Thanksgiving Stories

Dear Friends of Second Church,

I don’t know whether you’re staying or going this Thanksgiving.

Liz, the girls and I always “go”– first to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving (and overnight with their dog Henry, whom the girls adore), then on Friday to my in-laws in the City for Second Thanksgiving.

It helps that the matriarchs are both wonderful cooks.

But we’re very blessed to have all four grandparents near to hand and mostly spry, and we know that.

I remember my great-grandfather when he was a few years older than my dad, though I don’t remember much other than his supervising late season yard-work on the day after Thanksgiving.

When it came to children, he was pretty much a member of the “seen but not heard” school. In his view, yard work was for boys, dishes were for girls, and sitting quietly was for anyone under 30, except active military.

The idea of having a kid read him a book, or explain about which character in the movie is Kristoff and which one is Sven, or ask to hold the dog’s leash during a walk, or go on “Very Important Errands” with him to CVS–well, these things hadn’t been discovered yet.

So aside from the yardwork, and the one year I whined my way into getting my cousin Charlie to take me with him to the Madison-Guilford Thanksgiving Day football game, what I remember over all those Thanksgivings was a lot of sitting and listening to the grown-ups talk.

I didn’t look forward to it, although now, of course, I would give anything to sit there quietly and listen.

Because honestly, what talkers they were.

My Great-Uncle Tom, who was drafted at 19 and had hidden wine bottles all over the woods of France “just in case they ever retreated” en route to Berlin.

His wife, Aunt Alice, who had been the “Shoreline correspondent” for the New Haven Register, and one of the first people in town to own a television, and a political junkie since the 40s.

My grandmother, talking about the time she skated with Sonja Henie in “The Nutcracker” in New Haven, playing a rat who had to chase the cheese.

My father, who then as now, has always gotten on a roll when he’s around his siblings, and loves to get them bickering over what happened to the cat in 1953, or who convinced Brucie Barber to stick his tongue on the guardrail while they were waiting for the school bus one frigid February morning in 1948.

So many stories.

And so, while I’m glad that our girls will have warm memories of all kinds of adventures with their grandparents, and will remember how everyone was so interested in their world from the very first, I’m a little sad that they won’t have quite the same experience of hearing the stories year after year, of being initiated into the family lore (whether or not they want to be), of learning to listen not because they’re interested, but so that they might become interested.

They’re young. There’s still time.

But Thanksgiving reminds us of how importance it is to take hold of these moments, and that, while it takes years to pass on a legacy, we need to take the moments seriously–and see them for the opportunity they are.

Teaching our children what it is we believe in, how it is we understood ourselves to have been seen through challenges, what it is we think we owe, and where we come from are all vitally important things for us to pass on.

It’s part of how they understand not only that blessing is real, but that blessing takes particular forms within our lives, and that our legacies are shaped by those blessings.

Your family may not tell stories that refer to God or “faith” or “prayer” or even “blessing.” Most of mine does not. But in learning who their people are, for good or for ill, in ways comic and tragic, our children learn a lot about the way that love unfolds across the generations. They learn about who it is they are being invited to become. And they learn about the power of testimony in ways that will never let them go.

I feel God’s presence in that.  And I give thanks.

See you in church,

The Claims of Abundance (1 Thessalonians 5:12-24)


The next few days are precious ones for us Congregationalists.

These are that precious handful of days when people think about Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, and the Mayflower—when stores and schools and all night diners all over the country are decorated with the autumnal colors and the cultural symbols of New England Puritanism.

Now there are those who cringe at the papier mache pilgrim hats and the little white bonnets for women and girls. Not me.

It’s kitschy, I admit it. But as a Congregationalist, I still love it. Because what form of tribute could be more American than that? In America, if you’ve been turned into a Pez dispenser or a party costume, your place in the culture is forever secure.

Now there are questions we might ask about just what place we Congregationalists seem to have secured.

If you go to Party City in search of Pilgrim hats or one of those fetching white Pilgrim bonnets, you’ll see that they have them on sale, which is entirely right and proper.

However, right next to them, you will also find the ready-to-wear, adult-sized, gobble-to-claw turkey outfit, because what Thanksgiving could ever be complete without somebody’s brother saying “I say boy…..” over and over and over again.

I’m not sure what that says about the place of Thanksgiving in the collective imagination these days. Or about the cauldron of emotions it seems to stir whenever we return to our families of origin—who wears a turkey outfit?

Still, as a Congregationalist, I delight. If some of our legacy is to sponsor an annual conversation about where it is that people call home, and why, or about how traditions shape us, for good or ill, I am delighted.

That said, it’s interesting to me to note how a day whose beginnings were found in gratitude simply for having survived at all after a long and difficult year has softened quite a bit since 1621.

That first year at Plymouth was a hard, hard year, indeed. Many of the Mayflower settlers didn’t make it through the first winter. None of them would have without the pity of the local Wampanoag Nation—and the providential discovery of some food buried in a nearby abandoned native town.

But when we celebrate Thanksgiving, that’s not really what we celebrate, is it?

The day isn’t about eke-ing out an existence in a strange and physically punishing environment. It’s become a celebration of abundance. If it’s about anything, anymore, it’s about remembering how our forefathers once had to eke, and about how, comparatively speaking, now many of us don’t have to eke—and, well, thanks be to God for that.

And so, for all the conversations that Thanksgiving seems to generate, I don’t think it generates the right one, at least as far as abundance is concerned.


Actually, it used to do better.

Before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, in fact, there was a tradition of what were called “Ragamuffin Parades”—particularly in New York City, but also in other places.

Ragamuffin Parades were for children, especially working-class children, who would go into wealthier neighborhoods on the day before Thanksgiving, wearing elaborate costumes and going door to door, asking “Anything for Thanksgiving?”

If it sounds distinctly like Halloween to you, you’re absolutely right. It was.

Yet I would suggest that the Ragamuffin Parade was trying to make a different point.

Unlike Halloween, the Ragamuffin Parade was about abundance. About not forgetting our neighbors, and especially about not forgetting our children. It was about social divisions, yes, but also about how good will and kindness could help to bridge those divisions. It was about reminding the successful that the left behind were not far away.

At a time when so much of the popular rhetoric was about how to ensure that fellow Christians and other were transformed into reliable Americans, the Ragamuffin Parades were a reminder from fellow Americans and others about becoming reliable Christians.

It would not have been entirely cutesy. The line between “The Little Rascals” and “The Gangs of New York” was thinner than you might think.

But the point would have been hard to miss.

With the pies for Thanksgiving already in the oven, and the smells of plenty filling the house, the Ragamuffin Parade came by, and who was who and what was what would hang there for a moment, and the descendants of those first Pilgrims would lock eyes with someone trying to eke out his existence in a strange and physically punishing environment. Someone who was seven.

Imagine if we still had it.

Because what would it be like if, on the day before Thanksgiving—which is always a day when the grownups are cooking or cleaning or trying to load the car so we can beat the traffic—what would it be like, if a parade of ragamuffins suddenly showed up, to remind us of our abundance?

Because, yes, sure, you’re trying to make it to LaGuardia and you don’t need to apologize to anyone for the fact that if some yahoo gets in the EZ Pass lane by mistake, that means you can miss your flight, and good luck to you if that happens. But then the parade comes and you remember: you’re blessed.

Or maybe it’s the day before Thanksgiving and you’re chastising a houseful of kids: “Guys you cannot make a fort out of pillows in the living room right now because Uncle Fred’s new wife is like Martha Stewart on Steroids and I really don’t have time to get chocolate finger schmears off of the sofa.” But then the parade comes and you remember: you’re blessed.

Or maybe nobody’s planning on coming by and you’re sitting at home, debating about whether to go to Boston Market for the half-chicken special, or just not bothering at all this year. But then the parade comes and you remember: you’re blessed.

Abundance takes many forms. Nevertheless, with all the challenges of the living of our days, it can be easy to forget the many ways that we are blessed. And it’s become all too easy to forget the enduring claim of our neighbors upon us.


We don’t talk about that much as part of Thanksgiving, now.

But the fundamental understanding of the Pilgrims long ago was that unless you understand that, then you don’t understand much of anything.

They had a sense—a deep, abiding sense—that ultimately, all things come to us as gifts, that the world does not belong to us, but that it belongs to God.

They believed that there is a wisdom at work in our lives, even in adversity. They believed that wisdom is bringing the Universe together in ways that we can and in ways we cannot see, and they thought it was absolutely essential that we learn to trust that wisdom.


But they also recognized that this wisdom made claims on each of us along the way, and that loving God without loving our neighbors wasn’t really loving God much at all, because you can’t love God fully without coming to love what God loves.

Abundance was a grace, indeed, but it was never intended as a cloistered grace. It was a way to serve the Kingdom of God. They saw that, and tried to live it.

They were imperfect people, to be sure.

And yet their sense of thanksgiving was deeper and more challenging than ours typically is, and a lot more faithful.

But they understood that Thanksgiving had power in it. The power to make us much better Christians.


The Apostle Paul would have agreed.

Our reading this morning comes from his first letter to the Thessalonians, and he gives a series of moral exhortations.

“Encourage the fainthearted,” he says. “Help the weak. Be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (v. 15).

But then he brings it home, saying: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil” (vs. 17-22).

To me, the part that is really important is when he says “Rejoice always…give thanks in all circumstances.”

Because remember: Paul is writing to a church that’s very different than ours. He’s writing to what will soon become a fugitive church—a church that will choose to meet in graveyards and catacombs because even Roman soldiers wouldn’t go there after dark.

Paul is writing to a church that even already is seeing the beginning of dark times.

And in that context, what he’s saying is remarkable.

Because what he’s saying is that it’s not enough to believe that the Gospel is true. It’s not enough to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. It’s not enough even to be ready to see those beliefs through to the end…whatever that end might be…and whatever bravery we might have to summon.

Instead, what matters according to Paul is to be so immersed in the love and purposes of God that we learn to “rejoice always,” and “to give thanks in all circumstances.”

What matters is to remember just how very blessed we are.

That’s not to say our lives are easy. That’s not to say it’s wrong to ask God to heal what needs healing in our lives or in our world.

It’s saying that despite how things may seem, it is still right to trust the wisdom at the heart of it all.

It’s saying that whatever darkness we may find ourselves in, it is still right to believe in the power of light.

It’s saying that no matter what may come, God’s people are called to remember the words of the doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

Because the blessings do flow. And God is the source of all our blessings.

So I hope you are proud to be identified with Thanksgiving, this particularly Congregationalist holiday.

You may not choose to wear the costume.

I don’t know that a Ragamuffin Parade will pass by your house on Wednesday to remind you of your abundance, and of the enduring claim of our neighbors upon our love and care.

But I hope you will recall the many blessings that have brought you to the place you are, and sustained you in the great challenges of life, and given you hope for what may yet come.

I hope in these days that you will be mindful of those blessings, and give thanks for the abundant life we find in God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, the giver of all good gifts. And feel God’s urgent call to share them with a world so much in need.


The Urgency of Thankfulness

Prayer Book

Dear Friends of Second Church,

One of the gems in our church library is a 1901 Order of Worship book for the Reformed Church in the United States.

I don’t know how we came to have it. It’s not particularly rare or valuable. It’s a slender black book with a pebbled leather cover and gilt-edged pages, and looks a little like a daily diary, or like the sort of curio that a pastor buys at a yard sale.

Yet so much within it is familiar. Prayer books always have sections for different services, and there is always an appendix with the Psalms. This one is no exception. But books like these are also products of their times. For example, the Episcopal Church’s now not-so-recent revision of its Book of Common Prayer includes a prayer for astronauts and a few references to “interstellar space”…that was “cutting edge” when it first appeared.

With that in mind, when you look through a prayer book from 1901, it’s a glimpse into the hopes and fears of a new century, now itself past.

For example, it is telling that there is a whole section of “Prayers and Thanksgivings for Special Occasions at Sea.” It takes a moment to remember that, well, of course, they had those back then.

In fact, it’s next to that section, just between “Burial of the Dead at Sea” and “Laying of a Cornerstone for a New Church” that you will find a service for “Public Reception of Immigrants.”

The fine print at the top explains: “As early as convenient after the arrival of Christian brethren from a foreign land, they shall come into the Church, on the occasion of a public service, or at any other time appointed for that purpose, to render thanksgiving to God for His goodness in bringing them safely through the dangers of the sea, and that they may be publicly commended to the Christian fellowship and sympathies of the congregation…The Minister shall announce to the Congregation their names, and at his discretion read such credentials as they may have brought from their fatherland, and give any information he may possess concerning their previous life and Christian character.”

It’s telling that before offering the “fellowship and sympathies of the congregation,” and even before the announcement of their names and “such credentials as they may have brought,” it was assumed that the most urgent need of arriving brethren would be “to render thanksgiving to God for his goodness….”

I’m moved by that urgency.

In our own era, we can be so quick to introduce ourselves and so slow to remember to say thank you—to anyone, much less to God. We have lost some of that sense of having been brought “safely through the dangers of the sea” or any other place, and so often consider ourselves lucky (randomly) to have made it to a safer, better place, for however long we get to be there. We have lost the habit of seeing, and naming that sense of deeper forces and purposes at work in our lives, and don’t seem to feel as if we owe those forces much of anything.

Our forebears knew better.

That’s why Thanksgiving is such an important holiday.

It may not be on any Christian calendar—it’s not an “official” church holiday, of course.

But to me, it’s one of the most important holidays of all.

It’s a day we have a chance to feel that sense of God’s claim on our lives, and God’s claim on the history that brought us to this place. It’s a day when we remember that giving thanks isn’t supposed to be the last thing we do, but rather the first thing we do—just as Sunday, the Sabbath day, isn’t the last day of the week, but the first—it’s the act of devotion and the day of recollection from which all other acts and days may then begin.

Like the Sabbath, Thanksgiving is a day to remember that there is a world of difference between being “lucky” and being blessed—and that we have been blessed, and with much that God expects to follow from that blessing.

To me, this little prayer book gets it right. We have escaped the “Burial at Sea”—the sea of troubles we constantly navigate, whatever they might be. What lies ahead is the “Laying of a Cornerstone,” not only for a new church, but for a new world—a place that reflects our commitment to justice and peace, freedom and love, however we may be called to work for such a world.

What lies between is the urgent need for us to name God’s claim upon us. What lies between is the urgent praise of grateful hearts that know God hasn’t brought us this far to leave us. What lies between is the urgency of giving thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving.
See you in church,

Sermon: “Two Copper Coins and a Holy Trust” (Mark 12:38-44)


n the last couple of days, some of you may have seen news reports of a recent study of children and altruism, published in the academic journal Current Biology.

Apparently, researchers were looking to find differences in empathy or sharing in different cultures around the world.

And they were interested not in generosity, but in altruism, which is to say, they were not looking at how children gave when the giving was easy, but rather at what they could learn about how children gave to others when there was some sort of cost to themselves.

The results were surprising.

The children were asked to play a game in which they were given a limited number of stickers. They were told they could keep as many as they wanted. But then they were asked how many they would be willing to give away to an anonymous child in their school with their same demographic background. A kind of basic set-up to get at their abstract willingness to share.

It turns out that, actually, children who grow up in religious households (and particularly Christian, Jewish, and Muslim ones) are not more inclined to give sacrificially. That was the result that everyone was expecting. Actually, they may be somewhat less inclined to give sacrificially.

In fact, it turns out that the older the children were, the less generous they became, suggesting to the researchers that (as Forbes magazine put it) “longer exposure to religion leads to less altruism.”

Do you ever read something in the newspaper and think to yourself, “This is the article that is going to launch ten thousand blog posts?”

I feel a little that way.

And I’m not going to take our sermon time this morning to offer you my own attempt at a full response.

But I was interested to learn that this phenomenon, which we religious folks find so surprising, is less surprising to psychologists. It turns out that their work points to one possible answer for why religious children are perhaps less generous.

They refer to a phenomenon called “moral licensing.” Moral licensing is about how sometimes when we do good things, we may actually give ourselves a little more internal permission to do questionable things. It is as if we have proven to ourselves that we are good people, that our hearts are in the right place, so…what’s a little fudging on other things here and there?

Ironically enough, for some of us, attending church, or taking time for prayer, or reading Scripture privately in the morning before work, may actually make us a little more open to bending the rules in our own situation.

It reminds me of a story I’ve heard that surely cannot be true, about a church that was trying to attract people with a more edgy kind of message. So one day the head of the Church Council was driving by the church and she saw the pastor putting a banner over the front door that said, “Welcome Sinners!”

Of course, she immediately zoomed into the parking lot and ran over and said, “You can’t say that! I mean, people will get the wrong idea about who we are, and who we think they are…this is a disaster!”

And the pastor immediately backed down and said, “O.k., I get it. No problem. I’ll change it right away.” He hops back on the ladder and starts taking down the banner.

The next Sunday, she drives up to church and there, over the front door, is a brand new banner, and it says, “Welcome Pharisees!”

I doubt that pastor lasted much longer.

But if this whole idea of moral licensing is correct, I think we need to acknowledge that working through our own temptation to be Pharisees is an important and ongoing part of our faith journey.


To put it another way, we may find the whole idea of moral licensing to be troubling, and maybe even astonishing.

But it seems clear that in his own time and place, Jesus saw such behavior all around him.

It did not seem to astonish him.

And I want to suggest that this morning’s story from Mark’s gospel about the widow’s mite, the widow who gives all that she has to the Temple, even though it is just two copper coins, is finally more about the danger of moral licensing than it is about the faithfulness of the widow.

We don’t tend to read it that way. For obvious reasons, we tend to read it in the context of stewardship.

We usually hear it as a call to giving—as a reminder that it is not the size of the gift but the size of the heart that gives it that matters—and I admit that I have preached that sermon. I’ve preached it more than once. It’s a good sermon.

The scene lends itself to that.

Because what we tend to forget is that in this scene, the widow is giving everything she has—everything including what she needs to live on—and while her faith is great, when push comes to shove, she’s putting her faith in an institution that doesn’t deserve it.

She’s putting her faith in an institution that caters to the scribes and has all but forgotten her.

She’s putting her faith in an institution that by the time Mark writes his gospel will already be physically destroyed, and the scribes who are there one-upping each other and strutting around won’t be there anymore. After unsuccessfully fighting against Rome, the Temple will be a smoldering ruin, and the scribes who ran it will have been almost entirely wiped out.

The point of the story is not that the woman is faithful. It’s that she’s taken her two copper coins and purchased herself a steerage ticket on the Titanic.

And if faith comes down to what the Temple does, then faith is sunk.

Jesus wants us to recognize that the faith that the Temple embodies is no longer a kind of life-giving connection to the purpose and presence of a living, loving God.

It’s become a spiritual DMV, offering the moral license lets people do what they want under a veneer of respectable religion.


Church, this is a tough passage.

We want to think of ourselves as the widow, of course.

But I think Jesus’s word to us this morning is that, actually, we need to see ourselves as the scribes.

Jesus is pushing us to see that it’s their challenge that may well be closest to our own.

Because it’s easy enough to tell people to put their faith in God. That’s not wrong, by any means.

But remember: People also put their faith in us.

As they are learning what it is to put their faith in God for the first time….or as they are learning how to find God again when life has thrown them a curve ball…they can’t always see God.

But they can see us. They can listen to us. They can learn from us. And so, we have a holy trust to keep.

And so if we say “have faith because God is good”…if we say “With God, all things are possible”…if we say “All things work together for those who love God,” we must remember that it isn’t simply that they believe these things because they’re true, although indeed, they are true.

Before they ever get to that, though, they believe these things to no small extent because we say that we believe them.

They do these things because we say, this is the way to find God.

And so they do them. They put in their two copper coins and hope to God that what we’ve promised them is true.

We have a holy trust to keep.

The people in our lives who are like that widow—the people we encounter who are the most vulnerable, the most adrift, the most confused, the most precarious among us—the people we encounter who need God the most—they may not have

the spiritual wherewithal to know that God loves them, to know that the Universe isn’t out to get them, or to imagine a different future.

Instead, what they have is a spoonful of hope, and then the power of our example.

What they have is the gift of God’s love, and the humility we are willing to share about our own journey toward a more faithful life, with all its ups and downs.

We have a holy trust to keep.

And the remarkable thing is that if we keep it, this trust is enough. It’s enough to get started. It’s enough to feel included. It’s enough to get you feeling human again when you don’t. It’s enough to show you that grace is real, and that grace can be just as amazing as the song says it’s supposed to be.

It’s also why we must never give in to the temptation of moral licensing, with the little permissions we give ourselves to do what we will because the external trappings of our faithfulness mean we’ve already crossed God off of our “to-do” list for the day.

For just as surely as there is always need for kindness, for honesty, for justice, for peacemaking, so indeed there is always time for kindness, for honesty, for justice, and for peacemaking.

If only we will see the need. If only we will make the time. If only we will keep the trust.

The story of the widow’s mite isn’t a story of the power of generosity. It’s a call to be a church that’s worthy of her hopes, and listens to her need.

The need is real. But the grace is amazing. And it saves a wretch like you and a wretch like me, not just once, but time and time again.

May we learn to keep its trust through all our days.


“Haunted: A Little Halloween Thought about Churches”


Last Saturday night at about 10 p.m., with everyone else in the house asleep, I was sitting on the couch debating with myself about the morality of stealing a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup from Emily’s Halloween candy (a debate I lost), when I became aware of a tremendous amount of noise on the front lawn of the Parsonage.

It was a group of older kids, though none I knew. They were clearly pausing en route between the Disneyland of Chocolate that is Maher Avenue on Halloween and wherever their next destination was—more houses? A dance? I couldn’t tell.

I stepped onto the porch to shoo them along with my best Mean Old Grouch on the Porch routine, but then I saw they were taking pictures with their phones.

“Wait, wait,” said one. “Freeze right there! Now you look like you’ve just come out of the castle! Everyone else look scared!”

They were taking action shots in their costumes, with the church as a background.

“Awesome!” said the photographer, happily. “That one looks messed up.”

I don’t like to think of the church as a creepy castle (or as looking messed up), although I decided to let the kids go ahead and have their fun.

But it made me think of the ways that churches can come to seem just like that. And I’m not actually talking about the architecture, or about Halloween night, of course.

So often, churches can come across as forlorn and foreboding, as places haunted by the past rather than teeming with new life. There are places where the ghosts are all around: the Ghost of Christmas Past, when the church had to have seven full services to accommodate all the families, and each child thought that getting a fresh orange was the greatest present of all; the Ghost of Budgets Past, when in any given year, the church fathers just made a few calls and…bingo!…they could swing the salary for two more associate pastors and put a new roof on an outbuilding; the Ghost of Pastors Past, when the wisest, kindest, nationally-known preacher with a leonine mane of white hair and Caruso-like singing voice was their leader; the Ghost of Sundays Past, when no athletic coach would so much as dare TOUCH Sunday morning, nobody dared play golf before noon, or needed to sleep in after getting back late from an international flight, and cell phones didn’t call people into work at the last minute.

When a church is haunted by ghosts like those—and those are only a few—it isn’t long before it starts to feel like a creepy castle, all right.

Put that up against a world where people still need loving, wrongs still need righting, the young still need guiding, the bereft still need comforting, life-purposes still need pondering, and friends still need introducing, and you’ll see how tragic it is when a church lets itself give up and just be haunted, instead.

That’s what’s really messed up.

One of the greatest challenges, but also joys of our life together is trying to discern who it is Christ needs us to be in this new time. A church like ours has remained strong because it has found new ways to ask and answer such questions. But more than that, it has found joy in the searching and answering—in seeing a beloved old building as the backdrop for new stories, and the abounding grace in its bringing together new communities, and in its finding new ways to celebrate together.

I hope that’s what you’re finding here. I find it constantly…and not just on my front lawn. Let’s find a way to learn from those experiences and listen for God’s call as we do.

See you in church,

New Sacred » “False Hope, Real Hope, and the Dying Child”

My latest piece on the UCC blog “New Sacred”…What does hope look like at the bedside of dying child? Some thoughts….

Earlier this week, CNN reported the heartbreaking story of five-year-old Julianna Snow, who was born with a rare, incurable neurodegenerative condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

Click the link below for the full piece…

Source: New Sacred » “False Hope, Real Hope, and the Dying Child”

From the Newsletter: “‘The Big Broadcast and the Importance of Sabbath”


Dear Friends of Second Church,

Earlier this week, I learned on NPR that Ed Walker, a longtime Washington, D.C. radio man on station WAMU, had died.

Blind since birth, Walker fell in love with radio early…and deeply. The connection may seem obvious; nevertheless, in college, Walker had to convince his academic advisor that his lack of sight did not summarily disqualify him from broadcast work. Ultimately, he did, and his career began…just as television was coming into its own. Maybe it is no surprise, then, that while he enjoyed a successful career, his greatest love was “The Big Broadcast,” a Sunday evening show he hosted, beginning in 1990.

If you never caught it, “The Big Broadcast” was a celebration of the Golden Age of Radio—a four-hour show with music, comedy, and classic serials like “Gunsmoke” and “Dragnet,” many of which Walker remembered hearing as a boy, lying on the living room floor, or with the transistor radio hidden under his pillow as he pretended to be asleep.

His love of those stories, and of radio as a way of storytelling, was obvious, and it helped turn two—maybe even three—new generations into fans.

He always began “The Big Broadcast” with the same signature welcome: “If you have anything that’s bothering you in the coming week, don’t worry about it now. Or any problems that you had in the week just past — forget them too. This is our time in the week — right now. The island between last week and the coming week. So settle back, relax, get yourself a cup of coffee or whatever you want, and get ready to enjoy The Big Broadcast.”

I don’t know if Walker knew it, but the great rabbi and teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel once described the Sabbath in remarkably similar terms, as “an island in time” for humanity to rest and reconnect with those we love, and to reconnect with our Creator.

For Heschel, this wasn’t about “escaping” so much as it was remembering to put our lives in context. Remembering who matters most has a way of helping us stay focused on what matters most, and it has a way of teaching us to use our time more wisely.

Heschel taught that if all that the Sabbath does is patch us up a bit for doing the same old things in the same old way, we have not used it fully according to God’s purposes for it. The Sabbath has the capacity to ground us—crucially so—but also to grow us. That growth is crucial, too: not just for us, but for all those who depend on us, and not only now, but in the future, as those who come after us inherit the world we have built.

That’s how we remember to pay attention to the legacy we will leave, and to find joy in creating it, even though it may only fully blossom well after we have handed it to the next generation. Nevertheless, it matters for the living of our own days, as well as for the living of theirs.

Escaping to the Golden Age, whether it’s the Golden Age of Radio or some other one, is important to do once in a while. It’s always nice to visit the “island in time” between the week past and the week to come, and many of us need to do it a lot more often than we allow ourselves. But Sabbath allows us to find energy and commitment toward creating a better world to come—it teaches us not simply to enjoy rest, but to work for peace.

Ed Walker worked to find new life in old stories. He offered his listeners a measure of escape, yes. More deeply, I think he offered them a way of learning to imagine that was once familiar, but which time and technology have made strange. Those stories gave him a way to see. May they help us, in turn, find new ways to see, and new courage to repair the world.

Rest in peace.

See you in church,