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
“I woke up this morning with one of the songs of our ancestors on my mind:
I’m a rolling, I’m a rolling,
I’m a rolling through an unfriendly world!
I’m a rolling, yes, I am rolling
Through an unfriendly world.
O Sister, won’t you help me?
O Sister, won’t you help me to pray?
O Sister, won’t you help me?
Won’t you help me in the service of the Lord?”
Our songs tell us that we knew how to ask our kin for help as we were risking it all to make our way through to freedom. Our kin learned to listen for the sounds of the ones headed to Beulah, to freedom.
What does it sound like when our kin are asking for help today to make it through to freedom? What are the sounds our ears and hearts need to be attuned to if we claim to stand on the shoulders of those whose “vocation” was the Underground Railroad?
I can not hear these songs as just disembodied tunes with meaningless or otherworldly lyrics. And, I think my ancestors would caution me not to think that being able to occupy the same burning houses of the masters whose greed created a world dependent on the subjugation of people, any people, is freedom. Anybody in the business of subjugating is adding another brick on the walls that hold up the world white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, and slavery made. I ain’t free until we are all free.
I don’t want a world that just replaces those powers with their cousins. I don’t want my grandchildren’s world to look back at me, tracing the contours of the chains I placed on someone else.
I believe another world is possible.
So, this morning I woke up with a determination to keep on rolling through.
To pray – to keep watch in God’s direction.
To stay in the “service of the Lord” – the work of liberation.
To own my vocation.
I am the Underground Railroad.
“There is a lot of embedded symbolism within the narrative of the piece. The contours of the base represent the Maryland/Delaware Peninsula, where Harriet was enslaved, eventually escaped, and continued to return for her freedom raids. The dramatic step up/cut is the Pennsylvania state line, and they are stepping out of the slave states to an elevated freedom. The wind illustrates the peril of the journey but is also a metaphor for the intense opposition she faced. The dress is enveloping the girl, billowing protectively like a flag, and is meant to represent all of the legal protections afforded every United States citizen-a symbol of the future equality to come. Each hand signifies an attribute, Determination, Protection, Fear, and Trust. The Union military coat represents Harriet’s time in South Carolina raiding plantations and bringing the freed slaves back to Union occupied Beaufort.” (Artist – Wesley Wofford)
Eighteen years ago today on this day – September 11, 2001, I didn’t have GPS or a map and I was trying my best to get home. The towers had fallen. New York City was in chaos. I was physically ok but could not wrap my mind around planes crashing into buildings. I sent my staff home and left my office on 73rd street. I got as far as 23rd Street and could get not below that to my child who was on 16th street. It was my child’s second day of Middle School, the towers had fallen, and I was trying not to lose my mind.
A member of my church and dear girl friend was able to get below 23rd Street to get to my child’s school on 16th Street. She brought her up to me. I will always love my dear friend for many reasons – but I am eternally grateful to her because she took my hysterical call.
Now, I had to figure out how to get the both of us home.
None of the usual routes were accessible to me. I was a relatively new driver and didn’t know much about NYC’s roads because I usually just drove to work, to church and children’s play dates. That was it.
But the late Deacon Cozetta “Mama G” “Coco” Green knew the roads. She had traveled them before. I called her and she stepped into the fullness of her witness. She encouraged me to put in the earphones to my cell so that my daughter didn’t have to hear our conversation and know the degree to which her Mama was struggling.
And, Deacon Green went to work. She talked me through back alleys, roads and passageways all through Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and then Brooklyn. Her challenge was my limitation. I couldn’t orient myself with north, south, east or west. Left and right meant nothing – those were useless points of direction and reference. My mind was just not functioning in that way. But she didn’t shame me, or give up on me, or make me feel like I should know better, or I should get it together. She knew I was in “calm hysteria” and she talked to me until she could figure out how I needed to hear her directions.
Deacon Green just kept saying, “if you drive with the sun in your face and not the back of your head, you’ll be ok, you’ll be going in the right direction, you can do it. I’m here. Where’s the sun? Is it in your face or the back of your head? Alright, there’s gonna be a gas station coming up, look out of the passenger side, you see it? Good, now drive past that bodega and turn toward the driver’s side. Good! Now, you see a bridge on the passenger side? Go under it and there will be a side road. Take that. How you doing? Aren’t those buildings on the passenger side such an unusual color? Isn’t that a huge cemetery over there? I think you are doing great! That’s the city’s worst supermarket on the passenger side. I’m proud of you, you are hanging in there!”
That’s how I got home. Seven hours driving through unfamiliar territory with a whole city on edge, my child in the passenger seat but Cozetta Green in my ear, guiding me by landmark, speaking my language and telling me that I was ok because she was there with me.
When our congregation gathered the next day just to be in each other’s presence, I couldn’t wait to see Cozetta. I rushed her and she welcomed me with open arms. She hugged me and whispered in my ear over and over again – “I knew you could do it.”
Mama G is with the ancestors now but while she was with us, she sure found ways to make us believe we could do absolutely anything. And we all could, in part, because she was ALWAYS gonna do her part. Encouragement. Speaking the language we needed to hear. Sharing what she knew. Refusing to let us worry about what we didn’t know. And hugs. Lots of hugs.
She knew the roads, in part because she had shopped ev-er-y street in the Metroplitan area, never being limited to the malls. She knew the deals on every the street in this city.
She knew my deal. She loved me home.
I pray for the families who lost so much on 9/11. I pray for the victims of terrorism the world over. I pray for us, for all of us. I pray for myself. And I pray that God would be gentle with all of our tomorrows.