Signed, Sealed, Delivered

Signed, Sealed, Delivered

“…loaded like spoons
into the belly of Jesus
where we lay for weeks, for months
in the sweat and stink of own breathing
Jesus – why do you not protect us
chained to the heart of the Angel
where the prayers we never tell
are hot and red as our bloody ankles
can these be men
who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus  Angel   Grace of God
onto a heathen country
Jesus
Angel
ever again
can this tongue speak
can this bone walk
Grace of God
can this sin live…”
-Lucille Clifton, ‘Slaveships

For me, this poem fit the context of that morning’s worship like a glove.
I’d selected it very intentionally as that morning’s ‘Centering Thought’, as I do every element of the services I compose.
For what it’s worth, none of the reflections, readings, readers, music, or silences are ever accidental.
Even the art on the cover of the Order of Service is always a very deliberate thread in the tapestry.
I aim to choose all of a service’s moving parts (and partners) with careful consideration, and a mindful intention for the feel & flow of the morning’s experience.
And for me, this Lucille Clifton dirge felt kindred to the spirit of the hour.

I’d crafted that service as a lamentation centered in and around the Middle Passage, and the resiliency of the African-American narrative.
From my perspective, Clifton’s poem was an indictment of the hypocrisy of slaveowners naming slaveships after their gods (i.e. Jesus, Angel, Grace) – and then forcibly enslaving humans on those ships, subjecting them to ungodly conditions and inhumane evils.
All while, ironically, trying to also force the enslaved to worship those same gods-

“…can these be men
who vomit us out from ships
called Jesus   Angel   Grace of God
onto a heathen country…”

I returned to the office a few days after that Sunday to find (in my mail bin) an Order of Service bulletin – folded in half, with handwritten commentary beside the Clifton poem;

“…Why does UUCC allow this fantasy to be taken seriously and promoted?…”
“…Such references are especially irritating in the context of the conditions ‘god allowed’ on the Middle Passage & stories of the slave trade heard today!..”

Each mention of ‘Jesus’, ‘Grace’, ‘Angel’, and ‘God’ was circled furiously – almost like I’d gotten them wrong on a high school math exam.
I shared it with Paige, who helped me notice that the handwriting for the first comment was very different from the second.
There were evidently two writers (perhaps sitting next to each other in the sanctuary?).
Maybe their indictment was a class-action, speaking for a handful of others?
Were they indicting someone else (perhaps Paige?)  – or maybe a whole faith tradition (two billion ‘someone elses’)?

The thing is – I don’t know what they meant.
I don’t know, because they didn’t leave their names.
They didn’t sign it.
There was no way to contact them, or to have an honest conversation about it all.
Were they seeking explanation or clarification – or had their questions been rhetorical?
I don’t know.
It was like they rang the doorbell and drove away.

My lament wasn’t for ‘what’ they said, but for ‘how’ they said it.
Our free-thinking faith was founded (and has flourished) as much upon our agreements as our disagreements.
We aim to lean into our conflicts when they arise, welcoming the tension and the release (and the growth that emerges from that dance).
But we do this in covenant.
Above all, we seek to stay in relationship (in conversation) with each other.
And in order to really do that, from my vantage point, we have to own what we say.
We sign our names.
It is, incidentally, the essence of why we shy away from anonymous communications or surveys.
We seek to invite dialogue – and in so doing, live into our covenant.
Of course, we will miss the mark from time to time.
And we’ll endeavor to begin again in love – together.

I would’ve welcomed a sharing of perspectives and thought-processes in covenant.
For me (and for Clifton herself) – the poem was about the harsh reality of the Middle Passage.
Not a ‘fantasy’ of faith, but a crisis of conscience.
It was sarcastic.
Souls grasping for meaning in the presence of the darkest humanity – and what felt like, for many, the glaring absence of divinity.
I would have shared that.

I would have shared that I am not Christian.
But the context of the Middle Passage was.
And it would be impossible to tell that part of the African-American story honestly without including some Christian language and imagery.
Its influence was present in that era’s poetry, prose, and in the lyrics of Spirituals (all of which were woven into that service).

I would’ve welcomed the chance to explain/explore all of this in conversation.
I would’ve surely acknowledged that ‘Jesus’, ‘Angel’, ‘Grace’, and ‘God’ are wounded words for many (They certainly were for me for many years).
I would’ve asked if this was true for them.
I might’ve asked if the Spirituals’ lyrics had bothered them as much as the poem?
I might’ve also asked if the lyrics in the Fauré Requiem (a Catholic Mass) or the Bach Magnificat (a biblical canticle) had bothered them?
And if not – why not?

We essentially ‘sign’ everything we create in ministry. For better or for worse, we attach our name to our insights and we own them outright.
This opens us up to critique, but it also opens the community to conversation.
And those beloved conversations are the core of our covenant.

I wish I’d had the opportunity to have this conversation (I think it would have been a rich one).
Worship services are not necessarily the end-all be-all.
Often, they are only the beginning.

I invite us to stay open to the conversation.
The kind that may open hearts and minds – and maybe even heal wounds.

Signed,
Anthony

9 Comments

  1. Rae Tyler Millman

    I’m truly sorry that this happened, Anthony. And I appreciate the very clear way you put forward the need to sign our names to our comments and feedback. Thank you for all you do to make our services so meaningful. Love, Rae

  2. Suzanne Henig

    I wish I’d been able to attend the service–like all your services, Anthony, it must have been very moving, and heartbreaking considering the subject matter. The way you weave every part of a service together in forming the message is awe inspiring!
    I am more than disappointed that someone would leave those comments for you anonymously. If they can’t stand behind their opinions they should keep them to themselves. Having said that, I read them several times and I don’t understand their meaning either. What a wasted opportunity. What a shame.

  3. Phyllis Cook

    “Beautifully” said as always. Thank you for your insights. Like you I think people should be willing to sign their names and if they are not then they should withhold the comments.

  4. Evie Griffin

    Anthony–Thank you for your honesty, and for your brave heart. Every aspect of the service was well chosen, and well delivered. Thank you for being honest with all of us, and particularly for the children. Perhaps if we heard and understood, as children, we could be better adults.

  5. Janis Boster

    Anthony, it doesn’t feel fair that the writer or writers of the message in your mailbox did not sign their names, I know. And it hurts. But let’s assume that they might have been too new to the congregation to understand that open, honest dialogue is our standard operating procedure. Or, maybe they were even first-time visitors. What is most important here is that you have written a beautiful model of how communication in our church community should (and usually does) work. Not only that—you turned yourself inside out addressing with “I would’ve(s)…”
    Your own side of the rich conversation they
    and you could have had, and you laid to rest any fear they might have harbored that it wasn’t safe to sign their names. In fact, your letter is an excellent reminder and model to all of us that conflict and disagreement are not only okay,—the are opportunities. I commend and thank you for working so hard on this issue . I hope you will hear from the people who wrote to you. Otherwise they’ll miss a great opportunity. Signed Janis Boster

  6. Susan Clack

    Dear Anthony,
    I recall the service well, and I remember how much I was moved and how much learned from it. I wish I had told you even before this incident. I continue to learn from you…especially by the way you responded to this anonymous note. It’s clearer than ever why we’re lucky to have you and Paige leading us. Hugs, Susan Clack

  7. Norm Hazzard

    Very well said, Anthony! I like your emphasis on “covenant,” and I think you have handled a challenging situation beautifully.

  8. Laurie Alderman

    Dear Anthony,

    You have an incredibly courageous heart, compassionate wisdom beyond your years and a strong sense for the need to have reciprocal communication in order to be in convenant with one another. As stated before, we are so fortunate to have you and Paige in leadership with us. I feel badly that this situation occurred and you have my full support. I have so much to learn from you. How you handled this situation is yet another poignant example of “congregants as learners”.
    With Love,
    Laurie Alderman

  9. George Clack

    Anthony, I just wanted to share a few thoughts on your In Between Sundays Reflection about the hand-written response you received to Lucille Clifton’s poem on the horror of the Middle Passage.
    First, that morning’s service, the Clifton poem, and your commentary on it made me think harder and feel more deeply than I’ve felt in church in a very long time. I knew something of the Middle Passage, but I’d never really considered how it must have felt to go through it until you evoked the experience so well that Sunday morning. Also, I’d never thought about the choice so many had to make – whether to survive or jump into the sea. So for me that service did exactly what I hope for in this congregation: it made me think and then led me to re-orient the way I think about things in general.
    So I agree with your comments on the hand-written note: I don’t understand what the writers were trying to say. Sure, I get that they were upset and, quite possibly, upset at the thought that God was somehow being held responsible for these conditions. But the message was so cryptic that it left me with many more questions. Like you, I wanted to try find out what they meant and exactly why it bothered them so much.
    One bit of advice for the future: I think your great strength as a minister – and really the strength of any minister – is your willingness to share deeply felt personal views. That’s the beginning of dialogue, which seems to me the essence of what this congregation is about.
    Finally, I think your transparency in publishing the note-writers’ concerns and your response to them is exemplary. Your openness sets a high standard for anyone in a leadership position.

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