Sunday, December 31, 2017


“God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”  Galatians 4:4-5

We do not know the name of Saint Paul’s father.  This may strike you as trivial, a trick question for the daily double on Bible Jeopardy, but I think there’s deep theological significance in this important omission.

We know a great deal about Saint Paul, because he intertwines bits of his biography into his teaching.  Scholars can date his missionary journeys down to the month, and he names dozens of his friends and associates scattered around the Mediterranean world.  He tells us that he came from the city of Tarsus, that before he met Jesus he was a member of the Pharisee sect within Judaism.  We know that Saint Paul’s father came from the ancient tribe of Benjamin, and that he was a Roman citizen, a fairly unusual fact for Jew of this time, and a fact on which the drama of his son’s later life turned.

But Saint Paul never names him.  In that respect he is unlike almost every major figure in the Old Testament. 

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Christmas Cow

“The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.”  Isaiah 1:3

My mother’s nativity set is porcelain.  It was a rather optimistic choice for a family of three curious boys, and the figures received their share of battering over the years.  None of them so much as the cow.  The cow in the Michael family nativity set is missing at least one horn.  The glaze is scuffed off in a few places, and the hindquarter has a long brown seam, carefully mended with adhesive after a precipitous fall.

That was my fault.  When I was four or five I went through a cow stage.  Some boys memorize the starting lineup for their favorite baseball team or the Air Force fighter plane fleet.  But growing up in the country, with two farmers for grandfathers, my obsession was cows.  I knew all the breeds, where they had originated, which local farmers raised which kinds.  I could tell you the strong points of Guernsey milk and Angus steaks, and I knew all about those “hairy coos” in the Scottish highlands.   

And Christmas is the perfect holiday for a little boy drawn to cattle.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Perishing Words

“And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ…He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.”  St. John 1:20,23

We are living in an age of powerful words.  Over the last few months, women from every corner of public life have found the courage to come forward to say: “I was violated, demeaned, treated with cruelty.  Sexual abuse affected me too, and I will be silent no longer.”  And it seems that every morning there is another apology, another resignation of some powerful man. 

In the last few years, people all across the nation have spoken out about racial discrimination and brutal treatment of African Americans.  There have been bestselling books, protests and counter protests, verdicts rendered.  Old statues have fallen, flags have been hauled down, and a few football players sit on the sidelines.

Words are, of course, the oxygen of politics. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Not Changing the World

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?”  St. Matthew 25:37

“Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Change the World.”  For some years this was the official tagline of the Episcopal Church, the slogan you would see on the denominational website, the mantra repeated by the Presiding Bishop at official gatherings.  Under the leadership of our current presiding bishop, Michael Curry, the new tagline is, “The Jesus Movement.” But the “change the world” language does get trotted out from time to time.  It has an enduring to stir people’s hearts and to get them thinking big about the implications of following Jesus Christ in the life of the Church.

Some of you will know that Fr. Mac and I do a fair amount of writing for The Living Church’s Covenant blog, and this week there was a compelling article by our friend Dan Martins, the Bishop of Springfield, about this slogan, “Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Change the World.[1]”  Bishops Martins acknowledged, “It’s catchy, it’s memorable, and you can’t really argue with it without sounding hopelessly curmudgeonly.” 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Managing Well

“He entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents,  to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.”  St. Matthew 25:14-15

Last weekend, I went an apple butter boil, an old family tradition, at a cousin’s farm in my hometown.  By the bubbling kettle, I struck up a conversation with another cousin, Robin.  She plays the organ at Mount Carmel Methodist Church, a mile or two up the road in Shanktown, Maryland, a place that doesn’t make it onto the road atlas.  Mount Carmel is a white clapboard chapel, built around the time of the Civil War.  My grandparents were members and four generations of Michaels sleep in its shady churchyard.  I’ve always thought of it as a timeless place.

But Robin said things have changed.  There are only twenty of them in the pews most Sundays.  There’s no choir or Vacation Bible School anymore.  My cousin Andrew’s baby girl is the only child.  Mount Carmel has never been a big church, and it has always shared a pastor with the other local Methodist churches.  But it was probably two or three times that size when I was a kid. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The faith of an alto: remembering Grandma

“Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple.”  Revelation 7:15       

Grandma was an alto.  I learned this when I joined the choir as a ten year old, before my voice changed.  Mom placed me on the second row, between grandma and grandpap.  The joke was that this was for the sake of public order.  It took advantage of the fact that grandpap could only hear well in his right ear.  It kept me at a bit of a distance from those other tenors and basses who always had a joke to tell at the wrong moment.  But really, I think, it was so I would learn from grandma what it meant to be part of a choir.

Altos don’t get to sing the melody, like the sopranos, and they aren’t generally given dramatic leaps or catchy rhythms like basses.  They hold the middle voice and keep the beat.  Sometimes they will sing pretty much the same note for whole lines of music.  The other voices rise and fall, but altos are steadfast, anchoring the other members of the choir and drawing them together into a sound that is all the richer and more vibrant for their humble contribution. 

There isn’t any choral singing without altos—just lots of performers vying for attention, delighted in the sound of their own voices.  The blend is the truly beautiful thing about choral singing.  It relies on listening to each other, and requires that some must take the humbler place, offering their best as a form of service to the whole, giving what they have in love that does not seek for recognition or honor. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Youth Replies, I Can

These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”  Revelation 7:14

The tradition at my high school was that each graduation speaker had to discuss as his or her theme a famous saying of an American hero.  There was a rotating series of texts, and these were assigned by Mr. Snyder, the venerable senior class advisor, who had been at it since my mother was a student.  Even by 1996, this sort of thing was dreadfully old-fashioned, but no one really complained about it—it was just how it was at Clear Spring High School. 

I wasn’t told until two weeks before graduation which text I would have to discuss.  I wanted Daniel Webster’s words from the Dartmouth College case: “she is a small school, but there are those who love her.”  Whoever got that could write the tear-jerker.

But instead, I was assigned a bit of a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
So nigh is grandeur to our dust, 
So near is God to man, 
When Duty whispers low, Thou must, 
The youth replies, I can.