Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Life and Death

A Prayer of Lament | Pastor Leah Wenger

Reverend Leah Wenger has served for nine years as Pastor at The Vineyard Church of Central Illinois. Her prayer of lament (below) can be found with others on the Mennonite Church USA website. Each lament responds to the violence of racism in the USA.

Most churches aren’t accustomed to prayers of lament. A Psalter I own has changed many Psalms of lament into something else. Is that because we don’t like negativity?

Here is Rev. Leah Wenger’s prayer of lament, followed by a few comments.

Battered, Broken, Betrayed.
I stand Before you
Between the lines
Breathe on me Breath of God

Because I have Betrayed
My Brother and sister
By my silence
Breathe on me Breath of God

But what is Breath
when it is stolen
Humanity Beyond recognition
Buried in Blood

Bring us transformation
Beauty for Brokenness
Expose me for my blindness
Breathe on me the breath to see

Be Brave and Bold
Beyond what others can see
So when I can’t Breathe
God Breathe on me

When I cannot see my Betrayal
Bring me to the light
I Beg for the wisdom to Be Better
Bless me with the strength
to never stop Becoming

Beyond the patience to listen
Bring me into action
I can’t Breathe
So God, Breathe through me

Prayer from Pastor Leah Wenger,
Urbana Executive Pastor of the Vineyard Church of Central Illinois
Prayer found at the Mennonite Church USA website

Can an entire nation lament the ongoing violence of racism in the USA? Perhaps not.

Nonetheless, it would be most appropriate for white churches in the USA (and their members) to lament. Not for a day or an hour, but for a lifetime of being major players in this sick drama. Sometimes we’ve joined the enemy outright. Other times we’ve looked the other way, or called what we see anything but ‘racist.’

We’re at a crossroad. We are not, however, out of options. Pastor Leah’s prayer is good place to start. It breathes life. The life of our Creator who understands and knows us inside out. Today is a good time to stop, lament, look around, and get moving in a different direction.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 September 2020
Image found at mem.intervarsity.com

This season of lament

I’m frozen
Cut off from reality
Not sure where I am
Or where I’m going
Deep sadness wells up
Ancient dikes breach
Cracks in dishonest walls
That tried to contain a world
Held together by lies and
Decay deliberate and brutal
Now breaking through
Elephant-size breaches
Lying before me in shambles
Buried by an unrelenting
Avalanche of disinformation
Grinding us down to
Our lowest common
Denominator

The odds aren’t on our side. Especially if we rely on our limited understanding. Which is all we have on any day of the week.

There is no Top Genius of this world. No Strong Man or Strong Woman of this world who knows or understands the past, present and future with utmost clarity. All we have is what’s left of what we received the moment we were born, and what we’ve been given or taken. For good and for ill.

So here I am with you, in a season of Lament. Without a clue whether we’ll be spared the consequences of actions never taken, taken too quickly, or taken in spite.

Am I without hope? Not unless I try to carry on with life or business as usual. So yes, I’m muddling through with everyone else. Praying, and watching for moments of grace and unexpected connections. Small signs that our Creator is still at work.

Praying your day contains some of those small signs.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 September 2020
Image found at pinterest.com

How to outlaw teaching slaves to read or write

Below is one example. Other states had similar methods. Sadly, this is only part of the unasked-for baggage our educational systems struggle with today.

A Bill to Prevent All Persons from Teaching Slaves to Read or Write,
the Use of Figures Excepted (1830)

The North Carolina General Assembly first prohibited anyone from teaching slaves to read or write in 1818, then strengthened the law in 1830 (in the bill reprinted here). The following year, another bill made it illegal for not only slaves but free people of color “to preach or exhort in public, or in any manner to officiate as a preacher or teacher in any prayer meeting or other association for worship where slaves of different families are collected together.”
__________________
Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this state: Therefore

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, that any free person who shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach any slave within this State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, Shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in the State having jurisdiction thereof, and upon conviction shall at the discretion of the court if a white man or woman be fined not less than one hundred dollars nor more than two hundred dollars or imprisoned and if a free person of colour shall be whipped at the discretion of the court not exceeding thirty nine lashes nor less than twenty lashes.

Be it further enacted that if any slave shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach any other slave to read or write the use of figures excepted, he or she may be carried before any justice of the peace and on conviction thereof shall be sentenced to receive thirty nine lashes on his or her bare back.

Credit text: Legislative Papers, 1830–31 Session of the General Assembly.

For nearly three decades I taught and worked with seminarians in a multiracial, multinational community. Most students were able to thrive. Still, there were some I couldn’t reach. Today I wonder how this legacy of punishing black and brown students and their teachers is being passed on.

These are heavy days and heavy nights. Reaping the Whirlwind comes to mind yet again. Not because of what’s happening now, but because of what was set in motion centuries ago. I pray each of us will become part of a solution.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 September 2020
Image of NC Freedman’s School (1860s) found at ncpedia.org

Governance by and for the people?

I’m sitting here
Wondering
How long
We have until
The end of governance
By and for the people
As we’ve never known it?

How long until
The end of faking it
As though we were one nation
On the streets
In the pubs
Or on the beaches
To which many
Seem wedded?

Then again,
Perhaps I’m wondering
About the wrong things
Asking myself
The wrong questions

How about this instead?

How long do we have
Until the last gasp
Of looking the other way
In nearly invisible glances
Drips end-stage poison
Into our veins
Insuring apathy forever
And the death of desire
For a more perfect
Union?

Confession: I didn’t watch Mr. Trump’s RNC “convention.” I have, however, paid attention–though not with much enthusiasm, and in small pieces.

I’m struck by how quickly our country has fallen under the spell of this man whose speech and behavior have crossed the line on innumerable occasions. It doesn’t matter whether we’re Democrats, Republicans, or Independents. Where has all our mojo gone?

Apathy is a silent poison. Strengthened every time we look the other way, or get mesmerized with The Show. Entertained even if horrified, outraged or fill in the blank. Addicted comes to mind.

Every day I wonder how much energy I’m using up in relation to Mr. Trump. Especially when I need my best energy for staying on course. Doing what I can to promote and support a more perfect union. Not for some, but for all of us–citizens, immigrants and refugees alike.

Thanks for reading, visiting, and doing what you can to promote and support “a more perfect union.”

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 28 August 2020
Image found at slideplayer.com

Jesus and the Disinherited | Howard Thurman

His days were nurtured in great hostilities
Focused upon his kind, the sons of Israel.
There was no moment in all his years
When he was free.

Poem fragment quoted on p. 34 of Jesus and the Disinherited. From Thurman’s privately published volume of poems, The Greatest of These, p. 3.

This summer I’ve been reading Howard Thurman’s relatively short book (less than 100 pages), Jesus and the Disinherited. It’s more relevant today than ever before. A sad commentary on our nation’s untenable situation, past and present.

Thurman’s book describes

  • What happens inside the disinherited
  • What their most difficult struggles are about, daily
  • And why Jesus (not Paul) is the person to whom they are drawn when it comes to real life as they know it.

Like the disinherited of today, Jesus faced fear, deception, hate, and the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This didn’t happen one challenge at a time, but every day, no matter the circumstances. In addition, Jesus was one of the disinherited. He was not a Roman citizen, or an official religious leader of Judaism.

It’s one thing to study our history as a nation (which we must), or the history of slavery in this country (which we must), or our individual backgrounds that led to the prejudices and blindness that shape our lives today. All of this is important.

Still, one thing has eluded me. I’m finding it in Howard Thurman’s book, even though he didn’t write the book for me or other white people. He’s clear about this: This book is for people who are black and disinherited, every day of their lives. What white people will do or think when it comes to the disinherited of today is up to them.

I highly recommend Thurman’s book as a way of recognizing everyday racial realities from the inside out. For me, it makes crystal clear what I’ve lived with all my life. This isn’t just about different approaches to life. It’s about the disinherited, and what it takes for them to survive in this country.

I hope you’ll consider reading it. It won’t change everything overnight. It can, however, strengthen our understanding of what our black and brown citizens and church members are up against every day of their lives. It also shows the importance of listening. Silently. Without attempts to explain or justify ourselves.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 August 2020
Photo of book cover found at amazon.com

Dear Mr. Trump, | 2017 revisited

This morning I woke up wondering how much longer we can survive as one nation. Making it to November’s election feels sketchy. Here’s what I wrote in September 2017. 

Dear Mr. Trump,

I woke up today wanting you to know that I’m praying for you, and how I’m praying for you. Hence this open letter.

As I see it, we have two kinds of leaders in the USA: those elected to office, and those who elect them. Clearly, given your electoral college votes, you won the vote, and were duly sworn in last January as President of the United States.

We, as unelected citizens, are also leaders. Did we not go to the polls and exercise our guaranteed right to lead by casting our votes? No matter who wins the election, we citizens lose if we vote carelessly or not at all, assuming we’re given a fair opportunity. We also lose if we fall back into apathy or cynicism and wait things out. Or try to take things into our own hands.

As a follower of Jesus, I am exhorted to pray for you as the President of the USA. I can’t say ‘my’ President, because you serve all of us.

As our President, you have visible power and office. That means you have access to your executive pen, the bully and praise pulpit, the power to hire and fire designated people, and a stage that magnifies your voice far beyond what it would be if you were not President of the USA.

As President, you might be tempted to think you’re in control, or that you can change or ignore situations to your liking. Or at least do what you can to make things more comfortable for you and yours. You might also want people to like you. Especially the people to whom you made promises. You might even hope for some to hate and fear you.

And so I pray for you the way I pray for myself as a citizen leader. I pray you and I will let go of our desires for power and control, esteem and affection, safety and survival, and especially the desire to change situations not in our control. The most important thing you can do is lead well, as the follower of Jesus you say you are. Which would be the most important thing I can do, as well.

Right now, even though it’s stormy, you’re a mighty visible oak. Still, tree rot often begins on the inside. Then one day, often without warning, the mighty visible oak crashes to the ground, often taking with it trees close to the mighty oak.

Gone. Not with a whimper, but with a resounding earthquake that travels to the other side of the world and back, creating tsunamis and chaos in its wake.

I like to think of us citizens and residents of the USA as tiny acorns that survive. Not all of us will make it. But the future does lie with us, doesn’t it? Which is why I can’t pray for you alone.

Please know that we’re trying to make as much sense of life as we can, hoping and praying you will grow into your office one day at a time, one step at a time. No matter the cost to your personal comfort or reputation. Which is what it means to follow Jesus.

Respectfully,

Elouise Renich Fraser

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 21 September 2017, reposted 19 August 2020
Photo taken by DAFraser, 11 September 2017, Longwood Gardens Meadow

Betrayal

This week a study guide in An American Lament made painfully clear how much I don’t remember. Thanks to Rev. Darryl Ford for pulling key data together. I’ve outlined major turning points below, with a brief comment (mine) at the end regarding churches.

April 9, 1865, Close of the Civil War. U.S. Congress takes steps to level the scales of racial injustice.
1866, Fourteenth Amendment passed – full citizenship for slaves
1869, Fifteenth Amendment passed – racial discrimination in voting banned (men only)
1870 to 1875, Reconstruction policies passed between 1870 and 1875, protecting legal rights of African Americans: voting, holding office, serving on juries, receiving equal protection; plus Federal troops ready to send South to enforce these laws and protect African Americans from harassment at voting booths by white supremacist groups

Early results encouraging, especially in southern states with larger African American populations.

1876, Presidential election subverted. The Hayes Compromise of 1877 (informal): federal troops sent to southern states (to enforce new freedoms for African Americans) will be removed in return for electoral votes needed by Rutherford B. Hayes. See political cartoon above.

1877, Reconstruction era buried; Jim Crow era begins, putting ex-slaves at the mercy of former masters. Laws regarding equality were now seen as absurd or un-Christian.
1883, The Supreme Court agreed, and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was deemed unconstitutional.
• No further civil rights legislation was signed until 1957.

Jim Crow era
• Discriminatory laws passed for every area of life including towns and spaces in which black people were not allowed to live.
• Segregation took over every area of life – prisons, hospitals, schools, hospitals, orphanages; textbooks used in schools; books for black students stored apart from books for white students; two Bibles in the Atlanta courts—one for black witnesses; one for white witnesses

Where were American churches? Largely silent and complicit, too often delivering sermons supporting segregation.

Where are American churches today? Too often defined by identity politics, or by the importance of being ‘good people’

Being racist isn’t only about burning crosses or participating in lynchings. It’s also about closeting oneself as an individual, reducing the problem to “bad actors” seen in the news. Or desiring political favors/power more than integrity.

By looking the other way, or offering heartfelt exhortations about being good and generous individuals, we muddy the water. We fail to look into the mirror and acknowledge that we, too, are part of what’s still wrong in the USA. Put another way, we turn this social problem into a personal issue regarding individual choices, rather than seeing it for the centuries-long systemic issue it has been from the beginning.

Thanks for visiting, reading, and doing what you can where you are.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 August 2020
Political cartoon found at en.wikipedia.org

Half truths + Half lies = Lies

From a 1950s Texas textbook for school children.

And what about real life?

Half-truths
Half-lies
Does it really matter?

Yes means ‘Yes…but’
Not now means ‘maybe
In the sweet by and by’

Mind your manners
Sweeten your voice
Remember who you are not

You do care
About your children
Don’t you?

Or your job
Or your good reputation
Or your life

Sly words
Strung like pearl
Bullets

If you flee
They will find you
In the end

Now….
What did you want
To say?

It’s difficult to convey the slyness of slavery. It happened on both sides, though for different reasons. The scales were, of course, heavily weighted in support of sly masters and mistresses.

Words are indispensable. Easily twisted by the powerful into lies. Or toned down and prettied up in American History textbooks of the 1950s and 60s. (See photo at the top)

We may say we’ve moved ‘beyond slavery,’ yet the record shows we have not. As a nation, we haven’t begun to recognize, much less take seriously its legacy in our lives today. No matter where we are or what we’re doing.

Pointing to heroes and heroines is important, yet it isn’t enough. What about exploring the unsung courage, strength and ingenuity embodied in unnumbered black lives that mattered then, and matter now? Or looking into some of those textbooks and pictures that tried to make us one happy family?

Praying for courage to face the past as part of facing our future.
Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 12 August 2020
Image found at kut.org

I’ve been weakened by the walls I’ve built | James DePreist

DePreist’s star along Portland, Oregon’s Main Street Walk of Stars

James DePreist is on my mind again, thanks to a note from a long-time friend. DePreist was a world-renowned orchestra conductor, a survivor of polio contracted while conducting the Bangkok Symphony, and a nephew of his world-renowned Aunt Marian Anderson. He was born in Philadelphia in 1936.

DePreist died in 2013. You can read about his life in The New York Times obituary or on Wikipedia. At the time of his death, he had been conductor of the Oregon Symphony in Portland, Oregon since 1980.  He had also written two volumes of poetry in his own free style.

Of all his poems, this one has challenged me most. Not just in the past, but today. Given our current situation regarding Black Lives, and Covid-19, it resonates loudly. A timely invitation to examine walls I’ve built, and deal with questions now “breeching my barricades.”

I’ve been weakened by the walls I’ve built,
robbed
of strength-drenched testing,
protected into an unprepared defense
of self.
Failing in my futile fortress to see
contentment’s numbing trap
I
answerless
must battle the questions now breeching
my barricades.

Poem written by James DePreist
©1986 and published by University of Portland Press in This Precipice Garden, p. 6

This is where I find myself today. Answerless. Not so much for my childhood upbringing in Georgia, but for my adult years when I thought I knew better.

While it’s true we never know how much good we’ve done, it’s also true we never know how much pain or damage we’ve inflicted. And then there’s always the question about now. What now? What next? How must I change, what will it cost, and what will I gain?

Thanks, as always, for visiting and reading. I pray you’re finding ways to deal with questions now breeching your barricades.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 7 August 2020
Image found at en.wickipedia.org

Reaping the Whirlwind

When did it begin —
This habit of being
More interested in myself
Than in the heart-rending
Realities of others?

White baby becomes
White child groomed
To be a ‘good’ Christian
And obedient little girl
Never questioning
Or fighting against
Rules upon rules
Spoken and unspoken
Shaping each day
By hook and by crook
Plus forced acceptance
And respect for all men
In authority over them

Never forget this, my daughters:

To be an adult citizen
Of the United States
With full rights and a vote
Is an uncommon honor
Not accorded every
Girl child in this nation
Only white children need apply to this
Fake Order of The Righteous Remnant
Happy to believe the sad myth that
They are the light of the world
A Great City set on a Great hill
Above this Great yet shrinking land
Still starving for ministrations of Mercy
And Justice for All

The system that became today’s USA was rigged from the beginning. As were so-called ‘history of the USA’ books for school children. Looking back, our true history is clear, as were bits and pieces of our national blindness and apathy decades ago.

I pray you and I will remain courageous and determined, no matter what comes next. It’s dangerous to be a light of any color set on a hill, especially while also attracting those determined to extinguish the light of truth.

Thanks for visiting and reading. Even a new President, should we be so blessed, won’t be able to wave a magic wand. In the end, it’s up to us. One day at a time. One heartfelt conversation, one small deed at a time. May God have mercy on us all.

Elouise

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 August 2020
Image found at http://www.thestar.com (Toronto)

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