My first thought upon seeing the actual buildings of our new high school while still under construction in the spring of 2019 was, Oh, no! This was not the emphatic Oh, no! in anticipation of stopping an action. This was the mystified Oh, no! accompanied by incredulity and a sense of sorrow and grief. I had seen aerial architectural renditions of the building months ago during the community debate over changing the name of the school and thought only, Wow! What an impressive building! Admittedly, I was disappointed on August 16, 2018, when the local school board failed to act on the name change proposal. Why was I not impressed with the actual structure now?
What I saw now was an impressive building, but one somehow tainted. The architectural focal points of the structure are reminiscent of antebellum plantation homes constructed in the American South prior to the Civil War. The neoclassical, antebellum “look” is clearly apparent in the grand pillared front entrance as well as the columned porticos adorning the four wings of the main building. Why was my Oh, no! accompanied by such a wave of incredulity and sorrow? This grand, new building conjuring up images of southern plantation life will continue to carry the name Robert E. Lee High School. The Robert E. Lee name is questionable enough in our current times. The name coupled with the architectural style of the building simply compounds the question. Have the taxpayers of Tyler ISD spent $94,584,548, yes, approximately $95 million dollars, on what could arguably be a memorial to the antebellum South and General Robert E. Lee?
The greatest sorrow is not that our new Robert E. Lee High School invokes the most tragic portions of our national history – institutional slavery of African Americans and its many abuses. Not that we should forget that time in our history, indeed we need to remember, repent – “turn from (our racist) ways” – and seek reconciliation. The greatest sorrow regards our students. The current student demographic for Robert E. Lee High School is approximately 28% African American, 27% Hispanic, and 38% White. These students will be expected to attend, learn, and thrive as they walk through the doors and roam the corridors of an institution that seemingly memorializes the horrors, hostility, and hate of their ancestral histories.
Tyler, even as a small city in conservative East Texas, does not exist in isolation, and the national upheaval over systemic racism predicated by George Floyd’s senseless murder is felt here as well. With this has come revitalized calls to change the name of our Robert E. Lee High School, the largest high school in the nation to still carry that name. At this time in our nation’s history there is so much racial hurt and strife, so much need to listen, to support, and seek to understand (as much as possible for us white folks) our African American friends, neighbors, and family members, so much need for racial reconciliation.
Tyler is known for its “quiet racism.” However, Robert E. Lee High School has been the flash point of some not so quiet and contentious community and legal racial wrangling from its opening in 1958 as an all-white school, to its court ordered integration in 1970, to the fallout surrounding its “Rebel” mascot and Confederate symbols that was finally mitigated through court and Texas Education Agency intervention in 1972. The mascot and symbols were changed; however, in opposition to urgings from black parents and students the local board refused to change the name just as they did recently in 2018.
And, here we are again! I can think of no better action to exemplify our desire for racial reconciliation than to remove the Robert E. Lee name from our school. Hopefully, this time our community with open minds, eyes, ears, and hearts will be able to move forward along “the arc of the moral universe (as) it bends toward justice” and human compassion.
I was finishing Richard Wright’s 1945 groundbreaking memoir, Black Boy, when the news broke of George Floyd’s death. I was horrified, incredulous even as I watched the appalling video. How could and why would anyone keep an unarmed, handcuffed (behind his back) man pinned to the ground with a knee on his throat even as he pleaded that he could not breathe and was in pain? I don’t know that there is any acceptable answer. The events of the day and Richard Wright’s story of growing up black in the Jim Crow South set me to wondering Have we made any meaningful progress in the past 100 years?
In Wright’s story he states that “. . .a sense of the two races had been born in me with a sharp concreteness that would never die until I died.” As post World War I racial conflict flared in the South, he recognizes that “A dread of white people now came to live permanently in my feelings and imagination.” As a ten-year old Wright listened to stories of violence against blacks and reports “Nothing challenged the totality of my personality so much as this pressure of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites.” Wright’s story offers some sense of what it was, perhaps still is, like growing up a “black boy” in America. Admittedly as a white woman, I could never fully understand or appreciate his feelings or life experiences.
On the surface we have made some positive strides toward racial equality and equity. We no longer see the signs at water fountains, restrooms, or business establishments designating which is accessible for “White” or “Colored.” Our schools are integrated and open to all races, if not in reality at least in theory and public policy. Yet there remains an undercurrent of racial segregation and inequality in the most vital of our societal structures – such as our neighborhoods, our places of worship, our educational and job opportunities. We see disproportionate amounts of poverty and violence among African Americans. Many hearts and minds have been opened and awakened to the racial disparities in our society and are compelled to speak out and work for change in these vital areas that impact the future and well-being of all our people, our society, and our nation.
Even so racial prejudice, both explicit and implicit, and violence targeting African Americans has always and tragically continues to be alive and well in our society. From the “terror lynchings” of the Civil War, post-Civil War, and Jim Crow eras to the murders of Emmett Till, James Byrd, and most recently Aubrey Ahmad private citizens have committed acts of violence against African Americans for no apparent reason other than racial hatred. Most recently, we have seen seemingly senseless deaths of African American men at the hands of our police – those who have pledged to “never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust.” We all remember Michael Brown and Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Freddie Gray of Baltimore, and now George Floyd in Minneapolis.
It would seem that regardless of our positive strivings, racism – racial strife, hatred, and violence – continues among us. I am reminded of Wright’s words:
“… both of us, the white boys and the black boys, began to play our traditional racial roles as though we had been born to them, as though it was in our blood, as though we were being guided by instinct. All the frightful descriptions we had heard about each other, all the violent expressions of hate and hostility that had seeped into us from our surroundings, came now to the surface to guide our actions.”
Let’s listen more and better. Let’s hear the words of Richard Wright and our African American neighbors. Let’s strive to understand, appreciate, and affirm one another. Let’s take action and make more meaningful progress in breaking the bonds of our “traditional racial roles” and crumble the “sharp concrete” between races.
Perhaps this can best be done by expanding on and living out a couple of Wright’s insights. In spite of the “place” the white South had assigned him, he states emphatically that “It had never occurred to me that I was in any way an inferior being,” and that no word he had ever heard “made me really doubt the worth of my own humanity.” God help us to claim and boldly live out our belief that all men are created equal and by the mere fact of their humanity all men are worthy.
And, let’s follow Wright’s lead and keep hope alive in us “by imagining a place where everything was(is) possible.”
In these uncertain, sometimes surreal, times as we continue to navigate this uncharted coronavirus, so much in our lives is different. I strive to maintain some constancy and familiarity with my daily walks. Walking is one thing I can continue to do without violating any stay-at-home orders or wearing a face mask (I can’t seem to keep my glasses from fogging up!) all while accommodating the social distancing rule. So, I walk, and I walk some more!
I tune into Pandora on my phone and take off. Occasionally I dial in my Disco Station particularly if I feel the need for a brisker, aka workout, walk. Most of the time I opt for the quieter, soothing sounds of Relaxation Radio or Enya. Of late, my walking is more about seeing, reflecting, pondering, processing, and meditating. The exercise, albeit a good thing, is not the primary focus.
As I walk, I look up, around, and down practicing wakefulness in the moment, resting in the rhythms of connection to myself and my surroundings. I see the squirrel perched precariously at the tip-end of a tiny limb. How does it not break! I see and hear the dogs barking and jumping at the fence as I pass. I don’t think, I hope, they can’t jump over it! I see the steadfast sky, serene and majestic in its brilliant blue or ominous and quarrelsome dripping gray. The stalwart lilies and irises turn their vivid, multicolored faces to the sun. I see the sap rising in the trees oozing out in variegated green leaves of all shapes and sizes – a gorgeous contract against the blue sky. I feel the warm, spring sun tempered by a slight, cool breeze. I delight in seeing the youngsters on their bicycles and scooters.
I reflect. It is all so good, so joyous! I ponder the contrast between the vibrance and beauty around me and the devasting reality currently engulfing our world – sickness, death, hunger, uncertainty. Added to this is the personal grief and loss with the recent death of my twelve-year old great-niece. The angst is palpable! I walk. I process. I embrace the both/and of my realities. I walk meditating. Borrowing from our Buddist friends, I lean into the sharp point, feeling the pain and losses for myself, my family, and the world. Yes, at times the tears do come. I breathe exhaling the pain. I breathe in the serenity, comfort, and peace that surrounds me. I keep walking.
This morning as I walked, I thought about Jesus and how much he and his disciples walked. I imagined their sandeled feet steadily walking the dusty roads, cobbled streets, and lush gardens. I wonder what their walks were like. I kept walking!
I am a grandmother, and despite our Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s claims, I am NOT willing to sacrifice my life for the economy so that my grandchildren, whom I love dearly, can keep “the America that all America loves.” My unwillingness is not due to a fear of death; however, as my longtime friend, Father Tom Jackson, says, “I am not afraid to die; it’s the dying that scares the hell out of me!” If the situation were a matter of true life or death, of course I would stand in for my grandchildren. But for the economy – no way! Patrick’s comments are abhorrent from the mere perspective of placing greater priority and value on the economy over the value of life and family. I get what the coronavirus is doing to our economy. The impact on the marketplace, our means of livelihood, and our workers is and will continue to be calamitous creating hardships for millions of folks, in some cases dire hardships.
We, as a people and a nation, have endured periods of difficulty and hardship throughout our history and have come out on the other side stronger, i.e. the Great Depression, 1918 flu pandemic, two world wars, 9/11. There is no reason to think differently in this instance, unless years of relative ease have weakened our resolve and warped our individual and national character. Moreover, were us grannies willing to be sacrificed to save the economy, “the America that all America loves,” what would our grandchildren miss out on. For some reason Mark 8:36 comes to mind: What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
Now I don’t know that our grandchildren would lose their souls, but I do believe they would stand to lose a lot. One loss, definitely the presence of loving grandparents. Granny and Pawpaw (or whatever you call them) offer wisdom, stability, safety, and fun. Some research indicates that children who have an emotional closeness to grandparents are happier and less prone to depression as adults. There is a reason that humans are the only species (a few whales excepted) that have grandparents.
What else might our grandchildren lose if they were to live undaunted in the economy, consumerism, and comfort of “the America that all America loves.” Opportunity, perhaps? Opportunity that often comes in the disguise of adversity. Though hardship is difficult, I hope with the encouragement, guidance, and love of parents, grandparents, and a supportive community that my grandchildren would be able to endure the hardship and rise above it through perseverance, sacrifice, and a strong work ethic. I like what Washington Irving has said:
“There is in every true woman’s (man’s) heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.”
My hopes and prayers are that our grandchildren’s hearts would “beam and blaze” courage, tenacity, ingenuity, compassion, honesty, and integrity in the midst of any future adversity. Billy Graham reminds us that “Comfort and prosperity have never enriched the world as much as adversity has.” To shield our grandchildren from hardships robs them of opportunities – for loving, for learning, for character growth – opportunities to enrich their lives and the world. I don’t want my grandchildren to miss any opportunities!
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick may be “All in.” with risking Granny and Pawpaw’s lives to keep the economy from falling, but this granny is most definitely NOT — especially for the sake of the grandkids.
I found myself feeling a bit out-of-sorts, disgruntled, unsettled this morning. Maybe it’s cabin fever after eleven days at home trying to do my part to “flatten the curve” on this COVID-19. Perhaps it’s the general uncertainty and angst surrounding this public health crisis, or it could be my incredulity regarding the remarks made yesterday by one of our state leaders. My plans were to clean out the pantry closet. Nah! It’s a pretty day outside, so I opted for yard work. Nope! The wind is blowing the pollen around like crazy – an allergy/sinus event just waiting to happen – and the ground is very wet. I wanted to work in the yard not play in the mud and get sick. So back inside. Maybe I just need to be still and quiet!
I did just that, closed my door and settled into my comfy reading chair. After some quite, focused breathing, and meditation I picked up A Year with Thomas Merton. Turning to my marked spot, I read:
“Silence, then, is the adoration of His truth, Work is the expression of our humility, and suffering is born of the love that seeks one thing alone: that God’s will be done.”
This was in the chapter entitled “Truth is Formed in Silence, Work, and Suffering” written in Merton’s journal on November 12, 1952. I suppose I needed that reminder in these uncertain times. Now on to my humble work. The sun has come out so perhaps the ground is dryer and more amenable to the spade.
I recently started participating in a book study. It is a diverse group of good folks –christian, atheist, agnostic, whatever — each on a journey of personal spiritual growth. Like me, they seem to be pilgrims, seekers, and heretics – awash in questions and doubts, deconstructing former concepts and beliefs, constructing personal truths and unique spiritual paths, — staying the course with authenticity and integrity in our often chaotic intersections with the world we live in, the life inhabiting that world, and the Spirit/God embodied in both the world and its inhabitants.
We are studying Rob Bell’s What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Much of our first discussion centered around Jane Fonda’s remarks made during a 2007 interview with Rolling Stonemagazine, “I could feel reverence humming in me.” Do you have a sense of “reverence humming” and “What is it?” My response to that question was to share a bit of my winter hike expereince. Hiking along an ice and snow laden trail I was bent, literally and figuratively, on keeping my eyes on the trail, following exactly in my hiking buddy’s footprints, and cautiously testing every step for firmness. I finally had to stop and straighten my aching, bent back.
As I looked up, my breath caught. The towering, red-rock canyon walls glistened in the bright, cold afternoon sun. They jutted straight up into a flawless, cobalt blue sky. “Wow, look at that!” was all I could utter. As I stood there taking it all in, I was overwhelmed with feelings of wonder, awe, gratitude, humility, and reverence. My heart was full and overflowed as tears filled my eyes. That, for me, was “reverence humming in me.” It was an experience I will never forget, and one which I frequently recall on hiking trails and elsewhere as I remind myself to “look up.”
Since that experience 28 years ago, I have (I think, I hope, but maybe not?) become more open, receptive, and settled to and into the various sounds, rhythms and vibrations of “the hum.” Never used the word “humming” to describe it, but I like Ms. Fonda’s analogy. “Hum” seems to give some substance to an otherwise intangible, indescribable feeling.
Where does the “humming” come from? For me, at this point in my journey, it comes from a sense of awareness, connection, and gratitude. A keen awareness of the mystery, the miracle, the love, the grace, the wisdom and truth of the of Spirit of God present in our world. A profound sense that I am connected to it all — a part of it, a product of it, a participant in it. And grateful for it all!
Here’s and idea! Let’s all “hum” in concert!!
I don’t know if it classifies as binge watching, but I watched all ten episodes of Netflix’s new series, “Messiah,” in four days. Pretty much a record for me! I have been mulling over various aspects of the program since then (over a week) and can’t seem to clear my mind of it so I just need to say what I think.
I have read several reviews of the program and most of them pan the series citing numerous flaws from ambiguity,poor story lines and character development, to “no deep theological grounding or specificity.” Some of these I agree with and some I do not even while acknowledging that I am by no means schooled as a cinema critic or theologian. I do believe that the program made some salient points regarding the coming of the Messiah – both first and/or second – and our receptivity – historical and/or future – of the Messiah.
The overbearing question throughout the series seems to be, “Who is he? Is the stranger, dubbed Al-Masih (the Messiah) by his followers, the Messiah, Jesus Christ, returned?” “Who is he,” is a centuries old question beginning when Jesus asked Peter, “But who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15; Mark 8:29; Luke 16:15). Folks through the ages have answered that question in a variety of ways and will continue to do so. With regard to Netflix’s “Messiah,” I believe perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Maybe the more relative question is, “Who are we; who am I?” Can we see ourselves in the characters portrayed in “Messiah?”
Are we the prostitute, paid by a high-level government official to seduce Al-Masih as a means to discredit him, who upon experiencing his gentle confrontation of her life, “How can you be the person God intended if you are not honest about who you are?” and hearing, even in the wake of her deception, the truth of God’s love for her walks away repentant and changed. Are we the agent who deceptively witnesses this encounter and walks away changed – to the point of quitting his job. Are we, am I, like these two — truly changed when touched by the love of God?
Are we Jabril, the young Al-Masih follower who stays true to his belief in Al-Masih even as Al-Masih has seemingly abandoned them in the desert at the Israeli border? Through injury, thirst, and hunger Jabril is sustained by his belief and the dreamy appearances of his deceased mother who had told him, “God has a different plan for you.” It is Jabril who courageously leads the remnant of followers into Israel, and some critics speculate that he is the real Messiah. Did Jabril’s touch revive the apparently deceased Qamar? Or, perhaps Jabril is not the Messiah but simply a true disciple and as Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works…” (John 14:12 New Living Translation). In all our claims to be Christian, are we, am I, like Jabril, a true follower of Christ?
Are we Pastor Felix Iguera who was disillusioned with church and ministry to the point of dousing his church with gasoline before it was miraculously saved from a tornado? Iguera experiences a roller coaster of despair, confusion, doubt, and hope only to succumb to his own weaknesses and family frailties. Claiming to be a humble servant and wanting only what God wants, he takes the reins and arranges for AL-Masih to appear on his millionaire, televangelist father-in-law’s show claiming “this is what God wants” Al-Masih agrees, but when he walks away from the appearance Iguera is again in confusion and despair.
When the story breaks that Al-Masih, by his own admission and hard evidence, is a mortal man, Iguera returns to his church and in what seems to be an act of lost faith he does indeed burn it down. This brings me to a question of our faith. If the true Messiah, Jesus, is not the literal Son of God, does that negate his message to the world? Does that mean Jesus was not God’s anointed? Is our belief in Jesus as God’s Word to the world based solely on our belief that he is the literal Son of God? Are we, am I, Pastor Iguera?
Are we Aviram, a hard-nosed, tormented, vengeful, often brutal Israeli agent, who is intent on catching Al-Masih and exposing him as a fraud? Aviram is unwavering in his purpose even as he is shaken by Al-Masih’s knowledge of his past bad acts. He flirts with belief yet remains hard-hearted. Not until he is facing imminent death and tormented by his sin, his “failure to choose goodness,” does Aviram say, “I’m sorry,” as the plane crashes. Are we Aviram — tormented with shame, hardened, and unable to accept God’s love?
Are we Eva Geller, the CIA agent, sparing with Aviram, and equally determined to debunk Al-Masih and uncover his real intent? Eva has issues. Her identity is in her work. She has a strained relationship with her father, grief and guilt over her late husband, is distraught over not being able to have children, and is sensitive about her mother and her Jewish heritage. In her own words to Aviram, “I am as messed up as you.” She too is shaken by Al-Masih’s knowledge of her past which further solidifies her efforts to find “the truth.” Even as she finds evidence of “the truth” of Al-Masih’s identity and suspects that the U. S. government shot down the plane carrying him back to Israel, she appears to continue to run from the truths of her personal life and emotional distress – she remains a lost soul. Are we Eva?
Yes, “Messiah” has spawned questions and controversy among viewers and critics. Of course, Christ, the Messiah, has stirred questions and controversy for centuries. Ultimately the question “Who is He?” is only answered by each of us individually in our own unique way based on our beliefs. In regard to the question, “Who are you/Who am I?” I am drawn to Al-Masih’s words, “How can you be the person God intended if you are not honest about who you are?” Honestly, answering that question is not easy. “Messiah” offers numerous character mirrors. Do we see ourselves in them, and what can we learn from them?
It is January 3, 2020, and I can’t seem to get started in this new year. Perhaps this is due to my still processing the last of 2019. I checked my sister out of the hospital on August 19, 2019 and took her to our family home (where our parents once lived) located on Big Cypress Bayou outside of Jefferson, TX. The plan was to spend about three weeks there caring for her as she recovered from a partial foot amputation. Unfortunately, the healing did not go as well as hoped and three weeks turned into three months!
Outside of her foot not healing and my missing my home and wife, who did come and stay a few days a couple of times, it was a different and mostly good three months for me. We visited, reminisced, watched television, and each had ample time to ourselves. I spent a lot of my free time on the porch rocking, reading, journaling, writing poetry, and simply watching in awe the natural world surrounding me. My journal entry from October 14th sheds a bit more light on the experience:
I’ve chopped and diced vegetables and the soup is simmering in the pot. It is marvelous sitting on the porch. The heat has finally – I hope – moved away and the cool air is welcomed. Actually, it is raining with a steady chorus of drops making their “pits, pats, plops” on the tin roof. Drips are becoming steady ropes of water running off the roof’s edge. The river is pelted and puckered with raindrops. The rain and gray sky meld to form a haze surrounding the trees across the water. Quite calming and restful!
Yet, I feel a bit anxious and unsettled. Perhaps ambivalence might be a more apt description. I have been here for almost two months caring for my sister following a partial foot amputation. The healing has not gone as well as hoped, and she is still under doctor’s orders to put no weight on the foot. I have kept busy with her care, meal preparations, laundry, cleaning, and mowing. I have pressure washed a 10’ X 60’ porch and the front of the house. I have dusted, vacuumed, or mopped everything in the house. I have cleaned and reorganized much of the huge pantry and the bedroom walk-in closet. I have taken down, washed, and replaced every curtain and drape in the house – at least all those that could be removed.
I have rewired and configured the TV antennae and cables. We now get 25+ channels instead of the previous eight to ten. And, yes, I must admit that I have watched more TV in the last two months than I have in the last two years. I have played too numerous to count solitaire games on my computer (no internet or cell service down here) to the point I believe the program is duplicating games. I have mowed two acres of grass sometimes going over the taller areas two to three times. I have used the weed eater trimming the tall grass on the riverbank until my elbow hurts.
I have made four trips home to Tyler for personal appointments and commitments and two trips to Henderson for doctor appointments. All totally about 1000 miles on the road. I just returned from three days at home catching up on paying bills, household concerns, and social and civic commitments.
Why the ambivalence? Using Brother Lawrence’s words, “to chop wood, and carry water” along with the quiet, serenity, and solitude of the surroundings seems to have precipitated some shift within my being as I feel more centered and settled. As I ponder on that for a bit, my thoughts return to my reading of October 3rd:
I find more and more the power—the dangerous power—of solitude working in me. The easiness of wide error. The power of one’s own inner ambivalence, the pull of inner contradictions. How little I know myself really. How weak and tepid I am. . . . Everything has meaning, dire meanings, in solitude. And one can easily lose it all in following the habits one has brought out of common life (the daily round). One has to start over and receive (in meekness) a new awareness of work, time, prayer, oneself. A new tempo—it has to be in one’s very system (and it is not in mine, I see).
And what I do not have I must pray for and wait for.
—from A Year with Thomas Merton: Daily Meditations from His Journals (October 25 and 30, 1965, V.309-10)
Perhaps therein lies the basis for my ambivalence. Perhaps I fear losing it all upon returning to “common life (my daily round).” Perhaps my 2020 is to be a time for “a new tempo.”