Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 37:1-15) transports me to a graveyard lying deep beneath the waters of Fontana Lake, where the legendary Cherokee martyr Tsali and two of his sons are buried. Tsali was a farmer, living with his family in relative isolation away from the political turmoils facing the principal peoples, who were being rounded up and herded onto the Trail of Tears toward Oklahoma. News of this action finally reached him as he was plowing his fields, and legend has it that a vision came to him, a vision of his people remaining there in the mountain lands of the southern Appalachians. The soldiers eventually discovered Tsali’s little cabin, and captured him and his family for deportation. Along the way to the Trail, Tsali’s wife suffered some abuse at the hands of a soldier, and he retaliated, leaving one soldier dead while the others escaped. Tsali’s family fled into the hills, not knowing that there were upwards of a thousand other Cherokee hiding out in the mountains, attempting to escape the fate of exile. General Winfield Scott made a proposal, that if Tsali would surrender, the other fugitives would be allowed to remain on their native land. Tsali agreed; he and two of his sons came down from Clingman’s Dome and were summarily executed, while his wife and youngest son were spared. These two survivors, along with the thousand others, became the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. Tsali became a folk hero for the tribe, with his sacrificial surrender including these last words: I have a little boy. If he is not dead, tell him the last words of his father were that he must never go beyond the Father of Waters, but die in the land of his birth. It is sweet to die in one’s native land and be buried by the margin of one’s native stream.
The poet who penned Psalm 37 created a legend of his own, commemorating the surrender of one who was able to live faithfully on the land, despite being surrounded by wicked evildoers who sought to drive him away. The Psalmist had a vision very much like Tsali’s, that one day the oppressed people would live again on the land. One day the just cause of the faithful who had surrendered would shine like the noonday sun. For the Psalmist, though, the surrender was not to an Army General, it was to God. It involved surrendering the toxic weapons of anger and rage that lead to evil responses to evil. It involved not being preoccupied with an evildoer who succeeds in his way when he carries out his schemes. While the wicked may plot against the righteous and grit their teeth at them, the Lord laughs, because the Lord knows how the story ends. The time of wickedness would one day end, and the faithful would enjoy the land in peace.
Such a vision implies another kind of surrender, a surrender of the cynicism and despair and hopelessness that a corrupted culture saturated with poisonous politics and incivility engenders. Just today, the top headline of our local newspaper read Republicans Drop “Evil Queen” Ad. The local Republican party has been putting up anti-Obama billboards around town; I noticed one just this morning coming into west Asheville, right next to a Play Cherokee casino advertisement. I wondered when I saw the headlines if they had planned to photo-shop Obama in drag. Then when I read the article I was aghast when I learned that the “evil queen” in reference was a friend, Holly Jones, a civic leader who has been a fierce advocate for children and families while Executive Director of the YWCA, as well as a solid voice for affordable housing and environmental protection and human rights during 7 years on City Council and now 4 years on the County Commission. For a time, Holly and I attended the same church. My wife Kim did some work with Holly’s husband Bob in his Poetry Alive! project. We have enjoyed watching their 10 year daughter, Gabby, grow up and blossom. When I find the rage at such outrageous personal attacks welling up inside me, I realize the need to channel some Tsali and Psalm 37. Feeling the toxic air filling my spirit leads me to question, what is it that I need to surrender, to breathe out, and still live faithfully on the land? I struggle with finding faithful ways to respond that still allow me to surrender my ego, my personal investment in outcomes, as I live here on the margins of my native stream (a stream that Tsali might have fished, for all I know). It all takes me back to the practice of prayer, centering prayer, welcoming prayer, surrendering prayer. It helps to know that these attacks have only strengthened Holly’s determination to help shape a better community for her daughter and for all children. It also helps to remember that the Lord is laughing, knowing how stories like these end.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc. Note: If you mouse over the artwork some information about the image will pop up.