Thursday, January 29, 2015

Trusting the foolishness...

Today has been given over to studying and preparing my notes for the penultimate gathering of our study group with Knesset Israel re: One Land/Two Peoples. It has been an invigorating, challenging, insightful and at times heart-breaking encounter as we all wrestle through the truth of history and narrative for Israelis and Palestinians. It has also made the daily news a time of prayer, confession and all too often lament. As I have heard from both Israelis and Palestinians living in that region: this is truly something that only God can heal.

Our study - and the work of my friends Peter and Joyce and my colleagues at Music in Common - have pushed me towards the radical foolishness of Christ in my era. All the best minds, resources, ideologies and strategies have been employed to bring peace and a measure of hope to the two peoples of this one land - and it is worse than ever before. So, in addition to tears and prayers, study and the hard act of waiting upon the Lord, I find myself "doing" things that seem foolish and childlike - like celebrating and supporting the work of Music in Common.

Last summer I met some of the youth in this video: they were Jews, Muslims and Christians together. They are a tiny island of hope in a sea of violence and despair. One young woman said after the US portion of the shared music camp: when I return to Israel and face my time of military service (in one year) I will not be able to see my new friends as the enemy. She knows, like others, on both ends of the gun we are the same. 

Tonight, when our class is finished, we may discuss next steps - one that we all are eager to explore involves travelling to Israel and Palestine together sometime in the next 2 years. Not because we believe that we will make much of a difference; not that we sense something is about to get better. It isn't. Perhaps it is more a witness - a pilgrimage - an act of gentle solidarity and quiet discernment.

To wiser souls, this all looks so foolish. There was a time when I thought so, too. But not any more - like St. Paul said:  God has destroyed the wisdom of the wise... and since we did not know God through wisdom, God has decided to use what is foolish to make us whole... and God's foolishness is wiser than our wisdom and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. 

These past two years have been heart-breaking times for me on so many levels. And yet today I find myself rejoicing in this brokenness because within it I am learning to let go of my illusions of power. In fact, I am learning to rest in my weakness and the foolishness that can make us whole. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sometimes all you can do is play the blues...

Sometimes all you can do is play the blues... and trust the Lord. For those I love who are hurting, for friends near and far who are suffering, for those caught up in the greed and brutality of everyday life and for those who are forgotten and discarded but forever beloved... my favorite sacred blues.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The foolishness of our Congregational tradition...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, February 1, 2015. This is part four in my series "the foolishness of Christ and his Cross." It is also our annual meeting - sometimes a joyous affair and others a total drag - but only because we are not spiritually prepared.

Today, on the occasion of our annual meeting, I want to speak with you about the
holy foolishness of our tradition.  To be solidly grounded in our unique but often misunderstood way of being the church is to simultaneously affirm both the holy and the foolish aspects of our tradition. The core of the Congregational Way, you see, has been constructed upon a foundation of both prayer and democracy.

Prayer teaches us to submit to God’s will or let ourselves trust God's love enough that we can unclench our fists and rest – it has to do with learning the difference between our concerns and those of the Lord – opening our hearts and minds to the truths of eternity rather than surrendering to the fleeting feelings of the present moment. Prayer is an inward act that is mostly silent – an internal and open-ended quest for intimacy with God – which Jesus tells us is fundamentally about surrendering MY will so that THY will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Democracy, in all its forms, is a totally different kettle of fish – especially in a church. Democracy calls us to clarify our thinking, persuade others to our cause and advance actions on the basis of majority rule. It is public, active and often confrontational – often with clearly defined winners and losers. It is sloppy, awkward, frustrating, incomplete and temporal. As Winston Churchill put it, democracy is the worst form of government ever created except for all the others.

And here’s the kicker: our way of being the church – our tradition born of those cantankerous English nonconformists of the 16th century like Robert Browne who taught that each distinct congregation “fully constitutes the visible body of Christ” in the world – asks us to create a marriage between prayer and democracy. Our charge as faithful followers of Christ Jesus in the world is to celebrate the sanctity of personal conscience in the church while, at the same time, insisting that each member surrender that conscience to the authority of the God’s grace.  Did you get that? It is always both prayer and democracy, never one over the other as paradoxical and complex as that may be.

·   Prayer without the challenge of community can lead to quietism – withdrawing from the real world – or worse the delusion that we alone fully grasp the vastness of God’s grace. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” wrote the Congregational minister and poet, John Donne, “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”

·   But democracy in the Body of Christ without the discipline of prayer and the accountability of community can be just as onerous.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns us against those who love to hear    the sound of their own voices:  “Beware the hypocrites,” he taught, “those who love to stand and speak in public so that they may be seen by others.” And by the year 100 CE II Timothy is teaching the church:

I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

This tradition of ours – this Congregational Way – is tricky business, yes? It is no simple calling – and more often than not, we don’t get it right. We fall away from that narrow path that holds prayer and democracy in balance. We push our own opinions, fears and prejudices without first being bathed and baptized in the cleansing waters of deep prayer. We judge the motivations of others without first taking our concerns to the Lord in prayer. We want the church and its leaders to be more holy, more pure and more honest than anyone in the Bible. And we want church to be easy, quick and satisfying when, in fact, it has always been sloppy, complicated and hard. 

That’s why I chose the 12th chapter of Hebrews for us to hear again today on the occasion of our annual meeting. I wanted us to remember just WHO our great cloud of witnesses included. The ancient preacher said: Since, therefore, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

And for us at First Church that great cloud of witnesses includes loud mouths and sinners, wise guys and saints, adulterers and bigots, pacifists and warriors, fear mongers and geniuses, compassionate and generous civic leaders, greedy and small-minded captains of industry: in other words, broken, wounded and loving people just like you and me who did the best they could in their time. They didn’t always get it right, but then that is always true for those called to live in the balance of democracy and prayer: such is the holy and foolish burden of our tradition.  And I want to call this to your attention – this broken but beautiful legacy of ours – because after worship (and a light lunch) we’re going to go into an annual meeting. Some people HATE annual meetings. 

They resent the carping in public that sometimes occurs but never feels like it has been saturated in prayer. They hate the pettiness and fear that can so easily take over when we consider our finances. And they hate the sloppiness that always happens whenever human beings attempt to do democracy in public.

To those people here among us who HATE church meetings let me call your attention
to this morning’s gospel from St. Mark. Scholars tell us that each of the four gospels in the New Testament tell us only part of the story of Jesus. In Matthew we’re shown Jesus as a teacher – and new law giver – much in the manner of Moses. In Luke, Christ is the one who sets free the captives and brings healing to those who are broken and afraid. In John the Master shows us the “unexpected and unimaginable abundance” of God’s love. (David Lohse, Working Preacher)

And in Mark’s gospel we’re shown a Messiah who begins his ministry with confrontation. This Jesus is out to challenge everything that keeps God’s people from a full, vibrant and creative life. Jesus challenges and confronts sin, demons, institutions, individuals and the forces of evil with equal authority.

So, if something controversial or challenging comes up at our annual meeting, if someone speaks in a way that rocks the boat or makes you uncomfortable, pray for them. Don’t leave the meeting – pray for them. And if, as sometimes happens, someone is just shooting off their mouth because this is the only place they have a voice, pray for them, too. But also confront them. Don’t stay silent. Challenge them with love, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.”  Challenge is part of our holy foolishness – the way we keep prayer and democracy in balance – so never keep silent in the face of that which makes you uncomfortable. Your voice and your conscience are essential for the will of the Lord to be heard in this small congregation.

That’s one truth – and the other is its corollary:  if you haven’t prayed about something that irritates or confuses you, please take it to the Lord in prayer first. That is your sacred responsibility as a full participant in our tradition. You are free to ask questions, raise concerns, confront and challenge our leadership and myself in the most vigorous ways possible. But only if you’ve done your time in prayer – in quiet – in discernment, listening for THY will be done rather than just MY will be done. That, too, is an essential for our tradition.

Prayer and democracy – humble reflection on the will of the Lord in relationship to your own conscience and unique insights – such is the heart of the Congregational Way and such is the discipline required for a faithful annual meeting. And here’s what has come to me as I have prayed and wrestled with the issues coming before us at this annual meeting. Over and over, I’ve heard this question rise to the surface in my prayers: what would it look like if First Church lived this coming year like it was our last? How would our use of money change? How would our mission and ministry be altered? Or strengthened? How would our fellowship and love for one another be different?

It is a question born of foolishness, you see, more informed by the Cross and Christ’s perseverance than budgets and reports and the limitations of our human knowledge.  I know that we are not going to close show this year. I know that we actually have enough funds to be vibrant for a long, long time – not exactly in our current form – but for a long, long time. I know this in my head. But I wonder in my heart what would happen if we consciously and foolishly chose to stop fretting about what we know and simply put all questions about survival down in the vault – locked them away for a full year along with our antique silver and all the other stuff we never use – and just lived into our ministry as if this were our last year on earth?

·   What would that be like?  I don’t really know – but I want to find out.

·   And because this question and confrontation has returned to me over and over again in prayer, that’s how I’m going to embrace this year – and this annual meeting. 

In other words, I am going to trust the Lord in a radically new way this year. I am going to trust the Jesus in Mark’s gospel who confronts everything that would keep the “children of God from the abundant life the Lord desires for us.” I am going to look for the love of Jesus in the most unexpected places and trust that where we are most broken and afraid is also the place of our greatest blessing. For this is the good news for those who are fools for Christ: want to join me?

Monday, January 26, 2015

As above, so below...

One of the insights that is slowly dawning within me is how different a clergy sabbatical is from an academic or business-related sabbatical - especially a clergy sabbatical for renewal. My time away is NOT grounded in uninterrupted research for writing. Nor is it intended to promote team-building with my work colleagues. Rather, this sabbatical is for rest.  It is focused on the pastor but only in collaboration with the congregation.

The Reverend Callie J Smith of the Lilly Foundation borrows from Parker Palmer's wisdom by noting that over-work is a form of violence with deep roots in popular Western culture. She writes:

Over-work is an issue. As needful as rest is for clergy, it’s needful for laity, too. Unique as the pastor’s roles are, and uniquely relentless as the pastor’s responsibilities can be, clergy inhabit these roles and responsibilities in a larger culture which itself struggles with imbalance. Many Americans own the technology to be connected with work 24/7. Many Americans work long hours at whatever jobs are to be had just to make ends meet. Work can crowd out sleep, exercise, attention to relationships and health, recreation, reflection, and anything we might even attempt to call prayer. This is indeed a form of violence upon our lives.

To speak of clergy renewal means in some ways to speak of more than clergy. Yes, by providing opportunities for clergy to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life, clergy renewal grants can allow more intentional space for things like sleep, exercise, relationships, health, recreation, reflection, or prayer to come into new balance together in a clergy person’s life. But, it’s not just clergy. All people were made for more than the over-work and imbalance that do violence to so many lives. When clergy have the opportunity to engage in periods of renewal, when our recognized spiritual leaders are given opportunity to explore matters of work, rest, and balance in their own lives, they can become prepared in special ways to engage these topics with and on behalf of the larger congregation and community, as well.

As my preparation ripens, I've found it instructive to sit with the biblical roots of sabbatical and
let their wisdom nourish my mind.  The Hebrew Bible offers a clear Sabbath oriented spirituality that begins with the Lord resting after the start of creation in Genesis 2. We know from history that this sacred story was shaped by the exiled Temple priests from Jerusalem who sought a way to reclaim their distinctive identity as God's people in a foreign land. The subsequent spirituality of Sabbath keeping suggests order over the chaos, refreshment from harsh labor and time for people, land and the animal kingdom to lay fallow for renewal. Indeed, the Jubilee Year of Leviticus 25: 8-13 lays out a liberating and grace-filled Sabbath of Sabbaths: 

And thou shalt number seven Sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven Sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years. Then shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the trumpet sound throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you: ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of thy vine undressed. For it is the jubilee; it shall be holy unto you: ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field. In the year of this jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possession.

I have always been attracted to the radical justice components of such a spirituality. It is no secret that in Luke's gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry with the statement that he has become the embodiment of Jubilee:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Rarely, however, have I been able to apply this wisdom to my own body and  soul  Yes, I know and intellectually celebrate the challenge and corrective Jung urged us to make with scripture when he inverted the feminist axiom - the personal is always political - into its spiritual corollary - the political is also always personal . I've asked countless others to make it so for themselves in pastoral counseling:  "You know, when Jesus tells us that whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the stranger and love the wounded... that also includes the hungry, naked, wounded and lonely stranger within yourself, right?" And now what goes around has come around: it is time for my body and soul to rest.

The Rev. Smith closes her article by reminding us that in preparing for our sabbatical of rest, it is essential to acknowledge what Wayne Muller recently noted in the Huffington Post. There is a toxic:

sense of shame in our culture when (ever) we feel overwhelmed and unable to be as productive as we would like to be. He calls attention to the value of small groups which offer permission for honesty about the over-work and overwhelm, about the “bizarre concoction of ridiculous metrics that drive us, our choices, our policies, our lives - and the lives of everyone around us.” In such gatherings, Muller contends, we can “play with ways to seed an impossible optimism for positive change” and “chart paths to carry these conversations back - to our workplace, our homes, our loved ones.” In such gatherings, he says, “[g]ently, lovingly, we begin to re-dream the world.”

One of the experiences that took me by surprise  when we first called together our sabbatical writing team was the resistance some members shared whenever my weariness peaked through our deliberations. They were both unwilling and unable to accept that I was bone tired and no longer in love with the reality of ministry. The opposite, my refusal to accept their own exhaustion, would have been inconceivable, of course; and that is probably why I was so stunned - and hurt. In time, my anger and insistence burned through their denial but the shame Muller mentions was in the room in many ways and took a long while to exorcise. And now that all my major projects outside the congregation - our organizing campaign and other teaching commitments - are completed, the time has come to step away from the remaining internal busyness and start to prepare for sabbatical.

There are a few things yet to do within the church - and they will unfold over the next few weeks. There are a few details for us to work on as a couple -  passport renewal, renting my bass in Canada, securing the car rental - but they too will be addressed this week. And then, I think, we'll be ready to quietly watch and wait for what the Spirit yearns to share. I am ready for what the Lilly Foundation calls: A time for drinking again from God's life-giving waters, for regaining enthusiasm and creativity for ministry.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Le temps est venu de lancer ce à la vitesse supérieure ...

At the end of a long, full and productive day, I am aware that the more I wrestle with my own mortality and that of those I cherish, the less tolerance I have for bullshit of any degree. After an organizing convention, I shared drinks with a younger colleague. It was a good time to debrief and check in about our respective ministries. Driving home I realized a few current truths within my soul:

+ There are only a very few things that really energize me: 1) spending time with Dianne, 2) making time to enjoy and honor my children and grandchildren; 3) working with creative and compassionate artists on matters of liturgy and the creative arts so that the lives of the people I serve might be strengthened and enriched; 4) playing with my dog, Luice; 5) nourishing connections with people of any and all faiths in ways that fortify the common good; 6) finding consistent ways to love my small circle of friends;  and 7) improving my skills on the upright bass. It has been said that the closer we encounter death - of any type - the more focused our lives become. That rings true to me.

+ I no longer have much stomach for public life.  When I was a young pastor, I wanted and even needed to mix it up and make a difference. These days I find I don't have the patience for much of that work. I believe in organizing. I value grassroots work as the best antidote to organized money. And I will always be supportive. But it seems as if my time in this realm of activism has passed. The first record album I ever bought - a Kinks LP with "Tired of Waiting" on it - had a song, "I'm a Lover Not a Fighter." And as this winter ripens, I have to say that that sentiment captures my heart perfectly. (Not a great song, mind you, but the tile still works.)

+ I have a sense that God is getting me ready for something totally new in ministry as I journey into my sabbatical that is also profoundly rooted in my deepest passions. I remember like it was yesterday sitting in the Potter's House in DC sensing: "I could be a part of this." As the church of Jesus Christ in the USA wrestles with what the Spirit of the Living God is calling us to do, more than anything else I trust it has to do with worship. We are NOT a social service organization. We are NOT a political party. And we certainly are not a one stop center for entertainment. The Body of Christ is a community grounded in God's grace, called to honor God's grace in worship and then use our bodies, hearts, minds and souls to embody this grace by how we live.

So, tomorrow, the phone will NEVER be answered. My church email will NEVER be checked. And anything resembling work will not be addressed. For tomorrow is given over to rest and finalizing the next steps for our sabbatical. But you say that isn't for another three months? True but there is Lent and Easter just around the corner, so I need to be ready. There is an upright bass to rent in Montreal. And contacts to be made in NYC and Nashville. And passports to be updated and rental car arrangements to be secured.  Hell, there is another French lesson to finish, too! What's more, a huge blizzard is coming so it is time to hunker down and take it slow.

Le temps est venu de lancer ce à la vitesse supérieure ...

Saturday, January 24, 2015

A mantra for house cleaning on a snowy day...

Today will be given over to the quotidian mysteries - house cleaning, modest grocery shopping and being inside - the work Kathleen Norris speaks of as "laundry, liturgy and women's work." Looking at our home, it is clear that we don't spend nearly enough time with these ordinary tasks to savor their sacred wisdom. A regular comment at the breakfast table is: "We need to have guests over more regularly so we clean this place up!" So, in anticipation of a friend helping us deal with the lousy heating in our bedroom, today will be given over to a serious overhaul.

Ms. Norris notes that there are some regular acts of devotion in the home that are preferable than others; she loves baking bread and doing the laundry. They have become for her times of contemplation. I guess I haven't yet found my connection to the contemplative realm in house cleaning. Mostly I avoid it - and then hunker down and attack it like Sherman's march to the sea. It becomes a campaign - an endurance test where I must vanquish the clutter and overcome the dirt before I can rest - hardly the stuff of inward communion with my Lord. And perhaps therein lays the problem: I  often attack the other hard things in my life like this, too.

Norris writes: "Whatever you do repeatedly has the power to shape you, has the power to make you over into a different person - even if you're not totally engaged in every minute." I have been approaching house cleaning like a drill sergeant since I was about 8 years old. With the exception of cleaning my study and washing the kitchen floor (and also making the top of the stove shine), I have hated this work. What's more, I've been doing it over and over this way for 54 years. Maybe today is the day to make a small change? 

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21—23).

Norris celebrates this quote as an invitation to let the little things - the daily tasks of our small lives - become not a violent campaign of scorched earth proportions, but rather a gentle walk that brings a taste of beauty and order to my world. This is something I yearn to know from the inside out. What St. Paul encouraged in Romans 12 (in Peterson's The Message version.)

 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Over the years I've learned not to make big changes - or expect dramatic shifts all at once - so I'm going to put on some sweet music, get my dust rag and head off to our trashed bedroom with the thought that I am entering into the 'steadfast love of the Lord that never ceases.' Maybe that should become my cleaning mantra: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases and God's mercies never come to an end: they are new every morning. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Missa Gaia and sabbatical...

On Sunday, April 19, 2015 we will celebrate and share a unique work of art dedicated to healing the earth:  Missa Gaia - Paul Winter's "Earth Mass." This will be, in essence, the kick-off of a season of sabbatical at First Church, Pittsfield, MA. I will be away for four months resting, practicing upright bass and soaking up music and love with my precious Dianne in Montreal. Our faith community will, in turn, take three months to playfully rest and explore some of the ways the Spirit is calling them to grow in compassion and faith.

MIssa Gaia seems like the perfect way to open the sabbatical: it is a contemporary treatment of the ancient Mass; it blends together the music of humans as well as wolves, whales and other living creatures; it utilizes the 'cathedral-like' ambiance and acoustics of our Sanctuary as an ally for spiritual and social renewal; and it invites those who cherish the arts as well as social justice into a place that has always been "consecrated ground." For over 250 years, our land has been set aside for prayer and service, worship and wonder, community and compassion rather than commerce.  Paul Winter, the key creator of Missa Gaia, wrote about how he came to imagine the first presentation of this ode to creation: it would be a song of devotion treating the whole of creation as a cathedral.  Further, the heart of this music is grounded in:

The Gaia hypothesis of scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, who propose’that the entire range of living matter on Earth, from whales to viruses,and from oaks to algae, could be regarded as constituting a single living entity, capable of manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere to suit its overall needs and endowed with faculties and power far beyond those of its constituent parts’.

For me as pastor, artist and participant in the life of our small, thriving community sitting on the
Western edge of Massachusetts, our decision to share Missa Gaia represents three inter-related realities that are fundamental to my call to ministry in the 21st century:

+ First, this is a genre-bending and boundary-transcending work of art:  Simultaneously it is prayer, song, silence, celebration, lament, call to action and call to contemplation as well as being a provocative combination of world music, high art song, jazz, folk and traditional chant lifted up as a cohesive whole. It is an audible expression of synergy for a multi-cultural, multi-faith world aching for hope: a genuine sacrifice of praise. We will present this as a call to action in support of BEAT - Berkshire Environmental Action Team - as well as a public fundraiser for them. Missa Gaia deepens our commitment to Dostoevsky's claim that "beauty can save the world" by offering art in the service of the common good.

+ Second, this work takes our small band - and choir and musical friends and cohorts - to the next level of artistry. For the past year we have come to realize that nobody in the area is experimenting with improvisation and classical forms of music as well as jazz, rock and folk song like our band. What's more, no one is playfully exploring the depth and breadth of spiritual music in this area like my colleagues. So, as we consider taking our "show on the road" in the year after our shared sabbatical, MIssa Gaia gives us the chance to strengthen our credibility as artists.  As we work to make Winter's score our own - adding our own reflections to his orchestration as well as bracketing the Mass with our own compositions - we will  have to deepen our commitment to creativity. We will have to work harder as musicians than ever before, too. The challenge of bringing this to birth is invigorating, but also daunting. It is a huge leap of faith.

+ And third, MIssa Gaia offers our small faith community the opportunity to live into its contemporary calling in a powerful way.   For almost 8 years, we have been slowly learning how the creative arts not only open our own hearts to God's grace, but also bring healing and hope to others. My prayer is that this performance will help those sitting on the fence discern that we have been given a unique charism for this moment in time: a collection of wildly talented and committed artists who love to create beauty together. The time is NOW to fully fund and support their creativity because "the Spirit blows where she will" and nothing lasts for ever. Too often the overly cautious nature of some congregations inhibits courageous support for new ministries. My prayer is that Missa Gaia opens some eyes and hearts so that on the other side of this sabbatical, we go for broke!


The musical score for this composition came in the mail today - finally!  The vocal score will arrive next week along with the CD of wolf, whale and other animal music that is woven throughout the fabric of this composition. We will start to pull together the creative artists necessary to make it all come to pass next week - and then begin rehearsals. I am very excited and grateful for my cohorts in creativity. I am particularly excited to work with my colleague, Carlton, on this. It will be tough, beautiful and inspiring - and he is just the right guy at the right time to make it come to pass.




Thursday, January 22, 2015

The call to Christian foolishness...

In 1969, Harvey Cox, then Hollis Research Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School wrote these prophetic words:

Humanity has paid a frightful price for the present opulence of Western industrial society. Part of the price is exacted daily from the poor nations of the world whose fields and forests garnish our tables while we push their people further into poverty. Part is paid by the plundered poor who dwell within the gates of the rich nations without sharing in the plenty. But part of the price has been paid by affluent Western man himself. While gaining the whole world he has been losing his own soul. He has purchased prosperity at the cost of a staggering impoverishment of the vital elements of his life. These elements are festivity - the capacity for genuine revelry and joyous celebration - and fantasy - the faculty for envisioning radically alternate life situations. Festivity and fantasy are not only worthwhile in themselves; they are absolutely vital to human life.

Forty six years later, Pope Francis made a similar observation: many of our leaders in industry, politics and religion have contracted a type of spiritual Alzheimer’s disease, he said, where we forget both the lessons of history and salvation.

Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. ... Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.(It kills lives and it kills souls.) How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion.

This morning, in part three of my “Fools for Christ” series I want to explicitly state for you the sources of my theological roots. Lest there be any ambiguity about my deepest intellectual and spiritual convictions, I want to share clearly with you why it is I do what I do here and throughout ministry. Because, you see, from time to time, I apparently confuse people: I’ve been told that I sound like an evangelical when I preach.  I love Jesus and cherish my intimacy with him so I’m not afraid to talk about that love out loud. What’s more I am fascinated, intrigued and nurtured by God’s holy word found in the Bible and cherish the chance to discern its wisdom for our generation. And therein, my friends, lays the problem:

Some people confuse my love of Christ, my enthusiastic approach to worship and my reverence for the Scriptures with fundamentalism. In essence, they mistake style for content – and by the time they discover that they are 1000% wrong – they tell me that I have deceived them.  So let me be totally transparent:  the Lord I serve is NOT a religious terrorist who wants to beat us into submission or drive fear and shame into our flesh. I proclaim only a God of love who has saturated existence with grace and aches for us to rest in the beauty of this gift. I am NOT a 21st century Jonah.

Others have told me that all my Jesus talk drives them crazy. How can you insist that Jesus is Lord in a post-modern context when all meaning is enveloped in relativity? Please, they tell me, give up your superstitious ways and get with the modern program. And there are even a few who have concluded that I am just a weird, ultra-liberal, pseudo-Pentecostal, wild man with no theological grounding –  a spirit-filled, Zen Buddhist snake handler – a religious loose cannon who knows no decorum and respects no tradition.

So I thought the time had come to set the record straight – especially since I’m talking about the foolishness of Christ for our generation – and I don’t want any stylistic concerns to obscure the message. In my theological universe, there are eight orthodox, mainstream, Bible believing, contemporary theologians who have shaped and informed my spiritual commitments and understanding of God at work in our lives, hearts and human history: 

+  Bono from U2 who sings about grace from the discipline of rock and roll

+ Eugene Peterson whose reworking of the Bible into The Message has been revolutionary

+ Fr. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM

+ Douglas John Hall, the master of neo-orthodoxy in Montreal

+ Dietrich Bonheoffer (the German Lutheran theologian who was martyred because of his opposition to Hitler’s racist and anti-Semitic violence during WW II

+ Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian bard of Vermont

+ Clarence Jordon of Koinonia Farms in Georgia

+  And Harvey Cox, late of Harvard Divinity School

Yes, I cherish Henri Nouwen. To be sure I have read ALL the great liberation and feminist theologians, too and value their courage and intellectual integrity.  And the works of both Sr. Joan Chittister and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel have been foundational and inspirational. But Bono, Peterson, Rohr, Hall, Bonheoffer, Buechner, Jordan and Cox are my go to scholars because they are grounded in the historic rituals of the church AND awakened to the spirit of renewal, faith, hope and love that is so essential to the Reformed and reforming tradition I call home. 

Today I want to call special attention to Brother Harvey Cox – the first theologian I ever studied – and a guide and mentor to me for over 45 years. He was a professor at Harvard and a protégé of Paul Tillich and Bonheoffer and his modus operandi was articulated in the ground breaking book, The Secular City. After living in Berlin for a year, and teaching on both sides of the barbed wire barrier, he wrote what became his masterwork in 1965 – the central theme of which made sense 50 years ago and even more sense today.  In a clarifying essay penned 25 years after the publication of The Secular City, Cox stated that he still stands by his thesis:

Secularization—if it is not permitted to calcify into an ideology (which I called "secular- ism")—is not everywhere and always an evil. It prevents powerful religions from acting on their theocratic pretensions. It allows people to choose among a wider range of worldviews. Today, in parallel fashion, it seems obvious that the resurgence of religion in the world is not everywhere and always a  good thing. Do the long-suffering people of Iran believe that after the removal of their ruthless shah, the installation of a quasi-theocratic Islamic republic has turned out to be a wholly positive move? Do those Israelis and Palestinians who yearn for a peaceful settlement of the West Bank bloodletting believe that either the Jewish or the Muslim religious parties are helping? How do the citizens of Beirut and Belfast feel about the continuing vitality of religion?

His thinking resonated with me as a young man entering college in 1970 at the United Church of Christ Lakeland College and it still does. There are blessings that come to real people when theocratic regulations and blue laws are liberalized or even abandoned. We know, for example, that as much as we cherish Sabbath, it is a good thing that grocery stores are open on Sundays. Or that women can vote. Or that health care is becoming a right rather than a privilege given to just the wealth. Cox celebrated the blessings of secularization and he got it right.

What he left out, however, is something that all well-intentioned liberals tend to forget but must come to terms with if they are to be honest and faithful: that is, that all human beings are filled with goodness even as we are sinners.

+ Liberals don’t like the word sinner – it certainly has been abused and misused – but like St. Paul told us well before Harvey Cox was ever born:  all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All. Like the African-American spiritual makes clear: it’s not my sister, nor my brother but its ME O Lord who’s standing in the need of prayer.

+ Secularization, it seems, created new opportunities for freedom and imagination, while also opening the door for novel and unexpected forms of fear, depravity, hopelessness and sin.  A friend of mine who used to work for the Rand Foundation called this reality the doctrine of unintended con-sequences (which is just a modern way of talking about original sin): not only can things go terribly wrong in real life with human beings, they will go terribly wrong given human nature, but we won’t know when or how this will happen until it happens.

That is why religious conservatives insist upon rule keeping and playing it safe: they know that chaos is always lurking just around the corner so better to move slowly than open Pandora’s Box. By 1969, however, there was no going back-wards in Western culture. The conservative Islamic revolutions of the Middle East may have tried to turn the cultural clock back to the Caliphate, but it never really worked – even in Saudi Arabia where sexual repression and drug addiction among the elite is rampant.

And if it couldn’t really work there, there was no possibility of going back to the “good old
days” of conservative, middle class, WASP values in the US of A once birth control, social mobility and civil rights became the rule of law.  Professor Cox was taking all of this in, you see, and in his next essay, The Feast of Fools, he offered some correctives. He had come to see that when religious rules evaporate in a society for whatever reason, something always races in to fill the vacuum. For a time in the United States, that something was sensation – sex, drugs and rock and roll – freedom, abandon and the blurring of lines and limitations. But by 1969, there was a back lash – the so-called Silent Majority that was terrified of our unbridled freedom - and Richard Nixon rode this fear all the way to the White House.

+ Tracing the trajectory of his own social history, Cox realized that secularization first encourages freedom, but then morphs into license which provokes fear and repression as a countervailing force to the inevitable excesses of that original blessing.

+ Did you get all that? What I was trying to say is that sinful people will always screw good things up – and that applies to freedom as much as grace – because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

What if the best in our old religious traditions could create a spiritual dialectic that not only accepted the ambiguities of human freedom, but taught, trained and helped every day people to embrace freedom and grace with a playful and humble respectability? That is what The Feast of Fools wrestled with: a playful and humble respect for grace and freedom. It was a way of doing spirituality and formation that not only grabbed my imagination, but shaped my spiritual, intellectual and practical work as a pastor for over 30 years. It became the core of my doctoral dissertation and gave shape and form to my prayer life, too. Further, the insights of Harvey Cox pushed me towards ministry back in 1968 and sustain me today when the burdens of the institutional church become too ponderous, ugly or just plain boring.

And one more confession: it was Cox who encouraged me to take the foolishness of Christ seriously. St. Paul was explicit: the ways of Jesus are NOT socially, politically or economically congruent with the status quo. Speaking to the status seeking believers of first century Corinth he said:

Look we are fools for the sake of Christ… We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and home-less and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.

You can be religious and a part of the status quo; you can attend to the rituals of tradition and philosophy and seek the ways of power. But you can’t be a faithful follower of the one who died on the Cross without giving up all illusions of traditional power and prestige. Because if you want to follow Jesus, like Andrew and Simon Peter or James and John in the gospel for today, you have to become a fool: one who trusts that God’s blessings are greater and more authentic than all trappings of social respectability, power and prestige.

In retrospect, you see, I was drawn to Cox – and through him to the foolishness of Christ – because he incarnated for me a way into Christ’s foolishness.  As a straight, white, middle class man I needed a guide into the foolishness of Christ because I came of age in Darien, CT – a wealthy suburb for New York City executives – and I went to church in Darien. My youth group was VERY, VERY affluent in Darien: we had ski weekend trips that were NOT subsidized. We did mission trips all over the country and there were NO scholarships available. It was just assumed that every family had lots of discretionary cash.

Now this was mostly a sweet place to grow up and I am grateful for the education I received and the friends I made as a working class kid amidst the splendor. But there were not obvious role models in Darien for becoming a fool for Christ. What’s more, being on the outside of affluence and looking in I could see that all that money and power and prestige didn’t make my peers any happier than me.  In fact, in my junior year of high school I had three friends who tried to kill them-selves – and one succeeded – making it clear that not all that glitters is gold. How did St. Bob Dylan put it? In some places money doesn’t talk, it swears – and leaves a whole lot of young people hurting, empty and afraid, too.

It was in this vacuum of hurt and chaos that Cox offered me an alternative – it was neither religious fundamentalism nor liberal naiveté – but rather the foolishness of Christ. And do you know where I first heard the theology of Harvey Cox and his invitation to become a fool for Christ? Any idea?  “Godspell.”  The Broadway musical “Godspell” began as a Master’s thesis project for a young student at Carnegie Mellon University who later went on to work in a spirituality and the arts project at St. John the Divine Cathedral in NYC.  It seems that this young student had read Feast of Fools and wrote a play about the foolishness of Christ as his master’s thesis. He even portrayed and described the character of Jesus in his play as a harlequin. A clown. If you’ve seen it, you know what I am saying is true.

Now in the Broadway play, “Godspell,” and the book Feast of Fools by Harvey Cox, there are two core ideas, two alternatives to the social stagnation of religion in America and the empty cruelty of a secular society obsessed with greed and fear: festivity and fantasy.

+  Festivity is a commitment to joy:  it is a celebration of life, the practice of hope despite all the evidence to the contrary, a willingness to give your life up for the common good.  Festivity is a spiritual discipline, a decision to see grace in every moment and trust that God is in charge – always – it is the path of awe born of devotion rather than obligation.  Jesus put it like this: I desire mercy not sacrifice… for I have come so that your joy may be full. Are you with me?  Festivity is a commitment to joy.

Fantasy is a commitment to prophetic playfulness:  it is a way of living that imagines and embraces life as it should be, not simply as it is. It embraces existence trust that every person matters and every soul has value – no one is taken for granted and all life is sacred – and that means plant life, dirt life, water life, animal life and human life – including infirm life, insane life and inchoate life. Jesus put this commitment to us like this:  unless ye become as like a child, you shall not enter the kingdom of God… so be not anxious. Fantasy is a commitment to prophetic playfulness.

And the more time I spend with the Gospels, the more I am certain that a life constructed
upon a foundation of fantasy and festivity is what attracted Andrew and Peter to follow Jesus, don’t you think? Jesus offered them a way of living that had meaning and depth beyond the obvious. It was baptized in joy and infused with possibilities. Jesus showed them how to trust God even while gazing at life as through a glass darkly.  He showed them how to turn bread and wine into a feast of faith and devotion. He turned the ancient prophetic poems of Israel into deeds and dreams that restored joy and justice – grace and gratitude – hope and true humility – to the heart of real life. The kingdom was not abstract or post-poned for some later time, it was about being embraced by God's love every day and in every way. The text tells us that Andrew and Simon Peter immediately dropped their nets and followed Jesus when his foolishness was revealed. And no wonder – it was good news.  No wonder people followed…

+ I did – when I first heard “Day by Day” from the show “Godspell” I knew that the foolish way of Jesus was for me. Earlier I had been touched and encouraged by his grace in an alternative church in Washington, DC, but it was that song that pushed me out of my safety zone and helped me follow Jesus into ministry.

+ My father, you see, didn’t want me to become a minister. He hated most ministers – his own father had been a minister – and he was a broken man who dumped my dad and grandmother for another life just as the country was coming out of the Great Depression. My father hated the humiliation he had to face as a pastor’s kid forced through a public divorce in the 30’s. And let’s not even mention the shame of his poverty.

My dad and I fought about my calling for decades – it was ugly and mean-spirited and heart-breaking – and while we finally resolved it, it took its toll. But you know what:  I did it any how – not as an adolescent prank – but because at some level I got what Paul was saying whenever I put on “Day by Day” on my record player. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day… because we are fools for Christ.

Look, I’m not saying that I was better than my father – not at all – just that I had been touched by a power greater than his rules, my fears and all the middle class pressure and tradition that people told me would give my life meaning but pushed my peers towards suicide. It was the power of Christ’s foolishness that made sense to me – and the longer I’ve trusted it – the truer it has become for me. And back in the day, whenever I needed a reminder about the truth of Jesus and his foolish wisdom, I went to that song.  Not to church. Not to the Bible. Not even to prayer – although that song “Day by Day” IS a 13th century English prayer albeit with a distinctively 20th century folk-rock back beat – I went to that song. And that’s what I want to make clear to you today: in order to follow Jesus, to live into his foolishness and embrace his Cross, we need encouragement. 

+ Today’s psalm – Psalm 62 – tells us in the first Hebrew verse – not the Anglicized poetry of our Psalter, but the actual Hebrew – that: only as I move towards God am I at rest.  Only in God is my being quiet.

+ So beautiful, so true; so think about that: only as we move towards God’s truth – God’s will – God’s presence and God’s foolish wisdom do we find a stronghold – a resting place – quiet and order in the midst of chaos. 

Back in my day, Feast of Fools and “Day by Day” helped me reconnect and move towards
God, but my way isn’t your way. You need your own way – your own rescue and stronghold – your own path to help you turn back towards the Lord. Now I don’t know what encouragement – resting place – or strong hold helps you – I just know that you need it.  I need, you need it and we all need it. That’s why the Psalm ends by telling us there is ONE thing God has spoken – and it is not a word of judgment – and it has nothing to do with preserving the status quo.

·    + The one thing God has spoken is this: the loving-kindness of the Lord – God’s grace – lasts forever: It is patient; it is kind; it is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

·     + As an affirmation of this truth, I’d like you to join me by singing that old prayer/song, “Day by Day.” Even if you don’t yet have your own way into the reassurance and quiet rest of God’s love, let your heart trust that God’s love is real. Take a chance be a REAL fool for Christ.