Thursday, January 12, 2017

blessed are those who mourn...

And so it begins, the dismantling of our social safety net, just as they promised:  an all night Senate session started the process to repeal the Affordable Health Care Act. It will, of course, not all take place at once. Nor will last night's act immediately penalize those with contracts through 2017. But if the Trump regime acts in such a way as to keep the US Treasury from funding carriers, then insurance companies can and will bail from their commitments even in the middle of the year. TIME Magazine wrote that this could mean life or death for cancer patients in the middle of treatment. Senator Bernie Sanders said it will likely mean 36,000 unnecessary deaths every year. 

Next door, President Obama awarded VP Joe Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a surprise farewell to his comrade in compassion. The dignity and love -the gravitas, humility and humor - of this ceremony stood in such stark contrast to the cowardice actions  of Congress - not to mention the recent press conference of the PEOTUS - that I felt impelled to share with you this poem by one of my favorite writers: Diana Butler Bass. These are grave times, unlike anything the US has experienced in our long history, for this is our era of American fascism. I read this poem and wept because it resonated with my heart - and the way of the Cross my Lord calls me to follow . In ten days white people of conscience and faith will begin to live into the truth of what people of color and social vulnerability have always known in the US::  we may deeply love our country and be hated and despised by its practices.: 

Inaugural Parade
Diana Butler Bass c. 2017

Stripped naked,
hungry, left in a ditch

to die

They paraded by
All of them,
Gold-plated glories
hailed by reluctant bands
and choirs of tear-stained angels

We are great again

Dig deeper.
There - at the side of the road -
leave the losers there.

Unhuman really

They marched forth flaunting their spoils:
No food
No doctor
No aid
No help
No equality
No rights
No peace
No justice
No truth
No Samaritans
No Jews
No Muslims
No Mexicans
No Women

No black, no brown to obscure the whitened perfection of the Unconquered Sun.

The crowd swelled the litany:

We have NO king but Caesar!

Yet one: yes

lifting the wounded toward a different light
and whispering: this is the Way

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted
credit: Ted De Grazia

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

four freedoms coalition takes aim at hatred and fear...

I would never have prayed for the arrival of Mr. Trump as the President-Elect of the United States - and genuinely fear for many of us when he takes office in ten days. Nevertheless, as I experience people of conscience and compassion responding to his threats with creative, compassionate and constructive vigor, I must confess that I am grateful to be living in these times. Let's be clear: these next two years (before mid-term elections offer a corrective) will be trying and ugly for many of us. This is especially true for people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and refugees.  

Now is the season defined by inaugural hubris during which a host of mean-spirited and cruel actions are certain to take place. Some will involve legislation, others will come from individuals and groups who feel free to act out their fears and hatred. After eight years of well-funded Tea Party hate talk,race baiting and legislative obstructionism, we should expect nothing less for the United States is reaping what we have sown. And yet, o felix culpa (happy/joyous sin from the Easter Vigil liturgy), there is a growing resistance taking root throughout this land in a variety of religious congregations, arts councils, solidarity alliances and more that will surround our vulnerable neighbors with love and join them is securing safety, hope and dignity in the face of all threats. It is genuinely a unique moment in our history. This past weekend 2000+ Berkshire citizens marched and gathered in our Sanctuary on a frigid afternoon - 1% of Berkshire County - to dedicate ourselves to opposing the bigotry, fear and hatred that has been unleashed by the new administration.
In ways I never imaged some are reclaiming a commitment to nonviolent action and public resistance to evil. Others are learning to integrate community solidarity with alliances beyond ideological barriers. And still more are starting to plan strategically for nourishing a deep moral center that simultaneously takes politics and legislation seriously but is not limited to the confines of any political party. Check out our local story @https://theberkshireedge.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

ain't gonna let nobody turn me around...

The darkness of winter feels especially profound to me tonight: we were able to extend the joy of Epiphany for two full days in our home first by celebrating with two thousand plus Berkshire friends and neighbors in the Four Freedoms March and Rally; and then by feasting and opening Christmas gifts with our Brooklyn family last night. The light was ecstatic - making the darkness even more pronounced.

Tomorrow I will likely return to my Bonhoeffer reflections. In less that two weeks the USA begins the official era of Trump-mania. Brother Dietrich once said: Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. He also made this stunning observation: Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. All too soon, we who choose resistance and love will know explicitly what this means for our generation.

For tonight, therefore, I choose to bask in the goodness of love, solidarity and the tenderness of this Epiphany weekend knowing that they will soon become public acts of resistance. At no time in my life have I felt the paradox of Christ's Cross so vividly. And like Bonhoeffer, I give thanks to God. Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear ... Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now.

Here are some pictures from the light of our Epiphany weekend...

Thursday, January 5, 2017

it IS a new dawn...

I love me some Nina Simone - and this is one of my favorites. Tomorrow, for those in the Ecumenical Christian tradition , is the Feast of the Epiphany. It is not coincidental to me, therefore, that on Saturday, January 7, 2017 we are hosting the Four Freedoms March and Rally. Christians, Jews, Muslims, nones, atheists, Wiccans, labor, business, arts groups and everyone in-between are invited - and have responded - to the call to express our deepest values in public. It is not a coincidence either that the event starts at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church and concludes at Pittsfield's first faith community:  First Church of Christ on Park Square.

Compassion shared in public is called justice.  Prayer shared in public is called solidarity.  Join us if you can.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

hymn to freedom...

Here is a note I shared with my congregation yesterday...

Blessings and Happy New Year First Church!
After a full and satisfying Advent and Christmas Eve/Day, I took some down time to for

reflection and refreshment. While I was away, I began what will be a lengthy review of the legacy and writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Some may know him as the German Lutheran pastor who first opposed the rise of fascism in his country in the 1930s and later became an active resistor against Hitler in the 1940s. He worked to help Jews escape the Holocaust and was eventually imprisoned and hanged for his commitment to Christian love. To say that I see parallels and relevance in Bonhoeffer's words and deeds in 2017 would be a gross understatement.

Consequently, I have been closely working with the Four Freedoms Rally since its inception

before Thanksgiving 2016. What started as a few people talking about strengthening our deepest values of respect, compassion and solidarity with those who are vulnerable, threatened or hurting has now grown into a huge coalition of Jews, Christians, Muslims, arts organizations, civic leaders and more. Two things are important for me to share with you about our participation in this event (which will take place this Saturday, January 7th in our Sanctuary.)

+ First, you may recall that last year at Christmas time I spoke out about the rising bigotry and the consequences of fear in America.
I called for Christians to stand in solidarity against registering Muslims and demonizing immigrants. The Berkshire Eagle ran an extended article on this challenge - and we welcomed Muslim sisters and brothers, Jews and others, to last year's Christmas Eve late worship. The rally on Saturday, therefore, represents another step in our commitment to standing with and for the powerless. This commitment is greater than nationality, gender, partisan politics or economics. For me it is grounded in the fact that Jesus was a man for others and his life, death and resurrection must be my standard of faith, too.

+ Second, it is my deepest conviction that faithfulness to Christ is not simply about right belief (doctrine) but enfleshed love. The Word of God was revealed in Jesus. He made it flesh - and so must we. Bonhoeffer used to say: "The church must come out of stagnation. We must move out again into the open air of intellectual discussion with the world, and risk saying controversial things, if we are to get down to the serious problems of life." Our calling is to make visible the costly love Jesus gave to the world. For this is how faith is evaluated: living compassionately for others - especially the most vulnerable among us.

I hope to see some of you at the march and rally (it begins at St. Joe's Church at 12:30 and concludes with speakers at First Church starting at 1 pm.) Afterwards, various groups will have information tables set up in the Fellowship Hall to help you learn about ways to stand up against bigotry and prejudice. Already close to 700 people have indicated they will be present - so don't be late!

As a child born in the 1950s I remember when white privilege ruled the day: my grandparents freely used the "N" word about people of color without hesitation. De jure apartheid was the law of the land in the South and de facto segregation was real throughout the North. Given the witness for love and peace of Dr. King and others, a cultural shift took place that made it unacceptable to advocate for hatred and prejudice in public. To be sure, these onerous realities only went underground for a season and reappeared with the Tea Party after the election of President Obama - and now the current so-called "alt-right" organizations. 2017 has become another time to not only challenge this hatred, but to dismantle some of it with sacrificial love.

Later today I spoke with one of my musical colleagues who sensed that just before our rally at First Church begins, he should share a rendering of Oscar Peterson's "Hymn of Freedom." I had been thinking the very same thing last night. So to hear of his desire today gave me goose bumps of synchronicity in the presence of the Spirit. At midday Eucharist, a friend prayed for me as I prepare to move into part-time ministry and retirement. I was so moved I almost wept. My peeps are kind but this was particularly tender. Then, after breaking bread and sharing the cup of blessing, another person said, "Look at the communion plate... it is a dove!" Pretty wild, yes?  My closing meeting today was with a person who has recently moved to the area and wants to host a time of nonviolence training after this coming Saturday's rally. We both agreed that we need to start NOW cultivated a commitment to disciplined nonviolent resistance given our growing sense that the Trump regime will likely evoke violence and necessary civil disobe-dience.  AND... I heard back from my friends in Ottawa re: L'Arche whom I hope to visit in March or April!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

four freedoms rally: saturday, january 7, 2017

Last Christmas, I preached - and then was published in our local paper - a message deploring the rising acceptance of hatred, fear, bigotry and violence.  At its core, my concern last year was this:

In the Christian tradition, we are encouraged to "Rejoice in the Lord always." This has too often become disembodied sentiment without regard for the pain of real life. In a recent editorial, The Eagle concluded that citizens must stand up to the demagoguery of Donald Trump. I would argue that this is a moral imperative for Christians who have often been used to fuel religious fear and violence rather than solidarity and justice.

Untold millions of our people are afraid of domestic and international acts of terror. But rather than nourishing peace and compassion, some spiritual leaders are supporting xenophobia and bigotry. Take Franklin Graham — Billy Graham's son — who last week tweeted that American Muslims represent a frightening evil that is tearing apart the security our nation. Consider Jerry Falwell, Jr. — current president of the largest Southern Baptist University in the US — who not only encouraged students at Liberty University to carry concealed weapons to class and dorms, but is on record as saying: "I've always thought, if more good people had concealed-carry permits then we could end those Muslims before they walked in killing ... Let's teach them a lesson if they ever show up here!"

And then there is Trump: current front-runner for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, a multi-millionaire, self-acknowledged Evangelical Presbyterian and master manipulator of the media who continues to insist that Muslims be banned from entering our nation. Trump has called for surveillance of US mosques, a prohibition of Syrian refugees and the registration into a national database of all who practice Islam as a religion. And now he is advocating banning immigration because of one's religion.

Small wonder that bastion of progressive journalism, the NY Daily News, ran a front page attack editorial stating: "When Trump came for the Mexicans I did not speak out because I was not Mexican — and when he came for the Muslims, I did not speak out because I was not a Muslim " Those words are, of course, a satirical restatement of Martin Niemoller's poem written after his incarceration by the Nazis. Pastor Niemoller began his ministry in support of Adolf Hitler. But as the Fuehrer became more aggressive — and broke his promises to the German Church — Niemoller abandoned ship and was arrested in 1937.,294457

A short year later, the danger that we hoped would pass has come to pass in the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. His most vulgar supporters have taken this to be their "get out of jail" card as acts of racial violence, bullying and bigotry have skyrocketed since the November election. His more refined allies have been drawn into his proposed Cabinet representing a reversal of civil rights for America's most vulnerable citizens. The legal safeguards against organized money will go largely unchecked in this administration. And who knows what will happen to both the Affordable Health Care Act and Social Security?

As a witness to solidarity in these dangerous times - and as a call to action against those who feel empowered to act out their fears and hatred - a broad, non-partisan coalition has been formed in our community:  The Four Freedoms Coalition. Embracing the 76th anniversary of FDR's call to freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear, a march and rally will take place this Saturday, January 7, 2017.  The schedule is as follows:

12:30pm: Gather in front of St. Joseph's Church, 414 North Street, Pittsfield
1pm: March down North Street towards Park Square
1:30pm: Indoor rally at First Church of Christ on Park Square, 27 East Street 
2:15pm: Community open house featuring info tables from many four partners

Speakers for the rally include: U.S. Senator Edward Markey,Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, member, Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, James Roosevelt, grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Elizabeth "Liz" Recko-Morrison, 2015 Berkshire Labor Person of the Year, Dennis Powell, President, Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP, Eleanore Velez, BCC Multicultural Center Director  To date the following groups have signed on in endorsement:
Lead partners:
Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP
Berkshire Central Labor Council
Berkshire Brigades

Community organizations:
350Mass - Berkshires
Barrington Stage Company
Becket Democratic Committee
Berkshire Citizens for Peace & Justice
Berkshire Community College
Berkshire Environmental Action Team (BEAT)
Berkshire Family YMCA
Berkshire Immigrant Center
Berkshire Museum
Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition
Berkshire Theatre Group
Cafe Palestina of the Southern Berkshires
Community Access to the Arts (CATA)
Congregation Ahavath Sholom
Elegant Stitches
Elizabeth Freeman Center
First Church of Christ on Park Square
First United Methodist Church of Pittsfield
Great Barrington Democratic Committee
IS183 Art School of the Berkshires
Jewish Federation of the Berkshires
Knesset Israel
Lift Ev'ry Voice
Living the Change Berkshires
MadJacks BBQ
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
Manos Unidas
Morningside Neighborhood Initiative
Multicultural BRIDGE
Nonprofit Center of the Berkshires
Out in the Berkshires
Pittsfield Democratic Committee
Progressive Democrats of America
Rites of Passage & Empowerment (R.O.P.E.)
Sheffield Democratic Committee
Sheffield Historical Society
Temple Anshe Amunim
Unitarian Universalist Meeting of South Berkshire - Social Justice Committee
United Africans of the Berkshires
United Educators of Pittsfield
WAM Theatre
West Stockbridge Democratic Committee
The White Rose Party
Williamstown Democratic Committee
Women of Color Giving Circle
Young Democrats of Massachusetts
Youth Alive

For more information, please see this article from the Berkshire Eagle (http://www.

Monday, January 2, 2017

a quick trip north for new year's...

Ever since I fell in love with Montreal I have wanted to see the city in winter.  Everyone told me it was rigid and oppressive - and I suspect that if it is -0 for months on end that is true - but this place can be frigid and bleak, too.  And, with the proper gear, the snow is magic (at first and then, of course, it becomes dirty and ugly everywhere.) So, we made a point to schedule a few days in-between Christmas and New Year's Day to be away.  We left in what amounted to a blizzard - Montreal got 8" or more by the time it was over - but the roads were not terrible for most of the trip. And after a quick nap upon arriving on Thursday, we spent two hours walking in the dark and the snow taking in Parc St. Louis, Boulevard St. Laurent and eventually St. Denis. There was no wind, the snow was relentless and it felt and looked like heaven.

On Friday, it was freakin' freezing with a bitter wind - so we spent the better part of the day exploring the Underground City. Mile upon mile of Montreal conceals shops, eateries and walk ways below street level designed to make life interesting and endurable during the wicked cold. And thousands of Montrealers were taking advantage of the end of the year end holiday. Once again both Di and discovered we need about two weeks of vigorous immersion en français
before our ears (and eyes) can get back into the groove. So, we got lost time and again - and that increased our frustration level. Funny how one's equanimity is directly related to adequate rest, caffeine, food and safety.  It was yet another lesson in humility and listening carefully. We closed out the evening, after another nap, however, at our favorite haunt:  Dièse Onze (check it out: The Nomads o Swing were playing and were they ever on firet! What's more, we found ourselves invited back for Saturday's five course French dinner on New Year's Eve. And we struck up a conversation with a young Quebecois doctor who had studied acupuncture at Harvard. After a lovely conversation, we made plans to share a meal together again this coming April when we return for Dianne's CELTA studies. C'est bon!

Saturday was spent at the Old Port in the bitter cold. We wound up buying massive scarves like the locals to hide all but our eyes.  By early afternoon it was snowing again - another five inches hit the city by midnight - and the place felt like something out of a fairytale. New Year's Eve was spent taking in incredible jazz, wonderful French food and meeting yet another
Massachusetts guest at the bar. We walked home in the light snow and gave thanks to God for the time, resources and blessings that allowed us to take this quick trip North.

Two things were clarified during our time away for me: first, I REALLY have to do some work learning Quebecois French!  We're adventurous, most of the folk we meet are kind, patient and bi-lingual and if they speak slowly I can figure most things out reasonably well. But, everyday conversation? Quelle horreur! So, over the next few years that will become a priority. Second, given my dreams and prayers, when I move into full-time retirement it is clear that we're going to spend serious time in this part of creation.  That's not news to our friends, but it continues to be a place of refreshment and renewal that I ache to explore more deeply. Now we are home:  I picked up Lucie from the kennel, took Di to work and finished a new Epiphany liturgy for Sunday. Later, I'll get some bass practice in, too. Blessings and Happy New Year to you all.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

evangelicals, bonhoeffer and the age of trump...

NOTE: We head out to Montreal in the morning come blizzard or not. That means I will not be posting again here until the New Year. For the next four days, Di and I will have a chance to walk, talk, read, think and love together in anticipation of how we will live our lives of "odd" faith in the era of Trump. My prayers are with you all.

One of the questions that vexes ecumenical Christians (the once mainline but now side-lined Protestant congregations in the USA) since November 8, 2016 has been: how could Evangelical and even some Roman Catholic Christians - who read the same Scriptures as ourselves - allow themselves to vote for Donald Trump?  He is a shrewd marketing genius who has historically denigrated and opposed the ethics and morality of those who follow Jesus. Yet, overwhelmingly - 81% - white Evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump. Coupled with the 52% of white women who seemingly chose race over gender, a winning hand for the Trump camp in the Electoral College was realized. 

There is no contest that the Democrats lost  this election. Mrs. Clinton was not a great campaigner, she carried the baggage of nearly 25 years of right wing character assassination, there was media manipulation by Russia and a highly questionable act of political sabotage by the director of the FBI.  Robert Reich calls this a highly tainted election - but the numbers don't lie. From my perspective, what I am about to write is not sour grapes from someone who can't get over losing. No, the question that gnaws at me because it carries staggering implications is how could Mr. Trump win among those who celebrate the centrality of Scripture as the corner
stone of their spirituality? Jesus is unambiguous whether you are a liberal or conservative, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox: whatsoever you do unto the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you do unto me. (Matthew 25) St. Paul is equally clear: If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,* but do not have love, I gain nothing... faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (I Corinthians 13)

A website I respect, Bill Moyers' collection of columns and commentary, recently posted a harsh and incomplete analysis entitled, "Media, Morality and the Neighbor's Cow" written by Neal Gabler. It is one attempt at addressing my opening question. Many of his observations ring true, especially the penetrating words about Gore Vidal's attack on the Republican Party of 1961. Gabler concludes, correctly in my view, that when the GOP started to sell its soul to Ayn Rand et al, a descent began away from true conservatism. Once it was essential for conservatives to preserve whatever was good in society and inhibit humankind's inclination towards selfishness. Incrementally, however, the GOP morphed into a movement that venerated the so-called objective outcomes of market place analysis. It didn't take place immediately, and clearly there were (and are) Republicans who challenged this transformation. But bottom line thinking has become a Republican idol and Gabler is on to something when he notes that Rand and her followers present "a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who hate the ‘welfare state,’ who feel guilty at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts.” (see the article here: The core of Gabler's arguement is this:

The transformation and corruption of America’s moral values didn’t happen in the shadows. It happened in plain sight. The Republican Party has been the party of selfishness and the party of punishment for decades now, trashing the basic precepts not only of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also of humanity generally.To identify what’s wrong with conservatism and Republicanism — and now with so much of America as we are about to enter the Trump era — you don’t need high-blown theories or deep sociological analysis or surveys. The answer is as simple as it is sad: There is no kindness in them.

Think back to the crude but effective manipulation of working class racism starting with Richard Nixon's southern strategy. It was no accident that Ronald Reagan announced his bid for election as the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi: his celebration of state's rights was a dog whistle advertisement that he was the champion of Southern white values. In 2016, Mr. Trump was not subtle or implicit in playing the race card. Or the Ayn Rand card. Or the "yellow peril" card. Or the anti-feminist, anti-immigrant card. He effectively articulated the angst and anger of this nation's shrinking but very real white working class who have been left behind by a multicultural society built upon transnational trade. 

Nevertheless, Mr. Gabler does not explain why religious conservatives abandoned their core beliefs and voted for the least ethical candidate in recent history. Paying lip service to opposing abortion is not enough for those raised on the conviction that we are saved by grace.There was no grace active when Jerry Falwell, Jr threw his support for Mr. Trump at Liberty University: it was all about controlling the Supreme Court into the 21st century. There was no grace in the house either when Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council endorsed of  Mr. Trump; it, too, was a naked grab for power. The goal of both Southern Evangelical leaders was all about energizing their base by using wedge issues like homosexuality, race and abortion to give Mr. Trump an electoral advantage. It worked earlier for George Bush the younger when Karl Rove brilliantly turned out voters to oppose marriage equality. The significant difference, of course, being that Mr. Bush, whatever else you may say about him, was authentically a "born again Christian believer." He was not pandering even if his campaign strategy was..

This cannot be affirmed with Mr. Trump. About the only faith claim he could honestly make is that he owns his mother's Bible. He doesn't read it. He has no use for confession - or sin - or regret - or community - or study - or discipleship. His appeal to Evangelicals was about winning and making certain that all the spoils went to the victor. Not only were older, white Evangelicals frightened by our multicultural society, they firmly believe a culture rests or falls on the sanctity of life - albeit narrowly defined as anti-abortion. They are pro-death penalty. They aggressively support military interventionism and advocate a strict adherence to "law and order." It was no accident that Mr. Trump was able to corral the good will and kind hearts of older, white Evangelical voters by using Richard Nixon's campaign slogan of 1968. And this, I suspect, is where we get a clue about the real reasons why good hearted, Bible-believing people of faith were energized to vote for a man who is the antithesis of Jesus.

I have been working at understanding both the context and wisdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In
the 1980s Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's best friend and key interpreter, hit the nail on the head when he told the world:  in Bonhoeffer's Germany in the 1930s, religion had become essentially an "inward" matter. The practice of faith was fundamentally about how God's love touched and changed people personally.  This is at the core of Evangelical religion in the USA:, too; there is NO salvation without a personal relationship with Jesus as Savior. In the 1930s, German Christians honored this truth. Further, given both the privatized theology of their intellectuals and the public chaos of their society following WWI, Bethge saw the German Church reach out for leaders who promised "a well-regulated and restrictive peace with contemporary society." With fidelity defined by personal salvation that honored order more than  compassion or social justice, the stage was set to pay obeisance to Hitler and National Socialism. In the 80s Bethge wondered if.something
analogous was coming to pass in American Evangelicalism? In 2016, there is an ever greater hunger for authority, results and a return to the "good old days" - make America great again - even if that means turning a blind eye to the heart of Christ's gospel.

Bethge's warning to Europe and the US was clear: a penchant for order and nostalgia in the church could easily lure some into making peace with tyrants. It happened before and might "lead once more to a world with catastrophic results." My deepening reflection on the insights of Bonhoeffer's late writings point to why we must call out the churches of our day for forsaking issues of peace, justice and compassion in their quest for inner serenity. The imprisoned pastor of Germany also challenged the way a privatized religion ignores public brutality and evil. Bonhoeffer used to speak of Jesus as the man for others: he preached and confessed, not a personal Savior, but one who shows us what a God life looks like in the harsh world of economics, politics and social change..

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

christmas eve message 2016...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes from Christmas Eve that have some bearing on my current
study of Bonhoeffer for the 21st century. I am, of course, clearly indebted to both William Willimon and Walter Brueggemann for their wisdom and challenge in this homily. Here is my working hunch going into 2017:  the Trump administration will be arrogant bullies, their way of operating in the world will create an opportunity for people of compassion to rally against the cruelty, and it will be excruciating and fearful. That said, it will give our generation a shot at living into our Christian oddity with clarity.  So as the 12 days of Christmas unfold - and as we retreat for a brief spell à Montréal at week's end - I will likely post less but will return to this thread in the New Year: Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!


“The first task of the preacher,” states the Reverend Dr. Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament Studies at Columbia Theological Seminary, “is the maintenance of congregational oddity.” (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope.) It is not entertainment or comfort, spiritual succor or moral refreshment; it is the development and nurture of oddity. And by oddity, Brother Brueggemann means a way of living in the world that challenges the values of the status quo, gives individuals and congregations the freedom to act on behalf of God’s compassion in society regardless of politics, economics, race, gender or class – and empowers us with the vision and the spiritual resources to do so consistently and in a disciplined manner. Christianity is not about random acts of kindness, but rather a witness in solidarity and love that is dependable for all life in God’s sweet creation.

And on Christmas Eve 2016, this old, grey haired preacher feels called to remind us that Jesus did not come into the world simply to create a new holiday saturated with consumerism and sentimentality; or to sacralize a social order of dog eat dog and all the spoils to the victor. If that was the Lord’s intention, Jesus would have been born inside a mansion – or a castle, palace or gated community – surrounded by gold and the symbols of power instead of shepherds, animals, refugees, darkness and straw. Clearly our Creator had something else in mind – something wildly different and even odd – something tender, something transformative, something earthy yet spirit-filled. God sent us a Savior in the form of a homeless infant so that we might see how the love of the Lord becomes flesh: through tenderness and vulnerability, through presence and peace-making, through opening our hearts like a momma or poppa and sacrificing everything on behalf of our beloved baby.


That’s what our oddity as people of faith is all about: we intentionally choose love over compensation and security. We cherish love before career and compassion before prestige. Professor Brueggemann is explicit when it comes to articulating our oddities. Over time, he tells us, Jews devised obvious signals to show the world their oddity and devotion to God: Sabbath, kosher, circumcision. Not only did these acts challenge the corrupt habits of empire, they showed their boys and girls how to survive at odds with the status quo. “We live in the demanding presence of the Holy One so now we must keep redeciding for a life propelled by God’s presence.” Jewish oddity challenged the idols of scarcity and violence and celebrated shalom and God’s abundance.

In parallel fashion, and for similar reasons, “the baptismal imagination of the early Christian Church called for comparable acts of peculiar and particular oddity.” We are always at risk, you see, of dissolving our vows of love because the pressures of our culture wear us down, asking us to worship the dollar or the flag before the Lord our God. “So Christians are forever reimagining and retelling and reliving our lives through the scandal of Good Friday, the rumor of Easter Sunday and the promise of Christmas Eve… and we do this by regularly renewing our commitment to oddity: noticing signs of new life in the most unexpected places, sharing the bread of broken-ness, the wine of blessing and embracing the neighbor – always the neighbor – who is for us a symbol of God’s abiding presence and love.” (Brueggemann, ibid)

Christmas Eve is one of our annual oddity renewal ceremonies that asks us, like Mother Mary, to bring to birth new life in unimaginable places and nourish love through tenderness, sacrifice and presence. This Christmas more than any other in my 35 years of ordained ministry cries out for such a renewal – and here’s why: so many Americans – and others throughout the world from Aleppo and Istanbul to Germany and Washington, DC – are terrified and trembling because of politics when the truth of the matter is God has come to earth in the Christ-Child and is actually making tyrants quake. Methodist Bishop William Willimon recently put it like this:

The Feast of the Nativity, Christmas, doesn’t (only) give us a picture of a babe lying sweetly in the manger… Matthew’s gospel gives us once powerful Herod trembling in his boots, cowering like a frightened rabbit, terrified by the thought of this bombshell of a baby. There’s a new king in town who rules not from the Herod Tower in Jerusalem but from a stable in backwoods Bethlehem, welcomed not by the biblical scholars at the temple or the new coterie of generals but rather by immigrant nonbelievers from the East. King Herod is rattled. Now, eventually Herod will get his act together, move decisively, and ensure national security — his troops will slaughter Judean boy babies. That’s what kings do when national sovereignty is threatened. The state’s answer to just about any problem is: Violence. So Matthew teaches us that a baby, who causes consternation among Herod and his ilk, that infant who gathered about him those whom Herod oppressed, that baby and his people are dismantling Herod’s empire stone by stone without raising an army or firing a shot. Matthew’s Christmas story suggests that we ought to be trembling not out of fear of this or that political bully, but by the prospect of God With Us, God’s Anointed Messiah, God getting what God wants through a baby and his presaged revolution. What does the name Jesus mean but “God saves,” and God’s salvation is not just personal; it’s political and public and worldwide.  (William Willimon, sermon, December 2016)

When we start to trust and act like God’s presence is with us as Savior, we honor God’s call to

oddity in a broken world – to paraphrase folk singer, Carrie Newcomer, we quit fretting and trembling and return to doing those things that have saved us in the past – and then the miracle of Christ’s birth starts to multiply and expand. Once we affirm our conviction “that the Babe of Bethlehem is the only true sovereign and that Jesus’ people, though marginalized and ridiculed by the powerful, are God’s politics” then the world starts changing in beautiful albeit small and sometimes overlooked ways. I think of the woman in one of Alabama’s large industrial cities who recently “spent hours writing letters to every Muslim in her town saying, “You are a valued, child of God. Here’s my phone number. Let me know if I can be helpful to you in this time. Our politicians do not speak for me. I speak to you in the name of Christ who loves you and has given me responsibility for you.” In this, beloved, Herod trembles. (Willimon) I think of the artists who created each of these beautifully challenging contemporary icons, too.

I was told of a Roman Catholic priest who said on the Sunday after the election, “OK. America has elected a president. Fine. But remember that the most important, decisive election was when God elected us to be light and salt to the world. We know that lying is wrong! Hate speech is wrong! Groping and sexual abuse is wrong! So let us try to live so that people might look and see something that America is not. God has chosen us to witness; this is a great time to obey God and not simply human authority!” Herod trembles.

And don’t forget that an emerging, non-partisan alliance is taking shape and form right here in
Pittsfield – the Four Freedoms Coalition highlighted on the front page of the Eagle this morning – a group that cuts through our divisions and asks us to walk in love and human tenderness with one another. It about Black and Brown and White together – gay and straight and trans-gendered together – rich and poor, religious and secular, young and old together. The message from the angels to is fear not because when love is shared it is Herod who trembles.

Now let me bring this home in a way that awakened my heart to God’s tender love being born again right here in this very Chancel. It happened during our regular Tuesday night choir practice – as unexpected a place for Christ to be born, I submit to you, as any raggedy stable in Bethlehem. We were working on an arrangement of “O Holy Night” that you heard last Sunday. It’s stunning – slightly different from the traditional setting – but poignant soul food for those who love the Lord. Amen? And three things happened that night that you need to know about:

First, another young person under the age of 12 joined our choir that night. Like our youngest alto, this new singer also brings enthusiasm, innocence, talent and fun into the mix. This alone would have made my heart sing but something else took place while we were working to bring this tricky anthem to fruition. For some reason I looked up and out of the corner of my eye saw one of the mommas of the choir next to our new chorister helping him keep pace and make sense of this complicated score. I know that her own heart has been shattered this season yet there she was being the presence of love and tenderness with another of the Lord’s little ones.

During Passover our Jewish sisters and brothers sing, “Dayenu” during the Seder – it means that would have been enough for God to bless us with – it would have been enough to cross the Red Sea, Dayenu, it would have been enough to leave oppression, Dayenu --and that act of tenderness would have been enough for me. But after about 20 minutes, when the rest of the choir had shown up and snuck into their assigned places, I saw a new person enter the Sanctuary – and then another – both of whom have wanted to join our choir. Without missing a beat, our choir chaplain, Renee, got each new friend their music, helped them get situated, welcomed and seated – and the music kept rolling. Twenty people were now standing in a semi-circle in this chancel singing “O Holy Night” like angels: senior citizens and children, women and men, gay and straight, rich and poor, recent arrivals and veterans alike.

Again, I’m thinking “dayenu” when our music director says: “I want you to do this song one more time – and sing it now like a prayer. Some of you know that I am Portuguese, but I am also of Syrian stock. And given everything that is taking place in Aleppo and the Middle East, I can’t help but feel we need to lift this up tonight as a prayer for our sisters and brothers. So sing it one more time for Syria on this dark and cold night.” For a moment, it felt like the air had been sucked out of our lungs by grief – and then someone gasped and we burst into tears. “You want us to sing now, do you?” said another choir momma.

Frederick Buechner, the wise old Presbyterian from Vermont, likes to say, “Pay special attention to the presence of unexpected tears: They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.” So we sang that night: we sang and wept, we sang and prayed, we sang and renewed our vows of oddity. And in that little circle of safety some of us sensed that once again Christ the Lord was being born within and among us.

Beloved, what took place in our choir – or in that Roman Catholic priest’s homily in Chicago – or the letters of that woman in Alabama welcoming Muslims who might experience fear and intimidation – are NOT random acts of kindness. They are the fruit of the Holy Spirit being born within us like Christ was born in the Virgin Mary. They point to a life-time of disciplined compassion that senses the Lord’s birth whenever tenderness is required in a harsh and dark moment. What we affirm on Christmas Eve is a renewal of our oddity - our dedication to sharing the tenderness and hope of God through our flesh – for in this the Lord Jesus is brought to birth over and over again. In the name of all that is holy, let us join this feast: that love might be strengthened, real lives saved and the tyrants of this hour tremble for God Immanuel is with us just as the angels proclaimed.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The day after Christmas...

Today was a regrouping day: regrouping from being public, regrouping from being active and in
worship, regrouping from working much of Advent/Christmas while others soaked-up family time (except, of course, hospital personnel and those who work retail!) After a stunning feast with our Plainfield, MA loved ones we came home and nearly crashed! These next three days are all about reclaiming some equilibrium because even though we managed Advent/Christmas in a mostly chill way this year, it was still emotionally draining.

Two things worth noting as I spend most of the day in solitude:

+ First, Martin Marty's small book, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography is highly insightful.  I am devoting major time in the New Year to rereading Brother Bonhoeffer, both because my first pass was in 1970, and because these days leading up to and including the Trump presidency resonate with too many Wiemar Republic overtones for me to ignore. One of Marty's best observations has to do with the use and misuse of Bonhoeffer's enigmatic expression:  the world come of age.  Writing a biography of a book (a fascinating idea unto itself) gives Marty the chance to discuss how early interpreters used these words for ideological purposes. Some "death of God" theologians talked about the 60s and 70s as a culture reaching maturation. Eastern block ideologues suggested that Communist Europe was an environment "come of age" - no longer in need of God to fill in the blanks - but fully just and humane. That both were wildly mistaken comes as no surprise in the 21st century. Nevertheless, they gave Bonhoeffer a bad name - saddled him with untrue naivete and branded him incomplete - when, in fact, it was the intellectual and ethical limitations of Bonhoeffer's interpreters who were at fault.  The heart of Bonhoeffer's late stage thinking was NOT that our culture had matured, but rather the suffering of the world had exposed to those with eyes to see that now was our time to act as true adults.

God compels us to recognize... that we now live in a world without the working hypothesis of God (to fill in the gaps.) We now stand continually before God and with God, we live, however, without God for God consents to be pushed out of the world - and onto the Cross. God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us. Matthew 8: 17 makes it quiet clear that Christ helps us not be virtue of his omnipotence, but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering! This is the crucial distinction between Christianity and all religions.

Marty then quote Bonhoeffer's poem, Christians and Pagans, to make the point that in the incomprehensible suffering of this age, we experience God's presence not in our power, but in our powerlessness. It is almost as if the 12 Steps and the Serenity Prayer are prefigured in this poem:  

People turn to God when they’re in need,
plead for help, contentment, and for bread,
for rescue from their sickness, guilt, and death.
They all do so, both Christian and pagan.

People turn to God in God’s own need,
and find God poor, degraded, without roof or bread,
see God devoured by sin, weakness, and death.
Christians stand with God to share God’s pain.

God goes to all people in their need,
nourishes body and soul with God’s own bread,
takes up the cross of Calvary for both Christians and pagans, both,
and in forgiving both, is slain.

Marty concludes that "in his mind, Bonhoeffer thought that living by faith in Jesus meant living without relying on what was pious, metaphysical or a prop of the inner life... it meant living as Jesus lived, a the man for others."  With no assurances - no expectation of consolation - simply trusting that as Jesus was united with God in his suffering, so too would we, but only on God's terms, not our own.

+ Second, now that the high holy days of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are over - and I have had a chance to rest (a bit), it is clear that being prophetic about resisting the ways of Trump et al will take their toll on church attendance. Maybe this isn't true in some areas, but in our region it is clear to me that some are staying away because they will be challenged by the radical compassion and grace of Jesus. I would not have wanted this for my final year of Christian ministry - even part-time ministry - but such is the cost of discipleship. I think of the words of Jesus who tells us "I come to bring a sword." That is, witnessing to God's love separates us from culture. When I spoke Brueggemann's words on Christmas Eve about the "the fundamental task of the preacher is to nourish congregational oddity," some laughed. But as I continued, they got it: we are to look, act, feel and see differently from the status quo. Those who serve only wealth and power will increasingly feel the distinction - and judgment - of God's way calling into question the ways of the world.

Already I grieve not seeing a few whom I love who have apparently chosen to stay away rather than change their hearts - or politics. But more than ever, Christian oddity around cherishing the neighbor is essential: it will become the mark of discipleship for this generation.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas...

Here are a few of my favorite Advent/Christmas images for this year:  Merry Christmas to all - Happy Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, too.  We had about 60 people in worship today and a ton of sacred fun.  There were about 75 at Christmas Eve and it was poignant, chill and real. Sp now we're heading out for Christmas dinner with the Plainfield crew - and I give thanks to God for all three!  Blessings abound!

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Blessed and Merry Christmas...

Here is our shared Christmas/New Year's letter. We're wrapping gifts today and listening to quiet Christmas CDs before heading over to worship @ 8 pm.

Merry Christmas from James and Dianne

Like many of our dear friends have said: 2016 was a challenging year! In addition to the mean-spirited politics that have dominated the US popular consciousness this year, we have both been concerned about the plight of Syrian and North African refugees, the politics of Turkey, the stalemate between Israel and Palestine, the rise of nationalist/anti-immigrant movements throughout Europe and a rising fear in people of goodwill throughout the world. If ever there was a need for a revolution of tenderness, now is the hour. To that end, our past year brought to light a few highlights:

In March, we hosted a music/poetry/prayer presentation of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” It was the 50th anniversary of this masterpiece and nothing expressed the heart of my recent sabbatical – and the hopes and fears of creation – better than this explosion of sound, rhythm, melody and improvisation. About 100 local folks joined our reflection and we raised relief funds for Syrian refugees through Church World Service.

+ Dianne and I took a few trips to Canada – for retreat and for vacation – in 2016. In March we were in Montréal to speak with the CELTA (English as a second language) administrators; in June we were in Ottawa for their Jazz Festival and a time with Jean Vanier’s L’Arche community; and then back to Le Plateau a Montréal for Labor Day. It is our hope and expectation that sometime in the next 15 months we will spend a year in Canada: James with L’Arche and their ministry to those with intellectual challenges; and Dianne helping refugees make a new home in the Americas.

+ In August, Phil and Julie arrived from San Francisco and we gathered as the Lumsden Clan to lay my parents’ and sister’s ashes to rest on Lake Chargoggago-ggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg in Webster, MA. It was a joyous time of sharing stories and songs and being with a family that sticks together through tons of hard times. As the summer unfolded, our nephew Thomas married Elana. Then Shawn married Samantha – and they were blessed with regaining custody of his son Kody.

+ In September, a new candidate for ordination to ministry from our church, Elizabeth, was taken into discernment status by both our congregation and the Berkshire Association. Then we had the honor of officiating at Christabelle and Annabelle’s wedding in Southern Kentucky. CB was one of the confirmation students Dianne mentored nearly 15 years ago; they have remained close and it was a total gas to be a part of this sacred time – and we got to reconnect with her brothers David and Nat, too!

+ In October, after nearly 15 months of prayer and discernment, James announced his retirement effective February 1, 2017. He will work part-time (20 hours a week) at First Church with an emphasis on worship and pastoral care. This change not only empowers the congregation to move towards greater financial stability and mission, but gives James the chance to do more study, writing and work on both spiritual direction and music for peace-making.

+ In January, 2017 Dianne begins her CELTA training on-line – with a Montréal intensive in late April. She has long desired to continue a passion for helping immigrants that began when her parents taught English to those without skills and then opened their home to Vietnamese refugees after the war. With James’ semi-retirement, she is now free to pursue this important calling – and was able to crowd-source the funding for this work through the generosity of friends and colleagues.

+ We were also able to spend time with our beloved and precocious grandson, Louie, in Pittsfield as well as Brooklyn. We even had the privilege of caring for him for three days so that Jesse and Mike could celebrate Jesse’s 40th birthday sans le bébé. We all came down with colds – and shared a few hard tears – but it was a grand time and we can’t wait to do more after the New Year. We also had the joy of hanging with Michal, Winton and Noah this year for various suppers – and a three-generation viewing of Hilary Clinton’s historic acceptance speech.

Advent 2016 has been all about growing closer to one another – as a couple, as a congregation, as a family – even as we all sort out how to advance the cause of tenderness and justice in the New Year. A broad association of non- partisan allies is already planning for a Freedom Rally at our church on Saturday, January 7, 2016 – so we’ll keep you posted. (check it out here:,493084) As 2017 takes shape:

+ Dianne will deepen her skills in working with non-English speaking people so that they can better assimilate and make sense of their new lives. For the time being, she will also continue to work part-time at a great local shop, Brits-R-Us, which every local person should support vigorously!

James will start a serious study of Bonhoeffer in the New Year along with Henri Nouwen’s notes on spiritual direction. It will be a huge adjustment – mostly for the better – to move into part-time work after 35 years of full-time ordained ministry, but the time is right. He will also make periodic trips to Canada to explore next steps with L’Arche.

Please know you are always welcome to join us in our small, warm and humble Berkshire home. Even with plans to spend a year in Canada sometime in the next 15 months, we plan on keeping our Pittsfield home: we love this place and cherish the community. So know the light will always be on and the doors open. Give us a buzz beforehand at 413-464-9408, or use our email:

One of our favorite artists, Carrie Newcomer, recently wrote that now more than ever is a time to ask: What sustains and connects us, where do we find help in hard times, how can I be more present in my daily life, and when I stop and pull back the layers of distraction, what is at the very heart of my life? The things that have always saved us personally and as a community are still here to save us; compassion, kindness, empathy, generosity, a sense of humor, decency, faithfulness and good parenting are all still here. Yes, the things that have always tripped us up–greed, racism, tribalism, unchecked commercialism and violence—are also still here, and so we name and contend with these things as well. But too often we look “out there” for solutions, when what we really need is right here, within us and between us.”

Joyeux Noël

Thursday, December 22, 2016

staying open and grounded...

Today has been one of those days I anticipate after all these years of being in ministry: an
unplanned encounter with people's unexpected pain.  It actually started yesterday at midday Eucharist when only a few regulars showed up. On those days, our liturgy becomes more of a pastoral visit that concludes with the Lord's Prayer and breaking bread. 

But about 20 minutes into things a small, disheveled man showed up walking down the center aisle. As I turned to greet him, he knelt - kissed my hand - and started speaking greetings in Hebrew. No kidding! (Later Carlton smiled when I recounted this and said, "Only you, man... only you!") Our guest kept on kneeling, but switched to English and began to ramble on about a host of problems, blessings and people that had impacted his life. In time he smiled and said, "You know, at our best, Jews and Christians - and probably Muslims, too - are intertwined in love. We celebrate and honor the same Lord, we often sing and pray the same words and we're all children of Abraham." There were a lot of other things he said for the next 30 minutes but they were pretty jumbled. We brought things to a close with blessings in English and Hebrew, a few hugs and then he schlepped off.  But half way down the steps he said, "Oh, would any one like a holiday fire ball? (a candy) I just bought some and thought it would be good to share."  He left four on the communion table.  Who knows when or how the Lord will be born into our world in unexpected places, yes?

This morning it snowed - more than the expected dusting - and that set things in motion: phone calls from people wounded in love, the Berkshire ARC tow truck to take away our desert truck that has finally succumbed to our harsher climate, my beloved wife's tears of loss over that sweet truck as well as my working on worship notes for Christmas Day. A ton of ups and downs all in the first four hours of the working day!  Good thing I planned for keeping things open and free. Its something I learned from the past masters of pastoral ministry: life gets wacky around our major holidays so make certain to leave space in your schedule so you can be present for those who are hurting.  Kind of the whole Christmas story in miniature, right?  In years past - and other congregations - I've received calls of unexpected deaths, one mate coming home to find their spouse in bed with someone else, suicides, over-doses, violence, birth and everything in-between.
So, while I never know in advance what challenge will pop up at this time of year, I do know that something will... and leave the few days before Christmas (and Easter) wide open. That's the only way I know to stay loving and grounded:  space, rest and riding loose in the saddle. As I get ready to finish up my worship notes for Christmas Day (thank God Christmas Eve is done) I am thinking of these words about those who perished in the warehouse fire in Oakland earlier in Advent:

For the tormented queer, the bullied punk, the beaten trans, the spat-upon white trash, the disenfranchised immigrants and young people of color, these spaces are a haven of understanding in a world that doesn’t understand.

Sometimes, just sometimes, our churches become such safe havens. Would that this were true more often.  I posted these words on our church FB page - and got hundreds of hits and
affirmations. It was yet another clue that there is a deep and yearning hunger for tenderness in these harsh and cruel times. Tomorrow I'll visit a few folk as Di works and try to hit one of the nursing homes, too. S
tay open, dear friends, that the Spirit of all that is holy and healing greets you as we move closer to the blessed Feast of the Incarnation.