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December 22

Gentle Christmas

By lwhitney

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The birth of Christ places before us a new possibility.

We can live in a new way.

“Christ is alive and goes before us, to show and share what love can do.  This is a day of new beginnings.  Our God is making all things new”.

You can continue to live in the old way.

Or you can live a different life, beginning today.


Paul’s Christmas Gospel

Paul of Tarsus rarely is mentioned at Christmas. He introduces himself this morning, to the Romans and to us, in our first lesson. He never saw Jesus and knew almost nothing of the birth.  Or of birth.   Of Christmas, he says only:  “born of a woman, born under the law”.  (Gal. 4: 4 When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons)  A human birth, still in the dark shadow of religion.

Paul is our earliest, best witness to the primitive Christian church.  Yet he says nothing about any of the things we take for granted in this season:  Mary, Joseph, manger, Bethlehem, shepherds, Kings, Herod, Rachel weeping.

In fact, I have ruminated a little about how Paul might have approached our reading from Matthew 1: 18-25, composed some thirty years after Paul’s own (legendary) death in the Roman coliseum.  How would the celibate rabbi have thought about Mary and a complicated birth?  How would the patriarchal first century Jew have thought about the authority vested in women?  How would Paul have interpreted Mary’s calling, vocation, blessing and authority?

More basically, more biologically, how would a man like Paul have connected, if at all, with the multiple nursery scenes found in the first three gospels?

You will admit, if pressed, that there are few things more bemusing than listening to men talk about child birth.  All the gospels and almost 2000 years of Christmas sermons fall beneath this judgment.  What do we know about it?

And Paul?

How can men–how could Paul–possibly fathom the pain, change, and transformation of childbirth?  Especially when this birth is not just birth but–Incarnation?

Paul has had a hard ride for the past 50 years.  In an age of civil rights, his common first century passive acceptance of slavery in Philemon has not gone unnoticed.  In age of revolution in the status and role of women, his direction to the Corinthians—albeit truly a matter of order not gender—that women should not speak in public has not gone unnoticed.  In an age of gradual acceptance of gay rights, his flat rejection of homosexuality in Romans 1 has not gone unnoticed.  In an age of fuller acquaintance with the abuses of power, his later command to the Roman church to be subject to governing authorities has not gone unnoticed.  In an age of democracy, dialogue and vote, his apostolic, authoritarian claim to have the Mind of Christ has not gone unnoticed.  In short, Paul has been persona non grata for 50 years.  From one angle he is seen as a confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, authoritarian, hierarchical, Tory crank.

Which brings us to Christmas 2013 and the stunning news that Paul, more than all, “gets it”!  Hear his self-introduction from Romans today and behold:  Paul understands the Gentle Christmas Gospel.  Better than virtually any other piece of the New Testament Paul names the Christmas Gospel with utter precision in another of his letters, his earliest, 1 Thessalonians 2:7

I bring this up on Christmas Sunday to spank out a claim on you.  If Paul can “get it”, if Paul can receive the grace of Christmas, there is hope for everybody.  Even me, even you.  Especially for you this morning if you feel at some distance from the Christmas traditions, the old stories, the church’s habits and patterns.  Especially if you feel, that is, a little on the outside.  Especially if all this imagery—shepherds, kings, Mary, Herod, the Baptist—does not appeal to you, and you feel a bit on the outside.  Actually, in the main, Christmas is all about God’s love for the outside.

In the earliest piece of our New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, as he describes his happy relationship with one of his first churches, Paul offers us a glimpse of the gospel.  It is Christmas testimony that we can live in a new way!

This Paul, this same confederate, chauvinistic, homophobic, patriarchal, hierarchical Tory crank, has been given the grace to live in a new way, and to show others the same.

The spirit of the Risen Christ has changed Paul.  From Pharisee to freedom fighter.  From inquisitor to preacher.  From religion to faith.  From law to gospel.  He was been given the “wings of the morning”.  There is no other way to interpret his self-designation, a Christmas nametag if ever there was one, here in 1 Thessalonians.

Paul refers to himself and his way of living as “gentle as a nurse”.  Gentle?  Paul?  Apparently so, at least now and then.    And then, “nurse”.  The word does not refer to white gowns, medical degrees, stethescopes, or medications.  It means the other kind of nurse and nursing, the nurse-maid.  We learn this, even without reference to the Greek, from the rest of the verse, a “nurse caring for her children”.  The word, ηπιον, means wet nurse or nursing mother.  The image so jarred an early copier that he added an extra letter to one text to “clean it up” and change the meaning.  Paul is staggeringly clear, however.  He describes himself as like a wet-nurse!  Paul, that is, is referring to his own new way of living as a kind of nursing, as intimate, physical, personal, vulnerable, self-giving.  As in, nursing a child.

I find this astounding, that one who could say of his opponents in Galatia that they should castrate themselves (surely a remnant of the old Paul) could understand himself by analogy with a mother and child in the moment of nursing.  If the birth of Christ can move Paul that far, how much more can Christmas do for you and me!

A generation ago, I discovered, James Clarke had a similar insight:

Here is conversion in great might.  It is easy to think of Paul as the missionary who made Europe and Asia his parish and lifted Christianity out of its Palestinian cradle; as the warrior who fought the good fight of faith and whose sword seldom rested in its scabbard; as the statesman who conceived vastly and executed daringly; as the theologian who handled the huge imponderables and grand peculiarities of the faith with ease and judgment; as the personality, powerful and decisive, who cut his signature deeply into the life of his time, and beside whom his contemporaries were but dwarfs; as the mystic who beheld the faraway hills of silence and wonder, and whose great theme was “union with Christ”.  But it strains the imagination to picture him, who was so imperious, in the gentle and tender role of nursemaid.  Truly there is no limit to the converting power of God in Jesus Christ. (IBD loc cit)

Yet Clarke climbs only half the mountain.  Yes, it does astound our imaginations to picture Paul as a mother with a child at the breast.  What is doubly astounding, however, is to realize, fully to intuit, that Paul understood himself this way!  That Paul, at his most converted, could see his life in a new way, a radically new way, as different from all he had lived before as a nursemaid is different from an imperious religionist.

Paul probably did not know the account in our reading from Matthew 1 today, with its picture of Mary and Jesus, or its siblings in the other gospels.  He may not have had any more idea than we do about the exact nature and detail of these birth narratives.  I confess that I think he would have been somewhat surprised by their imaginative peculiarity.

But the meaning of Christmas he fully knows.


Your Christmas Gospel

And so may you, ESPECIALLY, if you are not easily or closely enthralled by magic stories, birth miracles, speaking wombs, nursery rhymes, and angel voices.  Paul hears the truth of it all, and his life changes.  Yours can too.

Paul may not have known the Christmas stories we do, but his pastoral life embodied the incarnate love of God in Christ, physical intimate, personal, vulnerable self-giving, gentle as a nurse-maid.

Yours can too.  You can live in a new way.  You can.

It is the way of the turned cheek, the offered cloak, the second mile.  It is the way of love for those who are not lovely.  It is the way of the love of enemies.  It is the way of forbearance.  It is the way of tenderhearted forgiveness.  It is the way of prayer for those who persecute.  It is the way of God, who is kind to God’s ungrateful and selfish children.  Gentle as a nurse…

In a year of violence past, we may be ready to hear this.  After Newtown.  After Marathon Monday.  After Syria.  After a long train and strain of losses, more personal and private.

Christmas gives birth to the daily, very real possibility, starting again for you at noon, the real potential that you can live in a new way.  Christmas gives birth to the life and death decision for or against Jesus, for the new path or the old.

If Paul can “get it”, all can.  This is the change that God works (GOD works) in the human heart.  The God who said “let light shine out of darkness…” It is the gift of faith.  Faith comes by hearing.  Hearing by the word of God.

We live in age of violence, even global and extreme violence.   But this is Christmas.   With Matthew we may marvel at the mystery of Christ.  With Paul we may practice the partnership of the Gospel, living as gentle as a nurse with her children.

We can live in a new way.  The world does not lack for promise, but only for a sense of promise.


Three Applications

First. We can live as those who look forward to a gentler world community.  In a year that included Newtown and Marathon Monday, we can afford to listen to the strange language of the Bible, and of Paul.  I mean all of us here this morning, liberal and conservative, hawk and dove.  We can all share the horizon of hope for peace on earth, good will to all.  We can look out for ways to “soften the collisions” that will come in our time.  As Inman says, in the novel Cold Mountain, life is riddled with “endless contention and intractable difference”.  Collisions are virtually inevitable.  But they can be softened.

My guide here is the great British philosopher Isaiah Berlin:

Collisions, even if they cannot be avoided, can be softened.  Claims can be balanced, compromises can be reached:  in concrete situations not every claim is of equal force—so much liberty, so much equality; so much for sharp moral condemnation, so much for understanding a given human situation; so much for the full force of law, and so much for the prerogative of mercy; for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless.  Priorities, never final and absolute, must be established. 

Of course social or political collisions will take place; the mere conflict of positive values alone makes this unavoidable.  Yet they can be minimized by promoting and preserving an uneasy equilibrium, which is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair—that alone is the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, otherwise we are bound to lose our way.  A little dull as a solution you will say?  Yet there is some truth in this view.

Second.  More than you know, disciple, you transform the culture around you with every act, every choice.  I saw recently 900 people stand, without command, to honor the Hallelujah Chorus.  They came to worship the Messiah, in their own secular way, the babe, the son of Mary.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.

         He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.

         And the glory, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

         And all flesh shall see it together.

         Since by one man death came, so by one man shall come the resurrection of the dead. (my favorite)

         Blessing and honor and glory and power be unto him!        

So they receive Christ.  Here is a door held.  There is a criticism softened.  Here is a preparation made.  There is a courtesy extended.  Here is a listening ear.  There is a gesture of welcome.

As we follow our course let us not become coarse.

I remember a Christmas more than thiry years ago, when we lived in NYC.  Lily Tomlin once produced a single actor play.  One night a street person stumbled into the theater and was treated roughly.  She made the paper by stopping her performance, guiding the man to center stage and quietly addressing the audience:  “Let me introduce you to a fellow human being.

At our best, Marsh Chapel and this community both set a fine example of acculturated gentility.  (That is a compliment, by the way.  Just so you know.)  It is not just what you do that counts, it is how you do it.

At our best, we can live together, watching over one another in love, and treating one another “as gently as a nursemaid”.  Men and women both.   I can be even more personal.  The Christmas Gospel in its Pauline cast directs me as a minister.  It gives me the courage to be, to be a pastoral administrator, and to be so with gentle care.  Now I will admit that the phrase, “pastoral administrator” is something of an oxymoron, two words that contradict each other.  Like jumbo shrimp or United Methodist.  Either you are pastoral or you are administrative, tender or tough.  But here is Paul, the Great Tough Apostle to the Gentiles, identifying his way of being with that of a woman, a tender mother, breast feeding her kids.  That means time spent.  That means some tolerance for untidiness.  That means a willingness to admit imperfection, some fruitful slobbery sloppiness.  That means a habit of being that is more rounded than rectangular, more organic that engineered, more maternal than mechanical.  That means to worry when things aren’t perfect and not to listen when others want them immediately perfect.  Life is messy.  Community life is particular messy.  That means a willingness to go the second and third mile, as you would for your infant.  That means risking getting bitten.  That means burping and wiping and holding.  And especially that means a fierce focus on the future of now young life!  That sounds like hard work!  Manger work.  Nursery work.  New Creation work.

Third.  Christmas too can become a season as gentle as a nurse.  Someone wrote, mimicking, yes, Paul, in 1 Cor 13:

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that  I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend myriad holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops cooking to hug the child.

Love sets aside decorating to kiss the spouse.

Love is kind, though harried and tired.

Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love bears, believes, hopes, endures all things, and never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust.  Even that new motorboat that someone might give you will one day retire. The gift of love will endure.


A Time to Choose 

This is the spiritual change that God (and God alone) works in the human heart.  “Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth”.  Here are the birth pangs of the new creation.

Are you ready to live in a new way?

For their parts, the ancients were caught off guard.  So the Kings meandered, the shepherds shuddered, the cattle were low and lowing.  There was no ready expectation of Jesus, a poor Messiah.  No, there was no prepared expectation for God touching earth in a manger.  “A smoking cradle”, said Karl Barth, is all we have of Christmas.   How about you?  Are you ready for Christmas, for a gentle Christmas?

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

December 8

The Bach Experience

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 3: 1-13

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Dean Hill:

Before Jesus there was John, before the Christ there was the Baptist.  Jesus was a disciple of John.  John prepared the way for Jesus.  As we listen with word and music, perhaps we can ponder the power of precursors.

Before Christmas there is Advent, before the incarnation is the anticipation.  The feast of Christmas comes after the penitence of Advent.  The joy of birth comes after the anxiety of expectation.  As we listen with word and music, today let us ponder the power of precursors.

Before tradition there is event, before understanding there is experience.   The rolling voice of the Baptist is the event through which we each year pass in order to come to our understanding of Christmas.  The joy of the feast comes after the murky dark water of the Jordan river, and the towering ferocity of John, in camel’s hair eating locusts.

Before Matthew there was Mark, before teaching there was preaching, before catechesis there was kerygma.  Matthew is an interpreter of Mark.  Mark is the model for Matthew.  As we listen with word and music, perhaps we can ponder the power of precursors.

We might want to pause a moment to greet Matthew in a personal way.  He will be our gospel guide for 51 weeks, walking alongside us as we climb the mountain of existence.   He is not eating locusts and honey nor wearing camel’s hair and sandals, though his attire is both strange and ancient.

His is a difficult introduction to make.  “The difficulty is rather the character of the Gospel itself—a Greek Gospel, using Greek sources, written for a predominantly Gentile church, at a time when the tradition had become mixed with legend, and when the ethical teaching of Jesus was being reinterpreted to apply to new situations and codified into a new law…It cannot have been written by an eye witness.  It is a compendium of church tradition, artistically edited, not the personal observations of a participant” (IBD 242)

The outline of Jesus’ life in Matthew is like that in Mark.  Galilee.  Jerusalem.  Country. City.  Small. Large. (A good pattern for the trajectory of much ministry).

Matthew has added a collection of teachings to Mark (but just added it to situations already known to Mark).  He also adds legendary material (infancy narratives).

As in Mark, Jesus is a teacher and healer. Geography and scenery are the same.  Are there two sibling gospels and three synoptics?

He combines Mark’s chronological and geographical outline, with lots of new material, so that we have a real catechism, sometimes seen as five different sections.  Matthew likes the number 7.  He exhibits a lot of ecclesiastical piety.

Matthew comes from Jewish rabbinic circles.  And a Christianizing of the portrait of the disciples. ‘The reference to the fulfillment of prophecy which pervades the whole book and derives from the author’s theological as well as his apologetic anti-Jewish interest’. (R Bultmann, HSG, 381) He raises the stature of Jesus into the divine.

“His prose differs from that of Plato to approximately the extent that the English in the news columns of a well written daily differs from that of Shakespeare and the King James Version” (IBD, op cit, 239).

Our passage prepares us for worship, for the singing of God’s praises, for glory to God in the highest.  Is this not, Dr Jarrett, our reason for hearing this Bach this Sunday?

(Dr. Scott Jarrett speaks)

Dean Hill:

We ponder the power of precursors, in days during which around the globe we ponder the influence of Nelson Mandela.

You will at some point sense a nudge to join in this parade.  Some will do so by listening on the internet.  Some will do so by tuning in via radio.  Some will do so by coming to 735 Commonwealth Avenue.  Next Sunday with Lessons and Carols would be a good one to do so, and to bring a friend.

It is a privilege and weekly joy to see this community of faith gathering at 11am on Sunday.  A student, bagel in hand, trundles up the stairs.  A couple who have driven from an hour to the west find an aisle seat, then following worship have lunch and do one city thing each week.  A husband and wife, catholic and protestant, join us for two services, this one at 11am—then a break—and catholic mass at 12:30.  A young couple with tiny tots finds the energy and discipline to bring the family for worship and study.  An older man, alone some of the week, becomes a part of an empowering community.

The world does not lack for wonders but only for a sense of wonder.  Sunday at 11am, one way or another, is the way back to wonder.  To hear something that is beautiful.  To see someone who is good.  To hear some word which is true.  These are the seeds of wonder.

Then, from here on Sunday, you may find your way elsewhere during the week.  To audit a class on Lincoln on Monday.  To hear a panel of 12 interfaith students on Tuesday.  To watch the basketball team on Wednesday.  To hear a lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls on Thursday.  To attend  the Shakespeare Project on Friday.  To take in a concert on Saturday.   Friends, your life of faith in worship can be centered at Marsh Chapel at Boston University, and for your fellowship, education and service you may swim through the whole University!   I do not know—anywhere—a better way to unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.  I do not know a better way to nurture the soul and so to grow great hearted future leaders.  And we do need such…

  – The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean. & Dr. Scott Jarrett, Director of Music

December 1

Put on the Lord Jesus Christ

By Marsh Chapel

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The sermon text for today is unavailable.

~Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

November 24

A Thanksgiving Medley

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 23:33-43

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         It is hard to think about Thanksgiving and not think of food in general and turkey in particular.  So attentive are we to the meal itself that the Thanksgiving prayer we offer becomes an afterthought, unless carefully we pause to think about a prayerful recipe for a real thanksgiving, a thanksgiving medley of nourishment both for body and for soul. The meal, the turkey, we leave to you.  But here, in sermonic guise, we offer a recipe for the prayer on Thanksgiving, a thanksgiving medley, a recipe, that is, for a thanksgiving prayer.


First, clean. To start, you might clean the outside of the prayer.  Pluck its feathers. Wash its torso.  Get rid of the fluff that does not feed anyway.  Especially this year perhaps we can dispense with the note of pride, of self-congratulation that so easily enters the heart.  ‘Lord I thank thee that I am not like other men—extortionists, liars, or even like this publican here’.  Jesus directly proscribed such prayer.  Pluck and clean and here is what you find.  Most of who we are and even more of what we have is pure gift.  Our genetic makeup.  Our history.  Our natural surroundings.  Our upbringing.  Our humors and talents.  Our religious tradition or lack thereof.  For all our vaunted independence, we depend, utterly depend, truly depend, we are deeply dependent for what counts:  for life, for forgiveness, for eternal life.  For all our vaunted enterprise, we have relied on others, and we have been shaped by others.  Is there a better city in North American in which to remember that than Boston?  As a city, as a people, as a nation, as a church, we are the creatures of the courage of others, who in one sense or another gave the last full measure of devotion.  Who are we kidding anyway?  Most of what we are and even more of what we have is pure gift.  As my friend says, ‘if you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he did not get there on his own’.


The Psalmist knew this.  ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for hehas looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.


Paul of Tarsus also knew this.  “May you be made strong with the strength that comes from his glorious power.”


This is why the patterns of gratitude, day and week and month and year and all are so important to the soul.  Good for you.  You find a daily way to say a word of thanks or write a note of thanks to someone, somewhere, somehow.  Good for you.  You find a way to worship on Sunday, to bestir yourself and enter a community of faith, shoulder to shoulder with other unfeathered bi-peds, so that, if nothing else, in public you may say ‘thank you’—to God, to life, to others.  Good for you.  You find a way once a month to be in service, in mission.  Ministry is service.  Today our students and others gather at noon to pack meals for hungry children.  Tomorrow you may send off an extra thanksgiving check to the Philippines.  Good for you.  You find a rhythm, year by year, for arranging your finances to match hour values.  You give.  You give by percentage.  You tithe.  You make a plan and plan your giving and give by your plan.  Good for you.  You think hard and long about what your will, your end of life giving will be, and so model that dimension of spirituality for your children and others.  Maybe your estate itself will include a tithe.  Good for you.  A daily note, a weekly worship, a monthly service, a yearly gift, a concluding bequest—these are patterns of gratitude that shape the soul and heal the earth.  Good for you.  Be generous of spirit, like Abraham Joshua Heschel:

         Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace.

God is than religion, and faith is deeper than dogma.  Man’s most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is man.


To give thanks means first to pluck the bird’s less generous, more self centered, less magnanimous feathers, one at a time.


Second, season.  Cleansed, our prayer is ready for a little seasoning.  Personal seasoning.  Real gratitude is real personal.  Prayer is intimate.  Prayer is personal.  Like a sermon.  Utterly personal.  Like a photograph.  Utterly personal.  A prayer of thanks is thanks for what makes a personal difference.  For a friend sent along by life’s surging current.  For a spouse met.  For a child.  For a child saved from death in a car accident.  For a lawsuit avoided or weathered.  For an assault survived. For a family fence mended.  For a vocation.  For a vacation.  For an exciting new job.  For breath, for breadth, for board.


The eternal flame, which Jacqueline B Kennedy imagined atop the president’s grave, is a flickering reminder to us all of what his tragically foreshortened life gave our common life.  I hope this holiday season that you will keep a sort of eternal flame flickering atop your life as well.  Our span of life, threescore and ten, upon this earth, is starkly brief.  Yet each soul carries an eternal flame, a lasting marrow, a heavenly destiny, a personal dimension.  You have an angelic prospectus.  You want to live, to speak, to choose, to act, to do—and especially to pray—with a recollection of eternity.  Under the aspect of eternity, sub specie aeternitatis.  Mrs. Kennedy, in the days following her husband’s murder 50 years ago, found the grace to send a handwritten note of condolence to the wife of a Dallas policeman who had also been killed in those same hours, by the same gunman.  There is an eternal flame flickering in such an act, in such a kindness, partly because it so personal.  “Others may not understand what you are going through” it seems to say, “but I surely do”.


We went north toward Montreal in 1981 to serve two little churches with two little children and too little money.  We went to Montreal in order to study for a PhD so that one day we could come to Boston and teach in the school of theology and preach in Marsh Chapel and offer pastoral care to an academic community of 40,000.  Be glad for what you do not have, for it is the doorway into what you will have.  That summer of 1981 we were given a car, and old red Ford Mustang convertible, anno domini 1973.  A real boat, v8, white top, black interior, and rust to the horizon.  Said the donor:  ‘it will last you 6 months.  Leave it in a field’.  It lasted 10 years.  It was such a thoughtful and such helpful gift—the right thing at the right time in the right way—that no words could ever convey our gratitude (Hart on gift).  No formal note—“Dear Aunt Esther, in life’s many vicissitudes it is so important to be made mindful of those who help…blah, blah, blah…’ No. Thanksgiving is a personal shout, a cry from the heart:  Thank You!


Alice Walker appeared on late night television a while ago.  She said two stunning things.  ‘At middle age’, she said, ‘I am learning to slow down so that whatever life intends for me will have an easier time catching up’.  Then, after minutes of complements for Nelson Mandela, and what he did for South Africa, she reflected:  ‘of course, he is a great leader, but the point is that each one of us is to be our own great leader’.  Personal. Personal. Very personal.

This is why our friends are so deeply, lastingly meaningful to us.  Our north country friend Max Coots wrote one Thanksgiving:


“Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:

For children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are….

For generous friends with hearts and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends as tart as apples;

For continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them;

For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible;

For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the other, plain as potatoes and as good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels Sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem Artichokes, and serious friends, as complex as cauliflowers and as intricate as onions;

For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes;

For loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, and who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter;

For all these we give thanks.”



A sermon does not conclude the preaching for the week.  A sermon begins the preaching for the week.  The point of a sermon is found in your active, personal articulation of faith.  In a journal.  In public speaking.  In a simple devotional at a meeting.  In the shower.  And, this Thursday, in a thanksgiving prayer.  Sit down ahead of time and right it out.  Make it personal.  Season it so.  Season it properly.  Find your tongue.  Season it personally.


Third, cook.  Cook the prayer.  Cook it in experiences of adversity. Let the adverse experiences of life make our prayer and our soul tender.  If nothing else, our own hurts make us more empathetic to others. One of my forebears in the ministry, long ago used this line and it has stuck.  It is nothing to remember a line for thirty years, when it is a real sentence: ‘Let the heat of adversity make us tender’.  Sometimes nothing else will.  This is a difficult point.  When I heard my friend utter the line, because I knew his experience, I wept.  There is no way finally to understand, let alone justify, the heat of life at its worst.  But we can pray that such adverse experience will humanize us, that such heat will make us tender.


Let the bird cook, simmer.  Cooking makes the bird tender.  Life’s heat can make us tender too, if we will allow the time and heat and patience to hold us.


Think again of Paul.  ‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us because the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us.’  Think again today of Christ, the Redeemer, who himself entered the darkest sphere of suffering, mocked as a common criminal but carrying through the cross, and the crosses of all life, a remembrance of paradise.


In the radio congregation today, and in the visible congregation today, there are many who know this well.  You have graciously preached this sermon in your own lives.  You have faced adversity and so become spiritually sensitive.  You have felt physical pain but have learned redemptively to manage your suffering.  You have suffered loss and survived.  You have managed suffering redemptively.  You have worn the ancient clothing:  ‘afflicted in every way but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed; and you do not lose heart, for though the outer nature is wasting away, the inner nature is being renewed every day’.  For all the heat, your Thanksgiving prayer this year will be most tender and most sweet.


Here is a Thanksgiving medley, a recipe for a prayer at Thanksgiving.  Clean it.  Season it. Cook it.  Cleanse it of pride.  Season it in person.  And allow the heat of adversity to make it tender.


It was this recipe that my BU religious life leaders on Wednesday perceived in Dean Howard Thurman’s exemplary prayer:


Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

I begin with the simple things of my days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!


I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:

My mother’s arms,

The strength of my father

The playmates of my childhood…

The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the

Eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day


I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;

The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I

Feared the step before me in darkness;

The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest

And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open

Page when my decision hung in the balance.

For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.


I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:

The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,

Without whom my own life would have no meaning;

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp

And whose words would only find fulfillment

In the years which they would never see;

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,

The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,

Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;

The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream

Could inspire and God could command.

For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day…


All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,

I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,

(Dear God), in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.


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

November 17

New Frontier

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 21: 5-19; 2 Thess. 3: 6-13; Isaiah 65: 17-25

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.


1. Ford

In the Henry Ford Museum, near Detroit, you will find a remarkable assortment of Amerabilia.  Would you like to see Ford’s first automobile?  Its tiny little black wooden self greets you.  Do you remember the Edsel?  Here is one.  Have you spent time over the years in a Howard Johnsons—not recently, I know, but once on a time?  Here are signs for the restaurant and the ice cream and the motel.  Do you own a map of the country that features Route 66?  You will want one after this tour.  Did you ever see one of those amphibious cars, both auto and boat, with drive shaft and propellers?  The museum has one in baby blue.  What is it about that 57 Chevy?  One two tone, green and cream, greets you.


I did not plan to be personally moved in the car museum and was not moved.  Until the end.  At the end there is a procession of presidential automobiles, sort of Motor Force One, you could say.  One that TR used and with him Woodrow Wilson.  FDR had a great black one.  And Eisenhower, too.  I think they were all Lincolns.  Most of the detail, though, I forgot as I came to the 1963 version.  Now topped, not convertible.  Now bulletproof, not open.  Now shined, black and immobile, not dusty and scuffed and moving past a grassy knoll.  But right there, right blessed there.

A fine, long, black 1963 Lincoln Continental, the very best of American engineering, on the best of American roads, in the best of American cities, carried the best of American leaders…to his death.


What do you recall of November 22, 1963, almost exactly 50 years ago?

2. November

These gray days, late autumn days, with shifting light and shadow—they carry an uncanny significance.  Something in them.  Something in the naked tree limbs, grasping empty gray.  Something in the crisp air, foretaste of winter to come.  Something in the constant twilight.  Something of a cosmic sacrality lurks behind the dark maple limbs of November.


The naked limbs also recall the violent death of a young president.  Television and modern American violence have grown up together over forty years.   Our childhood introduction to violence.  To gun violence.  (It is striking that our current national conversation about gun violence makes so little reference to this formative, symbolic moment, involving a single shooter and a single rifle).  Women and men of one generation know where they were on November 22, 1963 at 2:00pm, like those of another generation recall December 7, 1941, and those of yet another will recall September 11, 2001.  They remember the hour the message came, the people who delivered the word, the reactions of family members, the atmosphere of the day, the hidden meanings, unspoken words, portents of the future which all were somehow connected to the dark maple limbs of that November.  One remembers:  the flag covered casket, borne by a simple wagon, drawn by a team of horses; crowds of mourners; women’s black hats; men’s fedoras; children waving; school flags at half mast; bewilderment, anger, fear, grief.  An English teacher recites Whitman’s then 100 year old eulogy for Abraham Lincoln:


O Captain, my captain, our fearful trip is done

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won

Exult O shores and ring O bells

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies

Fallen cold and dead.


3. Scripture

Preliminarily, Jesus first reminds us that we all face judgment, an accounting, a reckoning.  This is not news.  Life itself spells this out for us.  Old age, dusk, autumn, November—we know in our bones about accounting time.  Harvest, report cards, evaluations, income tax—we know in our experience about judgment.  Jesus calmly reminds us that life includes reckoning.  Here he says nothing by the way about individual reckoning, only that accorded to nations.  He tells us that we will be judged as nations, for our own collective, common lives.  Preliminarily, Jesus second connects judgment with relationship not religion, with human relations not religious experience.  In this judgment, heightened religious experience counts not at all.  It is actual living, not religious experience, which is judged.  Service—not music not retreats not fellowship not ecstacy not preaching not prayer not all the things that feed us.  But service, for which the nourishment is meant.  We have in our denomination a January Sunday known as Human Relations Sunday.  But I always wonder, what Sunday is not one such?


So, the deutero-pauline admonishment, 2 Thess., to avoid false apocalyptic (that the resurrection has already occurred) and so to honor work, and of the dignity of work.  So, the Isaian hope of sword become plowshares, the iron of violence become the iron of piece.  So, the Psalmist’s hymn of praise. So the Lukan small apocalypse, with its clear as a bell warning to live each day preparing for judgment, to live each day as if it were your last.  So the Lukan condemnation of religion (ie the temple) ‘a place where abuse is masked by piety’ (S Ringe).  Here are signs of finality and judgment:  natural disaster, false speech, warfare, political chaos.  They are in standard apocalyptic form, a recital of history (what the church has endured in the second half of the first century) placed in predictive, forecasted form (what the scholars call vaticinuum ex eventu).  We are not promised the gifts of success or even safety, but only of endurance in faith: ‘by your endurance you will gain your lives’.


That is, all times are end times, and every day is the last.  One who loses a parent or sibling knows this.  One who receives calamitous unexpected news knows this.  One who sees a beloved institution ruined by feckless, mendacious, predatory, malfeasant leadership knows this


4. Lincoln

We also today are hours from the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, itself a poem shot through with awareness of all manner of endings.  A kind of homecoming, a release from violence, is what Abraham Lincoln proposed in his short masterpiece, 150 years ago, in Gettysburg.


What do you recall about November 19, 1863, nearly 150 years ago today.  Words matter more than deeds.  The saving task is to remember the right ones, like these, 272 words, 10 lines, 2 minutes:


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

5. Violence


Fifty years later I know that many of you can still feel, can taste the trauma of those days, days in which a hard and bitter truth flew  home, “came home to roost”.  The violence in which America was born now haunts the land of the free and the home of the brave.  Violence.  Pioneer violence against native peoples.  Plantation owner violence against owned slaves.  Armed violence in the struggle over the Union.  The violence of class on class and capital on labor.  The lesson of the Kennedy assassination was and is that the violence in which America was born lives on, and will turn its wrath on future generations.  His violent death was a moment of apocalyptic judgment upon a nation with a family history of violence.  Every one of the possible perpetrators of the act itself represent systemic violence.  The violence of Cuban American conflict.  The violence of the cold war.  The violence of the world and underworld.  Our culture is awash in violent rhetoric, violent attitude, violent action.    Once the horror of violence hits home, a new frontier can open before us.   Where sin abounds, grace overabounds.  Once aware of the horror of violence which clearly we are, and once touched by the sting of violence which clearly we are, and once free of the fear of violence, which clearly we are not (truly the thing we have to fear is fear itself and its capacity to take our thanksgiving, our native generosity from us), then we may with renewed vigor look out onto a new frontier.  This is the new frontier of peace.


Perhaps the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel composed most eloquently the hope of that time:


Religion’s task is to cultivate disgust for violence and lies, sensitivity to other people’s suffering and the love of peace.

Different are the languages of prayer, but the tears the same.


God is greater than religion, and faith is deeper than dogma.


When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.


God’s voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions.

Man’s most precious thought is God, but God’s most precious thought is man.


6. Border

This same moment faces us as a nation, as a people and as a church.  We have been stung by violence too.  We can respond with further violence.  Or we can begin to ‘go home’ day by day, to suffer the daily shame and dishonor which all violence finally bequeaths, and, in Christ, as Calvin would say ‘in the school of Christ’, learn to practice the things that make for peace.  Living daily with the bruises and damage of yesterday’s rapacity takes the cross of Jesus Christ.  It is the cross, alone, that carries the power for such laborious, long march of mercy.  In the cross we discover a love that casts out fear.  And fear is our greatest, most fearsome obstacle to the new frontier of peace.  When we come toward a new frontier we naturally have fear.


Once a day for most of three years, and once a month for another eight, I crossed the border into Canada.  The border questions are those before us in every hour, are they not?  What is your name?  Where are you from?  Where are you headed?Do you have anything to declare.  Eyes and ears await your response in ever room entered, every email received, every meeting attended.  Who are you?  What is your story?  Do you have anything to say?


One very cold winter day, in the middle of a clean snowfall, I skidded down north toward Huntingdon Quebec.  It was about 5am, and it was as dark as the dark side of the moon.  I drove slowly to stay on the road.  I was anxious. Then ahead at an intersection I saw a great truck paused and blinking.  In the snow I pulled alongside the cab and looked up at the driver.  He looked fearful.  He squinted and asked “Ou est le frontiere?” (Where is the border).  I summoned what little French I could, put on my bravest accent and began to reply.  But before I had cobbled together two sentences he, listening to my inflection, burst in:  “oh, good lord, you’re an American, I can tell, you speak English!”  Sometimes we have fears at the border of the known and unknown that vanish at the crossing, and entering the new frontier means coming home.


7. Peace


Jesus empowers us in the way beyond violence.  Elsewhere in Scripture he gives us five very practical commands.


Here are five forms of exercise for those preparing for judgment, for those crossing into a new frontier, all of which are measured by their effect on the littlest, most vulnerable, members of the church and the human family.


  1. Find a way to sit quietly with those who are imprisoned.  Including those imprisoned by fear, pride, ideology, personality, accident, circumstance.  Go and sit with them and listen.


  1. Find a way to heal sickness.  Health is too important to leave to physicians only.  You go and heal.  Assess what habits have brought you health and share them.  Salvation is health.


  1. Find a way to cover the naked.  Those who are exposed, open to harm, exposed to scorn and mocking and criticism.  Go and put some clothing on them, some encouragement, some humor, some honor.


  1. Find a way to befriend strangers.  Strangers need welcome, friendship.  Until you have been one, maybe you don’t know.  Watch for the stranger and offer hospitality.


  1. Find a way to offer food and drink, not to those who have already plenty of both, but those who have parched throats and empty stomachs.  How we would love to take pitchers of faith and loaves of hope and batches of love to all of the people in our county who hunger for them!



These are the things that make for peace.  These are the signposts on the long road home from violence.  These are the gospeljudgment words.  A church which practices them, and is practiced in their arts, will have much to offer to the healing of a violated culture.


8. Kennedy

One summer we visited Hyannisport, and there walked around the Kennedy memorial.  It is a moving experience.  The harbor is laden with beautiful sailboats.  The monument is handsome.  Across the round deck of the memorial there is chiseled a sentence quotation:  “I believe that American should set sail and not lie still in the harbor”.  At his best, Kennedy appealed to our honor not to our security:  “not a set of promises but a set of challenges”.  It is our honor and our willingness to sacrifice which will mitigate violence:  “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”.  It is our stamina which will take us to the new frontier of peace:  “to bear the long twilight struggle, year in and year out, rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulatiion”.


Much of what Kennedy planned has been achieved.  Communism is dead.  Nuclear weaponry is largely under control.  Relations between Protestants and Catholics are good.  Basic civil rights have largely been achieved.  Latin America is open to us.  A man has landed on the moon.


But violence, ah violence, violence remains.  Gun violence, ah gun violence, gun violence remains.  The scourge of our generation.


So let us set sail for a new frontier, and practice the things that make for peace.  Let us sing the song of peace, with Isaiah and David and 2 Paul and Jesus.  Let us sing the hymn of peace, with Lincoln and Whitman and Heschel and Kennedy. And let us be willing to “pay any price, bear any burden, support any friend, oppose any foe” to face down the fear that violence brings, and to cross into a new frontier.  A new frontier of peace…


It is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave.  It is wisdom to the mighty, honor to the brave.  The world shall be His footstool and the soul of wrong His slave.  Our God is marching on…

~Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel


November 10

Faith. Healing. II

By Marsh Chapel

James 5:14-16; Psalm 145: 1-5, 17-21; Luke 5:17-26

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We are coming to the end of the year, the end of the secular year on December 31st, and the end of the Christian liturgical year on November 30.  However we mark it, this year has been a year of great challenge.  Many of us still have thorns in our flesh: still, none of us are getting any younger; our personal challenges may still be with us or may even have increased.  This year it is not just the personal pain we may feel in the challenges to our health, wealth, work, or personal relationships; this year has brought great pain for others and for the world as well, griefs so large, so complex we can hardly name them, or bear to acknowledge them, or recognize the effects they have on us.  Here in Boston, the Marathon bombings and their shock in an historic event on a lovely day, the lockdown of a major American metropolitan area, the deaths that included two of Boston University’s own and folks that lived in our community’s neighborhoods.  All this against a continuing backdrop:  the so-called “natural” disasters, most recently the typhoon in the Philippines with its incredible strength and destruction; the accelerating threat of extinction of species including our own, some species also valued by humans but all precious in God’s creation; the complexities and complicities of our lives, often without our knowledge or consent, in human-trafficking and modern-day slavery, and in the career to endless war; the continued attempts to exclude LGBTQ people from full inclusion in religious and civic life.  Insert your own particulars here.

There have been many calls for the need for healing over the last year; there have been fewer proposals as to how that healing might come about.  And while there were indeed many poignant moments during the Red Sox Rolling Rally, we cannot always count on a series win for

healing, either individual or communal. … Go Celtics!

When I told folks that I would be preaching on this Gospel text from Luke, a number of them said to me, “Oh, that’s one of my favorites!”   This is in part due to the creative enterprise of the men, who knock apart someone’s roof to let the paralyzed man down to the floor, all the while shedding debris on him, the crowd, and Jesus.  And the rest is due to the fact that this is a Gospel healing story, with some unique features that are indeed good news in a quest for healing.

For one, Jesus’ reaction is notable:  “When he saw their faith”, he speaks to the paralytic, with words of forgiveness and healing.  Many of Jesus’ healings took place, not at the request of those who were sick themselves, but of others who brought their sick to Jesus to be healed.  Here Jesus acknowledges it is not just the faith of the paralytic,  if we can even assume here that he has faith, but it is also the faith, the expectancy and trust of the bearers themselves, so great that they break through a roof, that helps to bring about the healing.

Also, Jesus does not immediately heal the paralytic physically.  Instead, the first thing he says to the paralytic is, “Your sins are forgiven.”  And then he apparently doesn’t say anything, as if that were enough, as if that were the healing that needed to happen, not the healing of the man’s paralysis.  Sin apparently has to do with lack of well-being.  Now we want to be careful here.  Jesus never associates illness or physical condition with God’s punishment, and he does not always give forgiveness of sins to a sick person.  And, as here, he does also often says to a person that their sins are forgiven as a preliminary to healing.  Now some of my friends call me a semanticist, one who is concerned for the meaning of words generally and in context.  It’s a title I’m proud to carry, as I think that there is not nearly enough definition of terms in the life of faith.  Particularly as we consider the word “sin”.  It’s so often limited by fear and ignorance to who and how we love, or to anything remotely related to a good time especially when it is had by “other” people.  So in line with the definition of many scholars and fellow clergy, for the purposes of this sermon “sin” is anything that separates us:  from God, from our “own-most” selves, and from our neighbor, neighbor broadly defined as the person sitting next to us wherever we are this morning all the way to the whole of creation.  Looked at in this way, sin, our own sins and sins of others, does have a direct bearing on our health of every kind:  physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational.  Our own Chapel Associate Jennifer Quigley has spoken eloquently from this pulpit about the choices we make to find ourselves or to lose ourselves.   And if we lose our selves how can we be whole?  Likewise our own Chapel Associate Jessica Chicka has spoken eloquently from this pulpit about the dangers of fracking. And if we ignore or allow the poisoning of our land and our water and our air, how can we be whole?  The Psalmist in Psalm 32 acknowledges that his unconfessed sin wastes away his body, and only with confession and forgiveness comes relief.  Sometimes confession of sin is the first step to being whole, to name what is not well with us and be able to let it go, so that we can begin to ask how we might mend.

Next, the scribes and the Pharisees are horrified by Jesus’ forgiveness:  “Who can forgive sins but God alone!”  We remember that the Pharisees are influential layfolk who are very concerned about the strict observance of both the written religious law and its interpretation in oral tradition.  We remember that the scribes are specialists in the study of the religious law – elsewhere Luke calls them “lawyers”.  They have come from all over the country to see and listen to Jesus, and now with this outrageous statement these important people accuse him of blasphemy.  And then Jesus asks a question:  “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you’, or to say “Stand up and walk”?  And then he heals the paralytic, as a sign, that he has the authority to forgive sins.

When we think of healing, we often think of “cure”, and we often limit our thinking to physical cure, of an illness or a condition.  But in the Greek, to heal  can also mean to save, and/or to make whole.  In English as well, our words for health, salvation, and wholeness come from the same root.  The word “wholeness” in particular derives from the word “holism”, which does not mean a compartmentalized or disassociated view of human life and nature, but means the organic or functional relationship between parts of a whole.  Jesus’ healings of the physical witness to God’s intention to restore wholeness to all people and to all creation.  They testify to the spiritual power of God on which the kin-dom is built and on which we can build our lives.  But even in these testimonies physical healing is only one part of what is going on, and — dare we say it in a culture obsessed with physical perfection – it is not necessarily the most important part.  If it comes, well and good and glorify God.  And, just as notably sins are forgiven, Jesus’ authority in the Spirit is established, the man is restored to God and to his family and friends rejoicing, and everyone, even the formerly horrified scribes and Pharisees, glorify God.

Here we are reminded also of Matthew, also known as Levi, a tax collector under the Empire’s  occupation and so considered a traitor, who had no physical condition but was recognized for who he could be by Jesus,  and then accepted the call to become a disciple.  We are reminded too of the woman with the alabaster jar, who had no physical condition but had her sins forgiven and her grief comforted and was recognized by Jesus for her great love.  Healing encompasses the whole person:  body, mind, emotions, spirit, and relationships.  Which indeed is easier:  to say, “Your sins are forgiven.”, or to say, “Stand up and walk.”?  Which indeed is the greater miracle: to be restored to physical health, or to be able to kick a habit or addiction, or forgive a relative or friend, or transform a conflict, or be in right relationship with God, ourselves, our neighbor on land and in water and in air?  Jesus offers not just a cure, the cessation of symptoms or condition, but the opportunity to be whole, to be truly healed in any and all aspects of our lives.

Jesus entrusted his disciples with this ministry as well.  In both Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, both from the same author, Jesus’ disciples are seen to have the same power to heal as he did, and the early church assumed that healing was part of their community life.  A specific practice has come down to us in our text from James: the one who is ill, who is not whole, should call for the elders, the leaders in the church, and have them pray in faith, in expectancy and trust.  Those prayers of faith will raise up the one who is not whole, and again, sins will be forgiven.  Church members are to confess their sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that all may be made whole persons in right relationship.  Like the men in the story who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus, so we bring one another to the healing power of God.  John Wesley, the founder of my own faith tradition of Methodism, referred to our being “stewards of grace” to one another in such practices, practices that he called “means of grace”, those practices in which we remind each other of the power of God at work in our lives through the power of the Spirit in the name of Jesus, so that we are able to be continually moving toward a state of wholeness, of right relationship.

It is true.  We do need healing, after this year certainly, but also at many points in our lives; perhaps, given the times in which we live, at all times.  The church has formalized this practice so that both “elders” or “leaders” and those who request prayer for healing are stewards of grace for one another.

That is why, in the new church year, we will experiment, to restore this practice outlined in James here at Marsh Chapel.  On the first Communion Sunday of each liturgical season, we will offer two healing stations during the Communion, one each just under these first windows, so that after partaking of Communion, any of us who feel so moved may come, say what concern we have for our own healing, be joined in the concern in a brief prayer, only after giving permission receive a gentle laying on of hands on or just above the shoulder, only after giving permission be anointed with oil on the forehead, and be blessed.  In this way, we too will be stewards of grace for one another.

We are offering this practice with Communion, as Communion is our clearest affirmation of the presence of God in our midst.  It is where the confession and forgiveness of sins that we are offered every week are underscored by God’s nourishment of us in bread and wine, underscored by God’s empowerment of us by the outpouring of the Spirit.  It is where the congregational recognition of our common life encourages us to bring our individual needs to God with faith, with expectancy and trust that God’s will is for our good in all aspects of our lives.

This is an experiment, in the sense that our initial practice will be time-limited to the first Communion service of each new liturgical season, for this next church year.  Don’t worry about keeping track of the dates – we’ll keep you posted and the first time will be the first Sunday of the new church year, Advent I on December 1.  There will also be ways to evaluate our practice:  there will probably be surveys – short surveys — but also as we welcome your emailed and written responses and your conversational observations.  This practice is also offered with the clear understanding and thanksgiving that there are many ways of healing given to us by God:  the fields of medical, surgical, mental, emotional, and relational  health, the arts, the work of justice, the work of peace.  This spiritual practice is intended to work with these other gifts, to promote the whole health of the whole person.

To pray for healing is not us trying to change God’s mind.  It is to put ourselves in a place of cooperation with God so that the Spirit can work in us toward the wholeness in all aspects of our lives that God intends.  We invite your prayers for this ministry, in trust and expectation, and, dearly beloved, the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.  Glory to God.  Amen.

~Rev. Victoria Gaskell, Chapel Associate for Methodist Students

November 3

Saints of God

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 6 and Ephesians 1

Click here to hear the full service.

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Religious Saint in China

Saints of God are all around us.  You are they.  You.   In Chicago last week I saw one, a dear old friend, former Minister of First UMC Evanston, former Acadmic Dean at Claremont.  I later that week came across a sermon of his.

Emory Purcell wrote, “When I was a child, there were often missionaries or evangelists staying with us. One I remember most fondly was Mary Schlosser. About fifty years of age then, she had been a missionary in China for many years.

All of us have heard stories of how missionaries forced native people to give up their culture and become westerners; how missionaries were tools of capitalistic colonialism. Some were indeed. But not Mary Schlosser. All she talked about were, not her converts, but the boys and girls in her school in China: how bright and eager and loving they were. She had high hopes for each of them and had arranged for some of them to go abroad to prestigious universities to study. She knew that one day they were going to make significant contributions to their people.

Now, you never read about Mary Schlosser in Time. As a young woman she had had a promising career ahead of her. The call to China persuaded her to pour out her life there. After I knew her, Mary Schlosser spent many years in a communist prison camp in China and died shortly after her release.

I did read about Mary Schlosser a few years ago. A group of dissident students from China had been interviewed by a religious news editor. They talked about the missionaries who had taught their parents at a school in Kaifung. Among the names remembered were Clara Leffingwell and Mary Schlosser.

I have a sense that Mary Schlosser’s resurrected life is only beginning. It is love, finally, that surpasses money and power; and overcomes tragedy. Mary Schlosser poured out her life in love for her boys and girls. Through her love, broken as it was, God’s love poured through more and more to life down through the generations.

The thing I remember about Mary Schlosser is her radiance. Was she happy? I don’t know. It is, in fact, an irrelevant question. Mary was radiant. In her enthusiasm and in the greatness of her soul, the sun shown on us. This is our hope.

Rudyard Kipling was once addressing students at McGill University in Montreal. The lure of having things and even the power of success all sound so good if you listen quick. Yet, powerful successful egotism is the ultimate failure. Kipling said:

“Someday, you will meet a person who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.”

Over the years I have been privileged to know many people who are rich the way Mary Schosser was rich. Sunday school and public school teachers – parents and young people – bosses and workers. People who have poured out their lives in love so that God’s love can bring life.

I want to suggest that is what has actually made (America) great: not all the things we have to be happy; but, rather, the generous people who pick up the cross of human need-people whose radiant lives testify to life beyond the cross.”

Epistle and Gospel

Friends, beloved of Marsh Chapel and the airwaves:  The saints of God have been well acquainted with impediments to the language of love.  The saints of God have manifold experience of the resistance in experience to the reign of love.  The saints of God know, through and through, the multiple discouragements to the path of love.

One is the very question of the capacity of speech to ignite a decision, of any kind, for a new alternative, of any sort.   Every day, every week brings a new wave of words not fitly spoken, of deeds not fruitfully done, of sentiments not charitably rendered.   Is preaching an anachronism?  Or teaching?  Or earnest discourse of any kind?  Doubt about language itself is itself an impediment to learning the language of love.

Another is the relatively modest response, by cultural comparisons at any rate, to the lived forms of love, imperfectly represented in families, in churches, in movements and missions.   There is a kind of discouraging but inevitable comparison, truth to tell, that lurks behind the mammoth celebration of a World Series victory.  We know what it feels like to celebrate, and to celebrate a clear victory.  It feels great.  But the victories which make us feel great, are not so great themselves.   We have a way of cheering a run, a home run, a grand slam.   But we are not as fully aligned with, or inclined toward, the generations-long struggles that might bring a truly wonderful victory over—you name it.  What we do celebrate somehow eclipses what we could celebrate.

Nevertheless.  I believe in the power of love, and in the language of love, and in the power of the language of love.  I believe you do too.  You are saints of God.  Love is the way forward, and in the end is the only way forward.  Love is the way the world gets better, and in the end is the only measure of the world getting better.  Love is the transfiguration of imagination, the integration of variation, the modification of attenuation, the multiplication of aspiration.  Love never ends.  Love is God.  The Bible records these sentences, in 1 Corinthians and in 1 John.  Love never ends.  Love is God.

Our choir sang love like angels on Monday in NYC.  They entered the city, put on the city as a robe, as a new suit of clothes, offered with grace the musical grace of God, paused for applause, and disrobed, returning the clothing of the city on departure.   Into noise they brought music.  Into cacophony they brought symphony.  Into streets lined with garbage they brought order, charity, magnanimity, generosity.  Into the lingering horror of 9/11, whose victims were treated in George Washington’s pew before which they sang, they brought the beauty of holiness, the grace and goodness and love of lovely good and gracious music—Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus.   I felt:  you young people are too good for this world, or at least for parts of it.  Love lifted us, that afternoon.  Love, sung out by saints of God.

The student of Paul who probably wrote Ephesians cuts into our souls with a gleaming phrase.  ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.  He has about him a church that has lived now for some decades beyond Jesus of Nazareth.  So, three reflections on inheritance.  So, the seal of the Spirit.  So (rightly rendered) your faith in\toward all the saints, or your faithfulness in\toward them, and the inheritance bequeathed by them.  So, the name that is above every name.  So, the church, the body of Christ. ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.  Saints of God have such eyes.

Especially here our teacher offers us something beautifully saving in this epistle.  There is a spatial dimension to salvation.  One is caught up by a certain community, along the lines of a certain map, in the embrace of a certain spiritual geography.  You will feel it, perhaps coming down the sawdust trail of the aisle in Marsh Chapel, for communion.  You are not alone.  The saints of God are with you, around you. ‘With the eyes of your heart enlightened’.

Boston is taking stock this week, taking stock of a year of mayhem and marvel both.  It is too soon, well too soon, for us yet to absorb the sounds and sights of 2013.  For this we shall need not only the eyes of the heart, but the ears of the heart as well.  To hear the explosions as they did ricochet down Boylston Street.  To hear the sirens racing at night down Commonwealth.  But also to hear the cracks of bats that sent balls and outfielders tumbling into the outfields and into the bull pen and into the stands.  And to hear the surge of joy, the shared happiness, lifted in a choral shout at the long end of many games.  Boston is taking stock, this week, taking stock of this year gone by, wherein again we have been taught by experience to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep.

Jesus in St Luke utters both blessing and woe.  There is a leveling coming in God’s time.  The last shall be first, the first last.  From worst to first.  In God’s time which we cannot understand.  We have only the yearning of the heart, the eyes of the heart, and the examples of the saints to go by.  But lifelong loss of limb, horrific harm to innocent women and men, calls up for us a longing for resurrection, a yearning, visible in the eyes of the heart, for restoration.  In God’s time we look forward to what we can never see in our time.  In our bones we know that the leveling of justice is the path to love.  Valleys exalted, hills made low.  The Republican Governor of Ohio this week expressed the same sentiment.  The poor have suffered enough.  Wealth carries responsibility with it.  All should be fed at the Lord’s table.  Laugh and celebrate, but a leveling is coming, in God’s time.   Above earth’s lamentations, there is divine restoration, if only to start in the eyes of the heart.  Saints of God see with enlightened eyes, eyes of the heart.

Secular Saint in Syracuse

Some of you know I was home in Syracuse a few weeks ago.  Theirs is an historically Methodist though now largely secular college, like ours.   But all the secularity, all the un-religion, all the modernity in the world, in the end, does not occlude the enlightenment of the eyes of the heart.  Love lives.  The saints of God, religious and unreligious, observant and secular, theist and a-theist, churchly and cultural, share these eyes, a seeing with the heart (wouldn’t that make a good book title?).  You should read the commencement address, by George Saunders, given at Syracuse University last spring.  Here is its marrow:

One useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”

Here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class.  In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.”  ELLEN was small, shy.  She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore.  When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing).  I could see this hurt her.  I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear.  After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth.  At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.”  And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then – they moved.  That was it.  No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that?  Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it?  Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her.  I never said an unkind word to her.  In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still.  It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.  (But not kindly).

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness.  Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.  That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been.  Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s.  Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place.  Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

Someday I hope to meet Mr. George Saunders, one of the saints of God.  Until then, I will take up his cause, and ask you to do so too.  Robert Cummings Neville wrote (2001):  “Christianity first and foremost is about being kind.” (Symbols of Jesus, xviii).  Are you walking in the light?  Are you loving your neighbor?  As you would have others do for you, do you do so for them?  Are you seeing with the eyes of the heart?

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

October 20

Rules of Engagement

By Marsh Chapel

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I am a parent today. Yes I stand in this pulpit as a Pastor whose head and heart have been claimed for years by the joy of ministry with young adults.   But, today, the title I claim is MOM. I am here for Parents’ Weekend, and I welcome members of my parent posse who have travelled across the country to spend some time on campus with our sons and daughters.  Dean Hill tells me that this day is special because we have been granted visitation rights. Welcome to campus, parents.

If you’ve had a conversation with me for longer than 5 minutes this fall, you know that my son is a freshman here at BU. All right, let’s be honest, it’s probably more like 2 minutes into our meeting. OK, you have to tell the truth from the pulpit- it’s been a message of my heart emblazoned in neon on my sleeve for the world to see. “My son is a freshman here!” I’m kind of a proud Mom, who is very close to her son, who’s had a hard time letting him go – I  know –go ahead and laugh- I am letting go all the way from my work place here at 735 Comm Ave across the street to his residence at 700 Comm Ave.

As a chaplain I’ve led many events over the years for parents dropping their kids off at college.  But there is a profoundly different experience when it is your own child…… I am a parent today. Did I mention that?  Has it been 2 minutes into our conversation?

I’ve been rereading some of my higher education books on college transitions, specifically passages for parents. I haven’t read so many parenting books since the infancy years. But I am honoring this unique time of transition. And trying to get it right on my end.  Our lesson from Jeremiah today has a pithy proverb about first generations not getting it right for the next generation.  Jeremiah admonishes that “the parents ate the sour grapes, and the children got a stomachache.”  I thought- parents – we can do better than that.  And Jeremiah thinks so too- he envisions a day when an individual’s actions will have consequences for that person.  You eat a bad apple, and you get the stomachache. Mistakes of the elders need not be passed on as problems for the children. Of course it goes both ways, and we have not a little bit of attitude in a couple verses from our Psalter toady- – did you note the line when a young writer says – “I understand more than the aged.” Just an FYI: I wouldn’t recommend students quoting that one to your parents over lunch today.

Since we parents really are trying to get it right, let’s name a place of origin for us.  I quote from my Fall Canonical literature: Letting Go: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding the College Years “We all know intellectually that this is a time for our children to separate and assert their own independence.  But long after they have become taller or stronger than we are, our primal protective feelings are easily unleashed.  We carry images in our heads of the curly haired toddler, the gap-toothed 6 year old, and times when a hug could make their world all better.  The mature, rational part of us wants them to solve their own problems and believes they can- but another part of us wants to stay connected, be in control, protect them from any pain they will have to face.”  End quote.

When our son announced to us, complete with drumroll, that he was choosing BU from the 10 schools at his horizon, we were thrilled. Not the midwest college we thought he might choose, some 12 hours from home- but 9 miles, we were ecstatic.  ….My husband and I love this university, having met here, both earning our first graduate degrees here, both now working here on campus.

Our highly literate son could read the excitement in our faces.  He even read that chapter in our minds, that went something like “maybe the nest won’t be so empty with our youngest living a block away from our offices.”  Our son then presented us with a carefully premeditated, bullet pointed speech that he coined his “Rules of Engagement” for attending BU.

Our biblical scholars will recognize that These Rules are apodictic in nature- all the lovely thou shalt not commandments. MOM, You will not greet me with your usual outgoing enthusiasm.  No unsolicited hugging.  If we pass by one another on Comm Ave, you may greet me with restraint, IF I have first acknowledged you.  This acknowledgement will be in the form of a nod of the head, perhaps a smile. No Acknowledgement, no greeting.

If we see each other in the GSU, and you are looking for a table at which to eat lunch, and I give said acknowledgement, you may come over just to say hello, even to my group of friends, but NO “honey how are you, I miss you, I love you” talk.  Communications will be occasional texts and phone calls, and I will be home for Thanksgiving.

I thought for a moment and said, “So, you want us to pretend you‘re in college in Ohio.”

“Exactly!”  was his reply.

My son is here in the sanctuary today. My son, who has been raised by 2 United Methodist clergy parents, is a PK squared.  My son, who has been the object of many a sermon illustration in many a church. My son, whose classroom building shares a Plaza with this chapel. My son, who shares DNA with a BU Chapel Associate and a Professor.  So my gift to my beloved, amazing, wonderful son is that I will let him be anonymous.  But I have to call him something, so I’ve been calling him HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED . “You know who” is in the house today.

Now, “You Know Who” grew up book by book with Harry Potter and the Hogwarts posse.  YOU KNOW WHO is a reference to Lord Voldemort himself, the source of all evil and fear and chaos in the world.  This is where the pseudonym loses some of its utility, because my son is not the Dark Lord. But it’s the best I’ve got. Students, you gotta trust us, we parents are doing the best we can to let go and to set you free for like Robert Browning we know that “the best is yet to be.”

So, ‘You know who,” while I applaud your disengagement from your parents, I have 3 Rules of Engagement of my own I would like to share today.  Without “thou shalt not”

  1. Look Up.         2. Get Lost              3. Be Unrecognizable.

Look Up. In my first parish there was a framed Norman Rockwell print, that featured St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th Avenue in NY –  a gothic revival beauty of a church. Numerous Urban pedestrians are passing by the church, each downcast, slumped over in cement gazing routine.  Not a one is looking up. The rector is outside on steps in full vestment, and he has just posted his sermon title on the church sign entitled  “Lift Up Thine Eyes!”  You can sense both his Jeremiad admonition, What are you doing ,people, and his Jeremiah vision for life that could be lived so much more abundantly.

Dean Howard Thurman, who served this Chapel 1953-65, stands on the steps of Marsh Chapel 24 -7, calling out “Come Alive! Figure out what makes you come alive and go do it!”  Lift Up thine Eyes. Look Up around you. That will help you to look deep to the hunger within you.  Look up. look in. That sounds a little bit like Albus Dumbledore wisdom, what do you think You Know Who?

Look up! Yes, the Mom here does want to mention, please look both ways when crossing Comm Ave- 57 bus, BU shuttle, cars, taxis, T, bikes, students on skate boards, not so smart pedestrians glued to smart phones .

LOOK Up. Be attentive to your splendor. Live mindfully.  With intentionality put down your virtual world so that you may live into the incarnational world of God’s people right here, right now.

When my generation went to college we were exhorted to do this newfangled  thing called Study Abroad. For this globally connected generation, in a post- modern flattened world, I have no doubt that you are engaging the world.  But I exhort you to engage the person right next to you.

Sharon Daloz Parks who writes about emerging adulthood and faith, notes that young people are hungry for “hearth places.”   Hearth places are places where people linger with one another, with invitation to pause, to reflect, to be. They offer an exquisite balance of stability and motion. They are places of contemplation- defined by Quaker Douglas Steere as “A continual condition of prayerful sensitivity to what is going on.”  Be attentive to what is going on. This can be in a Marsh Chapel fellowship meal when you discover that inquiring minds really belong in this place, on your dorm floor when your friends throw you a surprise 18th birthday party , when you look up on your walk to class and smile at everyone you meet.

Hearth times can happen on the T in serendipitous conversation with a fellow sojourner , at a meal in the Dining Hall when you open your table up to greet a student from another country, studying another discipline, and Common Ground morphs from a phrase of Howard Thurman to a discovery of your heart.

This is where we parents must nuance one of previous Rules of Engagement we taught you in grade school,  notably “Stranger Danger.” You know how to be smart and safe, but our faith urges us to engage the stranger in our midst  – in addition to your 1,452 Facebook friends.  Did you know that in class of 2017, right here on campus, there are students from 66 different countries? Look Up.

Daloz Parks says that the “hunger for hearth-sized conversations persists, and it can be ignored only at the cost of a malnourished life.” Eat well at the banquet of BU community! Be attentive to the Splendor along Commonwealth Avenue.

Rule #2 for He Who Shall Not be Named and all our beloved students.  Get Lost. Sometimes we need to get lost on purpose, sometimes we just need to stop the ego car and admit that we need directions.

Now, this is going to sound counter-intuitive to this GPS dependent generation.  Where a satellite can talk to the gadget in your palm and your friend Siri can guide you wherever you want to go.  Our wisest spiritual guides tell us that pilgrims on adventures get lost a lot of the time- so we best value the process, not just the destination.  When  you are lost and must rely daily on the kindness of strangers.

In our worship life this fall we’ve been travelling through exile with Jeremiah. . .Displacement.  Separation from home. Dislocation. Life on a foreign avenue.  Following political defeat, Jeremiah travels with Judah from home field advantage of Jerusalem to refugee life in Babylonia.   At first there is the shock and lament of arrival in a new place. Then last week Jeremiah recognized that the Babylonian exile would last a long time –so he advised folks settle in- to build houses and plant vines, to thrive, even to do their part to benefit the welfare of the foreign city in which they now live.

Students, you are not here because you are lost, or exiled. You are here by privileged choice to study at this fine University. But what student has not felt the burning loneliness of banishment from all that is familiar, or the paralysis of fear during these midterm evaluations.  Am I good enough? Can I do this? Confessed or not, there is a moment of longing for the cocoon of unconditional love at home.     It’s not only OK to be lost, it’s a condition of our humanity.  To deny our moments of exile is to deny our moments of restoration.  And here’s the lavish joy of life. My colleague the Rev. Jen Quigley expressed it beautifully when she preached that “Grace is the serendipitous moment of being found.”

Sometimes it’s good to Get lost on purpose. Spend a day away from your determined efficient production, and wander.  Wander to the shoreline with Dean Hill, wander through neighborhoods of Boston, wander into colleges other than your own, wander beyond your syllabus and get lost in the thrill of an idea. Chase a footnote down its rabbit warren of antecedents until you look up at the clock and an hour has passed.  It’ll probably have nothing to do with the thesis of your current project- but it may lead you to the very thesis of your life. To Vocation. Get lost in what you love.

Over the years I’ve led numerous Alternative Spring Break trips for service and vocational exploration.  At each trip’s orientation I name that it will be a week of “intentional dislocation.”  We are purposefully leaving what is known and comfortable, in order to see ourselves in a new way, to become a joy-filled Christian community in that long fun van ride.   We must separate from homefield advantage so we may be fully open to the communities we will serve.  Kenda Creasy Dean calls it the place of “creative disequilibrium,” a liminal principle of the Gospel – that the reality of being off kilter may precipitate growth and transformation.

Getting Lost is like Falling in Love.  You are lost and you are found. Fall in love on purpose. Listen to this short poem by Ignatian priest Fr. Pedro Arrupe:

Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.


Look Up, Get Lost, and my final Rule of Engagement:

Be Unrecognizable

When You Know Who went off to FYSOP community service the week before classes, he was still 17.  I had to fill out special BU Rules of Engagement forms to surrender my minor’s care to the University, including my own cell number.  There was a slight miscommunication and apparently my number was confused with YOU KNOW WHOs number.  I started to get texts that week. They didn’t sound like messages that my son would write to me. “Hey DUDE, meet at the Plaza at 10 tonight to start our night out.”  I wanted to write back “Hey Dude, I’m the Mom; I’m headed to bed at 10.”  But instead I wrote, ”I believe you want You Know Who’s number. Here it is. Text him.”

After about 3 messages from my Dude friend- who was so very friendly and polite- I thought we had it nicely worked out. Until the second week of classes and I got a text that read,  “I’m on the Quidditch Team, I’m a chaser,  I am a member of Dumbledore’s Army, and  I have 2 interviews for staff writing positions.”  Oh great, it’s Dude again. Who is this person writing me???? Until I studied the number, and realized this indeed this was HE Who Must not be Named.  Unrecognizable to me in two weeks.  Fabulous!

Students, Reinvent yourself.  Or as a friend of mine, Nora Bradbury-Haehl writes in her new book called the Freshman Survival Guide,  “Shed you skin, not your skeleton.”      Do something so different that your parents have to google it to figure out what you’re up to.    I had to Google “chaser” (it’s a quiddtich position)  and I did some research to learn that “Boston University Dumbledore’s Army is a chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance. We will harness our love for Harry Potter to bring about change in the Boston community through volunteering and fundraising.”  Wow.  I love it!

Finally, Jeremiah dreams of a day when we are transformed from the inside out. When our hearts are strangely warmed, and our new lives of justice and joy are practically unrecognizable . Jeremiah gives us these famous words -“The days are surely coming when I will make a new  covenant… I will put my law within them, and I will etch it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.”

Beloved students, this is our deepest and most important dream for your engagement.  That the love and grace of God will be so close to you that it is tattooed  on your heart.  That you will be in relationship with this God in Christ who accompanies you through exile and into homeland.

Friends, Be careful crossing the street. Thank you for visitation rights.  And, Fall in love with God, it will make all the difference.


~The Reverend Dr. Robin Olson, Chapel Associate

October 13

An Ocean View

By Marsh Chapel

Psalm 107:23

Jeremiah 29, 2 Timothy 2, Luke 17

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Click here to hear the sermon only.



We stood upon a promontory, at the ocean’s edge, this late spring past, south of Portsmouth.  A slight sea breeze lifted spirits, and kites, and moistened the morning air.  Below, hunting among the seaweed, the rocks, the sand, hunting for clams and crabs and fish, we watched an elementary school class at play.  Blue shirted boys, yellow bloused girls, teachers free in the sun to walk and talk, and the steady ocean wind around enveloped us on the continent’s eastern doorstep.  The wind blew in the memory of a verse.


Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters.  They see the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.  For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea (Ps 107:23).

Today we pause.  Ours is a restful sermon, today.  We are ready, come Columbus Day weekend, across the campus and country, for a spiritual siesta, a personal paseo, a moment along the ocean for Sabbath rest.  He leadeth me beside the still waters…

That spring seaside day, one boy was fixing a kite.  Red haired, freckled, pensive, enthralled.  Then he looked up and out and east, out and across the great deep.  Now 7 soon 17 soon 47 soon 87:  there he looked out and east and waited as the wind wrapped him in quiet.  For a moment, an early summer moment, outside class, alongside surf, beside friends, for a moment, he took an ocean view.  We do too, at least we should.  Today, with him, for a moment, we pause ‘to see the deeds of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep’.  Look.  Look east and into the sea breeze.  Let the salt fill your lungs.  Let the waves lap your toes.  Let the blue sky and the blue sea widen your eyes.  Let the roar of the surf give rhythm for your eyes, your heart—your blues.  An ocean view.  What do you see?  An ocean view is a view of beauty and goodness and truth.



Do you see beauty?  “Who hast laid the beams of thy chambers on the waters’ (Ps 104:3).  This week we recognized and celebrated the Higgs Boson.  We recall, especially in such a week, that over 15 billion years have now passed since ‘the earth was without form and void and darkness was over the face of the deep’ (Gen: 1:2).  The blue on blue line at the horizon sky on sea, sea on sky, air on water, water on air, oxygen on hydrogen, hydrogen on oxygen, light on life, life on light.  Hurricanal terror lies beyond that horizon.  Tidal crests powerful to destroy may there arise.  ‘Leviathan’—shark, octopus, whale, all—there dwells.  The beauty is terrific, to be sure.  Captain Ahab’s eye, hunting the great white whale, limping upon a leg lost, crazed by the fury at the horizons of death and life—his eye too is ours.  Our ocean view, to be true, views the entire ocean, its present blue horizontal perfection and its wild, violent, creative-destructive, hurricanal power.  Beauty is not entirely subsumed under placidity.   Sometimes, as Jeremiah admitted, you have to accept and improve upon what is not good but given:  ‘seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare’ (Jer. 29:7).   Sometimes the historical redress to wrong you seek is still some years hence.   In some beauty there is a time to embrace, and in some there is a time to refrain from embracing—to run for cover, if you can.  On that spring morning—see!—a gull drifting on the waves, a ship listing starboard in the sun, a fish jumping—clap!, a swimmer in the great salt sea.  Job:  ‘he has planted the circumference of the earth’.  Beauty, pure and powerful, there is in an ocean view.


In Le Recherche des Temps Perdue, M Proust  has given us written beauty, set inland in Paris and then at Balbec by the sea.   The beauty he sees encompasses both.  Proust can see the ocean and its beauty in the fields by which he drives, but also can see the beauty of the fields in the ocean he loves.  He wrote: The contrast that used then to strike me so forcibly between the country drives that I took with Mme. De Villeparisis and this proximity, fluid, inaccessible, mythological, of the Eternal Ocean, no longer existed for me.  And there were days now when, on the contrary, the sea itself seemed almost rural.  A tug, of which one could see only the funnel, was smoking in the distance like a factory amid fields while alone against the horizon a convex patch of white, sketched there doubtless by a sail…made one think of the sunlit wall of some isolated building, an hospital or a school…all this upon stormy days made the ocean a thing as varied, as solid, as broken, as populous, as civilized as the earth with its carriage roads over which I used to travel…

Behold, beauty.


Do you see goodness?  Walk slowly, down to the water’s edge.  ‘He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkenss’ (Ps 104:9).  The mighty ocean provokes human courage.  ‘They that go down to the sea in ships”.   The account of the lepers healed, wherein only one returns thanks, is St. Luke’s way of painting the portrait of such goodness.  Goodness in creation and life.  Goodness in redemption and healing.  Goodness in sanctification and thanksgiving:  ‘Rise and go your way.  Your faith has made you well.’ (Luke 17: 19).   Gratitude is the attitude best suited to faith, and life, and eternity.   Gratitude brings a responsive human creativity, responding to the divine.  There is a responsive human redemption, responding to the divine.  There is a responsive human holiness, responding to the divine.  Leif Erickson, in a sloop, paddling from Iceland to Greenland to New Scotland.  Christopher Columbus, the Nina and Pinta and Santa Maria at sail, our namesake this weekend, coming ashore from three little boats.  Magellan rounding the tip of South America.  Captain Cook circling Hawaii.  The Gloucester fishermen whose names sit ensconced in their statue on the coast.  The four chaplains, painted and framed into our window here at Marsh Chapel, a rabbi, a priest, and two ministers, who gave their life jackets, and so their lives, to others in the Atlantic in 1944 .


The tide comes in and the tide goes out.  Real change for real good is real hard.  It comes by increments.  Alice Munro’s Canadian stories, honored this week, exhibit the progress of love.  The progress of love.  It comes by increments.  Some of Jim Crow died in the Civil War, but not all.  Some of Jim Crow died in Reconstruction, but not all.  Some died with Voting Rights Act, but not all.  Some of Jim Crow is running scared in the face of expanded health care for the poor in the south, but there will be some left, even after this.  The Social Security Act of 1935, remember, excluded farm workers and domestics.   Real change for real good is real hard.  It comes by increments, like the glory of the morning on the wave.   Bit by bit, wave by wave.


But it comes.  JFK:  “I believe that America should set sail, and not lie still in the harbor”.  An ocean view is a long view.  An ocean view is along view when it comes to the potential for goodness.  The struggle, the wrestling, for the good is not progressive only, successful only, victorious only.  There is regression, amnesia, selfishness, sloth.  Ebb.  Flow. Undertow.  All.  Hume:  “Man is a fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant.  It is only by tradition and organization that anything decent can be gotten out of him”.  If a Norseman though in the 13th century or so could sail a rowboat to America…lf an Italian sea captain sailing under a Spanish flag could boldly sail where no one since Erickson had sailed before…If we can land a man on the moon…Goodness has as much of a shot as evil.  Bill McGibben is alive and well.  Holding the horizon in view and sailing for the north star by night will give us guidance.  Micah:  ‘God will again have compassion on us.  God will tread out our iniquities under foot.  He will cast our sins into the depths of the sea.’  Good.  Goodness.  Across the tides of time.  In an ocean view.

Behold, goodness.


Do you see the truth?  Hold the sextant, true, true north.  Measure by the stars.  Others have sailed this circumference before.  The variations of the sea coast are a warning.  Walk the beach.  Students!  Once a month, in your time in Boston, get to the ocean.  Sand and mud.  Craggy rocks.  Cliffs.  Inlets and outlets.  The detritus of seaweed, barnacles, shells, mollusks, driftwood, shells and stones and pebbles and sand.  All higgledy piggledy, at sixes and sevens, messy, disordered, quirky, oblique, out of alignment.  Sand gives way to marsh.  Marsh to wetland.  Wetland to stone and cliff.  Cliff walk to tide, ebb and flow and undertow.  We are not in Kansas anymore, as a great American, Dorothy Gale, once said.  On an ocean view, life is not all rectangles, all flat, all squares.  Nor is truth all rectangles, all flat, all squares, all right angles.  ‘New occasions teach new duties.  Time makes ancient good uncouth.  One must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. Truth is messy, like the seacoast.  One must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of variegated, seaside, truth. Listen again to a part of our morning’s epistle:  I am suffering and wearing fetters, like a criminal.  But the word of God is not fettered…If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; but if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself…Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim 2:8ff). Sometimes the fetters themselves bespeak the truth of freedom.  John Lewis wrote that he finally felt free when he was placed in jail in Nashville in 1960, in the struggle for civil rights.


Allow if you will a penultimate, pastoral word.  It is six months since Marathon Monday.  I know we are Boston Strong.  But we are also Boston Healing.   Life has ebb and flow to it.  And undertow.  There is more than meets the eye in life.   Sometimes, in grief, sometimes, in trauma, sometimes, in loss, the real work comes later, later on, five months later.  Many there are, right here, ready to help.  An ocean view may help.  Remember Thurman:  the ocean and the night surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by any human behavior.  The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the ebb and flow of circumstance.  Death would be a small thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace. Take the sweep of that natural embrace with you, this Lord’s Day, as with the benediction at the close of service, we mark together again both our fallibility and our mortality.

Behold, truth.


And in application,  a personal coda, for the day’s restful, seaside homily, about the view from Portsmouth, from Balbec, from Cape Cod, from the shoreline:


Our summer pilgrimage to Spain this year included the ocean view from the shorelines of Mallorca.  On Mallorca we had an interview with the ghost of Frederik Chopin and the spirit of George Sand.  At every turn on those beautiful Ballearics one enjoys an ocean view.  We carried that ocean vista with us in a return visit and retrospective journey to the haunts of college study in Segovia.  The spiritual offering, the ocean view, of my Spain, just the lovely enjoyed part, can be summarized in two gorgeous Spanish nouns:  siesta and paseo.

Siesta.  At noon in Segovia, still, though the grace is receding in Madrid, all activity (work, study, commerce, all) ceases.  At noon, one returns home, after a half-day of work, home to family, home to food, home to conversation, home to relief from heat, work, boss, responsibility, home to a massive, savory meal of wine, pasta, vegetables, wine, lamb, soup, rice, wine and pastry.  After said repast, all go to sleep.  It is 1:30pm and 100 degrees Farenheit. It is time to beat a hasty retreat from mad dogs, Englishmen, and the noon day sun.  The common decision to leave behind ‘getting and spending in which we lay waste our powers’ is a radical cut into life, a separation, an existential liberation.  Where finally do you find life?  How much in work and how much in love?


Paseo.   Shops in Segovia reopen at 4pm and work recommences then.  Somewhat grudgingly, the labor force returns in force.  But by 7:30pm or so, the ‘tiendas estan cerradas’.  And then, throughout the town, the population enters into an evening parade, a daily stroll, the ‘paseo’.  The walk.  The evening walk. Chopin, maybe following his paseo and ocean view, said: ‘I came to stay in a wonderful cloister, in the most beautiful place in the world’. The common decision to leave behind ‘getting and spending in which we lay waste our powers’ is a radical cut into life, a separation, an existential liberation.  Where finally do you find life?  How much in work and how much in love?  And given all we have been given, are we not for a moment ready to turn and give thanks to the Giver of every good and healing gift?


A nap and a walk and an ocean view, a reminder in gratitude of the beautiful, good, and true. Beginning with Whittier, we shall end with Tennyson.



Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,

And after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell,

When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place

The flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face

When I have crost the bar.

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

October 6

Coastal Grace

By Marsh Chapel

Luke 17: 5-10

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.



Dean Hart once reminded us:  Jesus is our beacon not our boundary.


In a Chinese restaurant at 110th street and Broadway, April 1978, George Todd hired us to work at the World Council of Churches in Geneva Switzerland. “Heat, light, running water—that is what I need, basic support work”, he barked.  His favorite verse was from 1 Peter 5:  ‘be sober, be watchful, your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour’.  He usually smiled having recited the verse.


George had been one of the founders of the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York, 20 years earlier.  You want to know something about that lightning crash experiment in urban ministry, all things material in common, service to and with the poor, Acts 2:44, Presbyterians and others, at 110th on the other side of   from our Chinese lunch.  Thence he took several jobs, finally in the office of urban and industrial mission for the World Council.  He, and later we, lunched there with Paolo Freire, Emilio Castro, Philip Potter, Connie Parvey.  Jan was more useful to him than I, as it happens, for they needed music and piano in the mid-week worship service, held Wednesdays in that beautiful, hopeful, open space.  He later confessed that he really hired young people, then, not so much for help but to plant seeds of goodwill for the future of the church, the future of the ministry, the future of the WCC.  Something like our hidden strategy for staffing at Marsh Chapel.  It worked.  I mention him, I honor him, this morning, 35 years later.  And I still mourn the tragic death of his son, Sam.


This year Marsh Chapel expands our mission, a heart for the heart of the city and a service in the service of the city, explicitly to span the globe.  Our broadcast worship service, a if not the leading University Ecumenical Protestant weekly worship service in music, liturgy and homily in the world spans the globe.  Our new chaplain for international students, Rev. Longsdorf, the first position of its kind in the country, spans the globe.  Her students baked the bread for this morning’s eucharist. Our vocational offspring—Brian Hall in the middle east, David Romanik in Texas, Rebecca in South Africa—span the globe.  Our paraments, chosen by Rev Dr Olson, help us recall the global character of our vocational offspring.  Our emerging partnerships with the University of Tokyo, the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, and, yes, a UCC church in Miami Beach, span the globe.  (That is the thing about Miami Beach:  it is so close to the USA that you almost feel like you are in the country.)  Yours, yes, is a mission in global community.  But mainly in another way:  yours is the announcement of a coastal grace.  A coastal grace:  freedom, peace, and love, from sea to shining sea.  John Dewey wrote about a common faith.  Howard Thurman preached about a common ground.  You are announcing a common hope, from sea to shining sea.  A coastal grace.  And you don’t have to travel the globe to live a coastal grace.  As my friend says, ‘I don’t have to drink the whole ocean to know that is salty’.


Now.  I have a bone to pick with our undergraduates.  A month ago you affirmed, I believe, you promised, I think, to get to the coast, to walk the beach, once a month during your time in Boston.  You promised.  Didn’t you?  I think so.  Even if it is just a T ride to Revere: go.  See the horizon.  Feel the salt breeze.  Listen to the ocean and its roar.  Many of you will never, never be so close to the coast, again.  I guess, because I am a fresh water fish myself, I am unfairly passionate about it.  You know, some people live in Buffalo, and never have seen Niagara Falls.  Some people live in the Dakotas and never have seen the Black Hills.   Some people live in Spain and have never tasted Rioja.  Some people live in Kenmore Square and have never seen the Red Sox.  And George Todd lived for a decade in Geneva, even visited Gruyere, I was with him, but never learned to like cheese.   Go east, as far as you can.  Walk down to the harbor, take a boat to Provincetown or Salem, while you can.   Behold a coastal grace.  While walking, memorize a psalm or two, like my favorite as it was Thurman’s, 139.


This land—yours and mine—desperately needs the vision, the memory, the perspective, and the world-view of the shoreline.  ‘The greater the ocean of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery that surrounds it”, once said Ralph Sockman, OWU graduate in theater arts.  A coastal grace.  Here is beauty:  the blue on blue line at the horizon, sky on sea, sea on sky, air on water, water on air, oxygen on hydrogen, hydrogen on oxygen, light on life, life on light.  Here is goodness:  if Norsemen in the 13th century could a sail a rowboat to this continent, there is potential, possibility, for us too.  Here is truth:  craggy truth, messy truth, quirky, oblique out of alignment truth.  Here the land is not set out all in squares, the roads make no sense, except to follow the coast, things are not at right angles.  There is difference, there is wetland, stone, cliff, ebb, flow, mist, all.  And danger, dangers.  See the Gloucester memorial:  “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters.  They saw the deeps of the Lord, his wondrous works in the deep.  For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea.”  Your moral imagination, much needed today, in church and society, with which to address endless contention and intractable difference, will develop, will mature, in earshot of the tide.  Not all issues fall out in 90 degree patterns, like cornfields in Iowa.  The fresh water voices—I am such a fish remember—need the ocean spray, the salt breeze, the coastal grace that heightens a recognition of variety, yet along the great shoreline, the mighty horizon of hope, of beauty, truth and goodness, of hope.  A common hope.


With others in communities around the globe, we gather at the Lord’s Table this morning.  It is fitting the ‘wings of the morning, and the uttermost parts of the sea’—the coastal grace illumined in our favorite psalm—is balanced, as now we come to Table, with the reading from Luke 17.  Your field work is not a substitute for your domestic duties, the gospel affirms.  Your evangelism and outreach are not a substitute for your congregational tasks, the gospel affirms.  Your horizon of hope and coastal grace are not in place of serving at table.   Hope all you want, become a great leader of institution or three, good for you:  all of it is no substitute for service in the Lord’s house.  People have such shaky reasons for not going to church.   You are to wait at the Lord’s table.  To pray.  To read.  To go to church.  To tithe.  To invite someone else, once a week or once a month, to join you.  To make sure all God’s children, all, are fed.  Your service to the University as a chaplain or dean or professor is not a substitute for your service to God by serving your neighbor.  You have domestic work to do.  Right here.  Come Sunday.  Here, to remember some word that is true, in the joy of faith when grace is present.  Here to greet someone who is good, in the joy of faith when grace is present. Here to hear something that is beautiful, in the joy of faith when grace is present.  We walk past Sunday morning with a yawn and think we have all the time in the world.  Not so.  I celebrate your field work, your professional prowess, your vocational success, your straight A’s so far.  They are not a substitute for your soul.  ‘Le couer a sais raison que le raison n’comprende pas’. Timothy says much the same:  yours is not a spirit of cowardice, but of power and love and self-discipline (interesting trio), and the promise is the very promise of life. And by the way, you don’t get a ransom for just doing your job—‘so you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘we are worthless slaves; we have only done what we ought to have done’.  You don’t get to demand a ransom just for doing your job! (J)


When our work with George Todd ended in Geneva, we came back to New York.  George sent us back with some domestic duties.  A basket of them.  (He carried his office around in plastic and paper bags, two or three together, brimming with books and papers).  He said that he had learned in East Harlem that shoe leather was the most important part of ministry.  Visit the people.  Visit the people. Visit the people.   That office in Switzerland dealt with world leaders who made requests.  The month we were leaving one came from the Rev. Canaan Banana in Africa.  I leave his story and biography, and what they say about Africa and Methodism, for another day and another sermon.  In 1978 he had learned that his name was mentioned in a new book, Remarkable Names of Real People.  Could someone get him a copy?  So we got of the plane at JFK and the next day or so went down to 5th Ave and 18th street, where there was a big bookstore.  And sure enough, there was a new book of the title identified.  And many remarkable names.  Cardinal Sin (Archbishop of Manila).  Memory Lane.  Shanda Lear.  I. O. Silver.  A. Moron.  Groaner Digger (an undertaker).  Preserved Fish (of New Bedford).  Dr. Blood (an internist).  Mrs. Toothacre (whose husband was a dentist).  Nita Bath.  Buncha Love.  Katz Meow.  Evan Keel.  Horace and Boris Moros (twins).  Solomon Gomorrah.  Never Fail.  And, page 77, Rev. Canaan Banana.


Friends, it is a big world.  There are varieties within diversities within pluralities within multiplicities.  Our country has a motto:  e pluribus unum.  Our New Testament shows us that in earliest Christianity diversity preceded unity.  There are many ways of keeping faith.  Many ways there are to keep faith.  As that most liberal Gospel, of John, teaches:  in my Father’s house there are many rooms…wherever there is a way, a little truth, a bit of life…there I AM. And there are many names by which faith is named.  Including yours.  The author of 2 Timothy remembers Eunice and Lois, by name.  The book of life includes remarkable names of real people.  Like you.  We need maybe to remember that when we decide we want to box out some of the differences, and box out some who are different.


This is where a monthly walk along the seacoast can help.  A big sky.  A long shore line.  A rolling tide.  An infinite horizon.  A wind, like the breath of God.   A chance to look out!  To look up!  To look long!  To look high!


I last saw George in 1983, along the seacoast in Vancouver.  There was a big tent set up on a cliff, in the sunshine.  I was late getting there.  My Uncle David Laventhol, then editor of Newsday and creator of a New York Newday—‘truth, justice, and the comics’, had gotten me a press pass to attend.  This was a General Assembly of the World Council of Churches.  Philip Potter was set to preach.  I had to stand in the back, under the drip line of the tent.   On that coast, that day, people of faith from the world over stood to sing.  But it wasn’t the singing of the words, it was the people singing the words that carried the grace:  ‘In Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide earth.  In Him shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find.  His service is the golden chord close binding humankind.’


Jesus is our beacon not our boundary!  He is not ours to measure, but gives the measure himself of all things, and to us, ‘not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace’.


O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me…


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