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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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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Presidents and Deans in Theological Education: How Must You Lead in These Times?

Our Dean at Shaw University Divinity School, was pleased to host a gathering of the African American Presidents and Deans in schools of theological education this week.  One of his initiatives was drafting a document that was edited and became an open letter, signed by those in attendance.  It addresses the issues of racial and ethnic disparity in the contemporary setting.  The context of progress and lack of progress in civil rights becomes the basis for reflection, as well as the impetus for a call to action. 

It harks back to a landmark of the South African churches' uniting against apartheid, the Kairos Document.  The challenges of injustice in that time are similar to our time, though the events and details may be different.  Mass imprisonment, repressive policing, differentiation of outcomes by race, law and order rhetoric, tragic and wrenching public killings, widespread fear and anger--these conditions ought to drive the church back to its convictions and its knees.  Searching our faith should also compel us to proclaim the love that has taken hold of us, so that we no longer see one another as those formed by the world see one another.  "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God's own self, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Corinthians 5:14-19).

It's a brief statement offering many subjects for thought and action.  It is neither a comprehensive treatise nor a call to a single strategic act.  It speaks to theological educators and their institutions about the way we teach the blessed texts and traditions of a faith that follows one who came to set at liberty those who are oppressed.  Take a moment to attend their words for our time.  And notice in the second paragraph that the person mentioned is Shaw Divinity's Dean David Forbes, who as a Shaw undergraduate was part of the initial gathering at Shaw of what would become the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, guided in part by Shaw's own Ella Baker.
(This Open Letter represents a collective effort by African American Presidents and Deans in Theological Education. A full list of the authors is at the bottom of the letter.)
January 15, 2015
An Open Letter to Presidents and Deans of Theological Schools in the United States,
At its annual meeting at Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, African American Presidents and Deans of theological schools in the United States issued a call for action in light of the current state of social justice in the United States of America.
One of our leaders, a founding member of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), noted that the socio-economic and political realities that led to the establishment of SNCC at Shaw University 54 years ago are actually eclipsed by the realities of this day. In 1960 there were lynchings and robe-wearing Klansmen. Today lynchings occur, but in different forms. Klansmen today bivouac without robes and hoods. Slavery still exists but under the auspices of a prison industrial complex. Discrimination thrives, with no intent or program for relief. As was true in the 1960's it is time for citizens of good conscience to once again rise up and rally to the cry for freedom and justice for all.
From a manger in Bethlehem, a Bantustan in Soweto, a bus in Montgomery, a freedom Summer in Mississippi, a bridge in Selma, a street in Ferguson, a doorway and shots fired in Detroit, a Moral Monday in Raleigh, an assault in an elevator in Atlantic City, an office building in Colorado Springs, a market in Paris, a wall in Palestine, a pilgrimage to the shrine of Rincon and a restoration of ties between Cuba and the United States on December 17th, the kidnapping and assault of young school-aged girls and the reported killing of 2000 women, children and men in Nigeria, a new generation of dream defenders, a transgender teen's suicide note, to our abuse of the environment - God sends a sign - a Kairos moment. The racial climate in the United States, and the respect for our common humanity everywhere, is clearly in decline.
How can Americans acquiesce, remain silent, passive and neutral as African-American men and women are slain in the streets of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and beyond? How can people of conscience be still when African-Americans quake with fear to walk without harm in their own cities and towns? How can we remain docile when leaders of our nation, especially the United States Congress abdicate their civic and moral responsibility to set a tone of civility and humanity?
How can we abide a justice system, which is neither blind nor equitable? How can we suffer a justice system that victimizes African Americans and Latinos by jailing them disproportionately?
How can we sit idly by while our children are slaughtered in the streets without provocation?
How can we as United States citizens claim that we are "created equal" and that we are committed to "freedom and justice for all" while injustice is rampant in the land?
How can we continue with business as usual in our theological schools in the midst of so many egregious injustices?
We believe that citizens of good conscience must arise and call our nation to assess and address the rising tide of injustice throughout our legal and criminal justice systems.
There must be restraint to those who shoot, kill, and maim innocent young men and women in the streets of our nation. And so . . .
We call upon the leaders of our nation to reaffirm the founding principles of this nation: liberty and justice for all.
We call on all freedom loving Americans to reaffirm a commitment to "the beloved community," where the freedom and rights of all are respected and protected.
We call on the United States Congress to set a civil and moral tone in the way they respect our twice-elected president.
We call on leaders on the national and local levels to join citizens of good will to reject practices, legal and adjure, which mar the American dream of liberty and justice for all.
We call on our churches and every house of faith to challenge their members and communities to live out an inclusive commitment to love God, self, the neighbor-enemy, and creation across any and all boundaries that would dehumanize, alienate, and separate.
We call on all Americans of good conscience who gather across the country to speak out for liberty and justice for all... always. As our modern day prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr. noted, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
We invite our colleagues -- presidents, deans and leaders of all divinity and theological schools -- to arise from the embers of silence and speak up and speak out as the prophet of old, "let justice run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream" (Amos 5:24). We encourage you to endorse this statement by responding in your own particular context to our theological call to action with curricular programs, public forums, teach-ins, calls to your congressional leaders, writing op-ed pieces, and more.
We recognize this Kairos moment and stand in solidarity for "liberty and justice for all."
Yours in the struggle,
African American Presidents and Deans in Theological Education
List of Signatories
  • Dr. Willard W.C. Ashley, Dean of the Seminary, New Brunswick Seminary
  • Dr. Brian K. Blount, President, Union Presbyterian Seminary
  • Dr. Marsha Foster Boyd, President Emerita, Ecumenical Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Michael J. Brown, Academic Dean, Payne Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Gay L. Byron, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Howard University School of Divinity
  • Dr. Leah Gaskin Fitchue, President, Payne Theological Seminary
  • Dr. David C. Forbes Sr., Interim Dean, Shaw University Divinity School
  • Dr. Charisse L. Gillett, President, Lexington Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Thomas W. Gilmore, Coordinator of Education, Cleveland Center, Ashland Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Mark G. Harden, Dean of the Boston Campus, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Kenneth E. Harris, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean, Ecumenical Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Barbara A. Holmes, President, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
  • Dr. Carrie D. Hudson, Associate Dean for Academic Advising and Scheduling, Ashland Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Vivian L. Johnson, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, United Theological Seminary
  • Dr. John W. Kinney, Senior Vice President & Dean for the School of Theology, Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology
  • Dr. Vergel Lattimore, President, Hood Theological Seminary
  • Dr. James W. Lewis, Dean, Anderson University School of Theology
  • Rev. Stephen Lewis, President, Forum for Theological Exploration
  • Dr. Paul M. Martin, President/CEO, American Baptist Seminary of the West
  • Dr. Myron F. McCoy, former President, Saint Paul School of Theology
  • Dr. Marvin A. McMickle, President, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School
  • Dr. Rosemary Bray McNatt, President, Starr King School for the Ministry
  • Dr. Joy J. Moore, Associate Dean of African American Church Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Deborah Flemister Mullen, Dean of Faculty and Executive Vice President, Columbia Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Evelyn L. Parker, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Perkins School of Theology
  • Dr. Alton B. Pollard, III, Dean, Howard University School of Divinity
  • Dr. Angela D. Sims, Dean of Academic Programs, Saint Paul School of Theology
  • Dr. Emilie M. Townes, Dean, Vanderbilt University Divinity School
  • Dr. Edward P. Wimberly, President, Interdenominational Theological Center
  • Dr. Robert S. Woods, Vice President of Academic Affairs/Dean, Memphis Theological Seminary
  • Dr. Mary H. Young, Associate Dean, Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Joseph Stroud Chats with Tu Fu

Joseph Stroud was reading some of his poems on the radio as I drove this evening.  All were intriguing, but one struck me particularly.  In it he affirms and re-asks a question from the Chinese poet Tu Fu about the measure of life.  It is not unlike a question that occupied the Greek Aristotle and drove his writing about virtue and ethics:  what constitutes a good life?  Intertwined in this shared set of inquiries is the puzzle of how the moments and relationships, the times and places, the stages and phases of a life hold together and converge to make a person, a whole life that one might call "good."  Rather than go any further down the path to windbaggery, let me just share Stroud's poem and what it spurred me to write as well.  You can find this poem in Stroud's most recent book of poems, Of This World.

I've never been one to do much revising.  The percolation and redisposition of my writing is more latent from days or months or years of thinking over and back over something.  So I'll just put this out there right away, even though it probably could be better.

Once I imagined myself a poet.
I wrote in bursts of inspiration
About loves and friends and
Potent moments of turning
Or grasping at life and death
When they walked up to me
To say, “Can you spare some change
For the bus?”
Prosish poems, not so artful,
Not so crafty, but with a clever turn
Of phrase here and there,
Always in a hurry to get on to what’s next.

I was on top of the world,
Or soon to be on the top,
Riding the momentum of a life
I had been given while being
Taught that I was
Making it myself.
The poems posed me
Over against and in among
People around me,
Or echoed my ambition to
Know the lifescape in which
Other poets had written their
Verses that now my teachers
Assigned me to study.

Then I stopped reading poems,
Went on to find other pages.
Embraced and embracing my beloved,
Making a home, walking a path together,
I wrote more than ever,
But not poems.
She was my poem.
The poem we were writing
Was an encompassing life,
A vision too close to my eyes,
Too deep in the ears for my eardrums,
Too far into my lungs to smell—
Somewhere in the flow of blood,
The respiration of mitochondria,
Amidst synaptic exchanges—
Organic flourishing,
Not composed:  it writing me
In rhythms of iambs, anapests,
Dactyls, trochees,
Rhyming or blank,
Unchained melodies.

A poem’s long unfolding ended.
She is not beside me.
The rhythmic feet falter,
A cataract grows and visions dim.
I go looking for books of poems
That they may read me and read to me
Of a life well lived and worth living
Even when the path disappears,
When sight seems untrustworthy,
When voices echo beyond hearing.
Such a long poetic frame—
It seemed to be the air I breathed.

I am still breathing.
Joseph Stroud converses with Tu Fu,
As I eavesdrop (having not noticed
The falling dark of this night
That burgeons mere hours before
Morning will again open with sunlight),
Suggesting I enter words in the ledger
Of a friendship
Spanning innumerable years.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Waiting for Something and Not Writing About It

Over the past two months I have sketched out many blog posts.  I have put down some notes about things I'd like to write.  I've even started writing what I thought would be one post, but later decided I needed to divide into about four different posts.  That one was really convoluted and complicated (I know, that's my style sometimes).  I thought of many things while driving to Texas and back at the end of October and beginning of November.  I have done a good bit of thinking about the current public outcry about the treatment of blacks by police and society, and wondered how much I should say and how much I should listen.  And I've been busy with teaching, reading papers, grading, and completing reports at work.

But I have come to see this week that one big barrier to writing here on this blog has been a kind of fearfulness about what is happening in my life.  It started to hit me when I read one of Denise Levertov's poems over a month ago.  So I've decided this is where I need to start.

The poem that I keep coming back to is called "Terror."
Face down; odor
of dusty carpet.  The grip
of anguished stillness.

Then your naked voice, your
head knocking the wall, sideways,
the beating of trapped thoughts against iron.

If I remember, how is it
my face shows
barely a line?  Am I
a monster, to sing
in the wind on this sunny hill

and not taste the dust always,
and not hear
that rending, that retching?
How did morning come, and the days
that followed, and quiet nights?
I bought the book of poems, having read lines from her in a post from The Plough, the publishing ministry of the Bruderhof communities.   Specifically, it was The Daily Dig, a daily email with a reflective quotation and a simple bit of photographic art that comes to me each day.  I looked for further information on the poet, and found that she had written poems about her own process of grief, so I rounded up copies of some of her books from used booksellers.  I've just finished reading the first one, which has the title of one of the poems about which I have posted before, With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads.  The poetic imagination and profound grief work have not disappointed.

About halfway through the book, I came to this poem.  The title put me off, and at first I could not see the link between the title and the poem.  But as the words rested on me for a while, I started to recognize that potential for terror.  The crux is in the first sentence of the third stanza:  "If I remember, how is it my face shows barely a line?"

The poem flows from an experience of utter desolation, face down in a carpet, engulfed in anguish.  The particularities of what is heard, what is smelled and tasted, the reaction of feeling the rending and retching, are not very specific.  But they portray the totality of the pain that the narrator has in memory.  It's not so far away.  The sensory remainder is conjurable.

But it is also not immediate.  The poem ends describing morning and the passing of days and quiet nights.  It expresses shock or dismay at singing out in the wide world.  And thus the "terror" at stake is the narrator's wondering if her ability to live on after such wrenching grief means that she has lost her humanity.  "Am I a monster?"  That is the terrorizing question.  It is stated in the extreme.  Maybe others might find ourselves asking more urbane questions such as, "Have I gotten off track?", or the common adolescent query, "Is something wrong with me?"  Still the heart of the question is the same.

The poet understands that going through something so terrible tears one apart, and the intense grief and pain are the human responses to the loss, the injury.  And so much of what I have written in the past two years has been in the midst of that intense pain.  I've reached out for solace, for understanding, for companions, for salve.  I've dug deep into the history of living a life with Everly.  I've marveled at her complex and expansive goodness.  I've imbibed the faith and faithfulness of my formation as a follower of Jesus, a child of God, a participant in the life of the Spirit.  And the smell of those hard days stayed ever present in my nostrils, the sounds, the images ever in mind.

I turned to everyone who would lend an ear and a kind word, trying to think of how I could go on.  I made pilgrimage to places where Everly and I had gone, to people whom Everly and I had known together.  I thought about what she and I had cared for and how we hoped to live our lives in the world.  I remembered the ways it had gone right and the ways it had not.  I sought to care for our children as she would do, always knowing I could offer my best, and at the same time never be what she was for them.  And I tried to discern what my life should be on the path that continues forward from her death and her absence.

As you know, I concluded that I should continue to teach at Shaw where I have now completed twenty-one years.  To do so, I determined it would be best to relocate back to North Carolina.  Because so much of our lives and view of the world have been shaped by Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, I bought a house just down the road from there.  In August, I moved to Durham and started setting up household, with the added blessing of having Naomi with me while she is attending graduate school down the road.  And having gotten back to being in town and on campus every week, rather than just a few weeks each semester as during the Texas sojourn, I started trying to become a more complete member of the faculty and participant in the work of the Divinity School.

Those efforts met with many successes, and some struggles.  I began to see emerging some of the characteristics that I remembered in myself from earlier days, and I believe they are also characteristics that Everly admired in me.  My life was taking new shape, and I was finding myself investing in my work and academic life in ways that I have not for many years.  A number of close friends and colleagues invested the time in me to engage my thinking and encourage my efforts, awakening a confidence I did not remember feeling for some time.

And thus, I arrived by increments to the place and time Levertov's poem describes.  Everly is on my mind daily.  I speak of her whenever I get an opportunity.  I have pictures of her in all the places I go.  But no longer does each day bring wrenching sobs.  I don't mean they never happen, but they are not so frequent as they were.  I am more likely to think and speak of her in pleasant memory and timely insight, without it always shifting into sharp pangs of grief.  So when this poem sank in, I thought to myself that I was somewhere along a path of change that put me in the midst of one of the grief tropes--that of the person who is noticing the change of intensity or even wondering if he "will forget her face" as the time passes.

I tend to resist almost any sort of classification system for human personality and behavior, including the so-called "stages of grief."  Yet there is little denying that over time the human mind and emotions can find a path of adaptation to the new circumstances of loss.  As I have mentioned before, fellow widower David Forbes calls it "renorming."  I'm adapting to the new normal.  And the new normal now includes my trying to make something of my life without Everly walking with me.  I've written this many times now, yet it can be a troubling thought.  Am I being unfaithful to her love and her importance if I am no longer so intensively feeling the pain?  This is the question the poem asks so harshly, "Am I a monster?"  It is the question asked in the Psalm of terror, "How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?"

And so the poet faces the very same dilemma.  How can I sing?  And I think even further, how can I sing out in the world where people can see me?  I remember many times in the past year, and it still happens, when I seek to sing in church or I play music that I love, tears begin to flow and the words get choked up in my throat.  But sometimes I can sing.  And I might even feel like cutting loose a tune in front of people now and then.  Yet it contradicts a way of being that had become my standard.  It had become my characteristic way for some time to be the grieving widower, the pitiful, sad man.  Somewhere along the way, I have become less comfortable in those clothes.  I notice myself carrying on work and participating in groups without bringing all things back to my loss of Everly.  I wonder how this is possible, knowing how rough it has been during this season of life.  I find myself telling people, as I get to know them, about Everly's death without getting choked up.  I wonder if that makes me seem cold, even though my inward gaze still sees the time of weeping as present.

Once in a while, not every day and not even every week, I may find myself overwhelmed.  It may be at home, in the office, on a drive, or just about anywhere.  I've borrowed a term from Kate Campbell for those times:  "fade to blue."  It's from one of her songs, and it describes well the sort of drift into a sorrowful place that seems to have to happen now and then.  But those times have become rarer, if not less intense when they do come.

So this week I realized that my frustration over not having written for this blog in so long had somewhat to do with this poem.  Upon first reading it, I thought that it would make an excellent jumping off point for describing part of my journey of grief.  But perhaps subconsciously that nagging question was pressing in the other direction.  I was not sure I wanted to put a public face on how things have changed.  Is something wrong, that I don't feel the same pain the same way?  I don't believe that to be true.  It is not wrong.  It is next.  It is different.  It is walking another step.  It is living.

The change came from a whole lot of intentional work, of striving to keep on living, of discerning the particulars of a life I hope will be well lived.  Yet with all the effort, it also "snuck up" on me, as we say in these parts.  It came as something waited for without waiting.  It makes sense, but it was not itself the goal.  The goal was to live an honorable life that holds on to all that I have received from knowing Everly.  One outcome was to begin to find meaning and purpose in that life that offers its own rewards, even without her to share it.  I don't call it moving on.  Thank you to bob and mj patterson-watt for teaching me that we don't "move on."  That implies leaving Everly behind to go do something else.  So all of you friends of those who are grieving, there is another cliché to drop from your vocabulary.

If it's not moving on, and it's not monstrous, what is it?  You won't surprised if I say that it is a form of grace.  It is grace to live on in the face of unbearable loss.  It is the superabundant possibility of the grace in which we stand, wherein waiting (suffering) produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope.  It is an unexpected life, partly undesired, yet bursting with grandeur, with "the dearest freshness deep down things."  Therefore, it may be moving, but without the connotation of being finished with something past.  It is a continuation of walking with a changed presence of my beloved.  And as I let myself think of what might come of the life we have thus far shared, I'll agree with the Indigo Girls, "When you're learning to face the path at your pace, every choice is worth your while." 

Out of this comes my Advent meditation.  Waiting for the little child who will lead--God the baby entering our world, and now each year waiting again.  In this season, I wait to see what this new life will be.  I wait to write, partly because I fear what it might mean.  Yet as Everly would assure me, I don't need to fear.  Her message, like that of the angel on that blessed night, "Don't be afraid, for there is good news of great joy."  Don't postpone it.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Violence Out of Control

As I prepared to relocate back to Durham this summer, the news about policing and its impact on minorities was not good.  I had read or heard too many stories of young adults shot in police custody or by police, both in Durham and around the state of North Carolina.  There is no replacing the life of young people killed by gun violence, and when it happens under questionable circumstances as part of policing, the pain is intensified.  I took some consolation knowing that many of my fellow church people and ministers had played a leading role in calling for an audit of policing practices in Durham.  The City Manager's report is a sign that some things may get better.  Yet we wait to see if there will be more than paper and lip service.

Durham's situation is not good, and it is a microcosm of a national trend toward militarized, threatening, violence-prone policing.  Conscientious citizens can't help but give attention to cases across the land in which unarmed, non-threatening young men and women have been quickly and summarily shot by police.  Targeting neighborhoods becomes a way to justify racial profiling, and the cycle of harassment, imprisonment, and violent death spirals out of control.

Culturally fostered fear and distrust of people who don't look like oneself is all too common.  Christians ought to know that this sort of prejudice is sinful.  As an act of Christian discipleship, I must lend my voice and my feet to the outcry for change.  Almost all police officers understand this problem and respect and value the lives of citizens.  But we cannot allow police departments to shield and protect officers who either out of fear or anger do not make every effort to protect the lives of fellow human beings.  Violence cannot be the first option in policing, and we pray that building community relationships and accountability can make it the rarest of occurrences.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

What Are We Imagining We Will Find When We Seek the Will of God?

Any professor knows that when students are doing their job, they press us to articulate things that we have not said clearly before.  If we have not said them clearly, it probably also means we have not understood them clearly.  Moreover, what these classroom discussions will often do is require us to pull together things we have said on various discrete topics in order to discern new insights and construct new frames for reflection.  This week in class, my students and I have been talking about how we discern the will of God for our lives.

I have thought of this past year, the year since Everly's death, as my year of discernment.  Although I am fifty-six years old with grown children, I have had to reboot my future.  I've written about this before.  Having lost access to the future with Everly that I was expecting, all the roads ahead seemed strange and uncharted.  I'm struggling for the right word here.  My dean talks about "renorming" of his life, having lost the "normal" he knew when his wife passed away.  That get's at a big part of it.

It's not exactly like going back to the beginning, not a Da Capo al Fine.  I don't have to repeat all the misdirections, achievements, and learning of youth.  In that way it's more like continuing with a great absence and all the confusion and uncertainty that brings (which, realistically, is actually a different set of confusions and uncertainties than the ones that Everly and I shared).  It's continuing, but things don't feel the same, don't taste the same, don't smell the same.  It's like walking on a path on a hillside, with everything tilted, with challenges for the footholds.

My having recently moved to a different house, one that has been gutted, rebuilt, and remodeled, puts me into a kind of spacial, structural model for what is happening.  It is a kind of rebuilding after a storm.  Parts of the structure are missing.  As things get into place, I have to figure out how to reorganize.  What used to take my time does not any more, but new things beg for my attention that I could previously ignore.  I'm not doing a very good job of maintaining a single metaphor here, so I guess I'm back to my earlier point of struggling for the right word.

So in the year of discernment, I was asking a question that in common church-speak could be called "seeking the will of God."  Now that things have changed, what should I be doing?  Now that I'm not Everly's cheerleading director, where should my energy go?  I talked with people I see often.  I mulled things over with family.  I made efforts to visit with people I see less often.  I pulled everyone who gave me some time into my conversation about what kind of life I should have.

Part of it, the part that swam in a deep pool of grief, was about recovering.  I'm not saying grief is something you get over.   I'm saying that making a life required time and reflection and learning and growth that acknowledges that for me everything is changed.  It means trying to remember those strengths that made Everly my chief admirer, an honest and plainspoken admirer, but an admirer no less.  It means trying to resurface from the deep pool breathing big gulps of a life that I have always believed God is offering to me as a gift.  It means believing again in the reasons I have been driven to be somebody and make a difference in my world.

As it has turned out so far, I continue to teach in the same esteemed seminary where I have taught for two decades.  It made sense to relocate back to that vicinity.  I had to grapple with my learning about John Perkins and his teaching about "relocation" to live among people with whom one ministers.  Puzzling about where that relocation should be, I looked at several different neighborhoods where I have relationships with church people who care about their communities.  I had to overlay those neighborhoods with the available housing, to find a place I could live and be healthy, provide space for my scattered family, and, of course, that I could afford.  Affordability and livability do not always align.  So I have ended up living near the church where I have served as a minister for the past seventeen years, Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church.

What will come of all this discernment and seeking?  That is something to wait and see.  Saturday I led devotional for people who had come to Mt. Level for Community Day.  We had health personnel for blood pressure checks, information about chronic conditions, community programs for children's safety, and even flu shots available.  There was a cookout fired up in the parking lot.  People who needed it got food to take home and help make ends meet.  Throughout the day, our ministers led short devotional services for the people who were there.

I talked about the times we are motivated to seek out God's guidance as seasons in our lives change.  From the seasons of the year, to seasons of school and work, to seasonal change from major life events, people may be motivated to inquire after God concerning their futures.   In those short comments, I tried out a couple of analogies.  First, we sometimes go asking for the wrong kind of guidance.  We are looking for the GPS god.  We want an exact destination, every road and turn preselected, a voice telling us what's about to come next, and no more having to think about it.  Anyone who got bad directions from a GPS device knows that's not even a good way to think about using one of those things.  But I am convinced that it also misunderstands the way that a life unfolds in relation to God.

Maybe that imagined map of God's will holds on from an age when Christians more widely believed in theological determinism and predestination.  In popular Christian talk and thinking, it remains a commonly expressed idea that God's control of the world means that every step our our lives is planned and coming to fruition moment by moment.  Most would not spin from their comments about specific events a full-blown theory of predestination, but would instead offer assertions in defense of human free will or even radical freedom and autonomy.  So in that way, it does seem more like a holdover, a convention in religious speech passed on through generations, even as worldviews and theological constructions have changed in ways that would contradict it.  The continuing presence of this kind of thinking is a partial explanation of why people would go to God looking for a GPS answer.

Before mentioning the alternative that I offered in the Saturday devotional, let me interrupt with the conversations I had with my students over the past week.  A big part of the Introduction to Theology course at Shaw Divinity School pertains to theological hermeneutics.  Along with the hermeneutical study that students get in Bible classes and in preaching classes, we spend some time on theological aspects of hermeneutics to help students understand that there are critical theological judgments and ecclesiological practices that shape faithful reading of the scriptures.  As I conclude this part of the course, I spend a large part of a class meeting in theological autobiography.  I tell the story of my upbringing as a white Southern Baptist, a Texan, a minister-in-training, a theologian, a church leader, a white person learning to make black friends, and a member of a black Baptist church.

Having told this story, with illustrations about Bible interpretation at relevant points, and especially to discuss my journey into reading the Bible with people whose lives have not been the same as mine and whose faith sensibilities have been shaped in a very different social and cultural context, students had more questions.  Learning to read the Bible in a black church and teaching black ministers has burst open dividing walls, pushed away opaque glass to allow me to see what my isolation in white privilege did not let me see.  I try to tell this story truthfully without letting it be a form of heroic tale of the honorable white man bearing his burden.  Telling it over and over, with the conversations that ensue, keeps helping me to understand my own pilgrimage better.

This time, a student asked me how I understood what had happened to me in relation to the will of God.  Since the most recent chapter of my life includes the death of my wife, that was the first thing that came to my mind.  I explained that I do not believe it is God's will that people die of cancer, and that there was much more good that Everly could have done in this world had she not been taken from us by this disease.  Thus, I don't think it is God's will that she and I had only thirty-three years of marriage, or that my children will progress through their adult lives without having their mother to encourage and direct them.  Some people may feel the need to believe that "it was her time."  I would say this time or another could have been her time.  Such things are not set in stone nor predetermined.  But whatever time her death came, whether she lived or died, she lived or died unto the Lord.

Everly's dying was a great loss to our family and to many other people in this world.  But I also told my students that I don't think that her untimely death means an end to all good possibilities for us.  It's not a failure of God's love and providence, but a tragic circumstance in which God's love and providence remain and surround our lives.  By implication, I am saying that I don't imagine a divine being flipping switches, waving a scepter, or pushing buttons to make every event around me happen.  God is active and present, but not necessarily in those kinds of ways.

The great challenge for me, mentioned above, has been rethinking what kind of life God has for me even though for almost four decades it was and would be a life lived with Everly.  The year of discernment was partly a year of looking at who I have been with and without Everly.  It was remembering what has mattered to me about living with her and wondering what that looks like if she is not by my side.  I wondered if, after this devastating loss, I would be able to invigorate, even resuscitate, some of my passion for making a difference in the world.  As our pastor, Dr. William C. Turner, Jr, said in her eulogy, she has finished her part of the race and has handed me the baton to keep on running.  In her view of me and my own self-understanding, God has not cast me aside and is not finished with me yet.

So as the will of God unfolds for me, I don't think of it as a single road to a single destination.  That brings me to Christian Ethics class a few days before that hermeneutics discussion.  We examined the Christian understandings of love and marriage and the contrast between those theologically shaped ideas and the popular thinking that permeates our culture.  One of the popular ideas is a fatalism of romantic love.  It is widespread popular thought that there is a single perfect mate for each person.  These two people of shared destiny must find one another and make their fate come into fruition.  It's a highly problematic way of thinking that has little room for grace, for redemption, and for growth.

To "fall" in love implies a complete lack of control.  But that is to conflate a biologically driven instinct toward pairing and mating with a virtue of love.  Attraction and infatuation are not the same as love.  Love is an orientation toward the good of the other, not a giddy feeling in the stomach and a fog in the brain.  Rather than the fatalistic falling in love, a Christian understanding of love and marriage should be about "growing in love."  The contemporary moment in which we live, a blip on the longer history of human flourishing, is all about self-chosen mates based on love as fate based on a self-perceived and self-reported giddiness.

I'm not arguing against people making their own judgments about whom they will marry, but I am arguing for a different kind of discernment process based on a sober evaluation of how deep a friendship is possible with the other person and whether we are pursuing goals that will take us in the same direction, or in Christian language, whether we are sharing a calling we can live out together.  For that reason, as a young man I came to imagine different ways of describing the will of God as comparable to maps of two different states of the U.S.

Having spent a summer in Washington, mainly around Wenatchee and Spokane, I had learned that the prominent geographical feature of the Cascade Mountains makes getting from one side of the state to the other a bigger challenge than I had experienced growing up in Texas.  There are very few roads that cross the Cascades because of the difficulty of traversing such high peaks and their steep slopes.  A few mountain passes allow hikers, skiers, or drivers to safely travel.  In winter, the choices for driving become more limited.  So if I am in Wenatchee and want to get to Seattle, I can either go this way, or that way, and there are not many other options.

The fatalistic view of finding a mate, when imported into Christian thinking, is operating in an imagined world not unlike the road map of the State of Washington.  To break it down, if I am in Wenatchee and if God's will is for me to get to Seattle, then I have to get the exact road right, or I have no hope of fulfilling God's plan for my life.  If I have only one perfect mate out there in the world, and I can't keep myself on the path toward God's perfect will, I will forever miss God's plan for my marriage.  When I put this in such stark terms, I wonder how such thinking would ever pass careful theological muster.  Yet the anxiety of believing in only one path and the risk of missing a turn because of a mistake, a sinful choice, or ignorance, makes out God to be a kind of heartless dictator of sorts.

Once when I was about to drive from one small town in Texas to another, I got out a road map of Texas.  Because of legislation in the 1940s to support secondary roads in farming and ranching areas, there are thousands of roads that crisscross every county in Texas.  A road map of Texas is a jumble of roads forming triangles and quadrilaterals of varied sizes and turned all directions.  Getting from point A to point B in Texas often has dozens of possible routes.  There are longer and shorter routes.  There are straight, curved, and zigzagged routes.  There are scenic routes and efficient routes.  When I ask a computer map system how to get somewhere in Texas, if it suggests three routes, it usually tells me they will all take about the same amount of time.  Getting around in Texas leaves lots of room for missing a turn or for changing your mind.

It struck me that seeking the will of God was more like this map.  (I confess my birth and upbringing in Texas does make me biased toward believing it could be God's country, but I think that is irrelevant to this analogy.)  If God has a direction for me to go, it is not necessarily dependent on an exact route.  If God has a destination at which I should arrive, there may be many possibilities and ways by which I could get there.  God is not so much trying to harness me onto a single set of ruts on a road that runs through the only mountain pass as God is calling me to be a certain sort of person whose impact in the world is a certain sort of impact.  There are all kinds of flexibility about how that will play out.  I don't have to be in a panic about accidentally missing a road sign or misunderstanding an instruction.  God is making the journey with me, and we will work it out as we go.

A week later, in Christian Ethics class again a student followed up on our conversation about the will of God.  That gave me opportunity to elaborate further on the idea that our calling is first of all to a relation to God and one another.  Jesus called the disciples to "Follow me."  He sent them out to go to every village and town, stay a while, accomplish some things, then go on to another place.  What mattered was the people they met and what they did as they carried out their mission.  The calling of God, following Jesus, and living in the Spirit has its roots in the life of the Trinity and the pouring out of the divine love and goodness in creation.  The divine life of mutual love, submission, and sharing is the pattern sewn into the fabric of creation.  Humanity's destiny is to love one another, seek the good of one another, and share the bounty of creation with one another.

The will of God for all humanity is a life lived in justice, kindness, and humility.  This is what the Prophet Micah proclaimed about the essentials of the divine will.  Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with God.  To generalize, the will of God for humanity, for me, for us, is a life of virtue.  Living in the Spirit means loving, being joyful, making peace, being patient, showing kindness, living gently, doing good, remaining faithful, and having self-control.  Following Jesus entails poverty of spirit, meekness, mourning, mercy, peacemaking, purity of heart, hunger for justice, and endurance even in hardship.

So I explained to the students that while they should seek God's guidance on major life events and choices, such as whether to become the pastor of a specific church, those moments which seem so critical have to be seen within the bigger picture of God's calling.  Being at this church or that church will certainly have an impact on the pastor's life, the pastor's family's lives, and the lives of the people in the church.  Yet if a pastor is at church A or church B or church C may not be the most important aspect of knowing the will of God.  Is this pastor living in the beatitude that comes with being a follower of Jesus?  Do this pastor's life and this church's life bear the fruit of the Spirit?  Where there is injustice, are this pastor and church seeking justice?  Where people struggle, do the pastor and the church and bring kindness in word and deed?  Are this pastor and church walking with God and in humility?  The calling is first of all to be a certain kind of people, a peculiar people, a people whose living bears in it the image of Christ.

Finally, I can get to the second part of what I shared at the devotional.  Rather than a GPS version of the will of God, I suggested that it is a Jazz Band God whom we serve.  I will claim no originality for making this claim.  Writers such as Cornel West and Barry Harvey have preceded me in using musical metaphors to help describe the shape and possibilities of human living in this world where God is calling us together.  What I said in this case was that a jazz band does not have every note and beat predetermined.  It is not without any sort of plan or purpose, but it always remains open for improvisation.  It may start in one direction, then regroup and change its direction.  The key is that they listen and make the musical journey together.  Our God made us to walk this journey with one another, and even with God.  Walk humbly.  Walk faithfully.  Jesus said to take my yoke.  Let Jesus share the burden and be a partner in the tasks.  The Spirit will guide us into all truth.

God may have specific destinations and specific stretches of road for any of us along the way.  We can trust that if God has such specific plans for us, God will make them known if we are walking in the Spirit as we ought, if we are living a life of virtue, if we are following our Lord.  But there is no need for constant anxiety about whether in each step we are getting it right.  There is so much from scripture that is clear about what sort of persons God has called us to be.  If we keep that in the forefront of our living together as God's people, we will always be on the path to do the will of God.  For that will is that all creation live in love, doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  What else does the Lord require?

Having been pulled into these conversations by students who themselves are pursuing God's purpose for their lives with great enthusiasm, I was able to lay out in close proximity several decades of my reflections on what it means to pursue God's will in life.  It has been a fruitful time of reflection for me.  I hope some of it can help others make a little sense as well.  At least it may be an opportunity for me to gain insight from you and clarify some matters about which I need to learn more.

Jeremiah 29:11-14 
11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14I will let you find me, says the Lord.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Kephalé, the English Word "Head," and a Tradition of Misreading the Bible

Recently I posted a short sermon I gave for part of a Men's Day observance in a Baptist Church.  I have long had mixed feelings about Men's Day.  It is not one of those days that fits into the centuries-old church calendar that observes days for the saints and an annual cycle of seasons that brings attention to the anticipation, the birth, the life, the passion, the resurrection, and the reign of Jesus Christ.  It is, however, part of another liturgical calendar that evolved over decades to address certain aspects of church life.  There is a Women's Day, and there is a Men's Day, and in some churches these are big annual events.

These days have significance in a number of ways.  Women's Day has its origin in a 1906 proposal by Nannie Helen Burroughs, who suggested a day when women in National Baptist Churches could lead in educating and motivating the churches for Foreign Missions.  It's purpose then includes promotion of missionary work, fund-raising for missions, and elevation of women to the opportunity to lead, speak out, and exercise gifts in the church.  It was of a piece with the rise of Women's Clubs organized for community betterment, including the kind of work done by Ida B. Wells-Barnett in the anti-lynching campaign and the founding of black educational and social institutions.

Men's Day does not have the same specific historical origins, but seems to have grown up in many ways as a complementary observance to address the need for men to take up their part in the work of the church, to serve, to teach, and to lead.  It is not uncommon for it to include a theme around the "missing" men in the life of the churches that seem often to be populated primarily by women.  So Women's Day is on one hand an effort to elevate the place of women in institutions that display a tradition of patriarchy, and Men's Day is on the other hand an effort to draw in and encourage more male discipleship.

Having grown up Baptist, whether among white or black Baptists, I have worshiped and served in institutions steeped in patriarchal tradition.  In my early adult years, I realized the failure of such churches to listen to the message of Pentecost and the momentum of the New Testament writings toward full equality of men and women in families, in church leadership, and in relation to God.  And still today, that tradition weighs heavy in the churches with which I associate. 

I'm not saying there has been no change.  I commune now in a church which has women in all levels of leadership, including ordained ministers and deacons, as well as various offices and roles of influence.  It is not surprising at all to have a woman preach, pray, or lead worship in any way.  Even so, the rhetoric of hierarchy and male leadership still crops up at times, and it remains assumed by many in the community of faith.  Moreover, our church is on the more progressive end of a continuum; we have not had a woman as senior pastor, but women's calling and capacity for leadership is not a question.  On the other hand, many churches with which we cooperate and associate, probably a very large majority of them, continue to exclude women from official recognition in church leadership, such as preaching, serving as a deacon, or receiving ordination.

So I always approach Men's Day and Women's Day with a level of trepidation, knowing how they easily become a platform to recite and reinstate patriarchal structures as if they are the absolute command of God for human flourishing.  The assumed primacy of the male in family, church, and society remains a powerful idea.  I am always thankful, as I was on the night that I preached about the sin of seeking to control the world and the people in it, when the observance does not morph into a rally for boosting the patriarchy.

There is an important agenda in black churches when it comes to encouraging men to rise into their gifts and callings.  The events around the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Travon Martin, to name only a few, symbolize the difficulties black men face in trying to make their way in U.S. society.  The deeply imbedded prejudices and fears which assume to know that black men are up to no good stand in the way of education, jobs, economic stability, and empowerment.  We ought to be encouraging black men to defy the social pressures and assumptions that would try to keep them marginalized.  That's why I believe in the agenda of Men's Day.

Womanist thought seeks to expand our notions of gender politics and community responsibility to avoid pitting some people against others.  As Marcia Riggs has demonstrated, the heritage of the Black Women's Clubs is not elevation of women at men's expense, not elevation of the middle class at the poor's expense.  It's core was the motto, "Lifting As We Climb."  Womanism shares that spirit of believing that the it is not possible for some in the community to achieve what is good for them if they do so by holding down or putting down others.  It must be a general community uplift, a devotion to the common good.  To use biblical language, it is a commitment to having "no one in need among us."

Men's and women's achievement and advancement go hand in hand.  In this way, the church seeks to fulfill the message of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians, when he told them that their baptism gave them a new birth into a new world and a new life.  They were changed beings, no longer defined by the biases of culture from which they had come.  It was a new culture of equality:
As many of you who have been dipped in the dye of Christ have also gotten dressed up in Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, not male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (my translation).
Those so-called natural divisions which would divide us are not any longer relevant.  There is a new kind of freedom for living according to the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives freely to whomever the Holy Spirit wills.

The pentecostal faith of the church acknowledges that the first bearers of the gospel of the resurrected Lord were women who went to his tomb on Sunday and discovered he was risen.  Mary Magdalene, one of his companions in life was the one who first met him in the resurrection.  Jesus' followers remembered how he did not care about the disreputable behavior of talking with a divorced and cohabitating Samaritan woman, outcast by her community.  They remembered that he praised Mary of Bethany for her devotion to learning that traditionally was a role assigned to men only.  And Peter preached from the Prophet Joel's words which said that both men and women would prophesy, that is they would preach and deliver a word of God.  Remnants of the early church in the New Testament writings indicate the leadership of women like Lydia, Phoebe, and Chloe.

Not all New Testament texts are so easily wrenched from patriarchal thinking.  Among the ones that is commonly used to justify patriarchy is 1 Corinthians 11.  It contains a formulaic set of parallel statements that seem at first to be a claim on behalf of hierarchy in patriarchal form.  That is because of the word "head" in English, translated from the Greek kephalé.

In English, the "head" man is the one in charge.  We have "Department Heads" and "head linesmen" and most prominently, "heads of state."  In English history, the beheading of Charles I was a public symbol of removing the monarchical authority from over the people.  So the English word "head" connotes hierarchy and authority.  There is a concept of "headship" in English that tampers with our cultural biases when we read verse 3.
But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ (NRSV).
Greek is not the same.  Certainly Greek culture has its own symbols of hierarchy and a heritage of patriarchy.  Yet the language does not rely on the image of the head to portray hierarchy and authority.  There are many meanings, both literal and figurative, for the word kephalé.  It can mean the anatomical head on a human or other animal.  It can mean a part of a plant that in certain ways is similar to the head on an animal.  It can mean the top piece, or crowning piece of something (not to be confused with the English crown as a symbol of rulership).  It can often mean the headwaters of a stream, and by analogy the source of something. 

Lexicons of ancient Greek language give many possible meanings for the word kephalé, but there seem to be no instances which indicate that Greeks used it to mean the boss, the ruler, the one in charge.  I am thankful for the summary of various sources assembled by Laurie Fasullo of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as she made the case that it is inappropriate to insert "headship" as authority into a reading of Pauline texts and other New Testament texts.  I will not try to duplicate all of her interesting and excellent work. 

If 1 Corinthians 11:3 should not be read to indicate that there is a grand hierarchy in which women or wives are ontologically subordinate and men in authority, then how should we read it.  Fasullo and others convincingly argue that talking about heads here is best understood as emphasizing the unity of the two elements being named.  Christ is clearly not eternally and ontologically subordinate to God.  So some other relationship is being indicated here.  If Paul is speaking in his rabbinic voice, then he may be pointing us back to the Genesis story of the woman's creation from a rib of the man, and thus saying that the man is the source of the woman, and thereby we see that they are made of one substance and inseparably linked.  In the same way, humanity is linked to Christ, who is the true human, the Second and True Adam, and thus the source of the man.  Christ, the beloved, is eternally begotten of the lover, the Father, and is inseparably linked and coequal, fully God.  To say head here is to use the word in its sense of being the source and therefore the same.

Wayne Grudem is the primary scholar in defense of the notion of "head" as "headship."  Scholars who disagree with him have offered a pretty strong critique of the arguments he published in the 1980s.  So in 2001 he published an updated argument to take on various newer scholarly works with which he disagreed.  He attempted to import the popular U.S. evangelical notion of hierarchy equivocally called equality through a conception of "complementarity."  Complementarity is the evangelical/fundamentalist word for equality of status combined with differentiation of roles, with those superordinate and subordinate roles ontologically and essentially mapped onto gender.

Grudem accused his opponents of claiming their sources make arguments that are not actually present, or what one would call an "argument from silence."  Lacking any direct claim, they claim too much for his interpretation.  Yet he does the same, claiming that the misreading by Catherine Kroeger of Chrysostom's comments on 1 Corinthians 11:3 failed to recognize that Grudem's position was required to make sense of them.  Yet Grudem ends up contradicting Chrysostom, not agreeing with him.  He claims the subordination of Jesus Christ as an essential status, taken on voluntarily, and yet by implication from eternity to eternity.  This is exactly what Chrysostom is battling, so it makes no sense that he would have agreed with Grudem's subordinationist theology of the Trinity, even though Grudem believes that it is obvious and entailed in his words.

It seems, therefore, that the traditionalist view, bolstered by its champion Grudem, continues to rely on this equivocal use of the term equality to deny the very coequality of the persons of the Trinity as as way to justify an eternal inequality called equality in the subordination of women to men.

Did Jesus subordinate himself, take the form of a servant, and become like us?  Yes.  And Jesus has been highly exalted.  The subordination of one person of the Trinity to another is shared among all three persons.  This is the nature of the perfect communication of all things between the persons, coeternally existing in coequality, supreme communicability, complete consubstantiality, perfect configurability, and unsurpassable mutual intimacy. 

Can women reasonably respond to Christian faith through similar voluntary subordination?  Could a marriage reasonably allow one person to exercise most or all leadership?  Yes to both of these.  Many blessed unions have appeared in cultural conditions of patriarchy.  Yet the Letter to the Corinthians cannot be used to demand that this is the inherent ontology of God's creation of humanity.  Thus, a marriage can also reasonably allow partners to find their path of mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21) and offer themselves to one another as servants, bucking the cultural expectations so that both live into the image of Christ.  Nothing in this text says a man should claim his right to be in charge. 

What that means is that contrary to their claim to read the plain sense of the text, using a grammatico-historical method of interpretation to find the one meaning of the text, evangelicals are using an allegorical method of interpretation.  This is exactly what I heard recently.  Taking the English use of the word "head" in its symbolism as authority and ruler, the interpreter began to discuss the various features of the head and their significance for leading and being in charge.  In similar manner, the other parts of the body which are not the head were held up in contrast (feet, tail, etc.) to indicate what a person in charge was not supposed to be.  It is an abuse of allegory to do what allegory often does--reinforce cultural assumptions. 

A colleague of mine, Curtis Freeman, has written a scholarly article on 1 Corinthians 11:3, criticizing Grudem's readings of the theologians of the early centuries of the church.  I look forward to reading that when it is published soon, and I will plan to share a link to it or summary of it when it becomes available.

The Housing Bubble Was No Mystery

I've not posted about the economic crash recently, although I've made references to it in other posts along the way.  Today I read a short comment on from Dean Baker at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.  He was responding to the announcement from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen that there will be a new committee in the FED to study and seek to avoid another destabilizing economic crisis like the recent ones, including the Great Recession. 

Reporting on this announcement, the New York Times continues to imply the oft-reported impression that the coming of that crisis was a mystery that no one could see.  Baker's contention is that many people did see it coming, including seeing all the obvious signs of the housing bubble.  Rather than not seeing these foreboding signs, what accounts for the FED's unreadiness and lack of preventive intervention was "an extraordinary level of incompetence."  Former FED Chair Alan Greenspan himself admitted to responding wrongly to danger signs, having been blinded by a false ideology of market economic systems.

Here are Baker's remarks.
September 13, 2014
It Really Wasn't Hard to See the Dangers Posed by the Housing Bubble 

At its peak in 2006, the housing bubble had caused nationwide house prices to rise more than 70 percent above their trend level. This run-up occurred in spite of the fact that rents had not outpaced inflation and there was a record nationwide vacancy rate.

The dangers of the bubble also should have been clear. Residential construction peaked at almost 6.5 percent of GDP compared to long period average of close to 4.0 percent. The housing wealth effect had led to a consumption boom that pushed the saving rate to near zero.

Also, the flood of dubious loans was hardly a secret. The National Association of Realtors reported that nearly half of first-time homebuyers had put down zero or less on their homes in 2005. The spread of NINJA (no income, no job, and no assets) loans was a common joke in the industry.

These points are worth noting in reference to an article discussing the Fed's efforts to increase its ability to detect dangerous asset bubbles. An asset that actually poses a major threat to the economy is not hard to find. It kind of stands out, sort of like an invasion by a foreign army. The failure of the Fed to recognize the housing bubble and the dangers it posed was due to an extraordinary level of incompetence, not the inherent difficulty of the mission.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Can We Be in Control?

One annual event on many church calendars is Men's Day.  As part of the Men's Day preparation, three preachers were asked to speak briefly at the Wednesday night Bible study and prayer time, all using the same text, 1 Corinthians 15:56-58.  We got our heads together to try to avoid too much repetition, and it worked well.  Thanks to Rev. Patrick Clay of Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church and Rev. Dennis Horne of Monument of Faith Church for being my excellent partners in this enterprise.  I focused on verse 56 because it gave me the opportunity to think about the relationship of sin and the law.  The focus, according to the theme, was on men, but of course the same kinds of arguments found in this sermon can apply regardless of a person's gender.

1 Corinthians 15:56-58
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

I want to address the first portion of the passage, verse 56, a compound sentence which says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.”  The question I want us to consider for a few minutes is “Can we be in control?”
One of the great unknowns of human existence is death.  Everyone faces it eventually.  We watch helplessly when loved ones die.  We remain on this side of a great, impenetrable divide.  The uncertainty of death arouses great anxiety in some people.  Others are able not to dwell on such fears, and some face the inevitability of death with a kind of calm resolve and peace.
            Those who put their trust in God can often put aside their anxieties about death and rest in the hope of God’s salvation.  With or without faith, most people manage to keep thoughts of death at bay through one strategy or another.  They keep focused on living and on building security in this world.  But that does not mean that fear does not break through now and then.  Death can be a powerful shaping force in our lives, even if we keep the subject buried just below the surface of our consciousness.
            Death, or its possibility, may drive us to change our diets, to start exercising, to take various medicines, to have surgeries, to break old habits and start new habits, to take a vacation, to change jobs, to move to another climate, to improve our relationships, to pray and meditate.  Death makes us act because it is the ultimate loss of control.
            If that is true, that death is the ultimate loss of control, then perhaps we might also say that the desire and efforts and strategies that people use to take control of their lives can be ways of warding off death.  And warding off death can be a good thing.  God made us for life.
            But there is a kind of striving for control that can get out of hand.  We talk about people with a “controlling personality.”  We say that some co-workers are “micromanagers.”  And we accuse people in our lives of being “control freaks.”  We protest to people who try to tell us what to do and how to live, “You’re not the boss of me!”  There is a kind of concern for control that is not good for relationships and gets out of hand.  It may, in fact, mask an underlying anxiety about losing control.  It may be a reaction to the fear of death.
            We don’t want an untimely death.  On the other hand, death comes to all, and in the right season it can be received with grace.  But when we let ourselves get so concerned with controlling every detail of our lives and the lives of people around us, could it be that we have let ourselves be controlled by fear of death rather than by the goodness of God’s gift of life?
            The Apostle Paul wrote in this text that the sting of death is sin.  He says that death has a sting.  The sting is what hurts us.  The sting is the harm that comes to us.  Death stings us because of sin. 
            On one level, that means that if we die in sin, we face a future without hope.  Death swallows us up, and we are in the clutches of an enemy we cannot defeat by our human power.  The sting of death, in this way, speaks of dying in sin and facing judgment.   I would like to say more here, but the time is short, and I can come back around to this in combination with the next important thing to say.
            On another level, saying that the sting of death is sin means that death gets its poison into us through sin.  Sinning puts us into the atmosphere of death, the sphere of influence of death.  Death sneaks its way into our lives and pollutes them and twists them and dominates them, and it does this through sin.
            One of the principle biblical concepts of sin is our desire to control our lives without depending on God.  All the way back to the Garden of Eden story, human beings believed that they had a better plan than God.  It’s not a story about a magic fruit tree and an arbitrary prohibition from God.  It is a story about human beings trying to become sovereign over their own lives and realizing how unready and how unqualified they are to take charge for themselves. 
            We, like Adam and Eve, often find ourselves trying to take control.  We want to run things.  We want the people around us to do things our way.  Men want their wives, their co-workers, their neighbors, their kids, their siblings, their girlfriends, their buddies, their teammates, to do things their way. 
            You know the guy I’m talking about.  He can’t seem to listen to others.  He gives long speeches about how to do things (Lord, help me here, I’m talking to myself.)  He gets angry when people don’t automatically comply with his plans and his wishes.  He always acts like the expert.  He’s got a plan for you and expects you to carry it out.  If he’s a pastor or deacon, he may try to enhance his control by invoking God as his sponsor.
            In the extreme, he may be like the prominent athlete in the news who wants control so bad he breaks out into violent acts.  He can’t be questioned or challenged.  And the odds are that every church, ours included, has in its pews men (or women) who have resorted to violence to control their loved ones.  It’s wrong.  It needs to stop.  God and the church can help you get help and stop.  You don’t need to demand to be in control over others and become violent.
            One thing Paul is telling us here is that trying to fight off death by controlling everything around you is really a way of giving in to death.  Instead of pushing death away, fear of death is pushing itself into our lives.  We think we can prevent the chaos by keeping everything under control, but the chaos is working within us, pressing upward toward consciousness, fighting our love for life and replacing it with control.
            Only God is capable of guiding our lives.  So I’m not saying don’t use your gifts of leadership and administration.  I’m saying let them operate in a realm of grace and freedom and love.  Grace means letting God work through other people, not controlling other people.  Freedom means being open to changes in plans and the choices of others.  Love means listening and valuing the many people God sends into your life, with all the gifts they bring.
            Paul expands his argument by saying that the power of sin is the law.  I could spend a few weeks talking about the ambiguous concept of the law in the Bible and theology.  There are many controversies over its significance across the history of the church.  But let it suffice tonight to say that the law has a limited good purpose.  It cannot save us.  But understood rightly, it can guide us.
            Our anxiety, however, makes us want the law to be our salvation.  We think it is straightforward.  It is simple.  It is clear.  There it is in black and white on the page.  We feel that we can follow something that is in plain view.  So we sometimes wish and long for the law to be our salvation.  It is, again, a strategy of control.  And as you know, the people who own authority over the law, own the rest of the people.
            Again, you have seen this guy.  He knows the regulations.  He has told you exactly what he wants done.  He wants it done this way, no matter what good idea you think you have.  In our churches, he says that we have always done things this way and it worked for our parents and their parents and the ones that came before.  He says the constitution and bylaws of a Missionary Baptist Church tell us what organizations and officers to have, and that should be good enough to do the work of the church.  He loves standard operating procedure and prefers no variations.
            But law cannot save.  It is by grace we are saved.  The power of sin is the law.  Law turbocharges our sinfulness.  Law boosts sin’s power.  Law becomes the lever to let sin shove the world around.  The law is a club in a violent man’s hand to beat down his opponents or any who question him.  That’s not the purpose of the law.  So when sin gets it’s grip on us, we use the law to intensify our controlling impulses.
            So don’t be one of these guys.  You can be a man without being in control of everything and everyone around you.  Let God send co-workers, fellow-travelers, teammates, into your life who can bring their goodness and truth and beauty with them.  Let it be life that flourishes, not death through the sinfulness of control and the power of law. 
           God gives the victory.  Jesus gave up control as he prayed in the garden.  He laid out his ideas for a good plan, but he acknowledged that there might be other plans that would work out.  He said, “Not my will, but thy will, be done.”  He went down a path that was not in his own control.  It looked like death would win.  Death tried to sting him, but he was without sin.  The law tried to condemn him, but he was the lawgiver himself.   
           When it seemed that he would be swallowed up by death, instead, death was swallowed up in victory.  Jesus knew that the God who loved him before death would still love him even into eternity.  In the world Jesus gave us, death is not a destroyer, but a passage to new life.  He showed us the way.  May we walk in it with courage, and not succumb to our fears.

Imagining Life Ahead

I've certainly posted often about having to re-imagine the direction and shape of my life.  I've preached on the subject.  I've conversed with Dr. David Forbes about it.  It's a major part of this season of my life, of grief work.

Recently the Brüderhof daily email (The Daily Dig) sent me a poem by Denise Levertov about the wonder and awe of looking upon the world.  Struck by its simplicity and power, I decided to find out more about this poet.  What I found intrigued me, including that she had written a series of poems about grief and loss after the death of her sister.  So I searched around the used book stores online and ordered a few of her books of poems.  Today is the first fruit of finding those books.  (Long ago I used to read poetry more often.  I always wonder why I don't now.)

What does one see when looking ahead at the next steps in life?  How different trees may look on a mountainside, depending on how we see.  How urgently we want see what is beyond a door, to remove impediments from letting us open upon the next vista.  How eager we may feel about trying on a new garment, projecting a changed image before ourselves and the world.  

And the eyes that see are guided as much by the imagination, an architect and a knitter, as they are by the orbital muscles and lenses that gaze forward.  Will there be a house behind the door, or not?  What will one find on the "mountain...echoing with hidden rivers, mountain of short grass and subtle shadows?"

Denise Levertov's poem has me thinking on these things.  I'm not surprised the critics say this poem launched her into wide recognition.

With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads
by Denise Levertov

With eyes at the back of our heads
we see a mountain
not obstructed with woods but laced
here and there with feathery groves.

The doors before us in a facade
that perhaps has no house in back of it
are too narrow, and one is set high
with no doorsill.  The architect sees

the imperfect proposition and
turns eagerly to the knitter.
Set it to rights!
The knitter begins to knit.

For we want
to enter the house, if there is a house,
to pass through the doors at least
into whatever lies beyond them,

we want to enter the arms
of the knitted garment.  As one
is re-formed, so the other,
in proportion.

When the doors widen
when the sleeves admit us
the way to the mountain will clear,
the mountain we see with
eyes at the back of our heads, mountain
green, mountain
cut of limestone, echoing
with hidden rivers, mountain
of short grass and subtle shadows.
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