Archive for January, 2009

January 25

Love and Music!

By Marsh Chapel

This morning we see Jesus walking the shore of his beloved Galilee. He who is Love set to Music sets out at dawn, as the fishermen begin, casting and mending. This stylized memory from the mind of Mark kindles our own memory and hope, too.

Daybreak carries a power unlike any other hour’s hue. The excitement of beginning. The promise of another start. The crisp, cold opening of the year in January. Like the skier, mits and poles at the ready, we adjust our goggles, and we lean, and…

Here is Jesus, midway from Christmas to Easter, from manger to cross, from nativity to passion. Along the shoreline he strides, one foot in sea and one on shore.

He meets two brothers, and they meet him.. Notice how Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, are sketched. There is little to nothing of history here, but what there is says so much! There is no parental shadow lying on their fishing nets. One hears no maternal imperative, no paternal dictate. These boys are on their own. They have left home already, maybe leaving the city to the south to find a meager middle-class existence with their own means of production. They are small business men, boat owners, fishermen. Neither the amhaaretz nor the gentry, they. Not poor, not rich. Working stiffs. Young, young men. Simon already has a nick-name. A sign of joviality, of conviviality, of gregarious playful fun. Peter, the Rock. Is this for his steady faithfulness or his failure to float? On this rock…Sinks like a Rock…You sense that these brothers play in the surf a little, kick up the sand a little, ogle the Palestinianas a little, take time to take life as it comes. Brown are their forearms, and burnished their brows. They love the lake and life, and have made already their entrance into adult life. For they have left home. One envies their youth and freedom. They have taken to the little inland sea, and with joy they meet each day.

You can feel the sand under their feet as they take a moment to play and laugh. You can feel the chill of the water as they swim, while breakfast cooks over the fire. You can feel their feeling of vitality and joy as they greet one another, open to love, to the music of love.

I wonder whether we allow ourselves to drift a little too far from that first level of feeling, the feeling that love brings, that music brings. Those nearly pure moments of almost rapturous illumination, love set to music.

There must have been some moment, sometime, when you felt an intimacy with the universe, a closeness, a sense of really being alive. That too is a kind of musical moment, love breaking in.

A simple trust, like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea…

I am told of a boy who goes to a winter vacation with his parents in Florida. They set him loose on the swimming pool. Before diving, he goes around the cement shoreline, a latter day Jesus on a latter day lake.

Are you a Christian?
Oh, no, I don’t go to church…

Are you a Christian…
Well, I do go on Christmas and at Easter. I was there last month. But you know I don’t read the Bible, or anything like that…

Are you a Christian?
You know, I used to be, but I kind of got away from it. So many other things…

Are you a Christian?
(An older man at last brings the reply he is looking for):

Why yes, I was baptized in my youth, and later made a moment of confirmation. I go to church every Sunday. I can’t stand to miss it. Yes, I tithe, I give away 10% of what I have each year, not all to the church, but mostly to the church, because that is the seed bed for future wonder, morality and generosity. I keep faith with my family and friends. I am a Christian. But why are you asking?

Well sir I want to go swimming, and have two quarters here in my shorts, and I wanted someone I could trust to hold them while I swim.
A simple trust, like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea…

Our malaise, our ennui, should we have such, our “acedia”—spiritual sloth or indifference, literally, our “not-caring”—so often is due to our turning away from that elemental experience of love that sets to music everything else, that energizes everything else.

Peter and Andrew, of course, are casting, casting nets. They have no furrowed brows, no endless worries, no pessimism, no angst. They probably have left unattended some holes in their nets, these two happy brothers. They are willing to accept that their casting will be imperfect. But that imperfection will not keep them from enjoying the labor of casting.

Meanwhile, back on the beach, Jesus heads south, cove by cove, with Andrew and Peter frolicking in tow. They had already left home. They are ready to take a flier on some new trek, not fully sure how it will work out. It is a miracle that they are remembered, perhaps with a little hagiography, as having responded “immediately”. Still, every little scrap of memory of these two brothers tends in the same direction—full of vim, vigor, vitality and pepperino. Yes, they will follow!

Down the shoreline a little, there rests another boat. A different story, a different set of brothers altogether. James and John. Known as the sons of Zebedee. Simon has already earned his own name and nick-name. But these two are known by their father’s name. They haven’t left home. They have not yet acquired that second identity. Here they are, as usual at dawn, stuck in the back of the boat. All these years they have watched the Peter and Andrew show. All these years they have envied the fun and frolic down the beach. The late night parties. The bonfires. The singing. The swimming. And here they sit strapped to the old boat of old Zebedee. They are covered with the ancient equivalents of chap stick and coppertone. And they are trapped under the glaring gaze of Zebedee, whose thunderous voice has so filled their home that their own voices have never emerged. Every day, in the back of the boat. And what are they doing? Why you could have guessed it, even if the text had not made it plain. Are they casting? No. Are they fishing yet? No. Are they sailing? No. They are mending. Mending. Knit one, pearl two… Their dad has got them into that conservation, protection, preservation mode. Mending. Of course nets need mending, but the nets and the mending are meant in a greater service! The fun is in the fishing! The joy is in the casting. And there they sit, sober determinists, mending.

Here we are mid-way between Christmas and Easter. This passage has a little forecast of passion (the Baptist) and a little memory of nativity (Jesus came to Galilee). The two stories of Jesus, of his birth and of his death, are meant to complement and interpret each other.

The early church told two stories about Jesus. The first about his death. The second about his life. The first, about the cross, is the oldest and most fundamental. The second, about the life, is the key to the meaning of the first, the eyeglasses which open full sight, the code to decipher the first. Jesus died on a cross for our sin according to the Scripture. That is the first story. But who was Jesus? What life did his death complete? How does his word heal our hurt? And how does all this accord with Scripture? One leads to the other.

This second, second level story begins at Christmas, and is told among us all winter long to interpret the first. The life story is meant to make sure that the divine love is not left only to the cross, or only to heaven. The life story is
meant to open out a whole range of Jesus, as brother, teacher, healer, young man, all. It is meant to provide the mid-course correction that might be needed if all we had was Holy Week. And the life images are the worker bees in this theological hive. The days after Easter may announce the power of peace, but the days after Christmas name the place of peace. Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did. Jesus lived the way he did so that he could die the way he did. That is, it is not only the Passion of Christ, but the Peace of Christ, too, which Christians like you affirm. What lovely news for us! Such a passionate year we have had. Now come love and music again to announce that there is more to Jesus than the passion. There is the matter of peace as well.

The real miracles of this account lie in the second invitation to the second set of brothers. It is a miracle that Jesus stopped and invited them, so somber are they. I wonder if he took in the timbre of Zebedee’s voice, and saw them quaking in the back of the boat. Perhaps his heart went out to James and John. So he stops, and he asks.

That is the great thing about an invitation. All you can do is ask. Do ask. Ye have not because ye ask not. And for the first time in their lives, James and John are invited to live. So many people live half asleep. They don’t live life, life lives them. Like these two knitting in the back of the boat. Half asleep. Then dawn comes, and day breaks, and that first light shines! And a voice like no other, so equanimous and so serene, casts its spell upon them. Watch. It is a moment of love and music. First one, then the other, stands and moves. Under the shadow of that paternal presence, under the sound of that maternal imperative of home, still they find the courage to rise. And they move. They are about to grow up. Wonderful! And what do they leave behind. You would have known even if the Scripture had not laid it right out. They leave behind the boat…and their father. We best honor the adults in our lives when we become adults ourselves (repeat).

Feel the love. Hear the music.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’. And immediately they left their nets and followed him.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

January 18

A New Birth of Freedom

By Marsh Chapel

Our gospel today can best be heard from the last sentence, wherein the clearly clairvoyant Johannine Jesus belittles Nathaniel’s marvel at him by acclaiming divine freedom, historic change, and a horizon of hope. Divine freedom: you will see the heavens opened. Change in history: you will see the angels of God ascending and descending. A horizon of hope: you will see the Son of Man.


First, freedom.

God is loving us into love and freeing us into freedom.

The nature and dimensions of freedom are very much on our minds this week. Others from other spaces will want to continue to explore more fully the political, social, and economic features of this freedom. We have though, first, another job to do. It is the job of preaching. It is our task to name freedom. In that sense it is a theological job, though preaching is more than theological reflection. It is our confession that Jesus means freedom.

The other morning I took my daughter and grandchildren to the Aquarium. With you I celebrate this cultural gift, and make common cause with their fine work in opening the world to wonder. Surely there are many fine places to spend an hour or two in our fair city. Is there a single one, though, that will pierce your soul and spirit with a sense of the creative power, natural wonder, and physical freedom of the world in which we live? I challenge to stand in front of the Pacific Rim tank, with fish of a hundred colors and shapes, and not be overtaken, in wonder, by the power of freedom set loose in the universe.

It is our conviction that the God who makes allowance for being, who calls us and all into being, is the God of freedom. Freedom on Sinai. Freedom on the Mount of Olives. Freedom on the way to Emmaus. Freedom itself set free. Freedom evolves.

Does your God, your apperception of God, make space for evolution?

Your patent or latent view of God makes every sort of difference.

If as the Scripture says, “God is love”, then human freedom is real…Freedom is the absolutely necessary precondition of love. (W S Coffin, Credo, 27).

Our incoming President made a fine speech last year about race. He did so to clarify his own thinking, and our thinking about his thinking, with regard race. This was widely known and acclaimed. But to do so he had to clarify his own thinking and our thinking about thinking, with regard to a form of religious thinking. To date, to my knowledge, no one has fully appreciated the theological depths and dimensions of his March 18, 2008 address. As we come to the inaugural, perhaps we could pause to appreciate his theological insight, all the more choice since it is offered by a lay person.

Obama that day said ‘No’ to Jeremiah Wright, in terms like these: unlike others, unlike another generation, we do not believe that our fate and our future are irrevocable chained to our tragic past. He offered his view, that change can happen, real change, which is real hard, over time, in real time, can really happen. He explicitly rejected a harsh, providential, divine determinism or damnation for a country that certainly has known its share of sin. He stepped aside from the litany of sin and atonement, and stepped toward the liturgy of confession and pardon. That is a layman’s theological statement about divine and human freedom. Life is not purpose driven, for ill or good. Life is not divinely ordered and directed, in the small or in the large. Life is not found in the rigid orthodoxies neither of fundamentalism nor of radicalism, neither in the Biblicist fundamentalism of a Rick Warren nor in the Liberationist radicalism of a Jeremiah Wright (produced by his teacher and mine, James Cone.)

I have yet to see a single serious writer, preacher or journalist identify the ironic similarity, the congruent similarity, the family resemblance of Warren and Wright. One is from the far right and one is from the far left. Nonetheless, they offer the same religious perspective. (In what I say I do not criticize them. They are good people. They do good work. Though I profoundly disagree with them and adamantly oppose them, I acknowledge their desire to know and do the right and the true and the good. I too fell in love early on with Karl Barth, so I know from inside the powerful pull of their perspective). Yet here is the irony. While they differ completely in politics, Warren and Wright offer the same religious perspective: The Bible is the sole Word of God, either in personal purpose (Warren) or in cultural judgment (Wright); God is known in providence, whether from the Law (Warren) or from the Prophets (Wright); it is God, not we ourselves, who makes all change, whether from the right (Warren) or from the left (Wright); the human being is left to submit (Warren) or rebel (Wright), finally doubly predestined as Augustine finally had to admit before Pelagius; history is tragedy, fore (Warren) and aft (Wright); freedom is an illusion (Warren) or a presumption (Wright). (You will note that this is not a very cheery world view ).

Both Wright and Warren are indebted, theologically, to Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr and the Neo-Orthodoxy against which Howard Thurman and others have unsuccessfully, but rightly, preached for fifty years. Thurman was 100 years ahead of his time 50 years ago. Warren is Barth from the front, and Wright is Barth from the back. But from front or back, it is still Barth. They both have taken seriously the first of Niebuhr’s grave points, about the tragic sense of life, and they both have neglected utterly Niebuhr’s second, his concluding sermon, that there is in the human being a divine freedom, a capacity for a spiritual discipline against resentment, and so an open future, a divine\human heteronomy. Both radically and fundamentally minimize the capacity of the human being to change, and the potential for human society to improve. They both radically and fundamentally mute freedom, whether for a new post-Biblical freedom for gays to find their place in society or for a new post-radical shared leadership of many hues in the cause of racial justice. They both (and quite successfully to this date) define American Christianity over against the liberal tradition. And, so far, they have won the day.

What astounds me, still, is that the theological insight of Obama’s race speech has had no attention. Against a purposey providentialism (Warren), against a denunciatory determinism (Wright), Obama affirmed freedom on March 18, 2008:

But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

Embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.

The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.

The problem with radicalism and the problem with fundamentalism is the same problem: they see the future only from the past. “The sun also rises and the sun also sets. What has been is what will be. What has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun.” They see what they expect to see. And so the
y chain us, with all due sense of purpose, from right or left, to what has been. And so they chain us, with all due citation, from right or left, of the Bible, to what has been. Here is the key line: The profound mistake is that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.

In thrilling mystery this morning the Gospel denies that we are irrevocably bound to a tragic past! In the same way, this week’s inaugural denies that we are irrevocably bound to a tragic past!


Second, change.

John’s gospel exudes freedom. For John Jesus means freedom. With freedom, scary thought, things can change, either for the better, or for the worse.

At a wedding this weekend, guests from New York chose to spend Saturday at the Kennedy museum. I said a silent thanks that they had chosen that spot this weekend. It is a place that says, ‘I believe America should set sail, and not lie still in the harbor’ (JFK).

You remember, I expect, a time when the utter misery of others at last permeated your spirit, and you seethed with an angry hunger for change. You drove by the South Bronx, safe on the highway, riding in a new car, and looked down on the city and saw PS 131, with 6 year olds coming out, and you thought, “How do we do this? How do we let this happen?” Or you had to stop at the emergency room in a small town hospital—a toothache, a broken limb—and you looked around and for the first time the hidden poor of the land were real. You served in the dining center or suited in the storehouse or read books in the daycare. You heard Marion Wright Edelman, really heard her, when she said that 20% of our American children are raised in poverty. You saw something, of all places, on television, and it made you weep. You read an article about children hurt, wounded, killed, in the fog of war, as they took shelter in a school house. You crossed the border into Tijuana and all those brown little faces and browner little hands reaching for coins sent a chill through you on a sunny, hot day. Your club offered a day of service and you ended up, not on the sunny side, but on the slummy side of the street.

God loves: especially those left out. With the divine gift of freedom there comes the chance for change.

In two fine novels, Gilead and Home, over the past several years, Marilynn Robinson has given you a sympathetic reading of determinism (fundamental or radical), which, ultimately, though cautiously, she rejects. Here is the climax of Home:

Her second book places the apparently damned Jack in earshot of a young woman who has married an old preacher:

“Just stay for a minute”, she said, and Jack sat back in his chair and watched her, as they all did, because she seemed to be mustering herself. Then she looked up at him and said, ‘A person can change. Everything can change’…Jack said, very gently, ‘Why thank you, Mrs. Ames. That’s all I wanted to know’. (p 228)


Third, hope.

Given the darkness, confusion and corruption of our time, it is more than tempting to turn a cynical eye and ear upon the earth.

The thrilling mystery of our gospel today, though, argues otherwise. The community that composed the Gospel of John knew a rare kind of freedom. Theirs was not only a freedom of religion, but also a freedom from religion. So, in this mysterious verse, the writer acclaims openness, even to the heavens; he pronounces motion, even among and between angels and men; he pulls forth what strangely for him is the highest title of Jesus, the Son of Man. An open heaven is a symbol of divine freedom given as human freedom. The Jacob’s ladder of ascent and descent is a symbol of power to move, to change. The heightened title, Jesus a divine figure, is a symbol of hope that will not let go.

On Christmas Day we stood outside Trinity church after a fine morning service. Hope was in the air. What the Aquarium is to freedom, what the Kennedy museum is to change, the churches of our community are to hope. They are living, speaking symbols of hope.

When you are tempted to lose hope that their might be liberty and justice for all, I hope you will think of the family just now about to set up housekeeping at the White House.

When you are tempted to lose hope that our education or medical provisions can be fair or just, I hope you will remember that one teacher who touched you, that one doctor who helped you.

When you are tempted to lose hope that peace might ever come between Arab and Israeli, Muslim and Jew, I hope you will remember that other peace, hard wrought, has come, in other places. I give you Ireland. I give you South Africa.

When you are tempted to lose hope that a durable economy might evolve wherein those who have much do not have too much and those who have little do not have too little, I hope you will remember the Hudson River voice of a crippled President, ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’.

When you are tempted to lose hope that the voice and place of women, world-wide, might ever be sustained, I hope you will remember Susan B Anthony, ‘failure is impossible’.

When you are tempted to lose hope that the world can work, I hope you will remember Jesus’ thrilling mystery, ‘Truly, truly, I tell you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ For just as freedom leads to change and change leads to hope, so also hope brings change and change brings freedom.


We enter a time in which there is the possibility of a new birth of freedom.

It was not a pretty June morning on which Abraham Lincoln spoke the words of this morning’s sermon title. It was not on a beach, in Hawaii or Florida that he spoke. It was not in the peaceful backwaters of a decade of progress and plenty. It was not after a long and easy life. It was not out of quiet reflection is a monk’s peaceful cell.

Lincoln spoke over the graves of thousands. He spoke in the roaring November wind. He spoke on the corn stubble of a Pennsylvania field. He spoke as a leader who might be losing a war. He spoke as a man more acquainted with sorrow and defeat than perhaps any other person of his time, or any time. He was our greatest leader, and a pretty fair lay theologian himself. In a couple of years he would himself be dead.

We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom. . . and that government of the people. . .by the people. . .for the people. . . shall not perish from the earth.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

January 11

Begin By Breathing

By Marsh Chapel

You may be taking some of your first breaths this morning, as you wake up on a cold January Sunday. Breathe deeply.

You may turn on the television, or turn to the newspaper, or turn up the radio. Morning has broken, a Sunday morning at that. Breathe deeply.

You may wonder, come Sunday, this morning, and wherever you are, whether you have the spirit to get up and get moving at all. You may be driving on the snowy Massachusetts Turnpike, just past Worcester. You may be looking out onto Cape Cod. You may be brewing coffee overlooking the Back Bay. You may be sitting in a pew. You may wonder. What is there that I awake to find, here, other than darkness, other than ignorance, other than corruption? Breathe deeply.

Sin is one Christian doctrine that is measurably demonstrable and scientifically provable. We have no lack of darkness and ignorance and corruption on January 11, 2009. Turn on the television, turn to the newspaper, or turn up the radio. Sin: darkness, confusion, corruption. It takes your breathe away.

Darkness takes your breath away. In the 21st century men are still killing each other in the name of religion, and smiling about it. Darkness. We run the risk of seeing things from fifty thousand feet, where the air is clear and the sky is bright. But at ground level, with children sitting for days in the presence of their parents, their dead parents, there is a deep darkness. I look at my grandchildren, who are here today, and I wonder, if someone so treated them, just what I would do. No, there is no simple path out of the dank dusk, nor are there easy solutions to intractable problems of violence and self-defense. But there sure is plenty of darkness. Darkness. It takes your breath away.

Confusion takes your breath away. Once we were a land of 12. Now we are a land of 8. Somehow, in a few months, we moved from a net worth of 12 to a net worth of 8. A land, a people, a 300 million member corporation, once thought to be valued at 12, now is more like 8. Speaking of 8, one out of 8 employable men is not. Employed. You may be one, or your grandson, or your neighbor. What is utterly remarkable is the pervasive confusion about how this happened, how we got here, where exactly we are, and how if at all we get out. Ask someone over dinner: “What is a hedge fund?” As one writer put it, we are a people who have a very hard time understanding and handling large sums of money, that is, anything over $136.00. Confusion. It takes your breath away.

Corruption takes your breath away. There is a lasting corruption under foot, what Gardner Taylor called the ‘gone wrongness of life’. In accidents, avoidable or not. In tragedy, explainable or not. In breach of faith, intended or not. In the breaking of laws, foreseen or not. If you, in person and in particular, have been present at the careening out of control, the plunging down hill, of one or another part of life, this week, you will think twice about getting up too early of a Sunday morning. Our deepest corruption is religion, as Blake so well knew: When Satan first the black bow bent, and the moral law from the gospel rent, he turned the law into a sword, and spilt the blood of mercy’s Lord. We want to go to a better place, to take the world to a better, non-religious place. That is our common hope, preached here at Marsh Chapel. Religion, per se, is not a good thing. It may be a popular thing, or not, but it is not a good thing. All of this makes for labored breathing.

For the preacher, a direct review of darkness, confusion, and corruption knocks the breath out of you. You struggle to breathe. And maybe just catching your breath, Sunday morning, letting your lungs refill after violence and violation, can be counted as a meager blessing.

Given the condition our condition is in, on 1/11/09, an inverted nineleven dated, we may or may not be attuned to the way our Scriptures mirror the condition our condition is in. Today’s readings are all about beginnings. Of creation (Genesis 1). Of church (Acts 19). Of Jesus (Mark 1). Beginnings all. We begin a new week. We begin a new calendar year. We begin a new semester.

How are we to begin?

Oddly, our lessons about beginnings, themselves begin with darkness, confusion, and corruption. The announcement of what is good occurs inside what is not so good. At least this from Neo-orthodoxy, and existentialism ‘its mistress’ (R Hart), we may plunder: the Scripture is truer to life than life is to itself.

In Genesis, the priestly writer, borrowing from Babylon, pronounces the beginning of creation—in darkness. The earth was without form and void. Even then. Darkness was upon the face of the deep. Creation, always and ever, comes out of darkness. Where does good come from? From bad.

Luke, the church’s cheer leader in Acts, sets right the nature of baptism. Paul has spent months in Ephesus. He comes upon other disciples who already have been baptized, say they. But they do not understand baptism. Forgiveness it is, but it is more than forgiveness, says the apostle. Even then. Even among the earliest of followers there is a fog of confusion.

Mark, the earliest gospel writer, at the beginning of the gospel, places Jesus in the roiling waters of the icy Jordan, under the hand of John, a baptism for repentance, a cleansing from corruption. For all the familiarity of these readings, there is nothing particularly cozy about them, nothing particularly warm about them, nothing particularly easy about them. They face in the face darkness, confusion and corruption.

How do they affirm creation, church, and Jesus at their beginnings?

What good news do they offer you for life on the cusp of a new beginning, good news on a blustery winter morning at the beginning of the year?

e gospel affirmation and offer today is slight. A mere breath, you might say.

Our lessons today offer breath. Breath.

Breath in darkness. The breath of God was moving over the face of the waters. Breath in confusion. When Paul laid his hands on them, the divine breath came upon them. Breath in corruption. The heavens opened and the breath descended upon him like a dove. Breath at the beginning of creation. Breath at the beginning of the church. Breath at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus.

Do you sense a pattern emerging here?

You veterans of Marsh Chapel preaching for many decades need no reminder that in both Hebrew and Greek the word for spirit is the word for breath and the word for breath is the word for spirit. I would not presume on your time to belabor what needs no labor, in your case. Spirit is breath. With our voice, our breathing is our most human feature. It makes or breaks a day, a season, a life. With breath, there is chance you can begin. So, breathe.

As we begin a new year let us extol the blessings of a simple existential ritual. It probably will not reach way up to the height of Acute Sacramental Piety. Apologies to the Liturgists. Nor will it, perhaps, plumb the depths of Anabaptist Piety. Apologies to the Fundamentalists. It may work, though, for the broad middle stream of life, personality, temperment, culture, tradition and experience with which, for all our messy middle of the roadness, you and I have the most experience.

You may call it a non-religious ritual.


Breathe to remember. Breathe in and out. It is a refreshing pause, and brings a healthy reminder that we are all creatures of our God and King—sheep in another’s pasture. We are made in the image and likeness of God. We are more human than anything else.

Breathe to listen. Hear and Overhear. While this is a matter of the ears not the lungs, of the soul not the body, it is the one single posture, a kind of relational bending of the knee, that represents our faith, the faith of Jesus Christ, who has listened to us, who has forgiven us, that we might, in Him, listen to others, that we might, in Him, forgive others. (Now look at that. Just like a preacher. Talking…about listening. Has there ever been a preacher who could listen?) Listen. It is who we are.

Breathe to sing, to smile and sing. It is the response most befitting those made in God’s Image and those forgiven in Christ’s Death. We have nothing to defend and everything to share. It is what happens when you finally realize, catch the Spirit, catch your breath, get religion, find love, learn to sing, recline into God in Christ, become aware of what God has done for us. It makes us the singing people we most want to be.


At the end of life. How hard it has been to watch our close friend laboring to breathe. At last he is able to breathe again without a tube. What a lesson to us about the simple, essential blessing of breath. To see him at the culmination of his breatherhood, his life, is perhaps to catch a glimpse of what the psalmist meant:

O Lord, our Lord,

How majestic is thy name in all the earth!

Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted

By the mouth of babes and infants

Thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes

To still the enemy and the avenger

When I look at thy heavens

The work of thy fingers

The moon and stars which thou hast established

What is man that thou art mindful of him?

And the son of man, that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God

And dost crown him with glory and honor

Thou hast given him dominion over

The works of thy hands

Thou hast put all things under his feet

All sheep and oxen

And also the beasts of the field

The birds of the air

And the fish of the sea

Whatever passes along the paths of the sea

O Lord our Lord

How majestic is thy name in all the earth!


At the beginning of life. One night we stopped at the hospital. In the hallway we became surrounded by a dozen young couples, evidently pregnant, carrying pillows and booklets, being led on a tour that apparently was to conclude in the birthing room. Those of you who have been “lamazed” know that they were about to be taught to breathe. Breathe. The trained breathing of the mother, rhythmic, panting, pushing, blowing, following the increasing strength of each contraction, and with the assistance of her ostensibly helpful coach, finally gives way, in that miracle moment, to the image of God, the likeness of God, born again. And the nurse holds the child, spanks the child, and the child—breathes! Every single one of the six billion breathers now on earth carries that unmistakable patent, the imago dei.

With our morning breath, may we concentrate, may we find wisdom, may we recall in Whose shape we have been formed.

Yet how distorted this image has so largely become! We treat people roughly, we treat even children roughly, forgetting that each one is “a little less than God”! How easily we do so, until we are brought up short. When our breath is taken away…

We should make common cause with artists and poets like James Weldon Johnson:

And God stepped out on space

And he looked around and said:

I’m lonely—

I’ll make me a world

And as far as the eye of God could see

Darkness covered everything

Blacker than a hundred midnights

Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled

And light broke

And the darkness rolled up one side

And the light stood shining on the other

And God said: That’s good!…

Then God walked around

And God looked around

On all that he had made

He looked at his sun

And he looked at his moon

And he looked at his little stars;

He looked on his world

With all its living things,

And God said: I’m lonely still

Then God sat down—

On the side of a hill where he could think;

By a deep, wide river he sat down

With his head in his hands,

God thought and thought,

Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river

God scooped the clay;

And by the bank of the river

He kneeled him down;

And there the great God Almighty

Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,

Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night

Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;

This Great God

Like a mammy bending down over her baby

Kneeled down in the dust

Toiling over a lump of clay

Till he shaped it in his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,

And man became a living soul.

Breathe, consciously, mindfully, personally. Breathe.

The breath of God gives us the miraculous, wondrous mystery of life! With every breath we sing God’s praise! This is the wonder of which the psalmist the poet did write. Shall we not live, and breathe, convinced that it is breathing this rarified air, that we should fashion our days?

Begin by breathing.

Darkness. I cannot yet perceive a final solution to all the questions of violence and conflict the globe over, but I am convinced that we should view the matter breathing a rarified air. Begin by breathing.

Confusion. I cannot fathom all of the complexities of national and state and city and school district budgets, nor do I claim to know their ideal shapes, but I am convinced that we should view such matters breathing a rarified air. Begin by breathing.

Corruption. I do not pretend to have all of the ultimate answers regarding ongoing issues of life and choice, but I am convinced that we should view the matter breathing a rarified air. Begin by breathing.

It is the breath of God that has made us who and as we are.

As you begin, take a deep breath.

Will you breathe with me this year.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill