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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Never Forget Hiroshima, Nagasaki

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I tell myself never to forget the horrible things of history that we must not let happen again.

Despite years of participating in Hiroshima Day memorials, this year August 6 made no impression on me.

The havoc and chaos of following the daily outrages of this vile regime have warped my brain into a single, obsessive thought: What will it take to bring these criminals to justice?

But today I did remember that President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima to lay a wreath and meet survivors of the atomic bomb just a little over two years ago.

In his reporting for The New York Times, Gardiner Harris wrote on May 27, 2016:

“President Obama laid a wreath at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial on Friday, telling an audience that included survivors of America’s atomic bombing in 1945 that technology as devastating as nuclear arms demands a ‘moral revolution.’

“Thousands of Japanese lined the route of the presidential motorcade to the memorial in the hopes of glimpsing Mr. Obama, the first sitting American president to visit the most potent symbol of the dawning of the nuclear age. Many watched the ceremony on their cellphones.

” ‘Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world was changed,’ Mr. Obama said in opening his speech at the memorial.”

A 91-year-old survivor, Sunao Tsuboi, met the President. ” ‘I held his hand, and we didn’t need an interpreter. I could understand what he wanted to say by his expression.’ ”

The world has changed again, just since May 2016. An immoral revolution took place and we have heard the regime say that it will strike North Korea with “fire and fury” and threaten Iran with a disaster never before unleashed on a country. I have already documented many, many of the other daily outrages and high crimes and misdemeanors wrought in fewer than two years.

This is why I must never forget August 6. Tomorrow, August 9, is the 73rd anniversary of the day when the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

 


 

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.

 

 

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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We Must Be Jesus for Immigrants

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A comedian named Tom Papa has a recurring shtick on “Live From Here,” the radio show that superseded Prairie Home Companion. Each week he gets himself into an absurd situation while he’s Out in America. He’ll say something like, “Have you ever been chased down Fifth Avenue by a drunken clown.” Then he pauses and says, in a Sad Sack voice, “I have.”

To borrow his schtick: Have you ever been on a 20-ton wooden schooner in an 80-knot gale with a broken jib and waves crashing over the sides?

I have.

It’s terrifying. Physically, I have never been more scared in my life than on that day in 1981. In fact, it was so terrifying that it was day I started praying again, after many lapsed years.

Bible commentator William Barclay says that because of the shape of the Sea of Galilee and the topographical formation of the land around it, storms come up with no warning, just swooping down on the lake with speed and violence.

Such was the case here, and even these seasoned fishermen were afraid for their lives. It’s possible they had never encountered one of these sudden storms.

Jesus was in the seat of honor in the stern, where the motion of the boat would have been less noticeable than at the bow. He was apparently so comfortable on his cushion that he fell asleep. The disciples had to wake him up to tell him that they were all in danger of dying, whereupon Jesus “rebuked” the wind and told the sea to be still. Then he rebuked the disciples for being afraid. “Why are you afraid,” he said. “Have you still no faith?” And they marveled, and were no longer afraid.

That’s it, that’s the story. And really, the message can be summed up in just a few words: With Jesus, we need have no fear.

Have you ever gone to church and thought the sermon was going to be really short and then found out it wasn’t?

I have.

Because there’s a lot more to this story, and there’s a lot more to say about fear.

What if – just  what if the storm hadn’t really abated, but with Jesus awake and going through it with the disciples, their fear was taken away such that it was as if the storm just went away?

I’m not saying that Jesus couldn’t make a storm stop if He wanted to. Of course He could. But maybe the real point is that whether there’s a storm or not, if Jesus is with us, we have no need to fear.

Fundamentally, I have believed this with all my heart for a long time. But after the national scandal of children and parents being separated at the border that has been revealed in all its horror in the past two weeks, has weakened that faith, and you might have the same problem I have. With Jesus, we need have no fear. Until we do.

I’m not talking about temporary fear, which the 12-Step tradition has made into an acronym: False Evidence Appearing Real. There are simple solutions to this kind of fear. When I say “simple,” I don’t mean easy, but it can be overcome if one wants to overcome it. It’s up to the individual.

I’m talking about existential fear. Not as in Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, but fear for one’s very existence because of the oppression of an agency with limitless power over oneself.

Theologian Howard Thurman addressed it many times, most notably in his book Jesus and the Disinherited. “Fear is one of the persistent hounds of hell that dog the footsteps of the poor, the dispossessed, the disinherited,” he wrote. He was specifically referring to the legacy of slavery in America and during the Jim Crow era, but his words have meaning for every group of dispossessed people.

Africans were kidnapped, brought to a new country, and put into inhuman conditions of servitude. Babies were ripped from their mother’s arms. Families were separated in the most unchristian ways.

And now it is happening to another group of people on whom the hounds of hell have sent fleeing from violence (one existential threat) into a country where they seek asylum but instead have their babies ripped from their arms and all are put into detention centers far away from one another, not knowing whether they will ever see their loved ones again.

Could we say to them, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus is with you.”? Or, “You’re afraid? What’s wrong with your faith?”

I hope to God not.

Have you ever laid awake sleepless because you know there is something so horrible happening that your body literally cannot rest?

I have.

I’m so afraid for these children and these parents that I have been incandescent with rage this past week, and the real threat isn’t even to me. When these seismic nightmares happen, I think, “They’re crucifying Jesus again. And again. And again.”

And yet, as Pastor Erik Karas reminded me on Facebook this week, Jesus rises again and again and again.

It’s not the faith of the children and the men and women who fled here for safety that is relevant. It’s my faith, your faith, that Jesus didn’t just calm a storm. Jesus spent His ministry, and through his torturous crucifixion, teaching us how to calm a storm, how to take the threat of violence and neuter it, how to claim victory over the death of the body and the death of hope.

In his weekly message, Bishop Rob Wright of the Diocese of Atlanta wrote, “Following Jesus is about taking up agency. It’s about Jesus believing in us to do the things he taught us. Following Jesus is not some always-trepidatious, hand-wringing kind of hope. Following Jesus is about being immersed in his teachings and hazarding faithful, audacious actions. Maybe church has taught us to be fans of Jesus instead of partners with Jesus.”

Are we just fans or are we partners? Do we need the miracles of raising from the dead and calming storms to believe, or do we believe that we can BE Jesus to the people Jesus commanded us to care for? The stranger, the alien, the hungry, the imprisoned, the child of God who has been oppressed to a degree that they feel disinherited from that mighty status, our co-heirs  with Jesus to the Kingdom?

Let us walk WITH Jesus into the storm and use our faith to help our brothers and sisters in Christ. Speak out, stand out, write letters, donate money to organizations that are hiring lawyers to represent the lost children in order to reunite them with their parents. Take part in vigils, be informed, watch the news no matter how painful that can be.

There will be time, endless time to talk about reconciliation and forgiveness; now is the moment to walk into the Valley of the Shadow of Death with Jesus and express our faith by bringing hope to the hopeless, by being light in the darkness.

I want to end by telling you just a bit about my recent pilgrimage to Sewanee, Tennessee, where I joined 37 strangers who quickly became soulmates on a contemplative retreat at St. Mary’s Place. The theme of the retreat was using the transforming nature of contemplative practice to produce compassionate action. On the last evening, as I listened to people sum up their hopes for what they would take home with them, I composed a prayer. I borrowed their ideas, words from the New Zealand Prayer Book, a touch of the St. Francis prayer, and wisdom from Howard Thurman. So, let us pray:

Eternal Spirit,
Earthmaker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver,
Loving God, in whom is Heaven,
Lead us into silence where we may find healing and sustenance.
Lead us out of silence so that we may be your instrument in bringing healing and sustenance to the world.
We want to do our part, no matter how small our part may be,
To serve your righteousness and justice, O Lord.
And with your prophet Micah,
May we always act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you
As we become the people you dreamed us to be.

Amen.