Walking Through the Valley of the Pulsing Now | February 12, 2023 Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
We shall walk through the valley in peace…I felt in great need of this song this week. There is a great need for peace…personal peace, peace in our communities, in our nation, throughout the world.
This song is based on the scripture Psalm 23:4:
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
The reference to the shepherd is significant. Our spiritual help is not magic…it requires something of us as well. The peace that we long for does not come all on its own. We must walk through the valley…the many valleys, and they are not for the faint of heart. These are places in which we must transform…through the fires and tribulations of life. We must come to our personal place of peace, I think, before we will be able to find peace in our surroundings.
This is Black History Month…a commemoration of struggle to be sure…in the words of Frederick Douglass, whose birth is celebrated on Tuesday:
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
Douglass knew of struggle. He knew that agitation was needed on the road to freedom…he knew that crops would only flourish when we have properly prepared the soil…he knew that the blessing of rain does not come without thunder and lightening and possibly floods. He knew that there was no progress without this struggle…without passing through the valley of Humiliation and of the Shadow of Death…without the temptations of life.
In his book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois speaks of these temptations in the chapter dedicated to Alexander Crummell. It is, like all the chapters in this book, a poetic masterpiece…very difficult to read without crying. But we will get to that. The following comes from Crummell himself. He writes:
Let our posterity know that we their ancestors, uncultured and unlearned, amid all the trials and temptations, were men of integrity; recognized with gratefulness their truest friends dishonored and in peril; were enabled to resist the seductions of ease and the intimidations of power; were true to themselves, the age in which they lived, their abject race, and the cause of man; shrunk not from trial, nor from sufferings – but conscious of the high hopes, and the lofty aims of true Humanity!
Crummell speaks to his own journey…his own walk through the valley that eventually led to the vindication of the high hopes and the lofty aims of true Humanity. DuBois speaks of this journey in a most beautiful way. He spoke of the temptations Crummell faced…those universal temptations faced by us all. He wrote:
…the temptation of Hate, that stood out against the red dawn;
the temptation of Despair, that darkened noonday;
and the temptation of Doubt, that ever steals along the twilight.
These are temptations, universal in nature that Thurman also wrote about in relation to the life of Jesus…the stumbling-blocks that can come in our journey of the crossing of the vales…what DuBois calls the V; the third alley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. On the first meeting with Alexander Crummell, DuBois writes:
Instinctively I bowed before this man, as one bows before the prophets of the world. Some seer he seemed, that came not from the crimson Past or the gray To-come, but from the pulsing Now, - that mocking world which seemed to me at once so light and dark, so splendid and sordid. Fourscore years had he wandered in this same world of mine, within the Veil.
If you have read this book, you will know what DuBois means by “the Veil”. It is a term that is, I think, immediately recognized by those within it, but it is much more difficult to understand by those outside of it. This book goes a long way in explaining this term to the uneducated. The Veil was part of the Pulsing Now for both DuBois and Crummell…that mocking world…full of light and dark, both splendid and sordid. DuBois goes on to describe the life of Crummell…changed at a young age by the experience of going to a school in rural New York. He writes:
And to the lonely boy came a new dawn of sympathy and inspiration. The shadowy, formless thing – the temptation of Hate, that hovered between him and the world – grew fainter and less sinister. It did not wholly fade away, but diffused itself and lingered thick at the edges…He raised his head, stretched himself, breathed deep of the fresh new air. Yonder, behind the forests, he heard strange sounds; then glinting through the trees he saw, far, far away, the bronzed hosts of a nation calling…he girded himself to walk down the world.
We never know what will bring on a new dawn…one that is able to overcome the temptation of Hate. The ability to overcome this temptation to Hate is very difficult to achieve. Thurman dedicated a chapter on this in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited. But we know that hate closes off possibility and for Crummell, this was a monumental achievement. But the trials of this man were not yet over. A voice and a vision called him to be a priest, - a seer to lead the uncalled out of the house of bondage…but he was to then encounter the next temptation on his journey…the temptation of Despair. DuBois tells the story of Crummell’s struggle with Despair and then Doubt…of his journey through the valley of the Shadow of Death. DuBois writes:
The Valley of the Shadow of Death gives few of its pilgrims back to the world. But Alexander Crummell it gave back.
Dubois had a great deal of respect for Crummell…for his work in the world, despite the obstacles…the temptations and the struggle. How does this relate to our own Pulsing Now? How do we overcome the temptations of Hate…of Despair…of Doubt? To me, this is a daily struggle for all of us. We have much to learn from our ancestors…those who, like Crummell, like DuBois, like Douglass kept walking through the vales they encountered…those who endured the temptations and worked for the betterment of the world.
In his last chapter in the book, DuBois writes of the Black contribution to this nation. He writes:
Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song – soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit…out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst…Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America not been America without her Negro people?
This Black History Month, let us meditate on the contribution of our African-American ancestors…those who cheer us on in our endeavors…those upon whose shoulders we stand…
Great Spirit, all-pervading presence of the Holy…we pray today for all the travelers…of the past, the present and the future…that they may be cheered along their way by the great throngs of travelers of the pulsing now, who are engaged in the struggle for freedom and for peace. May we join them in the struggle and may we be reminded that, in the words of Dr. Howard Thurman:
…always, Our Father, Thou dost hold us. Make us sense Thy strength in us. Help us to feel Thy trust in us. May we be reminded in all the ways that Thy vast creativity can conjure that Thou dost love us. Help us, O God, as we learn to love Thee. - Amen