I have always liked February 4th! I always thought it was the best day of the year. I still do! It is an elegant day, just after the midpoint of winter, still time for a fluffy snow, yet closer to spring and my favorite daffodils! It is a good day to be born, so I was–on a cold, snowy Feb. 4th Saturday.
Growing up I always knew that my birthday would include certain rituals that I could count on. At the breakfast table, my father would tell the story of my birth, how a severe snow storm prompted the doctor to call my mother and tell her to get to the hospital, even though she was not yet in labor. Inevitably, there would be the moment when my father would recount the exact moment of my birth—seventeen minutes after midnight. Even when I moved away from my parents’ home, an early morning phone call from my father would continue this ritual.
The other rituals that were a part of my birthday were not numerous or extravagant, but they were MY rituals, for MY birthday. There would always be my favorite meal of baked pork chops with mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes, and of course, green beans, which I am not fond of particularly, but with my grandfather’s farm providing much of our food, we ate green beans every day—or at least we thought we did! There would be a present or two, not much just a reminder of the day. And there would always be red velvet cake with vanilla ice cream.
It always seemed that my birthday would end with a conversation with my father before bedtime. Often my father would tell me a story or two about my family. He would make me laugh. As I grew older he would talk to me about my favorite music or something that he thought about that I could draw or paint or books, that he had read, that he was sure I would like too. To be fair, my father had these conversations with me often throughout the years, but it was those yearly birthday conversations that I remember the most. I have come to realize that these conversations were a method of reflection, something I continue with each birthday I celebrate.
This year my reflection began a little early and has centered around two people with whom I share a birthday. Although we were all born in different years, different times, and different lifetime circumstances, these two people and the way they lived their lives is precious and powerful for me. Their lives offer inspiration to me, but also remind me that sometimes God’s call upon our lives is not easy and sometimes can end in death, but when we offer our lives to God we must do so knowing that we are offering to help make the world a better place and to help alleviate the suffering of humanity and sometimes the cost is great. God doesn’t call us in order for God to make our lives all “honky dory,” as my mother used to say. God calls us to live lives of mercy and love so that the lives of others can have meaning and purpose.
The first person whose birthday I share is Rosa Parks. Rosa Louise McCauley Parks was born on February 4, 1913 in Tuskegee, Alabama, nearly 48 years after the end of the Civil War. Certainly, her world growing up in the South was a harsh world. She would have had family members who were born into slavery and saw emancipation. She would have heard stories, known of the heartache of her family, and experienced her own heartache that racism thrust upon her. The conditions and customs that the white South placed upon her were unfair and inhumane and I cannot imagine the courage and determination that was a constant in her life and the lives of African Americans during that time and even now.
It was on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama that Rosa Parks fulfilled a very difficult call—one that took guts and the determination to defy the unfair treatment that the “powers that be” placed upon her. She refused to obey an order given to her by a bus driver that demanded that she give up her seat in the “colored section” to a white passenger because the “whites only” section was full. This was a powerful moment that must have produced all kinds of anxiety and fear in her soul, but she was determined. She had heard a call deep in her soul. She understood that God calls for humanity to live lives of justice and to work for justice if justice cannot be found.
There had been others who had been in the same situation, acted in the same manner, but organizers understood that Parks would be able to carry through to the possible arrest and court challenges that would follow this act of civil disobedience. She had answered a call. Undoubtedly, she spent much time with God, wondering if she had heard the call right, wondering if she had the strength and determination to follow through, wondering what the consequences would be.
Even in the face of uncertainty of what would happen, Rosa Parks was faithful and she prepared herself for what she knew would be a difficult task. She attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for training activists. She met with other leaders in the Civil Rights movement and gained strength and encouragement for the task ahead. And then on that December day she acted on the call that she had heard in her soul.
Rosa Parks suffered for her act. She was fired from her job, losing her livelihood. And she received numerous death threats that must have created an even greater feeling of anxiety, but through it all, it must have been worth it to her because she continued to work with the Civil Rights movement and to put her time and energy into answering the call to work for justice and to live a life of love and mercy.
As I reflect on Rosa Parks on our birthday I am struck by how rapidly the victories and changes, so hard won and costly by Parks and so many others dedicated to working for Civil Rights, are deteriorating. How can this be happening?
As a child of the South I grieve for the part my ancestors played in a society that kept people enslaved. As a person of white privilege, I grieve because what is readily available to me is not available to all people. What I have learned from Rosa Parks, especially this year, is that my being white cannot and must not stop me from listening to and hearing God’s call in my own life concerning justice and equality for all people. And answer the call we must, if we believe the Gospel.
The second person that I share a birthday with has inspired me since I was sixteen years old. I have written about Dietrich Bonhoeffer on many occasions and I am certain that I will write about him on many more occasions as I continue to learn from his wisdom and am inspired by what he was willing to give up for the sake of the Gospel.
Bonhoeffer was a German pastor/theologian that witnessed Hitler’s rise to power and the horror that followed. While Bonhoeffer was not raised in church, there were theologians in his family and I am certain, as a child, the conversations about theology that took place around him settled into his mind and heart. After a career in music became an impossibility, theology took hold of Bonhoeffer. He studied and taught, wrote and preached and all the while he watched and observed with horror what was happening to his beloved country and church. What he saw happening to the Jews he knew was evil and costly. The anxiety that witnessing these events brought to his soul led him to make decisions for the Gospel, yet at a very high cost.
Bonhoeffer’s writings and actions were not looked upon kindly by the “powers that be” during the 1930’s. He soon found his way into the Resistance and his work for justice led to arrest, imprisonment, and finally his death. God’s call upon his life was undeniable and it was very costly and as our world struggles with justice and equality and acceptance of all people I find myself wondering if we are living in another Bonhoeffer moment and who God might be calling as God called Bonhoeffer.
This past summer I spent an afternoon at Buchenwald, one of the prison camps in Germany. I wanted to go there to see and to feel and really to be haunted by what happened in the camp prior to and during World War II. I also wanted to be there because I knew that for a time Bonhoeffer was an inmate there. I was not prepared for what I felt in the weeks that followed that afternoon.
For me, Bonhoeffer has always been bigger than life. What he did, what he was called to do has always been a powerful witness to me, but it was not something that I ever thought would be a call upon my life. And yet, after returning from Germany the thought kept coming to me that Bonhoeffer was not really bigger than life for his time and that he really struggled with God’s call upon his life. He struggled as he witnessed how the church became complacent in the face of Hitler’s power. He struggled with how he needed to react to the treatment of the Jews, some being his own family members. He struggled with writing, with preaching, with using his voice to break through the silence and the incapacity of others to speak of the evil that surrounded them.
Bonhoeffer was not unique then and is not unique now as we still face evil in our world and as we struggle to be faithful to our Gospel call. I find myself struggling with the same struggles of Bonhoeffer, with writing, with preaching, with using my voice. Some days I think to myself that it would be so much easier just to let someone else do it. But I can only answer for my own call upon my life not someone else’s and I do believe that God calls each of us to use our abilities to bring about justice and equality in this world.
As I have celebrated my birthday this weekend, I had the chance to have lunch with Bishop William Boyd Grove and his wife Mary Lou along with my friend K Almond. Bishop Grove ordained me and is an inspiration to me. I appreciate his wisdom and his witness, so I asked him how he thought Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rosa Parks represented Christ in this world. His response was this: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rosa Parks were icons—people whose lives are windows through which we look. And anyone who pays attention to them would be drawn to Christ.”
Bishop Grove’s thought is powerful to me and I have thought about it all night, literally. If, for a brief moment, the light of Christ can shine through our lives as a window for others to view the love and mercy and forgiveness that is offered to all, if in that moment others can catch a glimpse of a world whose existence is bathed in love and mercy and forgiveness, then I think that we are being faithful and others will be drawn to Christ. For me, at the moment, glimpses are enough, but I will keep striving for my life to offer more and more glimpses. I hope you will too.
To God alone be glory!