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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, December 25, 2016

Shepherds, Why This Jubilee?

The Christmas season sweeps over people with wave after wave of emotion, a wide range of feelings that reflect the memories of family time, of fears, hopes, dreams, and disappointments.  I'm one of those people. 

I don't remember much mixture of emotions when I was a child. I think when I was a younger adult, part of the mix of emotions was being tired from finishing papers and projects in school.  There was the excitement of giving and receiving presents, and the inevitable disappointment that the long-anticipated presents were not going to actually make life perfect or even very different.  Eventually, the joy was in seeing the happiness of our own children, mixed with the nagging sense that we had sold our souls to the consumer gospel and had accumulated way too much junk.  Now as I look around at the boxes still unpacked from my move to NC from Texas, I still know that it is true.

So this Christmas Eve has been no surprise.  I've had the satisfaction that my adult children and I have agreed to cut back on the orgy of consumption and share time together without the pressure of last-minute shopping or checking off lists from the the tit-for-tat gift mandate.  For that reason, we are able to enjoy being together better, taking care of preparing meals and reveling in them together.  I hung out part of the day with brother-in-law Jim and Dad.  Most everyone relaxed and napped a while.  Jim played some Andy Griffith episodes to make us laugh.  Then our old man trio went to Black Mountain Presbyterian Church for Christmas Eve liturgy. 

Even while waiting and listening to the preparatory organ music, I was drawn to a beautiful hymn and prayer printed in the order of worship:
Jesus is our childhood's patter; day by day, like us he grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless, tears and smiles like us he knew...
God of the commonplace,
we confess that we have bee seduced by human wealth and power.
We do not expect to meet you in haggard faces,
cold barns, or lonely watches.
We are slow to receive your word when it comes from improbable places.
God of all creation, intrude on us this night.
Let the clamor of angels and the hurried steps of shepherds
echo in our hearts, until we, too,
spill with good news of great joy.
That waiting, that anticipation, those moments shared so many times with my beloved Everly and Hugh Delle, began to overwhelm me.  Sitting between my dad and a woman who sweetly greeted me when I joined her on the pew, my face clouded and tears flowed.  A knot seemed to swell in my chest, a tension formed of deep longing for what is out of reach.  In our first Christmas without Mom and now the fourth without Everly, I don't really think this kind of feeling is going to ever go away, until a day comes when I don't even know myself any longer.

When I looked ahead and saw the lyric line, "Shepherds, why this jubilee? Why your joyous strains?", it struck me as a summation of my thoughts and feelings in the moment.

My longing and discomfort in this season in inextricably tied to not having Everly and Hugh Delle in the room with me, but it spreads from there to many other things.  There is a great sorrow weighing on me because of the discouraging events and social uproar of this moment in time.  It is a time when people of my generation may have hoped we would see taking shape in our world some element of redeeming change, of movement toward overcoming the racialized structure of the world, of seeing an end to the centuries of Eurochristianist-Muslim hatred, of dividing and despising people for bodily differences. But if we are honest with ourselves, we have to recognize that much of what we hoped might be changed has remained a molten magma under the surface of false civility.  Granted permission and encouraged to set aside pretense of politeness, the fabric of social existence seems to be dissolving around us.

I'm not generally inclined to believe all is lost, but there are times when it is hard to see the hope.  A quarter century ago the long and deadly Lebanese Civil War which had divided a previously peaceful country into camps ruled by warlords, came to a tenuous peace, only to be followed a few years later by an outburst of violence among Rwandans that seared every conscience.  Bolstered by social theory that questioned the inevitability of human unity and highlighted the depth of disagreement as far beyond the conventions and capacities of rational agreement, I wondered if Lebanon and Rwanda might be the future toward which modernity is inexorably plunging.  Next came our family's heartbroken departure from a church in which too many members were asking, "What would be wrong with being an all-white church?" It was not a future I hoped for my children.  But I'm drifting that way again with Syria, deportation, Muslim registries, gun and weapon extravaganza, police killing, racial profiling....

Searching for paths toward another future, I continued to study and converse and experiment toward a new way of ecclesial practice in community that would form in the world a counterpolitics of beloved community.  In time, that led me into relationships with radicals and innovators--people who, unlike me, were not writing a story in academic language, but remaking neighborhoods and cities and race relations in their corners of the world.  Most of my direct work has been in community organizing, and I've supplemented that with relationships among those who are doing Christian Community Development, who are forming intentional new monastic communities, and who are crying out a prophetic word toward moving Forward Together at Moral Monday rallies.  I still can stir passion to teach and preach that these springs in the desert are the real path toward good news for the poor and despised of the world. I tell myself this is the new wave of Christian renewal. But if that's true, it's so slow. What I've had to accept for a long time, that this world is not on an upward path of progress, remains a painful lesson to learn again and again.

At Christmas time, when all my children who live in three different states have come together, and I sit in church without their mom or grandma still in the world, it becomes painfully, desperately, dismally slow. How have I and my generation of church people failed in our imaginations, in our strivings, in our comfort with this world, to live a gospel radical enough to be a sign of hope in this world? When my friend Chanequa Walker-Barnes asks whether those attacking "Black Lives Matter" can understand the "sheer horror of people objecting to the statement that our lives are valuable?", it drives home the disillusionment with the times. When the NC legislature, elected through illegal voting districts and voter suppressive laws, insists that the heritage of allowing harm to people because of their body differences is too close to their hearts to repeal, it dissipates hope. When people insisting on being known as Christians vote and cheer for the very things that Christians ought to oppose, it begins to clarify the world in which we live.  In an era when churches' primary de facto liturgical expression has become "where are the young people?", I'm feeling a bit lost on how to offer an answer of why young people should give a damn about the church.

Sitting in a church full of white people tonight, I was deeply moved by the liturgy, but it was not lost on me how the message of turning away from fear toward hope seems as out of reach as ever in that context and so many more. The pastor's remark, mid-meditation, that the church has been guilty of peddling fear in order to turn around and offer hope, hits very close to the core of the problem.  Churches of all sorts, having aligned with the tide of culture, are playing the same games. Promote fear, then offer yourself as the solution--sell your product, line your pockets, seek your own interest. I'm pretty sure that's the church my kids and their generation see. I know it has been sold to me many times, and I've willingly bought it. But I hoped I knew better. My friend Deborah Boston and I talk often about the difficulty of believing churches can or want to make the changes they need to make in order to be the gospel here and now. The chilling truth is how much that is true of my own way of being in and of the church.

The beauty of tonight's liturgy, to me, was in its recognition that this advent's waiting was not just pretend. The harshness, horrors, terrors, and struggles of the world are real. When false evangelicalism has told me, "You should not be living under the circumstances. Rise above them!", it was so much bourgeois claptrap. The circumstances are crushing and destroying the very people we claim God loves and wants us to love. Aloof discipleship that looks for a fantasized solution outside of human suffering does not fit with the story of this night. There have been too many times in this almost 59 years of living that I've been willing to let a spiritualized gospel replace the true gospel that took form in a shit-floored shed where a naked baby clung tenuously to life, surrounded by just his homeless, refugee parents and various domestic animals. As Steve Harmon reminded me tonight, the memory of that stable opens up a great mystery--it wasn't a gala party with dressed-up people, a sterile hospital full of highly skilled technicians, or even the comfort of home with family and neighbors helping and praying. The animals in the stable, not the self-important humans hoping for a photo op, were the first witnesses of Jesus in the world.
O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
By the next day, Joseph must have had to go out and hustle up some water, some bread, and whatever other food he could buy or beg.  Mary must have been exhausted as she relinquished from her very body's strength to carry, give birth, and feed the infant Jesus
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Jesum Christum.
Alleluia!

How blessed is [Mary] the virgin whose tender flesh
was deemed worthy to bear
our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Alleluia!
I started out talking about mixed emotions across a wide range.  Mostly here I've been dwelling on the sadness of this Christmas Eve.  I don't mean by digging deeper into the sorrow that I'm now fixed in one frame of mind and heart.  Yet it seems that I should at least feel the wave of sadness all the way through in this "get over it," "move on, already," "accentuate the positive" age. It's a world in which commercial interests aim to stir up happiness through encouraging mass consumption of trinkets and gadgets.  In the morning, Momma won't be getting me up to have breakfast.  Everly won't be organizing us to look in stockings and unwrap packages. Trinkets, gadgets, and positivity won't change that. And the epidemic of indifference, greed, and hate that has swept our world will still be convulsing all around us. It's not suddenly easy being born or giving birth.

With all the promise of joy that angels announced to the farm workers on the hillside, those marginalized workers still had their hard work to do.  Mary and Joseph, holding on to that tiny baby, still had to find a way to make a living, a place to live, and food to eat. "Shepherds, why this jubilee?" Can such a lowly, outcast moment two millenia ago make a difference now? Looking at the churches of this land, it seems unlikely. But it still seems there is enough good news in the holistic gospel that's worth fighting for. As my friend Matt Jantzen said this week, "I'm angry, and I can't stand to just wait around while things get worse, and not try to do something about it." I hear you, Matt. I can see only glimpses of the path in the dark of this midnight. Y'all who still hunger and thirst for justice gotta help me see where that hungry baby is calling for me to bring some milk, a blanket, and an arm and chest to rest on.

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