What Matters To Me: An Address to Women Explore – Dr. Tom McKibbens

November 12, 2015

The last time I was here to present was in 2004, when I gave a paper entitled “How Religious Language Has Been Used to Usurp the Common Good.”  We were still meeting at Harvard Divinity School at the time, and it was an academic exercise with good discussion afterward.  That exercise was entirely different than this one.  An academic paper allows the writer to stand off at a distance to examine a subject.  There is a third person quality to such a paper.

Today, however, you have asked for something far different.  This is testimony time!  To speak of what matters to me requires a first-person approach.  You have resorted to the tactics of an old-time revival meeting!  Those of us who are presenting are asked to reach way down into our gut and find out what is really behind any academic snobbery we might have, or behind any religious mumbo-jumbo clergy like me might use (or hide behind).

So let’s get started. I have a few stories to tell, which I hope will shine a light on what matters to me and why.   We can start with me as a little four-year-old in a class at church called the Sunbeams.  I grew up in a deep south town in Mississippi in the 1950’s.  The town was Laurel, and it was located in Jones County in the southeastern part of the state.  During the Civil War, Jones County was called “The Free State of Jones” because it seceded from the Confederacy.  Deserters from the southern army knew that if they could make it to Jones County, they were safe.

Laurel was a sawmill town founded by some investors from Ohio who saw dollar marks in those beautiful long-leaf pines that grew fast and created beautiful lumber.  Mr. Mason, who lived on the street behind and above us in a big house, had the bright idea of what to do with all the sawdust accumulating at his sawmill.  He managed to find just the right mixture of glue to mix with the sawdust, and he created a new kind of board, which he called Masonite.

A few blocks from our house was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Chisholm, a wealthy white family.  They had a laundress, whose niece  had a beautiful singing voice.  The niece’s name was Leontyne Price.  The Chisholms, along with Paul Robeson, helped pay Leontyne’s expenses at Julliard, and the rest is history.

There was a warm, loving, and beautiful side to Laurel, and I benefited from that.  But there was also a violent, racist side to Laurel, and no one represents that better than another Laurel resident whose name was Sam Bowers.  He co-founded the White Knights of the KKK in Mississippi, and he was one of those responsible for the triple murder of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney near Philadelphia, MS, for which he served six years in federal prison.  He also was responsible for the murder of Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg, for which he was sentenced to life in prison 32 years after the crime.  He died in prison in 2006.

I mention these things about Laurel because they illustrate the schizophrenic dichotomy of the culture in which I was raised.  On the one hand, there is the picture of a group of children in church singing “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, to shine for him.”  And on the other  hand there is the menacing picture of murders and bombings and lynchings of anyone who supported civil rights.

Now back to that four-year-old.  They taught us little choruses that I suppose many of you also learned as children.  One of those songs that took root in me was Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world.  It took root, but it took a long time for it to blossom.  I was busy being a kid and growing into adolescence.

Those years were punctuated by some spiritual experiences that I have for the most part kept to myself.  Its not that I am ashamed of them, but that I can’t explain them in words.  All I can say for sure is that I had a number of experiences in which I felt a deep spiritual presence of something or Someone both outside of me and equally inside of me.  They were not scary experiences; rather, they were comforting, reassuring, strengthening.  I have no doubt that those experiences can be explained psychologically as part of my transition through adolescence; or, they could be explained sociologically as part of the southern religious culture in which I was immersed.  But the truth is, I DON’T CARE!  They were life-changing for me, for in those experiences I felt what I believed to be the presence of God.  And that presence was unmistakably nudging me toward some kind of life work that would recognize that Presence and that somehow would help people.  It was as vague as that.

By the time I was in high school, my attention was not primarily on the choice of a vocation.  I excelled in both academics and in sports, and by my senior year I was one of the most sought-after high school football players in America.  I had full scholarship offers from nearly every major football program in America.  And given the trouble Ben Carson got into last week by saying he was offered a scholarship to West Point, I can say that West Point did not offer me a scholarship, because all students at West Point have their tuition paid.  Instead, I was offered an appointment not only to West Point, but also to Annapolis and to Colorado Springs if only I would play football for them.

In the end, I chose to stay close to home, where I had friends and family.  I signed a football scholarship with Ole Miss.  My freshman year was the fall of 1965, only three years since the infamous Ole Miss riots over enrolling James Meredith as the first black student at Ole Miss.  It was like the smoke had hardly cleared.  By the year I arrived there was only a handful of black students on campus, and they were largely ostracized.  The history department still taught that slavery was benevolent and good for the black race.  You could major in English at Ole Miss (as I did) and never be asked to read one single page of William Faulkner, who was still looked at with suspicion in Oxford, MS.

I largely suppressed those spiritual experiences I mentioned, focused on doing what college athletes do.  I worked hard, and the teams we had were good—very good.  It was not unusual for us to be listed among the top ten teams in America.  Our leader and quarterback was Archie Manning, whose sons Peyton and Eli now play for pro teams and are each a nemesis of the Patriots.

But it was in the context of one of those football games that I was suddenly brought back to reality.  I can remember the moment as clearly as if it were yesterday.  We were playing the University of Houston, a home game for us in Oxford.  The game was historic because in the fall of 1968 a black football player had never played on the field of Hemingway Stadium, and the University of Houston had a star running back who was black.  His name was Warren McVae.  He was known as “Wondrous Warren” by his fans. Playing for Houston, he earned All-American recognition twice.  His specialty was running back kick-offs.

Houston won the coin toss at the beginning of the game, and they chose to receive.  That meant that Warren McVae would stand back in the end zone to receive the opening kick-off.  I remember being on the sideline for the kickoff because I was not on the kick-off specialty team.  When Houston lined up to receive our kick, I suddenly heard behind me a chant that grew louder and louder:  “Kill that nigger; kill that nigger!”  I turned and looked at the stands, and it was a sea of small confederate flags, as I suppose 30,000 fans were chanting as loud as they could.

I can hardly put into words my feelings at that moment.  I was stunned, embarrassed, angry, confused, and bewildered all at the same time.  I remember standing there humming to myself, Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world.  At that moment I knew that I could not stay.  I had one more year of eligibility on a great team, but I had to get away from that and think.  I had to figure out what was really important to me, and playing on a great college football team was not a high priority.

In January of 1969 I married my wife of now 46 years.  We left Ole Miss and went straight to seminary in Louisville, KY, a place I considered way up north at the time.  I did the normal three-year Master of Divinity program, and then I began another four years as a Ph.D. student.  During those graduate student years, George Buttrick moved to Louisville and began to teach adjunctively at my seminary.  Buttrick had been Preacher to the University here at Harvard’s Memorial Church.  Before that he had served the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York for 25 years.  After I took one of his courses in preaching, Buttrick asked me to be his teaching assistant.

It was Buttrick who convinced me that serving as pastor of a church could enable me to respond positively to those early spiritual experiences.  It was Buttrick who taught me that a courageous church can make a difference in matters of justice and compassion.  He also introduced me to the writing of Frederick Buechner, who is both a novelist and theologian.  Buechner was a member of Buttrick’s church in New York, and it was Buttrick who influenced Buechner to go to Union Seminary.  In one of his books, Buechner said that if you can answer yes to three questions, it’s a good chance that you will be happy in your vocation.  First question:  Are you good at it?  Second question:  Do you like it?  Third question:  Are you helping people?  When I thought about the pastorate, I thought I could answer all three of those questions with a resounding yes.

By the time I finished my Ph.D., my sights were set on serving as a pastor and also teaching.  I have done both throughout my career.  I have had one foot in the church and one foot in academia, and that has been good for me and I hope has served the church and academia well.

So it is clear that church is important to me.  I say that even though I am aware of the failures of the church.  I have stayed with it through the years because I have found that leading a diverse group of individuals to be a congregation, a gathering of people who consciously and consistently practice important rituals at crucial transitions of life, who worship and study together, who consistently give their time and money to help in matters of compassion and justice, who in short create a community that reaches out beyond itself, is no small feat in a culture of individualism.

I care about caring. It matters that when someone is in the hospital, their pastor comes to see them.  I have often thought of the contrast of the medical professionals and the pastor.  The doctors and nurses enter a hospital room equipped with all the instruments of technology.  They have tools for which we are all grateful to measure our blood pressure, our temperature, our fat content, and a whole host of crucial things.  The pastor, on the other hand, enters the hospital room with nothing but a presence and a prayer.  There is a touch of the hand and a word of greeting, and before I leave the hospital room there is usually a question:  would you like for me to pray?  And if the answer is yes, the prayer is short and caring.  There is nothing technological about it, and there is nothing magical about it, but I know from long experience that it matters.

What does not matter to me very much is any list of doctrines.  I suppose that is the reason I have remained a Baptist, even though the name Baptist makes many people think of fundamentalism.  But Baptists, like the UCC and the Unitarians, come together on the basis of a covenant, not a list of doctrines.  That covenant, although it varies from church to church, is basically to care for one another and the world and to make difference in our communities and our larger world.

In one particular November while I was serving as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Worcester, I was hosting an ecumenical and inter-faith Thanksgiving service.  Thanksgiving, more than most of our major holidays, has kept a certain level of integrity.  Halloween is a bit crazy, and Christmas, as much as I love it, has been ridiculously commercialized, but Thanksgiving for many people still maintains a level of integrity.  Even those who do not choose to believe in any God can still pause and be grateful.

So I was hosting a community service of Thanksgiving, and among those I invited to help lead the service was the local Imam of the Islamic Center in Worcester.  He was a nice enough follow, and he told me the week before that he would be happy to lead a prayer, but that he may have a conflict and be unable to attend himself, in which case he would send a representative.  I said OK to that, and thought all was well.

On the evening of the community service, the worship leaders were all gathered in the foyer of the church waiting for the opening hymn during which we would all march in along with the choir.  All the local clergy were there dressed in their finest liturgical colors, and I was nervous as could be.  Why?  Because the Imam had not appeared.  Finally, just before time to begin the procession, word came to me that a representative of the Imam had arrived.  Soon a young man was brought to me, and I said, “Are you from the Imam?”  He looked at me and nodded yes.  So I said, “Good—you stand right there with the other clergy and march in with them.  Sit on a front pew, and when it is time for you, I will give you a signal.  Just watch me.”

Well, what I did not know at that moment was that this poor fellow was not from the Imam.  In fact, he had never been in a church in his life, and he had just arrived from Iraq a few days earlier.  He had been an interpreter for the U.S. army in Iraq, had been threatened and shot in the stomach by another Iraqi, and had endured six surgeries before being granted asylum in the U.S.  He had come to the church that night at the invitation of a friend.  Now he found himself marching into an inter-faith service with the clergy, not knowing that he was to be called upon for prayer!

The sanctuary was full that night, and the service went as planned until time for the representative of the Imam to lead in prayer.  I was sitting on the chancel, and when it was his time to come forward, I nodded to him and motioned for him to come up.  He had a bewildered look, but I continued to motion for him to come up.  Finally he come up on the chancel, walked over to my chair, and whispered, “What am I supposed to do?”  I said, “You are supposed to lead us in prayer!”  He said, “I don’t know what to say.”  I said, “Why don’t you just say what’s on your heart.”

So, he walked to the pulpit, stood before all those people, and was silent for a while.  Then he quietly said, “I have only been in this country for a few days, but I just want to say thank you.”  And then he stepped down and went back to his seat.  You could have heard a pin drop.  It was one of the most eloquent statements of thanksgiving I have ever heard.  It had nothing to do with doctrine.

It reminded me of another moment of thanksgiving that came in an academic setting.  My wife is Dean of Education at Wheelock College in Boston, and therefore I sometimes attend their graduation ceremonies.  One year the speaker for their graduation was Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame.  Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, and in his own quiet way he ministered to a vast congregation of children and adults alike.

That day he quietly reminded the graduates of all the people who sacrificed to enable them to be where they were that day.  I’m not sure exactly how he pulled this off, but he said that he wanted to stop in the midst of his address to give those graduates a chance to think of and to be grateful for those who loved them, sacrificed for them, and influenced them for good.  He said, “I’m going to stop now and let us remember them.”  So he stopped speaking, and there was absolute silence in the auditorium…for quite a while.  He just stood there with all those young people looking up at him, perhaps remembering the many times they had tuned in to see him on television while they were growing up.  Soon, however, I could hear a sniff over to one side, then another sniff in the middle, and soon there were sniffs all over the auditorium.  There was hardly a dry eye in the place!

So I suppose I can say that for me, gratitude matters.  I add it to my list of things that matter:  justice, compassion, authentic church that cares, and a sense of gratitude for life.

Six months this very day my wife of nearly 47 years was in the ER of Beth Israel Hospital having a stroke.  She would stay in Beth Israel for eleven days and then transfer to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown for five weeks.  Her right arm and leg were paralyzed. Thankfully, her mind was fine and face was not affected.  But we have spent the last six months working together in therapy and rehab.

Last week I was asked to speak at a Tuesday evening worship service at Briarwood Retirement Community, where many of our former church members and friends live.  Various friends were asking me about how Donna was doing, and a friend who was playing the piano that evening asked me, “What have you learned from this experience?”  The first thing out of my mouth was this:  “I have learned what is important.”

Those we love, family, friends who care, people who pray for you and write cards and offer words of encouragement.  Little things like this matter.  There are many times when I, as a pastor and teacher, feel quite helpless to make a difference in the world.  At those times I need to be reminded that there is a difference between MY world and THE world.  I can make a difference in my world, and perhaps, in ways I can hardly fathom, it will make a difference in THE world.

I hope so.



THE TOP TEN WORDS – A Communion Meditation by Thomas R. McKibbens

Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
October 5, 2014

Who would have thought that a primitive document that is 3,000 years old, born in a culture that was in the backwaters of the Mediterranean world, a culture that the educated, influential, literate world hardly noticed, would end up being a football kicked around in the culture battles of the most advanced technological society on the face of the earth!I

Yet a battle over the posting of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns or in public school classrooms has raged or simmered off and on for at least a decade. One Kentucky lawyer, trying to convince the Supreme Court that the Ten Commandments were mainly secular, argued that references to God in the Ten Commandments were minimal. This prompted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to ask if he had actually read the first four, the first of which begins, I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the display of public monuments of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky and Texas, the nine justices produced at least ten opinions. Sounds like a Baptist church!
On the extreme right wing of the debate are organizations such as The Society for the Practical Establishment and Perpetuation of the Ten Commandments, whose purpose includes doing away with the United States Constitution, with its Bill of Rights, and replacing it with the Ten Commandments. And while they are at it, they promote the death penalty for all murder, adultery, and homosexuality, a position that does seem to contradict the sixth commandment, but let’s not be picky!

Thomas Cahill, who has written a wonderful book entitled The Gifts of the Jews, makes the remarkable comment that there is no document in all of the literatures of the world that is like the Ten Commandments. He goes on to explain that other cultures do offer similar ethical guidelines, but here is the difference: they are always offered in a legal framework (i.e. if you do such and such, then this will be the consequence). That is not the case with the Ten Commandments.

Neither are they what we might call a Martha Stewart list of ten ways to make life happier and healthier. You know, the Ten Commandments are not a case of God looking at humanity and saying something like, I do wish you would get your act together! Why aren’t you eating silky braised chicken with pearl onions and mushrooms for lunch? Where is your collection of hand-painted Venetian glass? And while you’re at it, where did you pick up those extra pounds?


So let us pause for a few minutes to consider what is so special about these Ten Commandments. What has made them remain alive and well through all the centuries?

Here in this document, for the first time in history, human beings were offered a code without justification and without elaboration. In fact, biblical scholars think that they were originally just ten Hebrew words that could easily be memorized by illiterate people in the desert. Ten Words that still speak in the 21st century!

They are not propositions for debate; they are not suggestions for happier living; they are not even challenges. They are just what they seem to be, and they have been received by three great religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Yes, Islam also considers them as Holy Scripture! And they have been accepted by billions more non-religious folk as reasonable and necessary and even unalterable because they come, as Cahill poetically phrased it, from the deep silence that each of us carries within.

But what do they mean? How can they bend and flex for every age and every culture? Take the prohibition on killing, for example. Those who howl the loudest about public displays of the Ten Commandments are frequently the very ones who call the loudest for capital punishment or for carpet bombing of an enemy. So how do we bend and shape the commandment about not killing to justify what obviously is killing? Commandment #6 is a challenge!
These and other obvious questions are not easily answered. Yet…we know deep down that there is something fundamentally right about the commandment! We just don’t know how to apply it! And what about the slow, unnoticed destruction of human life among those not powerful enough to defend themselves? If poverty kills, as we know it does, then are we breaking the 6th commandment when we fail to support jobs programs? Are drug companies guilty of breaking the 6th commandment when they choose not to produce a life-saving drug because it will not turn a profit?

There is more than one way to kill, as we all recognize. If the divine principle behind this commandment is that all human life is precious, then we live out this commandment by supporting laws and public policy that enhance and protect the most human life and support the highest quality of life for the most people. This is always a very complex issue that is not easily reduced to a bumper sticker.


Now let’s slow down and take a deep breath! We are wading into some deep water here! But one thing is not so deep: through all the centuries since Jesus, the Ten Commandments have been most often used to instruct new Christians at the time of their baptism. In fact, some of the oldest baptismal liturgies ever found have the believer being baptized at sunrise, coming up out of the water of baptism and facing East, the direction of the rising sun, and reciting none other than the Ten Commandments! Think of that! At the dawn of a new day in the life of a believer, the first words spoken are the words of the Decalogue! Why? Because like the children of Israel coming through the waters of the Red Sea and receiving the commandments, the new Christian comes through the waters of baptism and pledges allegiance to a vision of reality that is rooted in God’s radical policy and deeply at odds with our dominant culture.

When a new Christian is baptized, she realizes that she has done nothing to deserve this act of God’s grace. She is raised to new life because of something God has done, not something she has done! And when we take communion, we are being gifted with new life, not because of anything we have done, but because of something Christ has done!

This is precisely what struck John Newton, the slave ship captain who was converted and wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” He was only too aware of what he had done, and there was nothing he could do to undo the misery he had caused as the captain of a slave ship. The pain and death caused by the infamous Middle Passage had been part of the economic system, you could say, but he knew he had cooperated in an evil system. No amount of saying he was sorry or just doing his job could atone for it.

Then he experienced the “amazing grace” of God. We might cringe at the 18th century language that describes himself as a “wretch,” but how would you feel if you had been the captain of a slave ship? “Wretch” might be too tame a word! And yet few of us would fail to identify with his classic line: Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.

The church has always agreed with our Jewish friends that the Ten Commandments are sheer grace, a gift from God to a world in desperate need of those Ten Words. Those ten words, along with the presence of Christ, can lead us through many dangers, toils, and snares, and they can lead us home.


And what is home? Ah, you know what home is! Home is any place that lives out the grace of God and accepts you just the way you are. Home is the place where you can make mistakes and still be loved. Home is the place where you can break every commandment in the book and still be forgiven. Home is the place where, as Robert Frost famously said, “they have to take you in.”

I want to remind you that this church is just such a place. To paraphrase a familiar line, “we reserve the right to be a spiritual home to anyone looking for a home.” Whatever dangers, toils, and snares may lie before you, you know that here is a place where you can face them with a church family that will support you, pray for you, and love you.

This week I received an email from an good friend named Mitch Carnell, who is a member of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, SC. That church, like this one, has a long history. It was the first Baptist church established in the south. Here is what Mitch wrote to me and to several others: “October 6, 2014, is my 50th anniversary as a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston…Although these fifty years have not been without heartbreak and pain, my family and I found a home. This is a loving, supportive church family. I have nothing but gratitude for the people at First Baptist and thanksgiving for the spiritual nourishment I have found here.”

Many of you can say the same about this church. Families gather; they laugh and cry together; they tell stories; and they eat. Oh, how families eat! So let’s be family, wherever you are from today. It is dinner time…time to eat…time to be thankful…time to remember.


Saints Are People Who Belong Entirely to God – Catholic News Service

Speaking to the crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the recitation of the Angelus, the Pope said saints are people who belong entirely to God, they carry the seal of God in their lives and on their persons.

Pointing out that we are all children of God and that we received the seal of our heavenly father with the sacrament of Baptism, Pope Francis said that saints are those who have lived their lives in the grace of Baptism, keeping that seal intact, behaving like children of God, trying to imitate Jesus.

“Saints – Pope Francis continued – are examples to imitate”. And noting that saints are not only those who have been canonized, but can be anyone from next door neighbors, to members of our own families or others we have met as we live our ordinary lives, the Pope said we must be grateful to them and to God for having given them to us as examples of how to live and die in fidelity to God and to the Gospel.

“How many good people have we met in our lives; how often do we exclaim: ‘this person is a saint!’… These are the saints who live next door, not the ones who are canonized, but the ones who live with us” he said.

Imitating their gestures of love and mercy, he said, is a bit like perpetrating their presence in this world. Acts of tenderness, of generous help, of closeness can appear insignificant, but in God’s eyes they are eternal, “because love and mercy are stronger than death” he said.

After the recitation of the Angelus prayer the Pope reminded the faithful that on Sunday afternoon he will travel to Rome’s Verano Cemetery where he will celebrate Holy Mass in memory of the dead.

The Pope said that by visiting the city’s main cemetery he intends to spiritually join all those who in these days will be praying on the tombs of their loved ones in every part of the world.


Small Talk Isn’t Small

Small talk isn’t small at all. It is the lifeblood of our connection to each other. We all want to feel as if we are connected – part of the group. The questions and comments fulfill that purpose. We need each other to feel whole. A 25 year old nurse said to me this week, “You stay involved. That is important. I hope I will be as healthy when I reach your age as you are.”  I just completed a political survey from Winthrop University. The young questioner asked, “Some people do not pay attention to national events at all. How often do you keep up with national or political events?” I answered, “Daily.”

“How have you been? Did you watch the game yesterday? Have you seen Bob recently? Did you know that Jane is in the hospital? I see that you are driving a new car.” None of these questions or statements have any earth shaking significance, but all of them are important. They tie us together. We are linked in a larger circle. Small talk is not a waste of time. Sometimes we struggle with it. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we should be doing something else. Sometimes we don’t listen to the answers because we are thinking about something we feel is more important at the time.

You matter to me and I hope I matter to you even if I don’t not have a breakthrough solution for any of the world’s problems. Later today a friend will call me about lunch tomorrow. Even later my sister will call. We don’t have anything new to talk about, but it will take about 30 minutes for us to say it. I look forward to her call. I miss it when it doesn’t come. Tonight I will talk to my out-of-town daughter. What a blessing.

It is all small talk. Speak to people when you have the opportunity. You may be their only contact today. Don’t miss the opportunity. You would be amazed at what a difference a friendly hello can make.

First Baptist Church Responds to Tragedy

After the murder of nine worshipers at Emanuel AME Church, First Baptist Church of Charleston responded in several ways.

On the Sunday following the shooting Pastor Marshall Blalock preached an especially encouraging sermon., “When Tragedy Strikes,” based on Romans 12:21. Members of the congregation wrote prayers for and messages to the members of Mother Emanuel Church. Those notes were attached to a cross and carried by members to Mother Emanuel. The procession was joined by members of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. Other mourners attached notes to the cross. The cross remained outside for two days and then was taken inside as a memorial. The pastor helped to secure a gift of $25000.00 to the church from the South Carolina Baptists Convention.

On June 25th. First Baptist Church hosted a community prayer service involving churches and church leaders from multiple denominations.

Long before this tragedy, the congregation had engaged in a tutoring program with third grade students at Mmmninger  Elementary School to elevate their reading levels. The program directed by Emory Hyatt, Minister to Children, has been a great success. These are the types of programs that make a real contribution to the lives of young children.

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