Tuesday, March 3, 2015

lenten reflections on Job #3...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for the Third Sunday in Lent - our on-going worship series on the Book of Job.
The fundamental reason why the book of Job was included in the Holy Scriptures of both Judaism and Christianity is because it encourages us to think deeply about what we believe. It gives us permission to change our minds when our limited understandings of God become outdated or hurtful. And it offers us a glimpse into the importance of anger in our spirituality. Righteous anger or a healthy, mature and holy fury is a corrective to both the bland and sappy spirituality that shapes so much New Age thinking as well as a constraint on self-serving rage that tends to confuse our prejudice for God’s wisdom.  Like the old timers in the country used to say: it ain’t what you don’t know that causes you woe; it’s what you do know that just ain’t so!

For ancient Israel, the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE was the presenting problem.  And the reason I keep reminding you of this history lesson from long ago and far away is that it caused a massive emotional and spiritual cataclysm in the way our ancestors in the faith did theology. Jewish historians state that the Temple’s destruction was the “watershed of Jewish history… that caused Israel to rebuild their lives physically and spiritually.”

Before the Temple’s obliteration by invaders from Babylon, the dominant understanding of God’s role in history went something like this – and if you were listening last week you heard it articulated three different ways by the friends of Job. God’s love requires fidelity: God promised protection and steadfast love to all who kept the holy covenant and destruction to those who did not.Two passages from the heart of the old tradition make this clear. 

+ Deuteronomy 30: I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life that both thou and thy seed may live by loving the LORD your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them.

+ Joshua 24: And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

In this theological construct, those who were faithful were rewarded while those who violated or broke covenant were punished. Consequently, this came to mean that if you were suffering – if you were experiencing hardship or trouble – God’s judgment was at work in your life.  Your pain was proof of your breach of the covenant.


So let’s be very specific about what covenant breaking really meant, ok? First, it had to do with worshipping other gods – idolatry. Second, it had to do with acts that wounded the common good – murder and theft. And third, violating God’s covenant involved breaking the bonds of trust and intimacy at the most private level – adultery.

These were the expressions of faithlessness that Israel’s prophets railed against:  these sins tore apart the fabric of a just and peaceful society, they placed selfishness and arrogance at the heart of living rather than sharing and compassion and they treated commitment as a mere commodity that could be bought and sold or even discarded. These are still the practices that wound our world today – from war and avarice to lust and lies – it is no wonder the ancient prophets continue to sound so relevant. What does the Lord require asked Micah? Only this: love compassion, do justice and walk in humility with your God.

Now if you read the history of Israel’s kings – and the genealogies of Jesus in both Matthew and Luke are insightful here – you discover something really interesting: there were both wonderful and compassionate rulers alongside of scoundrels. Some loved the Lord with all their heart, mind and soul while others loved only themselves or other gods. Some served justice and compassion as servants of shalom while others bled the people dry – especially the poor.  There were good and bad, wheat and tares, blessings and curses all mixed up together. So when the first Temple was eventually sacked after the holy city of Jerusalem had been surrounded for months – causing starvation and sickness – tens of thousands of innocent people died either from the siege or the subsequent famine and disease. Those who tried to escape were captured and held in massive slave camps and Israel’s leadership was led into captivity in chains to Babylon.

+ Do you know the song “By the Waters of Babylon?” It is actually Psalm 137 – a lament cried out in despair – asking the Lord how can we ever sing of your love again while we rot away in exile?

+ The prophet Ezekiel’s story tells the same tale in the opening verses: In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day… I sat stunned among the exiles (in Babylon) by the river Chebar.

The prophet Ezekiel, you see, had trained to be a priest – he expected to serve in the holy of holies – but now he was sitting by the waters of Babylon stunned and dejected and weeping.  But it was in this pain – in this confusion – in this upside reality of solidarity and compassion that the word of the Lord came to him. And in time, Israel rebuilt itself and its religion. They rebuilt the Temple and Jerusalem, too – but the emphasis had shifted.  Now the work of the synagogues gained greater prominence as did the importance of “inner temples” in the hearts and minds of each believer: this was a season of incredible change.  I think of the way the prophet, Jeremiah, put it:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Now we know from our own lives and histories that during times of tumult and great social and spiritual change, some leaders will rise up and reclaim a fundamentalist orientation – let’s go back to the good old days when we were certain of God’s laws – when heroes weren’t zeroes and men were men and women were glad of it! At the same time, however, others start to explore more creative and nuanced ideas about God’s place within and among us. Some go deep within as contemplatives while others search for a philosophical and even existentialist way of loving God and serving our neighbors.

It is my sense that the book of Job attempts to do both of these later and more creative things: it invites a more inward and reflective exploration of God’s covenant rather than a strict fundamentalist perspective; and, it urges us to rethink how we see signs of the holy in our ordinary experiences so that we might strengthen the common good even in our confusion. I think that Job is both a theological exploration of the mystery of God’s ways that we can never fully comprehend as well as an invitation to live for justice and compassion even in during hardship. And let me try to explain why I’ve come to this conclusion: Job brings a profoundly Jewish reinterpretation to a much older Babylonian folk tale.

After the destruction of the first Temple, Jewish poets and theologians played with this old story. They were searching for new insights from within the old ways which is a time tested method of teasing out God’s wisdom for a new generation. Look at the old stories, the old poems, songs and texts that have been pushed to the periphery by the dominant culture the sages tell us. Learn to wrestle with what has fallen into the shadows of the tradition for there you will find what the powerful want us to forget and reject. And as this school of poets and scholars did so, they discovered two broad truths that become central to the book of Job.

+ First they reclaimed the Hebrew word hesed.  It occurs 247 times in the Hebrew Bible and is an essential ingredient of the prophets’ message. Remember when I lifted up Micah’s aphorism concerning what does the Lord require?

+ There are three things:  do JUSTICEmishpat – love COMPASSION and the relationships of the covenant – hesed – and walk with HUMILITYtsana halak – with your God – elohim.

This call to love and embody compassion – hesed – runs through the prophets as well as the Psalms. It is found at the heart of Torah – the law – as well as the songs of Israel.  Sometimes our English translations obscure this by rendering the word hesed as steadfast love, loving kindness, mercy or covenantal loyalty. But over and again, the call to embody compassion is central to the Hebrew Bible. In fact, I would suggest that compassion becomes the critique of the old theology that Job’s friends try to force on him.

Last week my point was that no matter how much Job’s friends loved him – and they really did love him – the way they thought about God and real life came out cruel. In the aftermath of the violence and suffering surrounding the destruction of the first Temple, some of Israel’s best minds and hearts were exploring an alternative way of honoring the covenant: compassion. The Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah put it concisely: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ And more than abstract hope, too: if God’s compassion never ceases, so then must MY compassion – OUR compassion – never cease. It must become the core of how we honor the covenant. That’s one new emphasis that grew out of the suffering and confusion after the destruction of the first Temple: hesed.

The other is this: let us never again become so blind to our own hubris and
self-satisfaction that we think we understand the Lord.  Theologians of all stripes and traditions fall into this trap because theology has been defined as faith in search of meaning. If it is done with compassion and humility in pursuit of justice, then we can sometimes stumble upon insights into the mystery of God’s ways. But too often we love the sound of our own voices – and become infatuated with what we think are original insights and ideas – and we forget that we are neither the center of the universe nor the crown of creation.

+ The prophetic poet Isaiah put it like this: Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.   For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

    + This is something new – something humble – something mystical that recognizes and honors human limitation. Psalm 131 says much the same thing but with a very tender voice: Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and for evermore.

    + And never forget the way St. Paul passed on this new tradition to those of us who celebrate ChristianityFor now we see in a mirror, dimly – a glass darkly - but later we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love these three abide, and the greatest of these is love.

Compassion – humility – and right relations – justice: these three things abide when we realize that God’s ways are not our ways; when we practice trusting like a child rather than standing upon our own limited wisdom. This is new – this is hard – this requires doing faith in a new key because we like to know what’s going on. We love to be in control. 

Earlier this week I was reading Nora Gallagher’s book about her illness, Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, where she describes her own terror and confusion as her eyes start to malfunction. In time she discovers that she is suffering from an autoimmune disease and this type of disease is currently incompressible to most of science.  She writes:

Human beings may one day comprehend why the body seems to turn against itself - there are some evolutionary theories emerging that might be helpful - but the current facts are only descriptive rather than prescriptive. Still, our quest for understanding and control causes people to say thing like: well, what did you DO to cause this problem? We want to have answers, we want to explain how things happen, we want cause and effect... and we have so little tolerance for not knowing, for reaching the limits of reason that we make up stories that will explain, satisfy and put to bed.

That’s what the old theology says – the theology guiding the love of Job’s friends from last week – who were certain that Job’s anguish and pain had to be the result of God’s judgment.

+ Now this doesn’t fit with Job’s reality – it has nothing to do with humility or compassion – and doesn’t make anyone healthier or more holy but… it seems to explain something mysterious so it was kept in circulation long after its shelf-life was up. We WANT to know WHY even when we cannot.

Gallagher goes on to tell about a doctor who couldn’t wrap his head around the mystery of an autoimmune disease: “He gave it some thought,” she writes, “asked me a few more questions and then said, 'Your grandmother committed suicide, didn't she? We could think of autoimmune as a form of suicide."

I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to get off the phone. He wanted an explanation that would... would what? ... (Explain the inexplicable?) He was determined to hold fast against the knowledge that such a place existed outside of cause and effect. It must be because my grandmother committed suicide. He must have done something terribly wrong. It must be something he ate or drank or did. Or else? I finally understood: or else it could happen to them!

That is exactly what Job’s friends who were bound by the old theology said and did and believed: OMG it could happen to us – every mysterious hurt and disgrace that plagued Job could capture us, too. Better to shout out the old ways louder than make room for the inexplicable

+ And after 29 chapters of blame and shame, fear and trembling and cruelty masked in pious but outdated theology, Job finally explodes. And please notice that his eruption in anger is at God – not so much at his friends (although they don’t please him very much) – but Job directs all the fury and force of his pain at God.

For NINE lengthy chapters, Job rants and fumes at the Lord his God. He never curses the Lord, but he certainly throws all the bile and disgust he can muster in God’s direction. Because – and this is where we’ll stop for today – because Job has to find a place for moral outrage and holy anger in his relationship with the Lord. If God was to become fully alive and real for Job, and Job was to experience real intimacy with the sacred as an adult in a complex world, the old ways had to die.  And as hard as this is to say, I think Job had to become sick and tired and angry of living in the old way before something new could be born.

+ He wasn’t going to give up his old securities without a fight. They had worked for too long even though they were now cruel and abusive. No, the only way Job was going to meet the true God of mercy, compassion and humility was through his anger.

+ Job had to KNOW in his gut there was something beyond his suffering. He had to embody the cathartic blessing of moral outrage – even at the Lord – if he was going to pass through his baptism of fire. And he had to do this with all the passion he possessed in his heart, soul, mind and spirit.

Job’s anger represents spiritual maturity. For 29 chapters Job is beaten down and remains stooped over in shame and fatigue. But when he lets loose about the injustice and chaos he has experienced, “he becomes upright again.” (Stephen Mitchell) He becomes not a passive serf, but an ally of God’s powerful compassion and grace. Jesus put it like this: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness – God’s justice and compassion – for they shall be filled.”

Christ’s righteous anger in today’s gospel, where he chases the money-changers out from the second Temple, is Jesus giving shape and form to the heart of God’s compassion. Like Job before him, Jesus gets up off his knees here and becomes upright – and his anger is essential for a greater love to be revealed. Now I can’t pretend I grasp all of this, so let me close with the heart of Psalm 19: FEAR of the Lord – AWE in the face of God’s love, power and mystery – is pure, steadfast and endures forever. So let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts become acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our salvation.

1) www.pinterest.com
2) fineartamerica.com
3) www.zangmoalexander.co.uk
4) www.toppers-art.com
5) www.absolutearts.com

Monday, March 2, 2015

grace and repentance...

Question: is forgiveness and our encounter with God's grace conditional upon
repentance? I was asked this question after worship and I've been mulling it over and again for the past 24 hours. (And, truth be told, for the past 35 years!)  There was a time when I would have said, "Yes, without a doubt. We are to forgive one another as God has forgiven us." And, in that mode, I would have emphasized examples from the Scriptures concerning God withholding forgiveness from those who willfully harm one another in sin. These would be texts of judgment. I might have also focused very narrowly on passages that celebrate human repentance as the necessary requisite for salvation.

But my experience of grace - and my cautious study of scripture - suggests that repentance (a change of direction and behavior) is most likely a consequence of grace rather than a condition. God's ways are not our ways; so while theology is a human act of faith searching for understanding, I think it essential to confess that we human beings LOVE to believe we can grasp the essence of the holy. We insist that we can understand things that are mysterious and beyond our pay grade. 

Last night, while reading Nora Gallagher's Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic, she described how both doctors and friends spoke of the autoimmune disease causing deterioration of her vision. In a word, science currently does not fully understand autoimmune diseases. Human beings may one day comprehend why the body seems to turn against itself - there are some evolutionary theories emerging that might be helpful - but the current facts are only descriptive rather than prescriptive. Still, our quest for understanding and control causes people to say thing like: well, what did you DO to cause this problem? Gallagher writes:

Each disease has its own trigger, its own genetic history, and possibly its own code...despite this complexity, popular culture responds to mysterious illnesses as if the victim's personality had caused it. Diseases that have no discernible causes are the most obvious choices. Susan Sontag wrote about this twenty years ago in her revelatory book Illness as Metaphor, when there was an actual phrase: the cancer personality... "Sensitive people" - poets, artists - got TB. Once the bacillus that causes TB was found, that link faded. Now the new diseases vulnerable to the personality cause are autoimmune. We want to have answers, we want to explain how things happen, we want cause and effect... and we have so little tolerance for not knowing, for reaching the limits of reason, that we make up stories that will explain, satisfy and put to bed. 

Gallagher goes on to describe a doctor's questions after she told him that an autoimmune disorder had been discovered. "He gave it some thought, asked me a few more questions, and then said, 'Your grandmother committed suicide, didn't she? We could think of autoimmune as a form of suicide.'"

I didn't know what to say. I didn't know how to get off the phone. He wanted an explanation that would... would what? ... (he) was determined to hold fast against the knowledge that such a place existed outside of case and effect. It must be because my grandmother committed suicide. He must have done something terribly wrong. It must be something he ate or drank or did. Or else? I finally understood: or else it could happen to them. 

I believe a great deal of both conservative and liberal theology concerning grace and forgiveness falls into the arrogant assumption that we can know God's ways. We have clues, of course. We see both the order and the wildness of nature. So we have some clues. We experienced human love as well as terror. But for over one thousand years we have acted as if our ability to think and reason was the same thing as being created in the image of God. Reason is part of the divine imagination, but not the whole story and to think otherwise is dangerous hubris. The prophet Isaiah got it right when he sang:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts. 
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
   and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
   giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
   it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
   and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 
For you shall go out in joy,
   and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
   shall burst into song,
   and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
   instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
   for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. 

So, too, the Psalmist in her mystical reflection on encountering God's embrace in Psalm 131:

Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
   my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
   too great and too marvelous for me. 
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
   like a weaned child with its mother;
   my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
   from this time on and for evermore.

Grace, I believe, is eternal and never saved simply for those who might warrant or earn it. Grace may be absent, of course. St. Paul calls the absence of grace wrath. It is the haunting and agonizing experience of living into the consequences of our sin and arrogance.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.

 I've seen people act like animals. I've known this fall in my own heart and life. It is life separated from grace. Repentance is the goal as grace is withheld to encourage our return to the loving embrace of the Lord. But let's be clear, wrath is never eternal. Grace is - in this life and the next. Like Rob Bell (and Karl Barth) make clear:  LOVE WINS. Period. So we don't have to understand this because we can not: such love is of the Lord and not of our way and making.

I sense that we are born from within the love of God and that we return into it when this realm is over (for us.) Grace can evoke and encourage human repentance, but I can't see how it is ever conditional. Your thoughts?


Sunday, March 1, 2015


This rhythm-a-ning of life... is a trip. Earlier this week, in the heart of this bleak midwinter, I was struggling. Not just because it is so cold and the snow fall has been ridiculous - all you can do is laugh or else you'll cry - but because I couldn't get a handle on my own grief. I was missing Grace and Rick and my father along with Mike and Dolores and Lou Reed. Really. And the more I tried to sit with their spirits the more troubled and agitated I became. I know THEY are all at rest in God's grace, but I was missing them all something fierce.

And then I had to deal with soul vampires as well as my own weariness. That was five of seven days and I could feel myself ground down. Lucie did her best to pull me out of myself - she is most excellent that way - but I needed more assistance. So, after 2+ hours of scouring the kitchen yesterday - and seeing REAL results - I was in a much better place. And then I played a gig with two dear friends last night that was totally outrageous. Win showed up with his dear wife and brought his flute along, too! So we rocked out with blues and Cuban folk songs, Beatles' tunes and "Keep Your Hands to Yourself." A total gas.
But the icing on the cake was a friend and colleague from church who bought me a shot of 12 year old single malt because, "I've wrestled with those damn soul vampires at church, too!" It wasn't so much the drink - although that was delightful - it was the gentle act of solidarity in the midst of shared suffering. I felt so understood and affirmed in that crazy bistro. We sipped our drinks together, told wild stories and enjoyed the blessing of being alive, warm and happy.

Worship was very contemplative today: just what the doctor ordered. After some post- liturgy meetings, Di said: You probably know this but for the first time I got what was going on with Jesus and Psalm 22. He just said the opening verse and the rest was implied, right? They all knew that this was not just a lament, but also a song of praise.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I cry out by day, but you do not answer; and by night but I find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted and you delivered them.. O God, do not be far away. O my help, come quickly to my aid.

That's what I mean about this rhythm-a-ning: as Monk played it, I am aware that to everything there is a season - and a place - for God's grace is forever. Dig the patience Monk has throughout this tune - especially the way he sits during the bass solo. A total Lenten journey all wrapped up in one jazz masterpiece. So, I have another two hours of kitchen detail calling to me but first I need to a little Sunday nap.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shake the dust off your sandals...

In the recent edition of The Christian Century, M. Craig Barnes writes about the loneliness of a leader. It is worth the time - and found me at exactly the right moment. (check it out @ http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-02/lone-leaders) I was feeling blue - grieving on a few different levels, to be sure - but also a bit ambushed, too.

Usually I have the self-awareness after a funeral to disappear for a few hours. I am vulnerable and tired and rarely my best self. I know that many people want the pastor to hang-out and visit after the liturgy - sometimes go back to the house and talk more deeply, too - but I can't do that. I am totally played after a funeral. Spent. Toast. And no good for anyone - myself included. I know this about my soul. I've learned to practice self-care over the years and usually slip into the darkness after such an event. 

But for some reason I didn't do what I know to be best yesterday. After greeting folk on their way to coffee and refreshments, I lingered for a time in the Sanctuary. That's where I got ambushed - and while I could feel it starting to happen as I stood there listening, I was just too tired to put up a fight. So I got knocked around a bit verbally all with a smile and a sweet voice. Complaints, criticisms, triangulated snippets of gossip and other trash talk all shared in the dulcet tones of "I just want to be helpful." All offered like a knife between the eyes.

That's how soul vampires work, you know? They have a unique and well honed ability to sniff out your most vulnerable moment and then pounce when you are most defenseless. Those who aren't pastors - or church professionals - will think I am being paranoid here and I don't deny it; but for those who haven't worked in the institutional church, just ask around a bit - take a walk in your pastor's shoes, too - and you'll discover I am being overly gentle in my soul vampire description. Because, you see, there is almost nothing compassionate about a soul vampire's 
content or timing. Doing my own inner work, I can learn about my shadow from these vultures, but it requires an enormous amount of simultaneous translation. Left alone, their words and actions are poisonous.

Think about it: would you dare pick the first five minutes after a profound funeral to dump your accumulated criticisms on anyone? Of course not. Such an act is not only totally insensitive and inappropriate, it is cruel. Even mean-spirited. And that is the point: the style, content and timing of a soul vampire is designed to both personally hurt and then bleed a leader's insecurities. M. Craig Barnes notes that this is why leaders become lonely - you can't really lead people into new ways of living through consensus and focus groups - you often have to charge forward on your own. This leaves former power brokers in the dust, so leaders have to plan to manage their reactions. And leaders must also make certain they minimize the places where they might be ambushed.

In other words, there are very few people who know the challenges of the office and are prepared and able to stand with you in solidarity. That goes with the territory. Barnes is insightful when he writes: 

Pastors often talk about their loneliness, even though in their work they’re surrounded by many people. What pastors mean by loneliness is not what most people think of it as. And it’s not unique to their calling. According to more than one editorialist, President Obama has given up on building a grand American consensus and is now focused on what he always wanted to do as a leader. His old slogan “Yes we can” has become “I’ll figure out a way.”

This makes me wonder exactly what goes on in the mind of a leader who tires of building consensus and just strives to get things done. Americans have never agreed about anything. So our greatest presidents eventually found ways to be loyal only to the still small voice that kept whispering in their ears, “You know what you need to do.” This is how Washington found himself leading a revolution, how Lincoln got us through the Civil War, and how Roosevelt pulled the nation out of a depression. They were never leading a parade.

Opponents threw everything they could at them. All of these presidents had flaws that made them easy targets for gossip. And the politics of accomplishing their goals were staggering. At the end of every long day they were completely alone, but they kept moving in the right direction, haunted by a still small voice that would not let them stop.

Three thoughts have been swimming through my head since yesterday's encounter:

+ First, I am so very grateful that I have learned to NOT react immediately when I get whacked. Long ago I learned from Fr. Ed Hays that there is a wisdom to our wounds that more often than not teaches us how to grow into the Spirit of Christ. When something happens that makes me want to punch another, I must be peaceful. When I want to run away, I must pause and be present. When I feel furious, I must listen more carefully. And, of course, I must to do in a context of quiet contemplation before making any response.

+ Second, I am even more grateful that I have a life-partner - and a few colleagues on my staff - who both get the challenge of the soul vampire and trust and care for me enough to help me through the ambushes. They are true life-savers and I love them all more as each day goes by.

+ And third, I have come to see that these ambushes can be times of validation, too (after steps one and two, of course!) If we weren't making real and vibrant changes for the better, I wouldn't be getting complaints from the ancien regime. Without trying to romanticize or sentimentalize the problem, I think Barnes gets it right when he writes:

The most striking portrait of John F. Kennedy depicts him standing alone in the White House with his head bowed down, lost in a ponderous thought. I think he’s arguing with the still small voice. I can hear him saying, “They will never buy it.” But the voice just kept pushing him into his lonely convictions about leadership. It doesn’t matter if you are leading a nation, company, congregation, school, or family—a time comes when you just have to do what you believe to be right. You give up on consensus, being admired, or even appreciated. It’s the inner voice you have to serve.

This is never how the leader begins. Even the process of being chosen implies a contract to serve those who made the choice, and all leaders assume that means figuring out a way to bring everyone together around a spectacular dream. But it just doesn’t work out that way in the end. We shoot our dreamers. Sometimes literally, but always metaphorically.
There is something in our ever-so-democratic, antihierarchical, big-on-transparency, questioning-the-process affections that make us resist this core of leadership. But the Bible is filled with examples of women and men who had a vision from God and knew they had to throw their lives into fulfilling it even if it meant leaving town in a shower of rocks. It’s hard to find a prophet, apostle, or Jesus in search of a grand consensus.

I recently asked my current generation of church leaders to read and then re-read the "renewal document" that was fashioned as part of the process that led to my call.  It is a humble and even tame collection of ideas that were fiercely resisted by many who knew the church had to change but refused to give up their small, private favorite fiefdoms.  Some resisted sharing the power-making process; others refused to welcome the music of the 20th century into worship; still others were afraid to make an Open and Affirming commitment; and on and on it goes. I was called - some would say hired but the truth is I was called - to both implement this plan for renewal and then reshape it for our lived experience.

The first three years were complicated - exciting and challenging - but filled with resistance and fear. In time, trust was created, new staff brought into the mix, new lay leadership organized and the culture of the congregation began to shift. Not completely, and never all at once, but still profoundly. My ambush yesterday was a sobering reminder that we are on the right track. It is also proof that "rust never sleeps" as Neil Young sang so well. Just below the surface is an anger from some that our renewal has worked - and is working. The soul vampires among this cadre are relentless. Note to myself: NEVER forget this and NEVER (if you can help it) let yourself get sucked in the mire again. 

When I was back in seminary, my mentor - Ray Swartzback - used to say to me: we want every soul to be embraced by the loving goodness of our Lord - we just want some to experience this sooner than others! He also said that in every ministry there comes a time when the pastor and his/her team have to practice "shaking the dust off our sandals" and moving on. Amen and amen. As the ancient church fathers and mothers used to say from time to time:
illegitimi non carborundum."

Friday, February 27, 2015

A slave to intensity...

After today's funeral - a loving and quiet tribute to a gentle and creative
woman - I find myself caught in melancholia. No biggie, but those feelings are a clue: the wisdom of the wounds insight, right? When you feel like running away to hide, DO THE OPPOSITE! Made me think of one of my favorite poems:
The Time Before Death
Friend? hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think... and think... while you are alive.
What you call "salvation" belongs to the time
            before death.

If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,
do you think ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten --
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the
          City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now, in the next
life you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is,
Believe in the Great Sound!

Kabir says this: When the Guest is being searched for,
it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest
that does all the work.

Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.


Two highlights of the liturgy: Dianne and Carlton's take on "Balm in Gilead" and playing Bill Evans' "Peace Piece" with Carlton. Pure heaven...

NOTE: When I am tired and sad - filled with grief and weariness - I can let the "soul vampires" slip into my vulnerable personal space. This is ALWAYS a mistake and I can feel my heart being sucked away while it is happening, but in that tired state, I don't have the fortitude to cry out: STOP. It happened again after today's truly tender funeral - and afterwards I was having what my AA friends call a "pity party." So, I took a wee nap and then my dog assaulted me because she needed attention. And guess what: when a crazy, needy dog is wrestling with you on your bed - chewing on your arm and begging for attention - there isn't much time or space to feel sorry for yourself. So, like my mentor in ministry used to say about his soul vampires: F***em if that can't take a joke. 

Life is better now - and I think it is time for steak!