January 19

A Natural Grace

By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 49:17

1 Corinthians 1:19

John 1:2942

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‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove’


O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me!
Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up;
    thou discernest my thoughts from afar.
Thou searchest out my path and my lying down,
    and art acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether.
Thou dost beset me behind and before,
    and layest thy hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
    it is high, I cannot attain it.

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
    Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there thy hand shall lead me,
    and thy right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Let only darkness cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to thee,
    the night is bright as the day;
    for darkness is as light with thee.

Spirit in Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience.

In this, the 139th Psalm, a very favorite of Dean Howard Thurman’s, you hear two, or perhaps the two, central features of his teaching on Spirit, nature and grace.  And they come together so smoothly, so seamlessly, that you might just speak of them together, as a natural grace.  Today as we welcome our beloved and esteemed guests, today as we recognize and honor Martin Luther King Jr., today as we step even further to recognize the shaping mentorship and influence on King of Thurman, and today as we recognize and celebrate the inaugural of Boston University’s fine new Howard Thurman Center, we might just do so with…Spirit.

Scripture dazzles us, if we are alive to it.  Notice here that Jesus needs no introduction to Peter:  he knows his name already, without being told, like he knows yours.   Notice here the closeness of the Gospel writer to the Baptists—not American or Southern or Old Regular Baptists–but those who were disciples of John the Baptist, but came over to follow Jesus.  Was the Gospel writer a Baptist before he became a Christian? Notice what does not happen.  In every other Gospel, Jesus is baptized by John, but not here.  Notice the dog that does not bark.  No.  Jesus steps away, dry as a bone.  Spirit ever trumps sacrament, and gospel ever trumps church in John.  Jesus is not baptized in John (the Gospel) by John (the Baptist), unlike in the other three gospels.  The Baptist knows and honors Him—bears witness to him (martyr in Greek) but Jesus does not stoop, deign, or allow himself to be baptized.  Here is inheritance, but inheritance with innovation at its heart.  Here is religion, but religion with grace, a natural grace, at its heart.

Spirit in Scripture.


So too, Spirit in Tradition.

And we have our traditions here, one of which is the observance of this special Sunday, in this particular space, with its particular Marsh history, across six deanships.  With Franklin Littell, the first Marsh dean, 1951, and one of the founders of Holocaust studies in the USA, we share an uncompromising willingness to challenge national government and leadership, for the sake of the gospel.  With Howard Thurman, 1953, our most famous dean, we share a confidence in universal truth, a search for common ground, and a delight in natural grace.  With Robert Hamill, 1965, we share a fierce commitment to human, to civil rights.  With Robert Thornburg, 1978, we share a nuanced appreciation for the intricacies and wanderings of Methodist church bureaucracy.  With Robert Neville, and his emphasis on Go the Creator.  With Robert Hill, the current dean, we share a regard for biblical theology, Paul Tillich, common hope, and hymn singing in four-part harmony.   All together, our tradition is one of a common hope. We have seen hope come alive, moving from chapel to university to community:  Community Service Program, LGBTQ L Douglass, ISGC, Howard Thurman Center, Global Ministry, and others.

A tradition in hope buoyed by many voices.

The voice of John Wesley.  Methodists are like everyone else, only more so, the saying goes—a wide and diffuse denomination, committed to a handshake and a song, and that shared ‘creed’ of ‘that which has been believed, always, everywhere, and by everyone (so, John Wesley).

The voice of Mahatmas Ghandi, walking and singing ‘Lead Kindly Light’, embodied this common hope.  Ghandi wrote:  “I am part and parcel of the whole, and cannot find God apart from the rest of humanity”. Ghandi inspired and taught the earlier Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman.

Today especially the voice of Howard Thurman, hands raised in silence, later wrote:  “there is always lurking close at had the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.” 

The voice of Martin Luther King.  Thurman taught King, whose stentorian voice fills our memory and whose sculpture adorns our Plaza.  King wrote: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality”. Martin Luther King inspired a whole generation of ministers, including the current Dean of this Chapel.

He (Robert Allan Hill) wrote:  “We are all more human and more alike than we regularly affirm, all of us on this great globe. We all survive the birth canal, and so have a native survivors’ guilt. All seven and a half billion. We all need daily two things, bread and a name. (One does not live by bread alone). All seven and a half  billion. We all grow to a point of separation, a leaving home, a second identity. All seven and a half billion. We all love our families, love our children, love our homes, love our grandchildren. All seven and a half  billion. We all age, and after fifty, its maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. All seven and a half billion. We all shuffle off this mortal coil en route to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns. All seven and a half billion.”

Spirit in Tradition.


So too, Spirit in Reason.

Reason can have the deepest range in Spirit.  Think of Robert Francis Kennedy, late a night, in the rain, at the Indianapolis airport, April 4 1968, speaking from memory and from the heart.  Looking back this week, what is striking is his reliance on spirited reason.  Reason in the rain.

Robert Francis Kennedy, Indianapolis, April 4 1968:

I have bad news for you…

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice…

In this difficult day…we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love…

For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times…

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a

But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land…

Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world…

Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people

And so also Thurman.  Read or re-read this winter The Search for Common Ground, With Head and Heart, and Jesus and the Disinherited.It is the spirited reason, the life of the spiritual mind of Howard Thurman that still invigorates us:

Crown: This is how Jesus demonstrated reverence for personality…He placed a crown over her head which for the rest of her life she would keep trying to grow tall enough to wear.”  (Disinherited 106).

Harmony: As Thurman wrote in the Search for Common Ground, “The Hopi Indian myth carries still, in its thematic emphasis on “the memory of a lost harmony””.  (CG, 40)

Unity: There is a unity of living structures…that includes rocks, plants, animals, and humans.  Antibodies and antigens.  And the arrangement of a cell in a human child (CG, 40).

Wisdom: Thurman cites Plato: ‘Until philosophers are kings…and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside…cities will never have rest from their evils’.  (CG, 53) 

Mind: ‘Jesus rejected hatred.  It was not because he lacked the vitality or the strength.  It was not because he lacked the incentive.  Jesus rejected hatred because he saw that hatred meant death to the mind, death to the spirit, death to communion with his Father.  He affirmed life, and hatred was the great denial’ (JATD, 88)

Child: ‘There is something more to be said about the inner equipment growing out of the great affirmation of Jesus that a man is a child of God.  (JATD, 53).

Spirit in Reason.


Spirit in Experience, and we mean here spiritual experience.  Whence ideas and imagination?

We are driving along a blue highway, Route 20.  Conversation pauses.  The rolling hillsides, now sprouting corn, alfalfa, beans, wheat, and hay, are like their own tidal waves, their own sea scape, in green not blue.

An idea arrives, related to ‘conversation’.  Two books by our MIT neighbor Sherry Turkle, Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, have guided some of my thought about this.  We hope to meet her in person sometime.  Her voice is a crucial one in this conversation about conversation, and she is only the span of the river away.  A thought:  why not invite her, Dr. Turkle, to come to Marsh Chapel and engage in a dialogue sermon?  The conversational form of the sermon would itself accent our emphasis upon conversation, as would her voice, presence, and knowledge.  The work on conversation could include a pulpit conversation with perhaps the current intellectual leader in thought about conversation.  An idea, maybe a good idea, has arrived, as the green sea fields of young corn roll by.  But no body has done anything about it.  Yet.

Where did that idea come from?  Non liquet:  it is not clear.  Whence such an idea?  How does a new prospect—here, the possibility of a pulpit dialogue—come to life?  The leisure to drive and be bathed in silence, along with the occasional personal conversation, certainly allows space and time for such a thought to land in the mind.  The further distance from daily, office or campus routine and rhythm, so important to the work of sermon development and any other composition, adds a further support.  Perhaps the familiarity of the route, the drive itself—a road the car could meander on its own, so regular are the trips—gave a lulling quietude that became the womb of gestation for thought.  ‘My best sermon ideas come while I am shaving’ once said James Forbes.   Yet the moment of insight, of new thought, the arrival of an idea comes on its own with our without a well-manicured airport, runway or landing strip.  Whence an idea?  What is going on when we think?  Or when we think we are thinking?  Or when we think about our thinking?  Whence an idea?

Or whence imagination?  How, of a recent evening, did a current political campaign unearth the memory of 1 Samuel 16: 1-13 (here slightly updated), in the mind of a Boston preacher?

The Lord said to them:  You need another leader, and I have provided one for you.  Go to Bethlehem (or was it Iowa?) and see.

So, they went together as a party.  And along the way they held many and great debates. And they saw Eliab, also named Joe, but the Lord had not chosen him.  And then they saw Abinadab, a good Jewish fellow also known as Bernie, but they heard the Lord had not chosen him.  Then they saw Shammah, also known as Elizabeth, but their guide said the Lord had not chosen her either.  And then there seven others:  Klobachar, Steyer, Buttegieg, Booker, Harris, O’Rourke, and Bloomberg.  But these were not what they needed either. I look not on appearance but on the heart, said the Lord.  And that was the end of the list.  There were no more candidates.  And they sat down by the olive tree, or was it a New Hampshire maple tree, or was it a Georgia peach tree, and they sighed, and they murmured, and they groaned, and they sorrowed, and they gave in to melancholy.

But then someone said:  Are they all here?  Well, said someone else, I think that’s all of them.  Then one said, is that right?  Isn’t there anybody else.  And the reply came, well, I mean, there is one other, but he is really young compared to all these, and he has been busy taking care of his family and flock.  He is a good shepherd, a good governor, in that way.

And the party said, after yet another debate, Send and fetch him, for we will not sit down until he comes here, or we at least see him on TV.  And so, they went and fetched him.  Now he was ruddy.  And he had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.  And the Lord said: Arise, pick him, for this is he.  His name is David, also known as Deval.   So, they thanked Joe, Bernie, Elizabeth, Klobachar, Steyer, Buttegieg, Booker, Harris, O’Rourke and Bloomberg, and, in a big party meeting, they picked Deval.  And the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David, also known as Deval, from that day forward.

Whence such whimsical imagination?  Who knows.  We know this, though, as my son the basketball coach repeats and repeats:  It is not how you start that counts.  It is how you finish.  Life is full of surprises.

That is spirit in experience.

Spirit in Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience.  All of them will take you closer to Howard Thurman, to Jesus, and to your own most self.

Close To You

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Gathering, Meaning, Belonging








My friends, the doors of the church are open!  Thurman wrote: “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.”

‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove’

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

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