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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, March 25, 2014

Old Woman Everly, Whom We Did Not Get to See

Today as I read someone's tribute to an elderly woman who had passed away, I began to muse about Everly.  In our church, Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, NC, Everly eventually found and settled into her own specific roles.  It is important to remember that when we arrived at Mt. Level, we did so having left a white baptist church, where our family had to face a temporary failure in the ongoing struggle to overcome a long heritage of racial prejudice and division.

By God's grace, we had enough wisdom to know that we could not go into a black baptist church and operate on the assumptions that "we know how churches should operate."  In other words, we could not try to import our "white ways" into Mt. Level on the assumption that white baptists know more than black baptists about being a church.  So we agreed together and admitted to our new fellow church members that we were novices, learners.  Part of our own struggle had made us realize that whatever gifts we had to serve in church had been inadequate to find a path to unity in the church we had previously served.  We definitely could not claim the expertise of success.

Everly tried using her gifts at church in a number of ways.  We all know that part of her divine calling meant that she worked long hours in complex leadership and negotiation about the future of mathematics education and its availability to children of all races, ethnicities, class distinctions, and regions.  That was God's work, too.  So her  work at Mt. Level needed to complement and not conflict with her high professional calling.  Some things just did not fit.  Others did not match her abilities.  She could not get the hang of how the choir learned and sang its music.  (Insert your own joke about white people, clapping, etc., here.)  She loved the music, but clapping and moving her feet and singing--the lack of training for so many decades made this seem too much to her. 

She taught classes at several levels.  One place she landed for a few years was teaching pre-teens and middle-schoolers in Sunday School.  She helped them think about the questions they brought to the Bible and their faith.  She helped them learn to pray and care about people.  She let them know that she loved them and had high expectations for them.  For this reason, Everly always had some young people around at church who called her, or at least thought of her as "Mom."  Of course, she was a loving mom to her own progeny as well.  One of David's most important encouragements since Everly's death has been to find and look at and post the many, many pictures of himself being hugged by his mom.  That little girl who played teacher for the neighborhood kids grew to be a teacher and a mother who loved the children God gave her.

One thing she taught and encouraged these children to do was draw handmade encouragement cards for the older members of the church, the "sick and shut-in list."  They would draw flowers, landscapes, churches, and such.  They would copy or adapt pictures from their Sunday School books that had Bible scenes or Christian symbols.  They would write, "God Loves You," or "Get Well Soon," or copy words from hymns or Bible verses.  Everly would gather these colorful notes and put them in the mail to bless the lives of people who were struggling or alone.

These cards from the children were part of a bigger role Everly had taken for herself.  The group of adult women to which she officially belonged was the Adult Missionaries.  It is not strictly for women, but that was the de facto participation.  The problem with participating was it did not suit her work schedule and home duties.  So she rarely attended their regular meetings, though she participated in many of their occasional events.  But the regular task she took for herself was sending cards to the sick and shut-in.  She would buy boxes of cards with Bible verses, Christian sentiments, and various messages for birthdays, illness, sympathy, and friendship.  It was not every week, but regularly she would write notes to these people. 

Demographically, we understand that most of the older people in our society are women, whose life expectancy continues to exceed men's by about a decade.  So most of the cards were sent to women.  Although I am a minister at Mt. Level, my personality and patterns of conversation are very different from Everly's.  I often did not know the names on the sick and shut-in list.  I might have befriended some of the older adults, but I am not so good at keeping up with people.  Everly knew these women, and men, by name.  She knew their health conditions.  She knew their family members.  She knew how long since they had been able to attend church.  And she wrote them loving notes to make sure that they understood how much they mean to our church.

Probably as much as any reason that I am loved at Mt. Level is that Everly is associated with me, and that she showed so much love to these older members and their families.  If it were just Mike, few of them would ever have heard from the Broadways.  My mind does not work that way, I regret to say.  But because of Everly, the Broadways were busy caring for families and for older folks who appreciated receiving a child's drawing, a kind word, a remembrance from their church.

Everly also joined the Prayer Team, a ministry of the Missionaries.  She helped them organize their retreats and events.  At the resident mathematician, she handled the bookkeeping and received funds from people to pay for retreat expenses and such.  She learned who could afford to participate and who could not, and she made sure through her own donations and the donations she solicited from others that no one would be left out.  People came to appreciate her compassion, knowing that she would look out for those who struggled financially.

So today I read about the passing of a woman from another church.  I thought about the tribute that pastor made toward her elderly member who had died.  And I thought about what kind of "old lady" Everly would have been.  She had such sympathy and kindness toward older women.  She saw their strengths and wisdom, and she sought them out.  She learned about their adult children and the joys and struggles of being a mother across an entire life.  She met their children and learned of their love for their mothers.

When we were a very young couple, living in California where I attended seminary, Everly was befriended by Bobbi Pinson, the wife of the seminary president.  The Pinsons had known my parents when they were a young married couple, before I was born.  That friendship continued over the years, and Bill Pinson invited me to be his research assistant at the seminary.  Bobbi and Everly were a good match, even with their age difference.  One of the favorite conversations Everly had with Bobbi involved thinking about growing old.  Bobbi had been dealing with an aging relative whose struggles in life seem to have pushed her over into only seeing the bad side of things.  Having tried so hard to help this woman find some good in life, Bobbi was very frustrated.  She told Everly, "We need to practice being pleasant and not complaining now, so that when we get older, we won't be always looking at the bad side of things."  Everly often came back to that conversation and laughed about it.  She knew too well she could easily drift over into letting her fears or struggles take over her view of the world.  But she also learned to avoid falling in that pit.  And when she got tripped up, she learned to work her way out of it.

Everly demonstrated her capacity to deal with pain and struggle with grace during her time with cancer.  She rose above the consciousness of pain to think about others whom she loved.  She made sure that to the extent that she had any power to do so, her children and husband would be provided for even after she was gone.  As her friend Marsha reported, even when she was feeling so bad, she was writing Marsha a note on the anniversary of her dad's death. 

I don't mean she never talked about her pain.  Of course she did, and necessarily so.  But even though her fight against cancer became her primary work for her final year, she continued to look out for others and organize to make their lives better.  When Lydia went back to college last fall, after Everly's death, one of the things she realized that she had to face was that even when she was very sick, Everly had hopped in the car to drive to Waco to help Lydia set up her dorm or apartment and make sure she was at ease and ready for school.  We have cute pictures of Everly in her cancer cap, crashed on Lydia's bed, worn out from getting things in order to make sure her baby was set for school.  So we know that in her old age, she would have still been doing what she could to make other people's lives better and show her love to the ones God had given her.

Everly was drawn to relationships with the Mt. Level older women for various reasons.  One common remark I would hear from her is that so-and-so "is feisty" or "is spunky."  I think all of us who know Everly understand why this was attractive to her.  Everly was the definition of feisty or spunky.  She almost could not help saying what she thought, even if it might seem impolitic.  Everly believed in telling the truth and in speaking one's mind.  That is definitely the kind of old lady she would have been.

She also was drawn to women whose devotion to God had helped them make it through very painful and even devastating life events.  Although to us she was very strong, Everly often feared that she was too weak to face harsh turns of events.  She was encouraged to learn of women who had endured abuse or hardship, painful losses or betrayals, and come out able to keep on walking, keep on trusting God, keep on following Jesus.  This was her life's ambition, "I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Gal. 3:12).  Everly would have shown this same strength of character in her old age.  She would have been an old lady whose strength emanated and flowed into the lives of those around her.  Naomi has often said that she is thankful that her mother was a strong woman who surrounded her daughters with strong women.  This would not have changed with age, and her strength would have given a backbone to many a struggling soul.

Everly also loved to retell the funny stories and remarks she heard from the mouths of her older sisters.  She loved humor, and should I say she especially loved sarcastic humor?  Older women who found something to laugh about in their lives, even in the ways that age imposed its limits on them, were the ones she wanted to be around.  Everly, like these women, was proud and deserving of respect.  But she, like them, could still laugh about the way that life is going, poke fun at the powerful and self-important, and in general have a good time.  So for all of you blessed to hear Everly laugh so hard that she shed tears, and even snorted out loud, you know she would have been fun to be around as an old lady.

Further, Everly enjoyed listening to the wisdom of experience that came with knowing older women.  They were models of her future.  They had learned things she could not learn on her own.  Moreover, being a white woman among black women, there was another whole realm of wisdom she might not have learned in the ivory towers of power or among her own family.  These women had struggled with matters unheard of in the white suburbs.  So she listened and learned.  She wrote down things that were said to her and pigeon-holed them away in her ever-present sticky notes, whether hard copy or electronic. 

Senior adult Everly would have words of wisdom.  We know it is true because as the months and weeks drew her nearer to death, she started what she called "leaving messages."  Our friend Barbara Martin reminded me recently of the day last summer, July 4, when Barbara, her daughter Marsha, and her grandson Timothy all visited with Everly in Austin.  We did not know, but it was just two weeks before she would die.  Some of you realize that our three children, David, Naomi, and Lydia, are each separated in age by three years (one more result of sharing life with someone who is always planning with mathematics in mind).  It was three years after Lydia's birth that Marsha and Paul Lewis had their first and only child, Timothy.  So we always considered him the fourth in a series.  Everly's heart embraced him as hers too, and on that day she sat him down to say to him in her best way that he must know who he is and whose he is.  He must believe in the plans God has for him and pursue all the good that God has for him.  I don't know all of what she said, but she was practicing up for being a wise old woman. 

I wish, of course, that I could have known that wise, funny, feisty, strong, loving old woman.  It is not to be.  The cancer kept her from living that possible life.  But then again, I think I do know that woman.  The signs and pieces were there already for me to remember.  The examples she planned to follow were all around us.  And since she is still in us in many ways, I guess I'll get to grow old with her in one way.  She'll always be a voice in my thoughts, an embrace in my heart, a snide remark in my conversations, and a friend who would never leave me.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

How Far Gone

As I experience it, grief is a consuming state of existence.  I would say "state of mind," but it is not merely mental.  It fills the body and more.  In its moments of intensity, it expands to fill the griever's universe.  That intense state, however, is not sustainable.  Sometimes it lasts a few seconds, sometimes much longer, with an aching that erupts physically.  The tears, sobs, body movements, catching of breath, moaning sounds--these usually bring a measure of relief.  They may also leave behind a residue of cloudiness, of fatigue, and of distraction.

What I read in books, and what I hear from friends who have lost spouses or children or other beloved ones, is that grief can make a kind of progress.  My friends bob and mj patterson-watt are insistent that it is not what some people want to call "moving on," which implies that their daughter or my wife becomes less relevant or central to who we are.  Rather, I think it is that the freshness of the would can begin to heal as one adjusts to the new situation.  My relation to my beloved has entered a new season, dominated by memory and memorial rather than by touching, seeing, smelling, hearing bodily presence.  This does not say that Everly is not still in my life, even in me, speaking in my thoughts, singing and dancing through my imagination, pointing me in the right direction as my partner and guide.  But admittedly, this presence is now muted and even more thoroughly mediated through my perspective on who she is.

Sometimes disturbing, and sometimes to my relief, is that this progress seems to include longer periods of coasting along within my day-to-day affairs.  Frankly, I need to be more consistent in carrying out my responsibilities and duties at work or in family business.  People are very gracious on this matter, respecting what I have given in the past and honoring my current inability to focus as well.  What I am trying to explain here, and simply to understand for myself, is the slow evening out of my emotional road through sloughs and valleys and potholes and pit-traps.  At first, every day was a struggle.  Then there were more level days mixed with sad days several times a week; then, maybe once a week.  I'm not saying that every day does not bring its moments of tears, but over time they have become less likely to dominate the days.

If we call it progress, it is worth noting that it is not exactly inevitable.  The leveling out of emotions may not always be a sign of improvement.  It can also be a superficial dampening, a deadening of the loves that drive humans toward the good.  Our language is filled with imagery about what keeps people going, what urges people to action.  There are the motion words:  motive, motivation, what moves someone, e-motion.  Words like passions and drives speak of what stirs a person and draws a person forward.

Augustine sometimes employed the word "loves" to convey this idea.  The "loves" for Augustine are about our desires, our longings, what we want, what we need.  Rightly directed, they draw humans toward, or push toward, the good for which human life is intended.  Most famously, he speaks of this in the opening lines of Confessions, saying, "Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts find no rest until they rest in you." 

Thus, to have dulled emotions, lessened hopes and aspirations, diminished joys and sorrows, may not indicate progress.  It can sometimes be a diminishing of desire and love for what is good.  It can be a forgetfulness that hides the beauty for which one rightly grieves.  Forgetfulness is a dangerous pattern of life in many ways, covering over good and evil from the past and how they should shape our living now.  Forgetfulness is a favored stance in a culture such as ours, whose wealth is founded on slavery and sustained through oppressive neo-colonial economic systems.  We don't want to remember those things.  They create too much dissonance in the midst of prosperity. 

Personal forgetfulness allows a person to think, "I am self-made.  Look what I have achieved, all on my own!"  But no one is self-made.  Anyone's success emerges from a network of relationships and help from others.  Forgetfulness is the opposite of what I want from grief's progress.  It is in remembering well that I believe progress will come.  Remembering the blessings poured into my life from knowing and living with Everly--this is what I hope will continually grow and take the foreground in my mind and body so that the memories of losing her, though present, take their place in the background.

This wordy prologue is my way of trying to say that it seems to me that I have been coasting for some weeks now.  In one way, it is a kind of drifting that means I have reached a point in grieving where the next steps will be a challenge.  In conversations with friends, I have been wondering how to discern the path God has for me in the remainder of my years.  Up until now, I have believed that the path of my life was united to the path of Everly's life.  God's leading of Everly and God's leading of Mike were one and the same leading, and our discernment was worked out in an unending conversation about our faith, hope, and love.  More than thirty-three years of that process leaves me unprepared to go on with her now present but muted voice.  She remains in and with me.  Her words and deeds are etched upon my life.  Our joint destiny is embedded in the genes, faces, and hearts of three extraordinary, marvelous young adults.  But the conversation is harder.  I'm trying to circle around to its echoes by talking with friends who have known us and share many of the convictions Everly and I have lived by.  Some are telling me it's time to go deeper with grief counseling, and I think that is right.  I am not above seeking help where it can be found.  So one part of the leveling out can be seen as drifting as I consider how to keep going.

Probably another aspect of coasting is my pulling back.  Sometimes, pressing into a struggle is too daunting.  So I've tried to put my energy into work as I can, although that's not yet up to what it should be.  I've had some spells of working on a couple of research projects.  I've been trying to carry water on some things my Dean needs done and for which I am well-suited.  I think this also means that I have pressed into the grief struggle a little less.  That may be a kind of self-preservation.  My emotional energy capacity has never been very high.  In graduate school, I remember confessing to a colleague that I was feeling a lot of anxiety.  His incredulous response was, "Mike, what would it look like for you to be anxious about something?"  Part of the reason for being even-keeled is that I quickly get worn out by intense social interaction and emotional investment.  So I tamp down the emotion to keep myself going.  That may meant that I'm probably dealing with some grief fatigue.

I hope, however, that some of the difference is also that I am making some progress.  I am too inexperienced to know what progress in grieving should look like, but I suspect it includes a kind of wound healing that allows a person to experience the loss of a beloved without becoming constantly or steadily overwhelmed.  What once manifested as days and hours of deep sorrowful longing seems to come over time to reappear as sharp moments of poignant grief, a few tears, a mixed memory of loss and blessing, amidst more usual day-to-day experiences.

I am describing the process of my own experiences.  My three children are in the same time capsule in which I live, under the shadow of death cast by a powerful, enchanting, winsome, loving personality whose manifold tendriled threads append themselves to, even invade, every moment and space we inhabit.  How they find this process unfolding, whether they see progress or stasis, differs in each life.  It is clear that we are not all on the same schedule, that our setbacks are different, and that our sense of progress, or lack of it, varies with our times and places.  One of the heartaches of being their dad is wishing for them to have the gifts of their mother in their life, gifts that I cannot replace.  Everly and I were drawn together by our common loves and our fascinating differences, and in her absence I am left offering the loves we shared, my differences without hers, my brokenness and learning to mingle with theirs.

This week was the week in which the 18th of the month came and went.  That marked eight months since Everly died.  There was a heaviness around me for days.  Moments of painful grief kept cropping up.  So Friday morning I made a point of doing something that often helps me focus and uncover thoughts and feelings just below the surface.  I turned on some music.

This time it was an album by Kyle Matthews, See for Yourself.  One song began with lines that hit me hard.  It is written from the point of view of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus who died and whose life was given back when Jesus went to his grave.  It begins by referring to his sister's grief.
Mary's anger could not be denied,
'If you'd been here, he would not have died.'
While anger has not been a dominant emotion of my grief, I don't deny that it has cropped up at times.  But rather than anger, the response I have to such an image of this sister's grief for her brother is more like that of a child who feels helplessly deprived and wishes intently for any way to recover the loss.  The words awakened this helplessness buried just below the surface.  The song goes on to describe Lazarus's thirst to know the stories of God's deliverance, coming to the statement, "Guess I never knew just how far gone I was."  Whatever it means in the framework of this song, it struck me as describing the depth of my sense of helplessness, my aimless drifting, my intensity of sorrow.  The awakened emotion began to stir as a storm in my chest and throat.

How deep is the loss?  There is no clear answer.  It goes as deep as I have existence.  It's not like losing an object or a possession, something that is not part of oneself.  So reflecting on "how far gone" I am points to the absence of the one who was united to me, in whose life my life participated.  "How far gone I was" reminds me that it is not only Everly who is gone, but it is the "us" that is gone, or at least demolished so thoroughly that it requires a rebuilding under new conditions of existence.

The other song that touched me most deeply is one of Kyle's most well-known compositions, a reflection on baptism called "Been Through the Water."  It links three episodes in the life of a man, from his youth, his young adulthood, and his old age, and examines the significance of baptism across the long narrative.  The final stanza depicts the man with his grandson, gone fishing, and commenting on his old-age pains, "Soon I'll be free from these pains."  Now this is, of course, an aspect of Everly's death that is very present to me.  She spent the last years of her life struggling with a great deal of pain.  The last two months seem to have intensified her pain even more.  The words reminded me that she has been set free from her pain, the pain in her stomach, her back, her arm, her hip, her leg, and just about any part of her anatomy.  For this, I have tried to rejoice.  I would not have her back with me only to again suffer great pain.  She deserves to be free of it.  Yet it seems I would have her back at any cost.  So this thought both reminds me of the price she paid to continue loving us, and the reason I ought to be happy for her not to endure any longer in this world.  It's a joy mixed with hurt, a mournful joy.

The refrain of the first song again spoke to me in those moments.  It has Lazarus telling what it is like to have life flow back into his body.
'Cause I feel my heart start to beat again
'Cause your word is life.
Your word is life.
Your word is life to me.
And I feel my chest start to breathe again
'Cause your word is life.
Your word is life.
Your word can breathe the life back into me.
Now a narrow baptist reading might take "word" to strictly mean the Bible, but that is not the primary use of the term theologically.  It is a way of describing the movement of revelation from God to humanity, whether in creation, in prophetic proclamation, in the Spirit's quickening, or in the incarnation.  It is a way of saying that God has come to humanity with good news.  James Evans argues that the doctrine of revelation and the doctrine of liberation are united, for to begin to know who God is, is already to be liberated from the false gods and ideologies that justify domination systems and enslave human beings.  This word of hope rang true to my sense of helplessness.  However far gone I was, God's word brings light, life, liberation, and restoration to my predicament.  Because Everly now rests in the loving presence of God, I also may receive the grace of being in the presence of God with her.  For God, the Hound of Hell, pursues me to whatever depth I might dig for myself or fall helplessly into.

So Friday morning was a day to find myself immersed in the work of grief.  Rather than coasting along, I was pulled back into the intensity of loss that is Everly's death.  But the very way that it happened is a reminder that I am not alone in it.  It was the words of a song, shared by many people, written by a friend, and infused with life by the Spirit, that stirred me to this important work.  I can't say for sure if it is progress or stasis.  But I do know that as I grappled with these matters, the same Spirit stirred another friend to invite me to get out of the house, take a walk, and converse.  That crisp morning among the trees and hills of north central Durham helped me frame my inner life in the larger realm of creation and redemption.

I am wounded, perhaps broken.  Healing is possible, and in fact seems to be happening in tiny steps.  And I am not alone.  Somewhere in there may be some progress.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Grafted In: Challenging Supersessionism, Knowing as an Outsider, and the Genius of Willie Jennings

I'm admitting right up front that I'm trying to say too much in this one blog post.

As a budding scholar, a seminarian in the early 1980s, I watched the firestorm began to tear down the edifice of the Southern Baptist structures in which my life had been formed.  A new breed of white male leader committed to fundamentalist patriarchy and American exceptionalism rose to prominence (in contrast to the old breed of white male leaders who had begun to open the door a crack to white female leaders).  My first years out of seminary were spent in the trenches of struggle.  I did not like the possible future I could see on the horizon of struggling against fundamentalist ideologies, powerful authoritarian bishopoids, and absolutist idiosyncratic scriptural interpretation masked as inerrancy.  By the time I had gotten established in my doctoral studies I began to see the path that was being laid for me:  I was on my way out of the churches which had reared me to be something different than they were now becoming.

In my college days, there had been occasional interactions with a kind of hypercalvinism that held itself up as far superior to us lowly, confused baptists, but I had always assumed they were a kind of oddball fringe movement.  Later, when I heard on occasion that a new Calvinism was taking hold in some intellectual circles of Southern Baptist life, I still doubted it could fly.  Who in this contemporary world would finally accept notions of double predestination, limited atonement, irresistible grace, etc?  Wasn't that a scholasticism that had seen its moment in the sun, then gone on its way?  Sure, there was a "soft" kind of Calvinism which taught activism in faith while reserving the presupposition of comprehensive divine guidance of the world.  But actually reasserting the Puritan hubris of belonging to the elect for salvation, looking out at the rest of us as elect for damnation--I really didn't think that dog could run in our day and time.

I have taken my position as a former Southern Baptist very seriously.  I try not to be aware of what is happening in Southern Baptist organizations and life any more than I have to.  Even in the South, Black Baptist church life is dramatically different from the SBC.  But with some remaining institutional ties from college days at Baylor, and with family and friends who still have direct or indirect Southern Baptist connections, I do now and then get a glimpse into that world.  Fellow baptist scholars now and then talk to me about conversations they have had about Calvinism.  Facebook sometimes points me to something about Al Mohler's latest bending in the winds of doctrine, which has made him a poster scholar for Calvinism.  I occasionally take a look at Roger Olson's blog to learn about the current conversation about Calvinism and Arminianism.  And here and there, in conversations about "emergents" and new movements, I keep hearing about young Calvinists. 

A recent conversation with a professor at a baptist university in the South got my attention.  He told me that for the most part, the Christian students on campus who are very serious about living their faith are reading John Piper and convinced of this Calvinist theology.  I found out that this Calvinist resurgence really is a thing.  If it is a thing, I'm going to have to learn more about it.  The Puritan Calvinism that was so influential in shaping U.S. culture has left a residue that this sort of theology helps to rationalize and justify.  That residue, which is common among Calvinist and Southern Baptist and Evangelical and even Liberal churches in the U.S., is theological supersessionism.  Anglo-American culture is the new "chosen people."  Even not very churchly U.S. folks tend to believe that "we" are the ones destined by God to make the world what it is supposed to be.  Not all these believers in American exceptionalism actually have an argument to sustain it theologically, but the Puritan heritage of Calvinism definitely knew why they believed it.

The precipitating event for writing this post was my stumbling upon a critique of contemporary Calvinists by Christian Piatt.  I was impressed with Piatt's insight into one of the serious problems of this theology.  He points out that there is a suspicious assumption by those who believe that God has elected certain persons for salvation that they are the very ones who are the elect.  The forerunners of this kind of thinking in North American theology were the colonial era Puritans.  They were critics of the national churches of early modern Europe, influenced by Protestant Scholasticism and hard predestinarian theology.  I'll get back to their theological dilemma and anxiety later.

Moreover, a hard notion of predestination leads to the conclusion that genocides, murders, epidemics, disasters, and every form of death and time of death happens by God's direct will, as John Piper seems willing to affirm.
It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.
God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God's hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.
So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
If I were to drop dead right now, or a suicide bomber downstairs were to blow this building up and I were blown into smithereens, God would have done me no wrong. He does no wrong to anybody when he takes their life, whether at 2 weeks or at age 92.
God is not beholden to us at all. He doesn't owe us anything.
Now add to that the fact we're all sinners and deserve to die and go to hell yesterday, and the reality that we're even breathing today is sheer common grace from God.
Piper presents his point of view as purely logical.  He allows the "logic" of ancient tribal notions of God, combined with his assumptions about the nature of the sovereign God of monotheism, to make it easy for him to accept despicable acts.  The pervasiveness of sin in Piper's mind makes nothing surprising or alarming to him.  Such calmness and coolness in the face of immense evil seems problematic to be coming out of the mouth of one whose faith is in the God who says, "I have loved you with an everlasting love," and who teaches us to "Love your neighbor as yourself."  But within the cool calculations of double predestination, he has no trouble saying these things.

This aspect of predestinarian overconfidence was the theological underpinning of domination and genocide of Native Americans.  Reformed doctrine combined divine predestination with a hermeneutical endorsement of Old Testament stories of conquest and monarchy that called them the way of God in history.  Thus, Puritan immigrants appropriated for themselves the biblical notions of the Promised Land, the genocidal conquest, and the no quarter given policy toward idolaters and the nations.  This theology took root in New England and in South Africa, though the South African colonizers were less successful in their genocidal wars.  This is another argument I will return to later.

I have always admitted that because of being a slow reader I am not able to keep up with all current theology.  I depend on my colleagues to be reading other sources I'm not able to get to.  Now I guess I'm going to have to pick up some more writings by John Piper.  Christian Piatt argues that statements like that one of Piper's quoted above provide a theological justification for racism.  I tend to agree, but need to make sure I read enough from an author to be able to accurately draw such a conclusion. 

In my little bit of reading so far, I find that Piper believes he can hold his double predestinarian doctrine in full compatibility with a commitment to racial harmony.  His book, Bloodlines, addresses the social problem of racism as a serious one for the church.  He admits to having been formed in racist thinking and acting it out in his youth.  In this book and elsewhere he cites Martin Luther King, Jr., John Perkins, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and other African American anti-racists to bolster his case.  The book is not making a hard case for racial equality, although he seems to believe that is a good idea.  His favored term is racial harmony.

I will concede one of his theological defenses.  He says it was not really his Reformed doctrine upbringing that made him a racist.  His defense is that other Protestants, Catholics, Christians and religious folks of all sorts also lived and believed racism.  This is true. 

The links between racist ideologies and Christian faith are not limited to the Reformed tradition.  Luis Rivera-Pagan demonstrated the ways that Catholic theologies became adapted to racism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in their participation in the conquest of the Caribbean and Latin America in his book A Violent Evangelism.  The structuring of racialized ontologies into modern Enlightenment thinking and the pervasive influence of white supremacy on European and North American worldviews and Christian religious thought receives excellent analysis in Race, by J. Kameron Carter.  Willie Jennings displays episodes through which racism reshaped Christian thought in Europe, Latin America, Africa, and North America, in The Christian Imagination.  James Cone's recent The Cross and the Lynching Tree leaves little doubt that as progressive a thinker as Reinhold Niebuhr, among many others, was unable to escape the ways that North American culture has so thoroughly encoded the violence of atonement upon racial violence.  A Christian does not have to be a Calvinist to be a racist.

It seems Piper's primary motivation toward hoping for a church that demonstrates racial harmony is the vision of Revelation.  There we find that every tribe, nation, people, and language join together in unison praise of God.  Piper rightly understands this consummating vision as pointing to the nature of God's purpose for the church even in our time.  I'll want to come back to this matter later, because it is not clear to me how in a predestined world that exists in division, a racially integrated church makes much sense.  For now, let it be acknowledged that not only Reformed Christians are racists, and that Piper has good biblical basis for advocating racial harmony in churches.

That defense aside, I have not yet found in Piper an attempt to address the particular linkage between Reformed doctrine and imperialist/colonialist ideologies that comes from a distinctive Reformed hermeneutical claim.  In arguments against Anabaptists, Calvin advocated a dual path of divine authority over the world.  Christ rules immediately in the spiritual realm.  Christ rules through mediation of rulers in the temporal realm.  This variation on Luther's "two governments" responds to the Anabaptist belief that Jesus' words from Mark 10:42-45 was the only model for human society for those who follow Jesus.  Calvin said that Jesus' saying might apply only to the spiritual realm.  In its place, he offered the Old Testament Davidic Monarchy as the divinely ordained model for temporal rulers. 

It was this hermeneutic among Puritan divines that gave rise to the idea that Puritan settlers in New England and South Africa should overlay the biblical stories of Abraham and Joshua upon their communities and destinies.  God would give them a Promised Land, but they must drive out and exterminate the heathen inhabitants.  It's secularized translations of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism carry forward the supersessionist heresy that says God has revoked the election of Israel and chosen in their place the Anglo-American Christian Protestant Capitalist as the new improved replacement elect.  This hermeneutical conviction is at the core of supersessionism.  And it is an inherently racialized vision, an ecclesiology of white supremacy.

I gather from my initial reading that Piper has not directly embraced this sort of thinking.  He is not likely to fit into the committed camps of theonomy, dominionism, or reconstructionism, which he seems to disavow.  These groups find themselves quite disappointed with him for not advocating Christian use of force to fight the Satanic powers in the world.  For instance, Piper argues that Christians ought not to kill in self-defense for the sake of the gospel, but be willing to die (knowing they are saved by God) rather than take the life of someone else (whom they suspect has not been saved).  Here he sounds somewhat less predestinarian than elsewhere, and even echoes some ideas one might find in Yoder's writings.  If it matters that one wait before taking another person's life who may not be saved, that implies one's active faith is critical to carrying forward the divine decree of election.  He seems to be allowing that a person must have faith activated to fulfill his notion of the five alones:
Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, on the authority of Scripture alone. At the center of these "alones" is the precious teaching of justification by faith alone.
Yet he teaches this in the very same context as the TULIP acronym of Calvinism.  To challenge Piper, a reconstructionist Calvinist might reply that if a person without faith were one of the elect and about to die, the irresistible grace of God would activate faith necessary for salvation in a timely fashion in the final moment of life (or some such technical solution that could maintain the closed loops of predestinarian doctrine).  Or maybe the reconstructionist would not care.  But my point is that in such a tightly fashioned system of certainty, there is a way to answer his objections and question why Piper need bother to encourage nonviolence.

This problem of violence seems not to bother him so seriously in his earlier cited remarks about mass murder of women and children.  And it is this core commitment of double predestinarian theology that always demands my attention and critique.  Nonviolence, for Piper, seems like the way that Jesus would have us go, but it does not characterize the way of God whom Jesus is supposed to reveal.  Rather than rereading the Old Testament understandings of the One God in light of Jesus, finding inconsistencies between the received and written insights of those who did not have the final revelation in Christ, and questioning whether they accurately represented this One and the Same God that Jesus revealed, Piper says God does this sometimes and that sometimes.  Could the Israelite leaders and writers who had not heard from Jesus have assumed that their God, like the gods of the nations, would want Joshua to lead genocidal raids on Canaanites?  Could they have been mistaken?  Could the revelation in Christ offer a corrective?  Piper says maybe we should pay attention to Jesus on these matters of using violence, even though the very same violent actions in other seasons can very well be what God wants.

Roger Olson helpfully analyzes the dilemma of predestinarian theologies.  They cannot overcome the inconsistency in the concept of God's goodness.  If God is good, as revealed in Jesus, and we have received revelation of God's goodness, then we must be able to give at least some account of what that goodness means.  To refuse such an account by placing the divine counsels beyond all human comprehension, mysteries in eternity before the foundation of the world, then to allow for all sorts of despicable evil to fit within some elusive, incomprehensible, incommensurable, transcendent, opaque, inscrutable notion of God's goodness, is to say that we have no idea what God's goodness could mean.  And that leaves us only with goodness that is equivalent to arbitrariness and whimsey.  If God has revealed Godself, then we must be able to know some measure of what divine goodness must be.

The age in which we find ourselves now living is dominated still by white supremacy, so that the lives of non-European, non-United States white folks continue to be worth little and less, so that people are marked by their skin color for poverty, slavery, and death, all for the sake of unhindered natural resources and inexpensive consumer goods flowing to the privileged and powerful.  In a predestined world, we know that total depravity is a mark of humanity.  Sin abounds.  Many die every day from violence and its minions, poverty, disease, starvation, and pollution.  By this set of theological assumptions, they also die as God intends.

Are these who die and are not members of certain Reformed churches--are they elect to damnation?  Are those privileged to argue theology among the wealthy leisure classes elect to salvation?  Or is the mystery of divine election far less certain?  The Puritans of the seventeenth century became anxious about this very question.  They understood themselves to be a vanguard for divine truth.  They stood against the established Anglican and Catholic orders to purify doctrine and the church.  It should not be surprising, then, that they initially had confidence that their specific calling gave evidence of their being among the elect of God.  But the logic is not airtight.  What if they simply by their social location had learned these true doctrines, but had not been elect from before the foundation of the world for salvation?  Certainly, the teaching said that the merit of having true doctrine or of attending a true church or of living a righteous life would not be effective for salvation.  Only God's grace in election could do that.

On the other hand, if faith is a measure of election, and they were demonstrating faith, then it could be true that God's grace had initiated and sustained faith in them effective for salvation.  On this basis, the Puritans of the seventeenth century developed a theory of evidences or "signs of election."  First, the participation in a true church was one sign of election.  To be drawn to God in this way might indicate the existence of the faith that comes by grace.  Second, a righteous life might be a sign of election because the person demonstrates evidence of regeneration of their sinful human nature to serve God, which only comes by grace.  Finally, John Cotton is often credited with drawing focus on the quintessential American doctrine of an experience of grace.  If a person had mourned over sin and feared its results, only to find surprising joy and release through grace, forgiveness, and the desire to do good works, that person also shows evidence of the grace of election.  Together, these three signs came to be considered adequate evidence of being among the elect, although frankly the anxiety of double predestination never quite went away.  Some claim that the anxiety over predestination was a dominant characteristic of Puritan culture.

This awareness of an indecipherable, seemingly arbitrary divine election, would seem to elicit an air of futility for those who hold such doctrines.  The anxious questioning would seem to be the unraveling of such a faith.  Yet it still survives with some vigor.  What is the likelihood that racial harmony in the church falls under the divine intention at any specific time in history?  If God is directing the murders, the infanticides, the eldercides, the genocides, the racial and ethnic cleansings, the religious wars, the mass murders, the nuclear annihilations, the serial killers, the drug wars, the industrial accidents and poisonings, the slave trade and middle passages, the death camps, the disappearings, the human trafficking, the weapons trafficking--if the regimes and technologies of death occur, as Piper seems to believe, within God's intentions, who is to say that in any particular age God has elected people with various racial and ethnic assignations to be saved? 

Maybe during the mass deaths of Africans from the Atlantic Slave Trade, all the Africans were elect to damnation.  Maybe that's why blacks and whites were not in church together.  Maybe the Africans elect for salvation come from different centuries than those.  In the eternity envisioned in Revelation, they would coexist for shared worship, even though in history they were centuries apart.  People from different tribes, nations, peoples, and languages might have lived in different eras, but in eternal life they all live together.  Maybe none of the white people going to church in the 21st century are elect from before the foundation of the world.  How can we know?

I suspect someone as intelligent as John Piper, who also displays credible devotion to following Jesus, could offer replies to many of my questions.  I think he might catch some weak arguments on my part here and there.  But I do not think he can quite escape the web of questions his system of doctrine creates.  The attraction of a system of theology that seems to close all the loops is, from my perspective, why people keep returning to this kind of Reformed predestinarianism.  And the internal arguments and divisions are myriad.  There is a wide range that goes by Reformed or Calvinist theology, although some would claim that it is possible to find a subset of common convictions, and place John Piper somewhat off the center of things.  So if it seems I am denying the good in any Reformed theology, I am sorry to have communicated poorly.  That is not my intent, even if I am ever engaged in doctrinal battle around many matters of difference I have with Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, and even my own Baptist theologies.  While all dominant streams of modern theology have failed to adequately overcome white supremacy, I would stand by my argument that Reformed double predestination is especially vulnerable to this failure.

So to get back to the title, what is the genius of which I speak?  Christian Piatt makes another remark worth noting at the end of his post.  He points out examples of many different streams of faith who claim that they are God's chosen, that place "themselves at the center of such a God-and-humanity love story when they are the ones telling the story."  In light of that, he lifts up a challenge:  "show me the faith that looks outside of their own tradition to point to another group as the ones favored by God."

That line took me back to a specific text, a specific conversation.  It is an argument made in the theological writing of Willie Jennings.  It is addressed to the racialized existence of modernity and our churches which organize themselves within this racialized logic.  Jennings argues that the uniqueness of Christian faith is that it offers a message of salvation to those of us on the outside.  God's elect of Israel (the people, not the nation-state) are chosen to be a light to the nations.  That destiny, fulfilled in Jesus yet continuing in them, invites Gentiles (the nations) to be grafted in and beloved of the God who was not their God.  Those who are not the chosen people are invited into the fold.  The ones who were far off have been draw near.  We who were not a people have become a people.  We are a people who exist only because we have been invited by the Jews' God to make of our differences a way of living and loving one another in the full beauty and diversity of God's creation.  That theology, I think, is an answer to what Piatt is asking for.

Piatt is on to something.  The notion of finding ourselves as God's favorites in the world is a destructive notion in theology.  Doctrines of predestination linked to imperial and colonial programmes created some of the worst examples of that destructiveness.  Supersessionist conclusions follow too easily on such distortions of the faith.  A theology which does not separate faith from faithfulness, divine grace from co-operation in grace, divine unction from willing reception, and the power to create from the power to allow other free beings to act creatively--this sort of theology gives room to make sense of our duties to struggle against racism, empire, colonialism, and evil in all its structural and systemic forms.  And in the church, we do so as those who know from the outside what it is like to want to be on the inside, and to receive the graceful invitation to join those chosen of God and become one people.

Picking Brackets and March Madness

One thing that our family has enjoyed over the years is the excitement of the college basketball tournaments.  When Everly and I were making decisions about my graduate studies in 1986, the ACC had one of its great years with Duke and Georgia Tech battling it out as two of the best teams in the country, and no slack from UNC and NC State as well.  We got hooked on the tournament that year, seeing a great Duke team lose to Louisville in the championship.  By then, we were making plans to move to Durham, and David was getting close to being born.

Living in Durham and attending Duke turned us all into basketball fans.  One of our favorite family stories comes from a time when I was still a student at Duke and Everly was a visiting clinical professor in the department of education at UNC.  One day as we were driving in the car together, Naomi did as little ones often do.  She was sorting out the world and announcing it to the rest of us.  That day, she informed us that "Daddy's school is 'Go Duke' and Mommy works at 'Beat Carolina.'"  I couldn't have been more proud of how well she learned our sentiments.  Out of the mouths of babes....

David and I spent many an evening watching Duke basketball with neighborhood families.  David gets anxious about tense situations in ball games or movies.  He still is likely to hide his face.  But as a boy, he would pull his coat over his head, run to the other room, climb the stairs, get behind the couch, and otherwise entertain us with his acting out the tension in the room.

Eventually we bought season tickets to women's basketball at Duke.  David and I went most often, but Lydia got very interested during a few years when Iciss Tillis played for Duke.  We made posters with her name, and we managed to get some autographs and meet various players.  David was a huge Alana Beard fan.

After Baylor won the national women's championship in 2005, we spread our loyalty back to Baylor, where Everly and I met and earned our bachelor's degrees.  Then, when Lydia attended Baylor and Everly was working in Texas, we added season tickets to the women's basketball games there.  Many of our happy family times and pictures from Everly's last two years came at the Baylor basketball games.
So today I'm preparing to pick my brackets for the two tournaments.  It's happy to have both Baylor and both Duke teams in the mix.  Also having some other teams we're glad to see succeeding (at least this year) like NC State, Virginia, Mercer, SF Austin, and NCCU adds to the fun.  Getting to hate UNC, Texas, Louisville, and others from the legions of evil will also make it enjoyable.

Until getting interested in Baylor basketball and living in Texas, Everly was the least fan of basketball of all of us.  She would usually wait until the Final Four weekend to pay attention.  But her new interest led her even to pick brackets last year.  Not really a basketball aficionado, she did not excel in her picks.  This year, those of us in the family who get organized enough to do our brackets in time will not be able to count on Mom's bracket to be at the bottom of our group.

We'll miss Everly and we'll miss Brittney Griner this year for the tournaments.  But having Everly with us through these recent basketball seasons makes our joyful memories of basketball past even better.  She was a sold out fan for Baylor Women's basketball, and that makes me love the game more.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

There Might Still Be Hope for That Little Seminary Down the Road

Today at the Shaw University Ministers' Conference, we heard from a young preacher who was new to our gathering.  Rev. Chalice (pronounced shah-LEASE) Overy, youth minister at Baptist Grove Church in Raleigh brought a message.  She is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill with a bachelor's degree in Public Policy and African American Studies.  From UNC she went to Duke Divinity School, that little seminary down the road from us here at Shaw University Divinity School.  The message she delivered with great power made me (tongue in cheek) say that there might be hope for that school.  As many of you know, my fellow Mt. Level members and close friends teach at Duke Divinity School, and I also earned a Duke degree.  I would say they are doing fine.  But still, hearing Rev. Overy gave me great encouragement for the type of student who has studied and learned in those halls of divinity.

She selected the text, Acts 8:26-39, which is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  She paired it with a few verses from 2 Corinthians 5 about the new creation and the ministry of reconciliation.  As she began to tell the story from Acts, she made note of the barriers to admission to Jerusalem worship that the eunuch must have encountered.  There were physical walls, steps, doors, and curtains constructed in the Temple of Jerusalem, all designed to keep certain people far away from what was considered the holy place of God.  No doubt, the eunuch had been held at bay and unable to participate in many aspects of divine worship while in Jerusalem.

When Philip asked him whether he understood the Isaiah scroll he was reading, it is not surprising that he said he did not.  Who among the religiously accepted would have been willing to teach such an outsider and outcast?  Overy said that it was good that they were on a wilderness road for this conversation, because Philip himself might have been worried about associating with this man if other religious folks were looking.  Not only was he an outsider from Ethiopia, but his physicality as a eunuch might have raised many questions for those who would watch the two men converse.  The sexual undertones are not hidden, even if unspoken.

Overy brought the 2 Corinthians text as a contrast to the likely experience of the eunuch in Jerusalem.  Then she asked why our churches have turned away from the ministry of reconciliation and taken up the regime of death by setting up barriers to keep people out of our congregations.  She described the ways that church people try to be the respectable people and keep out anyone who differs or questions or challenges or diverges.  She implied that the entire regime of death that the law brings had become the playground of domination systems (my term) in Jerusalem and now in our churches, so that some of us become the gatekeepers and protectors of God from the rabble and the outsiders.

Overy shook us all up with a message about the gospel that lets the Ethiopian's rhetorical question need no answer--what's to keep me from being baptized?  No legalism, no wall, no steps, no evil-eye, no harumph, no gate, no curtain--no that was torn from top to bottom.  It was a powerful sermon calling on churches to be welcoming communities and to get out into the streets to let people know that our God receives them in all their variety and diversity.

Thank you Rev. Chalice Overy, for your care in reading the text and listening to the Spirit.  Thank you to her teachers for contributing to a powerful ministerial formation.  And thank you God for the immeasurable gift of the Good News.

Public Reading of Scripture

It's the last day of the Shaw University Divinity School Ministers' Conference.  This morning was my morning on the dais.  I was scheduled to offer the Invocation.  One of our alumni was called away, so I also filled in to read the Scripture Text.

Some of you who know me realize that public reading of scripture is one of my favorite forms of worship leadership.  Having grown up in church, I have been hearing people read aloud from the Bible all my life.  In children's Sunday School classes, it was a challenge, a duty, and sometimes a competition to see who could get through some verses without stumbling over big Bible words.  We excellent readers and pronouncers felt smug toward the ones who couldn't sound out Nebuchadnezzer or Amalekite.

Eventually, it came to be the "gracious" thing to do to allow anyone to "pass" or "prefer" not to read publicly.  We learned that we should not force people to do something they were not comfortable doing, lest they feel humiliated by struggling with the words and sentences.  I never got completely comfortable with that policy, thinking that we ought to show the grace through loving one another enough to encourage everyone to continue to grow and improve in public reading.  That was a kind of internal white church conversation.

At Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, I came to see that there was another kind of conversation about public reading of scripture to which I had not been privileged.  I don't know the story as a participant, although I have had some opportunities to study in books or listen to testimony about that different world from the one in which I was raised.  What I did learn was that the social function of public reading of scripture at Mt. Level carried with it a communal memory of injustice:  the injustice of being denied the sacred text and the training to be a reader of it.

So at Mt. Level, when a person stands to read the scripture publicly, it is not the same kind of pressure to perform flawlessly to prove one's pedigree that might have fed our competitive spirits in Sunday School where I grew up.  It takes on more of a shared consciousness of liberation struggle, as people whom outsiders might not expect to read sophisticated texts join hearts of encouragement to read and hear the sacred writ.  Almost any time a young person or child reads publicly, there is an outpouring of congratulations and encouragement for achieving this important task.  Now the feeling about children's public reading is not so different than what I grew up with, but the expression is more overt through words of praise and applause.  Getting an education is not something to take for granted, and gaining the skill to handle sacred things is a reason for gratitude to God who made a way where there was no way.

As a seminarian at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, I gained another insight into public reading of scripture.  Certainly, I had experienced different styles of reading as I grew up.  Some people read in a monotone, giving little emphasis while making sure to get all the words correct.  Others put on a "church voice" or "preacher voice" and read with a different tone than conversational speech.  It may include certain efforts at emphasis, although as a whole it offers little insight into the particular text, and in a way makes all texts sound the same, each verse and sentence and paragraph adopting the same "officious" or "elevated" tone of voice.  Some readers adopt a sing-song phrasing that gets to be very predictable and at times causes the mind to relax and drift away.  A few readers show evidence of trying to read with contextual understanding, yet most such reading either takes on idiosyncratic interpretive emphasis (such as highlighting a transitional word like "but" or "therefore"), reading excessively slowly, or singling out one or two phrases in a passage for emphasis.

While in California, I was blessed to become part of a congregation that was unusually populated by people who gave serious attention to how scripture should be read publicly.  Among many with gifts, some who stood out were Jerene Broadway, Kyle Smith, and Jane Medema.  One thing I learned from these and others was to look at a text for its particularities:  conversational speech, story-telling, poetic phrasing, and musicality.  I listened as readers varied the speed of their speech cadence, stretched out particular words, raised and lowered the pitch or tone of phrases in unexpected ways rather than in the same way with each line.  I saw that scripture gives clues about the emotive character of its words, so that fear, excitement, anger, or sarcasm may need expression.  Some words may need to be shouted and others whispered.

From that point on, I came to see that worship planners should engage two concerns when calling on people to lead through public reading of scripture.  First, I retain my baptist egalitarianism that tells me everyone who wishes to have opportunity to read scripture publicly should get to do so.  Reading scripture is a practice of all of our lives in discipleship, and no one has to be a professional to share in that practice.  Whether it is read with a more mumbling monotone, a stumbling cadence, or articulated in all its detail, the people of God do the work of God by reading scripture publicly.  Second, churches should identify those with gifts to read with expression and convey the depths of the text and have them read regularly and often.  Moreover, those who understand how to study a text and draw out an oral interpretation of it should offer training to others so that more members of the congregation can offer gifted leadership in public reading of scripture.

I also learned at seminary that many traditions of Christian worship read multiple texts in worship.  I grew up hearing the scripture read as a preparation for the sermon.  Whatever text the preacher planned to use was the one we heard.  Then I found out that some churches read an Old Testament Lesson, a Psalm, a New Testament Lesson (or Epistle), and a Gospel Lesson every Sunday.  Of course, in our small-town Texas Baptist self-assurance, we were not aware of the Lectionary and such things.  I remember my fellow-seminarian Dan Ratliff saying to me that for all of our baptist talk about being Bible-based, we mostly let people say their own words in worship.  He helped me see that in this multiple-text liturgical approach, we could give God's Word a chance to speak more often, more diversely, and more extensively than our anti-liturgical pattern had led us into.

All of which leads me to say that I was overjoyed to get to read from Acts 8:26-39 today and try to make the text come alive.  I always know the English teachers and speech teachers out in the congregation because of the way their eyes light up.  One woman greeted me after the service to say, "You read that scripture just like I would have told you to read it!"  So I knew I was talking to someone who thinks about how to interpret texts orally.  If this is the text we claim can tell us the story of our lives and guide us in the way we should go, then there is a value in letting the words operate in our mouths and ears with the same liveliness of the conversations we carry on with one another.  They are sacred texts, but that does not mean they must sound like drudgery.

So anytime you want to ask me to read the scripture publicly, don't be surprised that I say, "Yes."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Why Myrtle Trees?

On Monday night of the Shaw University Minister's Conference, the conference preacher, Rev. Dr. William H. Curtis of Mt. Ararat Baptist Church, Pittsburgh, PA, chose as his text the first vision of Zechariah, chapter 1, verses 7-17.  In particular, he focused on the first part of verse 8:
I saw at night, and behold, a man was riding on a red horse, and he was standing among the myrtle trees which were in the ravine (NASB).
Curtis took note that the description of the vision included only a few details before an extensive interpretation.  At the heart of the vision is a rider on a horse, and there are other riders on horses in the background.  Most of what follows pertains to the message, including questions and answers to the other riders and to God, delivered by the primary rider to Zechariah.

But Curtis said that his homiletician's imagination was drawn to the details given in verse 8.  The riders and horses were in a ravine.  It was a valley, a low place.  In it was a clump of myrtle trees.  Curtis could not stop wondering, "Why myrtle trees, and why in a valley?"

His message went on to say that myrtle trees grow especially well in valleys or ravines.  Unlike our ambitions to be on the mountain heights, this detail of the story represented for him a message about those common experiences of being in a low place, in a "valley."

Curtis demonstrated a kind of "spiritual" or "allegorical" interpretation of the text.  Such visionary passages often already have an allegorical meaning deeply embedded in the texts themselves.  As Curtis developed the allegory, he linked it to the interpretation of the vision that became Zechariah's prophetic oracle.

The people of God had endured great hardship.  Their enemies had treated them far more harshly than someone might say they deserved.  In the pilgrimage of the history of Israel, they were certainly living in a valley.  They had been in exile for decades.  A few had been able to return to their homeland, and they were scrambling to build a temple and reestablish their center of faith in Jerusalem.

They might look upon their situation as hopeless.  They might think that things have been just too hard, and no one should expect much of them.  But Curtis points out that even in valleys, there are trees that grow especially well.  These myrtle trees signify that the hard times the Israelites have faced can still be a time for growth.  They can still find the water and nourishment they need.  In fact, the valley may be the only setting in which some people can grow.

When they are on the mountaintop, God's work seems small from up so high.  They begin to imagine they are the the reason for their own success.  But in the valley, we can come to see how great God's work in our lives may be.  We become eager to find those things we need to rise from our struggles.

I give a very brief and weak synopsis of the message.  As you might imagine, in this valley of my life, wondering how to move on after Everly's death, it was a message that spoke to me.  For even in the valley of the shadow of death (and that is the shadow in which I walk), God is with me.  It was an encouraging word.  Even in my deep valley, there is growth that can and must happen.  I shed tears, but they were tears of hope.  So I am relieved to be standing among the myrtle trees.
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