Real Mission: Hell Hath No Fury
Come celebrate with me that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed. ~ Lucille Clifton
Throughout my life as a missionary, I have struggled to embrace the fury that I feel at injustice in the world. At times, it has overwhelmed me and left me in the pit of despair, the valley of the shadow of death. Sometimes it can feel like hell, like we are not making an impact on the unjust structures that pervade the world around us. That is why it is so important in our missionary endeavors to take a little time to reach for heaven and to replenish our souls for the difficult times when it feels like, as B.B. King used to sing, “Nobody loves me but my Mama, and she could be jivin’ too!” This week, I want to reflect on where I have seen heaven recently, because we all need a little heaven, when the world around us feels like hell.
Almost a year ago, I joined my friends Amy Howton and Miriam McKenney in a pursuit of justice that I could not have known then would embrace, comfort, challenge, and assure me in ways that it has over these months. The Justice Circle, as we call it, is a group of Episcopalians devoted to righteousness and truth in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio; our goal: to change the world around us, for ourselves, and for our children. We have circles within the circle focusing our efforts on the environment, housing, education, food security, and legislation; and in the midst of it all, we are Becoming Beloved Community by The Way of Love.
Last Friday, The Justice Circle spoke of song: how music changes us, speaks to us, speaks for us, speaks through us. We shared our favorite genres, and titles, beats, and stories. Song, we shared, has shaped our faith and the way we see the world.
In the midst of our discussion, my friend Barry revealed that the tune, the beat, the melody is what moves him. Truth be told, some of his favorite songs, he doesn’t even know the words to. I on the other hand, prefer the lyrics. The chapter and verse of life’s great gift, the repeat of the refrain of the story of the human spirit.
As you know, throughout the month of February I have been sharing with you the stories of Black women who have brought the Gospel to life for me and reminded me that Missionaries come in just as many and varied forms as does the human spirit itself. After all, we are all always missionaries, or we are nothing.
Today, I want to share with you a little bit about a woman who knew how to get to the heart of the matter in the poetry she wrote throughout her life. Poetry, that she herself said was “the song of her life."
Lucille Clifton was a stunning and creative storyteller who wrote about her experience of living life in a black body that she loved and celebrated while the world in which she lived told her the opposite story. For example, she wrote for thirty years before her work was published for the first time. A mother of six, who buried two of her children, Lucille wrote of hardship and heartache that she knew all too well, but Lucille also wrote poetry that celebrated her Black experience. She wrote odes to her hips and her chocolate skin and her wide set nose that inhaled the beautiful morning air.
The song of Lucille’s life was complex and masterful, stunning and precise, filled with angst and celebration.
In her own words, Lucille came to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” words that have often reminded of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ without ever knowing that they came from the pen of a beautiful Black poet named Lucille.
You can read all about Lucille’s many personal and professional accomplishments all over the internet. She was Poet Laureate of the state of Maryland from 1979-1985, worked alongside the late great Langston Hughes, and became an accomplished professor of Humanities after having been born the great-granddaughter of the first black woman “legally hanged” for manslaughter in the state of Kentucky during the time of slavery.
Lucille sang the story of her life in prose and she sure did have a story to tell.
This, I told my friends at Justice Circle, is my favorite part of music. The story.
I long for the day when we can sing together again the story of Jesus and his love for humanity. For now, our showers and kitchens and living rooms will have to do until our solos can be choirs again.
Lucille’s story has inspired me to listen to more music by Black artists (though Motown has been a favorite of mine since childhood), to hear their stories, to feel the pain of their rhythm and blues, to honor their experience, to revel in the glory of their tenacity in the midst of unspeakable challenges.
Over the weekend, my husband Chris and I began a new Netflix series called Voices of Fire. It is the story of the forming of a Gospel Choir in a small town outside of Norfolk, Virginia that has produced some of our nation’s most renowned Black musical artists, including, but not limited to Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Vincent, Clarence Clemons, and Pharrell Williams, who now serves as one of the producers of the series. In his words, “there must be something in the water."
Already I have found myself being raised to my feet, my hands lifted high, tears in my eyes and strength in my heart. The music, and more specifically the lyrical story, reminding me that there truly is something in the water of Baptism.
Blessed Assurance, Amazing Grace, and I Need Thee Every Hour reminding me that I Love to Tell the Story of Jesus and his love.
Today I am grateful for Lucille Clifton, who shared the song and story of her life with honesty and conviction. Today she has reminded me that hell hath no fury like the scorn of a woman and that complicated, convicted and faithful women can also rise above the hell and reach for heaven.
by Lucille Clifton
she is standing by
glisten like rubies.
her hand is crying.
her hand is clutching
a sheaf of papers.
she gives them up.
jewels into jewels.
her eyes are animals.
each hank of her hair
is a serpent's obedient
she will never recover.
there is nothing
you will not bear
for this woman's sake.
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