Thursday, December 18, 2014

Becoming holy fools on Christmas Eve...

Yesterday was filled with mini-disasters like turning around in the kitchen with my upright bass over my shoulder and destroying some of our favorite tall glasses from Mexico.  Or my dear Lucie leaping to greet me in excitement while a friend arrived only to chip my front tooth. But it was also a beautiful day - one that reminded me of the deeper reasons for doing ministry - one that fed my soul.

For a few hours in the afternoon I met with our music director to talk about the music and liturgy for Christmas Eve. Given the horrifying acts of violence against children - and every peace loving person - that took place this week at the hands of the Taliban in Pakistan - as well as the recent report on CIA torture and the escalating public protests for racial equality and justice that are spreading like wildfire, we sensed this reality had to be a part of our worship. Without a prophetic and healing word of truth and hope, Christmas Eve this year could be a pretty albeit sentimental show of tradition. Not what this hour cries out for, yes?

We had already planned to try two things:  our 5 pm gathering will be very traditional - all the carols you could dream of along with candle light communion - a real place of safety, warmth, comfort and joy. I get that - and need that every year, too. Our 11 pm worship, however, will be a more evocative and contemplative extended jazz meditation on the coming of Christ into this moment in history. Not quite Coltrane's "Alabama" or "Fables of Faubus" by Mingus, mind you, but no less poignant or passionate given our shared commitment to justice and jazz in the context of worship. So we wrestled with how the ancient story of King Herod's violence always lurks just below the words of Christ's birth. We rewrote part of the liturgy so that the Christ candle lighting ceremony is now a directed meditation on the Lord's alternative to the violence of the world. And we played with some music that will help our folk make the connection between the coming of the Prince of Peace as a vulnerable child and what that means for those who seek to live into his grace.

THIS is why I have stayed in ministry. THIS is why I still hold out hope for the church. I have come to treat budget meetings with prayer. I know that there are important things disclosed in coffee hours, too. And I still believe in the value of small acts of kindness whether that's a phone call, a card or a visit to someone in the hospital. But budgets and coffee hours don't sustain me - and they were not why I followed the call into ministry. And at this point in my ministry, I'm not all that committed to any of the incidentals anymore. No, given the fear and violence, I sense that I have to live more fully as a "holy fool" who invites others to do likewise.

For the past few days, Fr. Richard Rohr has been articulating what I have been discerning for my own time in the closing years of my public ministry. Here's the way he puts it and I share it with you in the hope that if you, too are feeling like things are spinning out of control in the world or your life, you might join us Christmas Eve this year @ 11 pm. We feel that, too and want to point towards another way. A more gentle way. A way of peace and hope that takes the grief of this moment seriously.  I believe that when we become allies of God through the foolishness of Christ, we start to bring balance and hope back into a bleak midwinter.  A few of our local jazz masters will join us as guests, too so please come on out.

Some years ago I visited an old Franciscan who lived in Gallup, New
Mexico. He spent most of his life working with the native people, and he loved them deeply. When I knew him, he was probably in his late eighties. He was bent over and he would walk the streets of downtown Gallup in his Franciscan robe and sandals, carrying a cane. He would lift his bent head and greet everybody with the greeting of St. Francis: “Good morning, good people!” Our job is to remind people of their inherent goodness, and this is what this dear man did.

On his cane he had strung a string of battery-powered, blinking Christmas lights. Now to anyone who is a tourist in town, they must think him quite the old fool—bent over, in a brown robe and sandals, with blinking Christmas lights on his cane! And it was not even Christmas time.
One day I asked him, “Father, why do you put those blinking Christmas lights on your cane?”

He cocked his head toward me, looked up grinning, and said, “Richard, it makes for good conversation. See, you are talking to me now. Everybody asks about them, and I am able to talk to everybody because of my Christmas lights.”

Now, was he a fool in most peoples’ eyes? Was he a na├»ve innocent? Yes, I guess he was. The “holy fool” is the final stage of the full human journey. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said, “It is those who become like little children who will enter the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3). Jesus, in his frequent allusion to children, was in his own way describing this final stage of life. We return to that early childhood, as it were, running naked and exposed into the great room of life and death. “I am who I am who I am” now. God has accepted me in my most naked being, and I can now give it all back to God exactly as it is with conscious loving trust that it will be received. What else would God want?

St. Francis illustrates this stage in many memorable ways. When he hears one day that the people of Assisi are calling him a saint, he invites Brother Juniper to join him in a walk through his old home town. Brother Juniper was the first simpleton (that is a compliment!), the holy fool of the original friars. Francis knew he could always trust him to understand what he was saying. Francis once said, “I wish I had a whole forest of such Junipers!”

Francis told Brother Juniper, “Let’s take off these robes, get down to our underwear, and just walk back and forth through Assisi. Then all these people who are thinking we are saints will know who we really are!” Now that’s a saint: someone who doesn’t need to be considered a saint, who can walk foolishly in his underwear the full length of Assisi.  

A few years later, when people were again calling Francis a saint, he said, “Juniper, we’ve got to do it again.” This time they carried a plank into the piazza. They put it over some kind of a stone or maybe the fountain, and there they seesawed all day. They had no need to promote or protect any reputation or pious self-image.

That’s a rather constant spiritual tradition in the Eastern Church and in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but it pretty much got lost after the 13th century Franciscans. We became more and more serious about this intense salvation thing, or you might say we took ourselves far too seriously. Moralism replaced mysticism. And this only increased after the in-house fighting of the 16th century reformations. We all needed to prove we were right. Have you noticed that people who need to prove they are right cannot laugh or smile?

When you are a “holy fool” you’ve stopped trying to look like something more than you really are. That’s when you know, as you eventually have to know, that we are all naked underneath our clothes, and we don’t need to pretend to be better than we are. I am who I am, who I am, who I am; and that creation, for some unbelievable reason, is who God loves, precisely in its uniqueness. My true identity and my deepest freedom comes from God’s infinite love for me, not from what people think of me or say about me. Both the people who praise me and those who hate me are usually doing it for the wrong reasons.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My soul rejoices in God my Savior...

NOTE:  My worship notes for the fourth Sunday of Advent: December 21, 2014. I am grateful to the scholars at Working Preacher - particularly Mark Allan Powell and Karoline Lewis for their wisdom and insights.

For the past eight years at Advent, I have been inviting and encouraging you to reclaim the beauty and wisdom of the Blessed Virgin Mary for your lives.  Now I don’t any illusions that I have been wildly successful in this, mind you; in our historic tradition, Reformed Christians have studiously avoided Mary in both our prayers and our practices. Still I have felt called by grace to bring her back into consideration year after year. Because, you see, Mary evokes balance, beauty and truth in a world a world that is wildly out of balance. 

She embodies a feminine spirituality in an aggressively masculine world. In Luke’s gospel she poetically proclaims the mysterious presence of the Lord in canticles of praise rather than lengthy or abstract theological doctrines singing:  My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

She is invitational when others are demanding; mystical while others are didactic. She knows how to wait and ponder rather than rush to judgment. And she celebrates a sacred silence within the harried noise of culture born of her devotion to contemplation.

Last week I saw a picture of Mary posted on Facebook next to a poem by the late Celtic artist John O’Donohue. It seems a friend was inviting others into the wisdom of Mary as this season roared past in all its frantic glory:  “To all that is chaotic in you,” it began, “let there come silence.”

Let there be a calming of the clamoring.
a stilling of the voices that have laid their claim on you
that have made their home in you
that go with you even to the holy places
but will not let you rest
will not let you hear your life with wholeness
or feel the grace that fashioned you.

Let what distracts you cease.
Let what divides you cease.
Let there come an end to what diminishes and demeans
and let depart all that keeps you in its cage.
Let there be an opening into the quiet that lies beneath the chaos
where you find the peace you did not think possible
and see what shimmers within the storm.

Such are the unique blessings Mary offers us – shelter in the storm so that we might live into the peace placed within us by the Lord since before our birth – and I don’t think there is a person alive who doesn’t yearn for such stillness.

·   What we resist, however, what we neglect, forget, discard and sometimes disparage are the simple but essential spiritual practices that nourish such peace.  I know I go brain dead rather than practice them when I’m anxious. I’ve seen some of you forsake them, too when you’re afraid. And our culture as a whole is so stubbornly ignorant of the spiritual practices that make for peace and balance that over and over again we pound our chests like mad apes insisting that we know better than the Lord.

·   I was incredulous – yet again – last week when former Vice President Dick Cheney showed up in the papers and TV news shows celebrating and excusing the use of water-boarding and other forms of torture. Lord, have mercy on us all. Such pseudo-macho arrogance not only disgraces our nation’s credibility throughout the world, but does nothing to make our world safer.

·   Thank God for the moral clarity of Senator John McCain – something I never thought I would say out loud during worship – as he spoke from out of the wisdom of his own experience. You may recall that Senator McCain spent five years as a POW in the hellhole we know as the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. “The abuse of prisoners,” he told us soberly, “not only produces more bad intelligence, but it is a betrayal of our national values.”

·   Senator McCain understands the complexity of the real world. Even when I disagree with his positions, I know him to be a person of honor and high standards – one who respects and practices our code of engagement as a sacred trust. He concluded his public remarks after the presentation of the CIA torture report last week stating:  “This isn’t about our enemies. It is about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It is about how we represent ourselves to the world.”

People of God, the witness and spirituality of the Blessed Virgin Mary offers us a clear alternative to the ugly bravado that drives so many politicians, business leaders and religious zealots. She points us towards four spiritual practices that bring discernment and inner peace to our souls and balance to our public lives. And Mary grounds us in the grace of God that is always greater than our sins, anxieties or fears.
So why are we Protestants so averse to embracing Mary?  It is a mystery to me – an ambiguity that has not helped us personally, politically or prophetically. Do you know that in St. Luke’s telling it is Mary who is the most faithful and Christ-like disciple in the gospel? Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH – Mark Allan Powell – notes that in today’s text, when Mary speaks to the angel Gabriel, her words parallel those of Jesus in the garden: Mary says at the beginning of the story: Let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1: 38) And what does Jesus say towards the ending as he prays to God in the garden before enduring the Cross?  Not my will but Thy will be done, right? (Luke 22:42)  Professor Powell puts it like this: In both cases, the ideal response to the challenges of live is a combination of humble trust and obedient service.

So how do we get to the place where we, too can practice humble trust and obedient service to the Lord?  Some of you may recall that when I first came to Pittsfield I regularly told you a story of a colleague from Ohio who said that most of his congregation adored Mother Theresa: they revered and honored her but they had no idea how to become LIKE her. They thought it was magic – or that she had been born with mystical powers – when, in truth, Mother Theresa became Mother Theresa through practice. 

·   Like Mary, she cultivated four essential practices that regularly opened her heart to God’s grace. And over time – and I mean God’s time not our own – the rough edges of her personality were worn down and her relentless and deep anxieties found a measure of rest. Faith.

·   Like we sang in this morning’s psalm I sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.” And so I shall always sing that you are my Lord, my Rock and my Salvation.

Let me summarize for you the four spiritual practices of Mary that nourished God’s
peace within her soul.  They are NOT magic. They are not reserved for only the spiritually advanced or privileged. And they are not too hard for anyone in this Sanctuary. Yes, they are ordinary, real, often demanding and sometimes boring. But they are the proven and tested way to make the wisdom of Mary our own. I like how another seminary professor, Karoline Lewis of St. Paul, MN, put it:

·   First Mary reminds us that God comes to us not the other way around. Our story is clear that Mary was favored, honored, embraced and regarded by the Lord not because she was doing anything special. She was not seeking the Lord on a spiritual retreat when the angel came to her. She was not fasting or on a vision quest. She hadn’t proven herself to be a spiritual giant. She was simply getting ready for bed. But Mary had eyes to see: she had a heart willing to recognize and honor God’s sacred presence when it arrived in the middle of her ordinary life – and she didn’t look the other way.  She didn’t avoid it, she didn’t neglect it and she did not confuse her own anxieties for special revelation. Rather, Mary noticed that God came to her because God loves us and chooses us whether we grasp this or not.

·   Second, Mary lets herself be perplexed.  She doesn’t need to understand everything right away. She isn’t so arrogant as to think she has the ability to comprehend every truth and experience all at once. She is willing to trust God and take time with her uncertainties. “Why me, Lord and why right here?” are the right questions for us to ask, too. Most of us don’t believe that God comes to us in the sacrament of an ordinary moment.  We think God has to be more concerned with big things and enormous problems rather than the mess of our own small world. So time and again, we miss the presence of the Lord in the ordinary.  Not Mary. She has eyes willing to see and a heart willing to welcome the Spirit within the ordinary because Mary is willing to wait upon the Lord even in perplexity.

·   Third, Mary ponders these perplexing things in her heart.  She doesn’t automatically accept what the angel tells her – she has questions – because questions are part of what faith is all about. And listen to this: when she faces her doubts and questions she doesn’t throw in the towel and call it quits when clarity evades her or troubles persist. Many people think that faith has to do with certainty. But Mary’s faith ponders her questions in her heart. She looks to God even when she doesn’t understand. She obeys and follows even when the evidence is not clear. And she gives God her whole life in pursuit of the peace that passes under-standing.  I think that is why the ponderings of Mary are a word of grace for you and me:  we have at least as many questions as she did, right? We rarely understand what God is asking of us in any given moment. And we aren’t always certain that the way of business or power isn’t really better than the foolishness of the Lord.  Mary’s way doesn’t discount the truth that others possess; she just puts them into balanceShe tones down their bravado and certainty telling us that if we want God’s peace, ponder your questions in your heart for a season rather than rushing for simple-minded answers.

·   And fourth, Mary speaks to us of commitment.  In her commitment she becomes an ally of the Old Testament prophets who follow God through the wilderness of the exodus, into the anguish of the exile, beyond the refreshment of the Jordan River in pursuit of the unknown Promised Land.   She trusts the love of God more than the obvious evidence of any given moment; she is open to the sacrament of each ordinary moment even while trusting that there is more love and truth and light to be revealed. In this, she offers a counter-cultural alternative to our bottom line gurus who tell us to take what we can grab now without ever considering the promises of God’s future.

To my way of thinking, Mary offers us a way of living that is faithful to the Spirit of Jesus. Some have called it a spirituality of Advent that can be lived throughout our whole lives. The four practices of Mary tell us that:

·        Every moment is sacred and filled with God’s favor

·        Every day holds questions that perplex us that we must explore

·        Every life is a holy mixture of confusion, clarity, awe, suffering and wonder

·        And person who seeks God’s peace must make a commitment to follow by faith

This can be a template for growing into a life filled with God’s presence. Professor Lewis writes: Mary shows us how to become fully human by the grace of God. As I look out at the world we inhabit this week – a world saturated with despair as well as joy, a realm of violence alongside heartfelt prayers for peace – the arrival of Chanukah and a push for Palestinian statehood, the cruel deceit of those who excuse the CIA of torture as well as those of moral clarity and courage who follow a higher calling, the hundreds of thousands of young people across our land crying out, “I can’t breathe” in a quest for true racial equality and the thousands of conscientious police officers aching to serve and protect their communities amidst gang violence, drug money corruption and almost overwhelming odds, the agony of the children and their families murdered by the Taliban as they went to school and the tender embrace of my grandson, Louie, as we put up his first Christmas tree…

…when I look at all this perplexity, I know that Mary is right to ponder it all in her heart.  We can’t yet know what all of this means – it seems too vast and too complex– so we must ponder these things in our heart if we are to give birth to what is of the Lord in these days.

·   I am of the opinion that we’ve been addicted to the way of macho, bottom line aggression for so long we can’t even imagine the peace that passes understanding. We’ve become so accustomed to terror that we’re numb and senseless. Our hearts break when a crazed gunner goes berserk in Newtown – or Pakistan – but we don’t know what to do to stop the madness.

·   Mary tells us that there is another way – a feminine way that needs to be reunited with the masculine habits of the past few hundred years – a way of quietly embracing everything that is real like a mother – the pain and the joy, the dark and the light, the horror and the blessings, the conscious and the unconscious – for then what we have separated can be made whole again by God.

When she does this – when she opens herself so that her body embraces the Spirit of the Lord – she gives birth to a love that unites the wolf and the lamb, the Arab and the Jew, the East and the West, the Black and the White, the Gay and the Straight.  Mary offers us a quiet, simple alternative to the fragmentariness that saturates us with fear, death and despair.

On so many levels I am heart-sick these days – AND – my spirit rejoices in God my savior just like the Blessed Virgin Mother:

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women 
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Rambling thoughts on the Third Sunday of Advent...

anniversary of St. John Coltrane's masterwork - "A Love Supreme" - we spent time playing jazz and doing jazz in worship.

The wisdom, spirituality, aesthetics and ethics of the Third Sunday of Advent point us outward:  in the most direct way possible they ask us to become like John the Baptist. But be careful because the Wild Man we’re asked to emulate as Advent ripens is NOT the harsh, demanding, caustic social critic found in Matthew, Mark or Luke. Rather the Advent John the Baptist always points away from himself to the Lord Jesus – the Lamb of God – for in the gospel according to St. John, the Baptist is a witness to the light. He knows that he himself is not the light, the truth or the way – that calling has been given to Christ – and John is clear to note that he is NOT the Christ.

No, John is a witness – literally a martyr from the Greek word martyreo – one who was sent by God to point us towards the Christ. And everything John the Baptist does in this gospel points us away from him so that our hearts and minds might focus upon Jesus. John knows that he is NOT the Messiah, NOT Elijah, NOT the prophet or the Lamb of God.

He is simply one crying in the wilderness – a witness – who invites us into a way of living that is uniquely humble, compassionate and public.  That’s why the feel of our worship is different today. We need all our senses – and our rational minds – to be touched by this message. Because all too often human beings live and act like WE are the crown of creation. WE are the center of the universe. WE are the heart of it all rather than Christ Jesus.  And so in the midst of everything that is self-centered in our culture, the Advent John the Baptist points away from himself saying, “I must decrease so that he may increase.”

That’s a beautiful pronouncement – I must decrease so that Christ may increase – but it is so counter-cultural.  It is truly challenging, don’t you think? I must get out of the way – I must call into question all my opinions – I must let Christ evaluate my priorities – I must let the presence of Jesus guide my politics – I must shut my own mouth more so that with less of my noise there is more room to listen to the cries of those in the wilderness – I must decrease so that Christ may increase in my church, my heart, my family and my community?
And just so that there is NO ambiguity about this means, John gives us a graphic illustration of what we are to practice IF we too yearn to be witnesses.  “Who are you?” asked all the important people in John the Baptist’s world, to which he replied clearly:  I am the one who is unworthy to untie the thong of his sandal. And the way I get this, John is telling us that there are three practices for us to embody if we want to learn to live as witnesses to the light.

First is humility:  as a witness John tells us he knows that his role is to be a servant – that’s why he would be kneeling down to unfasten the thong on his master’s sandal in the first place – he’s not in charge. He’s not in control. He is on his knees.  Servanthood, you see, is how we voluntarily learn to kneel. Kneeling is practice for what we’re going to have to face at some point in our lives. You see, whether we’re ready or not, there will come a time life itself will knock us down to our knees.

It might happen through illness – or addiction – it often takes place in love when our hearts are broken – and sometimes it is death and grief that hit us like a sucker punch knocking us down and driving us to our knees. Make no mistake, we’re going to get whacked – we’re going to come up against our limits – we’re going to be void of any and all control at some point in our life. So why not get ready for it? Why not practice getting on our knees so that even in hard times we can point to the light of the Lord as witnesses?

That’s exactly what servanthood is all about:  voluntary humility. Life is filled with reminders that we do not have unlimited freedom so why not learn to live in harmony with this truth rather than fight it? John the Baptist asks us to practice kneeling in servanthood – to stop running away from all the things that are hard or demanding in our lives – so that we might finally see what God wants us to give.  An old story puts it like this:

One day a spiritual teacher said, “It is much easier to travel than to stop.” Her disciple asked, “Why is that true?” To which the teacher said, “Because as long as you travel to a goal you can hold on to a dream. When you stop, you must face reality.” After a pause, the disciple asked, “But how shall we ever change if we have no goals or dreams?” And again the teacher said, “Change that is real is change that is unwilled: face reality and unwilled change will happen.

First there is voluntary humility in servanthood. Second there is compassion
– sharing your heart with those in need – and doing it with joy rather than wooden obligation. John the Baptist willingly shared his life as a servant and witness to Christ because he felt the Lord’s pain.  That’s part of what compassion means: co-suffering –from the Latin compati – to embrace with feeling another’s pain. But one of the deeper truths about compassion over and opposed to sympathy or pity is that compassion doesn’t quit with sharing the wound – it also strives to heal it.

You see, compassion not only takes on the physical grief of another’s suffering – we feel in our flesh what another experiences so they don’t have to endure this alone – we also commit ourselves to healing or relieving the agony of their wound. Sometimes that looks like taking off the Master’s sandal after a journey – this is the compassion of hospitality that the Baptist is showing us – bringing a measure of comfort to one who is worn and weary.

But sometimes compassion pushes us to confront the principalities and powers that grind people into the ground and cause them pain. When John the Baptist speaks of himself as one crying in the wilderness, he is allying himself with the poet prophet of Israel, Isaiah, who gave shape and form to Christ’s own ministry. Remember that when Jesus initiated his public ministry, he went to his home synagogue, read from the writings assigned for that day (Isaiah 61) and told his community that he had been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord to:

To bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor  and the day of God’s judgment; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion and give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

Now this is important because it grounds compassion in history – in real life – in the true suffering of our spiritual ancestors. This portion of Isaiah’s poem probably comes from about 540 BCE.  The Jews were no longer in bondage to Babylon where they wept remembering Zion. They had been set free to go home and rebuild Jerusalem. And like Psalm 126 tells us, when this happened: When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’  The Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced.

But things didn’t work out too well when those in Babylon returned to Jerusalem. They had a hard time renewing their old community. Many held on to dreams and hopes from the past that no longer made any sense in a changed world. Others had unrealistic expectations that could never be realized in reality. And scholars tell us that as much as they wanted to live in harmony, there were profound economic disparities in Jerusalem and ugly religious and political factions in the city that refused to find common ground. 

You think John Boehner and Barack Obama have differences? You think our contemporary gridlock is ugly? In the days when Israel returned to Jerusalem and tried to renew their former glory, THAT was real mess: the city lay in rubble – religious fear and discrimination was rampant – and bone-crushing poverty broke the spirit of hope among God’s people.

So, God promised a NEW type of renewal – a truly different restoration project – one that was built on COMPASSION and the sacrifice of SERVANTHOOD:  You shall build up the ancient ruins… raise up the former devastations; you shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

But this wasn’t going to take place through nostalgia or aching for the good old days: Transforming the "former devastations" would require more than a memory of the past and a promise to build. It required that the people of Jerusalem adopt, like God, a love of justice and a hatred of "robbery and wrongdoing." God brings comfort to the mourners – and healing to the wounded – not to preserve the status quo, especially a status quo of frustration, fear and division. NO, God’s grace and hope is given to a hurting people so that the comforted mourners rise up and repair the former devastations – the devastations of former generations.

When God’s mourners are embraced by God’s compassion, God’s people respond as servants who share God’s love in public. You see, justice is what grace looks like in public. Grace happens in our hearts. Justice is what happens in our streets, in our politics, in our institutions and communities. So when God comforts those who have been in mourning, God expects us to respond, to rise up and repair the former devastations.
And we know this because God’s servant John the Baptist pointed to the Messiah – Jesus the anointed – and what did Jesus tell us when he went public with his ministry? He told us exactly what Isaiah prophesied when he went public in his ministry:  when the Spirit of the Lord comes upon you with grace, when you have been comforted and fitted with the garments of salvation and the robes of righteousness – and let’s be clear that salvation isn’t only about heaven but being made healthy and holy in our physical bodies right now and righteousness has nothing to do with self-righteousness but rather means compassion in action – when this happens… we will willingly start to decrease so that the love and justice of God might increase.

Humility as servants – compassion born of grace – and going public with justice in our own time – NOW – is what the Baptist points to today.  So let’s get out of the way for a moment and reflect on this in silence and song. And if you sense an action you want to strengthen, them come on up and light a candle, too.

(various pictures from the last few days; credits:  Dianne De Mott/Jesse Piscatello)

Friday, December 12, 2014

An advent calling...

When I experienced my "call" into ministry, it was at a unique moment in the history and culture of my land: June 1968. Almost a year to the day after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a searing anti-war sermon at Riverside Church in NYC, he was gunned down in Memphis, TN on April 4, 1968. Dr. King had come to Memphis to stand in solidarity with striking garbage workers - the lowest of the low - and he was helping Americans connect the dots between racism, violence and class oppression. He was also incarnating a core truth in his prophetic spiritual tradition: whatsoever you do unto one of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, said Jesus, you do unto me.  
Robert Kennedy was assassinated two months later after winning the California presidential primary on June 6, 1968. The war in Vietnam was raging out of control as US confidence plummeted after the nationalist Vietnamese counter-offensive known as Tet kicked into high gear at the start of January 1968. And American cities once again were in flames as spring burst into summer. It was a frightening and ecstatic time to be alive. I was 16 years old.

My church youth group was completing a "mission discovery" caravan. About 27 teens and 5 adult driver/guides had left our wealthy CT suburb to spend time "seeing the body of Christ in action." We went to a rural home for orphans in PA, a social justice organizing campaign for West Virginia coal miner justice, a number of racial reconciliation projects in Washington, DC and an inner city church ministry in Baltimore, MD. (I still remember sitting on the steps of the Baltimore church listening and dancing to the transitor radio blast "Cold Sweat" by James Brown into the 'hood.) A few days earlier, during worship at the Potter's House in DC - the experimental "coffee house gallery" outreach to artists born of the Church of the Savior after WWII - I "heard" the voice of the Lord saying over and over: "You could do this!" 
And so it began: a 45 year quest of listening and exploration trying to understand  what  "this" meant. Mostly I've come to believe that it has to do with the marriage of art and ministry. Not like the Potter's House - although I still love that place - but in my own way and within the context of a traditional local church. And I share this mini-autobiographical note today because once again my nation is being rocked by a tidal wave of protests born of deep racism and our fear of confronting it. Once again I find myself at the inter-section of the arts and the prophetic word of God as my small congregation listens for our contribution in reconciliation. And once again I sense the paradox of doing this ministry: in the face of monstrous evil and fear all I can offer up is a tiny dose of beauty within a quiet invitation to trust. Indeed, my trust that God's grace is greater than any of the evils we confront is at the core of this calling. Only God can bring true healing and justice. For while we can choose to live as allies and disciples of the holy, unless the Lord builds the house, we labor in vain.

Over the next few days I want to share a few thoughts about why I continue to engage in this calling. The embrace of creative worship and music-making is  clearly is not enough for this moment in time. It hasn't been for 45 years and it won't be into the future. And yet "this" is what my calling is about: living into and sharing the sounds of harmony as an alternative to the shrillness of the status quo - listening carefully and waiting in the silence of uncertainty rather than adding to the ugly rants of the hour that pander to our worst fears - tenderly trusting that as I share my teaching and music-making gifts openly, others will be encouraged to share theirs, too - just as God has desired since the beginning of time.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane's masterpiece: A Love Supreme. This was his celebration of freedom, hope, beauty and creativity. It not only transformed his life, it changed the way music was heard and played though out the world. So this Sunday, December 14, we will raise up a jazz infused Advent as our reflection on the texts for the day - especially Isaiah 61 and Psalm 126. If you sense the "call" to be together in community, if you are hungry for soul food, if you have cried, "How long, O Lord, how long?" maybe you will want to join us.  We gather at 10:30 am trusting that:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners; 
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
   and the day of vengeance of our God;
   to comfort all who mourn; 
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
   to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
   the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
   the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. 
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
   they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
   the devastations of many generations. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Autumn ripens into winter...

There is a gentle, white frosting falling on the Berkshires this afternoon
that will continue for a few more hours. While I write, friends in the congregation are both currently in surgery or recovering from surgery at home. Other church families are trying to figure out what comes next after loss, death or physical challenge touch their lives. And all of us are going a little deeper into the wisdom of Advent that calls us to take stock of what is real within and among us - and then keep alert for outbreaks of grace in the most unlikely places.

One surprise for me came during the 2+ hours I spent on-line with a person from Norton Anti-Virus tech support earlier today. She was a genuinely helpful and attentive guide from... who knows? India? Pakistan? And while I once or twice struggled to hear what she was telling me, she also skillfully led me through a bewildering process that eventually cleaned-up my beleaguered computer. For about 45 minutes everything became surreal as I watched in awe as the techie took control of my lap top (after my sign-off, of course.) From someplace far away, my cursor was moving - opening and closing various programs - and downloading others. And when it was all said and done, the 7+ year old dinosaur worked like new. I was grateful and humbled.

Another surprise came in an article posted on The Jewish Daily Forward by Jay Michaelson. I am going to quote part of it below because it resonates with something I have been sensing for the last few months. Namely, as a person of faith, there is no point in fighting what is inevitable: this is a time of religious retrenchment. So instead of being anxious and distraught, rather than second-guessing and blaming myself, why not live faithfully and playfully into the best my spiritual tradition offers and trust that God will take care of the rest? Brother Michaelson is lamenting the sad state of Jewish affairs in 2014 but his words are true in the Roman and Reformed churches, too:
Reading a Jewish newspaper — and writing for one — is often an exercise in masochism. Of course, the Forward has inspiring pieces on the gefilte fish revival and the first female-majority Forward 50. But when you look at the “hard news” and follow the trend lines, it’s easy to feel despair.

If you’re a progressive, Israel’s “Jewish State” law is but the latest in a long line of anti-democratic, nativist and thuggish actions by the present government, a government subsidized by American billionaires, one of whom has recently opined that Israel need not remain a democracy. He’s already put his money where his mouth is. And if you’re a conservative, you likely see Israel as increasingly demonized on the world stage: On college campuses and in European parliaments, the Palestinian narrative seems to be winning.

Meanwhile, here at home, mainstream Jewish denominations are shrinking, like those of Christianity, and no one has a solution. The American Jewish community in 2025 will be disproportionately ultra-Orthodox, with a shrunken base that is increasingly ethnocentric. If you think the Jewish institutional wagons are circled now, just wait until the circle is smaller.

At this point in a piece of this type, most writers would say, “But don’t give up! Don’t despair! Recommit yourself to fighting the good fight, to writing good checks, to being the change you want to see in the world!” I’m not going to do that. I’m done. I’m in despair mode, and I’m not getting out of it. It’s December, after all. I think it’s better to give in to despair. Admit it. Kick the tires of it. How does it feel? Is everything really so terrible?

It’s a delusion that the microclimates we find ourselves in, at this conference or that social justice event, are really the weather of the world. In fact, the whole notion of “be the change” is highly misleading.

Something like this is becoming an inner meditation as autumn ripens into
winter: these are hard times of institutional stagnation for many churches. Sure, tons of people self-identify as spiritual but not religious - and I think this group holds some potential for our age - but it doesn't help me a whole lot right now as I try to steer a 250 year old institution through uncharted waters. I need resources and people able to commit themselves to the way of compassion, justice and humility. I need families willing to train their children - and be trained themselves - in the counter-cultural values of Christ. I need colleagues who are energized and unafraid of being gospel women and men. And, all too often, it seems as if our busy, frantic, consumption-oriented culture has hold of so many of us by the throat that we are immobilized by fear or fatigue. So maybe this moment in time is teaching me two truths. The first is nicely said by Jay Michaelson in the Jewish Forward article:

Financially, I think there are sufficient resources and momentum in what might be called “boutique” Jewish communities to sustain these enclaves of creative Jewishness for at least a generation. Maybe more, given endowments and boards and buildings. And creatively, I think ours is among the most fertile periods in all of Jewish history: more innovation; more hybridization; more exchange of the treasury of Jewish cultural, spiritual and communal resources.

I do not think any of these will “save the Jews,” if by this designation we mean the kind of large, multiplex-scale religious and cultural community that most of us have known all our lives. Most of these people don’t need saving; they’re leaving and they’re fine with that. We’re the ones who don’t like it.
But there are enough stewards of the Jewish heritage that it will not disappear from the earth. Even if Israel continues its spiral into moral bankruptcy, it’s highly unlikely that a nuclear power will simply cease to exist, even if its character is forcibly changed by an international community exasperated with a racial non-democracy. And even if some large synagogues can no longer afford the upkeep of their edifices, there will be a vibrant, diverse shearit yisrael, a remnant of Israel, that, like the talmudic academy at Yavneh, will keep the fires burning for those of us still interested in them.

It’s an interesting spiritual practice to hold both sides of this equation — the renaissance and the ruin — simultaneously. Mass-market American Judaism, and mainstream political Zionism, have lost much of their integrity. And yet at the same time, the alternatives to both are exciting. Here’s what Gandhi actually said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him… We need not wait to see what others do.”

My world - my way of being church and community - is shrinking. And it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. There are, indeed, likely enough resources to keep some parts of it alive - so let that be enough for now. The other truth is that given these facts on the ground, maybe I can finally let go of any thinking that blames my leadership for these inevitable cultural changes. For most of my life I've been a pastor who needed to get things done. I took charge, I organized and worked hard to get results and I've been modestly successful in revitalizing the congregations I've served.

But right now, guess what? Our shrinkage is bigger than me; it neither started
on my watch and it certainly won't end here either. So why not let this time honor another type of renewal? One of joy in the simple acts of compassion and justice? One of appreciation for the little acts of beauty and hope? After all, most of what God does in Jesus Christ is hidden, yes? That is what Jesus called the blessed mystery that the powerful always fail to see:

I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Back in the 60s, Donovan sang "Season of the Witch." I loved that weird-ass, rambling tune then and still do now. But ours isn't the season of the witch; no, my hunch is that this is the season for a rest.

NOTE:  Later in the day I read this article which gives the analytical documentation re: shrinking - and learning to love it. Check it out @