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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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Monday, May 23, 2016

While We Wait for God, How Shall We Wait? Stay Woke in Advent

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In looking back through my unfinished blog posts from the past few months, I found this sermon I preached during advent, but failed to post at that time.  It draws on the lectionary texts and the advent theme of waiting to see what God will do, but it also takes inspiration from the rising voices of young people who are no longer waiting for their elders to do the work needed to reverse the tide of injustice sweeping our neighborhoods, transferring of money from the mass of poor and middle classes to the 1%, destroying the lives of minorities through mass incarceration and shoot-first interdiction, and rising up in resentment against a perceived loss of power and privilege in white communities.  The twitter label #StayWokeAdvent got me thinking, and the Prophet Zephaniah provided the inspiration for my reflections.

Zephaniah 3:14-20

3:14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

3:15 The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

3:16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.

3:17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing

3:18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

3:19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

3:20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.



Luke 3:7-18

3:7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

3:8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

3:9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

3:10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"

3:11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

3:12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"

3:13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."

3:14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

3:15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

3:16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

3:17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

3:18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.



While We Wait for God, How Shall We Wait?

       Stay Woke in Advent



       I’m an old dog that sometimes has to learn new tricks.  I had to learn to teach courses online, even though no one ever taught me that way.  I had to get used to carrying a phone around with me and to type out text messages if I wanted to have a chance to communicate with my grown children.  And earlier this year, I had to figure out how to tweet on twitter.  I have to believe I’m not the only one in here today who uses twitter.

       I might still not be a twitter user had it not been for a push from my dean at Shaw University Divinity School.  I don’t mean that he said, “Mike, go forth and tweet!”  But he did urge me to find a way to quickly publish a sermon that I had preached in chapel.  Not sure where to turn, I decided to check out twitter.  I already have a place online for writing.  That’s called a “blog,” and you all have heard of that.  Around a hundred people in various parts of the U.S., and a few in Europe and China read the things I post there.  And then there is facebook, something David told me about when he was a first-year student up at Oberlin College in Ohio, back in 2004.  Some people follow what I post there, too.  So I thought maybe I could expand my reach in twitter.  It’s not such a fast process to add new followers on twitter.  After several months, I have only a few more than 50 people checking out what I say there.  But all in all, it did give me another audience, if not exactly as many as Dean Forbes was intending.

       Part of twitter communication is something called “hashtags.”  That means you put one of those “pound” or “tic-tac-toe” looking symbols in front of a word or phrase.  Then if other people use the same phrase or word, twitter organizes all of those similar comments together.  This week, a popular hashtag has been #StayMadAbby.  It refers to a college applicant from Texas named Abigail, who got upset when some minority students got admitted to the University of Texas and she did not.  Her complaint became a lawsuit, and the lawsuit went before the Supreme Court this week.  Many minority college graduates have been posting pictures of themselves in graduation robes, posting lists of their degrees and schools.  Then they add #StayMadAbby to emphasize that nothing is going to stand in the way of African Americans, Latinos, and others who are striving to get an education and make something of their lives.  If it makes her mad to see minority students getting opportunities, she is just going to have to stay mad.

       Another hashtag you are familiar with is the slogan #BlackLivesMatter.  This phrase got started through the organizing work of three young women who responded to the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by organizing people to call for police accountability.  These young women, some of whom were seminary students at the time, used twitter to help build connections with like-minded people around their region and around the country.  Those relationships and the expanding network have become very important as we have become more and more aware of the widespread violence done against young black men and women, treating them as if their lives don’t matter at all.

       One more hashtag I need to mention appeared as the Christian year began a couple of weeks ago.  It says #StayWokeAdvent.  This phrase calls on church people who are journeying through the season of advent to keep our eyes open, to keep our hearts sensitive, to keep our priorities straight, in short, to Stay Woke, as we live our faith in this season of longing for the fullness of God revealed in the teen mother Mary, in the refugee family moving from temporary Bethlehem home to temporary Egyptian home, in the vulnerable baby Jesus born among straw and dung in the barn, in the sojourning community of God’s people never quite at home in this world.

       The examples I’ve given from hashtag phrases on twitter are each reminders of the way that powers and structures of domination are always nearby, waiting around the corner, plotting in back rooms and board rooms, in order to continue to keep power and prosperity in the hands of a few at the expense of the many.  One spotlights the elite class attacking systems designed to provide educational opportunity to those who have historically faced barriers and deprivation.  Another cries out against the disturbingly callous act of leaving an unarmed young man in the middle of the road to bleed and die after a well-trained officer of the law, claiming to fear the face of a demon on an 18-year-old scared kid, took away that life.  And #StayWokeAdvent holds up for all to see that in the season in which we live, there is a collision between the Christian tradition of hope and love and a world seemingly controlled by fear, hatred, prejudice, bigotry, and violence.  Losing ourselves in a seasonal binge of overconsumption and overspending, of empty platitudes and shallow optimism, is the opposite of living in faith and hope.  Pretending for a few weeks that we can buy whatever we want, that we will all magically get along, that we can make reality out of nostalgia for a time when we were oblivious to the pain and struggle of life—these get us nowhere but farther from the God on whom we must depend.  Losing our focus, pretending—we can’t afford these ways.  We must be awake, alert, ready for what may strike.  Stay Woke in Advent!

       The lectionary takes us to the Prophet Zephaniah this week.  I have to say that I don’t think I’ve preached from Zephaniah ever.  With some of the better known prophets, I can remember when and where they did their work and what their primary message is.  I could not remember anything about Zephaniah.  Put that kind of obscure text in front of an ornery professor, and you know I’m going to take the challenge to preach on Prophet Zephaniah.  So I had to dig out some reference works.

       It seems that Zephaniah probably came along after Isaiah and Amos, and maybe a little before Jeremiah.  We recognize all their names, and some of us remember when and where they prophesied.  In that time frame, Zephaniah would have come along some time after King Hezekiah’s reign when Assyria had besieged the city of Jerusalem, causing much adversity to the people.  But God delivered Jerusalem from the Assyrians through the mighty arm and outstretched hand, and not by the military power of the armies of Judah. 

       King Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, reigned many years, gaining the reputation as one of the most evil kings of Judah.  After Hezekiah’s death, it seems that Manasseh aligned Judah with the imperial power of Assyria, cooperating with the empire in exchange for creating trading relationships.  Olive oil and other products of Judah’s agriculture became cash commodities and brought wealth into the land.  That might sound like an era of prosperity that would benefit everyone, but more likely King Manasseh cut special deals with his cronies, and a rich aristocracy became richer while the masses of the people lost their land, sold themselves into servitude, and struggled to meet daily needs. 

All the while, Manasseh supported those who wanted to bring the worship of Ba’al and many other gods back to the Temple, and set up altars on hillsides all over the land.  The Bible even accuses him of practicing human sacrifice in the ways of the nations.  When supporters of Manasseh’s father’s views tried to stand up to the king, he persecuted them.  He got the reputation as the king that killed the prophets.  Some believe he even killed the persistent and outspoken Prophet Isaiah.

       Zephaniah was probably directly aware of this history.  The book places him also during the reign of Josiah, during a time when Josiah’s sons were already becoming young men.  King Josiah is probably the most virtuous and most praised of the Kings after David, and he is not known for the same kinds of great moral failures we know from David’s reign.  Then again, much less is written about any king besides David.  Josiah restored the study and observance of the Torah, the gift of law and life that God had given to the children of Israel.  He restored pure and holy worship of the one true God of Moses and Zipporah, of Abraham and Sarah, the God who had called their ancestors and had brought them out of the land of Egypt. 

       Zephaniah knew how this had happened, how Judah’s leaders had by ebb and flow showed loyalty to the Lord and had turned away from the ways of the Lord.  His prophecies give the impression that he sees that even with Josiah’s reforms, not every part of society, not everyone in power, has embraced Josiah’s agenda.  Even Josiah’s sons seem drawn away from their father’s strong commitment to faith in the Lord.  The Kingdom of Judah had not yet faced its final destruction at the hands of Babylon.  But Zephaniah was clearly able to see the possibility that judgment might not be far away.  In a time when social divisions, class unrest, and cultural conflict remained ever-present and potential flash points, Zephaniah had a message to deliver.

       Zephaniah did not beat around the bush.  He did not sugar coat his words.  Zeph didn’t warm up slowly.  He did not tell a long story about twitter and hashtags to set things up.  He cut to the chase.  He went straight to the heart of it.  He left no prisoners.  How did Zephaniah’s prophecy begin?  He speaks the message of the Lord in these words,

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth.”

Well, there’s not much left to say after that.  God is so sick of the corrupt, unjust, violent ways of the nations of the world, it’s going to be like the story of Noah.  Everything will be swept away.  Words like that will wake you up.  #StayWokeAdvent.

       Probably too often we find ourselves listening to preaching or Bible study with some expectation that what is going to be said is what we already know and have heard time and time again.  We think we have a pretty good idea of anything God might want to tell us.  We could just about doze off and not miss it since we’ve heard it all before.  God loves us.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Repent of sins.  Don’t kill.  Praise God.  Share your stuff.  Yada yada yada.  But then, just before dozing, along comes Zephaniah saying, “All of it is going away.  Everything.  The cities, the palaces, the temple, the houses, the jobs, the fields, the trees, the roads, the streams, the dogs, the cattle—everything.

       That will wake you up.  “Wait a minute, Zephaniah.  What did you say?  Did you say what I think you said?  That’s not what Brother Teacher told us last week.  That’s not what the Rev preached about on Sunday.  Can you run that by me again?”

       In the season of advent, do we expect to hear a word from God?  Do we expect that we are having the same advent observance we have every year and that all of it will be identical to last time?  Do we ever think that God might plan to overthrow everything we thought we knew in order to shed new light on the Scriptures for such a time as this?  Could it be we keep giving the same answers when the questions have changed?  Do new times bring new questions for our faith?  Does the Holy Spirit bring new life even in our time?  Are the mercies of the Lord really new every morning? 

Yet when young people come to us with their honest questions, how often are we tempted to tell them not to question what they have been told?  Do we discount their questions because we have become comfortable with our own faith and don’t want the Holy Spirit to rock the boat in our lives?  I can’t count how many seminary students who arrived at school dealing with years of guilt from being rebuked about the questions that rise up within them.  Too often, their elders and fellow-church members treated the Spirit’s stirring in them as a sign of unfaithfulness.  They are amazed to be told that God is bigger than their questions and can handle any question they have.  Is this the message of hope we are prepared to give young people in our church?

       I was blessed to hear Rev. William Barber recently, discussing the story of Jesus’ going into the temple and shutting down the shopping mall that had come to dominate the temple court.  He called it a den of thieves.  If it had been an honest and proper market giving people fair value for their money, then he probably would have called it something besides a den of thieves.  Commerce and consumption had taken over the center of worship, and it was commerce of the worst kind that took advantage of poor and weary travelers, overcharging and otherwise practicing injustice.  If merchants kept animals for sale in the temple, the house of worship had become a public dung heap.  Jesus saw it all for what it really was—abusive, corrupt, unjust economic exploitation that was perpetrated by the powerful, the religious leaders, the high council.  Those who should look out for the good of the people were using their positions to victimize the people.

       So Jesus shut it all down.  He turned over tables.  He twisted some cords and chased the animals out.  He disrupted and overthrew the systems of corruption and abuse and stepped into that space to reorder it around justice.  This was no respectability politics.  Jesus did not pull aside the head man in charge for a private and discreet conversation.  He did not set up a series of meetings to discuss possible best practices for the use of the temple court.  No, that’s not what he did.  He swept it all way.  He cleaned up the place and straightened out the right use of that space for anyone listening or watching him.  He blessed the poor and marginalized, healing blind and lame people, freeing them to see, to walk, and to run.  Jesus was sweeping away the old and bringing in the new.

       What Rev. Barber points out is a detail of the story that appears only in the Gospel of Matthew.  All the accounts of the story note that when Jesus did these and other things, the crowds in Jerusalem were amazed and astounded and mesmerized.  Mark’s and Luke’s gospels say the people were spellbound.  As you might imagine, the chief priests and scribes, the people in charge of the temple and of life in Jerusalem generally, were angry.  Their constant stream of revenue had been interrupted.  Their mechanism to take money from the poor and give it to the rich was being threatened.  They got especially mad about one thing that happened.

       Barber points out that after Jesus challenged corruption and took on injustice, and only after, did the young people start to pay attention.  Young people had likely been going along with the festivities.  They were used to seeing the religion of their parents and neighbors.  They also knew their parents and their neighbors well enough to have doubts about whether all this religious talk was real.  Their eyes and ears were pretty good hypocrisy detectors, and they were hanging off to the side, waiting to decide whether they should jump in the flow of things or maybe just toss it all out.

       But when these young people saw Jesus align his preaching directly with his actions, they joined in.  When they saw him actually challenge and battle injustice and corruption and not just give speeches and strike a pose as a defender of justice, their personal faith was activated.  They started crying out, “Hosannah, to the Son of David.”  They may even have been singing a familiar psalm of worship.  This integrity of talk and walk was what they had been waiting for.  Now they had hope that he could save their lives and their world from the evil so deeply embedded in them.

       Some people fear that our children have left the faith.  They think the young people have given up on God.  But more careful study is showing us that young people are drifting out of our churches not because they are losing faith in God, but because they are losing faith in existing churches’ ability to stand up to injustices in the world.  Churches have become bastions of respectability.  They are fortresses to keep out the riffraff while those inside congratulate ourselves for being such upstanding citizens.  Young people “ain’t got time for that.”  Ain’t nobody got time for that.  It’s time to be awake to the world in which God is active and powerful.  We need to stay woke, because Jesus is steadily standing at the doors of the churches, knocking, asking to be let in, while we continue in our same old way, never realizing Jesus is outside trying to get in and we are inside ignoring the people outside the door. 

Out in the streets, young people are challenging injustices with all the vigor and passion of youth.  And Jesus is also in the streets.  Don’t you think Jesus would have us join him in the streets?  Don’t you think the struggle to end police killing of unarmed black men and women could use the experience of elders alongside the energy of young people?  Isn’t there a way for the bold words of youth to and the wisdom of age to teach one another a thing or two?  Or will we stay inside because we think we don’t need what those outside have to offer us?

       Too often we think we have everything we need already.  Zephaniah spoke about people like that.  He said that among the comfortable and the powerful there are many who are self-satisfied.  They are sure they can thank themselves for all the good things they have in their lives.  He says that they sit on top of their piles of stuff and say, “God is not going to do anything good for us, and God is not going to do us any harm.”  In other words, they count on themselves, not on God.  They don’t look for God to be in their world.  They take God to be irrelevant.  Everything comes back to their own actions. 

But Zephaniah says they have it all wrong.  They may build fancy houses for themselves, but they will not get to live in them.  Instead, the Day of the Lord is coming.  In the tradition of Amos, Zephaniah says that we ought not expect that the coming of the Lord will leave things as they are.  The Day of the Lord will shake us up; it will shake things up.  So we had better stay woke.  We had better be ready rather than ruling God out of our lives. 

The New Testament lesson for this third Sunday in Advent tells about the work of John the Baptist, whose preaching woke many from their sleep.  He told them that “the axe is at the root.”  God was ready to dig up the whole plant, all the way down to the root, to cut it off below ground and leave no evidence on the surface that anything had been there at all.  Like Zephaniah, John discerned that God means to go to any length to get the world right.

Zephaniah said that after God swept away everything, there would be a new beginning.  After wild animals and birds had become the only occupants left where once great cities and civilizations had stood, then God would send in a remnant of the people.  Where devastation has brought down the wealthy, the powerful, and the haughty, God would send in the lame, the outcast, the ones who had been shamed by the world. 

Zephaniah said that all the leaders had failed their purpose.  The officials and rulers had failed to establish and maintain a just, peaceful world for people to live in.  They must be swept away.  The judges had failed to uphold the law and make sure that everyone is treated according to justice.  They must be swept away.  The prophets had spun tales and preached sermons to support the status quo and gain favor with the wealthy and powerful.  They must be swept away.  The priests had sustained religious practices built on injustice and oppression, offering only empty hope to the masses.  They must be swept away.

Yet Zephaniah could see that the same God who swept away oppression would reposition the weak and powerless into a place of praise and renown.  God will gather them.  They will not make it all happen.  They who had lost all hope were not sure whether they should hope at all.  But Zephaniah proclaims above all the despair and uncertainty that God will do it.  Won’t God do it?  God will do it.  All that we have dared to dream or hope for, all the justice and peacefulness and joy that we have waited for—God will do it.

That’s something to stay woke for.  In this advent season of awaiting the birth of Jesus, how shall we wait?  Mary waited through an unexpected pregnancy, through all the bodily struggles of pregnancy, all its uncertainties, all its dangers, for what she could only hope against hope to be true.  Joseph waited in his confusion and shame that he had been the greatest fool in the world to marry this pregnant girl.  The shepherds waited out in the fields, doing the dirty work of the world, wondering if and when their time would ever come. 

And in our day we wait for the time when the love of learning and longing of every soul to achieve matters as much as the anger of the privileged, a time when everyone can gain access to education at any level.  We wait for the time when people in authority won’t shoot first and tell lies later, when black lives matter equally.  We wait for the time when violence toward any is understood as violence against all.  We wait for a time when politicians cannot build a following through stoking the fires of fear and hatred toward people whose skin or religion is different from our own.   We wait for the time that a preacher cannot get cheers and applause for telling his congregation to get a gun and be ready to kill the enemy of the moment.  We wait for a time when the refugee, the homeless, the jobless, the orphan, the hungry, the weak, when every one of God’s children has a place of honor, love, and safety in this world. 

If we wait carelessly, sleepily, and without expectation, we may miss it when God shows up.  While we wait, we must wait as awake people.  We need our eyes wide open.  We need to stay woke.  God is moving here and now.  If I don’t receive the refugee while I wait, how will I recognize God’s showing up in the life of a refugee family trying to save the life of their baby?  If I don’t get into the streets with young people crying out for justice, how will I know when the King of Heaven goes walking down those streets and alleys to lift up the lowly and outcast.  If I am not where Jesus is walking, how will I hear the call to follow him? 

I must be awake, ready, anticipating the mighty work of God.  When John preached, people from all walks of life came out to hear and listen.  They were shaken by his message.  Awakened, they asked him what they should do.  In all cases, he pointed them toward a life of justice.  He told them to wake up to justice in living with their neighbors.  He told them to stay ready to do the right thing.  He told them to trust in God and not in the ways they could game the system in their own favor.  And the Gospel of Luke says that even though he told them they had to change their ways, they heard the good news in that message. 

God has a better way for you and for me.  We are waiting for it, and we can’t afford to sleep through it’s coming.  We don’t know just when God will sweep away the structures of injustice, but God will do it.  We don’t know what the means will be, but God will do it.  We want to be about the right work when it happens.  When a new heaven and a new earth start to appear, we need to be in God’s vicinity.  We need to be awake doing the work God has given us.  While we wait, we need to stay woke.  Let’s do this together.  Let’s stay woke in advent.  Let’s stay woke, because God will do it.  Amen.

Maybe you are here today and realize you have never awakened to God’s call to unite your life to God’s way.  You have not taken your first step to follow Jesus.  God is present here in this place, with us, ready to embrace you will the deep love that only can come from the one who made you for love.  If you need to wake up to God’s calling and purpose for your life today, the doors of the church are open.  We join with God ready to receive you into the reconciling power of God in Jesus Christ.  Come today and profess your desire and commitment to stay woke to God in your life.

Maybe someone here today finds yourself drifting along half asleep as the world passes by.  Maybe your hope and trust in God have faded over time because of the cares of the world.  Just as Israel waited through oppression in Egypt and through exile in Babylon, we wait this season for the God who liberates the oppressed and feeds the hungry.  If you are in Durham but not part of a congregation, know that God has called this gathering of pilgrims together in this corner of our city to be a people of love and care for one another and for our neighborhood.  If the Holy Spirit is prodding you to be part of our striving for faithfulness, there is no better time than now to unite your life to ours as we try to stay woke for what God will do.

As we stand together, as the musicians lead, let this be the day we commit to stay woke in advent and walk in readiness for what God will do.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Body Difference, Discrimination, a Seminary's Founding, and the Gospel

Today, March 16, the Moral Monday Rally convened between the Capitol and the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh.  In the season of Pentecost, Rev. Barber said, "This is our political Pentecost."  People representing various communities gathered to say with one voice that discrimination against the smallest, least understood minorities is still wrong.  It's not clear whether the Legislators or Governor were among those with ears to hear in their own language.  House Bill #2 targets transgender people whose lives are often endangered by their simple need to use a restroom.  The Charlotte City Council, in the same pattern as Columbia and Charleston and Myrtle Beach, SC, sought to make life safer and fairer for them, but HB2 reversed that local ordinance.

There is much confusion and misinformation on this legislation.  Some of the confusion comes from the misrepresentation of the bill as primarily about bathrooms.  It is much farther reaching than that, affecting minimum wages and access to courts for those enduring discrimination.  It's easy to spread misinformation on a subject that most people know very little about and even fewer understand.  To be transgender is a complicated and often socially rejected existence that people would not choose on a whim.  Complex biological causes shape the lives of each of us from the earliest stages of gestation, and the timing and presence or absence of certain developmental processes can lead to a great variety of sexual variation and differences in brains and bodies.  But the implication that sexual predators are facilitated by protecting transgender persons, or that transgender persons should be classified as sexual predators, has no basis in fact.

At least one of my friends and fellow ministers brings to the conversation a deep concern for young women and girls, many of whom she has met in juvenile detention centers, whose lives have been marked by sexual and physical abuse from men, often men who should have been their protectors as family or friends.  She speaks of their fear of being in a private, vulnerable place such as a bathroom, when men might also be present.  She is not making this up, and we know that women, especially young women and girls, are also among the most victimized in our society.  These previously harmed women deserve friendship, love, and protection, not further harm.

Yet I do not believe that HB2, by preventing laws like the Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance, is making the world safer for girls and young women.  The statistics that we already know about rape and sexual abuse of women have come about before and without relevance to laws preventing discrimination against transgender persons.  Moreover, transgender women forced to use men's restrooms are among the most likely victims of sexual violence and assault.  The Charlotte ordinance aims to add protections for a vulnerable group.  Male sexual predators hoping to find victims by dressing as women to enter a women's bathroom will do so whether or not there is a law to protect transgender persons.  HB2 does not make life safer for any women, whether transgender or not.

So I was glad to have the opportunity on April 25 to be one of the parade of speakers against HB2 at the Moral Monday Rally.  I was one of about five clergy of various faiths--Muslim, Jewish, and Christian--to speak out for repeal of HB2.  There between the political buildings and the museums, we gathered to do our civic and moral duty to speak on behalf of those who face injustice at the hands of lawmakers, state power, and financial power.  Upholding the heritage of my institutional home, the oldest historically black college in the South, the oldest historically black theological school in the South, Shaw University Divinity School, I framed my remarks to faithfully represent that heritage.

Some of you may know from experience that public speaking to call public servants to accountability requires a certain kind of discipline.  I was told to keep my remarks to two minutes.  As one who often preaches more in the range of 45 to 50 minutes, I have had to learn to also develop the two, three, or four minute address when at public events.  My first draft ran about 2:55 as I practiced it, and that was without introducing myself and my institution, which adds another 15 to 20 seconds.  So I made some cuts and got it down to about 1:50 or so.  The actual delivery, with my nervousness, was a bit slower, and ran 2:40 or so.  I still think I gave the shortest speech of the day.

Below, I will type out the full draft of my remarks, which includes more than I actually said on that day.  Then I will include the video clip of my speech, with the version that was edited down to keep it shorter.  I know this is a controversial topic.  As one minister said before I spoke, the difference of convictions is not between a faith position and a non-faith position.  The difference is between more than one faith position, between more than one non-faith position.  Thus, within the faith conversation, we must seek the most compelling, authoritative, and convincing arguments for what we bear witness to as truth.  I pray that you will find reason to consider these remarks I make as you agree or disagree with my commitment to repealing HB2.

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In 1865, Henry Martin Tupper, the founder of Shaw University, began offering the first Bible classes of that institution to formerly enslaved students.  They met in a hotel located right here where the North Carolina Museum of History now stands.  Tupper understood that society must not systematically shut out some of its members from education, a livelihood, or the basic goods of life because their bodies are different.  He was following in the tradition of prophetic faith passed on by Jesus, a poor, marginalized, Jewish rabbi under the domination of Rome. 

Shaw’s great scholar Albert W. Pegues, leader of the Theological Department which would become Shaw University Divinity School, himself said that the only path for North Carolinians to take out of their oppressive past must “put in practice principles of right and justice as taught in the Bible.”

       When Jesus stood up in the synagogue to announce his plans for ministry, he began by challenging the power structures that would count out some people as unworthy.  First he named the poor, who with all their struggles to live needed some good news.  He named those who had become wage slaves in a harsh economy.  He named prisoners warehoused in jails. 

But he also named those marginalized, ignored, cast aside, and thrown away because of differences in their bodies.  On that day it was the blind.  On other days he met the lame, the deaf, the chronically ill, people of different ethnicity, like Samaritans, even eunuchs who were people with genital differences. He met these people every day, sitting by the side of the road, placed downtown in a plaza with a pool of water, forced to live outside of town as unclean, shunned to their own place away from respectable society.

Too often, even the most holy-acting religious people despised and rejected others for their differences.  They even tried to boost their power by using labels to inspire fear, like “sinners.”  They classified those people whose bodies were different by claiming their bodies to be signs of God’s punishment. 

But the truth of God’s love for all creation is that in all our differences, we still come from one blood, one divinely beloved humanity.  HB2 plays on fears and hate of differences to divide us, to hurt us, to tempt us to turn away from the truth at the core of our faith.  But faculty and students of the fledgling Shaw University did not quit when faced with divisive hate, threats, bullets, and all manner of efforts to make them give up.  We still are not going to give up.  Repeal this unjust law!

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Mom's Death and What Is Lost with Her

I've written a few things about Mom over the past three months--mostly short comments on facebook.   For those of you who remember my outpouring of pain and suffering in dealing with the death of Everly, you might notice a difference in my grieving this time.  Some of you remember that the family has endured a series of losses, beginning with the long illnesses of Herbie (Everly's dad) and Everly, Everly's death in July 2013, Herbie's death in May 2014, Aunt Dot's death in June 2015, and Hugh Delle's death on February 15 this year.  Each death, each relationship, has it's own weight on our family members' capacity to cope.

I was not surprised by the incapacitating grief that overcame me when Everly died.  I was a little surprised by the different kind of grieving I've had since my mother died.  People's experiences of loss don't come in a standardized schedule.  As a child and a very young man, my grandparents' deaths happened at the stage of life in which it was not unexpected.  Through the sadness of losing them I somehow made sense of their deaths.  But there was a turning point in my psyche with Everly's death, a different understanding of what a human life is and what anyone can expect from living in the world.  Dealing with loss moved from the margins to the center.

I go to this effort to write and post about grief, as I have said before, because many of you have told me that you appreciate thinking through these things with me.  Some of you say it helps you grapple with the confusion of grief and loss in your own lives.  So what follows is some storytelling about the past few years with Mom, with particular attention to her declining health.  More than any other reason, I write about this to help myself gain insight into how to live through loss and grief as a follower of Jesus.

Hugh Delle and I were privileged in the past few years to be together more than we had been since I left home for college.  Everly and I moved in to W. D.'s and Hugh Delle's home in 2010 to share life on a daily basis.  During that time, we developed everyday household routines as well as working through big decisions and life changes.  It was planned to be a short stay while Everly and I worked out housing, but it dragged out longer because the real estate market made it hard to sell our house in Durham.  By the time that finally happened, we were seven months into cancer treatments, and buying a house did not seem like a wise next step.  Mom and Dad welcomed us to stay, and we continued in our habits of living in one house that branched off into two wings, each with our private retreats when needed.  The common space for meals and conversations was a blessing to us all.  After Everly's death, I continued living with Mom and Dad for another year while I sought the direction for the next steps of my life.

Going through so much together built a mature kind of intimacy of mother-son relationship.  Growing closer, we knew much more about one another's lives than before.  Closeness brings blessings and warmth.  It also can give opportunity for disagreement or conflict.  We had our share of both, but I guess even the disagreements and conflict are a kind of blessing.

While Everly was so sick, Hugh Delle played down her own health issues, always claiming that "everything is fine."  Yet it was not fine, and long hospital stays, times of being near death, and the ever-present yet hidden matter of her chronic heart failure made it impossible for the rest of us to ignore her tenuous condition.  One of the pitfalls of living with one's parents is that too often adult child and aging parent revert to patterns of relationship that hark back to the child's adolescence.  In my own way, I sometimes reacted resentfully or critically toward Mom, especially about her health.  It frustrated me that she could not openly accept that her shortness of breath represented an underlying health issue to confront directly.  I could confess a whole range of my shortcomings of kindness in communicating with her, but let it suffice to say that our closeness included both harmonious times and painful times.  I suspect that is true for many of us.

After I moved back to Durham in August 2014, our time together was drastically cut back.  I had hoped to be able to continue a cycle of long stays in Texas with Mom and Dad, but as my faculty responsibilities returned to normal and my community involvement increased, I found it harder than I had expected to get away for more than a couple of weeks at a time.  Consequently, each visit met me with evidence of advancing health issues and change, and not much time to try to deal with the newness.  Mom became less able to do the things she wanted to do.  We would discuss options for making things better, and we added some support and help. 

For the most part, she continued to treat symptoms as passing acute illness rather than declining abilities.  In retrospect, I can't be sure whether her approach of proceeding as if things are fine while continuing to seek medical answers led to any different results than if she had done as I imagined her doing and aggressively pursued solutions to her heart failure.  As her heart grew progressively weaker, it may not have mattered whether she had been more aggressively attentive to that problem.  So probably part of the disagreement we had was about how to handle the grief of her decline. 

She preferred not to accept the idea that she was in rapid decline and hope that things would reverse and improve.  That's not such a bad approach, in that she could without much effort keep herself in a fairly happy condition at least part of each day.  Maybe she saw my perspective of admitting the progress of the chronic condition and dealing with it "head on" as a form of giving up hope.  I can't begrudge her her own way of facing challenges, of dealing with the grief of her declining health.

One result of her way of facing down the struggle was that most of us did not see the rapid decline she was in for the last eight months.  Only W. D. and Lydia were very aware of it.  After graduating form Baylor, Lydia had moved in the room where Everly and I had lived.  She was job hunting, and interviews were slow to get started.  She was glad to be able to offer some care for her grandparents, and she became increasingly concerned for the advancing pain and weakness Hugh Delle was displaying.  Remotely, the rest of us did not get the full impact of the night and day pain and struggle she was having.  Hugh Delle could usually muster up her happy and hopeful self for a phone call.  Sometimes she let us in on the harder parts of her life.

When the doctors began to tell Mom, at the beginning of 2016, that her heart condition was so far advanced that she should not expect it to improve, the seriousness of the condition became clear to all of us.  Jerene made the first trip down to see her.  At the end of a hospital stay for tests and decisions about next steps, it became clear that all the interventions that the doctors had considered were too risky for Hugh Delle's weakened condition.  They thought she probably had a limited time for her heart to continue working.  Already heart monitors revealed that her heart had brought her near death, and sometime in the next few weeks or months it would finally give out.

As we made the decision to bring her home and begin hospice care, I was able to go and stay for a while, with the cooperation of my employer and students.  I went back to teaching my North Carolina classes from Texas for an indefinite time.  Mom was glad to have her two kids home, and we helped organize her medications and treatments with the expectation that she and Dad would continue the routines with assistance from the hospice team and their fellow church members.  Almost as soon as we would make decisions and get the house in order, Mom's situation would change.  Spending many hours sleeping, she would sometimes become alert and join us for meals, only to get fatigued and go back to sleeping soon after.  Every few days, the obvious changes made clear to us that she was growing weaker and losing ground.

Eventually, she became confined to bed.  She did not have the strength or muscle control to help us get her up and move her around.  She stopped wanting to eat.  She was less and less able to communicate.  Her niece and nephew, Pat and Tim, both came to stay and help care for her.  All of my children made their way to Texas to be with their MeeMaw.  They sang to her, sat with her, talked with her, did everything they could, as she held on for her last days.  She lived to see her 86th birthday.  She was no longer very communicative, and she was not really eating.  The best we could do was touch her mouth with a little bit of cake and icing.  We read the scriptures, sang to her, and prayed with her.  On her last Sunday, we shared communion around her bed and offered prayers.  The next day, she died, surrounded by us.

I was very worried about Dad and Jerene.  I knew how I had fallen apart with Everly's death, and I felt some kind of responsibility to try to hold them up in the immediate crisis of Mom's death.  So I was feeling the emotions of losing Mom very differently than I had expected.  Grief is a strange thing.  It is not well scripted, although liturgical and poetic scripting can be a great help in uncovering thoughts and feelings that are hiding just below the level of consciousness.  The funeral service, planned by Hugh Delle, was filled with beautiful tributes and familiar songs.  Mom was beloved, and many people came from near and far to honor her life.  That day was an emotional day for me, and the structured events served me well in drawing out my pain and ministering to me.

On Easter weekend, March 27, I was surprised by grief.  If you go through our family's photo collection, you would find that year after year, there are family pictures taken at church on Easter Sunday.  For many years, David, Naomi, and Lydia are wearing outfits sent to them by Hugh Delle.  Easters were family days.  Even if we could not regularly spend them with Hugh Delle and W. D., there was a kind of presence of the whole family.  As I walked into church on Easter Sunday I felt overwhelmed by the loss of my mother and my children's loss of their mother.  It was a very tearful weekend for me.

I was feeling a new kind of loss for the first time on that day.  It has recurred on most Sundays since that day.  I was trying to explain it this week to Ruth, Everly's sister, and to a friend and fellow minister.  The experience of no longer having my mother living in this world with me seems to have opened up a space of loneliness that I did not know before.  For a long time, when I went to church or to a restaurant or some other place familiar to me because of being there with Everly in the past, it was as if Everly's palpable absence was my companion.  Her absence somehow took on a kind of presence through memory and familiarity of her having been there so many times by my side. 

Yes, that is a form of loneliness, but in recent weeks the loneliness has changed.  I found myself in the foyer of the church wondering whether I would have anyone to sit by.  Now inside, of course, were pews full of people.  I know most of them and would, as an act of fellowship or ministry, gladly sit on any pew with any person.  There is a kind of joy and purposeful satisfaction in doing that.  But it was not that kind of question my mind was pressing on me.  The question came from a lack, an empty place, a need.  I was feeling the need to sit with someone to whom I am already beloved, someone whose presence already speaks to me of their care for me.  My first thought was to look and see if Willie and Joanne Jennings were at the service.  Because they were out of town  that day, I found myself looked around for others. 

The point is that with Mom's death, I am finding myself again in a new place in the world.  Even living far away from her for most of my adult life, there lurked in my consciousness her presence to me at all times.  The one who had nurtured me, believed in me, prayed for me, and done all that she could to seek the best for me is no longer in the land of the living.  Where does that leave me?  Without Mom, I am alone in a new way in the world.  She had borne on her tired shoulders all of the burden of Everly's struggle with cancer and our family's grief at her loss.  And now she who held us up is also gone, leaving me alone in a new way.  Of course I am not absolutely alone.  I have my family and friends.  My church and coworkers look out for me.  God has never deserted me.  Even so, God's presence mediated through my mother's love has been muted by her absence.  I will need to recognize new habits and different relationships in which God's love will be manifest in my life.  It took some time for that to soak in, and I'm just now figuring out how to describe it.


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