A Going-On People
Maya Angelou's "Still We Rise"
It has been a hard year for the economy, as all of us know. As a result some corporations have decided to downsize, re-configure and re-introduce their corporate image.
There is a lot to keep our attention these days that is pretty bleak, but this morning I want to draw your attention elsewhere for a few moments.
February 12, 1809 is the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln. On February 12, 1909 the NAACP was founded as a voice of justice and hope for African Americans. As we approach February 12, 2009 we live in a country that has just elected its first Black President. The road of justice is a long, winding way, full of set-backs and rabbit-trails. The choir has a beautiful piece this morning for our offertory that speaks to this road of justice and hope. The words to this piece will be projected as they sing so that we can experience their full meaning. As Maya Angelou so eloquently described it in our first reading:
The night has been long,
The wound has been deep,
The pit has been dark,
And the walls have been steep.
The ancestors remind us, despite the history of pain
We are a going-on people who will rise again.
And still we rise.
I know that these words speak powerfully to the African American experience but I want you to know that these words speak powerfully to my heart too. So do the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Do you not know? Have you not heard? Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, who will not grow tired or weary, with understanding no one can fathom.
Those who hope in Yahweh will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
Both of these readings show us the power of hope!
It is important that we consider well where we place our hope. [PP5] That which holds your hope holds your life. Isaiah suggests that we make our choices wisely. Lots of people put their hope in the stock market and they are disappointed. We trust our leaders to make decisions on our behalf and sometimes they don’t. Some hope to hit the numbers of the lottery or be discovered by Hollywood sitting at a lunch counter or find the answer to the agonizing question, “Is it a stimulus package or a spending bill?”
How do you make it through the cold dark days of February without hope of the warmth of summer? How do you make it through wars in far away places without the hope of coming home to the ones you love? How do you make it through the long steep climb of recovery without the hope of sobriety?
Hope doesn’t happen quickly or even painlessly. It is often purified by the fires of adversity and the march of time. It forges a common bond among a community that gives identity and strength to those who are part of the journey. It reminds us not to rest our gaze on the present difficulty but to keep our eyes on the horizon for the breaking of the dawn or on the hills from whence comes our help.
This week I turned 52 years old and I thank you for your birthday wishes, cards and notes. It seems that the lesbians of the church have learned a key insight about me. The way to my heart is through dark chocolate. Having lived all these many years now I want you to know that I also know a few things about hope in my life. If you think life has crushed your soul I am here to tell you that such an experience can be the genesis for either hope or despair. Look for hope. You’ll find the despair everywhere in the debris but look among the shrapnel for the shards of hope that are also always there. If you have survived traumatic loss, disease, hate, pain or fear – then by your very survival you are now an agent of hope. Nobody survives on one’s own. It takes a community caring, a father praying, a friend helping, a partner forgiving. It takes intestinal fortitude to remind yourself again and again, “My present difficulty is not the final definition of my life’s meaning.” A willingness to dig down in the messiness of that gut power is the essence of hope.
I remember a December morning in 1997. My doctor’s office called me to come in to get my regular lab reports. I knew something was up because they had always shared that info before over the phone. Still, you’re never quite ready to hear the words. My doctor tried to be as gentle as possible, “The good news is your cholesterol is good. The bad news is you’re HIV-positive.” For the next few hours, time seemed to be molasses. There would be more tests. There were treatments available. There was a lot to be done. But all I could process was that my life was over. I did everything I knew to do. I cried. I prayed. I relied on friends. I strategized how to ease the disappointment of my family when they received this awful news. That was over eleven years ago. I survived because of hope – the power of the community of faith that gathered around me in love and prayer, the advances of medicine that offered alternatives that were available to me and worked, the growing awareness that this virus was not the only defining aspect of my life and a desire to find God’s presence among the shrapnel of my situation. All of that was possible because I was part of a going-on people. That December day despair told me no one would ever love a tarnished person like me. On March 1st this year Bill and I will celebrate 7 years of marriage – the longest relationship of my life. I am an agent of hope because I am part of a going-on people. My despair told me that faith was futile but the church that loved me through my pain was a going-on people. My experience of God’s grace evolved into deeper understanding and depth. Those bleak moments molded my soul and honed my strength. Yes, there was a more profound truth that coursed through my veins. The night was long, the wound deep, the pit was dark, and the walls were steep. The ancestors remind us, despite the history of pain we are a going-on people who will rise again.
And still we rise.
It takes profound strength to affirm the painful parts of our journey as part of our hope. For you see, it has been in my most profound moments of deepest pain and despair where the eyes of my spirit were opened to the presence that was aching right there with me – next to me, for me – the presence I call God. I understand better now the prophet’s questioning? Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth, who does not grow tired or weary, and understands your situation more deeply than you can fathom. That presence was beyond anything I could imagine in my moments of despair but its reality could no more be denied than the reality my doctor delivered.
My life is now a witness to the power of hope. It is a witness that although pain can devastate or disease can ravage or loss of life can rip the fabric of our existence, that is not the end of the story. It is also the witness of a survivor – a member of the going-on people – those who glimpse an important spiritual truth and reality that hope will renew their strength. Your lives are a witness to the power of hope. You are testimony that life is stronger than death, light dispels darkness, truth is more powerful than fear and hope lives on – even in an economy like this. You and I are those that the scripture describes who dare to soar on wings like eagles; to run and not grow weary, to walk and not be faint. We’re a going-on people. And still we rise.
www.homileticsonline.com Still We Rise, February 2009.
Angelou, Maya: “Still We Rise” delivered at Million Man March, Washington DC.