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wake up and listen . . .

1

I love that the story of Samuel falls on MLK weekend, thanks to the lectionary. Here is where the two stories took me this week.

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Today is the second Sunday of Epiphany, if we mark time by the liturgical calendar. As we know, epiphany is a word that means “awakening,” and points us to the sages who followed the star to the manger–although they had no idea it was Epiphany.

If we mark time by our American calendar, this is the Sunday when we honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tomorrow we will celebrate him with a national holiday.

On the night of January 27, 1956, in the middle of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, Dr. King got a phone call at his home telling him if he didn’t get out of town they were going to blow up his house and kill him and his family. He was twenty-seven years old. He recounted later that he hung up the phone and went into the kitchen to pray. In the silence, he said he heard a voice call him by name: “Martin Luther, stand up for truth, stand up for justice, and stand up for righteousness.” His epiphany that night led him to lead us and to change how we look at and listen to one another, and, perhaps, how we listen to God.

Our text for this morning deals with another call in the middle of the night—this one to Samuel, a young boy to whom God spoke out of the darkness. Let us listen to the part of the story told in I Samuel 3:1-10 (CEB):

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. One day Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak he was unable to see, was lying down in his room. God’s lamp hadn’t gone out yet, and Samuel was lying down in the Lord’s temple, where God’s chest was.

The Lord called to Samuel. “I’m here,” he said.

Samuel hurried to Eli and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call you,” Eli replied. “Go lie down.” So he did.

Again the Lord called Samuel, so Samuel got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

“I didn’t call, my son,” Eli replied. “Go and lie down.” (Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him.)
A third time the Lord called Samuel. He got up, went to Eli, and said, “I’m here. You called me?”

Then Eli realized that it was the Lord who was calling the boy. So Eli said to Samuel, “Go and lie down. If he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down where he’d been.

Then the Lord came and stood there, calling just as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel said, “Speak. Your servant is listening.”

The story from the life of Samuel was one that engaged me as a young boy because I imagined him at my age. I didn’t understand how his mother could have sent him to live in the Temple, but I could see him waking in the night and going to Eli, thinking the old man had called him. But the story is bigger than a little boy.

Samuel’s mother was named Hannah. She had a hard life, to put it mildly. Her husband had two wives and the other woman had given birth to several children and Hannah had none. As a result, the husband played favorites and discriminated against Hannah because she had not given birth. Hannah went to the temple and pleaded with God to give her a child. Her prayer was so fervent that Eli, the priest, saw her without hearing her and thought she was drunk. Hannah told him her story and Eli said he hoped she got what she asked for.

She became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. Then she decided the best way to say thank you was to give the boy back to God. We need to understand here that the boy was her ticket to some equity in the way she was treated by her husband, but she chose a story bigger than her own—beyond the injustice and misogyny of the time. Once the child was weaned, she took him to the temple and left him there for Eli to mentor as a way of saying thank you to God.

Eli was–what’s the theological term?–a hot mess as a priest. By the time Samuel came to live with him, Eli was old. His sons were priests alongside him, but they used their positions as opportunities to enrich themselves and take advantage of whomever they could. All of this had gone on a really long time, even before Samuel came to the temple.

As our passage noted that a word from God had become a rare thing by the time Samuel heard his name called out in the night. He went to Eli because he didn’t think anyone else was there. The drowsy priest said, “I didn’t call you. Go back to bed.” It happened a second time, and then a third. By then, Samuel wasn’t the only one who was awake, and Eli had a sense that more was going on, so he gave Samuel different instructions: “Next time answer, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant—your follower, your disciple—is listening.’”

Samuel’s childlike response makes his answer sound so doable. But to actually say to God, “I’m listening”—and mean it—is a brave thing to say. When Samuel listened, God told him to go to breakfast the next morning and let Eli know that his blindness was both a physical reality and a metaphor: he and his sons had lost sight of their calling and their humanity and were going to be punished for their abuse of their office. The whole house was about to come down.

When Eli asked Samuel what God had said, Samuel didn’t hold back. He chose to tell the truth.

I had a chance a few years ago to visit the house where Dr. King was living in Montgomery, Alabama when he got the call that threatened his life–and when he heard God’s call that followed it. Shirley Cherry, the woman who was leading our tour, told us the story and said, “He had a choice. Dr. King had a privileged life. He didn’t have to do what he did.” Her choice of words jumped out at me: he had a privileged life. Yes, he got to study at Boston University. He did have some advantages others did not. Yet, when he came to Durham, North Carolina, just days before he was assassinated, to meet with an interracial group of ministers, they had to meet in the private home of one of the pastors because there was not a restaurant in town that would allow them to eat together.

Yet, she said, he had a choice.

The night he stood up to speak to the sanitation workers in Memphis, Dr. King began his speech with these words:

As you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” — I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there. I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.

He kept saying, “I wouldn’t stop there,” as he moved through different historical epochs and then he said,

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that [people], in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”

And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that [people] have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. [People], for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.

Samuel made a choice and rose to greatness. Martin Luther King made a choice and was murdered for it. The call to follow God is not a guarantee for everything to turn out just as we hoped. It is not a promise that if we follow God we will be set for life.

It is a choice to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. Or not.

One of the heartbreaking images for me, as I watched the invasion of the Capitol, was to see someone carrying a “Jesus Saves” sign. Condemning the violence and condemning the attempt to baptize it are not hard choices. But choosing to examine whether our lives–our words, our practices, our actions, our silences–feed the fires of hatred and prejudices or join a river of hope that will let justice roll down like water is not always so easy because it means we have to listen, like Samuel–and listen hard–and we have to make the daily decisions, like Dr. King, to live out our understanding that life is not primarily about us. We are not the stars of the show. We are not the ones who deserve our privilege and our advantages. We are the ones whom God is calling to do more than say what happened at the Capitol was wrong. I’ve heard some people say, “This is not who we are.”

Actually it is who we are, and who we have been—but it is not who we have to be.

I woke up Saturday morning to an article by Krista Tippett, the host of the On Being Project. She wrote about an e-mail she had received from a woman named Whitney Kimball Coe who works with the Center for Rural Strategies and lives in East Tennessee. Monday night, Whitney’s daughter took a bad fall and required surgery. She wrote:

You know, our hospital experience put us directly in the path of so many wonderful East Tennesseans. Nurses and technicians and doctors, the other parents waiting in the ER, the parking attendant, the security guard. I’m sure many of them didn’t vote as I did in the last election and probably believe the events of Jan 6 were mere protests, but they responded to our trauma with their full humanity. I’d forgotten what it feels like to really see people beyond their tribe/ideology. It broke something open in me. I’ve been living in a castle of isolation these many months and it’s rotted and blotted my insides. I’m aware of contempt, anger, and maybe even paranoia coursing through my veins, and I wonder if that’s just a snippet of where we are as a nation. Why is our righteous indignation and disgust so much easier to flame than our compassion?

It makes me realize that there is no substitute for coming into the presence of one another. No meme nor Twitter post nor op-ed nor breaking news nor TED talk can soften and strengthen our hearts like actually tending to one another. . . . We have to keep showing up so we don’t lose ourselves to bitterness.

Krista Tippett ended her article by saying,

We are creatures made, again and again, by what would break us. Yet only if we open to the fullness of the reality of what goes wrong for us, and walk ourselves with and through it, are we able to integrate it into a new kind of wholeness on the other side. Our collective need for a new kind of wholeness might be the only aspiration we can share across all of our chasms right now.

Longings, too, can be common ground. A shared desire not to be lost to bitterness. A clear-eyed commitment that what divides us now does not have to define what can become possible between us.

Choosing to do the hard work of togetherness is more than agreeing to disagree. If we are going to choose to not be lost to bitterness, then we will have to choose to speak the truth in love, like Samuel. We will have to choose to trust nonviolence as strength against brazen aggression and prejudice, like Dr. King. We have to choose to ask honest questions and to offer honest answers. We have to choose to listen to God and to one another. Samuel heard God’s call because he woke up. Eli slept through the whole thing because he had long since lost sight of what God wanted to do through and with him. May we continue to awaken and choose to listen. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

+3

stay home by another way

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Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump protest in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S. January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith

Like many people preaching this week, the sermon I worked on before Wednesday is not the one I preached. The events in Washington sent me back to Matthew 2:1-12 for a second time—with a bit of a different emphasis.

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Yes, I know I am preaching on the same passage I read last week. I’m not sure I have ever done that before. I am also aware that I need to ask you to breathe in the depth of God’s love for all of humanity as we move into a difficult reflection. But as I sat in front of my television on Wednesday–on Epiphany–and watched insurrectionists take over the Capitol building because people had been encouraged to do so by some of our elected leaders, I came back to this passage because of this verse:

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.

The sentence has always struck me as odd because I have never understood how everyone in Jerusalem could have known that the sages had stopped by the palace to ask directions to where the messiah had been born. But once they did, Herod went on a rampage and demanded that all the children under the age of two be killed to make sure he held on to power. So, a better translation might be everyone in Jerusalem was troubled because of him rather than with him. Herod was troubled by the prospect of being replaced; Jerusalem was troubled because he took out his fear and anxiety on them—which looks a lot like what we have seen happening in our own country this week.

I want to pause here and say that I am well aware that my sermon so far may be troubling to all of us. I am the bridge pastor filling in for Pastor Jeanette. You and I don’t know each other well. We don’t even get to see each other face to face. If you are like most any congregation in this country, you are spread across the political continuum. And part of the reason we, as a nation, have gotten to a place that we had people storming the Capitol is we haven’t figured out how to talk to each other about difficult things. So bear with me.

My sermon last week focused on the last verse in the passage:

Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

And I said,

For all that was difficult and tragic about 2020, I hope it gives us reason to act like the wise ones and go home by another way. Rather than reconstructing the life we knew before COVID-19, let’s take this chance to tear down things that need to be torn down, to leave behind behaviors that divide and discourage us, on both personal and societal levels, and to do the work to find a better way to live together.

And I still hope we do that. But today I want us to imagine ourselves in the story not as the magi who got to skip town and avoid the craziness, but as the people of Jerusalem who were already home and had to figure out how to live in the middle of the troubles because I think that is who we are in this story.

The sages went home. The people of Jerusalem had to stay and live through the massacre of the children, through the madness of their leader, through all that divided and frightened them. They didn’t have another way to go home. They were home. And home was falling apart.

Matthew’s gospel is centered on Jesus’ story, so he goes on to tell us about Mary and Joseph fleeing into Egypt and staying there until Herod died. He doesn’t give an account of how the people of Jerusalem survived. We don’t have any other stories about angels showing up to warn anyone else that Herod was on a rampage, only that he went after every child under the age of two. No wonder everyone in Jerusalem was troubled.

In my sacred imagination, I can see a variety of responses to Herod’s onslaught. But most of all, I picture people finding ways to take care of each other once they figured out what he was up to. I imagine those who didn’t have children hiding the babies of their neighbors so the soldiers couldn’t find them. I imagine people working hard to figure out ways to alleviate the suffering of those who lost their children. I’m sure there were some who bought what Herod was selling, but that kind of fear has a short self-life. No one survives for long when they are fueled by anger and fear–even when they dress it up as power.

But when things are difficult, it’s hard to choose not to be fueled by anger and fear because they are both high energy fuels. But anger and fear do not create community. They isolate us because they both require a target. In times like ours, where divisions run deep—or at least we are constantly told we need to choose sides—we need to learn how to stay home by another way, if you will. I know that is not easy work.

Like many, I have a family member that I don’t know how to talk to in these days. Mine is my brother. And my faith calls me to figure out how to do that. We have to learn how to talk to each other at every level of life or more than just our children are going to die. We have to learn not to allow our vocabulary to be limited by those in power. We are more than red and blue. We are more than our opinions, our fears, our demands, our desires, our issues, our privilege, our heritage, even our hopes. We are more than–well, pick any polarity you want. We are, first and foremost, people created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.

And that goes for every last one of us.

The troubles in our country are far from over. Whatever media gets our attention is packed with articles and speeches that dissect our problems and speculate about our future. Lots of folks are blasting blame across the airwaves. Others shout in hatred, in disgust, in righteous indignation. Many voices are going to keep shouting. We, however, are not required to join the chorus.

Let me say that again. We are not required to join the chorus.

We can stay home by another way. We can speak truth to power and name injustice without becoming one of the hateful folks that seem to be magnets for the camera. We can choose not to listen to Herod or his minions. They are not telling the truth. Power is not the point. Listen to Jesus: love God with all that you are and love your neighbor as yourself.

At the start of this sermon, I asked you to breathe in the depth of God’s love. Many years ago, two friends of mine wrote a song called “The Depth of God’s Love.” The chorus says,

and the depth of God’s love reaches down, down, down
to where we are until we’re found, found, found
a quiet word or none at all
pursues the heart behind the wall
and to those who wait with darkness all around
the depth of God’s love reaches down

No matter how loud the chorus, love will always be the last word. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

+5

travelogue

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travelogue

the depth of the darkness
meant we had our choice of guides
that’s what it means to stargaze

to lose yourself in the night
and then dash into the dark
at the drop of a meteor

but you can only go so far
listening to someone whistle
when you wish upon a star

the way the story gets told
we are named as wise ones
but all we did was walk

out beyond the sunset
and into the starlight
night the starlight night

it was easy to say
we followed a star once
we got where we were going

you only feel lost in
the middle of a journey
not when you finally get there

Peace,
Milton

+6

the road to one another

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Since we don’t have a service on Epiphany, my sermon for this Sunday turns to the sages following the star (Matthew 2:1-12). Here is what I found on the road with them. The song that follows is “May I Suggest” by Susan Werner–one of my favorites.

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Ginger and I moved to Boston about thirty years ago, before smart phones and GPS devices. Boston is notorious for not having street signs. People who live there give directions by landmarks, often a Dunkin’ Donuts or a local liquor store chain called Kappy’s Liquors. In fact, we decided good directions always began with, “You know where Kappy’s Liquors is, right?”

I learned another thing about getting directions in Boston that I thought of reading this passage. Rarely were the directions for how to get somewhere the same as the directions of how to get back. The proliferation of one way streets and then just craziness of a city that just kept adding on to itself meant most of the time we, like the wise ones, had to go home a different way than we had come.

This past week, I spent a couple of days in Stonington, Connecticut on a personal retreat—a Christmas gift from Ginger and my mother-in-law Rachel. The time was rich and restful and meaningful, but I mention it this morning because of what it felt like to drive those small roads lined with stone walls, trying to find the Airbnb where I was staying. My iPhone narrated my travels, telling me where to turn. I was aware, as I made turns down roads I hardly even knew were there, that without the app on my phone I would have gotten lost–or, at least, I would have had to ask for directions. And, when I went to pick up my pizza one night, Siri took me back to my cabin by a different route.

As we tell the story of the travelers from the east–the magi, the sages, the wanderers, the astrologers–I am mindful that they set out following a star. We don’t know where they started from, but the implication seems to be they had come a long way in hopes of finding someone important. The gospels say nothing about them being kings (or male, for that matter), but perhaps we have inferred that over the years because they felt comfortable going to the palace to ask Herod for directions when they got to Jerusalem.

Actually, the gospel doesn’t tell us why the sages felt compelled to go to Herod instead of trusting that the star would lead them. I have heard explanations–that they were following political pleasantries, or they thought one king would know about other royal births–but none of that is in the text. Their visit appears to be the impetus for Herod to decide to massacre the Judean children to thwart any challenge to his power because he didn’t appear to know anything about the birth, though that was not what the travelers intended to set in motion. With the help of his scholars, Herod pointed them towards Bethlehem and the travelers went back to following the star and, perhaps, asking around town until they found the child. They offered their gifts and prepared to go home the way they came until, Matthew says, they were warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, which helped them see they couldn’t trust him. So, they went home by another way.

That sentence sounds so simple, doesn’t it? They went home by another way. But we don’t have any indication that the star made the return trip. Nor do we have any sense that these people were necessarily well-traveled. They just knew to go home, or at least head east, without stopping by Herod’s house. They couldn’t just retrace their steps.

As we move from 2020 to 2021, I think it’s fair to say we are glad to leave last year behind. We spent the best part of it wandering in uncharted territory because of the pandemic. As we begin the new year, with the promise of the vaccine and the hope that the pandemic will wind down, we are talking more and more about life getting back to normal. I have a list of things I miss doing: eating in restaurants, hanging out with friends, singing hymns in church, going to concerts and plays, shaking hands, passing the peace, hugging. But, even as I offer that list I want to say I hope we don’t go back to the way things were.

For all that was difficult and tragic about 2020, I hope it gives us to act like the wise ones and go home by another way. Rather than reconstructing the life we knew before COVID-19, we have a chance to tear down things that need to be torn down, to leave behind behaviors that divide and discourage us, on both personal and societal levels, and to do the work to find a better way to live together.

More than once, or perhaps a hundred times, I have heard people refer to these days as “unprecedented times,” which is another way of saying we don’t have good directions on how to get out of here–and we certainly don’t have a star to guide us. The pandemic and the political division in our country have left us feeling lost. But, like the folks in Boston have Kappy’s Liquors, we have some landmarks of faith to help us find our way. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia, giving them directions on how to find their way to each other; he called them the fruits of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those are pretty good signposts for us as well.

Gathering around the Communion table, even though we can’t see each other, is another landmark of faith. We come to the table to re-member ourselves—to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name. It is not the same when we are sitting in different rooms, but its still another way to find one another.

The road ahead of us is a journey towards each other, and it is a road different from the ones we are used to traveling. We can’t get there overnight, any more than the magi made it across the desert in a day or two. But the journey starts now—not when the pandemic is over. We need to be working on finding new ways to each other even as the roads we know are blocked with obstacles. Oleta Adams wrote a song in the 90s called “Get Here.” The first verse said,

you can reach me by railway, you can reach me by trailway
you can reach me on an airplane, you can reach me with your mind
you can reach me by caravan, cross the desert like an Arab man
I don’t care how you get here, just get here if you can

Let’s do whatever we can. Call. Write. Zoom. Bake. Walk. Share. Pray. Let’s find a way to one another, even though it’s not the path we are used to. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

+7

no inn, but a room

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Since we didn’t get to have a Christmas Eve service, I chose to preach on Luke 2:1-7 for the first Sunday of Christmas. If you are watching the video, the reason I am singing acapella is I cut my finger on one of my sharp knives while I was putting them up and ended up with seven stitches in my left index finger. I didn’t do any permanent damage, but I couldn’t play guitar tonight.

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When I was growing up, our Christmas decorations were only up for two weeks. My birthday is December 12th and my mother was determined that it would not get lost in Christmas, so she didn’t pull out the decorations until December 13–and then a Christmas bomb went off in our house; it was decorated top to bottom. My father, for reasons that were never explained, wanted all the decorations to come down the day after Christmas, so that’s what we did. By mid-afternoon on Boxing Day everything was put away.

As I began to celebrate Christmas as an adult, and also as I learned about Advent and the seasons of the liturgical year, which were not a part of my upbringing, I learned that Christmas was just getting started on December 25th, not ending. We are in Christmastide, a time when we can rest and think about what it means that God became human in Jesus. With that in mind, I want to go back to the first verses of Luke 2, which we traditionally read as a part of a Christmas Eve service and hear again the story of Jesus’ birth.

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. (Common Bible)

I particularly chose this translation from The Common Bible because of the last sentence. Did you catch it? There’s no inn, but a room. It says there was no place for them in the guest room, which is actually a more accurate translation of the Greek word katalyma. Mary and Joseph weren’t trying to find a hotel room and just ended up in a barn behind some Bethlehem bed and breakfast. They had gone to Joseph’s hometown to register for a census demanded by the Roman emperor, which meant he had relatives there. Judean homes had rooms where people stayed, and they had a room—in the house–for their animals, probably sheep or goats. Because the guest room was full—I’m guessing because everyone was in town for the census—Jesus was born in the feeding trough in the back room, surrounded by family.

What happens to us when the story we thought we knew turns out to be something else?

With that question in mind, I want to tell you another story about my father.

Right before Ginger, my wife, and I got married, we were with my parents in Texas and my grandmother, who was actually my father’s stepmother, but the only paternal grandmother I ever knew. All my life I had been told my father’s mother, Bertha, died in childbirth. The grandmother I knew, Marie, came that day with a box of scrapbooks and newspaper clippings none of us had seen before. I was thirty-three at the time; my dad was sixty-one. One of the clippings was Bertha’s obituary. She died a month after he was born. I could see by the look on my father’ s face that he had never heard that information before. Instead of his parents having to choose between whether he or his mother lived, for a month of his life she got to hold him and care for him. His birth was not the cause of her death.

I’ll ask my question again: what happens to us when the story we thought we knew turns out to be something else?

Perhaps it causes us to look at the whole story again.

In these seven verses that we have heard so many times, half of them are spent talking about the forced registration by the Roman government. Rome wanted a head count. Jesus was born under the thumb of empire. Joseph had to go to his family home to register, and Mary, his pregnant fiancée, went with him. Let that sink in for a minute. Mary was so far along in her pregnancy that she went into labor, it seems, not long after the family introductions and by the time they find a place for her to give birth, Jesus was born in a manger. The one we call Christ came into the world in the middle of political oppression, family scandal, and people scrambling to make a place for him. While the known world was bending to the rule of the Roman emperor, God changed the world through an insignificant couple in a back room in Bethlehem.

I was talking with someone about all of this over the past couple of weeks, and they said, “I love all of that, but how would we work that into the Christmas pageant?” I get that. At my wife’s church in Guilford, the tradition has been that the littlest kids are the animals and they can come dressed as any animal they want. Our nativity often includes lions, tigers, dinosaurs, and Eeyore. At the same time, I think what would it do to us–to our faith, our sense of ourselves as the people of God–if we told it with fresh understanding?

The question moves me from pageants to pandemic: what happens to us when the story we thought we knew turns out to be something else?

2020 has been a year none of us expected. It has been a year of grief that has made us see our story in ways we have not before. My mother-in-law who is in her eighties has remarked more than once that she didn’t expect to spend her last years this way. The story of this congregation, like most any congregation, has been one of gathering together, which is still months away from happening. What happens to us when the story we trusted changes?

Let’s go back to the Greek word I mentioned–katalyma. The only other places it shows up in the New Testament are in Luke 22 and Mark 14: it is the word used for the upper room where Jesus and his disciples shared the meal on the night before Jesus was executed by the same Roman government who had forced his family to register for the census.

The word is a common word without great theological significance, other than to say it was the room that was so full on the first night of his life that he had to be born in the manger and it was the room where he gathered with those who loved him on the last night of his life. To say that there was no inn, but a room, for me, is say little details may not bring big answers, but they offer us new understanding. I heard an author speak one time and talk about how his life had hinged on “an important slight change.” Perhaps the change in translation from an inn to a guest room is the important slight change that offers us room to wonder as we wander through these days.

Our story is that we can’t wait for 2020 to be over. We have felt like we are at the mercy of the pandemic and unable to do much about the political turmoil that has plagued us as well. The story that 2021 appears to offer–at least what we can see of its beginning–is more of the same: pandemic, political division, and physical distance. The story that begins our Christian year is that Jesus was born in the middle of a mess and lived his life in the middle of a mess and kept saying over and over that the point was to love one another no matter what. And love is best communicated in important slight changes.

Let’s tell that story. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

+6

postpartum

4

postpartum

Mary rose before sunrise;
the baby was still sleeping,
as were Joseph and most of
the animals, except for one cow
who looked a little sheepish.

The shepherds were long gone.
In their excitement, they had not
cleaned up well after themselves.
The magi were resting somewhere,
waiting to be guided by darkness.

But Mary did not yet know
of gold and myrrh and frankincense;
neither did she know much about
motherhood, messiahs, or
life beyond Bethlehem.

I am up early to finish
the last of the dishes and start
the coffee. The house is quiet
except for my animals
bellowing for breakfast.

I know little of parenting, or
babies, or what to do with
swaddling clothes; I do know
Christ is born again, for the
sixty-fifth time in my life.

In my mind’s eye I watch
Mary turn back to the manger
when she hears her little one cry
for the first time on his first
morning; she is smiling.

My dogs perks up their ears
as though they, too, hear
The crying and look up at me.
“Merry Christmas,” I say,
Wondering what gifts have yet to be opened.

Peace,
Milton

+6

advent journal: this faraway christmas

4

I think it was about fifteen years ago, maybe more, that Ginger asked me to write a story for our Christmas Eve service at North Community Church in Marshfield, Massachusetts. That story, A Faraway Christmas, has shown up off and on since–several times on this blog.

This year, because of COVID and because I am the remote interim for a church in Durham, Connecticut, I decided to rewrite the story. Here is This Faraway Christmas, both video and text.

This Faraway Christmas

Since we’re scattered about on this Silent Night,
and we can’t be together to pass candlelight,

It’s hard to find Christmas–to get in the spirit
2020 had promise, but, oh, what a year it

has been: full of sadness, of violence and virus—
how can Christmas encourage, unite, and inspire us?

If we tell the old stories, will they sadden and stress us,
if we say what we miss, won’t that just depress us?

I don’t know–maybe so–but it seems worth a try
to do more than just sit by ourselves and, well, cry,

so I’ll tell you a story, even if it’s recorded
and hope that my effort will somehow be rewarded.

“Twas a Faraway Christmas in a Long Ago Town
of no great importance and no real renown,

filled with people who seemed fairly normal to me,
who worked and who played and seemed happy and free.

They had puppies and children, ate bread and ice cream,
they went shopping and swimming, they slept and they dreamed;

they laughed and did laundry, they danced and they dined,
and they strung Christmas lights on the big Scottish Pine

that grew in the square in the middle of town,
and when Christmas was over, they took the lights down.

They read the newspaper, the dads told bad jokes,
and some of the children put cards in the spokes

of their bicycle tires, so they made quite a din
till it came time for parents to call the kids in.

Yet for all of the things that kept people together—
that great small town feeling, the Christmas Card weather—

for all of the hope one was likely to hear,
the hearts of so many were held captive by fear.

Others always felt tired, some were down or depressed,
;nd then some–put quite simply–their lives were a mess.

Some felt pressure from not having paid all the bills,
some were keeping dark secrets that were making them ill;

some felt guilty and thought they were headed for hell,
but the town seemed so perfect, who could they tell?

So everyone kept all their feelings inside,
and wished they had someone in whom to confide,

to say, “Life is lousy,” or “I’ve made a mistake,”
or “Sometimes I’m so sad I don’t want to awake,”

or “I miss my Grandma,” or “I loved my cat,”
or “I never, no never get my turn at bat.”

Everyone kept it in, hardly ever spoke up
until one Christmas Eve, when an old man named Buck

came to turn on the lights on the tree in the square
and found no one, not anyone, I mean no one was there.

He stared up at the tree and the lights shining bright,
and alone on the square he talked back to the night,

“It’s Christmas,” he said, “when I should feel warm,
but I don’t think that this year I can conform.

It’s been hardly two months since my friend passed away;
how can I smile when he’s not here to say,

’Merry Christmas’?” And right then he burst into tears,
and all of the sadness from all of his years

Came out of his eyes and ran down his cheeks,
And he thought he would sit there and just weep for weeks.

His wailing was heard by someone walking by,
“Hi,” my name is Jenn–and I don’t mean to pry . . .”

Buck looked up at the voice and the kindness he heard
Somehow she had helped with just two or three words.

“I’m Buck,” he replied, “and I’m tired and mad,
but I think most of all I just feel really sad.”

She wasn’t quite ready for the truth that he told,
but it helped her feel brave standing there in the cold.

“Thanksgiving was lonely, my birthday was, too.
I guess I could say that I feel just like you.”

So they poured out their hearts, like a sister and brother,
then someone else joined, and then came another,

with a story to tell and feelings to free,
and they all sat and cried ‘neath the big Christmas Tree.

Can you imagine how many tears fell,
after all of the years that no one would tell

how it hurt just to live, how they felt terrified
of saying out loud what they carried inside.

How long does it take to clean out your heart,
to get it all out, to make a new start?

They cried until daybreak, till the first rays of dawn
broke over the tree tops and spread ‘cross the lawn,

in the new morning light Buck could see ‘cross the square;
he smiled up at Jenn ‘cause the whole town was out there.

They had come through the night, first one, then another
to sit down together like sister and brother,

to pour out their hearts for the first time in years,
and let out their feelings, their sadness, there tears.

Jenn started a carol, the one she knew best,
about joy to the world, and it burst from her chest.

The others joined in, not because they weren’t sad,
but because they’d admitted the feelings they had;

everyone sang along, both the sad and the scared,
Because true friends are found when true feelings are shared.

Perhaps it’s not fair to tell you this story
since we’re all kind of trapped in a strange purgatory;

the holiday’s here and we can’t be together
around a big tree in some Christmas card weather;

we can’t raise our voices and sing Silent Night,
or turn to each other to pass candlelight,

but our world is no different: we’re frightened and sad,
we feel helpless and hopeless, and certainly mad,

but none of those words is the last on this Night
that we wait for the Child, that we pray for the Light,

that we hope for the best, even stuck in our homes,
and we try to remember that we’re not alone.

The virus and violence will not define us,
and our grief and our sadness will not resign us;

we’ll find ways to say that we love one another,
though we must keep our distance and our faces are covered.

The walls that we’re in cannot keep us apart
if we speak truth in love and we open our hearts.

We are all full of feelings, these are difficult times,
but let’s see past the sorrow and look for the lines

that connect everyone, even if we can’t touch;
let’s look for new ways to say “I love you much.”

Our hopes for this year may have turned to dismay,
but that doesn’t mean Christmas is so faraway.

Peace,
Milton

+10

advent journal: star treatment

1

star treatment

we drove down
to the water
last night to see
the suggestion
of a star made
by two planets

closer than they
have been in
eight hundred years
close enough
to imagine a star
worth following

a beautiful night
on the shoreline
snow on the rocks
all of us spread
out staring in the
same direction

our instructions
were to look
southwest above
the horizon
forty-five minutes
after sunset

what we saw was
a band of clouds
a cosmic event
daunted by the
daily forecast
and then a star

a bright star not
epic but bright
and we decided
it was the one and
we drove home the
way we had come

Peace,
Milton

+5

advent journal: slouching towards bethlehem

2

slouching towards bethlehem

yeats put pen to page last century
in the wake of a world war and
as his wife was recovering from
the pandemic before this one

we’ve since learned how to keep
the world at war without end
to live in sustainable exhaustion
and act as though we’re alive

easier to replace metaphor with
euphemism than to tell the truth
that we were killing each other by
incidental contact before COVID

I wonder as they traveled together
if either Mary or Joseph wished
out loud that life beyond Bethlehem
would be more than just going back

to normal to the same old Nazareth
or do I put words in their mouths
because I am not waiting to return
to normal to life before the virus

I’m barely going to make it to
Bethlehem in one piece as it is
wherever the road goes from there
needs to be somewhere other

than acting like we’ve learned
nothing other than it’s easier to
numb ourselves than to believe
we are all in this together

Peace,
Milton

+7

advent journal: solstice, again

1

On the eve of the winter solstice and the cosmic illusion of the “Christmas Star” that Jupiter and Saturn will provide this week, I went back to a poem I wrote a couple of years ago that found new life this year, thanks to my friend, composer Taylor Scott Davis, who used an adaptation of the text in an amazing choral piece that was premiered two weeks ago by VOCES8. It also makes an appearance in my book The Color of Together.

Tonight, it is here once more.

solstice

come sit in the dark with me
and look at that moon that
is so at home in the night
let us reach deep into the
pockets of our souls for
scraps of hope and wonder

come gaze at the firefly
stars flinging their light
lay back on the blanket of
dead leaves and sleeping soil
oh, that we had a ladder to
make a consolation of ourselves

a constellation of ourselves
come sing our favorite song
softly into this silent night that
welcomes the first day of winter
the one about being together
come sit in the dark with me

Peace,
Milton

+3