Openings into Life | May 2, 2021 Message from Dr. Blake
For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river— Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.
Travel far enough into sorrow, tears turn to sighing; In this way we learn how water can die into air.
When, after heavy rain, the storm clouds disperse, Is it not that they’ve wept themselves clear to the end?
If you want to know the miracle, how wind can polish a mirror, Look: the shining glass grows green in spring.
It’s the rose’s unfolding, Ghalib, that creates the desire to see — In every color and circumstance, may the eyes be open for what comes.
— Ghalib, Translated from the Urdu by Jane Hirshfield
I had not experienced the uneasiness before. Tuesday morning on the day of the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, I left home to journey to Pacific School of Religion for its virtual chapel service and to teach my class later that day. Seconds after I arrived at this particular intersection, I noticed that a police vehicle had arrived at the intersection ninety degrees to my left. Knowing I had the right to proceed, I briefly toyed with encouraging the police officers to proceed before me, ensuring that they would be in front of me rather than in back. I realized, however, that the correct procedure was for me to proceed first and I did. I could not turn right as I wanted because that street was blocked off due to sewer problems. I proceeded straightforward. The police officers encountered the same problem with the blocked off street and turned left. Although I knew they had every right to be behind me, there was a nagging discomfort and feeling that I had better do everything right as a driver. The intensity of the feeling of being followed increased as I made a right turn at the next intersection. The officers made the same turn. I realized that this was logical. Like me, they were just dealing with being detoured. At the next intersection, I needed to turn right again; but, the parked vehicles in the extreme right lane on my left blocked my view of cars traveling on the street where I needed to turn. That necessitated my moving a bit into the intersection prior to making my right turn. Would the police cite me for this, I wondered? If so, what would be their response? What would be mine? I made the right turn and immediately moved into the left lane to turn. The police also turned right and travelled straight through the next intersection. What relief I felt knowing that they were no longer behind me.
I wondered about what had just happened to me. Why was I fearful? Why had I been feeling that I had better be sure to do my best driving and that even that might not be good enough to prevent the police from stopping me. How and why had I become a prisoner of such thoughts? Intellectually, I knew the police were not following me. Emotionally, I felt that they were. Had the real experiences of case after case of police misconduct and brutality outside moved inside me, yes! Rather than unfolding like the rose in Ghalib’s poem, I felt diminished, arrested.
While I was relieved by the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin, I realized that this was only one case of a police officer being held accountable for shameful, immoral, despicable, illegal actions. It did not signal the end of police brutality or the need to re-imagine protecting our communities. This legitimacy of my fear was confirmed when 15-year-old Ma’khia Bryant was killed by police during the same time frame as that of the verdict being announced.
Perhaps, it is easier to see in a person like Derek Chauvin than it is in ourselves what Thomas Merton records: “Our trouble is that we are alienated from our own personal reality, our true self. . . . To have an identity (based on the true self) is to be awake and aware. . . . Racism along with consumerism is only a symptom of alienation from the true self.” Derek Chauvin, like each of us, is a victim of a system that enshrines violence. He represents the failure of our collective consciousness and will to see all as created in the image of the Creator, God. Consequently, we are all implicated in rogue behavior that is far too commonplace.
Was it my true self to be afraid? Certainly, in those moments, I could not sense the joy of a raindrop entering the river. It was a form of pain, not joy that attended my way. Even though Aeschylus reminds us: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”
Have I learned? Dare we speak of hope?
“Only if we speak of woundedness” writes Dr. Allan Boesak. Indeed, he affirms that “we must speak out of a sense of woundedness.” Woundedness is not synonymous with victimhood. No, it is radically different because it calls out injustice for what it is, a continuing obstruction to physical, emotional psychic and spiritual well-being. Amidst this suffering, if we embrace the ultimate significance of our presence in the ongoing melody and harmony of the university, we will not be able to hold our peace. We must speak in some way, breaking a silence “fraught with evil.” In that breaking of silence is hope. Boesak describes the hope that emerges as resilient “because it is rooted in the promises of God, . . . and in the faithfulness of God’s people.”
In his sermon, “The Audacity to Hope,” which inspired President Barak Obama to entitle his book, The Audacity of Hope, Dr. Jeremiah Wright shared an experience with Dr. Frederick G. Sampson. In one of his presentations, Dr. Sampson spoke of a painting that Dr. Wright had studied years before.
In Dr. Sampson's powerful description of the picture, he spoke of it being a study in contradictions, because the title and the details on the canvas seemed to be in direct opposition.
. . . the painting's title is "Hope." It shows a woman sitting on top of the world, playing a harp. What more enviable position could one ever hope to achieve than being on top of the world with everyone dancing to your music?
As you look closer, the illusion of power gives way to the reality of pain. The world on which this woman sits, our world, is torn by war, destroyed by hate, decimated by despair, and devastated by distrust. The world on which she sits seems on the brink of destruction. Famine ravages millions of inhabitants in one hemisphere, while feasting and gluttony are enjoyed by inhabitants of another hemisphere. This world is a ticking time bomb, with apartheid in one hemisphere and apathy in the other. Scientists tell us there are enough nuclear warheads to wipe out all forms of life except cockroaches. That is the world on which the woman sits in Watts’ painting.
Much has changed since George Frederic Watts painted “Hope.” Yet, hounds of hell – fear, pain, violence, homelessness, war, rumors of war, gross materialism, rampant greed, hypocrisy, hatred – still dog our paths daily resulting in boundless suffering, untold misery. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib reminds us that pain is not the ultimate reality. “Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.”
Nevertheless, weariness and lethargy too often reside in the bones and soul. John O’Donohue verifies this and sees beyond the weariness.
Yet constant struggle leaves us tired and empty. Our struggle for reform needs to be tempered and balanced with a capacity for celebration. When we lose sight of beauty our struggle becomes tired and functional. When we expect and engage the Beautiful, a new fluency is set free within us and between us. The heart becomes rekindled and our lives brighten with unexpected courage. It is courage that restores hope to the heart. In our day to day lives, we often show courage without realizing it. However, it is only when we are afraid that courage becomes a question. Courage is amazing because it can tap into the heart of fear, taking that frightened energy and turning it towards initiative, creativity, action, and hope. When courage comes alive, imprisoning walls become frontiers of new possibility, difficulty becomes invitation and the heart comes into a new rhythm of trust and sureness. There are secret sources of courage inside every human heart; yet courage needs to be awakened in us. The encounter with the Beautiful can bring such awakening. Courage is a spark that can become the flame of hope, lighting new and exciting pathways in what seemed to be dead, dark landscapes.
I am certainly grateful for what President Joe Biden has projected as the agenda for his presidency. It does not include all that is needed; but, what a change it is from presidential agendas over the past decades. The successful implementation of the agenda will be dependent to a great extent upon our fidelity as people of a movement of accountability that will not cower in the face of menacing opposition and get weary on the path to greater equality and compassion.
Dr. Sampson saw above the head of the woman in the Watts painting, “small notes of music moving playfully and joyfully toward heaven.” It then became clear why Watts entitled the painting Hope. Dr. Wright explains:
. . . in spite of being on a world torn by war; in spite of being on a world destroyed by hate; in spite of being on a world devastated by distrust and decimated by disease; in spite of being on a world where famine and greed . . . in spite of being on a ticking time bomb, with her clothes in rags, her body scarred, bruised, and bleeding, and her harp all but destroyed except for that one string that was left – in spite of all these things, the woman had the audacity to hope. She had the audacity to hope and to make music and praise God on the one string she had left.
There must be always remaining in every man’s [everyone’s] life some place for the singing of angels — some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful and by an inherent prerogative, throwing all the rest of life into a new and creative relatedness — something that gathers up in itself all the freshets of experience from drab and commonplace areas of living and glows in one bright light of penetrating beauty and meaning — then passes.
– Howard Thurman