This past week I heard the Reverend Traci Blackmon speak at Boston University. She was there to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and was talking about the need for us to continue to do the work of justice that King was engaged in, particularly in his later years, and to do so with passion and courage.
But probably the moment that most gripped me wasn’t in the talk itself, but a trail from her own life she followed during the Q and A at the end. She was talking about how she ended up where she is today, a national voice for faith and justice, flying around the country, giving speeches this week.
And the story started maybe just 10 or 12 years ago, when she was a nurse who was also training to become a pastor. This was complicated by the fact that she was also a divorced mother of three school-aged children. As a single mom, a divorcee, a woman of color in St. Louis, she didn’t have a lot of give in her life in terms of time or money, or much of anything.
And there was this church with a vacancy for a pastor. It was out of her networks, but she drove by it every day – pretty big building, a historic church, and she had this strong sense that she should apply for the position. She thought this sense came from God, and maybe this would be a great job – a big church that could pay her full-time, so she wouldn’t have to keep working multiple jobs. Everything would work out. But she didn’t apply. And when she heard that someone else got the job, she felt terribly guilty, that she had ignored God’s voice. So she promised Jesus, I’m saying yes to anything from now on.
And the next day, she heard the person they had chosen for the job backed out. So she applied. And within a pretty quick period of time, they offered her the position. Thing was, she hadn’t visited yet on a Sunday. So she said, let me come to worship at the church, anonymously, no one needs to know who I am, before I decide whether or not to take the position.
The committee said fine, and she showed up on Sunday… and there were 12 people there for worship. 12. And she thought, my God, no, I can not come be the pastor of a church of 12 people. That is not going to work out for me and my family.
But she had made that promise to God, so she took the position. She had to keep working multiple jobs at that point, but since there wasn’t a lot to do pastoring a church of 12 people, she had time and energy to do stuff beyond the walls of the church. And one of the things she did was make it known to the neighborhood that anyone who needed a funeral could use their church building, and if they didn’t have a pastor, she’d be their pastor for it.
And one day, she met a family whose child had died, and she performed the funeral, and one of the ushers at the church gave Pastor Traci’s card to a woman who was a guest at the funeral, a friend of the young man who’d been killed.
For nearly a year after that funeral, she never called, but she kept that card with her until one day, she was one of the first people on the scene at the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. And she called Pastor Traci from the street that day and said we need you here.
Which is how Traci Blackmon ended up as the first pastor on the scene. Which is what propelled her to a position of leadership in the protests and activism that summer and fall four years ago, which in turn has led to all manner of opportunities for Pastor Traci to grow and work out of her passions for faith and justice, throughout St. Louis, and now throughout the country.
It started with a vulnerable person finding courage to say yes to God, even where that yes brushed up against this 12-person church that couldn’t provide for her and her children.
Courage: the virtue of virtues
The next few weeks we’re going to talk about courage and passion. As I pray for you all, over the past year, more and more I find myself praying for God to fill us with courage.
Courage has been considered one of the four primary virtues back to Aristotle (along with wisdom, temperance and justice). In the early Christian tradition, faith, hope and love were added to these, making courage one of 7 Christian virtues.
Sometimes courage has been seen as only the terrain of the brave or the strong (Greeks primarily thought of courage, for instance, when they thought about warriors.) But this isn’t right. Courage is more central thank that. (Without courage – fullness of heart – it’s hard to practice any of these virtues consistently or to practice them in hard times.) And I wonder sometimes if courage isn’t — with the help and strength of God — hiding right alongside our great weakness.
So for the next few weeks, Ivy and Lydia and I are going to retell some of the Old Testament’s, the Hebrew scriptures’ stories of passion and courage – some famous ones perhaps and some not so famous ones. And we’re going to tell you some other stories too and see what it is that people find in God that helps stir and activate great courage.
Gideon the… weak
Today we’re going to start with a story I love: the story of an unlikely leader named Gideon. It’s found in Judges, which is a collection of dark, violent, and mean stories from Israel’s tribal years. And so before I even read the excerpts from the start of the tale, I’ll warn you, it’s a story of violence. (So a heads up to parents and everybody, I suppose – in both the Gideon story and in another story I tell, there will be some violent turns.)
So with Gideon, Judges 6-8, first, it’s a tale of the violence being done to Israel by Midian – they are terrorized.
Then, when Gideon and Israel triumph over Midian in war, and they take Midian’s place as the conquerors, they act more or less the same – equally violent in their revenge.
And so, by the end of the three chapter long tale of Gideon, Israel returns to where they started, not really much better or worse off. Much as people from the ancients to us today think violence is going to fix violence, it never does. And Judges is no exception.
But as I read some parts of the beginning of this story, keep your ear out for something else, how this isn’t just a story of violence, but a story of fear and of courage.
Judges 6:11-16, 25-27, 34 (NRSV)
11Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. 12 The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” 13 Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 Then the Lord turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” 15 He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” 16 The Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”
Do you hear the fear here? Israel is afraid because of their economic insecurity, their lack, and their problems.
And Gideon is the very image of that fear and insecurity: he’s working in hiding — the winepress, which was the technology of delight turned into the technology of survival and the only safe place to harvest wheat without it being stolen. And then Gideon is the least in a family that is least in the clans of the “least” of the youngest child of Jacob – the bottom of the bottom of the bottom, in his own eyes.
So what does God, or God’s messenger, have to say to all that? The messenger says, God is with you, you mighty warrior. I used to read this as God seeing more in Gideon than he can see in himself. This is what so many mentors did for me when I was a young man, to see more in me than I could see. And maybe this is so, God calling out the inner warrior in Gideon, the person of deep courage that he really is.
But more and more, I wonder if God doesn’t just see us as the weak and flawed things that we are and say, that’s OK, totally good enough, because I am with you. I wonder actually if the messenger is teasing Gideon a little, in an affectionate way. Hey, little guy, youngest of this not very impressive family, so scared you’re doing your chores in hiding, you mighty warrior you, it’s OK. You can have courage because I am with you. You don’t need anything else. That’s what the messenger keeps saying after all: you’ve got a job to do, and I’ll be with you.
God’s made peace with all that Gideon is and isn’t. And Gideon can have courage not because he’s all that, but because God is with him.
Let’s read a little more.
In the part we skip, Gideon is afraid this call isn’t from God and asks for a sign. Just because he’s stepping toward courage doesn’t mean he’s suddenly not afraid. Then when he realizes he’s encountering God, he’s afraid in a whole different way – ah, my God. And he’s told: don’t be afraid, have peace. (So Gideon builds an altar and names it “The Lord is Peace”.)
Later, when it’s time for Gideon to lead people into battle, he’ll only go after designing an elaborate test for God and even after that, God says, Go, but if you’re still afraid, sneak into your enemy’s camp. There, Gideon hears their fear, and only then takes action.
The battle itself is a study in the power of weakness and fear – Gideon’s army is reduced in size to the point of absurdity, so they will know they depend on God’s strength, and then they “fight” with trumpets, candles and empty jars – using fear to rout their enemies.
We’ll read on, though, to the first courageous thing Gideon has to do, before any battling.
25 That night the Lord said to him, “Take your father’s bull, the second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal that belongs to your father, and cut down the sacred pole that is beside it; 26 and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of the stronghold here, in proper order; then take the second bull, and offer it as a burnt offering with the wood of the sacred pole that you shall cut down.” 27 So Gideon took ten of his servants, and did as the Lord had told him; but because he was too afraid of his family and the townspeople to do it by day, he did it by night.
34 But the spirit of the Lord took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him.
At the beginning of this battle story, and popping up again later in it, there’s this sub-plot of idolatry: who Gideon and his family and clan worship is as important as their freedom and economic flourishing. Seems like an odd element to the story, unless we realize that it’s their awareness of the living God’s presence with them that’s going to give them courage, and that idolatry – the devotion to other gods or other things – is itself a story of fear.
The gods in this story are Asherah, the Ugartic mother goddess, and Baal, the next-generation supreme Canaanite fertility god.
Archaeologists find evidence of these idols everywhere in ancient Israel. They were really, really common, as if most houses, even after they were part of a community that worships the God of Israel, kept around an idol to Asherah too, just to hedge their bets.
Idols were born out of fear – you cover yourself by honoring many gods to make sure you have kids that live past childhood and a harvest that can feed your family.
I’ve read that idol construction went up when threats of war were on the horizon, as people in their fear and awareness of their own vulnerability, reached out to more and more gods to protect them.
In Gideon’s case, his fearful family worships Baal, and Gideon is called to help them lean into the God of Israel instead.
Gideon does this and is nick-named the Baal-fighter. And that’s when he’s available to the Spirit of God: weak, vulnerable, aware of his own fear, he trusts God is with him; and God is, stirring him to courage.
Ironically, later in life, Gideon – installed as a leader of his tribe – taxes the people of their gold, himself makes a golden image of his authority for people’s security, and his children return to Baal worship – the cycle of fear and distance from God continues on to the next generation.
Before that happens, though, I think there’s some stuff for us here.
Do you hear it?
Our vulnerability that we’re so desperate to eliminate or avoid is not our enemy. God’s made peace with all our weaknesses. It’s OK. The stuff of our lives, as they are, is enough for God to be alive and at work in. Reality is God’s friend.
In fact, the seeds of our passion are often found in our weakness and pain.
And our pain, our limits, our weakness, and an awareness of God’s presence can lead to great courage.
And maybe one more here, bonus round. For those of us trying to figure out where our passion will be found, what we should be investing our time and skills and heart into:
Maybe we don’t have to go looking for our life’s work; it has already come looking for us. It’s there to be found in the circumstances and needs of our lives, even sometimes in our own pain and weakness.
This reminds me of the story of one of America’s great, great citizens.
Ida Wells’s story
The New York Times recently has been running a series of obituaries for people who have long been dead.
You see, they realized that in remembering the deaths of great and famous people, they’ve played right along with the patriarchy and white supremacy of our country’s past. So they’ve been trying to make up for lost time, and publish the obituaries of great women generally, and great women of color, in particular. And of them was the obituary of the pioneering American journalist, Ida Wells.
Wells was born in Mississippi in the 1860s poorer than poor. Her family literally owned nothing. Circumstances improved modestly in her childhood, but when she was a teenager, both her parents and one of her siblings died of yellow fever. Ida was the oldest, at 16, and so she and the rest of her brothers and sisters were going to be split up and sent to foster homes. Desperate to keep her remaining family together, though, at 16 Ida found work as an elementary school teacher, and tag-teamed with one of her grandmothers to take care of her little brothers and sisters.
A couple of years later, Wells pulled a Rosa Parks on a train, long before there was a Rosa Parks, and when she was forced out of the segregated train car anyway, she won $500 in an anti-discrimination law suit. In the 1800s.
The decision was reversed by a higher court, though, and Ida Wells, a woman of great faith in God, cried out with words that could easily have been on the mouth of Gideon as well. She said:
I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people…O God, is there no… justice in this land for us?
Things got worse before they got better, though. When she was 25, I believe, she was working as a journalist , not a teacher anymore, and a good friend of hers, Thomas Moss, was an entrepreneur. In Memphis, Tennessee, he’d opened up a Black-owned grocery store. And Ida Wells was such a good friend of the family, she was the godparent to Thomas Moss’ first child.
But White people in Memphis were so jealous of his success, that they invented charges against him, he was arrested and then lynched by a mob. Wells was devastated, of course. She wrote that there was nothing left for Black men and women in her community but to save up their money, and get out of towns that wouldn’t protect their persons or their property.
And after all she’d been through, we’d understand if Ida Wells had withdrawn someplace quiet and safe. By her mid-20s, she’d been through so much in life already, so much to challenge her safety and her flourishing and her faith in God. It’d be understandable if she gave up.
But instead, she found her life’s work. She found her passion.
Wells became one of our country’s first investigative journalists and forensic reporters, writing detailed, fact-based, highly researched accounts of White America’s lynching of Black Americans.
Today’s investigative journalists continue to use skills and techniques developed and honed by Wells in her work. In part because of her leadership, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced into Congress during and after her lifetime. None were passed in the Senate, because powerful blocs of White democrats resisted, but the word was out. The nation knew.
And this was one of the fires that simmered and created the passion and strength that gave birth to the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, and our ongoing efforts for justice and flourishing for all peoples today.
Wells found her life’s work in the painful circumstances of her own story. And she found her courage, best as we can tell, in her deep and abiding faith in the God who was with her in person of Jesus.
Finding your life mission
What is your life’s work? What are you passionate about? What part of that, I wonder, is still hiding in your own vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and fears?
My own life mission is to help people and communities flourish. And for me, faith in Jesus, and education have been big parts of that. But this year, I’ve been looking for some new vision and direction in my life and work, and that’s brought me back to doing a lot of inner work this year: deep patterns of daily prayer and reflection and journal writing, regular therapy too. And all that’s taken me back first to some of my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, places I’d really rather not go.
But my therapist has had this interesting line she uses when talk about a block or struggle or weakness in my life. She’ll ask, Can you make peace with that? Can you turn off the critic, the inner judge, and be compassionate toward yourself? Knowing my faith, she’ll ask, What does the part of you that is one with God see in yourself?
And she asks this because she knows the part of me that is one with God sees what God sees: a man who even though I still have parts of me that are weak and vulnerable, is absolutely loved and treasured and delighted in. A person that may not be enough, but because God is with me, has more than enough, for everything I’m called to. More than enough, with the God who is with me.
Like me, like Gideon, I suspect that no matter how purposeful or purposeless you feel, most of your life’s work is already part of your life. It’s hiding in the challenges of your circumstances, the public things of the world that cause you pain or frustration, the longings and desires and needs you already know.
And I’m quite confident that when God looks at your limitations and vulnerabilities, even when God looks at your fears and anxieties and insecurities, God sees a kid that God loves. God sees you and says I am with you, you mighty warrior. You have all that I am, so you have more than enough.
Can you see this yet?
I want to give you three simple ways to see this more. And I suspect that for those of you that try this in the week to come, some of you are going to get something small but really good.
Some of you are going to find strength to do one courageous thing you need to do or want to do and that’s going to bring you and maybe someone else joy.
But maybe, just maybe, some of us are going to find some of our life’s work here, and the courage to go after it. Are you ready? Here are today’s closing invitations:
Self-acceptance is part of God’s self-transcendence. Make peace with your weakness. God already has.
Ask what one courageous next step God is leading you to take in your personal life.
Ask God for strength to see it through every single day until it is complete.