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Every year, Valentine’s Day is during Black History Month; the two are not necessarily related but I do see a connection: love. This is not a sentimental love focused on heart candies with sweet messages (wonderful as they are). In the context of Black history, which is a human history, the love I am thinking of comes from those human beings who endured the fiery brutality of slavery because of the color of their skin — those who came through the blood of the slaughtered, weary years and silent tears. Theirs is a tireless love to live.
In the spring of 2000, I was 26 years old and had graduated from seminary the previous year. I was engaged to be married and spent most of my engagement overseas in France; you can imagine that went over well with my fiancée and soon-to-be-wife, Gail. I was spending two weeks at the Taizé Community in France on a postgraduate fellowship.
In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the prophet Amos, saying, “Justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” King returned to these words repeatedly in his speeches and sermons; they were a kind of theological and linguistic motif for his ministry. As we once again consider King’s legacy, it is helpful to examine the larger literary context of this oft-quoted scripture verse from chapter five of the Book of Amos, in which the prophet is relaying a divine message that no ceremony or song can make up for injustice in a community.
“Singing the blues” may seem to be a weird title as we travel through the holiday season and approach the end of another semester. We might think it should be a time of rejoicing. Yet if we are honest, this holiday season can be bluesy as people mourn the loss of loved ones or as we endure ongoing war, college students shot in Vermont and even local violence in Triangle area high schools. We are not always “merry and bright.”
When I look on Twitter (now called “X"), I see people posting critiques, distinctions, problems, gaps, chasms; they tweet about persecution, vitriol, celebrations of terminations and divisions. One doesn’t often come away from reading Twitter thinking, “Wow, that was for the common good!”
This is a season of remembrance in various traditions with days for Día de los Muertos, All Hallows, All Souls and All Saints. It makes sense to me to celebrate memory because it is so essential for our lives. We rely on memory for many things — how to find our way back home, where our offices are, where we parked our cars (this can be a challenging one!), our phone numbers, our birth dates and birthplaces and where we were during historic, tragic or joyful moments.
I begin with how Dr. Thema Bryant, president of the American Psychological Association, ended her public conversation with me at the 2023 William Preston Few Lecture earlier this month in Duke Chapel. Her final message to the audience that evening was: “You are worthy. You are worthy of care. You are worthy of respect. You are worthy of safety. You are worthy of joy.”
When one beholds a neogothic architecture of a cathedral like Duke University Chapel, it is easy to notice the beautiful stained-glass windows, the high vaulted ceilings, the worn wooden pews, and even the elevated pulpit covered by a wooden canopy. But tucked in crevices and hidden along edges are less obvious sights — the green devil in one of the stained-glass windows, two wooden mice perched overhead, the video cameras used for livestreams and even water stains on the walls from past leaks in the windows. These items exist along the iconic building’s margins, and yet they matter because they contribute to its character and assist in its functioning.
I can almost guarantee that you’ve been asked this question at some point in your life: “What is your passion?” Other ways of framing that question include: What do you deeply care about in life or work? What do you love to do? What wakes you up in the morning and excites you or what keeps you up late at night? What’s that thing you cannot not do?
On this day, Sept. 11, we remember the horror from 22 years ago of airplanes crashing intentionally into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. If you were alive, you probably remember where you were when you first heard the news. The crash isn’t the only memory. The care given by the first responders also stands out. When tragedy strikes, we often see the triumph of human community. So many people ran to help those in need who couldn’t help themselves. They were advocates in that moment for the helpless, the voiceless, the lost, the dead. This crisis created a community of care.
Well, ready or not, here we are again at the start of a new academic year. Graduation may seem a long way away — and it is if you consider all that you will learn and all the friendships you will make between now and then — but I have been working on college campuses for long enough to tell you that your time at Duke will also be short.
Nearing the end of the semester—with graduation approaching for some—I suspect many students experience some mixture of fear and joy at the uncertainty of what lies ahead. This combination may seem odd, but the journey of life is odd. And maybe this is how it should be, for fear and joy aren’t always strangers—like when we fall in love or are expecting a baby or are about to enroll in a new graduate program in an unfamiliar state or country.
Many tears have been shed this past week. I am thinking of all the publicly grieving people who lost a child, a parent, a classmate, a co-worker, a neighbor, or a friend in the terrible mass shooting in the school in Nashville, Tennessee. Here on campus, I am sure there have been many other private reasons for people to weep.
Apparently, people want to be blessed. The hashtag #blessed has more than 100 million posts on Instagram, and videos on TikTok with this hashtag have been viewed billions of times. I am glad people want to be blessed, but there is a paradox about who is truly blessed.
Death has been all over the news recently. Causes? Earthquakes. Gun violence. Suicides. War. The list is innumerable. The spiritual is right again: “Death ain’t nothin’ but a robber.” Yet, facing the fact of our mortality, of our dying, can help us in our living.
There is a breach in our society. A breach is a breaking, a gap, a hole, a divide in something that was once whole. I’m not sure how whole we’ve ever been as the human race, but the breach is on full display these days in inhumane violence in schools, malls, universities, and the streets. These acts of violence should cause us to tremble in the face of terror rather than numb us into doing nothing. Our hearts should be hurting and our souls aching.
If we pay attention, we can experience sacred surprises.
With the spring semester ramping up, students are joining, and reconnecting with, all kinds of groups—clubs, residence halls, study circles, classes, sports teams, religious groups, fraternities, sororities, and more. This has a good and natural foundation: We all long to belong. We desire community and connection. We want to be known and loved. The challenge we have as Dukies—or really as human beings—is how to belong but not divide.
In the 1965 animated Peanuts special “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Charlie Brown becomes a kind of prophet — a Peanuts preacher — when he asks a very honest question: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
“When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” This question from the Jewish prophet Isaiah has taken up residence in my life for years. It poetically presents one of life’s basic questions: Why don’t we get what we expect?