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advent journal: slow train to bethlehem

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On my train ride to Grand Central Station, the penultimate stop is Harlem/125th Street. Once the doors close, it takes about fifteen minutes to go the last eighty blocks to the terminal on 42nd Street. The closer we get, the slower the train goes. Passengers get up, put on coats, and line up in front of the doors so they are ready when we finally arrive, but it feels like it takes forever. All we can do is wait.

Advent feels like that ride to me: the slow train to Bethlehem. It takes a long time for Jesus to be born again.

Wait shares a common root with the word wake. Both hold a sense of watchfulness and awareness, as in we are waiting for something. Or someone. Even the lectionary passage this morning was a call to stay awake. Pay attention. Don’t fall asleep at the switch. Waiting can carry a sense of expectancy, as it does in Advent, or a sense of dread, as it might in a doctor’s waiting room or worrying about a thieves in the night like the verses from Matthew, and a variety of graduations in between.

Even as we wait for, we can also wait on—as servers do in restaurants. To wait means to pay attention to someone else’s needs, which also carries a sense of awareness. Those empty water glasses aren’t going to fill themselves.

Over the past year, wait has taken on another connotation for me—as an acronym—WAIT: Why Am I Talking. I learned it in the context of discussions around white privilege, or should I say white-cisgender-male privilege, and our tendency to explain the world on our terms. If I really want to know how someone else understands the world, I need to learn to WAIT, which is a kinder way of saying, “Shut the hell up and listen.”

Our ride on the slow train to Bethlehem calls us to wait in all three ways. We wait for Christ to be born again in our time and in our cultures; we wait on one another, paying attention to what those around us need to get on board; and we WAIT so that we can among those who in silent stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

That sentence makes it sound so easy, doesn’t it?

It’s not—at least, not for me.

Throughout the history of my depression, sleep has been an escape. When the shadows are the deepest, I close my eyes. I don’t want to be awake because it hurts too much, so I sleep. Staying awake is hard work. The cost of paying attention feels prohibitive. Sleeping is easier than swimming in molasses. I am exhausted by my daily commute, if you will.

Many years ago, my friends Billy and Kenny wrote a song that asked

why does love come like a thief in the night
warning no one like a thief in the night

Good questions. Why is it so hard to stay awake for love: to wait for, to wait on, to WAIT, to listen for the sound of the whistle in the distance? I don’t know all the answers, other than to say it just is.

As I have been writing, the first significant snowfall of the season has been falling. At times, the flakes have been the size of silver dollars and they have fallen just like the carol: how silently, how silently. The temperature is not cold enough for the lovely covering to last long, but for this afternoon our town is at its snow-globe best. Night is falling along with the snow. Currier and Ives could not have imagined it more beautifully. It does feel like we should all go stand in a circle on the Green and sing.

The storm warnings yesterday caused one of our annual town traditions to be postponed. It is a service of remembrance for children who have died. Parents who have lost their kids—of any age—come together to wait on one another, in a way, as they face another holiday season without their sons and daughters. The service was put off so more people could come. We will gather next Sunday. My part in the service is to sing “I Wish You Peace,” a song written by Bernie Leadon and Patti Davis and recorded by the Eagles. The chorus says

I wish you peace when times are hard
the light to guide you through the dark
and when storms are high and your, your dreams are low
I wish you the strength to let love grow on
I wish you the strength to let love flow

Our first candle today represented Peace, which, I think, is not the official order but it was a candle worth lighting in these days of endless war and shouting. Hope, Peace, Love, Joy: they all need to be lighted; the order does not matter so much other than to those who ordered the candles to begin with. I came home and turned on all the electric candles in our windows that will burn through Advent and Christmastide and Epiphany and as long as winter stays. On Sundays, we let them burn all night.

I am not waiting for Christ to be born because I think his birth makes things better magically somehow. The power of love to change the world is its own slow train. As we tell the story each year, I wait for the angel to say to Joseph, “You should call him Emmanuel”—God with us. We are not alone in our waiting, our waking, and even in our sleeping.

God is along for the ride.

Peace,
Milton

7+

now, then . . .

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I deactivated my Twitter account last week, in part because I have never been able to fully understand how to use it, but mostly because I think it takes more than 240 characters to communicate well with one another. That our politicians have allowed themselves to use it as their primary means of communication is ominous to me because what now passes for public discourse feels a lot like a playground argument during middle school recess (with apologies to middle schoolers).

My point, however, is not to rant against Twitter, though I have a pretty good rant lurking inside me, it seems. I am looking for a way out of our incessant present tense. I want room to move. To think, maybe even to be bored. To miss things, or to find them, rather than being inundated by immediacy on a daily basis.

One of my favorite sites for well put together words is LitHub.com. I like them so much that I get (and read) a daily e-mail digest from them that is full of links to great writing I would probably not know about otherwise. Each newsletter begins with an anniversary of some sort. Here’s one from a couple of weeks ago:

TODAY: In 1926, writer and critic John Berger is born.

Even they can’t stay away from the present tense. John Berger (one of my favorite writers, by the way) WAS born in 1926. He died almost three years ago. His life has come and gone–and it was an amazing life, made richer when we admit, with our words, that it is over. But he is not being born. He is dead.

Most every news outlet speaks only in the present to make it sound immediate because right now is all that matters. It continues to bother me when a reporter claims to be “live at the Capitol” at 11 o’clock at night and the event is long since over. Something doesn’t have to be happening right now for it to matter.

The “tyranny of the now” is a prescient phrase that is not mine. The tsunami of social media, or just media, that never ends makes it all but impossible to get any sense of meaningful context or perspective. It’s the way I feel in a room full of people talking when I have my hearing aids in. All I can hear is noise that I can’t make sense of.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is more than one day and because it is centered around the table. I love cooking and eating and being together, and all of those things are in the mix. Over the last several years, I have noticed a necessary prelude of sadness, which happened again this year. Once again, I was mindful of who was not here. I couldn’t call my mother for the recipes I already knew by heart but loved to hear her read again. I was too far away from loved ones who have sat at our table and whom I wished I could feed. One morning this week, I wrote this poem.

a feast of losses

before I can get to thanksgiving
I have to sit at the table of grief
and share a feast of losses

thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of my absences . . .

the table is full of empty chairs
not all dead, just not here
the room is full of memories

what dish that is worth its salt
is not seasoned with sorrow
only empty seats can be filled

take this bread, fill this cup
as often as you do this, remember . . .

I have gained the weight of loss
I am thickened by grief
I am starving for companionship

Immediate and important aren’t synonyms. Taking the time to remember, tell stories (in the past tense), and linger at the table to listen to one another are all subversive acts. Yes, we have much with which to be concerned. Yes, it is crucial that we pay attention. And it takes more than seeing something “live” for us to understand its significance. It is the melody of memory, or perhaps I should say the harmony that the past sings alongside the melody of the present tense, that gives the present depth and meaning.

I know I’m going to miss some things by not checking Twitter, but I want to learn (again) how to sit down without pulling out my phone, how to be bored, how to be observant, how to attend to those around me, how to sing along with an old song.

If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen. There’s a place at the table with your name on it.

Peace,
Milton

7+

shaking hands

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I preached this morning at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in East Haddam, Connecticut. They are a wonderful congregation. The text was Luke 1:67-79: Zechariah’s words after his son, John, was born. Here’s what I had to say.

Our scripture this morning picks up in the middle of a story, which I guess is the case most any Sunday morning. In that way, our worship is a lot like our lives: we are always in the middle of the story—and we don’t have time to catch up on all of the context, otherwise we would be really late for lunch. But let’s look at a couple of things.

Zechariah was a small-town priest and also a new father. He was married to Elizabeth who had just given birth. Their son would grow up to be John the Baptist. Because they were both older, Zechariah had responded skeptically when the angel told Elizabeth she would have a baby, and, as a consequence he had been mute for her entire pregnancy. Elizabeth had nine months of silence, as far as he was concerned—which may not have been bad news, necessarily. Zechariah kept everything bottled up until the baby appeared and, when asked what the boy would be named, he scribbled, “His name is John” on a tablet. Then, according to the verses we read, he just kept going because his heart overflowed with thanksgiving.

The first part of his song, as it’s often called, is a history lesson recounting how God acted in the lives of David and Abraham. But when he gets to the second verse, he talks directly to his new son, telling him that he will grow up to be a prophet and lead people to find forgiveness and then, in most translations, he says,

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
That’s the part that got me this week: the tender mercy of our God.

One of the dictionaries I looked at said the word mercy has fallen out of use over the last couple of hundred years. It is not a word we use much, other than in church. It means “showing compassion or forgiveness toward someone that it is in your power to harm or punish.” Some of the synonyms include generosity and kindness. The root of the word comes from the Old French word merci—the word they now use to say thank you. From the start, it seems, mercy and gratitude are connected.

If you think that’s interesting—and I hope you do—let me tell you what I learned about the Greek word translated as “tender.” It literally means intestinal. I’m guessing you didn’t think that is what I would say. But where we think of the heart as the seat of our emotions, the Hebrews talked about the bowels–the gut—as the, well, heart of everything. Maybe that’s why the Bible doesn’t contain many great love songs.

When I hear the word tender, words like gentle, soft, or delicate come to mind. Not heavy-handed. But I don’t think that is what Zechariah was singing about. He was talking about the visceral, gutsy compassion of God. John the Baptist was the one who was going to prepare the way for Jesus, the Word Made Flesh. The hope Zachariah saw in his little boy was earthy and tenacious. God was not sending good wishes from afar; God was landing right in the middle of us like a stomach punch.

I was at a Christian festival last summer and saw someone wearing a t-shirt that said, “Compassion is Badass.” Maybe that is the modern translation of tender mercy. We are living in a time when what passes for public discourse is damaging and dehumanizing. It feels like almost everyone one is talking, even shouting, and few are listening. It takes guts to do more than shout at one another or label one another. It is risky to reach out. It is costly to be generous. It takes courage—or maybe faithfulness is a better word—to be vulnerable. And to be grateful.

Our worship guide reminds us that in the lectionary calendar today is “The Reign of Christ Sunday”—the last Sunday before Advent begins, and we start telling the story over again. It’s hard not to hear the title as ironic in some sense. We have lots of hymns that sing about Christ as King, but what monarchs do and what Jesus did seem far removed from one another. Jesus ate with people and walked with them and talked with them. He listened and wept and told stories. He didn’t raise an army or garner power or play to his base. Instead, he showed what visceral compassion looks like in everyday life.

Pádraig Ó Tuama is an Irish poet and theologian who has spent his life waging peace. I want to lean into his words this morning in a poem called “Shaking Hands.”

Shaking Hands

Because what’s the alternative?
Because of courage.
Because of loved ones lost.
Because no more.
Because it’s a small thing; shaking hands; it happens every day.
Because I heard of one man whose hands haven’t stopped shaking since a market day in Omagh.
Because it takes a second to say hate, but it takes longer, much longer, to be a great leader.
Much, much longer.

Because shared space without human touching doesn’t amount to much.
Because it’s easier to speak to your own than to hold the hand of someone whose side has been previously described, proscribed, denied.
Because it is tough.
Because it is tough.
Because it is meant to be tough, and this is the stuff of memory, the stuff of hope, the stuff of gesture, and meaning and leading.
Because it has taken so, so long.
Because it has taken land and money and languages and barrels and barrels of blood.

Because lives have been lost.
Because lives have been taken.

Because to be bereaved is to be troubled by grief.
Because more than two troubled peoples live here.
Because I know a woman whose hand hasn’t been shaken since she was a man.
Because shaking a hand is only a part of the start.
Because I know a woman whose touch calmed a man whose heart was breaking.
Because privilege is not to be taken lightly.

Because this just might be good.
Because who said that this would be easy?
Because some people love what you stand for, and for some, if you can, they can.
Because solidarity means a common hand.
Because a hand is only a hand; so hang onto it.

So join your much discussed hands.
We need this; for one small second.
So touch.
So lead.

Whomever we come in contact with today or tomorrow or next week, we will walk into the middle of their story. We won’t know all the context. But when the checkout person is gruff, or the customer service representative appears not to care, or the server makes a mistake; when our kid gets a bad grade, or a friend disappoints us, or things are tense around the Thanksgiving table because we don’t know what to talk about, remember we are created in the image of our God, who is a God of visceral compassion, of gutsy generosity, and we can live into that image by shaking hands, or maybe by just passing the potatoes instead of passing judgment.

Let us join hands. The world needs this. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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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

6+

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

2+

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

7

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

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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

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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

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