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

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Monday, November 10, 2008

A Confession and a Tribute

Last Monday a wonderful event occurred. Everly, my wife, successfully defended her dissertation after many years of hard work. My excitement in the days leading to Monday brought back memories of 1993 when I was approaching my own dissertation defense. The general anxiety, the inability to keep focus on some tasks, the specific worries about whether important details were incorrect or forgotten—as I observed these behaviors in her I remembered them in my own history.

One part of her story is very different from mine. While Everly held high-responsibility executive jobs during the entire seven years of her doctoral work, I spent most of my seven years with the opportunity to focus as a full-time student, with only a couple of stints in part-time jobs. Making it possible for me to be a full-time student, Everly was giving me the luxury of uncluttered time and thought to work on my courses and research. The joyous opportunity to spend with my young children as the primary caregiver was also part of the deal, and that all three were under the age of seven when I completed the dissertation provides some of the explanation why I spent seven years doing doctoral work.

On the other hand, Everly worked full time, did her motherly duties, and managed essential household chores at the same time as she took night courses, wrote papers, conducted a major research study, and eventually wrote a dissertation. Frankly, she got a whole lot less support from me than I got from her during the process of completing a doctoral degree.

I’m not trying to beat myself up. I just want to think about the incongruity between my ideal of what kind of husband I would be and my actual practice of husbanding. When Everly made her entry into doctoral studies, she did not make any sustained proposal about becoming a full-time student. If she seriously entertained that option, I was either oblivious, or she did not consider it viable. As a teacher at a small private college, I have never had the larger paycheck in the family. As an executive leader in education, Everly has been the primary breadwinner. She has borne that responsibility with courage and honor, and I appreciate the opportunities our family has had because of how hard she has worked. Moreover, the work that she was doing was the actual context of her research. There were advantages of continuing in her professional appointments, to be weighed against the advantages of full attention to research and study.

Still, I find myself wondering if I should have made a persuasive case for her to consider letting me bear the financial load and take on some education loans so that she could focus on school. I wonder whether something about the gender politics deeply embedded in our generation left that door mostly closed to us. Or maybe when the time came, I just did not listen to the calling to carry my part of the load. So I confess my disappointment in myself for not working harder to make sure she could have taken that path. At this point in the story, those words are pretty empty.

The other confession is that I did not find it in my character to bear more of the load of managing essential household tasks while she carried the weight of an executive job and doctoral studies. I’m not as great a self-motivator as I would hope to be. I am easily distracted, and sometimes plain lazy. I wonder how old I will have to be before I display mature self-discipline.

Looking at her achievement in the midst of so many demands draws out great admiration and pride. I don’t mean the bad kind of pride, the vice that comes before a fall and names one of the seven deadly sins. I mean the kind of pride that takes note of something good, worthy, honorable, and admirable that is close to home, that does not see achievements as small things, that recognizes the effort and sacrifice that go into accomplishing something good, that sees a good thing for what it is. Her research is deeply rooted in a life of work to make schools better and to make the lives of students better through them. And it is making a difference, step by step, although there is an occasional step back along with the steps forward.

It is something like what I have often thought, sometimes written, and regularly taught concerning the church. Churches struggle to be what they are called to be, and in limited, often temporary ways they may give us a glimpse of the Reign of God, the embodiment of the love of God in human communities. They do so in particular ways, sometimes fostering reconciliation, other times overcoming loneliness and alienation, occasionally promoting well-being and justice through housing, nutrition, education, jobs, recovery from addiction or imprisonment, and many other ways.

Everly’s work has in sometimes dramatic and sometimes incremental ways opened cracks and chasms in the walls that shut off opportunities to learn and flourish. Students, teachers, and whole schools have seen the fruit of her labor. It is divine work, which honors and blesses the image of God in humanity’s children.

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