Miss Aretha

She sang the songs and the seasons of my life as we grew up together. We danced to “Aretha” at our wedding reception, always pausing to recite the letters, as if dancing would make us misspell RESPECT. This anthem of hers, along with making us “feel like a natural woman,” reminded us we were always due respect and to settle for nothing less.

We lost weight together. Nothing new about vinegar and honey. We gained weight together. I guess we forget to check on each other. She was a little older, but that gave her the extra wisdom she needed to sing us along our way. I cried when she lost love, making me hold mine a little tighter. 

Of course we had that tight bond of being PKs, a bitter sweet that flowed through every song she sang, in spite of its theme. And she was no joke on the keyboard as you still managed to feel the Holy Spirit in her fingers that pounded out the story of another love gone away.

Always loved Aretha. Someone just asked the question on FB, “What gift did the Lord withhold from you to keep you humble?” My answer has always been, to that question and any like it, to sing like Aretha Franklin. If I had such a voice I would have never shut up. But the world only needed one Aretha Franklin. She has been more than enough. She has filled that role so completely. So uniquely. Even unwittingly. She has blessed so many people with her voice. With her smile. Her voice has sparked a child, themed a movement, saved a soul and provided pure joy throughout her decades.

Sing some more Aretha! I know you’re singing and dancing in glory!

And we’re shedding a tear for our loss.

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It’s already in your hands

You ask God for help with something and he comes back with, “It’s already in your hands.”
Seriously?
I compare it to Elisha’s response to the widow in II Kings 4, who told him she had nothing and needed help. He asked her what she had in the house. She’d just told him she had nothing.
Her husband had left her in debt and she was afraid the creditors would take her two sons in payment. But he persisted so she showed him the tiny bit of oil she had.
This is actually one of my favorite stories in the bible. Acting as the voice of God, God’s prophet Elisha told her to send her sons to borrow vessels from their neighbors. A lot of vessels. She obeyed although she had to be feeling kind of crazy. Vessels for what? She must have wondered. But she was obedient. And that was the key. Obedience. I don’t know about you but a huge percentage of stuff the Lord has told me to do has been quite ludicrous by human standards. I try to be obedient because I want the kind of outcome this widow had.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the sons brought back many vessels, which was something of a miracle in itself. Vessels were part of the family’s worth and the only way to gather water for all the family’s daily needs. I’m sure there was some reluctance to let them go. But they did.
And again, she was obedient when the prophet told her to close the door and fill the vessels with the oil that she already had in her hands. In that almost empty vessel she already had. Fill all the borrowed vessels with the tiny bit of oil in her almost empty vessel. I know I said it already, but I want to be sure you have an accurate picture of this impending miracle. She had to have called herself crazy after calling the prophet crazy. Her sons were probably calling their mother and the prophet crazy. Anyway
She summoned the courage – yes it takes courage to do something that could potentially make us look like idiots – and she poured. From her almost empty vessel into the many borrowed vessels.
AND as long as she poured…was obedient to the leading of the Lord…as long as she poured…I can’t tell this story without dancing…as long as she poured…there was oil.
And as long as there was oil, there were vessels.
These two went together. As long as she was obedient, there was oil.
And as long as there were vessels, she poured.
Had they not been obedient and gotten many vessels they wouldn’t have seen as great a miracle.
Obedience for them produced much oil. Enough for them to pay the debt that had threatened to cast the sons into slavery, and enough for them to live on for the rest of their lives.
I call that a miracle.
And it came from what she already had in her hands, in her house and her willingness to obey the voice of the Lord.
What an answer to prayer!

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Speak love to the “uncomely” parts

Paul’s discussion on the body of Christ mentions “uncomely” parts, those that need extra attention and care. I think we should speak love to those parts, making sure they don’t feel alienated from the rest of the body. Those organs. Those extremities. Those feelings. That just won’t do right. That don’t look right. That won’t operate right.

Speak love. To whatever doesn’t quite fit into your righteous agenda for your life. Speak love to the appetite that craves those things you don’t want to eat. Well, you want to eat them but you know they’re not good for you in large proportions. Speak love to that attitude that continues to raise its ugly head in spite of your constant resolve to respond more kindly. Speak love to the thirst that demands the drink you’ve chosen to eliminate from your diet. Speak love. Rub and caress the joint that continues to collect fluid,  hindering that perfect gait. Speak love and rub the spots that suffer from the inflammation that clusters and fosters pain.

Speak love. Offer affection to the parts that seem to betray your desired quality of life. Offer kindness and gentleness to the rage that threatens to become bitterness and facilitate your undoing. Offer love to every part of your being in every aspect of your world so love embraces you and everyone you meet. So love surrounds and envelopes you. So love is the prevailing “feel” of most of the moments of your days.

Speak love!

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Aunt Rose

She was the 13th child. The last. Born August 13, 1913. She was named Rose, which seemed kind of special following Amy, Hattie, Susan, Grace – the few I can remember. And she was a special kind of Aunt. The kind you liked to be around. Although she was a church goer, she didn’t mind being completely honest with us. She told us the family gossip. She was known to tell a shady joke from time to time. She would even include one of those words no one else in the family dared use for fear of the threat of hell. We were very strict Baptists, you know.

Aunt Rose. Aunt Grace. And Aunt Naomi, their niece. When the “religious” folk were in the living room out-sanctifying each other, the “unholy” three would be in the kitchen with us at their feet. Just waiting for some juicy tidbit to drop from their lips to our ears. So we could giggle. And compare notes later. Aunt Rose was a tender, kind hearted woman. She’d let me borrow her church hats when I was older. They never looked quite as good on me as they did on her. She had a son, Charles, who she loved with more love than I’d seen up close. She was touchy feely with him and that was kind of foreign in our family.

Aunt Rose was the consumate baby child, as I recall. And she had many sisters and brothers to cater to her whims and wants, in addition to her husband, Jim. And in true baby child style, when it seemed she’d be left alone, she insisted on having it her own way. Uncle Len died first. First of the last three siblings. And before the week of his funeral was finished, Uncle Dutch died. Which left Aunt Rose. But when the family returned from the services and burial of Uncle Dutch, Aunt Rose went upstairs in his house where the family was gathered. She slipped into Uncle Dutch’s bed and quietly allowed her life to transition to be with her brothers. Within three weeks the last three were gone. Including Aunt Rose.

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Village Mothers

Anyone who denies the value of the village has missed the most important thing about community. We didn’t learn it in school. We gleaned it from our every experience every day living in proximity with people of value and conviction who loved on us by teaching us everything they knew. Not in a classroom. Not necessarily even in a group setting.
But at every opportunity, without even knowing it, Village Mothers dropped nuggets of wisdom and instruction. This is the most elegant form of discipleship. And we benefited from the constant exposure.
That’s why, first of all, I’m personally offended when people scoff at the village concept. Most of us in the African-American village are a melange and hodgepodge of the many-colored love, the shades of hope and the kaleidoscope of vision offered by everyone who cared.
I’m proud of the work my village mothers have done and continue to do to make me the person I’m becoming. Yes, becoming. Even at 68. My life is wide open and I’m embarking on new horizons with brand new hope and energy.
One of those sainted women was my cousin, Anita, who was not a blood relative, but the 7-year older person in the foster household to which I was assigned at 7 when my principal caregiver died. The important thing about this relationship was that Anita was the only happy person in the household. She talked to me. She listened to me. She spoke the same language, although sometimes I had more mother wit. She was always there for me without making me feel like a burden. She alone was able to convey that and I’m so grateful. So we laughed at all kinds of things. And we poked fun at the elders in the house. Quietly. And as she got older, she found myriad ways to enlarge my horizons. She took me to art museums. She took me to teas. She secured my first part-time summer job as an assistant in a church office, recording amounts from offering envelopes.
She took me to New York to the 1965 World Fair. I saw telephones with screens on them so people could converse with “face time,” when we had not long since escaped party lines. While others groused about my unladylike behavior, she told me how to act like a lady. She showed up for all my important days. My wedding. My ordination. My first pastorate. My graduation from Coppin University and from Wesley Seminary. And when I started a magazine, she contributed the first thousand dollars. Without my asking. We continued our relationship as grownups do until her death in 2016.
And when we knew it wouldn’t be long before she left us, I wrote a piece, “May the first face she sees be Jesus,” to celebrate her life here and her new life in glory.

May the first face she sees be Jesus.
All of us have a little mental illness in our families. Yes, all of us, even though some of us are in denial. One of the travesties of Anita’s mental haze was the loss of her connection with heaven. It caused her to doubt the faith she’d held so dearly for many years. It caused her to lose the sense of family she’d felt in church since childhood. It caused her to speculate about her own end and that of the rest of us. And being a woman of faith, to me that was the worst thing about her illness.
As a child and into her adulthood she loved the hymns of the church. She’d grab a hymnal and play until she got tired. And then she’d make me take over as we went page by page through her favorites. The Way of the Cross Leads Home. Oh That Will be Glory for Me. Rejoice Ye Pure in Heart. Just Over in the Glory Land. Blessed Assurance. And for Grandma Sue, Thou Thinkest Lord of Me.
She loved the Psalms in the Old Testament and the Gospels in the New Testament.
She was a gifted teacher and lent those skills to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. And after she married and moved her membership to Zion Baptist Church, she got me my first real summer job; recording donation amounts from their church envelopes.
Anita’s gentleness was only exceeded by her kindness and wanting to help whoever she could. By the time I reached high school she had her first job and took over the financial responsibility for my lunch and bus fare. She also make sure I had the little things I needed to be a lady, which was her first emphasis. Being a lady. As we both matured, our conversations were about our families, our children, their accomplishments. We talked about politics and sometimes we moved from one country to another without my being aware. You understand.
She continued to cheer me on throughout my life as the big sister she was to me in spite of the lack of blood connection. When I got married she was there. When I graduated from seminary she was there. When I got ordained she was there. She cheered when I became editor of the AFRO and when I started Mustard Seed magazine, she gave me money to pay the designer.
I’m saddened that she’s left me but I’m glad heaven awaits her. With its streets of gold. With its jewels that bedazzle everything the eye can see. With its urns of collected prayers and tears of the saints. No street lights – no need because the Lamb is its light.
“Dear Anita. Rest peacefully in his arms, re-acclimating yourself to the place you left over 72 years ago. Pick up your golden shoes and claim your rightful place he prepared specifically for you. In that moment, understand that he was there for you all the while, when you couldn’t feel him, when you couldn’t see him and when you even doubted his existence. He was there for you all along.
And may the first thing you see when you drop the robe of flesh that has housed your soul and weighted your spirit, as you seize the everlasting prize that awaits you…Look long and hard with excitement and joy into the face of Jesus, your Savior and King.”
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90 degrees on Barclay Street

On a hot summer night, when it was 90 degrees on Barclay Street in east Baltimore, we’d sometimes sit outside well into the morning. It was too hot to be inside. Especially on the upper floors of our three-story house. In fact all the neighbors sat outside on their summer chairs, the ones that cowered in the basement all winter. They visited from house to house within their own blocks.

Sometimes Miss Nellie Logan would come up the street from her house to our house at 2303. She and my grandmother had been friends for more years than I could possibly know. They were girlfriends. I always giggled when I heard them say that. I thought girlfriends should at least be girls, not old ladies. But I never laughed out loud. And I never asked the question.

They were happy with their outdoor time together. They wouldn’t have as much when the weather got colder. They’d wave at Miss Grace and Uncle Walter Maxfield across the street. And Les Andrews and his family in that corner house. They’d talk with Miss Mary Mitchell who lived next door. They’d speak to Joyce Richardson’s mother who always took at least one stroll down the block as the evening light dimmed. Joycie was my best friend. I didn’t know her mother’s first name. We didn’t know a lot of first names and we dared not ask.

Sometimes we’d run into the corner store that was actually next door to our house and get a cold treat – an ice cream sandwich, a soda or a candy bar. The owners of the store were Jack and Bella Zemlak. They’d been there my entire stay with their children Barry (Bernard), Marsha, the eldest and Margie, the baby. They were also members of the community. They watched after us. They made sure we were safe. They told our parents if we caused trouble. They took us home to our parents if we acted up in the store.

The family up the street that raised a bunch of foster children. The family on the other side of the street that had a lot of children and endless grandchildren and great grands- The Auggins family. I believe the matriarch was Miss Virginia. We played with her grandchildren – Gary and Patricia, Terry and her brother, Robin.

Everybody knew everybody.

We were beneficiaries of teams of folks who knew it was their duty to provide safety and security for all the children in the neighborhood. Not just theirs. All the children. Not every adult meant us well. But the ones who didn’t were few and far between. And those who were caught were stealthily dealt with by the  men of village. Soundly. Directly. With no room left for doubt. 

It was in no means a perfect community. We were directed to be seen and not heard. That was a hard habit to break. We waited to speak when recognized, especially when adult conversations were going on. We certainly did without some things some times, but basics were pretty much always available.

There’s got to be a way for us to go forward, not back, to a time and space within which we learn to speak to each other; to know each other’s names. Where we look out for ourselves and for the families, especially, children, who live in our vicinity. Where we share those things we need and those we have in excess. Where children can feel safe enough to refuse the attraction of gangs that offer a false sense of security. Not a perfect community. But something so much better. So much safer. So much more conducive to our children’s well being.

But. Surely. We. Can. 

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Put it down and let it walk

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Beloved Child,

Your Grandmother used to say that to you when you didn’t really understand her meaning. “Put it down and let it walk.” She had concerns for your ability to keep moving in spite of strife or bad feelings. I have a concern about one thing – the extra weight you’re carrying. Not the couple of pounds from your holiday celebrations. They are not the problem.
It’s the burden that’s weighing down your heart. That spat you can’t forget. That word that digs so deeply in your heart. That slight that sent you into a spin. You think you’ve let it go. You think you’ve moved on.
But who could – when someone you have loved so much has hurt you so badly. When you trusted them so much. When you actually put your life in their hands. Only to have them stab you in the back. To have them take another’s side against you. To have them return hatred for the love you gave.
They do need to do penance for their misdeed. They need to be chastised in some way. And that’s my work. But you, my Dear, have work to do also. Put it down and let it walk. I know you’re the injured one, but you have work to do. And it’s life changing, lifesaving work. Your life, not theirs. Carrying the memory of a hurt and refusing to let it go is like carrying a dead body on your shoulders. A very wise person said, ”Unforgiveness is like choosing to stay trapped in a jail cell of bitterness, serving time for someone else’s crime.”
Believe me. It is injury to your soul and illness to your body. It is like tying cement blocks to a spirit that wants to soar.
I know you want to. I gave you that desire. And I blow on it regularly to keep it aflame.
I know you want to forgive, even think you already have. But this is what you need to do.
In your quiet time, think it through; identify the pain and the perpetrator. Then purpose in your heart to forgive. You can’t finish the process. That’s my work.
But you must not only initiate it, you must be faithful to it. You have to change your behavior toward the person as if the work is already done. And before you know it, the new feelings you’ve “perpetrated” will have become second nature. Before you know it the work will be complete and you won’t even know when it happened.

Love Always
Your Heavenly Father

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