Wednesday, May 4, 2016

growing up while married...

Twenty one years ago tomorrow, Dianne and I were wed. It was a very small ceremony with three friends and our two daughters in attendance. It was celebrated outdoors by a waterfall in one of Cleveland's glorious Metro Parks. Afterwards, we repaired to our small apartment for an English high tea. When people ask, "Wow, you chose to get married on Cinco de Mayo! How cool is that?!!?" I would smile and reply, "Cinco de Mayo had nothing to do with it: one of our favorite songs is Dylan's "Isis" wherein the narrator sings, 'I married Isis on the 5th day of May, but I could not hold on to her very long...'" Some people dig it, but others just give me a quick, uncomfortable smile and quickly move on.

I married Isis on the fifth day of May
But I could not hold on to her very long
So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away for the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong

I came to a high place of darkness and light the dividing line ran through the center of town
I hitched up my pony to a post on the right went in to a laundry to wash my clothes down

She was there in the meadow where the creek used to rise
Blinded by sleep and in need of a bed
I came in from the East with the sun in my eyes
I cursed her one time then I rode on ahead

She said, “Where ya been?” I said, “No place special”
She said, “You look different.” I said, “Well, not quite”
She said, “You been gone.” I said, “That’s only natural”
She said, “You gonna stay?” I said, “Yeah, I jes might”

Isis, oh, Isis, you mystical child
What drives me to you is what drives me insane
I still can remember the way that you smiled
On the fifth day of May in the drizzlin’ rain

It is the perfect song for us: a mythopoetic, archetypal rock and folk song about Yin and Yan engery with a wildass fiddle weaving throughout while Allen Ginsberg dances around the band in ecstasy. What more could a couple ask for? It is all about living into the darkness and light. We've wondered whether life was worth living with - and without - one another. We've left one another. Regrouped. Fought and everything in-between.  And God knows we've changed over the years even if we've been "no place special.". It has been a beautiful, agonizing, sacred, messy, real, frightening and joy filled journey of love. I would never have "grown up" and gotten a little healthier were it not for Dianne. I suspect that the same is true in reverse.

We were two hippies of different ages when we wed - and that hasn't changed much Last year at this time we were on the magical mystery tour of our Sabbatical. We had a sweet little flat in the East Village for a week and went to a French restaurant to celebrate our 20th anniversary.  During that grand tour, we also bought ourselves new wedding rings at a Quebecois jewler - and renewed our vows later that summer in our Montreal kitchen. 

This year we're going to take a quick trip out to Cape Cod - I haven't been there since 1971 and it has been a long time for Di, too - and we've never been there together. The weather is supposed to be rainy and cold, but we like to walk on the beach and take in the beauty and solitude that rain affords those willing to brave the elements. By nature we are introverts and hermits - except I like to hit the jazz, folk and rock clubs of big cities from time to time. The art museums, bookstores, churches and cafes, too. Di tells me I've corrupted her over the years because she now loves this almost as much as me. Mostly we just like to hang by ourselves: we read, laugh, talk, walk and love one another quietly. Who knows what we'll find on the Cape - a quiet celebration for sure.

Mary Oliver put it like this:

Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
  careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
unsuitable —
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love

So I give thanks to this woman/friend/lover/soul mate as we honor 21 years of marriage. Here's one of many songs that have shaped and touched our commitment.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

midday eucharist...

For the past four years, I gather with a handful of people at 12:10 pm each Wednesday for midday Eucharist. Sometimes there are as many as 12 but mostly it is 3-7 of us. We sit in the Chancel of the Sanctuary, listen to quiet music, pray the Psalms and do lectio divina together before sharing a sign of Christ's peace. Then, we gather around the communion table and pray the Eucharistic Prayer from one of the Community of Iona's liturgies. At the close, we lift up names and events for prayer before heading back into our work-a-day lives. It is, most likely, the most important thing I do all week.

It is also most likely what I love the most about church.  It doesn't take a lot or preparation: I bring the bread, set the table and pour the wine. I light the candles, unlock the doors and turn on the CD (often quiet jazz or Gregorian chant.) I clean-up and lock-up, too.  We use the same liturgy week after week, making only minor changes for different liturgical seasons. And, to be honest, I am usually stunned that any body actually shows up. Don't get me wrong, I am totally grateful, but the fact that people make a point to be present blows my mind. I guess, like me, it is not only a grounding in a crazy world, but a source of nourishment in every sense of that word. My week feels naked and empty without being together with this tiny Eucharistic community. I feel lost, too without praying these words:

Leader: The Lord is with you.
Unison: And also with you.
Leader: Lift up your hearts.
Unison: We lift them to the Lord.
Leader: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
Unison: It is right to give our thanks and praise.
Leader: It is indeed right, for you made us, O Lord, and before us you made the world we inhabit, and before the world, you made the eternal home in which through Christ we have a place.  All that is spectacular, all the is plain have their origin in you; all that is lovely, all who are loving point to you as their fulfillment. And grateful as we are for the world we know and the universe beyond our comprehension, we particularly praise you, whom eternity cannot contain, for coming to earth and entering time in Jesus.
Unison: For his life which informs our living, for his compassion which changes our hearts, for his clear speaking which contradicts our harmless generalities, for his disturbing presence, his innocent suffering, his fearless dying and his rising to life breathing forgiveness, we praise you and worship him.
Leader: Here, too, gratitude rises for the promise of the Holy Spirit, who even yet – even now – confronts us with your claims and attracts us with your goodness. Therefore, we join our voices with angels and archangels, who forever sing this hymn to your glory.

Holy, holy, holy God Ruler Almighty; 
heaven and earth are full of your glory, glory be to you, O God.
Blessed is the One who comes, who comes in the name of God: 
Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.

Leader: Merciful God, send now in your kindness, your Holy Spirit upon this bread and wine and all of us that together we might be filled with the goodness of Christ Jesus. For now we remember that as Jesus gathered around a table among friends, he took bread and broke it saying:
Unison: This is my body, broken for you.
Leader: Later he took a cup of wine and after offering the blessing said:
Unison: This cup is the new covenant with God in my blood. Take it and drink to remember me.
Leader: In Christ’s presence we pray as he taught us.
Unison: Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever. Amen

Quiet prayers for reflection

Leader:  In one voice we pray together:
Unison: Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, grant us peace.

Leader:  Beloved, these are the gifts of God for the whole people of God, so come for all things are ready.

So we come... if there are only one or two who are able to be present, we simply visit with one another - check in on our lives and talk about our sense of the Spirit moving within us - before praying the Lord's Prayer and breaking the bread and sharing the cup. Most of the time, we crack open new insights about where the Lord is moving in both the Scriptures and our lives. It is holy ground for me - totally without value or honor in the business world - a waste of time and resources. But I wouldn't quit it for anything in the world.  If you are free, why not join us?

loving jazz casual with ralph gleason...

I got turned on to a jazz MONSTER today by my colleague, friend and master musician, Carlton Maaia II, during our weekly practice:  Jazz Casual with Ralph Gleason. OMG what a treasure. Toby Gleason described the genesis of the TV show for KQED-San Francisco:

One of his dreams, though, was to create a television series devoted entirely to Jazz. One which would allow the musicians the freedom to play what they wanted, for as long as they wanted; and allow the television audience to experience Jazz in a much more personal style than was being presented on television at that time. Jazz, when it was presented on television at all, was usually presented in very structured, formal, variety show formats. And so, Ralph J. Gleason's Jazz Casual was born. The series ran from 1960-1968, and aired on the NET network in the U.S. Thirty-one episodes were originally produced, of which twenty-eight survive...

Here is a collection of the giants of the genre at the height of the careers playing in a setting that was sweet and supportive. There is SO much more I could say, but why not just sit back and dig Cannonball Adderley playing and speaking with the ever suave Ralph Gleason verve and insight? This is jazz and jazz education at its finest. CHECK IT OUT!

Monday, May 2, 2016

every day is a winding road...

Today was just one of those days - total grace!  Most of it was given to the privilege of listening to people I love. From nursing homes and schools to our own church office and other places of employment, I had the chance to sit and cherish the stories of a few genuinely brilliant, tender, real and honest people who bring small but sacred blessings to the world. Their reach isn't great. Neither is mine. But at day's end, I couldn't help but rejoice over our prayers and tears - our laughter and confessions, too - for they filled this holy day.  On Sunday, for the Feast of the Ascension, I will read Psalm 47:

Clap your hands, all you peoples, shout to the Lord with a cry of joy.
For the Lord Most High is to be feared in awe... sing praises with all your skill.

And that's what I experienced today: people singing praises to God with all their skill. It wore me out, truth be told. Partially that's because I am getting too old for all of this, but it also has something to do with the enormous, awesome and fearsome power of grace. Such a privilege... made me think of Sheryl and Prince keeping it real with this song that gets it as right as any prayer I've EVER heard in church.  So now I am off to make some black bean ful and Israeli couscous as I share a little Cote de Rhone wine and candle light with my honey...

Sunday, May 1, 2016

the mysterious challenges of our calling for those who listen...

It may be that in addition to sharing encouragement and grace with the people of my faith community in everyday and ordinary ways, God might have one more significant task for me to be a part of: helping our community transition physically, emotionally and spiritually from a "big" congregation to a small place of faith, hope and love. As I've written before, I knew that there was something that needed to change after returning from sabbatical last fall. And while a few of my uber-linear leaders grew frustrated that I was in a discernment mode - and refused to rush the Holy Spirit - by about Advent 2015 three things had become clear:

+ First, thriving small churches share a few things in common:  worship is a shared 
primary priority, deep caring and compassion happens better with a smaller size, mission must be focused and mutual, the gifts of the laity are honored and nourished, adults and youth are serious about deepening their spiritual journey, and thriving small churches are much more concerned with being living community of faith than surviving institutions. (David Ray, The Indispensable Guide to Smaller Churches)

+ Second, we won't make it unless we are tender and intentional:  Ministry, not money, must guide how we compassionately revision and restructure. It is an illusion to think we can simply shrink what is currently taking place to fit the pledged dollars. Rather, as the former Mayor of Cleveland used to say, "Learn to make poverty your friend." That is, with diminished revenues, reshape your activities with care and intentionality to do the ministry this moment in history needs.

+ Third, trusting God to redefine our ministry is crucial:  This morning in worship I interrupted my series on Palestine/Israel to open a conversation about discernment, change, trust and our congregation's future. Two fascinating comments bubbled up from the congregation:  1) nowhere in the Acts of the Apostles' text is fear mentioned; confusion, frustration, anxiety and uncertainty, yes, but not fear. And 2) even when St. Paul claims a vision - which he only partially understood - the leadership for implementing the new ministry was a total surprise. In this case, it was a wealthy Gentile woman (Acts 16)

Some of my notes from this morning put it like this:

Here's my take on this story:  confusion is one of the ways God gets us ready for a radical change, it takes the whole community to discern new directions rather than one person, sometimes we get parts of the vision wrong so we need to be open to surprises, and the ministry God calls us to is always about a life-changing alternative to fear, hatred, bigotry and the ways of death in our culture, because ministry comes from God.  

I concluded with an oblique connection with today's alternative reading from the gospel in John 5. The presenting issue is the way Jesus heals a man on the Sabbath only to be confronted by some of the rabbis. My point was that during times of stress it is all too easy to give in to our fears or habits or rituals. Clearly that is part of what happened in the group of people who came out of the Johannine community in Palestine.

Most of us don’t know that by the time the gospel of John was written between 90 and 110 CE, there were a variety of small house churches throughout the Middle East and moving into Europe that embraced boldly different theologies about Jesus – often in profound opposition to one another – that still found ways of celebrating koinonia – fellowship – with one another so that no one was barred from Christ’s radical table of grace and Eucharist. No one. Think about this:  according to the late Raymond Brown, the American Jesuit scholar who advanced our modern knowledge of the gospel of John more than most, by the start of the second century there were:

+ Three clusters of churches emphasizing different insights about Jesus that came from the Apostle Paul.

+ There were two geographic groups of congregations inspired by the teaching of John.

+ There was one group that honored the wisdom of Peter.

+ And another Jewish/Gentile mix following the more conservative path of Matthew and James

In some of these churches there was practically no difference between Jew and Gentile – both were accepted and trusted and welcomed in synagogue and ecclesia alike – while in others there was animosity, fear and eventually expulsion from one or the other.  In some churches women held positions of great authority, but not in others. And in some churches there was a grassroots internal organization while in others there was a top down hierarchy that called all the shots. In John’s community, which began in Palestine but fled to what we now know as Syria and Lebanon during Rome’s brutal attack on Judaism that began in 68 CE and culminated in the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70, they began with love and cooperation between Jews and Jewish Christians. And this trust continued for a few generations. 

But as oppression from Rome against Jews increased – and as the small church following the way of John welcomed Samaritans and Gentiles into their evolving congregation – antagonisms broke out that eventually led to John’s people being prohibited from interacting with the synagogue and the dispersed people of Israel.  And that is why we read over and over again words in John’s gospel that are anachronistic to Jesus and portray him in opposition to the Jews. You see, by the time John’s stories were collected, there was a full blown family feud taking place between synagogue and church – and you know how ugly family fights can become, yes? Some of that venom was codified in the gospel where it continues to do incredible damage adding fuel to the fire of anti-Semitism all over the world.  

It took 400 years after the ministry of Jesus to finally cause an irreparable schism
between Judaism and Christianity because Jesus was a Jew who did NOT abandon his tradition and the early church knew it.  Please remember... even while John’s people were fighting their Jewish cousins, in other parts of the church they were breaking bread together – finding ways to share compassion and conversation in the real world – even learning how to agree to disagree in love.

That is to say, in all things biblical and theological, there is never simply ONE true way of being faithful – and our own theological history teaches this if we’re willing to listen.  After all, the deeper truth that both Jesus and the Jewish rabbis celebrated about Sabbath comes from the prophetic poetry of Isaiah 58:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you make the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you respect it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs then you shall take delight in the LORD and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob… so remember: Is this not the fast that I choose: to lose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free  and to break every form of bondage?  

In my 35+ years of ordained ministry my calling has shifted:  at first it was engaged with peace-making and young people, then it was grounded in making the gospel real in urban Cleveland, while in Tucson my ministry included music and spirituality as well as outreach in solidarity with the GLBTQ community. And when we arrived in Pittsfield, I was certain that worship renewal and celebrating a journey as an Open and Affirming congregation was going to be the core. It has been SO much richer than that including jazz, mission, lay empowerment and now... perhaps... a bold new restructuring that resonates with God's vision for us in the 21st century.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

thinking about david brooks...

One of the many things I like about NY Times columnist, David Brooks, is his humility. For one of our nation's most elite pundits, he not only knows how to laugh at himself but is able to admit when he gets something wrong and strive to make amends, too. His self-deprecating smile suggests to me a man who has learned something of the spirituality of imperfection. Yes, he is a political and social conservative. That already disqualifies him from admiration from some I know and love. I prefer a less shallow measuring stick, one more like Dr. King's that starts with the content of our character rather than the color of our skin - or our political affiliation. 

For the past two years Brooks has mostly avoided writing and speaking about the passing fads of US politics. Instead, like Reinhold Niebuhr before him, he is attempting to reclaim a place for morality in our considerations of what nourishes the public good. It isn't easy work in a post-modern world that abhors meta-narratives and celebrates ethical relativism as normative. But, from my perspective, Brooks continues to work at this - even when he gets it wrong. His most recent book, The Road to Character, explores the way a variety of ordinary people grew into souls who shared compassion and hope from the inside out. Some have speculated that Brooks is on the road to conversion from Judaism to Christianity, but he isn't saying any more than this: "I don't talk about my religious life in public in part because it's so shifting and green and vulnerable. I don'[t really talk about it because I don'[t want to trample the fresh grass." He has sold his home and now lives alone just a short distance from the National Cathedral.

But who cares if he remains a Jew? Or converts to Roman Catholicism as some have mused? What grabbed my attention was his dramatic shift in emphasis two years ago and his abiding willingness to change directions when he gets something wrong. Both spiritual traditions call this repentance - literally and figuratively changing your life's direction to correct a mistake you now own as real and troublesome - and making amends. Brooks recently did this with his eight month insistence that "The Donald" would eventually crash and burn. He was certain that both common sense and the good will of the Republican Establishment would seize the day. But that never happened. Trump is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party prompting Brooks to confess::  I got it wrong. I wasn't speaking to the right people. In fact, I was too caught up in my own small and elite world to know about the pain and fear of those whom Trump has energized. 

I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own. It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years. We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.

And now he is doing what moral people do when they accept their err of their ways: they change directions - t'shuva - and make amends. It is refreshing for me to see ethical and common sense insights being shared on the Op Ed pages of the NY Times. Please don't get me wrong:  I don't think David Brooks is the Savior. That job has already been taken. He is just a real public intellectual who has changed directions and aches to restore a measure of moral discourse to our realm.  And for that I am grateful.  

Friday, April 29, 2016

the call of beauty...

"When we experience beauty," writes John O'Donohue, "we feel called." Indeed, the word for beautiful in Greek, to kalon, is "related to the word kalein which includes the notion of 'call' - and that makes sense for that which is beautiful evokes a response from us. O'Donohue continues with insight:

(Beauty stirs) our passion and urgency... and calls us forth from aloneness into the warmth and wonder of an eternal embrace. It unites us again with the neglected and forgotten grandeur of life. The call of beauty is not a cold call into the dark or the unknown; in some instinctive way we know that beauty is no stranger. We respond with joy to this call... because in an instant it can awaken under the layers of the heart a forgotten brightness.

Early in my work for social justice, I would never have connected the call of beauty with an inspiration for action. To be sure, I loved being touched by beauty - art, music, lovers and nature all fed my soul - but I understood my work (my calling) to be about results. For decades, in fact, it never dawned on me that acts of compassion and organizing for social justice were actually expressions of beauty given shape and form in the realm of social relationships. Marx didn't write this way (well, the mature Marx); Alinsky didn't make this connection either. But Joni Mitchell did. - and so did Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane,The Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Dylan, too. I got a few more clues from feminist intellectuals like Robin Morgan and Germaine Greer in the early 70s. But most of the social analysis - as well as the liberation theology of the day - rarely if ever connected beauty with justice and grace: it was either bread or roses until Robert Bly's mythopoetic writing in the 90s showed me how these two worlds could embrace and dance together. As O'Donohue notes: "Beauty is quietly woven through our ordinary days in ways that we hardly notice. Everywhere there is tenderness, care and kindness, there is beauty... And yet beauty does not linger, it only visits."

Perhaps that is why in the second half of life I have been so eager to integrate the realm of action with contemplation. One without the other feels to me imbalanced and impoverished. A spiritual director I worked with in Tucson for years added this insight when I quoted the “Godfather” to him:  sometimes in order to get things done, I said, I need to affirm that this is business not personal. He sat quietly for a moment before saying, “Man, that is so wrong. Everything is personal and the quicker you grasp this the better you and everyone you touch will be.” 

He was right - and that's where beauty integrates action with feelings, results with intentions, and expectations with process. Today, as part of our Sabbath reflection, we spent a few hours caring for our yard. Not only does such quiet work get my hands back into the dirt, but it gives me unstructured time to think and feel, sweat and move, see results and give thanks to God. As I was adding some finishing touches to a flower bed in our front yard, my aching back confirmed that I am clearly in the closing years of ministry. Increasingly I find myself drawn towards -- and energized by - not the big projects (although there are a few that need serious attention.) But rather the small and tender ones like one-on-one spiritual direction. Writing. I suspect that music making and celebrating Eucharist have a place in these days, too.

It is not clear to me how long God and I want me to keep on doing what I am doing. Not clear at all - some days I think I understand and then others tell me "you're done!" To be honest, it is probably both, yes? There is more the Lord asks of me, but in another direction, something with ever more beauty. Maybe that's why I keep playing "Purple Rain" over and over in my study at home and returning to Wendell Berry's poem, ''The Mad Farmer Liberation Front." It is beautiful to me in every way and reminds me that life is so out of balance, that wildly bold and beautiful acts are essential...

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more of everything ready-made. Be afraid to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head. 
Not even your future will be a
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer. 

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion -- put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

ottawa jazz festival...

In about 60 days, we're going to revisit the beautiful little jazz festival nestled into the heart of Ottawa, ON. Because both Lisa Fischer and The Roots were playing there last year during our sabbatical, we took a chance and made the trek from Montreal. And damn but it was fine, fine, super fine! So this year, rather than deal with our favorite North American city when it is full to overflowing with tourists, we've booked time in Ottawa. (Nous reviendrons a Montreal at the end of summer this year.)
Three highlights of the Ottawa outing will start by seeing Chick Corea, Christian McBride and Brian Blade play as a jazz trio. Each is a giant in his own right - so to dig them playing standards in this context is a bit of heaven on earth. I have a deep affinity for this type of ensemble - piano, bass and drums - and hope to be able to get some of my own playing in with my local mates in this type of configuration - and maybe bring in a sax man, too! The second artist I am eager to see in Ottawa is Montreal composer and pianist, Marianne Trudel and her quartet with guest sax player Ingrid Jensen. Both women are stunning in their creativity and wildly inventive in their playing. I saw Trudel last year in my favorite Montreal jazz club, Dieze Onze, doing a quartet so this should be a total gas. And the third joy will be the 50th Anniversary of Brian Wilson doing the Pet Sounds Tour. I can still remember when my first Capitol Records Club package arrived with "Pet Sounds" inside. To see this recreated live in Confederation Park should be another encounter with the sublime. I can't wait.

Between now and then, however, there is some important work to embrace at church: we're beginning a drive to "right size" our facilities in a way that is exciting - especially using our real estate to become an asset for ministry rather than wasted space - and that kicks off in May. We will celebrate the ordination into ministry of a young man I have come to cherish and respect now that he has completed seminary and accepted a call to serve a congregation outside of Worcester, MA. There are some memorial services to conduct and also the Rite of 
Confirmation for five of our young people, too.  Lets not forgetting hanging with my loved ones as well as house painting - inside and out - and more work on my bass playing, too. Then, as the summer closes, we'll hang in Montreal for a short spell and soak up the sweet vibe of that sacred place.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I rejoiced when I heard them say...

A tender moment took place this afternoon during midday Eucharist that has given me pause for the rest of the day: while sharing lectio divina with our small group on Psalm 67, I noticed something moving in the center aisle of the Sanctuary. "Could it be Elijah?" I mused to myself with a sense of Passover, "or is it just another old age 'floaty" dancing in the periphery of my vision?" 

So I turned - from time to time guests wander in these days - and sure enough there was a tall, slender man with flowing white hair and a beard. "Excuse me," he said softly while taking off his cap in respect, "are you really opening the church in the middle of the day?" I smiled and our little group replied in one voice as if a they were a chorus, "Yes, indeed, would you like to join us?" He said, "I can't right now but would love to plan to come back next Wednesday. What a GREAT idea!" And with that, we shared a smile and he left.

After a reverent moment of silence, one of the women said, "I could only find parking out in front today, but when I saw the front doors of the Sanctuary open, it just felt so good to know the church was OPEN!." This took us away from the Psalm for a few minutes more - and has stayed with me for the rest of the day. Psalm 133 comes to mind: How good and pleasant it is when sisters and brothers dwell in unity. Maybe Psalm 122, too: I rejoiced when I heard them say let us go up to the house of the Lord.

There is something about this Sanctuary - could be all the wood, might be the marble Celtic cross, certainly has something to do with 252 years of worshipping spirits quietly coming and going within the walls, and the rainbow tapestry over the baptismal fount doesn't hurt - that evokes safety, welcome and rest for all types of people. doors help a whole bunch, too, but there is genuinely a "spirit" of mercy in this place. It feels like a Sabbath rest when you step away from the busy main street into the soft, diffused light. One architect told me that this property has always been used for holy things - it has never been a place of commerce, farming or industry - always prayer. So after Eucharist, as I closed up shop for the day, I gave thanks to God. My gratitude took me right to this incredible tune by Rachmaninov that we are preparing for June:  "Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos."

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

prince did it all...

There is a meme floating around the Internet reminding us that when we grieve a public artist we have never met it is because they helped us know ourselves more intimately. We project on to these visionaries parts of ourselves we want to nourish and celebrate. In fact, one of the blessings and curses our public artists carry with them is our baggage - good and bad - healthy and twisted. They evoke truths within us that we hadn't yet named. And if we are healthy, we embrace these new insights playfully and become more fully ourselves.

Prince certainly did that for many of us:  he was sassy and sexy, androgynous and provocative, sensual and spiritual as well as brash, humble and drop dead funny. Oh, did I leave out
gorgeous, too?  When he showed up on the scene, parts of America's industrial base was giving up the ghost. Other parts of our land were captured by fear of HIV/AIDS or seduced by the sentimental cynicism of Ronald Reagan. And Prince helped us hear what it sounds like when doves cry.  He got us shaking our booties again as we all went crazy. And people started to sing along out loud with The Bangles or Sinead. Whether he was getting funky or naughty, sampling James Brown or bringing Miles onto the stage, this cat helped many of us get back into our bodies again - and treasure being alive.

He was a blues man - like Hendrix - and could help us weep with his guitar. He was a prophet who understood the signs of the times. He was a master musicologist, too who could step onto stage and sing along with Sly Stone's band, jam with Wayne Shorter or cover Joni Mitchell tunes with finesse and grace. And what a sly little pixie he was when he broke into a smile. 

For years I've wanted to do a Prince Good Friday liturgy using his tunes to retell the Passion Narrative. It does my heart good to see how so many across the races have come out to honor and celebrate his ministry of music. As he said himself: "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life." He helped me make sense of some of the hard times and gave me permission to honor to keep on being me. I give thanks to God for Prince.

Monday, April 25, 2016

sometimes you get clues...

Sometimes you get clues, yes?  After sharing music at an event, a colleague comes over to speak with you about a recent death in the family. It is tender. And real. It feels important to be alive in this moment. 

Or you race like a bat outta hell to get on the carousel with your grandson - and the young ticket teller tells you, "We're closed." The merry-go-round hasn't started yet but she's not budging. You hold the little one close and wonder what to do next. And then your daughter puts on her best New York momma and says with verve, "Two dollars? I'll give you $10 dollars... can't you see Granddad rushed to get here?!?" But the authority isn't backing down. So momma takes it up with the actual ticket taker who lets her heart do the thinking and relents. And I get to go around and around 20 times with the light of my life in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge waving to his momma and my honey. (Made me think of when I did that with his momma back in Golden Gate Park!)

Or you make a simple supper, light the candles, pour some wine and just sit talking with your beloved about what's next on this journey called life? Or you spend two hours late on a Sunday afternoon singing and weeping your way through "Purple Rain." Or you get a note late in the day encouraging a new sign of hope in a broken world:  "Let's get people together to pray Psalm 148 - all kinds of people - all faiths - all genders - all at the same time." Or you get your crazy dog home and all she wants to do is sleep in your lap. 

Apparently, I could go on and on and on because some things are pure. They matter. They last. and do not tarnish. Then there's all the bullshit. Today I chose to let it go. My resolve won't last long, I know. And I bet you by tomorrow I'll be fretting about something stupid again. But today, at least for most of the daylight hours, I trusted the blessings that endure and loved being fully alive. "I never meant to cause you any sorrow, I never meant to cause you any pain. I only wanted to one time see you laughing... laughing in the purple rain."

Sunday, April 24, 2016

obscure blessings, purple rain and the mysteries of faith...

Today I mostly just wanted to be still, play "Purple Rain" over and over again, pray the Psalms quietly in chant and then share some music at today's "street meal/ eucharist." But that wouldn't be professional, right? As worship leader, one of the commitments has to do with putting your personal spiritual needs on hold for a time while helping others journey through the liturgy. So that's what I did. I got distracted right after the opening hymn by something - who knows what - and skipped the children's moment only to discover the err of my ways half way into the morning prayers.  They say that confession and humility is good for the soul. So, I owned it, grouped and prayed: Oh well, Lord...

That led to a congregational conversation about why we do things liturgically (one of my band mates later said, "So that we can know when the pastor goes off script, right?!") There was sweet music and prayer. But about two thirds of the way into my message I realized it was too long, too complicated and too late to change directions. Not a train wreck, but way more than most wanted to digest at 11 am in the morning. I kept self-editing as I plowed on to the conclusion trusting that even during the times I feel the worst about things someone inevitably tells me, "Thank you, man, I really needed that."  (I doubt that happened today.)

Once upon a time I heard Jeremiah Wright tell a group of African American pastors in Cleveland the story of what his mother told him when he first got into the "family business" of preaching the Gospel. "Do you think Ted Williams got into the Hall of Fame for hitting a home run every time he went to bat? Do you think that Picasso never tossed a painting into the trash? Do you think you are better than these giants? Look, Ted Williams made it into the Hall of Fame by getting on base once every four times at bat! And Picasso? He threw away more than he ever hung up. So, once you give it your best shot on a Sunday morning - and it isn't a home run - let it go. Give it to God with honesty and conviction and leave the rest to the Lord."

Confirmation class followed with great questions about discernment and trust from our teens. Once again I realized I was only partially clear in explaining how interpreting the 10 Commandments is a life's work. I had better luck as we wrestled with the Apostles' Creed. We trust God because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and we trust Jesus, because he has sent the Spirit to encourage and lead us when we need it the most. That is why we celebrate the Holy Trinity: one connects us to the other in the mystery of faith. When our discussion was over, two of the little girls ran up to me - all dressed in purple - and said, "James, don't you just hurt because Prince died?" I nodded and smiled in gratitude as they ran off in a flurry. This was the true blessing of this morning for me. Then it was an hour of music practice for a 2 pm outdoor festival sponsored by the Cathedral of the Night. About 120 people showed up for songs and bar-b-que to say nothing of the distribution of the watermelon. Not exactly a traditional Eucharist, but totally right for a cool, bright Eastertide day in the Berkshires and I was glad to be a part of the festival.

Truth be told, however, I would have still rathered to listen to endless versions of "Purple Rain" because my soul hurts at the death of Prince. Miles Davis described him as a combination of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Charlie Chaplin. That cat could play ANYTHING - and do it with finesse, grace, creativity and humor. So, I'm going to pour myself a "toasted lager," do some "Purple Rain" prayer and practice right now and give thanks for the blessings of this day because while they were mostly obscure to me,  that is another part of the mystery of faith.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

reflections on hilary and bernie - part three...

In the third of five reflections on the differences I wrestle with between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders, a clearer divergence of worldviews and analytic precision comes into focus when foreign policy matters, trade and economic reform, gun control and the legacy of sexism are examined.  (I had originally thought I would wrap things up with this one, but I clearly need two more installments.) In my estimation, when these subjects are investigated beyond the catch phrases of the campaign, they clarify objectively the wisdom of Clinton’s current agenda over the paucity of practical possibilities in the Sanders proposals.  I do not question the passion or integrity of those who “feel the Bern.” There is an exciting energy to his campaign that is palpable. Nor am I in disagreement with many of their goals – especially when it comes to changes in caring for the poor, strengthening the middle class and lessening US involvement in international conflicts. What is missing for me in Sanders is gravitas – politically, analytically and strategically – as I hope to convey in the following review.  Please note that in previous postings I am always grateful to those friends, colleagues and readers who reply to my reflections with serious critiques of my blind spots and/or new information. I detest and delete, however, rants and/or emotional mudslinging of any sort. So, if you have an alternative analysis with substantive facts and philosophical depth, please be in touch, ok?

I have argued before that Sanders’ unwillingness to seriously explore compromise is troubling to me.  By insisting that his positions alone define the moral high ground, I detect a cranky self-righteousness that alienates potential allies and limits the political discussion to all or nothing propositions.  Small wonder that he has been only modestly successful as a legislator in advancing his agenda:  to his credit Sanders added seven different amendments to various House bills between 1990 and 2006 as a US Representative and did likewise six times after he became as a US Senator in 2006. He has passed only three bills of his own creation – two of which named post offices.

A controversial article entitled, “On Becoming Anti-Bernie,” by Robin Alperstein, cuts deeper into the implications of Sanders’ intransigence and my lingering mistrust by dissecting the specious number Sanders uses to advance his single payer health plan.  His projections require both new taxes as well as a 5% growth in the US economy over the length of his term – necessities that are beyond reason. Further, even should the economy move to a 5% rate of growth, there is still at least a $1 trillion gap between cost and revenue.  Ms. Alperstein correctly concludes that Sanders tends towards political magical thinking rather than hard analysis when it comes to governance. There is also an inclination towards celebrating bold political goals without sufficient strategy or allies.

(By) rejecting compromise as a mark of lack of integrity, or worse, corruption, Sanders accomplishes two deeply disingenuous goals: (i) he sets himself apart from his colleagues in Congress as the only one who is allegedly “true” to his “values,” thereby creating the myth that he is morally superior and incorruptible; and (ii) he turns the necessity of compromisewithout which literally nothing can get done in Congressinto a negative, very similar to the Tea Party and hardliners on the far right in Congress, thereby allowing him to transform his failure to compromise and thus his failure to have achieved any workable progressive legislation in 25 years into a “virtue”a testament to his supposed integrity. (

Given our current political gridlock, I find this legacy less than useless. And when it turns into a shrill smear-by-insinuation campaign against Mrs. Clinton, it becomes repugnant especially given Mr. Sanders’ rhetoric as a reformer. The policy implications of this disingenuous approach to compromise were recently articulated by Tom Hayden, the grandfather of the New Left, in The Nation:

To simply reject Obamacare in the belief that “political revolution” will lead to a single-payer solution is simplistic. The path to a Canadian-type system or Medicare for All has fallen short in California and Vermont, and will require Republican defeats this year and in 2018, followed by a presidential showdown in 2020. Meanwhile, Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion are helping 20 million Americans now, mainly youth and people of color, which is a huge improvement that no thoughtful radical can dismiss as merely “reformist.” My friends at National Nurses United are to be congratulated for spending millions supporting Bernie and tirelessly rolling their buses through so many states thus far, but I don’t see a rollout of a Plan B, which requires at least two presidential terms and three more congressional elections. Bernie’s position reinforces the voter impression that his idealism will be blocked in practice. Hillary and Obama’s approach, following on her children’s-health-insurance law, is much easier for voters to understand and support. ( i-used-to-support-bernie-but-then-i-changed-my-mind/)
There is too much at stake to be seduced by speeches that evoke radical change without describing a realistic way towards implementation. Let me, therefore, share my understanding of the differences between BS and HRC when it comes to gun control. Later postings will highlilght my understanding of their differences re: financial/economic reform, foreign policy initiatives, and some of the effects of sexism.

For a time, I thought gun control should be taken off the table given the rural context of Vermont. But that would neglect Mr. Sanders’ capitulation to the NRA and give him a pass on misrepresenting Clinton’s role in the crime bill of 1994. Sanders learned the hard way that he needed to finesse gun control issues in his state if he was to be successful in advancing a political career. So, he came to oppose the passage of the Brady Bill and has consistently challenged holding gun manufacturers liable for the violence their products cause. To be fair, he currently holds a D minus rating from the NRA (only the 2012 ratings are available at this time) because he supports common sense background checks. Nevertheless, he has not advanced common sense gun control legislation that the majority of Americans long to see implemented. 

I was shocked watching the last NY state debate sponsored by CNN when Sanders attempted to laugh off Mrs. Clinton’s questions about his record on gun control. I understand that Bernie arguably holds a more complex position on this matter than Hilary’s political barbs describe. But his cavalier dismissal and mocking laughter evoked visceral disgust – especially after trying to denigrate her reputation in the African American community by suggesting that she knew all the unintended consequences that would emerge from the 1994 crime bill of President Clinton.  This was legislation that he, too voted for although he likes to conveniently leave this out of the debate.  And asking yet again for an apology for the one time Hilary used the expression “super-predator” in reference to this bill – a phrase she has repeatedly repudiated and apologized for – exposed Bernie’s willingness to get down and dirty with racial politics when he needs to win. Please remember that he used the word “sociopath” in his advocacy of this legislation. Both candidates know that this bill has caused far too much incarceration in the Black and Latino community.  It would be so much more productive to have a national dialogue about what we learned as a nation from these mistakes, the role of systemic racism in mass incarceration, and a proposed set of recommendations and legislation to correct it now, instead of disingenuously attacking, blaming, and lying by omission about Hillary, and further erasing the historical reality in which that bill was passed.” (Alperstein)

I would never claim that Bernie doesn't have sensitivity and compassion on gun control issues in his heart. But he is clearly politically vulnerable and should be hammered whenever he tries to rewrite history. For the record, Hilary has consistently supported background checks, challenging the political prowess of the NRA lobby, and restricting weapons ownership from suspected terrorists, those with a criminal record as well as domestic abusers. I am grateful that NY turned out in support of Mrs. Clinton tonight.