Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The show is a blessing in spite of the blizzard...

Last night I wept a few times during our final band practice for tonight's show on Thanksgiving Eve - and they were tears of beauty and gratitude. First, I work with some of the finest musicians - instrumentalists and vocalists - I have ever known. Not only are they people of faith, hope and love, they are also individuals who know how to work as a part of a musical team. Check your egos at the door, please! These cats give of themselves, their time and their talent in ways that are sacrificial. And I am humbled to make music with them all - no exceptions.

Second, our current line-up of key vocalists have voices and spirits that blend with one another in a sweet way. These voices fit. These singers know how to listen carefully and then intuitively add sound or space to create beauty. They never fret. They avoid stomping all over an other's unique part. And they are so freakin' funny with one another that you can't help but get caught up in their collective joy. Last night, as we worked out forms and harmonies for our concert, they were simultaneously vigilant and fun. What a treasure.

Third, our key instrumentalists also know how to listen carefully for what a song needs and then bring it to life. And these are players from very different backgrounds and styles: some have studied at the conservatory while others took their training playing bars and dives. So to see jazz, folk, rock, blues and classical styles embrace one another as equal musical cousins makes my heart sing.

Fourth, this band is willing to take risks - they want to practice and explore
these risks, to be sure - but they aren't afraid to go out on a musical limb and see what treasures might be discovered. And everyone contributes to this quest, too: there are no wallflowers in this band. So tonight we're putting gentle Celtic styling next to Beck grooves - we're placing a capella Southern Gospel close to Tom Waits and Warren Zevon - and in the middle there will be some Spyro Gyra, bossa nova and deep Americana followed by a healthy dose of John Fogerty and Joni Mitchell.

And one more thing: this band - individually and collectively - knows how to practice authentic Christian hospitality. If you have the chops - and are willing to share them and put in some time - you are always welcome at this party. Let me unpack that one because all three parts - chops, sharing and time - are essential. Not everyone has the same level of skill or ability, right?  St. Paul speaks of this when he writes in Romans 12: For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. 

He says much the same thing in I Corinthians 12: Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. That means that not everybody gets to do the same thing just because they want to. There are some good-hearted souls who love to sing, but should not be a soloist. There are some equally faithful individuals whose ability is at a beginner's level and ought not be put into a band with cracker jack professionals because when this happens the whole groove is diminished.
At the same time, however, young and developing musicians need a place of safety and encouragement. So, at tonight's show we will feature a few folk who are young performers with the ability to mature - and they will get a chance to share the stage - and be lifted up - by veterans of staggering ability. This is part of the sharing I'm talking about: my band mates want those who can do it to shine and they make the space for this to happen. But they are also very clear that we must not add anyone to the mix that will drag the whole gig down. There are other venues and opportunities for players of developing skill to share their gifts - and we are intentional about hosting those types of events, too - this performance is different from a talent show. So, if you've got the chops. there is a place for you in this show. 

That's another aspect of the sharing that I cherish. There is a trust going on with all of these musicians because they know their peers will not let them fail. In a word, they practice love and hospitality among themselves and with new friends and guests. This is a true gift. I've played with musicians who get all passive-aggressive when a back-up player outshines the star. I've known what it was like to be asked to go on the stage without adequate preparation. It makes you literally sick to your stomach. So that never happens with my mates. They always insist on time for preparation because that gives us all a foundation of trust and comfort when we share our gifts of music. Chaps, time and authentic sharing in hospitality: pretty damn wonderful.

I am looking forward to this gig. It will be sparsely attended tonight because the snow is really coming down now and may be up to 8 inches by 6 pm. And while that is a mere challenge for some folk in the Berkshires- everyone has all wheel drive - it will deter a lot of others. We may have to do the whole gig again at another time (what a shame, right?) in order to raise serious funds for the emergency fuel assistance fund. But for now that is all peripheral: now it is all about the music, the community and the love we share. I encounter a bit of heaven when it all comes together. Maybe you do, too?
photo credits: Dianne De Mott

NOTE:  After posting this entry, I came across these words by Walter Brueggemann in a recent interview. They also play a part of what we are doing in this band. Check it out:

Beginning with the Exodus narrative and the Elijah narrative and the Jesus narrative, they are all storied about public transformation that happened by courage of uncredentialed people. These kinds of narratives feed our imagination and give us energy and courage. As the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s understood, singing is a way to keep your nerve. If you think about the Song of Miriam or those dangerous songs (many of which are in the mouths of women) we are invited to join that kind of singing which is a refusal to accept the dominant definitions of reality. Such singing and storytelling is an insistence that there is another way to experience the world and there is another way to act in the world. These are very important models and authorizations for us.

The scripture could just be rules and laws, but it is stories. I am drawn to those stories and songs, like the freedom songs and the protest songs. There is so much meaning in them.
WB: That is right. Many of those old songs, in their old context, really were freedom songs. If you think about Mary’s Magnificat as it announces the themes of the Gospel of Luke is so very revolutionary. They knew that you had to sing it out. And they did. Over time we find ways of repeating their singing.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A quiet sacramental act of love for thanksgiving...

So the weather predictions for Thanksgiving Eve - Wednesday, November 26 - range from 4-8 inches of snow to 8-14 inches. Hmmmm... we in the Berkshires can handle the first in our sleep, but if you get over six inches at night we might have to pull the plug on our concert. We have rehearsal tonight so we'll caucus and take the pulse of the band. Who knows what will really happen? Last year, time and again, the apocalypse was forecast but only modest snow actually fell most of the time. But then there was a massive blizzard on the last day of October two years ago, so... who knows?

At any rate, we're ready for whatever even while hoping the show goes on. In anticipation of Old Man Winter, we cleaned off the deck this afternoon and cleared out the garage, too. (We have to park the truck in there so that the snow plow can liberate us should things turn bad.) While moving things to the store room, I came across a box of tea cups my sister Karen packed up for me last May. I went down to visit with my dad - and pick up his old deacon's bench from the parsonage in Stamford, CT days - and because he was closing up his house to move in with Laura, some remembrances were divided up among my siblings.

Truth be told, I couldn't face opening that box back then, so it sat in my garage for six months. But now, after about six weeks since my father's death, the time felt right. So, with a quiet joy I didn't expect, I unwrapped about 20 tiny tea cups that my mother had collected over the years. They are all stunning and I was speechless for a bit. I don't think I'd ever seen this little treasures. Each one is hand-painted with a delicate touch that I never knew my Mom appreciated. I can only say that I am so grateful that Karen made the effort to carefully select these cups for me - and each of us. It is clear this was a sacramental act of love for us.  She couldn't couldn't change my father's health. She couldn't fix things. But she could share small sings of the beauty and love of our family. And she did. And while this brings tears to my eyes right now, I am so very grateful, too.
I know that one of the reasons I am so eager to do this year's show is that so many of this year's songs are tender-hearted. I will be singing Tom Waits' "Hold On" - a song I shared at my dad's memorial service - and it feels right and holy to do at this time of the year. So I will keep you posted re: what's happening tomorrow night. In the mean time:  Hold on and have a blessed Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Silence, planning and prayer...

After watching the press conference concerning the St. Louis County grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Mr. Michael Brown, I found myself channel surfing for 20 minutes. How, I wondered, would CNN spin this news vs. MSNBC and FOX? How would FOX find some way to denigrate President Obama? How might MSNBC sound like they were acting in support of the President's call for prudent and constructive social engagement while also pandering to their constituents limited perspective? 

It didn't take long for the respective political and media spin doctors to jump into action. Nor did it take much time for some key players in the quest for racial and social justice to articulate what was wrong with today's grand jury verdict. All of which left me wondering: where are the voices of quiet reason and prayer? 

Please don't misunderstand: there is something tragic and ugly about racial profiling, the militarization of America's police forces, urban despair and poverty, gangsta culture and the polarization of our nation that keeps us all in fear and confusion about one another. But here's the thing: with the instant analysis that has become the norm in the USA, we no longer expect any depth, nuance, careful reflection or real understanding from our media. Ours has become a public culture without intellectual discipline or moral focus. And without the ability to use critical thinking to imagine and plan for compassionate and just solutions, we rant for a few minutes before becoming distracted by the next manufactured extravaganza or tragedy.

As I was reading and reacting to the varied posts on Facebook I thought: I
should write something pithy and challenging about all of this. And I started to give it a try but caught myself saying, "Dude, don't become what you hate." Shut up. Be still. Hurry up and do nothing so that you might think and pray and listen for what is sacred in all of this. Then I saw Cathleen Falsani-Possley's MLK icon on Patheos - and her MLK prayer - and took that for a word of confirmation. So I hit delete and wrote instead:

There is more - much more - to be said about this, but for now we should pray. Dr. King also said that when evil people plot, good people must plan.(When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.) So let our plans and responses be of good will, true equality, moral sensitivity and courage in this broken and hurting time.

There is a place for a straight, white clergy person to speak out about racial and economic injustice. There is a place for me to invite my community to take police violence seriously. And there is a place for me to be in solidarity with sisters and brothers of color, too. But not instantaneously - not on auto-pilot - and not reflexively without careful discernment. Already, my national church leaders have issued their necessary quasi-theological broadsides - and there will be more to come. Oh well... now is the time for prayer and grieving. And then it will be on to planning and building from within the glories of love.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Groovin' at pratice...

A few shots from tonight's practice as we get ready for Thanksgiving Eve 2014. Here's a long view from the back of the Sanctuary.
And here's a candid shot with the band in focused mode. This year maybe the most eclectic yet with Spyra Gyro, Warren Zevon, the Band, Joni Mitchell, original tunes fitting together with the Wailin' Jennys, Ryan Adams, John Fogerty and Beck.
If you can be there, I know I've pushed this a lot, but it will be a gas: Wednesday, November 26, 2014 @ 7 pm.
photo credits:  Win Ridabock

Friday, November 21, 2014

This is the world I want to live in...

In just a few minutes we are off to share an early Thanksgiving dinner with part of our beloved family who reside in the hill towns.  But before we go, I wanted to post these two quotes because they express so profoundly what is on my heart these days. The first is from the genius Ursula Le Guin at last night's National Book Award.

Hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. … Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words... The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

The second from another of my favorite writers, Naomi Shihab-Nye in a small essay she calls: "This is the World I Want to Live In."

"Peace" in Arabic - calligraphy by Dr. Shams Anwari-AlhoseeyniWandering around the Albuquerque AirportTerminal, after learning my flight had been detained four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”  Well – one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,” said the Flight Service Person. “Talk to her. What is her problem?  We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”  I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. “Shu dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “You’re fine, you’ll get there, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.” We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her – Southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for fun. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends.  Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions.  She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies – little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts – out of her bag – and was offering them to all the women at the gate.  To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo – we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie. And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers and two little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they were covered with powdered sugar too. And I noticed my new best friend – by now we were holding hands – had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in.  The shared world. Not a single person in this gate – once the crying of confusion stopped – seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too. This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
Thank you to Carolyn and Sue who brought these two blessings to my attention.  I am so very grateful. And now, as Arlo might say, we're off to a Thanksgiving dinner that can't be beat! (And come out to join us next Wednesday evening - Thanksgiving Eve - when we do our part for a shared world, ok?)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

And the trees shall clap their hands...

NOTE:  Every month I write something to the people of my faith community. It is usually a practical update - sometimes my interpretation of a specific mission commitment - but this month, in anticipation of Advent, I was called in a different direction. Throughout Advent (and I'm not trying to rush into the season because I am way too excited about Thanksgiving) we will be worshiping in a more contemplative style:  candles, quiet times, gentle songs of the season and Eucharist. Here's how it is feeling to me right now.
There is a passage from the Scriptures that I cherish even if I don’t grasp its
wisdom completely. It is from the 55th chapter of the poet Isaiah’s words to ancient Israel:

My thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the  earth,
making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
I love the image of the mountains bursting into song and the trees clapping their hands in joy and gratitude. That seems to be the essence of faithful living, don’t you think? Not long ago I purchased Mary Oliver’s new volume of poetry wherein she offers her take on scripture in a poem entitle, “The Country of the Trees.”

There is no king in their country
and there is no queen
and there are no princes vying for power,
     inventing corruption.
Just as with us many children are born
and some will live and some will die and the country
     will continue.

The weather will always be important.

And there will always be room for the weak, the violets
     and the bloodroot.
When it is cold they will be given blankets of leaves.
When it is hot they will be given shade.
And not out of guilt, neither for a year-end deduction
     but maybe for the cheer of their colors, their
          small flower faces.

They are not like us.

Some will perish to become houses or barns,

     fences or bridges.

Others will endure past the counting of years. And none will ever speak a single word of complaint, as though language,
     after all, did not work well enough,
     was only an early stage.
Neither do they ever have any questions
to the gods – which one is the real one,
and what is the plan.
As thought they have been told everything
already, and are content.

Long ago, I was told by a poet that if you have to ask “What does this means?” you are missing the whole point of a poem. (I think it was my wife…) I sense that wisdom applies to many of our Holy Scriptures, too. They are not linear advice nor prescriptions for successful living. Rather they are poems that invite us into deeper mysteries and truths too great for words. So mostly all we can do is sit quietly in their presence and let their grace seep slowly into our souls. That’s what Advent is like for me – never frantic – always still albeit obscure.

This Advent our worship will offer you a taste of that quiet, gentle obscurity. I hope you will be present to savor it. Embrace it. Ponder its beauty in the stillness. Not long ago, Dianne and I were walking in the woods when we came upon this gift. Her photo, I think, evokes the heart of our quiet Advent longing.
photo credit:  Dianne De Mott

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thanksgiving Eve 2014 is coming...

Playing songs with some of my favorite musician friends has become one of the most sacred experiences of my life. Every year for the past 33 years there has been one incarnation or another of this gig in every church I've served. We started in Saginaw, moved on to Cleveland, spent 10 years in Tucson and I am now doing my 8th show in Pittsfield. Each of the bands that have grounded these concerts over the years have taken up residence in my heart: the individuals are often still part of my prayers and the fun we created together has been a taste of heaven. My current band mates - and those who have joined the show over the past 7 years - are incredibly dear to me and I actually ache to share making music with them.

This year we'll have all of the goodness of the past, plus a twist. In addition to the 16 people joining me on stage for this year's show, we are going to welcome a local Southern Gospel chorus to the celebration - and they're bringing 30 people plus their own horn section! What a gas! And while I have no idea how this will all mix once we get cookin' next Wednesday night @ 7 pm, I trust it will be sweet. I have three hopes for this year's Thanksgiving Eve show:

+ First, I want it to be beautiful and fun. We have a wide selection of songs this year - and some very creative artists - so we'll be mixing rock and roll up with folk songs, jazz, indie rock and some wild improvisation, too.

+ Second, I want to raise some serious money for our emergency fuel assistance fund. It is cold in these parts in the winter - cold, damp and raw - and if we can keep some people warm after they've run out of options, we'll be turning our prayers and dreams into deeds.

+ And third, I want to celebrate the power of music in bringing people together for the common good. It is so easy to become cynical or despondent these days. It is hard to stay in that deadening space, however, when you are laughing and singing with other people. Americans don't have many opportunities to sing with one another any more so we're doing our part to keep the dream alive.
If you are in the area - or close by - why not stop in at 7 pm on Wednesday, November 26th and we'll all have a great time. This is part family reunion, part progressive revival, part hymn-sing and part celebration of all that is good, beautiful and true. I can't wait. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dancing angels...

In some ways, nothing in life really makes sense. This morning four rabbis in
Jerusalem were murdered as they prayed by two men who felt that Jewish prayers deserved Muslim meat cleavers offered upon innocent flesh. Yesterday, a Palestinian bus driver was found beaten and hanged; Israeli police say it was probably suicide but friends and family are suspicious. Today, loved ones were trying to make sense of raising adolescent children in the hyper-sexualized age of the internet while I prayed in the sweet serenity of my home over images of Christ the Upside-Down King. Tonight my band mates and I sang songs of hope, peace and beauty even as some hearts were breaking in despair and depression. 

The only thing that makes consistent sense to me is tenderness. It doesn't answer every question nor does it solve every lament. But when I don't know what else to do, it matters to reach out in love. It matters to listen. It maters to hold those I cherish. And so I trust that this is enough for the moment. Mary Oliver wrote this in her most recent book of poems. She calls it "Angels."

You might see an angel anytime
and anywhere. Of course you have 
to pen our eyes to a kind of
second level, but it's not really
hard. The whole business of
what's reality and what isn't has
never been solved and probably
never will be. So I don't care to
be too definite about anything.
I have a lot of edges called Perhaps
and almost nothing you can call
Certainty. For myself, but now
for other people. That's a place
you just can't get into, not
entirely anyway, other people's

I'll just leave you with this.
I don't care how many angels can
dance on the head of a pin. It's
enough to know that for some people
they exist, and that they dance. 

I see angels dancing when I hold my lover in hard times. I see angels dancing when a little girl from church befriends my wounded dog with her embrace so that both seem to hug one another - at least for a moment. I see angels dance in our choir rehearsals and in my silent prayers where tears flow as fast as rain. I see angels dance when a local synagogue joins with some of my members to study and pray and ask hard questions about the possibility of peace and justice ever coming to a broken and polarized land we love so dearly? 

I don't have a lot of certainty - many edges that sound more like perhaps ring true to me - but like Ms. Oliver I give thanks that angels exist for some of us - and that they are dancing among us even tonight.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Why not get started on it...

This morning I became lost in our opening and closing jazz reflections -
and it was heaven. I mean lost, of course, in a good way. A soulful way. A way wherein I went deep into the music and simultaneously the music went deep into me. It was cathartic and grounding. It framed and cradled the totality of worship. And, as you might have guessed, it ministered to me with a grace beyond words and even presence. 

Afterwards I thought of this new poem by Mary Oliver in her book Blue Horses. It comes from an extended series called "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac."

I know, you never intended to be in this world.
But you're in it all the same.

So why not get started immediately.

I mean, belonging to it.
There is so much to admire, to weep over.

And to write music or poems about.

Bless the feet that take you to and fro.
Bless the eyes and the listening ears.
Bless the tongue, the marvel of taste.
Bless touching.

You could live a hundred years, it's happened.
Or not.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.

For reasons greater than myself I feel renewed in ministry after my father's death. This stuff matters. Loving one another matters. Nourishing real compassion matters. Practicing and cultivating gratitude matters. So does letting it go and so that forgiveness can do the heavy lifting.
Maybe that's why I am so into worship. So saturated with the grace of the closing of the church year - and the dawning of Advent. Today I invited our children - and all of the adults, too - to learn to pray with some of our hymns. First we felt the angst and humility a midst God's comfort in "Precious Lord." It aches and embraces our souls all at the same time. Then we tried "Seek Ye First" - with its soaring descant - that can only make you smile and give thanks to be alive.

As I left church later in the day, I was clear that this stuff really does matters - our songs matter - they can provide solace and shape and form to our grieving in ways that move us beyond the pit. They can keep us sane in the presence of cruelty and pain. They can point towards the hope of God's love when all we can experience is sorrow. So like Ms. Oliver says: why not get started - immediately - belonging to life? Here's the song we'll close our Thanksgiving Eve gig with... kind of rings true to my heart these days, yes?

photo credits:  Dianne De Mott

Friday, November 14, 2014

Working with some of the best...

Every week I get to work with an incredible musician at church AND a
small collective of creative vocalists and artists committed to truth, beauty and compassion. What a gift! To be sure, there are always headaches to endure and hassles to resolve; if it were otherwise, it wouldn't be church. But in the grand scheme of things, the headaches and hassles pale in comparison to the blessings. I have been ruminating on this truth all week in light of our up-coming music show on Thanksgiving Eve. On Tuesday, we spent an hour working on a new song by one of our gifted guitarists.  Three things struck me about this rehearsal:

1) He trusted all of us to help shape and explore the form of his song. If you know anything about musicians, this level of faith and intimacy is rare. Most of the time we hate for people to mess with our creations. The by-word is more often than not, "Don't change ANY thing!" But here, and this has taken place over six years of working together, the core of a song is presented. Then the composer talks about the sound, groove and specifics he's looking for in it - and we try out various applications until it falls into place. And it always falls into place - sometimes it takes a few weeks - but with this level of trust and creativity, beautiful things start to take shape and form.

2) The core of this song is fascinating - born of faith and deep prayer - and the paradox of trying to live respectfully with others in a rapidly changing world. The first verse has to do with Krystallnacht and a young woman caught up in the energy of the Nazi buzz. The second verse tries to imagine how a young man can give up his life to become a suicide bomber because of his faith. It is a song of Niebuhrian proportions that recognizes both the unintended consequences of our deepest commitments, and, the often complicated conclusions people of faith embrace as we pursue justice and integrity. And its got a back beat and bluesy gospel chorus, too!

3) Everyone brings something to the table in this collective development of a song. Our vocalists ask probing questions about form and intent. Our instrumentalists play with both spontaneous and more structured grooves. And we all roll with the song until it feels natural. That's what my music director at church says is essential to musicality: it must feel natural. This takes time, patience and a playful spirit of trust because sometimes when we start on a song, we have no idea what will really work. It might become a train wreck so we have to get back up, dust off our creative egos off and jump back into the fray. Other times it bubbles up with sweetness but we can't fully recall what we did in the moment, so we have to do it again. It is mysterious work, but of a very joyful type.

Today I am so very grateful for this gift.

credits: 1)  Leo Mazzeo; 2) Darlene Keefe

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Quiet time and the stomach flu...

Since my father's unexpected death just one month ago, I've been
trying to get back into the swing of things at church. Mostly this hasn't been difficult - I love this faith community and they are very, very supportive of me - but I still find I am overwhelmed with attending to the practical details of day-to-day ministry. I am on top of Sunday worship - and a variety of big events coming down the pike in the next few months - but getting back into the groove with pastoral visits, hospital calls, ministry team meetings, etc. is taking me longer to connect with than I first thought.

Coming back from a lunch meeting yesterday, I quipped to a colleague and friend, "I am still finding it hard to get back on top of some of the details that I had to let go of during the past two months." She smiled and said, "It has only been a few weeks; be kind to yourself." To which I smiled sadly and replied, "Yeah I'm still working on that one." Seems that has been true for 40+ years, yes? And then, to add insult to injury, I came down with a wicked stomach bug last night that has derailed my plans for today. It is humbling to note how the body conspires with the soul to help me claim quiet time for grief.

The Psalm for this Sunday is 123 that Robert Alter renders like this:

To YOU I lift up my eyes,
     O dweller in the heavens.
Look, like the eyes of slaves to their masters,
     like the eyes of a slavegirl to her mistress,
so are our eyes to the Lord our God
     until He grants us grace.
Grant us grace, Lord, grant us grace,
     for we are sorely sated with scorn.
Sorely has our being been sated
     with the contempt of the smug,
          the scorn of the haughty.

His notes include some pearls of great wisdom.  First, this is a humble and inclusive psalm - both male and female slaves are part of the supplicants - who cast their eyes to the heights. "Everyone in this community, man and woman, looks urgently to God for a sign of grace." Second, the people's hearts yearn for grace; some translations call it mercy, and this has its place, but grace cuts deeper. And third, the wounded and praying ones have been treated with contempt by the smug and haughty so that "we are sorely sated with scorn."

To borrow an insight from Jung, when my own smug and haughty inner tyrants conspire to judge my wounded and grieving soul, what I yearn for most is God's grace. Jung was reflecting on Matthew 25 - the parable of the sheep and the goats - wherein he noted that sometimes the hungry, thirsty, naked, lonely and confused strangers that we neglect are within our very selves. So when the Lord's beloved reply: "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” The king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

There are a few meetings I must attend tonight, but most of today has been given over to rest. Sometimes it seems that the quiet time for grace I need requires a stomach flu so that I can slow down and simply be...

photo credits:  Dianne De Mott and Growing Bolder

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sabbatical fever...

Jazz for the Journey - that's what a conference in Cleveland was called that
some of our band attended last year at about this time - and that's what I've called the new blog for my 2015 sabbatical: Jazz for the Journey. It evokes a few truths that I want to explore more seriously:

+ First is the practice of working on my upright bass playing. Not only will I be giving serious time each week to physically practicing this bad boy, but I will also be spending serious time listening to the great bass players in jazz at the Montreal Jazz Festival's Mediatheque. (Check it out: http://www.montreal
jazzfestcom/maison-du-festival-online/) I want/need to be able to saturate myself in the sounds of one master - and learn some of the grooves in her/his style - before moving on to another. This is an exciting and liberating educational experience that is a once in a lifetime blessing.

+ Second is the reading and reflection time given to jazz liturgy. This, too, is a chance to read deeply in this discipline and see what new insights - and old truths - pop up for me. Ever since Martha Baker's freshman English class at Lakeland College I have been in love with learning. So, these four months are a true taste of heaven.

+ Third is our attendance at both the Ottawa and Montreal Jazz Festival. Not only is it a total gas to wander around these festival sites - taking in the groove - and watching people, but there are some killer artists at both these gigs and we will have the freedom to pick and choose among the best of the best.

+ Fourth is connecting with a Quebecois neighborhood - and spending time working on Quebecois French. I love being in this city with Di and becoming more proficient in French will be a satisfying challenge.
+ Fifth is the time for daily prayer and quiet contemplation. I've lost touch with some of my deep prayer disciplines over the years and part of this sabbatical is a chance to reclaim new/old prayer habits that feed my soul. This will include walking and watching as we make Montreal our home.

+ Sixth is the pre and post road trips built into the sabbatical. On the front end of our residency in Montreal we will spend a week in New York City, Nashville and Pittsburgh attending a jazz liturgy event, talking with some of the facilitators and taking in the buzz of the jazz scene in these cities. I've already secured our housing in both NYC and Nashville so things are already falling into shape. (The East Village and Scarritt-Bennett Conference Center respectively.)

+ And seventh is simply the rest this adventure allows: it is, after all, a sabbatical and NOT a work/study encounter.

The late, great Montreal jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson, said it well: 
It’s the group sound that’s important, even when you’re playing a solo. You not only have to know your own instrument, you must know the others and how to back them up at all times. That’s jazz. I love playing in an ensemble - or as part of a duo - and want to do it with more verve and confidence. So I give thanks to God, my colleagues at First Church and the leadership of this faith community for helping me make this come to pass.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

More upside-down wisdom from Jesus...

NOTE:  My worship notes for this coming Sunday, November 16, 2014.

When I was a young rock’n’roller in high school – far more interested in music and, oddly enough, church than almost anything else – there was an infectious song on the radio by The Doors called “People Are Strange.” I loved it.  It was catchy and weird at the same time.  Its lyrics seemed to offer a critique of the status quo that resonated with everyone who felt like an outsider back in the day. And the way the song was played – the instrumentation – was a combination of creepy electric guitar set against a German Weimar Republic cabaret-like piano riff that evoked a peculiar sense for those who connected with the song that we were on a journey carrying us through our wounds towards a mystical wisdom that was as sacred as it was unsettling.

With almost no warning it began by telling us that what is ordinary to some feels distorted to the stranger:

People are strange when you're a stranger, 
faces look ugly when you're alone 
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted 
Streets are uneven when you're down

And then, over and over, with disturbing guitar blasts and abrupt, staccato pauses came the refrain proclaimed that:

When you're strange: faces come out of the rain - when you're strange 
No one remembers your name - when you're strange… 

Reading both Old and New Testaments lessons for this week took me right back to that song:  these are strange, weird, disturbing and upside down stories for most of us – and they invite us to become strange, weird and upside down people in the culture we inhabit. For these stories are about claiming a Christ-like consciousness that make us uncomfortable with the status quo. In fact, these stories intentionally up-end what we think we know about the way of the Lord.

+  They call into question what is obvious and ask us to go deeper; they insist that a literal reading of events does not include the whole, hidden and grace-filled truth of God; and they demand a measure of humility for us all.

+ These stories, especially the gospel, tell us to pay attention to what is being revealed about ourselves and how we envision the Lord; for what we think about God is often how we live and act in the world.

This parable is not really about stewardship – although there is something here about how we manage and share our gifts and abilities faithfully – but I think this is much more a lesson about who we understand God to be and how that shapes our actions in the world.  As I get it, the key is to be found in the words and the actions of the third servant.  So what I want to do this morning is:

+ First, review the context and nuances of this puzzling parable paying particular attention to what the third servant says and does with his gift.

+ Second, playfully explore with you what Jesus tells us about the nature of God because Christ stands as a clear alternative to most of our deepest fears and superstitions about the Lord.

+ And third consider out loud some of this story’s implications for us as a congregation; are we eager to bring God’s good news to other strangers in our community by how we live or are we content to be confused or even afraid to go public with God’s grace?

Now if you want you can follow along with me in the Bible that is sitting alongside your hymn book in the pew rack as I review this story in Matthew 25, ok? At least the following insights are important as I grapple with this strange story: First, most of us want to see the land owner who is going on a trip in this story as the symbolic image of God or JesusAnd that’s ok as far as it goes, but unless we are willing to go beyond the obvious, the end of this story becomes problematic.  You see, we’re not given any information about the land owner’s character or demeanor at the outset of this parable. We’re just told that the Lord – kyrios – is going on a trip and decides to give three of his slaves different gifts of money before his departure.

+ The story calls these gifts talents from the Greek word talanton. A talent in first century Palestine was about 75-96 pounds of silver – an enormous amount of money – that was the equivalent of 20 years of work for the average laborer.  That means to one servant the owner gave wages for 100 years, to another wages for 40 years and to the third wages for 20 years.

+ And we should note that these talents were not a loan but an outright gift. One scholar writes: The verb paradidomi usually means, "To give or hand over" and seems to imply, "giving up control of.”  So these servants weren’t so much entrusted with this money – like a steward who would need to manage the funds – they were actually given gifts to own.

And I think we can surmise this to be true because at the end of the story not only did the servants retain the silver as their own property – they weren’t asked to give it back – but the talent given to the third servant was taken away and given as property to the first.  

So let me ask you what you are thinking and feeling about this being a story of gifts?  What IS a gift? 

+ Are there strings and conditions upon a gift freely given? How do you feel when you are given a beautiful and valuable gift?

One of the upside-down aspects of this story to me is the challenge to consider
it a “parable about the graciousness of the master and how we respond to it.” (Brian Stoffregen) Another insight is that this isn’t a story about how we earn our way into heaven or show God how wise and creative we are with the gifts we’ve been given so that we deserve salvation; no, this is more about the fact that none of us are the same – and we should deal with this truth honestly and faithfully.

+ The text tells us that the master gave his servants gifts according to each person’s ability – dynamis in Greek – and that holds some fascinating implications, don’t you think?

+ There are neither value judgments nor moral conclusions in our differing abilities, just the statement of fact:  people are created differently according to God’s wisdom.

And let’s say out loud some of what our differing abilities look like and mean, ok? Some of us can make music – and others cannot – so that means we don’t ask a person who can’t sing to offer a solo in the choir. Or we don’t hire a person who is nice but can’t play an instrument to be our director of music. Some of us are better at reading in public than others, right? So not everyone is asked to be a liturgist on Sunday morning, ok?  Same is true for those who have become time-tested and wise in their leadership abilities; not everyone could or should serve as moderator.

Can you think of other examples of differing abilities in our congregation – and what that means for us?

·   St. Paul offers us some clues that we sometimes forget about when he tells us that ALL have been given gifts, but not all gifts are the same.  In Romans 12 we read:  just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other. Or trying to be something we aren’t. If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.

·   In I Corinthians 12 he amplifies this: God’s various gifts are handed out every where; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful: wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues. All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. 

Are you still with me? Do you see what it means to be given differing abilities by God and to honor these gifts within the life of the church?  We are ALL called to use our gifts, but not all gifts are equal or the same. Sometimes churches confuse being nice with being called and they are very, very different. Not everyone has been called to do the same thing – with one exception – do you know what that is?  We are ALL called to love one another. St. Paul again cuts to the chase in I Corinthians 13: 

But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, unidimensional Part? It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts. But now I want to lay out a far better way for you… a gift that has been given to all: love. If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere.

So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always me first, doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back but keeps going to the end.

Over the years I’ve seen congregations do some smart things and some truly stupid things; that goes with the territory, right? I’ve done a few smart things from time to time and whole ton of stupid ones, too. And here’s what I’ve learned from both scripture and experience: stupid things can be healed and corrected and forgiven if there is a spirit of love in a church.  If we are the body of Christ, we can forgive as profoundly as we have been forgiven. Isn’t that what we pray each week in the Lord’s Prayer?  “Forgive us our debts as we have been forgiven?”

+ But let’s be clear about something we don’t like to talk about: that can only happen if the leadership of a church is saturated with Christ’s love.  We leadership committed to one another in Christ’s love, forgiveness is dead.

+ For without the gift of love – and the trust to share it boldly – we are just ugly noise and puffed up phonies pretending to incarnate what Jesus went to the Cross to proclaim.

And that’s where the witness of third servant becomes crucial:  when the
master returned and asked the servants what they did with their gifts – he didn’t ask them for the money back, he just asked what they did with them – and the first two say that they were creative and multiplied and shared them.  The Lord is thrilled saying:  Well done, good and trustworthy servant; you have been faithful in a few things, so I will put you in charge of many things: enter into the joy of your master.  But what happens with the third slave?

·   First he said that he believed the Lord to be a harsh man – skleros – one who is cruel, stern and violent – reaping where he did not sow and gathering what was not his to own.

·   Now where did that come from? There is no evidence for it in the story and no evidence for it in the gifts that have been given with generosity; neither do the first or the second servant say anything about the Lord’s harshness. This is just weird, but it gets weirder…

·   For the third servant tells us that he acted out of fear – not love, not generosity, not trust or faith – but fear. He didn’t use his gift, he didn’t share it, he buried it.  He didn’t waste it – it was still worth 20 years of wages – but it didn’t do anyone any good.

·   To which the owner says what?  “Really? You buried it? You thought my generosity was to be feared so you buried it? Really?” One scholar has gone so far as to paraphrase the owner’s reply as: “If you really thought I was awful, why didn’t you choose another strategy?” (David Lohse)

And here’s where it really gets interesting because what I sense Jesus is getting at is precisely WHY the third servant chose fear over love?  There is NO evidence for it, but this poor soul came to the conclusion that his Lord was all about cruelty so he acted in fear.  For some reason, he let his own mistaken conclusions about the Lord become his reality. And I am sad to say that this happens all too often in the realm of religion where we come to believe our own mistaken notions that God is all about rules and punishment.

We come to believe that everything bad in our lives is punishment from God. We see God as arbitrary and capricious, and that’s what we experience, a fickle and unsympathetic God who meets our expectations. On the other hand, if we view God primarily in terms of grace, we are (regularly) surprised and uplifted by the numerous gifts and moments of grace we experience all around us. And when we imagine God to be a God of love, we find it far easier to experience God’s love in our own lives and to share it with others. (David Lohse)

Beloved, people ARE strange – we’ve been given Christ Jesus to see and learn from about the true nature of God – and still we hold on to projections of fear.  I think that this parable is urging us to reconsider how we picture the Lord because it holds so many consequences for our personal and social lives. What’s more, in the spirit of authentic Christianity that celebrates God as Holy Trinity – God as simultaneously Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Jesus shows us that we cannot say anything about the Lord that we cannot also say about Christ.
I mean that – one of the mystical blessings of the Holy Trinity is that it shows us as much of the face of God as we can comprehend – and it looks like Jesus.  Jesus who: spent his life and ministry proclaiming God’s kingdom, feeding the hungry, healing and sick, offering forgiveness and welcoming ALL who recognize their need into the loving embrace of God. (Jesus) who for that message is crucified. That’s how much God wants us to know of God’s love. And just in case we miss or underestimate that message, God raises Jesus on the third day that we might know that life is stronger than death and love more powerful than hate. (Lohse)

Knowing this we cannot in good conscience say anything about God that is not also simultaneously true about Christ. So tell me now what true pictures of God you hold in your heart with trust?  What images of the Lord are honest and faithful as revealed to us by Christ?

This strange and upside-down parable is offered to help us get our heads right about God’s gracious generosity – and THAT has some implications for us as a community of faith. 

·   First, it means that ALL our ministries and actions are to be governed by God’s generosity. It is too easy to get derailed by fear – I do it all the time – but fear is NOT to be our standard. The Cross and Christ’s grace is, for in this we live and move and have our being. This is what God has revealed to us in Jesus and being faithful means trusting through our actions.

·   Second, it means that we adhere to sharing the gift of love in how we care for one another in this congregation. We don’t gossip, we don’t carp, we don’t slander, we don’t lie. We don’t covet the past nor fear for the future. We share love – not sentimentality – but love born of the Cross. How does the old hymn put it?  And they’ll know we are Christians by our… what? By our love – not the hymn book we sing from, not the political party we vote for, not the longevity of our membership – but by our love.

·   And third, we only elevate to leadership those who have made love flesh within and among us. We are accountable to God for the gift of love and it must guide and shape all we do – here and in the wider community – for without love we are nothing at all – except maybe a burial society or a club.

The body of Christ makes love visible in ways that others consider strange: we
welcome the stranger, we honor the outcast, we stand up for the forgotten, we visit the prisoners, we feed the hungry, we live by Christ’s strange and upside-down love. And we do all of this with the gifts we have been given: some have been given a great deal, so God asks a lot from you. Some of us only have a few gifts and we can’t offer as much because we don’t have it. There is NO judgment in this – that’s one of the truly strange truths of Christ Jesus – when we give freely from the gifts we have been given, when there is honest sharing by all, there is scarcity for none.

This is the way the kingdom works. Every day I have to renew my trust in this – and sometimes I blow it – I pray that every day you, too, recommit to the strange and healing love of God as revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord:  For you have been faithful in a few things and now the Lord puts you in charge of many things: enter into the joy of your master.

photo credits: Dianne De Mott