Friday, November 7, 2014
Pen Pals and Hollow Trees
This past week, the show produced an episode called "Pen Pals". The lead story recalled how a ten year old girl from northern Michigan happened to become the pen pal of the rather infamous General Manuel Noriega. The story unfolds over the course of the show, sketching out a rather politicized time in US/Panamanian relations where the Panama Canal treaty and other political issue made the headlines frequently. And in the mix was a ten year old corresponding with a deeply controversial political leader from Central America.
To open the show, host Ira Glass offered a shorter piece about pen pals, looking back at a series of correspondence between two early American settlers: John Winthrop and Roger Williams. For a general audience, it may have been a moment of recovered history, a moment brought to light in US history. Glass interviews a historian about the unique relationship between the two men, often cast as foes, yet history bears witness to a more complex relationship where friendship (even if illusive at times) crept into the tone of the correspondence.
A transcript of Glass' interview about Roger Williams appears online via: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/246/transcript
As it happens, I am working on a sermon where I recall this part of early US Baptist history. I recall a bit of personal writing, a brief verse penned by Williams in the time between his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and settling down in what would become the colony of Rhode Island.
To avoid deportment to England where he was equally unwelcome, Williams set off in the dead of winter 1636 for the wilderness where he spent the cold nights sleeping in an old hollow tree. Recalling this experience, Williams writes:
God makes a Path, provides a Guide,
And feeds in Wilderness!
His glorious name while breath remaines,
O that I may confesse.
Lost many a time, I have had no Guide, No House, but Hollow Tree!
In stormy Winter night no Fire, no Food, no Company:
In him I have found a House, a Bed, A Table, a Company:
No Cup so bitter, but’s made sweet.
When God shall Sweet’ning be.
(quoted in Edwin Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience, Eerdmans, 1991; current edition, Judson, 1999).