October 11


By Marsh Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Merrywood

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Welcome to Merrywood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Merrywood…

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

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