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on and on the rain will say

7

As friends of mine are keeping the fast of Yom Kippur, I learned about a Jewish holiday I knew only by name: the Festival of Booths, or Sukkot (which is the Hebrew word that means booths). The week-long observance happens in the fall. This year, it begins next Monday, September 20. It came up in one of the essays I read this morning in The Impossible Will Take Awhile: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times, an amazing collection of writings put together by Paul Rogat Loeb.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote “The Sukkah of Shalom” about a year after 9/11/2001 speaking to both the attacks and the way Americans responded to them. He explains that a sukkah (a single booth) is a fragile hut with a leafy roof. It is intended to be temporary and vulnerable. He goes on to recite one of the evening prayers said throughout the year: “Spread over us your sukkah of shalom–of peace and safety,” and then he asks,

Why does the prayer plead for a sukkah of shalom rather than a temple or fortress or palace of shalom, which would be more safe and more secure?

Precisely because the sukkah is so vulnerable . . . The sukkah reminds us: We are in truth all vulnerable. . . . There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice; it is a statement of truth. like the law of gravity.

It seems like this is the week for my reading to take me back to some treasured old songs. Remember Sting singing,

perhaps this final act was meant
to clinch a lifetime’s argument
that nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
for all those born beneath an angry star
lest we forget how fragile we are

on and on the rain will fall
like tears from a star like tears from a star
on and on the rain will say
how fragile we are how fragile we are

At their roots, fragile means “liable to be broken” and vulnerable means “wounded.” That takes me to a small poem I found in Lord of the Butterflies, a book of poetry by Andrea Gibson that came in the mail today.

DEPRESSION [VERB]
1. to put on
your best outfit
and feel
like you’re dressing
a wound.

One of the contemporary definitions of vulnerable is “open to harm,” which leaves some sense that we could choose to be open, that we could risk in order to love one another. I circle back around to Rabbi Waskow saying the command to love one another “is not an admonition to be nice; it is statement of truth, like the law of gravity.”

Then I go back to the prayer: “Spread over us your sukkah of shalom.”

And I think, “Wait–I grew up singing

a mighty fortress is our God
a bulwark never failing

Jesus repeated the same words as the Rabbi–love your neighbor as you love yourself–so he wasn’t calling us to build bulwarks around our hearts. When did we decide faith was a fortress instead of a fragile hut with a leafy roof?

As far as my depression goes, I am learning (again) that I can make myself strong enough to fight it. I don’t mean that I think it will take me out; I mean fighting is the wrong metaphor. I cannot make myself impenetrable. I cannot make myself unwoundable. (Though I think I just made up a word.) To live through and with the depression means to make myself open to harm and to take shelter in the sukkah of those who love me.

Waskow closes his essay with these words:

The choice we face is broader than politics, deeper than charity. It is whether we see the world chiefly as property to be controlled, defined by walls and fences that must be built even higher, even thicker, even tougher; or made up chiefly of an open weave of compassion and connection, open sukkah nest to open sukkah.

Whatever we build where the Twin Towers once stood, America and the world will be living in a leafy, leaky, shaky sukkah. Hope comes from raising that simple truth to visibility. We must spread over all of us the sukkah of shalom.

Life is hard. That was true before the pandemic. We are all wounded. We are all vulnerable. On and on the rain and pretty much everything else will tell us how fragile we are. And I will say again what I have said over and over these past few days: we are not alone.

After I wrote the “failure to thrive” post, someone I have known since the early days of the blog to say they were dealing with depression in ways they had not before and were thinking about going on medication. Today when I saw my doctor and he suggested I go back on antidepressants, I thought of what this faraway friend had risked in telling me. Tonight after supper I picked up my prescription. I have taken the meds before and they have helped in their season, but I will also admit to open the bottle and take out the pills feels a little like a defeat. It certainly is a tangible reminder that I am “liable to be broken.” So it matters to know I am not alone, even though on and on the rain will say . . .

Peace,
Milton

a better story

11

I am happy to report I finished a book today.

After I wrote my Morning Pages, I turned to the past page of How Not to Be Afraid and read the last chapter and epilogue, as well as the blessings Gareth Higgins uses to close the book, in good Irish fashion.

I read with a pen in my hand, not only to underline but also to write words and lines from the book in the margins so I can find them on return visits. After I got to the end, I leafed back through the book to read some of the things I had recopied. The heart of Gareth’s book turns around how we tell the story of our lives, both individually and together, along with the idea that there is a better story to tell than the one we are telling right now. One of the things I rewrote in the margin was

The stories we tell shape how we experience everything. When we tell a diminished story, we make a diminished life.

I started the book in early June, right before I went to be the camp pastor for Wilshire Baptist Church’s youth camp. The book was my primary sermon fodder for the week, and those sentences were a part of my sermon the first night, along with a question adapted from something else Gareth wrote a few pages later:

How do we tell a story that makes the world less broken and more beautiful?

Asking that question three months ago with a group of teenagers in the Ozark foothills was one thing; asking it tonight in the middle of difficult days is another because I feel more in touch with the brokenness of things and, because of that, I am more attune to the need for a more beautiful story.

To diminish something is to “make it seem less impressive or less valuable.”

How we tell our stories reveal how we experience the world and ourselves in it. As I think about these last few days, I am aware of the ways in which I have told a diminished story. Part of the reason I have not written as much on this blog, for example, is I have let myself tell a diminished story about it. I have told myself that only a handful of folks are reading it. Yet, when I looked tonight, my “failure to thrive” post has over nine hundred views and thirty one comment. I know those are not huge numbers in the social media universe, but they are life-changing for me, and not because of the totals. The story they tell me is one of connection, of belonging, which is the most valuable story I know. It is a story that makes the world less broken and more beautiful.

I have written a lot about my depression over the years. Much of the writing was a search, on my part, for metaphors that would help me get some sort of grip on this part of me that doesn’t feel like part of me–this diminishing force. One of the stories I have told before came back to me as I have felt the outpouring of love and support from you.

Almost twenty years ago to the day, Ginger and I were getting ready for church. I was struggling to find the energy to even get dressed. I knew I was depressed, but I had no idea what was happening to me. Right before we left for church, she said, “I need to ask you to do a hard thing this morning. I think you need to ask for prayer yourself; I can’t do it for you.”

When the time came in our service for prayer requests, I mustered up whatever it was I had to muster up and said, “I need prayer. I need help. I am really depressed and I don’t know what to do about it,” and I sat down. At coffee hour after worship, five people came up to me and said, “I feel the same way but I had no idea we could talk about it out loud.” I had one of those pay-attention-this-is-important moments as they spoke. I realized I had found my first foothold in my free fall: if I would tell the story I would know I was not alone.

One of the stories we can tell that makes the world less broken and more beautiful is that shared suffering creates the ties that bind. We are all hurting. The diminished story says we need to keep it to ourselves. The better story is, as Mary Oliver writes in “Wild Geese,”

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.

Many years ago, Billy Crockett and I wrote a song about friendship and what it takes to stay friends. Actually, a couple of them, but this one, “Friends at Last,” said

when the snow falls on your roof
and my world feels colder
when you know without any proof
that you have my shoulder
when the fear of pain comes to break us
it’s the years of strain that will make us
friends at last

In the middle of our mutilated world, we have beautiful stories to tell and to hear of the tenacious power of love and what it means to belong to one another, and to the world. Mary Oliver ends her poem with these words:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I love to tell that story.

Peace,
Milton

help, help

8

I went to the grocery store on my lunch hour because we were out of milk, which meant my mother-in-law couldn’t drink her coffee. I circled through The Fresh Market and picked up some chicken and ground turkey, a can of great northern beans, and some green beans, paid for my groceries and got all the way to the car before I remembered the milk. So I went back, got the milk, and got back in line with the same checker just for fun. Three lanes were open with a couple of people in each line. It was not crowded, and it was obvious where to stand. Yet, as I was leaving, I realized a man was standing with a cart at the farthest register, which was unopened, looking at the rest of the lines, and shouting, “Help! Help!”

As I got to the door, I heard one of the checkers say, “Over here.”

His plea reminded me of something I read earlier in the morning. After my post last night, an amazing number of you responded with words of affection and solidarity and it buoyed my spirit such that I was able to get up and write my Morning Pages and read a chapter in one of the books that has been sitting there for weeks: How Not to Be Afraid by my friend Gareth Higgins. What came to mind was a paragraph about prayer.

Sometimes I think it works. I can’t comprehensively define prayer, but it does seem more necessary to do it than to understand it. It’s not merely–or even mostly–about asking for things. Instead, I think prayer is joining what’s already unfolding in the spirit of authority and love, protecting vulnerable people and the earth, and being willing to act with that spirit.

As one who has never understood prayer and struggled to understand what happens when we pray, to read “it does seem more necessary to do it than to understand it” gave me hope. To pray is to trust. To connect–with God, with one another, with the fabric of the universe. To pray is to not be alone.

One of the blogs I follow is called Radical Discipleship, a blog that offers a wide variety of theological perspectives and insights. About a month ago, they published a post by Bayo Akomolafe, a Nigerian philosopher and activist, entitled “Other Vehicular Pathways of Prayer.” I started reading it because I had never seen the words vehicular and prayer in the same sentence. The article is fascinating and dense and, well, philosophical. He says,

Recently, I have been thinking about the binary terminal points of prayer, wondering whether desire is doing more things than traveling down a double-lane highway that leads to one of two possible answers: yes or no. What if there are other vehicular pathways of prayer in its many modes of migrancy? What if prayer doesn’t just go northward, but side-ward, soil-ward, stone-ward, and awk-ward?

Like I said, his writing is philosophical–and I love the thought of prayer goes side-ward and soil-ward and stone-ward and awk-ward. It makes me think of what I have learned from Tom, my garden buddy, about the ways that trees talk to each other and the nutritional conversation that takes place in the soil and connects everything. Like Gareth said, prayer is joining what’s already unfolding.

Last night it was me calling, “Help! Help!”–my prayer–but the lane wasn’t closed. I have stayed teary-eyed most of the day reading comments on the blog and on Facebook, answering texts and phone calls, love coming at me from every direction, as well as words of resonance as others opened their hearts to say they were crying, “Help! Help!’ also, but instead of “Over here” they said, “I’m here.”

Today I wrote, I read, I kept my promises at work, I cooked for my family, and I took a walk in the September sunshine. I was able to do it because love bombarded me even though I saw or spoke to only a few people. Love came across miles and years to find me, to connect me, to remind me that asking for help is good work.

Peace,
Milton

failure to thrive

33

Because our church was built in the early 1800s and is full of windows that open, we have had some kind of in person worship for about a year. We have limited the number attending, kept all the windows open (regardless of temperature), done contact tracing, made sure everyone was masked and distanced, and done without congregational singing, but we have met. Still, today felt different. We had in-person Sunday School for the kids on the picnic tables next to the Communal Garden and we were able to have a choir and some amazing cello music. The highlight of the service for me, however, was hearing from our church staff. Instead of one person preaching, Ginger asked each of them to take a few minutes to to talk about how they have thrived during the pandemic. The scripture verse they read before they spoke was Isaiah 43:19:

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

I smiled at myself when I realized that the scripture brought to mind was Stephen Bishop’s “Same Old Tears on a New Background.”

it’s the same old tears on a new background
seeing you as a fading photograph
st hurts too much to laugh these days
I’m all right, yes, I’m all right, all right

Actually, I’m not all right.

One of those who spoke this morning was Clara, our new intern from Yale Divinity School, and she quoted part of the David Whyte poem, “Everything Is Waiting for You.”

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the
conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

As she finished, I realized I am not thriving. I love that poem. I have shared that poem. I think David Whyte is telling the truth. And I don’t feel it.

I have two books that offer me hope in their pages and I haven’t been able to finish them for a month. I have a list of people that I love and that I know love me–and I made the list with the intention of sending a note or a text or something–and I haven’t reached out. I have spent a fair number of evenings sitting at this desk thinking about what to write and then choosing, instead, to watch a ball game or a movie. If I hadn’t had sermons to post, I would not have put anything on this site in a long time. I have able to change my dietary habits and choices so at least I am losing weight, which is good because this summer I set the world record for the amount of Milty on the planet, but I have left undone the things that feed me well.

I know what I need to do to thrive, but I am not doing it.

Twenty years ago, my depression, which has been a persistent, mostly unidentified visitor for most of my life, moved in like it owned the place, and Septembers are never easy anniversaries. My good knee has gone bad over the past couple of years and I have am a couple of weeks away from knee replacement surgery, which means no pain killers because they are blood thinners and they want everything out of my system. Because of personnel changes at work, my confidence in myself and the job I do has faded, which pokes at the sense of unworthiness that has dogged me since childhood. And I miss being able to really be with people. The surgery means my knee will get better, but the other stuff is here for a while.

The word thrive comes from a Scandinavian word that means “to grasp oneself”–to get a hold of myself. To have a true sense of who I am. And I don’t have that right now. I still feel somewhat recognizable to myself, but I don’t feel fully present. I don’t have a good grasp of me.

And I am not alone. Though the specifics of our lists may differ, many of us are failing to thrive.

That’s what made me write tonight: both to ask for help and to say we are not alone. We need to get a hold of ourselves. Together. I don’t know another way to thrive.

it’s the same old song with a new melody
but this old candle’s lingering flame is almost gone
to see you again is all that keeps me hangin’ on . . .

As much as I want to say I’m all right, I know I’m not. I’m telling you because that’s the best I can do.

Peace,
Milton

hearing aids

3

The last of my summer preaching gigs happens today–at United Churches of Durham, Connecticut once again. The passage is Mark 7:24-37, which tells two stories that have to do with hearing–something that stays on my mind. Here is what I am saying to them today.

______________________________________

I remember the first day I got my hearing aids—eight or nine years ago.

I am hard of hearing. That’s still hard for me to say. I learned this week that the origins of that phrase come from one of the oldest meanings of the word hard: difficult to do. For me, hearing had become difficult to do. I had put off getting hearing aids for a while, in some ways because my hearing loss had happened gradually so I was not aware of how profound it had become. Another reason for my reticence was it meant change. It meant admitting that I needed help to do what was a natural function. I was the only one my age that I knew who needed hearing aids. What pushed me out of my inactivity was realizing how much the conversation patterns had changed between Ginger, my wife, and me because I couldn’t hear her easily. I was missing some of her greatest riffs—and she’s got really good material.

The process of getting hearing aids, as some of you may know, is time-consuming and costly. Most health insurance plans do not pay for them. After several trips to the hearing clinic at Duke Hospital in Durham, North Carolina, the day came for me to put them in my ears. My audiologist calibrated the devices and then told me to walk around for a few minutes to see how they felt. I stood up and the first thing I noticed was the sound of the zipper on my vest. As I walked, I heard other things: the elevator bell, the water fountain, the sound of feet in the hallway. When I got back to her office I said, “This is one noisy world!”

The little receptors in my ears granted me access to a world I had grown accustomed to not hearing—a world I had forgotten.

Our reading today contains the stories of two people who were hard of hearing. But before we talk about them, let me offer a word of context from the first half of Mark 7 because we only read the second half.

The chapter begins in Galilee where some of the religious leaders were going hard after Jesus’ disciples because they saw the disciples eating without having done the ritual hand washing that symbolized purity. In other words, the leaders were deciding who was in and who was out based on how well people kept the rules. They were not enforcing theology, but conformity: you had to do things the way they do it to be worth hearing. Since the disciples–who were poor laborers that probably didn’t have easy access to water to wash themselves–just bought food in the market and ate it, they were unclean. They were dismissible. They weren’t worth hearing.

In response, Jesus pointed out that it was not what a person put in their bodies but what came out from them–how they acted towards others–that mattered.

Between verse 23 and 24, Jesus traveled about thirty-five miles, so a couple of days must have passed. He went from Gennesaret to Tyre, a Phoenician city on the Mediterranean in what is Lebanon today. It was much more diverse than Galilee, which is where the first story takes place. Then he went back to the sea of Galilee where the second, more dramatic encounter happened–a deaf man was brought to Jesus and Jesus stuck his fingers in the man’s ears and shouted, “Be open!” and the man was able to both hear and speak clearly.

But I think it is the other story that is most profound.

Even though Jesus was a long way from home, people in Tyre knew who he was, it seems. He went into a house–perhaps someone he knew–and hoped to hide there. It didn’t work. A Phoenician woman found him and asked him to heal her daughter who was very sick. We are not given many details about the woman or much about their conversation. I think it is reasonable to assume they exchanged more words than those written down in Mark 7.

The words we do have, particularly from Jesus, are problematic because they difficult to understand. “Let the children of the household satisfy themselves at table first,” he said. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” His words appear to heighten the difference between them: he was Hebrew and she was Greek. We have no easy explanations as to why Jesus talked to her in such a way. Some commentators try to explain it as a joke—clever wordplay used to point out that he had come for the Hebrew people first, but why would Jesus answer a woman who was crying out for help by offering a theological pun?

Whatever his motive, the woman was undaunted. She had come to advocate–no, to fight for her sick kid. She feared for her daughter’s life. She wasn’t going to take any kind of brush off. In modern parlance we might say, nevertheless she persisted. She stared down the apparent slight, pushed past what felt like prejudice, and replied with tenacity: “Yes, Rabbi, but even the dogs under the table eat the family’s scraps.”

Whatever else was said, Jesus was changed by the way the woman spoke to him. Maybe a better way to say that is Jesus grew. He heard her words and responded, “For saying this, you may go home happy; the demon has left your daughter.” Her words expanded Jesus’ hearing. They offered him a chance to hear what had been hard to hear before. She was not a theological problem or an ethical issue, she was a parent with a sick child who needed help. Instead of just a Greek woman, Jesus heard a human being. She became a hearing aid for him.

Jesus then traveled the thirty-five miles back to Galilee where people brought a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment as a result. Jesus stuck his fingers in the man’s ears and said, “Be open!” and the man was able to hear and speak clearly. Jesus was his hearing aid. That Mark tells the two stories one after the other makes me think they are both about dramatic changes in hearing, almost as though Jesus might have looked at the man and said, “Buddy, I know how you feel.”

The thing about hearing loss is that it is not static. It keeps changing. Over the last ten years, I have had to get new hearing aids because my hearing has gotten harder—it is more and more difficult to do, in part because the technology does not keep up with the changes in my hearing. Hearing loss happens in two ways: volume and clarity. Hearing aids help volume, but not clarity. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how loud things are because they still sound muffled to me. In those moments, the best I can do is to ask for help, whether that is to say, “Say it again,” or to ask someone to tell me what is being said so I can understand what is happening.

In one of my moments of crisis when my hearing had taken another turn for the worse, my spiritual director asked me, “How will you listen when you can no longer hear?” The question hangs in my heart almost every day because hearing–really hearing–is hard to do.

Sometimes, a hint can open up my hearing. Often in a public place Ginger will ask if I can hear the music playing in the background. Most of the time I cannot, or I can only hear a drum beat, but when she tells me what song is playing, I can hear the music and even sing along. She is my hearing aid.

We live in a noisy world. The cacophony of crises that fill our minds and hearts everyday make it hard to know what matters most. The increasing proximity to those whose lives are different than our own, for whatever reason, call us to listen more closely and to expand our vocabulary so we can learn more about them and about ourselves. But the noise of the world takes its toll as well. We are bombarded with words that underline all the things that divide us, or words that encourage us to blame others for what is not right with the world. Day after day, our ability to hear God’s call to love one another gets dimmer and less clear, which means we must be hearing aids for one another, whether that is reflecting our words back and forth so we can learn to choose them more carefully and lovingly, or even if what is required of us is more dramatic, like Jesus sticking his fingers in the man’s ears. May we live out God’s love as hearing aids for one another so everyone can hear loud and clear that they are uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

I don’t want to be a soldier

2

I am preaching again this week and still hope to drive up the road to Durham, Connecticut to be with the good people at United Churches. Because Hurricane Henri appears to have his eyes set on us, I recorded the service just in case, so you have video to watch if you so choose, along with a song–a perennial favorite–“Show the Way” by David Wilcox.

_______________________________

For a decade of my life I was a high school English teacher, and for seven of those years I taught at Charlestown High School in Boston. The school was its own United Nations. For all the diversity, one of the things the students had in common was they were street smart. They knew how to survive in the city.

During class one day, the discussion turned to fighting. As they talked, I asked questions and listened to their stories. In the course of the conversation, a basketball player named Ed Walker said, “Mr. B-C, you never hit anyone did you?”

I did once. His name was Johnny Pike. We were both in the sixth grade at Hubbard Heights Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas, and we got into an argument over a science project that escalated to agreeing to meet on the football field across the street from my house after school. My parents said my brother came running home and slid under his bed, yelling, “Milton’s gonna get killed!” Johnny and I scrapped for a bit until we both were starting to cry; I threw a punch and Johnny’s big brother jumped on me and held me down while Johnny ran away.

What Ed Walker got right was is I am not a fighter. I don’t think violence is a solution. I don’t think violence is redemptive. And I wonder if I would feel that way if I had spent my life in Kabul or the Gaza Strip. As I was preparing for this sermon, I read something written by a pastor named Austin Crenshaw Shelley who told of a time when she was in seminary and expressed her dislike for war metaphors in the Bible and another student who was a Coptic Christian and whose church had been the target of a terrorist bombing said, “You prefer verses about peace because you have never needed a warrior God.”

It is easy for me to say I don’t need a warrior God; I have never had to go to war.

I have worked hard this week to take Paul’s armor metaphor seriously, to wrestle with it and see what I need to learn. I have reminded my7-0loself that Paul was writing to folks who were oppressed. The government was after them. They were considered dangerous, rebellious, incendiary. The lives they lived were not safe. Whether I like it or not, fighting is a reasonable metaphor for life. Just because it is uncomfortable for me–or perhaps because it is uncomfortable for me–doesn’t mean I can’t learn from it. In fact, one of my favorite quotes says, “Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

The verses we read are Paul’s closing words to the Ephesians. He spent a significant part of the letter challenging them to relate to one another with kindness and love and integrity. As he brings the letter to a close, he tells them to be strong in Christ and then he goes through the various pieces of armor—armor they would be used to seeing on Roman soldiers for the most part. And once he has that picture of the soldier in their minds he says, “Our enemy is not physical,” and he talked about spiritual forces. In other words, Johnny Pike is the least of our problems.

When I think of spiritual forces the words that come to mind are things like despair, shame, hopelessness, abuse, oppression. The pandemic has left so many of us languishing, struggling to keep going. In the face of all that, Paul says, be strong in the boundless resources of God. My father was a pastor, which means I heard him preach many, many times. Some of what he said has actually stayed with me, and one of those sermons was on this passage. I think I remember it because his whole point had to do with a preposition, and I didn’t think he paid that much attention to prepositions.

He said that when we read “the armor of God” we tend to think of is possessive–that the armor belongs to God and God hands it out to us to get us ready to fight. He said the better way to read it is to hear the preposition as descriptive, which is to say the armor is God. To put on the armor of God is to wrap ourselves up in God—to be strong in the Lord. But to wrap ourselves s in God, who is love, is to turn the metaphor on its ear. When I look at the passage, I also notice the verbs: resist, stand your ground, pray, keep alert. He never says anything about attacking. And then he asks them to pray for him while he is in prison that he might speak out about the Gospel.

As I thought about how to close this sermon, my first instinct was to point to people like Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu—people who have stood strong and persevered by wrapping themselves in the armor of God. But then the quote came to mind again–“Be kind for everyone is fighting a great battle”—and I thought about people I know, and millions more that I don’t, who struggle daily to survive for any number of reasons, many of which feel like forces beyond their control. The truth is we are all fighting great battles, often within ourselves. I then get this image in my mind of people wrapping one another up in the armor of God—enveloping each other in tenacious, unfailing love and walking on together. To put on the armor of God is not a call to violence, but to love and faithfulness to God and to one another.

And that takes me to one final thought. Every movie I have seen where someone has to put on armor shows that they have to have help to do it. They can’t put it on by themselves, which takes me back to the quote: “Be kind because everyone is fighting a great battle.” And we all need help putting on the armor of God. We all need help being reminded that we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. May we be armor-bearers for one another so that all may know what it feels like to be loved and protected. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

hope is a way of looking at the world

1

Once again, I am preaching at North Madison Congregational Church UCC this morning. The passage is from Ephesians 5:15-21. I included the verses because of the way J. B. Phillips’ translation spoke to me.

Live life, then, with a due sense of responsibility, not as people who do not know the meaning and purpose of life but as those who do. Make the best use of your time, despite all the difficulties of these days. Don’t be vague but firmly grasp what you know to be the will of God. Don’t get your stimulus from wine (for there is always the danger of excessive drinking), but let the Spirit stimulate your souls. Express your joy in singing among yourselves psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making music in your hearts for the ears of God! Thank God at all times for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And “fit in with” each other, because of your common reverence for Christ. 

One of my favorite lines from Guy Clark, one of my favorite songwriters, says,

somedays you write the song
somedays the song writes you

The same can be said of sermons, I think. And this week, thanks to a combination of the scripture passage, things going on in my own life, a new book I started, and a seminar in Guilford on Critical Race Theory, the sermon wrote me.

Early in the week, after reading through the passage several times, I commented to Ginger that I thought Paul was doing more than telling people to be nice to each other. There was more going on than Paul’s version of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Ephesians. He was writing people who lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire, who had chosen to be a part of a burgeoning faith that was not regarded favorably by the oppressive government, and as such had become a sort of random collection of humanity that was trying to learn how to live with each other.

As I say often—so I am sure I have said it here—life and faith are team sports. There’s an old gospel song that starts

me and Jesus, we’ve got a good thing going
me and Jesus, we’ve got it all worked out

It’s a catchy tune, but the truth is it is never just me and Jesus. Faith is always about us, about how we live out our love with and for one another, and how we work through it when we aren’t feeling the love as well. Paul was not writing to individuals; he was writing to a church—to a community of faith. His exhortations were to all of them together.

On Tuesday night, as I listened to the Honorable Angela Robinson, a retired judge in the New Haven District Court and now a law professor at Quinnipiac Law School, as she unpacked Critical Race Theory. In the middle of her informative and helpful talk, and in the context of talking about why it matters that we look at systems and not just individual actions, she said, “Organizations and institutions are designed to get the results they get.”

My mind went off on a tangent from the talk and I wrote in my notes, “What was the church designed for?” The question is not hypothetical. The judge’s statement calls us to answer it backwards, in a way—look first at the results and then look at how we have organized ourselves to get them. With her words in mind, we might say Paul was speaking systemically: he was organizing for hope.

Hold on to that thought and add this to it.

My friend Jay recommended a book called The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times, which is an amazing collection of writings edited by Paul Rogat Loeb, who is a writer I had not heard of. The title made me think it was a pretty good fit for life right now, so I started it this week.

The title is borrowed from a blues song by Bessie Smith. She sang,

the difficult I’ll do right now
the impossible will take a little while

Bessie lived a hard life, and the words make sense for her to sing, but the person who wrote the lyric was a man named Carl Sigman. He first saw the words on the wall of his mess hall in North Africa during World War II, where he was a part of the Army Corps of Engineers and he molded them into a blues song. After telling the story, Loeb commented, “Imagination and courage feed each other.”

I think Paul is saying much the same thing as he calls to live life with a “due sense of responsibility” and to “make the most of the time,” even as he calls us to be full of joy and gratitude. It takes both imagination and courage to choose hope as our way of looking at the world. The truth is the world is a broken, vicious, mutilated, and terrible place. The truth is also that the world is getting better. It is a beautiful, wonderful place.

Having the courage and imagination—the hope—to hold both of those truths is what it means to live with due responsibility. Hope is not mere optimism. Things aren’t just going to work out. Hope understands that we don’t always know the consequences of our actions, but often we can make a pretty good guess. Paul calls us to “live with a due sense of responsibility,” which is another way of saying live as though every word and every action has an impact, a consequence. Live like we are all connected. Live as though love is what matters most.

I feel like Loeb is almost paraphrasing Paul when he writes,
Since we never know when one of our seemingly modest acts might help change history, or engage someone else who will play a key role, we’d do well to savor both the journey of engagement itself and the everyday grace that we can draw along the way.

One of the stories he tells in the book happened in the early 1960s. A woman took two of her kids to a vigil in front of the White House to protest nuclear testing. The demonstration was small–about a hundred women. It was pouring rain. The women felt powerless and frustrated, but they stayed in the rain and protested. A few years later, after the No Nukes movement had gained some steam, the same woman was at a major march in Washington DC. Benjamin Spock, who wrote the Baby Book, was one of the speakers. He told the story of how he had gotten interested in the anti-nuclear movement and said that a few years before he was driving one rainy day in DC and saw a small group of women huddled with their children. He said he thought to himself, “If those women were out in the rain, their cause must really be important.” And he decided to join the movement.

I love that story, and I think those serendipitous kinds of things happen all the time. We all have what I like to call Before-and-After Moments in our lives: moments we can mark how our lives were changed by what might have even seemed to be incidental contact. The thing is most of the time we don’t know we are in one of those moments until much later, if at all. If I can go back to the story about the woman going to the protest in the rain, what is most powerful to me is not that Dr. Spock was inspired by the women as much as that all those years later the woman was still going to protests. She was still showing up, rain or shine.

“Don’t be vague but firmly grasp what you know to be the will of God,” Paul says. THE WILL OF GOD is one of those phrases that we hear in all capital letters. It’s an ominous phrase, as in, “What is the will of God for your life?” We hear it from power-grabbing pastors and politicians who use it, falsely, to claim they know the will of God for everyone, and, of course, God always agrees with them. We struggle with it sometimes as we face crucial decisions trying to discern what God’s will is for us in that situation. So when Paul says we must firmly grasp what we know to be the will of God, it takes a minute to listen past the noise of our preconceptions and hear what he is saying.

Perhaps we can rephrase Judge Robinson to help us here: To do the will of God is to organize our lives to get the results God wants—and the result God wants is for us to love one another. We are called to organize ourselves for love.

It matters to go back and pick up Judge Robinson’s point that we have to keep talking about systems, about communities, even as we talk about the importance of individual action. Our institutions and organizations are reflections of ourselves. When we look at the results of the institutions we are a part of—schools, governments, churches, families—are we content to say that’s what they were organized to do? If not, then God’s will for us in these days is clear: we are called to aim even our smallest act at creating a world where everyone is valued and where everyone can share in the songs of joy and gratitude.

When I first preached for you a few summers ago, I learned the song you sing as your benediction:

in all your living and through your loving,
Christ be your shalom, Christ be your shalom.

Shalom. Christ be your peace. Ginger and I used to have a poster that read, “Peace, like war, is waged,” which is to say that peace is hard work. It doesn’t just happen. We have to mean it—to do the difficult work now and then take the time to work together to do the impossible. I will repeat what I said last week: in the end, love wins; if love hasn’t won, then it’s not the end. In all our living and through our loving may we create the spaces, the places, the churches where everyone can join in the song. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

worthy of rest

4

I preached remotely for the good folks as North Madison Congregational Church this week. The passage was I Kings” 19: 4-8–about Elijah falling, exhausted, under the broom tree and the angel offering food and rest. Even though I preached, it was a word I needed to hear.

___________________________

I don’t know what drives you. I don’t know what makes you worry or keeps you from sleeping at night. I don’t know what causes you to feel restless, or to wish you were somewhere else, or maybe that you were someone else. What is it that undermines your self-confidence and leaves you feeling like you’re not good enough, or that if you don’t keep producing or doing something you will be forgotten or fired? What is it that feeds your fear that you don’t belong, or you aren’t good enough? Maybe it’s a feeling you live with a lot of the time, or one that ambushes you every so often. Whatever it is–whether it is something on the list of things I just reeled off or something I didn’t name–it’s exhausting.

Maybe what is wearing you out isn’t quite so existential. We’re all tired of the life we are having to live thanks to COVID. We have been secluded in our homes, unable to socialize in familiar ways; we have lost friends and family to the virus; we can’t be ourselves together. It’s all exhausting.

In an article in the New York Times last April, journalist Adam Grant described his feelings:

It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.

Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield. And it might be the dominant emotion of 2021.

I think he’s on to something.

After almost a year of quarantines and isolation, just when things seemed to be loosening up, we have been beset by news that we aren’t out of the woods by any stretch. What looked like a summer of fun is turning into another season of questions about how long this is going to go on. And in the middle of it all, comes this story about Elijah who was languishing in the desert under a broom tree wishing he were dead. He was too tired to go on because life had not turned out the way he thought it was going to.

And God sent an angel–a messenger who didn’t really have much of a message. They woke Elijah up and offered him a freshly baked cake of bread and a jar of water and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” Elijah ate and drank and then fell back asleep. The messenger came back the next day and with more cake and water, and Elijah ate and drank again and then, feeling rested and rejuvenated, continued on his journey.

I’ve read several sermons on this passage over the past week and several of them use the story as a sort of template on how to deal with our exhaustion: get away (like Elijah did going into the wilderness), rest, and nourish ourselves. I can see the pattern, and even take something away from those sermons that is helpful, but I am also mindful, as I learned from my friend Kenny who is one of my favorite preachers, that we don’t preach the Bible as if it explains everything; it’s not just information, it’s an event. Elijah wasn’t acting out an object lesson, he was living his life, just like you and me. He didn’t go out into the wilderness on a retreat; he was running scared. His fear had gotten the best of him. He didn’t lie down under the broom tree because it seemed like it was a nice spot; he collapsed there. And in the depths of his exhaustion, God showed up.

A few months back I was meeting with my spiritual director and I think I probably sounded a lot like Elijah. I was feeling overwhelmed by a rather toxic cocktail of grief and fear and anxiety and physical pain. She listened well and then she said, “All of those things are true, and God is near. God is in the middle of it.”

Her words fixed nothing of my circumstances and yet they gave me hope. They gave me a place to rest. They gave my story somewhere to go other than deeper into despair.

Last week, Ginger and I were in Boston for a couple of days with Pilgrim Fellowship, the youth group sponsored by our church, on a service trip. On Tuesday night we were supposed to go see the light show at Franklin Park Zoo. Just as we got there, the skies opened up and it rained hard. As we sat in the car, Ginger noticed a young couple standing under a tree. They were getting soaked. I rolled down my window enough to shout and ask them if they wanted to get in the car and they came running. We sat and talked for a bit. They were on a date–Ginger and I surmised they had not been dating long–and when they ran out of the park to get to their car, they ran out of the wrong gate and were under the tree trying to get their bearings. So we drove them around until we found their car and we all went on our way.

I tell that story to say sometimes we may feel like Elijah and sometimes we may have the chance to be the ones to say, “Wake up and have something to eat.” (Or come get in the car.) We have a chance to incarnate the love of God to one another in a way that keeps the story going beyond the fear and frustration, beyond the depression and despair. We should take every chance we have to do so.

During the pandemic, we have heard more than once that we live in unprecedented times, that the world has never gone through what is happening to us. Yet, in school I learned about the Plague that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages, and we know some about the Flu Epidemic from a century ago. Perhaps these days feel historic because they are happening to us, much like our own personal feelings of anxiety and despair, or the sense that the world will not survive if we don’t carry its weight on our shoulders can lead us to believe no one in the world knows how we feel.

And then we read about Elijah collapsing under the broom tree with those same feelings, thousands of years ago. We are not unique in human history. The pain and pressure of life is not new. Neither is the sustaining grace of God.

I don’t know what drives you. I don’t know what exhausts you. I don’t know what feeds your fear. Whatever it is, God is in the middle of it. The story is not over. As I said last week, love wins in the end; if love hasn’t won yet, then it’s not the end. Darrell Goodwin, our Executive Conference Minister, posted this on his Facebook page a few days ago that says it well:

You are worth the quiet moment.
You are worth the deeper breath.
You are worth the time it takes
to slow down, be still, and rest.

Let us make room for one another to rest. Open our hearts, our ovens, our car doors–find any way we can to remind one another we are more than the sum of our fears and obligations. We are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.

We are also worthy of a good long nap. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

namesake

3

August 3 marks eight years since my father died. These are the words that found me as I stack up the stones once again.

namesake

the name was used
when you gave it to me
accompanied by a number
I was the third though
we were only two
and you already knew
the grief of a dead father
who died at fifty-seven

I was almost his age
when you died
and I have counted
the years since from
the day of your death
first you then mom
your absence a presence
and the name lives on

you told the stories
of your life like a gospel writer
leaving out the details
and I still have questions
I can answer only with
imagination and compassion
somehow it seems
I’m still getting to know you

and what it means to live
into the name you gave me
though I changed it
much to your chagrin
the distance we lived with
seems small compared to death
except sometimes when
you catch me by surprise

these last eight years are full
of arguments we didn’t have
or phone calls to talk about
food and sports and weather
I keep telling your old jokes
and retelling stories
but I’m the only one to turn
when someone says Milton

Peace,
Milton

trust me

3

I am preaching this morning at North Madison Congregational Church UCC, a congregation in the town next to us whom I have gotten to know over the years. The passage this morning is John 6:24-35, where Jesus describes himself as the Bread of Life.

_____________________________

I did something in July I had not done in over a year: I got on an airplane, which also meant I had to deal with going through Bradley Airport, mask and all. On my return trip, I was waiting for my plane to board. The woman across the aisle from me had her laptop open and facing me was a sticker on the lid of the computer that read, “Everyone is doing the best they can—which is terrifying.”

At first, I chuckled, then I wrote down what the sticker said so I wouldn’t forget. As I read our passage for this week, I came back to those words, but not for the humor. I came back because it almost feels like John feels the same way as he describes the people interacting with Jesus. He says that “the people” or “the crowd” did this or said that, as if they moved and spoke in some sort of anonymous choreography—and they always seem to have a hard time grasping what Jesus is saying to them.

Our passage today picks up the day after Jesus fed over five thousand people starting with nothing more than five loaves and two fish. They kept following him, but Jesus went by boat (or by walking on the water) and they had to walk between Tiberias and Capernaum—about six or seven miles—so they were surprised that Jesus had gotten there ahead of them, and they ask him why, or at least someone in the crowd asked. Jesus answers by saying they only showed up because they wanted another meal, which leads to more questions.

The pattern follows one that John sets up early in his gospel. Someone comes to Jesus, or encounters him, and asks questions and Jesus does a sort of back-and-forth banter until the whole thing culminates in Jesus making a bold claim about who he is and why he is here. In John 3, Nicodemus comes by night, and they go back and forth about being “born again” until Jesus says the words we know as John 3:16. In John 4, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well and they go back and forth about water until Jesus begins to talk about not ever having to thirst again. Then he tells her he is the Messiah. Here in John 6, Jesus accuses the crowd of just showing up for a free lunch and then starts talking about bread that lasts for eternity, which leaves people both confused about what kind of bread he’s talking about and wishing they had some of it.

In the course of the conversation, someone asks, “What must we do to carry out the works of God?”

Jesus answers, “This is the work of God: to believe in the one whom God has sent,” much in the same way he had answered Nicodemus and the woman at the well.

Here’s the problem, I think, when we come to these stories. When John wrote the accounts of all these encounters, he had no idea we would be reading them and, that by the time we got to them the word believe would carry a different meaning than it did for him. We hear the word believe and we think of an intellectual assent, in the same way we say we believe in a particular doctrine or thesis. But Jesus wasn’t asking them for intellectual assent, he was inviting them into relationship. Perhaps it would be better to translate Jesus’ words to say, “This is the work of God: to trust in the one whom God has sent.”

I imagine that everyone shuffled uncomfortably for a minute, trying to grasp what Jesus was saying before someone blurted out, “So what are you going to do for us to prove that we should trust you? What will you do?”

John is the only one of the gospels that doesn’t include an account of the temptations of Jesus, and these two questions give me a hint as to why: this whole story is a kind of live action version of what Jesus faced in the wilderness. The people asking what he will do are basically saying if he wants them to follow him then he needs to turn the stones in to bread. And just as he did in the desert, Jesus will have none of it.

Instead, he offers himself: “I am the bread of life.” And he goes on, “No one who comes to me will ever be hungry; no one who believes in me will be thirsty.”

Even as those words ring in our ears, I am mindful that hunger is a part of life. There is no way to live and not get hungry. When this service is over, we are all going to go eat something because that’s what we do. To say we are held by the love of God does not mean all our needs are magically met or that we will never have problems. It means in the middle of the hunger and the grief and the questions and the pain and the joy and whatever else we might add to the list, we are loved. We can trust the love of God to sustain us, to make life mean more than a scramble for our basic needs. The apostle Paul wrote that he had learned to be content regardless of the circumstances he faced because he knew God loved him. Maybe that’s what it means to never be hungry again.

The meal we share at the Communion table isn’t intended to fill us up. We take a morsel of bread and a sip from the cup. We don’t come to the table to stuff ourselves, we come to reaffirm our trust in the one who called himself the Bread of Life. We come to re-member the Body of Christ, to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name. When Paul wrote about Communion, he said we should reconcile with whomever we need to before we came to the table. Each time we gather we are offered the chance to build an altar of remembrance: Who is no longer here with us? Who is new to our table? What has happened since we last shared this meal? How has God sustained us? How has God fed us?

When we walk away from the table after the meal, we will still be hurting and grieving; we will still face difficult circumstances; we will still have difficult decisions to make, and we have the promise that God is with us, and God’s presence—if we are willing to trust it—can take away the gnawing hunger for something other than reality. As a friend of mine likes to say, “Love wins. If love hasn’t won yet, then it’s not over.”

In another story that John didn’t tell in his gospel, an angel visited Joseph after he found out that Mary was pregnant. They were not married. He knew he was not the father. The visit didn’t change any of those circumstances. What the angel did say was, “Name the child Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

“What will you do?” they asked Jesus.
“Nothing,” Jesus answered, “because it’s not what I do that matters, it’s who I am. I am the bread of life. I am Love Incarnate. I am with you. Trust me.”

As I said earlier, To say we are held by the love of God does not mean all our needs are magically met or that we will never have problems. It means in the middle of the hunger and the grief and the questions and the pain and the joy and whatever else we might add to the list, we are loved.

Everyone is doing the best they can—which may be terrifying–and God is with us. Amen.

Peace,
Milton