What do you
do when the waves are high, the boat is leaking, there is no land in sight, and
you don't know how to swim? There are many examples in mythology and in history
of persons in just such a predicament.
We all know the story of Noah.
Here was a guy who didn't live in Southern Indiana where it rained every time
he wanted to play golf. In fact, this guy lived in a land where, the story goes,
it had never rained at all. Not so much as a drop. Then he hears this voice telling
him to build a boat cause its going to come a toad-stranglin', basement floodin'
downpour the likes of which he had literally never seen before. Now, skip all
the logical arguments that make this story hard to sign onto, and fast forward
the tape to the point where this old geezer is sitting in this big smelly boat
surrounded by two of every kind of beast imaginable, wondering how long he is
going to be able to persuade the lions not to eat the last of the lambs, or keep
his children from swatting the mosquito into extinction, and at the same time
trying to convince his wife of however many years that this houseboat is better
than the condo they could have had on the water front.
Here is the epitome
of the hopeful person. He sends out a dove. I really don't think he had much reason
for optimism after forty days and nights of raining like, as they used to say
down home, a cow peeing on a flat rock. But I want to tell you, there is nothing
like darkness to make you hope for the light. Noah would never have truly appreciated
the rainbow had he not spent time in the dark bowels of his ship. True hope is
born in the darkest hours.
I hope to provide you with some reasons for
being a hopeful person. I didn't say optimistic, I said hopeful. Optimism, you
see, requires too much figuring, too much knowledge, too much explanation. In
order to be an optimist, Noah would have needed some evidence, some reason to
believe that there was dry land out there, and I am just not sure he remembered
his Rand McNally Atlas, and I am quite sure he did not have a "Triple A"
vacation planner. Nor is there any reason to believe that he was an experienced
sailor accustomed to looking for safe harbors. Nope, he was just hopeful that
this little bird would one day not return, indicating that there was a place to
A Carthusian monk from the 11th century wrote, "The darkness
of the future is the necessary space for the exercise of our faith."
hope begins by a conscious choice to have faith in something-an idea, a teacher,
a saint, a religion, a prayer, a friend, a lover-whatever, whomever, something
noble is taken into our lives and that practice of faith brings hope. If that
object or subject of faith does not sustain one through a flood, an earthquake,
a prison cell, a terrorist attack, or a senseless war, it is not big enough, true
enough, and we need to seek another.
Of course it is easy to write off Noah,
unless you happen to believe that the whole Bible is an historical record. It
is, of course, an historical record in some sense, that is, a record of both history
and myth. But mythological figures do not carry the same weight with some of us
as persons we believe to have actually lived on the same rock and struggled with
the same existence as we have.
Let us look to more recent times, those un-mythical
days of slavery in America. Surely the bowels of Noah's boat cannot have been
any more suffocating, more nauseating, than the bowels of those ships bearing
human beings shackled together in darkness and deprivation. And those who survived
the journey found no respite from their living hell, yet there are the voices
of hope that abound in the volumes of spirituals which still inspire our hearts
and minds to this day.
Shipped from the so-called Dark Continent to the Darker
Continent of injustice and slavery, many of those women and men found strength
in their ability to hope, and that hope is reflected in those beautiful songs,
coded to avoid detection; songs which reminded them, as they went about the back-breaking
work in the fields, that there were those who struggled to be free and lived to
see it. Follow the Drinking Gourd was one of those songs.
Explanation of "Follow the Drinking Gourd" from http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/ltc/special/mlk/gourd2.html
The song and its translation are as follows:When the sun comes back and the first
quail calls,Follow the drinking gourd.For the old man is awaiting for to carry
you to freedom,If you follow the drinking gourd."When the sun comes back"
means winter and spring when the altitude of the sun at noon is higher each day.
Quail are migratory bird wintering in the South. The Drinking Gourd is the Big
Dipper. The old man is Peg Leg Joe. The verse tells slaves to leave in the winter
and walk towards the Drinking Gourd. Eventually they will meet a guide who will
escort them for the remainder of the trip. Most escapees had to cross the Ohio
River which is too wide and too swift to swim. The Railroad struggled with the
problem of how to get escapees across, and with experience, came to believe the
best crossing time was winter. Then the river was frozen, and escapees could walk
across on the ice. Since it took most escapees a year to travel from the South
to the Ohio, the Railroad urged slaves to start their trip in winter in order
to be at the Ohio the next winter. The riverbank makes a very good road,The dead
trees show you the way,Left foot, peg foot, traveling onFollow the drinking gourd.This
verse taught slaves to follow the bank of the Tombigbee River north looking for
dead trees that were marked with drawings of a left foot and a peg foot. The markings
distinguished the Tombigbee from other north-south rivers that flow into it.The
river ends between two hills,Follow the drinking gourd.There's another river on
the other side,Follow the drinking gourd.These words told the slaves that when
they reached the headwaters of the Tombigbee, they were to continue north over
the hills until they met another river. Then they were to travel north along the
new river which is the Tennessee River. A number of the southern escape routes
converged on the Tennessee. Where the great big river meets the little river,Follow
the Drinking Gourd.For the old man is a-waiting to carry you to freedom If you
follow the Drinking Gourd.This verse told the slaves the Tennessee joined another
river. They were to cross that river (which is the Ohio River), and on the north
bank, meet a guide from the Underground Railroad.Follow the Drinking Gourd Follow
the drinking gourd!Follow the drinking gourd.For the old man is awaiting for to
carry you to freedomIf you follow the drinking gourd.When the sun comes back and
the first quail calls,Follow the drinking gourd, For the old man is awaiting for
to carry you to freedomIf you follow the drinking gourd.The riverbank makes a
very good road,The dead trees will show you the way,Left foot, peg foot traveling
on,Following the drinking gourd.The river ends between two hills,Follow the drinking
gourd,There's another river on the other side,Follow the drinking gourd.Where
the great big river meets the little river,Follow the drinking gourd,The old man
is awaiting for to carry you to freedomIf you follow the drinking gourdThe sheet
music can be found here: http://www.madison.k12.wi.us/planetarium/ftdgsong.pdf
Courtesy of NASA Quest Learning Technologies Channel
is important to understand that not everyone who followed the drinking gourd made
it to the northland. Not all of them crossed the Ohio. Many were caught, brought
back in shackles, and beaten as a lesson to others. But the lesson didn't take.
The lesson didn't stop the singing, didn't stop the following.
Let me jump
to the twentieth century and look at the life of a
man who received honorable
mention in last week's message: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here was a man who spent
the last two years of his life in Gestapo concentration camps, and was hanged
just a few days before the arrival of allied forces. Bonhoeffer's last weeks were
spent with prisoners drawn from all over Europe. Among them was Payne Best, an
English officer. He wrote the following: "Bonhoeffer was all humility and
sweetness; he always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy
in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that
he was alive
. He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom
God was real and close."
"Sunday 8th April, Pastor Bonhoeffer held
a little service and spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all,
finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the
thought and resolutions which it brought. He had hardly finished his last prayer
when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes cam in and said:
"Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us." Those words "come
with us"-for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only-the scaffold.
We bade him good-bye-he drew me aside-"This is the end," he said. "For
me the beginning of life". The next day he was hanged at Flossenburg.
I relate to you the story of Bonhoeffer because I believe that his hope was the
same as those black slaves in America, and I believe that deep down they all know
that freedom was theirs regardless of whether they crossed the Ohio river or the
river Jordan; because they chose to be free, they were free. Bonhoeffer, once
said, "The beyond is not what is infinitely remote, but what is nearest at
hand." What was his faith? What was his hope? He was thoroughly Christian
to be sure, but he was thoroughly a humanist as well. In his Letters and Papers
from Prison, he quotes a verse from Storm, whom I do not know but am pursuing;
the verse reads:
"And however crazy, or Christian, or unchristian things
may be outside, this world, this beautiful world is quite indestructible."
is a faith that can bring me hope. No matter how dark the skies, the rainbow is
going to return; we take our selves and our times too seriously when we cannot
Another fragment of thought from Bonhoeffer, which I think would
have found a place of lodging in the heart of the singers of the spirituals, is
this: "Death is the extreme festival on the road to freedom."
for those of us who are looking for hope, let us be honest about where we are;
let us be honest about how we are; let us be honest about who we are.
sure we live in dangerous times, but there is really no evidence that they are
any more dangerous than any other time. In fact, for the most of us, these times
are not significantly dangerous at all. We are much more likely to die of cancer,
or heart failure, or auto accident than to be hanged from a limb or a scaffold,
or to be the victim of a terrorist's attack. We are much safer than our sons and
daughters in Iraq, and the sons and daughters of Iraqis.
We, that is, we Americans
of the middle class and up, are enslaved only by our own fears. How do we get
free? How do we find hope for tomorrow?
Well, I do get a lot of hope from songs
of freedom. I do get a lot of hope from the lives of a people like Bonhoeffer,
Dorothy Day, the Berrigans, or any number of others whose lives give witness to
hope born of faith in God, or humanity.
But, I have to be honest with you,
most of my faith, most of my hope, comes from far more common, more humble sources.
My faith comes from family, friends and community. I mean this community, I mean
these friends, and I mean the human family, but also my own family.
give you a simple example
maybe two or three. Last Monday Glenda and I celebrated
our 35th anniversary with our son, our daughter, our son-in-law, and our grandson.
Denise and Glen came out early in the day and so were there as we were preparing
dinner. Denise was reading to Glen. It was not a very sentimental story like I
Will Love You Forever, which I cannot read alone without crying. No, it was a
silly book, a very silly book, entitled Airmail to the Moon, by Tom Birdseye,
having to do with a little hillbilly girl who thought someone had stolen her tooth.
was doing pretty good listening to her read to Glen as I chopped up onions for
the soup. I was into the story, laughing, Ora Mae Cotton was upset that someone
had stolen her tooth:
"That did it," Ora Mae continued, "I was
so mad I was ready to scream. Nobody really knew what the tooth fairy was up to.
Nobody was a bit of help. And nobody was the lop-eared rascal that stole my tooth.
I was just about to pop my cork clean out of Crabapple Orchard. That's how mad
"But instead, I just stood there looking at my upside down sister,
and I started crying-loud and long, big tears streaming down my face tasting like
I didn't want to cry. I just couldn't stop.
Now we Cottons banter,
shout, squabble, and argue at one another a fair amount-just like any self-respecting
family. But if it ever comes to a Cotton bawling real tears of grief, the rest
come running to help hey-ho-howdy in a flash. Dadaw, Mama, Bo Dean, Kelsy Ann,
and even my pesky little neighbor Merrietta Bean were all at my side in five seconds
That's when I lost it.
Glenda asked, "Are you crying?" I tried to say it was just the damn
onions as I headed off to the bathroom sobbing like Ora Mae Cotton. But it wuddin'
the onions. It was the words of Ora Mae, and the knowledge that my hope for the
future arises not from the platforms of political parties, not from platitudes,
nor promises of the great and mighty. My hope springs anew every time I witness
the love of families and friends and communities of people who will come running
to help hey-ho-howdy in a flash when someone is in need.
Hope comes from incredible
acts of kindness. The kindness of young parents in dealing with their sometimes-difficult
children touches me deeply, and I thank you young parents, and even older parents
of this community in whom I have seen some wonderful acts of kindness.
we struggle in this culture, our culture, which seems to be losing the struggle
to maintain decency and civility, let us fix our eyes upon a constant. The Drinking
Gourd, that pointer to the North Star was always there in the winter skies for
those wandering sojourners to follow. May I suggest to you that there is a constant
that will not fail you in your journey to wholeness and will provide you with
hope? That constant is kindness. I mean the practice of kindness. You have no
control over what others do, but you may practice kindness.
Jesus taught his
followers to pray for those who persecuted them, to return good for evil, thereby
heaping coals of fire upon the heads of those who would do otherwise.
suspect some have heard of the story of Larry Trapp, a Klan leader in Lincoln
Nebraska who harassed the family of Cantor Michael Wiesser. Upon learning from
the police that the harassment and threats were coming from Trapp, Mr. Weisser
called him and said, "I understand that you are in a wheel chair and might
need some help, I was wondering if I might be of assistance." It didn't work
over night, but his persistent kindness won the heart of Larry Trapp who renounced
the Klan, joined the NAACP and worked for racial equality and reconciliation.
The Weisser family cared for Trapp during the last months of his life. He had
been abused as a child, neglected, deemed unworthy of love, but the Weisser loved
him in to existence.
There are those who say that peace is a dream, but
I say that war is a nightmare, and I will choose to awake to the daydream of peace
over hunkering down in the fearful fits of nightmares born of war and hostility.
mean for this discipline of kindness to be a part of my life every day. You may
not have control over the actions of others, but you have a choice about your
own. Please do not misunderstand, I do not counsel persons to stay in abusive
relationships, but I do counsel them to choose not to hate, and to choose to be
something other than that which they abhor.
I ask you this morning to remember
where your hope is born. I received an e-mail this week regarding a mother in
our community who wanted someone to address the issue of toy guns because she
didn't want her children to play with them, and yet guns are so much a part of
our culture that she wondered if she could counter the influence of toy guns everywhere.
I find hope in the very fact that there are mothers and fathers who are struggling
with the question.
So, let's do something unplanned this morning. Let's change
the closing hymn. Let's sing a spiritual that is one of hope. Harriet Tubman's
favorite song was about the Underground Railroad. It was coded as was the Drinking
Gourd, but you don't need my help to understand it: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
it ain't no sign shame to admit that we have fear. We may not have it as bad as
Noah, or Harriet Tubman, or Dietrich Bonheoffer. But there are times when we have
it bad enough. As we face an uncertain future together, let us sing this song
like we really mean it. Carry me home to a land where all of God's children know
that when they are in troubled waters, when they cry real tears of grief, there
are those who will come running to help hey-ho-howdy in a flash to lift them up.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and carry us out of this prison of fear into a home of
true security found only in communities of loving people willing to share their
blessings as well as their burdens.
I believe, I really do believe, there's
a chariot coming.