The year is 1940.
Hitler has begun his quest towards trying to conquer Europe and systematically eliminate the Jews.
Stalin is squarely poised to spread his brand of communism throughout Western Europe and Asia. Apartheid is taking hold in South Africa.
Ghana is suffering from resource extraction.
Jamaica is crushed under Britain’s heel,
and Fisk University professor John Wesley Work III is arranging what will become a world renowned Negro Spiritual, “Lord I’m Out Here On Your Word.”
Oh I’m out here on his word
my soul been anchored in his name
Out here on his word
Say must Jesus bear this cross alone
Say there’s a cross for everyone and
There’s a cross for me
I’m praying on God’s word
Church I’m praying on his word
my soul been anchored in Jesus name
Out here on his word
In 1940 Professor Work found himself confronting a country at the brink of going to war. But, more importantly, he found himself trying to educate young Blacks on how to survive in a racist country. Work understood that an “educated Negro” had a social advantage over an uneducated one; but he intimately understood that one’s education means nothing when your very life is at stake.
Despite the immense social challenges that African-Americans faced in 1940, Work did not give his students words of cowardliness.
He did not give them words of retreat.
He did not give them words of compromise, but he gave them words of conviction and power.
I’m not only praying on God’s word, I’m out here – wherever here is – on his word. Dependent, grateful and strengthened by God’s promises.
Work is actually lifting up the idea of a ‘canon’ within a canon that might bring us strength, vision, and courage for our walk of faith?
Maybe our ‘canon’ has the words of that lyrical poet / psalmist as he said, “The Lord is My Shepherd.”
Maybe our ‘canon’ has the words of that prophet who said, “The joy of the Lord is my Strength.”
Or maybe it is the phrase we sang earlier – “to seek justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our Lord.”
One of the great spiritual exercises for each of us would be to explore
- a) not only what that canon is for us, but also
- b) where it has come from? What were the circumstances that gave rise to the need? Who were the faithful friends who helped us discover, learn or remember our ‘canon?’
And furthermore – when and where have we had to draw upon or depend upon that canon? My experience is that different settings evoke different ‘words’ for me
- As I wait for an inmate to come to the visiting area in a jail or prison – when so much of me feels claustrophobic and constrained, I try to remember, “Christ Surround Me, Christ Surround Me.”
- Entering a coffee shop or a home when I know there is a difficult conversation to be had, I’m prone to pray, “Spirit be near.”
- Leaving my office as I head towards the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, I often whisper to myself, “God draw close.”
- Pushing the elevator button as I entered both residences where my parents lived at the end of their lives – uncertain what I would find when I greet them just a few minutes later, I would try to remember, “Peace I give unto you.”
- Returning to bed after waking up from a bad dream or a nightmare, or when I’ve simply had so much on my mind that I can’t sleep? “Breathe, breathe, breathe”
No story is a new story, but the stories of our lives are profound because they are new to us. What I appreciate about this story about John Wesley Work and his spiritual is the reminder others have walked our path before us. Others have faced the dilemma or the challenge or the anxiety we are facing. Others have felt defeated, confused, or uncertain. Whatever our ‘canon’ is – its roots usually began with someone else’s story – a story we read, a story we’ve sung, or a prayer we inherited. From their story and their experience to our story and our time. No story is a new story but it is made lighter as we hold it with those who’ve gone before us.
Among the faces of faith and the stories worth knowing in our ‘canon’ is today’s text from the 6th chapter of the book of Acts, the story of the growth of the Jesus Movement. 6 chapters in and already, the church is engaged in serious struggle and disagreement.
What we see is a conflict between what the text calls Hellenists (those Christ following Jews from the diaspora) and the Hebrews (Aramaic speaking, Christ following Jews). Cultural differences and group competition are causing conflict. The issue is the care of the needy, the widows, the orphans and who is going to attend to this. The logical solution is the creation of the first deacon board – 7 Greek speaking Hellenist Jewish Christians who will bring food to those in need. Among this group is Stephen.
Ironically, a second struggle emerges because Stephen appears to do his job so well that he makes others jealous. (As noted, no story is a new story!) We are told that he did great wonders and signs among the people, and even though his wisdom was over powering and obviously born of the Holy Spirit, another group of Jews seeks to falsify charges against him and have him brought before the council for blasphemy. This struggle ultimately turns tragic as Stephen is stoned to death.
It is a tragic story in the life of the early church…revealing the violent tendency of humanity. We don’t have many details. I find it amazing that our sacred text shares the dirty laundry of the early church over and over again. Because for all the faith of Stephen, the rest of the church doesn’t come off too well.
And yet, here is Stephen, in the middle of it all, seeking to break the cycle. Stephen stands out as one who is:
Centered in his faith
Acting in charity
Faithful and strong in the face of opposition
Dependent and trusting of his God
And in his most difficult moment, Stephen stands out for the ‘word out in the world.’ Two of them, actually. Jesus, take my life and Jesus, don’t blame them for this sin. Forgive them.
Few of us may be asked to give our life for our faith, but all of us can learn from this one who’s faith remained clear in a time of intense conflict and pain. His ‘canon within a canon’ is not only comforting; it is a word or a canon that wards off the power of violence to consume him as it has consumed his fellow Jews. Stephen loses his life, his story remains as a reminder that it is possible for the cycle of violence to be resisted.
Its import to us includes the reminder that such resistance lives on in both the immediate context and the long-term memory of people of faith. In addition, it repeats the truth the stories of violence and conflict will always dominate, but even so, the ‘word out there’ – the word of comfort, love and strength lifts up in another, love-filled way.
The survival of love and compassion depends on us remembering these ‘words’ and the often-overlooked lives of the saints before us.
I first met Sr. Rose Tillemans while taking one of my first courses of seminary – Contemplative Living and Listening. Rose is what I would call a renegade Catholic sister. Through humorous poetry and writing she quietly rebelled against what she believed to be the remarkable audacity of the Roman church to forbid women to become priests. But like Stephen, Rose acted in Christian charity in simple and direct ways. She opened the “Peace House” – place of worship and conversation for homeless folks in the poorest part of Mpls. When she opened the Center, she encountered great resistance from a nearby Dairy Queen and apartment landlords, who said she would bring “unwanted elements” to their environs. Rose was simply trying to proclaim God’s love for those most neglected in our urban centers – homeless men and women, many of whom suffer from mental illness. She also provided a place for others to come and join her in offering a peaceful place. Folks brought music, art, conversation and their simple, caring presence. It was a very humble place, run on a shoestring budget by a humble but faithful woman.
For her, standing on God’s word out here really consisted of two words.
In the face of all sorts of threats and challenges, Rose remained clear that it is a God of compassion, justice and mercy that she served. Her strength came not from social acceptance, but from the God of laughter, inclusivity and hospitality.
So, one question our texts invites us to consider is, ‘what is the Word for you out here in the world?’
Likewise, it could be that one of the most important questions we can ask or encourage of one another is ‘what word do you hold in your heart?’ or ‘how has that ‘word’ changed over time?
One of the overlooked aspects of Acts 7 is that as Stephen was being stoned, the author offers a bit of foreshadowing – noting that Saul (later to become Paul) was not only present but approved of Stephen’s killing. This not only sets the stage for more persecution of Christians to come, but also, we must believe, sets the stage for the conversion of one of the greatest persecutors of all time to become one of the greatest proponents of the Christian faith. Another way to frame it is to see that Stephen’s bold faith planted a seed.
A poem that I cherish is titled, “I will not die an unlived life” by Dawna Markova. What I love about this poem is it’s reminder that choosing to live a life of faithful integrity and passion, choosing to resist violence with love, or the transgressions of others with forgiveness is also part of the way we feed and are fed by community. In being our best selves, in remembering our sacredness and the path compassion we know Jesus modeled (despite what so much of the church has done and continues to do), we are planting seeds and bearing fruit as a community.
I will not die an unlived life
I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.
May it be so.