lenten journal: hope


I sang in church this morning.

One of the folks I have met since moving to Guilford is a guy named Geoff and he and I sang “The Touch of the Master’s Hand” in worship. Most people know the song because of Wayne Watson, but I had the privilege of learning it while I was in college from John Kramp, the guy who wrote the melody and adapted the lyric from an old poem. The song tells the story of an old violin that is destined to be auctioned off for next to nothing until an old man picks it up and plays it, and the price shoots up—all because of the touch of the master’s hand, even as God’s touch on our lives can change everything.

I learned the song forty years ago.

We rehearsed early, so I had time to walk across the town green to get a cup of coffee and read for a bit. I was looking back through old notes on my phone (since I didn’t have a book with me) and found a quote I had jotted down soon after my mother went into hospice care. When she first made the choice, she was actually feeling pretty good, but we all knew things could not be made right. Though she had peace about her decision, it was still quite emotional. Her primary care physician, who had walked with her through most everything, came by to see her. She explained her thought process, her prayer process, and her decision, and he said, “You have made a decision of courage and hope and not of despair.”

I looked across the green and I could see a few people making preparations for the ecumenical gathering to bless the palms before we went to our separate worship services, and I wondered—again—about Jesus’s courageous decision to enter Jerusalem, knowing most everyone didn’t get it. I thought of Phillipians 2:5-6.

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped. (NASB)

I love Paul’s wording that Jesus didn’t see equality with God as something to be grasped—something to be held on to at all costs. He knew that choosing to ride into Jerusalem would change things. And he instigated the change because that was what his whole life was about. To hang on for dear life would have been an act of despair. “Faith,” says the writer of Hebrews, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1) His ride was a call to courage.

The next thing I read was this word from Eric Folkreth, the pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas.

The original Palm Sunday crowd was full of all the beautiful misfits that had been drawn to Jesus for years . . . the poor, “tax collectors,” “prostitutes,” a perfect storm of outsiders that very predictably caused the religious authorities to be squirm.

And yet, in a culture obsessed with “gotcha” games of “guilt by association,” Jesus still calls us to seek out the beautiful misfits of our world…to not worry about how that looks to the authorities . . . and to form that most beautiful band of misfits into “the church.”

The coffee shop where I was sitting was filling up with people who were settling into a quiet Sunday morning with family and friends. The green was filling up with folks carrying palm fronds and preparing for worship. I moved to the celebration as the Episcopalians processed out of their church in a straight line behind their priest and their church banner, everyone staying on the sidewalk. The Congregationalists spilled out of our church and on to the green with a randomness that spoke in living metaphor. The Catholics walked as a group, but not in formation. We even had a live donkey, who stood beside me munching on straw. I know it has come to be called the Triumphal Entry, but looking at the unassuming animal next to me, I wondered if Jesus’s ride looked more like a homemade neighborhood parade than a procession of pomp and pageantry. His choice to come to town was a hopeful one, not a triumphant one. His was not a statement of conquest, but of solidarity. To have acted in power would have been to act in despair.

We finished our short service and then made our way to our different houses of worship. When I got inside, I had a few minutes and I was struck with this thought. The current campaign rhetoric to “make America great again” is cynical despairing, not because it doesn’t look to the future, but because it doesn’t come to terms with the present. I know we have serious problems, and I also know we are the most diverse and inclusive as we have ever been as a nation. More people have a voice in the conversation than ever before. Again, there is much work to be done, but we live in a courageous time. We live in a hopeful time, should we choose to make the choice to see as such and live into the substance of things hoped for as we deal with issues of justice and inclusivity. Jesus could have come to town looking for a fight. Instead, he created space for all those who had chosen him over despair to celebrate. Yes, we have tough days ahead as we mark Holy Week, and let us remember our journey with Jesus goes through the cross, not to it.

We are making a choice of courage and hope, not of despair.



  1. Thanks Milton for the reminder. Choosing courage and hope this morning on my way out the door on this snow filled day.

  2. Milton, I “declaimed” ( from “Poetry Declamation” contest in Jr. High) “the Touch of the Master’s Hand”. Still can recite it word for word….”twas batterred and scarred….”

  3. “and the auctioneer thought it scarcely worth his time
    To waste much time on the old violin
    Still he held it up with a smile….”
    Who wouldn’t love that story?

  4. Your post today reminded me of the Rumi poem (and especially your reference to despair) which has been in my head all during Lent (and especially the musical version of it sung by the Burns Sisters):

    Come, come, whoever you are.
    Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving — it doesn’t matter,
    Ours is not a caravan of despair.
    Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
    Come, come again, come.

  5. Would love to have heard your duet. I first sang The Touch of the Masters Hand at my grandfathers church in Potosi when I was 14 and then again at Westbury Baptist when I was probably 44. One of my very favorites and so meaningful. Thank you for all the special memories, Milton.

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