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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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Monday, March 16, 2015

Jordan's Stormy Banks

(I am reposting this from Everly Broadway's CaringBridge site.)

When I was still a pre-teen (I'm not sure when, but I think in Portland, Texas, around 1969 or so), I remember not the time but the experience of hearing the hymn "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand and Cast a Wishful Eye."  I think it was the boisterous melody and rhythm that caught my attention, along with the lyrics which I could easily understand.  I also remember some kind of visual of a storm over a body of water, dark and menacing.  There were no music videos in those days, so I must have been looking at some sort of children's hymnal with illustrations.  Maybe I was at a children's choir rehearsal or "Intermediate Training Union" (you Baptists may remember that terminology).  I remember deciding to learn that song, and I still have an echo of that memory each time I hear or sing it today.

Recently, reading from Henri Nouwen's In Memoriam, I was reminded of that hymn again.  The short book begins by telling of the warm reunion with his mother when she was terminally ill, and the blessing and joy of being together.  He was reminded of the many ways in which her faith and faithfulness had anchored him and held their family together.  But after their initial time of gathering, he describes a dramatic change that happened in his mother.  She became less able to communicate.  She had moments of obvious struggle.  She seemed no longer at peace, but often disturbed, fearful.  She seemed to him to be in a fight against whatever evil, temptations, and doubts that she had suffered during her life.  He interpreted these days as a final battle as she prepared for the end of her life, a storm through which she was having to pass.

Part of what Nouwen was realizing was that his mother, who had often been for him a tower of strength, was a human being, a woman, who had her own struggles.  She was not just the one who helped the other family members with their struggles.  And he saw this working itself out in her last days of life.  His reflections, of course, put my mind into searching through Everly's days of dealing with cancer and its deadly outcome.

I thought through her last days.  From March to July 2013, there were many ups and downs with treatment and constant pain.  She was committed to do all that she could to keep living with us, and for the most part she pressed through whatever came, asking for help that she needed from us.  There were times when she became discouraged by the pain, but we kept seeking answers and trying to find a way to getting better.  Our family trip in May was for her a great triumph and celebration.  There was only a short time remaining, but none of us knew that.  We kept looking at houses in Austin, hiring inspectors, thinking about how to fit all five of us in a house together, and even negotiating a contract.  At the same time, the cancer was doing its own work.  When our house-buying plan collided with the tumors' deadly growth, the time was nigh.  The doctors diagnosed the situation, and we learned there were no more medical solutions available.  We made the transition to hospice, and Everly lived less than one more week.

During that week, she did not have the same kind of struggle that Nouwen saw in his mother.  She was very vocal with her fear initially that she would be deserting us when we need her.  But her trusted friends shouldered their priestly role in granting her absolution, reassuring her that she had done all that she could do and all that God would expect of her.  They told her they would make sure her children never went hungry or had no place to lay their heads.  And she received this grace and began to rest.

If she had the kind of struggle about which Nouwen writes, it was during her first month after the diagnosis in 2012.  Already very sick, and considered potentially beyond help from medical intervention, she entered the hospital and received her first dose of chemotherapy.  Anyone who was following her story through this illness remembers that the first treatment almost killed her.  In that first crisis, she fell deeper and deeper into a stupor.  Her body became weak.  She could not eat and had to be fed through a tube.  She slept constantly, and emerged to waking dreams and hallucinations.  She sometimes awoke with fearful concern about some matter from work or from our family life, needing to give one of us instructions on what we needed to take care of, urgently.  Sometimes these troubled conversations dealt with some relationship or other matter about which she believed she had done wrong and things needed to be set right.  I know I was not the only bedside companion who served as her minister in that time of trouble.  Perhaps, during that time, it was the stormy Jordan she saw before her, and she felt her need to face the dangers head on and get herself ready for that crossing.

She came out of that initial sojourn in the wilderness with a new outlook on her life.  She took on the disciplines needed to regain her strength and to resist deterioration.  She talked of the peace she had made with her career and her previous years of hard work toward a powerful mission.  She considered what she wanted her remaining years to count for.  And through many ups and downs, she made them count as much as possible toward the goals of taking care of her family and reminding us of the beautiful life we had shared and would keep on sharing.

I don't mean that her 15 months, minus that first month-plus of hospitalization, were constant sunshine.  Everly certainly had fears and worries.  She was a worrier, but not to despair.  And she did not handle pain well.  Many of you have heard her say honestly, "I'm a wimp."  She did not like to get stuck for an intravenous tube.  She did not like any treatment that made her burn, or get chills, or get poked or prodded.  But that part of her life was not so different from before we had to face cancer.  Of course, every time we had to get a new CT Scan and reevaluate her progress, there was anxiety.  When the news was not as good as we hoped, there was disappointment and concern.  I'm not trying to sugar coat things, but I think it is accurate to say that Everly did not face that kind of struggle against her potential dying as a constant overwhelming problem after the beginning.  She was not resigned to die, but she was not terrified by it either.  When she looked back at her experience of making it through those terrible days in 2012, she would tell us stories and share insights as one who had been through a great ordeal.  She spoke as one who knew something beyond what most anyone had known, having approached the brink of death, looked into it, turned back from it, and rededicated herself to a life worth living.  I think you will forgive me if at times I sound like I'm writing hagiography, but what I want to say is that she had faced something, had passed through the valley of the shadow of death, and she did not need to repeat those experiences and lessons again.  She already had learned that even there, God is with her.

So as I look at her last days in July 2013, I don't see intense dread.  She became upset sometimes as she dealt with losing control over her body, growing too weak, too tired, too foggy-brained to act independently.  But these were flashes and passing moments.  It was difficult to speak, but she would suddenly enter a conversation with perception, instructions, and even jokes.  It was hard to swallow well, and she would cough as one who felt she would choke, then rest again.  Mostly, she was at peace with her children and all of us who cared for her around her.

I think we saw more of this struggle toward the end in the prolonged illness of Everly's father, Herbie.  His struggle was longer and painful in a different way.  He observed himself slipping into dementia and losing the strength from his athletic body.  He was exhausted but could not sleep peacefully.  The waking dreams were deep struggles for him.  I am not talking about his character or trying to say Everly did better.  I am merely describing a difference in the progression of mind and body.  Herbie's illness incited his brain in different ways than Everly's, stirring partial memories and robbing him of awareness of the loving people around him.  He feared being left alone and called out for Marie, his wife, at all hours.  He found himself running a race or fighting an enemy when he was simply in bed with family standing by.  He had fought so many battles, solved so many complex problems, trained his body and worked hard for so many years.  As that slipped away from him, he continued to fight and run.

What Nouwen learned, and what we learned from Everly and Herbie, is that our loved ones struggle.  Even when they have hidden it from us so well, they have had their struggles throughout their lives.  Some of those struggles come back to them as they take account of their lives and look ahead to what may remain.  Herbie was grateful for such a rich life, for the devotion and love of his marriage, for three talented and intelligent children, and for so many friends and young people with whom he had shared that life.  He hated to see that go, and the progress of his disease elicited his will to fight.  But some joys persisted through it all:  especially loving to be with Marie and eating ice cream.  Everly's illness took a different path.  But with both of them, we could honor their struggles and rejoice with their joys.

Herbie had been very clear about his approaching death while he was still able to communicate, before the strokes took his clear speech away.  He had had a good life, and he was ready to die.  It hurt him deeply that Everly's life would be cut short, while he might live on after having already lived a full life.  Like any parent, he would rather have taken her place so that she could live on.  Long before he died, he had "cast a wishful eye to Canaan's fair and happy land."  And as we numbered Everly's last days, she also faced with a willing heart that she was "bound for the Promised Land."

I think that in writing about this, both Nouwen and I are striving to be honest, to tell the truth.  Dying often is not, as many of us hope and imagine, an easy slipping away.  It is not only having family together and saying good-bye.  It is also a struggle to let go of the only good that we have known and to face the ways that we did not live in every way as we had aspired.  I can't think of any more appropriate way of handling our grief over Everly than being honest about our living and being honest about our dying.  We get so focused on our own experience of our loved one's death, and that is to be expected.  What Nouwen did, and what I have tried to do here, is also to collect and put together the clues we have of what our loved one went through.  We can't say we know it with certainty, especially those periods when they were not able to speak to us about it.  But we can take what they did say, and what their convictions have been, to see through a glass darkly, until that time that we see face to face in "one eternal day where God the Son forever reigns and scatters night away."

No chilling winds or poisonous breath
Can reach that healthful shore.
Sickness and sorrow, pain and death,
Are felt and feared no more.

Friday, March 13, 2015

"I'll give you three minutes to disperse and return to your homes or to your church."

When I first preached on "The Regard of God" in February, it was in preparation for joining the Moral March to the Capital with Historic Thousands on Jones Street.  A few weeks later, I had the opportunity to preach again, and this message seemed appropriate for the occasion, Shaw University Divinity School's Alexander-Pegues Ministers Conference.  This year's theme was "Resurrecting the Dream:  The Gospel and Socioeconomic/Political Freedom."

Since I preached it the first time, I had opportunity to hear the Mt. Level MBC seminary intern, Tyler Joshua Green, preach an excellent sermon on Matthew 17 and Jesus' struggle and determination to challenge the deadly structures of injustice in the world.  As he moved toward his conclusion, on the fiftieth anniversary weekend of the Selma march, he drew a powerful insight from John Lewis's descriptions of the events of Bloody Sunday.  It was a theologically powerful claim about the nature of the church.  I just kept thinking about it, and decided to rewrite the sermon with a different ending, expanding and "riffing" on what TJ Green had said.  So what you have below, in the spirit of Markan scholarship, the "alternate ending" of my sermon on "The Regard of God," offered at the early morning session of the Ministers Conference on March 10, 2015.  The text for this sermon was Isaiah 40:21-31.

When the economy crashed half a dozen years ago, the easiest thing to do was to relegate economic injustices to the realm of things too complicated for action.  Church people too often shrank back from the challenges the world was throwing at us and said, “[Sigh!] All we can do is pray.”  When I hear that, it often seems to be a way of saying, “We give up, and we don’t plan to use our energy trying to make a difference.  We will just leave it to God and ask God to fix it without us.”  That is a sad kind of prayer.

Praying is actually a big thing to do, if we do it right.  Praying, contrary to much of our actual practice, is not about changing God’s mind.  It is about God changing our minds.  If we had prayed seriously, we would have come out of prayer meeting working on a plan for action against economic injustice.  If God hates injustice, then praying ought to ignite hunger and thirst for justice in us.  That hunger and thirst should stir us to walk and not faint.  A congregation cannot do everything, but it can do something.  We can do the obvious things of offering relief to those who struggle, but we can also do the less obvious things of economic development, forming credit unions, insuring the health of our poor members, creating business incubators, growing fresh and healthy foods, investing in our neighborhoods, providing job training and jobs, shutting down the usurious lenders, pressuring businesses and governments to act justly toward the people.

For all the talking we professors do, you might not realize how much we learn from our students.  I came to Shaw University with an almost lily-white, bleached-out education.  My first day teaching undergraduates sent me to the library and the bookstore.  When I got the chance to teach in the seminary a few years later, I had to intensify my study to be able to teach black theology as an integral part of theology class.  Conversing with my students brought me step by step down a road of deeper understanding.  So if you hear me saying something worth remembering, be assured that my students’ hearts and voices are echoing throughout my words.

I say that because on Sunday at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, we had a first-year seminarian named Tyler Joshua Green preach.  I need to credit him with the next move I’m going to make in this sermon.  He was bringing his text into conversation with the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March.  He drew my attention to a specific quotation from Congressman John Lewis.  Lewis retold key events of Bloody Sunday, and the one I want to point out was the warning he says Major John Cloud of the Alabama State Troopers gave them.

"I'll give you three minutes to disperse and return to your homes or to your church."  Six hundred people, two-by-two, had stepped out of the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma, to carry their case to the seat of power in Montgomery.  At the front of the procession were the young John Lewis, a contemporary and fellow-soldier with our distinguished Dean Forbes, and Hosea Williams of the SCLC.  TJ Green pointed out the irony of Major Cloud’s instructions, and I’ve been thinking hard about that ever since.

Cloud told John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and the many who stood behind them that they had three minutes to leave and return to their homes or to their churches.  It seems pretty clear that the Major misunderstood what he was talking about.  Major Cloud thought the churches were a place to go and hide from the world, to escape from the world’s troubles, to ignore what goes on outside their walls and doors.  But the churches were not like that. 

Lewis, Williams, and so many more had been in church praying.  They seem to have known what prayer was about.  Through their prayers they had been drawn up into the mission of God.  Their hearts had become unsatisfied with the warm feelings they could get in the pews and aisles of their sanctuaries.  Their eyes saw through the stained glass windows and brick walls into a world where the beloved children of God struggled for a crust of bread to eat, for a book to study, for a job to earn with dignity, for a voter registration card to affirm their citizenship, for a safe street to walk without being shot down by vigilantes or police.  They saw a place where Jesus had walked among the outcast, the despised, the wretched of the earth.  Their prayers fortified their wills to be followers of Jesus.  They found sweet communion with a savior who walked in the dangerous and barren places of the world, and they did not want to miss out on a minute of being right where Jesus was walking.

The churches may have been a refuge in the storm, but they were, Oh, so much more than a refuge.  They may have found joy in singing and praising, but they were praising a God who was calling them to walk and not faint. The churches were not a place of irrelevance for the shape of the world of politics.  They were ground zero for the in-breaking of the Reign of God.  They were the launching pad for a Holy Spirit invasion of every stronghold and power base of evil in God’s world.  The churches were a place to see a new vision.  They were the strategy room to plan and prepare for taking on injustice.  They were the School of Truth that this Christian Band would be speaking to power.  They were the dressing room for any who would be clothed in righteousness.  They were the supply depot for any who would put on the whole armor of God.  They were the sign-up desk for everyone who would embrace the mission of God's Reign, saying, “Here I am!  Send me!”  They were the breeding ground of a liberating gospel that revolutionizes the world through a simple prayer, "God's will be done on earth!"  They were an empty tomb where dreams are being resurrected.

So when this conference is over, take Major Cloud’s advice and go back to your churches.  But don’t go back to hide and cower.  Don’t go back to ignore and doubt.  God has regarded our worship and our faithfulness.  God’s regard goes beyond those walls of the building and to all God’s children.  Therefore, go back to stage the next wave of gospel change.  Go back to live in the regard of God, to pray and be changed, to walk and not faint. 

Isaiah, if you are listening there in our great cloud of witnesses, this is what we will do.  We will go into the world because we have known.  We will make sure the poor in our neighborhoods have health care because we have heard.  We will stand up against the killing and locking away of our children because it has been told to us from the beginning.  We will create opportunities for education and jobs because we have understood from the foundation of the world.  We will go into the world because it is a sign of who we are and whose we arethose who belong to the One who spread the heavens as a tent for us to live in.  We do our Kingdom work as a foretaste of the new age God is bringing among us, who brings princes to naught and strengthens the powerless.  We go into the world under the everlasting, unsearchable regard of God. 

God is the one who has regard for us.  The everlasting God, creator of the ends of the earth, created our little corner of it too.  God has regard for us.  We walk in the regard of God who does not faint or grow weary.  We go to our churches to be transformed and become part of a long walk to justice, to love, and to community.  Let’s plan to walk and not faint, thankful that we live and move and have our being in the regard of God.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Learning to See and Learning to Listen

This dialogue sermon was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC, on March 1, 2015.

Matthew 16:1-26

The Pharisees and Sadducees came, and to test Jesus they asked him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red. ’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening. ’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” Then he left them and went away.
 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” They said to one another, “It is because we have brought no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How could you fail to perceive that I was not speaking about bread? Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees!” Then they understood that he had not told them to beware of the yeast of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

Today we are going to try an experiment in dialogue.  Those of us who have studied about preaching have been taught that good preaching is not a one-sided lecture.  Good preaching is a dialogue between the pulpit and the pew.  In the tradition of black churches, we practice that dialogue in part through a kind of call and response.  When the congregation appreciates the preaching, they speak back to the preacher.  When the preacher gets a response, it affects how the sermon continues to unfold.  A quiet congregation may be giving a message as well.  Nowadays, when I go to a white congregation to preach, it’s a bit of a struggle for me.  I’ve grown used to having you help me out.  So today I am going to ask you for some help, but in a different way than usual. 
I’m going to ask you to have a conversation with others who are around you in the pews, considering a set of questions relevant to the sermon.  These questions relate to our life as a congregation on mission in this community.  They also relate to our church’s alliance with other congregations and community groups in Durham, through the community organizing group Durham CAN.  Mt. Level has been a part of Durham CAN from its very beginning, almost 20 years ago.  We want to continue strong relationships with our friends across the city and county.  We have accomplished many important things in the past, from improving after-school care opportunities for young people, to getting sidewalks and streetlights fixed, to promoting a living wage for workers, to helping arrange a means for poor people to get access to specialized medical care, to getting the schools and the local governments to hire bilingual staff and interpreters, to pressuring the city and police to respond and change their ways of relating to minorities in the community, and so many other ways.
There is not a head honcho of Durham CAN who decides what we will work on next.  There is not a backroom board that sets the agenda.  In organizing of this kind, the agenda rises from the people.  It happens in listening sessions.  Today, we want to listen to one another, to have a listening dialogue in this sermon.  Over the next month or so, at least a couple thousand people in member organizations across our city, including many congregations, will gather to discuss what is on our hearts and minds, each in their own ways.  At Mt. Level, we are having this discussion as part of this morning’s sermon during our 7:55 am service.  Don’t think you came to the wrong place and have ended up at the PTA meeting.  No, this is still church, and I am bringing a sermon, but you will also have a part of the sermon.  So let’s press on with it.
Not everyone gets caught up in the latest fad story on the news or on the internet, but I would not be surprised to find that at least some of you have heard about people arguing over the color of a dress in the past few days.  Is it white and gold, or is it blue and black?  Physicists, computer programmers, psychologists, and all kinds of people have given expert opinions about “the dress.”  I am not sure why it is such a big deal, but I bring it up because it illustrates an aspect of what this sermon is about.  Although we all may be in the same space and time together here and now, that does not mean that all of us see and hear the same thing at the same time.  What you and I may see as we look around us may be very different.  That’s in part because of the way that we look at things.
Sometimes we call this having a different perspective on things.  From my point of view, and from your point of view, the world may look different.  Sometimes we call this our vision of reality.  And part of what Jesus, his friends, and his opponents are dealing with in this chapter from Matthew is that they see the world differently.
There is more than just how they see at stake in this chapter.  Also, when someone is speaking, they are not always hearing the same thing.  I can bet many of you have been in a conversation in which one person thought she said one thing, but the other person heard something very different.  Listening to one another is often harder than we think.  Husbands and wives, parents and children, long time friends—even people who are close to one another often struggle to agree on what is being communicated between them.  

You said this. 
No, I said that. 
No way! I distinctly heard this. 
Well, you distinctly heard wrong, because that is not what I said.  

If you’ve never been in one of those conversations, I would be very surprised.
So today I want to consider the proposition that we all need to learn to see and learn to listen.  A good example of this difficulty happened just a week ago on national television.  On a program called “This Week,” hosted by George Stephanopoulas, two authors were pitted against each other concerning the way to overcome the wrongs of racial injustice which go back across centuries through slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination in housing, employment, and society in general.  Ta-Nehisi Coates argued for actual financial solutions to previous financial damages.  Shelby Steele said that government efforts to help black people had only hurt them.  These two well-known intellectuals saw a different world and heard very different things being said.  They agreed on the wrongs of slavery.  They disagreed on what has happened since that time in the lives of blacks in the United States.  They saw different histories unfolding.  They did not hear the same message when they listened to the cries of the black community.  Something like that went on in our text from Matthew’s gospel as well.
Let’s walk through this complicated series of events.  They happen across different geographical settings as Jesus and his followers travel and carry on conversations on a whole range of matters.  I think there is a lot to observe here about how we see and how we listen.
It begins with an argument between some of the community leaders and Jesus.  The Pharisees and Sadducees come with a chip on their shoulders.  They don’t like Jesus.  They are the ones who know “what’s what.”  They don’t approve of Jesus’ talking to so many people and having so much influence.  They don’t think he has the right credentials.  They see an opportunist and imposter.  They come at him demanding to see a sign from heaven.
Jesus turns it all back on them.  He points out that they know how to interpret the weather and plenty of other things around them, but they can’t see the signs of the times.  They are supposed to be the spiritual leaders who know what’s what.  But they can’t see what everyone else seems to see.  Crowds of people are following Jesus around, listening to every word he has to say and watching every movement he makes.  These crowds are convinced that something great is happening in the world and that Jesus is at the heart of it all.  They believe that God is doing something momentous through Jesus.  But the Pharisees and Sadducees can’t see it.  They are so fixed on what they already see as the way of God, that is the way that they like to do things, the way that keeps them in the dominant class of society, that they can’t see something new happening. 
Jesus says, repeating something he said earlier recorded in chapter 12 of Matthew, that the sign they get is the sign of Jonah.  Now of course, there is an allegorical meaning here related to Jonah’s being dead to the world in the belly of a fish, then sort of resurrected when the fish spit him out, a story that parallels the coming death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  But the meaning of the sign for this moment is more focused on the ability to see and hear what God is doing in the world. 
Jonah himself could not believe that God would do something new in Ninevah.  Yet when the Ninevites heard the word of God, they received it with repentance, thanks, and joy.  God was doing something new in Ninevah, and the prophet who should have known about it did not see it coming at all.  In the same way, the people all around the countryside and in the towns and cities can see that God is doing something great, but the religious leaders don’t see it at all.  The crowds listen and hear the possibilities, but the leaders hear only interference with their plans and their power.
Which are we?  Are we able to see a world of possibilities in which God is working for our good?  Do we hear the words of life and respond in faith?  Or do we see only the same old same old, day after day, nothing changing, so we are just settled in to wait out this life until its over?  Do we shut out the sounds of fresh beginnings because we have become comfortable where we are?
This same kind of drama keeps playing out in various ways throughout this chapter.  When Jesus, upset about his encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees, makes comment in figurative language to the disciples, they completely miss the point.  All they can think about is that they forgot to buy some lunch.  So when Jesus mentions “yeast,” they think he is talking about bread for lunch. 
This makes Jesus even more frustrated.  They seem not to have been listening to him at all.  He starts telling them some stories to remind them of all that has been happening.  He reminds them of days when many thousands were fed from only a few bits of food, and all the many baskets of leftovers that were collected.  The twelve baskets of leftovers, like the twelve tribes that make up the whole of the nation of Israel, and the seven baskets of leftovers, like the seven days of creation and Sabbath, represent completeness and abundance.  The work that God has been doing is the ushering in of a new age, the age of God’s reign, the Kingdom age.  It is breaking into the world right before their eyes.  Don’t they remember?  Yet the Pharisees and Sadducees “yeast” was their teaching which supported the status quo, the existing power relations, the economic disparities and injustices of their world.  Jesus said to look out for those who only can continue to prop up the world as it is and cannot hope for and see a world as it should be.
What are we seeing as we go about our lives?  Are we seeing a world that cannot change?  Is it a world of injustice that will always be bad or even keep getting worse?  Or is it a world in which Jesus has put thrones, dominions, powers, principalities, and authorities under his feet?  Can the way that power and economic life is arranged be turned upside down?  Can God bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly?  Are we able to hear what Jesus is telling us, or are we just trying to get our lunch and forget about making a difference?
In the next part of the story, we read that they arrive at their destination of Caesarea Philippi, a place bearing the names of the current and previous empires that have dominated Judea, the Roman Caesar and the Greek Emperor Phillip.  In this place, Jesus decides to have a listening session of his own.  He has a set of questions for the disciples to discuss.  The first one asks them what they have heard and what they know.  “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  They had a range of answers.  At least two important findings emerge from this conversation.
The first important finding is that many people think that Jesus may be John the Baptist.  That is a dangerous political idea.  What has happened to John the Baptist, who was once the same kind of popular traveling preacher that Jesus is now?  John has been arrested, imprisoned, and executed by beheading—that’s what happened to him.  So if powerful people believe that somehow John the Baptist, or someone just like him, is still out there, they may be soon on their way to arrest, imprison, and execute Jesus, too.  What else did the first question bring out?  They say that people compare Jesus to the great prophets.  They recognized that he is bringing the same kinds of preaching today that the prophets did of old.  They believe Jesus is calling Israel back to faithfulness to God.  They see him as challenging injustice and demanding a change in the way the powerful and wealthy treat the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the immigrants.  So the disciples report that Jesus’ message rooted in the prophets of old is getting through.  People recognize that he is bringing God’s word and the possibility of a new age.
Then the second question asks for the disciples’ own judgments, their own heartfelt answers.  “Who do you say that I am?”  We don’t know what all of them said, but I suspect this was a long and interesting conversation.  Different disciples must have shed different light on how they had come to understand who Jesus was.  We only get the report of Peter’s answer in the gospel text.  Peter gives a great answer for which Jesus commends him.  Peter has expressed, perhaps in summary of what all the group had to say, that Jesus is the Messiah.  To say in his day that Jesus is the Son of God was not the same as we use that term in the post-resurrection, post-Pentecost era of the church.  Peter’s saying he was the Son of God was pretty much the same as saying he was the Messiah.  For the Jewish monotheistic faith, Son of God did not mean that Jesus was a divine being.  That would be blasphemy to them.  Son of God in the Old Testament generally means something like calling someone a messenger directly from God.  An angel, for instance, might be called the Son of God for delivering a vital word directly from heaven to earth.  So Peter says in two different ways that we believe God sent you and that what you bring to us comes from the very heart of God.  Jesus was so happy to hear that answer.  He was not, to his disciples, just a magic show, a gravy train, a crackpot orator, a charismatic figure.  To them, he was from God and doing God’s work.
It was a high point, followed by a very low point in the career of Jesus.  Because they acknowledge this valuable understanding of who he is and in doing so express their willingness to follow him further into his mission from God, Jesus starts having a strategy session with the disciples.  He begins to talk to them about what he needs to do.  In the tradition of the prophets, he needs to speak the truth to power.  He needs to confront the powerful and the oppressors, to challenge them for their injustices, and to press for them to change their ways.  Because he has already heard his enemies talk about wanting to get rid of him, and because of what has happened to John the Baptist, he realizes that what he needs to do next will be risky.  In fact, he does not believe he will survive it.  He is, in fact, expecting that he will help get the movement started, but that when he gets arrested and executed, his followers will have to continue the work.  God will vindicate their sacrifice, and he is confident that even if he dies, God will raise him up again.
Hearing this, but not really listening, Peter jumps in and contradicts Jesus.  Wait a minute, Jesus.  Let’s not rush into anything.  There are other possibilities.  Like you reminded us, there were lots of baskets of food left over before.  You can afford to wait awhile.  Maybe we don’t need to go to Jerusalem just now.  Let things calm down a bit.  Take another lap around Galilee.  Let’s build up the base of support a little more.  Don’t go inviting disaster when things are going so well.  You don’t have to say everything you know to people who don’t want to hear it.  There’s lots of work to do besides confronting the powerful.  Go heal someone else’s mother-in-law.  That went over well before.
Jesus was crestfallen.  He was so disappointed.  And apparently he was troubled.  He knew what Peter was saying.  Those thoughts had probably passed through his own mind.  Maybe he didn’t have to face down the people in power.  Maybe he could just keep things straight in his own backyard, his own household.  This is what we call temptation, and Jesus was tempted just as we are.  It’s like the first temptation he experienced in the wilderness, linked to his conversation about the baskets of leftover food. 
That’s why he responds to Peter’s words with the command, “Get behind me, Satan!”  He’s not calling Peter Satan.  He’s calling out the tempter.  He’s saying like the song, “Get out of my way!  Get out of my way!”  Get out of my way, Satan.  I’ve got a job to do.  So he tells his disciples not to be a stumbling block.  They need to understand the mission.  They need to do the power analysis.  If God’s mission is to be fulfilled, then the fight has to be taken to those who are in the way of God’s work.  They need to believe that change is needed and that it is possible.  They need to listen to what they are saying to one another and listen to what Jesus is saying to them.
Do we really believe that God has a better way for our world?  Can we let the joy of knowing God, the hope of God’s will being done on earth, the love of one another to stir our passion to take on the challenges of our time?  Is the Messiah God has sent to us the one who leads us into a more livable, loving, just world?  That’s what the first invitation is today. 
I want you to get a partner, just two or three of you together at the most, and talk about the questions on the half sheet of paper that you received from the ushers.  Open yourselves up and be willing to have this holy conversation.  What has made you proud to be part of this church?  What pressures are bearing down on you and your family?  On what matters should our church take a stand?  As you carry on this blessed conversation, talk about what really matters to you.  You are in the presence of God and of brothers and sisters in the family of God.  When you get to the last question, jot down in a few words what each of you would believe to be priorities to continue the work of God that Jesus was starting and that we are continuing even today.  We want to collect your notes on that last question especially to begin this process of listening to one another, right here in our congregation and all across Durham.  So start now to talk with one another.  I’ll be doing the same thing right here in the room with you.  After a few minutes, we will come back together to finish this sermon.  Don’t be timid.  Start right away.

[Conversations began all over the sanctuary using the following listening guide.

Mount Level Listening Sessions:
Contributing to a Common Agenda for
Durham CAN

Tell a story about one time when you were most proud to be part of Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church.

What are the greatest pressures that you and your family are having to face at this time?  Can you give an example of how this has affected you?

If there was one issue that Mount Level should stand up for and strive to make a difference in now, what would that be?  Why is that such an important issue for us to take on?

After giving a reminder and a few minutes to complete the conversations, we returned to the more traditional part of the sermon.]

All right.  I hope that most of you were able to talk through the three steps of this conversation.  If you are still jotting down what you heard from listening to one another, finish that up.
Jesus went on to explain to his disciples how important the work they were about to do would be.  He said, in anticipation of his confrontation in Jerusalem, that following him would be like taking up a cross.  That means being willing to be mistreated and suffer because you stood up for the weak, the oppressed, the poor, and the outcast.  He said if we are not willing to do that, it is as if we are throwing our own lives away.  Clinging to our own comfort and selfishness rather than giving of ourselves for brothers and sisters means that we lose the true meaning of life, the true joy of fellowship, the true communion with God.  But if we can put aside our self-centeredness and count the lives of others as of infinite value to God, then we can find what God has made us for, what God has made us to be.  What is the profit of winning a pointless, worthless life?  Nothing is worth throwing away what God wants for us just to get a moment of comfort.  Nothing is worth a life without knowing God. 
Have you met the Lord Jesus?  Have you seen the world Jesus offers to us?  Have you heard his call to loving community and mutual service?  Today is the day to follow Jesus with your life.  If you have never taken the step to join Jesus on the road to victory over sin, oppression, and death, there is not better time than now to join yourself to him. 
Are you in Durham and not united to a congregation?  We at Mt Level want to be a people who follow our Lord wherever he may lead.  If the Spirit is telling you that this is the place, that these are the people, that this is the mission to which you should join your life, come and become part of this congregation.  Follow Jesus with us.  Help us become what God would have us to be, as we offer to you our friendship and fellowship along the way. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Prayer and Doubt, and Where We Get This Wrong

Let me acknowledge the Bruderhof community and their publication ministries:  The Plough Publishing, the Plough Journal which is brand new, and the daily emails such as The Daily Dig.  I find the quotations they send out regularly encouraging, challenging, and thought-provoking.  One of those quotations got me motivated to write today.  It is from the second-century Christian text by Hermas.
Tear doubt out of your heart! Never allow doubt to hinder you from praying to God by perchance thinking to yourself, “How can I ask anything from the Lord, how can I receive anything from God since I have sinned so much against God?” Never think like this! Instead, turn to the Lord with your whole heart. Pray to the Lord without wavering and you will come to know God's great mercy. The Lord will never desert you. God will fulfill your heart’s request because God is not like human beings, who harbor grudges. No, God does not remember evil and has compassion for all creation.
I find that in our era of "positive thinking" prayer, we have put the weight of prayer on our ability to stir up intense intellectual focus on the certainty of our own thoughts.  If prayer depends on what I can drum up in my own mind and emotions, then I am to that extent praying to myself rather than to God.

The contrast between doubt and faith does not come down to my drummed-up certainty.  We have all known people, and perhaps we have been those people, who get so stirred up around wanting something to happen that our way of talking about it leaves us sounding more like promoters than believers.  There is a kind of "faith in your team" which leads one to believe, for instance, that Duke cannot lose a basketball game.  Then there is the reimagined future of weeks not spent in the cameraderie and joy when Mercer figures out how to knock Duke out of the NCAA tournament early.  While sports fandom may be a trivial (not for everyone) example of drummed-up certainty, I hope it provides a helpful analogy to how some theology of prayer is more about personal wishful thinking turned into wished certainty rather than actual faith in God.

Too often, we make doubt and faith in prayer about doubting or believing that I will get that specific thing I want.  Such is the danger of prayer that becomes shopping at the heavenly WalMart.  Prayer, as getting God to do what we want, and thus seemingly getting God to change God's mind and stop holding back the thing we believe we must have, is not the prayer of faith.

Faith, as trust and as faithfulness, gets us closer here to what makes a prayer of faith.  It also gets at what Hermas sees as the problematic form of doubt.  A prayer of faith, shaped by the model prayer Jesus taught and the High Priestly prayer Jesus prayed not long before his death, is a prayer for God's will to be done on earth and for us to be united to God in Christ.  It is about changing us to be more what God's purpose for us in creation has always been.  Trusting God to seek our good, even when the world is going bad, is the prayer of faith.  Walking with God in faithfulness, trusting the faithful God to never leave us, is the prayer of faith.  Holding fast to God's faithfulness, even when we ourselves have not arrived at the full virtue of faithfulness, is the prayer of faith.

Hermas here says that doubt is the doubt that one can receive grace.  If God is a gracious, loving God, then Hermas says that the God we can trust does not wait for us to stir up enough goodness in ourselves to offer grace and love.  We already receive God's grace, even in our failures and sins.  The doubt Hermas wants us to tear from our hearts is the doubt that God cares to listen to us.  As my professor in seminary, Dr. Francis Dubose (author of God Who Sends) taught us, the proto-missio appears when God seeks Adam and Eve in the garden as they were hiding and ashamed.  God pursues creation with reconciling love.  It is God's nature and mission toward the world.

Doubt here is not the uncertainty or fear that I won't get the thing I want.  Doubt is not trusting God's faithfulness to reach out in love toward us.  It is giving up on prayer because we are overwhelmed by our unworthiness and we fail to understand that God's grace is God's holiness.  God is not like us--God is gracious and merciful.  God is at work to make us gracious and merciful.  That is what we must trust, and the doubt of it is we must put away.  What will the future bring?  Exactly what we decided it must bring?  Another national championship for Duke?  Those specific things are not the main thing.  The future will bring great opportunities to live in the grace and love of God with one another, reconciling and building community around the purposes of God who made us for beloved community.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Road Is Long

Reposted from the CaringBridge site for Everly Broadway

This weekend I attended the Moral March in Raleigh to both display a commitment and be encouraged for the long struggle for justice in our state where it seems so many people, particularly leaders, forgot who we are and where we came from after the economy crashed.  When I listened to the remarks about public education, and when I read the stories of how things have changed so suddenly and dramatically in our state and our county, I find myself saying that I'm glad Everly did not live to see all of this.  It's only half true, because although I would want her to be free from the pain of seeing her work dismantled, I also wish I had her as a mighty ally to work to put things in order.  But I don't really want to write today about all those political struggles, except indirectly.

As I stood on Fayetteville Street near the NC Capitol, at one point a singer on the platform was singing Sam Cooke's song, "A Change Is Gonna Come."  Those of you old enough to remember can feel with me the deep emotion of the plaintive lyric that says, "It's been a long, a long time coming," and of course, what he waits for has still not arrived.  He holds on to hope for that change to come.  As that line echoed among the skyscrapers and marchers, and I listened to people talk about the struggles for voting rights, only to see them reversed, I felt that deep ache that resides deep within the human heart, that longing for a world to be set right.

Anyone who paid attention in literature class should know that poetic texts are by intent polyvalent (what dominant cultures love to falsely call "universal" when they want to claim all truth for themselves as the omniscient knowers).  Poetry describes specific people, events, and experiences, and yet the words inevitably connect with readers who find themselves in many other situations.  People who listen to Sam telling about his struggles to be respected and to simply live a life will very likely be drawn to places of hurt and longing in their own stories.  I hope it is not privileged appropriation to talk about this song in relation to my own long road of grief.  Connecting with another song, this one made popular by Everly's beloved Osmonds, "The road is long, with many a winding turn that leads us to who knows where."

This Wednesday, February 18 and Ash Wednesday, will be nineteen months since Everly died.  Those of you who read this, who miss her, and who have walked alongside following my writing before and after Everly's death, know that the journey has been long from her grand accomplishments as an educator, leader, servant of God, wife, and mother, through her courageous struggle to survive cancer, through her preparation for and acceptance of dying, and through her family's and friends' demoralization and disorientation after losing her from our lives.  I have tried to chronicle and reflect on it first here in this CaringBridge journal and then later at my "earth as it is in heaven" blog.

For a very long time, the emotion was raw and unbearably tender.  Many of us were regularly surprised by tears in unexpected moments, or not surprised at all by the tears and pain of remembering times when Everly was the best part of our day, of our lives.  I could not pass an 18th of the month without the pangs of loss, the memories of that day and her final struggle before peaceful release.  In the fall of 2013, a wise friend encouraged me that with time, even those last days might be remembered more for the joy and goodness of knowing Everly than for the wrenching pain of her departure.  I found that hard to believe.  I held a thread of hope that it would be true.  And finally, I am beginning to believe that it can be true.

"Grief work" has become a popular term in therapeutic culture.  I find it to be helpful to me.  It helps me recognize that the richer understanding and memory of those precious months and days with Everly will not happen purely by chance nor by inattention.  Even when there are unexpected moments of insight, those will not simply sprout from uncultivated ground.  For wounds to heal, I am having to apply the antibiotic ointments of remembering and retelling truthfully and lovingly the stories of living and struggling with Everly until I can see their beauty and dreadfulness.  I have to massage in the salves of wise words from others who have walked this kind of road to soften and mend the torn places.  Doing these things is hard work, like growing things in a garden is hard work.  I'll not hammer away into absurdity with these two metaphors, but move on.  The point you already get is that I have to put effort into healing and new growth. 

Much of my reflective work over the past year has been about what I would do next with my life, living a very different life than the one Everly and I had planned together.  For that reason, I shifted away from this site that had been more focused on Everly.  Love for her was the reason you all came to this site to read, and only secondarily to know about her loved ones as they pressed into the future.  But today I'm back because I again want to focus on the grief and loss that accompanied her last days of living.

A few weeks ago (just before Christmas), I wrote about a poem by Denise Levertov, "Terror."  In that poem, she draws a powerful image of the emotional changes that come in time after loss, when the immediacy and intensity of the pain begin to recede for many people.  Awareness of such moments can awaken a new terror that somehow the person who has been grieving has become hardened, stony, inhuman, for not feeling the same as before about so great a loss.  It described for me a very different feeling about the Christmas season as it came around the second time without Everly there to make the plans and decorate and wrap and make us all happy.  Sorting through the mixed emotions of trying to get on with the life that Everly expects of me and of not having such all-consuming sadness has been part of the grief work.

Last week I started another book in which a noted scholar and minister traces his own steps through loss and grief, Henri J..M. Nouwen's In Memoriam, written soon after the death of his mother.  Nouwen is known for his deep insights into the complexities of human struggle in this world and for the ability to articulate the ways that love must unfold and entangle itself in the relationships of our lives.  His gifts as a writer have meant that on most pages some turn of phrase leaps out or sears my consciousness with illumination of pain or joy.  Thus, I am taking it slow.

Today I read his account of spending time with his mother in her last days, when she found it too taxing even to speak.  He said that he and she had been using the same prayer book during her illness, so that even if separated, they were able to share the fellowship of reading the same prayers from the Psalms each evening.  Remembering being at her bedside with their days together soon to end, he writes,

Now there was no doubt that she was dying; it was so clearly written on her face.  It was so clearly written on her face.  I knew that we both knew.  But there were no words.  I bent over her face...."Shall I pray?" I asked softly.  She seemed pleased and nodded.  Knowing she would have asked me this if she had possessed the strength to speak, I realized that the words of the psalms would make it possible to communicate with each other in new ways....As these words were slowly shaped by my lips, covering her like a gentle cloud, I knew that we were closer than ever.  Although she was too ill to smile, too weak to say thanks, too tired to respond, her eyes expressed the joy we felt in simply being together.  The psalms...lifted the veil of sentimentality.  As soon as the words of the psalms were spoken, there was a strength, a power, and a divine realism between us.  There was a joyful clarity.  A mother was dying, her son was praying, God was present and all was good.  As she looked into my eyes, I knew that my gratitude for her presence in my life would live on within me.  As I looked into her eyes, I knew that she would die grateful for her husband, her children and grandchildren, and the joyful life that had always surrounded her.

I would not want you to infer from this selection that I am now deciding everything was happy in July of 2014.  Neither I nor Nouwen would sugar-coat those times.  Of course those final days were filled with questions, struggles, frantic emotions at times, and deep sorrow.  Yet they were not captured by those difficult aspects.  We also had the beauty of Everly's eyes, her smile, her demeanor, her humor, to accompany us.  When she felt troubled, afraid, or upset, we were there to listen to her calls, meet her needs, embrace her with love, and calm her with our presence.  In a house where death was soon to come, life remained the force and hope of a family intoxicated by our love of one another. 

What Nouwen's writing in this opening chapter brought to my mind was the way that Everly's children surrounded her with a peaceful, loving presence.  Sometimes we were all in the room with her, and I have vague memories of such times.  More often, we were in pairs or one-by-one sitting with Everly and opening our hearts to the sacred time with her.  Sometimes one of the children would sing every song she could think of, or even turn page after page of the National Baptist Hymnal and sing for Mommy.  Sometimes they would go to talk with her about deep matters of their lives, answering the questions they knew she would ask, opening the hidden places of their lives, hearts, and minds to the Mother whose love was so abundant and present to them.  I had my moments of sitting beside her, holding her hand, talking, singing, and praying as well. 

But what stands out to me is the way David, Naomi, and Lydia opened themselves up to Everly as instruments of peace, sewing love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy.  All of those gifts to their Mommy were mingled with aching tears, but they were tangible gifts nonetheless.  Not in Nouwen's way of the psalms, but in their own ways of hymns and songs, honest words from their hearts, hummed melodies, and gentle caring touches, they bore her body through the vale of tears, through the valley of the shadows.  Their giving presence eased her death with the comfort that she had loved her own in this world, and now could love them to the end.  I could wish for so many things to have happened to let her be here with us longer, and I do.  But short of that bliss, how could I ask for more than the beautiful human beings that she bore into this world, who stood by her in her darkest hour and blessed her name with their loving presence?

We all still struggle in the wake of those hard days.  They are difficult memories, but even as I compose these words, I do so behind tears of joyful memory mixed with the pain of loss.  So I give thanks that the beauty of those days increases in my memory, as I strive for endurance to produce character and for character to produce hope.  For hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  We have seen that love poured out in the life of Everly, and we have seen it poured out into her children.  May they and I be the blossoming rose of Everly's love, strength, and courage in these days of our sojourn.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Who Then Is This, That Even the Wind and Sea Obey Him?

Yesterday morning, through the night, and today the winds have been blowing.  Thursday's drive to High Point found my little car pushed around by the winds across the North Carolina Piedmont.  It's a windy season, and this week will bring much more of it.

This morning, my beloved and faithful friend, Rev. Ralph Burton, stepped into the sacred desk at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church to testify of the ways of a faithful God in the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, drawing on the text from Hebrews 11.  Among the many names and stories told there, I am always drawn to the mention of Abraham, who "set out, not knowing where he was going."  A few verses later, the writer offers a summary of the first part of the chapter.
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
There are so many ways that these words work on my consciousness of a life I am trying to live.  Probably most immediate to me is that these words constituted a critical text for reflection and analysis brought to the predominantly white congregation where Everly, I, and our children were seeking to serve God twenty years ago.  The speaker was Rev. Nancy Sehested, who came to us in a crucial time of division, when it was not clear where the church would go next.  I probably should write more about that moment in my faith development, but not today.  Let it stand for now that I am strangely saying that something from twenty years ago is the most immediate response I have to these words.  The past is not in the past. 

But these verses also speak to Everly's dying, and the events and moments she did not live to see.  They speak to the way she and I lived toward a vision of a better world in which children learn the math they need, in which justice flows into so many aspects of living, in which our children and other people's children have opportunities to live well and contribute to others' living well.  They also speak to my situation of trying to reshape a vision of how to live my life without her.

Burton and I call each other "brother" by intention.  I commented once from the pulpit that I was trying to get used to being called "Reverend" at Mt. Level, since in my growing up, Dad refused to be called by such a title.  He does not like the idea of the pastor's being treated as elevated in status or holiness.  He sees himself as one more sinner saved by grace.  To him, a pastor is "one among equals" called out to a specific task, but not a higher rank.  In response to those comments, Burton has always greeted me with a smile and a hearty "Brother Broadway."

Our backgrounds probably could not be much different in some ways, but similar in others.  Today he spoke of his ancestors brought to North Carolina from West Africa to work on a plantation not so far from where our church is located today.  He remembers being a dirt farmer growing up, with tobacco for a cash crop and a garden plot to feed the family.  He said that life clearly required they live in the way of Hebrews 11's testimony, "by faith."  My parents' families are one generation (on Dad's side) and two generations (on Mom's side) removed from dirt farming and sharecropping.  But although I am familiar with modern agriculture from growing up around it in Texas and hearing family stories, I don't have any significant experience of it.

As a second generation college graduate, the path of professional careers and salaries was paved for me.  Although we were not a wealthy family, we were well-established in the middle-class niche which includes home ownership, food on the table, cars to get around, and the comforts of contemporary life.  Mom and Dad remember the Great Depression and the struggle to get out of it, but their kids receive all of that second hand.  Burton told about the foreparents who founded Mt. Level in Granville County back in the days of the Emancipation, and their move down into Durham County when the federal government set up military camps on the land of their families.  I did not hear him complaining about the life he received from this heritage.  He told a story of God's faithfulness, of thankfulness for the blessing of God's bounty.

As Bro. Burton preached and testified, so much was on my mind today.  For several weeks, a good bit of my focus has been on promoting participation in the Historic Thousands on Jones Street, the Moral March of the Forward Together movement.  I had preached, written liturgy, and even learned how to use Twitter (old dog, new tricks) in order to try to get the message out, especially to Shaw University Divinity School students and alumni.  Finally the day of the march came yesterday.  I started early and stayed in the middle of it most of the day.  Even after the march and speeches were over, I roped my friend Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler of Union Theological Seminary into coming to my afternoon Christian Ethics class to talk with my students about his ongoing work in building relationships among clergy and leaders in Charlotte, NC, including deep theological reflection on the meaning and calling of this approach to ministry for justice and the common good.

It was a long and tiring day, and as I sat in my house after dark, thinking back over it, I could not help noticing the wind whistling all through the neighborhood trees and houses.  The wind has been blowing for several days, and I think we will get quite a bit more as this week goes on.  On Saturday morning, I put on a cap with "Shaw University Divinity School" on the front, to make sure I was bearing witness appropriately to the church's concern for justice and provision for the poor.  But my big mop of hair doesn't hold a hat on very well.  When we got on the Fayetteville Street corridor near the NC State Capitol, it started blowing hard, like a wind tunnel.  One of my colleagues told me that if I put my hair in a ponytail, I could tuck that through the sizing gap in the back of the cap and hold my hat on.  It worked.  If it hadn't, I might not have gotten home with the cap.

The wind was strong, but the speakers were not just blowing wind.  They had important things to say.  And Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, did not disappoint.  He talked about a society whose hearts have grown cold, stony, and perhaps have even died.  He analyzed the problem with policies that refuse to provide health care, reverse the progress on voting rights, punish the unemployed, belittle teachers, care nothing for education, throw away a generation, make pariahs of immigrants, and generally despise the people who live in the land.  He said it's not a Republican or Democrat problem (or as I would put it, not a Republicrat or Demican problem), but a problem of our hearts.  We need to have our hearts revived to care for our sisters and brothers.  We need to have our hearts oriented toward the good we can build together rather than just shutting out the ones who we think are not worth our love.  With references to defibrillators and such, he reshaped for our edification the February 14 tropes of hearts and love.

Along with so much good, I was finishing up several weeks of teaching about Christian virtue and moral formation.  Class included discussion of James Wm McClendon's chapters on Jonathan and Sarah Edwards and the nature of Christian love (Ethics chapters 4 and 5).  I reviewed again the role of the Holy Spirit and perseverance in the habituation into virtue and the formation of character.  Growing in grace, acquiring virtue as Christ justifies (makes righteous) the people of God, includes many hard lessons, partial steps, and milestones along the way.  Students brought great insight to the conversation, letting me leave class with a good feeling of success. 

Recognizing that growth in virtue requires practice and is not immediate, it seems important for me to make note of another part of the day.  It comes in the context of my effort to rise into the full capacities of a faculty member after some years of diminished focus and hampered motivation.  The story is bigger and more complicated than Everly's sickness and death, but of course those events are at the center of it.  As I've written repeatedly, who I am and what I will do, now that Everly is not beside me in the same way, is the great challenge for me in these days.  I'm teaching the same courses I have taught for many years, working with many of the same people, attending the same church, and in process of seeing myself remade, re-formed for the tasks God has for me.

I have always believed that avoiding the vicissitudes of office politics, the comparisons and jealousies, the gossip and scheming, is the best policy.  Yet the belief and the actual living do not always match up.  So here I'm confessing that I'm not a saint.  Those who know me best now will appropriately "rofl."  Though sometimes reputed to be a man of few words, I have in the years of being a professor drifted toward having no unspoken thought.  Although I was not nearly a match for Everly in this characteristic, she of the gift of thinking out loud, I have no poverty of words.  One place that this can get me off track is in the kind of office chatter that may drift over into analyzing co-workers.  I have to confess that I am sometimes guilty of that bad office practice of talking critically about my colleagues.  Having said that, I hope I have not made all my colleagues who might read this start to be suspicious of me.  I don't think I do this all the time, and I hope and pray that my self-estimate is true that I see the good in my co-workers and look forward to working with them.  Even so, I don't always live up to my best self. 

This became clear on Saturday morning when a friend came to me with obvious hurt in face and voice.  Somehow, this person had gotten the impression of my disapproval and criticism, and it was not unwarranted.  Of course, I wanted the confrontation to go away, but when it did not, I took up the difficult strategy of trying to be honest without being hurtful.  The conversation lasted long enough to be quite uncomfortable.  It eventually closed with a measure of resolution through confession, apology, expression of confidence, and promise of doing better.  Having brought this episode to temporary closure, I put my focus back into the work of the day:  marching and teaching class.

Those kinds of conversations do not go away easily for me.  They nag at me for many reasons.  As indicated just above, part of the problem is that I know that I have not acted in the way that I clearly believe that I should.  I've been drawn into relishing the conflict and criticism as if I am not talking about flesh and blood people with real feelings and lives to live.  Rather than sympathy, I have been willing to see fault and failure.  Why don't I, don't we, live up to the level of what I, what we, know that is the right way to live?  This troubles me.  I know I could and should be better.  Second, it bothers me because I frankly do not like to be in conflict with people with whom I will need to continue a relationship.  It leaves me unsteady and uncomfortable.  I want to get it worked out.  This characteristic may be why Everly and I were able to keep our two strong personalities in good relationship for so long.  She also hated to let conflict stew.  McClendon (chapter 3 this time) says that among the "basic moral equipment" of humanity is the capacity for shame, blame, and guilt, and I guess these have been developed in the two of us so that we don't like to leave them active to unsettle everything else we are trying to do.  Finally, I was confronted with the failure to bring my profession and my action into coherence.  To make an impression by saying and doing one thing among the crowd, but in private say and do something very different, is a primary example of moral failure. 

There I sat, by my front window, listening to the sound of the wind blowing, a 57-year-old man unsettled by the deficiency of my moral formation.  Grace still has much more work to do.  It led me to think about how far I have to go.  Once very active leading in local and statewide community organizing, now I have difficulty reviving those old skills and habits.  I still have a pretty strong capacity to talk about it, but setting up one-on-ones and getting to meetings has not been easy to keep myself doing.  Each time I can't get myself organized to go to a meeting or see someone with whom I should have set up an appointment, I see how far I still have to go.  And it brings back the question of whether I will be able to do it.

I've been reading, as I can muster the courage, books in which people have grappled with their experiences of loss and grief.  The first book I read and have written about before was John Claypool's Tracks of a Fellow Struggler.  I cannot recommend any book more highly, and it was a great blessing.  I'm not sure I remember all the books that I have looked at, but poems by Denise Levertov have opened doors to my memories and processes of change.  Jean Vanier's Seeing Beyond Depression offered sympathetic and practical thoughts about the journey of sadness and loss.  This week I picked up Henri Nouwen's In Memoriam, written soon after the death of his mother.  Only a few words into it I had to close it.  He wrote about the moments after she died, with the family in the room, they prayed, "Lord, lead her now to your house and give us the courage to continue our lives, grateful for all she has given us."  A few sentences later, he wrote, "I want to express how during those days her love, her care, her faith, and her courage became more visible to me than ever before, and how I came to know in a new way what it meant to be her son.  But it is so difficult and painful."

I had to close the book and set it down.  For several days I walked by it with trepidation.  This remains my challenge: to have the courage to continue my life, grateful for all she has given me.  I have picked it up again and made it through a few more pages.  It is going to do me some good. 

These moments over recent days, put together, have drawn me into deeper recognition of the struggle that we all find ourselves in.  I hope this kind of writing is not merely my crying out for sympathy--poor, poor Mike.  I don't really want that, even if it seems attractive now and then.  What I want is to be at my destination without having to traverse the road.  Today's hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, reminded us of the stony road trod by the descendents of kidnapped Africans forced into slavery.  It offers up the prayer, "Keep us forever in the path...lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee; lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee."  Bro. Burton and I have not walked the same kind of stony road.  I don't need to overcomplicate the path that I must pursue.  Doors are open for me.  People respect and love me.  For me, the struggle seems more to be whether I can muster the strength and faith and focus to rise to the work awaiting me.

The cold winds reminded me of an old gospel song that says to "hide behind the mountain, where the chilly winds don't blow."  It goes on to say, "Jesus is the mountain."  Jesus will protect us in the storm as he did with the disciples out on the lake.  When it gets really cold, as it will in the coming days, I will be tempted just to hide from the wind.  Of course, if I am following Jesus down the road, that "mountain" Jesus can be the windbreak that makes my journey less difficult.

But I stumbled on another song today that speaks to this situation powerfully.  "Lean Into the Wind" is a song from the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Los Angeles.  Steeped in scripture and prayer and ministry, this community of servants have composed a number of deeply insightful songs with lyrics highly relevant to understanding moral formation in the presence of the God who loves and knows us.  Some parts of the song convey a dialogue in which the Lord asks, and sometimes, answers questions about our readiness to follow the Way of Jesus.
Are you here for consolations?
Mere pleasures and devotions
flowing only with the motions, in the shallows you stay?
Or are you here to love me?
Your heart undividing,
relax the grasp of all that you clasp
be rich in me. 

My beloved you will see
I’ll fulfill these plans to be,
embrace in faith there’s no other way,
go deep with me.
And the refrain offers a back and forth of question and answer.  The first and third questions, answered by the human interlocutors, offer promises of devotion to the calling.  The Lord answers the second question with words of encouragement and strength.
Why are you here?  (You know my Lord I love you.)
What do you fear?  (In peace accept the fight.)
Will you just stay there, or lean into the wind? (I will lean into the wind.)
Maybe this will end up in a sermon soon.  But what I am learning about grief, about vocation, about friendship, and about ministry, is that one has to lean into the wind, embrace the struggle, press on through the waves, step past the shallows and into the deep waters.  In those places, we will learn the breadth and depth and height of God's grace and the fellowship of walking yoked with Jesus.

I believe I might try to lean into the wind.
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