Ordinary Time and Ordinary People

Nancy had been so gentle in the way she commented on my blog post, subtly cautioning me to not hasten on to Lent and  by-pass ‘Ordinary Time’. Ordinary Time- the two cycles of days, one between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, the other between Pentecost and Advent, covers most of the days of our lives, yearly. I had not forgotten it, but rather, had failed to observe it, and by that token missed the whole purpose of it- the hallowing of all of my days.

Kimberlee Conway Ireton laughed me off when I described her book, The Circle of Seasons, as ‘seminal’. But in response to Nancy’s caution, Kimberlee’s book, aptly subtitled ‘Meeting God in the Church Year’, is exactly where I defaulted to, in order to realign my heart to the “rhythm of Grace” that the church’s historical liturgical calendar was designed to be, including ‘ordinary time’.

In the chapter dedicated to the first cycle of ordinary time, Kimberlee referenced two of my favourite Bible personages – Anna & Simeon- two ordinary people, who hallowed all their days, by looking for Messiah, and were not disappointed. Simeon did so by cherishing a promise given to him by God that his days on earth would not come to an end until he had seen the Saviour, enfleshed.  Anna, consecrated the whole of her remaining days, following her early widowhood, to prayer, fasting and serving in the house of the Lord, and thus cultivated spiritual senses so sharp, she also, identified the Redeemer, though He was clothed in the ordinary flesh of a carpenter’s family’s infant child.

Wrapping up my observance of Black History month, for the first time through blog posts, I could not help but feel I had been divinely guided to honour the 5,500 ordinary foot-soldiers, many of whom were themselves African-Americans, who died in what became known as the ‘Battle of The Crater’ during the Civil War; similarly, for the two ‘ordinary’ heroines of the Civil Rights era—Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry, who displayed amazing courage in spearheading the desegregation of schools in Louisiana in 1960. If this month could be seized upon as a time to “see Jesus” – the ‘Imago Dei’- in the eyes of our fellowmen, especially those from whom we are most different- those with whom our life circumstances would not ordinarily have thrown us —what a difference this could make for our nation and for our personal lives.

It might be easy to “see Jesus” in the eyes of an adoring new hubby, fresh from the wedding, as go the words of the Sharalee Lucas love song,”I see Jesus in your eyes and it makes me love Him/…makes me love you”.But it takes a few more runs through the spiritual washer to see the same in that guy a few years and a few offenses later into the marriage. How much more intentional then do we have to be, in cooperating with the Divine Paraclete, in the process to develop eyes that see Jesus in the eyes of people who are different from our familiar folk.

It costs something of time, treasure and effort to have Christ formed in us in that way. A surrender of the will to so prioritize this goal that we would invest whatever  it takes to experience the washing of the eyes of our spirit by the Living Word. Investing regularly in spiritual ablutions such as silence, fasting, the daily Examen and meditation in the Scriptures facilitate what Kimberlee describes as learning  to “pay attention”. Writing in her book about a revelatory moment on a routine walk with her young son, as he stopped to attend a worm on the sidewalk, when she was making a beeline for home and lunch, she describes what she almost missed,

“In those few moments, I was like Simeon and Anna, attentive to the presence of God in the moment at hand…filled with joy and wonder at the goodness and beauty of God and this world He made”.

Lent begins tomorrow and though I had feared that I had missed a meaningful observance of Ordinary time this first cycle, I realize I may not have after all. Ruby Bridges and Barbara Henry, soldiers dying to end slavery, mothers writing books, blogs and stories of encounters with God in their ordinary days, serve to prepare me for how He might want to be seen in me, in all of mine. Thanks Nancy.

Bridges Are For Crossing

As a child growing up in Jamaica, I dreaded bridges. My overactive imagination found me holding my breath whenever we went over one of our few but renowned bridges. The historic and indomitable Flat Bridge, the Spanish Town Bridge and the most modern during my childhood, the Causeway Bridge, spring readily to mind. I just knew in my young fertile brain that if I did not hold really still and focus on the other side, something horrible would happen before we completed the crossing.

Ironwork Bridge, Spanish Town, Jamaica (Copyright © 2017 District Grand Lodge of Mark Master Masons of Jamaica & Cayman Islands. All Rights Reserved.)

That fear of crossing literal bridges eventually faded however, as the rest of life’s challenges kicked in. My Jamaica, ‘land of wood and water’, was indeed a world with many rivers to cross. The challenge of making friends, of doing well in school, of laying a path to the future in a culture and economy without too many lucrative options, necessitated bridge building of  all sorts. Though the main crossing that many aspired to make was that across the Caribbean Sea to first world America, ‘land of opportunity’, many of us were content to live in our spicy tropic paradise despite the lack and needs thereof. The resourceful, resilient spirit of the culture captured in phrases like ‘we likkle but we tallawah’ or ‘Tu’n yuh han’ mek fashi’n mek substitute’, made it a society full of stream-skippers, gully-leapers, river-jumpers and bridge-builders.

Raised in Whitfield Town, which was perhaps a middle-class neighborhood in its crown colonial hey-day, gave me a front row seat in my formative years to observe how post-colonization affected ordinary people on the micro-level. The humble folk plying their trade — hot-peanut sellers with their whistling carts, the pepper-shrimp man with his basket of crawfish on bicycle bars, or the fish, callalloo, or hominy corn sellers with their distinctive cries, peddling their wares up and down our streets, all seemed to happily hold their place. Yet all had dreams that kept them going. Dreams for children or grand-children to finish school and become the teacher, the doctor, the nurse or the lawyer. All believed and expected their progeny to cross over society’s boundaries to the next level, all with the one clear instruction to ‘mind your mannahs’, as that is what would ‘take you far’.

Our family was no different. I learned how to maneuver a wide cross-section of our society: respectfully honoring the older generation, be they side-walk higgler or the grand dames at the teachers’ college’s ‘old-girls’ luncheon; studiously hurrying by the idle, cat-calling bunch of guys by the corner shop or humbly accepting the compliments of peers in my literature tutorials at the university; carefully choosing my words to the taxi-driver as I offered what I was willing to pay for the trip to Half-Way-Tree, or  formally presenting the minutes to the PTA at the Catholic school where I taught Language Arts for two years; writing and performing on conference stages with my church’s performing arts ministry or deftly leaping over the squalor, strewn about what was left of sidewalks downtown, Coronation market, to catch a bus to Cross Roads.

My heart was mercifully enlarged and stretched beyond typical youth’s self-centredness. I was taught to match the template of the soul of my people, presented in our literature, history and poetry, to those I encountered daily, through the Biblical and culturally relevant instruction I received from a pastor with a vision for the nation. I owned the little windscreen washing boys by the stoplights of the city square, asking where they lived and sending them home after giving them what little money I could. I felt truly affirmed by the broken down old guy smoking on the bar curb, who called me ‘teacher’ even when I was still in school. I knew what it was to relax my dignity and enter into the jovial camaraderie of an overpacked minibus  and to feel a real blush, after disembarking, when its hapless conductor, one day, dangling from its steps as it pulled recklessly away, called back to me, ‘Yuh look like a fluh-wahs!”

So I soon became at home with bridges and encountered them everywhere: a smile is a bridge, a welcome gesture of trust between you and me; a hand-shake bridges gaps, pulling  us into promises, contracts and bonds that bear weight; the spoken word — a bridge of communication, launches lingua francas for our progeny to ply trade across cultural and geo-political lines for years to come. The longer I live the more I see that the entire matrix of societies that endure, do so by a system of bridges – codes of interaction tried and true beginning with compacts, constitutions, laws and covenants, like marriage, and bills of rights. History bears out that their longevity was usually predicated on their starting places, their foundations. That one Bridge which is most far-reaching in its effect, spanning the gulf fixed between God and Man, being  the ever-living Mediator, Christ Himself; and the means by which He accomplished it, His Cross. Jamaica: land of the wood of His Cross, the water of His Word, and the Church His Body, the Bridge, enfleshed.

     Small wonder then that my marriage, migration, parenting and subsequent life pursuits, including writing, have all been processed through this filter of bridges. I can think of no  better existence than to be one who facilitates the meeting of  varied and searching hearts on a sure and well-founded bridge that leads to the ultimate crossing.

The Content of Her Character (Two)

Copyright. Freedom March of Art. All Rights Reserved.

I was not long past posting last week’s blog about the reallife, and still living Civil Rights heroine, Ruby Bridges, when it dawned on me that I had left out the co-star in that drama. I am no engineer, but I do believe that if a bridge is going to be built, work needs to happen from both sides of the divide. Thank God, for that was the case with the story that unfolded in the 1960 Louisiana school that 6-year-old, Ruby, so boldly entered for a solid year escorted by federal marshals. There was someone working from the other side.

That other character was her equally bold first grade teacher, Barbara Henry. Mrs Henry had been just recently married  and transplanted to Louisiana, when she received a telephone call offering her a teaching job. Aware of the issues and current climate of her new home town, she inquired if this was one of the schools being desegregated. Upon being told yes, she was further asked if it would make a difference in her response. She replied that it didn’t. That response set Barbara apart from all the other teachers of the 500 students who all exited Frantz Elementary school the day Ruby and her mother entered.

Without question, Ruby Bridges stands a heroine today, because of the answer to prayers she offered up along with her humble parents who, with no formal education or sophisticated preparation, parented their young daughter through a full year of psychological assault, crossing bitter racial picket lines each school day. But the rest of the story, is attested to by Ruby herself. Asked one day by a visiting psychiatrist, whose heart was moved for her mental well-being, why she would pray for the angry mobs, she reported, “I knew that once I got past those angry people, I was going to have a great day.” She had that hope as an anchor to her innocent resolve because of the dedication of teacher, Barbara Henry,  to make sure that her lone student received all she could provide of a full first grade education, under such extreme circumstances. Mrs. Henry was not only Ruby’s teacher but also her only classmate, friend, and even play mate for all of her first grade year. Oh, and did I forget to mention? Barbara Henry is white.

A Jamaican folk song that has increased in significance to me over the years, refrains with the  query “…ah how yuh come over di broad dutty ( dirty) water ?” When the circumstances of life come at you like a Jamaican mountain river in full spate after a tropical storm you need a bridge, that is, if you plan to ‘come over’. When America stood on the flooded banks of  the river of racial segregation in 1960, there were brave souls on both sides, who wanted to be a part of the way over. Providentially prepared by her own real education in multi-ethnic classrooms and by her travels teaching for the Navy, Barbara Henry demonstrated the best of what used to be called ‘the noble profession’. She not only taught Ruby what first graders should learn of the three ‘r’s, she walked with her across those waters, building a bridge that many cavalierly traverse today. Ruby and Barbara, the libation of your courageous lives make that chapter of our American story holy ground.

See parts of Barbara’s story in the links below.

Towards a purposeful observance of Black History month.

Denise Stair-Armstrong 02/06/17


Teaching Ruby Bridges (Boston Globe article)

 The Content Of Her Character 

Viewing the YouTube post below of this poised middle-aged African-American woman calmly delivering a TED Talk  in front of a Norman Rockwell painting of herself, supplied me a Modern day heroine to hold up before my children and a commitment to add ‘meet Ruby Bridges in person’ to my bucket list. If the painting titled ‘The Problem We All Live With’ does not bring you to tears, then the photograph of the real event should and should also motivate us all to join her mission to make sure our children learn to judge real character by learning real history in the best environment in the times we all live in.

The sweet metaphor suggested by Ruby’s name is not lost on me- Though I can only guess at where she stands with regard to profession of faith, I do still take the liberty of believing that this woman, as a little girl, was held together by the Divine Grace of the Ruby-Red Cross of Our Christ. And though her parents’ marriage did not survive this dreadful stormy trial, this fiery gem of a lady is a trophy of God’s grace to our nation.

*Interestingly, a 2010 NPR interview of Ruby repeatedly referred to the painting as ‘The Times We All Live In’. Not sure why. Also, Barak Obama, had it displayed in the White House after meeting her, during his presidency. I wonder which title he associated it with and how that influenced his handling of racial matters during his administration. Food for thought for Bridge-builders.

Ruby Bridges 2010 NPR Interview

Towards a purposeful observance of Black History Month, Denise