Friday, July 31, 2015

Mo' Meta Blues...

Finished Questlove's autobiography - Mo' Meta Blues - and loved it. Now I better understand why I dig The Roots: they are both a group - a musical collective - AND a hip-hop group dedicated to the spirit of the blues, soul and the best of rock and roll. That is, they are an anti-consumerist, populist hip-hop band in an era of greed. Freakin' brilliant.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Thinking about Zappa...

Over the course of this sabbatical I've been thinking a lot about... Frank Zappa. Earlier this summer I watched two British documentaries on the man and his music - and I share the documentarians' sense that Zappa was a musical genius. Here is one that provides a vivid and satisfying overview of the influences that shaped the FZ oeuvre.

I have also been reading various biographies and background blogs about Zap: and while it is fair to say that he was an "odd" man as a father and husband (makes me grateful for the loving, broken dad I knew oh so well), he was simultaneously an astute satirist and business person. The second half of his life was split between low humor (not my favorite), incredible live guitar performances (always stunning) and serious contemporary classical compositions (not always easy listening, but truly fascinating.).With 100 albums released by his early death on December 4, 1993, he was a force of nature.

I came of age during phase one of Zappa's creativity - the Mothers of Invention era that spans Freak Out through Weasels Rip My Flesh - and I still love the biting humor, political/social analysis and musicality of this period better than all the rest. Last summer we checked out the Zappa Plays Zappa show - Dwezil Zappa showcasing his father's songs - and as I suspected, the gig was heavy on the second half of Zappa's career. Oh well, I used to listen to this one often as a young man and it would carry me into sleep.

Between 1966 and 1972, I probably saw the Mothers over 13 times:  from the "Absolutely Free" show in "the summer of love" at the Garrick Theatre in the Village to all those times we'd take the train in from CT to hit the Fillmore East and other venues. I always left with a sense that Zappa loved making creative music. He loved to laugh, too - and in the early years I felt a certain resonance with his humor. He was clearly an outsider and never tired of celebrating that fact. It gave him a unique ability to skewer so many of our cultural and political sacred cows 

At times this humor was cruel - like the way he ridiculed the naivete of the hippie culture and flower power. All too often it was all too easy to enlist all too many audience members in his pranks as they thirsted for their ten seconds of stardom. Zappa would exploit them often without their comprehension. I recall being highly uncomfortable with these parts of his show. And yet, his point became all too clear: living in a consumerist culture requires strength, grit and wisdom to withstand its ugly and soul-sapping conformity. Lord knows Zappa knew how to work the times he was born into even if it wasn't always pretty.

My favorite parts of his live performances involved both his musical satire and his extended improvisations. Once, at the Shaefer Summer Music Festival in Central Park, he did a send up of "96 Tears" that was not only wildly acerbic - Zappa disdained plebeian taste - but brilliantly executed. What's more, he had the band's horn section play the tune while slowly bending over backward in a parody of James Brown's highly choreographed shows. He could work an audience as well as any Vegas show person, but did so at the start with the vision of an iconoclast.

Here's a link to that August, 8, 1968 show albeit in the late show version that opens with his take on American urban, racial violence:  "Trouble Comin' Everyday" - and it rings as true in 2015 as it did back in the day.This also closes with one of those same "stupid human tricks" segments mentioned above where Zappa gets some clown from the audience to sing "Hang on Sloopy" while the Mothers play along. The guy is ecstatic and the maestro makes his point: it is so easy to be happy when your standards are so low. 

And then there is the man's ability on guitar.  Steve Vai, one of the best electric guitar players in the world who once toured with Zappa, speaks about his old boss with affection and awe. He also describes - and then showcases - both a beautiful tune Zappa wrote and then a screaming and wicked guitar solo. In my opinon, Zappa could rock out like the best including Hendrix and Clapton. Take the time to give a listen if you are in doubt.

At about the time cats like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and John McLaughlin were "inventing" jazz fusion - rock/jazz/funk - Zappa had perfected it.  I am so grateful for the music he played, for the way he took on hypocritical politicians who wanted to censor creative music and for his audacity. With someone this outrageous it goes with the territory that he would sometimes go too far - and he could be vulgar, tasteless and cruel - but he was also sensitive, insightful, funny, challenging and brilliant, too. As it goes for all of us, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" and FZ was no exception - but he was exceptional.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Becoming diurnal again...

Dianne and I have a running joke between us that the hardest transition we're going to have to make once we return to Pittsfield is becoming diurnal again! No fooling! We're up and active almost ALL night. Next week starts a two week intensive with family and friends visiting so we've got to crack this nut before our children and grandson arrive. Small wonder that I've always loved Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. (Do you think we could change Sunday worship to 11:45 pm on Saturday night?)

I once read about an experimental, ecumenical Eucharist in Helsinki that began about 11:30 pm on a Saturday. It was mostly prayer, trance music and Holy Communion with a bit of scripture and poetry added. It was designed to welcome those who were out late at night but wanted to reconnect with the spirit in addition to whatever else was happening. Everyone was welcome at the table - lots of hearty bread and wine - and then everyone was free to head back into the night.

I think this was the church - dedicated to Sibelius - and carved out of stone. I saw it back in 1982. Stunning.
I wonder if we might do something like that Eucharist from time to time for real when we return... 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tried and tested...

So far this summer I have read 18 books including Camus and Cockburn alongside mysteries,
jazz texts and theology. Having just finished Bruce Cockburn's memoir, Rumours of Grace, I thought it healthy to go back and review his music. Truth told, it isn't a great book but it did put many of his songs into context - and the poetry of these songs was printed, too. Some I knew well - like "Lovers in a Dangerous Time," "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," "Pacing the Cage" and "Get Up, Jonah" - and others were new to me.

Two new ones (to me) really touch me at this moment in my life:


+ "Tried and Tested" from You've Never Seen Everything (2003). Everything about this song works for me: the groove, the lyrics and poetry, the energy of the musicians, the blending of the personal with the political, everything.  Someone first asked me HOW I select songs to use in worship and liturgies: "Is the the lyrics, the nature of the artist's soul, what?" To which I said with a bit of embarrassment:  "No, man, it is the groove. If it doesn't speak to my body first in some way, I don't care about the lyrics." I know it sounds like Dick Clark's Bandstand - well, I like this song, Dick, because it has a good beat and is easy to dance to - but that's the truth. If it doesn't touch part of the mystery within, it is really hard for me to go back to it even if I love the lyrics. (Interestingly, that cat never came back to church... oh well.)




Tried and tested
Tried and tested

By the cries of birds
By the lies I've heard
By my own loose talk
By the way I walk
By the claws of beasts
By the laws of priests
By the glutton's feast
By the word police

By the planet's arc
By the falling dark
By the state of the art
By the beat of my heart
By dark finance
By the marketing dance
By the poverty trance
By the fateful glance

Tried and tested
Tried and tested
By the pressure to rhyme
By the wages of crime
By the drop of a dime
By the ghost of the times
By the spurs of desire
By "What does love require"
By what I waited for
By what showed up at the door

Tried and tested
Tried and tested
By the nation wide
By the tears I've cried
By the lure of false pride
By the need to take sides
By the weight of choice
By the still small voice
By things I forget
By what I haven't met yet

Tried and tested
Tried and tested
Pierced by beauty's blade and skinned by wind
Begged for more -- was given -- begged again
I'm still here
I'm still here

Tried and tested
Tried and tested
+ "Maybe the Poet" from World of Wonders (1982). This is an ode to both Victor Jara and Pablo Neruda. What I dig about this song is both the ambiguity of the poet's calling and the insistence that all cultures NEED poets - even (or especially) when they don't know it. This tune moves but is saturated with anguish and the blues and a world-beat groove..
Maybe the poet is gay
But he'll be heard anyway

Maybe the poet is drugged
But he won't stay under the rug

Maybe the voice of the spirit
In which case you'd better hear it

Maybe he's a woman
Who can touch you where you're human

Male female slave or free
Peaceful or disorderly
Maybe you and he will not agree
But you need him to show you new ways to see

Don't let the system fool you
All it wants to do is rule you
Pay attention to the poet
You need him and you know it
Put him up against the wall
Shoot him up with pentothal

Shoot him up with lead
You won't call back what's been said
Put him in the ground
But one day you'll look around

There'll be a face you don't know
Voicing thoughts you've heard before

Male female slave or free
Peaceful or disorderly
Maybe you and he will not agree
But you need him to show you new ways to see

Don't let the system fool you
All it wants to do is rule you
Pay attention to the poet
You need him and you know it

More and more I find myself disinterested and disconnected from traditional politics, religion and music but very connected to transformational sounds and actions like these. They are soul food for me in every sense. Like Cockburn writes: "Infinity always gives me vertigo... and fills me up with grace." Enjoy.


You can't tell me there is no mystery
Mystery
Mystery
You can't tell me there is no mystery
It's everywhere I turn

Moon over junk yard where the snow lies bright
Snow lies bright
Snow lies bright
Moon over junk yard where the snow lies bright
Can set my heart to burn

Stood before the shaman, I saw star-strewn space
Star-strewn space
Star-strewn space
Stood before the shaman, I saw star strewn space
Behind the eye holes in his face

Infinity always gives me vertigo
Vertigo
Vertigo
Infinity always gives me vertigo
And fills me up with grace

I was built on a Friday and you can't fix me
You can't fix me
You can't fix me
I was built on a Friday and you can't fix me
Even so I've done okay

So grab that last bottle full of gasoline
Gasoline
Gasoline
Grab that last bottle full of gasoline
Light a toast to yesterday

And don't tell me there is no mystery
Mystery
Mystery
And don't tell me there is no mystery
It overflows my cup

This feast of beauty can intoxicate
Intoxicate
Intoxicate
This feast of beauty can intoxicate
Just like the finest wine

So all you stumblers who believe love rules
Believe love rules
Believe love rules
Come all you stumblers who believe love rules
Stand up and let it shine
Stand up and let it shine 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

a Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Ahamad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis kind of Sabbath...

As I work my way through Ted Gioia's insightful book, The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire, I am taking the time to listen to key recordings. Not only do I want/need to deepen my grasp and appreciation of the key jazz selections from various styles and eras, but I wanted to make a list of tunes that might be useful in worship once we return. Four are worth sharing today as this Christian Sabbath comes to a close.

First, "Peace" by Horace Silver recorded 56 years ago in the great Van Gelder Studios in Englewood, NJ. Gioia notes that Silver was always a stronger mid-tempo funkster than a balladeer, but this tune is evocative, introspective with just enough space in it to make it right for an extended journey inward. Don't get me wrong, I love to groove-out to "Sister Sadie" or "Song for My Father," but I could see using this on a regular basis (especially if we had some horns.)

Second would be McCoy Tyner's haunting, "Contemplation," that hails from 1967. Tyner wrote this after leaving Coltrane's band and wrote that it "sounds to me like what a man alone might hear as he reflects on what religion - and life - means." This tune has a clear form that provides a foundation for introspection. It is secure enough for significant improvisation, too. And the "theme" at the start and close signal that a journey is starting and then coming to an end. This entire album, The Real McCoy, is filled with powerful spiritual searching

Third has to be Bill Evans' stunning masterpiece: "Peace Piece" from 1958. My friend and colleague at First Church, Carlton Maaia II, turned me on to this for a funeral service we shared last winter - and I have been haunted by it ever since. It is simple, steady, saturated with space and a sense that all is well even while playing way outside the box.  This song embraces both tension and rest, hope and despair, questing and trusting as part of the larger whole. Evans has said that from the first time he "heard" this song within it felt like a person standing alone in NYC. Think about that: surrounded by the city yet absorbed in solitude. Evans only played this song live one time - in 1978 - when it was accompanied by an abstract modern dance. Now wouldn't that be something to bring to worship?

And fourth, my new favorite, Ahmad Jamal's "Saturday Morning" recorded in Paris two years ago. I love the form and gentleness of this tune. Sometimes it feels slightly unpredictable - a bit like living fully alive - but then it always resolves with that great turn around and the bass riff. There is also something circular to me about this song - "All My Life's a Circle" like - which, when you're 83 as Jamal was when this was recorded, makes perfect sense, too. I would want to use this song in worship in some relation to the poem by Catherine Jallon-Barry.

Today I spent the better part of two hours writing out all the minor arpeggios for each of the 12 keys and then practicing them in various positions on the upright bass. That will take up most of my practice time next week, too: playing these arpeggios in their major and minor forms and then writing them out on staff paper. My hope is that by week's end my muscle memory will be better attuned than it was today. Some of those positions are a bitch!

I was up til 3:30 am reading Bruce Cockburn's memoir which is reconnecting me to much of his wonderful music, but that's meant I'[ve been slow moving. So now it is time to get washed and take a stroll in the hood. We may even find a little couscous eatery along the way before calling it a day. Here's another fun rendition from the incomparable Ramsey Lewis (released in 1966) who just released a new album at the sweet age of 80! Damn, but I love these cats...

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Body and soul...

We made the final payment on our sabbatical flat earlier this week: yikes, this thing is going to
end! So I continue to practice - and edit something I am trying to get published - and try to stay awake to the present moment. Tomorrow I need to really knuckle down and give two hours to this bass so that I stay on track. This evening I kept playing Monk's "Well You Needn't." Hmmm...For some reason I've been called back to the old versions of the Psalms. Not necessarily for clarity or understanding. Mostly for their poetry. I cherish the way the King James Version puts Psalm 90.


Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.
Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.
Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.
In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.
For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.
Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.
For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
As this sabbatical has ripened, I've had friends come and go. Some have moved, some have chosen new directions, some have reconnected after a long absence and others seem to be MIA. I have had expectations come and go, too and seen time drag and then race faster than I could ever imagine. Maybe that is why I find myself drifting back to this old prayer in the language I first heard it.

We watched the new documentary on Amy Winehouse yesterday and then ate Mexican on one of Montreal's ubiquitous terrasses. What a sad and truly tragic story of a great talent and those who encouraged her brokness and addiction so that they could bleed her dry. So she chose to kill herself wtih alcohol because she didn't know how to get beyond their control.

There is a tender scene in the film that really grabbed me. Winehouse is at a recording session with one of her idols:  Tony Bennett. And she is so anxious and giddy. She can't sing the way she wants to - and knows it - but doesn't want to quit trying either. And Tony Bennett is so gracious and chill. At one point her tells her: "It's ok. Each time is better. Listen to me and understand: life teaches you how to live it if you live long enough." Sadly, she never learned how to do it. In this clip he confesses that he never took the chance to tell her, "Slow down... and then she died. The secret is to live long - and enjoy your life." I can't help but think this encounter has something to do with the master's recent work with Lady Gaga.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Très timide mais fort...

Odd as this might seem to some, one of the other reasons we've chosen to curtail our extra
travel during this sabbatical is Lucie. As has been noted here on various occasions, our three year old shepherd/hound mutt is very nervous - très timide mais fort -  we often say to those who ask about her in the park. And with Dianne's injured hand (from before the sabbatical) it has become clear that being away - or going to new places during these last six weeks - is far more work than we can muster. Honestly, traveling with our girl is a two person operation.

This morning, she and I had a good walk: we got up earlier than Di, I got her "beer and dog food sedative prepared" and had my morning tea. Then, we schlepped down to Parc Baldwin in a mostly chill manner. She was still rattled when a massive truck crashed by us, but for the most part she followed my calm lead and did well. Learning how to help her - and enlisting the wisdom of a local trainer - has been an unexpected spiritual discipline. She gets us out of the apartment when it is raining. She asks us to slow down and really pay attention no matter what we are feeling. And she is so sweet once we all return to the quiet and safety of our digs.


If you've never had to nurture une chien qui est  très timide mais fort count yourself blessed. At the same time, another type of grace has been shared with us as Lucie's care givers - and I wouldn't trade it for all tea in China. Mary Oliver put it like this in her lovely book, Dog Songs.

Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough
he turns upside down, his four paws
  in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.
“Tell me you love me,” he says.
“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.
Onward to practicing the bass as this day ripens. 


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Well, you needn't...

The second half of a sabbatical is clearly different from the first. I don't think I have read anything about this in the preparatory materials - but it is true. To borrow from Richard Rohr, it is a bit like the difference between first half of life and second half of life living. In the first half, we are all about discovery, freshness and self. Rohr suggests that part one of life is about creating a vessel to contain the soul of part two: it is a vessel that must be emptied and released, too in order that wisdom and humility take up residence within. 

The first half of life container is constructed through impulse controls; traditions; group symbols; family loyalties; basic respect for authority; civil and church laws; and a sense of the goodness, value, and special importance of your country, ethnicity, and religion.

The second half is much more about going deeper rather than acquiring more; it is more about listening and responding than reacting, more about focus  than drive, and more about discernment than recognition. Rohr writes: "There is a deeper Voice of God, which we must learn to hear and obey in the second half of life. It will sound an awful lot like the voices of risk, of trust, of surrender, of soul, of destiny, of love, of an intimate stranger, of one’s deepest self."

When we began this sabbatical - its planning as well as the early days of implementation - it was an adventure. Not only had we never experienced a sabbatical before, but everything about it was new. That is why, of course, the LIly Foundation suggested a time of transition at the front end of our time away. It was to be significantly different from our normal, working days but also more playful than the heart of the extended sabbatical. We were wise to take their advice and planned three weeks of travel and discovery:  NYC, Nashville and Pittsburgh were all fascinating encounters with the wider world of creativity. The same could be said about the first six weeks of our residency in Montreal, too. Here we were learning how our new neighborhood worked, our ears were hearing a mostly new language full-time, we had no established pattern for our days - and resisted creating one - and mostly we joined ourselves to each moment with a light sense of spontaneity. It was very much go with the flow - so we did.

And as the first few days became weeks - and then matured into months - we started to make
changes. First, there was music to be practiced and it wasn't going to become muscle memory simply by thinking about it. Second, there were new places to discover that we yearned to see, but  they had to fit into our  new routine. So lists were made - and new Montreal time-tables created - and little by little the early spontaneity became  tempered by the constraints of time. There truly isn't time for everything, so what is our heart telling us about how best to use the time that remains?  It is, continuing Rohr's construct, a definitive shift, both a bit of letting go as well as a "second naivete."

Paul Ricoeur, the great French philosopher spoke of three stages of life: a first naivete, in which we take things at face value, a critical phase, in which we question everything and try to find the complexity behind the initial simplicity, and a second naivete, during which we return to an acceptance of simplicity, but with the full recognition of the complexity behind it.... This second naivete has, at its heart a vote for some coherence, purpose, benevolence, and direction to the universe. Faith is somehow saying that God is one and God is good, and if so then all of reality must be that simple and beautiful too... Second naivete is not so much blindly optimistic as hopefully wise.This new coherence, a unified field inclusive of the paradoxes, is precisely what characterizes a second-half-of-life person. It feels like a return to simplicity after having learned from all the complexity. Finally, at last, one has lived long enough to see that “everything belongs,” even the sad, absurd and futile parts. In the second half of life, we can give our energy to making even the painful parts and the formally excluded parts belong to the now unified field – especially people who are different, and those who have never had a chance.

When we first envisioned this sabbatical I was certain that there would be lots of time free for travel: I wanted to go to Quebec City, visit friends and explore the countryside north of Montreal. In reality, I have now  had to make a choice: go deeper into my music and rest - the essence of this sabbatical - or do something else. I have let travel go. I have let some exploration go, too. In the time that remains - this time of second naivete - I must accept that limitations are as real as possibilities.  That is, I need to trust that saying "no" to some of my hopes and plans, while saying "yes" to a new discipline, is at the heart of grace even if I don't fully understand it. In the first half of life such decisions made me uncomfortable. They still do, to a degree, but as Thelonious Monk made very clear: if you start doubting this inner wisdom... well, you needn't!

I hope to be able to include a summary of this observation in our closing evaluation to be shared with the Lily Foundation. When we return to full-time ministry in Pittsfield in September, and let ourselves settle in, we will do an extensive evaluation of our time away and the congregation's encounters. Then, after the first of the new year, we will write it all up and share it with the good souls at the Lily Foundation. Last night, as we were listening to a local jam session, I was struck by the fact that the players I liked best were the ones who didn't have to say everything in one song. They are the artists of subtlety - there is just as much silence in their songs as there is sound - and they don't have to fill every space with their personality or prowess. There were some young players, in the first half of life, who made a lot of noise - and that is as it should be. There were also a few young players who were wise beyond their years and one or two older cats who were still making music like they were teen-agers. These older guys bored me - so we left. Such is the discernment, yes? 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Tranquility...

I am going to really be hunkering down in practice for the last six weeks of our
Montreal residency. And I'm heading off to a late evening jam session too to see if I might sit in for a tune. At this midterm point, we've talked about curtailing other plans to stay focused on our artistic and spiritual goals. So, as fun as that might have been, we're going to stay grounded in Montreal until we leave at the end of August. (It is also clear that for Lucie's sake, we keep things as calm and constant as possible.) So for the next six weeks of this time my goals include:

+ Practicing major and minor 7th arpeggios in all 12 keys using the circle of 5ths.

+ Singing the notes I am playing so that they become embedded in my brain and my muscle memory.

+ Working through various tunes in The Real Book so that I know which standards grab me. I also want to learn a few tunes way outside of my comfort zone, too.

Today's Psalm (61) puts our decision not to do more travel in the second half of the sabbatical into perspective. Rather, we're called to increase our focus. Having never experienced a sabbatical before, I didn't know how to make plans. Now that we're deep into it, it is clear that for a time other things must wait. The psalmist opens like this: Hear my cry, O God: listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I. For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe. I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Let my prayers rise - redux...

Let my try to amplify something I wrote yesterday re: taking music-making-for-compassion out
into the community. Over the past 8 years our faith community has radically opened our sacred space for justice and peace work in the Berkshires. In partnership with the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, we have hosted "Beats 4 BEAT" - a rock and roll show - devoted to fundraising and consciousness raising. We have hosted a LGBTQ teen dance and partnered with our inter-faith coalition for a variety of jazz/folk/rock concerts to purchase fuel assistance for our neighbors in need during our bitter winters. And we've created experimental contemplative liturgies for both Good Friday and Christmas Eve that use jazz and/or rock to express the call to justice in both these ancient rites. In a word, we've found new/old ways to use our existing space to advance the work of healing in the Spirit of the Lord and welcome those who might not otherwise enter a church.

What I am eager to explore now, however, is another parallel approach that takes this music-making beyond our walls and into the home base of our allies. I clearly don't have all the answers about what this means - it is an idea searching for depth and clarity - but I think it includes:  1) meeting in places beyond our sanctuary; 2) presenting a time of music, poetry and conversation; 3) sharing a meal; and 4) closing with a ritual of accountability. What would it mean, for example, if on a regular basis our music team - and support crew - shared this format in an inter-faith setting? With time for conversation, questions and uncertainty? What would it mean to organize and host an inter-faith, multi-ethnic music festival for our region at a time when so many white Americans are finally willing to explore racism? What does it mean to let music - rather than spoken/written words - serve as the common denominator in pursuit of peace and justice?

I don't know - but I want to find out. And I think that this means moving beyond our Sanctuary while continuing to use it as a home base.  

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Let my prayer rise...

We cleaned house, baked meat pies, and cared for Lucie today. I spent some time with Wayne Shorter's "Footprints," too with its wonderful bass line. And then, after all was finished, we read aloud from the book, The Art of Aging: Celebrating the Authentic Aging Self, by Alice and Richard Matzkin: a perfect Sabbath.
One of the thoughts that fills my prayers before I fall asleep most nights - and shapes my practice of the upright bass during this sabbatical - is that I ache to share the joy and depth of grace in music that I have been blessed to know over the years with others. One of my hopes for ministry on the other side of this time of rest and renewal is that we will not only strengthen the beauty and diversity of music that we share with God and one another on Sunday mornings, but that we will find new and creative ways of taking this gift out into the wide community. It feels to me as if my key musical colleagues and I are on the cusp of something profound, so let me elaborate:

+ Nobody in our area cares much about church, but we do care about compassion. We care a lot about nourishing the common good. We care about healing Mother Earth. And becoming allies for racial and gender justice. And finding ways to diminish gun violence to say nothing of fortifying the well-being of our children. Sadly, given the hate agenda of parts of the Christian Church, very few people who share our social values trust us. Hell, I don't even trust us some days. As my old mentor Ray Swartzback used to tell me time and again: we have to earn our street cred - we have to prove over and again that we are willing to lay down our lives for one another - because authenticity is not portable. It has to be documented by real, loving deeds. One of my dreams is to continue to link our music making with our allies in the environmental movement, the racial and gender justice movements. Let's use our gifts to care for others rather than just our institution.

+ My hunch is that our music making can also become a forum for inter-faith solidarity and advancing some of the ideas of Parker Palmer in Healing the Heart of Democracy. Carrie Newcomer is already doing some of this with Palmer in various locales in the MIdwest and I want to make it happen in our region, too. Pope Francis is modeling this too by bringing together a host of scholars and artists from different backgrounds and ideology to build a movement to heal the earth for the sake of God and the poor. I know in my soul that music, poetry, feasting and discussion can be a gentle way to reclaim the lost art of conversation and civility for the cause of love and peace. This truth energizes me and saturates my heart with hope.

So, as the second half of this sabbatical time starts to mature, I am dedicated to sharpening my craft and exploring the contours of jazz and liturgy. As this day comes to a close, my heart moves to Deanna Witkowski's setting of Psalm 141.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

reflections on the journey so far...

Today is a quiet, gray day in Montreal - one given to rest and reflection rather than engagement with the world - so we are mostly inside. It is a tender time, filled with intermittent showers amidst hints of sunlight. At day 56 of our 109 day residency in this grand town, it feels right to review the original sabbatical grant proposal and take stock of what has and hasn't happened. Indeed, we started such a conversation during a long walk through Rue Marie-Anne yesterday.


This area of Le Plateau is a classy residential street of two story flats. Understated depaneurs appear every few blocks along with authentic yoga/massage schools and former high school buildings now converted into upscale condominiums. It is just one block away from the bustle and vibrancy of Rue Mont Royal, but very much a world set apart, too.  As we walked, I wondered what had surprised Di the most on this journey? After about eight blocks of her reflections, I tried to answer my own question as well. Looking at our grant application at this midpoint, I find these insights rising to the surface..

This sabbatical was intended to "nourish a deeper knowledge and practice of sacred jazz" for me through "an extended time for practice, study, spiritual renewal, rest and reflection." (There is also a congregational component to the sabbatical, but I am unable to comment on that until after we return and debrief.) The formal structure of the sabbatical involves three phases:  1) a three week trip to jazz liturgy centers in the US that allow for rest as well as learning ; 2) a three-month residency in Montreal dedicated to practicing upright bass in addition to deepening my spiritual disciplines of "prayer, rest and exercise;" and 3) a transition retreat in the Eastern Townships of Quebec for reflection on the residency as part of our transition back into pastoral ministry.  The sabbatical team put it like this:

A sabbatical will provide our pastor with an extended time to slow down, rest and listen to how the Spirit is speaking and singing in his soul. It will allow him to nurture the music and instrument closest to his heart: jazz and upright bass... 

+ First, although I knew I was weary, I had no idea of how profoundly exhausted I
actually was until we slowed life down. Even after two and a half months, we are both still sleeping 10+ hours a day. Our activity level has increased significantly with long 4+ mile walks most days. But that's a ton of sleep, yes? Ten or more hours every day - sometimes with a nap thrown in for good measure!  I wrote in the application: "After seven years as pastor of First Church, and 30 years of pastoral ministry, I am tired physically and emotionally." No shit!

But let's be clear: my weariness is not all related to my work at First Church. Yes, doing renewal work is demanding. But during this time there have been significant deaths in our families - Dianne's mother, my sister and father - as well as the loss of dear friends in our current church as well as previous pastorates. Most of the time, I am not even aware of how profoundly I felt this grief. I simply knew it was becoming overwhelming. And while I haven't done a lot of conscious grief work on this sabbatical, I know I have integrated some of my sorrow into my soul. Certainly, catching up on lost sleep has been a blessing worthy of this time and money even if I never picked up my instrument.

+ Second, it was unrealistic to think I would be able to spend three hours a day practicing the upright bass. The upright bass is a huge instrument. It is a full body work out so have been able to devote close to two hours most days. As my on-line guide teaches: this is the optimal time for practice. Anything more involves physical pain and diminishing results. It has been humbling and rewarding working carefully on music reading skills and playing my instrument with care and attention. I wouldn't have missed the scramble to adapt to upright bass two years ago for anything in the world. We played some great gigs. But I see that I also missed a lot of the fundamentals in that race for adequacy. Now I am relearning and retooling and know that my playing is becoming cleaner and more nuanced. (NOTE: wood shedding is fine - and necessary - but damn if I don't miss playing WITH some of my musical partners, too!)

+ Third, phase one of our sabbatical was spot on and I discerned a few important lessons from each of our encounters. I learned, for example, that my understanding and commitment to sacred jazz in worship is NOT hosting a jazz concert with a few liturgical prayers draped around the periphery. I really did not like what was going down when we visited St. Peter's in NYC: the music was superb, but the worship felt incidental and irrelevant. My take is that the jazz needs to enhance the contemplative journey. It must reinforce our encounter with community and help us return to our lives with more compassion and hope. I experienced that in Nashville where the readings and the music fit hand in glove. 


+ Fourth, during our residency in Montreal it has become a gift to spend a few hours every day walking and exploring. Our bodies feel better, our minds are less frenzied and we have a dedicated time for conversations.  I have found, however, that my formal time for prayer and contemplation has not ripened the way I thought it might. Rather, it seems that my new form of contemplation is connected to my bass playing practice: it is intense and focused in a way that strengthens my skill in preparation for sharing music for peace-making. And when I close my practice times with playing along with You Tube geniuses like Herbie Hancock of Wayne Shorter, I delight both in the progress I have made as a student and the potential I envision for more music after the sabbatical is complete.

+ Fifth, an unexpected challenge and blessing of this sabbatical has been given to us in the form of learning how to be more present and loving with our wacky, wildass dog, Lucie, who is overwhelmed with city living.  She has only known the quiet of our country-ish home in Pittsfield. She loves to romp in the fields and woodlands of Massachusetts. But she is a total basket case when she has to cross a busy Montreal boulevard on our way to the park.  It breaks our heart to see her so anxious, so we have been pushed toward finding new ways to help her - something we never dreamed of when we wrote the sabbatical proposal grant. Truth be told, we've helped a little. We spoke with a dog trainer this morning who said that the best we can do is help her cope.  If we had a year, then some real changes might take place. But given our short time, the most we can hope for is fun in the park and managed anxiety en route. He did give us some helpful hints about using her beloved tennis ball for a distraction and letting her enjoy a bit of beer to take the edge off life in the city. 

+ Sixth, we have experienced some incredible music that has been a deep blessing. The jazz liturgy in Nashville was spot on - and I got to sit in with the band!  The three performances we took in at the Ottawa Jazz Festival were transformative: Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton, Bruce Cockburn, and The Roots. Our time at the Montreal Jazz Festival has been equally wonderful:  Bad Plus with Joshua Redman, Wayne Shorter, Madeleine Peyroux were mind boggling in beauty and passion. And our wandering into various jazz venues along the way in Montreal - especially Dieze Onse - have been filled with serendipity and joy.

+ And seventh, being required to work hard at Quebecois French has been a discipline in humility, intentionality and silence. It is good for me to have to think hard about what I want to say. It is even better for me to have to listen deeply and not be in control. I love the sound of French and have fun trying to speak it with people who are generous and kind. And I totally dig the vibe of this multi-cultural city. Being in this setting, in a Francophone neighborhood with French speaking merchants and shop keepers, has been just what the doctor ordered for me.  

For the time that remains, I can see some of this happening:  my bass practice will ripen, our children will visit (along with a dear friend later in August), we'll become a little better helping Lucie deal with her wigginess, I will purchase a new bass and we'll continue to rest and grow closer in this great place. During the first week in September we'll be on retreat in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and then it is back to worship and ministry in Pittsfield. This is a LONG experience - only half over - and for this I am ever more grateful to the Lilly Foundation , my colleagues in ministry at First Church and my congregation.

Please don't write communion liturgies all by yourself...

Not long ago a colleague in ministry posted a question about which Eucharistic liturgies other clergy used. That's a good question for a young clergy person to ask; after all, most progressive seminaries with a low church heritage neither teach liturgics nor show aspiring clergy the art and drama of celebrating the Eucharist. Small wonder so many of our feast days wind up being too wordy, totally boring and aesthetically flat and uninspired. It was a good question.

What surprised me were the responses from other colleagues across the nation: many said that they wrote their own Eucharistic liturgies. Here's my concern - and I confess that mine is an earthy, incarnational albeit high church take on this sacrament - so let me be clear: writing our own Eucharistic liturgies frightens me. 

+ First, I worry about the writer's theology of Eucharist. In many Reformed congregations, to say that we have a limited appreciation of the depth and breadth of the Christian community's historic understanding of the Lord's Supper would be a generous understatement. I am not urging that everyone study Aidan Kavanaugh's Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style (a great resource) or spend time with Alexander Schmemann's Russian Orthodox grasp of the ebb and flow of this feast in his The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (another winner.) But I would urge young clergy to work with the Book of Common Prayer (rite two) for a while - and maybe look at what the Lutherans and the Community of Iona have cooked up, too. Read what contemporary feminists have added to the conversation and then make sure to look at Calvin, Luther, Zwingli as well. One of the best new resources is The Wee Worship Book from Iona: it is earth-centered, inclusive, Celtic and filled with poetry and nuance born of tradition. (I can't wait to see the newest incarnation!)

+ Second, liturgies need to be tested for both aesthetics and ethics: where is the discernment taking place in personalized communion texts? Kathleen Norris once observed that many of our contemporary confessions and communion liturgies are filled with so many words - but no poetry - that believers are too often left breathless and empty. Rabbi Harold Kushner recalls the story of a congregation he served where the worship committee wanted to rewrite the ancient prayers for the Day of Awe. They worked hard and long and when the new words were revealed, the community loved them - for the first year. The second year they were used, things felt a little flat. The images were dated albeit modern so they gave them another shot. But after three years everyone decided that the time-tested language of the old prayers were more poetic, nuanced and richer than anything we might create on the spot. Even with a few months preparation, the old words worked better than the new. I think this is valuable to remember, especially for people who aren't artists; more often than not, the old words have been dragged through enough sand and time to wear off the dross. And if you think I'm wrong, watch the marriage liturgy in the move Shadowlands that takes place in the hospital. Without a group effort at evaluating our new liturgies, I fear they are too often shallow when what we need is depth.

+ Third, all liturgies need to balance sound and silence, words and music, movement and rest. Most contemporary, progressive worship resources lean too heavily on words alone because we are obsessed with ideas. These liturgies also tend towards musical responses that may be politically correct but are totally unsingable for anyone but a grad student in musicology. One of the best ways to help our people enter the deepest truths of communion - being together with one another and the holy - is to help them sing deep and hearty. Without this, liturgies fall flat and mostly waste our time. This is where the folk tradition - and church tradition - can become your ally: but you need to know it. If you don't, then find a church musician who does and let them help you. There is powerful, life-changing liturgical music available for our use from all over the world. Make sure you have help in selecting it, however, or else you'll do what too many other clergy do: pick responses based upon the words alone. Please listen to me on this: if your people can't sing it, don't use it! It will kill the Spirit who wants to lift us all into glory.

Two stories to bring this rant to an end. An old Episcopal priest once told me that he had to serve as a parish intern while the rector was away just when the Anglican Church introduced their new prayer book. Over the summer, this young seminarian was charged with helping his congregation embrace the new words. The people were willing and they were kind. They all gave it their best shot - much like many Roman Catholic congregations after Vatican II did away with Latin - with one exception. An older couple asked to use the old prayer book for the funeral of their adult son. They said, "Pastor, we like the new words. We're learning to pray them in our hearts. But I fought in the war praying the old words. We baptized our children with the old words. We had them confirmed in the church with the old words. And when I go to sleep at night I pray to the Lord with the old words. Can we please use the old words to bury our son?" Damn right, the pastor said some 40 years later as he recounted this story to me. I'm down with this in spades!

The other has to do with a young clergy person's recent request for symbols to use in public worship that go beyond the cross. We know that there are hundreds of creative Christian symbols and all have their place. But I was struck by two feelings after reading how many people had rejected the use of the Cross: 

1) the Cross is complex - it is ugly and beautiful both at the same time - and it offers us a way to talk about the upside-down realm of God in startling ways. The Cross is time tested and still hard to use. But rather than chuck it, why not go into the tradition deeper and wrestle with it? Why not let the wisdom of the ages speak with at least as much insight as our contemporary discomfort? 

And 2) why not learn from the heart songs of countless suffering people throughout the world who have seen a glimmer of God's compassion in the Crucifix? Christ on the Cross, in addition to Celtic Crosses and other cruciforms, offer us a way to explore a wealth of theological insights that have nothing to do with ancient Rome's empire. An interesting place to start would be a quiet review of Frederick Buechner's book, The Faces of Jesus.

We don't have to reinvent the wheel. I daresay we should avoid trying to do so all by ourselves, too. Spend time with the New Zealand Book of Worship. Check out what the United Church of Canada has done, too. Create a liturgy writing workshop in your area and bring ideas and samples of new prayers and forms for critique. But please don't just do this work in solitude and then give it to your congregation. As the Spanish poet says, "yo no soy yo": - I am not I - for I cannot see my own shadow. Without others, our blind spots and limitations will be trumpeted in public - and none of us are smarter than the communion of saints.