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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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Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday Silence

I can't remember a Friday of Holy Week, the troublingly named Good Friday, that has weighed so heavily on me.  So many in our family have died, beginning with my beloved, Everly.  I am now 58, and 29 years ago, half of my life, I met a man who would become my dear friend for all these years in Durham, Willie Jennings.  Every day the time grows nearer when he will move to Connecticut.  We have often attended Good Friday services together, so that was also on my mind. 

I grew up in a non-liturgical tradition of the church, so Good Friday was not really a day of observance for most of my life.  Over time that changed some, but only gradually and inconsistently until the last decade or so.  In 2009, when Everly, Lydia, David, and I were all living in Durham, I wrote a lengthy meditation, probably in part to gather together thoughts that students and I had been working through in discussion from one of my classes.  I was obviously pressing into the significance of this holy day, but without the same note of heaviness.

Perhaps the weight was this heavy in 2013, when Everly and I were in the midst of wondering if a clinical trial could help her be well, it was this heavy.  On that day I wrote a brief reflection.  Perhaps it was like this in 2014, when I did not write anything for this blog.  My friend Derek Hatch posted a poem on facebook, and I reposted it. 
The sky peels back to purple
and the thunder slaps the thighs of heaven,
and all the tears of those who grieve
fly up to clouds and are released
and drench the earth,
The ones who see and hear know
that all is lost...
All night long
the angels weep.
  -Ann Weems
On the next morning I reposted my friend Bobby Rivera's quotation about the overwhelming presence of death after the crucifixion, which he shared from Cornel West.  So maybe that Friday was also this kind of heavy day.

Last year, we were met on Good Friday with a field of bluebonnets and wildflowers all over and around Everly's grave.  In the midst of that holy day, I was filled with gratitude for the beauty and the memories that photographs brought back.  My gaze was set ahead toward Easter Sunday.

But today the weight and power of death rests heavily on my consciousness.  Days of deep devotion draw me into experiencing the absence of those I love.  Only a few days ago, barely over a month, I was talking with my mother.  Some of her last words during that week were begging me to help her get out of bed, which she could not do no matter how much I might have tried to help.  That brief passing moment of anxiety changed to calm as she spent her last days resting, making few movements or words, and finally breathing her last breath.  It is a strange feeling and thought, one I fail to adequately comprehend, that I will not see her, touch her, speak with her, and laugh with her again in this life.  Today as the story unfolded and Jesus' suffering and exhaustion finally ended in death, for a moment it seemed I peered into that feeling of losing Hugh Delle.

It is a great mystery that the death of Jesus might speak to us about our own fears and struggles with death.   Willie Jennings, brought the sermon for Good Friday today, and he drew us who had gathered in Goodson Chapel to face the alliance of death and silence, the impenetrability of death, like a solid wall which we approach and look upon without passing through or seeing through.  Something like that cold darkness must have pressed itself upon those friends of Jesus who, either nearby, at a distance, or in some hiding place, experienced his strength turned to frailty, diminished ultimately into lifeless stillness.  We have known that, too, Hugh Delle, Dorothy, Herbie, Everly...and I do not speak only for myself, but many others of you have known of that unanswering silence.

Willie in person, and Valerie Bridgeman online, remind us today not to run from this moment as if it were a mere stepping stone.  I will return to Willie's reflections, but first let me share facebook reflections from Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, the founder and president of WomanPreach!
     Good Friday is the liturgical day on the Christian calendar that unnerves Christians. Today will be filled with "7 Last Sayings (Words)" services, but the horror of this day--the brutal state-sanctioned death of at least three men at one time...
     It unnerves Christians because we do not know how to sit with the pain, the brutality, the grief, and all the other feelings and happenings of this day. Today, several preachers will rush past all of that pain and say (because "good news" requires it in their mind), BUT EARLY SUNDAY... so the people can shout. But this day is not a "shouting" day. This day is deliberately backed up from Sunday so that we can sit with the pain--in this event, in our lives, in the lives of those around us, in the world. And be clear, it is a grief with political, social, and spiritual implications.
She is right.  The rush to optimism, to "everything is going to be fine," to fixing our own feelings, makes triviality of what Jesus endured at the hands of the powers that converged to arrest, torture, and kill him.  It looks at deepest evil and says, "no worries."  But those who have walked the long road toward and into death with ones they love realize that it's not something that can be simply put aside as momentary.  The moment extends and fills time and space far beyond one day.

Willie said that the Priests argued with Pilate about what to write on the sign because of their desire to summarize all of Jesus' words, acts, and truth as "folly."  Their spin on the Jesus incident was to paint him a fool, deluded, maybe crazy or demon-possessed.  The sign they wanted to post said that Jesus had some nutty opinions, some dangerous opinions, so outlying opinions, some mere opinions.  Don't bother with him.  Forget him.  They had, by Willie's estimation, made friends with death.

They believed that this death would restore the equilibrium, maintain the status quo, and stabilize their position in the world.  Death was their ally.  By silencing Jesus, death would win their place of power.  And on that day, death silenced him.  Even though Pilate did not change the words on the sign (that disagreement is another lengthy reflection, but not the one Willie pursued), to a great extent the sign served the purpose of reducing the fullness of a life of truth into a passing opinion.  This was, from the perspective of that deadly hill, all that his friends were left with.

This kind of post-execution silencing operates all around us.  The way that a murdered young person is put on trial in public, finding any way to discredit the murdered one and the murdered one's family, is a way to silence that person's voice.  Why bother listening to such a person?  And now he or she is dead anyway.  Move on.  There is nothing to see here.  That crucifying of the poor and marginalized is a reenactment of the kind of killing that happened on Good Friday.  Powerful people throwing away bothersome people and silencing the truth of their lives.

Can we sit with that pain for a while?  If there is an atoning work on the cross, it includes that Jesus in his full humanity endured the finality and silence of death which all humanity must also endure.  As the true human, the exemplar, the dearest friend, the one who travels the roads we travel--Jesus endured and faced and penetrated beyond that wall of silence.  What he accomplished that day--can it be that he accomplished it for all of us?  Can we sit long enough to see what his faithfulness, even in the face of torturous mistreatment, might lead to?  Death, for all we can see, is a final word.  Could it be that in Jesus confrontation of death, it might be revealed as something other than an impenetrable wall?  Sit.  Wait.  Remember our beloved.  Behold your son.  Behold your mother.  #SayHerName.  Sit with it.

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