advent journal: time and tide


One of the things I miss about living in Marshfield was learning to tell time by the tides. The tide came and went twice a day, but never in sync with the clock. The tides felt a rhythm rather than a ticking. They followed the moon, the earth’s turning, the breathing of the oceans. In Green Harbor, our neighborhood, the tide came in all the way to the sea wall. All of the sand was submerged. When the waves receded, they never left the beach in the same shape from one day to the next. We might walk down at low tide to find a blanket of tiny pebbles one day, a legion of throwing rocks the next, and then an afternoon of smooth sand.

When I was teaching last year, I watched a documentary about an artist, Andy Goldsworth, who built sculptures on the beach out of wood he found. He would begin work when the tide went out and kept at it until the tide returned — to destroy what he had done. He knew it was going to happen. He knew he was sculpting in a flood plain. Still, he built — and he even built the sculpture in a way that would allow the water to dismantle it with an artistic flair. Once finished, he would climb up to a dry viewing spot and watch the waves do their work.

The ocean is on my mind because I am aware the tide of darkness turns tomorrow. No. Not the Mayan thing. Tomorrow is the longest night of the year, the night when the darkness comes all the way to the wall, if you will; after that, the daylight begins to win again. I love the Solstice.

On this penultimate night, I was fortunate to be a part of a group of people who gathered under the Durham Farmers’ Market pavilion in the dark to stand vigil for those who were killed in Newtown, Connecticut. My connection to the group was through Ginger, who is a part of the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham — the sponsor of the gathering. But this was not a one time thing. Whenever there is a murder in our city, these folks go and hold vigil where the person was killed. Ginger has gone with the group on many a night to stand on a street corner where folks are not necessarily safe to stand and sing and pray, to hold silence and candles, to be a sea wall of hope against the tide of violence which floods so many lives.

Ginger asked me to go and sing “After the Last Tear Falls,” as I had done last night for our Blue Christmas service. As we gathered under the pavilion, the rabbi standing next to me said, “Do you know ‘If I Had a Hammer?’” My best guess is I haven’t played that song in a good thirty-five or forty years, but I knew the song by heart and I found chords to match and the candle-bearing crowd circled in as we sang:

I’d hammer out justice
I’d hammer out freedom
I’d hammer out the love between my brothers and my sisters
all over this land . . .

When it came my turn to sing, I noticed from almost the very first note that the rabbi was trying to sing along. He didn’t know the song, but he was listening hard and trying to connect. As I began the second verse, I could hear a quiet choir of hums and hopes following his lead. When I got to the end of the verse, which repeats

there is love, love, love, love
there is love, love, love, love
there is love

I invited them to join in. For the last half of the song, they hummed where they could and then joined in when they came to what they knew best: there is love.

We finished singing, passed the peace, and went out into the night, as the tide of darkness prepares to recede and the tide of violence is crashing in. I listened to a well-known denominational figure yesterday on NPR. Here is part of the interview:

COMMENTATOR: What’s the New Testament justification for owning firearms?
SPEAKER: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. If you see your neighbor being attacked, if you see your neighbor in danger, you have an obligation and a responsibility to do what you can to protect them.

I thought about his rationale as we stood together tonight and returned again to the truth that responding to violence with violence is not a solution. It may get results, but it doesn’t turn back the tide of damage and despair. It matters more to sing together than it does to lock and load. When the soldiers showed up on the Mount of Olives, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to go for their concealed weapons. He told Peter to drop his sword and he healed the soldier whom Peter had wounded. There is love.

Six months from now, the days will begin to grow shorter and the darkness will prevail, right in the middle of what we call ecclesiastically “Ordinary Time” — the days between Pentecost and Advent. The church calendar lays fallow, in a way: no major feasts or festivals; instead of telling the old stories, we work to grow new ones of our own. Then, just when it gets darkest, we begin to sing, again, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”

God With Us.

In the darkness. In the violence. In the daylight. In the singing about the love between our brothers and our sisters. That same God, who showed imagination by coming into the world as a baby born to a poor family in a backwoods town, calls us to live with the same daring and determination. Violence has no imagination. Power knows nothing of whimsy and hope. But a bunch of people holding candles and singing in the dark?

There is love.



  1. “Then, just when it gets darkest, we begin to sing, again, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel.’ ” I’ve always known this, but I’ve never made the connection before. Just beautiful, Milt.

  2. One more gentle thought which hit me just as I hit enter: I think if more people were singing “If I Had A Hammer” in this day and age, it could be a very good thing.

    • Thanks, Steve — for both comments. I remember singing “Hammer” and other songs of the ’60s and I wish we were not so jaded today. Singing might just bring down some walls the way the horns knocked over Jericho.


  3. The darkness grows for me. I’m not singing along to the carols and songs, I can’t play my guitar, and I’m trying. I miss the ocean-we would go to the beach on Christmas. That’s it, isn’t it….I am more homesick this time of year because things are so very different. Time to remember this part of my heritage, and the song about love between my brothers and sisters that is part of my skin, even I can’t remember the chords.

  4. This is so beautiful, and along the same lines as I have been thinking and noticing. I work on a floating dock at a yachting center. We notice the water level every day, as we go from the pier down to our building. The ducks, egrets and herons show off every day. If there is a storm, our whole building rocks with it. We each have 3 glass walls for viewing God’s handiwork. The sun has moved from my face to my back in the mornings. I’ve been happier working in this building than any place I’ve ever been and I know it’s because I’m in touch with the sky and water.
    Thank you for all of your thoughtful posts. I look forward to everything you write.

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