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strawberry shortcake

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Strawberry shortcake has been a Fourth of July tradition at our house for a long time. The recipe comes from my great grandmother–my father’s grandmother–who died not long after I was born. When my mother asked my father what recipes he wanted to make sure she knew how to make, he said, “Ma’s strawberry shortcake.” My mother went to his grandmother to ask for the recipe and all she offered was a list of ingredients and instructions like, “Add two glugs of oil.” (You turn the bottle over and let it “plug” twice.”

When we lived in Kenya, our house was around the corner from a strawberry farmer and we had shortcakes fairly regularly during harvest time. Mom made them so large that they were the meal, not the dessert. And she always brought the mixing bowl of leftover whipped cream to the table.

One night, my mother, my brother, and I were finishing dinner (Dad was out of town), Miller was slopping the spoon in the whipped cream when he looked across the table and caught my mother’s gaze.

“Don’t you dare,” she said, and as she finished speaking a dollop of whipped cream hit her right between the eyes. Nobody moved. She didn’t say a word, and she didn’t wipe the whipped cream off of her face as it slid down her nose and chin. She picked up her spoon, reached in the bowl for a scoop and threw it back at my brother. Then we started laughing–and we had about five minutes of the best whipped cream food fight ever known.

I love this recipe.

Over the years, I have adapted what was handed down to me. I put fresh basil in the shortcakes (they’re sweet biscuits, really), add a little cinnamon to the whipped cream, throw some blueberries in, and macerate the berries in sugar, lemon juice, and a little balsamic vinegar.

And I still bring the extra whipped cream to the table–unless my brother is in town.

strawberry shortcake

Start with the berries. But first, put your mixing bowl and whisk from your stand mixer in the refrigerator until you are ready to make the whipped cream.

1 pound strawberries, trimmed and sliced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Macerating means softening the berries with liquid, and the process is simple, though the word makes it sound far more violent than it deserves. Start here and let the berries rest for about thirty minutes to create a lovely syrup.

Next, the shortcakes.

2 cups all-purpose flour (280 grams)
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup chopped basil
1/2 cup (one stick) cold butter, cubed (this takes the place of the glugs of oil)
3/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 425°.

Combine the dry ingredients and then cut in the butter until the mixture looks like small pebbles. Add the milk and mix (by hand or with a wooden spoon) until if forms a dough. Don’t overmix. Dump the dough out on a lightly floured surface and roll to a rectangle about a half–inch thick. Cut into eight pieces and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until tops are browned.

And now, the whipped cream.

1 pint heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

I don’t make the whipped cream until I am ready to serve the shortcakes. When you are ready, take your mixing bowl and whisk out of the refrigerator and add the ingredients. Take plastic wrap and cover the top of the mixing bowl so you don’t inadvertently redecorate your kitchen. Turn the mixer on high and let it whip until the cream looks the way you like it.

To serve, cut the shortcake in half. Put a small dollop of whipped cream on the plate; put the bottom of the shortcake on top of the whipped cream and then add berries and more cream. Invert the top of the shortcake so the cut side is up and press it into the whipped cream and then add another layer of berries and cream. Take the leftover whipped cream to the table.

Since I am headed to youth camp with Wilshire Baptist Church this week, we had our shortcake on Saturday. It won’t be the last time this summer.

Peace,
Milton

get the door

3

get the door

It’s that thing
about a door
closing and
God opening
a window
that gets me
sometimes

I get the 
idea
It gives me
some hope
but on this day
when a door
is closing

I’m not ready
to look for or
out a window
I’ve got to
get the door
the closed door

not something I
can lay on God
the door was
closed by other
hands slammed
shut and the
bolt shot home

Windows don’t
matter much
when you’re
locked outside
no handle
resurrection
requires death

I’ve got one
on the sidewalk
a sidewalk
instead of
a window
better here
than locked in

Peace,
Milton

 

two more bagels

2

two more bagels

I think it was the end
of the first week
when I stopped at the

corner of Madison
and East 35th Street
to get a bagel

cinnamon raisin
on way to my new job
almost six years ago

not long after, the man
in the stainless steel
cart learned my order

when I walked up he
would catch my eye and
hand me my breakfast

I learned his name: César
and he learned mine
I felt like I belonged

my office is a block
away a place I will visit
just two more times

because I don’t
belong there anymore
or so they say

I have two more bagels
to order two more
mornings to share

before I walk away
I thought there would be
more days more bagels

Peace,
Milton

the christian thing to do

12

I have been away from much of the media in my life for a few weeks, much of it related to dealing with changes in my life that have taken a toll on me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Posting my sermon this week is a way of saying to you and to myself that I want to be more present here. Thanks for sticking with me. The text is Galatians 5:1, 13-25.

______________________________

When I work on my sermon each week, I try to start early.

To give Zoe some time to think about music selections, I select the scripture passage far ahead of time, usually from the Revised Common Lectionary—or at least I try to. On Monday, I look up the passage and read through it and begin to jot down ideas. I read commentaries, other sermons, and then begin the chase the theological rabbits that show up until things begin to come together. If all works well, I hope to have some sort of draft by Thursday or Friday because sermons, like fruit, need some time to ripen.

That didn’t happen this week because the events of the week overwhelmed me and kept changing what I saw in our passage for today. Three things—one public and two more personal to me—kept me grappling with what to say. So here it goes.

The first verse of our passage is puzzling to me because it is so circular: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” It feels a little like the kid who came into class after the bell had rung and the teacher asked, “Why are you late?” The kid answered, “Because I’m not on time.”

What does it mean that we have been set free in Christ for freedom?

And what do we mean by freedom anyway?

Another translation reads, “It is to freedom that you have been called, my brothers [and sisters]. Only be careful that freedom does not become mere opportunity for your lower nature.

Paul then goes on to say freedom is not a license to self-indulgence. To be free does not mean we have the right to do what we want regardless of the consequences or the effect on others. Freedom in Christ is being free to love our neighbor as ourselves. And then he warns, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

I said I had three things that affected what I wanted to say this morning.

The first is that I am leaving my job this week. Thursday is my last day at my job as an editor—a job I have dearly loved. Because I am sixty-five, the verb they use to describe what is happening in that I am retiring, but that is not the whole story.

I did plan to retire from this job, but not for several more years. A change in leadership about a year and a half ago made it apparent that I was not included in the long-range plans for the company—not just me, but a number of my colleagues who have worked there a long time. As I have struggled, a friend said to me, “We either choose our losses or we lose our choices.” I chose to resign rather than stay in a situation that fosters anger, strife, and resentment in my heart.

When I can get beyond my stuff, I can see that my boss is help captive by her woundedness and her ambition. I think she is more miserable than I am. I can’t always get to that place of compassion, but when I do I better understand the kind of freedom Paul describes as the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I don’t mean that I am just letting this all roll off. I have my exit interview this week and I will speak frankly about the damage that has been done because it needs to be called out. I do mean that I am working hard to want something other than vengeance. I don’t want to respond to her relational violence with violence of my own. I want to be free of it. I don’t want to be remembered for my retaliation. I want to be remembered for my relationships. I don’t want to be consumed by my situation.

That brings me to the second thing—the public thing.

We live in a country where many appear to think that freedom means the right to devour one another. We have seen that again this week. The Supreme Court said it is unlawful to put limits on where people can carry weapons but it is lawful to put restrictions on the choices a woman makes about her healthcare and her body. Emotions run high on both issues, I know. I feel deep sadness and anger that the several of the justices framed their decisions in the context of faith, as though forcing pregnancy and taking away a woman’s right to make choices about her life and her body was the “Christian” thing to do.

Wielding power to make others do what we want them to do is not loving one another as we love ourselves; how can that be the Christian thing to do?

In the contrast Paul sets up in the passage he makes a list of what he calls the works of the flesh. When we read the list, it is easy to focus on the more salacious stuff, but in the middle of it all he mentions “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy.”

Then he says, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

The way we can change the world by living out our faith is not by plotting to gain political power so we can enforce our idea of morality. We change the world by loving our neighbor as ourselves, by choosing to let the Spirit free us from our fears and woundedness and arrogance to be able to live compassionately—to share the pain and grief of those around us rather than adding to it.

Where he listed the works of the flesh, he talks about the fruit of the Spirit. The word translated as fruit carries the connotation of what we give birth to in our lives: what comes into existence as a result of our way of being in the world—and that brings me to my third thing.

Yesterday Ginger and I participated in a memorial service for our dear friend, Eloise Parks. She and Ginger met their first week of seminary thirty-seven years ago and shared a lifetime together. Eloise died eight months ago. The service yesterday was at Pilgrim Church in Duxbury, Massachusetts where she served as Associate Pastor ten years ago. They reached out to Ginger to say they wanted to do something to mark the impact she had on their lives. We spent a little over an hour yesterday telling stories, singing hymns she loved, and giving thanks for what she gave birth to in our lives. Ten years later, the love they felt from her and for her is vibrant and fresh.

If our words and actions do not foster relationships and do not breed compassion and kindness then we are not free: we are not living as Christ calls us to live. If we are not choosing relationship over doctrine, over partisan allegiance, over fear, over ambition, over self-importance, over however you want to fill in the blank, we are not free: we are not living lives that give birth to love.

“Love your neighbor as you love yourself” is not a requirement; it’s an invitation. In a world that is addicted to divisions and dissentions, we are invited to be free to love.

As Paul said, “Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” And we might add let us not become divided, attacking one another; let us not become self-righteous, imposing our wills on one another; let us not become defensive, projecting our fears on one another.

My siblings in Christ, let us love one another, offering love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

same old song

6

I preached last Sunday at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, a church with which I have a long and meaningful connection, so my sermon is personal for me and for them. Even so, sometimes something that speaks to the particular also has a wider reach. Thanks to their awesome AV team, I have video as well.

My text was John 13:34-35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

____________________________

For the first time in many years, I have preached weekly through the seasons of Lent and Eastertide. I have been a bridge pastor for a church a couple of towns up from ours on the Connecticut shoreline. We, like you, have followed the lectionary, and the timeline of the stories held together pretty well, telling stories of Jesus’ ministry, then his trial and death, then his resurrection, and then his appearances to those whom he loved and who loved him. But the last couple of weeks, the passages in the lectionary have jumped back to before the resurrection. Our text today takes us back to the night before his death, the night when both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus, the night when he ate with his disciples and washed their feet.

When we gather for services on the night we have come to call Maundy Thursday–which is Latin for “Mandate or Commandment Thursday”–we can tap into the solemn nature of the service and the rich significance of our rituals, but what we can’t reproduce is the uncertainty of what it felt like to be in that upper room, with little more than an ominous sense that life as they had known it was over. For me it carries the same kind of power as Holy Saturday, the day between Jesus’ death and resurrection, when those who had walked with him had no real sense that Sunday would come.

I learned a term from the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, an Episcopal priest and Hebrew Bible Scholar at Brite Divinity School: Holy Saturday Christian. In a “pastoral letter” she wrote to her students after they had dealt with particularly violent biblical texts in one of her classes she wrote,

I am a Holy Saturday preacher. I wake in the aftermath— if I have slept—to the knowledge that the Beloved is still dead. And I take comfort in the God who is and has said I AM with you. And I rail and scream and curse at God knowing God hears and is there with me to hear. And I try to sleep one more night to see if it will be easier the next day.

And that is where the sermon ends. It is still too soon to talk about resurrection. But God-with-us sits in her chair grieving with us. Waiting with us, walking with us as we make our way through and make sense of our grief.

Maybe that is why we are going back in the story. Even in the shadow of the resurrection, we still have to make sense of our grief. Jesus’ words indicate that grief, like life and faith, is a team sport. Here I am this morning, second in line to fill a pulpit left vacant by one who loved you and talked to you and walked with you for a long time. Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed.

And the grief just keeps on coming.

Jesus was speaking to that reality when he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

God gave the first ten commandments to the Hebrew people to help them learn how to live in the wilderness. In the upper room, Jesus offered his commandment to help his loved ones learn how to live in their own uncharted territory. But what makes it new? Isn’t loving one another singing the same old song?

As Ginger and I both worked on sermons this week, she came across an observation that what was new was Jesus called the disciples beyond loving our neighbors as ourselves and said, “Love one another: the people right here in the group. Be known for how you love each other. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said, which begs what feels like a rather obvious question: how did Jesus love?

The first person that comes to mind when I think of how Jesus loved is Zacchaeus because the way Jesus loved him was to say, “Come down because I am going to your house for dinner.” Jesus let Zacchaeus be the host. Jesus was going to let him offer what he had.

Several years ago, I was at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, and learned that the way they began their services was to allow anyone in the congregation to offer whatever they wanted in the ten minutes that preceded the beginning of worship. The Sunday I was there, one of the men who was experiencing homelessness and came to the breakfast they offered each week had signed up to sing. Both his voice and his guitar were beaten up, and he sang with all his heart—and it was not good. The room was hushed and attentive. When he finished, there was a chorus of amens. “We had to learn to give up being perfect,” the pastor said.

The second thing I think about is how many people were changed by what seemed to be incidental contact with Jesus. Most of his ministry took place in the context of interruptions: people who stopped him, or called out to him, or just reached out to touch him because they knew he would listen.

Before the pandemic, I rode the train from Guilford, Connecticut, where Ginger and I live to New York City one day a week for in-person meetings. I work as an editor, so I was working remotely before the pandemic since I read for a living. On my walk from Grand Central Station to my office, I always stopped at a little stainless-steel trailer at the corner of Madison Ave and E. 35th Street to get a cinnamon raisin bagel.

From March 2020 until April 5 of this year, I didn’t go to New York. My first day back, I wondered if the cart would be there—and it was. When I stepped up to the window, the man in the cart smiled and said, “Cinnamon raisin bagel!”

He remembered me. To say I felt loved is not an overstatement.

But beyond that, I started to realize that I had bought bagels from him for a couple of years and had never stopped to learn about him. The next time, I said, “May I ask you name?”

“Caesar,” he said. “Tell me yours.”

A couple of days later, I asked about his cart and he told me more of his story. I had always assumed he was a poor guy at the mercy of someone who owned a bunch of carts and that he was probably overworked and underpaid. Turns out Caesar owns his cart and has been on that corner for seventeen years. And he bought if from a man who sold bagels and coffee from it for thirty years before that. “It’s good,” he said, “I have about 40,000 customers a year.” And he remembered me.

I have been changed by my incidental contact with Caesar, or perhaps I should say choosing to make the incidental intentional is what has opened my heart a bit more.

Another thing that comes to mind about the way that Jesus loved was that for him love was an end unto itself. Jesus was not recruiting to staff an organization or setting best practices for greater effectiveness; he was not trying to bump up the membership numbers for the annual report, or make sure there were enough giving units to meet the budget.

He loved those around him just because they were wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.

When Paul wrote about love, he said

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Jesus said, “Love like that.” Choose relationship over doctrine; choose relationship over history; choose relationship over anxiety about the future, over uncertainty, over legacy, over comfort. Love one another like it’s what matters most.

When I started preparing for today, the biggest challenge was to not make the sermon about me because of how I feel about you. I have family connections to Wilshire. My grandmother was on staff here. Bruce McIver officiated at my parents’ wedding, just as George did at mine. The first retreat I did for Wilshire was for Neal Jeffries in 1982, as best I can remember, and I think this summer may be my twentieth camp. I tell people that Wilshire feels like my home church even though I have never been a member—I’ve rarely been inside the building for that matter.

I feel like I belong because one summer long ago a seventh-grade boy who had just lost his father let Ginger and I comfort him. I feel like I belong because I can’t hear the song “I Would Walk Five Hundred Miles” without seeing your faces. I feel like I belong because of Darren and what our friendship means to my life. I feel like I belong because of Collin and Ellen and Tyler and Anne and Marilu and Mindy . . . and I could spend the rest of the day naming names and telling stories because you have loved me like Jesus: you made me belong.

Keep doing that. Keep making room, keep growing and changing, keep taking care of each other; keep singing the same old song that never gets old. We are not going to last forever; Wilshire is not going to last forever; may our legacy be that we loved each other with all our beings. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

catching on

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The reading for today is one of my favorite passages: Jesus cooking breakfast for Peter and the others who had been fishing all night. For all the times I have read and written about these verses, I saw new things, thanks to a conversation with Ginger. I hope you find some new things, too.

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When it comes to how Peter, James, and John ended up with Jesus, it all goes back to a day when they had just finished fishing and were preparing their nets for the next time out and Jesus stopped and said, “Follow me and I will teach you how to catch people.” One of the ways to read the gospels, then, might be to look at all of Jesus’. words and actions as lessons towards that end. Jesus didn’t come to establish a religion, or overthrow a government, or even create some sort of movement. He walked through the towns and villages eating with people, talking with people, listening to people, feeding them, and healing them.

Then he said, “Love everyone as I have loved you.”

How much the disciples truly grasped what Jesus was trying to say appears to be a little hit and miss. Over and over, Jesus said and did things to show that love–God’s love–is what catches people, and it is over flowingly abundant. “Look at the lilies,” he said. “They don’t worry about tomorrow. They are content to bloom today–and they only bloom three weeks a year. Be like the lilies.” When Peter asked how to feed the thousands on the hillside, Jesus took a sack lunch and showed them there was more than enough to go around. He told parables about fathers who embraced lost sons and banquets where everyone could eat. All the words and deeds pointed to the truth that the way to catch people is to let them know they were wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved–and nothing could change that.

There was enough love to go around. More than enough.

One moment they sounded like they had a sense of the extravagant love of God that included everyone, and then the next they were back to asking who among them was the most important. At times they seemed to grasp that the way God was going to change the world was through people who loved each other, and then their fear–fear of that love wasn’t enough–got the best of them. Though none of the gospel writers ever notes it, I imagine he must have shaken his head a lot.

This final scene in John’s gospel finds Peter, James, and John back in their boat; this time, Thomas and Nathaniel were with them. They had seen Jesus twice, but still nothing felt secure. They didn’t know what was going on. Peter was still carrying the guilt of his denial of even knowing Jesus. They didn’t know what to do, so they went back to what they knew: they went fishing. All night long. And they didn’t catch a thing.

They were still on the water at daybreak when Jesus called out to them. Our translation says, “Children, have you caught anything?” but the Greek word means something closer to, “Hey, boys, any luck?”

The nets were as empty as their hopes.

Jesus told them to try the right side of the boat and they pulled up almost more fish than they could handle. John says someone even counted: they caught one hundred and fifty three fish.

I have always been puzzled by that detail. They didn’t realize it was Jesus on the shore when he called out, and then Peter figured it out when they pulled the nets in, and then everyone rushed to shore to see Jesus, and somehow in all the commotion and excitement, they took time to count their catch?

Why does John want us to know about the one hundred and fifty three fish?

(Hold that thought.)

When they came ashore, Jesus told them to bring some fish, but breakfast was already cooking. Somehow, he had fish of his own. Whatever they brought from the boat was extra–sort of like the leftovers from the feeding of the five thousand. They ate together and then Jesus began asking Peter questions–well, one question three times:

Simon, do you love me?

After each time Peter said, “Yes,” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep,” or “Feed people.” Take care of them. Make sure everyone knows there is enough love to go around.

The metaphors of catching fish and feeding people were laying in the nets right in front of them. They were surrounded the fish they had just caught before being called to breakfast. In a time when there was no refrigeration or cold storage, a net full of fish meant they needed to get to market to make sure their catch got to the people who needed food. There was more than enough for today, but the fish wouldn’t keep. They needed to be eaten today and then they would go catch some more. Even the biggest catches don’t last forever, but what matters is people can eat right now.

If you want to catch people, feed them.

We can hear the word catch a couple of ways. You can catch a fish with a net or a hook, but we also use the word to say things like, “I’ll catch you if you fall.” Jesus was talking about the way you help someone, not how you hook them.

When Peter denied even knowing Jesus to the point of swearing about it, he went into free fall. When he heard the rooster crow, he wept. He had charged into the courtyard thinking he could do something, but his fear got the best of him. At breakfast on the beach, Jesus caught him. He kept Peter from falling deeper into despair and shame. On that beach, in front of his friends, Jesus gave Peter the chance to say out loud that he loved Jesus. He caught him.

Perhaps that image is so powerful to me because it reminds me of my favorite passage from the novel Catcher in the Rye. (I taught high school English, so I have read it far too many times.) Holden Caulfield, who is a troubled teenager and not particularly likeable, has a tender moment as he talks with his sister Phoebe about what he wants to do with his life, and it all swings on a line from a Robert Burns poem that has stuck with him: “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.” But Phoebe tells him he’s got the line wrong. The line was “if a body see a body comin’ through the rye,” not catch a body.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” Holden said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff–I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Holden may have mis-remembered what Robert Burns wrote, but he seems to understand what Jesus was saying to Peter—and to us. The third and final time Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, Peter felt hurt. “Lord, you know I love you,” he said. Jesus’ words to feed others feels like he was saying, “You know what it feels like to mess up so badly you don’t think there is enough love to bring you back. But there is. I caught you. Your betrayal of me is not the last word. This is: I love you and you love me. Now go catch others who are falling and feed them full of love.”

Let us go and do likewise. Amen.

sing to me

3

Since I wrote my last post, I have been thinking about songs that would give melody to the symphony of emotions that accompany my decision to leave my job. As I said, I feel sad and hopeful and anxious and sad. I’ve gone through a lot of songs that have offered comfort and courage, but as I began to put the list together I began to realize that I had a song list of old guys writing, in one way or another, about making sense of life as it stretches out. Some of these are old favorites, even expected. All of them sound like hymns to me right now.

Our opening hymn is “Rewrite” by Paul Simon, mostly because of the overarching metaphor of the song and the lines that say, “Ohh, thank you–I had no idea that you were there.” Here are a few more of the words:

I’m workin’ on my rewrite, that’s right
Gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending is just for
workin’ on my rewrite, that’s right
Gonna turn it into cash

I said
help me, help me
help me, help me
ohh thank you
I had no idea
that you were there

when I said
help me, help me
help me, help me
ohhh thank you
for listening to my prayer

Kris Kristofferson has written a lot of great songs, but this one is my favorite, in particular for the words of the opening verse and the gratitude to God “for the artist that you are and the man you made in me.

wide awake and feeling mortal
at this moment in the dream
that old man there in the mirror
and my shaky self-esteem

here today and gone tomorrow
that’s the way it’s got to be
with an empty blue horizon
for as far as I can see

God Almighty here I am
am I where I ought to be
I’ve begun to soon descend
like the sun into the sea
and I thank my lucky stars
from here to eternity
for the artist that you are
and the man you made of me

James Taylor was a much younger man when he wrote “Secret o’ Life,” but it takes on a new life to hear him sing it as he has aged so gracefully. And yes, it is a lovely ride.

the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.
any fool can do it, there ain’t nothing to it.
nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.
but since we’re on our way down,
we might as well enjoy the ride.

the secret of love is in opening up your heart.
it’s okay to feel afraid, but don’t let that stand in your way.
‘cause anyone knows that love is the only road.
and since we’re only here for a while,
might as well show some style.
give us a smile.

isn’t it a lovely ride? Sliding down, gliding down,
try not to try too hard, it’s just a lovely ride

“Some Dreams” is a song about dreams and baseball and the truth that not everything goes our way, but some things do. Steve Earle knows of what he sings.

when I was a little guy
my daddy told me “Mister,
don’t ever try to climb too high
‘cause it’s the fall that gets ya
and some dreams can never come true
they’ll never come true”

well, I heard every word he said
but I don’t guess I listened
but every time I banged my head
against the wall or system
yeah, some dreams don’t ever come true
don’t ever come true
but some dreams do

if you just hang on
and your heart is true
and your hope is strong

well, just because you’ve been around
and had your poor heart broken
that’s no excuse for lyin’ there
before the last word’s spoken
cause some dreams don’t ever come true
don’t ever come true
aw, but some dreams do

“Working Prayer” is one of Mac McAnally’s more recent songs. It is a prayer worth sharing.

I want to look back
and still keep on moving forward
whatever I lack
I want to make up for somehow
and when I get off track
I want to find a way back on it
I want to be smack
in the middle of here and now

when they lay me down
and put a marker on that ground
let some good things grow around me there
that’s my working prayer

The last two songs are the songs most of you would probably name if you were asked what songs I would choose. My favorite story about “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine is about the time I was singing it and introduced the song by saying, “I think I identify with this song as much as any song I know.” Then I sang the first line: “I am an old woman named after my mother.”

there’s flies in the kitchen
I can hear ’em there buzzin’
and I ain’t done nothing
since I woke up today

how the hell can a person
go to work in the morning
then come home in the evening
and have nothing to say?

make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
make me a poster of an old rodeo
just give me one thing that I can hold on to
to believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go

Our closing hymn is “The Cape” by Guy Clark. One of these days I’m going to get one.

he’s old and grey with a flour sack cape
tied all around his head
he’s still jumpin’ off the garage
will be till he’s dead
all these years the people said
he’s actin’ like a kid
he did not know he could not fly
so he did

he’s one of those who knows that life
is just a leap of faith
spread your arms and hold your breath
always trust your cape

Thanks for all of the words of kindness, compassion, and encouragement.

Peace,
Milton

choose to lose

14

“Choose your losses or lose your choices.”

About this time of the year in 1977 I was called to be the pastor of Pecan Grove Baptist Church, a small rural congregation west of Waco; between Oglesby and Mound, to be more exact. In early May of that year, I was ordained. The church celebrated its centennial soon after I started, and every pastor in their century of existence had been a rookie.

I pastored there for a little over four years. Soon after I started–it may have been after my ordination service–my dad said something that stuck with me in more situations than just church work. He said, “We both know you are not going to stay here the rest of your life, but if you want to have a meaningful ministry, you have to live like you are. Don’t start looking for what’s next. Be here like you are going to stay here.”

As someone who had moved his whole life, the idea of staying anywhere for long felt foreign. I was rootless in ways it would take years for me to understand. Still, I took his words to heart, not only at Pecan Grove, but in my time as a chaplain at Baylor Medical Center, as a teacher at Charlestown High and Winchester as well, in the various kitchens where I worked, and at the two Apple Stores.

Six years ago, when the opportunity came to work as an editor for Church Publishing, I settled in there as well. I felt like I had landed my dream job: playing with words, doing theology, and being an encourager for a living. I have had a chance to work with over fifty different authors, some on multiple books, that have offered the world important words about things that matter. I also got to hang around in midtown Manhattan once a week and go exploring at lunchtime to see what I could find within walking distance of Madison Avenue and E. 34th Street. My niece-in-law said, “It’s a movie job: you’re an editor in New York and you live in Connecticut.”

I started the job the summer before my sixtieth birthday and, as I had done in my other jobs, settled in to stay. I have imagined I would read and encourage well into my seventies, but, this time around, I am not going to get to stay as long as I thought. One June 30, about two weeks shy of my sixth anniversary, I will wrap up my time as an editor that works in New York.

Since I am now sixty-five, the verb that gets applied to my action is retire, but that word means something other than the choice I am making. I wrote a few weeks ago about words I had been offered from a friend that begin this post: “You either choose your losses or you lose your choices.” I am doing the former: choosing not to stay so I can see what might be.And it is a choice that brings mixed emotions–grief, hope, gratitude, sadness, and even as little anxiety.

The picture is one Ginger took as I was crossing the street after my interview. The publisher told me I had written the best cover letter he had ever read. I was full of hope about a new opportunity. That hope persists.

I have some ideas about what might come next. Writing more certainly tops the list, as well as hoping I can convince people to let me come speak about mixing the metaphors we use to define our lives, and then there’s always hoping I can cook for folks in some form or fashion. But for now, I am going to stay here on the edge of goodbye and make the best of these days and all that they hold.

Peace,
Milton

honest thomas

2

In some of my writing, I have talked about the ways I think Judas is treated unfairly in the gospels. None of the writers can mention him without reminding everyone that he betrayed Jesus. Thomas is the other disciple that gets misrepresented, I think, more by the generations that followed than by the gospel writers, perhaps, because he continues to be “Doubting Thomas,” and there’s so much more to the story.

Here’s what I found this week as I read about him again.

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When I was a kid, the family that lived next door to us had four boys. My brother and I fell in the middle of them age wise, so we spent a lot of time together. The youngest was name Richard, but everybody called him Chubbs. But he wasn’t fat. I think it had started when he was little. He grew tall and thin as a preteen, but he never lost the nickname.

He was always Chubbs.

I think about him whenever I read about Thomas because most all of my life I have heard him called “Doubting Thomas,” which I have never felt was a fair take on the guy. When it comes to gospel portrayals, Thomas and Judas are probably not treated fairly. Since the stories were written down years after Jesus had gone, none of the gospel writers can mention Judas without making sure we remember he was the one who betrayed Jesus. Truth is all the men around Jesus betrayed him in one way or another. The women were the ones who stayed true, but they got written out of the story for the most part. And then, the one story about Thomas is this one, and he ends up being called Doubting Thomas–a name that has outlived him by centuries.

This is the last story in John’s gospel. It immediately follows Mary’s encounter with Jesus that we talked about last week and then John signs off, hoping we will find faith in Christ. Because of that, I want to cut the gospel writer a little slack because I don’t think he meant to stick Thomas with the nickname anymore that Richard’s parents thought Chubbs would last for life. I say that because this is the closing scene of the book and not just another episode.

The first part takes place on the evening of the day they found the tomb empty–Easter night, if you will. Even though they knew Jesus was alive, they had not seen much of him. They were back in the upper room with the doors locked. They were still scared. They weren’t sure of anything. And Jesus came through the door–literally–and said, “Peace be with you,” and then blessed them with a calling to go and love others; actually, to forgive others.

For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there. When he came back, they told him they had seen Jesus and he said, “I need to see for myself to be able to trust the story.” Though John doesn’t give us details, it feels like they must have given him a hard time about not trusting what they had seen. But remember, these people had locked themselves in a room out of fear because they hadn’t trusted the story either. They didn’t have room to talk when it came to hassling Thomas about trust.

I hope you are picking up that I am using the word trust instead of believe because the distinction matters to me. The Greek word means more than what the word believe means to us. We have made belief an intellectual assent, a heady thing. I think trust is a better translation because trust is a risk. Something is at stake when we trust someone else.

Thomas wasn’t trying to make sure he was right in his belief; he wanted assurances that he could trust that Jesus was alive, so he said, “I want to see him and touch him.”

A week later–so, on this very day–all of them were back in the same room and this time Thomas was with them. Since Jesus came through the door without opening it, I am going to assume they were still locking themselves in. Nobody in the room was living into their trust quite yet. Jesus offered peace to them and then turned to Thomas. He didn’t admonish him or shame him or make a speech. He just said, “You wanted to touch me. Here I am. Trust instead of distrust.”

Thomas didn’t life a finger. He just said, “My Lord and my God.”

Jesus then said words that have taken on a life of their own, even outside the world of faith: “Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe.” I want to rephrase those words in terms of trust. Blessed are those who have not seen and are still willing to trust.”

Instead of Doubting Thomas, I think we would do better to call him Honest Thomas, if we want to give him a nickname, because trust is hard work.

If we are going to share in Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and my God,” then we have to learn how to live in trust, and the way Jesus us taught us to live teaches that to live out our trust in God means to learn to trust one another in Jesus’ name.

One of the things that strikes me about this story is that Jesus came looking for Thomas, which means Jesus had gotten word that Thomas was having a hard time. Instead of talking around Thomas, or telling someone else to tell him what he was doing wrong, Jesus showed up in the room, looked Thomas straight in the eye, and said, “Put your finger in my side. Look at my hands.”

He dealt directly with Thomas.

If we want to grow as a community of faith “passionately committed to Christ,” as we say in our mission statement, it starts right here: we commit to building trust with one another.

I want to say again that to follow Christ is not about intellectual belief in something, it’s about trusting God and one another. A faith that matters, that changes lives, is one lived out in relationships, which means one committed to building trust.

Thomas was open about what he was struggling with, and when he said he couldn’t trust without physical proof, he didn’t say, “But don’t tell Jesus I said that.” He was open and honest and he showed up in the room with the others so Jesus could find him. Jesus, as I said, didn’t send word to Thomas, he came and found him so they could talk face to face.

Perhaps you are thinking, “This is the second Sunday of Easter and he’s talking about direct communication?

Yes. Yes, I am.

If we are passionate about living out our faith, it will show in the way we relate to each other. If we don’t trust each other to speak the truth in love, then we will find it hard to trust God, too, because God is not off somewhere looking down, God is here among us. If we want to find new life in Christ, we will find it in building trust with one another. If you want to see this congregation grow spiritually and numerically as you get ready for a new pastor, then work on trusting each other. Speak directly. Don’t give or take anonymous feedback. Feedback that does not offer the possibility of conversation and understanding is sniper fire. It destroys trust, and thus destroys community.

To be a part of the Body of Christ together means to choose each other over the history of the way things have been done, over personal preferences, over opinions. To choose life together in Christ means asking questions rather than jumping to conclusions, listening first and then speaking, and assuming positive intent when we don’t understand what is happening.

The difficulty of the past couple of years has left us all tired. We are all exhausted. We are all hurting. We are all doing what we can. Locking ourselves in a room like the disciples did sounds like it might be an option worth considering. However, they hid in fear, not trust, and Jesus found them to say, “I called you to more than this.” Then he came back for Thomas so that he knew he belonged as well.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and are still willing to trust,” he was talking about us. He is not going to come barging in the room while we are all here so we can be sure it’s him. If we want to see Jesus, we are going to have to trust each other. We are going to have to incarnate the love of Christ in what we do and say and think if we want to see Jesus.

“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. And you remember what love looks like, don’t you? We read those words again two weeks ago:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Let us love one another in hope and trust. Let us speak the truth in love, but first, let us learn to listen in love, to ask compassionate questions, to do everything we can to let love burst in and chase out fear. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

it’s all in the name

2

Easter feels like it should be an easier Sunday to preach than it is. The magnitude of the day makes it feels like I should have something big to say, but the reality is the story is quite simple and, in its simplicity, profound. So here’s what I have to say this day.

______________________________

When it comes to what happened that morning, the three accounts share some details and differ on others.

The things they say in common are that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb at sunrise to find the grave opened and empty, and that she went to tell the men, who were hiding in the room where they had shared the Last Supper with Jesus.

In Luke’s gospel, Mary is accompanied by Mary the mother of James, Joanna (a woman Jesus had healed who had remained as a follower), and “the other women,” and they were greeted at the open tomb by an angel who told them that Jesus was not there and they went to tell the eleven disciples and “the others.”

In Matthew says that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” which is a nickname she loved, got to the tomb and there was an earthquake and then an angel who rolled the stone back and sat on it to declare that Christ was risen. If Matthew were alive today, I have no doubt he would be a screenwriter.

John’s version, which we read this morning, is the least populated and the most personal. Only Mary Magdalene is at the tomb, which was already open when she arrived. No angel is mentioned. When she saw that tomb was open she ran back to Peter and the other unnamed disciple to tell them she thought the grave had been robbed. The three of them ran back to the tomb and the men ran in. Mary stood outside, weeping. Then she heard a voice ask why she was crying and she said because Jesus had been taken and she did not know where.

She did not go to the tomb expecting life; she went expecting death and its aftermath.

She turned to face the person who had spoken to her, but did not realize it was Jesus. She implored him to tell her what had happened. Then Jesus called her name–“Mary”–and she knew who he was.

No earthquake. No angels. In the middle of the cemetery and the confusion, she heard her name and she knew he was alive.

She had come to the tomb expecting death and she found life.

One of the things we know is that it was many years–sixty or seventy–after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection that the gospel stories were written down. In the mean time, the stories were passed down orally, as important stories were in that culture. I wonder if the various gospel traditions took hold because there were some years when it came time to celebrate the Resurrection that they needed an earthquake and a cinematic angel and the reminder that sometimes God shows up big and bold. Then there were other years when they needed the reminder that the story was about more than the small group of men and women who followed Jesus, so they told the story that included the other women at the tomb and the others in the upper room as well. Then came the years when, perhaps, life had been so heavy and hard that all they needed was the story about Mary weeping alone and hearing Jesus call her name.

He called her name–“Mary”–and she knew he was alive because he knew who she was, even when she didn’t recognize him.

And it’s a good version of the story for us this year, I think, after two years of pandemic life, the war in Ukraine, the continuing rancor in our country, and everything else that feels like an earthquake and a hurricane and a nor’easter all blown into one. We have come to expect death, or something like it, on a regular basis, even as we have tried to practice resurrection. it isn’t hard to identify with Mary: “They have taken my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him.”

We are here this morning to hear God call our names, to offer life where we have expected death.

One hymn writer tried to imagine what it was like to be Mary in the story and wrote

I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses
and the voice I hear calling on my ear
the Son of God disposes

and he walks with me and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own
and the joy we share as we tarry there
none other has ever known
(*in the service, I sang the hymn from the pulpit)

The only thing the hymnist got wrong is that the joy of resurrection wasn’t limited to Mary in that moment. On this resurrection morning, God is calling your name, my name, every name who will stop and listen to say love is stronger than death, to say nothing can separate us from the love of God. Absolutely nothing.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

Peace,
Milton