Still I Rise

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Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;  I Peter 3:15

The liturgical feast of the Ascension  and the lyrical feast that was Maya Angelou almost collided this week.  For some of us, it might even seem there was a collusion of sorts.  Many churches have shuffled aside the unusual occasion for a Thursday (and it’s always Thursday) evening worship for Ascension.  I think the last time I attended worship with others on Ascension was in a gathering of pastors.  At the risk of exposing myself to be the liturgical geek that I am, I think shuffling off with Ascension left us with a rather wimpy ending for the glorious seven weeks of Easter.   Forty days of Lent we can do.  But sustaining and even building on the joy of Easter for seven weeks is….well, let’s say we get distracted.  There’s Memorial Day cookouts and getting the boat in the water  (and that’s even a distraction to itself) and the end of school and plans for summer, the cabin to open, and the little yellow spiders need to be evicted from the gas grill before we turn it on for the first time.  No, this was not a winter for grilling out.  But as I said, we get distracted.   Ascension was supposed to be the glorious pinnacle, the crucified One now risen from the dead and sitting at God’s right hand in glory.  At least we still profess that in the creeds.  A great day for flying kites or taking hot air balloon trips.  No one has ever asked me to preside at a hot air balloon wedding, but if I did it would just have to be on the feast of the Ascension.   Storms were a little too threatening for either activity around here today.  There’s “Nearer My God to Thee” and “Too Close to God for Thee” when playing with lightning.

balloonOnly Luke reports the Ascension, and describes the scene with the disciples (and Mary, and Jesus’ brothers ,and certain other women) standing slack jawed in amazement as Jesus accomplishes lift off and leaves them forever for that mansion in the sky.  It’s a strange story.  I guess Luke needed some way to explain why Jesus’ bodily presence was no longer in our midst, so it’s up Jesus has to go.  Not merely away.  UP.  He rises from the grave, and he rises in the sky to God’s right hand in glory now.  Jesus has to go UP because if he merely went away there would be a search party, and news coverage, and Facebook, and maybe someone would even bring the bloodhounds.  Going UP was the only way Jesus could leave the party without taking the entourage, leaving them to do the vital work of being witnesses to tell the story.  Even so, the angel needed to appear to them to tell them to pick up their jaws before the flies flew in and to get ready for what would happen next.

I’ve noticed that the Ascension is embarrassing to more than a few preachers, judging from postings on the web.  It’s not an easy journey from a hill outside Jerusalem to that all important Lutheran question “What does this mean?”     It’s just so fantastic, as in fantasia fantastic.  You can’t explain it, and if you do your audience begins to twizzle with their bulletins at best or look at you with dazed crossed eyes at worst.  So maybe it is just as well that we don’t have well-attended Ascension day services, if at all.   It’s very hard on the linear rational mind.

This year, however, the collision and collusion between Ascension and Maya Angelou’s passing took me down a totally unexpected path.  I listened to her reading of her poem Still I Rise on npr  (it also appeared on numerous other news outlets and it is on youtube, you owe it to yourself to hear it.)  I can of course quote it here, but poetry has to be heard.  That’s how her beloved mentor lured her out of her six years of self-imposed silence, by accusing her of not really loving poetry because she had never read it out loud and heard the sound and music of it.

Still I Rise

by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

© Maya Angelou. All rights reserved

Of course, Jesus not only was raised,  Jesus rised.  Maya’s poem is the embodiment of the poetry that is Jesus, rising from the hill and vanishing from sight.  Only the eyes of faith can see that what the grave could not hold, gravity could not either.  Of course, Jesus rised. (I know I’m grating on my fellow grammar purists here.)   He rised above the taunts and assaults, the offenses taken by the religious people, the fear and anxiety that was the Pax Romana, the cruelty of enemies only outdone by the abandonment of friends.  How do you go on living after all of that?  Rising from the dead seems easy.  Living after such a death….now, well, that’s another story for all of us.

First, we have to lift our eyes from the ground.  On the way up, you have to pass your navel too.  Jesus’ ascension guides the way, all the way up and up until gravity pulls our jaws down even while Jesus is released from it.   When life deals you a mess of crap, you tend to walk along with your eyes stuck to the ground trying to avoid stepping in the next pile of it.  This is confession, not accusation.   But at just those moments, how do give testimony to the hope that is within us?   Is our hope for revenge, that it will just all rise like hot air and be gone, or…..???

 You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Maya Angelou’s poem is about slavery and living under Jim Crow.  It is the testimony she kept on hand to tell about the hope.   It could just as easily be Jesus’ poem.  It could just as easily be ours.

Just when I think my heart has hardened off, like the leggy little seedlings gradually introduced to sun and wind outside, the cutworm of grief and –can I even say this–hatred crawls up and starts to gnaw on me some more, still finds the raw, wounded, tender spot and opens it up again.  Maya’s poem is flavored with defiance that offends some while liberating those who need it most.  I choose to not be offended because I need to be liberated more.

You may kill me with your hatefulness…

Sometimes hatefulness kills with swift mercy, like an executioner.  Most of the time, hatefulness kills over years and years.  The thing is, hatefulness kills whether you are the one dishing it out or the one spooning it up.  With every degree of hardening of the arteries that give life to my heart and existence, I die a little and the comeback is never quite perfect.  At first it leaves a tiny scar that heals over.  That tiny scar becomes a lesson to be learned.  And then it grows until it becomes the horrible warning to make others fear.  And finally, just when you think none of that should even matter any more,  you discover it doesn’t.  The old story comes out again, and the scar tissue grows over the parts that used to feel the pain.  As if that’s any better.

The last year and some has given me abundant opportunity to savor my hurt and grow my garden hatred and anger.  There.  I’ve said it.  I would be lying to pretend anything else.  I wonder if Jesus had to master his own feelings about those last three days before he could offer peace to the disciples locked in fear and behind doors.  Clearly, the disciples couldn’t be sure that Jesus return was in peace–he had to say it three times before they began to catch on that he had not returned to exact payback.  They are like my dog, caught with his paws on the edge of the table reaching for that loaf of bread.  His very reaction to my sudden appearance is enough to both confirm my suspicions of guilt and confirm that my sudden appearance is punishment enough.

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

We have all received, grace upon grace.  We stand slack jawed as Jesus rises like air, filling us again with dreams  that death and vengeance  are not the best  outcomes we can hope for,  that there is a daybreak and it will eventually be crystal and clear, shimmering like morning dew in the grass.  We know this, even at midnight.  Even at midnight, we need to know this.

Still Jesus rises, because nothing less would do.

Still Maya rises, and will be raised with all of the rest of us on the last day.

Still….I rise.  Every morning.   Maybe not as defiantly, maybe with more timidity and uncertainty….but still. I rise, and the sheer fact of it is testimony to my hope.

There’s no other way without succumbing to the forces of gravity that pull us down, hard, down into the ground until the dirt covers us and grass rises over us.  Every morning I pry my arthritic fingers open from their clenched curl, and allow a little more dust to sift through them, a little more hurt, a little more hate released, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.   And then I look up.  Where else?

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About Pastor Betsy Williams

I am a mom. And a wife. And a Friend. And a homeowner. And a dog ...uh....owner? Actually make that two dogs. Two kids. One husband. I'm an ELCA Lutheran pastor of a beautiful downtown church. I am the third senior pastor in a century, so my 10-12 years here may feel like an interim to some of the folks here. Recently I have had no spare time. In my spare time in the future, my imagination inhabits a novel I am writing, The Funeral Preacher. My primary blog is a personal reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary...mostly: "Not All Who Wander are Lost." A few years ago I was on a team of writers who produced a little book for Augsburg Fortress in the Washed and Welcome series called "Living the Promises." It's 101 ideas for helping parents and godparents nurture their children in the faith of their baptism. I am developing another blog, more about worship at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Newark, Ohio and including a summary of the past week's preaching. Otherwise, I imagine myself to be a musician, liturgical artist, cook in a five star restaurant where the patrons keep ordering chicken nuggets, but never a bottle washer. I know how to delegate and share.
Aside | This entry was posted in Christian, Lectionary, Lutheran, Spirituality, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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