Transforming the Ordinary into the Extraordinary
The Slave Poet
She came from a rather ordinary background for an African slave. Born in Senegal on the African continent about 1753, she was kidnapped at the age of 7 or 8, stuffed inside the cargo hull of a slave ship and miraculously survived the long arduous journey to New England. She was named Phillis after the ship that brought her to America and Wheatley after prominent Boston merchant who purchased the frail young girl. John Wheatley had a wholesale business, real estate, warehouses, wharf, and owned a schooner. Susannah, his wife was a devoted Christian.1
The Wheatley's brought Phillis to church where she was baptized at 18. They also saw to her education. They noticed that she was a quick learner. By the age of 13 she was reading the Bible, ancient history, mythology, and classical literature. She could even read a little Latin. The Wheatley's also allowed her time to write poetry. Her first poem was about two men who nearly drowned at sea and their faith in God. When her mistress's spiritual hero, George Whitefield died she wrote a poem in his honor that became immensely popular. She wrote
sermons in unequall'd accents flow'd,
Whitefield no more exerts his
The majority of her poems were written on the occasion of a death. She penned these verses to the grieving parents of a one year old:
The angels view him with
John Wheatley recognized the beauty of Phillis' poems but had a difficult time convincing anyone to publish them. Very few publishers could believe that a black woman had the intellectual gifts to produce such work. Wheatley was forced to take Phillis to England to solicit a publishing house. While in England she penned a poem for King George. The poem opened with these lines
YOUR subjects hope, dread
While critics agree that the literary talents of this woman were remarkable, they disagree over how much of an influence was either American poetry in general or African-American literature. Benjamin Franklin loved her poems but Thomas Jefferson had a low view of their quality. However, I think that it is rather extraordinary that a slave girl in the 1700s could actually earn a living even for a brief period by publishing her poems. Phillis Wheatley's life is example of how God can take an ordinary life and transform it into the extraordinary.
The story of Phillis' transformation is nearly as great a miracle as Jesus first. When the slave traders auctioned a pathetically frail seven year old to a Bostonian merchant, they did not expect that she would be anything other than an ordinary slave. When the first disciples entered the wedding hall with Jesus they were not expecting anything extraordinary to occur. They thought that they were attending a party. So what happened?
The occasion for the story is a wedding in the village of Cana. Weddings were grand affairs in ancient Judaism. They were viewed as the continuation of the story of creation in which God created them male and female and blessed them so that they would be fruitful and multiply. Weddings were seen as the uniting of two lives and becoming one flesh.3 They were both sacred occasions and also times for celebration with friends and family. The wedding festival normally lasted seven days. John tells us that this wedding had been going on for three days.
In ancient Judaism no party was complete without wine. It was said, “Without wine there can be no joy.”4 However, on this occasion someone miscalculated. Either they underestimated the guests or the supplies and all the wine had been consumed. This was not a laughing matter. Such an occurrence would be considered a severe insult. The guests would remember the offense for years.
Traditionally, authors considered Mary's statement to her son as a request to perform a slight of hand miracle. Presbyterian preacher, Earl Palmer disagrees. He argues very effectively that both Jesus and Mary were responsible for bringing wine to the party. Jesus however, is returning from the desert where he spent time with his cousin John the Baptist. He undoubtedly did not bring his contribution and Mary like any good Jewish mother, is reminding him that every action has its consequences.
“Jesus, you were the one who showed up without your portion of the wine and with additional guests, so you are the one who needs to do something about it”.
For whatever his reason, Jesus goes beyond his mother's intention and tells the servants to fill the six purification jars with water and then take them to the master of the banquet. Those six purification jars are saturated with symbolic meaning. There is the size, the number, and the purpose of the jars. Each conveyed a religious message to the gathered guests at this wedding feast. But for me the content of the jars—the water—stands out the most. Jesus used common ordinary water and changed it into something extraordinary.
I do not know about you but this gives me a lot of hope and encouragement. I seldom feel very extraordinary. On bad days I feel much less than ordinary. I am amazed that God would chose me to do something out of the ordinary. I am amazed sometimes that God can even work with a broken pot such as me.
On his last ride into Jerusalem, Jesus himself, implied that God did not need people to do his bidding. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to tell the people to stop using messianic psalms to praise him. Jesus replied that if he stopped them the rocks would cry out his praises. God does not need us to accomplish his plans but in his love he transforms ordinary people like us and does some amazing things with them.
We may not possess the raw potential of a Phillis Wheatley but each one of us has our own unique and latent talent that God is seeking to transform. Phillis began as water and God used the Wheatley's to change her into wine. God is constantly doing that with people who are available. In that sense we are very much like those purification jars. They were able to be used because they were accessible. They were close at hand.
How accessible are you? We have a habit of singing “here I am Lord,” but when God actually calls us to do something, we find a dozen excuses as to why we cannot do it.
Churches are very similar, especially small churches. The easiest thing to do is to create reasons why God cannot take an ordinary church like Crossroads and make it extraordinary. But most of the time people just wring their hands and whine,
“Oh we can't take care of a garden that size and produce a thousand pounds of produce we are just a small church.”
“Oh we can't afford those windows and a new roof, our members live on fixed incomes.”
“Oh we can't reach out to the neighborhood because we would not know what to say.”
There is nothing extraordinary about you and me in our natural state. We are just ordinary people just like that water was just ordinary water. But God wants to make something exquisite out of us. Are you ready and willing to be transformed?
When Phillis walked off the slave ship that carried her from Africa to New England, she could not speak one word in English. But God transformed that illiterate girl into a literary genius who would capture the attention of Boston's notables, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, George Whitefield who was the Billy Graham of the early colonies and even the King of England. I wonder what God would be willing to do if he found once again some other ordinary water.
1“African Americans and the End of Slavery in America,” The Massachusetts Historical Society, http://www.masshist.org/endofslavery/?queryID=57.
2Quotes are from The Guttenberg Project, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/409/409.txt
3TDNT, I, p. 698.
4J. H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, Paged Continuously., ed. Alan Hugh McNeile (New York: C. Scribner' Sons, 1929), 1:75.
@2008-10 The material on this site may only be used for non-commercial purposes.
Send a note to the Pastor
Email: pastorjohn @ crossroadspc.org
(Hint: Spaces have been added to confuse unscrupulous spamers. To email Pastor John, remove the spaces.)
Crossroads Presbyterian Church
1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390
Office - (248) 624-3821