Sunday, April 20, 2014

A week in review: holy week 2014

Here are a few pictures from Holy Week 2014: it was a wild and wonderful ride during which we met a number of new friends. So as Easter Sunday morphs into nap time (and then maybe a bit of yard work in the sunshine) I am letting the joy and awe of God's grace percolate within. Next week will be about a bit of rest, a trip South to see family and then Carrie Newcomer's show in Cambridge (and maybe an overnight, too.) Onward to the pix...

BAND PRACTICE FOR MISUNDERSTOOD: Carlton, Jon and James cooking up some sweet, hot jazz...





Many, many thanks to Andy, Brian, Carlton, Dave, Dianne, Eva, Jon, Jonnie, Rob, Sue as well as Liz, Scott, Paul, David, Becky, Crystal, Mark and Janet, too. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

reflections: behind misunderstood...

About 75 people showed up for our presentation of MISUNDERSTOOD - folk from our faith community and many from beyond the usual suspects - and it was a profoundly beautiful experience.  We conceptualized it as an encounter with "song, story, silence and solidarity" - an artistic invitation to the deep spiritual wisdom of Good Friday - that also transcends the limits of religious traditions.  As I said at the outset, "We know what we're hoping for but we won't know if we got there until it is over." I'm pretty sure we made it... as all of the musicians - instrumentalists and vocalists alike - gave their best with a tender love that was palpable.

There are two observations I want to make about this gig that may not be clear to anyone except those who worked on it and saw it evolve over two months of rehearsals:

+ First, while I had a working sense of where I wanted MISUNDERSTOOD to go, the full vision of the evening was not realized until about a week before last night's performance. It was, you see, an exercise in following the prompting of the Holy Spirit while being open to artistic creativity with trust and spontaneity. There is NO way I could have seen how someone's as yet unwritten biblical narrative about the Virgin Mary would jive perfectly with the song we picked to evoke the audience's response. But "You Are So Beautiful" struck precisely the right note of adoration and awe mixed with humility and hope. Same thing happened with the biblical narrative for Mary Magdalene and it's musical twin: "One Moment More." When the singer changed the closing words in our final rehearsal, no one knew how closely they would support and strengthen the arc of the as yet incomplete spoken story. 

This happened over and over again: "Secret Journey" was paired with Peter's lament, "Until the End of the World" followed my narrative about Judas and the close of the Passion Narrative marking Christ's death was followed by the ironic jazz/blues of Mose Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy!" This band not only listened to the heart of my hopes for MISUNDERDSTOOD - bringing wild and challenging music into the mix - but they also listened to the Spirit who helped us shape both the written/spoken narratives and the essence of the Good Friday story. 

It was chilling - and reassuring - how all of this came to pass.  As our musical director, Carlton Maaia II once told me about playing jazz, "You have to LOVE the process..." because working the process of practice and improvisation on the way to performance often leads to something innovative and mind-blowing. But it won't come unless you love - and WORK - the process.

+ Second, part of "the process" is practice. Rehearsal. Refusing to treat a "church gig" as something that is just "good enough." My bandmates ache for high standards - no sloppy singing, no going through the motions while playing a solo and no taking a pass even when life is hard and work demanding. These cats gave it their ALL - lots of practice, lots of reworking and rethinking each song along with LOTS of direction and correction from me as band leader - because in addition to a performance this was also a collective prayer from each artist.  Think about that: our music and our spoken words were offered to God - and the gathered audience - as an act of devotion.

Small wonder the performers were simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted with MISUNDERSTOOD was over. Today when I went over to the Sanctuary to polish the silver for Easter Sunday, it felt like I had been run over by a truck. I was blessed by what happened - totally engaged and excited by the whole evening - and I was emotional and physical toast! And I know that is true for most of the other musicians, too. This was a work of art with the highest creative standards, AND, and a living prayer shared in community.

I hope to be able to share with you clips from MISUNDERSTOOD in a few days because it was adult Christian formation at its best. What's more, it was a total gas - and I don't want to keep all the fun to myself.  
(pictures: Dianne De Mott, Liz de Caulderon, Leo Mazzeo)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Getting ready for good friday...

You just never know... Last night a small group (about 40) gathered for
Eucharist, story-telling, foot-washing and prayer.  As is often the case, I put aside my prepared notes and simply spoke about living as Eucharist for the world (i.e. as the bread of communion that is taken, blessed, broken and shared) - as a servant who joyfully chooses the role of bringing comfort and tenderness to others (i.e. as Jesus kneeling to wash the feet of his disciples) - and as Mary standing at the foot of Christ's Cross and holding the wounds of the world within herself rather than lashing out.  At the end of my homily, I washed the feet of our newest staff person - a young soul who is new to the Christian tradition - reminding the gathering that next year "everyone will have the chance to come forward in humility..."  

This gathering concluded with a simplified reworking of Tenebrae - a series of readings and hymns shared in the context of extinguishing candles - so that at the close we sat for a time together in the silent darkness. It is a way, as one participant said later, "of making space for all of us to be together in our brokenness." There were lots of tears - my own and others, too - mostly because just below the surface in most of us there are wounds and sighs too deep for human words. So when we are given permission to listen to our wounds, they often erupt as tears, yes?

Once again I was struck by how counter-cultural this gathering was:  for whatever reason, this collection of souls decided NOT to go to the pub crawl. They postponed TV for an hour - or whatever else they usually do at 7 pm on a Thursday evening - and came together to weep in the shadows.  As those far wiser than I have known for millenia, this is both a form of non-violent resistance to the madness of popular culture and deep soul work. Being together in this safe place, sharing the tender innocence of a foot-washing and then hearing the old, old story mixed with the old, old songs was fortifying as well as humbling.  The small mistakes didn't matter - we were going deeper - so even my stumbling over the closing of the Lord's Prayer was not out of place within the darkness. 

This was a night where we met parts of our most profound grief and held them quietly in the presence of the Lord. Tonight we will gather to push the edges of this grief in other ways as we wander through the story of the Cross with songs from beyond the church tradition. What I have discovered in our reworking of the Good Friday story over the years is that it is archetypal - it describes the journey of the soul as we commit ourselves to the way of the Sacred - and artists as diverse as U2 and Mose Allison have tapped into this truth.  Fr. Richard Rohr recently put it like this: 

Following Jesus is a vocation to share the fate of God for the life of the world. Jesus invited people to “follow” him in bearing the mystery of human death and resurrection. Those who agree to carry and love what God loves, which is both the good and the bad of human history, and to pay the price for its reconciliation within themselves—these are the followers of Jesus—the leaven, the salt, the remnant, the mustard seed that God can use to transform the world. The cross is the dramatic image of what it takes to be such a usable one for God.

These few are the critical mass that keeps the world from its path toward greed, violence, and self-destruction. God is calling everyone and everything to God’s self (Gen. 8:16-17, Eph. 1:9-10, Col. 1:15-20, Acts 3:21, 1 Tim. 2:4, John 3:17). But God still needs some instruments and images who are willing to be “conformed to the pattern of his death” and transformed into the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3:10). They illuminate the path because they allow themselves to be used.

Jesus crucified and resurrected is the whole pattern revealed, named, effected, and promised for our own lives. The Jesus story is the universe story. The Cosmic Christ is no threat to anything but separateness, illusion, domination, and the imperial ego. In that sense, Jesus, the Christ, is the ultimate threat, but first of all to Christians themselves. Only then will they have any universal and salvific message for the rest of the earth.

What I take from this is NOT that God only works through human beings, but rather God's love is grand enough to work through human brokenness - and we can become willing partners towards healing and hope, too. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Three ingredients to Christ's new commandment on Maundy Thursday....

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for tonight's worship gathering @ 7 pm.
There are three commitments for living into the “new law of Christ’s love” we are asked to grow into on Maundy Thursday:  a) Eucharistic living as symbolized by the bread of Holy Communion; b) Servanthood living as shown to us the ceremony of foot-washing; c) and living in the mystery of the Cross that invites us to have our suffering turned into greater compassion.  Now I don’t believe that any of us will consistently embrace these commitments with identical verve over the course of our lives – this is a life-long learning commitment – but I am equally certain that if we don’t consciously choose to make these commitments the core of our spirituality, the BEST we’ll be able to say about our faith is that we were faking it.

+  Passing for followers of Jesus rather than practicing the way of the Lord – acting as casual observers of Christ and his Cross rather than disciples – because anything less than these three commitment is cheap grace.

+  And I don’t say this lightly:  look, I know most of us will stumble from time to time and take the easy way out when we can.  Human nature being what it is, I know that dying to self takes forever – it is not something we can grasp and then put into practice all at once – it is clear that learning the way of Jesus requires our whole time on earth.

So getting it wrong and trying again and again, falling down in sin but getting up over and over by grace, doing your best while regularly lifting up honest prayers of confession is the organic rhythm of sacred living.  Making mistakes is how we learn; getting it wrong is part of the practice of Christianity, so that is NOT what I am talking about with the words “cheap grace.” 

No, cheap grace is the perverted and self-centered notion that simply thinking lofty, spiritual or loving thoughts is the same as doing them.  It is the ancient heresy of separating word from deed – living as if what we think and say is more important than how we act – behaving as if our bodies and the things we can physically touch are of lesser value than our noble, abstract ideas.  It is a spirituality thoroughly rejected by Jesus and his Jewish tradition, but one that has been all too popular throughout the whole history of Christianity – and is sadly all too prevalent in our generation.

·   Think of the New Age gurus who teach that all disease and suffering is the result of what we think. They call it the law of attraction – if we hurt, we’ve brought it on ourselves – and if we thrive, the same thing. For them ideas are more sacred and true than our physical realities.

·   The same would be true of the anti-Semite who last week opened fire on innocent people at a Jewish community center in Kansas City.  This man’s IDEAS about faith and real life were more important to him than the living flesh of people he hated, so he was able to convince himself that murder was of the Lord.

Over and over we see the same thing in suicide bombers or so-called pro-life warriors who attack abortion clinics in the name of God’s love. These children of God have elevated their thoughts to such a sacred height that they are completely divorced from whatever happens in the realm of the living. And let’s be clear that most of these people are not mentally diseased or suffering from PTSD:  they genuinely believe that their thoughts are more holy than their actions so when all hell breaks loose and innocent blood is spilled, who cares?

Maundy Thursday stands in quiet opposition to all such selfish, ugly manipulation of God’s love – and we are given three practices to help us stay grounded in what is real.  First, we’re asked to make a commitment to Eucharistic living by practicing Holy Communion in community. 

At the communion table, the bread is REAL – the wine is REAL – and there are no virtual images present.  We can touch the elements and taste them; we can smell what is set before us and see them as we pass them around in our flesh and blood hands to one another. There is NOTHING abstract to the Eucharist:  the ordinary is recognized as sacred, the extraordinary and holy is honored in the midst of our humanity and God’s blessing is experienced by sharing rather than hording.
So how do apply or live into the commitments of communion?  How do we embrace a spirituality of Eucharistic living?  Well, there are four steps – or ingredients – and we learn them from the bread we bless and share.

·   First the bread is taken:  just as God offers life to us as a gift, we, too, are asked to take and receive the totality of life as a gift – the celebrations and the suffering  are all sacred – and all we can do is simply hold them and honor them.

·   Second, the bread is blessed:  what is ordinary and mundane is prayed over and cherished for this is the way God’s nourishment becomes real for us; not by magic, but by blessing and awareness.

·   Third, the bread is broken:  it is torn – it is wounded – it becomes part of our real life experience.  This is the step most people hate but it is also built into the fabric of creation. We are going to fail – and sin – but our failures and sins can lead to forgiveness and greater wisdom.  We are broken.

·    And fourth the broken, blessed and taken bread is shared:  it is given away as food for the body and the soul. It is not horded or treated as private property – it is not a special gift kept only for the wise or privileged or the members of this or that tribe – it is shared freely and joyfully.

Do you know these four ingredients:  taken, blessed, broken and shared? They are one of the spiritual practices that God asks us of us on Maundy Thursday. They are one of the ways we become disciples of Jesus as Christ.

·   So think about that:  your life, like the bread, is taken – by God – it is NOT fully yours. It is a gift – a gift that is then blessed and cherished – a gift that is also broken by real life – a gift that can become a blessing for others when our brokenness is honored and transformed and shared. 

·   All of this – our bank statements and our shopping lists, our TV habits and the way we care for our bodies – are involved in a spirituality that is both intimate and earthy.  It is physical and incarnational and there is NOTHING abstract or idealized about Eucharistic living.  Is that clear?  Do you have any thoughts or questions?

The second commitment or spiritual practice of Maundy Thursday is servanthood as documented in the way Jesus washed the feet of all his disciples.  It too is fully earthy and radically inclusive because Jesus didn’t just wash the feet of those he liked – his favorites – he washed them all – and that’s one of the reasons why so many people are uncomfortable with even holding a foot-washing ceremony in worship.  What if I have to wash the feet of that knuckle-head who always complains about me?  What if I have to hold the foot of a person I’ve never met? Or worse, the foot of someone I know all too well?

And it only gets worse because foot-washing is not just about the idea of serving somebody else, but actually getting down on our knees and holding someone else’s foot in your hands, right?  So over the years I’ve come to realize that this ancient ritual is SUPPOSED to make us uncomfortable.  It is supposed to teach us about humility and trust, about the sacredness of our bodies and how much God loves us, about servanthood and loving what we often hide away and neglect.  And there are a few steps here, too:

·   First, for the person who is going to have his/her foot washed, you have to get up and come forward.  You have to consciously choose to be a part of this ritual – not as a spectator – but as a participant.

·   Second, you have to take off your shoe and some of us don’t like our feet. We think they are ugly – or rough – or stinky.  And while all of that may be true, so what? They are part of our bodies – part of the gift given to us by the Lord – and they are to be honored and cherished – like Eucharistic bread, right? But we still are ashamed or embarrassed by them; so by choosing to come forward and expose your foot, you are practicing loving yourself as God loves you – and that’s really hard for most of us.

·   And third, you are literally practicing humility as you let another serve you. It is incredibly humbling to look down at someone from church that you have worked on projects with – or built Habitat houses with – or served on church council and choir with – and see them holding your worn out old foot. And it gets worse still - and better – because that person isn’t just looking at your foot; they are holding it tenderly, pouring warm water over it and drying it with care and affection. 

Having your foot washed is one of the ways we can feel what it is like to be a child again – dependent and loved, powerless and connected – it is practicing the way of the servanthood of Jesus in a very embodied and sensual way.  Same is true for the one who does the foot washing. They practice a different type of humility by kneeling and touching, by caressing and cleansing another’s foot with respect and awe – by voluntarily taking the lesser role of a servant. 

·   The whole ritual, you see, is about consciously choosing to place your life into the hands of Christ – that’s what the physical ceremony symbolizes – it is an exercise in trust.  Small wonder so many feel uncomfortable and want to avoid it, right?

·   What’s more, after you’ve had your foot washed by another – or washed another’s foot – you can never treat them with disdain or disregard again. You may not LIKE them, but you can’t neglect them because a profound and humbling connection has been created that can never be erased. It is the bond of servanthood.

So first we’re called into Eucharistic living.  Second we’re invited into servanthood living.  And third we’re asked to live into the way of the Cross, a commitment to hold within us our pain and suffering – offering it to the Lord – so that we don’t pass it on to others and wound them.  The mystery of the Cross is that it trains us in the way of compassion, not complaining causing us to hold our suffering within rather than pass it on to others. 

This is part of what Jesus did in the garden on Maundy Thursday when he prayed:  Father, thy will be done, not my will. Remember this prayer takes place after the foot-washing and the Passover meal. 

·   It is as if he were saying:  Lord, help me take all the fear I know inside me – and all the pain being directed towards me – and hold it.  Not push it away or dump it on another – but hold it within.

·   And over the course of Thursday night and into Friday, that’s just what he did:  he held that fear and pain within himself and refused to give it back to any of those who hurt him.

In an extended quote, Fr. Richard Rohr put it like this: When you hold your pain consciously and trust fully, you are in a very special liminal space. This is a great teaching moment where you have the possibility of breaking through to a deeper level of faith and consciousness. Hold the pain of being human until God transforms you through it. For then you will be an instrument of transformation for others. As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross. Standing would not be the normal posture of a Jewish woman who is supposed to wail and lament and show pain externally.  But she’s holding the pain within; Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. She’s trying to say, “There’s something deeper happening here. So how can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?” You see, until you find a way to be a transformer, you will pass the pain onto others.

Jesus on the cross and Mary standing by the cross are images of transformative religion. They are never transmitting the pain to others. All the hostility that had been directed toward them—the hatred, the accusations, the malice—none of it is returned. They hold the suffering until it becomes resurrection! That’s the core mystery. And it takes our whole life to comprehend this… Unfortunately, we have the natural instinct to fix our pain, to control it or even, foolishly, to try to understand it. The ego always insists on understanding. That’s why Jesus praises a certain quality even more than love – something he calls it faith. It is the ability to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until you move to a deeper level where it all eventually makes sense in the great scheme of God and grace.

This holding our pain and fear in God’s love takes practice – our words and ideas must become flesh – for without it, we will keep on wounding one another and never grow closer to God’s grace.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Incarnational thinking...

Early last week, I was struck by the realization that many in my congregation are doing the most incredible and profound "christian formation" work that I have ever known.  Two examples:

+ Each month at our church council, a question generated by the council members is researched in advance (by me.) This gives us a shared study resource to consider before we devote upwards of 45 minutes to a discussion and question/answer session.  The first two questions this year have been: 1) What does it mean to claim that Jesus died for our sins? and 2) How can we know the difference between God's will and our own? 
For the first gathering, I wrote a brief summary of competing understandings of atonement theology that generated a passionate discussion - complete with hymn references - of how we find wisdom and concerns in all of the ways scholars and theologians have wrestled with the Cross. At our second meeting my assignment was more open-ended: Christianity teaches that Jesus is the embodiment of God's image in the world; so, to understand God's will in our lives, go first to the Scriptures and see what they teach you. Well, people truly went to the Bible - they did their homework - and they came back with both insights and questions that were profound.

+ For this year's Good Friday encounter with song, story, silence and solidarity I invited the band to do two things based upon our theme of misunderstanding:  1) Pick a Biblical character in the passion narratives that you want to know better and write a brief narrative about how that person might have been misunderstood by Jesus, how they misunderstood God's grace in the life and death of Christ, or how they themselves experienced misunderstanding in any of its layers.  And 2) to come up with a song from any realm that speaks to the lives of one of the narratives (in this case we have been considering Mary Magdalene, the Virgin Mary, Peter and Judas.) 

Well, the songs have been incredible - everything from the Police's "Secret Journey" (for Peter) and U2's "Until the End of the World" (for Judas) to Billy Preston's "You Are So Beautiful" (for the Virgin) and "One Moment More" by Mindy Smith (for Magdalene.) We're also using Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy" to summarize the confusion Christ experienced from those he loved.

This is Christian Formation for adults that matters: it meets them where they live and invites their serious spiritual reflection. What's more, this way of doing study together grows out of our ordinary lives and asks us to think about God's grace in an incarnational way.  To say that I am blown away and energized by all of this would be an understatement. What a blessing.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

the unfolding of holy week...

As Holy Week 2014 unfolds among us - with some families taking vacation time away - many of us grieve the most recent gun attack in Kansas City.  In what was intended as a hate-crime against Jews at a Jewish center by a lifelong anti-Semite, the shooter ended up murdering three Christians.  What a bitter and ugly irony.  In this morning's NY Times, columnist David Brooks reflects on the ethical values celebrated by our cousins in faith as they mark yet one more Passover. "In Moses, the leader of Israel's liberation," Brooks writes, "there is the quality of anivut."

"Anivut, Rabbi Norman Lamm once wrote, means a soft answer to a harsh challenge; silence in the face of abuse; graciousness when receiving honor; dignity in response to humiliation; restraint in the presence of provocation; and forbearance and quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism." 

Brooks makes clear that leaders - political and spiritual - must practice the binding and training of their souls so that we move beyond our wounds.  Without this, we will pass on our own pain and hurt others in the process.  Clearly, the witness of Jesus moving through his betrayal and passion highlights what "anivut" looks like for those with eyes to see.  As another wise teacher, Richard Rohr, has written:

All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. Great religion shows you what to do with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust. If only we could see these “wounds” as the way through, as Jesus did, then they would become “sacred wounds” and not something to deny, disguise, or export to others.If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter. Indeed, there are bitter people everywhere. As they go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonments, the burden of their own sinfulness and brokenness all pile up, and they do not know where to put it. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.

And so we, too, gather to observe and mark another Holy Week in pursuit of God's transforming love.  Here's what's going on this week...


+ Maundy Thursday - April 17 - 7:00 p.m.:  The heart of this gathering is humility and servanthood as expressed in the footwashing and Passover meal Jesus shared with his first disciples.  My message will explain - and demonstrate - the origins of both before we celebrate the Eucharist one last time before Easter Sunday.  NOTE: Our Sunday School staff - and childcare worker - will be present for this service and children are welcomed and encouraged to be present.  After the first 20 minutes, Crystal, Mark, and Janet will take out children out of worship for their own Maundy Thursday event as we move into the service of Tenebrae.  I am so very grateful for our Sunday School staff's commitment to not only be present, but to help our children go deeper.

+ Good Friday - April 18 - 7:00 p.m.:  MISUNDERSTOOD. Good Friday is a time for deep reflection on what is broken, what is wounded and what is sinful within and among us. It is a meditation on consciously moving through death into new life - including both grief and suffering - that can transform death into Christ-like compassion.  Our band and others have been working on a liturgy that explores not only how we often misunderstand the love of God, but how those misunderstandings erupt into wounds.  This team has written biblical narratives based on Mary Magdalene, Judas, Peter and the mother of Jesus, Mary as one way to crack open the theme of misunderstanding; contemporary music by U2, Mose Allison, Mindy Smith, Mason Jennings and the Police will be shared, too.  Our Sunday School staff and childcare folk will be present, too should some of our younger participants need a break. The liturgy will conclude with extinguishing candles on a 10' cross.  

+ Holy Saturday Easter Vigil - April 19 -  8:00 p.m.:  I have been invited to bring the sermon at this ecumenical Easter Vigil celebration hosted at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.  I am grateful and humbled because this is such a beautiful liturgy that traces the movement of God's love in time that climaxes in the Resurrection. I hope some will join me for this sacred time.

+ Feast of the Resurrection - Easter Sunday - April 20 - 10:30 a.m.:  We return to our own sanctuary for Holy Communion and the joy of God's love made real in Christ's triumph over the grave.  Our choir will sing, our children will be present for part of the joy and then return for Holy Communion and the people of God will bring honor to the Lord through prayer and praise.

Monday, April 14, 2014

MISUNDERSTOOD: Good Friday Encounter with Song, Story, Silence and Solidarity April 18th @ 7 pm...

NOTE:  As the rigors of Holy Week afflict and bless those working in places of Christian worship, I continue to labor towards the sacred Three Days we know as the Triduum. I think I have finished my worship notes for Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday morning. That leaves Maundy Thursday and some tweaking to do tomorrow - then it is on to both dress rehearsals and the actual worship encounters.  

Here, for example, in advance of our Good Friday experience, MISUNDERSTOOD, is what I believe I will be sharing with the gathered as way of interpretation.  Additionally, we will be performing a host of varied music from Mose Allison jazz with an ironic social commentary to flat-out spirit driven rock and roll from the Police and U2. If you are in town, THIS is the gig to attend! We will open the event with my take on "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" that has a mellow funky groove and we'll close the gig with a female-driven reprise of the same song. Identical words but a VASTLY different take... as befits the event, yes?
“Don’t let me be misunderstood…” Not only are these the words chosen to shape and guide tonight’s encounter, but they are sounds that leap from the heart of the human condition.  You don’t have to be religious or even vaguely spiritual to know that all too often our souls ache and our bodies tremble in fear or sadness because all throughout our lives, WE have been misunderstood.

It is a common knowledge the young people the world over feel like no one understands them.  Hell, half the time they don’t even understand them-selves as emotions swirl and hormones rage and social expectations try to squeeze them into a variety of molds that just don’t work. Women know a truckload about being misunderstood by men and mothers, employers and executives, clothes designers, psychiatrists and advertising moguls who have a one size fits all understanding of beauty, femininity and what makes for a life of meaning and satisfaction. And increasingly men too are beginning to articulate their own confusion about being confined to the roles and styles of rugged individualism and social conformity.

All around us are signs of misunderstanding from the culture wars and quest for true equality in our sexuality to the wounded warriors who after returning home from serving God and country find themselves consumed by the chaos of post traumatic stress disorder, unemployment all too often homelessness.  From America’s schizophrenia about race to our economic and political polarization, to paraphrase the old school dean of rock and roll Jerry Lee Lewis: there’s a whole lotta misunderstanding going on – and that fact is simultaneously frightening and discouraging.  It used to that we were an optimistic and even hopeful people when it came to the future, but that is no longer true among us.

So, as artists and people of faith, we asked ourselves:  how do we both talk about hope - and offer alternatives to inertia and despair - in a way that gets through to tjpse who have lost faith in technology, science AND religion?  Because that is what has taken place in post-modern society: nobody trusts the market place, nobody trusts progress and nobody trusts religious institutions any longer.  One of my mentors, the rock and roll genius Lou Reed, used to say:  You can't depend on your family, you can't depend on your friends, you can't depend on a beginning, you can't depend on no end.
You can't depend on intelligence, oh Lord you can’t depend on God. You can only depend on one thing:  you need a busload of faith to get by – so watch it, baby!
THAT, dear people, is the paradox of this moment – we need faith AND all around us those things that once held our trust have disqualified themselves through greed, violence, stupidity and fear-mongering.  Enter the promise and healing potential of music.

+  The artist once called Cat Stevens who after his conversion to Islam took the name Yusuf Islam recently spoke about this before being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:  After despairing for a long, long time about what I could do about the hatred and mistrust in the world… it dawned on me: Even with the entire world sinking deeper into despair, we can still sing! The spirit of humanity can be subdued, but never vanquished. And nothing brings out that spirit like a good song. As a short film on Nelson Mandela I watched recently showed, he danced and smiled from East to West, saying, "It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world and at peace with myself.”  So in 2001, after singing "Peace Train" for a tribute concert at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, in memory of the victims of 9/11, the sleepy train of peace-making through music began to chug its way slowly uphill again!

+  That’s why WE are here tonight – and we hope that is true for you, too. We sense that by being together in song – and story and silence and solidarity – we can awaken what is human and holy not just in one another but in our culture.  You see, tonight is an act of non-violent resistance to the fear and loathing that surrounds us.  Like Dostoevsky proclaimed in another dark age:  beauty can save the world because it awakens our souls, stirs our spirits and connects us to a love that is greater than ourselves.

Now I know that some think this is idealistic – or na├»ve – or some loosey-goosey hippie mumbo jumbo left over from another era.  But if you know ANYTHING about movements for equality, justice and peace you know that they are ALL saturated with song.  Congressman John Lewis, one of the Freedom Riders from the American anti-apartheid movement, said that without the freedom songs there would have been no soul or courage to the struggle for racial equality. On the night brother Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated in San Francisco, gay and straight allies spontaneously walked in candle light vigil through the streets weeping “we are a gentle angry people… and we are singing, singing for our lives.”  And on and on it goes…
So here’s what we've tried to do tonight with our MISUNDERSTOOD creation and we’ll only know if it was successful when we’re finished: We took the Christian chronicle of Good Friday and refashioned it with song and story to explore how God – or whatever you want to call that love that is greater than fear and hatred – can take our misunderstandings and shape them into something redemptive.  I asked each member of this ensemble to explore some music – and in some cases to write their own reworking of a sacred story, too – to express how human beings have ALWAYS experienced some degree of alienation and misunderstand-ing in their lives. 

Much as our culture would tell us otherwise, we are neither the crown of creation nor the center of confusion: people have been wrestling with misunderstanding for at least six thousand years and probably much longer. And the distilled wisdom of people who have listened to the pain and confusion all around them and then searched for a transformative meaning to it has something to teach us:  Namely that if we enter into the pain – if we embrace the confusion and pay attention to what is absurd, tragic and unjust within and among us – these very wounds can become our path into peace and hope and deeper compassion.

+  All the great religions – all the great artists – all the great musicians share an understanding that says:  if we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter. Indeed, there are bitter people everywhere. As they go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonments, the burden of their own sinfulness and brokenness all pile up, and they do not know where to put it. And when we do not know how to transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. (Richard Rohr)

+  Are you with me on this?  When we do not know how to transform the agony of misunderstanding into something healing, we will transmit it to other people and hurt them!  So tonight we’re going to practice sitting with our misunderstandings – and our fears – as we go into songs and stories and silence together. 

+  We’re even going to practice sitting together with all of this in utter darkness so that we might grow a little more comfortable with entering our wounds rather than running away from them or blaming or wounding others.
This is art as transformation – this is taking the beauty of our songs and stories – and trusting the silence – discovering something healing in the midst of all our misunderstandings.  The testimony of our elders is clear:  we ought not waste our pain – it can take us into a sacred place – it can give us the strength and tenderness to be an instrument of peace for others, too.  One of my favorite teachers, Richard Rohr, put it like this when he looked at Mary the Mother of Jesus:

As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross. Standing would not be the normal posture of a Jewish woman who is supposed to wail and lament and show pain externally. She’s holding the pain instead; think of the way Michelangelo symbolized this in the Pieta. Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. She’s trying to say, “There’s something deeper happening here. How can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?”For until you find a way to be a transformer, you will pass the pain onto other…

That’s our hope for this night: to interrupt the vicious cycle of passing on our pain to others. On behalf of these artists – whom I love and trust with my soul – let me thank you for coming out to join us.  May the Spirit of all that is holy be alive in our hearts that we might transform our pain and misunderstanding and so become instruments of God’s peace in the world.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday into the Triduum...

Here is a thoughtful and important article - and I offer it up in solidarity with my Jewish cousins who are celebrating Passover today - check it out:

Today, in the Christian tradition, we marked Palm/Passion Sunday: it was beautiful and rich even though we pulled the plug on our planned ecumenical procession because of threatening rain.  We still paraded around the Sanctuary and sang songs of love and joy before shifting gears and centering ourselves in the challenge and paradox of the Passion story.  In a few hours, I'm headed out again for a LONG Good Friday band practice. This will be the first time all the players are in the same room with one another. And we will have our premier sound man, Rob, at the dials to get our mix just right. 

Here is a short reflection worth of Passion Sunday from Fr. Richard Rohr who makes it clear what has to die - something all religions talk about - but most of us continue to get wrong. THANKS BE TO GOD FOR THE WISDOM AND MINISTRY OF RICHARD ROHR!

All the great religions of the world talk a lot about death, so there must be an essential lesson to be learned through death. The problem has been that we might know something has to die, but throughout much of religious history our emphasis has been on killing the wrong thing and therefore not learning the real lesson. Historically we moved from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice to various modes of seeming self-sacrifice, usually involving the body self.

God was not considered friendly. God was distant and scary. God was not someone with whom you fell in love or with whom you could imagine sharing intimacy. Instead, God was viewed as an angry deity who must be placated with some sort of blood sacrifice. Jesus presented a much different image of God, but it seems very hard for people to let go of their punitive ideas of God.

Sadly, the history of violence and the history of religion are almost the same history. When religion remains at the immature level, it tends to create very violent people who ensconce themselves on the side of the good and the worthy and the pure and the saved. They project all their evil somewhere else and attack it over there. At this level, they export the natural death instinct onto others, as though it’s someone else who has to die.

The truth is it’s you who has to die, or rather, who you think you are, the False Self. Authentic religion is always about you. It’s saying you change first.

Here's one of the song we'll be working on tonight:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Loving the arrival of spring...

Di has a hot new IPHONE that takes panoramic pix.  Here is our front yard after 90 minutes of raking and dealing with a rugged winter.
After Palm Sunday - and the rigors of Holy Week - we'll tackle the back 40.  It is wonderful to be alive...

Let us go up to the house of the Lord...

Yesterday's long walk in the woods next to a RUSHING stream was sweet. Lucie was totally exhausted after about four miles and slept like a rock for most of the rest of the day. What a joy feeling the sun (finally) and hearing the flow of all that water. (Here's a selfie taken from the trail:  tell, WHERE did all those laugh lines and crinkles come from?)
Most of today will be equally chill with some serious time devoted to cleaning the land after our ferocious winter. Tomorrow, of course, is the start of our Christian Holy Week and Palm Sunday - and once that begins, it will be a total blur for the next 8 days with liturgies, writing and rehearsals. I love this time of year in the church calendar and sometimes fear it because of the emotional demands.

In the early days of ministry, about 8:30 pm on Palm Sunday I would discover myself tied up in knots and resentful. "There is so much to do at church" I would shriek to myself and whoever else was around. "Don't these people know how much I already do for them?" It wasn't pretty and by Maundy Thursday I was in knots with liturgical performance anxiety. You see, like many young clergy who are learning about pacing and prayer, I thought it all depended upon me to make Holy Week work.  And when something went wrong - as it always does - I flipped out. (Ask my daughters sometime about the close of Holy Week during our Cleveland days.)

How did I ever come to invert this sacrificial time of Jesus to be all about me? I know part of it was my own wounds - some of us need lots of therapy before we understand the right reasons for staying in ministry - but some of it was about an institution (and the individuals in that institution) who are hungry for awe and transcendent experiences. They project their deepest yearnings and needs onto both their clergy and their holidays. And, because we are just like them - human - it is inevitable that everyone will leave dissatisfied. Small wonder some churches let themselves be pulled down to the lowest common denominator as they put on religious performances for their people.  

Well, here's a news flash:  not only is Holy Week not about me (or you) it is about Jesus and what he shows us of God's love. Fr. Richard Rohr recently wrote this about the way Christ invites us to take our deepest pains and wounds into God's love so that the Lord can transform them.  For as our wounds are transformed - and healed - we, too are changed from the inside out; we become people who no longer need to pass on their hurts to others. Rather, we become instruments of God's peace.
Only people who have suffered in some way can save one another—exactly as the Twelve-Step Program also discovered. Deep communion and dear compassion is formed much more by shared pain than by shared pleasure. I do not know why that is true.

“Peter, you must be ground like wheat, and once you have recovered, then you can turn and help the brothers” (Luke 22:31-32), Jesus says to Peter. Was this his real ordination to ministry? No other is ever mentioned. I do believe this is the ordination that really matters and that transforms the world. Properly ordained priests might help bread and wine to know what they truly are, but truly ordained priests are the “recovered” ones who can then “help” people to know who they are too. We have been more preoccupied with changing bread than with changing people, it seems to me.

In general, you can lead people on the spiritual journey as far as you yourself have gone. You can’t talk about it or model the path beyond that. That’s why the best thing you can keep doing for people is to stay on the journey yourself. Transformed people transform people. And when you can be healed yourself and not just talk about healing, you are, as Henri Nouwen so well said, a “wounded healer.” Which is the only kind of healer!

Holy Week became one of the places where I felt myself being ground down like wheat.  For years I hated this grinding - and did my best to avoid it and run away from it, too. But eventually my "doing a runner" was far more exhausting than I could endure, so I had to enter it. And here's the thing: that the Cross is always moving unto the resurrection. Our pain and fear, our guilt and shame, our confusion and suffering have a point when they are placed into the sacred embrace of God.  Rohr continues:

The genius of Jesus’ ministry is that he reveals that God uses tragedy, suffering, pain, betrayal, and death itself, not to wound you, but in fact to bring you to God. So there are no dead ends. Everything can be transmuted and everything can be used. After all, on the cross, God took the worst thing, the killing of God, and made it into the best thing—the redemption of the world! If you gaze upon the mystery of the cross long enough, your dualistic mind breaks down, and you become slow to call things totally good or totally bad. You realize that God uses the bad for good, and that many people who call themselves good may in fact not be so good. At the cross you learn humility, patience, compassion, and all of the Christian virtues that really matter.

Jesus says, “There’s only one sign I’m going to give you: the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Luke 11:29, Matthew 12:39, 16:4). Sooner or later, life is going to lead you (as it did Jesus) into the belly of the beast, into a place where you can’t fix it, you can’t control it, and you can’t explain it or understand it. That’s where transformation most easily happens. That’s when you’re uniquely in the hands of God.
Suffering is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego. It has to be led to the edge of its own resources, so it learns to call upon the Deeper Resource of who it truly is, which is the God Self, the True Self, the Christ Self, the Buddha Self—use the words you want. It is who we are in God and who God is in us. At this place you are indestructible!

I still find myself getting anxious as Holy Week begins to dawn - but at a deep level I know that NONE of this is about me - so I can practice letting it go. How did the ancient Psalmist put it: in Psalm 122:  I rejoiced when they said unto me let us go up to the house of the Lord...


U2 mixed the blues and the gospel - rock and roll and B. B. King - to create the best blend of faith and testimony in contemporary music. This blog is a summary of my weekly meditations at church - my stories of faith, hope and love. I hope to mix culture, art and biblical stories with the best of the progressive Christian tradition to express my take on God's love coming to town in the 21st century.