You’re about to die for the cause you believed in, But you can’t decide if it’s an honor or a tragedy. As you look into the faces of those who surround you, It is difficult to remember who is friend or foe. Didn’t you see this coming? You know it could’ve been avoided But the momentum was too strong It’s kind of like being caught in an undertow. You were tired anyway So, tempted by the thought of rest, you surrendered. But as the light fades and voices begin to muffle, You start to wonder if you might survive. Wouldn’t that be a story to tell? Something the cause could leverage And seal your message as one with Divine Authority. Because the truth never dies. But, then a metal like taste coming from within Confirms what you know. You are dying. And once you accept that, everything changes. You don’t perceive the way you used to. Eyes are everywhere. Ears are everywhere. Taste and touch are everywhere. And you see everything as it is. As if you are on the inside and the outside of everything, There are no distinctions between your inhalations and exhalations. And then everything stops but your consciousness. You wonder how you’re here and nowhere at once. And then you rise and expand at the same time Like a balloon floating upward as it’s being filled. Are there limits to your expansion Or the heights that you might go? Living this question is what made you who you were. It was why you said what you said. It was why you did what you did. And it got you killed. Or did it give birth to the reality of who you are— Who we all are and who we could be? And then you stop expanding Is this finally the end? Or is it the beginning? It is both. It is neither. And when your last breath is as pure as your first, In returns to in and out returns to out Then, an existential popping sound. It reverberates throughout all of Creation. Now you have a choice. Give birth to the you who will die for what you will believe in, Change your mind and hold your breath, Or live as the You who cannot die? And then you remember why you decided what you will decide. Whoever saves their life will lose it. But whoever loses their life will find true Life. This is the cup that was passed to you. This is the cup you drank from. This is when you decide that no one can take your life. You will give it freely. And so you descend. And so you contract. Time collapses. And you remember why you will choose to come here. You will not die for a lie. You will live what is eternally true No matter how many times it takes To be truly born again.
I’m from “Daddy’s not coming back.” on my 2nd Christmas And my first prayer to God that taught me “no” is an answer too. I’m from the smell of mothballs when we moved in with Grandma And toast with melted Mozzarella on top I’m from the “Daily Bread” Bible verses she made us read before every meal And the Family Bible that had my Dad’s name in it even if he wasn’t there to read it to me. I’m from sneaking into the children’s ward of the hospital to see my little brother And Uncle Willy making a funny sound with his mouth to let me know he was here to pick me up. I’m from a 21 gun salute at my grandfather’s funeral, The sound shaking my body, the smoke rising as if it were going to join my grandfather in heaven, and the warm hands of Granddaddy’s friend covering my ears telling me that I don’t need to cry. And I’m from the broken promise of that last tear that I told myself I would never let fall again. I’m from both sides of the tracks– Struggling during the school year Financially secure in the summer. Black experience with my mom’s family And a minority in my father’s household Rendering me too Black and never Black enough for some folks. I’m from a Black mom, a white stepmom, and an immigrant dad who was both and neither and my identity formed in the Void. I’m from sitting in the dark in that mothball closet fussing with God about all that had been taken from me And a peace that surpasses all understanding that told me nothing God gives is ever lost. I’m from going to the Deacon Board at age 6 and asking to be baptized before the age of accountability And their warning that if I backslid and sinned after my immersion the penalty of eternal damnation was on me. I’m from childlike confidence that I could live a sin free life. So I submitted to the capable hands of Pastor Fleming who joked with me up to the baptismal tub, said the words that made me new, and lowered me into the water. I’m from the awareness that sin abounds, but grace abounds more. I’m from: Countless hours alone, Making best friends with books, Corn flakes for multiple meals, Never knowing what utility might get cut off, The smell of a borrowed kerosene heater, and my mom, brother, and me all sleeping around it. I’m from respites when the income tax check came. From a mother who did her best but was broken by a life of endless stress. I’m from being a Black man in America Trying to learn to live without looking over my shoulder because Black Lives Matter and absence from the body is presence with the Lord. I’m from not knowing where I belong But trusting that I am welcome wherever God is. I’m from not wanting anyone to go through what I’ve been through Because to me this is loving neighbor as myself. I’m from still being that little boy trying to not cry unless I know that someone cares. I’m from losing a child to racism in a way that makes my face warm to think about And at the end of a broken heart, trying to become a car selling monk. From a woman who entered my life through an email and ended my monastic aspirations. I’m from having a child at 32 and 41 when I expected to have none. I’m from a house full of emotions that I lived a lifetime trying to avoid. I’m from trying to be the father I never had and the husband my mother never had so that I can be the man God created me to be. I’m from that baptismal tub that eternally abides making me new each day And from laughing with people who know similar suffering. And I am from the words of Jesus that said, “If you want to follow me, take up your cross and bear it.” I am from all of this and more. And I am from grace, Inexhaustible grace, The Pearl of Great Price for which I count all things as loss so that one day I will learn to receive everything that truly matters. This is where I’m from. Where are you from?
This poem was written in response to a writing prompt in a retreat on calling with Karen Herring sponsored through First Congregational Church Boulder. It is based on the poem “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon.
Have you ever seen a cygnet? A cygnet is a baby swan. And they are super cute. And yet, when we talk of people who blossom into a more physically beautiful being than one may have imagined, we say that they were an “ugly duckling”, based on the tale by that name created by Hans Christian Anderson.
I find it hard to imagine that someone reading this hasn’t heard of this story. But, in the off chance that you haven’t, the story is basically about a swan whose egg falls in with some duck eggs. And when the egg hatches, all the little ducks freak out because this one duck, which is actually a swan, doesn’t look like the others. So they do what any anthropomorphized duck would do, they start seeing the worst in the little cygnet. There’s no sense of wonder or compassion. There’s only, “You don’t look…
I can’t stop thinking about Chadwick Boseman. He’s been on my mind so much that I caught myself shaking my head in the gym on the edge of tears. Now if you know me, you know that this isn’t characteristic of me. So, I had to examine why I was taking this so hard. Even before he died, I would find myself googling about his health. Like many people, I saw him getting thinner and would find myself concerned about him. I too hoped that the weight loss was due to him thinning up for a movie role. It had been announced, around the time that he started coming into public noticeably thinner, that he was going to play the first and only Black Samurai, Yasuke, who served under Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga in 16th century Japan. Once again, he was going to take on the role of one of the “First Blacks to…” just as he had with James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and Jackie Robinson. So I hoped that his gaunt appearance was going to reveal itself to be indicative of his passion for his craft and the calling on his life to bring powerful characters into the consciousness of people who for so long had very few symbols to hold on to.
Thank you for being a King in this life—for challenging our imaginations and giving us an aspirational symbol. I know many people will think that you were “just an actor”. But for those of us who never grew up with superheroes who looked like us and saw ourselves portrayed in a negative light, you made an indelible mark and shined eternally bright. #restinwakandaforever
My Instagram post August 30, 2020
I don’t say this much out loud. But I often feel lonely. Part of this loneliness comes from the fact that I don’t have many living role models before me who can relate to my background or life’s experiences. Everyday, I try, in my small way, to live up to an ideal that I have never actually witnessed being displayed up close. And I do it knowing that I live in a world that, whether people will admit it or not, is always waiting for me to fail. And not just me. If I extrapolate from the conversations I’ve had over my lifetime, almost everyone who is veiled in Black skin in this country carries this burden either consciously or unconsciously. Though many people are in denial about it, if you’re paying attention as a Black person, you know. And others know it too. If we fail, we take so many other people down with us. Because to be Black here is to be a symbol. And as a symbol, you always represent much more than yourself. Whereas, if some other people fail, they are simply seen as an individual–often deserving of second, third, fourth, and fifth chances.
When you are a symbol, society tries to make you an exception when you achieve in any capacity simply because the underlying belief is that most of us are incapable of meeting the illusory standards of this country. That’s why I think our ascendance, however small, is watched very closely. I believe that this is because, every step that any of us climbs, undoes the structure of the painfully comfortable false narrative that was built upon the foundation of our supposed inferiority. In other words, when Black people do well, especially in arenas where we are not always lauded, it tears at the fabric of this nation’s institutional myth about the capacities of American Blackness that almost everyone has bought into–even many Black folks. What if we were always this talented; this intelligent; this powerful? What does that say about how our ancestors were treated? What does it say about those of us who succumbed to the lies told about us? Does the past become even more tragic if we consider that we all had Wakandan like potential that was virtually strangled out of us for centuries? The questions are almost too much to contemplate.
By simply being who he was and living into his moment, Chadwick embodied that potential. His nature was regal. And in his person he carried the spirits of many of our ancestors. Perhaps that is why he was called here to embody them for us in the enduring form of film. He showed us our past and our future. He changed our world. And then he left.
In my work, I have seen many people die. I have watched as the light leaves their bodies and often wondered if they illumined every place they came here to shine in. I suspect that most haven’t. And that’s why there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about when my day will come. But I am not afraid of death. Ever since I became aware of the expectation that, as a Black Man in America, I would either die or spend some time in the criminal justice system by 18, I have contemplated my death. So no, I am not afraid of death at all. What gets to me is the idea that I will not do all that I can with this life because I will have allowed myself to be overly weighed down by the loneliness of being the first or the only. As they say, I don’t want to die with my music still in me. I want to truly live while I am here. And the truth is that I can’t say that I’ve done that yet. So perhaps that is part of why I can’t stop thinking about Chadwick Boseman.
Consider what he accomplished in the 4 years that he was diagnosed and being treated for colon cancer. Can you imagine? And consider that he did all of this while keeping his diagnosis to himself. Talk about lonely. But I don’t think he kept it to himself for himself. I think he did it for all us who know what it’s like to be the first or the only. In a consumer driven world where illness is seen as just another failure, he commanded his body and the world it inhabited to conform to his ideal. And in so doing, he tore that mythical fabric of Black inferiority that much more.
Of course, it is sad that he was not able to share his struggles with the world and receive the wellspring of compassion that he would have likely received and perhaps lived longer. But he was Black before he was The Black Panther. So I can imagine that he didn’t think he would get a second chance. So he did everything he could with the chance he got knowing that just like when one of us goes down we inadvertently take others with us, when we ascend, we take others with us as well. And that’s why I can say unequivocally that though this man had no earthly crown, he was and always will be a king. And at least for me, his being brings about a sense of conviction that before I die, I must make contact with my own regality and do everything I can to encourage it in others.
A Poem Fit for a King (In Memory of Chadwick Boseman) I’ll see you on the Other Side But I still can see you now In the ways you changed the atmosphere And by your essence you showed us how
We can’t believe that you are gone And yet you’re here now more than ever Giving form to a future and a past We salute you now and forever
Now that your form is no longer with us We see the burden that was in your eyes You held the Space just long enough To show that One who is Living never dies
Someday we all will meet you In the azure canopied ancestral plains Where everyone is a queen and king In the Place where Spirit reigns.
What will you say,
If you found out that they got me?
Knee to the neck
Or they shot me?
You knew me;
Now you forgot me?
What will you say?
“I thought he was so different.”?
“He shouldn’t have been on that hit list.”?
“There will be justice.
God is my witness”?
“I swear I’ll never forget this.”?
What would you say,
If I told you this was my family?
When they’re damning them,
Then they damn me.
Saying where we can
And we can’t be.
From the beginning,
I know that they stamped me.
What would you say,
If I told you daily I’m dying?
That this is the world that I’m in.
They want your soul,
For a buy in.
The Truth hurts,
When they’re lying.
What would you say
If George Floyd
Was suddenly me?
It was Pedro under that knee?
Let’s pray one day we don’t see.
Whenever my two year old cries for me not to leave her as I walk out the door, I wonder if somehow she knows that this might be the last she sees me–that I might make a mistake and run a red light or go to the store or go for a walk on the trail just outside our neighborhood and never come back. Then immediately after thinking those thoughts, I rebuke them. I tell myself that it is not fair for me to project my anxieties onto my toddler. I remind myself that I have a family, a ministry, and a life that matters. I tell myself that I cannot let these ideas that I live with like a permanent limp, dictate how I live. So I pray, get up, and go about the business of living. And then…
Check out Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi
I wrote this poem as I started to think about how many conversations I have with my mom are about how to make it from month to month. We talk everyday. Sometimes multiple times a day. But rarely are our conversations about thing that I would like us to talk about. Because of all of the stress over the past few years, there has been a strain on the relationship. I’ll be honest and say that often I am acting like I am her parent rather than the other way around. I want her to be safe and make decisions for her well-being. I know how hard she tried to be whatever and whoever she felt she needed to be to make sure we survived growing up. That took a toll on her. And I know that she had huge dreams–most of which never got fulfilled. This is a wound in her heart.
She always told me that she wanted to leave my brothers and I with a legacy. What she meant was money. That hasn’t happened and it saddens her. She apologizes for not being in a better financial situation and asks me to believe in her that she can still pull it off. I want to believe, but… And now that I am witnessing her forgetting so much and yet still holding out hope for a miracle or for her “ship to come in” as she says, I feel a twinge of regret. I ask myself, “If I knew we were going to end up here anyway, what would I have done differently?”
At first, I told myself I would’ve stayed in the military so that I would have my retirement right now and I could be working another job to provide for her. But then I look at my wife and kids and know that I had to take the course I did. I then think that I should’ve chosen a more lucrative profession than being a pastor. But then, I was having a conversation with a guest at the church who is experiencing homelessness at the church and watching members of the congregation–to include children serving food and sitting with our homeless neighbors and I thought, “I am glad to be in this moment.” And then I thought, well maybe I was called to be a pastor for a season, but now that my mom needs me, I need to move on and do something else because my responsibilities demand it. And then I prayed and I felt the spirit moving me to be honest about how hard this is and to tell my friends. And so I did. And they stepped in and blessed my family and gave me room to breathe so I could figure out how to make the next best move for my mom. They showed me the truth of the teaching that says, “[God’s] strength is made perfect in our weakness.”
And so then in that space, I asked God what I could do differently for my mom. And in my soul’s language I heard, “Don’t miss her while she is still here. Because that’s what you’ve been doing. If you want to have different conversations with her, change the subject. Talk about the things that you wish you could talk to her about. If she misses it and repeats something else she just said, tell her you love her. Tell her your dreams and maybe she’ll get joy in knowing that she is a part of them. Have an unreasonable belief in miracles because you never know what might happen. And don’t forget, you are not in this alone.”
So if you are reading this, what my soul spoke into my life, I speak into yours. There are so many things in life that can distract us from the moments we are in–something to tempt us to forget that there is always the possibility of great beauty around the corner. In my weakness, I found strength in hitting my limits and reaching out. My hope is that in sharing what I am learning, it is blessing you all too.
I wrote this poem after wrestling with my thoughts about whether or not I should share a fundraiser I created for my mother to help ease some of the financial impact of her pending move. This season has been really tender for me for a lot of reasons. Besides watching my mother succumb to the effects of a lifetime of stress and anxiety, trying to keep this pressure to myself has taken its toll on me and my family, both emotionally and financially. But it’s not all bad. This also has been a very creative season for me as I’ve tried to make sense of my own anxieties in light of my faith that when we are open, there is a solution to every concern. I’ve written poems that I never would’ve been able to write were I not translating what at times felt like overwhelming emotion. I completed a rap that I’m really proud of despite the fact that it has not yet brought in any of the money I’d naively thought it would. And in my social justice and community building work, knowing that I am personally impacted by so much of the challenges that we’re trying to ameliorate, has shaped my preaching and public speaking in a way that perhaps it would not if my family was more shielded. And finally, by putting this out here, I feel that it is on the path of healing the ill effects of the negative type of pride. And so here we are.
If you are reading this, I am asking you to consider contributing to this fund. All of the proceeds go to helping my mom transition to living with my brother until we can come up with a more sustainable solution. Thanks for considering this. No pressure and no judgment if you are not interested. I am just grateful that I received the courage to ask. The link to contribute is below.