Archive for December, 2017

December 31

Ruminations at Christmas

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 2: 22-40

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The story of Christmas, the birthday of the Lord, begins with the nation of Israel, ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’, the longings and dreams of God’s chosen people for a clearer sense of His presence and a clearer vision of his purpose.  In the reign of King Herod, only 60 generations ago, a poor carpenter and his pregnant wife went to Bethlehem to pay the state tax.  Mary was close to her time, and so, rather than camp as usual with the other poor travelers, Joseph decided to get a room in an inn.  He was too late.  They camped in a cave that also was a covering for the innkeeper’s animals.  And that night a child was born, among cattle, yet visited by Kings, a child whose mature life would change the course of time and history. ‘Behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy which shall be to all people!’.  This story is very close to us. Bethlehem is not that far away.  The year 1 is not that long ago.  The conditions into which Jesus was born are not that different from the conditions into which poor babies today are born.  This story is close to us.   As Galatians teaches, ‘born of woman, born under the law’.

The message of the birthday story is a glorious one.  The message: a simple Hebrew word ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’, ‘God with us’, ‘Gott mit uns’.  ‘Dios con nosotros’.  ‘Dieu avec nous’.  “God with us’. ‘Emmanuel’.  It requires a lifetime, a full exposure to the patterns of grace, to know this truth.  We hear of it in the greatest words in Western literature and language:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  Those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness on them has light shined (Isaiah).  Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke).  In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them (Paul). The Lord will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations (Isaiah, today). There is something shattering about this message, this mystery:  that the Lord God Creator, the first, the last, beyond all thought, would stoop so low as to become a poor peasant child.  But that is the simple, shocking, difficult message.  ‘God above, man below, holy is the name I know’.  ‘God with us’ is the message. Emmanuel.  With us, as in today’s Gospel, in others:  Simeon, Mary, Anna, others.

The meaning in the message of the Christmas story is that God is with us in our weakness, limitation, and smallness, in order that we might respond to Him, that we might become like Him…

God with us, miraculously, in weakness.  God touching us before and without our response.  This is the meaning of baptism.  In the light of God’s care, one can never be or become a means to an end, become commodified.   One baptized is an end in himself.  He has been blessed by God.  This is a saving act, being born again.  Martin Luther knew it when, locked in the Wittenberg Castle and tormented by demons cried out, ‘I am baptized!’

God with us, miraculously, in our limitation.  The most hateful aspects of life—we all know this—are its limitations:  illness, poverty, society (warfare), mind (ignorance), heart (we do what we would not do), relationship (we glide past each other), nature (winter weather), and the final limit, death itself.  God with us in suffering, with the victims of fire in the South Bronx, God with us even—especially—at the point of limitation (sin and death and the threat of meaninglessness).

God with us, miraculously, in the smallness of our lives, the pettiness, to be negative, and the delightful detail, to be positive, of our few days on earth.  God taking on our smallness to give us a model of how to live.  We all need models, like the French architect of the Statue of Liberty, who modeled that on his own mother.  If we are to grow in the knowledge of God we benefit from a model, a model on our own level, of our own scale.

God with us, miraculously, in our response to Him.  This is the church, the Body of Christ, God with us in our response to God.  Where does change occur?  In the church.  At best, the church embodies ultimate reasons for real change.

The hope in the meaning of the message of the story of Christmas is the oreal hope for this world, that we will live together in the spirit of Christ, as Longfellow sang at Christmas: ‘till ringing, singing on its way, the world revolved from night to day, a voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of ‘Peace on Earth, Good will to Men’. This is the hope in our gospel in our fellowship, in our preaching, in our life together, now.

Included in our gospel as pronounced today are the sick, the broken of body.  The rail at which we gather is their rail, too.  The hymns and prayers are theirs, too.  The spirit of love is present to the broken of body.  In this political season, we may be subtly encouraged to forget the broken.  In the rush to build and develop our church, or our nation, we may be encouraged to leave the weak behind.  But for whom is this preachment, if not for the sick?  For whom is the life of the church, if not for the sick?  For whom has Christ died, if not for the sick?  For whom has Christ died, if not for you in your brokenness?  You have time to visit one sick person this week.  The sick are included, centrally, in our Christmas gospel.

Included in our fellowship are the poor, those still left outside the party.  This rail is their rail.  Hymns and prayers are meant for them.  The spirit of love struggles in our institutions to take from the rich and give to the poor.  Right now we are set to take from the poor to give to the rich.  Yes, the poor ye have always with you.  Yes, the poor share responsibility for their condition (one dime on a dollar at best).  Yes the poor—with us all—stumble in the sin of sloth. They are able to give us, we lucky enough to have so much more, nothing.  But love becomes mercenary if it depends on the advantage each wants to gain.  The poor depend on the free service of our wills, and so, strangely, and powerfully, can help us love.  For whom is this preachment,  if not for the poor?  You can remember the poor this week.  The poor are included in our fellowship at Christmas.

Included in our preaching come Christmas are the brokenhearted, who have lost an irreplaceable person or dream.  The rail, hymns and prayers—and another day, the supper of the Lord—are comfort to the heartsick, to the poor in spirit. When we are heartbroken, heartsick, when we are poor in spirit, we lean on God.  Faith is most faith when it is all you have left.  We need God, heartsick, because, just now, we have a gaping hole, a crying need, a sorrow.  In the desert, we learn to appreciate water.  In the tundra, we learn to appreciate warmth.  In isolation and loneliness, we appreciate a kind word.  You can speak kindly to someone today and tomorrow.  You can.  Think how good tomorrow might be if you will brighten it with care, with kindness.  The brokenhearted are included in our preaching here.

Here is hope at Christmas, and with powerful specificity, hope for the sick, the poor, and the brokenhearted.  We give thanks for the story, the message, the meaning, and the hope of Christmas, the birth of the Lord.

My father died seven years ago.  One of his set of gifts to me was his genuine, authentic unsentimental experience and endurance of poverty, of illness, and of sorrow.  Those of us who have not known lack, poverty, loss, or need much in our own lives, keenly need to remember, in 2018, what life outside in the cold is like.  We may need to delve into memories that are generation or two or more old, when we, our people, you, your people, knew what it meant to be poor.  Much of our civil strife right know is enforced by this amnesia, this lack of memory of hurt.  This month I came across a story my dad had told, for me and my congregation, on Christmas Eve, 1995, the day on which his sister died.

Christmas 1938 came a few days before December 25.  Not only did my mother and uncle, with whom we lived, have to work on Christmas day, but my sister and I were to travel by train to Norwood, NY, to spend Christmas with my Grandfather Hill, another Aunt, and my Dad, separated from my mother for years.  So on the evening before we were to go the adults in our family arranged to have a full fledged Christmas morning, in the evening!

After a holiday supper, my sister and I were allowed into the living room where our stockings were filled, presents were wrapped and under the tree, and carols were playing on the Victrola.

That Christmas was very special because we knew my mother did not want us to be so far away on this very special day, but she recognized that our father and his father and our Aunt needed to have the sound of our young voices on Christmas morning.

She arranged fantastic gifts:  a Shirley Temple doll for my sister and a pair of hickory skis for me.  I still have them.  How she found the money in the depths of the depression for those fantastic gifts I’ll never know.  How she could have let us go I’ll never know.  But that was my mom.

In retrospect through this experience she taught Jean and me the meaning of giving and sacrifice, love and hope, joy in faith.  It changed our view of Christmas.

My sister died this morning full of grace and now has answers that some of us will continue to search for!

Christ came into the world filled with grace and truth to show how God wants us to live from birth to death and beyond death and until we can demonstrate that we have learned these lessons we will be living by faith, through these difficult penultimate days—but we know God is with us!

(Irving Hill, Erwin UMC, Syracuse, 12/24/95)

How shall we resolve then to hear this gospel of love, to acquaint ourselves with it and adjust ourselves to it, and then, with gladness to live it, as 2018 opens out before us?  Upon what actual, special interests and explorations shall we, shall you, shall I, bring our faith, lived in the glorious shadow of the faithfulness of God in Christ, this year?

Shall we attend to one or another of the issues of personal health which may have impeded our glad living, in the past?

Shall we give ourselves in extra measure to the growth of some dear institution, dear to us, now, for many years?

Shall we go ahead and go out and write a book, or write another book, under the apprehension that everyone has at least one good book in them?

Shall we bear down, and buckle down, and make a plan to make a plan to invest ourselves in the betterment of our culture, our society, our civilization, by joining up, attending to, giving for a just, participatory, and sustainable common hope, in our time?

Shall we learn another language, koine greek, or esperanoto, or Japanese, in order to see in detail another way to see in detail the detail of every day?

Shall we return in reading and thought to an abandoned farm, barns and fences all a-kilter, that of biblical theology, biblical theology, as a way of understanding not just sincerity and authenticity, but irony as well in the spiritual background and moral accompaniment of our time?

Health, growth, book, betterment, language, theology—et toi, and you, and me, and all?  What ruminations have you this Christmastide, this New Year’s Eve?

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

December 24

Christmas Nuptials

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 1:26-38

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Away in a manger no crib for a bed

The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head

The stars in the bright sky Looked down where he lay

The little Lord Jesus Asleep on the hay

 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.

People imagine proposals and weddings at Christmas. Often the images are of cities, bright lights, jewelry, red dresses and handsome ties and mink coats.

But Samuel tells of a shepherd king. Mary sings of low estate. Luke recalls an exurban story, in one sense, a story like this one.

In the winter of 1982 we were stationed an hour and a half south west of Montreal. We lived in a large, ungainly, and drafty country parsonage. You knew it was a parsonage because on the front of the house there was a sign, to the left of the porch door, which read: Methodist Parsonage.   Just so you know. Whether the sign was meant to apologize for the down at the heal condition of the house, or was meant as a point of clarification about ownership, or was, as it certainly proved to be, meant as a guide for hoboes in need of sandwiches, as they drifted through that little town, know one ever said. But it was more than adequate, more than reasonably adequate for two young parents, and two little children, and one child on the way.

The parsonage was big enough, with two living rooms and an ample dining room, to accommodate some 75 people at one time. We had learned this, and this number, because on the previous Maundy Thursday, the heat in the church had failed, at 10 below zero. So, the service of Holy Communion that evening was convened in the parsonage, with hymns played on the baby grand piano, and people scattered from couch to kitchen to pantry to stairs to window sills. One elderly gentleman sat with the minister’s wife accompanist, right on the piano bench. I think he felt honored. Most later agreed that it was not only the coziest but easily the most memorable communion service they could recall.

Sometime well after the snow had begun to cover the farms and valleys of Burke NY, sometime after November 1, that is, the minister had a phone call from a neighboring farmer. The man asked whether the preacher would conduct a wedding for a non-member. Certainly he would and had and the farmer knew this as well as the preacher so the question in the air or over the phone line was the unspoken question: what are we talking about?

Well, North Franklin County is not a place of endless talk. There is in fact little said, week by week, and month by month, in the north country. Most would agree there that this is the way things should be, allowing as how most things said don’t need saying at all, and those that do need saying need better saying than they mostly get. I personally knew a beautiful young couple, prosperous potato farmers with two children, for three years, and never once heard the husband say a single word. Further, when there is talking it mostly the women talking. The preacher is also allowed and expected to talk, there being I guess some uncertainty about how to categorize the status of the clergy. But even so, the briefer the better, if you please, pastor.

In any event, after a long while of hemming and hawing and not saying, the minister wrangled out of the farmer that the farmer’s hired man wanted to get married. Actually: he needed to get married. He wanted to get married, but he also was in a situation where he needed to get married, too. This took the not usually talkative farmer a long while to explain because he did not directly explain what he was trying to explain. Phrases like ‘unexpected circumstance’ and ‘things moving pretty fast’ and ‘sometimes these things happen’ and ‘they are really good young folks’ were clearly spoken but their actually footing on planet earth was hard, or not possible, to ascertain. Finally the preacher said simply, ‘send them up, I am glad to talk to them’. This led to a meeting in the church office, on a day when the oil furnace was working, and some lumbering, awkward planning for a service to solemnize their marriage.

The couple lived on the farm where the husband worked. They lived in a single wide trailer, which is a trailer exactly half as big as a double wide trailer. Hay bales stuffed around the edges and thankfully covered with much snow for half the year mostly kept the pipes from freezing. Housing was provided for the hired man, just like for the minister, but the trailer was a whole lot smaller and a whole lot more dangerous than the parsonage (at least in most physical ways). Milking at 4am and 4pm, every day, and work, all day, in between, every day. You could rent the movie Frozen River and then know quite a lot about this neck of the woods.

After some talk with his wife that night, the minister suggested that the couple be married on Christmas Eve day, at noon, in the parsonage. It would be a small wedding, and, as his wife thoughtfully suggested, they could put the children down for nap, early, and then use the piano, have some refreshments, and make something happy and pretty.

Christmas Eve day came, with a gust of bitter wind, a snow shower, and then a bleak barely visible sun at midday. A little late, the bride and groom appeared. But their friends, who would sign for them (New York, the Empire State, being one which requires witnesses other than the clergy) had somehow not appeared. The three year-old daughter could be heard crawling and listening from the top of the stairs. The wind blew and the snow fell. Finally, to make the matter potentially legal, a neighbor lady was invited to come and join the service. She and the minister’s wife later signed the license. The minister performed the ceremony. Two carols were sung, Away in a Manger and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The three year old would appear, and disappear, as the service progressed, and appeared for good when the cookies were served. Other than the words of the wedding themselves, I do not recall that anything else was said. I refer you to the remarks made some moments ago about the paucity of speech along the great frozen St Lawrence river. But no words really were needed. The farm wife, young and pregnant, was simply dressed in a light dress. Her smile, her gleaming eyes, her red cheeks and smile, her evident enjoyment of the home and homely setting were a full epic poem of happy gratitude. And her husband, scrubbed and crammed head long into a tight black suit and wayward tie, was as dignified, reverent, true and terrified as any groom at any time in the 900 or so weddings the minister has thus far done. “Do you?” “I do”. The three year old’s face looked down from the stairs. “Do you?” “I do.” The piano played softly, a little meditation, Love Came Down at Christmas.

One loving neighbor, a jubilant three year old, a fairly green preacher, and his creatively generous wife, were present to attest to a wedding, a union of hearts and souls, on a cold winter day, in a forgotten patch of rough land, now some thirty five years ago. I can see that piano, taste the cookies, hear the carols, feel the hands, sense the candles as if it were an hour ago, and in some ways it was, just an hour ago.

There are a lot of fine and treasured forms of theological learning which one can and must acquire in the six brief semesters of divinity school. Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus, Wesley and Calvin, Barth and Tillich, Amoun of Nitria, the documentary hypothesis, the second aorist, filioque and the teleological suspension of the ethical. All of these and all that stands in between one can and must receive, while there is the time and freedom to meet and know them.

The practice of ministry, the privilege of the practice of ministry, however, is learned on the piano bench, over cookies, in the smaller living room, at $9,000 a year, in a drafty old manse, with a toddler spying, and a tiny but ever so majestic event—declaration of love, ‘til death us do part. There is a temptation, when one is in school, to think reality begins and ends with the library or the internet or the reputation of a beloved teacher. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, reasoned like a child, thought like a child. When I moved into the parsonage, I had to give up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly. It is a big world, full of need and waiting for love.

When the boots were donned, and the gloves and coats put on, the bride, in the hour of her wedding, kissed the child and hugged the pianist. To the minister she gave her hand, and with that Methodist handshake gave the gift of meaning, lasting meaning, in the work and struggle of ministry, wherein one works and struggles to find and keep the grace to put oneself at the disposal of others. On the last day of Advent, in the year of our Lord 1982, at least one preacher was given the privilege of seeing the privilege of life in ministry. It was a sort of Advent Carol. An Advent Carol, lingering like lasting beauty always does, in the eternity of memory. What a privilege to live and be in ministry. There is nothing like it, not in all creation. What a privilege. Amos Wilder saw and said so, in his poem of a similar event:

Brother and sister in this world’s poor family,

Jack and Jill out of this gypsy camp of earth,

Here is where the injustice is greatest

And you feel it obscurely,

And you have a right to storm within yourselves

And seek sanctuary in one another’s shabbiness.


This boy and this girl with all their abandonment and futility,

Folly and dereliction,

Whirled from ignominy to ignominy,

Condemned to all the wretched chores of the community-

O tribute of forlorn humanity! Come for his benediction whom they have


And somehow sense that they touch- what?

God, the Higher, all that they have missed:

Innocence and mercy and compassion…


But the Son of Man of the wedding feast haunts such occasions

and understands you.

He can turn water into wine and such shame and loss into gain

In some world, some time;


I heard the organ roll behind the snowfall

and saw in it the confetti of the heavenly bride chamber,

Glimpsed the sons of the bride chamber rejoicing

In that City which is full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof,

Before the Father whose face the angels of

little children do always behold.

That 1982 North Country Christmas Eve, the door closed, and the minister and his wife smiled and hugged each other, and sent the daughter back up to nap.

Then a knock came again at the door. There stood the groom, gloves off. He had something he had forgotten. He had something he wanted to give. Not to say, but to do. Not to speak, but to act. Not to describe, but to give. I refer you to the demography of verbal silence along the frozen St Lawrence offered some moments ago. He held out his hand, with bills rumpled and folded there in. He looked down, and then quickly up at the pastor. He gave four dollars. He was truly proud to give it. And I was truly proud to receive it. I only wish I had had the sense to put the bills away as a physical reminder of the day, that day of blessed, real Christmas Nuptials.

At every turn, as we come to Christmas, we are reminded that faith is born in trouble, like that little bit of faithfulness was born on Christmas Eve so far away and so many years ago. We are reminded of the lowly entrance our Lord makes into life. That night, at age three, our daughter sang in church, for the first but not the last time:

Away in a manger no crib for a bed

The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head

The stars in the bright sky Looked down where he lay

The little Lord Jesus Asleep on the hay

 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.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

December 17

He Is the Way

By Marsh Chapel

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John 1: 6-8, 19-28

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He is the Way

Follow him through the land of unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures 

He is the Truth

Seek him in the kingdom of anxiety

You will come to a great city that has expected

Your return for years. 

He is the Life

Love him in the world of the flesh

And at your marriage all its occasions shall

Dance for joy.

         Advent accosts us with the command to remember and to hope, with promise in memory and in hope.


The Gospel of John gives us a form of remembrance, in the figure of John the Baptist, who came to bear witness to the light. The Baptist is present to remind us, in Advent, of the circumstances which did occasion the birth of the Son of Man. He recalls for us the long history of the law, prophets and writings, our bequest from Judaism. He recalls for us the contest and conflict which emerged, Law and Grace, Moses and Jesus. He recalls for us the struggles, the sheer bone jarring challenges, both in the ministry of Jesus and in the ministry of the church. He places us unmistakably in a particular place, at a certain time, within a specific tradition, and alongside a unique moment. Like no other. This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent. Je me souviens. I remember. I follow myself. I remember.

This year, with our emphasis on ‘voice, vocation, and volume’ in our shared life, we are using as a focus for our work the word remembrance.   Our fall and spring term worship and community life are laden with moments of remembrance. 2017-2018 is a full season of remembrance. On September 17 we remembered Elie Wiesel. On October 29 (and again in November) we remembered Martin Luther. In Lent 2018 we will remember Thomas Merton. Then in April 2018, in the week following Easter, we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Come and join us throughout this year in a special season of remembrance! And do remember…

Elie Wiesel said, ‘He who hears a witness becomes a witness’. He reminds us of who we are at Boston University.

Martin Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me’. He reminds us of who we are in Religious Life.

Thomas Merton said, ‘Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name’. He reminds us who we are as Christian people.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The moral arm of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. He reminds us of who we are at Marsh Chapel.

Come and join us! I mean it. Come and join us for this year in worship, fellowship, and discipleship. Come and join us in this season of remembrance!


With mother and grandmother, aunt and others, all teachers, there was an impatience with forgetfulness, in our growing up years. A good and loving impatience, but an impatience nonetheless. In the windswept, hot Las Vegas summer car port, after the castle of sand had fallen, at age 4, there came a maternal voice, dimly in memory from age four, ‘Remember, a wise man built his house upon the rock…’ Come age 9 and the multiplication tables, across the still covered dining room table, and before the dishwashing, ‘Remember, 7 times 7 is 49, 9 times 7 is 63. Then, a few years later, say age 12, on hearing strange words like itinerancy, bishop, new church, move, district, another house, also, a very loving word, “Remember, it will be fine, we will be together, we will help each other, there are good people everywhere”. Of course, by junior high school, say 14, the time came for Latin declensions, conjugations, aphorisms. “Remember, Agricola, agricolae…Remember hic, haec hoc…Remember, porto, portare, portavi, portatum…Remember, Veni, vidi, Vici…” Until this year, that maternal voice could carry full memory across decades, and disciplines, and declensions and decisions.

Now, without memory, she has only one full form of consciousness. She knows, and articulates, only, that she does not know. “Let’s see…I’m not sure…What am I supposed to be doing?…Jane will know…” What once was a precious cornucopia, waterfall, avalanche, fortress, and endless bank account of memory, now has gone, disappeared, evaporated, melted. She knows that she does not know, at least that she knows. Is that better than knowing nothing at all? Here is where we as honest Christians, as existential apophatic theologians, can also rest.

 When it comes to God, what we know is the sheer cliff of one thing. We know that we do not know. God is hidden. God is mystery. God is the great deep, the dark ground of being, the cloud of unknowing. God is transcendent. And our spiritual reflection, biblical interpretation, philosophical theology, and homiletical cadence do best, just here, when we can, in utter even desperate but honest ignorance be truly apophatic. Like my mother, what we know is, only, that we do not know. Dionysius the Areopagite (thanks to Cyril Richardson, who died one week before the end of term): “That divine Darkness is the unapproachable light in which God dwells. Into this Darkness, rendered invisible by its own excessive brilliance and unapproachable by the intensity of its transcendent flood of light, come to be all those who are worthy to know and to see God.”


We can in part to this Marsh pulpit, now our twelfth Christmas here, in part out of memory, a remembrance of what William Sloane Coffin had brought us in the pulpit of Riverside Church, along a similar river, alongside a similar University, along by a similar School of Theology, along with similar citizens and scholars, teachers and students, religious and un-religious. Coffin:

Faith is being grasped by the power of love.

God provides minimum protection and maximum support. Guilt is the last stronghold of pride.

The rational mind is no match for the irrational will.

There is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.

Romero said not ‘pobres’ but ‘apobprecidos’.

Pastoral concern for the rich must match prophetic concern for the poor.  

I’m not OK and you’re not OK—but that’s OK!

They say religion is a crutch: what makes you think you don’t limp?

The religious norm is love.

Faith gives the strength to confront unpleasant truth. Faith puts you on the road and hope keeps you on the road. 

A Humorous Interlude


John teaches memory. Isaiah teaches hope. To give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit…

Our friend Beth Neville tells this story of being pushed out of despair, and back into life:

“I never learned the young boy’s name but after our encounter I decided to call him, BOY. He was an attractive, open-faced kid about 10 years old, the same age as my grandson. So our ages were separated by about 70 years.

Sitting in the corridor at drab rehabilitation facility, struggling to recover from hip surgery, my spirits were low. At the end of the long corridor a large window opened out onto a beautiful view of fall colors, russets and tawny gold colors of fall Oaks against the autumn blue sky, it resembled a Gothic cathedral’s stained glass. But inside the rehab center, the color was gray. Old people in faded gowns sat in wheelchairs, some spending hours in a curled up state. The walls, bed covers, and people’s faces all faded to the same ashen grey, creating a miasma of age and sadness. Five days earlier, my worn out hip had been replaced by a piece of metal and the constant pain and discomfort was wearing at me. Before the surgery I began using metaphor of a Marathon to get me through the trauma. I was on a marathon and, every physical or emotional set back was a curve or a long stretch. But right now in the gray rehab I was on Heart Break Hill and I was beginning to loose site of the goal. After all I was almost 80 and had lived a full life, why bother to go on? I’d rather die than endure more pain. Old age was surrounding me, why not just stop here and drop out of the race? What more in life could I do to be useful? I wanted to quit.

Up the corridor came a boy and his father and they sat down next to me to enjoy the golden fall view. The boy never said his name but he had an inquisitive look . BOY’s opening question to me was a stunner, “Well, what’s your era, 1940’s?” Me laughing, “That’s close, I was born in 1937. Are you visiting your Grandmother?” BOY: “Yes. Well, what do you do?” Me: “I teach art.” BOY: “How do you do that?” Bemused, I explained an art lesson using the glowing trees outdoors as a painting example.” BOY: “Well, what else do you do?” Me: “I teach art history.” Boy, “Well, why did people start making art?” Now this was getting to be an interesting, a real challenge, Me,” People began making art because they were worried about having babies and keeping their families going, so they made female fertility figures. They chipped stone pebbles to make a pregnant woman, and maybe then they would have more babies. And people liked to decorate themselves with shells and beads.” He liked that answer. BOY, “Well, tell me about fire?” and we were on to the invention of fire, and carrying water in buckets, and cooking over fires. Boy, “Well, what about Mesopotamia!” Whoaa, this conversation is really getting interesting! Me: “I studied Mesopotamia in graduate school,” and we talked of the use of clay tablets for writing and irrigation” and off we went. BOY,” Well, what about cunnieform?” By now I’d stopped being surprised, and I dissected the use of writing with clay tablets versus Egyptian papyrus. BOY: “Well, why was Mathematics invented?” We discussed masthematics in keeping track of the seasons and crop yields. He wasn’t showing off, just interested. At one point I said, “I don’t know how yeast was invented, it is so important for making bread,” and BOY said, “Well, Yes! just one of ‘Histories’ Mysteries’ my teacher says.” Yes, I laughed, I’ll remember that line. His Dad put down his cell phone and said, “O.K. son, let’s go visit Grandma,” off they went.                  

BOY will never know it, but he had pushed me up and over Heartbreak Hill,! I felt I could still contribute something to life. It was time for me to get back to overcoming pain and start the exercises. Where did BOY come from that beautiful afternoon? I don’t believe in extra-terrestrial beings from either Mars or Heaven. But BOY did have an angelic look about him and he had pushed me out of despair, back to life and blessed me.


         Sometimes hope takes time. Less than a month after MLK’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, four girls were killed in Birmingham by a bomb set at the 16th Street Baptist Church there. There is much that we do not fully remember about those years, that era, the civil rights struggle, and, especially, those who suffered, and how they suffered, in that time. Over the next three decades, three KKK leaders and members were brought to trial, and convicted of the crime. In that way, it was case like that of the Scottsboro Boys, which my namesake, Allan Knight Chalmers, Homiletics Professor at BUSTH, tracked for several decades, earlier in the century.   The names of the girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair.

         In 1977, as the principal bomber, Robert Chambliss, was put on trial, a young second year law student skipped classes to sit in the courtroom. Twenty years after that, the young lawyer worked to convict two of Chambliss’s accomplices. Decades passed before the convictions were decided early in this century. You may be aware that the young lawyer who skipped his classes in school to attend classes in life, and who later brought a measure of justice to others, was just recently elected to the Senate in Alabama. Doug Jones. There is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe. There is a self-correcting spirit of truth loose in the universe.


We harbor a common, shared hope:

That our warming globe, caught in climate change, will be cooled by cooler heads and calmer hearts and careful minds.

That our dangerous world, armed to the teeth with nuclear proliferation, will find peace through deft leadership toward nuclear détente.

That our culture, awash in part in hooliganism, will find again the language and the song and the spirit of the better angels of our nature.

That our country, fractured by massive inequality between rich children and poor children, will rise up and make education, free education, available to all children, poor and rich.

That our nation, fractured by flagrant unjust inequality between rich and poor children, will stand up and make health care, free health care, available to all children, poor and rich.

That our schools, colleges and universities, will balance a love of learning with a sense of meaning, a pride in knowledge with a respect for goodness, a drive for discovery with a regard for recovery.

That our families, torn apart by abuse and distrust and anger and jealousy and unkindness, will sit at a long holiday table, this week, and share the roast beef, and pass the potatoes, and slice the pie, and, if grudgingly, show kindness and pity to one another.

That our decisions in life about our callings, how we are to use our time and spend our money, how we make a life not just a living, will be illumined by grace and generosity.

That our grandfathers and mothers, in their age and infirmity, will receive care and kindness that accords with the warning to honor father and mother that you own days be long upon the earth.

That women—our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters, granddaughters, all—granted suffrage less than 100 years ago, will be spared any and all forms of harassment and abuse, verbal or physical, on college campuses, in homes and families, in offices and bars, in life and work, and long having suffered and now having suffrage, will in our time rise up to be honored, revered, and compensated, without reserve, but with justice and mercy.

A common hope, finally a hope not of this world, but of this world as a field of formation for another, not just creation but new creation, not just life but eternal life, not just health but salvation, not just heart but soul, not just earth, but heaven.


When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone,

When the kings and princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,

To heal the broken,

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers,

To make music in the heart.


 He is the Way

Follow him through the land of unlikeness;

You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures 

He is the Truth

Seek him in the kingdom of anxiety

You will come to a great city that has expected

Your return for years.

He is the Life

Love him in the world of the flesh

And at your marriage all its occasions shall

Dance for joy.

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.


December 10

Lessons & Carols

By Marsh Chapel

No sermon was preached today as Marsh Chapel celebrates the annual service of Lessons & Carols. Please enjoy the beautiful service by following the link below:

Click here to listen to the full service

December 3

The Adventure of Faith

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the full service

Click here to listen to the sermon only

Prophetic Vision…

The adventure of faith is a shared adventure of a common faith.

We today enter Advent, a season of preparation, in which we celebrate, and share the adventure of faith.  A shared adventure, a common faith.

A prophetic vista…

The world can work.

Isaiah 64 shows us a post-exilic communal conflict. 587bce. Now 510 or so bce.

They returned from exile with the Bible.  Exile can be uncannily, eerily, unexpectedly fruitful.  Keep that in mind for a decade or so.

Visionaries and realists, dreamers and doubters.  Realists.  Visionaries.  Zadokites.  Levites.  Justice. Temple.

Visionaries:  like those in 2 Isaiah, Levitical priesthood, those ‘left behind’ in Judah.  Utopian vision.

Realists:  Zadokite priests who control temple now.  They want to repair the roof and boiler.  Restoration, for them, means restoration of the temple.

Hope in this bitter conflict gets unhinged from history. Visionaries and realists separate, as prophecy applies less to daily politics, hope takes flight from history.  This is the Dawn of Apocalyptic.

See Paul Hanson’s old work from across the river.

We know this kind of trouble.  Not just from the ferocious inter and intra party conflicts in 2016.

See Mark Lille, The Once and Future Liberal.  Academic liberal failures: forms of identity politics that are broadly off-putting; nearly complete absence from actual political activity.


A communal connection…

1 Cor:  53/ethical pastoral/work with nascent congregation/first urban Christians.

Every heart has secret sorrows.

My November Guest.

Royal Couple:  is he kind?

R Scroggs, Paul for a New Day.

There is no substitute for gathering in the same space (house of cards).

Our endless celebration of the petty narcissism of small religious differences.   Post-modern politics of differences.

Shared adventure.  Common faith.

Ease of anonymity to power of connection.

Humanity and technology:  Hillary and E-mail; Donald and Twitter; German Right and Facebook (350,000); North Korea and Cyber Theft.  Two hands clapping out a sorrowful beat.  One of the forces normalizing hatred on a global scale.

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

And what would Paul say to the famous, many religious, gentlemen, who are accused of harassment and abuse?  Where is the influence of the Christian Gentleman today?

Lillian Ross (b Syracuse 1918): the act of a pro is to make it look easy.  Fred Astair didn’t groan when he danced to let you know how hard it is.

Many helpings of faith, first helping.


Apocalyptic Admonition…

A ‘little apocalypse’

Mark 13:  its history/70ad/cataclysm like that of 3 Isaiah/never rebuilt

New religions, Judaism and Torah, Christianity and Church.

We are not the first generation in faith to face cataclysm, in this looming decade of humiliations.

In which there arises the temptation to substitute political opportunism for moral judgment.

The cataclysm of:

Distortion of Truth and Falsehood

Mocking of Nuclear Opponents

Hideous Anti-Muslim, meaning anti-religious, videocasts

Mistreatment of women with impunity

Disdain for diplomacy

Indirect discourse of racism (sometimes not even indirect)

Daily Presidential\Journalistic game of go-fetch

Watch.  From eschatology to ethics, here.   You know neither the day nor the hour.  You watch.  You keep your chin up.  You keep your head high.  You keep faith in relationship, in worship, in stewardship (your body, your time, your money).  Beware a growing accommodation of totalitarianism.

Three plural imperatives (shared, common)

Nightime arrival.  Why?  Danger of eschatological slumber.  Don’t be caught napping at the Parousia.  Eyes open, eyes open.

On the day the world ends

A bee circles a clover

A fisherman mends a glimmering net

Happy porpoises jump in the sea

By the rainspout young sparrows are playing

And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be

The voice of the violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night

On the day the world ends

-Cselaw Milosz



Sawdust Trail Altar Call

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent

We believe in God

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.