I had something of a Proustian creative process this week. In Swann’s Way, the author, Marcel Proust, begins his whole story because the taste of a madeleine brings him back to his childhood. Well, in looking over music for this Sunday and parallel scripture references, I found Kum ba Yah, and I was immediately brought back to my mother singing it soothingly to me when I was a child to go to sleep. As I grew older, I was less inclined towards the song because I thought of campfire circles which to me is less than moving. However, that early memory, and the feeling that something in the nature of being together that created the of the campfire ‘let’s all get along’ stereotype that tugged on me as wildly appropriate for communion made me hold onto it. Reluctantly, but I did.
Upon closer inspection, I realized, thanks to those lovely notes at the bottom of our hymnals, that the song was not a campfire song written in the 60’s. It was, in fact, recorded much earlier in the 20’s as a spiritual. I come to find out it is a Gullah spiritual, and repeating the words to ascertain their meaning, “Kum ba ya” “Kum ba (h)ya” “Come by heya”’ “Come by here” brought me back to last summer.
It was on a visit to see George where he was stationed in Columbia, South Carolina, that we took a day trip to Charleston. Of course, I wanted to see scenes from the notebook because I’m a romantic sap. But we also stopped into an independent bookstore, of which one section was reserved for “Gullah” titles. Gullah. No idea what that was. I opened a couple of books and saw a whole different language that seemed impossible to decipher. Searching for more clues as to what this was, I looked to the front of one book that was entitled, “Gullah Tales” and read in the dedication section, “To the old black folk of the black border, whose humor, philosophy, and faith sustained them under slavery and freedom and flecked with sunshine the shadows of their lonely lives.” Ah, now I was getting somewhere. Was this like Creole? A mix of languages?
I ended up going to the counter to get more answers, where I learned that it is a dialect that originated from the slave population in that area, also called Geechee or Sea Island Creole. The base is English, and the transliteration is such that if you read it out loud, you can make out what’s being said. I also found out the book I was holding was $200. So I settled with taking a picture of the dedication that so moved me, and picked up a Gullah New Testament. (That was only $20.) And I gave it my best go. So, the gospel of matthew reads like “De Good Nyews Bout Jedus Christ Wa Matthew Write”, “The Good News about Jesus Christ What Matthew Write.” The crux of the parable of the unforgiving servant would have been, “Yasef oughta been hab mussy pon de oda saabant, jes like A been hab mussy pon ya, ainty?’” Generally: “Yourself oughta been have mercy upon the other servant, just like I been have mercy upon you, right?” NRSV: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” Interesting, I thought that the Gullah translation chose servant rather than slave. Both are acceptable translations of “Doulous” in the Greek. It highlights the similarities in the ancient world between being a servant and slave, as a slave in ancient Greece and Rome around the time of Christ was more akin to what we would now call an indentured servant.
Think now back to the parable, what that shares with us. If a slave’s debt is remitted, then the slave/servant was no longer held accountable to the master. He could be free. Instead, of reveling in the freedom and passing that along to another, this slave in the parable decides to entrap another. Within the forgiveness of debt, a line we say each Sunday during the LORD’s prayer, we are harkening to the freedom we have been given, our own release, and the way in which we are to share that with others.
That’s something of a superpower we have been given. The ability to free others in forgiveness, ourselves being freed. I saw a movie this weekend with remarkable Christian themes, and it’s not what you would expect! It wasn’t the Shack. (Although, I am open to a movie field trip with anyone who would like to go.) The movie was, of all things, Logan. While I like sci-fi, I wasn’t terribly excited, but George is home and wanted to see it. I was struck - at the end of the day, you have a movie about Mexican immigrant children commodified by an American company for their powers, seeking asylum across the border in Canada. Logan, the title character, helps them achieve this. In it we are taken through the strength and frailty of growing older, the hope of another generation, and the sheer determination, courage, and tender humility of children. The children in this rendering are not simpering, but rather, fiercely strong and acquainted with what Christ calls “stumbling”. (This is not a typical , it is critical social commentary and heart work to watch.)
Often when I’ve read in the past about being as a child, I would typically go back to the idea of the garden of Eden, and innocence, and a kind of simplicity without knowledge. Faith that is blind, unspoiled. But seeing this movie, I had to ask myself, do you remember being a child? It was awful! Everything was a big deal, was traumatic, was rapid change and required more resilience than I have now, I know. And somehow, it was still something I longed for a very long time, in some ways I still do. I remember being a teenager and looking back to my younger self and saying, “What happened to that girl? These social pressures meant nothing to her. These hurts were only so important as they were prioritized to be overcome. She was so brave. She was so free. ” One woman recalling the same feeling described it to me this way: “I saw this picture of me by the sea, in my bathing suit before the waves crashing behind me, my fist resting easily on my jutted-out hip, and I missed that girl inside of me, that free girl.”
I wonder now, if when Christ asks us to be as a child, it is that we may reclaim that free, brave self. That self that is not unaccustomed to stumbling, but knows the freedom of forgiveness in spite of it, knows the sheer release of moving through the next challenge, the next mistake, the next rise up. Just take a moment and recall for yourself the strength of that child you once were, the one who survived, the one who managed to grow. I know sometimes I have trouble accessing that free child, being God’s forgiven and forgiving child. I even have trouble remembering her. And while there are so many reasons to come to the LORD’s table together, to “geda togeda” as it says in the Gullah translation, or “gather together”, it’s to help each other remember who we are, that we are children of God, that we belong to God and each other no matter what - truly whatever we have done or could do - God’s love knows no limit for us. It is an invitation to remember, remember the God-children we are, and the realm of God that is a place of freedom in forgiveness. Brothers and sisters, come, let us eat and drink together, that we may remember.