Climb the Ladder and Storm the Treehouse* – Rev. SUSAN SPARKS  

I grew up in Charlotte, N.C., on a quiet neighborhood street called Lockhart Drive. For years, I was the only little girl on a street full of boys. Lucky for me, I could outrun and outclimb most of them, so they would begrudgingly let me play, too — except, of course, in the treehouse.

Tucked away in the top of an old sycamore in my next-door neighbor’s yard, was a fort made of nailed-together plywood. It was the place that all the kids — excuse me, all the boys — loved to play.

To emphasize that it was for the boys only, they had scribbled the ubiquitous “no girls allowed” sign on the door. Ironically, the sign was spelled not “allowed” but “aloud,” which made me think I could come in if I were quiet.

I was wrong. I was never invited in.

I put up with being excluded from that all-boys treehouse for a long time, not wanting to rock the boat and hoping they’d change their minds. Then one morning, I woke up and thought, “This is a new day.” Sneaking through my neighbor’s gate, I inched up the ladder, and as I was about to clear the last rung, one of the boys spotted me. They all started shouting, “You can’t come up here! You’re a girl! Read the sign!”

I was about to yell, “You can’t SPELL!” when my next-door neighbor’s mom came running out of the house, and said, “What’s the ruckus?”

When the boys shouted their angry disapproval, she crossed her arms and gave one of the best comeback lines ever: “Well, boys, I own this tree, and the tree house that’s in it. Technically, you’re trespassing. I’ll let you stay, but only if you take that tacky sign off the front door and let Susan in.”

There was a long silence, followed by grumbling. Then the sign was pulled down. They did it, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They did it because they didn’t own the treehouse.

Fifty some years later, nothing has changed. The world is full of treehouses with signs that say, “no girls aloud” or “no people of color allowed” or “no LGBTQ” or “no persons with disability.” Why? Because unlike the one in my neighbor’s yard, these modern-day “treehouses” are still owned by the boys.

That changed this week when a powerful Hollywood actress woke up and decided “This is a new day.” Two-time Academy Award winner Frances McDormand said two words at the end of her Oscar acceptance speech that rocked Hollywood: “Inclusion Rider.”

The next day social media and news outlets were abuzz, explaining the significance of the term. In short, an inclusion rider is a stipulation that actors and actresses can ask (or demand) to have inserted into their contracts which would require a certain level of diversity among a film’s cast and crew. It is a little-known concept and one most people are reticent to engage because, like me with the treehouse, they don’t want to rock the boat or damage their chances to “getting in.”

The movie industry is a classic example of the proverbial treehouse with a sign hung out that says, “no ­­­­­­­­­­______________    (fill in the blank with any demographic that is not straight white able-bodied male) allowed.” For example, a recent study showed that LGBT-identified characters represented a mere 1.1 percent of all speaking characters in the top 900 films of the past decade.

Similarly, the Asian community has for years endured the sting of Hollywood casting Caucasians for Asian roles. For example, DreamWorks and Paramount cast Scarlett Johansson, a Scandinavian actress, as a Japanese cyborg in their adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The announcement coincided with reports that producers considered using digital tools to make Ms. Johansson look more Asian.

People with disabilities are another underrepresented population. As comedian and disability advocate Maysoon Zayid has explained, “We (the disabled) are 20 percent of the population, and we are only 2percent of the images you see on American television, and of those 2 percent, 95 percent are played by nondisabled actors.”

Of course, women are not allowed in the treehouse either. According to a study of the top-grossing 250 films, women comprised only 11 percent of the directors, 11 percent of the writers, 16 percent of the editors and 3 percent of the composers.

And the statistics for inclusion are equally if not more skewed for people of color. Again, studies of popular movies show that in 2016 70.8 percent of speaking roles were white, far outweighing the numbers for those who were black (13.6 percent) or Hispanic (3 percent).

These statistics are particularly troubling in film and television because what we watch has the power to shape what we believe about who we are.

Hollywood is not an isolated example. It’s a microcosm of the deep seated, systemic prejudice and racism that runs through the social meridians of our nation and our world.

Achieving the American Dream shouldn’t be like trying to get into a treehouse in which only certain people are welcome. The Puritan work ethic shouldn’t just ensure success for those who look like the early white Puritans. Frances McDormand was right. We need an inclusion rider. But not just for Hollywood contracts — we need one for life.

Fortunately, we have one. It’s called the Bible.

Unlike most convoluted corporate documents, this contract boils down to two simple provisions: 1) Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and 2) Love your neighbor as yourself. If you take these words and apply them to the discrimination in our world, you get God saying to the power structure something akin to this:

“Well, boys, I own this tree and the treehouse that’s in it. Technically, you are trespassing. I’ll let you stay, but only if you take that tacky sign off the front door and let all my people in.”

If we’ve accepted God’s terms, if we’ve accepted this contract, then we are bound to live within its parameters. We are also bound by the corollary: we must not support those who refuse to live by that contract, and specifically the “Inclusion Rider” of life. That is a deal-breaker.

There are many ways we can do this, but one is to be intentional about how we spend our money. Again, Hollywood offers the perfect example. One of the main reasons offered to justify their outrageous hiring practices is economic — the claim being that films with diverse casts don’t make money.


Last weekend, it was announced that Black Panther, the first mainstream superhero movie fronted by an almost entirely black cast, became only the 33rd movie in history to cross the one billion dollar mark. It joins films like Jurassic Park, and Avatar, and it did it in only 26 days after its original release.

In. Your. Face. Hollywood.

Brother and sisters, we have more power than we think. We have the power to take care of each other, to give everyone a fair chance, to ensure that the gifts and talents of all of God’s children are not wasted.

The misspelled sign outside the treehouse contained more truth than I realized. We all need to speak out and be heard “aloud!” “Girls aloud!” “LGBTQ aloud!” “People with disabilities aloud!” “People of color aloud!”

This is a new day. Come on! Let’s climb the ladder and storm the treehouse!

*This piece is taken from a sermon delivered at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City on Sunday, March 11, 2018.

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‘Anticipatory mourning’: America’s youth on death, guns and dissent

Bill Leonard

“We have our CHILDREN taken from us; the Desire of our Eyes taken away with a stroke.” So Puritan preacher Cotton Mather (1663-1728) wrote from 17th-century Boston, watching helplessly as multitudes of New England’s children and youth perished from diseases that could strike at any moment from infancy to adolescence. Twice married, Mather was the father of 15 children, only six of whom reached adulthood. Two outlived him.

In Children in the New England Mind in Life and Death, Peter Slater observed that the death of children was so frequent that colonists often lived in a state of “anticipatory mourning.” He concluded that “the conviction that ‘the King of Terrors’ [death] often came quickly made the Puritans anxious not to be caught unready.” Indeed, death vigils were so common in every Puritan family that “whatever their eventual outcome, parents prepared themselves emotionally to cope with the anticipated loss.”

Three hundred years later, the “anticipated loss” of children in the United States continues, in part because mass shootings have turned school kids into “the hunted,” as students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., now describe themselves. After 17 people died there in a St. Valentine’s Day massacre, it is clear that “anticipatory mourning” haunts families across a country whose 300 million firearms literally outgun the rest of the non-military world. Post-Parkland, how many American parents now vow to tell their children they love them every day before sending them to school? Indeed, the voices of survivors from multiple mass firearm-related murders force us to acknowledge that public venues and AR-15s, exacerbated by incessant one-on-one-parking-lot-shootings, make violent deaths an ever-present possibility in every American community.

Such anticipatory mourning seems as palpable in 2018 as when Jeremiah described it almost 3,000 years earlier: Hear, O women, the word of the Lord, and let your ears receive the word of his mouth; teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament. “Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares” (Jer. 9:21).

As religious communities in a country where students now call themselves “the hunted,” let us at last take seriously the anticipatory mourning of young people schooled in strategies for escaping rogue shooters. For the church, if ever a gospel of Christian hope was needed in American society it is now. Implicitly and explicitly, American youth demand support for themselves and their families in confronting the relentless specter of death in a land where a merciless 18-year-old can “legally” secure battlefield weapons.

We’ve ritualized death away from the young in this culture, in funeral homes and hospice facilities, but it has overtaken them with a vengeance in what were once safe spaces for learning. Thus the church, in its teaching, preaching and praying, is now called to respond to a nation of anticipatory mourners, reasserting the presence of God in our living and our dying, particularly in the violent ends to which we all are now vulnerable.

Lent is that season of the Christian year when we own death as a sign of our mortality and the unpredictable nature of life itself. (“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”) On Good Friday we recount the agonizingly brutal execution of the world’s Great Innocent.  On the way to Easter we say one more time that life is stronger than death and that God is with us in it all. Helping human beings acknowledge the reality of death, grieve deeply, and live bravely is a central witness of the Christian gospel. Let us reaffirm that hope for our children and ourselves, here and now.

And while we are at it, let’s devise concrete recognition of and strategies for confronting America’s gun culture, unique across the entire globe, weaponizing violent people far too easily. Henceforth, “the hunted” will not allow us to wait for the next AR-15 atrocity. Days after the deaths of their 17 friends, Parkland students moved from victimization to dissent. In a “Morning Joe” interview, Douglas High survivor David Hogg commented: “This will be a generation-long-thing. This is just getting started. Millennials are some of the most politically active and some of the most critical individuals … and as such I think that’s what is going to sustain this process, realizing what is wrong with America and trying to fix it, because the previous generation won’t. … You can’t wash away those memories.”

Right-wing media quickly entered the fray, accusing Hogg and other outspoken survivors of being “crisis actors,” not genuine Douglas students. Others tagged them as dupes of the anti-Second Amendment, anti-gun, anti-Trump media. In America’s culture wars, neither death nor conspiracy theories takes a holiday.

Undaunted by such attacks, these hunted Millennials declare that their dissenting voices will not be silenced. David Hogg says he won’t return to school until Florida passes at least one new firearm regulation, concluding, “We have a major gun violence problem in this country, one that won’t go away.”

And until voters, politicians, families and churches confront that problem, anticipatory mourning won’t go away either. So let’s try to tell our children we love them every time they walk out the door. They need to know that, every day of their lives.

*Dr. Leonard spoke at the John A. Hamrick Lectureship at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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World Peace through Pulled Pork – Rev. Susan Sparks – The Shiny Side Up

I hail from a state that offers a no-fail plan for world peace. It’s not from politicians or pundits, peaceniks or pedagogues. No, my friends, the secret lies in how the people of North Carolina have learned to live with a difference of opinion so deeply ingrained that’s it almost genetically encoded. The bone of contention? Barbecue sauce.

If you didn’t have the privilege of being raised in a BBQ-centric state, this may seem a bit far-fetched. But those of us who have lived with the tension, endured the heated debates, and been dismissed or demeaned because of our sauce preference know better.

To paraphrase Norman Maclean, the author of A River Runs Through It, there is no clear line between religion and [North Carolina barbecue]. And religion is something you don’t monkey with Ever.

The sauce saga began over 300 years ago with the introduction of a tangy, vinegar-based sauce—a vestige of Caribbean and West Indian influences that included vinegar, salt, and black and red pepper. The turning point came in 1876 when Heinz introduced a new-fangled concoction called ketchup. Soon after, the western part of the state led by German immigrants in Lexington, North Carolina, began experimenting with a different, sweeter tomato-based sauce. Like a Baptist church that stopped lovin’ Jesus, this was the ultimate blasphemy.

Brother began to turn against brother, family against family. Everyone jumped into the fray, and the name calling continues to this day. For example, Dennis Rogers, a columnist, western sauce advocate and the self-appointed “Oracle of the Holy Grub,” once publicly referred to the eastern recipe as “imitation BBQ.” At the other end of the spectrum, author Jerry Bledsoe, a rabid eastern sauce advocate, and the self-professed “world’s leading, foremost barbecue authority,” once wrote in the Raleigh News and Observer, “”People who would put ketchup in the sauce they feed to innocent children are capable of most anything.”

This is war, and it’s a war not unlike many of our modern headlines. In fact, most of our global problems break down into the same formula as the NC barbecue ruckus: someone is trying to mess with something that is “holy” to someone else.

Some people treat money like it’s holy. Others give holy status to land, power, oil, truth or barbeque sauce. Given this parallel, perhaps our global leaders might consider studying how North Carolinians have engaged in a generations-old fight without annihilating each other.

Our solution is quite simple. Step one: we remember what we have in common. North Carolinians may fight over the sauce, but in the end, we are all lovers of what it enhances: pulled pork. What if Democrats and Republicans tried this approach? Our two parties fight over, well, everything. But in the end – Democrats or Republicans – we’re are all Americans.

Step two: North Carolinians realize that while we disagree on the means, the end goal is the same: we are all just trying to make a better barbecue sauce. What if we gave the same consideration to those who walk a different path? What if we assumed the good intentions of those who are different and offered them the benefit of the doubt?

Step three: We put all the sauces on the table and share a meal together. Oscar Wilde once said, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.” I found out the truth of this statement growing up in Charlotte, the war-torn border of the barbecue wars, which meant we knew a thing or two about compromise. For example, during holiday dinners family members gathered around our table would include people from eastern andwestern North Carolina, South Carolinians (who worship a completely different, mustard-based sauce), and even, gasp, Texans, who prefer brisket to pulled pork. My mother, always the diplomat, would place all the different meats and sauces on the table, give one of her “looks” to the gathered barbecue enemies, then announce like a general on a battlefield, “Now sit down and eat. And let’s agree to disagree.”

And that, my friends, is how you accomplish world peace. Like mixing a beloved barbecue sauce, it just takes a dash of diplomacy, a pinch of patience, and equal portions of empathy and respect. So, the next time you feel your blood pressure spiking over the daily news, imagine pulling up a chair, putting all the sauces on the table, and enjoying a meal with those with whom you disagree.

(I’m proud to share that the piece you just read, “World Peace through Pulled Pork,” was recently featured as a column in newspapers across the country for GateHouse Media.)

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Baptists in Early North America: First Baptist Church, Boston, Massachusetts,

Edited by Rev. Dr. Thomas R. McKibbens.  Macon, Mercer University Press. ©2017. $60.

Reviewed by: Mitch Carnell

Reading about the beginning struggles of the First Baptist Church of Boston should cause every Baptist heart to swell with pride. These pioneers in the faith suffered unbelievable persecution. Massachusetts was simply not a good place to be if you believed in freedom of religious conscious. Decenters were publicly whipped and jailed.

The founding members worshiped in people’s homes before erecting a meetinghouse. The doors to their first meetinghouse were nailed shut by the authorities on March 8, 1679. At least for one week the congregation met outside in the cold. Religious freedom did not come to Massachusetts until a new constitution was adopted in 1833.

The Boston Church was not the first Baptist Church in New England but it grew to be one of the most influential spreading its influence from Boston to South Carolina. The connections between the First Baptist Church of Boston and the First Baptist Church of Charleston are strong. The first pastor of the Charleston church was ordained by the Boston church. William Screven established a church in Kittery, Maine before moving his flock to Charleston. When the Boston church was without a pastor in 1707, he was invited to return to Boston as pastor but declined the offer.

The most successful pastor of the Boston Church, Samuel Stillman, was trained by the pastor of First Baptist Church Charleston, Oliver Hart, and ordained by him in 1759.  Stillman served the Boston church for over 40 years. The meetinghouse was expanded twice during his pastorate. He and his Charleston mentor were both originally from Philadelphia where Baptists were more welcome.

The minutes of the First Baptist Church of Boston, 1635 -1830, provide both informative and interesting reading. The handwritten minutes are contained in two leather bound volumes currently located in the Franklin Trask Library at Andover Newton Theological Seminary. McKibbens, has meticulously and painstakingly transformed these priceless records into a form accessible to every interested scholar or layman. These minutes faithfully record insights into church doctrine, politics, finances, church discipline and church personalities. McKibbens speaks of his joy in being able to handle these documents. He served as interim pastor while preparing the manuscript.

Dr. McKibbens has produced a volume of great value to anyone interested in religious freedom and the growth and history of Baptists in America.

The Rev. Dr. Thomas McKibbens is no stranger to South Carolina Baptists. He was a speaker for the Charleston County Baptist Association and at the John Hamrick Lectureship. He delivered the sermon at the 325th Anniversary Celebration of First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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