A Winter Grace

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Mark 1: 21-32

1. Frost Frontispiece

On New Year’s Day we gathered with our family. Many of you did the same. Four generations enjoyed a meal and time to talk, in a home in upstate New York. This lovely home is located in the Stockbridge Valley, one of the glacial cuts that did not sink deep enough to create a Finger Lake. It is a long lake-like indentation in the earth, but without any water, a beautiful valley, dotted with farms and homes and fields of corn stubble shooting up through the snow.

Speaking of snow. Our nieces had come the night before from southern Virginia, with one fervent hope. That it might snow. And snow it did, all night long, so that the bright morning sun broke out over a white sea of freedom, change and hope, a white sea of glistening powdered snow. Children have a different view of snow. The Bible says we must become as little children. We see snow and we see trouble. And we are right to see trouble. Trouble for plows, trouble for cars, trouble for traffic and transit, trouble for those otherwise abled, trouble for the general routine and run of things. Snow is bad for business, unless you run a ski lodge. In this economy, we see what is bad for business as even more trouble than usual. We count the cost. We count the cost of pews empty, restaurants half full, theatres quiet, power lunches cancelled, programs postponed, government offices shut. We have to do this accounting. We are the adults in the room.

Not so, children. Here is what children see when they wake up in the Stockbridge Valley and there is a powder all down the fields and rolling hills as far as the eye can see. They see freedom. They see a day of pure joy, down and up and down and up. They see a natural grace, the gift of the heavens for every child with a sled. So while the adults ate and talked, the children, with a few of the more young at heart uncles and aunts, headed for the hills. Down with a great whoosh! Up again and down. A pause for lunch and again to the unfettered freedom of free white powder, fallen from the heavens, bringing freedom.

We see what we want to see. We see what we expect to see. We see what we are accustomed to see. Children see with different eyes. For them, a comb is not only a grooming tool. It is a musical instrument as well. A pan and spoon are not only for cooking. You can make music with them, too. Clothes go on the right way, and they go on the wrong way too. And snow? Snow means freedom. Snow is not trouble. Snow is snow forts and snow is skiing and snow is sledding and snow is a cost free day of joy. Snow is a blanket of entertainment, like the gospel itself, free of charge.

2. Existential Winter

In May of 1992, in the middle of a big church meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, I got more than unusually lost, driving to church, an unfamiliar church, in that less than familiar city. I ended up somewhere I know not where on the other side of the wrong side of the tracks, driving on a peach of a spring Sunday morning, driving past row after row of terrible housing. Every city has such a neighborhood. Dirt where grass should have been. Rubble where porches should have been. Air where glass should have been. Peeling where paint should have been. And in front of this so-called housing, a range of quiet and taciturn children and grandparents. I guess this Louisville slum is not the poorest place I have seen but it stands out as the saddest poorest place, especially so on sleeping city sidewalk, and Sunday morning (coming down). Nothing as lonesome as that sound.

Imagine my shock to turn a corner, still irretrievably lost, to meet this sign: “The birthplace of Cassius Clay, Mohammed Ali, heavyweight champion of the world.” The prettiest, the greatest, the champion.

Bishop Robert Spain preached a wonderful sermon that morning, when I finally found my way. The music, teaching, fellowship and love of the suburban Methodist church were real and good. But God’s Word, that Sunday, was in the drooping porches and rat infested squalor that somehow, miraculously, gave birth to a champion. How could such a voice, a face, a body, a spirit, an intellect, a will, a mind, a man ever, ever, ever have emerged from such abuse and neglect? Why, it would be like saying that the divine could emerge from cattle stalls, or over-packed inns, or Palestinian slums, or neglected religion. Change is possible, change for the better.
How does something good emerge from what is not good? How does healing come out of ill health? While we have our more modern ways of describing the mystery, the same mystery met those listening to Jesus as he began his ministry. An unclean spirit, of plural dimension (‘us’), cries out. Jesus speaks: ‘Be silent. Come out.’ He speaks the same word still: be silent, come out. In apocalyptic mystery, ‘the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him’. All that long winter of hurt, and there, just there, grace. Wasn’t it Paul who claimed, ‘where sin abounds, grace over-abounds’? A winter grace…

3. January Prayer

Such a winter blast, life long, grants the courage of right prayer. Did you hear the beautiful Lowery benediction at the Inaugural?

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand may we forever stand — true to thee, O God, and true to our native land.
We truly give thanks for the glorious experience we’ve shared this day. We pray now, O Lord, for your blessing upon thy servant, Barack Obama, the 44th president of these United States, his family and his administration. He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate. But because we know you got the whole world in your hand, we pray for not only our nation, but for the community of nations. Our faith does not shrink, though pressed by the flood of mortal ills.
For we know that, Lord, you’re able and you’re willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.
We thank you for the empowering of thy servant, our 44th president, to inspire our nation to believe that, yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed — the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.
And now, Lord, in the complex arena of human relations, help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.
And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or
wherever we seek your will.
Bless President Barack, First Lady Michelle. Look over our little, angelic Sasha and Malia.
We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won’t get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.
Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.
Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around — (laughter) — when yellow will be mellow — (laughter) — when the red man can get ahead, man — (laughter) — and when white will embrace what is right.
Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.

4. Snowscape

I preached all but one Sunday service from mid-August until the New Year. Then on January 4 I had the day off. We were driving up from Princeton with our daughter and two little grandchildren (two cars, many stops). North of Hartford on route 84 I began to pick up WBUR and heard (with intermittent interruptions from a Spanish language rock music program) the Marsh Chapel service. I listened as we crossed into Massachusetts, and as we drove east on Route 90. I wondered how many of my fellow drivers were listening as well (as noted above, Peter Lydotes at WBUR numbers our radio listenership at 30,000; we are trying to find a way to gauge the additional internet listenership). The service made me proud and made me tearfully happy. The music, liturgy and sermon were of the finest excellence. A live, poetic, musical, beautiful voice, emanating from Boston University! I paused just to savor it that morning, and to be grateful for the work of my staff and colleagues. While I have listened frequently to recordings of our services, this is the first one I have heard live, ‘on the road’, as it were. God lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.

5. Cool Air Coda

A new year, 2009, and with it so much brisk, cool newness of life! As night fell on the first day of 2009, we drove through a nearby city. Gone were the fields and corn stubble, gone the farms and livestock, gone the open wide spaces. It was still light, though just barely so, that dusky twilight that says so much to us every day, if we will but listen with the heart of an evening prayer. Up and down the city streets we drove as gradually the street lights came on. And every corner what did we see? Sleds in tow. Oh, the children were somewhat different in hue, somewhat different in attire, somewhat different aspect. Somewhat more ‘colorful’, somewhat more Lincoln-connected. You knew you were no longer in the country. But as the children crossed under streetlights, corner by corner, there it was, again, unmistakable, adorned in snow. Carried with the toboggan, lingering in the wet mitten, pushing out with the frosted breath, stashed in the snow clogged boot, there it was, again. Freedom. The very same freedom given from the heavens by a beautiful Nevada, what children see in snow, a day of freedom. It is one snow, and one snow alone, and one snowfall under which together we all breathe.

Can you recall Romans 12: 9-11?

The pardon:

In Hebrew, the same word for iniquity is the word for punishment. Your iniquity is your punishment. Your crime is your punishment. (M Robinson).

Jack Boughton was included in a ‘general happiness’ when playing baseball. This is like what happens at Fenway. New England. It is preparation evangelium. (M Robinson)

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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