Week With Walter: D.L. Mayfield

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.

week with walter_1

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.

danielle_almostDoneD. 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.

Blog: dlmayfield.wordpress.com

Twitter: d_l_mayfield



Please leave some comments on the achingly good words offered by D.L.Mayfield.


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20 thoughts on “Week With Walter: D.L. Mayfield”

  1. Heather Caliri
     ·  Reply

    Thank you, Kelley, for hosting this discussion: you’ve been inspiring me to read theology and to dip my toe in speaking theology, living it, even though the idea of it intimidates me (trying to get over that).
    D.L., I have to believe that the reality you’re just now coming into (past the saccharine of success and doing-fine-for-Jesus) is suffused with the joy and peace that passes all understanding. May that be so, may your tears grow more bold and less confused (or not, perhaps that is where God is). What you write here scares me, because I have this growing sense that if I think too critically about empire and my place in it I could tip over our life. And what will my poor husband do?

    • d.l. mayfield
       ·  Reply

      thank you for your kind words. and as upside down as it all seems (both good and bad, of course) i am really grateful that it happened step after step 🙂

  2. Jenny Flannagan
     ·  Reply

    Thank you for this honesty and poetry. As another on the supposed ‘downward mobility’ path I so often need to remember why, why it is important, why we choose this grief..and all the ways that the alleged kindness of the empire insulates, deceives and oppresses. This is water to my soul.

    • d.l. mayfield
       ·  Reply

      jenny! kindred soul! i will be perusing your blog for tips and trick–i have long wished for a blog that gave practical downward mobility advice. hair washing, marathon running, cleaning supplies . . . i spend a LOT of my day thinking about these things (are they good for my neighbor? can my neighbor DO these things?). anyways, super glad to internet meet you.

  3. Luke Harms
     ·  Reply

    There is just so much good in this post. So, so beautiful. Just one thought about your perception of the value of your tears. At one point, when he’s talking about grief as prophetic criticism in the witness of Jeremiah, Brueggeman says, “Tears are a way of solidarity in pain when no other form of solidarity remains.”

    Your tears, both for the death of the old way and for the injustice of those caught in its death-throes, matter a great deal, I think. They are an acknowledgement of our shared humanity, a rejection of the static hierarchies that oppress and consume, and a symbol of that simplest of prophetic calls that says, “Things are not alright. This is not as it should be.”

    But those who mourn will be comforted. As your grief turns to hope, your tears become the symbol of something else that says, “This is not as it will always be.” Look at you. You grew up in a culture that Brueggemann laments “has forgotten how to sing.” But you’re finding God’s manifest newness even at the depths of your grief. This new song of hope in the midst of grief, that it could exist at all flies in the face of the static, eternally oppressive present of the royal consciousness. The dominant culture says, “this is how it has been, how it always will be.” This new song you’re learning proves otherwise.

    • d.l. mayfield
       ·  Reply

      luke, thanks so much for your words. part of the great thing about re-reading the Prophetic Imagination this time around is really owning the tears, and not feeling guilty about them. I am taking them as a miracle, taking all my little steps to becoming a hot mess as a sign of the Spirit at work, And he will continue to work, I am sure of it.

  4. Lindsay Tweedle
     ·  Reply

    This is such a beautiful reflection. I, too, was struck with the satiation vs. passion, and I think you articulated perfectly how it manifests itself today. Sometimes it’s true, all we have to offer are our tears, but they are truly solidarity. and the gateway to hope according to Bruggemann. Thank you for sharing, D.L., and Kelley, thank you for hosting this link up!

  5. Jamie Wright Bagley
     ·  Reply

    I love your honesty as it shines through this post. Not as one who has answers but as the student of hope. I am sitting and reflecting right along with you. I appreciate and am pondering your words. Thank you.

  6. Cat
     ·  Reply

    Thank you letting us follow you into such pain and sharing your heart with us. That is no small thing. My husband always tells me that when I start crying, ‘then we’ve gotten to the core things’. Because by then I’ve been angry, probably vented and sworn, and been decidedly grumpy. When the tears come – then the truth comes. Maybe this will be true for you too – you are getting to the core of it. x

  7. Christiana
     ·  Reply

    Enjoying all these posts as I continue to read The Prophetic Imagination. Thanks D.L. for being able to articulate some of the things I was thinking as I read this book that challenges and inspires: “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.” This is what I’ve been pondering as I read: how do we deal with the darkness of this broken world? I’m no prophet so I’m trying to listen to those imaginative voices that speak to the pain of the world with lament and love. Thanks Kelley and D.L.!

  8. J. R. Goudeau
     ·  Reply

    You make me see the world differently with your writing, D, which is one of the great compliments I can pay anyone. Thank you for this.

  9. Brenna D (@chicagomama)
     ·  Reply

    I’m just now, slowly catching up on all my readings this week and this has stopped me in my tracks.

    Holy Spirit tears. Yup. That’s me.

    Loved this so much. Thanks for putting it out there for us!

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