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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, February 28, 2017

When Words Fail

This sermon was first preached at Shaw University Divinity School Chapel Service on February 18, 2017



            I think that most of you would understand what I mean if I said, “It’s been one of those weeks.”  You can probably identify with having that feeling at some point in the recent past.  In the midst of living life, sometimes we prepare our best work, we pray our most beautiful and confident prayers, we express ourselves in conversation as clearly as we can, but nothing turns out as we expected.  We are hurt, people don’t understand, friends are angry, God is distant.  I’m not good at hiding it.  Students see me walk into class and ask if I’m okay.  Co-workers pull me aside to ask what’s wrong.  It was one of those weeks.   
I have made a career out of using words: reading, speaking, and writing.  I read news, commentary, essays, and books a large part of every day of my life.  I listen to preachers in church; I listen to radio news in the car.  I write short, clever comments on what is happening in the world.  I write longer reflections on social issues and the church.  I do my thinking with my fingertips on a keyboard.  I must have written tens of thousands of words as I have struggled to live with the illness and death of my beloved wife. Sometimes what I write is simple and straightforward.  Sometimes it is complex argumentation.
            There are plenty of times when I can’t seem to get started.  Occasionally I begin, only to find myself headed down a road to nowhere, making me have to start over.  On some subjects, I have stored away many long and complicated sentences and paragraphs in the recesses of my memory, ready for me to pull them out on a moment’s notice to clarify a question or drive home a point.
            There is joy in crafting words.  Constructing a strong first sentence or a challenging final sentence in an argument can satisfy a thirsty soul.  Framing a vivid metaphor or a lyrical turn of phrase can give life to a project.  Employing the rhetorical skills passed down by a lively intellectual tradition of preaching can lift an entire room of spirits together, or stir them to anger, or challenge them to action.
            I’m not the greatest wordsmith by any means.  Too many of my sentences meander toward obscurity.  Too often I make an argumentative leap that leaves out important intermediary steps, forcing the listener or reader to wonder why I suddenly changed the subject without clear warning.  We all can look beyond our own achievements toward the oratorical craft of another preacher we admire for her or his depth of understanding, precision of vocabulary, and skill of delivery.  We find ourselves returning to certain writers whose ability to articulate and inspire on the printed page or on the pixilated screen leaves us wanting more.
            So for me, and perhaps for many of you, life unfolds in a proliferation of words.  It’s more than words, but it still is a flood of words.  A few weeks ago, I sat down in a hotel room in New Orleans where I was attending the Society of Christian Ethics.  I had been reading books and essays, contemplating an essay on the topic of reparations in theological education.  Over a period of a couple of days, broken up by conference events, meals, and a small amount of sleep, I wrote over thirty-two pages on the topic, and still felt I had not quite covered all that I should say.  I’m not really trying to brag here.  It’s simply an illustration of how my writing often gets done.  I was only able to do that because of habits coming from so many years of devotion to and immersion in speaking and writing.  It’s far from clear yet whether all those words will make much of a difference in the world.
I doubt that my three kids believe it, but there was a time in my life when I was known as a person of few words.  My wife, who could outtalk me any day, used to laugh at me for the way I had something to say about almost any subject, even those I knew little or nothing about.  She would tease me about being a “know-it-all.”  That’s probably not so hard for my colleagues to believe.  While I slip into the quiet mode still some of the time, mostly nowadays I produce and spout and swim in a sea of words.  I have come to trust in the power of words, especially when combined with the power of communities organized for strategic action. 
A little over a year ago, our community organizing group, Durham CAN, was struggling to see words turned to action on affordable housing in Durham.  The City Council, leaders of the County Commissioners, and of course the Durham Housing Authority all were on record supporting affordable housing.  It’s hard not to think that more affordable housing is a good idea.  But liking the idea and making change happen are different things.  We applied the power of words by creating and conducting a Downtown Durham Subsidy Tour. 
We held a public teaching session about the millions of dollars in subsidies that had gone into various commercially profitable projects.  These were tax incentives and public-private partnerships amounting to tens of millions of dollars from which private developers and businesses would benefit greatly at taxpayers’ expense.  A tiny fraction of those subsidy amounts would be enough to get Durham moving toward more affordable housing.  So we took citizens all over downtown and hung up signs on various buildings, detailing the subsidies that went to private developers and businesses.  Those spoken and written words made a difference.  Television and newspaper reporters’ words made a difference.  Targeted, strategic words made a difference, and progress quickly got underway on three different projects for affordable housing.
A public event like that or a powerful sermon or a groundbreaking book can demonstrate to us the power and importance of words for human society.  The Apostle Paul was clearly a man of words.  He was a speechmaker, a preacher, and a teacher who could adapt his style to the particular audience he was addressing.  In the opening three chapters of 1 Corinthians he discusses this aspect of his ministry extensively.  He reminds his readers of the good times they have had in the past teaching and learning about the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He points out how people started out not knowing much, and that God is able to use foolish people to shame the wise.  He insists that the wisdom of the world may, in fact, not be worth much at times. 
He is setting them up.  All these words, all the things he calls to their remembrance, suddenly are challenged in this third chapter.  He says he wishes he could use some of his big words with them, but he says he has to use words more suited to infants than to adults.  Apparently they are stuck in the age of eating baby food.  They may have picked up some fancy words to use, but they have missed the point of what they have learned.  They might know how to pronounce propitiation or concupiscence, but they haven’t let their training transform them adequately toward God’s purpose for them.  They are dividing into camps and sects, picking and choosing among their teachers to create factions.  Some want to claim Apollos, some Cephas, and some Paul.  He gets no satisfaction that some claim to side with him because he wants them to recognize that all the teachers are contributing to the one unified message and calling God has for them.
We’ve seen it happen.  Someone says, “Reverend Smith never would have done things that way.”  One whispers, “Deacon Johnson never tried anything like that.”  Another complains, “Sister Jones always knew the right thing to do.”  Soon it breaks out into conflict in the committee and board meetings.  Then small groups form in the parking lot to continue the criticisms and complaints.  Church conferences heat up with angry words.  People begin to impugn one another’s integrity and doubt the truth of one another’s words.
We take up sides.  We resist leaders trying to make a difference.  We shut out innovative ideas.  Churches too often work against our own best interests and our best opportunities for ministry.
Paul argues in our text today that all the teachers the Corinthians have had were building on a single foundation.  That foundation is Jesus Christ.  All the teaching and preaching had pointed back to this reference point—the ways and words of Jesus Christ are the basis for all that the Corinthians or any other churches must build.  Yet for all the words that Paul has loved sharing and has depended on to accomplish his work of building up the church, it seems that little growth in grace and discipleship have occurred.  Words have failed.  The people in the church have not remembered what they learned, nor have they remembered who they are.
Paul doesn’t give up.  He starts again to build his case with persuasive words.  Now he tells them that they are a temple.  The second-person pronoun in these verses is a plural.  It’s hard to tell in English.  We use the same second-person pronoun for singular or plural.  “Y-o-u” can mean one person, and the same word “y-o-u” can mean a group of people.  In the South, we know how to translate it differently than the English Bible usually does.  Paul, in this case is saying “Y’all.”  Y’all are a temple.  This is not the same way he uses “temple” elsewhere to refer to a human body.  In our text today, the temple is the community of faith envisioned as forming a structure together.  It’s similar to Peter’s image of a building made of living stones.  But the Corinthian church people have broken up the building.  It’s cracked, and there are big gaps, broken down walls, and fallen roof timbers.  For all the teaching, they have failed to become united as God’s building, the family of faith, the body of Christ.
Paul quotes from Job to remind them that just because a person can make a lofty and wordy speech does not mean one has displayed true wisdom.  They may be twisting their words to manipulate a situation, to try to prove themselves superior, to try to put someone else down.  God knows the difference, and Paul says he can tell the difference, too.  Words are failing the Corinthian Christians because they are willing to use them as weapons.  They are abusing the power of words to benefit their particular faction or camp, and the temple they are supposed to be building is falling into ruin.
Words fail us when we use them against one another.  Words as weapons tear down.  They deny the purpose of human living:  to love one another.  Words that shade the truth in order to try to win are failing words.  Words that construct alternative facts for the purpose of verbal battle succeed only in crushing truth beneath our feet.  Words fail in politics and in church when they become our sledgehammers and crowbars to destroy what God wants us to build up.  We may end up like so much of the world around us by choosing up sides and despising anyone who disagrees.  Paul was a couple of millennia too early, but I’m sure if he had been writing today, the people he was criticizing would be calling one another Nazis, fascists, and communists.  He tells them not to boast about human leaders—if they are good leaders, then what each of them gives you is good for all of you.
I’ll have to leave this 1 Corinthians text to talk about other times that words fail.  Here, Paul spoke to the misuse of words to divide, mislead, and destroy.  But sometimes words fail for other reasons.  For instance, sometimes words fail because they choke in our throats and drown in our tears.  I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve had words fail me in this way.  Sometimes a hurt is so intense, the mind seems lost in a fog.  Words spoken seem pointless.  Things I’ve been able to say before no longer make sense.  I was so sure I understood a situation, but now to have even thought those thoughts seems utterly stupid.  Or I had thought I knew the direction my life would go, only to find out it will be impossible for those things to ever happen.  In these moments words fail us.  We try and fumble about to describe what we are going through, but with little success. 
In those moments of pain and struggle, words can fail another way, too.  For those of us reacting to someone else’s pain, we may become like Job’s so-called friends and start tossing words about in harmful ways.  If I approach someone going through the hellish pain of losing a loved one, and I offer platitudes about their loved one being in a better place, or say it’s all going to be all right, or claim everything happens for a reason, my words are likely to become instruments of greater pain.  The compulsion to provide a solution to other people’s pain is really about my own discomfort.  If I can sum up the problem with shallow theological-sounding clich├ęs, I may assume my job is done.  I’ve figured it out for them, and now they will be fine.  What’s needed in times of pain, grief, and loss is fewer words, more presence, and humble service.  Don’t make words fail by forcing your pile of happy, crappy, empty theological banalities on someone in deep pain.  They are struggling to put words to their situation, and they don’t need useless and hurtful words to fill that void.
When words fail us in the depth of pain, we can be thankful that we are not left alone.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes the situation when our hurt and longing may be too deep for words.  In that crisis, God has not abandoned us, even if words have.  Paul says the Spirit cries out for us when we cannot handle it ourselves.  We may not know what the meaning of our situation is.  We may feel only loss and emptiness, loneliness that looks to be endless.  But God is present in the midst of our struggle. Remember this is the same God incarnate who saw his friends sleep when he needed their prayers, saw them run away when he was arrested, and ultimately cried out in the anguish of abandonment when hanging by nails from a wooden implement of state-sponsored torture.  In the depth of suffering, God knows the wordless void, enters it with us, and initiates the crying out and healing that will restore us.
Here in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul reminds us that when words fail, whether it is through our arrogance and divisiveness or through our hurt and emptiness, we still have a place to stand.  There is one foundation.  That is the foundation of Jesus Christ.  He is the firm foundation.  He has come for us and never deserted us.  We belong to him, as siblings, as joint-heirs, and members of one body, as living stones in a temple not made by hands.  To belong to Christ is to have our lives surrounded by and embedded in God.  You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
To know Christ is to walk in his way.  In word and deed, we take up his path.  He calls us to follow him.  He says to choose the narrow way that leads to life.  He reminds us that it is not merely following a road he walked, but that he himself is the road, the gate, the life we must live.  He is the Word, the logos, the dabar, the essence of both God and humanity, in whom we live and move and have our being.  So words may fail, but the Word of God, our Savior, the True Human and exemplar for our lives, will never fail.  Thanks be to God.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Listening with Patience and Letting Music Do Its Work

I've not put much stock in the theory of art as purely the artist's expression of an inward state.  Art, no matter how personal, remains a public act with communal significance.  Not to belabor the point, but why use a canvas?  Why this paint or that clay?  Why this instrument and this tempo?  There are numerous potential reasons why an artist struggles to get work into public view.  Even the desire to have one's art recognized is something more than just wanting personal validation.  It is better understood as a form of communication, of connecting with others.

Thus, when I claim in the title that music has work to do, it is a work of communication.  Music's communication may operate at many levels.  These ramblings about art and music arise out of spending an evening listening to Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo play saxophone and piano as a jazz duet.  Interviewed about their collaboration, Marsalis argues that the jazz duet is not merely a mini-quartet or a truncated ensemble.  It is itself a distinct kind of performance able to display its own communicative style of close collaboration, sensitivity, and balance.  Marsalis says, "The object is not to play in the same way that you play in other situations.  You have to change the conversation as well as the setting.  Once you know the form, you can just react to each other." 

Their further reflections on their engagement with the music as a duo help the reader, and listener, to understand there is a kind of work going on with musicians that is at least part of what I mean when I say that music is doing work.  It is the musicians, of course, who drive and make the music live.  This is why at a jazz concert, one learns it is appropriate to give applause when one musician in the ensemble completes a "solo" or highlighted portion of a longer musical composition.  People don't do that during a harpsichord concerto at the end of the harpsichord section, but in a jazz performance, when the pianist has carried the lead for some time and then recedes back into the balanced ensemble playing, clapping is appropriate and expected.  Jazz audiences, in a less formal relationship with the performers than in classical performances, immediately recognize and acknowledge the virtuosity and the effort it takes by communicating their appreciation.  At classical concerts, the audience struggles to demonstrate patience when moved by the musicians' art and waits until the end of a lengthy composition.

To take an aside, I did not grow up in a family which schooled me in the appreciation of jazz or classical music.  My introductions to these was slow, through the music education programs of public school and college.  Our music came more from folk traditions, church hymnals, and popular gospel and secular radio.  If my mom used the word "jazzy" to describe music, it was not a compliment.  Beyond that home training, in high school I sang and listened to music of various eras of Western culture, from Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Neo-Classical, and Modern eras.  We learned the discipline of remaining silent until an entire piece was finished before offering applause.  In college, my exposure grew through public performances of chamber music, orchestras, string and woodwind quartets, and occasional jazz. But learning about jazz really came later from listening to the public radio station in Dallas during my two years working there. Even now, I have attended few live jazz performances, and when I do I appreciate the chance to go with a friend from whom I can learn, by observing, the skills of listening and appreciating what I see and hear.

The work of music is partly understood as the work of the musicians, but there is in music as in all art a surplus of work that is greater than the particular agents of its production and performance.  Scientific study confirms many anecdotal links between music and the brain, affecting emotion, reasoning, creativity, exercise, memory, and personality.  I won't try to report on all these scientific studies.  A quick internet search will uncover popular and scientific resources about the complex relationship between music and the brain and body.  Play around with the search terms and you may, like me, find yourself reading all kinds of research and commentary rather than this blog post.  Rather than be comprehensive or even particularly scientific, I will comment briefly on a few aspects of the work music does for human flourishing.

Perhaps most obvious to many people is the emotional and formational link one retains to the music one listens to during formative periods and significant moments.  Music marketers have developed business models around stratifying the various niches in which people become attached to musical styles and artists during adolescence and early adulthood.  Music of the 60s, of the 70s, of the 80s, etc., become the organizational structure for attracting a certain type of listener to whom advertisers can target messages to match the demographics.  This business use of music taps into something many of us have known personally--that tunes, rhythms, instruments, and songs of a certain era propel us into memories or emotional states relevant to deeply formative parts of our history. Certain beats and tunes stir the confusion and rebellion of teens frustrated by the struggle between independence and parental authority.  Songs and lyrical hooks may evoke early attempts to understand feelings of attraction, infatuation, and one's bodily awakening as a sexual being.  Longings, hopes, and decisions about life direction may have close ties to a personal "musical score." The work of music clearly includes an interplay with crucial emotional and formational eras and mileposts in one's personal narrative.

The mention of a musical score points to another aspect of music's work.  Music taps deep structures of the brain to arouse emotion: anxiety and fear, sadness, anger, attraction, happiness, excitement and more.  While not all people respond to the same music with the same emotion, there are widely accepted patterns of "happy" and "sad" music, shaped by harmonies, rhythm, tempo, volume, timbre, and other complex aspects of music.  I tend to be skeptical of overgeneralizations about happy and sad music, but scientific study tends to support links between emotional perceptions of music and emotional reactions to other sensory perceptions.  Listening to a "happy" or "sad" musical clip will likely influence a person's perception about facial expressions as more happy or sad. Some theorize an ancient link between music and the sound of active human living as influencing this reaction in the brain.  Even without needing the hard science, the use of sound tracks to shape the mood of a movie is a widely tested and effective sign of the work music does. Many people regularly choose music to play at home or in their headphones at work or out in public with an idea of influencing a mood toward happiness, energy, melancholic remembrance, or meditation.  Music works in our brains and bodies to reinforce or redirect our moods, even without our conscious planning.

Finally, there are many directions of research on the relation of music to strengthening reasoning ability, to helping focus mental activity, and to opening up creativity in thought.  I am particularly interested in the work of music to spark creativity and reflection.  "Brain science," a term of growing popularity, is apparently something different from psychology or physiology or philosophy.  I take it to be a specialization related to each of those fields, using newly available knowledge to offer insights that could be valuable to all of those older disciplines.  Brain science offers explanations rooted in the activity or reduction of activity in various parts of the brain under certain circumstances.  One such explanation says that just the right volume and type of music can create enough disturbance in brain activity that a person's most routine reasoning and memory patterns become interrupted, requiring the brain to work a little harder, to work around interrupted routines, and seek creative solutions to problems.  I don't really know how to evaluate how credible that explanation may be. Yet, it offers one kind of reasonable explanation, rooted in basic brain function and in growing knowledge about  the complex process of memory and reasoning. Regardless of how accurate the theory may be, the actual work of music to stir creativity has wide anecdotal support.

To wrap up my ruminations on letting music do its work, I will go back to my seat in Baldwin Auditorium, listening to the jazz duet.  Not really a novice any longer, but far from a connoisseur, I listened with eagerness to the various ways the two musicians intertwined their roles, sometimes stepping back or forward as accompanist and lead, and other times mingling two lines into one.  I was listening with a friend with much longer experience of attending live jazz performances, so at times my learning included watching her responses to the music to help me understand what might be going on in the room.  In a fancy auditorium at an academic institution, I gathered that the crowd was somewhat stiffer, with less bodily movement of the head, legs, and feet, than one might see in a different venue.  There were times when it seemed I ought to be standing and moving my body, but not on this night.  Different styles and melodies took my thinking in different directions--sometimes into issues of work and intellect, and other times into relationships, social life, and politics.

There is an interesting relationship between the listener's thoughts and feelings about a piece of music and her or his desire to know a "back story" of how a piece came to be written, or when it emerged during the life of the composer.  This is not essential, and in fact may function to limit the creative reverie that music may incite.  Yet, it also can be part of the complexity of how music works. In one case, Joey Calderazzo told a story about a piece before he played it.  He does not always tell it, but the performance fell on an important anniversary relevant to this particular composition in which he was engaging his thoughts and feelings about a dear friend who was struggling with cancer. He mentioned being on tour, performing in many different places, yet looking regularly at the postings about his friend on the CaringBridge website, where people dealing with terminal illness (usually cancer) and their loved ones can provide regular updates about the progress, or regress, of their health as they deal with various treatments, symptoms, improvements, and setbacks.

Some of you readers know that I spent about a year and a half writing on CaringBridge during Everly's illness and after her death.  So the mention of CaringBridge immediately set my thoughts and feelings on a trajectory.  As the duo began to play the piece, named "Hope," I was already on track for a tour of memories.  A few years ago, I may not have been able to listen to the music because of the intensity of grief.  I'm not completely sure how to describe this particular moment which is the primary reason I am writing about the music.  The music went to work.  I was listening and being drawn along by the melody and rhythm. 

At the same time my imagination took me to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.  I saw the waiting rooms in various clinics.  I recalled the hospital rooms where we waited for and through treatments.  I saw the pharmacy, the doctor's examination rooms, the hallways, the pre-op and recovery rooms. And there were so many waiting rooms.  I remembered Everly's moments of impatience during the tedious waiting for CT scans, having to drink barium shakes to get ready.  There were times when she was anxious and needed me in sight.  There were procedures that lasted hours and left me wandering the halls.  Sometimes I even taught my classes through video and audio conferencing in the lobby of the hospital.  Mostly, it was a chain of memories of the two of us doing our work to live a little longer and share time with our kids, our families, and one another.

I did shed some tears, but the interaction between the music and my thoughts and feelings was more complicated than a mere trigger for sadness.  I'm not sure sadness accurately describes the emotions that accompanied the work this music was doing.  It was an opening to creative possibilities.  It was not only a memory of loss, but also a memory of effort, of unified struggle, and of hope for what might still await us. I'm inclined to think that what was going on between me and the music is partly described as creative thinking. It was not merely a catalog of memories, nor a sinking into a blue mood.  It was also a process engendering the love, the hope, and the good that went on between us, and even among us in relation to the medical staff, as we lived that struggle toward what we did not yet know would come to pass. I'm not trying to make this sound like a mystical vision, because it wasn't.  Yet I found myself in that evening in a concert hall in a kind of creative simultaneity with the remembered time in Houston, when the future was not known and the possibilities awaited.  Thus, there was a mixture of grief and hope, tied together in the beauty of having lived alongside Everly during those events, as well as in her presence in memory now amidst all that my life can and may yet be.

I don't want to overdramatize or idealize a song at a concert.  I'm trying to describe through self-report and reflection what I think appears as a possibility in the way music works and can work in many occasions.  I did not take a flight of ecstasy.  It was not one of the highlight events of my life.  Still, it was a moment of power, a glimpse of glory, a flash of soaring that opens the eye to possibilities that may not seem obvious in most of the mundane hours of work and routine. I think that the right kind of listening, with patience, can let music do some amazing work. 



Sunday, December 25, 2016

Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?

The Christmas season sweeps over people with wave after wave of emotion, a wide range of feelings that reflect the memories of family time, of fears, hopes, dreams, and disappointments.  I'm one of those people. 

I don't remember much mixture of emotions when I was a child. I think when I was a younger adult, part of the mix of emotions was being tired from finishing papers and projects in school.  There was the excitement of giving and receiving presents, and the inevitable disappointment that the long-anticipated presents were not going to actually make life perfect or even very different.  Eventually, the joy was in seeing the happiness of our own children, mixed with the nagging sense that we had sold our souls to the consumer gospel and had accumulated way too much junk.  Now as I look around at the boxes still unpacked from my move to NC from Texas, I still know that it is true.

So this Christmas Eve has been no surprise.  I've had the satisfaction that my adult children and I have agreed to cut back on the orgy of consumption and share time together without the pressure of last-minute shopping or checking off lists from the the tit-for-tat gift mandate.  For that reason, we are able to enjoy being together better, taking care of preparing meals and reveling in them together.  I hung out part of the day with brother-in-law Jim and Dad.  Most everyone relaxed and napped a while.  Jim played some Andy Griffith episodes to make us laugh.  Then our old man trio went to Black Mountain Presbyterian Church for Christmas Eve liturgy. 

Even while waiting and listening to the preparatory organ music, I was drawn to a beautiful hymn and prayer printed in the order of worship:
Jesus is our childhood's patter; day by day, like us he grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless, tears and smiles like us he knew...
God of the commonplace,
we confess that we have bee seduced by human wealth and power.
We do not expect to meet you in haggard faces,
cold barns, or lonely watches.
We are slow to receive your word when it comes from improbable places.
God of all creation, intrude on us this night.
Let the clamor of angels and the hurried steps of shepherds
echo in our hearts, until we, too,
spill with good news of great joy.
That waiting, that anticipation, those moments shared so many times with my beloved Everly and Hugh Delle, began to overwhelm me.  Sitting between my dad and a woman who sweetly greeted me when I joined her on the pew, my face clouded and tears flowed.  A knot seemed to swell in my chest, a tension formed of deep longing for what is out of reach.  In our first Christmas without Mom and now the fourth without Everly, I don't really think this kind of feeling is going to ever go away, until a day comes when I don't even know myself any longer.

When I looked ahead and saw the lyric line, "Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains?", it struck me as a summation of my thoughts and feelings in the moment.

My longing and discomfort in this season in inextricably tied to not having Everly and Hugh Delle in the room with me, but it spreads from there to many other things.  There is a great sorrow weighing on me because of the discouraging events and social uproar of this moment in time.  It is a time when people of my generation may have hoped we would see taking shape in our world some element of redeeming change, of movement toward overcoming the racialized structure of the world, of seeing an end to the centuries of Eurochristianist-Muslim hatred, of dividing and despising people for bodily differences. But if we are honest with ourselves, we have to recognize that much of what we hoped might be changed has remained a molten magma under the surface of false civility.  Granted permission and encouraged to set aside pretense of politeness, the fabric of social existence seems to be dissolving around us.

I'm not generally inclined to believe all is lost, but there are times when it is hard to see the hope.  A quarter century ago the long and deadly Lebanese Civil War which had divided a previously peaceful country into camps ruled by warlords, came to a tenuous peace, only to be followed a few years later by an outburst of violence among Rwandans that seared every conscience.  Bolstered by social theory that questioned the inevitability of human unity and highlighted the depth of disagreement as far beyond the conventions and capacities of rational agreement, I wondered if Lebanon and Rwanda might be the future toward which modernity is inexorably plunging.  Next came our family's heartbroken departure from a church in which too many members were asking, "What would be wrong with being an all-white church?" It was not a future I hoped for my children.  But I'm drifting that way again with Syria, deportation, Muslim registries, gun and weapon extravaganza, police killing, racial profiling....

Searching for paths toward another future, I continued to study and converse and experiment toward a new way of ecclesial practice in community that would form in the world a counterpolitics of beloved community.  In time, that led me into relationships with radicals and innovators--people who, unlike me, were not writing a story in academic language, but remaking neighborhoods and cities and race relations in their corners of the world.  Most of my direct work has been in community organizing, and I've supplemented that with relationships among those who are doing Christian Community Development, who are forming intentional new monastic communities, and who are crying out a prophetic word toward moving Forward Together at Moral Monday rallies.  I still can stir passion to teach and preach that these springs in the desert are the real path toward good news for the poor and despised of the world. I tell myself this is the new wave of Christian renewal. But if that's true, it's so slow. What I've had to accept for a long time, that this world is not on an upward path of progress, remains a painful lesson to learn again and again.

At Christmas time, when all my children who live in three different states have come together, and I sit in church without their mom or grandma still in the world, it becomes painfully, desperately, dismally slow. How have I and my generation of church people failed in our imaginations, in our strivings, in our comfort with this world, to live a gospel radical enough to be a sign of hope in this world? When my friend Chanequa Walker-Barnes asks whether those attacking "Black Lives Matter" can understand the "sheer horror of people objecting to the statement that our lives are valuable?", it drives home the disillusionment with the times. When the NC legislature, elected through illegal voting districts and voter suppressive laws, insists that the heritage of allowing harm to people because of their body differences is too close to their hearts to repeal, it dissipates hope. When people insisting on being known as Christians vote and cheer for the very things that Christians ought to oppose, it begins to clarify the world in which we live.  In an era when churches' primary de facto liturgical expression has become "where are the young people?", I'm feeling a bit lost on how to offer an answer of why young people should give a damn about the church.

Sitting in a church full of white people tonight, I was deeply moved by the liturgy, but it was not lost on me how the message of turning away from fear toward hope seems as out of reach as ever in that context and so many more. The pastor's remark, mid-meditation, that the church has been guilty of peddling fear in order to turn around and offer hope, hits very close to the core of the problem.  Churches of all sorts, having aligned with the tide of culture, are playing the same games. Promote fear, then offer yourself as the solution--sell your product, line your pockets, seek your own interest. I'm pretty sure that's the church my kids and their generation see. I know it has been sold to me many times, and I've willingly bought it. But I hoped I knew better. My friend Deborah Boston and I talk often about the difficulty of believing churches can or want to make the changes they need to make in order to be the gospel here and now. The chilling truth is how much that is true of my own way of being in and of the church.

The beauty of tonight's liturgy, to me, was in its recognition that this advent's waiting was not just pretend. The harshness, horrors, terrors, and struggles of the world are real. When false evangelicalism has told me, "You should not be living under the circumstances. Rise above them!", it was so much bourgeois claptrap. The circumstances are crushing and destroying the very people we claim God loves and wants us to love. Aloof discipleship that looks for a fantasized solution outside of human suffering does not fit with the story of this night. There have been too many times in this almost 59 years of living that I've been willing to let a spiritualized gospel replace the true gospel that took form in a shit-floored shed where a naked baby clung tenuously to life, surrounded by just his homeless, refugee parents and various domestic animals. As Steve Harmon reminded me tonight, the memory of that stable opens up a great mystery--it wasn't a gala party with dressed-up people, a sterile hospital full of highly skilled technicians, or even the comfort of home with family and neighbors helping and praying. The animals in the stable, not the self-important humans hoping for a photo op, were the first witnesses of Jesus in the world.
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
By the next day, Joseph must have had to go out and hustle up some water, some bread, and whatever other food he could buy or beg.  Mary must have been exhausted as she relinquished from her very body's strength to carry, give birth, and feed the infant Jesus
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Jesum Christum.
Alleluia!

How blessed is [Mary] the virgin whose tender flesh
was deemed worthy to bear
our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!
I started out talking about mixed emotions across a wide range.  Mostly here I've been dwelling on the sadness of this Christmas Eve.  I don't mean by digging deeper into the sorrow that I'm now fixed in one frame of mind and heart.  Yet it seems that I should at least feel the wave of sadness all the way through in this "get over it," "move on, already," "accentuate the positive" age. It's a world in which commercial interests aim to stir up happiness through encouraging mass consumption of trinkets and gadgets.  In the morning, Momma won't be getting me up to have breakfast.  Everly won't be organizing us to look in stockings and unwrap packages. Trinkets, gadgets, and positivity won't change that. And the epidemic of indifference, greed, and hate that has swept our world will still be convulsing all around us. It's not suddenly easy being born or giving birth.

With all the promise of joy that angels announced to the farm workers on the hillside, those marginalized workers still had their hard work to do.  Mary and Joseph, holding on to that tiny baby, still had to find a way to make a living, a place to live, and food to eat. "Shepherds, why this jubilee?" Can such a lowly, outcast moment two millenia ago make a difference now? Looking at the churches of this land, it seems unlikely. But it still seems there is enough good news in the holistic gospel that's worth fighting for. As my friend Matt Jantzen said this week, "I'm angry, and I can't stand to just wait around while things get worse, and not try to do something about it." I hear you, Matt. I can see only glimpses of the path in the dark of this midnight. Y'all who still hunger and thirst for justice gotta help me see where that hungry baby is calling for me to bring some milk, a blanket, and an arm and chest to rest on.

Friday, December 02, 2016

This Season Without Mom

I am back in the swing of the end of the academic semester, in between the family gatherings of Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.  It was our first family gathering since Mom's funeral on February 20.  It's no surprise that grief is unpredictable, and this season has certainly been that way.

I traveled to San Antonio for the annual circus of academic religious and textual studies known as the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting, to which are attached dozens of other related groups focused around faith traditions, studies of a particular scholar's work, topical interests, schools, publishers, and most any kind of individuation of religious studies one might imagine.  I attended Mennonite and Baptist professors' gatherings as well as a research institute focused on trends in talking about God.  I went to a workshop on teaching, a panel on a new book, and an alumni gathering.  I hung out with friends, did lots of walking, and considered doing many more things than I had time to do.

Dad met me in San Antonio on Monday after visiting with his sister Mary McCombs, who also lives there.  My time was so short in town, I was not able to arrange to see friends living in San Antonio, to my disappointment.  Dad and I rested one night at his house in Salado, empty of its familiar central presence of Hugh Delle.  We left on Tuesday morning to make the two-day drive to Black Mountain.  Lydia's new job kept her at work through Wednesday and required her to check in and work on Friday, so she was not able to make the NC trip this year.  She went to be with Everly's family, Marie, Ruth, John, and Kenny, in Austin.  Michael and David would make the drive down from Ann Arbor on Thursday.  Jerene's chaplaincy job had her working at the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, so we all were converging to have our big meal on Friday.

The first long day's drive brought us into Tuscaloosa, AL, pretty late in the evening.  It was a day of plenty of conversations.  Without Hugh Delle, no one led us in a singalong.  No one insisted we play any road games together.  We just kept pressing forward to get the miles behind us.  The second shorter day included more conversations about how we were making it in these days without Mom around.  Dad is doing his best to reactivate some professional work and relationships.  While Mom's health was declining, he had little time between their medical appointments and her need for his support at home.  His focus around her care was a development that came gradually and without any regrets.  Of course, it was sad for him and all of us to see her growing weaker and needing more assistance to get through the days.  Now that she is free from those troubles, Dad has had some time to readjust and think about what he should do with his life.  I'm very impressed with the initiatives he is taking to do good in the world and become more active again.  We also discussed what I might hope to do in the coming years.  Thankful not to face much traffic, we arrived to clouds of smoke in the mountains of NC as the sun was setting.

For at least six or seven years, holiday gatherings have shifted from Mom's frenzied work to make everything happen to Mike and Jerene sharing in the cooking.  It used to be that Everly and Jim would take responsibility for the clean-up, and of course that Everly had us all organized in advance to enjoy our time together.  Now, without Everly and Hugh Delle, it was a more sedate group.  The majority has shifted toward the quieter personalities:  Jim, W.D., Mike, David, Michael, and Naomi.  When I am one of the most gregarious people in a group, then you know it's a pretty calm gathering.

Being a little brother seems to never get out of one's system.  So even at 58 and 61, I constantly find ways to pester or tease my big sister when the family is together.  Sometimes, I have to admit, I've gotten too carried away.  Moreover, with Hugh Delle in the house, it seems like I would feel even more permission to pick at Jerene and wait for Mom's reprimand.  I say this because one of the ways I felt Mom's absence this Thanksgiving was in a need to police myself and try harder to get along.  It struck me as somehow backward--it seems like I should have felt that way in Mom's presence out of respect for her.  Family dynamics are confusing and somehow not very transparent to us who are in the midst of them.

We talked about Mom, and of course Everly, throughout our time together.  There was not any clear moment of focus on Mom's absence.  Maybe it was most like being a collection of beads with no connecting thread.  Mom was a thread that held us together.  Now we were trying to figure out how to be together without her.  Nobody had any fights that I observed.  We all did the kinds of things we usually do, with less of the steering, coordinating, planning talk that Mom would bring. 

Just now it came to mind how whenever we would sit down to eat, within a few minutes Hugh Delle would turn the conversation by asking, "What should we have for dinner?", or lunch, or breakfast, or whatever the next meal would be.  Nobody was really pressing those kinds of questions.  With some effort, we agreed at one point to watch a movie together.  We shared meals.  Some went on walks while others napped.  The younger generation went out to meet friends.  The old fogeys sat around and talked, read, or watched TV.  Dad and I watched a very disappointing Baylor football game.

There were some poignant moments, but mostly these were private to each person.  Having been through such intense grief from Everly's death and absence, I wondered if that was going to repeat itself.  But grief is unpredictable, and it was much lower key for these days.  We made it through.  We loved each other.  We reenacted our family traditions. 

And now we are back to work.  For those of us in academic life, it's the high pressure time of wrapping up a semester.  Naomi will finish her dual masters degrees in social work and public health.  I will grade another batch of student work.  And all of us will think ahead about regathering for Christmas, with Lydia joining us.  It is also Advent, a season of waiting through trials.  We all have our trials.  Dad is shouldering his with courage.  He was raised well, and he learned through many years of marriage, pastoring, and organizational leadership.  He's doing all he can to make the world he touches better for the many souls God loves.  And so, we wait.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Tell the Truth About the Iron Teeth

This sermon was first preached in Boyd Chapel on Shaw University Divinity School's campus on Saturday, November 12, 2016.  A hermeneutical strategy I'm using here is to take a new look at the heroic figure of Daniel and the confounding images of his visions with a demystifying and humanizing lens.  What if Daniel is a young adult person not so different from us, with real world anxieties and problems as a refugee, an enslaved person from a minority ethnic group? What if Daniel is a person who has complicated vivid dreams (like my sister Jerene and my daughter Naomi), and who in addition to that receives revelation from God through some of them?  My strategy is for the listener, or you the reader, to be able to find yourself close to or even identified with the character Daniel.  Maybe it worked--you be the judge.


Daniel 7:1-20
In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream:
I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it.
Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it.
After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.
As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne, his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
I watched then because of the noise of the arrogant words that the horn was speaking. And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me, and the visions of my head terrified me. I approached one of the attendants to ask him the truth concerning all this. So he said that he would disclose to me the interpretation of the matter:
"As for these four great beasts, four kings shall arise out of the earth. But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever--forever and ever."
Then I desired to know the truth concerning the fourth beast, which was different from all the rest, exceedingly terrifying, with its teeth of iron and claws of bronze, and which devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped what was left with its feet; and concerning the ten horns that were on its head, and concerning the other horn that came up, and to make room for which three of them fell out—the horn that had eyes and a mouth that spoke arrogantly, and that seemed greater than the others.

Isaiah 65:17-25
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
  the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating;
  for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
   and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
  and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
  or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days,
  or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
  and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
  they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
  they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
  and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
  or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD—
  and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
  while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
  the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
   but the serpent--its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
  says the LORD.

“Tell the Truth About the Iron Teeth”

            I have rarely taught or preached about Daniel.  I grew up in an age and location that overused the book of Daniel.  At every turn, we heard traveling end-times preachers, quoting text after text from Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, filling our minds with horrible images to scare the hell out of us.  Literally.
            Their specialty was to link the images to very specific current events.  One symbol was Russia.  Another symbol was the Chinese Red Army.  Another symbol was the European Common Market.  Some images were nuclear weapons.  They loved to try to count up the numerologies and prove that whatever year we were living in was being predicted in the Bible. They loved grossing us out and scaring us with the idea of blood flowing so deep it was up to the horses’ bellies.
            I eventually theologized my way out of that terroristic preaching.  It was kind of like the boy crying wolf.  How many preachers are going to tell me exactly how history must happen before I start doubting whether they have even a thimbleful of knowledge of God?  How is it that in the story of God’s calling of Israel, it seems like America is turning out to be God’s heroic champion?  Too much sensationalism led eventually, to borrow an image from Daniel, to the handwriting on the wall—they didn’t know what they were talking about.
            So I have avoided Daniel mostly.  I certainly know the stories and remember many of the images.  Yet, it has seemed to me to be a minor book among many giants, and I still hold that to be mostly true.  Even with that judgment, I was drawn to this text as it came up in the lectionary this month.  No small contributor to that interest came because my pastor, Rev. Dr. William C. Turner, Jr., took us into this text last Sunday.  I freely admit that some of what I will say today is shaped by his exposition of the text, as I give it my own slant and perspective.  But I also want to bring to your attention this Sunday’s text from Isaiah 65:17-25.  They are two parts of a single story about this season at the end of the Christian year. 
In these final Sundays, the texts point us to the Reign of Christ, our one true ruler and savior.  That theme is highly relevant in an age of many unworthy rulers and false saviors.  At the midpoint of reading these two texts is a young man shaking with fear.  He has seen in a vision the unfolding of horrific events, monsters destroying whole nations, and that last one seems especially arrogant and cruel, and it has teeth of iron.
I would love to work this text in my usual detail, but we have to get out of here in time for your next class.  So I am going to hold back and try to hit the highlights. 
Daniel is a seer, a dreamer of visions, and he is a devoted worshiper who does not neglect his time of prayer.  He is also a refugee, a forced immigrant, who has been enlisted into forced labor in a high level job under the emperor.  Local people resent him, and they look for ways to do him harm.  Since his youth, he has had a commitment to remember who his momma and daddy are.  He shows an unusual discipline to hold to living the way they raised him.  But we should not be surprised that this vision disturbed him.  He had already survived a horrific invasion and destruction of his homeland.  He was now living among enemies under constant surveillance. 
He didn’t dress, talk, or eat like the people around him. They probably thought his food smelled bad.  They resented his speaking another language.  They thought the way he wore his hair and clothes was an affront.  The least harmful interactions were the side eye and sneer.  Many were outwardly insulting.  People threatened him.  He knew his life was always on an edge.
When he woke up from this dream he was disturbed.  In fact, he was already shaking while he was a character in the dream.  Four great beasts symbolizing four great empires.  The winged lion of Babylon who rose up and walked on two feet like a human.  Then came the bear of Medea, whose usual teeth were not scary enough, but had to have three additional tusks in that mouth to devour many bodies of the nations.  A winged leopard of Persia had four heads, four sets of teeth to devour its prey, and it had dominion over everything.
Those were enough.  They represent the empires Daniel himself would experience.  Babylon would soon fall, and the Medes and Persians would follow one upon the other.  The young man Daniel would grow to be an old man as a captive servant of these conquering empires. 
I’m your professor, so I need to take an aside here to teach.  Some scholars find the book of Daniel to be closely linked to the era of the Maccabean revolt, and they associate the stories of Daniel and the three Hebrew children as exemplary of the discipline the holy rebels will need to overthrow their Greek overlords.  From this point of view, the stories of Daniel are being told by those who look back to his time as an inspiration and guide.  That would mean the writer already knows the history of the four empires, including the Greek empire which came after the book of Daniel comes to an end.  It’s a reasonable theory and one you should study and think about.  But overall, it does not change the impact of what we are examining in this text today.  Whether a vision of future events or a retelling of past events, the theological import is the same.
That fourth monster is almost beyond imagining.  A dragon, crashing its feet as it moves, destroying everything in its path.  It has teeth of iron and ten horns.  The horns start doing some funny stuff, and it really does seem like a dream when a horn on the dragon starts talking.  If I had the time, I would talk with you about Antiochus Epiphanes and the abomination of desolation.  I guess you will have to go look that up in a reputable scholarly work of biblical commentary and criticism.
The parade of monsters is finally interrupted by the appearance of great thrones, and a great, Ancient being enters wearing bright white clothes and having hair all big and wooly.  The throne, well I guess it’s a throne, is made out of fire, and it’s on wheels.  A kind of river of fire flows out, and all around are thousands and ten thousands serving this great one.  Apparently, they are gathering to cast judgment, and the books of the courtroom are being prepared.  The judgment is quick and severe.  The last, most terrifying and loudmouthed monster is destroyed.  The other three monsters lose all their power and dominion.
This is one of those long dreams.  It still isn’t over.  A giant cloud bank is coming, and on it is someone.  It’s someone that looks like a human being.  A plain old human being.  No monster.  No fire chair on wheels.  No giant teeth or horns.  A human figure is riding on the clouds to stand before the Ancient One.  All the power over all things, including all that was taken from the four beasts, gets handed to this human one.  And Daniel learns that this human one will retain dominion forever.
In the dream, all these events had Daniel shook up.  He was troubled in his spirit.  He was terrified by the visions.  So he went to one of the many attendants of the Ancient One to ask what in the heavens was going on.  Especially, Daniel was worried about that fourth beast with iron teeth and ten horns and the new talking horn with eyes.
In this vision of Daniel we get a glimpse into the imagination of another era.  How did they depict great evil and violence?  Huge, powerful, malformed, superpowered beasts, monsters leaving a swath of destruction and death, even eating people, as they move across the land.  For older ones here, it may remind us of the early monster movies about King Kong or Godzilla.  If Daniel were dreaming in our day, he might imagine a giant transformer machine fighter, or a hoard of zombie killers, or vampire armies.  In either era, we find human beings overwhelmed and terrified by the extent of evil and destruction that can occur in our world.  Emperors and armies are depicted as giant monstrous beasts in Daniel’s vision.
There is good reason to display evil in graphic terms.  People’s lives are destroyed by the monsters of lynching.  Mass killings are routine across our country.  Warfare over oil wells and other natural resources bring saturation bombing of towns, improvised explosive devices, and even bombs strapped to the bodies of young people.  Bombs in city streets destroy human bodies and send body parts in all directions.  Drones emerge from nowhere and blow up weddings and hospitals with their targeted missiles.  The violence of conquest and counter-conquest is brutal and monstrous.
Daniel lived on edge in a world of competing empires.  The fall of Jerusalem was one small moment in a centuries-long battle for regional domination.  Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon would soon come under domination of a new world order with succession of destroying armies from Medea, Persia, and Greece.  Off on the distant horizon loomed the most consuming power of all—Rome.  But they aren’t part of Daniel’s vision.
Such strong language to depict evil is not confined to Daniel.  The New Testament brings much of this language into regular use through Paul’s theological depiction of the forces of evil.  We have let bad theology take the iron teeth out of the very real, material evil that devours people’s lives.  Empires and their military might are devastating powers.  The worship of violence as saving power and its ritual enactment of dehumanizing and killing the enemy fuels the fervor of warfare.  Monstrous thirst and lust for blood feeds the sacrosanct idolatrous gods of nationhood.  Paul spoke in ways that should be clear to us—evil becomes structurally embodied in thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, and authorities.  These are words for the ways that human beings organize power in their societies.  But we empty them of this meaning and try to turn them into invisible spirits secretly teasing at our heartstrings.  Thrones are the seats of rulers—rulers who can become tyrants.  Principalities are the regions controlled by princes, who may be despotic and murderous.  Authorities of all sorts exercise domination in our world.
God has made humanity to live orderly lives, and structures of authority are part of God’s good creation.  But there is no assumption in biblical theology that every political structure and every existing ruler is put in place by the hand of God.  Despotic rulers are the enemies of God’s peace and God’s people.  Violent systems of death and domination are opposing God’s purposes for humanity and creation.  Just because someone got appointed king or got elected president does not mean that God put that person there.  God leaves freedom for humanity to seek our own way, and far too often we choose to ignore God’s ways and pursue worldly power and domination rather than shalom and beloved community.  The rise of great and monstrous evil is a turning away from God and a distortion of humanity’s creation and purpose.
Daniel’s vision tells us more than about the dragon with iron teeth.  A crucial element of the vision appears also in the unexpected and vague character who appears at the end.  With so much wild monstrosity coming wave after wave, there appears an image of ultimate power in the Ancient One.  Then, one “like a son of man,” really one who looked like anybody or nobody, a human person, showed up.  Somehow, no doubt equally puzzling to Daniel, all the power and authority of all of these deadly empires, all their territory and peoples, all the language groups and ethnicities, came to be under this nondescript, plain human being.  No one is excluded.  No group is tossed out because of the tint of their skin or the curl of their hair.  No language is deemed unofficial, no artificial boundary is honored, no group is classified as an alien or refugee.  One ruler embraces and welcomes all.  And the new dominion of this one would not be quickly replaced by the next monster.  According to the vision, it would be forever.  Nothing could destroy or defeat this human being’s rule granted by the Ancient One.
Daniel’s vision of a meek and lowly ruler, one with not remarkable features or fancy superpowers, reveals an insight into the work of God that is rooted in the long history of God’s presence in the world and calling of Israel.  God’s election is often surprising in using the less admired person, the smaller or weaker or younger one, even the outsider.  God turns the tables on human ambitions for power and honor.  From Jacob to Joseph to Rahab to Ruth to David, no one would have scripted God’s plan in the way God did it.  Choosing an enslaved people to be the sign of God in the world is not what we would have anticipated. 
Did Daniel have access to the scroll of Isaiah?  Scholars claim that the Book of Isaiah had become one of the most used sacred writings among the Jews in the era of the second temple.  If some of the later portions of Isaiah were still being composed in exile, then the ideas and themes of the book may have been familiar.  The themes of the servant songs of Isaiah show some kinship to this vision of Daniel.  Isaiah 53 says of the servant of God, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”  A human person who does not stand out in any particular way.
So in all his experience of tenuous existence and anxiety under imperial power, Daniel probably also had a sense of divine activity to bring an end to the evil machinations of human domination systems.  The Babylonian empire was already showing signs of its demise.  Other empires in the distance were threatening to rise in conquest.  The vision drives home the theological understanding that humanity’s self-made gods are short-lived.  Their days are numbered.  Their compromises with injustice, their inherent viciousness, their deals made with the devil will ultimately bring them down under their own weight of sin.  As the North African theologian Augustine describes in his great volume, The City of God, empires undergo constant revolutions and coups d’etat as one band of robbers comes and defeats another band of robbers to take control.  Evil crops up in human society like weeds, and any show of weakness by one regime will likely be met by an upstart challenger.
The vision offers hope that God will bring an end to this churning and grinding of humanity in the clash of empires.  God will judge the evil that nations and powerful people do.  Their destructive greed will come to an end.  And the one who will replace them all shares with all of us the weakness of a human being.  Through the marvelous and frail human creation, this treasure in earthen vessels, God will bring salvation.  What a wonder!  What a joke on the mighty!  What a flip-flop of human expectation!  What a reversal of all our plans!
Human beings and human societies love power.  We love to follow the toughest football team, the fightingest hockey team, the homerun hitting and strikeout pitching baseball team, the three-point shooting and dunking basketball team.  We admire powerful ships and airplanes, and stand in fearful awe before tanks and cannons.  But it is a misguided awe and admiration.  No giant bear or winged leopard will win in the end.  The iron-toothed dragon, able to chew up even the toughest things in its path, will be put down and replaced by one in appearance as a human being.  A soft-skinned, furless, armorless, easily fatigued, eminently killable creature is the one God elevates to rule in virtue and love.  What a strange and wondrous and mighty God we serve!
Daniel does not have much else to say about what is coming.  The shock of his crazy dream ends with the vision of the human being on the clouds.  If we stretch a bit to look at this week’s text from the prophet Isaiah, we get another imagistic piece of the story of Christ’s Reign.  For Daniel, it is a dramatic reversal, an unexpected elevation of the one who seems least likely to hold dominion and authority, after the world’s all-star team of organized evil does their worst.  Daniel doesn’t try to ask what will be next, or what it will be like.  Maybe he scared himself awake.  The end of the chapter says he could not get it out of his mind.
Isaiah 65:17-25 describes another prophetic vision of a new creation.  The world of violence and domination will pass away.  Where there was destruction and sorrow, there will be joy and flourishing.  Those horrible effects of war, oppression, and poverty will end.  Children won’t die of starvation.  The elderly will see their days extended and enhanced.  The vulnerable are precious to God, and God will act on their behalf.
Moreover, the new creation will bring justice.  People will build houses and grow food in their gardens.  But the emperor or terrorist won’t steal or destroy it.  They will live in the houses they build and eat the food they produce.  They won’t have to fear to bring children into the world.  God is making things right so that we may live with hope and joy.  It will be a time of peace.  The previously monstrous and scary beasts will become peaceful.  Wolves and lambs will play and rest together—this is not a wolf from the horrifying world of Daniel’s dream.  A lion that is hungry will eat vegetation rather than kill.  It is the opposite of the world that Daniel saw coming to an end.  No need for teeth of iron in a world of justice and peace.  None will hurt or destroy.
I’m drawn here to the medieval Latin liturgy and it's recognition of how prophecies like this one in Isaiah anticipate the incarnation:

O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum (Oh, great mystery and wonderful sacrament)
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum jacentem in praesepio! (that animals should see the newborn Lord placed in a manger!)

Isaiah proclaims to the returning exiles that they can hope for a restoration, a better life than even before, if they will unite themselves to God’s ways.  Jesus, deeply influenced in his theology by the book of Isaiah, embraces this vision of a new creation in which God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  Moreover, Jesus adopts as his own path Isaiah’s depiction of the servant of God, the lowly one who cares for those who suffer and joins them in their struggle.  One has to wonder whether Jesus intentionally linked these two prophetic images when he chose the name son of man or human being to describe himself in his public ministry.  Mortal one, one like us, one with appearance as a human being—that is the one that the Ancient of Days elevates to the highest glory, honor, and power.
With Daniel, we find ourselves living in this in-between place.  Around us we see organized evil of monstrous proportions.  Hate, division, and killing are the coin of the realm.  We live in the world’s most powerful nation, an imperial power with client states and manufacturing colonies all over the world.  What sort of beast would Daniel have seen if the USA were in his dream?  An eagle with the body of a grizzly bear?  A panther with wings of a vulture?  It’s pointless to speculate, but the truth we must recognize is that we live in a nation destined to pass away.  This empire will fall, as all other have, under the weight of its own violence, its genocide, its weapons of mass destruction, and its constant warfare.  Demagogues rise up to stir the base passions of a nation built on white supremacy and slavery.  Hateful men laud their own debasing behavior toward women.  Before the throne of the Ancient One, every tyrant will be judged, found wanting, and brought down.  The momentary victories of unjust powers and dominions will ultimately find their end under the justice of God. 
In the meantime, we wait under the shadow of empire.  We seek the peace of the city where we live, that in its welfare we will also find peace.  We speak truth to power and say, “No,” to the unjust demands of empire.  We live as resident aliens, not of this world, but loving those in the world where, by God’s grace, we take another breath today.  And we rest in the hope of a new creation.  Our destiny is not destruction, but houses, gardens, joyous life together in a land of justice and peace.  Come, Lord Jesus.  May we see your peace and justice break forth anew, even in our lifetimes.  And may we walk in your way of love and care and standing with and for the ones the world has cast aside, as the songwriter Rick Elias says,

For now, we live on these streets,
Forbidding and tough,
Where push always comes to shove,
And it’s said, “Love’s never enough.”
Where a prophet in rags gave hope to a fearful world.
No injustice, no heart of darkness
Will keep this voice from being heard.
He was a man of no reputation,
And by the wise, considered a fool
When he spoke about faith and forgiveness
In a time when the strongest arms ruled.
But this man of no reputation
Loves the weak with relentless affection.
And he loves all us poor in spirit, just as we are.
He was a man of no reputation.

One like a human being, like a son of man, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him, homeless and with no place to lay his head, one you might pass on the street and never notice.  He is our salvation—whom then shall we fear?  If God is for us, who can stand against us?  This one truly reigns, and in Jesus Christ, and in no one else, we place our trust on this day and forevermore.  Amen.
 

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