March 2018

I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot lately. Like many Southern men of my era, I always called him Daddy, even when I was grown and he was in advanced age. Daddy was a man’s man, a strong, successful young farmer in Union County in the early years of his marriage to my mother. He owned a large farm, fifty acres in one particular field. He was also a skilled carpenter, prevented by childhood accident-induced blindness in his left eye from military service in World War II, so he led construction crews in building army barracks on several bases in North Carolina. He had earlier apprenticed as a meat cutter for a grocery chain, and never forgot how to select the choicest cuts of beef, whether pot roast for Sunday “dinner” (that was the midday meal, not to be confused with “supper,” the meal at the end of the day) or a steak on the backyard grill. 

Daddy enjoyed saltwater fishing at the North Carolina coast, and he loved to hunt … quail or rabbit or squirrel. He taught me the responsible handling of a rifle and shotgun, and showed me how to follow a pack of baying beagles’ forlorn chorus as they pursued a rabbit back to the spot where they had first flushed him from the underbrush in Chatham County’s deep woods. He showed me the safest way to shoot squirrels out of tall pine trees. He owned two 12-gauge shotguns, which he kept unloaded in his bedroom closet, the shells nearby in the top of his chest of drawers (when I was little, I thought he was saying “Chester Drawers,” whoever that was). He never owned a handgun, didn’t think they were safe to have around.

Daddy was far too secure in his manhood to ever need automatic weaponry to prop up his ego. He would have thought it ridiculous to acquire and stockpile weapons capable of firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Why would anybody ever need such excessive firepower to go rabbit-hunting, or (God forbid) stop an intruder from harming his family?

But mainly, Daddy was a follower of Jesus, a pastor who lived his life true to the very words he intoned during all those baptisms I witnessed in all those churches, his hand raised in dedication just before he lowered the believer into the    waters: “In obedience to the command of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ …”

Daddy would not have been impressed with anyone more obedient to the Second Amendment than to the Second    Commandment, the one that insists “You shall not make for yourself an idol of anything. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” He would have found it sadly amusing how the sentiments of our republic’s founders, citizen soldiers, farmers and craftsmen prepared to wield single shot musket-loaders in defiance of British governmental over-reach, could ever be distorted into the defense of a golden calf of unhinged idolatry orchestrated by the profit-driven leaders of the  National Rifle Association, who so clearly hold sway over the cowardly elected congressional, judicial and executive “leadership” of our troubled nation.

You cannot follow Jesus of Nazareth, himself the victim of state-sanctioned murder, and at the same time twist so-called Second Amendment “rights” into the bizarre defense of a     guns-obsessed culture that scornfully contradicts everything Jesus stood for. It cannot be done. As scripture demands, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” 

Thank you, Daddy, for choosing well.                      

     - Pastor Simpson

 

February 2018

“The envelope, please. 

And the award for “Person Most Responsible for the Sorry Mess We’re In” goes to … all of us.”

In today’s America, tribalism is in full bloom.  You’re either in this tribe or that one, this political party or the other one, a winner or a loser.  I remember cartoonist Walt Kelly’s classic 1970 line, used in an Earth Day poster and later in his Pogo comic strip, lamenting environmental degradation:  “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”  (Kelly was paraphrasing Commander Perry’s famous dispatch to William Henry Harrison following the defeat of the British fleet at Lake Erie during the War of 1812:  “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”)  As I consider the malignant, systemic distrust so pervasive in our culture, I’m forced to agree with Pogo that blame for our social ills lies within us and the old, simmering biases and bigotries we imbibed like mother’s milk from our earliest days.

For Baby Boomers like me, smugly convinced we had invented sex and defeated racism, these          sobering days impose a humbling reckoning.  Resurgent Neo-Nazism, white supremacy, poisoning of the earth by the petroleum industry, deadly opioid addiction fueled by Big Pharma’s boundless appetite for profits, exorbitant health-care expenses lubricated by the Medical/Insurance Industrial Complex, twenty-five years of sustained armed conflict by a military addicted to warfare.  How did this happen on our watch?

My fellow graduates of Siler City’s Jordan-Matthews High School  Class of 1968, stunned by Vietnam’s Tet offensive in January of that year, then the April murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., followed weeks later by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June (on the very morning of our Baccalaureate Service in the high school gym), should not be shocked by anything happening these days.  When I arrived in Chapel Hill as a freshman that fall, the air was filled with the clamor of campus protesters insisting “Don’t trust anyone over 30!”  Now that we’ve all retreated to our recliners and remotes, the inconvenient truth proves unsettling:  Perhaps we really do get the leaders we deserve.  And yet …

There lingers that persistent voice, pesky prophet Isaiah’s nagging insistence which I’ll gamely try to raise this coming Sunday from the pulpit: “Don’t you know?  Haven’t you heard?  The Lord is the        everlasting God, Creator of the ends of the earth, who does not grow weary and who gives power to the tired and revives the exhausted.  Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, rise up on wings like eagles, run and not be tired.”  We didn’t sink this far overnight, and we won’t easily extricate        ourselves from this self-imposed quagmire, but there is a better day coming and it will be borne upon the shoulders of Jesus-disciples like you and me who dare to believe God is not dead, nor doth God sleep. Wake up. Resist. Do not go gentle into that dark night. Deny yourself, take up the cross, follow Jesus whatever the cost. They don’t give Oscars for  being found  faithful.  The award is far better than that, as ol’ Jesus promised:  “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and everything else will fall into place.”           

 - Pastor Simpson

 

September 2017

Not-so-Silent Sam

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s a statue worth?

Just down Franklin Street from University Baptist Church, in a grove of hardwood trees on the UNC campus, a lone sentry on a stone pedestal stands vigil facing north.  Silent Sam, like scores of other Confederate memorials across the American south, was erected decades after the Civil War by people intent on revering the memory of those who fought for a lost cause: the defense of slavery.

The recent violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the death of a young woman protesting the presence of Neo-Nazi white supremacists waving the Confederate battle flag and chanting racist, anti-Semitic slurs, serves notice that the same fear-stoked ignorance and evil rage which cost Jesus of Nazareth his life are ominously alive and festering among us.

When newspaper editor Tess Flanders, in a 1911 article discussing journalism and publicity, noted that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” she nailed it.  A visual image is far more effective in conveying emotion than mere words on a page. 

Or so we’ve been taught.  We’ve also been taught that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me,” a well-worn rhyme first noted in a March 1862 publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, The Christian Recorder, intended to persuade young black victims of name-calling to ignore taunts and refrain from physical retaliation.

Interesting, is it not, that from the earliest years of the Civil War, young African-Americans were being urged to remain calm in the face of hatred.  Was that good advice?

What would Silent Sam say, if he could speak?  Probably something similar to the vitriol spewed by Confederate veteran Julian Carr, the Durham business-man for whom Carrboro is named, who spoke at Silent Sam’s dedication in 1913, smugly recalling his public whipping of a young black woman accused of insubordination toward her white superiors.  Fact is, Silent Sam has never been silent. His very presence embodies the stubborn refusal of Confederate hard-liners to admit the deliberate evil of their miscalculated slavery defense.  Silent Sam shouts to every passerby, “I will not confess my complicity in the sinfulness of slavery.  I do not admit guilt.  I will never ask forgiveness.”

Hebrew scripture gives eloquent voice to God’s compassionate love: “If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).  Silent Sam’s mute defiance is far more sinister than a thousand verbal racist diatribes.  Words can harm us, whether spoken or etched in the cold bronze of a soldierly memorial.  As long as he is allowed his non-repentant perch, he discourages the humble pursuit of forgiveness among any white supremacists who pass his way.  Scripture prohibits our erecting any graven image that might usurp God’s rightful place in our hearts.  No statue is worth that. 

 If we truly want God to heal our land, a good place to start would be the orderly and peaceful removal of Silent Sam from our beloved campus where, as an undergraduate, I wandered beneath his shadow, unmindful of the suffering endured by all those denied freedom’s dignity during the cruel regime this statue venerates.

-Mitchell Simpson

August 2017

There are two kinds of people, suggests Franciscan friar Richard Rohr: those who want certitude and those who seek understanding. Four decades as a pastor convince me he’s right.

Listen in to conversations in America these days, from casual exchanges between strangers to political pundits to family gatherings, and you hear it. Folks who demand certitude out of life insist on it even if it doesn’t fit the facts. Logic and truth have nothing to do with it. If certitude is what you’re after, Rohr laments, you’ll be content to surround yourself with foregone conclusions.

Authentic faith, on the other hand, stands in stark contrast to that world-view. Rohr pulls no punches, insisting that Jesus is actually dangerous if taken outside of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), reducing faith to a static concept, not dynamic and flowing. Faith’s mysteries whisper that we must live in exquisite, terrible humility before the overwhelming reality of human suffering. Only then will we be compassionate, wise people:

“Show me where the Gospel ever promised certitude. If God wanted us to have evidence, rational proof, perfect clarity, the incarnation of Jesus would have been delayed until the invention of audio recorders and video cameras. Rational certitude is exactly what scripture does not offer us.”

Instead, scripture offers something much better: an intimate relationship, a dark journey, a path where we must discover for ourselves that grace, love, mercy and forgiveness area absolutely necessary for survival in an   uncertain world. People who live in this way “never stop growing, are not easily defeated, and frankly are fun to live with.”

Look around you. People of mature faith are able to deal with darkness and failure. They don’t insist on    validating the ego, don’t allow impulse control to dictate their behavior. They have a quiet but confident joy. “Infantile religion,” Rohr concludes, “ insists upon certainty every step of the way, and thus is not very happy.” 

Life is too short to waste time around angry people. I’d rather savor the intimate, dark journey of grace among the beloved community that is UBC.

- Mitchell Simpson