Ah, D.L. Mayfield. I read her words and ache at the goodness. She moves me with honest descriptions of life as we live it and the life underneath that often goes undetected, unarticulated. But when she writes what she sees my eyes open – often with tears. She reports from the edges of marginal communities with eloquence, empathy and personal vulnerability. In my dreams – I write like her. Totally true. Finding her this year ranks as a top blessing. What a talent, what a delight, what a friend. So honored to host her today.
Finding Doxologies at the Edges of the Empire
“Energy comes from the embrace of the inscrutable darkness.” —WB, The Prophetic Imagination
When people talk about doxology, my eyes glaze over. I know it should mean something to me. But I must not have been paying attention the day in Bible college when they went over it. Those days back in the classroom now seem quaint, of another time. I worried about papers, getting coffee, if so-and-so liked me back, paying tuition. Now, in the thick of life, living in the mean and beautiful streets of urban America, I have been having a hard time remembering all those expensive theological words. And what I learned sititng in my classes, my small mustard-yellow Bible opened in expectation in front of me, is so different from what I have learned here on the ground. Now, sometimes I wonder about the practicalities of singing our most basic and core beliefs about God—belting them right into the air—when the world is such a terrible, awful place.
I am trying to believe. Last week I went to a global worship service, I sat down in the pews and waited to be moved. My baby was with me, and she clapped to the drums. My husband was with me, and he looked both bemused and slightly worried as the tears ran fast down my face, as I knew they would. But who can say why I was really crying? I learned this trait from my mother, the one who would cry both at what was beautiful and what was so heartbreakingly bad; she saw God in all of it. At the global worship service I saw people from all over Africa, Asia, Europe, the east, the west, and all in-between—singing their songs of survival. They were a testament against what we are trained to believe every day, the relentless belief that God is with the safe and the successful. Choir after choir, they sang the doxology in words I didn’t understand. The stories swam over me, brought to life from my friends from each culture who had lived it and shared pieces with me—the histories, the troubles, the conflicts and the triumphs of survival. People who had previously been at war with each other, singing songs of praise. People who had experienced every evil the world had to offer, were singing to me about the goodness of God. Of course I wept, palms reaching up. I accepted their gospel, received every non-native word.
Brueggemann would say this is embracing the pathos. The crazy, the evil, the wildness of it all. It has taken me awhile to get here, but I just keep walking forward. It started with that wide-open Bible all those years ago, when I learned it had precious few words for people like me—privileged, happy, frivolous, distracted as all-get out. But it did talk a lot about the poor, the captives, the sick, the bound, the powerless. And from everything I gathered, this was the group that God was expressly for. I certainly didn’t fit in that category, so I set off to find them, tripping into a life characterized somewhat euphemistically as one of “downward mobility”. All I knew were the very real dangers of the numbness of consumerism, safety and success. I didn’t know it then, but I was on a quest for pain, and conversely, grief. I had to make a conscious decision to surround myself with the very pathos our empire pretends isn’t a reality.
And I found it, all right. Stories of suffering, sickness, imprisonment, oppression, homelessness, insecurity, and hunger, all right behind the surface, waiting to be heard. But most of all, I discovered stories of loss: of so much death, stared straight in the eyes, that my own heart simply could not comprehend. Nearly every day I sit with my neighbors, refugees and immigrants and folks who grew up in generational poverty in the US, and am told a new tragedy, the losses piling up beyond calculation. I sit, my presence still too new, my body just a fragile, transient, good-intentioned blur. I sit, my words beyond useless.
So I have learned to cry. Resisting the desire to flee or to offer up the stilted patches of my tribe (Peace, peace, where there is no peace), allowing the tears to fall privately, sometimes collectively. I feel the shocks of the world reverberate, now that they are so close to home. Pitching my tent in these communities, those that are less able to gloss over the realities of death and suffering, has caused me to take the good long look at my theology. Ever influenced by the empire, I somehow surrounded myself with people who, as Brueggemann says, “care intensely about God, but uncritically, so that the God of well-being and social order is not understood to be precisely the source of societal oppression”. I have bought into these ways of thinking, because the empire has been so kind to me. For the majority of the world, however, this is not the case, and they have a clearer picture of the both the reign and promises of God as a result. Those of us who are full, rushing headlong into pursuits of life, liberty, and the promise of happiness that slips like water through our fingers, we know what Brueggemann means when he writes “happiness characterized by satiation is not the same as the joy of freedom.”
Right now the tears don’t feel like enough. They feel small and insignificant and powerless to stop any violence, to bear witness to another reality. But I keep crying, because what else am I supposed to do? I have tried to replace the tears with platitudes, or conversely with anger and indignation. I have fallen into the opposite traps of critiquing the empire without giving any way of hope, and I have also clung desperately to a gospel of personal safety and security when so many of my brothers and sisters have none.
This is all I have right now. The prophet-as-a-hot-mess situation. Up to my eyeballs in the reality of life in the margins of the empire. And I believe the tears are the first step to peace, even as I don’t understand it. So I choose to sit in a musty old church and listen to people sing words I don’t fully understand. I don’t know how people buffeted by the waves of evil can sing about the glories of God; but it means something more, coming from the poor and powerless, my friends and neighbors. This new social community is carrying me away with their songs, pointing me to what I already knew: that there is no way I can generate hope for myself, my family, or my neighborhood. But already I can feel the despair being transformed; through my tears I feel a hope being given to me, just through a song.
D. L. Mayfield lives in the exotic Midwest with her husband and daughter. Recently they joined a Christian order amongst the poor, where they are currently seeking life in the upside kingdom. She likes to write about refugees, theology, gentrification, and Oprah. Mayfield has written for McSweeneys, Geez, Curator,and Conspire! among others.
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