August 23, 2020

“All Shall Be Well,” Bob Ryder (and Phyllis White)

READINGS:

Luke 18:1-5
Jesus said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected for people. In that city there was also a widow who kept coming to the judge saying, “Grant me justice against my oppressor.” For a while he refused. But eventually the judge said to himself, “Though I have neither fear of God nor respect for anyone, this widow won’t give me any peace. I will grant her justice so that she may not wear me out constantly banging on my door.” ’

This next reading is a poem by Margaret Widdemer, a poet and novelist (1884-1978) whose work addresses the social problems of her day. She won the Pulitzer Prize, then known as the Columbia University Prize, in 1919 for her collection, The Old Road to Paradise.

The Women’s LitanyMargaret Widdemer
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for our pain’s sake!
Lips set smiling and face made fair still for you, through the pain we bare.
We have hid – till our hearts were sore – blacker things than you ever bore.
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for our pain’s sake!

Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for our strength’s sake!
Light held high in a strife ne’er through, we have fought for our sons and you.
We have conquered a million years’ pain and evil, and doubt and tears.
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for our strength’s sake!

Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for your own sake!
We have held you within our hand marred or made as we broke or planned.
We have given you life or killed king or brute as we taught or willed.
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for your own sake!

Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for the world’s sake!
We are blind who must guide your eyes, we are weak who must help you rise.
All untaught who must teach and mold souls of men till the world is old.
Let us in through the guarded gate,
Let us in for the world’s sake!

REFLECTION
This past week Susan and I were thinking about her mom Phyllis. I can’t recall just what brought her to mind, but the subject of her faith came up, and we went back and forth thinking about Phyllis’ perspective on things. In particular, I remembered she was fond of the phrase “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well,” a statement of faith originated by the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, perhaps not coincidentally during a pandemic. As Susan and I ruminated on our memories of Phyllis, I considered what the saying might have meant to her. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well.” However she came by it, I admired – and still admire – her faith, because it always manifested in effort and activism, never complacency. When she saw something wasn’t right, she worked to make it better. She was curious and generous, and every bit as tough as she was gentle. She was a teacher, a mother, an activist for civil rights, and a role model for those of us inclined to learn the virtues of humility and self-control. “All shall be well and all shall be well and every manner of thing shall be well.” It certainly would if Phyllis had anything to say about it.

This week marked the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment being ratified securing the constitutional right to vote for women. What strikes me about that is how short a time 100 years is. Some of the people we’ve known in our lifetimes – our own grandparents and even parent in some cases – were alive before women had the right to vote in the United States. It’s a caution against an all too easy way of thinking that civil rights can be taken for granted.  The comparative recency of the women’s suffrage movement combined with the rise of authoritarian politics in recent years makes it clear just the opposite is true – justice and civil rights are fragile, requiring the jealous defense and assertive demands of each new generation.

The struggle for women’s suffrage was nearly a century long, hard won, and no doubt seemed at times an impossibility to those who had to suffer and sacrifice for it. It’s unlikely Julian’s and Phyllis’s conviction that “All shall be well…” always seemed realistic. As in any struggle for justice and equality, those who demanded their rights suffered violence and derision, condemnation and long resistance from a privileged establishment that would wither anyone not possessed of divine purpose. I read some of Susan B. Anthony’s biography researching for this morning. That woman was fierce! She was one of those undaunted crusaders who embodied the spirit of the righteous widow in Jesus’ parable. In one of the iconic episodes of her life, she was arrested and convicted in Rochester, New York for voting in the election of 1872. When taken into custody, she demanded the marshal arrest her as he would arrest a man, using handcuffs. She was convicted in a trial wherein the judge directed the 12 male jurors to find her guilty. The parallels are unmistakable in the abolition and civil rights movements, for child labor laws and humane immigration policy and countless other causes demanding justice and dignity for common people in the face of exclusion and abuse by the rich and powerful. Against determined and violent resistance, those who demand justice have to keep coming and coming and coming, banging on the door of malevolnent power structures until they are worn down.

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well.”  Part of me asks in response, “Shall it, through?” Part of my faith journey over the past ten plus years has been learning the principles and habits of mindfulness, cultivating the ability to experience and think clearly about reality disentangled from biases and reflexive patterns of thought. I still feel like a novice, yet it occurred to me this week that one of the pillars of mindfulness is a cultivated sense of trust, so I took some time to consider carefully what that cognitive skill might be about.

Perhaps I can be forgiven for once regarding trust as an assumption that things will work themselves out. That seems ludicrous to me now – a make believe virtue of complacency only the privileged can afford to indulge.  On further reflection it now seems to me that real trust – the virtuous habit of one who is paying attention – is a nurtured conviction that the justice of a worthy cause is worth striving for – even without the assurance of victory. It’s the willingness to strive in a worthy struggle even though it might fail. If we begin with the idea that something can’t be don’t, we won’t try. Attending to doubt and anxiety are only going to make progress more difficult. We need to begin with the idea that there’s a better way, however difficult to realize. Trust is cultivating the conviction that one’s efforts for a worthy cause will make some necessary contribution – and to commiting to it however unlikely success appears.

Considering that refrain, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well, the example of women like Susan B. Anthony and Ruth Bater Ginsberg and Phyllis White reminds me not merely to assume everything will work out, that destiny assures a resolution to evil in the world with the mere passage of time. The meaning of their example certainly isn’t that I should trust God to intervene and make things congenial for me, as if I’m entitled to a more desirable existence than fate might have assigned. Trust, as I now regard it, is the cultivated attitude that I must be as resourceful as I can to do my part, however far that goes.  The trust I’m trying to learn is that if a cause is worthy, progress is worth striving for even when it doesn’t seem plausible by the look of things.

I heard that perspective in the words of Michelle and Barak Obama during their speeches at the Democratic National Convention this past week…

President Obama –

What we do echoes through the generations.

Whatever our backgrounds, we’re all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. Great grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshipped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.

If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life.

 

Michelle Obama –

I’ve met so many of you. I’ve heard your stories. And through you, I have seen this country’s promise. And thanks to so many who came before me, thanks to their toil and sweat and blood, I’ve been able to live that promise myself.

That’s the story of America. All those folks who sacrificed and overcame so much in their own times because they wanted something more, something better for their kids. There’s a lot of beauty in that story. There’s a lot of pain in it, too, a lot of struggle and injustice and work left to do.

 

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well.” It’s not wishful sentimentality – but the conviction of a righteous widow banging down the door of an unrighteous judge. I invite you to keep that refrain close at hand in the weeks and months – indeed in the years and decades – to come…  “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of thing shall be well” – at least if we have anything to say about it.  Amen.