Archive for October, 2009

October 25

Remembering Littell

By Marsh Chapel


The ministry of Marsh Chapel, in this decade, quickens in connection with voice, vocation and volume.

The voice of this pulpit, around the globe, is lifted and shared, in the liberality of the gospel, as it has been from the time of our first preacher, Dr. Franklin H. Littell. Our Psalm today celebrates voice.

The vocation to service, in ministry and culture, to which we invite young people every day, is our joy and hope, this day. Our lesson today celebrates vocation.

The volume, simply put, the increasing worshipping presence of the people of God, grows in ordered worship, as we lift hymns in four part harmony, enjoy choral music both historic and contemporary, and ponder the word, with head and heart, to ‘unite the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety’, as the broken are healed. The gospel today speaks of the lost and the found.

We invite you to step alongside the ministry of Marsh Chapel in voice, vocation and volume.

Especially today we ‘Remember Littell’. Franklin Littell, who died this spring at age 91, lived and preached a faith that gives sight. An insightful faith.

The hallowed predecessors who occupied this pulpit in the cradle of liberty and the cradle of Methodist theology are names, and voices, you mostly know. Robert Cummings Neville. Robert Watts Thornburg. Richard Nesmith. Robert Hamill. Howard Thurman. And Franklin Littell.

Littell In Retrospect

Dr. Franklin Littell was the first to occupy this pulpit. President Daniel Marsh brought him here in the early 1950’s. As recently as May of 2006, Littell was able at age 88 to preach here, as he did that spring at commencement (for the School of Theology). A friend, colleague, contemporary and fly fishing partner of our dear friend Dr. Ray Hart, Littell brought a stirring sermon to that moment just three years ago.

Perhaps both his life and death are somewhat unfamiliar territory for you. In fact, I guess that such is the case for many, and so, today, I offer a moment of remembrance, in conjunction with our Boston University Alumni Weekend. Last year we were ‘Remembering Chalmers’. This year, Littell.

Remember today three features of Littell’s ministry.

First, he was the father of holocaust studies. Littell was the first to offer courses, formal study, in the area of the holocaust. Throughout his life, with passion, and as a Methodist preacher, he continuously challenged the Christian community, and particularly the Protestant Christian community, to take emotional responsibility for the horrors of the holocaust. Littell, in his time here and later in his long career, never stopped pushing, preaching, even attacking his own Christian church to look hard, deep, and long at Auschwitz. He did so from this pulpit. He did so later as a college President (Iowa Wesleyan), and he did so in scores of classrooms from Temple, to Emory, to Chicago. Remember his words: “Most gentiles, even church leaders, have not confronted the Holocaust and its lessons for the present day… It is important, especially for Jewish children, to know that in those terrible years not all the gentiles in Christendom were either perpetrators or passive spectators,” (NYT obit., 6.09).

Second, Littell gracefully and steadily combined learning and piety. His ministry embraced both head and heart, and actually could not have been conceived or developed without such a real, even radical integration of the mind and the spirit. His passion about the holocaust, for instance, began out of a revulsion he felt as a student in Germany in 1939, attending a Hitler rally. He never forgot the feeling of that early experience, and that feeling fueled his work through the years. Feelings are more than emotions, more than sentiment. They are the great steed, the great horse on which we ride. The mind is the bit and bridle, as Wesley somewhere wrote, but the great steed is faith, fed by the wellsprings of emotion in the heart. He pressed the church, our church, to remember the great Kingswood hymn of Charles Wesley: ‘to unite the two so long disjoined, learning and vital piety’. So he was a preacher who also was college president. He was a pastor, who also taught and wrote. He was a person of faith, who saw the need to combine mind and heart.

Third, in addition, Littell was a serious and lifelong scholar of the reformation. His early formation, study and teaching were devoted to this area. Most reformation scholars invest study in the New Testament, too, and Littel was no exception. He was an early supporter and even translator and commentator on the work of Rudolph Bultmann, whose own voice is still so important voice in the study of the New Testament.

First: holocaust studies. Second: head and heart united. Third: reformation studies, including interest in the critical study of the New Testament. These are three gifts of Littell to our time. His voice continues to bless us.

Our Work Today

In the lineage of Littell, we have work yet to do, both theological and liturgical.

We have theological work to do.

Judaism and Christianity share a vision of redemption in history. Yet the ongoing work of redemption, in exodus and resurrection both, demands, deserves and requires deeper reflection. (The annual Elie Wiesel lectures, which begin again tomorrow night here at Boston University, provide us an opportunity to labor together in this part of the theological vineyard). Further, the devastating, demonic disaster of the holocaust of the 1940’s stands to challenge both religious and secular affirmations of redemption in the late modern period. In particular, all claims to universality which diminish the particular in every particular stand under the challenge of the holocaust whose study Littell initiated. Our understandings of revelation stand under challenge. Our use of dialectic feels the strain of the same challenge. Our universalization of communication and to some degree of valuation lies under that shadow too. While we have remembered Wiesel and other courageous witnesses to the shoa, we have not yet finished our theological reflection. As Robert McAfee Brown used to say, theology, including Christian theology, that lies out of earshot of the holocaust, is severely diminished.

Some of our further theological work, within the Christian community, includes reading and reflection upon Jewish theological works. The books of Abraham Heschel come to mind. Articles like Irving Greenberg’s ‘Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire’, come to mind. Voices like that of Emil Fackenheim come to mind, who described his practice of faith as a way of resisting Hitler and resisting any ‘posthumous victories’ by him. Our own theological work, tracing Littell’s, may involve reading and hearing our Jewish siblings.

Our own theological work, much yet to be done, begins by tracing the work of our Jewish siblings.

We have liturgical work to do as well.

Irving Greenberg, some years ago, in the article just mentioned, outlined various forms of Jewish post-holocaust theological and liturgical models. He wrote about Job. He wrote about Isai
ah 53. He wrote about Lamentations. He wrote, most personally, about silence. He wrote about religious testimony: in life, in ‘chesed’, in rebirth, in rebirth for the state of Israel, in exploration of the imago dei, in authority and authenticity.

The tragedy of anti-Semitism predates the New Testament. But the 27 books of our canon, from 1 Thess. 2 to John 10, are shot through with this same tragedy. The church has yet to come to terms with the deadening effect of our lectionary readings and liturgical practices. We have found ways to honor the experience of women, in our liturgical phrasing. We have learned ways to honor those ‘outside’ and those ‘foreign’, in our church language. But we have not budged, when reading the passion narrative in John, with its fisted, hurtful chorus of language, ‘oi oudaioi’, ‘oi oudaioi’.

We have liturgical work yet to do.

Theological and liturgical work lies ahead of us.

I like to think of an autumn day in 1955, along Broadway in NYC. There is Reinhold Niebuhr. With him is Abraham Heschel. Together they walk for an hour around Grant’s tomb. Together they think, probe, reason together. Both are better for it.

Heschel gives our last word this morning:

There are three ways in which a man expresses his deep sorrow: the man on the lowest level cries; the man on the next level is silent; the man on the highest level knows how to turn his sorrow into a song. (Sabbath, 59).

~ The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

October 18

Whose Service is Freedom

By Marsh Chapel

There are many reasons for appearing in church. To some of these we may be able to attach descriptions and meanings. There are historical reasons. Family traditions come to mind. There are sociological reasons. Cultural influence, in some regions at least, comes to mind. There are psychological reasons. The very human needs for meaning, belonging, and empowerment come to mind. There are theological, philosophical reasons. Curiosity about life and fear of death come to mind. There are many reasons for coming to church, come Sunday.

On Parents’ Weekend, on a college campus, there are many reasons for coming to church. As a Parent, you may want to offer a prayer of thanks, a hymn of praise, that things have gone so well so far, for your beloved son or daughter. As a Student, you may want to include your Dad or Mom in part of the weekly rhythm of life, here, to say ‘welcome’ to your spiritual home. As a Professor or Administrator, you may want to stand alongside others in the community of faith, as work progresses across midterm valley, in the community of learning. Or, withal, you all may just want to enjoy a time of singing, a moment of peace, and a good, free lunch. On Parents’ Weekend, on this college campus, there are many reasons for coming to church.

All these reasons are good reasons.

Yet, stirring in the early part of the sermon’s development, and just now in your own thought and heart, there may be another awareness, too. I think there is. For all the goodness of all these reasons for worship, down deep or at least deeper, there is something else at work. I ask you to search for a minute, in your own soul, for this something else. While you are looking around, down in the recesses of the soul, let me call up a familiar story.

Make Way For Ducklings

This story is about intimacy, about closeness, about nearness.

It is a story that many parents and children together have enjoyed. The story is set in Boston. As a matter of fact, it is set right here, along the Charles. It contains the usual suspects. A family on the move. A hunt for suitable housing. Various dangers and perils. Changes in direction, changes in location. Some good people along the way. This story offers connections to Beacon Hill, the Public Garden, the Back Bay, Charles Street, our shared River, and that lastingly typical feature of Boston, MA, traffic. As I view the congregation, I imagine that a few parents and a few children, here today, enjoyed this story together. Isn’t it wonderful to be sitting inside the book of Robert McCloskey’s story? Rather than holding the book, the book holds you. That is one great thing about Boston. Here you see Mrs. Mallard, right on the river. You step alongside the Garden, and its little island. You ride the tour boat, rather than seeing it sketched. You dodge the cyclists, and the autos, yourself. Be careful. You may not be able to fly over the State House, with its copper dome, but you can walk right up to it. By the Longfellow Bridge you can spot the cozy place for molting. You can say hello to Michael the policeman. And when jack, kack, lack, mack, nack, ouack, pack, and quack come toward you, on the esplanade, you yourself can ‘make way for ducklings’. And when you and others take your life in your hands crossing the street, at Arlington and Beacon, you can hope that Michael will be there to help, as he so consistently, unfailingly was, in the book. When Michael calls Clancy from Mt Vernon Street, at a pay phone, or maybe now on a cell phone, you may overhear the call. You are here. On the pond you may see the Mallard clan, heading home to the little island, where Mr. Mallard sits waiting. (He never did do very much in that story did he?) You may say to yourself, on your Sunday afternoon stroll through the Public Garden, “The ducklings liked the new island so much that they decided to live there. (Some of them even decided to go to college down the street.) All day long they follow the swan boat and eat peanuts. (College is a kind of subsidized freedom). And when night falls they swim to their island and fall asleep. (A little past dusk, most nights, by the way).

This is a story about closeness that for many years has given people, maybe you, an experience of closeness. A story about intimacy that has caused an experience of intimacy. A story about nearness that has evoked a real experience of nearness.
Parental Swimming Lessons

I do not mean to idealize family life. ‘It takes a long time to raise parents’. The road is a rocky one. The journey has its own perils, every bit as fierce as the river, the tour boat, the traffic, and the garden. For parents, to become parents of adults, as adult parents to young adult children (you see how complicated this gets?), have to learn new swimming lessons, on the river, in the pond, under the bridges of life. Parents have to take swimming lessons. I know. I had to get wet myself. Once you send your child away, you need some new swimming lessons.

You need the prone float of trust, that kind of faith that trusts in letting go. That makes you a beginner. You need to learn two strokes, and swim with your mouth closed. (Ah, I see you get my meaning). Sometimes the tongue is for biting. That makes you an advanced beginner. You need to master the crawl, front and back. To control your self control, for only self control is real control anyway. It is the only control any of us really has. Enjoy it. That makes you an intermediate. You need to show power for distance swimming, and to avoid triangles, that is, when you need to talk, to talk directly. (Avoiding triangles is the basis of the University’s policy about communication with parents of students, by the way). Then you are a swimmer. After a while your adult child may come to you with a question. People, including children, only listen when they are ‘coming toward you’. There may be a question. ‘Dad, what do you think about…? Ah, sweet moment. You have moved into a coaching role, and have become an advanced swimmer. And when your own children go through their molting stages, and find a mate along the river bank, then you will relate as one parent to another. That may be the most important parenting you do, parent to parent. You have become a lifesaver.

In our previous pastorate, we saw all three of our children depart for college. All went to Ohio Wesleyan. After we dropped them off, we drove home to Rochester. The tears flowed from Columbus to Cleveland. The tears flowed from Cleveland to Buffalo. The tears flowed from Buffalo to Rochester where, drenched, we stopped. After the first such bath trip, my wife decided that the next year, and every year following, she would host a dinner for mothers whose ducklings had flown the coop. They gathered, ate, drank, laughed, cried, and went home the better for it. They are still doing so, under new leadership. They are helping each other with swimming lessons.

In absence, the absence of children becoming adults, they are learning about a new kind of intimacy, a new kind of closeness, a new kind of nearness.

Spiritual Intimacy Mark 10:35

Some minutes ago I asked you to think about your presence here, and its fountain and origin.

Gain or loss of one kind of intimacy can sometimes kindle a desire for another kind of intimacy. Absence can make the heart grow fonder. In more than one way…

I tell you about Mallard closeness, McCloskey intimacy for a reason. I reflect with you about parental swimming lessons for a reason. Here is the reason. I want to invite you into another kind of intimacy. In fact, lurking somewhere down deep or deeper, I think you are waiting for such an invitation. It may be the very reason you are in church, today, or any Sunday. The intimacy of human love is a foretaste for the intimacy of divine love. How can you love God whom you have not seen if you have not loved your children whom you have seen? Better: having loved your children, or your parents, you are ready for another kind of love.

In our Gospel, Mark 10: 35, something is conveyed that I usually miss, in this familiar reading. Perhaps you caught it. It is the desire for a spiritual intimacy.

James and John are rightly chastised for their spiritual one-up-manship, but not for their longing for intimacy. Usually this passage is read as a warning against pride in authority. So it is. ‘May our pomp not be pompous’, as one said this week. ‘Whosever would be great among you must be your minister ’. True greatness is found in service. And ultimately, Christ offers his life as a ransom for many, for the many, for the nations, for the church, for humanity, for the whole inhabited earth. Place and position, Jesus defers to God. ‘It is not so among you’, says the Markan Jesus, contrasting earthly tyranny with churchly love. Later editors thought this was a bit much, and so recast the sentence: ‘it will not be so among you’. But the word of Christ seems to mean what it says. In reality, that is, where you are truly yourself, at your realest real, at depth, in reality, ‘it is not so among you’. When you come to yourself.

James and John are chastised regarding position and authority. But not for their longing to be near him, to sit by him, to be close to him. This desire is the most striking feature of today’s Gospel. ‘Let us sit next to you, right and left’.

They want to be near Him, in whose service is freedom. They want to know that kind of lasting intimacy. They want the intimacy of faith. For sure, they are less than fully prepared for the cost. But their desire is not scorned. Far from it. Their desire is honored for what it is, the very heart of life, of being human, of being alive. They know what they most want: the intimacy of faith. I think you do too. I think most people do, even though we go a long way around Robin Hood’s barn to find it out. We long for the peace of faith. We long for the joy of faith. We long for the confidence of faith. We long for that intimate, close, nearness, which is the experience of the divine, maybe the only experience of the divine we can ever have, on this earth. ‘Belief transforms’ (Proust, RTP, 644).

Childlike is this longing, childlike this hunger.

Soon we will be at Christmas. We will sing familiar carols. One is a children’s carol. Our daughter sang this in a little country church, on Christmas eve, when she was four: “be near me Lord Jesus I ask thee to stay close by me forever and love me I pray; bless all the dear children in thy tender care; and fit us for heaven, to live with thee there”.

A Path To Intimacy

How does one enter such intimacy?

Our reading directly tells us.

Through service. Closeness comes through service, and intimacy, through service, and nearness, through service.

If you love Him, why not serve Him?

This is the strange gospel paradox, the cruciform paradox of the good news. Those who are last, they shall be first. Those who are poor, they shall be filled. Those who serve, they shall be greatest…. Because they shall be closest, nearest, most intimately joined, to Him.

Last Sunday a friend invited me to go with him to a nearby nursing home. There we with visited with a Christian gentleman, who is struggling with his health. We sat together. We quietly conversed and conferred. Some part memory, some part experience, some part humor. A gentle autumn wind lifted the maple branches outside. We closed with prayer. In that simple moment, there was a true intimacy, a nearness. In the direct discourse. In the need and in the presence. In the careful attention, from all to all. In the very ordinary, very traditional, very regular moment of a Sunday visit in a nursing home.

Do you desire a closeness in life and with life? A nearness? An intimacy? Is this hunger, longing, craving—known to James and John, and known across the ages—yours as well?

Four years ago we were invited to come to Boston, and to enter this pulpit. Among the powers that drew us here, was the chance to labor in the shadow of Howard Thurman and to preach from the pulpit he once filled. Thurman was the first Dean of Marsh Chapel. In the work of grieving and departing from one setting and entering another, I was telephoned by a friend and parishioner. In 1950, in San Francisco, she had heard Thurman speak. On the basis of that experience, she devoted her life, over the next forty years, to service in the YMCA. I asked her what she remembered. She said, ‘I’ll show you.’ Some weeks later she made an appointment, and came to the office, with an envelope in hand. In the envelope, there was a poem about a duck, speaking of ducklings. ‘He read this poem’, was all she said. Later came this note, “I have held sending my thanks to you while I located ‘The Little Duck”. You do not need to live in New England to love it, but it does help. The fact that I heard it through Howard Thurman’s beautiful voice adds to it for me”. The ‘little duck’ is a poem about the freedom of a duck floating on the waves, written in 1947 by Donald Babcock. Here are verses from that poem…

There is a big heaving in the Atlantic
And he is part of it
He can rest while the Atlantic heaves, because he rests in the Atlantic
Probably he doesn’t know how large the ocean is
And neither do you
But he realizes it
And what does he do, I ask you? He sits down in it
He reposes in the immediate as if it were infinity—which it is.
That is religion, and the duck has it.
He has made himself part of the boundless, by easing himself into it just where it touches him.
I like the little duck.
He doesn’t know much.
But he has religion.


About three hymnals ago in our church, there was a short prayer that was used with some regularity. It was a prayer in intimacy, for nearness, with closeness: ‘Our Heavenly Father, we adore Thee, whose name is love, whose nature is compassion, whose presence is joy, whose word is truth, whose spirit is goodness, whose holiness is beauty, whose will is peace, whose service is perfect freedom, and in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life’.

If there is a kindling of heart leaning toward nearness, fan the flame.

If there is a longing of heart for closeness, feed the desire.

If there is a hunger for an intimacy, a vital connection, nourish the need.


The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

October 11


By Marsh Chapel

In the early part of August, 2009, the newspaper, our national ‘paper of record’ carried a front page article about a tragic accident in Upstate New York. Many months earlier, near Auburn, NY, a bright young college freshman, a creative, itinerant musician, by accident ran his motorcycle headlong into a car which was waiting for oncoming traffic to turn. For six months he was, as the article reported, ‘a vegetable’ at 20 years of age.

Not far from the location of this tragic accident in Upstate New York, more than thirty years ago, I had made my first official pastoral visit. The hospital was located near Auburn. The young man, age twenty, had been in a motorcycle accident, too. He too survived but with his life forever altered. His one hope had been to become a NYS trooper, and his chances had been good prior to his own accident. Now, with his injuries, he would not qualify. Devastated would be an understated description of his condition. I see that young man by the mind’s eye almost every time I make a hospital call or another visit, an average of 25 calls per week in these thirtytwo years (an instructional aside for seminarians). Also, fifteen years ago, I briefly became the District Superintendent designate (a church administrative role) in the area of the tragic accident. I accepted because of the people I had known in the office, who were honorable and bright, who had helped me, who were genuine preachers and pastors.

Returning to the present. Our young motorcyclist whose story was told last summer suffered massive brain injury. For six months he lay in a vegetative state. Over the next six months only minimal improvement occurred. His family waited on him hand and foot and diaper. His younger brother spent large swaths of every day with him. But he could not recognize his own mother. ‘Who are you?’ Think about that for a moment. His brother would get so exasperated that he would lift the young man and drop him to floor, shouting to be recognized, shouting to make himself heard. Shouting at the top of his lungs to wake his beloved sibling from mortal sleep.

Since 1986 I have been shouting myself, but about another tragic. In prayer, in sermons, in books, in lectures, in speeches, in articles, in conversation, in debate, on the blog. Shouting. Wake up! Wake up! Thou Rip Van Winkle in the land of Rip Van Winkle! Wake up!

After about a year comatose, the young man began to revive. He still has no memory and no forecasting perspective. He spends his days in a group home, taking walks, visiting the zoo and the county fair, walking past the green lawns of the college in which he was once enrolled. Think about it for a moment. A tragic accident strips you of health, of mind, of memory, of identity, and nearly kills you. In fact, to some degree, or by some measure, you may be dead (see Luke 15).

The newspaper of record reported on the upstate accident, in part because healing came to our young cyclist.

His healing came not by means of surgery or medication or other attention to the massive damage his frontal lobe, his main brain, sustained. The article meanders endlessly regarding how many and what types of attempts were so made. To no avail. His only partial, and very gradual renewal came–by another way. When the main roads of the brain have been washed out, or bombed out, or obliterated otherwise, the brain turns to the back roads. Healing comes indirectly. Healing comes from the little capillaries. Healing comes from the country paths, the little lanes, the overgrown and unmapped and even unplowed blue highways of the brain. The superhighways are left behind, to atrophy, age, weaken, and collapse. The blood flows backward, not exactly uphill, but outback. The blood finds other little routes by which to nourish the barren brain. And some grudging, slow, partial, painstaking healing arrives.

My church, the UMC of the NEJ, was riding high on a motorcycle some forty years ago when there was a tragic accident. Half the membership disappeared. The remaining half became twice as old. The buildings aged double time, with little maintenance, as some sanctuary roofs collapsed. Administratively inexperienced leadership was empowered. Simple truths about inclusiveness, choice, peace, reason, truth were forgotten. Support and salaries withered. Uneducated preachers occupied half the pulpits. Buildings were sold, campgrounds closed, missions aborted, youth groups eclipsed. The one great feature of our branch of Protestantism, choral singing in four part harmony, was displaced by happy clappy, Jesus is my girlfriend, follow the bouncing ball, one line blast music. Energetic, intelligent, aggressive, ambitious young people found other vocations than preaching. My church hit a car and catapulted downhill to brain damage, lost memory, forgotten identity and near death, or a kind of death. The membership of the New England conference, on the day of that metaphorical collision was 210,000: today it is 80,000. New Jersey: 200,000 to 85,000. NCNY: 155,000 to 60,000. Troy and Wyoming: 120,000 to 45,000. Church meetings, in the few cases that they involved conference, that is, a chance to confer in honest and kind conversation, pitted those committed to rebuilding the church against those committed to opening up the church. Build or open up? (Repeat). Those were the options, with little but a glimmer of memory that one requires the other.

The foremost current historian of Methodism asked me in 2004 if I thought the UMC had any future. I gave my reply and returned the favor. “No”, he said.

Like a brother I have shouted. Like a brother I have lifted and dropped. Like a brother I have cared and loved. But the cerebral cortex changeth not. Some of you have, too.

The week after the article appeared about the tragic accident and the unexpected healing in Upstate New York, my granddaughter and grandson and I, along with their parents, strolled in the village of my upbringing. A bucolic setting for a lifetime of sermonic bildungsromanic material surrounded me there, as it does on every visit to the farmers’ Saturday market.

Jan later said, piercingly, how much growing up in the little college town of Hamilton, NY had forged my self. A love of free space, and freedom to move around save and unhindered. A familiarity and confidence in academia. An assumption about the certain goodness of the church as one part, only one part, of God’s good community. A regard, early and late, for the quality of speech, the significance of language, the joyful love of the mother tongue. A joy in fishing, hiking, swimming, skiing, skating, cycling, golfing, all at the drop of a hat, all within a ten minute ride or twenty minute walk. No oversight, and the recognition of the freedom in such freedom. Time and space for friendship, without the intrusions on friendship that come with wealth. A long twilight childhood, for which twilight did not fall, and the streetlights did not come on until age 13 and the mudslide of Woodstock and the mudslide of American culture.

That day I took my son in law to see the Methodist Church. With his children we walked around to the back of the church. Once there had been a simple lawn there, like the many and simple lawns that lushly and lavishly adorn so many of the Upstate cities and towns. I remembered the side street as a dirt road, but early or late it was now paved. Behind the church there is a playground. I want to describe it for you. Here is the reason I want to describe it for you: it is a capillary, a little vessel carrying a little blood, a tiny moment of real healing coming out of the back
roads by the rivers of memory, every smiling, ever gentle on the mind.

The playground is named ‘MerryWood’. It is an example of spirit, speech, and space making way for a common grace. Merrywood: “a toddler park, in the spirit of community’, says the sign. Welcome. The donors are listed. Some are Methodists from the church whose lawn holds Merrywood. Some are neighbors, who have lived in that location for sixty years. One is in memory of such a neighbor, who died as the park was built. The Rotary Club joined the partnership. And there is the church, presumably absorbing exposure, responsibility, liability and insurance.

As one who was a child on that backstreet, that back lane, I found the sign on the fence breathtaking. Listen to its simple sentences:

Welcome to Merrywood

There is a child in all of us, but this playground is for children.

On Sunday mornings we prefer praying to playing. During services you are welcome to join us inside.

Our neighbors love children, but they also enjoy quiet mornings and quiet evenings.

Narrow little John Street is perfect for walking but not for parking.

Toddlers please make sure your adult friend stays and plays with you at all times. Don’t let them sneak away. (☺)


Rather: graceful, playful admonition and reminder, a gentleness in discourse and so in community.

There will be no large, lasting, quick recovery for the UMC of the NEJ. The time to have attempted that was before the boat had started fully to capsize, before our cycle crash. Our last real chance came about 20 years ago (humanly speaking of course). The massive damage to the main brain, the catastrophic near lobotomy of the cerebral cortex will not directly be healed. But there are the back roads, the capillaries, the little vessels, the Merrywoods.

Merrywood models spirit. Those who built the playground in 2003 (one assumes with the pastoral imagination of the minister leading the way) had about them a certain spirit. A humble spirit. A human spirit, or a humanizing one. A readiness to admit that there are many ways to keep faith. An openness to others, especially to unknown, different, future, foreign others. A care for children, the least of these. A modest mode of partnership, Methodist and Baptist, town and gown, Rotary and church, neighbor and visitor, one generation to another. Our future will also bear the mark, the imprint of this spirit (see Gal. 5:22). There is here a memory that ministry is service. There is here a memory that ministry includes children. There is here a memory that Jesus was the person for others, and that the church is the community of faith working through love. There is a memory that it is God who heals, and we are his, the sheep of his pasture. “Love is God”. You might say that there is a Christological memory at work, battling the Christological amnesia of the last forty years. (The Gospel of Mark has something to say about Christological amnesia, including our reading today.) And, to be clear, to say it so that there is no mistaking it, there is a memory here of grace. Merrywood is a reflection of a common grace, the partnership of the gospel (see Phil. 1:3). But that memory starts with grace prevenient, prevenient grace. Before we hear of it, God is at work, loving children, speaking kindly, opening space for common grace. Those who built Merrywood, perhaps mutely but truly nonetheless, affirmed faith in prevenient grace. Our healing comes across such back roads. Unexpected, common grace!

Merrywood models speech. How something is said is just as important as what is said. There are flat, fundamental, and finally false ways of saying things that are the equivalent of shouting at a hearing impaired person. With every occasion for communication, including the very simplest, as evidenced in the Merrywood sign, there is an opportunity for grace. We have very little left to go on. We in the Protestant church in the Northeast. A few thousand sixty year old members, a few hundred 150 year old churches, a few scraps of memory. But people instinctively hear good news. They know when the gospel has been preached. They hear it. They feel it. They know it in their bones. People who read the Merrywood sign know they are being addressed, if they allos themselves to be at all addressable, from another realm, a dominion of grace, a just, justified, justifying, rightwising, loving, freeing realm of grace. I repeat the gracious admonitions. Listen to the way they are put:

Welcome to Merrywood

There is a child in all of us, but this playground is for children.

On Sunday mornings we prefer praying to playing. During services you are welcome to join us inside.

Our neighbors love children, but they also enjoy quiet mornings and quiet evenings.

Narrow little John Street is perfect for walking but not for parking.

Toddlers please make sure your adult friend stays and plays with you at all times. Don’t let them sneak away. (☺)

This is not nostalgia, not flummery, not rhetorical trimming, not cute speech. It is a moment of justifying grace. The speaker is not worried, is not anxious, and does not have a furrowed brow. The writer/speaker is not a salesman, but a witness. The writer does not need a certain response. Another world, a new creation, is peeking in upon the dementia of a dying church within the loneliness of a frightened world. Here we are, she says! Come in! Play! Enjoy! Oh, and if you are so moved, come and enjoy come Sunday what means most to us. It is that indirection, telling the truth but telling it slant (as the poet said), that confident aplomb, that air of happy courage that is everything, justifying grace, gospel. If we are to speak the gospel we shall need Merrywood speech, just grace, a willingness to lay down our sword and shield, to put on a long white robe, to study verbal war no more. If, that is, we want to be heard by a world that increasingly experiences language as aerial bombardment and hit and run driving and other forms of e-damage. Those who planned Merrywood, perhaps indirectly but nonetheless truly, affirmed their sturdy faith in grace that justifies, on its own terms. Healing comes across such forgotten, overgrown, unplowed back roads.

Merrywood models space. Those who imagined and created this remarkable play space did so with a certain eye upon space. Read sometime Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. Children who grow up in high broad space have a high broad perspective. Setting the spatial setting is 90% of education. Now we want to become very practical for a moment. Across the UMC of the NEJ we lack many things. You make your list. Here is mine. We lack: leadership, money, trust, skill, memory, courage, numbers, heart. But there is one thing of which we have almost endless supply. Space. Unused, empty, vacated churches, lawns, buildings, lots, land, space. Space, we got. So, why not use it FOR THE COMMON GRACE? Why not take empty church and make Merrywood? Have we forgotten the love we had at first? There is hardly a setting in our conferences that with a little pastoral imagination could not become a Merrywood, small or large. All eight churches we have served, over time and distinctly and in some way, have done so. Life is not about what you do not have (see Exodus 20). It is about what you do have. Enjoy what you have. Do what you can. Be who you are. Well, we do have space. One church could use its empty sanctuary to provide sanctuary for Iraqi refugees. Another could use its forlorn basement for lbgtq ministry. One church could use its lawn for skating rinks and hockey. Another church could use its garret to house unemployed members. And so on. Those who built Merrywood, however mutely or unc
onsciously, exhibited a confidence, a faith in sanctifying grace, in the possibility, by back roads, of betterment. You can if you think you can. That is not a word about spirit. That is not a word about speech. That is word about space.

Later last summer, I heard our daughter and son in law singing to both children as they were bathed. This little light of mine…This is the day…I love the mountains, I love the rolling hills…Every round goes higher higher…

When these children sing the songs of faith, like ‘this is the day’, I feel happy, and more, I feel some hope. Their parents, clergy they, are not going to give over the church, the broad magnanimous open liberal large loving free caring Christian church, to the fears of religionists. They know the difference and they live it.

Healing is coming. Slowly. Partially. Painfully. Indirectly. Along the back roads. In spirit. In speech. In space. Grace prevenient, spirit. Grace justifying, speech. Grace sanctifying, space.

Welcome to Merrywood…

– The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill
Dean of Marsh Chapel

October 4

Christological Amnesia

By Marsh Chapel

Remember who you are.

Someone may have said that to you, as you left home, as you left to take up the journey of life, the journey of faith.

In a strange place, you can sometimes struggle to remember just who you are. In a new time, under different circumstances, memory can fade or fail. It happens.

Howard Thurman used to say that people come to church to try to remember who they are, who we are. The church says, ‘You are a child of God’.

You are a child of God.

When all about you are jumping up and down, in a mass of together flesh, and it becomes indistinct where one person leaves off and another person begins, it can be difficult to remember. A child…of God…

I imagine that for each of us there are one or two people, maybe a few more, and some cases not quite even that, who can remind us. Who we are, I mean. Friends give us back ourselves. They remind us. A caring group, from family to team to small group to church fellowship remind us of our ownmost selves. They remind us who we are.

You are a child of God.

When the chips are down, it can help to remember. Who you are. A child of God.

This year we have heard the Gospel of Mark. Throughout Mark is work in remembrance. Some chips are down, and Mark thinks his people may not quite remember. Who they are, that is. They may forget, because they may have developed a kind of spiritual amnesia.

It has been forty years since Christ, when Mark writes. Forty years is a long time, especially in the Bible. Mark has a thought that his fellow earliest Christians, or some at least, have

Our lessons about marriage and children tell us where the forgetfulness started out. With treatment of women and children, apparently. There was some faulty memory at work, in the early church, when it came to women and children. The distaff side. Those without voice or presence. So the preacher, Mark, tells a couple of stories. One about Jesus standing up for women. Another about Jesus standing up for children. He says, ‘remember’.

Much of the Bible is like this. The New Testament, in particular, is like this. People needing to remember and people trying to remember. They have forgotten ‘the love they had at first’. They need a reminder. So Mark brings up his stories about women and children. He remembers Jesus, putting the last first. He remembers Jesus, putting the low high. He remembers Jesus, putting the peripheral into the center.

Kosuke Koyama used to tell the gospel in this phrase, making the peripheral central. You might like his book, Water Buffalo Theology. He grew up in Japan. His whole youth he heard of the Imperial Temple, there, that it was indestructible. ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord…”. Once Japan was bitterly crushed, crushingly worsted, in WWII, Koyama went on to study Jeremiah, and to advocate for the poor of the Pacific, and to teach peace, and, especially, to move from center to periphery.

The case for women, subject to summary divorce, caused Mark to wonder whether his people had forgotten something. The case of children, outside the circle, not invited to the gathering, caused Mark to wonder whether his church might have fallen ill with a theological malady, a kind of Christological amnesia. Three statements, perhaps if original from very different settings, are here remembered in the alto voice of the church, remembered together. Why? Because they together bring a medication, a prescription drug, to heal amnesia. They remind the church that Jesus inhabits the periphery.

Now this coming intrusion, one paragraph only, is meant for our seminarians, our chapel\ministry\marsh associates. Sometimes you use a shotgun and sometimes you use a rifle. You are working out in the periphery. With the lonely, the forgotten, the forgetting. Freshman who have made their first big mistake. Sophomores, alone and staying alone, in a big city dorm. Juniors who are sifting through regrets, and maybe, now, coming ready to come home. What you do matters, counts, lasts, works. Ministry is service. Ministry is the courage to put yourself at the disposal of others. One by one. As Mark saw, a little perspective helps.

In 1985 Jan and I were assigned to a city church nearby a large nominally Methodist university. Sounds familiar. On the first Sunday, in a building with 50 rooms, whose sanctuary seated 600, there were 35 people, all but two of whom would be dead before we moved. A grand, once great pulpit. Here is the church. Where are the people? We noticed that fall an article in the student newspaper, the equivalent of the FREEP. 6,000 students were living in our neighborhood, said the article. So we planned and worked, we advertised a Sunday evening student dinner, we passed the word beat the drum fanned the flames went to the highways and byways. We cleaned one of those 50 rooms, cooked a turkey dinner, and sat down to wait. You know the feeling. 5:45, no one. 6:00, no one came. 6:05, no one. We were about to close up, when, at 6:10, in walked one woman, Pam Brush. She had seen the notice. She had grown up in the Methodist church on Long Island. She was a sophomore. She thought maybe she’d check out the neighborhood church.

She did not say any of the following: where is everybody, am I the only one, who else is coming, is this the right place. Here is what she said: wow, thanks for the meal, this tastes great, I love turkey, tell me about the two of you, what is there to do in Syracuse, I love this old building, is it haunted, next week I’m bringing my two roommates and their boyfriends, we’ll cook, I wish I had a boyfriend, maybe I will by next week, what a great place…see you next Sunday! And out of that one lone child, one lone woman, one lone person on the periphery, over a decade, there grew a Sunday dinner fellowship, the Wesley fellowship, a house and half time ministry and minister, seasonal retreats, a newsletter, The Epworth News, service work, fun, fellowship. In the snow some years later, Jan and I slid our way down to Long Island to officiate at Pam’s wedding. It is emotionally draining and even painful to remember this, to remember who we are, what can happen, where Christ is.

To remember Pam Brush in 1985 is to remember that I am a child of God. You too.

A couple years ago Br Larry worked here as a field education student. We asked him just go and visit and be with first year students, speaking of periphery. He did. He worked. He slogged. He called. He waited. He held a meeting. Two came. Two. Sean and…And now? Twelve associates, a servant team, 90 to pick apples last week, and ministry among those in peril of forgetting just who they are. It went so well for Br Larry, we went ahead and hired him.

You are a child of God.

Howard Thurman’s best book is Jesus and the Disinherited. “The doom of the children is the greatest tragedy of the disinherited”, he wrote (55). You should go back and read what Thurman says about children, and his ringing reminder of the Christ: “The psychological effect on the individual of the conviction that he is a child of God gives a note of integrity to whatever he does” (54).

The Lutheran Church this summer affirmed the full humanity of gay people. Center, periphery. Thanks be to God! I pray my own denomination will not be far behind. We have our esteemed, veteran, loving, Universi
ty Lutheran Chaplain with us today, to celebrate the Eucharist. She is working on vocation, one of three jobs here (voice, vocation, volume). Her Bishop told her to hug a Methodist, so hug her after church. What did the Lutherans say?

You are a child of God.

Every Eucharist is a world communion. Today, especially, we imagine the globe, with countless others, we imagine the globe embraced by a Jesus we now remember, better. Who loved the little. Who loved the lost. Who loved the lame. Who loved the lonely. Who loved the left out. Jesus’ presence heals our Christological amnesia. That at least is what Mark thought.


~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel