Saturday, February 6, 2016

getting a head start on good friday...

Tomorrow our sweet little band of musicians - vocalists and instrumentalists - will regroup after a long hiatus. We really haven't played much together as an ensemble since last April. Yes, we did a quick little number earlier this year, but we've not returned to the work of practice, listening and regular rehearsals since before our sabbatical.

For this year's Good Friday gig, we will step way outside the box and use the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane's masterwork, A Love Supreme, to guide the flow of our liturgy. There will also be select vocal numbers and poetry for this experimental in sound, song and silence. Two of the vocal numbers include Anne Heaton's arrangement of "The Prayer of St. Francis" that Dianne spent all day transcribing - and I mean all-freakin' day. We have four incredible vocalists - and two smokin' guitar players - so I am excited to hear what they start to cook up with this tune. It is the perfect song to start our journey into that most paradoxical worship encounters:  make me an instrument of your peace... let me not so much be understood as to understand.

The other large group song, with full band (drums, electric guitars, etc.) will be a new reading of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." There is no other song quite like it in the annals of rock and roll - a lament embraced by a back beat, a cry to the Lord with a piercing guitar that sounds more like God's heart breaking than anything I've ever experienced - so we'll start to let this take shape and form among us, too.

I give thanks to God for these wise, talented, faithful and killer musicians.

Friday, February 5, 2016

thoughts on hillary and bernie...

This post won't change any one's mind about Hillary or Bernie.  As NY Times columnist, David
Brooks, likes to say: most voters make a decision about the President based on how the candidate makes them feel - not the facts - and even less, their accomplishments and endorsements no matter how impressive or potentially distressing. That said, watching the Democratic debate last night between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders reminded me why I support Mrs. Clinton rather than Mr. Sanders: I share her political philosophy of making incremental progress on what is possible in a polarized context while simultaneously lifting up the larger concerns of the common good.  In my head and my heart, Mr. Sanders' appeal to "revolution" strikes me as gratuitous, unnecessary and inflammatory. I already mistrust the Republican blowhards, so why would a Left-learning one evoke any more trust?

Look, I mostly like how Bernie makes me feel: he is fiery, intelligent, radical, compassionate, respectful and a bit self-righteous. Mostly he refuses to take cheap shots at anyone and speaks about things that I support: income equality, justice, and peace. I, too, have long embraced the democratic socialist ideology that guides Mr. Sanders' thought and value its insights into both economics and public policy. Hillary sometimes looks wooden and controlled - she rarely strikes a sense of passion in me despite her mastery of the facts and process of government - and there are times when her public persona appears detached. All of this makes me feel uncomfortable with her. Both candidates can be spontaneous, witty, and downright funny and inspired, too. So while both strike me as bright and committed, Mrs. Clinton knows the intricacies and nuances of national and international politics better than anyone on the scene. Her reply last night about Russia was so head and shoulders above Mr. Sanders abstract and rambling comment about North Korea as to be almost farcical. To be fair, they both are truly dedicated and authentic public servants.

But with potentially four Supreme Court justices at stake after election day 2016, I am not interested in turning the perfect into the enemy of the good. I want someone who can deliver. Further, I am more energized by the lifelong policy wonk who knows the ins and outs of health care reform, international negotiations in the age of terrorism, and the politics of American race and gender issues than I am in a firebrand with a big heart. This isn't to say that Bernie hasn't accomplished things over his lifetime in politics; rather, it is to say that at this moment in time I don't trust him to be effective in the face of our current challenges. Just the story of the collapse of single-payer health insurance in Vermont alone is enough to make me join Hillary's camp.

There are two other factors at work in all of this that cut beyond feelings, too. First, perhaps this is always the case with those who are super-charged about idealistic political candidates, but the quasi-messianic paeans to Bernie make me uncomfortable. Not because anyone is suggesting that he is a savior. No, it is just the fact that young politicos with precious little experience in governance tend to be fickle and ruthless. They were on fire for a young Obama, but when the President was elected and had to make real life compromises about war, peace, health care and all the rest, these same young soldiers treated him like a traitor. It is one thing to celebrate the radical positions of your candidate during the election cycle and another thing entirely to appreciate the hard compromises necessary to move an idea into an authentic law that can change lives.  As a person of faith who honors the flow of time - to every thing there is a season - I know that sometimes "you are the windshield and sometimes you are the bug."  So, my plea is: dial the messianism down a bit, ok?

Second, while I value Mrs. Clinton's expertise and political acumen, I have no illusions that she is flawless. She is as ruthless a player as Richard Nixon and can be cruel in her comments. She is utilitarian in the worst sense of that word, too.  Yes, she is a political animal who carefully counts the cost of controversial commitments - that is a blessing and a curse - and that is not what causes me distress. Rather, my reservations are not about her savvy, but what looks like a constantly moving target of situational ethics. Like her masterful husband, she can parse the meaning of a word with Byzantine precision. And while I know this won't ever change, my prayer is that she is aware of her shadow side enough to create a cabinet with some advisers strong enough to challenge her from time to time. Without a trusted insider to call her bluff, I fear she can become her own worst enemy. (And while this is true for us all, not all of us wield the authority and power of the Oval Office.)

Like Bernie, Hillary is fundamentally a person of deep conviction. She is obviously more main stream than he - check out the various Face Book memes quoting Sanders and Clinton on the music of Frank Zappa if you have any questions - and my aesthetics run deep in the Bernie camp. But I'm not voting on my feelings or my aesthetics. Consequently, I'm with Hillary.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

an intimacy that connects love...

Now that there is some light at the end of the tunnel of Dianne's health problems - these past six
months have been filled with pain, anxiety and doctors, doctors and more doctors - she is beginning to feel increasingly healthy. We had had such high expectations about re-entering ministry and life after the sabbatical, but these were put on hold given her health woes. Only now are we able to reclaim the way of being that we had initiated in Montreal:  quieter days, simplified meals, the absence of television, greater devotion to music, art, the inward journey and taking time to love our family. 

I am so grateful for her sake that the pain is abating. But this shift has been soul food for me, too. Not only has it helped me reconnect with ministry, but I now have time to think and be happy in my own skin. Good thing as it will soon be Lent!  My heart is at rest knowing that the arc or worship has now been planned:  new ideas have been discussed, liturgies have been written and work on a Coltrane Good Friday is moving into rehearsal mode. Now I can concentrate on being connected with allies for justice and compassion in our small community. I can also focus on being present and loving with those most dear to my heart. Soon it will be the start of maple season and we're joining some of the family at a local sugarhouse for a birthday treat! Ironic, isn't it, how there is an intimacy that connects the love we share with those most precious to us with our ability to be compassionate in the world beyond our home? 

Today I saw this poem by the gifted Naomi Shihab Nye in a post by another justice and faith colleague and I knew it was all coming together:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Each day we are taking small steps to simultaneously declutter our little house of things that get in the way of simple hospitality - we want to continue to live here with tenderness - and declutter our hearts of distractions that keep us from kindness.  This picture from a recently decluttered book shelf in my study gives shape and form to what I am feeling - and it is all good.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

nature photo challenge continues...

Here is my entry for day two of the nature photo challenge... this is another shot of our back yard taken exactly one year ago today.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

the mystery of ministry...

Recently I was asked (by my wife) if I would join a 7 day nature photo challenge. I said: "Why me? I just take quickies on my IPhone." And she replied, "Because you have a great eye. See what happens, ok?" Here's the first shot taken quickly on my way to worship last fall on a day rich with fog. It is looking out towards the wetlands behind our house.
BTW... for those who were concerned about me after my last post re: boring meetings, etc: all is well. Sometimes I have to write to clarify what I am thinking and feeling, ok?  And sometimes I have to write to encourage the wider base of people who are committed to church renewal to grasp the consequences of our shared work. Rest assured, however, all is well with my spirit and our commitment to living into Christ's Spirit. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

learning to honor tenderness...

For some reason I have lost my once protective armor. The brash stupidity of some - and
the calculating cruelty of others - gets to me more since returning from sabbatical. This, too is a change I could not have anticipated. And it is unsettling because much of the time a thick skin is essential for pastoral work in the church.  In the past I've managed dumb pronouncements, boring suggestions about how church life could be improved and/or fixed, or even mean-spirited critiques with a certain detachment. But not so much any more and I have to confess I am not so sure this is a good thing. My heart resonates with the call towards tenderness and mercy - and that makes detachment complicated if not impossible.

Clearly I went into a tailspin yesterday that I had not expected. The presenting issue involved yet one more unimaginative annual meeting.  The details are less important than my highly charged reaction: it has become very hard for me to listen to foolishness and disinformation about our ministry of worship and community building in a non-anxious way.  So I left frustrated and even exasperated - and it took me the better part of 24 hours to sort out why.  Here's my hunch:

+ First, the form of our official church business meetings no longer serve the needs of the worshipping and compassion-sharing community. I have sensed this to be true for a few years, but now I know it in my gut. The model we use is ok for a secular club - or even a business association - but not a church growing in spirit and truth.  After all, the budget is only a part of what binds us together, yes? And yet for generations the heart and soul of these gatherings has been all about the financial bottom line. Why do we even have a budget? Where is our understanding of where the Spirit is inviting us to journey as we follow the Lord? What about the meaning of our ministries and the sacrificial work the people of God in this place share with one another in the world.? Without giving as much attention to both the form and content of our business meetings, they "suck the life out of us" as one young leader told me. 

+ Second, the culture of these gatherings treats all comments as equal - and that simply is not true.  Those who only have one tool - namely, a hammer - always treat others as nails. That means care must be exercised in moving conversation forward - or even to a point. Another way of saying this is: the classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Those who have been trained/allowed to monopolize a public meeting - especially those without insight - need to be retrained by those willing to be kind and courageous. My take away is simple: the form and content of our business meetings must be grounded in prayer, saturated with an awareness of God's grace, and committed to sharing the good news in clear and useful ways. They must be designed to use the gifts of the community - including emerging leaders - rather than repeat what took place last year... and the year before that...and the century before that. Further, new and life-giving forms for meetings not only help train those who choose to speak with more thoughtfulness, they can also help model kindness and respect. The Living Room Conversation movement, inspired by Parker Palmer, suggests the following  ground rules:

Be Curious and Open to Learning:  Listen to and be open to hearing all points of view. Maintain an attitude of exploration and learning. Conversation is as much about listening as it is about talking.

Show Respect and Suspend Judgment:  Human beings tend to judge one another, do your best not to. Setting judgments aside will better enable you to learn from others and help them feel respected and appreciated.

Look for Common Ground:  In this conversation, we look for what we agree on and simply appreciate that we will disagree on some beliefs and opinions.

Be Authentic and Welcome that from Others:  Share what’s important to you. Speak authentically from your personal and heartfelt experience. Be considerate to others who are doing the same.

Be Purposeful and to the Point:  Notice if what you are conveying is or is not “on purpose” to the question at hand. Notice if you are making the same point more than once.

Own and Guide the Conversation: Take responsibility for the quality of your participation and the quality of the conversation by noticing what’s happening and actively support getting yourself and others back “on purpose” when needed.

+ And third, interpretation of the facts on the ground is an essential component for all future gatherings. Staying on point - and knowing the point of the meeting - helps prevent it from either being hijacked, or, devolve into a painful hoop to jump through that must be completed in as little time as possible.

My self-understanding about this growing inability to tolerate outdated forms of church - and that
includes aspects of the larger church - stems from two sabbatical insights.  a) I have limited
 time left in life and ministry; I have long believed that Jesus wasn't fooling when he told us: I have come so that your joy may be full. This is the season in my journey to live more fully into that joy and let go of what is deadening and done. And b) at this stage in ministry I have some clear wisdom about what advances the cause of Christ's joy and what kills it. I must become more assertive in honoring that wisdom. Sabbatical brought me into rest. Rest is encouraging me to challenge what is crazy-making about ministry. And challenging the crazy-making stuff is pushing me to bury what is outmoded and move forward with joy.

Last night, after a lot on angst, I saw the following quote from Richard Rohr - it was an epiphany that I want to honor:

"If your only goal is to love, there is no such thing as failure. Really! Even, and most especially, failures are another occasion and opportunity to learn and practice love, even toward yourself."

Sunday, January 31, 2016



The grandfather of comparative religion in the United States, Huston Smith, once said that “Exclusively oral cultures are unencumbered by dead knowledge and facts. Libraries, on the other hand, are full of them.”  That means we must be on guard against knowledge that is outdated or dead, too whenever we approach the Bible.  For the Bible is a library of sorts:  it is a compilation bound together from separate sacred scrolls once written on papyrus.  As a Greek word – biblos – it literally means scroll from the early days before the individual “books” of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments were gathered together into a coherent collection.

Apparently, the Hebrew oral tradition began to be gathered during the days of King David – 1000 years before the Common Era – but took another 700 years before being synthesized into its current form.  The Christian stories were also born of the oral tradition although the letters of St. Paul were circulated in a written form as early as 30 years after Christ’s death while the whole of the canon was not codified for another 250 years. The reason I start with this reminder as I continue my series into what the wisdom of the ancient prophets of Israel have to say to those of us in 21st century America is simple:  it takes some work and careful attention to sort out what is living from what is dead within this sacred library. 

And you’re not going to get much encouragement from the dominant culture to do this type of sorting:  not only do we all have jobs that need tending, families to feed, wars to wage, mortgages to pay and addictions and distractions by the truckload to divert our attention; but the ethos of this era is so driven by the limited vision of scientific empiricism and marketplace capitalism, that we tend to see almost every situation, condition and person set before us as a problem to be solved. We so fervently desire answers, solutions, and resolutions that we barely comprehend the prophetic task of waiting upon the Lord as enunciated bu the in the Bible. Smith puts it like this:

The scientific method is nearly perfect for understanding the physical aspects of our life. But it is a radically limited viewfinder in its ability to offer values, morals and meanings that compose the center of our lives.  Indeed, science is like a flashlight in the hands of people living inside a huge balloon. They can illuminate anything within the balloon, but cannot shine a light outside the balloon to see where it is floating – or even if it is floating at all.

For that type of light and insight, Smith tells us, we must go to the sacred scrolls of our Biblical library and learn to slowly sift through the stories in order to discern the living wisdom of God even as we bury what is dead. It is not that the scientific, deductive path is wrong, mind you – I am grateful for it in the care of my wife of late – it is just incomplete – especially when it comes to the work of discernment.

Smith concludes his warning by telling us: “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we will discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.” Did you hear that?  The BEST of religion offers us the distilled wisdom of the HUMAN experience!  And one of those living insights carrying wisdom within it for contemporary humanity is found in ancient Israel’s prophetic poetry.  As I have been trying to clarify since Christmas, the prophetic task is to teach us that whenever there is cultural, spiritual, emotional, political, personal or institutional transition taking place, God’s people are required to spend time in the house of lamentation and grief before we can move into a new residence that lets the past become the past.

Professor Walter Brueggemann calls this the work of relinquishment:  “I am one,” wept the prophet Jeremiah from within the devastated walls of a defiled Jerusalem, “who has seen affliction under the absence of the Lord… my soul is bereft of peace and my happiness is gone forever.” Call it the blues or lament, the distilled wisdom of the human race embedded in prophetic Scripture is clear that we cannot move faithfully, patiently, creatively or assuredly into the future without grieving. This is God’s promise to us: we do not have to dwell in the house of denial forever nor reinvent the wheel when it comes to aligning our souls with the way of the Lord where God’s banquet table awaits us with a cup that runneth over.

But we do have to pay attention to the testimony of our sacred ancestors – that great cloud of witnesses – who are waiting to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death – our season of relinquishment – so that on the other side of this life not just the next, we might be enveloped by the goodness and mercy of the One who promises: Comfort, comfort O my people, speak tenderly to Jeru-salem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

That, in a concentrated nutshell, is the core of this message:  lament born of a new reality is foundational:  grief embraced by faith is our way through the valley of the shadow of death – and hope poured into our hearts by God comes to those who wait upon the Lord

This is not at all the methodology of our problem solving obsession, but it is absolutely essential for a mature and healthy soul. Brueggemann writes:  The hard work of relinquishment accepts no short cuts. This task requires a trust that does not blush and a history that does not blink… For prophetic ministry in any generation requires a courage beyond fearlessness… a willingness to live beyond all proof, and a trust that relinquishment positions us to receive blessings from the Lord… yet again” when the time is right.

So today I invite you to first consider with me what the destruction of Jerusalem meant to ancient Israel emotionally, politically and theologically. Second, let’s try to tease out what that suggests for us as 21st century Americans. And third allow me to encourage each and all of us as First Church to tenderly move through our own grief into a hope that is already being born among us in small ways for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

But let’s recap this series thus far for both those who haven’t been here each week as well as for those who may not know these ancient tales, ok? To date, I’ve tried to say the following: Because the stories of Scripture are our shared heritage within the Judeo-Christian realm, we need to mine them for meaning.  It’s not that these are necessarily the best stories about spirituality – and they certainly are not the only ones – they are simply our stories. It’s like our families: they too may not be the best families and are certainly not the only families in creation, but they are our families and to overlook them is an act of denial.

Further, I believe that real wisdom emerges from depth in one discipline rather than sampling fads or trends.  Knowing a little bit about a lot of things has its place at a cocktail party, but in matters of the heart and soul, shallowness is not our ally: we need depth not merely breadth.  So I have pushed profoundly into the prophetic wisdom of ancient Israel because this is the soil into which we have been planted.  It is the tradition that Jesus embraced as well as our own spiritual progenitors. So, by way of summary, over the past three weeks I have noted:

First, how our ancient ancestors in Israel wrestled with three different understandings of covenant and faithful living with God.  Some believed that worship rituals were the essence of faith; others concluded that God had made them a holy people through the bloodline of Abraham; and still others – particularly the prophets – sensed that Sabbath keeping and right relations between neighbors was the fulfillment of covenantal life. These are the Davidic, Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.

Second, how there was a fierce and on-going debate between each of these spiritualities. Over time, the prophets demanding justice and compassion found themselves in opposition to those who emphasized either the way of racial purity or just the practice of sacramental duties.

And third, when the city of Jerusalem and its Temple were sacked by Babylon in 587 BCE, most of ancient Israel was rendered emotionally and spiritually devastated. They had no way to comprehend how God could seem to turn away from the so-called chosen. To which the prophets countered:  God’s absence is NOT forever; so learn to weep – own the agony of this era – and cry out unto the Lord without ceasing for only those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. 

That’s the summary, ok?  It is, to use Brueggemann’s insight, the way reality helps us grieve our way into hope – and that’s where we’re going today. After the obliteration of Jerusalem, there were two groups of mourners: those who were taken away as slaves into Babylon and those who remained in the burned out debris of a once holy city. Too often we forget this second group of mourners, those left behind when the elite were shackled and forced into exile. But it is often the case that those who are forgotten and marginalized grasp God’s truth more profoundly than the best and the brightest: not only do the broken have less to lose from the status quo, they have been shut-out for so long and on so many levels by the dominant class that they are light years ahead of us when it comes to opening our hearts to the liberating power of lament. 

Think of what the feminist movement brought to those of us trapped in the dismissive and condescending ways of our sexist habits. Consider what the environmentalists have brought to the table about climate change that are only now being taken seriously by the elite. Take a moment to appreciate how the Black Lives Matter movement is calling you and me back into our long journey out of white privilege and closer to the beloved community.

The Reverend Traci Blackmon, one time pastor of Christ the King church in Ferguson, MO during the rioting and now working on racial justice matters for the national United Church of Christ put it like this:  Nobody gives up privilege willingly, but living in God’s kingdom is all about relinquishing our comfort and convenience.  That’s why this moment in time calls us to nurture bravery, humility, diversity and empathy so that we can discover how to disagree well – for it usually involves more listening. Jesus said much the same thing to his homies when they questioned his integrity by appealing to a contemptuous but facile familiarity: Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, “Doctor, heal thyself.”  And you will demand that I do some miracle here, too. That’s why I’m telling you NO prophet is ever accepted in his or her home town.

And he went on to challenge them as one of Israel’s prophets saying: quit playing games.  If you want to know the will of the Lord in our generation, go to the hungry, the lonely, the broken and oppressed: When did we see Thee Lord?  When I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Whenever you do this unto the least of my sisters and brothers, you do so unto me.

In the Hebrew Bible the story of those left behind in burned-out Jerusalem is found in the book of Lamentations. This is the accounting of those who “were subject every day to the sights and smells of a city in shambles…this is the testi-mony of their deep sense of abandonment made evident in the poetry born of the ruins.” Chapter 3 succinctly summarizes their plight:  “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; over and over I weep: “Gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

Now the Hebrew word, ‘abad, is translated here as “gone” – gone is my glory – gone is all recollection of hope.  But most scholars argue that ‘abad should actually be rendered: “perish.” Do you sense the difference?  Gone is abstract, but perished is heart-breaking. This was the birth of the blues in Israel, when both the poor and the powerful realized and accepted that they had been called away from “any emotional sense of well-being to one of loss, from any political sense of guarantee to one of acute vulnerability, from any theological sense of chosenness to one of abandonment. This new context of loss, vulnerability, and abandonment (touched everyone) and amounted to a vindication of prophetic realism against the ideology of exceptionalism and prophetic grief against (all forms of) denial.”

Now maybe it’s just me, but I hear something similar taking place in both the long abandoned cities of our nation as well as the once prosperous neighborhoods of America’s shrinking middle and working class.  There is lamentation in the air –  anger and confusion, too.  Sometimes it is expressed in the overtly hateful diatribes of Mr. Trump’s fascist hymns; but it is there, too in the equally heated populist protest songs of Mr. Sanders.  Many of our people believe we are the brink of despair – and we very well may be.  Professor Brueggemann put it like this in a way that resonates in my heart: There is an anger in America being acted out in the disguise of nostalgia: a yearning for the good old days of a simpler life.  It looks innocent enough on the surface but contains a dreadful truth just below our view.

Remember the provocative mantra of the 2012 political campaign:  take back our country? This slogan reflects the sense that someone has seized our world from us, not unlike the way in which the Babylonians seized the world of Jerusalem away from its inhabitants. Nostalgia is an attempt to recover the world that is gone – perished – if indeed it ever existed.  Nostalgic anger is manifest in the “stand your ground” gun laws that are shot through with macho fear and racism… Nostalgic anger is alive in our culture that is obsessed with apocalyptic, end of the world motion pictures… and it is active in the “every man for himself” ideology that has turned Washington, DC into an unsustainable political quagmire. Can you believe that a second-rate ideological novelist like Ayn Rand is now  being held up for us as a legitimate public philosopher of value and wisdom? This is pure lunacy. But, in our nostalgia, the disappearance of any notion of preserving the common good validates the feeling of many that we have been abandoned – bereft of peace – with joy and hope gone for at least the foreseeable future. (Brueggemann)

And what about closer to home: in a culture bereft of peace the current heroin epidemic consuming the Berkshires makes sense. Same with random acts of violence:  this past Wednesday I was heading home from midday Eucharist on First Street when two young, white gang bangers jumped out of opposing cars and started to beat the snot out of one another.  And if that weren’t bad enough, the friends and neighbors who gathered around this fracas didn’t try to stop it but, cheered them on.  Before I could get my phone to dial 911, they jumped back into their SUVs and sped off in opposite directions. Denial of our cultural disease is no longer possible. We know better: the reality we see all around us has exposed a culture empty of generative power and bursting at the seams with destructive anxiety.

So pay careful attention here: it was into a comparable moral vacuum that both the elite in Babylon and the working poor in Jerusalem began to hear songs of hope, dream dreams of deep change, and claim visions and write poems of a healing that was greater than anything they could imagine. “In the midst of exilic despair over destruction and displacement,” you see, God breaks into our reality and moves our laments from grief into the promise of a buoyant future.  Now we can’t do this ourselves, beloved, we can’t abrogate the time table of the Lord.  We can’t bind the chains of the Pleiades or loosen Orion’s belt. We can’t lead forth constellation in its season or shake water from a stone. We can’t even imagine what a new heaven and new earth – a new temple, a new city, a new covenant – might look like.  All we can do is wait upon the Lord who has promised to renew our strength. Wait upon the Lord – are you listening? Wait upon the Lord: this is NOT a call to passivity or navel gazing. It is taking the time to feel in our core the agony of the world’s suffering. It is rediscovering our common bonds – the social good – where all humankind is made in the loving image of the Lord. AND… it is trusting that when we are ready, God’s time will break into our time with a promise that overrides despair.  Brueggemann is persuasive on this point:  “As long as the displaced are preoccupied with the palpable causes of their despair – the city in shambles, the hegemony of the empire – the utterance of sacred promise is not credible. It is simply more wishful thinking.”

And that is why the prophetic task insists upon the power of the Lord in these circumstances. Confessing that all true utterances of hope “arise from elsewhere – from the God who indwells the abyss and who initiates a new historical possibility that is not disrupted by the city in shambles nor restrained by the force of empire,” the poetry of the prophets throws conventional wisdom out the window and “raises up a word from outside all explanatory categories” that resonates with our hearts and liberates our minds: it is the cry I have a dream!  Sing a NEW song!

Take the poetry of Isaiah: We listen to it in an unhistorical way every Advent as we sing:  Comfort, comfort ye my people, or, How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace and brings good news. But we rarely, if ever, recall that these songs were born in exile – in Babylon – when beyond all reason, science, logic and linear thinking the ancient prophets began to see visions and dream dreams. They had cried themselves crazy with lament and pushed those in denial to do likewise. And then – and ONLY then – came God’s word of hope born of grief and saturated with reality but blessed with sweet hope nonetheless.

And THAT, people of God at First Church, is why I’ve been burdening you with this series.  Some of us haven’t grieved the loss of the old First Church profoundly enough – and I know because I hear the yearning for the old days all over town. Not so much here – although sometimes – but more in the coffee shops where people say things like:  “We just need another GE to come and then our problems would be over.” Those days, beloved, are gone:  forever!

That’s one reality – but there is another: some among us – and sometimes I fall into this group – haven’t yet allowed ourselves to grieve over the fact that we haven’t yet been able to solve the financial problems facing our church. After all, we’re smart and reasonably successful professionals in our day jobs who can solve other problems: how come we can’t crack the nut here? I know, I’ve spent numerous sleepless nights fretting about this one – and I know some of you have, too.

To which the witness of the ancient prophets tells us:  wait upon the Lord. Trust God more than self – know that God has still more light to be revealed. We are not the all-powerful Oz. We are not the one who threw the stars and planets into orbit. But damn if we don’t resist being pushed towards humility, smallness and an active waiting upon the Lord.

Once upon a time, a Jewish grandma was walking on the shore of the Pacific Ocean with her grandson whom she adored. She worshipped the ground this little boy walked on and was delighted that his momma et her take him out for the day. She’d bought him a new pair of shorts and sandals and a sweet little straw hat to keep the sun off his 2 year old head. So, as they were strolling by the water laughing and loving one another, out of nowhere came this monster wave.  It was 12 feet high and slammed down on the shore with an earth shattering crash.  And when grandma looked up, the little boy was gone. Once she caught her breath she looked up to the heavens and prayed with one arm outstretched as she beat her breast with the other:  Blessed are You, O Lord our God, creator of heaven and earth, King of the Universe. I plead with you in your mercy to return my grandson, the apple of my eye. In humility I beg of you, Lord.  And with that, another wave crashed upon the shore… and the little boy was returned.  As you might imagine, grandma ran and embraced him, picking him up in her arms and covering him with kisses. Oh my God this was such a delightI give you thanks and praise, Lord she cried in gratitude.  But after a moment, she looked back up at the heavens and said:  You know when he left, he had a hat.

We’re a stubborn lot – and don’t honor God’s push and pull towards humility with the respect it deserves – so we have to keep learning what it means to wait upon the Lord over and over again. And that is part of what I think is taking place at First Church right now.  We’re being asked yet again to wait upon the LORD to restore our strength; it’s not something that comes easily to anyone especially hard working, middle class folk like you and me. But that’s ok, because God isn’t going anywhere and when we’re ready to get it, I believe that blessings and hope and a new ministry of integrity and joy will be revealed.  It is already taking shape in small ways among us for those who have eyes to see.

But there’s a third group who are really bringing in the hope – they don’t have your history or my concerns – and they hold some powerful potential. And the reason I know this is from Bible study.  You know, I always thought that the Lord is my Shepherd was one of the Psalms of David, but apparently not. We know this because it closes with the words: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, right?  Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Well, there wasn’t a house of the Lord in David’s time – there was a tent - there wasn’t a Temple – that came on Solomon’s watch.  And it was destroyed in 587 BCE and wasn’t rebuilt again until 517 – that’s nearly 500 years after David and 70 years after the exile. But those who came after the anguish, they could see the beauty that was waiting to be born – and could see the Lord’s banquet table.

So, the symbol I’m going to put on the communion table today is this little string of prayer beads.  It isn’t a check for half a million dollars that would help close our budget deficit. And it isn’t a well articulated plan to rescue our building and ministry from reality or grief or change. It is a simple string of wooden beads that reminds me that ALL I can do is actively wait upon the Lord with trust.

Last year I started to make prayer beads for myself – and then for a few others who needed a small reminder that: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for… what? Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. The God who loves us will not only bind up all our wounds, but will surround us with goodness and mercy that shall follow us all the days of our live life: and we will dwell in the house of the Lordforever. Say that again: forever.  

Saturday, January 30, 2016

quiet thoughts at the close of our sabbath...

NOTE:  We spent the better part of today resting - walking the the snowy scrub with Lucie - and bringing some more order to our cluttered little house. As I was cleaning out CDs I no longer want - and papers stacked high yet again on my desk - I can across this homily from last year's All Saints Day. I was pleased to see that it still rings true for me. What's more, I can see how this whole year after our sabbatical has been built upon small acts of tenderness, small steps into contemplation, and small invitations of solidarity with God and our neighbors. I'm going to make some pizza and salad for dinner tonight to bring our Sabbath to a close.
When I walk in the almost winter woods of this season – with the low, rich sunlight of late October and early November pouring through the almost naked trees - I often hear the voices of the saints in my life. They are the ones who shared love with me in my family, my circle of friends and the different churches I have served. They are Michael and Don - Dolores and Roger - Rick, Vicky and Grace - Jim, Betty, Beth and Linda - and let's not forget St. Lou Reed.

In some ways these saints are very different; they are black and white, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight. They are well educated and street wise. Very, very different – on the surface – but in one way they are all the same:  they were vulnerable and open to God’s love. They let me share some of their wounds and I felt safe enough to be fully human with them, too. You see, all we really have to share with another is ourselves:  our time, our love, our broken humanity. And when we take the risk to do this – and it is received in trust – then something beautiful and even sacred happens:  God’s love becomes flesh within us right here and now. This love – peace – serenity is not JUST for life after death – it is for right now. Our hungers can be filled at the Messianic banquet table and our wounds can be soothed in a deep way right now.

I know that modern people don’t believe this – most people throughout history haven’t believed it – that’s why we have ministry. The late Henri Nouwen put it best:

Ministry is how we make the world more transparent to the other so that the world speaks of God and people are enlightened by the love of God... Ministry is to help others open their eyes and ears, so to speak - to make what is cloudy and opaque clear and beautiful - to proclaim to to others what we have experienced in prayer: God's beauty, truth and wisdom is here for you, too... Life becomes an unbearable burden whenever we lose touch with the presence of a loving Savior and see only the hunger to be alleviated, thin injustice to be addressed, the violence to be overcome, the wars to be stopped and the loneliness to be removed. All these are, of course, critical issues and Christians must try to solve them; however, when our concern no longer flows from our personal encounter with the living Christ, we feel only the oppressive weight.

In other words, the whole point of ministry – and church – is to help one another move deeper into God’s love RIGHT NOW.  It is all about helping one another transform and convert our loneliness into solitude with the Lord. That’s what I hear promised in the reading from Revelations:  God will wipe away every tear from our eyes – in the great beyond, of course – but also right here and right now.

There are three road blocks, however, that we have to reckon with – three challenges that always distract and dismay us – and they have been in existence since the beginning of time:  our culture, our religious traditions and our inner emptiness. Our challenge – and it is only work that WE can do – is to trust Jesus when he tells us:

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding. You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning.

Every person I’ve ever met – myself and my spiritual guides included – wrestle with this truth. We don’t want to believe we have to quit our allegiance to our culture, our religious traditions and our inner neediness to move into God’s peace – so we fight it most of our lives. We want to believe we can make it happen all by ourselves. It has NEVER worked that way and NEVER will, of course, but that doesn’t stop any of us. We are stubborn and cantankerous and strong willed… until we become sick and tired of being sick and tired… we will remain that way, suffering under the illusion that we can really work our way into deep and lasting peace.

Let’s start with our culture:  we’ve bought into the lie hook, line and sinker that if we work hard enough – and buy enough things – we will be at peace.

We put great effort into convincing ourselves and those around us that if we dress well, live in nice homes and keep work hard to be upwardly mobile we’re on the right track. But here’s the deal: no matter how hard we try, we are still racked by insecurities, we still find it hard to love ourselves or others and we are still destined at the end of all of our striving for a hole in the ground.

Now don’t be too hard on yourself because that’s the message that inundates our culture.  Get
all the nice things and keep up with the latest trends and all will be well.

The caustic and endlessly charming commentator and writer Rex Murphy of Canada observed in 2005 that '"a culture that offers intellectual hospitality to the chatterings of Dr. Phil and the romps of Desperate Housewives doesn't have the stamina to pursue the idea of faith and its agency. 

Ours is a viciously consumerist culture that is saturated with shallowness.  What’s more, the effort required to keep up with the latest junk is killing us and polluting Mother Earth. Another Canadian religious scholar, Charles Davis, speaks of our addiction to busyness as self-inflicted violence.  Think of the way Jesus operated: he was always going off to a lonely place to think and pray to the Lord. He learned how to step away from his culture and convert his loneliness into true solitude with God because without this effort, God’s peace doesn’t come.

People hate to hear this – in Christ’s time and today – but it is an essential truth: until we disengage and unplug ourselves from the demands of our culture, there isn’t room inside for God to grow and mature and heal us from the inside out. That’s why when we talk seriously about nourishing a life of prayer – taking time to convert our loneliness into solitude – some people get snarky and angry.  It happened in Christ’s time – and not much has changed. That’s why he taught us:

Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.

The first road block to nourishing God’s deep peace that passes understanding is culture. The second is our allegiance to outdated religious traditions. Israel’s prophets were ALWAYS saying that following the rules isn’t at the heart of God’s way – FREEDOM is – so if the rules get in the way of freedom, then the rules have to change.  That’s what Pope Francis is trying to communicate to the world – and to his own bishops and priests – we are to be a church of mercy he said – the embodiment of tenderness.  He’s got a tough job convincing those under 35 because they’ve seen just the opposite.  Lawrence Freeman puts it like this:

It is puzzling and frustrating to try and understand how the mainline Churches, despite all their determination and resources, still seem unable to connect with the profound spiritual needs of our time. Most young people are ready for idealistic and sacrificial commitment and hungry for inspiration. And yet, instead of discovering in the Church an inclusive vision and a comprehensive philosophy of life and spirituality, they dismiss what they find as narrowness of mind, intolerant dogmatism, internal feuding, inter-denominational sectarian, medieval sexism and their most damning criticism: the lack of spiritual depth.

Did you hear that? What most people in Western Europe and increasingly the USA say is missing from the institution is spiritual depth.  We don’t teach the ways of contemplation – we don’t urge people to make some hard choices – we sometimes don’t even believe it ourselves. Because choosing to become hungry for the spirit is scary; it means we aren’t in control. Yes, Jesus promises a Messianic feast – yes the promise of the Lord is that God will wipe every tear away from our eyes – yes the prophets cry out for the way of freedom… but we like to do things on our terms not God’s.  We want a consumer religion where we come to church, someone entertains us and gives us a product and provides education for our children so that we can go back and keep on doing what we’ve always done.

To which Jesus says: it doesn’t work that way. If you keep doing what you’ve always done – even in your churches, synagogues and mosques – you’ll always get what you’ve always got. And for the last 50 years what we’ve always got has been more and more people fleeing our institutions because they don’t take us deeper.  They don’t help us find peace and healing in our real lives. They are often superficial and empty.

The second stumbling block or challenge is often our religious institutions that are more interested in their history than God’s liberating freedom. And the third truth that keeps us from living into God’s grace, faith, hope and love is… our own insecurities – or fears – or shames – or addictions – or emptiness. Most people spend their whole lives trying to fill the God-shaped hole in their lives with junk: things – sexy – work – booze – drugs – distractions – anger – shame… the list is endless.

When we run out of excuses, options and distractions, then God steps into the hole and fills us from the inside out. What WE must do after this blessed gift, is nourish time and space for the Lord to KEEP filling us.

A life without a lonely place, that is, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive. When we cling to the results of our actions as our only way of self-identification, then we become possessive and defensive and tend to look at our fellow human beings more as enemies to be kept at a distance than friends with whom we share the gifts of life. In solitude we can slowly unmask the illusions... and discover in the center of our self that we are not what we can conquer, but what is given to us. In solitude we can listen to the voice of the One who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in solitude that we discover that being is more important than having and that we are worth more than the result of all our efforts... Our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared.

When we run out of gas, Christ steps in to fill us. For what is the promise of mercy to those who are not weak, forgiveness to those who have not sinned, grace to those who do not need it or life to those not dead? It is at best meaning-less and more likely downright offensive. That is why only, losers can appreciate the blessing Jesus offers and confers.

Only as we recognize our own existential and basic poverty of spirit can we grow less afraid of actual poverty and less attached to our own security. Only as we recognize ourselves as those losers for whom Christ died might we reach out to those the world declares losers and embrace them as brothers and sisters. Over time, this is what I have learned from the saints in my life. I give thanks to God for all of them and rejoice particularly in Dianne, Jesse, Michal, Michael, Louie and Winton.  Shabbat shalom.