Sunday, April 26, 2015

My soul thirsts...

Already it is VERY odd not to be pastor: no commitments to follow-up on, no liturgies and music to consider and rehearse, no... nothing except to be. After a bit of anxiety and a LONG, deep nap I roasted a chicken with butter/wine sauce and sat with my honey.  It was good. It IS good. And very, very odd. Earlier this day I had the chance to play some sweet jazz with my man Andy and Carlton. I am so very grateful.

So now we have entered the sabbatical and it is a blessing even as my soul turns to Psalm 42 and so I share it in French:

Comme une biche soupire après des courants d`eau, Ainsi mon âme soupire après toi, ô Dieu! Mon âme a soif de Dieu, du Dieu vivant: Quand irai-je et paraîtrai-je devant la face de Dieu? Mes larmes sont ma nourriture jour et nuit, Pendant qu`on me dit sans cesse: Où est ton Dieu?

My last sermon for a two whole seasons...

What I had hoped to say at worship... oh well. I give thanks to God for this day and all the goodness we shared. There was some gentle kidding today that I have mentioned "I am going to sabbatical" a LOT over the past year. And at first I was thinking, "Well, yes, I've probably overstated the case." But then it hit me: it is so very, very important to help all of us respect the boundaries of this sabbatical. It is a retreat for us - not a vacation - it is time away in the wilderness for reflection. So, because respecting these clear boundaries is often complicated for people in a church, I have been extra vigilant over this past year - and there are still folks who just don't get it. Alas... here is what I had written to say and I think it still rings true. Now, we are truly ONWARD into Sabbatical 2015!

My deepest hope for you, the congregation and leadership of First Church, all of the time, but
especially during the next four months of our shared sabbatical, is that you would rest:  rest in the grace of God, rest from worry and fretting about our finances, rest in the promise of the Sabbath that teaches us that God really is in charge and rest from the usual work we share that is so important but also so draining.  I’m not very good at always practicing what I preach about this resting thing – but it is clear to me the time has come for me to practice and embrace it more thoroughly deep within – and I sense that is true for us as a congregation, too.

As the prayer/song we just shared says:  Deep within, I the Lord your God will plant a new spirit within you – and become your strength. Notice what this prayer doesn’t say – such is one time tested path to real spiritual wisdom, you know – listening to the via negativa – what isn’t said.  And this prayer song taken from the prophet Jeremiah doesn’t say that God will give us more work to do, it doesn’t say that the new spirit written on our hearts will leave the work of justice and compassion up to us alone and it doesn’t say that we have to figure it all out all by ourselves all at once.

Rather the promise is that if we return – that is, change our direction and come back into community and trust – God will become our strength.  The Spirit of the Lord will both spiritually and physically refresh us from the inside out – and hope will be restored within and among us.

When I asked Church Council to join me in applying for a Lily Foundation grant so that I might take a sabbatical for the first time in my ministry, the old ghosts of previous sabbaticals decided to pay us a visit and inform our conversation that night. The good and holy ghosts said out loud that First Church had a proud and long honored history of pastoral sabbaticals. Indeed, I was reminded that my contract made provision for sabbatical rest as a part of an extensive, venerated tradition.

In the same room with those holy ghosts, however, were some other spirits – the spirit of fear and frustration, the spirit of anxiety and fatigue -  for no sooner had our sabbatical tradition been articulated and celebrated than the stories began.
And the stories I heard that night – and have heard often in the two years we’ve been working and planning for this experience – included two broad themes that helped me understand why THIS sabbatical had to be different:

First I heard people speak of cherishing the pastor who left them behind for study and renewal.  This included both my immediate predecessor as well as those who preceded him. There was unanimity in the room about how important sabbatical time was for both clergy and spouse – and there was not one iota of resentment present at all. But in the very next breath, I how tiring it was for the lay leadership to be without the settled pastor for an extended season. I heard strong and respected souls speak of their own frustration and anxiety: we were holding on by our fingernails was the chorus repeated over and over that first night.  Not because it wasn’t the right thing to do, but rather because when the preacher is away some people stopped attending Sunday worship. Others quit contributing to the financial well-being of the church. A few had to shoulder the burden that often falls upon the pastor to carry.  And a few others decided that with the pastor away, it was time for the church mice to play. Believe me when I tell you, there were holy ghosts in the room that night along with some spirits of fear and frustration.

Second, after we listened to what the spirits of the past had to tell us, I also heard our leadership say that they wanted and needed this time of sabbatical to be different. Now, when people tell stories there are always multiple levels of truth, right? There is the obvious literal narrative, there are the emotions just below the surface, there are value judgments implied but rarely made explicit and there is a hidden hope that needs to be teased out into the light if a new experience is going to become reality. Two stories shared that night are illustrative. The first had to do with the marching orders that the pastor gave to the congregation – things to be addressed, worked on and accomplished while he was away – and as it was told, these marching orders were extensive. No one said just what was supposed to happen – and to this day I still don’t know the details – just that it was decreed that during this sabbatical the congregation needed to do some serious work.  The second had to do with how little of that work actually took place while the pastor was away. There was a lot of nervous laughter about this – and a bit of frustration, too – because it was clear that there was some disappointment involved after the sabbaticals were over.

Now I tell you these stories not to disparage or denigrate anyone involved in the past. I have too much respect for all involved to be that shallow or small-minded.  No, I recall these experiential stories of First Church around sabbatical to make a point the Lilly Foundation insisted upon in our grant application. THIS sabbatical experience is to be shared. It is NOT the pastor going away for a time of rest and renewal – although that is essential and believe me that will happen – rather this is to be a time when the congregation also participates in a season of rest and renewal, too. Those who awarded us nearly $50,000 were quick to quote St. Paul in his letter to the Romans:  Do NOT conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewal of your minds. (Romans 12)  So from the outset, there was not simply an implementation team for the pastor’s sabbatical, there was a planning team that spent more than a year talking, writing, discerning, challenging and finally applying for a shared sabbatical grant.  Conceptually this sabbatical has been planned cooperatively.  

So let me outline for you the three broad areas that you are invited to participate in – and
please note that this is NOT a marching order. We will have to write a summary of our experiences for the Lilly Foundation at the conclusion of the sabbatical, but there is almost nothing in what we have planned that requires or expects you to DO anything. This is to be a season of being, not doing – an extended encounter with Sabbath rest – a shared sabbatical. And here is what our team came up with:

First, starting May 1 and running through the middle of September, our music director, Carlton Maaia II, will move into a full time ministry.  He will be the source of continuity during my absence. And he will be working to make sure three things happen:  1) Worship continues to be creative and rich.  2) Our planned jazz for the journey trips to Tanglewood are satisfying. And 3) that a variety of experiential learning about jazz, music and liturgy takes place throughout the summer.

Now let me speak specifically about the Tanglewood trips:  we have two trips planned – and sign-up sheets for them both – and each concert has been under-written by the Lilly Grant. If you can pay for yourself, or a portion of the ticket, that ‘s great; but if you cannot, there is to be no barrier to your participation. Just sign up – and away we go. Each Sunday before the concert, Carlton will hold a “preview” event during which the artist’s music will be introduced, various insights given and questions answered. For example, Diana Krall is touring to promote a new collection of songs that come from the NEW American songbook born of the 60s and 70s.  She is taking tunes like “California Dreamin’” and others and reinterpreting them much like the jazz artists of the 40s and 50s did with Broadway show tunes. So, there will be some preparation – then the concert – followed by a debriefing and discussion the following Sunday after worship. The same thing will happen for the Wynton Marsalis show in July.  This part of the sabbatical is about fun – about being open to new insights in a gentle and relaxed way – and about taking in the beauty of God’s creation, too.

Second, during the first three Sundays in May we will have some guest preachers. And if you are here you will experience three new insights about how the Holy Spirit is calling us into the deeper work of inter-faith and ecumenical relationships both in Pittsfield and abroad.  The first preacher is Joyce Sohl from the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, TN.  She coordin-ates the jazz liturgy experience that Cartlon continues to resource – a new way of doing jazz vespers – designed for people of all or no faith traditions. The second week Fr. John Salatino, the presiding priest at St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church will bring the message – and I am thrilled to be making this connection with our Catholic sisters and brothers. And for the third week of May, my friend and colleague, Rabbi David Weiner of Knesset Israel will be in the pulpit – or wherever he chooses to speak from.  To me his presence symbolizes an important part of the sabbatical:  being open to what the spirit of God is saying in the real world regardless of our spiritual tradition.

And third, from Pentecost Sunday – or Memorial Day – through Labor Day my friend and colleague Bob Kyte will be here to lead worship and support our pastoral ministries.  Some of you know Bob from when he was the pastor in either Lenox or in Dalton. He and his wife, Stefie, love the Berkshires – and love First Church – and will bring that love and long history of pastoral sensitivity to you during my absence.

THAT is the heart of the congregation’s sabbatical: No marching orders – no expectations save showing up – and no demands and no tests, ok?  This is to be a time NOT to start new programs or make new demands on our interim staff, but rather to rest and let the Spirit speak to you from deep within.  In the gospel reading from St. Matthew, some of the disciples of Jesus were angry when a woman crashed the men-only party in the house of Simon the Leper and poured an alabaster jar of perfumed oil over the Lord’s head. 

“We could have used the proceeds of that oil to care for the poor,” some complained. To which Jesus replied:  My friends, you will ALWAYS have time and need to care for the poor and broken.  But you must also learn to take time out for rest and renewal.  As an Orthodox Jew, Jesus celebrated Sabbath in his soul. Which is why he went on to say about the woman: Wherever my story is told, what she has done for me will be told in remembrance of her.  Did you hear that?  Did you get it? There is an essential place in the ministry of Jesus for compassion AND Sabbath rest – action and beauty – engagement and extended retreat.  This is to be our time for beauty and rest and Sabbath.  For when we are rested and awakened to God’s beauty even in the midst of pain and suffering, then we, too can live as those who share mercy not mere religion.

The prophetic poet of Israel’s exile, Isaiah, said that once upon a time he believed that God’s will was best done by rigidly enforcing certain rules and rituals. It brought order and certitude to his life.  But after his time in exile, after living through suffering and fear, he had a change of heart and came to sense that the essence of Torah was Sabbath:  blessed is the one who keeps Sabbath, not profaning it, who holds it fast and honors it with their whole being. Like Jesus he never stop being an Orthodox Jew after exile – he kept and maintained his commitment to holy living by observing the Law for the rest of his life – but he had a new realization:  from  deep within the sacred wisdom of Sabbath nourishes our ability to share both justice and compassion.

      And we know this because once Isaiah had excluded foreigners and eunuchs from his welcome circle, but now – after exile - he senses that God is calling all the outcasts to the mountain of shalom:  for now the house of the Lord shall be called a house of prayer for ALL people saith the Lord God who gathers up the outcasts of Israel. There will never be a time when we don’t have work to do – the poor and outcast will always be among us – but without trusting and resting in God’s Sabbath promise  we will probably miss our deepest calling.  So take a moment now to practice resting as we share this hauntingly beautiful song “Sanctuary.” I wanted to hear this one last time before we departed – and I think it captures the essence of God’s Sabbath promise to us all…

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Unplugging for a season (well, sorta...)

Yesterday I asked Dianne to make a "sabbatical logo" for me. I posted it on Facebook as I plan to disconnect from there for a season. This blog, however, will continue to be linked to FB but I won't be checking for comments, posting pictures, etc. Rather, I am going to honor the intent of my sabbatical retreat and truly go silent.
That said, I will be posting my sabbatical reflections during this time in two places:

+ First, most obviously, will be here. This is a weird blog in that it is part spiritual journal, part billboard for important personal events, part clearing house for the issues that touch my heart and part public prayer house via the ether-net. I don't think that is going to change. So, if you would like to stay up-to-date, check in here from time to time. 

+ Second, is the "Jazz for the Journey" site we've created to be a record of the sabbatical. In addition to my own posts, there will be insights from our music director, interim minister as well as others involved in making this sabbatical work. You can get to it here - and I hope you will take a look.

I have three reasons for unplugging - and I trust you will appreciate and honor them.  First, when I leave worship on Sunday - yes, that's right, THIS Sunday - I am going to experience an odd sense of withdrawal. For 33+ years I have been engaged in preparing for public worship; and, save vacations, have been in worship leadership for all of that time, too. Not so for the next four months. So, in order to enter the rhythm of being rather than doing, I don't want to interact in any way with my worshiping community. Not because I don't love them, but rather because I need to let go for a season. 

Second, in addition to letting go of the worship life of my community, I am also relinquishing any input into the administrative life of the congregation, too. That means, it would be best if I did not see - or hear about - the decisions and/or choices shaping the ordinary life of the church during this time. Unplugging gives me the chance to NOT see; it is a techno way of honoring the via negativa or apophatic spirituality of emptiness.  And while that sound uppity, I am serious: if I KNOW about things - or get notes about decisions - I will fret and want to interact. So, like the ancient monks, I'm headed for the desert silence (even if that includes NYC, Nashville and Montreal.)

And third, I want to break away from some of my internet obsessiveness.  Like some, I find this resource addictive. I love parts of it: throw back thursdays almost always make me laugh out loud as well as smile with affection and some of the jokes are drop-dead funny. But I give too much time to sitting in front of this screen. I sometimes feel like Leonard Cohen in "Democracy" where he sings: 

I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean 
I love the country but I can't stand the scene. 
And I'm neither left or right 
I'm just staying home tonight, 
getting lost in that hopeless little screen. 
So some of the time I would ordinarily give to the computer, I am going to share with Di. Other time I am going to practicing my bass chops. And for most of the time, I am going to be wandering without a plan seeing what the Spirit presents to us during this "twilight time." I rather like the way twilight time was recently described by two rabbis who wrote:

In the Journey of the Soul, we have identified the wilderness as uncharted terrain.  Not only that, the wilderness is a place that is “in-between.” William Bridges in his book, Managing Transitions, identifies what we are calling the wilderness experience as the neutral zone -- time and space in-between ending and beginning - “a nowhere between two somewheres.”
Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner coined the term “liminal” for the times of transition when one is “betwixt and between.”  He noted that ritual helps us navigate the territory of “in-between states.”  Ritual allows us to transform in-between time into sacred time. (Victor Turner, Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de PassageIn Jewish tradition, the ritual of Havdalah marks the transition from Shabbat into the week.  This ceremony helps us move from holy time into ordinary time. We mark the power of the moment in that space in-between. Tonight, we offer this beautiful prayer for the liminal moments of sunset.
Twilight People 
As the sun sinks and the colors of the day turn,
we offer a blessing for the twilight, for twilight is
neither day nor night, but in-between.  We are
all twilight people.  We can never be fully labeled or
defined.  We are many identities and loves, many
genders and none.  We are in between roles, at the
intersection of histories, or between place and
place.  We are crisscrossed paths of memory and
destination, streaks of light swirled together.
We are neither day nor night.  We are both, neither,
and all.
May the sacred in-between of this evening suspend
our certainties, soften our judgments, and widen
our vision.  May this in-between light illuminate our
way to the God who transcends all categories and 
definitions.  May the in-between people who have
come to pray be lifted up into this twilight.  We
cannot always define; we can always say a blessing.
Blessed are You, God of all, who brings on
the twilight.
(Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco: 2009)
So, that's where I am with all of this - I hope you will join me when you can.

Friday, April 24, 2015

As far as it depends on you... live for peace

Earlier this week I wrote a letter to the editor of our local paper, The Berkshire Eagle,
celebrating the virtues of our small city. Pittsfield is large enough to have some interesting eateries - brought to life by some creative young entrepreneurs willing to invest their resources and wisdom  - but small enough to know your local and regional politicians by name. At 40,000 people, this is an ideal size community that works hard to balance natural beauty and agriculture with the sophisticated tastes of a well-educated population. There is a community college in our town, a few strategic, modest-sized employers who are on the right side of the technology curve to remain competitive into the future and a thriving arts community. Further, within a 50 mile radius are first class art museums, private liberal arts colleges, the summer home of the Boston Symphony to say nothing of hiking, skiing, biking and bathing venues. 

My letter was born of a commitment to take St. Paul's wisdom re: civic society seriously. In Romans 12/13 where he advises the young Jesus movement to mostly make peace with the political authorities of the day. In his context of  Pax Romana in the first century CE, this made sense.  (NOTE: another Christian text, Revelations 13, offers some insights re: an oppressive and unjust civil context and deserves careful consideration, too.)  For most of my public life I have been influenced by two parts of Paul's teaching from these chapters.

Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

For me this means building up the common good.  Those who follow Jesus are not simply critics, we are those who contribute to the repair of our world. We are not just takers, but creative citizens who are fully IN the world while remaining not OF the world. In this two things occur: our witness is clear and our neighbors learn to trust us.  When clergy and laity only show up at protests, I believe we lose some of our credibility. We must be present and active in the ordinary activities of the communities we live in. We must know and build trusting relationships with the people in power - offering respect and love when appropriate as well as clear and compassionate critiques when that is deserved - lest we become irrelevant and shallow caricatures.of our best selves. Paul was clear in Romans 12 that our engagement with reality is never to be compromised by the lowest common denominator of our culture, but rather transformed by the Spirit's renewal so that we "do not conform to the world, but present our whole beings as a living sacrifice to compassion and love."

Another small sentence from Romans 12  is persuasive to me, too: So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. My hunch - and certainly my experience in both church and the wider community - is that this is the key to authentic and faithful citizenship as a person called to follow Jesus.  We have to make an effort, yes? We must be engaged - and our engagement is to be about peaceful social relationships. Paul continues:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

The spark for my letter was ignited last week while speaking with on of the young movers and shakers in our town. She knows everything that is happening - and about to happen - in the arts scene here and is committed to helping the town strengthen its economic and cultural renewal. When one of the leaders from my congregation mentioned in passing that "Pittsfield has a deep inferiority complex about itself," she quickly replied, "And I refuse to accept that everywhere I go. We not only have great potential here, but great and committed people making real changes already." I wanted to honor her refusal to give in to our historic pessimism while offering my commitment to the work of ordinary renewal in a place I have grown to love. My letter reads:

Letter: Sabbatical prompts thoughts on Pittsfield

The Berkshire Eagle

To the editor:
As I prepare to leave Pittsfield for four months on a sabbatical from my congregation, I wanted to write a word of gratitude to The Eagle and the people of Pittsfield. All communities have their problems — and we have our share — that is part of the human condition. Simultaneously, there is a spirit of quiet compassion alive in our town, too that is sometimes forgotten or overlooked.
Today (Patriots Day), for example, as I left the pharmacy on my way to the grocery store, a woman waiting in the parking lot called out to wish me travelling mercies. She is not a member of my congregation nor someone I know well. But she read the story Derek Gentile wrote about the sabbatical two weeks ago and wanted to wish me well.
Thirty minutes later at the supermarket, both the check-out clerk and another shopper stopped to ask me about the upcoming trip. They, too had seen the Easter pictures in The Eagle and took the time to offer a word of encouragement. This happens in Pittsfield all the time!
My next-door-neighbor arranged to make certain our driveway is plowed during the winter; another neighbor does this work without cost because, as he told me, "That's what neighbors are for!" Some of my clergy colleagues have made themselves available to help lead worship while I am away, including Fr. John Salatino of St. Mark's and Rabbi David Weiner of Knesset Israel.
From the young entrepreneurs renewing North Street, the hundreds of citizens who support our benefit concerts for emergency fuel needs and/or cleaning the Housatonic, the inter-faith work for justice in the Berkshires taking place through BIO (Berkshire Interfaith Organizing), the countless people who have donated to the CROP Walk to End Hunger to our local political leaders and state officials, it is clear to me that this is a "big-hearted" place to live.
I will miss Pittsfield during my time away and already look forward to getting back to work with my neighbors when I return in the fall.

Blessings and gratitude,
James Lumsden Pittsfield (The writer is pastor of First Church of Christ at Park Square.)

Does this make me a Pollyanna? I hope not, but I am willing to take that risk. My ministry in this place is taking root. I want to nourish those roots on my return from sabbatical. I have long believed that one of the commitments to incarnational theology in real life means that I become a part of the community. Remaining a constant outsider has no juice for me. 

So I am already sensing that this work will include four broad areas of engagement upon our return: 1) Our congregation's commitment to Berkshire Interfaith Organizing; 2) A new effort at men's ministry that includes rites of passage and connecting older mentors with teens; 3) Something I think of as a "Feast for Common Ground" that would be a travelling show built upon music, poetry, food and serious conversation; and 4) deeper initiatives into the contemplative aspects of a spirituality of jazz. These four themes keep rising to the surface of my prayers. They speak both to my passions as well as my sense of what is missing in our community. How did Buechner put it concerning our calling: it is that place where our greatest joy meets the world's greatest need?

One more thought: as I have ached and planned, prayed and prepared for this sabbatical, my weariness has often been the driving force. That is oddly starting to lift already and we haven't even left! As a colleague said to me on the phone yesterday:  please remember that there is a bold difference between sabbatical and retirement. Sabbatical is refreshment grounded in returning - there is hope and blessing for everyone in the return - while retirement means an end to ministry as you know it. Don't confuse the two.

He was right... and my sense of return and re-engagement is starting to give our departure some new shape and form.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Travellin' blues...

This Sunday we're going to open worship with Dave Brubeck's "Travellin' Blues" because... well, you know!  Carlton turned me on to this last year and I've been in love with it ever since. Hi picked most of the jazz tunes - and all the liturgical music - this week. And man is it spot on!
After some pastoral calls this morning, we spent 90 minutes on the phone with our sabbatical interim minister, Bob Kyte, who is wise, experienced, grounded and oh so bright. Towards the end of the conversation, he asked us both "why JAZZ for the journey?" The conversation that followed will become the heart of Bob's first Sunday at First Church on May 24th: a Pentecost Improvisation with Community and Spirit. Just brilliant. It is going to be such a blessing for Carlton and Bob to go deeper into the WHY of Jazz for the Journey. Carlton is a creative and deep thinking as well as a stunning musical artist. Bob, while not an artistic performer, is a wise pastor and a gifted theological thinker. I can't wait to hear what they come up with in helping the wider congregation GET all this jazz stuff!

We will close worship on Sunday with our take on "The Swinging Shepherd's Blues." I never knew what this tune was called until we ran it last week. Waaay too much fun for two guys to keep to themselves so we hope to share with this the whole church and kick off this sabbatical with style. Join us Sunday at 10:30 am if you are in the area. (I hear tell that my musical buddy, Andy Kelly, is going to join us on this one, too!"

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

An antidote to fundamentalism...

There are two sentences in James Carroll's searing book about the origins of Western civilization and antisemitism, Constantine's Sword, that have haunted me for the past two weeks. On page 248, in a chapter celebrating the way Judaism continued to deepen and change after the diaspora, rather than become trapped in textual fundamentalism, he writes: 

Though based on the Law of Moses, Judaism had emerged as a community ordered not by legislation or decrees but by the influence of its interpreters, reflecting on a compilation of the commentary of ancestral masters. This is the culture of Talmud, a culture not of codification but of conversation,  written and oral; a culture not of hierarchy but of mutuality.

I am discovering that this commitment to conversation is what drives my spiritual calling, too. Dialogue - saturated with silence and compassionate honesty - means so much more to me than most of the dogma and doctrine of my tradition. Not that I haven't benefited from both. But in an era such as our own, conversation and common ground matters so much more than ideological purity of any hue. Perhaps that is why I have decided to quit worrying about denominational loyalty. Let the institution do what it will - or most likely, won't. At this moment in my life, I need to use my talent and treasure to strengthen real love and justice where I live.
With only 8 days before we depart, I continue to find myself praying over what I call my "antidote to Jihad." This includes a passionate, embodied and radical Christian spirituality that not only breaks from the status quo of consumerism, but does so in ways that increase joy and encourage hope in our ordinary lives. I used to speak of an alternative to fundamentalism, but not any more: a cult of fear, hatred and death has become the defining and addictive  fetish of all brands of contemporary fundamentalism. And lets be clear: weak-kneed liberal generalities or sloppy agape paeans to some vague utopia born of a disembodied good will - what the cynics call "kumbayism" - won't cut it with the bored, disgruntled and angry young women and men of the 21st century who are aching for lives with meaning. Just read this past Sunday's NY Times Magazine re: why England is fueling the so-called Islamic State and you'll know what I mean. (check it out:

While we wander, pray, make music, rest and read during this sabbatical, I am going to be letting this call percolate within. I believe in my core that St. Paul was right, but much of my religious tradition does nothing to advance the love that can change the world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

My last sermon for 4+ months...

This morning I was working on my last sermon for the next 4+ months - that's a very
odd experience - a huge shift after 33+ years. To say that I am both excited and apprehensive about our upcoming shared sabbatical would be an understatement. Yesterday we hosted and Eclesiastical Council for a young man as he prepares to enter ordained ministry. These are bold and challenging times.

It is serendipitous that on Holy Saturday this year - the day between Good Friday and Easter - Dianne and I attended a community Passover Seder in North Adams. During that time it was mentioned that after Passover - and before Shavuot (what we know as Pentecost) - there are 49 days of spiritual preparation. One of the traditions for observing this commandment involves "counting the Omer" - that is, marking the 49 days between the first barley sacrifice in the Temple and the day when the first wheat offering is made - by using the story of the Exodus as the starting point for meditation.

Dianne and I have been reading and thinking about this as we, too, make our preparations for sabbatical. To imagine ourselves joining Israel as Moses leads the people out of Egypt, through the wilderness and into the Land of Promise is a fascinating way to mark time and our preparations. Recently, these reflections have asked us to consider the cost of leave-taking and how complicated it always is for all involved. Two rabbis, Jill Zimmerman and Cindy Enger, recently wrote the following that speaks volumes to what we are both experiencing right now:

As we prepare to leave Egypt, we cannot and do not want to carry everything forward. We make choices. This process of sorting and decision making can be challenging. In every new setting, out, some of the old must be left behind - relationships, clothing, furniture, ways of thinking, titles, names - items once useful and regular are now extraneous or do not fit us anymore... The moments before leaving can be chaotic, exhausting and emotionally draining. Some of us make light of saying good-bye or duck out to avoid feeling the pain. And then we face a moment of great choice: we've purchased our ticket and the train is scheduled to depart. We stand at the threshold, the door opens - and ready or not, we know we must go before we turn around, close the door or change our mind. The poet Mary Oliver offers us a glimpse of the powerful emotions involved in leave-taking. Despite the angst of setting out for new shores, we choose life... and find a new voice.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voice around you
kept shouting
their bad advice -
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations
though their melancholy was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do -
determined to save
the only life you could save.

For eight years I have been blessed and challenged to be the pastor. of First Church.  And now we will let that go for a season - literally a quarter of the years - and enter a new relationship with time, community, God and ourselves. This Sunday I will be speaking about what the sabbatical preparation team has planned for the sabbatical of First Church. Remember, this is not just MY time, but one for the whole congregation, too. I hope you will be present. I will serve Eucharist one last time until September this Sunday and profoundly look forward to that privilege. There will be a brief leave-taking ceremony during worship, too. 

As I have noted before, many of those involved in the leadership of our sabbatical will be posting observations, thoughts, prayers and reflections on the blog site: JAZZ FOR THE JOURNEY. You may find it here: And so the journey ripens with just 9 days to go. (Here's a picture of our apartment in Montreal. We will be upstairs.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

Being not doing...

All of our major obligations on this side of the sabbatical are complete - and now it is 10 days.  In  worship yesterday, which marked the 8th anniversary of my call to our church, we played a LOT of jazz. We also played three compositions featuring our vocalists, too. And while there are always a few in the congregation who are uncomfortable whenever we play so much music, I've mostly come to a place where I realize that is their problem. So, we went for the heart of beauty and here are some of my observations:

+ Paul Winter's "Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon" is a challenging score. We had first thought of presenting the whole "Missa Gaia" on April 19th, but weather, health and a variety of other events beyond our control made it clear that was never going to be. I am glad we paid attention. We quit working on the first movement during Lent, let it simmer until after Easter and then returned to it with renewed vigor. It was certainly the most ethereal and mystical selection we shared for the glory of God and God's people in worship yesterday - and it really came together. Three comments are worth repeating: 1) One man said, "I guess I didn't know what to expect when I heard that you were going to be playing a "jazz Mass." I thought it would be a lot of complex noise and movement and that I wouldn't like it - I would just endure it. But this was moving, stunning and deeply beautiful. It was a spiritual experience and now I can't wait to hear the whole thing!" 2) a woman who has only been with us in worship a few times said, "I was weeping - moved beyond myself - both by the beauty of the music AND the intense commitment of the singers and musicians. I have never heard church music like this before." And 3) an email that arrived shortly before bedtime read: What a beautiful, deep song. It said to me that this world is our home that God made for us.  All that we see day and night God gave to us (as a precious gift)... we must respect this house the God made for us for if we don't. the results can hurt us. This song should be the anthem for Earth Day."

+ Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" was equally challenging - mostly because we did it in a stripped down way with LOTS of open space and emotional longing. It was slowed way down so that the vocalists could spend as much time as they needed telling the story of the lyrics - and they made it come alive. One man told me, "I was hanging on every word." He went on to say, "You should record this and send it out to some of our veteran's organization. This should become the theme song for "Soldier On." I was overwhelmed with tears at that moment both because I had never thought of reaching out to a vets group in this way AND because it rang so true. Currently a small group of vets and allies are working throughout the year to make sure our congregation remembers their stories and connects with them in meaningful ways. We have assumed responsibility for keeping the Vietnam Memorial on Park Square cleaned throughout the year. We open our Sanctuary for quiet prayers of remembrance on both Memorial Day and Hiroshima Day. And now maybe a new door has been opened...

+ "All Blues" is what my sabbatical feels like to me - flowing, bluesy, a little bit
 edgy but also saturated with compassion. It is what the gospel we read feels like: go and learn what this means - I desire mercy not religion.  To share this vocally and instrumentally was a treat and our singers and players made it smoke. There could be no ambiguity when that tune was over that the spirituality I celebrate is sensual, embodied and all about being real in the moment. We all got a chance to "solo" on that one, too making it fun and totally new to both the players and the congregation.  It is one of my favorite Miles Davis compositions and playing it with Jon, Dianne, Jon and Carlton is always an answer to prayer for me.

+ And then the two instrumentals - Ellington's "C-Jam Blues" a la Oscar Peterson and

Cartlon Maiia II and Mr. Maiia's arrangement of TRURO - were just flat out fun and beautiful. As has been said before, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing" and both of these tunes gave me the chance to walk that bass all OVER the neck while the drummer hit syncopated shots and Carlton danced through the keyboard. We wanted to set the tone and "C-Jam Blues" made it clear that something special was about to happen. And then closing the morning with a jazz chart based on the opening hymn... too kewel for school.

As I was leaving, an old timer said to me: "Are we going to have more time for quiet contemplation AND wild-crazy-spiritual-sensual-beautiful music like we heard today when you get back from your sabbatical" All I could do is smile and nod. I don't know what I will be like when we get back in September. I don't know what changes the congregation will have been through nor do I want to know - right now. I am just eager to get on the road. Di and I are clear that we're going to be gentle with time as this unfolds. We'll walk and wander, pray and play, feast and rest as the Spirit leads us. I will practice my instruments. She will hone her craft as a photographer. And we will entrust our congregation to God's grace in a new type of trust. Yes, yesterday was prelude to the future - and I rejoice in the possibilities. But now is not the time for making plans. Now is the time for being rather than doing...

Here's one of my favorite bands, Oregon, doing a tune that feels like the promise of all of this wrapped together.



Sunday, April 19, 2015

Worship notes for Sunday April 19...

WORSHIP NOTES:  Jazz for the Journey Sabbatical #2 - April 19, 2015

That song – All Blues – cuts to the heart of what our shared sabbatical means to me.  It expresses to me the way that music can uncover common ground between people of who start off on very different shores.  It speaks of the earth and sky, the sea and you and me who all know that the blues is sometimes sad and some-times glad. And it does so with finesse and earthiness. 

The blues - they're the moan of pain and a taste of strife
A sad refrain which in the night is playing
Because the blues, Lord, can be the living dues we all are paying!

This morning my message is about what our shared sabbatical means… for me.  It will mean and be something very different for you – and that is how it should be – because we are all unique and blessed – every one and every hue. I don’t pray the same way you pray. My soul is fed in ways that are wondrously made – and so too for you – but not in exactly the same way. How does the Psalmist put it?

As a deer longs for flowing streams so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for the Lord, for the living God.
When shall I come and behold the face of God
After my tears have become my food both day and night…

Oh do I love those words – and the groove – and the melancholy nature of the whole song!  They capture a piece of my longing and my quest for deep intimacy with God. You see, my spirituality is sensual and earthy, filled with sound and experience, and when that thirst is not sated – deeply – I grieve. I ache. I pant with longing:  As a deer longs and thirsts for streams of refreshment and renewal so my soul thirsts for you, O God.

For me an essential aspect of this sabbatical experience is time to be saturated in the spirit of the Lord through music – the visual arts – quiet contemplation – rest – time with my beloved – and creating and practicing my chosen instrument: the upright bass. When I play in concert with others – and you need to practice a lot by yourself so that when you do play with others you have something to say that is creative and beautiful - it almost always elicits within me the words of Jesus you heard earlier:  Go and learn what this means; I desire mercy not sacrifice.  Compassion and soul food rather than rules and rituals – relief and release from the burdens of fear and sin instead of more guilt and shame: Eugene Peterson goes so far as to retranslate that into: Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy NOT religion. And THAT is what I hear Jesus saying to me about my life: it is all about creating and sharing love in ways that are so real that we sense the holy within our humanity. And to do that consistently, to do that with verve and vigor, I need time to saturate my soul in music like “All Blues.” In so many ways this is what this sabbatical means to me.

Now as you probably have noticed, I’m speaking a LOT about this sabbatical and myself today – that is intentional – next week I’ll be sharing some thoughts about what this might hold for you and our community. But today I want to be wildly personal. And as I am want to do, I want to push the edges of my thoughts deeper – not necessarily in a linear or didactic fashion – but rather in an experiential way.  This morning I want you to listen and experience some of the prayer songs that sing of God’s mercy in my soul as a tutorial into in my hopes and dreams about this sabbatical. Most of the time preachers need to speak to the whole community – that is our calling – but today I need to be wildly personal with you in the hopes that what is most personal is also most true for our community.  

In addition to “All Blues,” the heart of this sabbatical is shaped by two other songs that are aesthetically, ethically, artistically and experientially at the core of my spirituality of music. The first is Paul Winter’s composition called “Canticle of the Sun and the Moon.” It was commissioned by the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in NYC to be part of an Earth Mass – Missa Gaia – and when Winter received this commission he didn’t know a thing about the structure or theology of the Mass. He didn’t know that the Mass retells the story of Christ’s sacrifice and gift of love for the whole world. He didn’t know ancient Latin. And he didn’t know much about the contemporary church of Jesus Christ. So as anyone with an iota of insight knows, rather than try to re-invent the wheel, he first studied the ancient traditions before beginning his composition.  He went to the root of historic Christian liturgy.

·        St. Bob Dylan once sang that “I will know my song well before I start singing.”  That is, I will take the time to appreciate, understand and come to love my roots.  I will practice them, honor them and be able to articulate their blessings – and failures – before I start to do something new with them. 

·        Aesthetically, Winter made time to listen to the great choral masses of Bach and Mozart, Schubert and Faure as well as the older liturgical works of the world of Gregorian Chant.

·        Aesthetically he honored the tradition before taking it in new directions – and that is important to me, too.  Before I can do something new, I have to saturate myself in the foundation.

After getting grounded in the aesthetics, Winter set about having conversations with people from different spiritual traditions to find out how the ancient ways might best be restated for a new generation:  he took the ethical challenge of his music seriously. In today’s composition he integrates the earth-centered words of St. Francis of Assisi with the poetry of the Hebrew Bible’s story of Job AND the classical hymnody of the 19th century we know as “For the Beauty of the Earth. There is ancient and modern, classical and improvisational music embracing the songs of nature, Scripture, church tradition and the latest headlines in the NY Times – and it never sounds weird or chaotic – because Winter honored both the aesthetics and ethics of his prayer music.

Further, Winter melds musical disciplines that sometimes have been held in opposition in order to show how the whole can be greater than the individual parts. This is what St. Paul teaches about the Body of Christ: we need ALL the parts – the minds and tongues, the hands and unmentionable organs –  in order to make a healthy, loving, holy body. Too often people think we must choose between classical music and jazz, rock and roll over folk songs. But Winter trusts that what is good, true and beautiful in every style can work to complement and strengthen something new. So just like my band mates, he takes his skill as a jazz artist and writes choral music, he links the classical virtues of high art with the organic beauty of songs composed by the wolf and whale. And he puts them right alongside world music from cultures that are very different from our own.

When you hear this work – and we will share one part now and the whole Earth Mass in early November as part of the culmination of our sabbatical – you can’t help but celebrate the blessings of common ground. Experientially – without even knowing it – this music takes you on a journey of radical integration through your senses. This work not only celebrates the mercy and compassion Jesus wants for you and me, but it does so in a way that makes clear the aesthetic, ethical, artistic and spiritual essentials of this sabbatical.

Now there are two other truths in this Canticle I need to say out loud for you before we play it:  Winter saturates his song with complexity and simplicity. In this he honors the wisdom of paradox. Sometimes you will hear the singers in unison, sometimes they will be in harmony – there will be moments when their voices fit easily with the score and other times when they are singing in completion with the music or working against the rhythm. Sometimes the song is very straight forward – like the words of the hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” – and at other times – if we get it right – it will be highly syncopated and complex.  

·        And just so that it remains fun, Winter builds in a time for instrumental improvisation: it wouldn’t really be jazz without a chance for some of the players to playful compose what they are feeling on the spot, right?

·        We won’t do much of that today – but we will when we do the whole Mass in November – but remember: improvisation always tells a story – it lets us know what the musicians are feeling and experiencing in the moment: sometimes it is hope, other times despair. Often it is playful but sometimes it is anguishing and poignant. And all of that is taking place in real time.

Ok, let’s give it a shot – and please note that there WILL be a test after we finish!

“Canticle for Brother Sun and Sister Moon”

Now because this sabbatical is so important to me – and to us all as a faith community – I’m going to throw away any reference to the clock at this point and say if you need to leave, you have my permission. But learning about the ethics of aesthetics and spirituality is too important to overlook. So did you hear or feel ANY of what I was explaining when we played this song? What did you GET from this composition?

What we just shared with you in this composition is exactly what I hope to experience during part of this sabbatical. It is ALL about being so refreshed that my creativity  might advance mercy not religion. You see, as your pastor I long for times of deep, extended, quiet and sensual communion with my God.  I have my own ways of being in prayer throughout the year but they are rarely sustained enough to nourish and heal my whole being. That’s what the Hebrew of Psalm 42 tells us:  it begins with the first person singular word, nafshi, which is usually translated “I” but actually means “with my whole being.” For me this sabbatical – and that songs– speak about trusting God’s creative love with my whole being so that what I live is mercy not religion.

So, because we only have one more Sunday together before our four months of being apart – I need to tell you one more thing about the marriage of this thirsty deer and God’s commitment to mercy rather than religion:  it must be embodied. It must be owned in our hearts and our flesh as well as our minds and our souls. If God’s mercy – what I often call grace – is just an idea, it will be compromised. Betrayed. Abandoned. Look at the difference between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. Ideas and words evaporate. 

But, love that is felt – love that is deep calling to deep – the bread of our tears nourished by our whole being – that love is stronger than death. That love is what Easter is all about. So please don’t ever think that Jesus is being poetic when he tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. He’s rephrasing Psalm 42: you must love the Lord with NAFSHI – your whole being. That’s why Dianne and I are taking four months away – we need to rest in that love with our whole being again – stop thinking so much and just trust.

And if there was ever one song that FEELS like the truth of this Psalm more than any other, it is “Don’t Give Up.” It not only FEELS like Psalm 42 to me, it FEELS like Christ’s call to be about mercy not religion, too. And because some people have told me that don’t “get” what I mean when I talk about the feeling of a song, let me be explicit:

·        This is not a literal song about mercy and on the surface it has nothing to do with Jesus – so don’t stay up in your head and worry about how I hear the voice of Jesus in these words. I don’t – but I FEEL the movement of the Lord’s energy in this song because it moves just like the tension in Psalm 42.

·        The verses state the longing and emptiness while the chorus expresses the promise of hope:  it is a call and response – an aching followed by grace – the bread of our tears followed by mercy.  Even the arrangement and vocal harmonies give shape and form to this rhythm:  solo verses of lament are gently followed by a chorus of compassion.

·        And just so that we can’t help but get this – and I am talking sensually not abstractly – after an extended instrumental improvisation in a minor key, we all come back together in a major key that sounds like a gospel choir proclaiming the presence of faith, hope and love in our midst.  See if you can hear that – and feel that – in “Don’t Give Up.” 

My sabbatical is defined by the songs we’ve played today: I wanted to share them with my colleagues and you in the hope that their beauty will evoke in you an aching for more of God’s mercy. For when your whole being longs for the Lord, you will not be content with compromise or abstractions: you will be read to follow Jesus who said: go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not religion…