Singing a new story—God, Oakland, and hope amidst change

(The theme of the June 2013 Michigan Disciples of Christ Women’s Retreat was “Our Stories, God’s Story.” This was the sermon I offered on the last day of the retreat, after two days of workshops that invited us to go deeply in sharing our personal journeys, our connection to scripture, our experiences of being people on the margins and in the center, and issues of dignity for people of all races and orientations.)

 

My life flows on in endless song;

Above earth’s lamentation,

I hear the sweet, tho’ far-off hymn

That hails a new creation;

 

Thro’ all the tumult and the strife

I hear the music ringing;

It finds an echo in my soul—

How can I keep from singing?

 

My co-pastor at First Christian Church of Oakland, Tai Amri, might be one of five African American Quakers in the world. He also works in an after-school program and loves the elementary school kids there like you could not believe. One day he invited them to share their dreams, and he started it off by saying, “I dream one day that butterflies will come back to Oakland.”

And one of the kids replied, “That’s stupid. Everyone knows butterflies HATE Oakland.”

 

Sometimes it can be hard for Tai Amri to find a reason to sing, working with those kids. Sometimes it can be hard for us to find a reason to sing, right?

 

The song promises that though the sound is far-off, it hails a new creation. In Oakland, many young people have stopped believing any promises of a new creation–they’ve heard those promises before. And instead, they get inferior education, police harassment, imprisonment, and nowhere to live or work when they are released. Lifelong residents live in fear of break-ins and muggings. I have literally slept in the corridors of the church on a night after repeated break-ins, getting word out on the street that anyone who wants to break into the non-profits in our building will have to come through me.

 

I know there is hope in the ancient stories, but when I watch a police officer exonerated for shooting an innocent 18-year-old man, or when I drive down International Blvd. and see the girls waiting for the next john so that the man trafficking them can get more spending money, that hymn feels far off, indeed.

 

Oh though the tempest loudly roars,
I hear the truth, it liveth.
Oh though the darkness ’round me close,
Songs in the night it giveth.

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

 

In our personal lives, the tempest loudly roars, too, doesn’t it?  We’ve shared those stories with each other this weekend, haven’t we?

 

And darkness can feel like it is closing round us, too, sometimes. Just being on this planet amidst its flurried transformation–living through this era of radical change that occurs in the church every 500 years so that the church we grew up in is not the church we will grow old in–reminds us that the tempest loudly roars around us.

 

I imagine the darkness felt like it was closing around Robert Lowry when he wrote this song in 1860. It was written just months before Jefferson Davis would renounce his senate seat and declare himself president of the confederacy and we would engage in a war pitting brother against brother and challenging the myth of equality on which this nation claimed it was founded.

 

And yet, Robert Lowry proclaims that no storm can shake his inmost calm. The story he tells is a word of irreducible confidence in love as lord of heaven and earth, even knowing that things in the world were hard and getting harder. Robert Lowry knew the ancient story, and he knew it needed to be told in new ways for a community living in fear. Robert Lowry evoked so many of the stories of Jesus, where Jesus offered comfort to the grieving but also reminded them that they were not victims, that they had agency, that God’s love gave them a power that no oppressor nor even death could take away.

 

What tho’ my joys and comforts die?

The Lord my Saviour liveth;

What tho’ the darkness gather round?

Songs in the night he giveth.

 

No storm can shake my inmost calm

While to that refuge clinging;

Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,

How can I keep from singing?

 

In 1998, Rev. Dana Brown was hired as the director of music at Broadway United Methodist Church in Chicago, where Gregory Dell was Pastor. Greg was brought up on charges of defying church law by marrying two men in a ceremony. The church was battered with harassment and turmoil over the next six months, including three visits from anti-gay activist Fred Phelps, massive media attention, a lot of heartache, and finally a trial in which the guilty verdict turned into a one-year suspension from official ministry. Dana was interviewed after the verdict was announced. He expressed to the interviewer, fighting back tears, his sorrow at all those people—gay, straight or otherwise—who would not be able to benefit from Greg’s ministry while he was suspended. And then, and I am not sure whether he said this ironically or as a statement of rebellion, he muttered almost under his breath: ‘if love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?’

 

Civil rights and anti-war activist Pete Seeger added the following verse to Robert Lowry’s song as his own clenched fist in the air, promising himself and the world that there was still hope amidst all the struggles his generation of freedom fighters faced. Pete Seeger was determined to tell the ancient story in new ways.

 

When tyrants tremble in their fear
And hear their death knell ringing,
When friends rejoice both far and near
How can I keep from singing?

No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?

 

There is an ancient story that our community needs badly. But we have to tell that story in new ways for people to hear them–not stories with bravado and judgment and smugness, but stories like the ones we’ve shared with each other this weekend: stories of longing and healing, of vulnerability and glory.

 

I’ve mentioned that my ministry at First Christian Church of Oakland will come to an end soon–my last Sunday with them will be June 30. But neither my story nor theirs is at an end.

 

When Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, he was taking an ancient story of loving enemies and making it new, challenging and life-giving. When Robert Lowry wrote his famous song, he took an ancient story of God’s love and made it new for a people living on the precipice of a whole different world.

 

My story is the story of Israel’s liberation from captivity, but it is retold as the story of working with youth to end violence and create jobs and restore clean air—and maybe even butterflies—to the city of Oakland.

 

My co-pastor’s story is the story of God’s rainbow covenant with all of humanity to protect them, but it is retold the story of loving on little children who do not think they are worthy of love and teaching them how to love each other.

 

My congregation’s story is the story of the Prince of Peace coming to earth for our salvation, but it is re-told as having given birth to the Oakland Peace Center, a space that is creating peace in the midst of violence, restoring hope and dignity to the citizens of a beleaguered city.

 

Our stories are ancient and they are told in new ways. And they are the stories of God building up God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven. So what will your story be?

 

I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;

I see the blue above it;

And day by day this pathway smooths,

Since first I learned to love it;

 

The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,

A fountain ever springing;

All things are mine since I am his—

How can I keep from singing?

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