As millions of people from all walks of life were taking to the streets in protest after police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds on May 25, 2020, I tried my best to avoid engaging in conversations where people were trying to arrest something ‘meaningful’ from the incomprehensible.
There is no ‘reason’ that police brutality marches on even during a global pandemic other than policing is brutal in season and out, and brutal policing of Black peoples serves the interests of power.
About a month after Floyd’s death, I was having Zoom drinks with a dear white friend when, for a moment, I let my guard drop.
“God Bless George Floyd,” she said. “He is the wake-up call God intended for us.”
I listened to her find reasons that the world finally ‘saw’ the video of Chauvin pressing the life out of Floyd with his knees. She was clear – the world needed to see ‘this brutality’ to finally do something about bad cops. I listened. Mostly, I just wept silent tears. The more I cried, the more reasons she offered for why she thought George Floyd ‘gave his life.’ Finally, I wiped my face and tried to remember that I was sitting with someone I considered a friend. I held my hand up asking her to stop and took a few deep breaths.
With the anguish of the exhausted, and with the images of trading cards and post cards depicting the lynchings of Black people ingrained in my mind, I responded trying to hold on to the last bit of whatever one holds on to in the effort to contain boiling rage.
“I’m trying to show some grace for the sake of our friendship, but I’m exhausted by holding that kind of grace and space, even with you. Don’t ever say that to anyone else. Don’t do that. God did not “intend” for George Floyd to be executed in the grossest, Blackest, and most violent, American-apple-pie kind of way possible just to send you a wake up call. He did not give up his life. He was executed.”
We sat in silence for a few moments, awkwardly staring at each other through the computer screen. Finally she said, “Well, what do you think God is trying to say by letting this happen?”
I looked at my friend and wondered what she would have said had it been my Black child calling ‘mother’ with dying breaths. What would she have said had it been me weeping and wailing over my child’s body?
“Don’t blame God for this. Don’t blame God because the system human beings intentionally designed to contain, control, and kill people who look like me actually works,” I whispered. “The question is not, “What is God saying.” The question is what will you do?”
The Rev. Timothy Adkins-Jones invited me to preach one of the Good Friday sermons for his April 2021 service at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, NJ. I thank him for trusting me for the assignment. I am sharing here the link to the sermon I offered for that occasion – “Trembling at Golgotha” (Matthew 27: 33-34, 45-46) because that sermon was born in the brokenness of my heart back in June 2020 as my friend and I stared at each other across a computer screen.
Recently my daughter Rocky wrote a piece for her Patreon that helped me to name something that was firing up my anxiety. She wrote, “I think one of the reasons that this year was so frustrating was because we all felt so terribly out of control. It largely felt as if we were all at the mercy of Whomever Is Controlling All This and they were just having a bad day and decided to unleash a series of plagues upon us all.”
The truth is every day since we began COVID-19 related restrictions in the US, I would get up in the morning and, through tears, check the news and health authorities to get the latest numbers on how many people had contracted the virus; and how many succumbed. I would deduce from the numbers of confirmed cases and the numbers of those who had died another number – those who were recovering.
This morning ritual was my way of feeling like I was in control over something that was obviously not in my control. I thought that if I just knew what was going on, I would be able to manage the chaos of my life and these times. But obsession does not yield manageability and did nothing for my ability to deal with the uncertainty that was caused by the bungled – and criminal – US response to this virus.
There was nothing I could do about those rising numbers even though I was doing my part to adhere to common sense guidance on public gatherings and personal behavior. The way forward through this awful thing was beyond my personal discipline. There was no leadership rising in the country to rally All Americans to work together and to contain this virus. In fact, the opposite was happening. To respond to a virus we cannot shoot to death – the former president actively promoted conspiracy theories and bad science. The ruling political party discouraged people from wearing masks and ridiculed groups that halted their public gatherings.
Rocky’s perspective helped me to admit that obsessing over the numbers was my way of personally trying to control something.
What I couldn’t control or face was the fact that, even with numbers, graphs, and stats, the losses were incalculable and could not be tallied. My effort to try to do so bordered on arrogance and ignorance, but it provided some relief from the reality of chaos unfolding before my eyes every day.
Thank you, Rocky. “A little child shall lead them, the prophets said of old. Thru storm and tempest, heed them, until the bell is tolled” (A Cradle in Bethlehem.)
We cannot calculate the loss of hope and genius those we lost took with them when their lives were cut short – and political indifference cut their lives short.
It angers me when Christians say, “Well this was God’s will. God is in control. If God didn’t want this to happen, it wouldn’t. This is all a part of God’s plan.” (However, the point is not my anger about that kind of trivializing and dismissing of the impact of selfish human behavior; the point is that we do to God what Adam did to Eve. “It wasn’t me; it was her!”).
God did not plan for more than half a million people to die in the US. (Lord, have mercy on the millions across the globe.)
God did not plan for countless others to be left to deal with the lingering consequences of the virus.
God did not plan for a generation of people to be left mourning the empty chairs in their lives.
None of this is God’s will.
We who dismiss incomprehensible things like a country refusing to rally to mitigate the impact of a virus on its population because whatever is the outcome of the virus ravaging its population is actually “God’s Will,” are often the people who refuse to take responsibility for the impact of our own destructive behavior – on other people and the planet.
We yell, “Survival of the fittest!” We pontificate on those who should “Sacrifice for the American way of life.”
What we will not say is, “I am greedy and selfish and don’t care if others live or die, because I still have what I want.” Even now with the availability of vaccinations, Texas and Mississippi won’t even hold enough grace to let people get protected before they throw open the doors and windows, making people even more vulnerable to the variants of this virus – about which we still have much to learn.
No – not God’s will. Instead, this was a most profound and telling demonstration of American spirituality. Americans worship capitalism and violence and these who have died have been the sacrifices made to those gods.
I am beginning to make room to sit with what I cannot control, and in my heart, I am crafting the liturgy that addresses the weariness of ambiguous and unrelenting grief.
January 6 is the day I would have been observing the Christian remembrance of Epiphany. (Yes, I know this means lots of different things to lots of different Christians, but I’m talking about me here, so remembrance.) But like everybody else, I was gripped by the scenes of insurrection unfolding in Washington, DC. Incited by the president, the loyalists he invited to rally with him became a terrorizing mob and stormed the Capitol building.
I’m sitting here in the wee hours of morning reclaiming space to ponder the Epiphany, and all I can think is the fact that as the violence was raging in and around the Capital Building, the president and his lawyers were calling senators – the same folk hunkered down under a table somewhere, taking cover from mob violence – urging the senators to delay the certification of the Electoral College results. He didn’t hear folks yelling in the background?
As the writer of the gospel of Matthew tells the story (Matthew 2), three wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem looking for a baby. They asked around, “Hey, have you seen the baby King? Yeah, he’s Jewish. We are not, but that doesn’t matter. We saw a star and we have come to pay him some respect.”
King Herod heard about their inquiries and was afraid. Matthew says Herod was afraid as were all of the leaders and all of the people. So, Herod tries to get information about the baby’s whereabouts from these three men. He tells them, “y’all go on and keep looking and then come back and let me know where the baby is.”
The three wise men go on about their mission and the star they had been following leads them to Mary and Joseph’s house. They offer the gifts they had been carrying for this baby, and my heart just swells at how I imagine the scene. I love a baby shower!!! The three men must have visited for a while. They stayed long enough to go to sleep and have a dream. (I don’t know if they stayed at Mary and Joseph’s house but shout out to Mary and Joseph if they had the bandwidth to provide hospitality for strangers with a newborn. I don’t imagine Jesus was any different than any other baby, despite your hallmark cards. My first baby screamed for three months. Solid. I never slept. I digress….)
Of course, we all have questions about this story. Herod ain’t see that blazing star in the sky? And while I might buy that Herod was afraid, I’m not really swallowing the idea that all of the leaders and all of the people in Jerusalem were afraid about the same thing that had Herod fearful. My guess? They were afraid of Herod, not afraid of the news of Mary and Joseph’s child – the baby of their neighbors, a baby born to one of them, a new baby in the community. But Matthew doesn’t offer an interview with the man on the street, so….
I wasn’t there. But I am here 3 days after the 12th Day. And I know how leaders who rule by fear and the threat of violence scare everybody in the world. The fear is not respectful “awe.” It is the fear of power-hungry leadership hell-bent on destroying everything that does not yield to them. I wasn’t in Jerusalem, but I am here in the United States. I see how horrid, narcissistic, unfit, unstable, and violent leadership feeds on destruction. I see how this leadership has set the stage for a different kind of massacre. A virus that is ravishing the globe has killed 369,000 people just in the United States as of this writing. Instead of pulling out all stops to curb the loss of life, instead of calling on the country to work together to protect one another, instead of providing leadership that makes room for grief and lament so that people turn toward each other, with his delusional fears the president turned people on each other. Intent on staying in office against the will of the people, the president has set in motion a level of violence – physical and psychic – that is simply astonishing and yet, familiar.
Death and collateral damage are the calling cards for this kind of leadership because these leaders are so full of themselves that they won’t even look up to see what others see – a star in the sky.
Again – I wasn’t there. But I am here. The 12th day – “Epiphany” – is a reminder that the wise ones followed “revelation and insight” on a journey of honor. They went in search of someone intent on giving from their substance and their hearts. And practicing the journey toward each other, engaging in the practices of giving to one another from substance and heart positions us to see God in each other. I know that for myself.
Epiphany is also a reminder to pay attention to instinct and dreams. (Side note: since we are talking about a baby here, I’m gonna take the liberty to say — If your child says that someone makes them feel strange, if they say they don’t want to hug some adult or visit with somebody – listen. Please listen to them. When you do, you are teaching them to trust their own instincts over conventions and cultural norms that often put children at risk. If your child doesn’t want to hug Uncle Joe or Cousin Laura, why are you forcing it?)
Okay – my point here is pay attention to your instinct and dreams. Pay attention to common sense. Out of an abundance of caution, not trying to be part of the set-up, not wanting to tip off the feds, not trying to upstage the plans of the Liberator before he’s finished teething, not wanting to be complicit with power or promote the agenda of empire — whatever you are feeling but are too afraid to say: follow your instincts. Go home a different way, in the other direction, far away from the leaders who don’t have it in them, don’t have the insight to “uncenter themselves,” leaders who don’t care enough to stop and attend to the extraordinary, whether it be the extraordinary deaths in the land or the extraordinary star in the sky.
Matthew 2: 1-12 (NRSV)
2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
O God, can you spare an angel to watch over the lineage of daughters of the mothers whose laps were stolen by slavery? Don’t turn away from a new generation of women whose laps are being stolen by poverty and exhaustion and economic oppression. God, toll the bell on laps put to work to nurture the children of those who make it so that there will always be a caste of mothers robbed of the choice to rock and sing and blow sweet kisses and offer lap time to their own children. Amen.
Sing sweet and low a lullaby till angels sing, "Amen."
A mother tonight is rocking a cradle in Bethlehem.
While wise ones follow through the night
a star that beckons them -
a mother tonight is rocking a cradle in Bethlehem.
"A little child shall lead them," - the prophet said of old. Through storm and tempest,
heed them until the bell is tolled.
Sing sweet and low a lullaby till angels sing, "Amen." A mother tonight is rocking a cradle in Bethlehem.
(Larry Stock and Alfred Bryan, songwriters. 1952)
The Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” has always reminded me of the wonderI felt when I held my own children as newborns. One screamed for three solid months. One slept for three solid months. And, one never took her eyes off mine for three solid months. But, I would look into their faces imagining who they would be when they grew up and so grateful for the opportunities to imagine a world that was not yet.
This carol does not ignore the “mean estate” of circumstances that greets Mary’s child. The refrain from this carol responds to the question, “what child is this” with “this, this is Christ the king.”
What child is this who’s laid to rest on Mary’s lap is Sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping.
This, this is Christ the King whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste! haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.
Why lies He in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christians, fear, for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through the cross be borne for me, for you Hail, hail the Word made flesh The Babe, the Son of Mary.
So, bring Him incense, gold and myrrh Come peasant, king to own Him. The King of Kings salvation brings Let loving heart enthrone Him.
Raise, raise a song on high The virgin sings her lullaby. Joy, joy for Christ is born, The Babe, the Son of Mary.
As much as we would like to think we know this babe on Mary’s lap, we really have no idea who these people are. We don’t know Mary and we don’t know Jesus.
This child on Mary’s lap grew into the One who spent time engaging and loving people – eating at strange tables, walking with strange persons, and healing sick bodies and broken hearts.
This child on Mary’s lap grew into the One who turned to another child one day to show the community that acting childish could also look like sharing with others. He demonstrated to his friends that another world – one where everyone had enough – was possible right then and there.
This child on Mary’s lap grew up to be the One who found vocation expressed in the words of the prophet Isaiah:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. (Isaiah 61: 1-4 NRSV)
I look around at what passes for faithfulness in we who would follow this child sleeping on Mary’s lap and I can only come to one conclusion: we traded that baby for some other god a long time ago.
Good news to the oppressed? Healing balm and comfort over broken hearts? Freedom from prisons and reasons to rejoice? What child is this? “Sweet little Jesus, boy – we didn’t know who you was.”
The one sleeping on Mary’s lap saw humanity as reflections of how beautiful God is and dreamed of policies of repair and healing not limited to the benevolence of political leaders. “The spirit of God is on me…” he said.
Dear God, who is this child? Help us to find our way to the baby sleeping on Mary’s lap. Amen.
On this first day of Christmas, I am thinking about shepherds. In the Gospel of Luke, these unnamed shepherds are described as the first to hear the good news. (Luke 2: 8-20)
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then the angel of the Lord stood before them…” (Luke 2:8-9a)
We don’t know who they were. We know where they were and what they were doing. They were with their sheep, watching through the night. I am praying for all of the pastors who, through this pandemic and in spite of their own limitations, have remained in the fields with their sheep. I pray that God honors their faith-full-ness with new expressions of God’s presence in their lives.
It matters to me that the angel of the Lord stood before these nameless shepherds. In contemporary church culture, people are often looking to the leading citizens and to the leading pastors for good news at midnight. We are always interviewing the stars and celebrities for their opinions and perspectives. But God sends angels with world changing news in the middle of the night to nameless but faithful shepherds. What is ‘awe-inspiring’ to me in this account – this year – is that the shepherds do something about what they have heard. I can imagine them looking at each other and deciding the logistics for how they were going to check this story out. They had to see this thing for themselves!
“When the angels had left them and gone into heave, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child…” (Luke 2:15-16a).
They were awed by the angel of the Lord standing before them with Good News, encouraging them not to fear. They organized themselves to go and see this ‘good news of great joy for all people’. And then, these shepherds shared the story with others, probably in the very way the Angel of the Lord intended – in a manner that encouraged others to be amazed and poised to keep sharing.
I’ve been thinking about this and and I’ve come to the conclusion that as startling as the appearance of an Angel in a random shepherds’ field had to be; and as fascinating it had to be to hear an army of angels singing of peace – these unnamed shepherds shared what they experienced in a way that kept the focus on the baby. As far as we know, they didn’t become Angel followers; they went in search of a baby.
I am a daughter of Fisk University. #FiskForever for sure. But that’s not the reason why I return over and over again to a little book entitled “Prayers for a Dark People.” A collection of prayers from the heart of W. E. B. DuBois, they were written for the children and young people enrolled in the Old Atlanta University. (This was the predecessor to the current Atlanta University Center, I think. Only the old university was comprised of elementary grades, high school, and college.)
Editor Herbert Aptheker notes that DuBois was writing to students who hailed from largely rural areas. They were the children and grandchildren of this country’s formerly enslaved people. The prayers were written between 1897 and 1910. It doesn’t really matter to me that DuBois may have been agnostic in his later years; what matters to me is that he made the effort to “speak” the people’s language – prayer.
Reading these prayers often, my mind travels from the book’s pages to the spaces of imagination and hope about the matters and the people weighing heavy on my own heart and on my own life. Some of BuBois’ prayers were written on scraps of paper and others were typed and numbered. Isn’t that how it happens? In every room of my house are my journals stuffed with papers and prayers inspired by scripture, representing the weights and joys of my heart.
Over the years, two of his prayers have been “mushed” (yes, that’s a word) to become the one I hold on to tightly. Or, maybe it holds me? I’ve changed words over the years for my heart’s sake; moved phrases around, and centered on the repetition of certain words in my devotional time. DuBois’ two prayers for Dark People have become my one prayer for the strength to persevere. I speak it over myself especially when I feel like quitting. And I do – feel like quitting, that is. Never mind the reasons why, the truth is I am speaking this prayer over myself in this season with the hope that “day calling upon day” will be clearer to me.
I’m grateful to the students who inspired DuBois to lead them in prayers that embraced race and space and circumstances – in the name of God. May their people – their children and grandchildren remember their names and stories.
Anyway, here it is – the prayer DuBois wrote over a century ago that has become my heart’s plea.
“Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we all know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of ease, or words from the mouths of others, or our own lives.Mighty causes are calling us – the freeing of women, the loving of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty and war – all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death — yet with joy, yet with hope – the prayer of my soul is a petition for persistence; not for the one good deed, or the one single thought – but deed upon deed, thought upon thought, hope upon hope, love upon love, prayer upon prayer, and work upon work until Day calling unto Day shall make a life work living.
I want to know the joy and grit of a people who refuse to be beaten, who never own defeat, who work to snatch success and victory out of the teeth of failure by keeping everlastingly at work – powerfully dependent upon God’s grace – and never giving up. Never giving up. Never giving. up. Give me, O God, to walk with the One who never turned his back but marched forward, never doubting the clouds would break. Lord, let the clouds break.” Amen.
Inspired by Prayers for a Dark People, W. E. B DuBois.
Here are the original versions of DuBois’ prayers:
Give us grace, O God, to dare to do the deed which we well know cries to be done. Let us not hesitate because of was, or the words of men’s mouth’s, or our own lives. Mighty causes are calling us – the freeing of women, the training of children, the putting down of hate and murder and poverty – all these and more. But they call with voices that mean work and sacrifice and death. Mercifully grant us, O God, the spirit of Eshter, that we say: I will go unto the King and if I perish, I perish – Amen. Esther 4:9-16 (Prayers for Dark People, by W. E. B. DuBois. Edited by Herbert Aptheker, p. 21)
“The prayer of our souls this night is a petition for persistence; not for the one good deed, or single thought, but deed on deed, and thought on thouts til day calling unto day shall make a life worth living. We want these young people to grow the grim grit of men who never know they’re beaten, never own defeat, but snatch success and victory out of the teeth of failure by keeping everlastingly at work and never giving up. Give us, O God, to walk with him who “never faltered but marched forward, never dreamed tho right were vanquished, wrong would triumph, held we fall to rise, and baffled to fight better – sleep to wake.” Amen (Prayers for Dark People, W. E. B. DuBois. Edited by Herbert Aptheker, p 71.)
Racism and capitalism and homophobia and xenophobia and every-other-religion-except-Christianity-aphobia and classism and sexism and ableism and adultism and all of their cousins live in the same building. The doors of their apartments are open to each other and they visit and fellowship with one another because their ancestors taught them to stick with family. They laugh at your attempts to fumigate their spaces with the very thing that feeds them: hatred. They set the family dinner table with your pronouncements and eat to their hearts’ content.
A thought: you should not be allowed to hold a job financed by the people if you don’t have a basic understanding of systemic oppression.
Another thought: Biblically – there will be no healing without justice. No reconciliation without repentance and repair. No fellowship and friendship dependent upon cheap grace. No beloved community and kin-dom without a radical revolution of values. You can’t get there wearing the same fashions that fly here.
The past couple of weeks have been painful ones for those who care about American race relations. On the heels of the slayings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, I sought out someone who could help me make sense of the current moment.I turned to Emma Jordan-Simpson, the executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
— Read on nynmedia.com/content/leader-leader-emma-jordan-simpson