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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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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Justice Everywhere Now, Always

Today on the campus of Shaw University, students from at least seven North Carolina colleges rallied to join their voices for justice in the legal system. The occasion for the rally was the September 20 protest against the treatment of six black high school students accused of attempted murder and aggravated assault against a white student at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana. Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP spoke powerfully to the crowd, and he suggested the acronym for Jena that I used for the title of this entry.

The rally was not a call for ignoring any acts of violence which have been committed. It was a call for fair treatment of blacks and whites caught up in the same legal system. Numerous web sites and newspaper articles tell the story of the events which unfolded in Jena. Whites assaulted blacks in Jena during the period of unrest which followed the racist threat of nooses hung in a tree outside the high school, but district attorney Reed Walters brought no charges in those cases. But in this case against a group of blacks who beat a white boy, leaving minor injuries which allowed him to return to a school activity the same day, the district attorney brought charges of attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and aggravated assault. Setting bonds very high for these students meant that they spent weeks and months in jail. The case bursts with examples of the unequal application of the law.

It is a case which has caught the attention of black students across the country. It has touched a nerve in their world. Many have friends who have been victims of legal injustices. Others fear what might happen to themselves. Primarily, they recognize that this widespread problem affecting African Americans long after the passage of the Civil Rights Acts must be challenged. As Jesse Jackson was widely quoted to have said, there is a Jena in every state of the United States.

Apparently, blogs and social networking sites became powerful tools in organizing the large protest in Jena on September 20, as well as many local events. It was only in the last week that the brewing protest was noticed by major news organizations. Prior to that, it was only a few news sources, such as the Chicago Tribune, the BBC, and NPR, to name some, which made note of what was happening in Louisiana. I tried to get local news coverage in Durham, but had to settle for writing my own Op/Ed article. So clearly some other form of information exchange and organizing made the difference.

Some used existing organizations, churches, and just plain word-of-mouth organizing. In Durham, a father named Kevin Williams became agitated by thinking about his own teen-aged son getting caught up in an unjust legal procedure. He became a leading organizer to bring attention, and ultimately busloads of North Carolinians, to Jena.

At Shaw, Dean of the Chapel Quincy Scott and his staff deserve praise for their work to facilitate the student rally. President Clarence G. Newsome and other administrators joined their support and presence to the event. Over half of the participants were Shaw students, but large contingents came from North Carolina Central University, Livingstone College, and St. Augustine's College. Other groups of students came from Elizabeth City State University, the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and North Carolina State University. There were also Shaw alumni and other community members who joined in the event.

Well-deserved attention is finally being brought to this case. Recent developments seem promising. The bait and switch tactic of lodging a charge of attempted murder allowed Walters to bring underaged Mychal Bell's case into an adult court. After the trial started, the charge was reduced to a charge that did not justify taking Bell out of juvenile court. Yet the case was carried through, and Bell was convicted. The appeals court threw out the verdict on the grounds that it should never have been tried outside of the juvenile court. Charges have been reduced for the other youths who have not yet stood trial. Will the legal officials of Louisiana rein in this rogue prosecutor? Will the full story be told, rather than the abbreviated version which focuses only on the one event which led to these students' arrest?

Finally, we must remember the important early publicity given to this case by a couple of ministers. Eddie Thompson of Jena spoke frankly about racism in his town, at the same time acknowledging that it is not unique to Jena. Alan Bean of Texas worked hard to get the details of the case publicized.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Maker and Appraiser, part 2
Jeremiah 18:1-11

(This was the Men's Day message for the 8 am service at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on September 9, 2007.)

If we turn to today’s text, I think we can gain some solid footing for an answer. Jeremiah’s prophetic hermeneutic urged the people of Jerusalem in his day to think again about the measure of a man. He told them about going down to the potter’s house to watch the skilled craftsman work. The potter was throwing clay on the wheel. He was shaping it with his hands and maybe with some specialized tools of the trade. A lump of clay that seemed ready for service was being transformed into a pot, a vessel, a useful implement and a thing of beauty. But somewhere along the process, things went wrong. The clay took on a mind of its own. It warped and got out of shape. A crack appeared in the soft clay that would be a fatal flaw in light of the purpose the potter had for the vessel. As Jeremiah said, the vessel “was spoiled in the potter’s hand.” What had begun to look like a fine clay pot turned out to be a warped, cracked, useless vessel.

Had it been our day, in our throwaway society, we might have tossed it in the landfill and run out to Wal-Mart to replace it with something else we can throw away next month. Sometimes that’s the way our society deals with boys and men, too. When they get out of hand, when their problems get too big to handle, when their frustration builds up to the point of lashing out, we give up on them. The problems seem to hard to solve, so we throw them away. Put them out of school. Put them out of the house. Put them in the jail. Put them out on the street. Put them in the ground. But human beings are not throwaway commodities. We are not single-use, disposable items. Thank God for showing Jeremiah another way.

When the vessel was spoiled, the potter did not throw it away. The potter reworked it. He found the hard spot in the lump of clay and worked it with his hands until it become smooth and malleable. He kneaded the place that had cracked back into the rest of the lump to get rid of the variations in moisture and flexibility and build up the stability in the clay. He wanted the lump of clay to have the character required to make a pot hold together, be useful, and last a long time. He wanted it to be sturdy so that it could be adorned and display the beauty and goodness that already lay within it as a potentiality. So Jeremiah said, “he reworked it.”
The skilled potter did not go out on the street and grab someone who knew nothing about the craft to ask, “What should I do with this?” No, the skilled potter was both the maker and the appraiser. The potter knew how to make a pot, and he also knew a good pot from a bad pot. He knew good, reusable clay when he examined it. He had the ability to judge when a pot was spoiled in the making. He could appraise the measure of a clay pot.

I went outside this week and found a surveying crew next door. Someone is thinking about buying the house there. They want to know exactly what piece of land they are buying. Now I could have walked over and told them that as I see it, the property line runs along this driveway and this fence, comes to about right here and runs up through those bushes to a spot on the hill. But they don’t want that kind of sloppy guesswork. They want someone who knows how to spot and measure the lot. The survey crew was skilled, had precise equipment, and was trained to locate each corner of the lot.

Another example more directly about appraisal may be helpful here. Apparently it has become very popular to go to a big meeting hall, carrying some old stuff from your house, and ask experts how much it is worth. I’ve seen a couple of television programs that show people telling a story about a piece of furniture, a photograph, a sports souvenir, or some other item. Then an appraiser responds with some historical information, offers a few tidbits of trivia, and finally states an estimate of the dollar value of the item. It’s not a wild guess, but it’s based on experience of seeing other similar items and evaluating their condition. An appraiser knows a lot about certain kinds of items and is therefore qualified to make a statement about their value.

The potter was both the maker and the appraiser. Who knew more about the pots than the one who made them? He could tell when they would function and when they would fail. He could evaluate their strength and stability. He could appraise their usefulness, their value, their worth. And if he saw that they fell short of what they should be, he could rework them. It was his skill that gave them their value in the first place. He used high quality materials and high quality methods to produce a high quality product. He put high quality labor into the task and took pride in doing good work. And when he needed to, he reworked the pot to make sure it met the standards of quality that matched the vision of the maker.

Thanks be to God for the potter that reworked the clay. On Men’s Day, we need to praise the God who reworks spoiled lumps of clay. We need to call on that same God to rework our spoiled lives and make us useful, good, beautiful vessels for God’s service. God will rework us. Turn to your neighbor and say, “Neighbor, God will rework you.” We need to admit our sins, the ways that we have been spoiled for service to God, and pray, “God, rework me.” Say it with me, “God, rework me.” And Mt. Level needs to be ready to let go of the pebbles that are mixed up in our clay, the cracks in our vessel, and cry out, “God, rework us.” We know we are flawed as persons and as a congregation. We know we leak and can’t sit right without wobbling. We know we do stuff we don’t need to do while we let slip away things we ought to have done. But the God who is like the potter has no intention to toss us in the trash heap.

God will rework us. It may not all feel good. An effective muscle massage may have to work some sore spots to get the tightness and knots out that are keeping us down. A successful cycle of physical therapy means fighting through some tears when the pain seems more than we can bear. But all through the struggle, and waiting for us at the other end of the struggle is the God we know in Jesus Christ. God has already envisioned what we are to become. And God’s purpose for men, and for all of us, is that we grow up to the measure of true humanity in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the measuring tool. And God is able to appraise the measure of a man because God’s own self became flesh, became clay, and lived among us. He has thorough inside knowledge of what a human being is capable of being. He is the maker, he is present in creation with us, and he is the appraiser, the measurer. God knows the measure of a man. God has shown us the measure of a man. God will rework us into the measure of a man.

A good measuring tool must be precision made. If you are trying to measure a board, you don’t want a measuring tape that marks off a foot as 12 inches, give or take an inch. You need to know precisely how many feet and inches you measure. Otherwise what you build will be crooked and unstable. If you are trying to measure a piece of fabric, you don’t want an inch to be sometimes longer and sometimes shorter. You want a tape that is precise. Otherwise, the waistband may not go around you when you finish, or one leg of the pants may be shorter than the other.

Well, Jesus is the precise measuring tool for humanity. He is begotten from eternity, the very Word of God, the true Adam, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He is Alpha and Omega, the first and the last. He knew temptation just as we do, but he did not give in to sin and evil. He was faithful to the end. He loved those God had sent his way to the end, even to his death on the Cross. He is the firstborn of the dead, the firstborn of many brothers and sister. He is the measure of humanity. He was loving, just, and merciful in the use of power. He took time to give of himself to those who could not repay him, and he took the lowest place when he could have tried to claim he highest place. He was the same non-violent, faithful friend in private and public, in comfort and in trouble.

Today on Men’s Day, I profess to you that Jesus is the measure of a man. And just as God raised him from the dead, God will rework you and bring you from death to life, out of darkness into his marvelous light. God will rework us. God, rework us. God, rework us. Say it with me, “God, rework us.”

Perhaps this morning you have come to see that the flaws and irregularities of the way you are living have spoiled you as a vessel of love, as a vessel of service. This may be the day when you need for the first time to say, “God, rework me.” This may be your hour to come to Jesus, to call on him to be the Lord of your life. If you want to place your life into the hands of the potter who is your maker, who measures by a righteous standard of love and grace, then come to follow Jesus today.

Perhaps you already have started down the path of following Jesus, but you find yourself wandering and going astray. Maybe you simply have lost the passion of bringing good news to the poor and setting at liberty those who are oppressed. Maybe you have left off the weightier matters of justice and mercy, and find yourself going through the motions of tithing your mint and your cumin. Your heart is on treasures that rust and rot and can be stolen away. This may be your day to come to God and say, “Rework me to be a useful vessel for your service. Restore unto me the joy of my salvation. Make me a channel of blessing to all those I meet.”

There may be someone here who is a follower of Jesus but is not a member of a congregation in Durham. Maybe you are actively looking for a church home. Or maybe you have been drifting without committing yourself to be part of the work of a church. If the Holy Spirit is prodding you to put your life alongside the lives of others who are serving God here at Mt. Level, then don’t resist. Come and unite with this congregation today, so that God can rework all of us together to be a better witness to God’s love in this community.

The doors of the church are open. Whosoever will may come.
The Maker and Appraiser, part 1
Jeremiah 18:1-11

(This was the Men's Day message for the 8 am service at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on September 9, 2007.)

Imagine yourself on the grade-school playground. Two or three children are playing together, climbing the jungle gym, and one proclaims, “I’m up higher than you are.” In response, another child says, “So what? I can jump off of here and land farther away than you can.” Soon the whole group has jumped down to the ground where they are comparing who jumped the farthest. Out of their arguing another voice says, “Big deal. I can run to the fence faster than you can.” And so on and so forth, the remainder of the school recess is filled with inventing contests to measure who can claim superiority over others in one way or another.

Our obsession with measuring our rank and status does not end in the competition of the playground. Those games, full of importance for the moment, are a rehearsal for more long-term, more expensive competitions in later life. Who is tallest? Who can sing lowest? Who can eat the most hot dogs? Who can whistle loudest? Who can throw a rock the farthest? Who can make a rock skip the most times across the surface of the lake? Who can catch the biggest fish? Who has the coolest sunglasses? Who has the fanciest car? Who has the most seniority? Who has the highest rank in the office? Who has the most expensive suit? Who is wearing the most outrageous tie? Who went to the most prestigious school? Whose favorite team won the championship? Who got a date with the most popular girl? Who makes the most money? Who has the biggest house? Who has the largest number of Christmas lights on his house? Who has the biggest collection of baseball autographs? Who has the most tools in his workshop?

It seems that we have an infinite capacity to invent ways of measuring our value. We seem driven to find some quantifiable way to be sure that we are worth something, or at least that we are worth more than that other guy over there. I may not be as rich as Oprah, but at least I’m doing better than my lazy cousin. I may not be the president, but at least people look up to me more than they do my stuck-up neighbor. I may not be as smart as Cornel West, but at least I read more books than old motor-mouth down at the coffee shop.

Most of us know, when we stop to think about it, that there is a problem with always making up new ways to compare, to measure, to compete with others in order to try to prove what we are worth. As soon as we start to depend on one of these self-construed ways of measuring our value, another kind of measurement comes along and sets aside our temporary imagined triumph. I may have lost the most weight, but someone else has done better in lowering his blood pressure. I may have accessorized my car with a global positioning system, a DVD player, and new hubcaps that don’t stop spinning when the car stops, but someone else just got a great big Harley-Davidson motorcycle. I may have just been on a long and impressive trip, but the other guy has twice as many frequent-flyer miles. I may have the best statistics for meeting my goals at work, but the other guy has the best relationship with the boss. I may have the most cable channels to watch basketball games, but the other guy has the biggest high-definition tv screen. It’s like a never-ending cycle of escalating standards. Trying to prove ourselves by creating contests is like walking on a treadmill. You keep on taking one step after another, but you never get anywhere. You can speed it up and walk faster, but you still are in the same place. And on top of that, the guy next to you has one of those fancy elliptical walkers that’s better than your treadmill.

I’m not giving you any breaking news. Anyone here who has stopped to think for a few seconds knows that the constant effort to set a standard to get ahead and prove our worth by comparing ourselves with others is a road that leads only to disappointment and frustration. Through the centuries, many people have reflected on our theme for men’s day, “the measure of a man.” When they have been honest and critical in their analysis, they have often arrived at valuable insights to help us know what it is that makes for a good life, a life that leads to fulfillment, a life that can be admired.

Sidney Poitier named his memoir The Measure of a Man. He undertook to write it because he was wanting to reflect on and evaluate his life. He said, “I wanted to find out, as I looked back at a long and complicated life, with many twists and turns, how well I’ve done at measuring up to the values I myself have set.” Those values have to do with his vocation as an actor and his integrity as a human being. His way of stating it was in terms of personal goals and commitments. Of course, he did not make these up out of thin air. They must also be related to those high standards of excellence which were passed on to him by his family, his teachers, and the community. He is right that he would not be able to take stock of how well he had done on his own goals unless at some point he had come to commit himself to those standards and long for their achievement.

In a less individualistic way of speaking, we might turn to the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the Philippians, “I want to take hold of that for which I have been taken hold of.” Paul wants his achievement to be appraised by what God has called him to do. Paul helps us see that we cannot purely on our own claim to invent the standards for measuring the worth of our lives. Paul understood that the maker of the pot is also the appraiser. In fact, he spent some time reflecting on this very image of how to evaluate the worth of a person compared to a clay pot. He said to the Corinthians, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” in “clay pots,” in “jars of clay.” The true measure of the value of these clay pots is not in the dirt they are made from, but in the use they serve for the household. And it is God who is the one who appraises our service.

It is fascinating to see how other people through the ages have considered the measure of a man as not merely self-initiated, but socially and externally evaluated. I want to take a few minutes to look at three examples of statements about “the measure of a man” which have come down to us across many centuries. One is over two millennia old. Another is over two centuries old. And the other is about fifty years old.

Looking way back, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato is recorded as saying, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.” No doubt he had seen some people who seemed just fine when they were “one more Joe” on the street, doing their job, making their way. But when they got promoted or appointed or elected to a higher position, it seemed like they had lost their minds. Instead of building relationships of mutuality and reciprocation, now they start looking down on people, shouting orders, and taking revenge. Instead of making sure the benefits and privileges are shared, they start hogging all the good stuff for themselves. What does power do to people? It opens up the chance to get by with things you never would have tried when you knew someone could call you on it. That does not mean that if we get power we are forced to become abusers of that power. We have a choice. We can use power to serve the community’s good. When that is what we do, we have passed the test of what Plato has stated. We can be measured as exemplary, because we did not let power corrupt us.

Around the time of the founding of the United States, the English literary scholar of the late 1700s, Samuel Johnson, said, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” Johnson seems to be drawing on the tradition of Christian teaching which urges us to do good to others regardless of whether they can repay our good deeds. Like Plato, he is pointing out that the power relations that exist between people can turn us into calculating, scheming self-promoters. This is the opposite of what we call good character. A person of good character holds to his convictions steadily, in all sorts of situations.

Who is it that I find myself facing here and now? Maybe that person I have to deal with at this moment appears to be many notches below me on the social register. Maybe the man I meet appears to be wearing and carrying all his worldly possessions on his body. Maybe the least influential person at work is the one who has come my way today. What will I do when I know I probably won’t get anything out of it? When I know it probably won’t help my career? When what I share can’t be restored to me? Here Johnson, like Plato, is helping us to see that the measure of a man is not something we can simply choose for ourselves and say, “I did it my way.” It also has to do with what is good for others, regardless of our own benefits. “Who is my neighbor?”, was the question asked of Jesus. And as the story unfolded, it was full of all sorts of unexpected answers. Clearly, for Jesus, the kinds of social, political, ethnic, economic, religious barriers that we put up around us have little to do with how we should respond to the people we meet along life’s way.

More recent, and better known to us is the iconic figure of Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Maybe you have been there like I have. The newspaper has an article about something that gets under your skin. You hear about something the president, the mayor, the principal, the school teacher, or your boss has done. You start your next sentence, “If that happened to me, I would . . . .” Out of your mouth pour the most powerful oratory, full of catchy turns of phrase and plenty of “gotcha” points. You convince yourself, in the comfort of your armchair or the seclusion of your kitchen, that you will be courageous, heroic, unbending, and untiring in your opposition to all perceived wrongs.

What Dr. King wants us to realize is that those dress rehearsals are not the real test. Now it may be fine to have those dress rehearsals of what I would do or what I would say. But if they never lead to a performance in the face of a real challenge, when people are watching, when somebody might confront us and push back against us, they really don’t amount to much. Character is proven when it faces a real test. The measure that matters comes when we arrive at the big event. No matter how many times I run a sub-44 time in the 400 meters in my yard, Michael Johnson still has the world record. Until I run that time at an official meet up against Jeremy Wariner, Angelo Taylor, Darold Williamson, and LeShawn Merritt (the four members of the 2007 World Champion U. S. 4 x 400-meter relay team), then it doesn’t count. If I can’t do it then, then it does me no good to be bragging about how fast I am when I practice.

From these three estimable persons, we are led to ask the following questions about the measure of a man. What does he do with power? How does he treat those who can’t repay him? How does he act in the face of challenge and controversy? This question of what is the measure of a man has caught many people’s attention, not only the philosophers, literary critics, and theologians.

In part, the conversation is happening now because we live in a time when certain traditional ways of showing manliness have been called into question and challenged. Consequently, there are conflicting ideas of being a man. If I had only heard it one time it would have been enough, but I have far too often heard it said that the way to show you are a man is to put a woman in her place and show her, if necessary through violence, who is in charge. That is the measure of a brute or a tyrant, but not of a man as God has made us to be. Part of the reason we have to talk about the measure of a man is that false gods and false understandings of human nature have led people to false ways of trying to be a man. It’s not who has the biggest gun. It’s not who seduced the most sexual partners. It’s not who has the most explosive temper. There must be something deeper and more socially edifying that is the measure of manhood.

I was surprised to quickly find no less than five pop songs which take up the topic of defining “the measure of a man.” They range across a variety of musical genres, and even local pop star Clay Aiken named an album with the song title, “The Measure of a Man.” Now I’m not one to go first to pop music to find the answers to life, but that does not mean that I don’t sometimes find some insight and wisdom there. These pop songs talk about being willing to sacrifice for love, being steady in difficult times, working hard, being loyal, giving your time and possessions to others, standing up to injustice, standing by commitments made, passion for what is important, and what’s in the heart. This list of character traits and behaviors gives us plenty to chew on as we ask, “What is the measure of a man?” --continued--

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

For an update on the Jena 6, go to this CNN report.
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