songs from the choirs of paradox #2

Yesterday I borrowed words from two poets on the periphery - Parker Palmer and Carrie Newcomer - who wrote: To see life steadily and see it whole, we must find ways to hold the paradox of life-in-death and death-in-life. We can’t live lives of meaning and purpose if we succumb to the horrors of “apocalypse now” or fly off into the Aquarian fantasy of a day when “peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars.”  Let me build on that invitation to join the choir of paradox today with this.

It is not coincidence that called Palmer/Newcomer to draw sustenance from the wisdom of Howard Thurman. Thurman's hard won equanimity was rooted in the spirituality of the African-American church. From slavery to Jim Crow oppression and beyond, this incarnation of the Church has been the institution that shaped the heart, soul, dignity, discipline, community, faith, hope, love, analysis and direct action for social change for so many people of color in the USA. When black Americans were not counted in regional records re: population, marriage, birth, etc. throughout the South, their ancestry was honored with painstaking written accuracy in the church records of the African American church. Small wonder that these two white wisdom keepers turn to Thurman at this moment in time.

When Howard Thurman calls the growing edge “the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on”, he’s not indulging a cheap fantasy. Those words came from a black man born into a culture of white supremacy, only one generation away from his grandmother’s experience as an enslaved human being. He stood in a long lineage of lived testimony to the fact that new life beckons to us even in the midst of horrors. When someone like Thurman encourages people like ourselves — people of privilege, even power — to look to “the growing edge” for hope, we’d do well to listen, rather than giving in to a self-indulgent fatalism or cynicism.


Those of us in the white, middle/working classes who are wrestling with the agony, emptiness and existential and political powerlessness of life within the Trump regime have something vital to learn from our sisters and brothers in the African-American realm. Their way of embracing sorrow and celebration simultaneously - living into a wisdom born of learning how to be in the harsh world of our white supremacist culture without become consumed by that world - offers us a way into the blessings and promise of paradox. Not appropriating or stealing from what is not ours; and certainly not without giving our propers. But rather respectfully and reverently, as novices, listening carefully to the guidance and witness of those far wiser than ourselves.

I believe this is white America's season to truly learn from the genius of black America. One of my mentors put it to me like this nearly 40 years ago: as a straight, white male of privilege, you need to shut up more and learn to listen, brother; watch and ponder - then you can experiment with this truth so that it might become real for you, too. Another mentor said: if you want to be an agent of compassion and justice always remember that your credibility is not portable. In each community you must prove you are trustworthy to communities of color by showing up and shutting up. 

It is time to enter the road less traveled for many of us, the way of embodied humility, for it will not only strip away all that gets in the way of love, but it will help us recognize the hopeful surprises of the Lord when they appear. The Rev. Dr. James Washington as well as the Rev. Dr. James Forbes at Union Theological Seminary in NYC used to say to me during my formative years: slow down and listen; there IS a balm in Gilead; but it is of the Lord's making not yours. Dr. 
Dorothee Soelle, another UTS professor and mentor, was more blunt: you have to commit race, class and gender suicide to be a disciple of Christ in our era.

So, if you are white, try this simple exercise: make a list of all the people of color who have touched your life and helped you grow in faith, hope and love. Here is my list that is still growing...

Maya Angelou, MLK, Malcolm X, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Richie Havens, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, WEB du Bois, Nikki Giovanni, Mechelle Nedegocello, Bell Hooks, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Billie Haliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklyn, Stevie Wonder, BB King, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Beyonce, Tupak Shakur, Gil Scott-Heron, Thelonious Monk, Marian Anderson, Drake, Childish Gambino, James Cone, Cornell West, James Washington, Mike Daniels, Jim Forbes, Mike White, Eugene Ward, Chambers Brothers, Edwin Hawkins, Ray Charles, Roberta Flack, Odetta, Eddie Harris and Les McCann, Ron Carter, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Hugh Masekela, Angela Davis, Dennis Powell...



... Barack Obama, Little Richard, Michelle Obama, 

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