Sunday, March 29, 2015

It started with ashes...

The journey began with T.S. Eliot for Ash Wednesday:

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost 
lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates

And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will

And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,

Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

It began with ashes and waiting - confession and quiet - it began as a journey should: with expectation, commitment, gentleness and the awareness that we were getting into something greater than ourselves even if we weren't yet sure what that was. As the journey ripened into the forty penitential days, I came to realize that I was only paying attention some of the time. Yes, I started with the best intentions - T.S. Eliot, ashes and all - but there were days when I forgot about it completely. Of course there were days when I prayed and pondered, and for those I give thanks. But more often than not I let myself drift back into worries and fears about loved ones and money - the state of the world all around me and within me - without once stopping to consider that I had promised to walk patiently with Jesus towards the Cross. Truth be told, that's more often the truth about my journey - and not just at Lent. I am so easily distracted.
So now we are at the start of Holy Week - and I am reading James Carroll's Constantine's Sword. Brilliant, troubling, clarifying and heart-breaking all at the same time. I kept hearing his insights as we shared the Passion Narrative today in worship. He makes the point that in the earliest days of the Church, there was an internecine battle between Jews who chose to follow Jesus and those who did not. In first century Palestine there were many such theological challenges within Judaism  During this time, it should be noted. it was the Roman Empire that was the common enemy of rabbis, priests, scholars, zealots, Essenes and more. Rome was a vicious, brutal and unrelenting occupying army,
The Roman armies had swept through many of the towns and villages of the country raping, killing and destroying nearly everything in sight. In Galilee, all centers of rebellion were brutally suppressed; the rebel-held town of Sepphoris was burned to the ground and all its surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery. Thousands of Jews were killed. Villages in Galilee were laid waste. In Jerusalem, were rebels had briefly taken charge, the Romans showed the lengths to which they were prepared to go to maintain control by swiftly executing anyone even suspected of collusion in the rebellion -- Josepuhs puts the number at two thousand. The Roman means of execution, of course, was crucifixion, and Josephus makes the point that indeed the victims were crucified. This means that just outside the wall of the Jewish capital, crosses were erected - not three lonely crosses on a hill as in the tidy Christian imagination - but perhaps two thousand in close proximity. On each was hung a Jew, and each Jew was left to die over several days the slow death of suffocation, as muscles gave out so that the victim could no longer hold himself erect enough to catch a breath. And once squeezed free of life, the corpses were left on their crosses to be eaten by buzzards. This grostequery was its own justification. Its power was magnified because for Jews, coming into contact with a corpse made one ritually impure... the shadows of those crucifixes, in other words, were also the point. The Jews who'd been left alive were being reminded whom they were dealing with in Rome, reminded for weeks by the sight ans trench of the bodies. The image of those scores of crosses would stamp Jewish consciousness for a generation.

After making the horror of the Roman occupation clear,  Carroll goes on to suggest two other insights that warrant prayer and thought for Christians during Holy Week:

+ First, during the early years of the emerging Jesus movement the common enemy of the oppressed was Rome. Yes, there were aggressive and harsh theological challenges taking place between the competing Jewish camps of the time - and this would include emerging Christianity. There were ugly and cruel words spoken and written, but there was no inherent  anti-Judaism in these squabbles This is the Middle East, after all, where arguments are heated, personal and vitriolic by bourgeois Western standards. (And if you think I am exaggerating, read some of the barbs being traded back and forth in the aftermath of Israel's most recent election.) To quote Carroll, this "was a sectarian conflict among Jews" and not evidence of anti-Judaism in any way, shape or form within Christianity.

+ Two or three generations later,  however, when these same words and arguments of early Christianity have become normative for a community that is no longer primarily Jewish their impact changes.  Where once they reflected a sectarian conflict within Judaism, now they pit mostly Gentiles of the Roman Empire against a common Jewish enemy - and real enmity against the Jew takes off like wild fire.  In fact, Carroll asserts, not only do those who come to write Matthew and Luke begin to diminish the impact of Roman oppression on the Jews in these gospel stories, but they also begin to direct their legitimate fear and hatred away from Rome and onto the isolated Jewish people. "As Christian Jewish communities are steadily more alienated from their fellow Jews, so the 'enemies' of Jesus expand to fit those new situations. By the time John's (gospel is written) in the 90s, those enemies are now "the Jews" - that is, all those other Jews except us few right ones. If we had understood the literary genre gospel, we would have understood that. If we had understood gospel, we would have expected that. It is, unfortunately, tragically late to be learning it. Just as the original fate of Jesus was shaped in part by intra- Jewish disputes, the communal memory of how that fate unfolded was itself shaped by those disputes, especially when Roam domination of Jews started to unravel."

For the past 10 years, we have been aggressively reworking the once anti-Jewish polemic embedded in our gospel readings concerning the Passion of the Christ. Over time they have driven us to the Shoah and have made Christian Antisemitism normative even in the 21st century. Our retelling of the Passion today was therefore appropriately and thoroughly scoured because: "in John's gospel, Jesus (comes) to identify the evil one with the Jewish people" and that is something that NEVER could have happened. What we emphasized - and what the story shows in archetypal fashion - is how easily our fears of "the other" can become violent when we believe the propaganda of our leaders and seek to dismiss our reponsibilites through the destruction of a common scapegoat.  As Gerard makes clear: the gift of Jesus to the world is showing us what happens to everyone when we murder the  scapegoat. Jesus, the sacrificial lamb, is crucified and his ugly death cannot be ignored or excused.

So today we gathered once again in community, not with ashes and silence but with palms and songs. It was cold outside but the sun was bright and stunning. Four congregations in our small city gathered to "bless the palms."  And in an unexpected gift of humor, each of these  four different theological traditions embodied their respective histories as we gathered in a public parking lot for this liturgy:  the Episcopalians made a single, straight line and waited for the pastor and crucifer, the Methodists arrived first so that we might gather around their humble wooden cross, the Lutherans showed up last carrying wild, liturgical poles and banners, and the Congregationalists sort of wandered over willy nilly as the spirit led them - or didn't.

 It was really too funny and all too true: apparently we process even as we do theology and unconsciously practice our governance.
I pray that I might be more attentive now we are on to Holy Week 2015...

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Getting ready for the passion...

This morning I got to do what I love best about my job:  visit and pray with people I love in
our preparation for worship and then visit and listen to a beloved friend's story of his mother's recent death. The snow was falling this morning - make it end, Lord, please make it end - so everything was hushed.  Across the street from the Sanctuary the Vietnam Veterans gathered for prayer and remembrance while we did likewise in anticipation of Palm Sunday. Four adult readers (and a young child) moved throughout the Chancel recalling the last days of Jesus. 

Before I turned on the lights, the child said to me, "Oh... I like it like this. Kinda dark... it is so... um relaxing." We sat for a few minutes together in the natural light of this old place in silence: this fourth grader, his father and myself. Before going into the balcony to get the lights ready for our practice, I mentioned, "One of the things I like best about my job is coming in here when it is quiet and dark. It is a privilege, don't you think?" He nodded and then walked with me to learn how to get things ready for our practice. Before we started I shared this old prayer:

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who of thy tender love towards us, hast sent thy Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, to suffer death upon the cross, that all the world should follow the example of his great humility; Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with Thee and the Holy Spirit, reign forever as one God. Amen.

Then we used Walter Wangerin's retelling of the Passion Narrative - A Way of the Cross - as our text. In 40 minutes we were finished and people went their separate ways until we gather with three other congregations @ 10 am tomorrow for an ecumenical blessing of the palms. At noon I was blessed to spend a few hours listening to the story of a man's love for his mother. I was told of the time he spent with her in hospice shortly before her death, the deep beauty he was graced to witness as she moved closer to her last breath and his abiding faith that she has now crossed over into God's eternal love. I trust that we shall be with one another again, he told me. I don't know what it will look like or how it will feel, but I know it to be true. Or I know as much as I can right now given the ambiguities of human faith and doubt. 

We spoke of the gifts the dying so often share with those who remain. Of a presence that continues beyond space and time, too. How all of this is part of what St. Paul meant when he wrote: Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death so that you do not grieve like those who have no hope. For we who believe that Jesus died and rose again also believe that God will bring with all those who have fallen asleep with him.  We talked of a grace greater than our imaginations - and far greater than our sins - a grace that gives us the serenity of peace beyond our grief. Then we embraced and promised to see one another tomorrow.

When I left the snow had finally stopped - and right now the sun has appeared.  I could do this work until I am unable to walk or speak.  So as evening begins to descend upon the Berkshires, I give thanks to God today for my calling and for this congregation.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The art of Archambault...

The posters created for the Montreal Jazz Festival are among the most stunning examples of popular art happening today. In their way, they rival the best from the days when the Fillmore East and West unleashed their creativity on our culture. For 25 years, the official posters have been imagined and painted by Yves Archambault.  Trained in the fine arts and graphic design, Archambault began work with the Jazz Festival in 1988 - and has worked as  the artist in residence ever since.
Image result for montreal jazz festival posters
The Jazz Festival writes: The artist has long chosen fluid media for his paintings; his favourite is ink. On paper or wood, he plays with darkness and limpidity, with a chiaroscuro that invokes the contrast between light and shadow characteristic to live venues. Having experienced the metamorphosis of graphic techniques, from analog to digital, the artist now works and creates in an endless to-and-fro between the drafting table and computer: he scans, enlarges, transforms colours, superimposes, to finally draw forth an image created of ink and pixels.

For me, Archambault captures both the experience of jazz AND its promise.  Bill Frissell once said: anything is possible in jazz - you can try anything - and nobody gets hurt. Dave Brubeck also observed: there is a danger in the spontaneity of jazz because if you refuse to play it safe you never know what's going to happen next. I sense that in Archambault's work and love it.
According to our "sabbatical countdown" clock, we leave in four weeks:  34 days.  After waking up to yet another drive way/garage flood (thank GOD spring is really coming) we ate breakfast, put on our water gear and took to the shop-vac. In about an hour we had things under control because in the past two weeks we've become pros.  Sabbath days have their own surprises, yes? Suffice it to say, I am psyched to see what Archambault has cooked up for us this year.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

There has to be a better way...

Reading through this morning's NY Times was an exercise in fear and trembling - and I don't mean the kind born of awe of the Lord. In addition to the fear and loathing of the Middle East - from the breach of trust fomented by Israel 's recent election to the escalating war against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and Yemen - American social conservatives and religious fundamentalists are at it again confusing hatred with Jesus and punitive policies with the kingdom of God.  Whether it is the vicious lies of Ted Cruz and his presidential campaign or the outright ignorance of social manipulators like Bobby Jindal, trouble has risen to the surface of American politics for those who are committed to the common good.

+ In California, a ballot initiative to actively execute gay and lesbian people has been presented to the Attorney General under the title: the Sodomite Suppression Act. (check it out here:

+ The same wizened cast of characters who brought us the first round of culture war skirmishes is back for polarization and chaos in the US 2.0 in their opposition to the candidacy of Jeb Bush. God knows I had hoped that people like direct mail guru Richard Viguerie and Tony Perkins of the so-called Family Research Council had finally been discredited and passed over - but no such luck. (check it out here: 2015/03/26/us/politics/2016-elections-conservatives-jeb-bush.html?ref=todayspaper)

+ And please don't miss the well coordinated fundamentalist attack on higher education that threatens both free speech and ideas grounded in tolerance, science and caring for the common good.  Last week the regents in North Carolina ousted the well respected president and now the same ugly bigotry has raised its head in Mississippi. (check it out here:
Maybe it has something to do with my starting James Carroll's intense analysis of Christian Antisemitism, Constantine's Sword, that has heightened my sense of dread. It could have something to do with my preparations for Holy Week, too as I revisit how people in the past have had their darkest fears manipulated into violence and social chaos. It could also be that my commitment to cultural care and renewal is working overtime as we prepare for our time away on sabbatical. Who knows?  It is becoming ever more clear to me, however, that there has to be a better way to challenge the on-going social/spiritual antagonism of mean-spirited and bigoted fundamentalism than politics as we know it. 

Of course, there must be a political challenge and corrective. The courts and elections have a place in all of this and I trust those far wiser than myself to get on the stick. And, there needs to be more - a balm in Gilead - an alternative and even antidote to this hatred.  Mako Fujimura wrote recently about the importance of Harper Lee's world changing novel: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Just like the mob in front of Tom Robinson's jail cell, our culture is still prone to create
scapegoats, dodging our own culpability and responsibility over cultural or systemic problems by blaming them on innocent individuals or groups. We still blind ourselves to the dehumanizing forces this unleashes. For any given provocation, we are egged on by our instant, omnipresent media to unleash our basest instincts-we might think of them as cultural "fight-flight-freeze" responses-rather than committing ourselves to the slower process of seeking truth. (One genuinely new thing is the virtual mob, which can be just as inhumane and culturally damaging as any physical mob.) This self-debasement of our humanity in desperate and irrational fear of the "other" is a result of poor cultural stewardship. Little wonder that our culture is still bedeviled by cynicism, apathy, and anger. Cycles of violence and revenge are an ongoing reality. And when we focus on headlines and newsfeeds, we come to expect more of the same. 

How would-how do-we respond when faced with an angry mob ready to commit an atrocity against us or some "other"? Would we want to fight back, fire against fire, hatred against hatred? Scout offers a better model. She does not even confront bigotry by arguing for justice. What she does in her naiveté is to step into the mob and remind people that they are her neighbors. She becomes a bouquet of flowers in the heart of conflict. Reminding people of our common life-that we are neighbors first-is a task of Culture Care.

Mako is not ignorant, nor is he an idealist. He is a person of faith who knows that between breaths a crowd can easily be manipulated away from "Hosanna" and into cries of "Crucify." He is what Niebuhr would call a Christian Realist.  He is also an artist and a theologian who seeks to enflesh the values and spirit of Jesus within our culture wars. He notes:

The arts present the most powerful form of nonviolent resistance. Scout's actions in Harper Lee's creative lens-her willingness to step into a conflict and take a personal risk in order to call out for both sides their deepest humanity, highest ideals, and deepest longings-anticipated thousands of peaceful marches to come. Culture Care affirms this language of empathy, which is a fruit of love toward the "other."  We need to create cultural contexts where this love toward the other, toward those outside our tribe's borders, is cultivated and modeled organically. A Culture Care environment will nourish and steward our abilities to dream even in the face of injustice, intolerance, and persecution.

Jesus told his followers, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16, NIV). Poets, artists, and creative catalysts can, like Scout, remain determinedly "innocent as doves" while being "wise as serpents" in using their creativity. Reminders of beauty can present justice in words, images, and songs that draw us in and captivate our attention until their truth can reach our hearts and transform our communities. Culture Care is the logical extension of nonviolent resistance to injustice.

Such a calling is not easy nor without risks - but it is a better way than just trusting electoral
politics. On Monday evening I met with my small group of mostly older men for a presentation of my paper: "Jazz for the Journey: Three Essentials for Appreciation." After my talk, each of the 11 men was asked to respond and offer comments and insights. Some found my thoughts challenging because, as one friend said, "I apparently don't have any musical intelligence." I know that to be a common concern - not entirely accurate - but widely held. Others sensed that the way of music - and the arts - create another conversation where differences can be honored and hard questions asked without volatility. One man said, "I can see why you are so passionate about this work: it is peace-making in a gentle form."

If the rise of fascism in Europe teaches anything it is such hatred must be challenged from the start. It cannot go unquestioned or unopposed because human fear is so easily organized and manipulated. Please read the articles noted above. Please find ways to publicly support those politicians willing to take the hate-mongers head on. And please use some of your time and resources to support the artists in your community who are on the front line of culture care. They are some of our society's most important non-violent warriors for shalom - and they need our vigorous support.