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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, February 26, 2015

Prayer and Doubt, and Where We Get This Wrong

Let me acknowledge the Bruderhof community and their publication ministries:  The Plough Publishing, the Plough Journal which is brand new, and the daily emails such as The Daily Dig.  I find the quotations they send out regularly encouraging, challenging, and thought-provoking.  One of those quotations got me motivated to write today.  It is from the second-century Christian text by Hermas.
Tear doubt out of your heart! Never allow doubt to hinder you from praying to God by perchance thinking to yourself, “How can I ask anything from the Lord, how can I receive anything from God since I have sinned so much against God?” Never think like this! Instead, turn to the Lord with your whole heart. Pray to the Lord without wavering and you will come to know God's great mercy. The Lord will never desert you. God will fulfill your heart’s request because God is not like human beings, who harbor grudges. No, God does not remember evil and has compassion for all creation.
I find that in our era of "positive thinking" prayer, we have put the weight of prayer on our ability to stir up intense intellectual focus on the certainty of our own thoughts.  If prayer depends on what I can drum up in my own mind and emotions, then I am to that extent praying to myself rather than to God.

The contrast between doubt and faith does not come down to my drummed-up certainty.  We have all known people, and perhaps we have been those people, who get so stirred up around wanting something to happen that our way of talking about it leaves us sounding more like promoters than believers.  There is a kind of "faith in your team" which leads one to believe, for instance, that Duke cannot lose a basketball game.  Then there is the reimagined future of weeks not spent in the cameraderie and joy when Mercer figures out how to knock Duke out of the NCAA tournament early.  While sports fandom may be a trivial (not for everyone) example of drummed-up certainty, I hope it provides a helpful analogy to how some theology of prayer is more about personal wishful thinking turned into wished certainty rather than actual faith in God.

Too often, we make doubt and faith in prayer about doubting or believing that I will get that specific thing I want.  Such is the danger of prayer that becomes shopping at the heavenly WalMart.  Prayer, as getting God to do what we want, and thus seemingly getting God to change God's mind and stop holding back the thing we believe we must have, is not the prayer of faith.

Faith, as trust and as faithfulness, gets us closer here to what makes a prayer of faith.  It also gets at what Hermas sees as the problematic form of doubt.  A prayer of faith, shaped by the model prayer Jesus taught and the High Priestly prayer Jesus prayed not long before his death, is a prayer for God's will to be done on earth and for us to be united to God in Christ.  It is about changing us to be more what God's purpose for us in creation has always been.  Trusting God to seek our good, even when the world is going bad, is the prayer of faith.  Walking with God in faithfulness, trusting the faithful God to never leave us, is the prayer of faith.  Holding fast to God's faithfulness, even when we ourselves have not arrived at the full virtue of faithfulness, is the prayer of faith.

Hermas here says that doubt is the doubt that one can receive grace.  If God is a gracious, loving God, then Hermas says that the God we can trust does not wait for us to stir up enough goodness in ourselves to offer grace and love.  We already receive God's grace, even in our failures and sins.  The doubt Hermas wants us to tear from our hearts is the doubt that God cares to listen to us.  As my professor in seminary, Dr. Francis Dubose (author of God Who Sends) taught us, the proto-missio appears when God seeks Adam and Eve in the garden as they were hiding and ashamed.  God pursues creation with reconciling love.  It is God's nature and mission toward the world.

Doubt here is not the uncertainty or fear that I won't get the thing I want.  Doubt is not trusting God's faithfulness to reach out in love toward us.  It is giving up on prayer because we are overwhelmed by our unworthiness and we fail to understand that God's grace is God's holiness.  God is not like us--God is gracious and merciful.  God is at work to make us gracious and merciful.  That is what we must trust, and the doubt of it is we must put away.  What will the future bring?  Exactly what we decided it must bring?  Another national championship for Duke?  Those specific things are not the main thing.  The future will bring great opportunities to live in the grace and love of God with one another, reconciling and building community around the purposes of God who made us for beloved community.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Road Is Long

Reposted from the CaringBridge site for Everly Broadway

This weekend I attended the Moral March in Raleigh to both display a commitment and be encouraged for the long struggle for justice in our state where it seems so many people, particularly leaders, forgot who we are and where we came from after the economy crashed.  When I listened to the remarks about public education, and when I read the stories of how things have changed so suddenly and dramatically in our state and our county, I find myself saying that I'm glad Everly did not live to see all of this.  It's only half true, because although I would want her to be free from the pain of seeing her work dismantled, I also wish I had her as a mighty ally to work to put things in order.  But I don't really want to write today about all those political struggles, except indirectly.

As I stood on Fayetteville Street near the NC Capitol, at one point a singer on the platform was singing Sam Cooke's song, "A Change Is Gonna Come."  Those of you old enough to remember can feel with me the deep emotion of the plaintive lyric that says, "It's been a long, a long time coming," and of course, what he waits for has still not arrived.  He holds on to hope for that change to come.  As that line echoed among the skyscrapers and marchers, and I listened to people talk about the struggles for voting rights, only to see them reversed, I felt that deep ache that resides deep within the human heart, that longing for a world to be set right.

Anyone who paid attention in literature class should know that poetic texts are by intent polyvalent (what dominant cultures love to falsely call "universal" when they want to claim all truth for themselves as the omniscient knowers).  Poetry describes specific people, events, and experiences, and yet the words inevitably connect with readers who find themselves in many other situations.  People who listen to Sam telling about his struggles to be respected and to simply live a life will very likely be drawn to places of hurt and longing in their own stories.  I hope it is not privileged appropriation to talk about this song in relation to my own long road of grief.  Connecting with another song, this one made popular by Everly's beloved Osmonds, "The road is long, with many a winding turn that leads us to who knows where."

This Wednesday, February 18 and Ash Wednesday, will be nineteen months since Everly died.  Those of you who read this, who miss her, and who have walked alongside following my writing before and after Everly's death, know that the journey has been long from her grand accomplishments as an educator, leader, servant of God, wife, and mother, through her courageous struggle to survive cancer, through her preparation for and acceptance of dying, and through her family's and friends' demoralization and disorientation after losing her from our lives.  I have tried to chronicle and reflect on it first here in this CaringBridge journal and then later at my "earth as it is in heaven" blog.

For a very long time, the emotion was raw and unbearably tender.  Many of us were regularly surprised by tears in unexpected moments, or not surprised at all by the tears and pain of remembering times when Everly was the best part of our day, of our lives.  I could not pass an 18th of the month without the pangs of loss, the memories of that day and her final struggle before peaceful release.  In the fall of 2013, a wise friend encouraged me that with time, even those last days might be remembered more for the joy and goodness of knowing Everly than for the wrenching pain of her departure.  I found that hard to believe.  I held a thread of hope that it would be true.  And finally, I am beginning to believe that it can be true.

"Grief work" has become a popular term in therapeutic culture.  I find it to be helpful to me.  It helps me recognize that the richer understanding and memory of those precious months and days with Everly will not happen purely by chance nor by inattention.  Even when there are unexpected moments of insight, those will not simply sprout from uncultivated ground.  For wounds to heal, I am having to apply the antibiotic ointments of remembering and retelling truthfully and lovingly the stories of living and struggling with Everly until I can see their beauty and dreadfulness.  I have to massage in the salves of wise words from others who have walked this kind of road to soften and mend the torn places.  Doing these things is hard work, like growing things in a garden is hard work.  I'll not hammer away into absurdity with these two metaphors, but move on.  The point you already get is that I have to put effort into healing and new growth. 

Much of my reflective work over the past year has been about what I would do next with my life, living a very different life than the one Everly and I had planned together.  For that reason, I shifted away from this site that had been more focused on Everly.  Love for her was the reason you all came to this site to read, and only secondarily to know about her loved ones as they pressed into the future.  But today I'm back because I again want to focus on the grief and loss that accompanied her last days of living.

A few weeks ago (just before Christmas), I wrote about a poem by Denise Levertov, "Terror."  In that poem, she draws a powerful image of the emotional changes that come in time after loss, when the immediacy and intensity of the pain begin to recede for many people.  Awareness of such moments can awaken a new terror that somehow the person who has been grieving has become hardened, stony, inhuman, for not feeling the same as before about so great a loss.  It described for me a very different feeling about the Christmas season as it came around the second time without Everly there to make the plans and decorate and wrap and make us all happy.  Sorting through the mixed emotions of trying to get on with the life that Everly expects of me and of not having such all-consuming sadness has been part of the grief work.

Last week I started another book in which a noted scholar and minister traces his own steps through loss and grief, Henri J..M. Nouwen's In Memoriam, written soon after the death of his mother.  Nouwen is known for his deep insights into the complexities of human struggle in this world and for the ability to articulate the ways that love must unfold and entangle itself in the relationships of our lives.  His gifts as a writer have meant that on most pages some turn of phrase leaps out or sears my consciousness with illumination of pain or joy.  Thus, I am taking it slow.

Today I read his account of spending time with his mother in her last days, when she found it too taxing even to speak.  He said that he and she had been using the same prayer book during her illness, so that even if separated, they were able to share the fellowship of reading the same prayers from the Psalms each evening.  Remembering being at her bedside with their days together soon to end, he writes,

Now there was no doubt that she was dying; it was so clearly written on her face.  It was so clearly written on her face.  I knew that we both knew.  But there were no words.  I bent over her face...."Shall I pray?" I asked softly.  She seemed pleased and nodded.  Knowing she would have asked me this if she had possessed the strength to speak, I realized that the words of the psalms would make it possible to communicate with each other in new ways....As these words were slowly shaped by my lips, covering her like a gentle cloud, I knew that we were closer than ever.  Although she was too ill to smile, too weak to say thanks, too tired to respond, her eyes expressed the joy we felt in simply being together.  The psalms...lifted the veil of sentimentality.  As soon as the words of the psalms were spoken, there was a strength, a power, and a divine realism between us.  There was a joyful clarity.  A mother was dying, her son was praying, God was present and all was good.  As she looked into my eyes, I knew that my gratitude for her presence in my life would live on within me.  As I looked into her eyes, I knew that she would die grateful for her husband, her children and grandchildren, and the joyful life that had always surrounded her.

I would not want you to infer from this selection that I am now deciding everything was happy in July of 2014.  Neither I nor Nouwen would sugar-coat those times.  Of course those final days were filled with questions, struggles, frantic emotions at times, and deep sorrow.  Yet they were not captured by those difficult aspects.  We also had the beauty of Everly's eyes, her smile, her demeanor, her humor, to accompany us.  When she felt troubled, afraid, or upset, we were there to listen to her calls, meet her needs, embrace her with love, and calm her with our presence.  In a house where death was soon to come, life remained the force and hope of a family intoxicated by our love of one another. 

What Nouwen's writing in this opening chapter brought to my mind was the way that Everly's children surrounded her with a peaceful, loving presence.  Sometimes we were all in the room with her, and I have vague memories of such times.  More often, we were in pairs or one-by-one sitting with Everly and opening our hearts to the sacred time with her.  Sometimes one of the children would sing every song she could think of, or even turn page after page of the National Baptist Hymnal and sing for Mommy.  Sometimes they would go to talk with her about deep matters of their lives, answering the questions they knew she would ask, opening the hidden places of their lives, hearts, and minds to the Mother whose love was so abundant and present to them.  I had my moments of sitting beside her, holding her hand, talking, singing, and praying as well. 

But what stands out to me is the way David, Naomi, and Lydia opened themselves up to Everly as instruments of peace, sewing love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy.  All of those gifts to their Mommy were mingled with aching tears, but they were tangible gifts nonetheless.  Not in Nouwen's way of the psalms, but in their own ways of hymns and songs, honest words from their hearts, hummed melodies, and gentle caring touches, they bore her body through the vale of tears, through the valley of the shadows.  Their giving presence eased her death with the comfort that she had loved her own in this world, and now could love them to the end.  I could wish for so many things to have happened to let her be here with us longer, and I do.  But short of that bliss, how could I ask for more than the beautiful human beings that she bore into this world, who stood by her in her darkest hour and blessed her name with their loving presence?

We all still struggle in the wake of those hard days.  They are difficult memories, but even as I compose these words, I do so behind tears of joyful memory mixed with the pain of loss.  So I give thanks that the beauty of those days increases in my memory, as I strive for endurance to produce character and for character to produce hope.  For hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.  We have seen that love poured out in the life of Everly, and we have seen it poured out into her children.  May they and I be the blossoming rose of Everly's love, strength, and courage in these days of our sojourn.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Who Then Is This, That Even the Wind and Sea Obey Him?

Yesterday morning, through the night, and today the winds have been blowing.  Thursday's drive to High Point found my little car pushed around by the winds across the North Carolina Piedmont.  It's a windy season, and this week will bring much more of it.

This morning, my beloved and faithful friend, Rev. Ralph Burton, stepped into the sacred desk at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church to testify of the ways of a faithful God in the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel, drawing on the text from Hebrews 11.  Among the many names and stories told there, I am always drawn to the mention of Abraham, who "set out, not knowing where he was going."  A few verses later, the writer offers a summary of the first part of the chapter.
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.
There are so many ways that these words work on my consciousness of a life I am trying to live.  Probably most immediate to me is that these words constituted a critical text for reflection and analysis brought to the predominantly white congregation where Everly, I, and our children were seeking to serve God twenty years ago.  The speaker was Rev. Nancy Sehested, who came to us in a crucial time of division, when it was not clear where the church would go next.  I probably should write more about that moment in my faith development, but not today.  Let it stand for now that I am strangely saying that something from twenty years ago is the most immediate response I have to these words.  The past is not in the past. 

But these verses also speak to Everly's dying, and the events and moments she did not live to see.  They speak to the way she and I lived toward a vision of a better world in which children learn the math they need, in which justice flows into so many aspects of living, in which our children and other people's children have opportunities to live well and contribute to others' living well.  They also speak to my situation of trying to reshape a vision of how to live my life without her.

Burton and I call each other "brother" by intention.  I commented once from the pulpit that I was trying to get used to being called "Reverend" at Mt. Level, since in my growing up, Dad refused to be called by such a title.  He does not like the idea of the pastor's being treated as elevated in status or holiness.  He sees himself as one more sinner saved by grace.  To him, a pastor is "one among equals" called out to a specific task, but not a higher rank.  In response to those comments, Burton has always greeted me with a smile and a hearty "Brother Broadway."

Our backgrounds probably could not be much different in some ways, but similar in others.  Today he spoke of his ancestors brought to North Carolina from West Africa to work on a plantation not so far from where our church is located today.  He remembers being a dirt farmer growing up, with tobacco for a cash crop and a garden plot to feed the family.  He said that life clearly required they live in the way of Hebrews 11's testimony, "by faith."  My parents' families are one generation (on Dad's side) and two generations (on Mom's side) removed from dirt farming and sharecropping.  But although I am familiar with modern agriculture from growing up around it in Texas and hearing family stories, I don't have any significant experience of it.

As a second generation college graduate, the path of professional careers and salaries was paved for me.  Although we were not a wealthy family, we were well-established in the middle-class niche which includes home ownership, food on the table, cars to get around, and the comforts of contemporary life.  Mom and Dad remember the Great Depression and the struggle to get out of it, but their kids receive all of that second hand.  Burton told about the foreparents who founded Mt. Level in Granville County back in the days of the Emancipation, and their move down into Durham County when the federal government set up military camps on the land of their families.  I did not hear him complaining about the life he received from this heritage.  He told a story of God's faithfulness, of thankfulness for the blessing of God's bounty.

As Bro. Burton preached and testified, so much was on my mind today.  For several weeks, a good bit of my focus has been on promoting participation in the Historic Thousands on Jones Street, the Moral March of the Forward Together movement.  I had preached, written liturgy, and even learned how to use Twitter (old dog, new tricks) in order to try to get the message out, especially to Shaw University Divinity School students and alumni.  Finally the day of the march came yesterday.  I started early and stayed in the middle of it most of the day.  Even after the march and speeches were over, I roped my friend Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler of Union Theological Seminary into coming to my afternoon Christian Ethics class to talk with my students about his ongoing work in building relationships among clergy and leaders in Charlotte, NC, including deep theological reflection on the meaning and calling of this approach to ministry for justice and the common good.

It was a long and tiring day, and as I sat in my house after dark, thinking back over it, I could not help noticing the wind whistling all through the neighborhood trees and houses.  The wind has been blowing for several days, and I think we will get quite a bit more as this week goes on.  On Saturday morning, I put on a cap with "Shaw University Divinity School" on the front, to make sure I was bearing witness appropriately to the church's concern for justice and provision for the poor.  But my big mop of hair doesn't hold a hat on very well.  When we got on the Fayetteville Street corridor near the NC State Capitol, it started blowing hard, like a wind tunnel.  One of my colleagues told me that if I put my hair in a ponytail, I could tuck that through the sizing gap in the back of the cap and hold my hat on.  It worked.  If it hadn't, I might not have gotten home with the cap.

The wind was strong, but the speakers were not just blowing wind.  They had important things to say.  And Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, did not disappoint.  He talked about a society whose hearts have grown cold, stony, and perhaps have even died.  He analyzed the problem with policies that refuse to provide health care, reverse the progress on voting rights, punish the unemployed, belittle teachers, care nothing for education, throw away a generation, make pariahs of immigrants, and generally despise the people who live in the land.  He said it's not a Republican or Democrat problem (or as I would put it, not a Republicrat or Demican problem), but a problem of our hearts.  We need to have our hearts revived to care for our sisters and brothers.  We need to have our hearts oriented toward the good we can build together rather than just shutting out the ones who we think are not worth our love.  With references to defibrillators and such, he reshaped for our edification the February 14 tropes of hearts and love.

Along with so much good, I was finishing up several weeks of teaching about Christian virtue and moral formation.  Class included discussion of James Wm McClendon's chapters on Jonathan and Sarah Edwards and the nature of Christian love (Ethics chapters 4 and 5).  I reviewed again the role of the Holy Spirit and perseverance in the habituation into virtue and the formation of character.  Growing in grace, acquiring virtue as Christ justifies (makes righteous) the people of God, includes many hard lessons, partial steps, and milestones along the way.  Students brought great insight to the conversation, letting me leave class with a good feeling of success. 

Recognizing that growth in virtue requires practice and is not immediate, it seems important for me to make note of another part of the day.  It comes in the context of my effort to rise into the full capacities of a faculty member after some years of diminished focus and hampered motivation.  The story is bigger and more complicated than Everly's sickness and death, but of course those events are at the center of it.  As I've written repeatedly, who I am and what I will do, now that Everly is not beside me in the same way, is the great challenge for me in these days.  I'm teaching the same courses I have taught for many years, working with many of the same people, attending the same church, and in process of seeing myself remade, re-formed for the tasks God has for me.

I have always believed that avoiding the vicissitudes of office politics, the comparisons and jealousies, the gossip and scheming, is the best policy.  Yet the belief and the actual living do not always match up.  So here I'm confessing that I'm not a saint.  Those who know me best now will appropriately "rofl."  Though sometimes reputed to be a man of few words, I have in the years of being a professor drifted toward having no unspoken thought.  Although I was not nearly a match for Everly in this characteristic, she of the gift of thinking out loud, I have no poverty of words.  One place that this can get me off track is in the kind of office chatter that may drift over into analyzing co-workers.  I have to confess that I am sometimes guilty of that bad office practice of talking critically about my colleagues.  Having said that, I hope I have not made all my colleagues who might read this start to be suspicious of me.  I don't think I do this all the time, and I hope and pray that my self-estimate is true that I see the good in my co-workers and look forward to working with them.  Even so, I don't always live up to my best self. 

This became clear on Saturday morning when a friend came to me with obvious hurt in face and voice.  Somehow, this person had gotten the impression of my disapproval and criticism, and it was not unwarranted.  Of course, I wanted the confrontation to go away, but when it did not, I took up the difficult strategy of trying to be honest without being hurtful.  The conversation lasted long enough to be quite uncomfortable.  It eventually closed with a measure of resolution through confession, apology, expression of confidence, and promise of doing better.  Having brought this episode to temporary closure, I put my focus back into the work of the day:  marching and teaching class.

Those kinds of conversations do not go away easily for me.  They nag at me for many reasons.  As indicated just above, part of the problem is that I know that I have not acted in the way that I clearly believe that I should.  I've been drawn into relishing the conflict and criticism as if I am not talking about flesh and blood people with real feelings and lives to live.  Rather than sympathy, I have been willing to see fault and failure.  Why don't I, don't we, live up to the level of what I, what we, know that is the right way to live?  This troubles me.  I know I could and should be better.  Second, it bothers me because I frankly do not like to be in conflict with people with whom I will need to continue a relationship.  It leaves me unsteady and uncomfortable.  I want to get it worked out.  This characteristic may be why Everly and I were able to keep our two strong personalities in good relationship for so long.  She also hated to let conflict stew.  McClendon (chapter 3 this time) says that among the "basic moral equipment" of humanity is the capacity for shame, blame, and guilt, and I guess these have been developed in the two of us so that we don't like to leave them active to unsettle everything else we are trying to do.  Finally, I was confronted with the failure to bring my profession and my action into coherence.  To make an impression by saying and doing one thing among the crowd, but in private say and do something very different, is a primary example of moral failure. 

There I sat, by my front window, listening to the sound of the wind blowing, a 57-year-old man unsettled by the deficiency of my moral formation.  Grace still has much more work to do.  It led me to think about how far I have to go.  Once very active leading in local and statewide community organizing, now I have difficulty reviving those old skills and habits.  I still have a pretty strong capacity to talk about it, but setting up one-on-ones and getting to meetings has not been easy to keep myself doing.  Each time I can't get myself organized to go to a meeting or see someone with whom I should have set up an appointment, I see how far I still have to go.  And it brings back the question of whether I will be able to do it.

I've been reading, as I can muster the courage, books in which people have grappled with their experiences of loss and grief.  The first book I read and have written about before was John Claypool's Tracks of a Fellow Struggler.  I cannot recommend any book more highly, and it was a great blessing.  I'm not sure I remember all the books that I have looked at, but poems by Denise Levertov have opened doors to my memories and processes of change.  Jean Vanier's Seeing Beyond Depression offered sympathetic and practical thoughts about the journey of sadness and loss.  This week I picked up Henri Nouwen's In Memoriam, written soon after the death of his mother.  Only a few words into it I had to close it.  He wrote about the moments after she died, with the family in the room, they prayed, "Lord, lead her now to your house and give us the courage to continue our lives, grateful for all she has given us."  A few sentences later, he wrote, "I want to express how during those days her love, her care, her faith, and her courage became more visible to me than ever before, and how I came to know in a new way what it meant to be her son.  But it is so difficult and painful."

I had to close the book and set it down.  For several days I walked by it with trepidation.  This remains my challenge: to have the courage to continue my life, grateful for all she has given me.  I have picked it up again and made it through a few more pages.  It is going to do me some good. 

These moments over recent days, put together, have drawn me into deeper recognition of the struggle that we all find ourselves in.  I hope this kind of writing is not merely my crying out for sympathy--poor, poor Mike.  I don't really want that, even if it seems attractive now and then.  What I want is to be at my destination without having to traverse the road.  Today's hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, reminded us of the stony road trod by the descendents of kidnapped Africans forced into slavery.  It offers up the prayer, "Keep us forever in the path...lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee; lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee."  Bro. Burton and I have not walked the same kind of stony road.  I don't need to overcomplicate the path that I must pursue.  Doors are open for me.  People respect and love me.  For me, the struggle seems more to be whether I can muster the strength and faith and focus to rise to the work awaiting me.

The cold winds reminded me of an old gospel song that says to "hide behind the mountain, where the chilly winds don't blow."  It goes on to say, "Jesus is the mountain."  Jesus will protect us in the storm as he did with the disciples out on the lake.  When it gets really cold, as it will in the coming days, I will be tempted just to hide from the wind.  Of course, if I am following Jesus down the road, that "mountain" Jesus can be the windbreak that makes my journey less difficult.

But I stumbled on another song today that speaks to this situation powerfully.  "Lean Into the Wind" is a song from the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Los Angeles.  Steeped in scripture and prayer and ministry, this community of servants have composed a number of deeply insightful songs with lyrics highly relevant to understanding moral formation in the presence of the God who loves and knows us.  Some parts of the song convey a dialogue in which the Lord asks, and sometimes, answers questions about our readiness to follow the Way of Jesus.
Are you here for consolations?
Mere pleasures and devotions
flowing only with the motions, in the shallows you stay?
Or are you here to love me?
Your heart undividing,
relax the grasp of all that you clasp
be rich in me. 

My beloved you will see
I’ll fulfill these plans to be,
embrace in faith there’s no other way,
go deep with me.
And the refrain offers a back and forth of question and answer.  The first and third questions, answered by the human interlocutors, offer promises of devotion to the calling.  The Lord answers the second question with words of encouragement and strength.
Why are you here?  (You know my Lord I love you.)
What do you fear?  (In peace accept the fight.)
Will you just stay there, or lean into the wind? (I will lean into the wind.)
Maybe this will end up in a sermon soon.  But what I am learning about grief, about vocation, about friendship, and about ministry, is that one has to lean into the wind, embrace the struggle, press on through the waves, step past the shallows and into the deep waters.  In those places, we will learn the breadth and depth and height of God's grace and the fellowship of walking yoked with Jesus.

I believe I might try to lean into the wind.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Liturgy for a Moral March

I wrote, or more accurately compiled, the following liturgical call and response for Shaw University Divinity School's preparatory gathering for the February 14 Moral March to the Capital.  If it is helpful for your own preparation feel free to use it.

I had some difficulty figuring out how to post the formatted text in the blog.  So I took a picture of it to add to the post.  The picture (JPG format) has text that is too small, but I can't make the posted text have an appropriate format.  So somewhere between the two, I hope you will find this readable.

Liturgy for a Moral March

Leader: O God, you are our God, we seek you, Our souls thirst for you;
People:   Our flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
               How long, O Lord, shall we cry out to you?
Leader: Have you not known?  Have you not heard?
People:   We have known.  We have heard. 
               You are the everlasting God,
               The Creator of the ends of the earth,
               Who does not faint or grow weary.
Leader: I am the light of the world.
               Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.
People:   Lord, what is the way you are going?
Leader:  Let us love one another.
               This is the commandment, just as you have heard it from the beginning.
People:   We will walk in the way of love.
               We will worship the God of love in spirit and in truth.
Leader: What worship does God choose?
People:   To loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke;
               To let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke;
               To share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
               To cover the naked, and not to hide yourself from your own people.”
All:        The Spirit of the Lord is upon us and has anointed us to proclaim this good news.
People:   Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
               You shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
               You shall be called the repairer of the breach,
               The restorer of streets to live in.
Leader: To whom shall we cry out?
               Cry out to the public servants to fulfill their constitutional calling: 
People:   Beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate,
               and the orphan is one of the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state.
Leader: Cry out to the ministers of the gospel to fulfill their ecclesiastical calling: 
People:   Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 
               Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Leader: Cry out to the brokenhearted and downtrodden: 
People:   Stand up, take your mat and walk.
               Because you give power to the faint, will walk and not faint.
Leader: Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.
People:   We will walk and not faint.
Leader: Whoever obeys Jesus’ word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection.  
               By this we may be sure that we are in Christ:
               whoever says, “I abide in Christ,” ought to walk just as Jesus walked.
People:   We will walk, and not faint.
Leader: Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you.
               If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going.
               While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.
People:   Here we are.  Send us. 
All:        Because you give power to the faint, we will walk and not faint.

Church Shorthand Terms

One thing I learned from teaching first through fourth graders in Sunday School is that many of the favorite words and phrases people like to say at church are shorthand for complicated concepts that may be quite difficult to explain.  These symbolic, metaphorical, or abstract terms often make little sense to children whose literal and concrete interpretation of language leads to misunderstandings or confusion.

This hit me most clearly in the month of each year when the curriculum turned toward an evangelistic emphasis, tailored toward the developmental stage of the children.  In the two year curriculum cycle, it is no surprise that Southern Baptists, with their conversionist tradition and evangelical leanings, made sure to include evangelistic teaching.  Because of the high level of educational expertise available in the Sunday School Board staff in those days of the 1980s, the literature for teaching was adapted to the developmental stages of the age cohorts being taught.  It was not designed for high pressure evangelizing.  It was supposed to lay a groundwork for children growing in their faith so that they can do what my dad often spoke of, "make a step toward Christ."  Such an approach reveals that Southern Baptist curriculum design included acknowledgement of both the "crisis" model of conversion and the developmental model of "growing into faith in Christ."

Using either model, our theological tradition expected Christian converts to be able to articulate some kind of experience of conversion.  Describing such an experience should employ certain preferred terms:  "accepting Christ as Savior," "asking Jesus into my heart," "getting saved," "giving my life to Jesus," "making a decision for Christ," "following Jesus," "professing faith in Christ," "confessing my faith," "getting converted," and "having a relationship with Christ." 

A few terms often heard but less preferred are "walking down the aisle,""loving Jesus," "getting baptized."  Baptists liked to talk about walking the aisle, but as a synecdoche it offers the concrete mind of children an inexact and incomplete description of what is valued in soteriological language.  Baptists like to talk about loving Jesus, but it is too general to satisfy their specific soteriological understanding.  While Baptists practice believer's baptism, they also carry on a centuries-old argument about the nature of baptism and Baptist rejection of sacramentalism (a heritage worth inquiring into at another time).  Thus, this synecdoche as a description of conversion challenges the particular identity Baptists want to mark out for themselves.

In all my efforts to explain soteriology to children, I found that many of these shorthand terms I was most in the habit of using did not provide much clarity of understanding on their terms.   I'll not discuss the issues with all of the terms and phrases listed above.  Let it suffice to say that some fail to communicate because of their abstraction:  accepting Christ, making a decision, professing faith, confessing, having a relationship, and getting converted.   Other terms, in their metaphorical specificity, caused difficulty with specific concrete images they call forth:  asking Jesus in your heart, giving my life, and getting saved.  Children who were familiar with the term "getting saved" might think of being in danger from drowning, from a mean person or monster, from a fire, from a storm, or some other danger.  Linked with discussion of Hell, it might draw the focus of the child to fear of fire and pain and away from the love of God in Christ. 

I concluded from many efforts at explanation that the best choice of terms was "following Jesus." First, it was a term with strong biblical precedent in the very words of Jesus.  Second, the concept of following has roots in the narrative not only concretely, but also thematically.  The stories of following are illustrative of what people even today are being asked to do when we respond in faith.  Biblical examples of following convey the image of conversion in that people leave things behind, change what they are doing, and begin new ways of life.  Third, the idea of following as similar to imitating or learning from someone is not complicated to grasp.  Disciples and discipleship are prominent biblical and theological ideas that help to elaborate what following Jesus means. 

Wayne Gordon, pastor of Lawndale Community Church, arrived at a similar conclusion about the preferability of inviting people to follow Jesus when making an evangelistic appeal.  He said that the widely recognized invitation to "get saved" carried with it so many accumulated layers of cultural distortions that he found it as much a barrier as an appeal for people hearing the message.  Moreover, the call to follow Jesus is much better at conveying the ongoing, lifelong process of salvation that constitutes the Christian calling.

I started out writing this post because of a conversation I had with students over the weekend.  This week in class, a discussion led to citing the importance of contextualizing certain virtue language in the framework of "a relationship with God."  It caused me to wonder what that specific phrase means.  Much rhetorical energy has gone into preaching a distinction between religion and relationship.  It is one of many examples of arguments based on stipulative definitions.  Religion and relationship are assigned specific meanings which by their stipulations make one preferable, even though these are not the only ways the terms are used.  Thus, there may be other ways to employ the term religion usefully and favorably, if it were not narrowly defined to be problematic.  Thus, relationship has a generally favorable connotation for popular theological conversation.

Current speech patterns employ the phrase "in a relationship" to replace what might previously have been described as "having a boyfriend/girlfriend" or "going steady," to name a few possibilities.  Such use of the term favors the implication of emotional involvement.  To speak in this context of a relationship with God can imply an emotional interdependence or general good feelings between a person and God.  While relationship with God does not exclude loving feelings or mutual recognition and appreciation, it is important to avoid having such terminology captured by popular speech patterns.  Theological understandings of love must not be truncated to mean mere emotional mushiness.

A broader context for the phrase "relationship with God" should reach toward doctrines of creation, anthropology, and Christology.  Stanley Grenz used the title "The Relational God" for an entire chapter of his extensive systematic text, Theology for the Community of God.  There he develops a framework in which to understand God as the source of human existence who in distinction from creation brings persons into existence with whom personal relation is possible.  Personal relationship recognizes the distinction between Creator and creation as well as the capacity for mutual knowing and interaction.  It is a way of situating humanity within the dynamic ordering of divine love that brings about creation and its possibilities.  Christologically, to be united to Christ, who is God incarnate taking humanity into Godself, is to be joined intimately with God through the eternal loving interchange among the Trinity.  In this way, being in relationship with God means that we are communing with God through having our nature renewed through the atoning life of the True Adam.

To be in relationship with God is to know that our beginning and end and the fullness of our existence are infused by grace which is the condition of possibility of our existence and the means of our present sustenance and future hope as beings.  To be in relationship with God is to have received this grace and embraced God's good purposes for humanity.  This much richer understanding of relationship helps to situate the popular emotional conception.  Moreover, when linked to conversation about friendship with God, terminology used by Jesus and much later by Thomas Aquinas, the relationality of God and the significance of "having a relationship with God" can become fruitful theological reflection.

Pre-teen children may well be able to understand many aspects of this discussion of what a relationship with God could be, although probably not in the overly cumbersome language I have used.  But the struggle to articulate a fuller meaning does illustrate my point that church conversation using shorthand terms often leaves plenty of misunderstanding and confusion that deserves further study and reflection.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Regard of God

This sermon was first preached in the Chapel service of Shaw University Divinity School on February 7, 2015.

Sermon Texts from the Revised Common Lectionary

Isaiah 40:21-31, highlighting verses 27-28, 31

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The language we use is always changing.  We commonly use the verb “disregard,” but we don’t often use its opposite “regard.”  It means to see, to pay attention, to look upon, to consider.  In the hymn we sing that “Christ has regarded my helpless estate.”  What sorrow it would be if he had disregarded us!  This morning I want us to reflect on the regard of God…the regard of God.
In today’s text from the Prophet Isaiah, we read familiar and beloved words.  As is so often the case in our reading of scripture, one verse stands out in most people’s memory—the last verse.  All of us want to mount up with wings like eagles.  Such a text can take on a life of its own, living apart from its original setting as an icon, a free-standing piece of tradition.  This process may sometimes be beneficial, characterizing key aspects of our faith.  Other times, it may open the door to distorted interpretations and wayfaring teaching.  Those of us called to lead and teach have a responsibility to read with great care so that we may guide along the path that leads to God.
As always, we must discipline ourselves to understand even these favorite texts in their context.  This text comes near the turning point in the canonical shape of Isaiah.  The book began with a denunciation of the ways of Judah and a warning that unless they changed their ways, judgment would arrive swiftly and harshly.  Those pre-exilic oracles clarify something that you and I need to understand—the judgment against Judah came because of their unjust economic practices:  debt-slavery, violence toward workers, low wages that shift wealth from the poor to the rich, laws which favor the wealthy, foreclosure and seizure of homes and land, ignoring the widows and orphans, filling rich homes with gold and silver while many are hungry.  There was a temporary repentance, and the Assyrians failed to conquer Judah.  Isaiah died.  New kings arose.  God sent other prophets.  There is much more of the story to tell, but not today.
In the long run, the rulers were afraid to change their policies for fear of becoming unpopular with their supporters or for fear of crossing and offending the neighboring empires.  The wealthy did not believe things would go wrong for them, since they were too big to fail.  The priests and prophets glibly said whatever their patrons wanted to hear.  Finally judgment came.  Jerusalem was invaded, conquered, and destroyed.  Many people of all ranks and classes died.  A large number of the elite were forced to go into exile in Babylon and serve their conquerors.  The people who were left behind suffered the results of war and the insecurity of having their defenses destroyed.
After decades had left the prior Kingdom in ruins, a new set of oracles came to the people, and these oracles were later canonized in this book of Isaiah.  A new calling to a prophet appeared in that time, most likely among those who had carried on the traditions of Isaiah and preserved his oracles.  Chapter 40 begins with this new calling to the prophet, “Comfort my people.”  It speaks of a new beginning.
But as the chapter continues, it becomes apparent that the people are not hearing what the prophet is saying.  They are set in their ways.  They and their parents have followed Jeremiah’s advice to build homes, raise families, marry off their kids, and make a life where they are.  Many things are not what they want them to be, but they are not expecting their lives to change.  They figure that the God of their ancestors has lost interest in them, stopped paying attention to them.  They believe that God has disregarded their situation.  
I don’t mean that they have all rejected God.  This era in exile is most likely the era in which the Jewish faith practices that we read about in the New Testament began to take form:  the collecting of writings, the editing of histories, the compilation of liturgical and wisdom texts.  Clearly many of the people had made a place in their lives for God and for the regular observance of the Sabbath.  New practices of reading, study, and conversation about sacred texts were taking hold.
People had God in their lives, but they did not expect much from God.  They had worked on preserving a way of life and the stories of their past.  However, they did not really think God would have much to offer beyond that.  They were resident aliens in a place where they would always be second-class citizens and outsiders.  They regularly ran into problems with the empire, so they just tried to keep to themselves and be left alone.  Of course they knew it was true that God had led their ancestors out of Egypt, but that was back in the day.  They did not live as if God had any regard for them.
Now and then I hear the same kind of comments in church.  When someone starts talking about the injustices that the poor endure, some church people are likely to say, “You know Jesus said that the poor will always be with us.  That means there’s nothing we can do to change poverty.  It’s just going to keep on being the same old same old.”  Or if church people get started talking about racial injustice, somebody is going to say, “Racism goes back to the beginning of time, and it’s never going to go away.”  They will shake their heads with doubt that anything can change.  Whatever the social ills we face, it seems that far too often our congregations just want to throw up their hands and give up.  One of the hardest things to do is to get church people to talk through and think through and plan for making changes in the way things are.  We don’t even like to change the arrangement of the Sunday service or change where we sit in the church house.
Somehow church people have gotten satisfied to go through the weekly practices of reading, singing, studying, preaching, and holding meetings without believing things can be different.  We figure if we can just get a little recharge to get us through the week, that’s enough.  If we can sometimes get a little shout on, we’ll be satisfied that we have a little bit of God in our lives.  If we can fill all the nominations for committees and offices, and if we can repeat the same calendar events year after year, then we are satisfied that church is being church, and God is being God.  
Some other churches have trained their focus on getting a little piece of what the world loves.  They go to church to get in on the money machine.  They figure if they say the right incantations and perform the right sacrificial offerings and rub shoulders with the right holy people, the money will come their way.  They aren’t concerned to think about what is wrong with the world we live in.  They just want to get a little piece of the world’s action.  Maybe we would rather not have the regard of God.
In one way or another, most of our church life ends up being confined to a building and unconnected to the rest of our lives.  Outside of service or Bible study, when people struggle with injustice, when the poor cry out for bread, when the thrown away people are longing for a friend to walk with them, we find ourselves throwing up our hands and giving up.  Those problems seem too big.  Mass incarceration is too complicated to understand.  Voter ID restrictions are just an irritation to be ignored.  Underpaid teachers and underfunded schools are too big for us to manage.  Low wages, no safety net for the poor and marginalized, and no access to health care are just too many things to wrap our little heads around.
It seems we have found ourselves right where those people in exile were.  We think we meet God at church for our limited purposes, but as for the rest of our lives, our day-to-day issues and the injustices all around us, those must be hidden from God.  Our God is only concerned with saving souls from hell and not with the problems of this world.  Our God has disregarded us.  As for dreaming about a world we think would be right, we’ve settled on the belief that God has no regard for it.  At least that’s what our ways show.
But Isaiah will have none of it.  He is not satisfied to have a God who shows up for worship and ignores the rest of our lives.  He does not believe that the God of the Exodus has decided to go into retirement.  So he brings a word from God that is mostly in the form of questions.
“Haven’t you heard who God is?  Haven’t your Momma and Daddy told you from the beginning?”  At times, the inquisitor is God’s own self.  “Who do you think I am?  Don’t you know what I have done?  I made the world, by the way.  No earthly ruler can stand up to me.  And NO, I did not get tired and go into retirement.”
The Psalm for today says,
The LORD builds up Jerusalem, and gathers the outcasts of Israel.
The LORD heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.
The LORD determines the number of the stars, and gives to all of them their names.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; God’s understanding is beyond measure.
The LORD lifts up the downtrodden, and casts the wicked to the ground.
When we settle, in one way or another, for the world as it is—the world with all its injustices, its unjust structures of economic life, its domination systems that aim to keep the masses down—we show ourselves to have forgotten who God is.  We may still be going to church and reading our Bibles and certainly praying for God to do things that we can’t be bothered to do.  But we are not really thinking of who God is.  We are not thinking through the stories that we have heard about what God has done.  If, in fact, we can put those stories out of our minds, we can just settle in to this old world and have our church routines and not have to be bothered.
But the problem Isaiah is noticing is that this kind of living falls far short of all the good that God wants for us.  God made this wide world and placed us in it so that people could share loving and just lives together.  God did not want us to give token worship and all the while let ourselves and our neighbors continue to be crushed under the feet of unjust systems.  God wants us to soar into the fullness of beloved community.  God wants us to run like the prodigal son into the loving arms of blessing.  But most of all, God wants us to walk and not faint.
What does it mean to have the regard of God?  God’s eye is on us,in the same way that God’s eye was on the children of Israel who were slaves in Egypt.  God hears our cries.  God knows our struggles.  And God comes among us to deliver us.  But the Israelites could not have headed out of Egypt to make a better life if they refused to walk.  It turned out to be a whole lot of walking, but they walked and did not faint.  
In our text, the Jews in exile are being told that God will make a new beginning, so they will have to shake their old habits of settling for the world as it is and start walking toward the world as it should be.  God sees a better life for humanity, and God sees us living it.  This is what it means to have the regard of God.
When the economy crashed half a dozen years ago, the easiest thing to do was to relegate economic injustices to the realm of things too complicated for action.  Church people too often shrank back from the challenges the world was throwing at us and said, “[Sigh!] All we can do is pray.”  When I hear that, it often seems to be a way of saying, “We give up, and we don’t plan to use our energy trying to make a difference.  We will just leave it to God and ask God to fix it without us.”  That is a sad kind of prayer.
Praying is actually a big thing to do, if we do it right.  Praying, contrary to much of our actual practice, is not about changing God’s mind.  It is about God changing our minds.  If we had prayed seriously, we would have come out of prayer meeting working on a plan for action against economic injustice.  If God hates injustice, then praying ought to ignite hunger and thirst for justice in us.  That hunger and thirst should stir us to walk and not faint.  A congregation cannot do everything, but it can do something.  We can do the obvious things of offering relief to those who struggle, but we can also do the less obvious things of economic development, forming credit unions, insuring the health of our poor members, creating business incubators, growing fresh and healthy foods, investing in our neighborhoods, providing job training and jobs, shutting down the usurious lenders, pressuring businesses and governments to act justly toward the people.
Next Saturday is an important day on the calendar for churches in North Carolina.  It is the day of the Moral March on the Capital, the Historic Thousands on Jones Street, the Forward Together Movement.  Right outside Boyd Chapel, people will gather when some of us are in class.  Our chapel hour will be a brief observance to affirm the God of justice whom we serve.  And then we will walk.  We will walk symbolically and demonstratively.  It will be a walk of witness.  We will be bearing witness to the God whom we serve, a God who does not faint and does not grow weary.
This week’s gospel text from Mark 1 tells about the intensity of Jesus’ ministry when great multitudes of people were crowding him all day and even into the night. It was hard for him to get any rest.  Sometimes his disciples would get caught up in the mob excitement.  One problem for Jesus revealed by the gospels is that the crowds often interfered with the tasks Jesus believed he needed to be doing.  The worst example comes later in Mark, when they began organizing to force him to be their king.  But in this passage, Jesus gets away for some rest.  Your fellow student, James McRavion, is preaching on these same texts today in High Point.  We compared our notes, and he pointed out something from this text.  After Jesus rested, then he spent time in prayer.  The prayer must have stirred him to do his work. You could say he got his marching orders.  He tells his disciples to get to walking.  They need to go on to other towns and proclaim the Reign of God.
People from many communities will come to Wilmington Street for many reasons.  Some believe in democracy.  Some believe in America.  Some have suffered financial loss and felt what it’s like to be abandoned.  Some have struggled without means to get health care, housing, or a job.  Some care for their neighbors deeply.  Some have learned the hard way about the strength of solidarity.  Some come out of self-interest.  Many are angry.  Many are frustrated.  Many are hopeful.  
We will march because we have known.  We will march because we have heard.  We will march because it has been told to us from the beginning.  We will march because we have understood from the foundations of the world.  We join the march because it is a sign of who we are.  We march on that day as a foretaste of our discipleship for the long haul.  We march under the everlasting, unsearchable regard of God.  
If next Saturday is the only day we walk, we have not heard who God is.  God is the one who has regard for us.  The everlasting God, creator of the ends of the earth, created our little corner of it too.  God has regard for us.  We walk in the regard of God who does not faint or grow weary.  Saturday’s walk is another beginning of a long walk to justice, to love, and to community.  Let’s plan to walk and not faint, thankful that we live and move and have our being in the regard of God.
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