On Not Being Afraid

Elijah ascends to heaven in a chariot of fire.

Below is a short sermon—eight minutes long—I preached on June 25, 2023.  It was so short for a couple of reasons, first because I was asked to do it around 9:30 p.m. just the night before!  My pastor had taken ill and gave me only the scripture reading, Matthew 10: 24-39, and her title, which was “Do Not Be Afraid.”  Also, she had planned to devote much of the sermon time to meditating on the scripture in Matthew 10 using the practice called Lectio Divina, where the same scripture passage is read over and over with time to reflect and answer one question in between.

At first I thought she wanted me to lead the exercise, but she had already found leaders for that. No, she wanted me to share a short sermon taking her title as a jumping off point. Because I’m generally not afraid of public speaking, I said ok, but it immediately struck me that, despite the title I had been given to preach on, I should talk about why it is so difficult not to be afraid, even when God has proven faithful over and over and been with you in times of great fear.

When I speak I often mention the death of my son Bryan Emmanuel Guzman, whom we lost in 2006, just days after he had turned 21.  In a Baccalaureate address I gave just six months after his passing, I spoke of how, despite the tremendous sorrow and fear I felt as I stayed beside his body, I felt held in the palm of God’s hand.  Our souls still spoke clearly and strongly to each other, Bryan’s saying to me many times, “Dad, this is ok. It’s ok.”  We felt loved. And his spirit hovered over me for a couple months afterwards just to make sure I was ok. I remember the exact spot it left me in late January 2007.  I felt him lift upwards through the bare January branches of a tree on Gartner Road just yards from our house in Naperville. He’s always with me, but not hovering like he did those two months.  Yet despite that it’s still hard for me not to be afraid, as I explain below.

I turned to the story in Genesis 21:8-21 that, in the Lectionary table of readings, Cycle A, is paired with the passages from Matthew 10 for this Sunday. It tells of when Abraham, at Sarah’s command, sends Hagar and his son Ishmael away, essentially to die in the desert. At one point Hagar leaves Ishmael under a tree and moves far enough away so that she will not hear his death cries. At that point an angel of the Lord comes to her, opens her eyes, and she sees a well of water. They live.

But the most spectacular story of someone being afraid after God shows him miracles that should make him fear-proof is the story of the great prophet Elijah and his battle with the false prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.  (I have written a literary analysis sermon of the incident which you can read Here.)  The story, in I Kings: 17-19, shows Elijah in his glory on Mt. Carmel, and, at just a word from Queen Jezebel, huddled in great fear on Mt. Horeb.  This prophet, so great that he bypassed normal death by ascending to heaven in a chariot of gold, was afraid.  It was hard for him not to be, as it is so often hard for all of us.

Go HERE for a complete list of sermons, like “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,'” “Sacred Doing,” and “Theology and Race.”

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Take My People With Me: Juneteenth 2023

This post is part of a series on Juneteenth. Go to the series LEAD POST.

The video below shows a few minutes of Aurora, Illinois’ 2023 Juneteenth celebration at MLK Jr. Park.  It’s one of the oldest in the state (at 33 years Rockford’s owns the crown). “It’s been going 22 years,” said Congressman Bill Foster during his annual drop-in. “My smile muscles are almost broken.” “So are mine,” said our luminous emcee, whose name I again didn’t catch but am on a mission to find before next year’s celebration.  The last shot of the video is of him from behind, so you can read his t-shirt: “I’m steal healing b.u.”

Well, he literally was, as he wore a big brace on his left leg, a brace that didn’t stop him dancing all around during his energetic hosting.  The emphasis on healing, though, is symbolic of a larger emphasis growing in importance to the Black community.  One speaker you’ll see urged the crowd to become aware of themselves as a people again. “We’ve lost that,” he said, and in an inventive metaphor asked, “If the bear feeds the bear, does the bear hate the lion?” He was urging Blacks not only to love each other but spend with each other, support each other economically.  That’s what whites do, why not us?

His short talk blended perfectly with the next person on stage, a young lady who did a dramatic dance to Cynthia Erivo’s “Stand Up,” the theme song for Kasi Lemmons’ movie Harriet.  “Look at this,” said our emcee.  “She could have said I’m gonna do some Cardi B.  Instead she’s lifting up Harriet Tubman!”

A few acts later, up come three kids doing the latest dance, until the emcee asks, “Any body else can do this? Come up here!” Suddenly the stage is exploding with dancers.  I said to my daughter-in-law, Desiree, “Doesn’t it make your knees hurt just watching them?”  So this emphasis on supporting each other economically and celebrating the great figures of freedom like Harriet Tubman was, as usual, wrapped in fun, and food, and the market atmosphere of dozens of merchant’s tents, plus the cars and motorcycles that showed up for the parade that would end off the evening.

I’m writing this just as the big parades celebrating pride month are coming to an end, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the lessons the LGBTQ+ community can teach us about keeping the issue of race before the American public.  Though that community is suffering lots of backlash currently, and over 600 bills have been proposed in legislatures nation-wide to curb that community, the LGBTQ+ movement has seemed to turn a corner.  The general American public seems supportive—enthusiastically so in many cases—and ready to advocate for them.  In my church’s JEDI group (Justice-Equity-Diversity-Inclusion), there’s been so much progress on LGBTQ+ issues.  It’s much harder in matters of race.  For all the troubles LGBTQ+ people have suffered, and continue to suffer, it’s just easier for that movement.  There are many reasons for this, I believe. Here are just four: 1) people can inherently relate to sexuality more than race; 2) the bulk of that community—at least the out-front parts—are white; 3) Pride celebrations are just more fun, making the issue of inclusion easier to get behind; and 4) there’s more of a tradition of therapy in that population.  Only in the last 25 years or so has there been a growing, widespread acknowledgment of the mental health crisis—the trauma—caused by racism.*  And racism is woven so deeply into the fabric of American life that it’s hard to get to, and the tasks to change systems are often of gigantic proportions.

But at this year’s Juneteenth celebration in Aurora, I thought that maybe this holiday might be one of the things that helps more and more Americans embrace the fight against racism as much as the celebrations of Pride Month have helped that community.  I’m deep in thought about that, and maybe my hope might someday grow deeper as well.

* See my articles on Joy DeGruy and Resmaa Menakem for more on the rise of therapies to treat the trauma of racism.
Go to the lead post for the anti-racism workshop Becoming the Beloved Community and to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page.

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A Response to One of Those Lists

We love lists, and they’re thick on my newsfeed every day.  Here’s a tiny sampling of lists I saw in just a couple of hours today: “8 ’90s Hit Songs That Are Offensive by Today’s Standards,” “3 ‘overlooked’ red flags that your job is setting you up for burnout,” “10 Things to Never Do After Having a Meal,” “21 Things That Were Cool in the 90s But No One Cares About Anymore,” “16 Laughable Scams That Thrive on the Stupidity of Their Victims.” Lots of these lists have to do with music, like the first one listed above, and they rank things, like all 229 Taylor Swift songs, worst to best, or the 10 best drum solos, or the top 5 reasons the Beatles broke up.  And on May 31, 2023, one appeared titled “12 Cover Songs That Render the Original Renditions Entirely Obsolete,” and for some reason I felt I needed to reply to one item.  Does Whitney Houston’s 1992 version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You”—written by Parton and first released in 1974—render Dolly’s version “obsolete.”  I don’t think so.

So many of us love Whitney, and rightfully so, though a Rolling Stone list ranking her the second greatest singer of all time is surely a giant over-reach.  Jaimee Marshall, writing for the finance and pop culture website Wealth of Geeks, says that Whitney’s “rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ has become an iconic masterpiece. Houston’s powerful vocals, emotional depth, and stunning range elevated the song to new heights, capturing the hearts of millions worldwide. Her rendition effortlessly surpasses the original, infusing it with an unmatched intensity and raw emotion.”  But I’ve always preferred Dolly Parton’s version.

More and more, it seems, we love power, we love people belting out a tune, some even loving that Frozen song “Let It Go” blaring at us over and over.  To me it comes close to bellowing, which sometimes I feel Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” just barely manages to escape.  I often—though not always—feel it’s just too much.  Someone, at the time Houston’s cover came out, said the emotion in it seemed unearned because it lacked true regret. There’s something to be said for restraint, especially when the song expresses something complex, something you’re not going to want to blare out, like leaving someone you’ll always love.  Dolly Parton’s lilting country voice conveys that complex regret beautifully, and the way she speaks the song’s central part while staying in rhythm, prevents the sentiments there from becoming saccharine.  If I ever did a Top 25 Vocal Performances list, Parton’s version would be on it.  Besides, on another list I saw today, “The 99 Most Popular Musicians of All Time,” Dolly Parton came in at #1, my favorite, Ray Charles, at #5, while Whitney Houston was only at #34.

Instead of making a list, I’ll probably just harken back to the pinnacle of list-making, David Letterman’s “Top 10 List.”  I have three volumes of Top Ten Lists in my library. On the back of the first volume there’s the “Top 10 Reasons to Buy This Book” list.  #5: You’re mentioned on page 43. #4: Paper made from criminal trees that deserved to die,” etc.  Or go to Chris Rock’s parody, which I write about on this site: “Nat X: Top Five Reasons Brothers Don’t Play Hockey.”

Go to the Reviews and Commentaries page.

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