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1619

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“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

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let’s finish this

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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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I’m just the kid . . .

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I remember the afternoon in Fort Worth.

I walked into Sound Warehouse—a regular stop on my way home from work—and picked up two debut CDs off the “Discover New Artists” rack: Shawn Colvin’s Steady On and David Wilcox’s How Did You Find Me Here?, which is still my favorite title for a first record. Today, one of the things that found me from the internet was a video for Shawn’s song “Ricochet in Time” with the tag “30th anniversary (acoustic version).”

Ain’t if funny how time slips away.

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock, and a whole bunch of songs by the Beatles and others are older than that, yet somehow I think of records like Shawn’s and David’s as more recent, yet I have lived as much of life since those recordings came out as I did before them. How did I find me here?

David Wilcox writes amazing songs. As I have said a number of times on this blog, I wish “Show the Way” was our national anthem. But from my first listen of the CD, the song that grabbed me was “The Kid.”

I’m the kid who ran away with the circus
now I’m watering elephants
but sometimes I lie awake in the sawdust
dreaming I’m in a suit of light
late at night in the empty big top I’m
all alone on the high wire
look, he’s working without a net this time
he’s a real death-defier

I’m the kid who always looked out the window
failing tests in geography
but I’ve seen things far beyond just the schoolyard
distant shores of exotic lands
they’re the spires of the Turkish empire
it’s six months since we made landfall
riding love with the spice of India
through Gibraltar, we’re rich men all

I’m the kid who thought we’d someday be lovers
always held out that time would tell
time was talking, I guess I just wasn’t listening
no surprise if you know me well
and as we’re walking toward the train station
there’s a whispering rainfall
‘cross the boulevard you slip your hand in mine
in the distance the train calls

I’m the kid who has this habit of dreaming
sometimes gets me in trouble too
but the truth is I could no more stop dreaming
than I could make them all come true

Something about the mix of a kid who couldn’t read a map in class dreaming of rounding Gibraltar dug deep into my heart. When we had the chance to go to Morocco last year, I wanted to see Gibraltar because of this song. When I looked at the liner notes, I found out Wilcox had not written it and the song belonged to Buddy Mondlock. It was many years later—after CDs had begun to vanish—that I found a recording of him singing it. To my surprise, he sang a verse Wilcox did not. If nothing else, it shows Mondlock loves Casablanca.

I’m the kid who fell asleep at the movies
snoring right through the final scene
that’s okay ‘cause I was right there with Bogey
side by side in the pouring rain
it’s our last chance to make a getaway
but it looks like I’m bleeding
take them with you I’ll hold them off
they won’t get by while I’m breathing

Best I can tell, even Buddy doesn’t sing that verse any more. I would love to know what the story is, why words once written were left behind. In one way or another, I suppose, we all have verses of our lives that we quit singing or left behind for one reason or another. Perhaps, they were taken away from us; maybe we realized they were words we couldn’t sing once they left our mouths, or we began to move to a different melody. The difference is ours aren’t cataloged in iTunes.

One of the verses I quit singing was a PhD program at Baylor. I was in my second semester thirty years ago when I met Ginger. I was working full-time as the Minister to Youth at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth and using my day off the drive down to Waco and take classes on Thursday. I was on a ten year plan. By the end of the spring semester, I knew I could not work and fall in love and go to school, so I dropped out and went after the girl.

When I dreamed in my twenties, I thought I would get a doctorate, as most of my friends did. I thought I might be a professor, or figure out a way to go to school for a living. I didn’t know how to dream about spending my life with anyone until I met Ginger. Then I met her and that semester and a half was as far as I got before I changed my tune. I let my academic verse fall away like Buddy did with Bogey.

I can see how I found myself here. She’s still here, too.

Peace,
Milton

Here’s Buddy.

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a room of (sorta) my own

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Billy Collins has a poem about working on a poem and then talking about it before it was finished, only to watch it get up and walk away. I know how he feels. Then there are other times when it helps to get it out in the open like a promise that needs to be kept, and talking about it can help it happen.

I’ve been working on a book for a while now. The earliest notes and drafts I have go back to the summer of 2016. I was hoping to have it finished by the end of that year. That didn’t happen. I circled around the next year; it didn’t happen then, either. I have been chasing this thing down for three years now. This book has had a longer gestation period than an elephant.

I would love to tell you I have been writing the whole time, but that has been part of the problem. The reasons why I have not written regularly are myriad. What matters is I wasn’t doing it. The energy I have found in getting back to blogging regularly has ridden side-saddle with trying to figure out what I need to do or change to create space to write. I figured out that space was both literal and metaphorical.

One of the signature stories in my life comes from watching my nephews play soccer when they were little boys. Scott, the youngest, was about five, which meant a soccer game was a gang of kids huddled around the ball moving up and down the field. My brother said Scott’s team was the best in the league because of one piece of advice the coach gave them.

“If you don’t have the ball,” he said, “don’t run to the ball. Run to open space and let the ball find you.”

I have come back to that advice a number of times in my life since then. It showed up again this week. I have been looking for a place to write where I can leave my stuff out and come back to it. Our house does not have a room like that. The barn is not temperature controlled. My “desks” are at one end of the dining table or in the window seat at the Marketplace. Both of those are good for my editing work and other projects, but not for the book.

I came across Guilford Co-Working last week, a place quite literally across the street from our house that rents places to work. I contacted the owner and he told me he had a client who only used his office a couple of days a week, and not all day at that, and was looking for someone to share the space. Just like that, I have a room of my own—or at a least enough of one to write. I took a picture of my desk.

After I finished my editing for the day, I went over there today for the first time and wrote for two and a half hours. What that means is, with the work I have done already, I should have a complete draft in early September and a new book to share with the world about this time next year. I feel good about saying it out loud because it is within reach.

At first, I thought I was writing a grief book about what I learned after my father died. Though that is still there in many ways, one of the things I learned about grief is that it is a universally shared experience, so that book has become one about how we are all connected—a central theme in my life all along the way. The book will be titled The Color of Together: Metaphors of Connectedness.

Believe me, I will keep you posted. Stay tuned.

Peace,
Milton

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say the words

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One of the websites I go to for inspiration and sustenance is called Brain Pickings. It is hard to say what it’s about, other than taking a meaningful look at what it means to be truly human. It is curated by Maria Popova, who has quickly moved up on my list of people I would love to have to dinner. I have no idea how she covers so many different kinds of writing and thought–and then finds ways to connect them.

One of the articles I found today had an audio clip of the only recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice from a BBC series called Words Fail Me. One of Woolf’s quotes stood out in particular:

Since the only test of truth is length of life, and since words survive the chops and changes of time longer than any other substance, therefore they are the truest. Buildings fall; even the earth perishes. What was yesterday a cornfield is to-day a bungalow. But words, if properly used, seem able to live for ever.

Words, if properly used . . .

I read the words just before I went into a three-hour corporate meeting where people read their PowerPoint presentations and spoke in acronyms. I don’t think any of those words made it out of the conference room alive. As I have said before, business is out to kill language.

As my morning went on, I read about the way Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, turned Emma Lazarus’ words engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty into a weapon: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge,”

I wonder how much money his immigrant ancestors had when they arrived.

On the train ride home from New York, I saw a Facebook post from a college friend who was quoting her niece:

My mom always says, “Say the words.”

Don’t just think someone did a good job or that they made an impact on you. Say it to them.

And I want to encourage you to “Say the words.”

Because someone just “said the words” to me and it made my day a lot better.

Words, if properly used . . .

I have a card in my wallet that someone I didn’t know handed me probably twenty years ago. It doesn’t have a logo on it, or a name, or a phone number. All it says is

I have carried it with me everyday since.

I don’t know if I agree with Woolf that the only test of truth is length of life, but she’s on to something brush with eternity that words–good words–can bring. We watch them do damage almost everyday, I know. Those words will not last because they will kill each other. The words that matter–I love you; I see you; I’m with you; I’m sorry; I can help; let’s eat–live on and on, and help us keep going as well.

If the point of our lives is to be remembered, we won’t be. If the point of our lives is to say the words that matter, they will live on.

Say the words.

Peace,
Milton

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nothing matters

0

nothing matters

from my window seat I can see a bench
concrete sides holding wooden slats
under the tree that has taken a century
to grow beyond the telephone pole

from my window seat I can see a bench
concrete sides holding wooden slats
under the tree that has taken a century
to grow beyond the telephone pole

meet me there

and don’t bring a thing with you
perhaps a cup of coffee, or a pup
leave anything that beeps or vibrates
and we will linger with a sense of purpose

as though nothing matters
(as in we have nothing to prove other)

we will do nothing the way Martha did
–you say that’s how I always talk about her
because I’m with Mary in the kitchen–
I am working to learn that nothing matters

to understand what I mean you have to be here
on the bench next to me listening to the tone
of my voice, paying attention the way
Mary could not with her tray of hors d’oeuvres

nothing matters so much that we must do
nothing other than find ways to each other
so meet me on the bench–and bring snacks
all this talk about food has made me hungry

Peace,
Milton

1+

listen up, breaches

4

I’m preaching tomorrow at North Madison Congregational Church UCC, a wonderful congregation in the next town over from Guilford. In light of all that has gone on in the past couple of weeks, and also in light of Ginger’s trip to El Paso, I am using Isaiah 58:9-12 rather than the lectionary passage for the day. Since I am using an amalgam of different translations, I included the verses here.

My sermon title is “Repairers of the Breach.” The post title is how I wish I could begin my sermon.

If you remove the yoke of oppression from among you,
    the finger-pointing, the mean and inflammatory speech;
If you open your heart to the hungry,
    and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted,
    your light will shine in your despair,
    and your gloom will be like the noonday.
God will guide you continually
    and provide for you, even in parched places,
   and make your bones strong.
You will be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water that won’t run dry.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
You will be called Repairers of the Breach,
    Restorer of Livable Streets.

The last time I was here, I told you that Ginger, my wife, was on her way to El Paso, Texas to take part in a protest at one of the detention centers. She got back home last Wednesday night. On Saturday, we heard the news of the mass shooting there and it hit us a little closer to home. When we looked on the map we saw that her hotel was only a couple of block from the Walmart where people were killed as they shopped. She had walked past it in the evenings. She called the hotel to see if folks there were alright and the woman who had driven her shuttle bus answered. They were unharmed, but they were shaken.

The next morning came news of the shooting in Dayton. Barely a week before El Paso, there was a mass shooting in at a Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California. In all three cases, the terrorists who attacked and people had been exploring “violent ideologies,” according to news reports. Someone asked the man in California why he was doing it and he said, “Because I’m really angry.” The white man in El Paso was trying to kill Latinix people because he saw them as an “invasion”—words he learned from the partisan rhetoric around immigration—the kind of “mean and inflammatory speech” Isaiah condemned.

Once again, we are traumatized. We are left angry, confused, and scared. Even though mass shootings have long ago ceased to be unusual, it still feels like the world has shifted and requires a different response. Layer on to that the polarization of the political discussion on just about any issue, and it is hard to know both what to say and how to say it. If this room of people is like any other sanctuary on the Shoreline, we share a variety of opinions on the important issues of our time. We are not in unison in how we vote, or how we choose our candidates. Often, we are wary of speaking up because we are not sure how we will be either received and perceived.

So I am asking us to risk together this morning. I know the good New England way is to not talk about religion or politics, but avoiding a discussion—not a debate, a discussion—doesn’t give us a chance to build a true beloved community. The verses we read talk about being “the restorers of streets to live in.” How can we build community if we are not honest with each other? How can we come together if we cannot learn to talk about hard things? There is more to faith than worshipping together on Sunday—that is actually at the heart of today’s passage.

The verses we read from Isaiah pick up in the middle of the story. After generations of captivity in Babylon, the Hebrew people had returned to their land and were rebuilding their lives. They had lived in captivity for generations. They were traumatized. In the midst of all that had been lost and all they were trying to build, they had committed themselves to worshipping God—by observing a weekly fast—as a way to show they wanted to make Israel great again. The prophet showed up to tell them God was not impressed because on the days they were not fasting, they were overworking and underpaying their employees, they were arguing bitterly among themselves, and acting duplicitously in their relationships.

Isaiah then drew a different picture of what it looked like to be the people of God, which Carol Anne read. The verses start with conditions—

If you remove the yoke of oppression from among you,
    the finger-pointing, the mean and inflammatory speech;
If you open your heart to the hungry,
    and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted,
    your light will shine in your despair,
    and your gloom will be like the noonday.

The prophet was not saying God would only love them if they did what God said. Isaiah said their behavior would give God room to act among and through them. Their acts of justice and compassion would release God’s healing Spirit in the world.

God will guide you continually
    and provide for you, even in parched places,
   and make your bones strong.
You will be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water that won’t run dry.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
You will be called Repairers of the Breach,
    Restorer of Livable Streets.

Breach, in military terms, means a break in protection, as in, “the wall has been breached.” A is also “a break in relationship.”

Repair, as you know, means to fix or mend, to make good, to put right, to put back together.

To repair the breach, then is to restore the relationship. It means to do what we have to do to put things right, to mend what is broken, to create a place where everyone belongs.

When we talk about repairing the breach, the call to action seems obvious: we go to the border, we work to feed the hungry, to push for living wages, we work to make sure all children have access to good education, we work to build an economy that doesn’t allow a few to prosper on the backs of the poor, we work to come to terms with our privilege, and we pledge ourselves to do what we need to do to dismantle racism and discrimination on all fronts.

Yes. All of those things. Yes.

And there is another breach to talk about, another healing that needs to take place that is more difficult. We have to figure out how to repair the breach between us and our siblings who feel angry and displaced and who act out that anger in ways that terrorize and discriminate against those whom they see as not like them.

During the last campaign, one of the labels aimed at an opposing group was that they were a “bag of deplorables.” I wish I could say that was the only insult thrown around during the campaign, but it was not. I mention it here because it came to mind as another example of the “mean and inflammatory speech” Isaiah told the Hebrews to stop.

We need to stop it too, whatever the discussion. Ginger quotes one of her former pastors who said, “Actions speak louder than words, but words speak more clearly.” Words that characterize people as “invasive” or deplorable” entice us to divide our nation into “us” and “them,” so that we can more easily dismiss or discard people because they are not like us. That kind of approach doesn’t heal anything; it does damage—to everyone.

This week, in response to the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered another approach:

“Here’s what we have to say to all of America’s men and women falling in the grips of hatred and white supremacy: Come back. It’s not too late. You have neighbors and loved ones waiting, holding space for you. And we will love you back.”

“There is a mother waiting for you, I know it. I know there’s a teacher waiting for you, saying, ‘What happened to my kid? What happened to my friend?’ And we will always be here and hold space for you to come back. We will love you back. You are not too far gone.”

Her words challenge me because she chose to offer an invitation, rather than a condemnation. Her words convict me, to use a good Baptist word, of my sin of dividing people into us and them—which is another way of saying who I think is worth listening to. It is far easier for me to think of the refugees and migrants at the border as part of my community than it is to work to feel connected those who foment hate, or those who are so driven by fear that they lash out at people not like themselves. I want to write them off, but that is no way to repair the breach. I only make the divide deeper. We are called to repair the breach—to rebuild the relationship—whatever that breach is.

That means more than “agreeing to disagree.” It means more than correcting their Facebook posts. It means working to find a way to connect, to listen, to invite. It means, as the prophet Micah said, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. It’s that last phrase—walk humbly—that may be the first key to how we repair the breach to walk humbly with God means to walk humbly with one another. It means, “Love your enemies; be good to those who hate you”–to quote Jesus.

When people ask me about the United Church of Christ, I have a little spiel in response. I say we ordained the first African-American man to pastor a white congregation before the Civil War; we began ordaining women sixty years before they could vote; and we ordained the first openly gay man in 1970, when the American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as mental illness. That is a rich an important heritage, after which we should probably repeat again, “Walk humbly with our God.”

My other repeatable statement about the UCC is that if Christianity were a neighborhood, we’d be the last house on the left. Maybe that’s where it starts—in our neighborhoods, both literally and metaphorically. Who do we know on your street, or in our neighborhood, or in our town stands on the other side of breach? What can we do to make our street livable for all of us? How can we incarnate the love of Christ in a way that brings healing? What questions can we ask? What word can we offer?

These are questions we can ask about our relationships, whether it is someone who may be undocumented, or someone in a service job that feels invisible, or someone who is so beaten down by the circumstances of life that they are lashing out, or someone so unaware of their privilege that they do unintentional harm. Whoever they are, they are us. There is no them. Whatever the breach, we are called to repair it. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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I still remember

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The first Toni Morrison book I ever read was her first book, The Bluest Eye, which tells the story of Pecola, a young African-American girl growing up in Lorain, Ohio in the 1940s. Because of her mannerisms and her dark skin, she is considered “ugly.” She has a doll that is white. Pecola wishes she could have blue eyes like the doll. The story of the impact of her context, her self-loathing, and life as a poor black girl in 1040s Ohio is brutally truthful. Alongside of the power of the story is the power of the way Morrison works with words. The first two pages are a great example. The book opens with this paragraph:

Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane? See the cat. It goes meow-meow. Come and play. Come play with Jane. The kitten will not play. See Mother. Mother is very nice. Mother, will you play with Jane? Mother laughs. Laugh, Mother, laugh. See Father. He is big and strong. Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile. See the dog. Bowwow goes the dog. Do you want to play with Jane? See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play.

I was disoriented by what I read because I knew enough about the story to know that Dick and Jane had nothing to do with it. Why was I reading something that felt like a First Grade Primer. There are not any words longer than two syllables. The entire paragraph is made up simple sentences. I turned the page to read the same words again, except they looked like this:

Here is the house it is green and white it has a red door it is very pretty here is the family mother father dick and jane live in the green-and-white house they are very happy see jane she has a red dress she wants to play who will play with jane see the cat it goes meow-meow come and play come play with jane the kitten will not play see mother mother is very nice mother will you play with jane mother laughs laugh mother laugh see father he is big and strong father will you play with jane father is smiling smile father smile see the dog bowwow goes the dog do you want to play do you want to play with jane see the dog run run dog run look look here comes a friend the friend will play with jane they will play a good game play jane play

And then immediately came this version:

Hereisthehouseitisgreenandwhiteithasareddooritisverypretty hereisthefamilymotherfatherdickandjaneliveinthegreenandw hitehousetheyareveryhappyseejaneshehasareddressshewants toplaywhowillplaywithjaneseethecatitgoesmeowmeowcomea ndplaycomeplaywithjanethekittenwillnotplayseemothermoth erisverynicemotherwillyouplaywithjanemotherlaughslaughm otherlaughseefatherheisbigandstrongfatherwillyouplaywithja nefatherissmilingsmilefathersmileseethedogbowwowgoesthe dogdoyouwanttoplaydoyouwanttoplaywithjaneseethedogrun rundogrunlooklookherecomesafriendthefriendwillplaywithja netheywillplayagoodgameplayjaneplay

She had repeated the words three times. The first seemed “normal.” The second, without punctuation or capitalization, felt poetic and perhaps a bit foreboding. The last, without spaces between the words, gave me a sinking feeling about where the story was going. Whatever happened, things were not going to end well.

And all she did was repeat herself using simple words.

I don’t have a big point to make other than to say I have never forgotten these three paragraphs.

Peace,
Milton

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better words

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When we were in Provincetown last weekend to see Julie, our former foster daughter, cross the finish line for the Pan Mass Challenge, I saw a t-shirt in a window that said, “I am silently correcting your grammar.” I almost bought it.

The fact that language changes is both exciting and dreadful for someone who loves words and sentences. The dreadful changes, it seems to me, are mostly driven by business. My friends in development have decided that people “gift” them donations. We already have a verb for that: give. There’s no need to make the noun do extra work. I was in a meeting the other day where the facilitator wanted to discuss the “learnings” from your session. I wanted to raise my hand and ask, “Do you mean lessons?”

See—I should have bought the shirt. The changes I mentioned feel thoughtless to me. (Yes, I can hear my value judgment.) I take issue with them because the change doesn’t add anything. A friend once told me how her grandmother would stop her in mid-sentence and say, “Better word,” when she wanted her to learn to make her words matter more. Don’t be mad; be livid, outraged, or incensed.

In our editorial work, we use the Chicago Manual of Style as a guide. One of the continual challenges the deal with is how to make language—particularly pronouns—more inclusive. Though I was taught that “man” meant everyone, the truth is that it does not. It means male. The same is true for the pronoun “he.” It only describes men. No one else.

Over the years, people have tried different ways to make language more inclusive. Some have typed “(s)he” as a way of expanding the meaning. Others will write out “he or she,” which ends up being cumbersome. More recently, the discussion has expanded to include trans and gender fluid folks for whom the traditional binary pronouns prove inadequate. What has become apparent to me is “y’all” is about as inclusive as you can get. The Chicago Manual says it is now correct to use the pronoun “they” to refer to singular people as a means of being inclusive, as in, “When the police officer saw the car by the side of the road, they stopped to see if anyone needed help.”

One of my authors blew a gasket when I made the changes in his manuscript. “DON’T DO THAT,” he yelled in the comments. I explained why we were doing it and he complied. Being inclusive was worth more than being comfortable.

One of the places where our language both matters most and proves inadequate is when we talk about God. Like many, I have avoided using pronouns for God for many years as a way of communicating that God exists beyond gender. God is not a male, nor a white male at that. It, too, can be a bit cumbersome at times, but it is worth the effort.

One of the books I have had the privilege of editing is Beyond a Binary God: A Theology for Trans* Allies by Tara Sougher. Tara is the parent of a trans child and wrote a wonderful book about how her faith has helped her to grow as a parent and has helped her learn how to expansively express the love of God. At the heart of her argument is the Trinity, which offers us a picture of a non-binary God who is not bound by gender and in whose image we are created.

Over the course of my life in church, much of the discussion around the Trinity has centered around describing who does what: God is the Creator, Jesus is the Incarnate One, the Spirit the Indweller, for example. It shows up in our hymns: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; Creator, Christ, and Spirt. The discussions about the Trinity go way back in church history and are littered with those labeled as heretics who sought to see things differently—to change the language.

I have found more meaning looking at the relationships, rather than trying to define the players. Let me say it another way: it seems to me that what the Trinity says about God is that God is relationship. God is Love. Who is visible or apparent to us in any given moment or experience is nothing more than a flash of insight to the indescribable mystery that swirls around us. Like Moses, we do well to catch a glimpse of God’s hindquarters.

All of my ramblings are to say perhaps “they” is the best pronoun for God when we need one—not because three is plural, but because God is more than we can comprehend or express when we limit ourselves to gender. God is non-binary. God is relationship, which means we, who are created in God’s image, are built for each other, for community, for togetherness.

I grew up being told that God never changes. I don’t think that is accurate. I think God’s love for us is indelible, indefatigable, and unending. But there is a sense that God grows up with us, if you will. Or, perhaps, it is that when we grow and change, what we see of God is more expansive. Our language keeps changing because we need new ways to express what it’s like to be human in these days. That goes for our theology as well. When we open ourselves to new ways to understand God, then they open up new ways for us to understand one another.

Words matter. How we use words matters. It’s time for some better words–even when they aren’t comfortable.

Peace,
Milton

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