By Denise Liersch
We are in a time of changing seasons. We’re entering winter. We’re navigating a change in seasons with the pandemic and flu season. And we are moving from the seasons of Lent and Easter, into the season of Pentecost, filled with life and hope for a long season of growth and green shoots and all the struggles of life that we know emerge from that.
It was May 28 eight years ago that poet Maya Angelou died, at age 86. Maya was the author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes. Maya Angelou is known as a famed poet, civil rights activist, actress, director, professor and more. When her poetry collection And Still I Rise was republished in 2021, it was something we needed in the middle of the pandemic.
I remember Maya most for two of her poems, one of which she spoke at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony for Bill Clinton in 1993. It was titled On The Pulse of Morning and, to me, reflected an incredible sense of hope and courage that called us into life. It is perfect to remember this poem in these pandemic times, right at the time of the Church’s celebration of Pentecost: the coming of the Spirit into places of ambivalence and uncertainty, bringing in a sweeping wave of courage and inspiration that calls a dispirited people to lean into life.
Here is an excerpt from On the Pulse of Morning:
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
for this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
the day breaking for you.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
for new beginnings.
There are echoes in the poem of the Pentecost story in Luke-Acts (Acts 2), where we hear of the shift from wrenching pain, fear and hiding in closed rooms, towards courage and life. We hear of the shift from eyes turned inwards, able to see only our own needs and inadequacies, to eyes lifted up and out, able to see, recognise and respect each sister and brother in our community. We hear of the shift from division to community, to hear together and join voices with a huge diversity of people. We hear of the power of the Spirit of God calling and inspiring whole communities.
There are echoes in Maya’s poem of our Communion prayer which we hear and pray together each time we gather as a community around bread and wine. We remember that death and failure cannot hold us back from the gift of love and life that God’s Spirit calls us into. We lift up our voices together with all people and the whole creation. We are called to “lift up our hearts” as the “horizon leans forward” toward us. We remember who we are. We are “re-membered”: brought together to be more than the sum of our individual parts.
The mood of promise, hope and courage in our Pentecost readings and celebration of Communion, and in Maya’s poem, contrasts to the mood of our times. It’s counter-cultural. But that doesn’t mean it’s naïve about the reality of the limitations, challenges, pain and brokenness of our experience of life.
Maya’s source of courage does not come out of a naïve belief in simple answers to simple problems. If you read her life story, you know her own history of poverty, abuse and struggle has not left her naïve to the reality of evil in this world, nor of its power to instil fear and suck the life out of us. It was out of her own experience of oppression that she joined Martin Luther King Jr in the civil rights movement, inspired by something calling and inspiring from beyond herself, and continuing to inspire a whole movement despite setbacks and failures. As she says, “a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”. As she aged and approached her death, and continuing right up to her death, Maya kept celebrating “this glorious life’. This is what we hear in the Pentecost stories of the followers of Jesus.
The other poem by Maya I spoke of earlier is Still I Rise. In a reading of this poem, she makes an introduction:
“Everyone in the world has gone to bed one night or another with fear, or pain, or loss, or disappointment. And yet each of us has awaken, arisen, somehow made our ablutions, seen other human beings and said, “Morning! How are ya?” “Fine, thanks. And you?” It’s amazing. Wherever that abides in the human being, there is the nobleness of the human spirit, despite it all, black and white, Asians, Spanish, Native American, pretty, plain, thin, fat, vowed or celibate, we rise.”
So, from where comes our source of courage?
The story in Ezekiel 37 of the valley of dry bones is another Pentecost reading. It isn’t the lectionary reading for Pentecost this year, but it stays in our minds and imaginations and hearts, and many communities use it every year regardless. It has a particular power for First Peoples. The vision of life is full of powerful imagery, which Maya’s poetry echoes, answering the question “Can these bones live?”:
“Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live … and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”
The thing about living in a time of changing seasons, is that things fluctuate. We have cold snaps alternating with unexpected days of sunshine and warmth. In the stories of Easter moving into Pentecost, we hear our own stories: the high points of inspiration and life are interspersed with long periods of trying to find our way through uncertainty and hard slog. Just when we think we are doing OK, the rug is pulled out from under our feet. And then everything seems to be OK again. Until the next time.
That’s the reality of human experience. This is our reality. And it is sacred.
This life is held and honoured by God. We know this in the life and suffering and joys and rising of Jesus, God-with-us.
God doesn’t call us to be superhuman. God calls us to be fully human. Acknowledging our human limitations gives us a kind of freedom. God knows us as we are. We do not have to pretend to be something more than we are. Our human life, as it really is, is fully embraced by God in Jesus.
In the midst of the long tail of COVID, we have mixed experiences. The cost has been high for so many. There are ongoing questions and impacts on our lives as communities of faith: our fluctuating energy, our ambivalence, the new possibilities, our uncertainties about our future, the fledgling experiments and where we find our life together.
Celebrating Pentecost reminds us the Spirit of God calls us to life lived in community, life lived in courage, where the “horizon leans forward” towards us, even when we struggle to lean toward it. Our experience is, so often, that we struggle to “conjure up” at will a sense of hope or courage in ourselves when we need it most. When a Spirit of renewed hope does sweep in like a breath of new life, like fire in the belly, it so often feels like an unexpected gift – a gift of pure grace.
Yes it is grace. We cannot conjure this up at will, but we can open ourselves to this Spirit of life and grace when it calls to us: to rise up to life.
May we open ourselves to the Spirit of Life.
Rev Denise Liersch