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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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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Some Reflections on Traveling in England and Wales

I've not written much down about my travels in the UK so far.  I've posted some pictures and tossed a few comments over the past two and one-half weeks.  So here are a few reflections I settled down to write while in Oxford and then while on the train toward Scotland.

Tower of London

I was surprised to find that the “tower” of London was something different than my “foreigner imagination” had expected.  Somehow I had confused it with its neighbor, the Tower Bridge, and assumed it was one of the bridge towers.  Upon seeing it, I realized that the “tower” gained its name in a different historical era and the meanings of words had changed somewhat over time. 

Certainly, it was a tower of sorts, as a multistory castle would be.  But it was not, as we would tend to believe in current usage, a building much taller than it is wide.  Rather, its name probably reflects the cognate term from Italian, such as torre, which can mean “castle” rather than the current English use for a tall building.  Tall it was, for its time, but it was not a slim structure of great height.  It was an imposing structure in the countryside and along the river, bigger than anything else around, and designed for defense and intimidation. 

The most important aspects of this tour for me were the historical insights into the emergence of England as a political entity after the Norman invasion.  From this first stop on our castle tours, we learned again and again about the initial building program of William the Conqueror and the subsequent building program of Edward I.

Westminster Abbey

I realize now that I had the expectation of visiting a grand church wherein the theological heritage of centuries was made prominent, in contrast to the historyless denominational churches of the US.  What I found, instead, was a vast church filled with the  power of royalty and nobility as its most dominant feature, with the theological heritage employed to aggrandize the wealth and power of empire. 

Now I’m not trying to ignore the significant theological and material failures of Baptists or others like us.  But I am saying that it was overwhelming and shocking to me to see the extent to which this church had been wrestled and corralled into becoming a justifier of the lives of wealthy, powerful people of the dominating class.  It’s just so obvious here, even though some of the people whose elaborate statues and plaques may have been very devout and pious, and even though it is not completely different in other churches, except by degree. 

Many of the other cathedrals and chapels we have seen continued this same impression on a smaller scale.  My fellow theologian, Dr. Margaret Adam, in conversation explained that the building of such enormous and ornate churches followed by the royal confiscation of their lands led to the need to solicit this kind of support from wealthy benefactors to keep the buildings from falling into ruins.  Margaret's heart is generous enough to see others' point of view sympathetically, even if she is not fully in agreement with them.  She helped me to see the struggle of aging English churches, reminding me how all of our schemes for sustaining a parish and its heritage can lead to compromises.  What a dilemma, and one that US churches of all sorts have faced for at least a century.  Without the same expectations of nobles oblige, US churches are likely to close, sell their property, and be removed or remodeled and repurposed.  While some English churches have survived through this memorial system, certainly many others have also been "repurposed" or fallen into ruin.

Stratford upon Avon

It was great to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Henry IV, Part 1.  We enjoyed the visit to Shakespeare’s boyhood home and other related sites in Stratford, but the play was the highlight.  Although I knew the play from my university English literature course, I had only a tiny bit of the historical context in mind.  I was more aware after some touring in London of what was happening in the play, and later tours in Wales gave it even a fuller contextualization.  The battles between Henry V and the Welsh, led by Owain Glyn Dwr, described in historical presentations at the Caernarfon Castle, put Henry V into a specific historical struggle and not just a literary struggle.  The acting was excellent, and the direction/production made great use of the theater and the actors.  Falstaff, the star, did a great job.  Henry V and Hotspur received compelling portrayals.  All in all, it was well worth the trip.

Traveling without Everly

This trip has involved sometimes very tiring days with long hours of walking.  Naomi and I have managed well, but it would have been different with Everly.  She would not have wanted such long walking sessions.  She would have worked out a way to see the sights and send us out to do the most stair-climbing and long trekking without her having to become exhausted.  I have often commented to Naomi that Everly would have liked this or that, that Everly would not have wanted to climb this or that, that Everly would be tired and ready to be finished. 

On Monday morning, as we climbed the stairs after breakfast, I was observing the art on the wall.  There were sketches and watercolors of scenes of the Conwy Castle and surrounding countryside.  It was one of the first moments of grief to emerge fully in our travel.  This is the week in which the anniversary of Everly’s death comes.  And there, looking at a watercolored sketch, I thought of our first year of marriage when we took a trip to Carmel, CA.  There we were impressed by the beauty of the seaside with its wildflowers, and we found a watercolor print that we loved and purchased. 

It was a moment of remembering shared travel, the beauty that we appreciated in the world when we were together, and of course that we cannot share that together in the same way now.  I was deeply moved, and sweet Naomi asked me if I were okay.  That gave me the opportunity to talk a while about Everly and what I am missing as she is not present with us on this wonderful journey.  I’m staying so busy that it’s not clear to me how to experience grief in this anniversary week.

On Tuesday night I was able to visit with friends who had come to Oxford for the Young Scholars in the Baptist Academy meeting.  Brad and Kathy Creed, friends of mine and Everly’s from Baylor days, were present.  In 2007 they had lost their 18-yr-old daughter to an automobile accident.  We felt such sorrow for them in those difficult days.  They had both loved Everly, and have followed my comments on her struggle and death, and on our family’s grieving.  We got to know more about one another’s families and caught up on old friends we had seen or talked with recently. 

After dinner, we went to the worship service which included the singing of Wesley’s “Amazing Love,” which I sang in full voice, and “Abide with Me,” of which I was barely able to sing the first line.  It is a hymn which describes in poetic ways the struggle and ebbing of life, and it always reminds me of moments from Everly’s last days in hospice as she released her grip on this world and longed for a new body and new life free from pain. 
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
The meditation had been from Romans 8, including the hope we have because we share in Christ’s suffering and death.  For a short time during the hymn, the tears flowed, and great sobs rocked me.  Partly it was because of the comfort of being with Kathy and Brad.  Also, across the aisle was Beth Newman, a long-time friend from doctoral studies days at Duke.  Beth and I have had many opportunities to work together over the years, and her friendship is dear to me.  I thank them all for how their friendship that evening also became a moment of remembering other days of Everly’s presence in this world and in our lives.

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