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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Defiant Imaginations, Part 1: Thoughts on Malcolm, Ruby, and Louis

Absorbing and responding to the Ava DuVernay film event, When They See Us, will take some time and more than one post here.  As I thought through what I might want to write, I found myself thinking back over some previous learning that seems to be relevant to what I have seen in this film.  So this first post goes back over a series of insights initially spurred by a textbook I used in the Shaw University undergraduate course, Foundations of Knowledge and Ethics.  It was an introduction offered to first-year students on the European and African American traditions of philosophical and religious ethics.  One of the thematic claims of the book has become an important part of my understanding of how persons and communities must respond to systems of injustice, and it continues to stir my moral imagination as years go by.

Robert Franklin's book Liberating Visions examines the lives and words of four important African American leaders who offer powerful moral visions for humanity.  He assigns each one a thematic adjective for the kind of life a person should live:  Booker T. Washington, the adaptive person; W. E. B. DuBois, the strenuous person; Martin Luther King, Jr., the integrative person; and Malcolm X, the defiant person.  Analyzing their views in light of character ethics, Franklin helps the reader see a social vision of the virtuous life, human fulfillment, and the good society through their eyes.  All are powerful social insights worth examining, but Franklin's interpretation of Malcolm X is the one that the music of  When They See Us has brought to the forefront of my thinking.

In theological studies, the term "prophetic imagination" has become a popular term.  Walter Brueggemann writes in The Prophetic Imagination that the tradition of prophetic ministry from Moses to Jeremiah to Jesus engages God's people in dismantling oppression and reconstructing a world built on justice in loving communities.  J. Deotis Roberts plays on the popular Protestant and Baptist theme of the "priesthood of all believers" in his ecclesiological book The Prophethood of Black Believers to emphasize how the black churches have contributed to a richer understanding of the task of the church than mere comfort and religious observance, extending into challenging injustice and working for the common good.  This prophetic calling finds a particular expression in Franklin's use of "defiant" to describe the imagination.  Defiance is a crucial element and a helpful descriptor of certain ways that the prophetic calling may find expression and embodiment.

Over twenty years ago, I was invited to participate in a conference on moral education sponsored by  Shaw's Program in Ethics and Values and Duke's Kenan Institute for Ethics.  I had anticipated following a keynote address by Robert Coles--no small task.  I was doing some research into his work in preparation, and it led me to reflect further on Franklin's interpretation of Malcolm. Eventually I presented my paper under the title "Political Realism and the Defiant Imagination." 

Realism is that school of thought in politics and theology which tends to fall back on the balance of powers mode of reasoning.  Keeping all the existing powers in a condition of balance or detente--not at one another's throats, but also not stirring much change toward better justice--is considered the best one can do in the real world.  Hence, realism offers little beyond incremental change for those who suffer under the crushing weight of oppression.  The very idea that someone might challenge the existing powers is considered both ludicrous and dangerous by the realist.  As Franklin realized, Malcolm ultimately did not let his imagination be captured by political realism.

Malcolm had been a budding, intelligent, and hopeful child, doing well in school until his early adolescent years.  Despite his giftedness, one of the teachers he had respected and trusted most advised him that he should not have ambitions to be a lawyer, to take up a profession of intellect and prestige.  He should be realistic and aim to take up a trade, a solid way to make money that would not require him to transgress into the realms of power and status in which he would not be welcome.

The story of Malcolm's life which follows that period shows his dissolution from the prior ambition to achieve into a life that accommodates itself to the world's worst expectations of him.  The white world, the world of powerful people, would expect Malcolm not to amount to much.  They would look at him and see something dangerous, something damaged, something likely to be trouble, and not someone.  They would not see him.  They would see a phantasm, a stereotype, an inevitability.  To some extent, one can look at his life and conclude that Malcolm walked down a path that fulfilled what the world saw in him.  They remade him in their image of his destiny.

Franklin recognizes, however, that Malcolm does not ultimately remain what society had expected him to be.  After being imprisoned for breaking and entering and larceny, Malcolm's original intellectual curiosity and drive began to resurface, largely because of the nurturing friendship of members of the Nation of Islam.  Malcolm reports that he began to copy the dictionary, line by line, page by page, to improve his reading and facility of the English language.  He began to read extensively in history, philosophy, and political thought.  He was instructed in the teachings of the Nation of Islam and trained in their discipline of a life in submission to Allah.  He saw that to accomplish greater things, he had to set aside impulsiveness and raging emotion.  He learned that the limits that had been placed on his life were artificial and externally imposed.  He learned to defy the expectations of society and aim for something greater and more in tune with his true nature.

Malcolm's defiance drove him to gain the education he had missed before.  He became a powerful speaker and capable leader.  He applied his practical knowledge to become a strategic thinker and incisive analyst of the political scene.  And when he was confronted with the inadequacy of the orthodoxies that he had previously accepted, he pursued with relentless critical effort the truth of historic Islam.  Malcolm represented a defiance courageous enough to challenge the existing power relations, to say what must be said, and to be persistent in the face of powerful forces aligned against him.  His radical critique conceded nothing in his effort to dismantle the dominant cultural systems which oppressed African Americans.

Remembering this account of Malcolm's life and his emergence as a leading intellectual of his time, I found myself drawn to Robert Coles's account of the remarkable young Ruby Bridges as another example of defiant imagination.  At age 6, her parents guided her to be one of the first four children to integrate the New Orleans public school system.  She was the only black student enrolling in her particular elementary school.  The white parents took their children out of the school.  Only one teacher agreed to teach in a school with a black child.  So Ruby's teacher taught the class with only one student. 

Federal Marshalls escorted Ruby to and from school because of the rowdy, violent protests that surrounded the school and the streets leading up to it.  Ruby was not particularly scared by the crowds.  She said they looked and sounded like Mardi Gras parties, with shouting and throwing things.  So she bravely walked in and out of the school each day.  Eventually, some white parents brought their children back to the school and the protests subsided.  Still, Ruby remained alone in her classroom.  In the next school year, the actual integrated classrooms began to come about in New Orleans.

Robert Coles became very involved with Ruby and her family, offering psychological care as much as was needed.  He learned a great deal in the process.  One of the central stories that he tells concerns an observation by her classroom teacher.  As Ruby was approaching the school, the teacher observed the little girl stopping, turning to face the yelling crowd, and saying something to them.  When Ruby got to class, the teacher asked about what she had seen.  Ruby explained that she had not been talking to the people, but to God.  Coles asked later for a fuller explanation.  Ruby told him that every day she stopped, usually before getting to the school, and prayed to God for the people.  That day she had forgotten until she was at the school steps.  Cole was shocked that her feelings toward this hateful crowd were leading to her have concern for them and pray for them.  She went on to explain that the prayer she said every day was to ask God to forgive them because they did not know what they were doing.

Her family and church had already instilled in Ruby a way of living in the world that was shocking to Coles and to many others.  They had joined a long procession of courageous defiers unwilling to let conditions of injustice stand.  They defied the barriers placed against the education she and other black children deserved, putting bodies in action to challenge the social order. 

Moreover, her family and community was already embedded in an alternative moral narrative.  She had understood the loving response of Jesus toward those who had done him wrong, and in defiance of the expectation that she should be afraid or should return hatred for hatred, she was seeking the good of those who wanted to do her harm.  She hoped against hope that her opponents could be changed, and she and her community imagined a better world could come about in which enemies become allies, even friends.  As an adult, Ruby Bridges still affirms that we must go against the grain of the world if we want to see change come for the better.

I became aware of a third example of defiant imagination during the period of Everly's illness.  A friend had given her a recording of "What a Wonderful World," made famous by Louis Armstrong.  Everly's first reaction was irritation.  She has never been a person who wanted to paint a rosy picture when things were not rosy.  No romanticizing and no pretending--she liked to simply say what she saw, what she felt.  So she could see no reason to play "What a Wonderful World" when she felt awful and the prognosis was not promising.  In what world could one call it wonderful to know that a person is dying of cancer at the peak of her life?  I understood her point.

It occurred to me that I had never given that song much thought.  I also wondered why someone might think it an appropriate recording for a friend who was fighting through cancer and chemotherapy.  But I knew that the friend was also not one to sugar-coat life's struggles or try to positive think oneself out of real problems.  I bought a Louis Armstrong album and took some time to listen to him sing the song.  I read a little about its themes and its popularity.  I began to understand that this kind of song represents a particular kind of defiance when sung by people who have been dealt every injustice and disadvantage by those with privilege and power.

There is a stance to take to the world when it treats you as if you are inferior, outcast, and unworthy, that defies those treatments.  It is a way of knowing the good, the true, and the beautiful that disavows the knowledge projected by the powerful.  Refusing to accept the world as it is offered, the defiant imagination of the oppressed recognizes that the good things in the world also belong to them.  They know the truth of the world, that it is not what the lies of the powerful would assert to be true.  They know that the beauty of the world, perhaps always mixed with ugliness, yet remains beauty.  In defiance, Armstrong can sing about the particular sights of natural beauty that he passes, the kindness of heart and soul experienced in community, and the hope of a better life as the struggle for liberation presses from one generation to the next.  Living in a world overshadowed by injustice, he can recognize that world as false, as the great lie.  In contrast, the truth remains that it is a wonderful world.

This is not the same as positive thinking.  It is a way of thumbing the nose at the oppressor.  It is a stone-faced challenge to the world's claim on one's life.  It's the laughter of one who knows that the joke is not on her.  It's not pollyannish blindness, but clear sight which sees both the wrong and the right.  It's not pretending, but a kind of honesty that knows tragedy as well as beauty.

I've been motivated to develop this discussion of the defiant imagination after having watched the powerful miniseries, When They See Us.  The title itself focuses on vision.  Presuppositions about the nature of the world and the people in it operate as filters on what human beings see.  The term "normative gaze" identifies a biased perspective shared by those who hold power in society and culture--their way of seeing things defines reality because it is assumed to be the normative way to see.

Yet the words and actions of those who are not in power can challenge the assumed truth.  Seeing beyond the current busyness, they may glimpse a truth not polluted or distorted by the interests of the oppressor.  Taken as part of a declaration, the film title names the way that white people see black people, one which automatically puts black people in jeopardy.  Taken as part of an interrogatory, the title asks whether the black young men have been truly seen at all.  In this case, the young men are waiting to be seen for who they really are, not for what the fantasies of white culture imagine them to be.  A defiant imagination gives its holder the possibility of challenging and overcoming the normative gaze of the oppressor.

The film project itself is an exercise of defiant imagination.  It challenges the dominant narrative, the way that the young men and their families were "seen" by the newspaper reporters, the police, the prosecutors, and by many of their neighbors.  In the next posting, I will discuss how various songs in the soundtrack of When They See Us help to feed a defiant imagination.


Sunday, June 09, 2019

Loneliness and the Mystery of Friendship--Walking with the God of Pentecost

A year ago, I was taking a couple of days for exploring historical sites about the conflicts between the European settlers and the Dakota in Minnesota after an academic conference in St. Paul.  While in St. Paul, I had been with some long-time friends as well as some brand new acquaintances as part of our regional group of Baptist professors who take a weekend a year to hang out with our Catholic colleagues, talk about theology, Bible, history, etc., as well as worship and party together.

As I mentioned in a recent blog post, this time of year brings out more intense emotions for me because of various memories from my life spent with Everly, including the last weeks of her life.  Last year was no different.  I found myself deeply appreciative of the time spent with my old and new colleagues.  We worked on our academic topics together, and we also learned about one another's lives, whether as graduate students or teaching faculty.  A group of us were presenting a panel dealing with various baptist statements on sexuality which had been published in the past couple of years.  In the midst of getting ready for the panel, news kept breaking about Paige Patterson's history of sexist attitudes and sermons, as well as his overt attempts to repress reports of rape and sexual harassment in his role as seminary president.  The main point of mentioning all this is that we were keenly engaged with one another, talking about matters of significance for the church, the academy, and the lives of our students and ourselves.

As I drove up the Minnesota highways, I found myself thinking back on time with various people during the weekend.  I had been deeply moved and surprised by a new friendship that sprung up at the meeting.  I marveled at the thoughtfulness and attention shown to me by people with whom I had not previously grown a history of exchanged kindnesses.  I found myself overwhelmed by the grace of unexpected friendships during our days together.

The other side of that warmth and gratitude as I drove alone was the realization that we had all gone our separate ways, and it would be unlikely that many, if any, of those people and I would spend time together until the next May rolled around.  So there was a weight of sadness as well.  I found myself pressing deeply into my experiences of friendship, my capacity to make friends and sustain friendships.  One of the side effects of being a student through so many degree programs is that I have developed very deep and close friendships while working with fellow students toward a degree, only to fulfill those academic years by having all of us relocate and leave one another behind.  I find that I can hold on to friendships with long breaks between contacts, but that I am not so good at keeping them steadily growing by communicating regularly while living far apart.

This inconsistent communication is a flaw in my practice of friendship.  I am too easily affected by the habits of "out of sight, out of mind."  But I think there is another key factor in how I maintain friendships that has also affected this lack of communication with people who are in remote places.  While I have often had a circle of friends with whom to enjoy talking and hanging out, I am most likely to have one or two very close friends at a time, not five or ten or twenty.  That leaves me most likely to be in a close relationship with friends who are close by, to whom I have face-to-face access, and whose lives are present and connected enough to my own that we are able to maintain a deep awareness of what is happening with each other.

For over thirty-five years, from our late teens until her death, Everly was the primary friend to whom I turned and with whom I shared my life.  Depending on where we lived at the time, there would always be one, or maybe two, other close friends.  I am an introverting type of person who can find a great deal of satisfaction entertaining my own thoughts.  It is part of what helps me be a good researcher, to gain mastery of subjects, write about them, and recall extensively from stores of knowledge to use in teaching.  Hours of focused study, thinking, or writing are not nearly as taxing of my energy and vitality as an hour or so spent in a large social gathering, especially if it involves trying to converse with people whom I have not previously met and who share little in common with my areas of expertise and knowledge.  When mingling in a crowd, telling someone that I am a theologian or an ethicist is a pretty sure-fire conversation ender.  Struggling to find common ground for conversation can quickly wear me out.

By the way, Everly was pretty much the opposite.  She gained energy from social occasions.  She was likely to find her way into being the life of the party.  She maintained many more close friendships than I seem capable of doing.  I admire all these things about her, and marvel at how her way of moving in the world was so different from mine.  I often miss one of her greatest talents.  Everly could "read" the crowd.  Now while I may be able to get a sense of a room full of people's mood or bias, she could also quickly discern the demeanor and body language of most everyone present.  Most of these signals and signs go over my head or bounce off my forehead.  I often miss the tone and tenor of what is going on between people in social gatherings, including how people are reacting to me.

Because I was driving alone, I turned on some music.  I often do some of my important thinking through the poetic insights of songwriters.  On this day, I was listening to Carrie Newcomer and the Indigo Girls, both of whom have helped me think through issues over the years.  I took note of a particular song (with a strange title) by Newcomer that day, "Cedar Rapids 10 AM."  The song's refrain is an invitation to continue in friendship.  The singer is needing some time to think, and has determined to do so by hiking up to a promontory to rest, look at the sky, and mull over what is on her mind.  She wants her friend to come join her.
Will you come with me to the ridge top?
Lay all your burdens bare, right there.
It's an invitation to honesty and struggling to get through to the truth of things.  The lyrics continue to speak of the value of deep conversations between friends.
Take away all the white noise;
It getting hard to hear.
Souls stretched as thin as tissue paper
Edged with cuts and tears....
You've always been a cup of coffee;
You've always been the cream.
You've always believed that I was better
Than I could ever dream....
So much for all the chips we've earned.
So much for all the things we've learned.
So far it is still you and me.
Dealing with the erosion of a life by the daily disrespect, frustration, and longing for something more--all that can wear someone down.  That image of being stretched, with cut and torn places scattered across a tissue-thin surface, is something I can identify with.  It's a picture of wearing away one's substance until it seems little is left, and even that remnant could dissolve so easily, with just a shred of dignity and energy left.  In some moments, even one's length of experience makes little difference for understanding, like round after round of poker, gaining chips whose exchange value  you don't care about, or knowledge that makes no difference in the current situation.  Sometimes, it is only the presence of a faithful friend that can hold one together.

Last May, having seen a a valued time with friends come to an end, and sulking a bit over the state of my own life, I was feeling that, unlike the song's character, I didn't have anyone available to hike up to the ridge top and work through whatever could be on our minds.  I was having a bout of self-pity, and I knew it.  But knowing that didn't make me feel any better about my situation.  For almost five years, I had not had Everly, my "go-to" friend.  And having returned to live in Durham, I kept seeing other close friends move away, making it harder to keep that kind of presence I need when things get hard.

I started to realize that one issue for me was that in having had Everly faithfully available as my friend for such a long part of my life, I had come to take the availability of friendship for granted.  It's not that keeping a marriage friendship functioning well isn't it's own kind of hard work.  But having grown into mostly good habits of relating with one another, I hadn't needed to put out much effort to cultivate other friendships.  With Everly gone, and later some of the other friends no longer nearby, I had come upon a new challenge to make my life work well.  The kind of friendships I needed were not just going to walk up to me day after day.  I was going to have to figure out how to work at being a better friend so that I could have friends.

I realized at that point that there were a number of people in Durham who had already been generous in their friendship toward me.  There were friends whom we had known since arriving in North Carolina in 1986, with whom our family had been through many important events in our lives.  They had not pulled back from their hospitality and availability to me.  I simply had not been taking the opportunity to spend time with them and to make sure I was a friend to them as well.  Another small group of friends who had invited me on several occasions to join them for conversations, dinner, or an outing, had not put up any barriers to my seeing them more often than I have been.  As I stated above, I was becoming aware that there were people ready to be good friends with me if I would put in more effort rather than simply waiting around to see what would happen spontaneously.  And in the year since that time, these good people and I have shared our lives and hearts in what is a pleasant relief from the pattern I had fallen into.  It's what your momma or grandma always told you--don't take good things for granted.  That was one of the insights that was dawning on me last May.

But there was another very important thing I was realizing about friendship on those highways. During my drive across the prairies of Minnesota, I spent some time reflecting on the mystery of becoming friends.  It is commonplace in contemporary popular wisdom to assume that friendship is chosen.  "You can pick your friends."  I'm not saying it's a completely empty aphorism.  When a person has "run with the wrong crowd," there may be the possibility of walking away from that set of friends, but it may not be easy in all cases.  People often try to pick their friends by picking a neighborhood to live in, a school to attend, or a club to join.  These decisions do have some impact, but whether the type of friendship that allows a person to find support, honest communication, and love will come about is not so easy to plan.

There is a mystery to friendship that can't be explained by choosing who will and won't be our friends.  The Indigo Girls song, "Mystery," reflects on this hard to explain part of becoming close to another person.  It puzzles over whether friendship happens by fate or choice.  It asks whether the unplanned and unexpected coming and going of a friendship means that it never was real.  It's likely many readers have wondered about the same kinds of questions.  The person one is sure will become his best friend is just a passing acquaintance.  The person she hardly even noticed grew to be the truest friend.  Two people who might seem to be different, even opposite, in so many ways find themselves becoming friends: "My heart the red sun. / Your heart the moon clouded."

It's common in the popular theology of the kinds of churches that I have always been part of to think of our associations, friendships, and loves to be arranged by God's plan.  I've written about my understanding of the will of God in at least four previous posts, but it seems to me that such a commonly discussed topic deserves attention again and again.  I'm not inclined to think of God as a master chess player, moving all of us pieces around a board to meet some grand plan.  I did not say that I do not believe God has plans for us, which I know to be that we ought to become more like the image of divine love revealed in Jesus Christ, living in community with those who gathered to him and found bounty and healing even without a permanent home and a truckload of possessions. 

God's will for me and for you is beloved community, and we are the agents to share in the plan and the construction of a world that bears marks of God's Reign.  Our efforts are partial, local, frail and temporary, yet they are real products of the goodness, beauty, and love in which God has made us to live.  Nor do I think of God as a scriptwriter and puppeteer.  There is not a single predetermined path for all of history.  God works in history with infinite creativity, capacity to repair and heal, and patience with the failures, shortcomings, and outright evil projects that humans get caught up in.  The calling is persistent and repeated whenever we can hear it, to turn our efforts toward the good of one another, and in loving and just ways to remake the communities in which we live.  God is in the midst of the living and unfolding story.

In either image, whether the chess master or scriptwriter, God is more remote from us than the God revealed in Jesus Christ and coming in the power of Spirit on Pentecost.  In Jesus, the Word became flesh and moved in the neighborhood.  Jesus associated with everyday people, not the boardrooms and ruling halls of the elite.  He couch surfed his way around Galilee and Judea, walked confidently through the "bad neighborhoods" of Samaria, fell in with the rough crowd and got run out of Gadara, and he built a movement of the masses that made him dangerous in the eyes of the rulers.  The Spirit came to the people and gifted them to share good news in the language of all who were present on Pentecost.  There was not a booming voice from the clouds, but the many voices in many languages of people who had learned who God is by following Jesus.

I am inclined to think of God's working out God's will in ways that accord with these manifestations of God's presence.  Rather than moving a chess piece near me to become my friend, or moving me around to make a certain person be my friend, I am inclined to think of God as a caring companion, present with us, not scripting or manipulating us as a puppets.  As we live our lives, people come our way, or we come upon people in our pilgrim journey.  We will not become fast friends with everyone we meet.  But as our companion, our guide, the one who is shaping us to be more what we are made to be, God will be at work to help us discern and appreciate the allies, friends, and beloved companions who can be part of the beauty that God intends our lives to be.  It may sometimes seem like choosing, and other times an unexpected mystery.

Thomas Aquinas echoes the words of Jesus from the gospel of John chapter 15 when he says we can grow to be friends of God (Summa Theologia, Second Part of Second Part, Question 23). With God as a friend, an ever-present companion, our prayer without ceasing opens our hearts and minds to hear the gentle prodding of God. Maybe at times it is not a gentle prodding, but a strong push to move, a wake up call to see what is right in front of us, or opening our ears to hear the cry that requires our response.  In this way, God leads us into opportunities for friendship, by being the one who cares enough to get us going in the right direction, to speak up to greet someone, and to above all to listen to people.

If I think about some of my own experiences (and I'm not going to give a long inventory), there is much that is unexpected and unchosen in the process of our becoming friends.  One very close friend was a graduate school colleague of mine, but everything about our demography other than being theology graduate students worked against our becoming close friends.  However, when we each had a three-year-old daughter taking a Saturday morning dance class, dads with coffee and time on their hands struck up a friendship and found they were able to talk honestly about the most difficult things they were dealing with at work, home, and church.  An unanticipated intersection of daddy responsibilities created the groundwork for a long-lasting friendship. 

In another case, an acquaintance came to offer prayer for me one Sunday during worship, and the conversation that followed led to recognizing a deep commonality in our longing to deepen our loving relationships with our children.  If an observer judged by our different ages and background, one probably would not lay odds on a budding friendship coming from what could have been merely the formalities of performing a religious duty.  If this post were a study of all my friendships, I could easily describe other cases that could be even more unexpected friendships.

Friendship isn't strictly a choice.  It emerges out of contingent occurrences.  It comes as a gift more than as a choice.  Friendships grow as a kind of grace.  That was another lesson I was beginning to learn last May.  I can't predict where friendship may arise and grow.  Half a year earlier had met an academic colleague from another school almost by chance as we were participating in the same conference.  It was a break in the programming, so we sat down and became acquainted, learning a few things of interest about one another.  I enjoyed the conversation, but I didn't expect much to come of it. 

By May, we had met several more times.  I was surprised that someone would make that much effort to get to know me, not being in the same town, the same academic discipline, or having very similar networks or background.  By then it was already clear to me that grace was at work to allow our friendship to blossom.  As I indicated in the first part of this post, I was struggling both with needing  a friend, and with needing to be a better friend.  And here without any plan or effort on my part, a friend had walked into my life.  It's reasonable to say that I was puzzling over the same kinds of questions Emily Saliers was in the lyrics of "Mystery."
Why do you spend this time with me?
May be an equal mystery....
Psychologists and other social scientists, philosophers and theologians--we all can bring some general insights into understanding friendships:  characteristics of good friendships, the likelihood of friendships to last, the needs friendships bring, the goods friendships help to produce, the virtues that support friendship and vices that undermine it, examples of good and bad friendships.  When all is said and done, a great deal comes down to the simple acceptance of who shows up in one's life, the contingent events that get our attention, the opportunities we take to show concern for someone, the willingness to be honest and vulnerable, and the interconnection that grows from having a history with one another that has made us better people. 

I think people can reasonably put in the effort, even choose, to become the kinds of persons ready to be friends with others.  Yet there is a remainder in the narrative of friendship that is housed in mystery. Perhaps you met at that time that your soul was "stretched as thin as tissue paper," with so many cuts and torn places you did not know how you could make it much farther without someone to share the burdens.  It could be that sitting to share a cup of coffee, maybe adding some cream to soften the bitterness, led to that mysterious realization that your friend can see good and power in you that you have not been able to find--"You've always believed that I was better than I could ever dream."

I'll close out this far too verbose post with perhaps the most powerful lines of the Indigo Girls' song that say a great deal to me about entering the grace and gift of friendship when loneliness seems to be the only possibility.
Maybe that's all that we need--
Is to meet in the middle of impossibility.
We're standing at opposite poles,
Equal partners in a mystery.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Language of Grief and Loss, and Living in the Afterloss

I learned a new word from an old friend:  "the afterloss."  It's what he calls the new stage of life we enter after a loss, an era of grief and change.  I'll say more about it later in this post.  I've been doing some grief work lately--it's that time of year for me between my wedding anniversary and the anniversary of Everly's death.  In the process I've been thinking about some of the language we use to describe our loss and grieving, and maybe stretching and extending it to help me understand my own situation at this time.

The imagery of a "broken heart" is powerful to describe some of the struggle of dealing with loss through death or broken relationships. The heaviness in one’s body, the dark cloud invading one’s thinking, and the erratic welling up of tears all give the sense of something broken. Difficulty thinking about what comes next and the inability to focus on plans or complex tasks are all features of grieving that imply brokenness in my experience.

Of course, figurative language of this sort has its limits. Literal breaking usually applies to solid, rigid items or to machines or processing mechanisms of some sort. While the image of breaking does fit well enough with what loss and grief are like, it also seems that mixing the metaphors is common and helpful.

Grief as a "wound" is another image. This language makes a more direct connection to the organic, fleshy nature of our humanity and its bodily experience of grief.  In this case, rather than breaking, the image of ripping flesh, or a deep cut into our bodies speaks vividly about the pain and trauma of loss and grief. A loved one’s death, or events or conversation which change or end a beloved relationship, can feel traumatic as if tearing open a wound in one’s body.  In the same imagery, we often think of the healing process as stitching a wound and forming scars on our hearts.

I want to riff on what may be another aspect of this image of a wound. Beyond the initial ripping or cutting, there is often also a slow, subsequent, repeated tearing that extends our woundedness.

Very common for people who suffer loss is the experience of turning to speak to the loved one who is not there anymore. Or it may be the thought that constantly pops up, “I need to talk to her about this,” followed by the remembrance that it will not be possible.

The constant little tearing may occur when the grieving person remembers plans already made. There may have been a trip planned, tickets for a concert, dinner plans, a party, a hike, or some other outing. But these will not happen.

Longer term plans also rip the would a little more. For me, Everly’s untimely death meant she would not be present for our children’s future graduations, and even more painful, their potential marriages or birth of children. In all losses, people lose not only concrete plans, but also imagined futures.  These are dreams of a joyful future which have not always even been expressed.  Perhaps buried in one's hopes are dreams of times spent in travel, in couple time not available during the hectic middle years of life, or seasons with family or friends who have been out of reach in the midst of one’s work life. 

My friend Benjamin Allen, whose website and Facebook sites both are about grief and healing in the afterloss, insists above all that we not try to think of grief as a finite process. To be in grief, especially but not only after a death, is to enter a life era that he calls “afterloss.” In this era, we learn and adapt to a new stage of relationship in which who or what we have lost is still present to us and in us, but in new ways. At least this is how I’ve interpreted what he is saying. I walked with him for a short time through the horrific tragedy of loss from illness that eventually took the lives of his wife and two children. I was very young still--in my mid twenties. It was difficult for me to comprehend the depth of his pain. I remember times that I said awkward things to him out of the pat answers I had overheard while growing up, dumb cliches that it took me many more years to unlearn.

This stage of living in grief while also healing brings many complications. It's the era in which those smaller, later ripping events revive and repeat grief.  My greatest loss, the death of Everly, means that all of my remaining years include her presence in making me who I am and in shaping my dreams. Her absence and losing her affect my work and my relationships, and in a way the pain of her loss is mixed with all the other losses, small or large, that follow. 

The painful failure I went through in my mid-thirties as I saw a church breaking apart around me and myself impotent to make a difference also lives with me.  In that time, I lost the naïveté that told me I could be a leader whom people would enthusiastically follow because of my "brilliance," my skill in speech and writing, and my sincerity in presenting my vision.  Naïveté both overstated my talent and understated the struggle that we have in our communities when we try to see truth together in the midst of our divisions. That loss makes me less sanguine about leading change, less confident in my gifts, and rightly less messianic in my self-estimation.

The variety of losses one endures are intertwined. Thus each little tear of the heart intersects the ones that preceded it.  All my memories of leadership failure are linked with the ways that Everly held me up when I was stumbling and helped me see when I was blind.

Part of the afterloss, for instance in my era of widowhood, is recognizing what is lost and stays lost. I do not have the same yokefellow that Everly was to hold me up when I stumble. I don’t mean that there is no one. Many friends have been present to keep me from staying on the ground when I fall. My adult children have had to learn that their daddy needs them in ways they previously did not have to face. 

Besides help when I stumble, it is also clear how deep the loss of Everly's discerning eyes and insights is for me.  I am constantly reminded how I miss those gifts, and that I do not have a clear way to replace them.

In the almost six years since I have been without her, I have faced numerous difficult life decisions. I usually feel that I am walking blind. I do my best to call on people who know me and care for me and believe in me for guidance and help.  They do help.  And I habitually work through comparisons of options to try to weigh what is best.  But I have yet to press forward into such important decisions without finding myself surprised, even disappointed or shocked, perhaps misled by my self-focus or by my rosy-glasses vision.  I have convinced myself that I have a glimpse of what may come next, only to find out I am blind to what probably should have been obvious.  These new losses are among the continuing tears at the wounds of the heart.  At this point in my life, at my low points, it sometimes seems the best description is that I have become an old fool.

Now let me qualify that. I'm just sharing a feeling I have had, but not the general stance toward the world in which I live.  Most of the time I feel highly competent and able to offer a great deal to my family, my friends, and the world. So I’m not saying that I don’t ever believe in myself. I’m not asking for people to call me up to remind me how much of a blessing I have been to them. I fully believe that it is true that my life blesses others and is fulfilling for me; therefore, I press on toward the high calling, to take hold of that for which I was taken hold of. So no need to get worried about Mikey today.

However, in the afterloss, I would say it’s pretty much expected that low times will come. I reckon that's true even for people who have never endured a great loss, but in a different way.  And it seems to me that in the struggle to restore some equilibrium, to find some new path, and to fill in some of the holes in one’s life, the era of grieving can often seem to be repeating what already happened. New losses overlay the old ones. To revert to the wound metaphor, old scars reopen, and pain returns to the very place where it was most intense.

I’ve had almost six years of widowhood. Throughout my life, I’ve known many women and men whose widow years have meant they stayed alone until they died.  My dear grandma lived 29 years after the death of my granddaddy. She moved around to stay with family members, mainly her two daughters and her sister. That meant she lived in our home part of each year the entire time that I was growing up. I was a kid and never gave much thought to what her loneliness might have been like. Now I wonder more. I was her darling, and we often sat and talked while she rocked in her rocking chair.

She found a way to share her life with others that gave her a level of satisfaction that I never really questioned. Partly, it seems that her generational outlook of being a mother who cared for a household found some fulfillment in still using those gifts and that calling toward her children and grandchildren even after her beloved husband had died too young.  She cooked and cleaned and cared for us, and she also spent her time reading, traveling, and doing what she wanted to in her "retirement."  I don't recall her talking about wondering what comes next.  Now I wonder what she would have said had I asked those kinds of questions.

In my years of a widow's grief, I find myself regularly wondering and questioning what comes next. That’s what got me started writing again last week, as a beloved colleague and I were discussing her own search for direction in the next season in her life.  Every once in a while I think I may have uncovered a treasure what will fill some of the space that grief and loss have opened up. I think that maybe I have discovered a salve that will help scars continue to heal.  I think I may be looking down a path that could calm my restlessness and make me feel more at home.  So far, it’s mostly still more stumbling, a glimpse of beauty that remains just out of reach. The beauty is real. The treasure is priceless. The path was a possibility. Yet I had expectations that were too great for what could happen.

I’m probably describing what the current cultural memes call first world problems. I do remind myself that a steady job, caring friends and colleagues, healthy and happy children, opportunities to study and write—all of these are graces far and above what one person should expect.  Knowing and affirming that truth of grace abundant does not, however, take away the longing that is part of what living in grief and loss carries with it. 

Some might say that the longing itself is what I should set aside.  I'm not sure I can agree, nor that I think it is possible.  I do recognize the danger of lustful cravings, and I don't think that is what I am describing here.  I believe, and hope I am right, that what I'm calling longing is an embedded passion within humanity to be in relationship, to love one another, to find fulfillment in the beauty and richness of creation, and to rest in the divine presence.  It is the notion that we have been made with purpose and meaning that calls out to us and presses us forward. 

At the same time that I embrace the longing as part of what urges me on toward being what I am made to be, I also acknowledge and affirm the Apostle Paul's claim that he has learned to be content in whatever circumstances he finds himself.  I am moderately good at living that way, but maybe not as good as Grandma was.  Somewhere in between longing and contentment--that has to be where I strive to live.  I don't want to settle for less than the good that awaits me, nor to be grasping after what I do not need. 

In her novel Lila, Marilynne Robinson narrates the inner thoughts of the title character as she tries to reconcile her fears with the possibility of two people caring for one another, with these words, "It felt very good to have him walking beside her--good like rest and quiet, like something you could live without, but you need it anyway; that you had to learn how to miss, and then you'd never stop missing it."  That's a good description of the slow and partial healing that accompanies the ongoing tearing of our hearts in the afterloss.  To close out this ramble of more words than I intended, I thank you for your time spent reflecting with me.  Let’s all of us keep walking forward together, thankful for every companion who is willing to join us on the journey, learning to miss the goodness that their lives bring to us. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

Hermeneutics, Imagination, Grief, and Change

I was late to Sunday School yesterday.  I had gotten up plenty early, and I was about to finish getting dressed for church.  Then I looked at some photos from six years ago, when our five Broadways went on a family cruise together.  I read some words I wrote in 2014 about how I was not looking forward to the next two months of memories.  In those moments a shadow descended on me, my mind started racing, tears welled up, my body shook, and I was suddenly caught up in the grief of Everly's absence again.

Let me quickly finish this part of the story. I did some thinking, some reading, some crying, and then I debated what to do next.  One impulse when sad is to stay alone and deal with it without having to explain oneself to anyone else.  Another is to turn to people who care for you.  I decided on the latter, since I expected to see the loving eyes of some of my best friends in Sunday School when I arrived.  Just last Sunday, another member of the class was sharing with us about her intermittent and surprising intrusions of grief over the loss of her mother.  I knew that going to my people was better, so I went to be in the company of wounded healers, even if I was 15 minutes late.  It was the right choice, and I got the loving care we hope anyone would receive.

You won't be surprised to know that with me there is a longer story to tell.  So we've had the summary of events, and now the more detailed analysis.

On Saturday morning, I was dressing to go out to one of the big festivals Durham throws each year.  I put on a shirt, one of my usual guayaberas, and stepped away from the closet only to realize that the date was May 18.  For those who used to read my blog when I was writing more often, you may remember that I call every 18th of the month an "Everly Day," because she died on July 18, 2013.  It's one of my ways of honoring the blessing of her life with me for 30+ years.  Most months on the 18th I take some time for remembering.  And when I remember while getting dressed, I almost always wear a purple shirt for Everly Day.  So I changed shirts and got a purple guayabera before heading out.

Another thing I usually do on the 18th, is count the passage of time.  We are approaching six years since her death on that July 18th.  Being in a math family, I seldom settle for just one way of counting.  This month was five years and ten months, and it was also 70 months.  Now for those of you who, like me, have lived your lives immersed in the texts and symbols of the Bible, it is probably no surprise to you where my mind immediately jumped.  No matter how much sophisticated theoretical work I do on biblical hermeneutics, that still does not keep me from imagining relationships of numbers and symbols and language that is not directly part of what Dr. McClendon would call "the plain sense" of scripture.  Seventy months made me think of seventy years, the rounded-off figure in scripture to represent the length of the exile.  Seventy, a multiple of seven but ten times over, conveys a message of completion as well as of long duration.  Above all, the seventy year mark in this instance represents an end to a period of suffering, despair, and seemingly endless waiting.

I recognize that seventy years is not the same as seventy months.  I recognize that my 70 months is not somehow predicted or conjured in the biblical text.  But what did happen in the aftermath of noticing the similarity of number still seems to me to be worthy of the scriptural imagination.  From that recognition, I was propelled into a reflection on the passage of time in my life by analogy to the longer passage of time in the life of Israel.  What did the 70 years mean for God's people so many centuries ago?  Were there ways that their recorded experience might shed light on my situation, 70 months after the devastating loss of my beloved?

The numerical similarity had occurred to me on Saturday, but with the coming of a wave of grief on Sunday morning, I turned back to that thought and opened my Bible to the Prophet Isaiah, starting in the 40th chapter, and began to read about that prophet's theological reflections on the end of the exile, the end of the 70 years of waiting.  I read quickly through four or five chapters, not stopping very long at any text, and letting it wash over me.  Then I realized that if I were going to make it to Sunday School, I had better finish getting dressed and get in the car to head over to the church.

The verses were very familiar.  The prophet's words of comfort offer a message from the infinite and unchanging God that resonates in the Bible reader's ears.  The first of the Servant Songs describes the humility and compassion of the people that God is calling to serve in the world.  When I reached the 43rd chapter, I was brought to a text I read with Everly often during her suffering toward death.  It speaks of God's presence in the most dangerous and fearful situations.  It proclaims God's concern for humanity in creation, a precious relationship, in which God has known and given us our names even before we have known ourselves.  And of course, as I have written before, John Claypool's reflections on the the end of chapter 40 spoke with power into my life during days of most intense grief years ago.  God will hold us up through the most difficult times, so that we can walk and not faint, taking one more step in the strength of knowing that God will never leave us to suffer alone.

And what I had already begun to think on Saturday when I first connected the number seventy between my life and the scriptural allusion, also was there.
Sing to the Lord a new song!

I will turn the darkness before them into light,
  the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I will do,
  and I will not forsake them.

Do not remember the former things,
  or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
  and rivers in the desert.

From this time forward I will make you hear new things,
  hidden things that you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago;
  before today you have never heard of them,
  so that you could not say, "I already knew them."
Again, to be clear, I am not advocating a type of interpretation which personalizes the prophetic oracles as if they are not linked to the history of Israel and the coming of the Messiah, revealing the meaning of history and the nature of the One in whom history resides and finds its meaning and purpose.  These verses are not about me.  The exile is not a convenient turn of events meant to make me feel better or even to rethink my life.  On the other hand, the pattern of divine work and character that the prophet speaks of has ongoing relevance for persons and communities who seek to turn to God for guidance and insight on the meaning and purpose of their personal and collective lives, even in our day.

Thus, the coinciding of the number 70 in the biblical story and my personal story becomes a seed of potentiality as I reflect on this season of my life in the aftermath of my greatest grief.  Has a time of pilgrimage through wilderness reached a point of fullness? Are there signs in my work, my ministry, my family life, my friendships, my study, and all aspects of my existence that point to the possibility of something new?  Should there be some things that I set aside in these days?  Should there be readiness to take a decisive turn toward something new and unexpected, something not even created before now?  What is the new song that I should sing to the Lord?  What darkness will be lifted, and where will light begin to shine?  I can't say that I know answers, but these questions continue to fill in the gaps of restlessness, and sometimes discontent, that arise in the life I'm now living.

This month of May marks seven years since Everly emerged from near death caused by her first dose of chemotherapy.  She began to articulate to us the new vision she had of the life ahead of her.  Seventy months have passed since her death.  Soon that anniversary of six years will come.  None of these are magic numbers.  There are no rules for grief and its duration, no time limits that can be set and enforced.  We have no capacity to know what the future brings, nor to be sure what choices we must make in each moment.  Yet this imaginitive foray into the grand narrative of scripture as a way to recognize the continuing work of God will, I believe, bear fruit for my journey in this world.  May God go with me and with you in each step, that we may walk and not faint.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Do You Dream and Weep Sometimes About the Way that Things Should Be?

A friend of mine is spending much of the summer rethinking and discerning what is most important and what is possible to make the most of the next season of life. Looking up people who can talk about our lives and who will have our best interest at heart can help us to catch a vision of what our lives can be. So often we feel closed in by our past decisions, kind of like a train on a track or a wagon in the trail ruts. Composer Ken Medema shines a helpful light on this struggle in the lyrics of his song, "A Place for Dreaming," and the title of this post is the first of several excerpts from this song that I will quote.
Is there a place for dreaming in the corner of your mind?
Richard Rohr comments in Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, about the danger that as people get older they will fall into “cognitive rigidity and love of their own status and privilege.”  It means we find it harder to consider a change that can make all the difference for us and for others. Too much is at stake and too many constraints close our minds and block our vision.
Is there a place for dreaming...
In a world where dreams are broken, and dreamers hard to find?
I remember a few years ago telling another friend about a situation on my life that I thought would probably never change in the direction I had hoped, even though I had spent almost 15 years trying to influence that change. Then last year a door opened. An opportunity arose for me to share a vision. I’m still shocked and challenged to imagine what it might mean for me and for the communities I am in.

In the almost six years since Everly died, I have found myself circling back to these same questions over and over. Now that I will not have the life that I had expected for so long, what should my life count for in the remaining years?  Today Shaw University recognized me for 25 years of service. I am halfway through the 26th year already now at age 61. I have worked under eight Presidents and at least nine Vice-Presidents for Academic Affairs. In my six years of undergraduate teaching, I had two department chairs. In my 19-1/2 years in the Divinity School I have worked with four Deans.

I’ve seen the good and the not-so-good. I’ve fought for pay raises and felt across-the-board pay cuts. I’ve been “let go” a couple of times, only to be asked to come back a few weeks later. I helped rewrite a faculty handbook to provide support and protection to faculty employees, only to watch a series of new administrators remove all those protections and back away from habits of commitment to long-term, but all untenured, faculty.  I revised the constitution of the Faculty Senate and helped to bring it back into existence, seeing it initially flourish and grow in strength.  Then I watched leaders become frantic in their confrontations until they forced the kinds of conflict that can only end with faculty dismissals, draining away the organization's power and the morale of the community.  I've dealt with dominating administrators as well as empowering leaders.  I've seen Presidents and Vice-Presidents battle to keep faculty and employees on the payroll, and others seemingly callous to laying off people with one day's notice.  These are bits and pieces of working at this plantation.

There are different goods and not-so-goods of working at the Duke plantation down the road.  I've usually preferred the Shaw plantation to the Duke plantation in my evaluation.  I've worked through personal achievement and personal tragedy, and I've found this community to be one that would hold me up when I felt I would fall, and encourage me when I was able to soar.
Do you dream of another country where there is no push and shove?
Where the rich don't rule, and the poor are fed, and the only law is love?
Where a neighbor is a neighbor, and there is trust and loyalty?
One of the questions I have been asked often during my time at Shaw, by students, by colleagues from other schools, and by friends and associates wherever I go (including last year in Hong Kong), is this one:  "Why have you stayed at Shaw for so long?"  Sometimes it comes as, "Why did you decide to teach at Shaw?"  To the latter formulation, I think that many readers can agree that we don't necessarily "decide" where we will get a job.  This job walked up to me when I was trying to find work.

My good friend Jim Kirkley had answered an ad for an ethics professor at Shaw University during the summer after I had finished my dissertation.  He was hired to help design and lead a new and innovative ethics program, and in order to fulfill the university president's ambitious curriculum initiative, he recognized that Shaw would need more faculty trained in ethics.  By God's grace, Jim saw me as a promising candidate, and that fall he urged me to apply immediately.

I had made a prior decision that meant Kirkley's invitation was crucial for my employment future.  Rooted in my undergraduate years, I had accepted the view that men had undue privilege in society.  I had determined that I did not want to be the kind of man or husband who assumed my life and career were inherently more important than any woman's, and particularly that they did not take precedent over the life and career of whomever might become my wife.

So when I finished my PhD during a time when Everly's career was on a rapid rise, we decided I should try to stay put in central North Carolina so that she could continue her career path.  I wrote to every university with a religion department within driving distance of Durham and explained my situation, offering my availability.  I taught at four schools during that first year.  Kirkley's influence helped determine that Shaw would be one of those four.  I had not particularly pursued Shaw.  I was white, living a white life, and barely knew that Shaw existed; nor did I understand much about why it should exist.

The Department Chair at Shaw interviewed me as classes were beginning in January, and I started teaching as an adjunct immediately.  There are far many more stories to tell, but one has to do with my first day in class.  An adult student beginning his undergraduate education asked me a question concerning the syllabus.  "Why do our readings begin with Socrates and focus on European philosophers of ethics?"  I explained that I had been given a set of books and a syllabus to teach from.

He was starting what became a slow and difficult process of awakening me to the breadth and depth of white supremacist culture in education and in my socialization.  He woke me up enough that day that I told him I thought he had a good point.  I promised to do my research and, as I was able, I would bring to class additional readings from African and African American sources that would be relevant to our subject matter.  From that point I started another phase of my education, something that public schools, Baylor, Golden Gate Baptist, and Duke had not taught me.
Do you dream and weep sometimes about the way that things should be?
I'm not going to drag this long story out.  The main point I want to make is that coming to Shaw made me a better person.  By responding to the student in my class that day, I was becoming a better scholar.  By learning what I was learning in black studies sources and among black students and colleagues and as a member of a black church, I was being changed.  Yes, I went through periods of thinking that I had become quite "woke" only to discover all over again just how parochial my thinking, embedded in whiteness, remained.  Ultimately, I came to realize that it would only be when I could know and feel that my brothers and sisters at church and at work and in the classroom were truly my people, not "those" people, but my people, that I would begin to approach the change that must come for me and for the world.

I didn't become black.  I'm not the great white hero, the great white hope, or the bearer of the white man's burden.  But my people are the ones whom God has sent my way, regardless of families of origin or cultures of separation.  It's a theological argument that Willie Jennings has helped so many of us see:  all of us Gentiles, whether European or African, Anglo-Saxon or Zulu, have been invited in Jesus Christ to love and be loved by a God who first of all was not ours.  We are the grafted in, yet fully received as friends and as joint-heirs.
When I was a child, I used to daydream a lot,
But they told me that it would not last.
I wouldn't have time for such a waste of my mind
When my life started moving fast.
Now that I'm grown, I find that life with no dreams
Is a hell that I simply can't bear.
If it's all right I'd like to open my mind
And see if my dreams are still there.
The contextual possibility of learning that sort of theological anthropology and soteriology of invitation into the Jewish specificity of the God of Jesus Christ is why I have stayed at Shaw.  The socialization necessary to try to become that kind of grafted-in person is why I have needed to be at Shaw.  It would be nearly impossible to have done so in very many places.  And for that reason, I hold the deep conviction of the Alma Mater, "Long may thy works be proud, undimmed thy fame."  I've learned to sing the words of James Weldon Johnson, standing between people of darker skin than mine, understanding the truth about us and our ancestors, who in different ways "have come over a way that with tears has been watered....treading a path through the blood of the slaughtered."  It is my colleagues' and my students' history, and it is also my history, although our forebears lived through it in different roles, with different power, and perceiving it from very different worlds.

This is a truth that teaching at Shaw has helped me to see.  Teaching theology, filtered through my heritage and my hermeneutical strivings to make sense of it in black church settings, is something I learned to do by looking into the eyes and faces of my students, listening to their responses, and contemplating what we are together learning.  That is why I have stayed at Shaw.  And staying at Shaw has made me to be who I am.  I can't predict how much longer I will be teaching at Shaw, as my retirement age approaches. Like my friend mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am wondering what the next part of my life should be about.  Maybe a change is coming, or maybe I will remain here in assurance that the path I have been on is the one that will continue to lead me home.  But I can be sure that I will never be away from Shaw wherever I go, for this community has made all the difference in who I am, and they are in me.
Come dreaming with me, dreaming with me, admission is free.

Monday, September 24, 2018

In Honor of Stella Goldston and Grady "E.P." Goldston

At Shaw University Divinity School, for the entire time I have been on faculty (almost 19 years), there has been one glue that has held all things together.  That is our administrative assistant/registrar/student counselor/information center/receptionist/faculty support staff Stella Goldston.  Before Shaw Divinity became only the third ATS accredited theological school in North Carolina, following only Duke Divinity and Southeastern Theological Seminary, Stella was already carrying a load of duties to support the faculty and students in their education.  Since that time, we have seen five deans come and go.  Stella has learned how to work with each one to accomplish his goals and keep the program steadily moving.

Last Wednesday, September 19, 2018, Stella's husband "E.P." died after they had shared 50 years of marriage.

Just over five years ago when Everly died and I became a widow, I'm sure that for some moment I felt I was the only person who has endured such a devastating loss.  Part of the awakening of my humanity that I underwent during that period of Everly's illness and dying involved becoming deeply aware of the struggles that my students and colleagues, my fellow church members and friends, and people all around me were also enduring.  Previously such things had seemed so distant, so irrelevant, to the life I was living.  It is a sad thing to realize about oneself, having already reached one's mid-fifties in age.  Let's be satisfied to say that I have grown somewhat beyond that now.

A result is that the stories of others' lives, whether fictional stories of lives in books and media or lives of the flesh and blood people around me, take me to a place of memory and empathy.  I've been struggling with my schedule this week, preparing to leave for Hong Kong tomorrow, and having so many details to tie up.  Unable to make the trip to Sanford for the funeral, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by the thought of Stella Goldston's loss.

I had met "E.P." briefly on occasions when he had driven Stella to work from their remote home near Pittsboro, NC.  His health had been declining in recent years, and we had feared for his life at times before.  Yet he continued to be blessed with more days, and Stella showed great devotion to support him and care for him in the ups and downs of his physical condition.  She has had to take more days away from the office in recent months, and the entire ordeal of their lives as they passed the end of their seventh decade has been a struggle.  Yet Stella remains an encourager of the faculty and students.  She offers her assistance quickly and without reservation.  She lifts our spirits and keeps us together.  She is a committed servant leader in our community.

Therefore today, in honor of Stella and of her marriage, and in memory of her beloved husband "E.P.", I will repeat the words I overheard that swept me into the moment of empathy and memory.  Hearing them helped me realize my debt of gratitude for Stella's life and my care for the depth of loss she now faces.  Perhaps with a bit of self-centeredness, I also confess that these words reminded me of how much loss I feel that Everly is not able to share the joy of this trip to Hong Kong with me.  Thank God for the Psalms.

From Psalm 22:14-15

I am poured out like water,
  and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
  it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
  and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.

Staying still in the devastation of this moment is a way of recognizing and honoring the value of a person's life and of a loving, caring relationship.  And so we sit in the condition of being poured out, out of joint, melted, and dried up.  Grateful--yet overwhelmed by the loss.

May God, the Source of All Goodness, bless Stella and her family in this time of grief and loss.  May the Eternal Son receive "E.P." in loving embrace and joyful celebration of a life well lived and a wife well loved.  May the Holy Spirit of God surround, accompany, fill, uphold, and lead Stella Goldston in the coming season of her life.  And may we, the ones with whom "E.P." shared his beloved Stella, be to her a shield and staff through her time of grief.  Amen.

**************
For those who would like to show support for Stella Goldston in this time of grief and loss through concrete and monetary support, let me offer the following opportunity.
https://www.gofundme.com/stella-goldston-fund

Monday, August 13, 2018

Thoughts Before David's Wedding--Part 2

As almost all families do, we became convinced quickly that our David was brilliant and far advanced beyond his age.  Certainly two ways he was gifted in the first year were growth and sleep.  He was a hungry baby and grew accordingly.  From eight and three-quarters pounds (all three of our babies were born within two ounces of one another's weights) to over thirty pounds at age one, he was a fast grower.  Maybe all of the eating and growing played a role in how well he slept.  Two beginner parents couldn't be more thankful than to have a baby who slept mostly on schedule and over fourteen hours a day.

The more mobile David became, the more we realized his capacity to focus in on one thing and stay at it.  The first "research and study" commitment we discovered involved small balls, those baby's interlocking beads, and buckets.  David would take apart the "necklace" of plastic beads and place them one-by-one into a bucket or pitcher until he filled it up or ran out of beads and balls.  Then he would find another bucket, and carefully remove each item from the first bucket to place it into the second bucket.  There were, of course, times for dumping the bucket, followed by placing all items back into the bucket.  As he got able, he would put the beads back together in a string, then take them apart and place them in a bucket.  Day after day, little David pursued this vocation.  What he was learning from it probably goes far beyond what we might imagine.  Taking a riff from the old Monty Python jokes about British bureaucracy, we used to say that baby David worked for the "Ministry of Taking Things Out of Things and Putting Them Into Other Things."

Duplo blocks provided a new variation on this crucial research task.  If I stacked fifteen or twenty or more colorful Duplo square blocks in a tall tower, he would rush to claim it from me and painstakingly remove each block from the tower, either placing it in a bucket or placing it on a flat Duplo base piece.  It would get tedious, but I could think back and come up with many more examples.

Along with the balls and blocks, David also was obsessed with books.  I was a graduate student at Duke when he was an infant, and I shared a big part of the daily child care while Everly went to work to make a living for us.  When he was awake, and we weren't busy with playtime, he would often sit on the bed and look at books.  With a full load of classes, I was almost always holding a book.  One of our rooms was packed full of bookshelves.  Then Everly would get home from teaching school in the evening, and after dinner she would be working with papers and books.  David got the impression early that human beings must mostly read books, so he dove in and started reading.  At night we would have to read every book in sight, and repeat some if necessary.  Years later, we carried a milk crate to the Durham County Library to check out enough books, sometimes with twenty or forty on one subject, to keep the boy busy.

That intense research and study drive with focus on a single subject continued for many years.  He knew all about birds, about geography, about Mayan and Aztec civilizations, about dinosaurs, about Bible stories, about folk tales, and so many more topics which he would press into until he had exhausted the resources available at The Regulator Bookshop, Sandy Creek Books, the public library, the Gothic Bookshop, and any other sources we could find.  He also turned his focus to book series, and would read every volume of the Boxcar Children, Ramona, Fat Chance Claude, Berenstain Bears, The Magic School Bus, Roald Dahl, and on and on.

The curiosity to learn in depth about a subject and the ability to focus through to understand the breadth of the subject describes to me one of the amazing gifts that David came into the world to display.  It's never gone away.  Focus and discipline get harder as we get older and face more complicated tasks, but no one can seriously doubt that David is gifted in this way.  In recent years, his orchids and cacti, which expanded to his community garden plot and his prize-winning Dahlias, his rocks and crystals, his knowledge of how to care for dogs--all of these show us again and again what an impressive capacity for useful knowledge he has.  Even his editing and research-oriented employment has let this gift become manifest in the workplaces where he has thrived in Ann Arbor. 

And ultimately, this sometimes quiet and shy boy, became a fascinating conversationalist.  It's a joy just to get him started sharing all that he has learned and thought about.

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