“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”[i] So on this day, when we celebrate Holy Scripture, praying one of my favorite collects, a day that we hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, imagine my intense dissatisfaction when I opened up the gospel lesson for this week. I have been reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting all week, and this text still makes me uncomfortable. On this day of celebrating Scripture, who wants to hear of collapsing houses of worship; false prophets that can lead us astray; wars, natural disasters, famines, and plagues; great persecution, including being betrayed by our very own family members? And what is our reward for all this suffering? All of this calamity will give us an opportunity to testify. I do not know about you, but after having my church destroyed, navigating false prophets, fighting disasters, and dealing with persecution, testifying would be about the last thing on my mind. In fact, I know a few Episcopalians who might even add testifying as one of the major types of tortuous, painful experiences.
At Diocesan Convention this weekend, we watched a video about the Diocese of Long Island’s response to Hurricane Sandy one year ago. The video began with news coverage leading up to the storm, during the storm, and immediately after the storm. I have no idea why, but I found myself tearing up during the coverage. I had forgotten all of the anxiety and stress that came from that storm. I forgot about the utter despair and the feelings of helplessness – having friends try to contact me about how they could help, and yet, not even having power to be able to watch the news and see what was going on all around us. I remember wanting to know what had happened to churches in the areas most impacted by the storm, but the Diocesan offices being crippled by their own lack of power and employees’ inability to get to work. I remember wanting to help, but not being sure how to do that without electricity ourselves. I remember being so cold at night without heat, and yet knowing that I was lucky to have an undamaged roof over my head. I remember anxiously watching my car’s gas gauge approach empty – knowing the panic of gas lines, and how quickly stations ran out of gas. The video brought all of those emotions bubbling up to the surface.
But the video also offered a testimony. After the storm, churches began opening doors for collections, housing, and powering stations. Teams from churches headed to devastated areas to help demo and begin repairing homes. Those too far from the action, offered up their space to electrical workers who had volunteered to help, but had been given no place to stay at night. Our hospital in the Rockaways treated patients for three weeks solely on generator power. A year later, people are still being helped as they repair homes, find new places to stay, and deal with the emotional ordeal. In a time of great darkness, the Episcopal Church on Long Island began to find a way out of the darkness and into the light.
One of the coordinators of the effort from the Diocese said that one of the things the Church had to learn to do was not to go into areas telling them how they were going to help – but instead had to simply show up and ask what people needed. The representative said that this model made the work and efforts much more chaotic, but in the end, brought about the change that people really needed. I could hear echoes of today’s gospel lesson in his words. Jesus says, “Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” This strange gift of being able to testify is made even stranger by Jesus’ words – not only is our gift to testify in the midst of suffering, we are to force ourselves to not even prepare the testimony on the way – no thinking of anecdotes, no making outlines, no trying to even think about what we might say. We must simply show up and trust that God will give us the words.
One of my favorite hymns is “Precious Lord.” “Precious Lord,” is one of those songs that I can close my eyes to and just overflow with love and gratitude toward God. Of course, my favorite version is not the version sung out of the hymnal, but by the great Al Green. He breathes a life and joy into the song that we can rarely muster in church. But this week, my appreciation for this favorite song grew infinitely when I heard the story behind the song. The song was written by Thomas Dorsey. Born in 1889 in rural Georgia, Dorsey was a prolific songwriter and excellent gospel and blues musician. As a young man, he moved to Chicago where he worked as a piano player in churches as well as in clubs and theaters. After some time, Dorsey finally devoted his talent exclusively to the church. In August of 1932, Dorsey left his pregnant wife in Chicago and traveled to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting in St. Louis. After the first night of the revival, Dorsey received a telegram that simply said, “Your wife just died.” Dorsey raced home and learned that his wife had given birth to a son before dying in childbirth. The next day his son died as well. Dorsey buried his wife and son in the same casket and withdrew in sorrow and agony from his family and friends. He refused to compose or play music for quite some time.
While still in the midst of despair, Dorsey said that as he sat in front of a piano, a feeling of peace washed through him. That night, Dorsey recorded this testimony while in the midst of suffering:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand;
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.[ii]
In the midst of that darkest of times, Dorsey did not sit at that piano with a song all planned out. In fact, if you had asked him to testify at that moment, he might have railed at the way that God and the world were treating him. And yet, empty and vulnerable, God filled Dorsey with words that would touch people eighty years later, and would be sung by countless famous people over the years.
In the midst of darkness – of destruction, pain, suffering, persecution, even betrayal by those we love most – God gives us a testimony too. And even more than a testimony, Jesus promises that we do not even have to prepare this testimony. God will provide the words and the wisdom when we need them. Our only mandate today is to hold fast to God in the midst of trials, to remain open to the movement of the Spirit, and to speak those words of truth and wisdom when we feel them spilling out of our mouths. That time of testimony may not be before some king or governor demanding to hear about our faith. But our testimony might spill out with a grieving widow or mother, a traumatized victim of natural disaster, or a friend who has felt disenfranchised by the Church. We cannot prepare the testimony. We cannot even try to craft a basic testimony story to be ready whenever we need the story. Jesus tells us to “make up our minds not to prepare.” This is perhaps one of the hardest challenges Jesus will give us, and yet, as we see in Dorsey’s testimony and the many other testimonies we have heard, when we yield that power to Christ, the real, vulnerable beauty of our story gives life to others and to us. Amen.
[ii] Story of Dorsey take from Nancy Lynne Westfield, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 312.