This written for and originally published on the Outside Church Walls blog
Maya Angelou died today. She was a great inspiration to me. She lived part of her early life in Arkansas, my home state, in a world that might as well have been another planet due to the great chasm then, and even now, between the world of white privilege and the world of the African-American in the south. She did in fact, “rise” above that and taught us all.
My wife and I stood in the freezing cold of Washington DC, at the first Clinton Inauguration, and listened to Angelou read her own wonderful poem written for that day, On the Pulse of Morning. When it came out in print, I bought a copy, sent it to her at Wake Forest, with a letter telling her I was from Arkansas, and was so inspired by the poem, and her, and asked if she would sign the book and send it back. I sent it thinking I would never see it again. In about three weeks it came back to me, signed, to my wife and I. She stayed in touch with “the people.”
In the 1990 Paris Review, Angelou was asked, “You once told me that you write lying on a made-up bed with a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible. What’s the function of the Bible?”
“The language of all the interpretations, the translations, of the Judaic Bible and the Christian Bible, is musical, just wonderful. I read the Bible to myself; I’ll take any translation, any edition, and read it aloud, just to hear the language, hear the rhythm, and remind myself how beautiful English is. Though I do manage to mumble around in about seven or eight languages, English remains the most beautiful of languages. It will do anything,” she replied.
The Paris Review reporter then asked, “Do you read it to get inspired to pick up your own pen?”
“For melody. For content also. I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business,” Angelou asserted. “It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, ‘Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety.'”
She continued, “The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it. And then in the evening, if you’re honest and have a little courage, you look at yourself and say, ‘Hmm. I only blew it 86 times. Not bad.”
She died at age 86. She may have blown it 86 times, but she made it a real, reality, many, many more times, and inspired us all to remember that Christianity is not something you accomplish, it is not a static state, it is not something you claim and hold or possess. It is instead something you work at, live, try and fail, and though it is the path you have chosen, it is not part of the path to run down those who have chosen another one, or none you recognize at all. In essence she reminded us that when we decide to not love or care for all just because they have not chosen the same path, we have ceased being the very thing we claim, we have ceased practicing the faith we say we love. I believe she took us outside church walls in almost all she shared and wrote. She reminded us that we can claim anything with words, we can stand in beautifully grand and holy monuments to our God, we can sit resolved at our place at the front of the line, and none of it mean a thing in the end. Christianity is a practice. And practice is what we need a lot more of, inside, and outside church walls.