The Whispers of God
Maybe you’re like me in that you are more a seeker of questions than of answers. The best question I’ve ever heard was asked right here by a preacher: “What would your life look like if you followed Jesus?” There’s a scene in Luke’s gospel in which a bunch of fishermen are so deeply affected by their encounter with Jesus that they leave everything and follow him. What did they leave? The love of their families and friends, what little prosperity they had, the peace that comes from being sheltered. And they left the comfort of the known for the deep discomfort of the unknown. Maybe this is the ultimate place to which Jesus calls us.
I’ve often feared what that line in Luke calls me to — the prospect of leaving everything to follow Jesus. I think: I’m too selfish, too attached to the predictable comforts of my life to do anything like that.
But I did do something like that for a couple of weeks in March. Researching a book about the healing power of water for people on the margins of American society, I traveled to Mississippi to interview African-Americans who fish. Twice! Talk about discomfort of the unknown: What in the world was I doing (?!), going up to black people who were fishing from shore, amiably chatting them up, telling them about my book and asking if they’d be interested in being interviewed for it. What kind of crazy premise is this? What if I offend or worse, wound someone with my boldness, my arrogance, my cluelessness?
Well, none of that happened. Instead, I found the likeness of Jesus inwardly and outwardly in the dozens of people I encountered. There was so much warmth, kindness and generosity of spirit in the people I met that I find my life changed. It is as if I have met Jesus. In fact, that’s what happened.
The first person I interviewed — call her Maria — was on the bank of a muddy creek flowing out of deep woods. She greeted me by asking warmly, “Where’s your poles?” She was surprised that anyone would be where we were without fishing rods. Hours later, after she tearfully disclosed the two rapes she endured as a child, and some of her joys and burdens as an adult, including the joy of her church and her faith, and after we talked about our shared European ancestry, we hugged and she said, “Goodbye, Cousin Macauley.” Maria had opened her heart to me–as I had opened mine to her–and we found that we liked being cousins.
Where did Maria’s European ancestry come from? Well, at least three of my ancestors owned and trafficked human beings. One was Rev. James Craik. Before he became President of the Episcopal House of Deputies in1862, he owned people in what is now West Virginia. Another ancestor–a slave owner in spirit–was the Rev. Dr. Nathan Lord–I am Nathan Macauley Lord. He graduated from college a few hundred yards from here in 1809, and he served as Dartmouth’s President for 35 years. He preached to the students there that slavery was ordained by God. It was right there for us to read in the Bible, plain as day. Dartmouth fired him 1863 because he refused to give President Lincoln an honorary degree over Lincoln’s emancipation of slaves.
My ancestors sinned grievously, and it hurts to acknowledge this. But God calls me to this acknowledgment. To deny what they did, or to pretend that “it wasn’t that bad,” would be to compound their sin. It would be to walk away from Jesus.
Racism today is personal for me because it is a near certainty that I have many Black cousins. If you have any ancestors like mine, you probably do, too. This is because many slave-owners raped the women they owned. Witness Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings and their many descendants. Nearly any African American I encounter in this country could be my cousin.
So there I was in Mississippi, listening to my cousins. Most of the people I met there were forced to pick cotton as children, because they were sharecroppers. Clarence, who’s now in his 70’s, looked out over the river and said of those times, with his voice trembling, “It was terrible. I don’t like thinking about it.” Louis, who’s now 84, said he and his sisters began picking cotton when they were five or six. They couldn’t go to school because if they picked enough cotton, maybe this would be the year when their father could pay off his debt to the store — the interest rate could be 70%. Louis recalled going to the store as a child with his father to settle his books for the year. The clerk told him, “You almost made it this year.” It was an evil system that trapped Louis’s family in a cycle of debt. It was slavery by another name, and yes, many white people had to sharecrop, too. Louis didn’t learn to read until he was 20. He taught himself.
As I carried for him his folding chair, his tackle box and his minnow bucket from the shore back to the car, Louis told me of dragging his cotton sack in a field by the road as the white children were driven past him in the pretty yellow school bus–he So wanted to go to school. His eyes filled with tears, and he said, “The things they yelled at me…”
To carry Louis’s fishing gear, to hear his story and bear witness to his tears, to listen to him with my whole heart, was to carry a little bit of his burden for him. So as to make his burden lighter, to help him lay it down. And, of course, doing this helps me lay mine down. In this time together, I understand now, Louis and I were both following Jesus, side by side.
Everyone was so warm to me, so much like a new friend. This stopped no one from telling me about some of their troubles. Warren, proud father of a baby boy, told me that he changed his career direction a very few years ago because his public successes brought him racist abuse from multiple people. He loved what he used to do, and his heartbreak about leaving it was palpable. Tanya, after we’d been fishing together for an hour, much of it in silence, said out of the blue, “My baby brother died of Covid, and it’s tearing me up.” I met Ron fishing in a roadside swamp. His wife of over 30 years died a few years ago and he misses her. He said, “She taught me to be grateful to God for everything, for every minute. Now, I come out here and fish and feel so blessed that we had those years together.” I ask him if there’s fishing in heaven and he says, “I don’t know if there’s fishing but there’s definitely water, all peaceful-like. And my wife and I will be there together.”
Haven’t we All had our hearts torn up and broken? Because we’ve all been dashed against the rocks in some way, don’t we long for God to lead us beside the still waters, all peaceful-like?
I had always focused on what those fishermen in Luke must have given up in order to become followers of Jesus. But the people I met in Mississippi taught me something about what those fishermen gained. If you are having a bad month, a hard year, and you can get yourself to the Mississippi Delta, go to the water. You will find people fishing from exactly the same shores as their ancestors did when they were enslaved. In them, you will find deep gratitude in the midst of ongoing suffering. You will find hope for the goodness of the future in the wake of the evils of the past and of the present day. You will hear laughter. You will learn how to carry your own cross.
Until a few days ago, Tucker Carlson was making $20 million dollars a year entertaining people, in part, by disparaging how black sharecroppers talk. If he and his former boss Rupert Murdoch, and former President Trump and Governor DeSantis were to spend a week with the people I met in Mississippi, people who, as children, couldn’t go to school because they had to sharecrop, the hearts of these leaders Would be changed. And I promise you: There would be less racial animus in our country.
On my first trip south, I interviewed Henry. He’s disabled: the surgeon who attempted to repair his hip was later stripped of his medical license. Henry told me that he left home in the Delta at age 11. He reached the fifth grade and I think he is unable to read. How did an 11-year-old child disappear from Mississippi’s public education system? It’s simple: his black life didn’t matter. He moves into an abandoned school bus. Remember, he’s 11. He finds a woodstove, and puts it in the bus to keep warm in the winter. He works in hayfields in the hot summer. He has to fish for food to survive and an elderly lady feeds him when things are dire. When we met by the water, he saw that I was about to go fishing. He handed me a bucket and said, “Put everything you catch in the bucket. Don’t let nothing go. I gotta go home and lay down; my hip is hurting. Call me when you’re done fishing and I’ll come get the bucket.” What was he going to do with all the fish I was going to bring him? He said, “Everybody in my neighborhood, from babies to the old folks, loves fish. I feed them. Mostly I cook for them, but sometimes people come over and I just give them fish from the freezer. But I’m out of fish.” Here is a man who was homeless and hungry at 11 and is now feeding his neighbors.
A few weeks later, on my second trip to Mississippi, I got a phone call from Henry. The pipes in his house had decayed to the point where he had no running water. Seeking my financial assistance, he simply asked, “Do you help people in need?” He may as well have asked me, “What are you willing to leave behind in order to follow Jesus?” After I suggested that he first reach out to his daughter and his neighbors, he said sincerely, “Well, I appreciate you. I thank you for listening. And God bless you.” In saying this, Henry was teaching Me how to follow Jesus.
May Peace be with all the poor and wounded and beautiful people I met in Mississippi. In their stories — in all that pain and grace wrapped together in the cotton sacks they dragged as children — are the whispers of God, reverberating through the world.