No one asks questions quite like a child does. I sometimes think their relentless questioning is one reason why it can be downright scary to volunteer to be a Sunday School leader. I remind my leaders that they are not required to have all the answers. It is perfectly okay to say, “That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer, but I am glad that we are here at church looking for the answer together.” My leaders have even been reported looking for clergy after church with their students to ask them what they think about a question that came up in class that day.
I keep a book on my desk that I pick up from time to time called “Will Our Children Have Faith?” Written by Rev. Dr. John H. Westerhoff III, I admit that I was drawn to it by the wonderful questioning title. Will they have faith? And equally important to me is what can we do as adults to help them? According to Westerhoff, “To be Christian is to ask: What can I bring to another? Not: What do I want that person to know or be? It means being open to learn from another person (even a child) as well as to share one’s understandings and ways.”
This last Sunday because of the special Jazz Mass instead of our usual Sunday morning programming, I led a story time with the children during the readings and sermon. To help me when I plan these occasional gatherings, I have found good resources that lead me to children’s books that are not necessarily religious or that tell Bible stories but still communicate ideas from the readings for the day. I have discovered some wonderful books written for children that have unexpectedly helped me to see complex ideas much more clearly. Preparing for this Transfiguration Sunday when Peter, James and John see Jesus in a way they never have before, I came across “They All Saw a Cat” by Brendan Wenzel. Wenzel introduces us to a cat and then proceeds to illustrate for the reader how different creatures perceive the cat. The dog sees a scared cat while the mouse sees a scary cat. The child sees a soft cat to pet while the fox sees dinner. The fish sees the cat magnified as it looks up at it through the water while the bird has an overhead view. The bee, bat and snake with their eyes that work so differently from ours see the cat in a much different way. And then there is the page that shows the cat as an integration of all the different viewpoints of all these varied creatures. To really see the cat is to take all the points of view into account. And of course, the reader is also asked to consider how the cat sees itself when it looks into the water.
From this simple children’s book, I finally understood why I find myself growing so much in my faith since I came to Redeemer. It is because of all of you. From the sermons to the offerings from my classmates in Wednesday morning Rector’s Bible Study to the conversations that I have when we stop to chat in the halls to what the children offer up when we are here learning together, those different perspectives come together to help me see. David said in his sermon last Sunday our lives are transfigured when we rise and die together. To that I would add and when we ask questions together. I hope to see you here during this season of Lent. What a perfect time to be in community and continue, young and old, to work out what it means to be a Christian together.
On Tuesday morning, a group of senior BUILD community leaders and clergy spent an hour meeting with Acting Police Commissioner Harrison and Mayor Catherine Pugh. The meeting had been arranged by our mayor and her staff, to follow through on her commitment to BUILD that she would make this meeting happen within a certain period of time of Acting Commissioner Harrison’s arrival in Baltimore. The purpose of the meeting was for BUILD and Acting Commissioner Harrison to begin our public relationship and to see how our visions for building a city that is safe for everyone to work and live in might align.
After the meeting was over, our BUILD team gathered in a conference room at City Hall for a routine evaluation of what had just occurred. The reactions I heard most often voiced around our circle were “hopeful” (some tempered their reaction with “cautiously”) and “optimistic”. Acting Commissioner Harrison, from my own first impression of him up close and in person, spoke with an authenticity and integrity about his commitment to leading the reformation of our city’s police department; his commitment to accountable, constitutional, community policing based on proven best practices from around our country and other countries; and his recognition that in order to succeed at this formidable, gargantuan task, he needs to work alongside BUILD and other key community partners. For a first meeting, it felt like a good new beginning.
Then on Tuesday evening, many of this same group of BUILD leaders and clergy had dinner with Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels at his residence in Nichols House. This social gathering had been scheduled months ago, on the invitation and initiation of President Daniels, to celebrate and recognize BUILD’s partnership with Hopkins to build One Baltimore together, and his own personal belief in and commitment to this partnership.
As it turns out, our gathering was timely; last Friday, a handful of BUILD leaders traveled to Annapolis in support of President Daniels and the proposed Community Safety and Strengthening Act (SB 793/HB 1094) which will create a Johns Hopkins Police Department. BUILD’s official, public support of this proposed act came as a result of difficult and intentional conversations and listening to community leaders who would be directly impacted by this new police entity; and a meeting of BUILD leaders with President Daniels last week, to raise remaining concerns with the proposed act, that President Daniels satisfactorily addressed. “During this present time, while the Baltimore City Police Department is struggling to maintain numbers, root out corruption, and acclimate to shifting leadership, BUILD believes the proposed Johns Hopkins Police Department is a way to bring a new model of policing to Baltimore City, one that is grounded in the idea of accountable policing and that can serve as an example to the rest of the city—perhaps the state and the nation—of what policing should look like.” (For BUILD’s full statement of support, click HERE.)
What was apparent to me throughout the evening was the genuine respect, warmth and camaraderie between President Daniels and BUILD leaders, and our ongoing commitment to working side-by-side to build a city that is safe with living wage jobs, affordable housing and good schools for all our residents.
My takeaway from Tuesday? We all need each other to succeed. We need Acting Police Commissioner Harrison to succeed in his task of leading the reform of our city’s police department, and he needs us and BUILD to succeed. We need President Ron Daniels and Hopkins to succeed in their goal of creating a model police force based on accountable, constitutional, community-based policing as a model for our city’s own police department, and he and Hopkins need us and BUILD to succeed. Together, and with God’s grace, I believe we can and we will.
My friend Harry just turned 90. He still goes to work every day, plays contract bridge at the Master level all over the country, and keeps a busy social calendar. Last week, his nearest and dearest gathered at a resort to celebrate his milestone, but the treat was not in the sand or palm trees. It was in Harry’s glistening eyes. His children had reached out to all the people who had every known their dad, and asked them to record a memory of him, or a blessing he brought them, or some challenge they navigated together. Our careful instructions were to turn our phones sideways, press record, and speak for no more than one minute. The result was over three hours of heartfelt greetings, which the whole gang watched into the wee hours of the morning. Harry didn’t fall asleep until 3:00.
You wouldn’t call the preparations easy—the day was weeks in the making—but a son’s tossed off comment anchored everybody’s efforts. He said in the lead-up, “I don’t want to spend more time planning PopPop’s funeral than we do on this party.” It struck all of us how often we miss the opportunity to say, “Thank you” and “I love you.” “Wouldn’t it be great if we could hear our own eulogies,” my friend remarked, as we debriefed their experience with Harry.
I mentioned that I had conducted two funerals for individuals who were still alive. Both celebrations involved complicated logistics, including international travel. Lives were rearranged when it seemed death was imminent, airline tickets purchased, and the services planned. And then the grandpas rallied! So once in New Jersey and another time in Delaware, we rolled the unlikely guests of honor to the front of the church, arranged blankets and hearing devices, and conducted their memorial services for them. There were tears and laughter, and in both cases we agreed how much sense it made to convey appreciation when our loved ones were still in the room. Both fellows died within the week, so the assembled families got to have closure, as well.
Author Marion Winik writes, “In times of intense grief, I have tried all the usual methods of escape—distraction, compensation, intoxication; therapies and treatments and antidotes for body and soul. I once had a massage from a woman named Chaka that unleashed a hurricane of tears. Ultimately, instead of attempting to flee the pain of loss, I decided to spend time with it, to linger, to let these thoughts and feelings bloom inside me into something else.” Her gift to herself, to us, and to the people she’s lost is The Baltimore Book of the Dead, a collection of essays that capture, in 400 words or less, a loved one’s essence. “People do not pass away. They die and then they stay,” Winik quotes as her book begins.
I am inviting the congregation to get their hands on a copy of Winik’s book, at The Ivy Bookstore or the library or online, and to read it with me over Lent. We’ll discuss it together on Sunday, March 24 after the 10:00 service. Between now and then, enjoy her collection of characters, and then I invite you to take it a step further. First, write an essay in Winik’s style about someone who has died, 400 words or less, not mentioning the person by name, instead giving him/her a distinctive title, as she does. (See “The Camp Director,” “My Advisor,” “The All-American,” “The Southern Gentleman.”) Write the essay for yourself and your loved one, and bring it on March 24th if you’d like to share it.
Second, I invite you to take a page out of Harry’s family book, and write a short essay about someone you care about who is still living. Give it an evocative title, as well, which captures the person’s essence. Then make a date, and over coffee, read your essay to the person you’ve written about. Why wait to offer your thanks until after he or she has died?
What do you do, when the world as you know it ends, in a certain kind of way? A loved one dies. A relationship ends. You get an unwelcome diagnosis. Life as you have grown accustomed to living it suddenly changes, and you find yourself in the wilderness.
I must confess that I find myself deep in the wilderness, these days. My body-mind-soul-spirit are going through changes that no one, no one, warned me about but that, I have learned, most women begin to experience in their forties and sometimes earlier.
Every woman’s experience of this “journey” is unique and different; some last longer than others, some feature different challenges than others and to different extents. My particular version includes navigating through waves of unexpected anxiety that I have never had to navigate before; and enduring seemingly endless waves of prickly-painful-desert-like-heat all over my body, especially throughout the night and early morning, that make sleeping something of blessed memory from a “past life.”
I share this because I have discovered that too many women suffer in silence and isolation through this particular wilderness, and I do not wish to be part of whatever “club” that keeps these kinds of secrets, secret. (Imagine, if the pain of labor and bringing human life into the world were kept “secret” and not ever talked about! How would one ever prepare mentally-physically-emotionally? And enlist the help and support needed?!)
In addition to ice packs within reach at 3am and other women’s stories of their own experience of this formative-transformative time in their lives, what I have found most helpful and life-sustaining in this wilderness time is, simply, love: love-put-into-action. The love and patience of my faithful husband, rubbing my back when he desperately wants to be sleeping, himself. The love and understanding of colleagues, as I light candles and incense in my office to establish a calming, peaceful environment. The love and support of friends, dropping off herbal supplements, sending supportive texts and even gifting me with hand-held fans! Yes, there are doctors and homeopaths and hormone-therapy and countless other “remedies” to try and explore. But when it comes down to it, there is nothing quite as healing as human love and friendship, care and support, from those around you.
So whatever wilderness you may be going through, my “word” of advice today — don’t try and brave the wilderness by yourself. And if you know someone traveling through their own wilderness, as my friend Caroline says, “Whatever you do, don’t do nothin’ !”
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13
Blackface has roots in Baltimore. Though Thomas D. Rice first presented his song and dance show Jump Jim Crow in Louisville in 1828, Baltimore craftsmen modified the banjo for Rice, and the instrument and actor became hugely popular here in the 1830’s. Then, after a few years of performing for sold-out houses in Old Town, Rice took his show to London, where the character Jim Crow was sewn into public consciousness. (Antero Pietila, The Ghosts of Johns Hopkins) Smeared with burned cork, Rice’s ragged, charismatic trickster appropriated black folklore as farce, making the figure Jim Crow shorthand for America’s imperfect union of race.
I thought about all of that this week, as two elected officials in Virginia revealed that they had worn blackface as students 35 years ago. Some people have called for their removal from office. For close to two centuries, white people darkening their faces and exaggerating their features in the name of fun has relegated black people as other, and leaders held in the public trust should have known better even as adolescents, some argue. But we’ve all said horrible things or acted in shameful ways, a member of my Bible study reminded us yesterday. And another wondered: Are there lines that an individual can cross from which he or a system can never recover? And what if you cross a line that you didn’t know existed until you transgressed? Is ignorance of a custom or a law a defense that holds water? And what are the limits of letting a person change or grow once she has fallen off the tracks?
Last night we filled the house at Redeemer to hear Judge Robert Bell and author Steve Luxenberg talk about Plessy vs. Ferguson and the legacy of segregation. Bell, the first African American to serve as the Chief Judge on the Maryland Court of Appeals, weighed in on the Virginia officials. “The Governor made a mistake by first admitting his behavior and then retracting his confession. The shift undercuts his trustworthiness. But let me be clear: the fact of his appearing in blackface as a young man does not disqualify him from public office, in my opinion. He should apologize and show us how he has grown. A person can make a mistake 20 years ago, 10 years ago, even last year, and if he can demonstrate through his actions that he has changed, then that is the salient point. I believe in redemption and the possibility of a person being transformed.”
Luxenberg quoted from a speech that The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Cornell College in 1962: “I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other.” So how do we get unstuck?
The way forward is to build the beloved community now, no longer settling for any system of separation, no longer living as strangers, no longer using humor as a weapon. Getting there requires us to know ourselves—our gifts and responsibilities, our mistakes and the ways we have grown—to get to know the stranger well, and with God’s help, to turn from any behaviors that cripple to actions that heal. I believe in redemption and the promise of transformation, and the hard work of love that leads to trust. And when we trust each other, especially across lines of race and gender, sexuality or class, we are much more likely to give one another the benefit of the doubt, more able to call each other out when someone crosses a line, and when somebody’s gotten lost, more willing to help each other back home.