Maya Angelou died yesterday, aged 86. She was born poor and black and her gifts were born out of pain and hardship. She knew why the caged bird sings. Her son, Guy, writes: “she was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace.” She helped many through the passion, hope, humour and compassion of her autobiographies and poetry. She is a wise woman of our age, and eminently quotable. On this Ascension Day I choose her poem Touched by an Angel to remember a woman who had a love with the power to live and see through so much.
Touched by an Angel
We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
and its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
in the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and all will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.
Gordon McPhate, Dean of Chester Cathedral, preached this morning on the gospel for the day – the Samaritan woman – depicted in this sculpture. (The sermon is here from Curate’s Corner). Gordon described how a social worker won the trust of a difficult London community in a situation where so many before him had failed. He moved into his flat on the estate, but had no tools. He went asking for help – to borrow saw, hammer, ladders, screwdriver etc, etc. And that was it. He presented himself as needing help.
Likewise Jesus presented himself to the Samaritan woman at the well at Sychar – asking her for a drink. Jews and Samaritans despised each other – and men looked down on women. So this meeting of Jesus is remarkable. Jesus, a Jew, is asking a woman and Samaritan for a drink. Their relationship is captured perfectly by Stephen Broadbent. The woman is on top of Jesus. Jesus stands under the woman – and understands her to the extent that she is able to tell her friends “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.”
Our social worker friend is in similar posture – as the one asking for help – standing under his neighbours whom his predecessors had quite possibly looked down on. Was the under-standing the secret of his success – plus the fact that his neighbours felt under-stood and needed?
Elizabeth Day has written a moving article in today’s Observer highlighting the predicament of those who are gay in Uganda by telling the stories of John Bosco and Florence Kizza. Their treatment has been abominable, not only in Uganda, but also by the immigration authorities in this country. They have been shown such little under-standing. The authorities have been tyrannical and overbearing – postures without understanding. We think we know so much till we stand under other life stories – and allow them to move us and shake us.