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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, May 25, 2014

Our Anniversary, a Day to Remember That There Is Good in the World

A year ago I sat at a dinner table with Everly, David, Naomi, and Lydia.  There was a bouquet of flowers from the children to honor the occasion.  Everly and I were sharing our 33rd wedding anniversary.  We had been busy all day at the beach and looking around in Cozumel.  Back on the ship for dinner, we were having a good time and happy to be together.  I toasted the evening and said to all our Broadways gathered that night, "It's been thirty-three great years, and we will do this again thirty-three years from now for our 66th anniversary."

It was a joyful time, even though Everly was struggling with back pain and other cancer pain.  We were together with our three children for this vacation on the cruise ship, just the way Everly liked--there was no planning of meals or preparing and cleaning them up, no driving or finding hotels.  We just moved in for the week, slept when we wanted, ate the food, toured as desired, and relaxed.

Through her long illness, I tended to hang on to any optimism that I could.  I kept up my hopes, and on our anniversary I focused on the possibilities for managing cancer and living a long time.  In fewer than two months, she would die.  But at that point, I was pushing the idea of having 33 more years together.  As it turns out, we are stuck with only 33.  The rest of the years are what might have been.

So today, I am looking back across many anniversaries.  Because the recent history of dealing with cancer still looms so large, memories of many of those days do not seem so clear.  For our 20th anniversary, we took our first cruise.  It was on a small cruise ship and lasted four days.  Everly and I relaxed together and did some touring to ancient Mayan ruins in the Yucatan.  On our 13th anniversary, I passed my dissertation defense to complete my doctoral studies.  When I got home to bask in that moment, I received a call offering me my first job as a professor, a one-semester sabbatical replacement at Elon College, just down the road a ways from Durham.  That was a day to remember. 

On our second anniversary, in California, we took a weekend trip to Carmel-by-the-Sea, where we stayed in a bed and breakfast and enjoyed the beauty of the village.  Our first anniversary was a day spent at Pier 39 in San Francisco, discovering a little kiosk called "Mrs. Fields' Chocolate Chippery," which was getting ready to expand to be a huge national chain.

That first anniversary was, of course, one year after two very young people, practically still kids, had mustered up the courage to make commitments to one another to "let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor."  We promised to share our whole selves and whatever possessions we might have or acquire.  We gazed into one another's eyes, surrounded by an unfaithful world where people seldom keep their commitments, and promised unending faithfulness to one another and to the God we both serve.  We received the encouragement and embrace of God's people, the church, to help us live up to these commitments we made to one another.  And we never looked back.

On that day, the potentiality of a loving, caring home began to take shape.  It was six years later, back in Texas, that our love for one another and for God was enlarged to include a tiny baby boy.  That treasure came just days before our anniversary.  Then every three years another child arrived, fairly close to our anniversary day, until we had received the blessing of the three beautiful children who have now grown into their own adulthood.  That wonderful uniting of two lives to make a home has borne fruit in these beautiful people--David, Naomi, and Lydia.  Were Everly and I not able to accomplish any other good things, we could be satisfied to see so much goodness come into the world as these three people bring every day.

I faced this day with some trepidation.  A day for good memories is now also a day to be reminded of the depth of my loss.  The anniversary date returns, but the life together is no longer what it was.  I got some good advice to seek out some friends who would be understanding of how this day matters and affects me, and ask them to spend part of the day with me.  So I called one buddy to meet me for breakfast, since we were already working on getting together.  The middle of the day was teaching a class, and I could press through that responsibility without much difficulty, mixing in a reflection on Everly and this day as appropriate.  Then after class, my friends Willie and Jay hung out with me for the afternoon and evening. 

There were extra blessings of phone calls from family and friends, texts and messages of support.  What had seemed would be a very rough day turned out to flow along smoothly.  My boat was buoyed by the love and support of others.  I didn't sink.  I kept on sailing through.  There were tears at times, some moments of heartache, some times of feeling deep love, and all the kinds of emotions that one might expect.  But no great wave of sadness swept over me.  There was sadness, but not despair.  I made it through the hardest "first" yet. 

This will be, I think, a difficult two months.  From this time last year and on through July, the news was never quite good news.  There was still hope that a new treatment regime might put us back on a track toward shrinking the tumors.  There was encouragement that radiation could make the increased back pain go away.  There were possibilities that continued to keep me as busy as necessary to facilitate Everly's seeing the doctors and going to the clinics where we hoped to find help.  But finally in early July, the possibilities began to disappear, and eventually only one likely outcome remained.  The shift from medical intervention to hospice care came suddenly, and she only lived a week beyond that change.  So the milestones coming back around at this time of year are not necessarily the ones I would wish to be remembering.  Even so, I need to live through them reflectively and receptively with eyes and ears for what I need to understand about those whirlwind days of 2013.

I know that the conventional wisdom says to try to remember the joyful happy times and not only the sad and painful times.  I get that.  I don't really need people to be reminding me of it.  I have not forgotten the beautiful, pleasant, joyful, contented times of living with Everly.  But I also cannot deny the pain of those days when hope for recovery turned to hope for relief and ultimately to hope for release from all her suffering.  Hope never died, but we had to learn to hope in new ways.  Just like I wrote about her dad, she had fought the good fight.  She had run the race and finished the course.  She could now receive the crown of righteousness that her virtuous life had earned, that Jesus had provided by grace. 

So I can remember all these things.  But especially this first year, I also must remember and reflect on the days which were passing so rapidly, so filled with frustration and questions, too dense for full understanding while we were in the midst of them.  Days that for me might have seemed full of anticipation for a turn toward the better were the very days in which she was not getting better.  She had some sense that her end was coming, even though she was determined not to give up.  I was less aware, or less ready to see the signs.  She was weakening fast, and I was still grasping at potential remedies.  All too soon, her struggle became too great to bear.  Remembering this is also a good thing.  It is an honoring of her whole life.  I'll not deny the strength and courage she showed as the disease slowly took away her capacities to live with the vigor she had always known.  They were days of struggle, days of loving, days of intimate conversations, days of grace upon grace.

How many people get 33 years to share a good life together?  Not nearly enough, if that life can have the kinds of joys that Everly and I were able to share.  So this date on the calendar, May 24, will remain a day to mark what is good in the world.  A young singer, Marc Scibilia, penned some lyrics that touched me deeply when I first heard them about a year ago, just before our cruise.  Is it a great song?  Maybe not, but it does speak a clear truth about how one ought to face the vicissitudes of existence.  Find the good, and hold onto it with all you've got.
It takes a lot of time.
There's so much you've got to leave behind.
But hold it like a treasure if you can find
Something good in this world,
Something good in this world.

There's so much hard earth to dig
In these days of curse that we live.
I'm absolutely sure that in the midst,
There's something good in this world.
There's something good in this world.

And life will try to take
Your innocence and your grace.
But no matter what comes to your door,
You've got to keep looking
For something good in this world.
As long as a memory of Everly remains in me, I will never doubt that there is something good in this world.  She is the treasure to which I hold, the one I found to be the good worth living for and even giving myself up for.  I'll let nothing take that from me.  Today is a good day, a reminder that there's something good in this world, and I have known her.

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