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god’s pencils

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Learning to write cursive lettering, Samples of cursive lettering on lined paper with a pencil

I learned to write in Africa.

The school was taught in English, which is a more layered story of conquest and colonialism. By the time I got to Lusaka Infants’ School, it was the only language taught. At the top corner of my desk was a hole that held an inkwell. As we began to learn our letters, we learned how to use an ink pen. A dip pen, as in we dipped the nib of the pen in the ink, blotted it gently, and then wrote on the paper in front of us.

From our very first letter a, we wrote in ink. “Pencils,” my teacher said, “are for arithmetic.”

The message stayed consistent throughout my education in schools, both in Zambia and Kenya. You wrote in pen because you meant what you were putting on paper. If did not have to be perfect. If you made a mistake, put one line through it and then get back to business. Pencils were for equations where you had to show your work. Writing was done in ink.

When I began teaching in an American high school, I was incredulous that my students turned in essays in pencil. I handed them back and said to them what had been said unto me. Then it was their turn to respond in disbelief. I stood my ground, in part because I couldn’t read the penciled papers most of the time, but also because I wanted them to learn how to mean what they wrote, mistakes and all. To write in ink is to risk putting down something that can’t be erased.

Though they complied, I think most just thought I was a little bit crazy when it came to pencils. And I guess I am. I only write in ink. And I have a strange fondness for fountain pens. I guess I kind of wish I still had my desk, inkwell and all.

In one of her sermons, Ginger quoted Mother Teresa (and, it turns out, she really said this one) who said we were “God’s pencils.” For her, the metaphor had to do with God doing the writing and using her as the pencil—a broken pencil, in fact—that needed to be sharpened from time to time.

It’s a good image. But if I mix the pen and ink metaphors, I begin to wonder what to do with the idea that I am a pencil, even if it is God’s pencil, in a world where what matters is written down in ink. If I go along with my teacher’s instructions, as a pencil, I can be used to solve problems. I even can be used to erase mistakes, rather than crossing them out. Then there’s whole deal with being a No. 2 pencil rather than No. 1.

When I was learning to write, my teacher wasn’t concerned with metaphor. The pen was the instrument, I was the writer. I used a pen because ink meant I was serious. I meant it. She wasn’t talking about what we were trying to write. We were making letters. We were learning how to write down what we already knew how to say. What I learned was words matter. Words, whatever they are, have some permanence. They aren’t erased as easily as numbers. They are not merely equations; they are carriers of meaning. From the very first, I learned to write like I meant it, even though I didn’t know exactly what was happening to me as I dragged my pen across the paper.

But it stuck. I learned to love words. I don’t write in pen. I carry one with me—a ball point—at all times. The next level of my anachronistic life is I type full sentences in text messages (and tweets, until Trump cured me of Twitter) and I punctuate them. If I am going to write it down, I want to feel like I meant to write it down. I want to be God’s fountain pen. After all, in the beginning was the Word, not the algebra.

Here’s the other thing. I’m writing this on my MacBook. With autocorrect. My personal favorite is both my laptop and my phone correct sinner to dinner. That works for me. That will even preach. Writing with autocorrect gives me the illusion that I don’t have to worry about my mistakes. My computer will fix it, or will at least try to. If nothing else, it leaves a trail of words underlined in red to show me where I screwed up—without any permanent record, until I print it. In ink. (Or post it, you’re right.) But it is an illusion. Autocorrect won’t fix form when it should be from.

I think I have wondered far afield from whatever I thought I was going to say when I started this post. I suppose autocorrect doesn’t fix that either.

How about this: if I am the writing instrument, whether pen or pencil, I am going to leave a mark. When it comes to words made flesh, the marks we make on one another are not easily erased, regardless of intent or impact. I carry scars from those who have hurt me and I am indelibly marked by the love of others. We leave marks. We have to live with that.

Words matter. Actions matter. Mistakes matter. So does forgiveness. Everything matters.

Somebody write that down. In ink.

Peace,
Milton

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pumpkin corn chowder

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You may notice that the site looks different than before. I am in the middle of a number of changes—many of which I don’t yet know how to make. One of the changes is to get back to posting recipes. For now, rather than posting them on my recipe blog that has been quiet for far too long, I will post them here. When the site is in full bloom, the recipes will have their own page. For now, I give you pumpkin-corn chowder, mostly because several people saw my Instagram post from our Barn Dinner and asked for the recipe.

I love making soup.

One of my jobs at the restaurants in Durham, North Carolina (I have to be specific; the town next to us in Connecticut is also Durham.) was to make two soups everyday. I was expected to make use of whatever I could find in the walk-in refrigerator or the pantry. Though I went searching on the Web for recipes, I never followed them exactly. They were inspiration more than instruction. This soup is much the same. I had corn and beans and pumpkin. I found this recipe and then went from there to make the soup I served for our Barn Dinner.

Soup-making is very personal to me, which is to say consider the amounts as suggestions. If you like another vegetable in your chowder, then make it your chowder. If you want to use some sort of stock instead of the water, do that. If you want to use heavy cream instead of coconut milk, do it. The original recipe has potatoes, but I chose not to use them. I can’t cook with onions or onion powder because Ginger is allergic, so I use more garlic and spices and look for other ways to flavor.

One of the extra steps I took with this recipe was to roast the corn first. I did it in batches in my cast iron skillet (which means only put in as much as loosely covers the bottom of the skillet) with a minimal amount of oil and I added the cumin here. I put the pan over high heat and let the corn cook until it caramelized a good bit and then set it aside.

I also make sure the celery and carrots are diced very small. I like the flavor, but I also sort of want them to dissipate into the soup as it cooks. (The same would be true for onions, if I could use them.)

Pumpkin Corn Chowder

olive oil
1 1/2 cups corn (can be two small packages of frozen)
2/3 cup diced white onion
6 garlic cloves, minced
3 large carrots, diced small
4 stalks of celery, diced small
2 teaspoon cumin (could also add chili powder, oregano, thyme)
1 can black beans, drained
1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
1 can coconut milk
salt and pepper, to taste
water, as needed


Roast corn in a cast iron skillet or sauté pan over high heat. Sprinkle with cumin. Do it in batches as described above. Set aside.

In a soup pot, heat olive oil to medium high heat and then add celery, carrots, and garlic. Once the vegetables are coated with the oil and beginning to cook, add cumin and other spices. Keep covered, but stir occasionally. Lower to medium heat and let them cook until the vegetables are pretty soft, about 8-10 minutes.

Add enough water to cover the bottom of the pot to about a half an inch and stir to deglaze the pot and unstick whatever has stuck to the bottom. Then add corn and beans. Cover and let cook for about 5 minutes.
 Add pumpkin purée and coconut milk and bring the mixture to a simmer. Let it simmer for at least 15 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. If you leave it uncovered, it will reduce and thicken a bit. If it feels too thick, you can add more water, just do so incrementally so it doesn’t thin out too much.

You can eat it after it has simmered for 15-30 minutes. (Of course, taste it and see if the seasonings need to be adjusted.) After 15 minutes, I would let is simmer, but I would cover it again so it doesn’t reduce too much.

When you’re ready, ladle it into bowls and enjoy. We served it with a sliced baguette that we sliced, drizzled with olive oil, and toasted in the oven.

Peace,
Milton

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pew research

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The theology of boxed pews.

Ginger mentioned that she overheard our new ministerial intern use the phrase in a conversation. It stuck with me. Box pews allowed allowed families to sit together in a regular spot and provided shelter from cold drafts. They were typically purchased or rented by families and the cost could be substantial—sort of like the private boxes that ring stadiums today. During the colonial period, some churches, like the Old North Church in Boston, were “closed” church, which meant if you didn’t own a box, you couldn’t attend—or, at least, you couldn’t sit down.

The boxed pews are true to their name in another respect. The word pew comes from the Latin word for podium. Over time, as in centuries, the word to mean a sort of elevated seating box for VIPs at major gatherings or for families of a certain social rank to sit in. Most all of this came about after the Reformation. Before that, everybody stood for the service, like a general admission concert where whoever gets there first gets to be closest to the stage. That image takes me back to a night at the Bronco Bowl in Dallas where I got to see The Alarm. (Oh, my friends, oh, my friends, oh, my friends . . .)

The sanctuary of our church is not the original meeting house. The first one—in 1643—was a stone building with a thatched roof. Our current wooden church building was erected in 1830. We have boxed pews of a sort. Each pew has a door with a latch. Four or five people can sit together comfortably. Well, comfortably is stretching it, as far as the design of the seat itself. There’s room for five in the space.

I like to sit on the aisle and leave the door open. When we first got here, one of the ushers would come down during the prelude and close all of the doors. We went back and forth a couple of times before they realized I was going to keep opening mine.

It’s hard to know whether theology made the pews, or the pews shaped our theology, or at least our sense who we are in that space. Maybe I should call it congregational anthropology. Either way, the nature of the pews and the room invite us to stay in our places. There is one way in to the pew and one way out. To get up to pass the peace takes effort. I preach from time to time at another church in the area where the seating is more open. The people move freely to greet one another. We are a warm congregation. We like to be together. The pews make it hard to show that to one another on Sunday morning.

We are shaped by our spaces.

Sometimes we get to choose them. My recent spate of posts began with finding a space, or making one, where I could write. It gave me the room to finish the draft of a manuscript I have been working on for three years. People here in town find it humorous that Ginger and work in different coffee shops on the Green, but we have each found our place in the different cafés.

Sometimes the space comes with whatever we are doing, like our sanctuary. To significantly alter the room would fly in the face of history and tradition, and probably cost an incredible amount of money. There might come a time when it will be worth it to change, but that time is not now. The room is beautiful. In true Congregational tradition, the windows are clear and the sun fills the sanctuary on Sunday morning. The wooden walls make the music reverberate. That we sit in pews, boxed or not, that have held worshippers for over two hundred years makes that great cloud of witnesses feel as though they are still in the room, even if is hard to get across the aisle. The lack of air conditioning means the windows are open and we can hear the bells ring down from the steeple as we come and go.

I guess what caught me most about the phrase on Sunday was noticing how infrequently we talk about how the spaces of our lives shape us and how we can shape the spaces. We have more options that leave it like it is or go Fixer Upper on it all. Once upon a time, people paid for their pew. Now we gladly let anyone come in and sit down. How did that happen? What’s the story? Why don’t we tell it.

It’s not just about the seats. It’s about who we choose to be as we sit in them.

Peace,
Milton

0

famous last words

5

It has been a long time since I watched any kind of news on television.

Neither Ginger nor I make a practice of watching the news before we go to bed, but last night Ginger had it on for a minute and heard the story of Debra Stevens’ drowning somewhere in Arkansas and her interaction with the 911 operator who shamed her for driving into the flooded area. When I came into the room, the news report was just finishing up. Ginger was deeply troubled by the fact that the harsh words of the dispatcher were the last thing Debra Stevens heard before she died.

Her pastor said she worked with children at the church and wanted to make sure the knew they were welcome, loved, and that they mattered.

I heard part of the conversation during the 911 call and it was terrible. Then the news anchor switched stories without any change in tone or demeanor and went on to something else. He gave no context; he just played the tape. Ginger found out later it was the dispatcher’s last day at work. I can’t imagine how Debra Stevens felt. I can’t imagine the pain her family and friends are going through. When I searched for the story tonight to get the name right, I found numerous sites that have posted a picture of the dispatcher. Not one of them was from Arkansas.

I’ve been wondering today why my television station in Connecticut needed to play that tape. As I said, there was no context given; there was no local connection. As best I can tell, it was a sensational story that would get people’s attention. The viral outrage, though warranted, shames the dispatcher much like she did Debra Stevens, it seems to me.

What are we doing to each other?

My response was to post a poem by Ellen Bass on my Facebook. It’s called “If You Knew.”

What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

We are a nation at war. The high school seniors who have birthdays after September 11 were all born after the towers fell, which means they have never lived a day as an American that we weren’t fighting . The current administration is bent on fomenting as much of a civil war as possible to consolidate his power. Turning on each other doesn’t help, even when that turning is virtual and venting our rage feels harmless.

I am sorry Debra Stevens died feeling so alone. The dispatcher did a horrible job. No question. Nothing I say, however, will matter in Arkansas. How I speak to my family, my friends, and the people I encounter here in Guilford does matter. How I speak on social media matters. How I respond when I am annoyed or angry or hurt can do damage if I am not paying attention.

I am not saying anything you don’t already know. I get that.

Instead of lashing out, or reposting the 911 call, why not write or call someone you know is hurting tonight and make sure they know they are welcome, loved, and that they matter.

Who knows what might happen next.

Peace,
Milton

1+

it’s worth it all, in these days

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I have been absent here for a few days because Ginger and I made a quick trip to Denver to see friends who used to live here in Guilford. Sarah used to be co-pastor with Ginger. Beth, Sarah’s wife and my friend, is a big Red Sox fan. When they moved about a year and a half ago, they told us we had to come west when the Sox played the Rockies. So we did.

We were in Denver for about forty hours.

One of those hours, Ginger and i got to spend with Cindi, who was a part of the youth group at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth where I was Youth Minister in the 80s. Thirty years later, we were sitting in the lobby of our hotel looking at pictures of her son and hearing about her life. She is now ten or twelve years older than I was when I was her youth minister.

I wasn’t on social media much on our trip, but when I did check in I found out there are several people who live in and around Denver that I didn’t know were there that made connections to my life in Kenya, at Baylor, in Houston, and in Dallas. People I know in a city where I had never been.

One of the things I learned from my youth group at UBC was how to be a friend. I got there in my mid-twenties as someone who had moved all of my life and had left a lot of people behind. In 1986 I called my friend Burt, whom I met at Baylor in the fall of 1976 to mark that we had known each other for ten years and I had been around him for all ten years. That was a first for me. A good number of the high schoolers had known each other since first grade. They knew how to have long relationships. I worked hard to pay attention.

Those days were my songwriting days with my friend Billy. He wrote and sang for a living–still does; I wrote songs, initially, for my youth group. In one of them, I tried to capture what I saw in the way they knew how to be together. I called it “Best of Friends.” The song came back to me after Cindi left the hotel and we headed out into our day with Sarah and Beth.

hide and seek snakes and ladders
I remember when
you and me and all that matters
best of times best of friends

stand and fall hurt and healing
say goodbye again
through it all the gift of feeling
worst of times best of friends

here and now make a promise
and take it to the end
heart to heart God is in us
all the time the best of friends

these days of sunshine
these days of rain
we pull together in days of pain
we share beginnings
we share the ends
it’s worth it all in these days
to be best of friends

We got home late last night, but I was up early to have coffee with my friend Peter, as is our custom every Thursday morning. I’m still moving around. I’m grateful tonight for the friends close by and those far away, for the ties that bind us, and for the unexpected moments that remind me it is worth it all. In fact, it is what matters most.

Peace,
Milton

0

taking it personally

2

Today was a glorious late-summer day here on the Shoreline, as we call it. The high was in the mid-seventies, the humidity was low, and the wisps of clouds looked like they were painted in just to add a little texture to the sheltering sky above them. I sat at the table on our patio and drank my coffee, since my Saturday morning offered me room to do so. I sat in the shade while Lizzy!, our youngest Schnauzer, sunned on the top step.

After a while, I picked up my phone to read the paper and then moved on to see what news my friends were sharing. One posted a link to an article about the Trump administration filing a brief to force the Supreme Court to rule on whether sexual orientation was covered by laws that banned employment discrimination on the basis of sex. The article noted,

Remarkably, the department argued in its memorandum that the reason anti-gay discrimination is not unlawful under the ban on sex-based discrimination is because, in cases of adverse treatment by an employer, both gay men and gay women would be addressed equally poorly.

My friend, who is gay, wrote in their post,

Early on in his administration I expressed dismay and disappointment with people who I love and care about that voted for Trump. I expressed worry that he would be working to strip me and people like me of our rights in this country. My loved ones said that wouldn’t happen, that people in the US wouldn’t let it happen. Well, here we go.

Tonight, after Ginger and I walked home from the Guilford Italian Festival at St. George’s Catholic Church, another reminder of the wonderful little town we live in, I saw a post from a friend who lives in Durham, North Carolina with these pictures—taken today in Hillsborough NC

—and only these words: “This is fifteen miles from my house.”

My friend is Turkish. They are also American.

Hillsborough is between Durham and Greensboro where last month Trump held a rally and bashed Rep. Ilhan Omar, among others. The crowd responded by chanting words he had tweeted about her—“Send her back”—and he did nothing to stop them.

After I wrote my post last night, Ginger and I watched a special Oprah did on When They See Us. First, she interviewed the cast, along with Ava Duvernay, the writer and director. Then she talked to the five men, whom she called the Exonerated Five. One of the question she asked was if the held the DA responsible for what happened to them. One of the men said he did because there were several points in the investigation—the lack of DNA evidence, the lack of any kind of physical evidence, the fact that they had nothing that put the boys in that part of Central Park—she could have said, “The evidence is not here; we need to find another way.” But she didn’t.

Colleges and universities are beginning their fall semesters. At Baylor University, my alma mater, this year begins, as have many others, without the school being willing to recognize an LGBTQ student group on campus, which is to say, the university knows they are there, they just won’t say they are legitimately part of the university community. The regents have written things in that sort of love-the-sinner-hate-the-sin kind of language that lets them feel like they are welcoming, but gives them cover for their discrimination. Yes, I know they say they are being true to their faith. But go back to the first of this post and read what the Department of Justice is trying to do to LGBTQ folks on a national level. What Baylor is doing gives them cover, too.

But this is not just Baylor’s problem. It’s mine, too. It’s ours.

I deeply wish my conservative Christian friends would speak up against the damage being done, but it appears they are not going to do that. I wish our elected officials were less beholden to power and money and would act courageously, but those that will are far and few between. I can’t control what they do. I can control what I do.

It feels alarmist to write that we need to prepare to resist until I realize (again) my position of privilege. I have never had to worry that I was going to be left out or hurt because I am white, male, Christian, straight, or cisgender. I have never had to worry that I would be disenfranchised or deported or assumed to be a criminal because of my skin color. I have never lost a job because of my orientation. When I listen to those who live with the reality of all of those things, I can see that the alarms have been going off for a long time. I am just now hearing them.

The Supreme Court may give Trump the authority he seeks to openly discriminate. Trump’s rhetoric continues to give white nationalists permission, even validation, to take to the streets with public hate. We need to speak up and protest. And we need to vote, though what is going on now will not be fixed by the 2020 election. We have to get ready to take care of those who are targeted as “enemies” for nothing more than not being white. We need to learn from those who ran the Underground Railroad, from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, from Dorothy Day and James Baldwin and Woody Guthrie, from Jimmy Santiago Baca and Naomi Shihab Nye, from those scattered across Europe in various forms of the Resistance, and from anyone we can think of that can teach us how to resist. How to stand up for one another.

I find hope that a lot of folks are way ahead of me. A host of Baylor alumni, both gay and straight, have been tenacious in putting pressure on the school to do more than posture compassion. People across the country are helping undocumented folks find their way. Groups like the Equal Justice Initiative, Facing History and Ourselves, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, alongside of things like the 1619 Project, are helping to change the narrative we tell ourselves about who we are and how we became who we are.

I don’t want people I love to go to sleep afraid of what might happen to them because they are who they are, and yet that is happening on this lovely summer evening.

I choose to take that personally.

Peace,
Milton

0

what matters most

3

My mind has been wandering today because of what I saw on television.

Last night Ginger and I watched all four episodes of When They See Us, an original Netflix series written and directed by Ava DuVernay, that tells the story of the boys who became known as the Central Park Five after they were wrongly convicted for the brutal rape of a woman in Central Park in 1989. If you have not seen it, take the time, It is difficult and important. If you are white and you have not seen it, consider it required viewing.

The Central Park Five was going to be the original title, but DuVernay changed it. She explained her reasoning in a tweet that accompanied an early trailer.

Not thugs. Not wilding. Not criminals. Not even the Central Park Five. They are Korey, Antron, Raymond, Yusef, Kevin. They are millions of young people of color who are blamed, judged and accused on sight. May 31. A film in four parts about who they really are. WHEN THEY SEE US.

One of the most striking things to me was that the DA and lead detective refused to consider they had made a mistake even when the man who was guilty confessed and DNA evidence confirmed his confession. They had constructed a story that damned the boys and they refused to see it any differently. They were also among those who pressured the young boys, who edited their video testimony, and who coerced the confessions. They could not let themselves come to terms with what they had done or that they had been mistaken in the way they had seen the boys as suspects to begin with. Here were black teens in Central Park. Here was a white woman who was raped. Of course they did it. They reminded me of something of a friend from long ago used to say: “Never trust a zealot with a clear conscience.”

The media were complicit in that they did not investigate beyond what they were told by the cops and they gave megaphones to Donald Trump and others who demanded the boys face the death penalty, even before they were convicted. To see the actual footage of Trump’s comments from thirty years ago in light of things he has said in the last few weeks was chilling. He has not changed. We, as a nation, are the ones who have normalized him. The point of the show, however , is not to demonize him but to tell the story of the boys who lost so much of their lives because of the injustice done to them.

I was affected in several ways by the story, some of which I am still figuring out. Today I have kept coming back to the unwillingness of the DA and the cops to consider an alternate story. Once they had a narrative of the crime, they bent everything to fit it. Where my thoughts went from there were to theology. I don’t mean to say that race and racism were not the heart of the film. I am just saying where my mind went today.

I read a hopeful article about a Baptist church in Ohio who called Erica Sanders, a transgender woman, as pastor—not because she was transgender, but because she was the best candidate for the job. They believe God is calling them together. I stared at the title of the article

Baptist church calls transgender pastor

thinking, “I never expected I would see those words in one sentence.” For those words to be put together meant that a bunch of people had to let go of the narrative they had built their lives around, consider the new things God had taught them, and write a new narrative rather than digging in.

Sanders said, “With God’s help, together we can follow the example of Christ and create a beloved community marked by abiding peace, expansive love and radical justice in Oberlin and beyond.” And yet, some of the comments on the BNG website could say nothing but, “WRONG WRONG WRONG.”

The cops and the DA blew the case because they decided the boys were guilty and then could not let themselves see it any differently. Listen to the white nationalist rhetoric and the dynamic is not different: they have decided that anyone not like them is a threat and they can’t let themselves see it any differently.

When we choose doctrine over relationship—when being right is more important than incarnating love—we follow the same arc in the sense that those who we see as “sinners” or whom we think are wrong can never be redeemed in our eyes because we won’t make room for God to offer a new story. If doctrine were paramount, there would never have been a need for the Incarnation. Those in power, which is to say those for whose doctrine made sure they were always right, railroaded Jesus to execution with about as strong a case as the Manhattan DA had in 1989.

Before they could kill him, Jesus spent his time telling those who felt wrongly convicted by life that he loved them. That love—not the doctrine—is what has stayed vibrant for two millennia.

I told you my mind has been wandering today. I love days like this.

Peace,
Milton

0

1619

2

“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,” is the opening line to “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent, answering the question, how do you measure a year in the life.

What about four hundred years?

The first enslaved people arrived on our shores at Fort Comfort, Virginia four hundred years ago today.
–twelve years after Virginia became the first colony;
–a year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth;
–157 years before the Declaration of Independence;
–244 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

As a part of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes,

Those men and women who came ashore on that August day were the beginning of American slavery. They were among the 12.5 million Africans who would be kidnapped from their homes and brought in chains across the Atlantic Ocean in the largest forced migration in human history until the Second World War. Almost two million did not survive the grueling journey, known as the Middle Passage.

Before the abolishment of the international slave trade, 400,000 enslaved Africans would be sold into America.

Greater Los Angeles has a population of around 12 million people in the last census. That’s how many people were forced from their homes and forced into slavery. Austin, Texas has a little over 2 million. That’s how many died in the Middle Passage.

Dr. Reggie Williams writes,

On this day 400 years ago, “20 and odd” Africans were brought to Jamestown, some say on a “Dutch man of Warr,” others say on an English warship called “The White Lion.” These 20 are apparently the first documented Africans brought into the embryonic United States as slaves (but not the first Africans to come here). When these first enslaved Africans arrive, biological anthropology and scientific racism doesn’t exist, which is to say, race does not exist; the Europeans identified as Christians, not white; there was no segregation; Christians made no theological defense of kidnapping and enslaving; capitalism was a child; there was no patriotism; millions of Africans were not yet entombed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. All of that was about to change. Protestant superiority gave way to Christian slavery, and theology tailored to justify it all. New Christianities were born. Race became a financially incentivized anthropology to undergird a new and lucrative economic franchise. People became “white” in the process of organizing a society in which “Negroes” could be Christian and slaves. America was born.

On paper, in 2263 we will be able to say we have lived here has long without the enslavement of Africans as those who created this country lived her with them. The effects of slavery on our country will live long beyond that unless we–and be we I mean white Americans do a better job of understanding, repenting for, and reconciling the damage we have done.

In 2019, we are not past slavery. We are reaping the whirlwind.

Peace,
Milton

0

let’s finish this

5

I preached this morning at our church in Guilford. My text was Hebrews 12:1-2. Here’s what I had to say.

I am not a runner.

I never have been. When I was in eighth grade, we had a school-wide track meet in which everyone was expected to participate. I signed up for whatever race it was that we only had to run one lap. As I rounded the last turn–in last place–my mother said I blew a bubble with the gum in my mouth. In tenth grade, we were in Texas and had to participate in the President’s physical fitness program–this time I had to do the hundred yard dash. I tied for last place. After we finished, I learned that the boy I tied had a permanent leg injury.

Like I said, i am not a runner. So there is a touch of irony in the fact that our scripture this morning is about running the race that is set before us. After spending a whole chapter describing people who had been faithful to God, the writer of Hebrews turns to say it is our turn to run. Listen for the word of God in our passage this morning.

Our passage begins with the word “therefore,” which means it is dependent on what came before it, even though it’s the first verse of a new chapter. Hebrews 11 begins with a definition of faith–faith means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see–and then gives a concise history of some of those whose lives were marked by their faith in God: Abel, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Gideon; the list is not exhaustive. We could name Ruth, Naomi, Rahab, Hagar, and even then there would be others. The list ends with these words:

Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.

And then—

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the author and goal of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

If the writer of Hebrews had known Americans would be reading their words, I’m not sure they would have used a race as the primary metaphor because when we hear the word race our first response is to ask, “Who won?” We are bred for competition. As Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

But this race is not about winning. A better connection is to think of something like the Relay for Life, which is a twenty-four hour fundraising event for the American Cancer Society. Teams work together to keep someone on the track for an entire day and night to both raise money for and show solidarity with those have cancer.

The race of faith is a relay of life, if you will. We are running with all those who have come before us; we are running for those who will follow; we are running together right now. Our task is to finish our leg, to be faithful to our calling, and to be mindful of all that connects us.

To run well, we have to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” I notice the writer doesn’t say, “Lose weight,” though that might be helpful advice. Instead, they say. “Lay it aside.” And they make a distinction between the things that weigh us down and the sin that clings so closely. To elaborate on that, I want to tell you a story I have told some of you before.

When we were living in Boston, I went back to Baylor University for Homecoming and learned my father had preached that day on campus. I did not hear the sermon, but a friend told me that he had used me as an illustration. My father said, “In life you have to learn the difference between a problem and a predicament. A problem you can fix. A predicament is something you have to learn to live with.” He paused. “I used to think my eldest son was a problem. Now I see he is a predicament.”

At his funeral, I told that story and then said, “I learned he was a predicament, too.” We had years of struggle, but we were both able to heed the advice of the text and lay aside both the weights and the sins that divided us.

We have to learn the difference between what weighs us down, as in what things are done to us, and our sin–the choices and decisions we make that do damage to us and to others. When I think of weights, I think of the depression I live with, or my hearing loss. Over the years, Ginger and I have both used this passage in working with young people. When we have talked about the weights, inevitably some have come to find us to tell stories of abuse and neglect.

I don’t think the writer of Hebrews is being flippant when they say, lay it aside. The sense of the verb is like taking off a garment or shedding something. Some experiences in our lives leave deep and abiding wounds. Some conditions or situations with which we live are chronic. We all have predicaments that are not easily discarded. But looking at those who have come before us and had weights of their own, and looking around at those who run with us and share the weight we carry, let us not allow the wounds and weights to define us.

We can say the same about the pain we inflict on ourselves and others with both the things we have done and the things we have left undone. Our sins are not the last word. Don’t let them distract you, says the writer. In our smartphone world, we understand distraction perhaps better than they did. Lay aside our sin–can you hear that in the same tone as someone you love saying, “Put down your phone and pay attention to me”? We can ask for forgiveness. We can make amends. That doesn’t mean the consequences or the scars disappear necessarily, but, again, our sins do not have to be what defines us, or what distracts us.

We have a race to run and it requires persistence. Jesus is our model for how to hang in there. In his gospel, John tells the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples on the night before he was executed rather than the Last Supper. John says of Jesus, “Knowing he had come from God and he was going to God, Jesus took a towel and wrapped it around his waist, bent down and washed the feet of the disciples.” Jesus’ sense of his source and goal—coming from God and going to God—let him lay aside the weight of the world as it came crashing down and offer love to his friends in a tangible way because he knew his death was not the last word.

The writer of Hebrews says Jesus is both source and goal of the race we are running, which is another way of saying we, too, have come from God and are going to God. We are running in a big circle, and, like those who have run before us, we can trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God anywhere along the way.

Therefore, let us run the race.

Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Many remember it as the games where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony. Some may recall that many of the athletes were affected by the altitude. The story i remember most is that of John Stephen Akhwari, a Tanzanian marathon runner who came in last.

Akhwari had muscle cramps early because of the altitude, but he kept running. About a third of the way through, he got caught up in a group of runners jockeying for position and he was knocked down on the pavement. He dislocated his knee and injured his shoulder. He kept running after they attended to him. The winner of the marathon, Mamo Wolde of Ethiopia, finished in 2:20:26. Akhwari finished over an hour later. The medal ceremony was over when word came that he was still running and a TV crew went out to find him. He entered the Olympic stadium after sunset. Over three thousand thousand people stayed to watch him cross the finish line.

After the race an interviewer asked why he had kept going when he knew he was last. He answered, “My country did not send me five thousand miles to start the race; they sent me five thousand miles to finish the race.”

Though one of the ways we can think about the race metaphor is to think about our whole lives, the truth is that life is full of finish lines. We are entered in more than one event. When the race we are running right now is over, there will be another. You may feel like you are entered in several at once. Whatever the race, whatever we feel is at stake, we have come from God and we are going to God. There is not a step we take that falls outside of the love of God.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, since we know we have come from God and we are going to God, let us deal with what weighs down and repent and reconcile for the impediments we have caused and finish the race, following in Jesus’ steps, so that we like him can say, “It is finished.” Well, this one is . . . Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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sermon prep

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I’m preaching tomorrow at First Congregational Church in Guilford. Since it is my church, I’m going to wait to post the sermon until tomorrow, since I want to make sure no one gets a sneak peak. Instead, here’s a poem that grew out of my preparation.

sermon prep

what can I say
what should I say
can I say that
I don’t know
what to say
say that again
don’t say that
what did you say
that’s been said
far too often
nothing to say
say something
what can I say

Peace,
Milton

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