Thursday, May 3, 2018

Justice, Prayer, and Persistence

Several things have come together for me of late.  They may be random, or they may be more thematic. They come from a variety of sources.  The biblical text, the slave narratives, interviews with black farmers and families, and prayers in a book that I’ve prayed from for several years, “Conversations with God.”

The parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 which reminds us, in the words of the Man from Nazareth, to pray and not give up, is up at the top of the list. Justice was a theme of that prayer.  I am this type of prayer.  What about you?

We all have our ways of talking and ways of praying.  I remember when I was a much younger man, I irreverently referred to one brother who prayed publicly as praying with a “stained glass voice” because he did not talk that way in normal conversation. How do you pray, either quietly or publicly?

While working on an article about black land acquisition and dispossession over the last few months, I had occasion to dive in the slave narratives again. The slave narratives were conversations that various people, men and women, white and black, had with those with stories that traced their way back to days of enslavement. These were recorded or transcribed during the 1930s.  My opinion is that the interviewer probably got more truthfulness when she or he was a person of color like the interviewee. The language they used is very different than the language I use, but I find the language incredibly provocative as they tell their stories. I occasionally dive into these materials to hear what life was like in their own words and to know how they survived and, in some places, thrived despite the inhumanities of the “peculiar institution.”

This one is painful to read: 

“Iffen a nigger run away and dey cotch him, or does he come back ‘cause he hungry, I see Uncle Jake stretch him out on de ground and tie he hands and feet to posts so he can’t move none. Den he git de piece of iron what he called ‘slut’ and what is like a block of wood with little holes in it, and fill de holes up with tallow and put dat iron in de fire till de grease sizzlin’ hot and hold it over de pore nigger’s back and let dat hot grease drap on he hide. Den he take de bullwhip and whip up an down, and after all dat throw de pore nigger in de stockhouse and chain him up a couple of days with nothin’ to eat My papa carry de grease scars on he back till he die.” (Berlin, Faureau, and Miller 1998: 29)

Life was indeed brutal, much more so than most of us can imagine, though its system still abounds in America today. More on that later.

The poem in the “Conversations with God” book was written by Maurice N. Corbett in 1914. A politician and poetry writer, he also worked in the US Census Bureau for a time. His poem, “Lord, Your Weak Servants Bow,” is one I return to periodically.  Here are a few lines:

“You said dat dem you jined in heart
No one should dare asunder part,
But my ol’ marster, (cuss his hide),
Sol’ my companion from my side;
An’ while in agony I lay,
Dey come an’sol’ my chil erway;
Dey lef me nuffin here ter luv,
Cep you Dear Jesus, You, erbuv.”

“O Lord, my way is very dark;
Sometimes I thinks I hears de bark
Of hell-hounds howlin’ on my track;
Come my good Lord an’ drive ‘em back.”

“Sometimes when I kneels down ter pray,
I feels dat you fur erway;
Sometimes I feels so fur I stray
Dat you can’t hear me when I pray.
Sometimes my faith grows very slack,
But den your spirit drawns me back;
You promised jestice wid Your lip,
An’ I won’t let your mem’ry slip.”
(pp. 123-126).

There is a lot in that poem, and there are more verses to it, along the lines of faith, and especially persistence with God in troublesome times. I think he was a “persistent widow” prayer, reminding God that he was going to remind God of promise of justice.

How do you pray?  For what do you pray?  How are the dominant themes of your life intertwined with your prayer life?  Do you pray in the same language that you talk, or do you use a different language?

Just wondering about things these days. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Blind I Was Until I Could See

Blind I lived
Until I could see
Going to and fro
As privileged as could be.

Blind I lived
Everywhere I looked
Felt comfortable
Every turn I took.

Built into my spaces
Those assumptions that I made
I held to them like a cloak
From the chill of winter afraid.

Sameness is what I saw
Left and right so it seems
Those people over there
Blinding that heavy beam.

Whiteness is how I lived
Who would be surprised
The folks with different skin
Were somehow to be despised.

How long could that be maintained
And live and be somehow sane
To hide behind that wall
And pretend to be humane.

There were small dents here and there
By Cora and the prof we called Doc
My father’s friend named Charlie
The Black preacher even more the shock.

College opened up the door
To more people of other races
Still the assumptions just lingered
Without opening up all the spaces.

Then the call came that day
“The severity of the cause”
The words I heard
More than made me pause.

Into their world I wondered
Stories of farming while black
The powers and oppression
My white world did severely crack.

The mediation hearing in DC
Powerful people all around the room
Farmer, wife, and legal counsel
Would the feds their lives consume.

By grit and determination
The lawsuits they did win
How much of life they lost
These things America’s greatest sin.

Other people and conversations
Continued to challenge my thinking
Gary Doc Van Welchel Janice Major
My blindness rapidly shrinking.

Enslaved Africans chained
Inside the brutal ship
Bought and sold like cattle
On the auction block forced to strip.

Brought here to work the land
To support the owners greed
Never to own the land
Freedom a deeply planted seed.

From then until now
Whiteness the dominant color
Who made that determination
Of the value of the other.

We see it all around
When we live with open eyes
Oppression left and right
To many there is no surprise.

From red lining
To obstacles at the voting booth
Crime violence against people
Passed time to learn the truth.

To fulfill the dreamers dream
Cease judging by color of skin
But by content of ones character
Living beyond our original sin.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Memory and Memories of a Marginalized People

I wonder how you work
Do you just smirk

At people like me
Who find you most interesting can we agree

How much of you
Is mine to own
Or what
Is about seeds they’ve sown

To what degree
Am I free
To say that you
Are bigger than me

In the faceless crowd
I see each week
Do I remember
That which I seek

Or is it simply remembering to remember

Those voices
That I hear inside
Do they come from me
Or on the winds do ride

I hear them say
Again this day
What I think I heard
Or have I been stirred

And my mind blurred
And still I am
Shaped by those voices
And those spoken words

“My blood is on this land
Farming is in my DNA
When will this all be over
The law may be color blind
But people aren’t

On three separate occasions
Finagled their way out
There’s money in here
But there’s none in here
For you all”


Those voices
That I hear inside
Do they come from me
Or on the winds do ride

I think you know

Monday, April 2, 2018

Dear Lord, Thanks

Dear Lord:

Hear our prayer for rest and peace,
From all our strivings, Lord, to cease.
For food to eat and joy to share
To hang with those for whom we really care.

We thank you.

For travel way off to foreign fields
To see our grandson play a game that yields
Him joy and fun
While on the run

For travel way off to foreign fields
To see our grandson play and sing
Makes our hearts ring
When he strums that thing.

We thank you.

For Easter Sunday and all of its gain
To chase our dream and enjoy the rain
To see the babies grow each day
To love their parents along the way.

We thank you.

For the promises that this day brings
To laugh and cry and pray and sing
To read and write and search it out
To find the truth and with a shout

Say once more

We thank you.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Your Face: A Few Thoughts in Response to Psalm 27

Your face is what I want to see
Your face will tell me what there is to know
Your face will inform and shape
Your face will rob me of my comfort.


I see your face
I look into our eyes
I feel your gaze
I long to stay here.


Your gaze is piercing
Your eyes are frightening
Your vision of me is revealing
Your hopes for me are disarming.

My eyesight is blurry
My vision is skewed
My perspectives are defective
My views are awry and misshapen.


You see me looking at you
You know if I want to remain here
You sense my doubts and fears
You hear my feeble cries.


I wilt beneath your gaze
I face my lingering doubts
I have deceived myself
I only think I want to see.


My delusions are comfortable
My placement of people and things are predictable
My blind spots are truth
My assumptions are reality.


I want to see
I want to see more than objects
I want to see what you want me to see
I want to feel my blindness disappear.

My life is in your hands
My vision has been blinded
My world has been shaped by what I will not see
My surrender will lead me to see as you see.

I long to see your face
I long to be in your presence
I want more than anything to see your children
I desire more than I can say to overcome my own blindness.

You know what I do not know
I know that you know what I need
My life will not be the same
You remove my blindness.

I see
I see
I see
I am blind no more

To people of color
To women
To immigrants
To the poor
To the homeless
To the young
To those outside my social group
To those physically disabled
To those emotionally challenged 

Is my prayer

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Anxiety, I Know Your Name and Your Game

Is that you anxiety
I think I know your name
The feelings you bring
I recognize your game.

You come attached
To the news of this world
To times and places
Ugly flags fly unfurled.

You leave us unsettled
We want things to be serene
You leave us in a mess
Or is peace too much of a dream.

Explosions left
Explosions right
Coming during the day
And in the dark of night.

Shootings on the left
Shootings on the right
Kids are out protesting
Offended by our slight.

The news cycle is full
Of all manner of things
That raise our angst
And make us dream.

We feel our humanness
Down clear to our core
Sometimes we wonder
Will we face what we abhor.

We have no trust
Of the man in that position
He stirs us up
We are his opposition.

He tells us lies
Day in and out
Our friends believe him
Sanity is in the middle of a drought.

We choose up sides
We blame and shame
But peace is what we long for
Our human game the same.

Looking for who to trust
Safe places an absolute must
Living anxiety free
In that place we long to be.

And from the storms that rage
I want to find a sweet reprieve
From the things that tear at my soul
Just breathe, I just want to breathe.

What gets us to that place
Is what I oftentimes wonder
It’s because of what we value
That is what I ponder.

Give us rest, O Lord,
From the stress of these insane days
Help us to breathe and march
And reside within your gaze.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Lord, Hear My Prayer


Where does my strength come from
To walk another day
The earth is full of such nonsense
How do we even find time to pray.

Frailties of the body are the way we are made
Could that be part of the story
That it’s not about us we might learn
It’s about you and your glory.

When do you make your appearance
In what form of yours do we await
Or do we keep on looking
While in this barren land we make our paths straight.

The right seems to know it all
It garners many of the votes
The left reacts with frustration
We have nothing of which to gloat.

Righteousness does not rule this land
We have injustices all around
The world is full of corruption
In our stench I think we’ll drown.

The book I just read this morning
Has the prophet yelling at his people
Woe to those who idolize injustice
We’re headed toward more upheaval.

We glorify our guns and our rights
We offer thoughts and prayers for the deceased
We return to our busy lives
And continue to feed this beast of a beast.

In what do we put our hope
Do we place it still in you
Or do we move on to another
Or stay with what we know is true.

I trust you move in our world
You use people and moments
And we are reminded of the fallacy
Of putting our hope in our governments.

Our hope is in you Lord,
Our faith is in those you have called
To march and protest for what is right
Lest with wrong we are way too enthralled.

Inspiration is found all around us
In Dallas, DC, and Raleigh they speak
There is hope in the words of the movement
It is righteousness and justice we seek.

Bless our efforts, Oh Lord,
Remind us toward what we all move
To make the world a better place
And the matters of which you approve.