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

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Sunday, January 05, 2014

Reflecting on Liturgy

It's not an insight unique to me that baptists have depended on their hymnals to learn theology and formalize at least some parts of their worship liturgy.  Having said this dozens of times, or maybe it is hundreds, it occurred to me during worship today to do some reflections on our liturgical texts.  Moreover, after my last post, an expositional look at some poetic texts, literature professor Jane Childress gave me high marks for an excellent set of reading notes on the poems.  Having again experienced the thrill of making an "A" on a paper, I'm encouraged to do a bit more expositional note-taking in this post.

The first text of interest comes from a hymn I once knew by heart during my youth in Southern Baptist churches of Texas, "Jesus Saves!"  It has been so long since I've sung it, however, that I had to open the hymnal and read the lyrics in order to keep up.  Although I made it fairly well through the first stanza, "We have heard the joyful sound...," I was a bit more stumped by "Waft it on the rolling tide...."  And probably because third stanzas were for some strange reason considered anathema when I was growing up--"Let's sing the first, second, and last stanzas"-- I was completely lost on "Sing above the battle cry...."  The final stanza, beginning with, "Give the winds a mighty voice," was completely familiar again.

But it was in the third stanza that the liturgy rose up to overtake me.  Halfway through, the following three lines of text built toward the struggling place in my faith.
Shout it brightly through the gloom,
When the heart for mercy craves;
Sing in triumph o’er the tomb.
They "snuck up on me" because of their third-stanza unfamiliarity.  On the other hand, they were lyrics like I have sung many times before, echoing sentiments I would consider basic to my faith formation.   First, I was caught by the word "gloom," which describes where I find myself so often in this season of life.  I am one of the millions and billions of people who have lost a beloved one, my darling Everly, and find making sense of my life hard in the wake of her death.  Gloom is a good word for that mood.  So that first line alerted me that the liturgy was addressing my existential situation.

The next line dug in deeper.  Yes, that is what my heart craves:  mercy.  The overwhelming pain that appears repeatedly each day, even if only for a few seconds most times, can wear me down.  I know my problems are not so vast as the many people who live among constant violence, who lack for food and shelter, whose water is poisoning them.  Their situations are more deserving of the term gloom, their need for mercy, including mercy from people like me who prosper, is greater.  So I know that to have had Everly in my life for so many years is cause for thanks and praise.  Yet I cannot make the gloom and craving for mercy go away, for to have loved and lost, though better than not to have loved, is still a difficult road to walk.

Then in full force, the liturgy drove home its intent with language that we learn so early in our Christian training: that Jesus has won victory over death, that we need not fear death, that even the dying thief can rejoice to hear, "This day you will be with me in Paradise."  At that point I found myself encased in the liturgical moment.  My hope in God is one that can strengthen me to shout in the gloom, even when I contemplate the grave where Everly's remains are laid.  This tomb, this earthly symbol of her life, well-lived, well-loved, is not a final defeat.  There, where we mark the dates of her life sojourn's beginning and end, we also acknowledge the triumph of knowing God who is the author of life, who is greater than death.  So even through the tears, the thickness in the chest, the lump and tightening of the throat, there is a song of triumph to sing.  She lives in peace, and we await a reunion.

Perhaps this liturgical moment took on such momentum because of another text from last week.  As Naomi, Lydia, and I drove across the Southland toward North Carolina, we spent a good part of one day celebrating Everly's and our own love of Kate Campbell's music.  One song I had not spent much time listening to before that day is "Sorrowfree."
On the banks of the Alabama,
Autumn falls into spring,
And a day is always longer than it seems.
White camellias, winter blooms--
When summer comes I will think of you.

There will be a shining river
There for you and there for me.
There will be a sweet forever.
There we will meet, and we will sing,
Glory! Hallelujah!s.
Golden bells will ring.
There all will be forgiven
In that land called "Sorrowfree."
There are three more stanzas of this song, but I think its impact on me is focused in this stanza and refrain.  As I've written recently, I have been planting and thinking about flowers.  We planted wildflowers on Everly's gravesite, and more wildflowers and iris bulbs at our house in Salado.  I think often of the germination, the establishment of roots, and the eventual blooming of these flowers.  They seem to function in my consciousness as a parallel material operation to the hidden work of grieving. 

Grief work has been studied and analyzed, but it remains somewhat mysterious.  For those of us who are in the midst of it, we don't really know how to predict or comprehend how it emerges from our depths to stir us or shake us.  Since each member of our family has our own idiosyncracies, we regularly find ourselves at different places in grieving.  What may seem to me a good moment for conversation may only make David or Lydia or Naomi want to retreat to solitude.  Grief work is at least as much subterranean as public and visible.  And that's like the seeds and bulbs are now, in the ground.  So I think I am hoping and wondering what they will do, in part as a way of hoping and wondering what is happening to me.  What will I be, what will I find myself doing, in Spring and Summer, when flowers may, or may not, bloom?  Thus my thoughts turn often to the potential for germination and root growth in the ground, where I cannot see it happening.  When summer comes, I will think of you.

The refrain of Kate's song goes directly into my heart, again as a way of rehearsing what I have been taught from earliest faith.  I have preached about the River of Life, and received great appreciation for those words and testaments of hope.  I have known the stories, and they have formed me.  But now, I find myself fully embedded in this part of the narrative.  That river, along which strong trees grow, bearing leaves for the healing of the nations, is a river where I long to stand together with Everly.  It is a river for the nations, and it is for her and for me.  And this pain of separation will one day be gone in a sweet forever.

That hope is why I posted on Facebook last week that I was practicing my "Glory! Hallelujah!" so that when I get the chance I can sing it with Everly with all the gusto in me.  She will probably roll her eyes at my singing so loud.  I will enjoy seeing that again.  Naomi probably rolled her eyes a few times today with all the shouting "Glory!" that I was doing in church.  (By the way, trying to figure out how to punctuate Kate's line about singing glory hallelujahs remains a real puzzle to me--I settled on the weird placement of the plural s after an exclamation point.)

Dr. Turner preached from Ephesians 3:14-21 today, focusing on prayer for one another's strength, that we would be upheld by sharing our lives in the pattern of shared love and dance of the Trinity.  He took an aside at one point to say something very important, something to which Everly would have offered a loud "Amen!"  He said that we have to stop this thing of telling people to smile and be happy.  He said that the amount of smiling a person does may have nothing to do with being Christian.  There are hard times, struggles, and tribulations that we face that are not times for smiling.  In those times, we don't need knee-jerk reminders that things will get better.  We don't need to be chastised and exhorted to "cheer up."  We need to pray one another's strength in the Lord.  There are seasons for weeping, for seriousness, for facing the real effects of the rulers, authorities, powers, and principalities.  Hope does not dissipate or disappear in serious and solemn and challenging times.  And smiles will return in due season.  But it is no one's job to enforce smiling at church.

Finally, I want to mention another bit of our liturgy from a gospel anthem, "Order My Steps."  A line that has often been for me a "throw away" or "space holding" line took center stage as I listened and sang along.  In the refrain, the song says, "The world is ever-changing/But You are still the same."  The first part, that the world is ever-changing, had always been for me a simple acknowledgement of the flux, the flow, the vicissitudes, the emergent, the passage and fruition of the world.  But in this liturgical performance it spoke to the vast change in my life that losing Everly has been.  Yes, there have been many changes.  I have lived in Texas, California, North Carolina, and now in two states at once.  I was a child, and later I became a husband and father.  I was a novice, and I became Rev. Dr. 

There have been many changes, and up to now they seemed to drive onward toward a destiny I had glimpsed.  But this change was not in the plans.  This change was unthought, undesired, unimagined.  This change shook the foundations.  Can it be true that when the foundations are shaken, God remains faithful?  Such is the claim of today's liturgy.  The God who has ordered my steps can continue to do so.  I don't mean God planned Everly's death from cancer.  That is the absurd intrusion on the path of destiny, the as-yet-unfulfilled promise of welfare and not calamity, of a future and a hope.  But God held us through that struggle, guided our feet while we ran that race.  And today I reached once more for the hope that God will continue to order my steps.

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