Tag Archives: courage

Hope In Labor: A Parable

“Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to make sure that they do not remain the same.” – Often attributed to St. Augustine

Prelude to a parable:

It had been a time of great loss in my life, that day in May of 2016, and I had hoped to slip into the back of the sanctuary of Hope AME unnoticed. Yet, my friend, the Rev. Sean Nickleberry had seen me and called me to the front to be the preacher of the hour. Suddenly, I found myself mid-way through my first extemporaneous sermon, and at a loss for words.

Turning to the second pew from the front, I looked at the matriarch of the church, Sister Jackson, and asked, “Why did you name this place Hope? I can’t go any further in my sermon without knowing that, and I don’t have the answer. Help me. I cannot tell the people what I do not know.”

With a slight quiver of emotion in her voice, Sister Jackson replied, “We named it Hope because we needed Hope. We named it Hope because we didn’t have anything else. And now you have brought Hope back to us.”

You was Sean. Was me. Was Mirissa. Was Jonathan. Was Sandra Bland.

Without the words attributed to St. Augustine, however, you will never understand…

“Hope has two beautiful daughters: anger and courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to make sure that they do not remain the same.”

Yes, but there was more.

Hope, that long-suffering mother, had been alone. Her children had been ripped from her grasp, and without them, she could not live. The nation had built a monument to her and upon it they had heaped their offerings, naming their gifts reconciliation and peace. Yet, those were the names of children not yet born. Children that Hope had dreamt of but had not yet seen. Children that would not be born – could not even be conceived – until the child still growing in Hope’s womb had been born. That child’s name was Justice, and its sisters waited by their mother’s side, trained and prepared to be her midwives.

Yet, Justice had never been born. Justice had never come.

The birthing pains had come, most assuredly, and Anger and Courage had taken their places on either side of their mother, holding her up and helping her to push.

Yet, as the contractions came closer and closer and the day became nearer and nearer, The Empire feared the baby child, as Saul had feared David, as Pharoah had feared Moses, as Herod had feared Jesus. Conspiring with the Pharisees, the Empire sent its forces to destroy the threat to its power. They arrived together, those entrusted to enforce the power of the Empire accompanied by those entrusted to enforce the respectability politics of the church.

They interrupted Hope mid-contraction and tore Anger from her side. Hope stumbled, and slumped against Courage. Yet, without her sister’s help, Courage could not bear the weight alone. With horror, she watched her mother slip from her grasp and slump to the ground. The unborn child Justice remaining in her womb.

Taken away in handcuffs, Anger was tried and convicted, just as Jesus had been before her, for deceit and heresy; he for claiming to be the Son of God, she for claiming to be the daughter of Hope.

It was written down in the law, history, and theology of the Empire, that Anger was a bastard child, parentage unknown. The only place you could find the truth was outside of the courtrooms and cathedrals where the artists in the streets sometimes whispered and sometimes shouted the truth of who Anger was.

Anger languished in custody, while her mother wept in the streets for her stolen child, locked out of the rooms of power and unable to set the story right. Without Anger by her side, Courage became silent, for it had always been Anger that had helped her see. Without her sister to guide her, Courage did not know where to go or what to do. So she sat down in the street, and those respectable people who passed her looked the other way, averting their eyes from her face.

Robbed of her daughters, Hope went into hiding to protect the unborn child Justice. With her true face out of sight, the Empire built a monument in her image and called it Hope. They made her features soft and tender, and her form weak; they placed this monument inside the church. Into her arms, they carved the image of the unborn child Justice. With claims that Justice had been born, they taught the people that the unconceived children that Hope had dreamed of, Peace and Reconciliation, were even now in the birth canal itself.

With Hope’s only living children missing, Anger convicted and locked away, and Courage silenced without her sister, there was no one to tell the world otherwise.

Until one hot Texas afternoon, when Courage heard her sister Anger’s voice and cried out!

They silenced Courage quickly, and took her into custody, without knowing they were taking her to the very place she needed to go. They thought that by throwing Courage into custody they would silence her as they had Anger. But it was too late. The world had heard her.

More importantly, her mother, Hope, had heard her, for they had taken Courage into custody upon the very doorstep of her house. As Courage cried out, her mother Hope’s water broke, and the labor pains of Justice began again. Reunited, Anger and Courage burst from their cell to be at their mother’s side. At that moment, the monument they had named Hope with the false child Justice in her arms began to crumble. Those who rejected Anger and Courage believed this to be the end of Hope, but those who knew their worth understood the truth.

Even in the midst of her birthing pains, the greatest pain she had ever known, Hope stood tall beside her daughters as they held her up in the manner used by women for thousands of years. In their solidarity, grasping one another once again, Hope declared to the world that Anger was her child. She declared that Anger was wrongfully convicted. She declared that Anger was free to roam the sanctuaries of the church once again.

She spoke woe to the church if they handed her daughters over to The Empire again. For only with their help would Hope be able to give birth to a living child. Only with their help would the church see Justice come. Only with their help would Peace and Reconciliation finally be conceived.

As their mother Hope reclaimed the daughters that the world had stolen from her, her strength returned and the earth began to tremble in the wake of her mighty birthing pains.

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Dedicated to Sister Jackson and Sister Green, faithful, long-suffering midwives.

How Sandra Bland Changed My Life

On August 25, I stood in front of the Prairie View City Council and I said that I was there because Sandra Bland had changed my life.

Despite the fact that I never met Sandra Bland, and sadly will never get to meet her, it was true. Assuredly, she had help: her friends and family helped to put her life in context, while my friends and family helped keep my life in context.

When I saw pictures of her goofing off with her four sisters, it pierced my heart, thinking of my own sisters who are everything to me. When I saw the joy in her eyes in pictures with her nieces and nephews, I recognized the pure delight of getting to be the fun, young aunt who is free to adore and be adored by children who you have a responsibility to without having the full responsibility for them. When I saw pictures of Sandra with her mother, I recognized the fulfillment of figuring out how to have an adult relationship with the woman who once wiped your nose and changed your diapers. When I saw her sign “All white people are not against us,” I knew that Sandra Bland was wise enough to recognize that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not about hating white people, it is about loving black people; and the person who believes the former reveals their struggle to do the latter.

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Unlike many people who find themselves in the spotlight, Sandra Bland never had an opportunity to go back over her life and edit it for public consumption. By the time she found herself in the limelight, she was no longer with us. The story she had left behind of her life, both the pain and the beauty, would have to stand on its own.

Yet, stand it does. It stands as the testimony of a bold and loving woman, who was in a moment of emergence. A woman who stood for love. A woman discovering new levels of strength and courage within herself in moments of struggle. A woman who would take a vocal stand against excessive force by police, only to find herself on the receiving end of it. A woman doing the hard work to figure out how to use her voice in a culture that often silences women, and particularly African American women.

In the end, it was that voice that she used to change my life:

“I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help.”

My friend Jeremyah brought her words to my attention the day after her death when he told me that the news was saying a friend from school hung herself in jail. The next morning, I asked if there were any updates and he told me his friends believed it couldn’t be true and were asking “What happened to Sandra Bland?” He had asked me to do something about it, and I wrestled all day. By the time I left Bible Study that night, I was visibly distressed; so my friend Rhys, who had also gone to Prairie View, asked what I wanted to do it about it. I said I did not know, but we had to do something physical with our feet and not just our tweets. He suggested we go to the jail and take one of the nine candles we had lit the week before for the victims of the Charleston shooting and light one for Sandra. We grabbed our friend Nina, and headed out into the darkness. We arrived around 10:00 pm, just in time to see a Texas Ranger load his rifle back into their vehicle and drove away. We pulled in and lit the candle. When someone blew it out, I lit it again while Rhys anointed the step with oil.

The next day we still heard her words, “I can’t do this alone, I need y’all’s help,” and we went back again. Others joined us and the vigil still continues. Over the last 49 days of going to the Waller County Jail, we have turned consistently to the scriptures, prayer and Sandra Bland’s “Sandy Speaks” videos to keep our conviction strong.

In doing so there are three life changing lessons for which I would like to thank Sandra Bland.

First, Sandra Band taught me that you can’t truly fight for justice for others if you won’t fight for it for yourself. When Sandra Bland came back to Texas to work at her alma mater, she told her mother, “I know what my purpose is. My purpose is to go back to Texas and end social injustice in the South.” She very quickly had the opportunity to test her resolve when she found herself pulled over by an officer who escalated the situation by making unnecessary demands. Many people have said she should have just stayed quiet and stayed alive. Yet, the fact that African Americans in this nation are expected to bow the head and keep quiet to stay alive, systemic injustices such as racial profiling, was exactly the situation she felt called to end. How could she be silent about her rights and remain consistent? Someday, someone has to say no. To stand with Sandra, there were things I would have to say no to as well. This was explained to me very early on in this journey by a friend, the Rev. Kea Westbrook, who told me that if I was not strong enough to stand up for myself, I would not be strong enough to stand up with Sandra.

Second, Sandra Bland taught me that courage is contagious. Her belief in spreading love and courage was pervasive throughout her “Sandy Speaks” videos. She was constantly sharing what she was doing in her community to try to make a difference and encouraging others to do likewise. With every move she made she invited others into action. She promoted seeking justice as a community, but she was willing to take action even if she was all alone. When she was trying to get a petition signed while eating lunch in the food court, she was asked to leave by security. Her courage inspired another young man to speak up for her and then he was asked to leave as well. When he was sent home, Sandra Bland was worried he would lose his job so she committed to sit outside his work every day if he did: because Sandra Bland also had something to teach us about solidarity. Sandra was willing to do the bold and right thing, even if she was the only one doing it. Her courage commanded a response from others. Her courage commands our response now.

Third, Sandra Bland taught me that if your faith is central to who you are, you cannot be wholly present in the world if you do not talk about it. In her first video she pauses near the end to think about whether she wants to continue with what she has begun to say because it involves her faith. She finally continues, stating that she is going to talk about God in her videos because it is God that has opened her eyes and given her this calling to seek justice. I identify so strongly with that pause. It is a moment I have experienced many times in my life, while working to build solidarity between those who seek justice within the church and those who seek justice but will not go near a church. When those seeking to end injustice through a faith motivation come into contact with those seeking to end the same injustice, while also articulating that the church has had a hand in creating it, it can be tense. It is a difficult space in which to stand. I have rarely had the courage to make the choice Sandra Bland did, not to leave her faith in her pocket when putting her cards on the table. What I very quickly realized in keeping vigil for Sandra Bland was that if my faith is the source of my courage, conviction and motivation in this struggle, then I am weaker without it. I am weaker if I do not talk about it. I am only partly me, and I need every bit of me to keep going in this journey. Every last bit.

So, like Sandra Bland, I’m bringing all of me to the table. Strength. Courage. Faith.

Snap.

Snap. Snap. Snap. As a small child I practiced over and over again. Insistent. Determined. Until, with the passing of years, the passing of my second finger down the side of my small thumb converted itself from silence to thunderclaps. With each unexpected eruption of noise I sent out a tiny warning signal to the world that within the heart of this small child there rumbled a revolution.

Snaps. I worked hard on them. I knew that I would need them someday.

Now when I snap, I can command your attention across a crowded room. Yet, I choose to use that power not for commanding respect but for giving respect, so that I might give the poets their honor due. My snaps do not stand out, they meld into a wave of sliding fingers, crashing on the shore of inspiration, then receding into silent and expectant attentiveness.

Night after night, I listen for those voices that can change the world. I listen for the sound of truth, for the sound of justice, for the sound of change. I listen for the rumbling of the verbal revolution that matches the rumbling in my heart.

I know when I have heard a voice that must be heard at The Shout.

Sometimes when you speak, I fold ever so slightly as if a punch has tightened my gut. As if a string extending from a spot just below my chin all the way down to my belly button has been snapped taut. Tightened. Strummed.

Sometimes when you speak, it feels as if someone has reached right through me to grab my spine and set it straight, heightening my posture, commanding me to own the space where I stand.

Sometimes when you speak, your words shoot right through me, piercing me with their familiarity, making me wonder if words so long a source of betrayal can be redeemed. You drop allusions to words that promised us freedom and left us beaten, and leave me wondering, ‘can these dry bones live.’ You drop allusions to a national pledge recited long before there was or is “liberty and justice for all.” You drop allusions to the very words that condemned my calling for two of the three decades I have taken up space on this earth; whispering “the woman shall not speak” in our ears until we cannot help but shout!

Oh reckless poets, doing verbal battle with the very issues that silence the voices of your peers. I hear you trying. I hear you succeeding. I hear you boxing and wrestling for the win. And when you win, we win with you.

My eyes wander around the room, asking silently in the midst of your unsilenced voice, to those surrounding me, “Can you feel this without being moved? Without moving? Without acting? Without demanding action?”

You make me want to pick up a pen and write notes in the margins of my books, like my momma did in church when I was a child; inserting written words among printed words to preserve the power and to fight ever forgetting your spoken words.

You make me want to stand up and sway like I did at my first concert.

You make me want to dance in the aisle like they do at that funkadelic Sunday worship party we call church.

You make me want to change everything around me – until the things I see match the the words you speak.

You make me believe change is possible. For why else would your words hold such power if we were not able to make those words flesh.

I believe in the power of what you do. I believe that together, the poets and the dreamers and the activists and the thinkers, might just change the world. Because they understand something that not everybody understands: we have no other choice. Words must be spoken. Actions must be done. Community must be built. Change cannot be stopped.

This is why, as a small child, I worked so hard to learn to snap. I must have known someday I would find the voices that would match the rumble in my heart.

For you, I learned to…

Snap. Snap. Snap.

Strength Like A Child

“Lord, we pray for our guardians. Make them as strong as you are, as strong as we are.” The young girl prayed from her heart, just feet from the altar of the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke’s in Houston, Texas. Surrounded by her peers, they stood together at the front of the church praying for their parents on the Sunday of Martin Luther King weekend.

I did not know any of their parents, but I did know their pastors well enough to know that these children had some pretty good guardians looking out for them. Pastoring together for the past five years, the Rev. Justin Coleman and the Rev. Miraya Ottaviano Diaz had brought together a community in that space that felt both delightfully organic and sadly uncommon.

Looking around me I saw a congregation dominated by the presence of youth and children with a diversity that was at once both intentional and natural. The congregation’s musician Dr. Shana Mashego led a worship party that morning that was unparalleled, with a worship team that seemed determined to stretch the global imagination with leaders from Bulgaria to Japan to the Ivory Coast.

By the time that Rev. Coleman got up and gave thanks for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s work, it was clear that in one corner of the world that man’s vision was truly taking on flesh.

Of all the eloquent words that that service contained, however, the ones that stayed with me the most remained those of that small girl who prayed for the adults at the outset, “Make them as strong as you are, as strong as we are.”

How true it is. There is a reason why Christ wanted us to have the faith of a child, but he also may have wished for us the strength, the wisdom, the courage, the love of a child.

When I was blessed to live at the Isaiah House, in Durham, North Carolina, I had the privilege of living with what may very well be the wisest children I have come across. They had been blessed with guardians and parents who had the strength to love with everything they had, and the courage to do the right thing even when it was hard.

The house was called the Isaiah House because the people who lived there were trying to live out Isaiah 58 as if they truly believed that it meant what it said. The passage says to bring the homeless poor into your home – so they brought the homeless poor into their home. It says to loose the bonds of injustice – so they worked against systems of oppression and injustice. It says to share your bread with the hungry – so they shared their bread with the hungry. And sometimes a smiling face showing up for dinner with a bakery cake received at the food bank revealed that the hungry shared their food with them as well. Their lives bore witness to the love of God better than words ever could.

One sunny day, I sat in the back yard with a young African American boy of about 6 years old, who had moved in when his grandmother was evicted, and a Caucasian baby, who had been born into the Isaiah House family that year. We sat in the hammock and swayed, as the young boy held the baby in his lap and played with his fingers and made him laugh. Sunlight fell in splotches through the leaves of the pecan tree overhead and warmed our faces as the peace of the moment warmed our hearts.

Finally the young boy turned to me and said, referring to the baby, “God loves him right?”

“Yes,” I said with a slight smile.

Then, after a pause, “And God loves me.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And I love the baby.” Another pause. Then he concluded, “I think that’s what Martin Luther King was talking about.”

“I think you’re right,” I answered, putting my arm around him.

It was just that simple. He knew that because God loved this baby, he ought to love this baby.   And because of what Dr. King had said and did, he knew that love carried with it life-changing social implications.  They had shared a home, and shared meals, and shared prayers, and somewhere along the line, they had become family. As Isaiah 58 says, he did not want to hide himself from his own kin. It was just that simple.

It may not have been the red hills of Georgia, but his act of wisdom and love on the brown hills of South Carolina was enough to convince me that Dr. King would have been pleased to see his words taking on life.

Now, five years later, on the church steps of Texas, his words took on life for me again as I saw children that were becoming family; children that were claiming their strength and praying that strength upon their elders.

Often strength looks different than we would expect it to look.  As Dr. King taught us, strength looks like hands gripping other hands in solidarity; strength does not look like hands gripping the trigger of a gun or the controls of a tank.  Strength looks like a pregnant Alice Walker following Dr. King’s casket, heartbroken with all that followed him to the end; strength does not look like a vigilante following a teenager simply because of the color of their skin.  Strength is as simple as a child’s love; not as complicated as the policies and arguments we make to avoid treating some people with love, compassion and justice.

Strength feels like the wood under your fingertips as you grip the edges of the table to keep yourself from leaving when the conversation gets hard; strength sounds like speaking up even when your voice shakes with fear; strength looks like offering your hand in friendship to the one who believes you are their enemy.

This Sunday, strength looked like an African American leader from Texas, and a Latina leader from Bolivia sharing the Table of the Lord – as they do every Sunday.  Strength looked like the the salsa steps of the worship singers, and the smiles exchanged between the musicians gathered from every corner of the globe.  Strength looked like rows of children from many different countries revealing that the kingdom of God has no borders.  Strength looked like joy.  Strength looked like love.  After all that strength has gone through in this scarred land, it was good to see it get to celebrate the fruits of its labor.

For all the days when strength can look tired and beleaguered, it was good this Sunday that strength got to show how beautiful it is.

The children pray for the adults at the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke's
The children pray for the adults at the Gethsemane campus of St. Luke’s
Rev. Justin Coleman and Rev. Miraya Ottaviano serve communion together
Rev. Justin Coleman and Rev. Miraya Ottaviano serve communion together
Rev. Miraya Ottaviano Diaz leads the congregation in prayer
Rev. Miraya Ottaviano Diaz leads the congregation in prayer
Rev. Justin Coleman brings the word
Rev. Justin Coleman brings the word
Dr. Shana Mashego leads the worship party
Dr. Shana Mashego leads the worship party

Courage in a time of Trials

Silence. No one here but me. It has been like this all day. Preacher’s Cave, Tay Bay Beach, and the Devil’s Backbone – mine alone. I had come here because it was the only way I knew how to stand in solidarity with my fellow preachers back home in Pennsylvania; burdened today with the task of deciding whether to remove the credentials of the Rev. Frank Schaefer. It had not taken long. I actually knew what the answer had been before I could even make it up to the northernmost point of the island; before I even entered the cave. Rev. Frank Schaefer had been defrocked. Cast out of the Order of Elders. The Order whose members I had only a couple years ago, taken vows to support. Somehow I felt I still owed Rev. Shaefer my vow of support. But there was little left to do but pray.

When I arrived I walked first out to Tay Bay Beach, where the shipwrecked Eleutherian Adventurers had come ashore before finding refuge in the cave. I climbed up on the rocks and ate my lunch in the shadow of a deserted dingy, a shipwreck itself in miniature. Conch shells lay scattered over the volcanic rock, vulnerable as they revealed their pink interior which, along with the coral reefs, were responsible for the pink hue of the sand on this island. Some more beaten up than beautiful, their scars revealed that they had given up more of themselves than others to contribute to the beauty of this beach.

‘Careful’, I said to myself, knowing that the razor sharp rocks that I walked on cautiously would cut me to the bone if I had a single misstep. And then I did – oooooh wheeee – a little something to remember this place by.

As I looked out at the Devil’s Backbone, the dangerous reef that had taken so many ships over the years – and the Eleutherian Adventurers first of all – I marveled at the courage that kind of journey demanded. Courage.

Courage became the theme of my thoughts as I pondered and prayed, and I knew that courage was what would be demanded of us now.

Walking back up the path and into Preacher’s Cave, I did not have the words yet. So I took out my guitar and simply pleaded for God’s grace as I wandered the cave, strumming the chords of Amazing Grace to the rocks and the shadows and the shafts of light.

Finally, I put the guitar away, and climbing up into the naturally formed pulpit of Preacher’s Cave, I found a smooth place to sit.

And, here I sit, and I wonder – Where do we go from here?

A single solitary leaf floats down from the largest opening in the roof of Preacher’s Cave. The sand fleas surround me, but for the first time – almost eerily – not a single one bites me. Nearby I hear the waves crashing and the wind blowing through the large leaves of the sea grape trees. A bird calls out to another and then quietly awaits a reply. Apart from that, all is silence. All is darkness. All is light. That is the irony of Preacher’s Cave. It protects this space with an armor perforated by nature’s power to flood that which should be dark with light.

This is why the early settlers chose to keep returning to this place to worship. It is mysterious and ethereal. A place of darkness where the light rules. A place where shipwrecked freedom seekers came with sadness and left filled with hope. It is a place you come to, but not a place where you stay.

This is my tomb. My place of hope. Where death and despair and discouragement are overturned even at the moment when it seems least possible.

I believe something is changing, I believe it must. I believe the Spirit is moving and I am trying to figure out how to move and shift and sway and dance with her mysterious way.

I believe that I am changing, I believe I must. Courage is the path forward.

No one ever found freedom without courage. The Eleutherian Adventurers put their lives and futures at stake – and those of their children – to search for freedom. Mother Theresa, although she did not want it known, boldly pestered and pleaded with every church authority she could find until she was, after many years, given the church’s blessing to be released from the vows of her Order to begin her own Order. Harriet Tubman, whose feet traced the path North and South that I have traveled more times than I could count, had the kind of courage few of us can even imagine. She had the courage to risk her life not for her own freedom, but for the freedom of others. She understood that all of our freedom is bound up together, and no one is free if anyone is still in chains.

Today my Order lost another person of courage. Simple courage, not dramatic courage – the very simple act of saying and living who he really was. An act that, though simple, is rare. There are few of us who do not have a trial we avoid. Most of us know, if we are being honest, that we can no more agree with and keep every letter of the church law than we can agree with and keep every letter of the law that Jesus speaks of – the law he came not to abolish but to fulfill. The law that has been fulfilled, so that Christ might give us a new way of living.

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Where will we find the freedom to be, say, live who we truly and fully are? We will only find it through courage. The kind that makes your knees shake and your eyes water and your voice crack – the kind of courage, in other words, that emerges not from the lack of fear. As Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Our current trial culture will either bring courage out in some, or drive it back into the shadows.

My skin has grown cold as the sun dips low. Cold like the water of Tay Bay Beach. Cold like the rocks that surround me in this nature made and human improved chancel of Preacher’s Cave. I reach up and touch the rock around my neck – my tomb, my cave in miniature – and say, as I always do, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is shifting sand.”

Where will we go from here? I am not sure, but the only way forward is on the solid rock and not the shifting sand. Speaking only for myself, the shifting sand has been the politics of the church; the desperate search for the survival of the institution; and the corruption of our youthful optimism as we identify those with leadership potential not in order to follow them in new directions, but in order to tell them how to lead us where we have already been. I have been an accomplice in all these things.

The solid rock, I have found in unexpected places. The comraderie and loyalty of my friend’s who occupied Delaware. The accurate spiritual wisdom of the prophets of James Cistern, Pauline and Maxine. The faithful perseverance of my friends at the Isaiah House, David and Rebekah. Like I child crossing a stream, I have used my discernment to spot the solid rocks and hopped from one to another to find my way. But as we grow up, courage demands that we find the ability to stand steady on our own rock and be a haven for others.

Where does courage come from? It comes from the confidence that we have honestly searched and struggled to know who we are and what we believe. True courage can only ever come from the confidence of convictions.

So we must summon up every ounce of courage we can find, from every dark space we have hidden it in. Bring it all forward to the center of the cave, and find out how much we have when we all come together. Then we will see where God will take this ship we call the church.

One man shipwrecked on an island is Robinson Crusoe; 50 shipwrecked are the Eleutherian Adventurers. One man shipwrecked on an island seeks only to survive; 50 shipwrecked are the first settlers of a new nation.

Courage that makes your knees shake; compassion that makes your heart ache; and a community that sees the walls break. That will be our way forward.

Preacher's Cave as seen from the pulpit
Preacher’s Cave as seen from the pulpit
The approach to Preacher's Cave
The approach to Preacher’s Cave
Spreading some Amazing Grace around the cave
Spreading some Amazing Grace around the cave
Conch shells on Tay Bay Beach, some more battered than others
Conch shells on Tay Bay Beach, some more battered than others
The guardian of Tay Bay Beach
The guardian of Tay Bay Beach
Shafts of light pierce the darkness in Preacher's Cave
Shafts of light pierce the darkness in Preacher’s Cave
A life preserver is one of many objects washed ashore at Tay Bay Beach
A life preserver is one of many objects washed ashore at Tay Bay Beach

Swimming with sharks

“Whatcha going to do with those fish guts?” I called up from the water to Audrey on the dock, who was filleting the day’s catch to cook up for Sunday supper, along with the remainder of the calamari bait. “Throw ’em in the water,” she answered. “Not while I’m down here!” I responded, alarmed. “Of course not, I’ll wait till you’re out,” Audrey laughed at me.

I had every right to be a bit skittish though. The evening before, I had been cooking dinner with marine researchers who showed me videos of sharks swarming down at their dock when the fishermen cleaned their catch. Needless to say, I had no desire to be present when Audrey’s tempting morsels went in the water. While we had no expectation of seeing sharks swarm up for these meager trimmings from our catch of only two groupers, there were other creatures to think about. For instance, the several large barracudas who had been patrolling the spot where I was swimming about half an hour before I jumped in the water. While we had cast lines excitedly in their direction while on dry land, I had no desire to encounter those lovely beasts when they had the home court advantage.

But barracudas or no barracudas, it had not taken Brenda too much convincing to get me into the water with her. First of all, the sand fleas, or no-see-ums, had been tormenting me all day – and nothing numbs that torturous itch like salt water. There are moments when I think I would rather take my chances with barracudas then sand fleas. Second, Brenda’s logic had been simple and compelling as she called out, “Get in the water with me!” The logic went something like this – Audrey and Brenda had not gotten many bites on their fishing bait that day, so we were not likely to get many bites ourselves. “Besides,” Audrey completed Brenda’s argument, “Brenda is already in there, if they are going to bite anything, they are going to bite her first.” With that air-tight argument sealed, I jumped off the rocks and felt the cool water rush over me.

This is how I try to live life these days. A little less caution, a little more daring. A little less thinking, a little more doing. A little less hedging, a little more betting (*figure of speech, I am Methodist clergy after all). It has occurred to me that the majority of the struggle that I have experienced in my life has been through a basic lack of daring, lack of courage. In all my years of living on the margins, pushing the envelope, and laying it all on the line – there has always been a basic area where I have lacked courage. There has always been one person who I have let be trampled without fighting back. Myself. I have never had the courage to refuse a salary that was lowered because of my age, gender, or marital status. I have stood silent time and again when I was told decisions were being made about me because I did “not have a family to support.” I have twice signed papers that, for legal reasons, said I was voluntarily forfeiting part of my rights as an Elder – while inside a part of me died at how helpless and disempowered it made me feel. No one understood the price my soul paid for all that self-betrayal, all that cowardice under pressure.  In all my years, only one person fought for me to have more not less, but that person was not me.  A part of me hopes that if others knew they would not have made choices and statements that made me feel that I was worth less than a man, worth less because I was single, worth less because I was young. In my weakest moments a voice inside pulled the words closer together and whispered “they think you’re worth less… worth-less… worthless” – while I tried to protest that I was a child of God and a person of sacred worth.

When I was in college, I noticed my senior year that rather than promoting the junior and senior women to manager positions, underclass men were being brought in to manage us. Concerned, I began to look at our salaries as well, and teaming up with another Bachelor of Science, I graphed the starting salaries of employees through to the current period. A disturbing trend emerged. It appeared from our graph that the men had been receiving a raise of $0.50 per hour per year. Most of the women, myself included, had never received a raise – which is a big deal when you are working three different jobs to put yourself through school as I was at the time. I shared my graph with the supervisors, who took the situation seriously. But it did little to help those of us approaching graduation; my stomach dropped to think of how much accumulated income loss that was for all of us over the course of years.

A year earlier I had sat in the same building and met with representatives from the fraternities on campus in my role as head of Orientation. They were proposing I accept their sponsorship of a party on campus with an open bar during Orientation the next year. I was having trouble following the logic of why it would be a good idea to have a party with an open bar on a dry campus for eighteen year olds who were away from home for the first time. It was, to put it bluntly, part of my role to educate in order to prevent not facilitate those kinds of situations. It would not be the last time in my life I would see a man’s face turn that shade of red, as one of the young gentlemen began to threaten the five foot two blonde who stood as in immovable impediment to the way he was accustomed to having. “We’ll tell all the freshman you aren’t cool!” finally burst out of his mouth as the final threat in his escalating tirade. It was the kind of sad threat that just evokes pity for the speaker no matter how frightening they are trying to sound. I’ll never know if he followed through on his threat, but I found no evidence of it being effective. Like many times before and many times after, I sat in that large circle of men without a hesitating bone in my body when it came to protecting others, but little knowledge of how to protect myself.

I will admit that I am a person with more courage than many, but it is a certain kind of courage. It is a courage that cracks the door, but doesn’t push it open. It is a courage that can speak of incidents that took place a decade ago, but not a month ago. It is a courage that speaks enough truth to make people uncomfortable, but not so much truth that they stone me. It is a courage that stands unmoved by peer pressure, but crumbled under burnout. It is a courage that swims with the sharks, but does not have a clue how to avoid being eaten alive. It is a courage that has grown weary after paying over and over again the consequences for trying to “do the right thing” – that has begun to have a delayed response element to it as a result.

So, I am taking this time apart to try to hone my courage into something different. I want to have a courage that is directed, and effective. Not idealistic, but realistic. A courage that may swim in the same waters as sharks, but is wise enough not to go in at feeding time. A courage that is able to say “yes” to a calling that is a challenge, while still retaining the wisdom to say an emphatic “no” to a trap masquerading as an opportunity. A courage that is willing to “go,” but also strong enough to say “Stop!” A courage that is rooted in calling not coercion, grounded in experience rather than innocence, acting out of wisdom rather than naivete.

So these days, I may swim in deep waters, but as I look out my window and see that wind is whipping the ocean into an angry white froth, I know that I will not be going in the water today. My courage is growing up. I am taking every opportunity to say yes to the things that scare me, but not the things that will kill me. I am learning to tell the difference. For true courage, wise courage, and lots of it, will be a main requirement for clergy in the days ahead.

I have learned that the things we avoid doing out of fear, are often the same things that have the power to save our lives, the power to let us live.

Audrey and Brenda fish for supper before we go for a swim
Audrey and Brenda fish for supper before we go for a swim