Friday, May 22, 2015

I'd like to know everything starting with "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat"

One of the many gifts that I am embracing during these early days of our sabbatical is the chance to let go of resentment. I'm doing this again, I know. And if I am healthy and honest, I'll be doing it for the rest of my life. That's what the 12 Steps make clear as I work them:  not only do I trust a power greater than myself to restore me to sanity (and grace and awareness), but I remain in regular dialogue/communion with God. And part of that conversation involves step four - fearless moral inventory - step five - confession before another person and God - and step seven - asked the One who is Holy to remove my short-comings. Resentment is one of the road blocks that often strangles joy within me while robbing me of energy. It is time to consciously and carefully let it go - again - as I also let go of weariness.
Oddly,while  my source of resentment has roots in times long ago and far away, they are triggered by "soul vampires." Every church has them - so, too every school, institution or place of work - and their challenge is to let the anger, fear and shame evoked become the path to greater serenity rather than more anguish. Carlos Castaneda used to speak of these individuals as "petty tyrants" placed in our path to lead us away from resentment into authentic power and humility. The mystics of many traditions call this "dying to self" and being "reborn into grace." And, surprise of surprises, I am rediscovering at a deeper level how closely sleep and rest is related to serenity in the presence of my soul vampires. 

That is what Pico Iyer was talking about in his observation that contemporary people seek solace and solitude in their vacations more than ever: we are too tightly wound and stressed-out from the demands and pressures of our working lives to rest deeply. Consequently, many flee whenever down time arrives. We have not yet learned to celebrate the wisdom of Sabbath keeping in our ordinary experience and so ache for silence and rush towards it during our vacations in a way that is nearly obsessive. I'm not preaching here - this is confession as much as reflection - as I often feel that same ache and addiction. That's why I believe this extended time of rest and solitude is sharing with me a slice of wisdom about my resentments.

Clearly one of the reasons I spend so much time listening and playing music is that it brings insight to my soul and a measure of healing to my feelings. B.B. King was right when he spoke about the gift of the blues: the blues help us feel what is true and deep while simultaneously helping us move through our sorrows. Today I am feeling like Angela Ball in her poem,"Jazz."

I'd like to know everything
A jazz artist knows, starting with the song
"Goodbye Pork Pie Hot." 

Like to make some songs myself:

"Goodbye Rickshaw,"
"Goodbye Lemondrop,"
"Goodbye Rendezvous."
Or maybe even blues:

If you fall in love with me I'll make you pancakes

All morning. If you fall in love with me
I'll make you pancakes all night.
If you don't like pancakes
We'll go to the creperie. If you don't like pancakes
We'll go to the creperie.
If you don't like to eat, handsome boy,
Don't you hand around with me.

On second thoughts, I'd rather find

The fanciest music I can and hear all of it.

I'd rather love somebody

And say his name to myself every day
Until I fall apart

Today there will be a few more errands - a little get together early this evening with a few friends and colleagues - and then more packing before we depart.  Wynton Marsalis put it like this one time on the David Letterman show as he made Vince Garaldi's song new with great respect for the old, too. This is brilliant, humble, honest, playful, cocky and tons of fun all at the same time...

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Once upon a time I read that more and more Americans are having a harder time going to sleep. One study suggests that 20% of adults in the USA get less than six hours of sleep each night ( and that this contributes to increased anxiety, stress and work-related injuries. I've been thinking about this a lot as we settle into the groove of our sabbatical and wonder, "How long will I wake up from 9 hours of sleep and still be tired?" We've started being more active again (absolutely essential) and modifying some sloppy eating habits (another necessity.) But the biggest change for me is the amount of sleep I get each night - and the residual weariness I continue to experience 20 days into this quiet time.

Most of the time when I am working I sleep about six hours each night and never remember my
dreams. Now, however, I am dreaming a lot - and most of it is weird and at times disturbing. So when we get to Montreal I am going to start a dream journal. I've done this in the past partly to note the images as soon as I wake up so that I can start to process them; and partly to help me learn to keep track of them without a written resource. Once, during a time of spiritual direction and therapy, we did dream work to explore both my projections and my deepest yearnings. It was illuminating and healing. 

The Scriptures speak of dreaming - something that too little sleep curtails - as a way of listening to God and/or our soul. The Hebrew prophet Joel speaks of a time when the young and old shall dream together.  The Christian book of Acts uses Joel's words, too:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.

I think, too, of the visions that guide other wisdom figures in the Scriptures:  Abraham is given a vision of his progeny and the birth of Israel in Genesis 15, Jacob encounters a vision of God's ladder between heaven and earth in Genesis 28, Joseph becomes a dream interpreter for Pharaoh in Genesis 40, Joseph discerns a way to save his young family the book of Matthew, Ananias and Cornelius experience visions of being embraced by the house God's covenant with Israel in Acts (as do Peter and Paul) and John of Patmos sees a vision of a new heaven and new earth in Revelations. Sadly, without adequate sleep, too many of our young and old folks never get the chance to listen more carefully for God's still, small voice in our dreams.
To be honest, I wasn't prepared to still be this tired after three weeks. I feel significantly better and more rested than when we started. A shift towards a slower pace began as we were leaving Nashville and continues to take root.  Cutting out most TV has been a good thing - and will be another commitment in Montreal - and quitting computer work after early evening will help, too. Pablo Neruda put it like this in his poem "The Weary One."

The weary one, orphan
of the masses, the self,
the crushed one, the one made of concrete,
the one without a country in crowded restaurants,
he who wanted to go far away, always farther away,
didn't know what to do there, whether he wanted
or didn't want to leave or remain on the island,
the hesitant one, the hybrid, entangled in himself,
had no place here: the straight-angled stone,
the infinite look of the granite prism,
the circular solitude all banished him:
he went somewhere else with his sorrows,
he returned to the agony of his native land,
to his indecisions, of winter and summer.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Getting ready part two...

Haven't posted anything in a few days - mostly because we were chilling out with my sisters - but also to simply take a break. So today is all about random and sundry thoughts along the journey so far. When we left three weeks ago, it was barely spring - still nearly frigid at times - but now our beautiful yard is awakening with blossoms. Still, we are itching to go and here are a few random thoughts discerned along the way...
+ First, staying off Facebook wasn't working. We both missed many of our friends, family and colleagues and found we wanted to stay in touch. So, as that realization dawned on us both at about the same time, we're going to test it with selective postings. It is just too much fun to be in relationship with such wonderful people.

+ Second, we are both SO ready for part two of this sabbatical - our residency in Montreal - to start for a variety of reasons.  We want to get into the new rhythm of things in that fabulous city, we want to start doing deeper into our respective sabbatical commitments (prayer and bass playing for me; photography for Di); we both like being settled much more than free floating. My friend, Martha, wrote a brilliant sentence during the sabbatical rewrite /editing process that says "During the closing week of May, James and Dianne will settle in Montreal with time spent in daily prayer and quiet reflection along with ambling and visiting." So wise and essential to create transitions - and the time is right.

+ Third, I continue to study and think about the implications of Christian antisemitism as I work my way through new texts by Amy-Jill Levine and James Carroll. Both writers are helping me not only rethink some of the facile observations I've made in the past, but also to think about what all that means for me as a preacher/teacher upon my return. At the very least, I need to do a series - with congregational conversation - about some of the new insights I am gleaning from these scholars.

+ Fourth, I am ready to start playing the bass!  I haven't practiced or played in three weeks and that is way too long.

+ Fifth, we need to kick-up our ability to think and listen in French.  To say we haven't done much homework in the last six month would be a gross inaccuracy! We've done almost NO homework.  I need to get my ears working in a new way - and my tongue, too. Finissons-chose en fran├žais passe!

+ Sixth, I am most curious to see how Princess Lucie makes the transition. It was a treat to get home and pick her up last night - there was so much enthusiasm and love - and somany licks and cuddles, too. She will always be a bit of a nervous girl in new settings, but with enough attention, exercise and treasts she can also be a very good girl as well. Her adjustment is important to us both as she helps keep us grounded in the land of the living when we ge too caught up in the world of art and ideas.

+ And seventh, this is not a season for the status quo - this is our time for going deeper - so we both feel like we best not spend any more time than necessary packing and running errands. We are scheduled to depart on Sunday, but my hope is that we get out of Dodge earlier. 

I rather like the way Matthew Holloway puts it in his gentle poem.  Today will given over to our necessary travel errands - but tomorrow may be time to move out...

a time taken

to breathe
re-evaluate the world
take stock of thoughts
and reassess them
allow the soul to rest
the heart to sleep
and the mind to be free
time has it own value
time is limitless
and it will be taken
to breathe 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Wilber's history of everything...

I found an used copy of Ken Wilber's The History of Everything yesterday and started to give
it a go last night. For the past 20 years I've wanted to spend some time reading his work but have felt intimidated by the depth of his intellect. This is a highly user friendly introduction that is simultaneously fun and intriguing.  In the early pages he makes a fascinating observation about holons - entities that are both complete unto themselves and parts of something else, too - that cooperatively move towards greater creativity and self-surrender at the same time. He notes that there appears to be an evolutionary creative energy at work in the kosmos (not just the physical realm but also the spiritual, intellectual and emotional) that draws all things towards new and ever more helpful forms.

Two examples are instructive. Take the evolution of wings from an animals forelegs; Wilber notes there there is no satisfying rational explanation in traditional, reductionist evolutionary science except the presence of "the creative impulse" for "the 100 mutations necessary for the evolution of wings " He writes: "a half-wing will not do."

A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing - you can't run and you can't fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The will will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal - and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate and have offspring with real functional wings. Talk about mind-boggling... and random mutation cannot begin to explain this. How do we get one hundred non-lethal mutations all happening simultaneously?

The mystery of this "creative impulse" is currently being called "quantum evolution" in order to embrace the inexplicable self-transcendence that takes place in reality. His other example is equally fascinating to me.  It involves the old hypothesis that given enough time "1000 monkeys typing randomly would manage to type out a play by Shakespeare." Wilber continues:

Given enough time! One computation showed that the chance for monkey power to produce a single Shakespeare play was one in ten thousand million million million million million million. So maybe that would happen in a billion billion years. But the universe doesn't have a billion billion years. It only has twelve billion years. So this changes everything. Calculations done by scientists... consistently show that twelve billion years isn't even enough to produce a single enzyme by chance. In other words, something other than chance is pushing the universe. For traditional scientists, chance was their salvation. Chance was their god... chance - plus unending time - would produce the universe. But they don't have unending time so their god fails them miserably... (in fact) chance is what the self-transcending drive of the Kosmos overcomes!
There is something creative strengthening and driving new life - a mystery that involves all of creation including Spirit and thought as well as physical matter - something built into the fabric of everything. Wilber is quick to point out that we might substitute the word God for this mystery but we must be careful not to create our God in our image. I am eager to read more this evening. Two notions are swimming around in my head right now:

+ First, I am attracted by Wilber's commitment to depth and breadth. In other areas I find myself moving slowly because I want to go deeper and wider in my understanding before shooting off my big mouth. I am quietly reading and praying over the legacy of the Palestinian nakba - the forced relocation of 750,000 Palestinians off their land during the war the Arab leaders started against Israel in 1948 - and find myself ever going deeper. There are examples of vicious ethnic cleansing massacres by the Israeli forces, and, policies and practices that tried to hold back the anger and fear of these soldiers. There are examples of Israeli citizens opposing the forced relocation of their Arab neighbors as well as ugly Palestinian reprisals against their Jewish counterparts.  And no where in the popular narrative of this horror is there mention of the fact that while Palestinians were being forced out of their homes by Israeli armed forces, Jews were being driven from their homelands in Arab nations at gun point, too - almost 700,000 had to make their way to Israel for resettlement. There is more research, study, discussion and prayer I must do before I can comprehend anything except the anguish and horror of that war.  At best, I pray and grieve for both the people of Palestine and the people of Israel today knowing they have suffered - and continue to create greater suffering - as these injustices fester.

+ Second, the presence of this mysterious, creative impulse in the Kosmos inspires me towards greater personal and social creativity. It is another small clue that the focus of this sabbatical is right: rest, renewal, prayer and music making at a deep level. Both Di and I have noted that three weeks into this trip we are about ready for the residence to begin.  We want to go deeper into the quiet.  I was in touch with the luthiers this morning about my bass rental. My fingers and mind are itchy to start practicing - and composing - and listening and having some fun with where it all leads. I read this quote earlier this morning that speaks to my growing sense of our time:

Bishop Kallistos Ware, drawing from John Climacus (AD 525-606) writes: "The hesychast, in the true sense of the word, is not someone who has journeyed outwardly into the desert, but someone who has embarked upon the journey inwards into his own heart; not someone who cuts himself off physically from others, shutting the door of his cell, but someone who 'returns into himself,' shutting the door of his mind."

This is our last day in Pittsburgh.  It will be a day of walking and watching - quiet conversations and simple meals - as we savor this wonderful gift. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

When love came to town: RIP Mr. King...

Easing into the start of our journey's third week I awoke to the news that Mr. B.B. King has died. It is too easy, albeit true, to note that now "the thrill really IS gone." I know that I will miss having his soulful playing in our world.  As you probably know, my blog's title, When Love Comes to Town, hails from the song he and U2 shared: they created a bit of genre blending on behalf of compassion and hope that was one part Irish trash rock, one part Chicago blues and one part down home gospel heartily shaken not stirred. It is a model for my spirituality.

Small wonder other artists have played with this song over the years - I particularly like what my man Herbie Hancock does with it in consultation with Johnny Lang and Joss Stone. Here the roles are flipped - the blues artists are white and the arranger is black - proving that the ethos of genre-bending in pursuit of joy, beauty and truth can create some wickedly satisfying art.  In an interview I recently read with Hancock and Winton Marsalis, Herbie takes on the young maestro for his lack of verve when it comes to blending genres in pursuit of something new and healing: "Winton," the old master says, "you don't know ANYTHING about pop music. It isn't jazz, but it isn't crap either. It is just different. Face it: you don't know what you are talking about!" 

Man, I would have loved to be a fly on that wall! Herbie Hancock has ALL the cred - he was a classical prodigy as a youth, learned his chops at the feet of Miles Davis and the masters of the second greatest quintet in jazz history (the first being the first Miles Davis ensemble), went on to explore Afro-centered jazz, total electronic funk, the fusion of rock/soul and jazz as well as everything in-between - and never once did he sell his soul or compromise his art Not that Mr. Marsalis is a slouch either, mind you; he is also genius. He is just more doctrinaire in his understanding of jazz and what it should and could be. Clearly I fall into the Herbie Hancock camp while admiring what Marsalis does on the bandstand.

I have always heard the musical and emotional integrity of the great genre-benders in B.B. King. His integrity shines through whenever he played the blues - and he played with some of the greats - black and white - always sharing his gift in ways that enhanced each song while strengthening the playing of his band mates, too. There is a picture on the cover of an album he made a few years back with Eric Clapton, Riding with the King, that was shot during the making of this video.  It captures the blessing B.B. King shared with the world. Notice two things, please:  First, EC gives the master his propers by being the chauffeur, yes? And second, the blues tradition is honored as the music unfolds all with a sense of humor as well as emotional depth.
Two short personal stories:  Back when "Thrill Is Gone" first came out, our high school band played a white boys cover of that song over and over again during one of our all night practices. I still remember working on trying to get that anguished groove just right. The other comes from my early days of ministry in Tucson. One of my buddies noted that Mr. King was getting old, his diabetes was really taking its toll, and he might not be around much longer. (This was 1997!) So, we got tickets to see him - and as soon as our Ash Wednesday liturgy was over, I raced down to the club to go to a church of a different kind. It was soul cleansing, too.

Today I recall that B.B. King was one of the people who brought love into my town:  rest in peace, good and faithful servant.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

a wonderful surprise...

As noted earlier, today was a total rest day - with something unexpected. We hadn't really thought much about the fact that I was born in Pittsburgh - or that my dad graduated from college here - when we booked our small flat. But today as we prowled the campus I started to recall conversations from long ago and far away. So much so, that thanks to daughter Michal's help, we took a picture of me on the same steps my dad held me as a baby on the day of his graduation.  What a wonderful surprise...

the wisdom of our wounds...

There has always been a tension in my theology around action and contemplation - the outward and the inward journey - the commitment to justice and the calling to prayer.  Some know that I am drawn to those whose spiritualities embrace both - advocates like Elizabeth O'Connor, Richard Rohr, Henri Nouwen and Carol Howard Merritt - real people with wounds and wisdom who wrestle with this same tension. Recently Merritt wrote in a reflection on her own fear of being or becoming "irrelevant" that being faithful matter no matter what we feel like.

Apart from a few oddities, most of us are church leaders because we love God and want to do some good in the world. We want our lives to matter. And perhaps that’s the scariest thing of all. We can become afraid that everybody else is doing something of consequence, and our work just isn’t important, creative, substantial, authentic. It's just not [insert the latest churchy buzzword here].

But let me tell you, and let me remind myself—your work matters. You might be serving a church that has five people over the age of 80, and that matters. You might be smelling death all over the place, and that still matters. You may be completely clueless about how to turn around decades of decline and budgets that have been bleeding, but your work matters. You might not know how to reach out to millennials, but you're still doing a fine job.

We’ve never had callings that made much sense. We can’t always tell what we have accomplished at the end of the day. But even when we have nothing to point to, faithfulness matters. Am I saying that we're perfect? No. Am I saying that we do not need to change? Of course not. But many of us are doing the best job that we can, and we need to remember that it's also the job God has called us to. 

When I was much younger I felt this tension boldly but had no idea how to balance both - so I erred on the side of activism.  After my time as an organizer, however, I was burned-out and gave myself over to being a stay-at-home dad and student. Then it was off to seminary in NYC and another bout of activism around Central American solidarity realities (including six months in Costa Rica/Nicaragua.)  In my first church as pastor I discovered a Catholic retreat house - and reclaimed the writings of Nouwen and discovered the wisdom of Kathleen Norris - but still had no satisfying idea how to make peace with this tension. It has plagued me most of my 30+ years in ministry. Maybe you know this anguish, too?

The best clue - and discipline - that I ever practiced came about after my divorce in Cleveland under the guidance of Fr. Jim O'Donnell.  He was friends with Nouwen and Vanier and worked within the wisdom of Charles de Foucauld and the Jesus Caritas movement.  Two things about Fr. Fourcauld continue to speak to me:  First, after living a wild and assertive life in search for meaning - including a stint as a soldier in the French Foreign Legion - he sensed a call to the contemplative life; and second, he lived out his contemplative life in the Sahara of Algeria embracing a ministry he spoke of as "Jesus before his public calling and baptism." That is, an anonymous, quiet life of compassion, service and prayer among the poor. He lived in a cave (not my cup of tea but I love the solitude.) He celebrated the Eucharist everyday - mostly alone - on a stone altar. (Again, not my understanding of the Body of Christ but I value his adoration of the Lord.)

In Cleveland, under Fr. Jim's guidance, I would spend one over-night at their hospitality house - join the community for Eucharist - and then rest the whole next day in prayer, sleep and solitude. Once each month, I would retreat for 2 days as well.  The rhythm was to be: 1 hour each day, 1 day each week, 1 longer retreat each month and 1 week each month. I never got to the whole groove but it was a practice that helped me stay centered and calm.  It gave me the right balance between being active in public and resting in God's greater wisdom and grace in private. My hunch is that this balance is what I am moving towards again.

Foucauld's prayer of abandonment is not for everyone. For a time I found great solace in the
trust it evoked - it was important for me as a young man to practice letting go.

I abandon myself into your hands; do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me, and in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord. 

Into your hands I commend my soul;
I offer it to you
with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father.

At this point in my journey, as a much older guy, I find I am closer to Niebuhr's serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity 
To accept the things I cannot change; 
Courage to change the things I can; 
And wisdom to know the difference. 

Living one day at a time; 
Enjoying one moment at a time; 
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 
Taking, as He did, this sinful world 
As it is, not as I would have it; 
Trusting that He will make all things right 
If I surrender to His Will; 
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life 
And supremely happy with Him 
Forever and ever in the next.

These two icons of Fr. Charles speak volumes to me: the first is at the start of his religious life as a young man while the second reflects him shortly before his death. When I look at the faces of these icons, I see how wisdom and trust came through his wounds - and in this I find solace and hope. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Let's talk dirty in Hawaiian...

Ok, it is now 14 days into the groove and we are both FINALLY starting to slow down. Granted, we started this gig in two high powered places:  the East Village, NYC and Nashville, TN. We made our way through a killer rain storm and kept our appointments to experience and discuss with others two very intense jazz liturgy encounters. AND we haven't had alone time in exciting places together in over a year. So, the first two weeks truly felt more like vacation with a bit of work no matter what we told ourselves. It was all good, mind you, just not slow.

We are now in Pittsburgh, PA - after a delightful day off in Cincinnati, OH - and even though we were in the car on and off for two days, a shift has taken place. First, we don't really have any agenda to accomplish here; we're going to stop by the Mary Lou Williams department at the University of Pittsburgh, but we don't have an appointment and that feels GREAT. Second, there is no one we are committed to speak with on this part of the gig - and that too is liberating. Don't get me wrong, I am so very, very grateful for our conversation and learning in Nashville. Joyce and her crew are amazing and were not only gracious to us but very supportive. And, now it feels like quiet time is in order.

I know for me I need to shake off the wild ass energy before I can settle in to a place or a discipline. I hadn't expected to find myself doing that yet again, but it was so in both NYC and Nashville. So in addition to some insightful jazz liturgy experiences - and great days wandering both cities together - we heard some killer music as we opened ourselves to the night life. But last night, after heading out to the Over the Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati for supper, we just walked around the downtown together and took in the river and the lights. We did much the same thing tonight on our first evening in the town of steel.

We are in an Air BnB apartment in the Mexican Streets area of town - North Central Pittsburgh - that was once the separate city of Allegheny. Our hosts, Frank and Belle, are young parents who have returned to Pittsburgh to raise their small children. Their restored Victorian town house is in a very mixed neighborhood with old timers, young hipsters, artists, families, clubs, parks and everything in-between. It feels very safe and eclectic, a whole lot like the neighborhood we'll be in when we get to Montreal later this month. 

So with NOTHING to do and no commitments to honor, we are finally entering into a groove that is starting to make sense - and feel satisfying. Today I read this insight from Fr. Richard Rohr, a reminder of what is at the heart of this time away, resting in God's love.  I know my fretting is what "unplugs" me from the call to deep rest and deeper trust. It is what disconnects me from experiencing the sacred nature within my broken humanity:

The Orthodox doctrine of theosis, according to John Paul II, is perhaps the greatest gift of the Eastern Church to the West, but one that has largely been ignored or even denied.[1] The Eastern fathers of the Church believed that we could experience real and transformative union with God. This is in fact the supreme goal of human life and the very meaning of salvation--not only later, but now and later. Theosis refers to the shared deification or divinization of creation, particularly with the human soul where it can happen consciously and lovingly.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390) emphasized that deification does not mean we become God, but that we do objectively participate in God's nature. We are created to share in the life-flow of Trinity. Salvation isn't about replacing our human nature with a fully divine nature, but growing within our very earthiness and embodiedness to live more and more in the ways of love and grace, so that it comes "naturally" to us and is our deepest nature. This does not mean we are humanly or perfectly whole or psychologically unwounded, but it has to do with an objective identity in God that we can always call upon and return to without fail. Some doctrine of divinization is the basis for any reliable hope and any continual growth.

Last night before going to sleep I was reading Amy-Jill Levine's book on the challenge of Christian antisemitism and she referenced one of my favorite quotes.  It made me think back to the early days of my ministry when, as an earnest and somewhat overzealous young man, I loved to talk about Luke 9: 62:  Anyone who puts his/her hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.  Oh Lord did I love that passage. I thought I was such hot shit and that I was going to change the world. Or at least my small corner of the church.   What's more, I was certain that I understood who was both fit and unfit for the kingdom. My, my, my...

Let's just say that while I still admire the enthusiasm of that young preacher, I have let go of my attachment to that quote. These days I am much more grounded in Matthew 9 13:  Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy not sacrifice.  So, tomorrow we will walk - and rest - and talk and pray and try to trust the Lord a little more. I'll keep you posted. In the mean time, take a listen to this GREAT song that has had us laughing hysterically since we departed Pittsfield:  John Prine's masterpiece, "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian."

Monday, May 11, 2015


Somewhere I read that the "rabbis" advise the pilgrim NOT to try to pray for three days while
travelling: we need to let our souls catch up to our bodies. We've been on the road for 10 days and I've only found myself grounded enough for prayer twice. Hmmmm... 

I walked the labyrinth at Scarritt-Bennett this afternoon and that was calming.  I used my prayer beads to get settled:  The Gloria followed by Hail Mary, 7 Trisagions followed by the Lord's Prayer in four cycles. (got that?!?) Once inside the labyrinth my mind was at rest and the walk was warm and gentle. A thought popped up, too:  When I am away from church, I don't fret much about "making things work" - things like finances, marketing, administration - that's what grinds me down. For the past 10 days I have steadfastly NOT fretted (or even wondered) about such things. So, one of the questions I'm going to walk with during the rest of this sabbatical is how can I BE at church and not give in to fretting? (I have some clues already, but it is better for me to sit, walk and simply be with this question for a few months.)

The other time was just before I went into jazz vespers practice last night. I was justifiably nervous about playing with these jazz pros - they are all more accomplished, seasoned and skilled than myself - and I haven't been playing/practicing at all on the road. I trusted that they would be kind - and they were - but I didn't want to blow the music. And I didn't want to disappoint Carlton. Mostly it worked out ok - the jazz men were gracious and helpful - and we all had fun. (I only got totally lost once, ugh!) The blessing of this, however, is clear:  this boy needs to work on his chops!  It was a living encounter with humility and grace both at once.

Tomorrow we head out again for Pittsburgh. We'll lay over in Cincinnati and then trek across Ohio.  Not much space for prayer again, but good, quiet time with my sweetheart.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

R E S P E C T,,,

Doing what comes naturally! One of my friends who helped plan our sabbatical said, upon watching this clip:  All our late nights and hard work have come to pass perfectly as this sabbatical unfolds.  Amen to that!  In Nashville at the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

On silence, ritual and peace...

One of my abiding rituals is writing this blog most mornings come rain or shine. Sometimes what I have to post is banal, I know. From time to time I catch hold of a thought that takes me deeper and, at least for me, things become interesting. And more often than not, this page acts as a spiritual diary of sorts giving me time to reflect on what is swirling around inside and out from my limited perspective. This morning I read a wise column on Krista Tippet's blog, On Being, about Rabbi Chaim Stern's insight that "ritual is poetry in action. (check it out here: blog/ritual-is-poetry-in-action/7487?] utm_ source= On+Being +Newsletter&utm_campaign=8e3dc30217-20150509

Two inter-related ideas spoke to me, notions that have been in my head and heart a lot this past week (and probably much longer), having to do with the rituals that bring meaning to my life and my current concerns about Christian antisemitism. James Carroll noted in his book, Constantine's Sword, that Judaism escaped becoming a religion of rigid fundamentalism by nurturing a commitment to conversation rather than conversion. To be sure, there are rabid fundamentalists all too alive and well in contemporary Judaism (as well as every other faith tradition.) And while these souls are vocal and violent, they are the minority report in a 4000 year tradition. What continues to shape and inform the practice is silence and stories guided by conversation and ritual.

“Ritual is poetry in action” means that ritual does for behavior what poetry does for words; religious deeds grace ordinary activities the way poetic language elevates commonplace communication. When it comes to ritual, Chaim might sit down at the kitchen table for a workday solo lunch, typically the banana and low fat cottage cheese he’d pick up at the Grand Union on the way home from the Temple. Nothing special here. But when he prefaced his simple meal with a ritual prayer, he’d locate the contents and consumption of a routine lunch within a spiritual framework. Thus a ritual contributes spiritual elevation to an ordinary deed as a poem ennobles casual language. Ritual allows for a broadened perspective on life. “Ritual is poetry in action” when a wedding ceremony provides a spiritual context for looking back on years of day-in, day-out parenting, a culmination and tallying of hours devoted to car pools and after school activities, the challenge, commitment, patience and love. Ritual calls for taking pause, for reflection on the labors and wonders of providing for and witnessing an emerging adult. A wedding ritual gives the big picture — and thus is a portal to spirituality — to a parent.

This makes profound sense to me.  Most mornings I take a LONG time to get rolling. I am not a morning person by design.  I like to ease into the day with tea, prayer, silence, reading and then some written reflection. Not only does this open my soul tenderly, it helps me get my bearings. On this first part of the sabbatical trip I have been aware that on those days when I can't practice my morning ritual - on the days when we have to hurry up and get on the road - I not only feel out of sorts, but cranky and resentful.  It would seem that my presence in the world as a person of peace requires my careful practice of entering the day with grace. It is not a luxury - a privilege, yes - but not a luxury. Otherwise, I become what I hate and pass it along to others who deserve much better from me.
Parker Palmer speaks to this in a column he recently wrote called, "Laughter and Silence." It is his sense that both laughter and silence often draw us close to the sacred. I have long held the belief that both are spiritual disciplines worthy of rigorous practice. One story Palmer tells deserves a lengthy quote:
I heard a story from my friend Rachel Remen, a physician of body and soul, that reveals the power of silence to honor our shared humanity in the face of genuine evil—a story she retells in her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings. One of Rachel’s colleagues attended a conference on Jungian dream analysis. At a special session, participants were asked to take a card and write about a dream. The cards were then handed on to a panel of analysts, among whom was the grandson of Carl Jung:
"One of these cards told the story of a horrific recurring dream, in which the dreamer was stripped of all human dignity and worth through Nazi atrocities. A member of the panel read the dream out loud. As she listened, my colleague began to formulate a dream interpretation in her head, in anticipation of the panel's response. It was really a 'no-brainer,' she thought, as her mind busily offered her symbolic explanations for the torture and atrocities described in the dream.
But this was not how the panel responded at all. When the reading of the dream was complete, Jung's grandson looked out over the large audience. 'Would you all please rise?' he asked. 'We will stand together in a moment of silence in response to this dream.' The audience stood for a minute, my colleague impatiently waiting for the discussion she was certain would follow. But when they sat again, the panel went on to the next question.
My colleague simply did not understand this at all, and a few days later she asked one of her teachers, himself a Jungian analyst, about it. 'Ah, Lois,' he had said, 'there is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.'"
In silence, there is a depth of communion that trumps what we can achieve with words. In laughter, there is a depth of communion that trumps what we can achieve with solemnity. If personal and communal wholeness is what we seek — a wholeness that embraces the tragic and the comic, the darkness and the light — the odd couple of laughter and silence can help take us there.
One of the things I have been trying to embrace over the past year is holding the suffering and anguish of others in silent reverence in my heart.  Personally I can never know the brokenness of another. Politically I cannot comprehend the grief born of genocide. Prayerfully there are no words for the pain that wounds so many of those I love.  So, I have been trying to embrace the historic pain of both my cousins in Judaism and Islam - Israel and Palestine - in my heart in silence. It is too early for me to share words. It is too easy to offer my suggestions. Rather, what I feel is necessary is sitting in the discomfort of this silence and listening... to stories, to the news, to conversations and emails, to the scriptures and to histories. Indeed, there is a "depth of communion that trumps what we can achieve with words."

By this wrestling with silence, however, I don't mean ignoring reality or keeping my mouth shut about abuses and injustices.  For example, in the new coalition government formed by Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu, the fundamentalist, anti-Palestinian agenda of the settler parties will become strengthened and codified.  More illegal property seizures will take place and the status quo will become saturated with settler racism.  See, for example, how Churches form Middle East Peace reports on some of the new Israeli government appointments.With civil leadership ceded to the likes of Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan - a man who speaks of Palestinians as not human - people of good will must raise our voices in protest and solidarity with the forces of hope, compassion and justice in Palestine.  And let me be clear: calling out ugly, racist and mean-spirited thinking and action is NOT antisemitic. It is an act of conscience that all people of goodwill must recognize and act upon. (check it out here: I condemn the same ugly, racist and mean-spirit that infects far too much of the Palestinian political and military leadership, too. For a clear analysis on what could happen at this moment in time - a moment that could not only strengthen Israel and build real peace with Palestine - take a look at what  Fareed Zakaria has to say in tomorrow's Washington Post. (read it here @ http://www.washingtonpost.

The armies from Israel’s main strategic adversaries — Iraq, Syria, Egypt — are in disarray, while the Israeli armed forces have become the region’s superpower, in a league ahead of the rest. More important, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states find themselves in a tacit alliance with Israel against Iran. In Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Israel is dealing with perhaps the most anti-Hamas (and tacitly pro-Israeli) president in Egypt’s history.To understand the depth of this strategic shift, consider this: It has been reported that Arabs are thinking about creating a combined armed force. The last two times that happened, in 1948 and 1967, the purpose was to wipe Israel off the map. Today, the aim is to fight Israel’s main foe, Iran, which is why,one Haaretz commentator notes, “Not only is Israel not alarmed, it is actually ecstatic.”

He then offers what I think is a wise conclusion:

So while it faces real dangers, Israel has policies to fight them with force and effectiveness. The danger for which it has no defense is that it continues to have control over Gaza and the West Bank, lands with 4.5 million people who have neither a country nor a vote. The feeling on the Israeli right, which now rules the country, seems to be that if the Palestinian problem is ignored, it will somehow solve itself. But it won’t, and the tragedy is that this is the moment, with so many stars aligned in Israel’s favor, when enlightened leadership could secure Israel permanently as a Jewish democratic state and make peace with its neighbors. It is a golden opportunity, and it is staring Netanyahu in the face. 

Silence does not mean neglect. Nor does it mean an unwillingness to act. It does, however, invite a deeper patience than I often comprehend as well as a trust that God will bring a measure of clarity to my head and heart if I wait in trust. This growing call into silence is potent. Last week in NYC, we slept late on Sunday morning and missed worship.  We attended a jazz vespers liturgy later in the day, but we both realized that we had missed our time for sitting in the quiet with our community and listening for the wisdom of the day.  On Tuesday, we slipped into an Anglican church in the East Village and listened as the choir master practiced the organ. We were bathed in the beauty of stained glass and solitude. It was soul food. I hope we find a place for worship tomorrow.
So now I am ready to enter this day in a public way: I wonder what it will bring?

Friday, May 8, 2015

Christ be with me...

Today - Friday - we finally arrived in Nashville - and now it feels like the sabbatical has started. In NYC it felt like a vacation, and that was part of the planned transition: I love the frenetic vibrancy of that great town. But it didn't feel "grounded" or restful.  And, in reality, I needed a bit of crazy time as part of the shifting gears.  When we ran into nasty rain, hail, fog and winds on the road to Roanoke, the mood shifted and there were flashes of pure terror when I was certain life was over.  It would have been all too easy for one of those massive 16-wheelers to rear-end us in the blinding rain.

Yesterday, therefore, was chill time - and that is all we did.  We slept, walked, rested and feasted. Today it was a grind to get to Nashville. But as soon as we got out of the car and slipped inside the quite Scarritt-Bennett Center campus, another alignment happened and both Di and I sensed, "Ah, NOW the sabbatical has started."  We are in adjoining "monk's" cells on a neo-gothic campus close to Vanderbilt University. There are students everywhere, a host of United Methodist worship leaders at the General Board of Discipleship, too; the dogwoods are in bloom and, at least for today, it was sunny and stunning outside.

Tomorrow we'll connect with Joyce Sohl, the Vespers and All That Jazz coordinator and see when we might visit for a time.  She has asked me to sit in with the jazz vespers band on Sunday evening so I'll play through the charts a few times as the day unfolds. I hope we'll hit a jazz club or two while we're in town. And walk the labyrinth (weather permitting) as we embrace the winding down phase of this transition. While in the car today we listened to Pico Iyer speak about our culture's thirst for stillness. He noted that more and more folk - religious or otherwise - are searching for ways of reclaiming Sabbath rest. Some unplug at least one day a week. Others make certain that part of their vacation time is spent on retreat. In a time that is so full of busyness, our souls ache for the essence of life.

Richard Rohr recently wrote about the challenge of stillness and solitude and both Dianne and I know we will be bumping up against his insight as this magical, mystery tour unfolds. He wrote:
The trouble--and the opportunity--in solitude is that there is no one around to blame for our moods and our difficulties. We are stuck with ourselves. Belden Lane helps clear away any romanticism we might associate with desert spirituality: "[The] desert is, preeminently, a place to die. Anyone retreating to an Egyptian or Judean monastery, hoping to escape the tensions of city life, found little comfort among the likes of an Anthony or a Sabas. The desert offered no private therapeutic place for solace and rejuvenation. One was more likely to be carried out feet first than to be restored unchanged to the life one had left."
I know I sense my fears and restlessness - my powerlessness, too - now that the quiet has started. When I read about the recently formed government in Israel, I ache for the continued suffering of Palestine - and Israel, too - as settlements are violated and fears and hatred inflamed. When I catch a snippet of news about the Iran nuclear negotiations, I gag at the stupidity and posturing so many engage in as if negotiations and peace is inferior to war-making and belligerence. When I look at the growing list of bizarre presidential candidates in the US or the ever-growing sorrow of Nepal in the aftermath of the earthquake, part of me chafes at being on sabbatical. Yet such is part of this discipline, yes?  I really am mostly powerless.  I really am mostly irrelevant. I really only have this day to share with those whose lives I can touch - so why waste it on things I cannot change?

Tonight as we get ready to call it a day, I am grateful for the slowly down. I am grateful, too for the reminder of my truly small place in the midst of all creation. And I am grateful to do what I can for peace, beauty and hope. This prayer has been running around my head today:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.