child is My Child.” Along with all the political and economic and humanitarian efforts to end the evil called apartheid, it galvanized people to look at the struggle in a new way.

For me, it reinforced the feeling that I have known as long as I can remember, that every person is my child, my sister, my brother, my mother, my father, and the Kingdom is not mine alone to enjoy. It won’t be the Kingdom until everyone can live without fear, in safety and peace, in the sure knowledge that when they wake up to a new day, they are not risking their lives by stepping outside their doors.

 

What’s Lent Got To Do With It?

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Presumably everyone who calls themselves a Christian is now observing Lent, the 40-day journey through repentance leading up to the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

I don’t know whether all denominations put on the sackcloth and ashes that I was taught to don as a child. Despite going to Confession weekly, I rarely felt forgiven because the very next time I went to Christian education I was told about some new way in which I was a sinner and that my sins made up the nails that crucified Jesus.

I went to all the movies that came out in the late 1950s and early 1960s about Jesus: “King of Kings,” “Barabbas,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” “Ben Hur,” etc. And I left each movie haunted about whether I would have been one of the people yelling for Jesus’s blood or one of the women who followed Him.

To add to my neuroses, I used to spend hours as a child poring over three editions of Funk & Wagnall’s yearbooks that were in our house. They must have been for the years 1952, 1953, and 1954. They contained many pictures of dead people: Eva Peron in her casket, Emilie Dionne, victims of gangland shootings, Mau Mau casualties. The yearbooks introduced me to a world of horrors, and they got mixed up with the guilt I already carried so that I began to feel responsible for everything bad that happened in the world.

Through the years, that sense of guilt has never really left me; even now, in liturgical church traditions, I’m told at one and the same time that I am a sinner and also told that I’m forgiven once and for all for those sins of which I’m truly repentant.

Yet in all of my young education, learning about slavery, watching civil rights protesters on television, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, mourning the assassination of Martin Luther King, was it ever suggested in church that the original sin I was supposedly born with had anything to do with the sin of racism. Moreover, the Christian church in the United States has not, as one body, repented of the sin of aiding and abetting racism.

I have been asking myself the last few years, what would Jesus want the form of our repentance to take? Giving up chocolate or meat or TV for 40 days, or setting about righting the wrongs of our national history by admitting to the sin of enslaving, raping, murdering, excluding, and treating with contempt a sizeable proportion of God’s children? If there is such a thing as original sin, then what white people, with the complicity of the white Christian church, have done to Africans and Native Americans is our original sin.

Now is the time to repent.

An organization called Ignatian Spirituality Network is e-mailing daily Lenten reflections to those who sign up. Written by a diverse group of people, the reflections are called “Lift Every Voice.” The website is www.ignatianspirituality.net.

Richard Wright’s Heir

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Many people more eloquent and more relevant than I am have written about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son, Between the World and Me.

From the first moment I picked it up and saw from whence the title came, I was brought back to Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy, and his most famous book, Native Son.

And I have to come to think that there is much that is similar between Richard Wright and Ta-Nehisi Coates. I discern a similar urgency and impatience and anger in their written words. Mr. Wright had to leave the United States in order to be who he really was and to write what he really wanted to write. Fortunately for us, Mr. Coates is able to live and work and have a voice in the US. He has become possibly the most important voice saying what a lot of white people do not want to hear. That is a good thing; we need him.

After reading the first part of the poem, where the narrator is speaking, I also thought of Father Richard Rohr, an important voice in the mystic side of Christianity. From him I learned the word “numinous,” describing an experience that for a period of time takes you out of the world in shock or awe. Learning of the death of a loved one, for example, or equally, seeing the face of God.

I translate Mr. Wright’s words to describe such a numinous experience. The narrator comes upon the aftermath of a lynching and begins to realize what has gone on here, the “sooty details . . . thrusting themselves between the world and me. . .” How can seeing such an abomination not take one into a place of transcendent shock that erases the background of life? In the narrator’s case, it takes him to a place where the lynched martyr forces himself into the narrator, who then is able to describe the lynching in the first person.

Theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) coined the term “numinous.” For him, it was the basis underlying all religions, and he gave it three parts: a mysterious experience that is wholly unlike anything else in ordinary life; a tremendous experience because it can be terrifying whether it is from God or Satan, and finally a fascinating experience because of its potency.

The narrator’s experience certainly falls into all three of these categories. While we might at first think the experience is from Satan because of the evil of the deed that caused it, an argument might be made that it is really from God. How else can we redeem and restore our history if we do not first face the evil of it? We have to go right into the pain of the martyred and the oppressed in order to come back to ordinary life and say with authority, as Richard Wright did and Ta-Nehisi Coates does, NO MORE! NO MORE! NO MORE!

Between the World and Me
Richard Wright

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled     suddenly upon the thing, Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly     oaks and elms And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting     themselves between the world and me….

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly     upon a cushion of ashes. There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt     finger accusingly at the sky. There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and     a scorched coil of greasy hemp; A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat,     and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood. And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches,     butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a     drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick; Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the     lingering smell of gasoline. And through the morning air the sun poured yellow     surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity     for the life that was gone. The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by     icy walls of fear– The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the     grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods     poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the     darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived: The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves     into my bones. The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into     my flesh.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and     cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red     upon her lips, And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that     my life be burned….

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth     into my throat till I swallowed my own blood. My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my     black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as     they bound me to the sapling. And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from     me in limp patches. And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into     my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony. Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a     baptism of gasoline. And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot     sides of death. Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in     yellow surprise at the sun….

Richard Wright was only 52 years old when he died after suffering a heart attack in Paris. Ta-Nehisi Coates is 40. Let us pray that he will have many, many more years to force us to look at ourselves and dare to visit the belly of the beast of racism in order to conquer the beast.

The following link is a filmed narration of “Between the World and Me”: Richard Wright on YouTube