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

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Tuesday, 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.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Put On the Armor of Light

This sermon was first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on September 7, 2014.

Romans 13:8-14
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
             Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (NRSV).
I want to begin by making a few personal remarks.  I hope I am not being too presumptuous by commenting to you about events in my life.  Most of you know something about the recent years and the major opportunities and challenges that my family and I have faced.  In 2009, Everly took the opportunity to lead the mathematics curriculum for the public school system of the state of Texas, the second most populous state in our country, and certainly one of the most influential states in national policies concerning many areas of our lives.  We decided to make this move largely because of the desire to be near our aging parents in the last years of their lives.  We had been in North Carolina for almost 24 years by that time.  All four of our parents were living and approaching eighty years of age.  So we perceived the opportunity as God’s blessing to let us share some time with them after so many years away.
Everly took the state by storm.  She stood out above the crowd among statewide education administrators.  She inspired and energized math teachers and college professors.  Her talents and leadership drew her into the highest circles of influence.  Her candid and forthright words changed the minds of commissioners and the governor on mathematics education policy.  Recognizing what a treasure was in their midst, she was given near carte blanche to rewrite the curriculum of mathematics for grades K through 12, and she put all the experience, talent, skill, and relational ability she had into the task.
At the same time, we realized that it would be difficult for me to find a job in theological education in Texas.  So we settled for a very modern kind of family situation.  I worked in North Carolina while living in Texas.  I commuted for stints of a few weeks at a time in North Carolina, then continued my work using the wonders of the internet to teach from Texas.  Thanks to the generosity of my church family, I always had a place to stay in North Carolina after we moved out and put our house on the market.  It was a complicated and hectic way to live, but we were making the most of it.
About two and one-half years after she started her job in Texas, we discovered that Everly had metastatic cancer which was focused in her liver and backbone.  Doctors were unsure whether it would be worth giving her any treatment at all, but then decided there was enough chance for improving her life and extending it that we should try.  The first treatment almost took her life, and in the month-long recovery from that dose of chemical poisons, she drifted through many stages of discouragement and hope.  God granted her visions and insight into her remaining life with us.  And with great joy, we discovered that the treatment had brought about a dramatic reduction in her cancer.  She slowly regained her strength, and then began a regimen of chemotherapy that showed promise of managing her cancer.  All of our children were able to join us in Texas and be with her for this challenging and precious time of being close to one another.
During that struggle, she came here to visit you and her many friends in North Carolina.  She stood up in this sanctuary and testified of the goodness of God in her life, in the opportunities she had had to use her gifts, and in this special time of being available to be away from work and with her family.  Eventually, that early plan of treatment’s progress diminished, so we began other forms of experimental treatment.  Over a year of cancer treatments, we developed hope that she might live many more years.  But eventually her ability to resist the disease ran out.  The last three months involved regrouping, searching for new options, and ultimately coming to face that she was not getting better.  Of course, even near the end, we kept thinking things would turn around. 
With what would only by a little more than a week remaining, Everly came home for hospice care.  The children and I spent all the time we had with her, and watched her life slowly ebb away.  She had given us all she had to give, and she was ready to leave the troubles of this world.  She knew she was in God’s hands, and we knew that as well.  Not quite fourteen months ago, she went on to her reward and left behind all her pain.
It was, of course, a beginning of a season of pain for the rest of us.  We had to try to find a way to live our lives without our anchor and guide.  We could reasonably call these “dark days.”  So during this past year we have sometimes floundered about, and we have sought out the support, the love, and the counsel of many friends who knew Everly and who know us.  Even though it was comfortable for me to live in Texas, sharing the home of my parents, it became clear to me as this past year unfolded that I ought to relocate back to North Carolina where my job, my church, and my networks of friends remained. 
So three weeks ago, Naomi and I arrived with a truck full of our things and moved in just a couple of blocks from here on Denfield Street.  Naomi is starting the Masters of Social Work program at UNC-Chapel Hill.  I am back to a more normal work situation in the same job I have had for over twenty years, teaching at Shaw University.  In locating down the street, I say to myself, to our congregation, and to our community that this neighborhood is made up of the neighbors God has sent us to love.  So I’m putting my roots here, and looking with expectation at what God will do with my life and with the life of the people who are Mt. Level in the coming years.  All of my family cannot be together now.  Lydia is finishing her bachelor’s degree in Texas.  David is relocating and starting up a new life in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  And we are holding one another close as we trust that the God who holds our Everly will hold us, too.  All of us, in our own ways, by God’s grace, are striving to lay back the darkness and let in the light.
Well, telling that story was the hard part of this morning for me.  And it is prologue to what this scripture text will tell us.  In the text that was read this morning, the Apostle Paul makes remarks of the same sort that the Prophet Micah did many centuries before.  As Micah had posed the question, “What does the Lord require of you?”, now Paul offers the guidance that we should “owe no one anything, except….”  Micah said that it is really pretty simple.  Do justice.  Love mercy.  Walk humbly with God.  Paul says they should narrow it down to this:  love one another.  That’s all you owe anyone.  That’s what Jesus said really mattered.  That’s what God expects of you.  That fulfills the whole stinking law, every jot and tittle of it.  Of course, you can learn by studying the specifics of the law, but Jesus already told us how to sum it up:  Love your neighbor as yourself.
So in the way that you live with others, if you love them, you will do no wrong to your neighbor.  And the law is largely about telling you what wrongs not to do.  So love, and you won’t do wrong.  That’s why love fulfills the whole law—every bit of it.
Paul was continuing a train of thought from what to us is the previous chapter.  Of course, Paul did not divide his letters into chapters and verses.  Like you or I, he just wrote out his sentences and paragraphs.  The chapters and verses were added later by readers who wanted to be able to analyze and talk together about the books in a systematic way.  That way, you and I can quickly get on the same page for conversation and study.  But Paul did not have chapters and verses.  So I should say he was continuing a train of thought from a few paragraphs before.
In our habit of speaking, in chapter 12, verse 10, he started talking about living toward Christian love with one another as God’s people.  Just before this section, he had written about how everyone has gifts from the Spirit, and we are not all the same.  But each of us has something to offer to one another and to the whole group, like parts of the body all have their function.  He told them back there, “Let love be genuine.”  Those verses were part of the wedding vows Everly and I spoke in 1980.  That short sentence is now engraved on the gravestone where she is buried.  “Let love be genuine.” 
It was a commitment we shared with one another.  In so many ways, we certainly fell short of the ideal, but it was a byword for how we knew we ought to live in relation to the world and the people God had given us.  But it is not a statement specifically about the love of married people.  It is about the love that we have for one another in the church.  It is the love God expects us to have for all God’s children.  As followers of Jesus, married people and families should also live up to this kind of love.  So Paul is making it plain here.  Love genuinely.  Love honestly.  Love thoroughly.  Love wholeheartedly.  Love the lovable people, and love the unlovable people.  Love when you are eager to do so, and love when you are on your last nerve. 
But, we may ask, isn’t there something or someone I can hate?  Paul says to hate evil.  Don’t harbor your evil thoughts.  Don’t plot evil devices.  Don’t fixate on evil responses.  Don’t seek revenge.  Hate evil, but don’t act evilly to oppose it.  Hold fast to what is good.  Keep on imagining the good possibilities.  Look beyond people’s troublesome actions to see the good that is in them.  Think of ways to return good for evil.  Do not repay evil for evil, but put your mind on a noble response to the times when you are wronged.  At the climax of this reflection, he tells them there is a way to fight evil:  overcome evil with good.  Let good grow and snowball and expand and press outward until it overwhelms all the evil it can find.  Don’t let evil overcome you.  You get out there in all the goodness that God can produce in you and let that goodness overcome evil.
Paul knew that the times in which these Roman Christians were living were evil times.  Powerful people wanted to persecute them, put them in jail, fire them from their jobs, take away their homes, make outcasts of their children, drive them out of town.  Rulers were selfish and devious, and so were their assistants and lackeys.  Soldiers and police were directed to obey the whims of the rulers.  They might not have the strength of conscience to realize that the policies of the leaders were twisted and wrong.  Paul was not deceived.  He knew his own life had hung in the balance of unjust laws and unjust rulers before.  So he acknowledged that the times were rife with evil.  He warned the Christians to watch out.  And he taught them that even in an evil setting and situation, God had a different way for them.
Paul could say this because Paul also knew that the time in which these Roman Christians were living were good times.  They were fertile with opportunities for virtuous living.  They could watch the growth of their love touch their neighbors and their neighborhoods.  God was not defeated by the Imperial power.  God was just getting started showing them all that God can do.  So when they come up against violence and wrong, Paul said to live peaceably with all.  He said don’t avenge yourself, but stand up against evil by doing good.  Don’t flag in your zeal.  Be ardent.  Be motivated.  Work it out.  Yes, work it.  Work that goodness that God has placed in you.  Be intense about fighting wrong, but do it with goodness. 
Paul knew that the Roman Christians should have hope.  Knowing that hope, they could rejoice even in hard times.  They could show patience when they suffered because their hope is in God.  They could continue in prayer, knowing that God is with them and guiding them into the next opportunity to overcome.  Love one another.  Show mutual affection.  Outdo one another in doing right and honoring each other.  Make sure no one is in need.  Show hospitality.  Love, love, love, love, love, in word and deed.  Because God created this world to be good.  God’s goodness has been poured out in your lives.  Good will prevail, even if not in every moment, if not in every situation.  Even after setbacks, we can build a better world in God’s power and grace.  Death is defeated.  Christ is risen.  Good will prevail.
Paul had pressed this case hard in that earlier section, the second half of chapter 12.  Then he took a kind of aside.  He chased a rabbit.  He made an illustration of sorts.  He planned to finish his exhortation about love, but there was this little matter of the Empire to deal with.  He started talking about how they should act toward Caesar and Caesar’s minions.  But he talked about it in vague terms.  He talked about his enemies in abstract terms.  He did not say anything about Caesar, per se.  He didn’t name Caesar or any of the lesser officials.  He did not say anything about the Empire or the Senate or the Roman Legions or the Centurions.  He did not name any of the officials or even their offices.
Instead, he talked in broad theological terms about divine creation.  He talked about God’s good work in creating humanity as social beings.  He talked about the concept of authority in the abstract.  He said that having a system of authority is a good thing.  Ruling authorities, in general, help make our lives better.  Human authorities, as a concept, contribute to a better life for us.  In the ideal, authorities reward good and punish evil.  According to its purpose, authority maintains justice. 
But of course, Paul has been talking previously not about theory, but about the facts on the ground.  The facts on the ground were that Roman authorities were prejudiced toward their own kind.  The facts on the ground were that Christianity was an illicit, an illegal community of faith.  The facts on the ground were that everywhere Christianity had raised its liberating message of God’s love for the least and the lowly, people in power had gotten angry.  From the synagogue officials to the Sanhedrin.  From the Proconsuls to the Procurators.  From the Kings to the Emperors.  From the Pharisees to the Sadducees to the who knows who sees you practicing Christian faith, people wanted to shut it down.
That’s what Paul was telling them in the discourse about letting love be genuine, hating evil, and overcoming evil with good.  The facts on the ground were that the authorities, not in concept, but in flesh and blood, were coming down hard on the Christians.  The facts on the ground were that people who in theory were supposed to keep the peace were disturbing the peace.  Officials whose job was to serve and protect were self-serving and destroying lives in the streets.  Paul understood what was what.  He knew that everybody who had a title did not live up to the duties of office.  He knew that power, once it is in someone’s hands, can become a tool of domination.  That is what he and the Christians in Rome saw.  It’s what they knew.  It’s the yoke they felt on their shoulders.
So he said, in theory, they should recognize the goodness of authority.  They should cooperate with authority to do good.  They should not resist authority just to get their own way.  Paul was not being a respectability preacher here.  There have been a number of people lately talking about “respectability churchfolk” and “respectability preaching.”  They mean those people who try to find the fault in an unarmed youth’s behavior for his own death.  They mean those people who say that if the black community could just work harder to stay in school, to dress conventionally, to keep a job and keep their noses clean, then things like Ferguson would not happen.  That’s what they mean by the “respectability” view. 
But Paul was not talking respectability, and neither am I.  Paul was not saying that the answer to our oppression is to be more docile in obeying our oppressors.  He was not saying that the real problem is us, so we need to mend our ways.  No, he knew who was troubling the world.  God was not doing this.  The church’s service to God was not doing this.
If the powers that be want to keep people down, it does not matter how respectably people act.  They will get pressed down on.  So the answer is to press back.  That’s why Paul was saying that they need to get serious about resisting evil in the world.  They should continue their efforts to overcome evil with good by pressing the authorities to do the good they should do.  But he was not fooled into thinking that Caesar or his minions were likely to do the good.  That’s why he reminded the church to go ahead and pay taxes to whom taxes are due and revenue to whom revenue is due.  But then he turns the phrase.  He speaks with irony and from the point of view of faith.  He does not say that some people who demand your respect may not deserve your respect.  No, he is not that explicit.  He does not say that Caesar has not earned the honor that he wants you to show.  No, he is more subtle.  He says to pay respect to whom respect is due.  (Wink, wink.)  He says give honor to whom honor is due.  (“You know what I mean?”)  God deserves our honor.  Caesar probably does not.
But just so we don’t conclude that he means to start blatantly disrespecting the officials, and blatantly dishonoring Caesar, he goes back to his previous theme about loving our neighbors.  Now, we are finally back to the text we started with.  He says owe no one anything except love.  Martin Luther, the 16th-century reformer translated that verse as a declarative statement, not an imperative.  He said it means that you don’t owe anyone anything, except you do owe everyone love.  God made us for love.  God made us to love one another, to be loved by one another, to receive love from one another—God made us for love.  So even Caesar gets our love.  Even the harassing official on the street gets our love.  Love does no wrong to the neighbor.  Love fulfills all our requirements and obligations.  Not just a feeling of love, but more importantly a way of treating someone.
Having made his case about love that’s genuine, that overcomes evil with good, that supersedes whatever resentments or desires for revenge we may have, Paul then starts talking about how important it is for us to stand strong in the face of evil.  He does not mean for us to sit back in our bedrooms thinking loving thoughts about those who do evil.  He does not mean for us to wait around the kitchen table until the tide of evil forces overwhelms and swallows up our whole neighborhood, our town, our community institutions.  He does not mean hiding behind church doors, shouting and singing while the neighborhood dies.  No we can’t just nap while destruction is happening all around us.  Overcoming evil with good is not a passive admonition.
We have to know what time it is.  It is the time for God’s good news.  It is the time for people to know that we can live together in harmony.  We can live together in love.  It’s the time that no one any longer has to be trying to dominate anyone else.  People can make a life without domination systems.  So if it was not real to you when you first got saved, then it needs to become real to you now that God is not interested in just a little bit of our lives.  God is not interested in just 10% of the church people to be part of the struggle.  God is not interested in just a token commitment.  God wants the whole of us.  God want you, and God wants us, and God wants you and me and us to be building the beloved community.  That is the whole reason God made the world and put us in it.  God wants to see that loving, just community come into the light of day.
Paul tells them to lay aside the works of darkness.  Now somebody might try to twist the term darkness here and make out that dark is equivalent to black, and that somehow blackness is opposed to God.  But Paul was not talking that way, and we know better than to fall into the trap of that kind of thinking.  Darkness here is the absence of light.  Light is the beacon that shines upon the realities of the world and reveals the truth.  Darkness is the world hiding from the light.  What is hidden from the light is afraid, is ashamed, is deceptive, is indifferent.  But in the light of day, we have to take a stand.  We have to show who we are and what we live for.
Paul says that the light is our armor.  Armor is our protection.  Bringing the truth into the light of day is our hope, because Jesus himself is the truth.  The love of God is the truth.  People able to get along and treat one another right is the truth.  Enough good gifts of God to feed and clothe and shelter everybody is the truth.  Letting everyone have a good education is the truth.  Paying people a decent, living wage is the truth.  Finding ways to keep people in their homes is the truth.  Our armor is joining together in the truth. 
You or I alone might try to stand up to the powers that be and get ignored.  But we are not alone.  God has put us together into a holy nation, a peculiar people.  Together, in solidarity with one another and with God, we can stand up to the powers and be heard.  This is the heart of the labor union movement.  The people with the capital, the people with the money—these people know that they need to organize into corporate boards and chambers of commerce and political action committees if they are going to make the world go their way.  Their hope is that the workers and the average people will stay disorganized.  A labor union exists to provide the organization necessary to stand up to the owners and managers who want to be in charge of our lives.  In a way, the church is a labor union of the neighborhood.  We organize together and care for our neighbors with the intensity and capacity to be a union of neighbors, loving our neighbors.  We join Durham CAN to operate as a union of people of faith and people of commitment to press our theoretical public servants toward being actual servants of the people.  The union makes us strong.
What time is it?  Paul says we had better know.  It is a time when people full of fear are trying to shut down and shut out and shout down and shut up the voices of those who are suffering.  They are belittling and humiliating teachers.  They are closing off access to voting.  They are shutting down jobs and taking them places where the poor workers have no protections.  They are refusing to hear the cry of the poor.  They are warehousing the desperately unemployed in prisons.  They are blaming the victimized and the marginalized for all the social ills.  They are shooting down our children in the streets.  They are claiming that the 1% deserve to own half of all the goods in the world.
We’d better know what time it is.  We have to lay aside the works of darkness.  The works of darkness are many.  Hiding out and believing we cannot make a difference is one of the works of darkness.  Get out in the light and stand for truth.  Being satisfied that we have a home and a job and not caring about others is a work of darkness.  Get into the light.  Letting some misguided police (I know it’s not all of them) continue to do whatever they have made it their habit to do, just because they can get by with it, is a work of darkness.  Pressing for reform is our armor of light.  Paul says don’t get discouraged and drown your sorrows in drunkenness.  Don’t go out and party because you think the world is going to hell anyway.  Get into the light.  Shine a light for God.  Shine a light for justice.  He says don’t take up the ways of the oppressors and sink into debauchery.  Don’t say that since the world is all corrupt anyway, I will now join the corruption of licentiousness, and consider that I have a license to do whatever I “blankety-blank” well please. Being free from the law does not mean that each of us can be a law unto ourselves.  Let a light shine into that despair that wants to give up on making things work, and let that light bring the hope of Jesus Christ who showed us another way. 
And don’t slip into the darkness of arguing and quarreling with one another.  We can find a way together to move forward.  It is the deceiver that tells us that it has to be my way or the highway.  Let the light of cooperation and solidarity shine.  And Paul says don’t become jealous of who is getting the credit.  If the Mayor or City Manager can bring a change, then let them claim the credit, even if they did so only because we pushed them and nudged them and scared them into doing it.  If the Police Chief wants to turn around and start policing in a fair and just and transparent and clean manner, then let him have the credit, no matter how slow he was in coming around to the light.  If the legislature wants to do right by our teachers and our voting citizens, let them have the credit, even if they did it kicking and screaming in resistance to the flood of people crying for justice.  Let the light shine above and beyond jealousies.  If justice is done, we don’t care who gets the credit.  We know God is the one who gets the credit.
So dress yourselves up to be the image of Jesus Christ that the world needs to see.  He did not count his own life above others.  He did not let even the small children or the disabled widows be disrespected.  He did not tolerate the poor being mistreated or the haughty and wealthy acting proud.  Paul says we should get dressed in Jesus.  Go to our closets, pull out a hanger with Jesus on it, and put that on.  Wear Jesus out into the wide world.  It’s a graphic image of the deep theological claim that in his life and death and resurrection, we have been united to Jesus.  God has drawn us into God’s own self.  So our image should be a beacon of God in the world.  We are the Jesus the world an see.  Jesus is the light of the world, and we keep on shining that light.  Be a light.  Be a beacon.  It’s a dangerous and troubling time.  But it is a time ripe for goodness.  The harvest is plentiful.  The workers are few.  We must work while it is day. 
Drawing on the words of songwriter Kyle Matthews (“My Heart Knows,” See for Yourself, Benson Records, 2000.)

We’ve thought it through,
And we’ve decided
We’re sure of You,
Whatever happens to us…
Whatever happens to us.
And if you lead
Where there is no path,
Where there’s no way out
And no way back,
We will go where we have to go;
Give what we have to give;
Face what we have to face;
And we will live where we have to live.
Our hearts know where home is.
Our hearts know our home is with You.

The road is rough—
Our courage leaves us.
The way of love
Was never easy for You.
And it won’t be easy for us.
But If you’ll reach down
From time to time
And let us feel
Your hand in ours,
We will go where we have to go;
Give what we have to give;
Face what we have to face;
And we will live where we have to live.
Our hearts know where home is.
Our hearts know our home is You.

Our hearts know, Lord.  You are our home.  So lead us now.  Lead, us Jesus.  Lead, kindly light.  Lead and we will follow.  Thanks be to God.  Thanks be to God.
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