Friday, November 27, 2015

I hear you sing again...

Last night I heard a song that blew me away. It is an Arlo Guthrie/Janis Ian composition based
on Woodie's lyrics. In so many ways it says what is in my heart these days.  I also finished Barbara Brown Taylor's book, An Altar in the World, last night and she concludes with the importance of ordinary people offering blessings for one another. 

All I am saying is that anyone can do this.Anyone can ask and anyone can bless, whether anyone has authorized you to do it or not. All I am saying is that the world needs you to do this, because there is a real shortage of people willing to kneel wherever they are and recognize the holiness holding its sometimes bony, often tender, always life-giving hand above their heads. That we are able to bless one another at all is evidence that we have been blessed, whether we can remember when or not. That we are willing to bless one another is miracle enough to stagger the very stars.

What I love about this song is the simple blessing it recognizes. Arlo spoke in an earlier interview about how important it is that different kinds of people get the chance to sing songs together: we are so divided, so polarized, so afraid. But when we sing together, at least for a moment, we become one. And that is a blessing that we need a lot more of these days, yes? On this clip, Arlo's son, Abe, is playing keyboards with his dad as Poppa sings the words of his dad.

So take a listen to this sweet song - a tune about memory and presence and passing on blessings one to another - and know that you are blessed.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving to you all...

Today is the Feast of Thanksgiving in the USA and it has been a week of gratitude for our household. First, Dianne was able to sing in the "Missa Gaia" despite her unknown inner pain. We give thanks for powerful meds and her inner strength.
The Missa was a blessing to perform and share - and while I grieved the illness of Rebecca - I reveled in Carlton's skill and beauty in bringing this complicated composition to birth in the Berkshires. He brings great joy to my life and to all the work of our shared ministries.
After the gig, we had a chance for an early Thanksgiving feast with Michal and Winton for whom I give thanks to God every day.
As the week unfolded, I found myself connecting with individual members of the congregation in need of someone to listen. This, too, evoked gratitude for a decision to spend more time giving attention to what I sense is a ministry quiet presence. It was fortified as we celebrated midday Eucharist, too.
And then Jesse, Mike and Louie arrived for another feast, mezze and French wine, along with LOTS of Louie-loving time.  We had a Thanksgiving breakfast of fresh muffins, Irish bangers and tea and coffee before they headed out.
Later this afternoon, we'll cook a stuffed pork roast and feast in quiet joy thinking back over a full year of blessings. This has been a sacred year for Dianne and me - not only a time of rest and renewal spiritually but also within our marriage - and I rejoice in her presence in my life. It is fitting that we will "do" Thanksgiving with a measure of solitude.
After a Thanksgiving dinner that can't be beat - and probably a nap - we'll watch Arlo do his 50th Anniversary "Alice's  Restaurant Complete Massacree" show on PBS (a gig filmed here in Pittsfield at the Colonial Theatre.)  
Tomorrow we'll spend some time at another doctor's office - for yet another ultrasound - and then spend some time walking before seeing "Suffragettes." The kids will be back Saturday morning and we'll chill with them for a short time before they hed back to Brooklyn - and then it will be Advent.  Grace and peace to you all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

starting to enter the stillness...

It is a good thing that Thanksgiving will be here in two days. I love the movement into the stillness. It is a quiet yet hope-filled winter holiday - and my soul is ready. This year feels like a totally new season in our lives: we are no longer doing our Thanksgiving Eve gig and Di no longer has to work on Black Friday. Our daughters have created their own Thanksgiving traditions, too. For decades by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, we were exhausted from musical performances and apprehensive about having to descend into consumer madness. Now, we are free to be reflective as we feast and honor the goodness of the fall harvest. 
To be sure, Dianne's continuing illness and pain are troubling. A new round of testing begins on Friday and continues throughout the following week. Through the generosity and creativity of others, she now has better pain medication and that's nother reason to enjoy a more contemplative holy day. We got to feast with part of the family on Sunday evening and the Brooklyn contingent joins us for an overnight tomorrow. So our prayers ascend as we await insights about what is causing her so much agony. Once a diagnosis is found, then real treatment can begin. Until then we affirm the old 60's slogan: better living through chemistry!

Three realities in my life are worth mentioning today: our performance of "Missa Gaia," the exceptional generosity of our our small community of faith, and our coming to terms with being a humble congregation.

+ MISSA GAIA: This started out as a crazy idea last winter. The Missa is a complicated composition and we quickly discerned that we should not attempt a performance in the Spring but rather a more seasoned event in the Fall. Good call because it took 10 weeks of rehearsal to get the chorus ready, willing and able to sing this sweet music. Sadly, a few key players and singers encountered illness and had to drop out along the way. But this forced the existing choir to kick up their game - and they delivered like pros! The instrumentalists gave us their hearts and skill, too and the volunteer dancers added grace and movement. About 175 people turned out - most of whom were not from this faith community - so they got a chance to see what we are all about in action:  beauty and compassion shared freely as an alternative to hate and fear. I have never been more proud of our folk and never more satisfied with a performance.
+ GENEROSITY:  For the past four years the churches and synagogues of Pittsfield have been collaborating on a town-wide Thanksgiving dinner for our neighbors in need. Our first task was to bake 300 pies - something that seemed outrageous at the time - but we delivered over 400. Each year the challenge has been increased and this year our little group baked over 802 pies! Other congregations got into the spirit, too with 16 groups serving over 1500 dinners yesterday. It is clear that even with the economic recovery many Americans have experienced in the last few years, not much has changed for those at the bottom. (Here's the local paper's take on it all with some good video clips by Ben Garver /news/ci_ 29156944/hundreds-brave-cold-thanksgiving-angels-program) Here's a picture of our pies in the refrigerator before Monday's food distribution.
+ HUMILITY:  Our congregation was once a powerhouse. It was home to the power brokers and exerted power upon the social, cultural, religious and economic life of Pittsfield. To say that this is no longer true would be an honest and humble assessment. 251 years after our founding, we are small in number - 60-80 on an average Sunday - far from the seat of authority or influence, and still a bit unsure of how to reconcile ourselves with this new reality. The whole town grieved and wept when the major employer, General Electric, closed up shop in the 80's. Many have stayed prisoner to that tumult and live mostly into their loss. Others have succeeded in re-imagining our town as they invest in it with creative eateries, galleries, night spots and cultural venues. It is still a struggle. It is clearly rooted in a gritty, blue-collar vibe. And, the demographics continue to work against us. Nevertheless, there is an emerging cadre of people working hard to renew Pittsfield albeit in ways that don't make sense to many old timers. Our future is not to be found looking backwards. Our ministry is neither about nostalgia nor lament. Our calling must be among those "seeking the welfare of the city" as it thrives right now in 2015. After the holidays, we are going to have to give up some of the trappings of our powerful past - from selling parts of our real estate to letting go of outdated governance habits - so that we can minister to the emerging Pittsfield with creativity, joy and integrity.
So now we're cleaning house for Thanksgiving and then it is on to Advent: a season of hopeful waiting and tender anticipation amidst the harsh of reality of refugees, homelessness, war and violence. It was true at the birth of Christ and not much has changed. Except, of course, those who have been called by Jesus to be his Body are now empowered to live as he did in a broken world. We have been invited to bring light into the darkness and solidarity into the loneliness. We have been asked to model silence together in community, pausing from the rush to consume so that we might use our resources for love rather than greed. We have been encouraged to connect ourselves with all who seek peace regardless of what God - if any - they honor. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

post missa musings...

Today is down time for some of us who were intimately involved in "Missa Gaia" - and it is a well-deserved rest. My colleague, Carlton, created something unique and beautiful out of Paul Winter's masterwork: a concert that simultaneously offered us an embodied antidote to the hatred that swirls all around us, and, an encounter with music that seamlessly wove musicians of varying abilities into the songs of the earth so that performers, audience, music and prayer become one sacred whole. It was an ecstatic blessing, something one guest described like this:

The Missa Gaia Earth Mass by Paul Winter was an amazing experience for me today. Traveled far to see my friend Carlton Maaia II who put it all together, and the talent he gathered was stunning. The whole thing moved me very much. It's hard to describe, but it's a musical piece that uses whale songs, wolf songs and human and mechanical instruments to celebrate a mass. It's what the world needs now! I closed my eyes and for a moment I saw the earth as one place, without borders or walls. We are all creatures inhabiting a planet. Some other creatures are doing a better job of maintaining the earth than the human creatures. I'm so glad I went!   Gregory Cortelyou

Public experiences like the Missa are one of the things that our small church does well. From time to time insiders fret - and even carp - over the time, money and effort that goes into producing these events. But for those present, at least for a moment in time, we felt in our flesh what God's alternative vision for creation is all about: shalom. For a brief but profound time, the ancient words of Psalm 85 were realized and we knew that there is something better than the brutality of the status quo.Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. Let me hear what

God the Lord will speak, for God speaks peace to the people, to his faithful, to those

who turn to him in their hearts. Surely healing and hope is at hand for those with awe… (In this) steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.

That is the foundational reason why I insist that we make the effort: we live in a culture and era that has lost a capacity for awe. We are so stressed and busy by work and the events of the world that we are malnourished and blind when it comes to the beauty God sends every day for our mutual encouragement. Another ancient Hebrew poet prophesied:

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it. In that day the beautiful young women and the young men shall faint for thirst.

That, of course, is what the Scriptures really mean when they speak of the "wrath of God." It is an absence of awe, a famine from hope and compassion, the inability to encounter a love greater than ourselves. St. Paul is explicit in Romans 1 that God's essence has been revealed to the whole world since the beginning of time through the first word of the Lord: nature. But we think we are smarter than God. We start to worship work. Or politics. Or money. Or sex. Or drugs and alcohol. And before you know it, we're addicted and in trouble. So like a wise and loving parent, God steps back and says: I hate to do this, but hitting bottom is the only way you are going to change so... experience some of life without me for a spell. I want you to return, but you have to be ready:

The wrath of God is revealed from heaven… For what can be known about God is plain because God has shown it to us. Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made (nature…) Claiming to be wise, we became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies… because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator who is blessed forever! Amen.

Presenting the beauty of God's creation in a safe and tender place extends an invitation to those who are weary and afraid. And it is worth every cent we spend on musicians, advertising and honoring copyright laws! That's one reason for maintaining the feast. It is our way of embodying God's invitation into grace.

Another reason we persist is that these events celebrate what I have called genre-bending - or artistic desegregation - by bringing classical musicians into un beau melange of jazz, rock and folk performers. Whether it is Spotify, Sunday morning or social clubs, America remains a vastly segregated nation when it comes to culture, race and class. Our music-making in support of local justice ministries not only gives the musicians a chance to create outside our comfort zone, but models authentic diversity and respect for those who gather for these gigs.

My favorite part of Missa Gaia - besides the incredible breadth of music performed - was the inclusion of an 10 year old girl in the chorus. She is a pure light through and through - and she was thrilled to be a part of the mix. But more importantly, we found a place for her within this composition that honored the blessings she brought to the table. Our conductor never patronized her or diminished her participation. And to see her belting out this complicated music standing along side her very talented momma... well, let's just say that was another glimpse of what God's kingdom is all about.

Very few people go to church these days - mostly for good reasons - and I share some of their  indifference and critique. At the same time, I believe we have discovered or reclaimed a unique role for the church in contemporary society and pray we can strengthen it. As another woman said at the conclusion of "Missa Gaia" yesterday evening: "Where do all these incredible musicians come from in this little town? It sounds like Manhattan... and it is Pittsfield? What a delight!" What a blessing, too. And oh yes: abouot 175 people turned out and helped us raise over $2K for BEAT.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

breathing prayers and dress rehearsals...

Today is dress rehearsal for Missa Gaia - three hours of intense work - in anticipation of our benefit concert.  As I was sipping tea this morning I read Richard Rohr's weekly summary of his daily insights into 12 Step spirituality and was struck by the beautiful simplicity of this practice. I suspect I will be using it before, after and during our rehearsal. Check it out...

The Yahweh Prayer

The breath is a primary example of how we cannot control our happiness despite our best efforts. Our bodies breathe automatically, without contrivance, clinging, over-thinking. The air is freely given. We can only realize our dependence upon the air that surrounds us and surrender to the gratuity of air coming and going.

A rabbi taught this prayer to me many years ago. I write about it in the second chapter of my book The Naked Now. The Jews did not speak God's name, but breathed it with an open mouth and throat: inhale--Yah; exhale--weh. By our very breathing we are speaking the name of God. This makes it our first and our last word as we enter and leave the world.

Breathe the syllables with open mouth and lips, relaxed tongue:


During a period of meditation, perhaps twenty minutes, use this breath as a touchstone. Begin by connecting with your intention, your desire to be present to God. Breathe naturally, slowly, and deeply, inhaling and exhaling Yah-weh. Let your focus on the syllables soften and fall away into silence. If a thought, emotion, or sensation arises, observe but don't latch on to it. Simply return to breathing Yah-weh.

You may be distracted numerous times. And perhaps your entire practice will be full of sensations clamoring for attention. Contemplation is truly an exercise in humility! But each interruption is yet another opportunity to return to Presence.

Gateway to Silence
Breathing in--receiving mercy; breathing out--letting go 

Friday, November 20, 2015

missa gaia and sabbath resistance...

As our ensemble, choir and band shift into high gear in anticipation of this weekend's "Missa Gaia" concert - Sunday, November 22, 2015 @ 3 PM -  there is one aspect of this event that warrants a comment: Sabbath. Yes, yes, I know I've been all over Sabbath/sabbatical stuff for the past year. Yet still I find new invitations and insights about this discarded and holy act almost everywhere I look. Last night, I read these words:

Sabbath is the great equalizer, the great reminder that we do not live on this earth, but in it, and that everything we do under the warming tent of this planet's atmosphere affects all who are woven into this web with us. Just because the land and the livestock cannot hire lawyers does not mean they have not been violated... (clearly) other gods go on getting their way. Where there is money to be made, there is no rest for the land, nor for those who live on it. 

In the rural county where I live, developers bulldoze the laurels by the river where the raccoons taught their babies how to fish. An entire pine forest comes down to produce the paper for one mail-order catalog. People who have already run out of closet space work overtime to pay the interest on their average $9000 credit card debts, while economic predators send teenagers applications for their own preapproved cards in the mail. No resistance to such ravenousness will come from those who are heavily
invested in its revenue. 

The resistance will have to come from elsewhere, from those who live by a different rhythm because they worship a different god... Sabbath is the true God's gift to those who wish to rest and to be free - and who are willing to guard those same gifts for every living thing in their vicinity as well. Remember the commandment? It is not just for you. It for your children, your employees, your volunteer helpers, your hunting dogs, your plow horses, your fields and your migrant workers.

It does not matter in the least whether they believe in your God. YOU DO so they get the day off... Practicing Sabbath over and over again... gradually (helps) us resist the culture's killing rhythms of drivenness and depletion, compulsion and collapse.

Consider two of Barbara Brown Taylor's insights:  1) the resistance will have to come from elsewhere; and 2) it does not matter in the least what others believe when it comes to Sabbath rest.

+  One of the unintended consequences of an established religion in small communities is the way being official and respected has robbed us of our identity as resisters.  We are the church, god damn it, not renegade counter-culturalists! We maintain the integrity of order and strengthen both the moral and legal contours of this society. We are the elected officials, the sitting judges, the lawyers and physicians and teachers. We are the elite with a clear role to play in maintaining order. Law and order, to be precise. 

The upside of noblesse oblige has always been the commitment of the privileged to provide charity for the wounded. Public service on behalf of the less fortunate has been an historic obligation. The downside, of course, comes when the so-called best and brightest get bored and move on to new projects leaving the poor forgotten and hurting. In the 21st century, there are very few of the old timers with the money, dedication and time to actively care for the common good. They have long ago died or moved away. What remains is the legacy of their theological blindness: an inability to recognize our role as counter-cultural activists for justice and compassion.  So many of us in the mainstream have been trained and conditioned to consider ourselves a part of the movers and shakers that we chafe and rebel when charged to resist our culture's avarice and addiction to activity. This may be shifting given the polarization taking place around Syrian refugees, but our spiritual amnesia has deep roots and won't give up without a protracted battle.

+ The other is the inherent generosity explicitly anticipated by those living into the resistance of Sabbath blessings.  Nobody got it better than Stephen Colbert recently when he said, "If you want to know if somebody is Christian, just ask them to complete this sentence: Jesus said ‘I was hungry,’ and you gave me something to eat, ‘I was thirsty,’ and you gave me something to drink, ‘I was a stranger,’ and you _______" If they don't say "welcome them" they are either a terrorist or a candidate for President."  (check it out here:

The two candles on a Jewish Sabbath table teach us that the whole point of Sabbath living is to become more like God. The first represents the initial creation story in the book of Genesis:  "In six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them and then He rested on the seventh; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it." All the other days of creation were called good, but the Sabbath was named holy - it is sacred - and those who learn how to rest like the Lord let themselves be re-created in God's image. Rest is how we practice letting God strengthen and renew all that is holy within our humanity.

The second candle points to the other articulation of Sabbath keeping in Deuteronomy 5: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." Barbara Brown Taylor writes: "Resting every seventh day, God's people remember their divine liberation - and that is what the second Sabbath candle announces: made in God's image, you too are free!" 

Sabbath is not only God's gift to those who have voices to say how tired they are; Sabbath is also God's gift to the tired fields, the tired vines, the tired vineyard, the tired land. Leviticus 25 shows divine concern for grapes, for God's sake. It promises both the tame and the wild animals in the land enough to eat, along with the hired hands who presumably have time tot take up wood-working and water aerobics during the year that the tractors stay parked in the barn. (The Jubilee Year according to tradition.)

The blessings of freedom and rest - the call to stand and speak for those without a voice and resist our perpetually consuming culture - is what Sabbath is all about. And so, we come back to this weekend's Sabbath concert: it is a way to experience and sense the promise of Sabbath in the hope that it will evoke the spirit of compassionate resistance. The dancers will share their creativity in an embodied way. The singers will mix their songs in solidarity with the songs of the timber wolf, the humpbacked whale and birds of the air. And the instrumentalists will take up the sax and cello, the guitar and drums, the organ, piano and bass and give expression to the heart of Sabbath living. To use Taylor's wisdom:  all spiritual truth must take up residence in our bodies and actions in order for them to be true.

From within our culture of consumption - a culture currently obsessed with fear-mongering in addition to possession - our small concert is a way of resistance. I hope you will join us.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Last night I read these words in Barbara Brown Taylor's book, An Altar in the World:

When people wanted Jesus to tell them what God's realm was like, he told them stories about their own lives. When people wanted him to tell them God's truth about something, he asked them what they thought. With all kinds of opportunities to tell people what to think, he told them what to do instead. Wash feet. Give your stuff away. Share your food. Favor reprobates. Pray for those who are out to get you. Be the first to say, "I'm sorry." For those who took him as their model, being fully human became a full-time job. It became a vocation in itself, no matter what they happened to do for a living.

Today the overwhelming majority of our House of Representatives - most of whom consider themselves serious and even fundamentalist Christians - voted to deny hospitality and hope to Syrian refugees.  It is an election year so pandering and fear-mongering of the worst type are rampant. It is also one of the consequences of blurring the lines between love of God and love of country - and it breaks my heart..

I understand fear and anger. We all give in to it countless times every day; it is part of human nature. I fell victim to the lure of fear and anger after September 11th and got caught up in "getting them" like so many others.. But here's the rub: fear and anger only brings people together in solidarity against a common enemy for a short time. Its allure wears off. Then, like a junkie in need of a fix, we need more fear and violence to remain focused. We need more scapegoating and selling our soul to our lowest common denominator to maintain our momentum. It is the cycle of violence the late Rene Girard exposed so brilliantly:

People can desire anything, as long as other people seem to desire it, too: that is the meaning of Girard's concept of "mimetic desire." Since people tend toward the same objects of desire, jealousy and rivalry are inevitable sources of social tension -- and perfect themes for the great novelists. After his successful writings on modern literature, curious to find out how well his "mimetic theory" of imitative behavior might explain the human past, Girard studied anthropology and myths from around the world. He was struck by another series of similarities: myth after myth told a story of collective violence. Only one man can be king, the most enviable individual, but everyone can share in the persecution of a victim. Societies unify themselves by focusing their imitative desires on the destruction of a scapegoat. Girard hypothesized that the violent persecution of scapegoats is at the origin of the ubiquitous human institution of ritual sacrifice, the foundation of archaic religions. Girard then turned to the relationship between rituals of sacrifice and the many acts of violence recorded in the founding documents of the religions of the modern West (including the secular religion known as the Enlightenment): the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels. Girard interpreted the Bible as a gradual revelation of the injustice of human violence. The culmination, Jesus's crucifixion, is unprecedented not because it pays a debt humans owe to God, but because it reveals the truth of all sacrifice: the victim of a mob is always innocent, and collective violence is always covered over with a lie. (

His startling conclusion is that over and over history repeats itself as we surrender to fear and hatred. Jesus exposes this "original sin" - our desire for security through killing the scapegoat - but tells the story not from the perspective of the victorious, but rather the vanquished. Jesus shows us how we become viscous, self-righteous hypocrites who terrorize the innocent in the name of "national security" and religion. He shows us the consequence of our fear and violence and offers an alternative when he prays: "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." And keep on doing over and over again.

So let's be clear: the alternative Jesus offers to remaining addicted to fear and anger is called compassion, forgiveness and contemplation. In prayer, we confront our own demons so that we don't dump them out upon the world and pass our confusion and terror on to to others.  In forgiveness we interrupt the cycle of violence and bring it to resolution within our flesh.  And in compassion we begin to see the essence of Christ in the flesh and blood of those who are most vulnerable. Matthew 25 is instructive: when did we see, Thee, Lord...? Whenever you fed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visited the did so unto Me.

There is empirical evidence that America's mainstream is becoming more fear-based, angry and open to violence. We are hostile and afraid of those who are not white and middle class, more so than at any time in the last 50 years. PRRI's recent survey of American values - Anxiety, Nostalgia and Mistrust - makes this clear. (check it out: /research/2015/11/survey-anxiety-nostalgia-and-mistrust-findings-from-the-2015-american-values-survey/#.Vk5sjNKrSt9) Donald Trump's neo-Nazi rants about registering Muslims and John Kasich's appeal to nativist, so-called Christian hysteria are just the tip of an ugly ice berg. This is the soil upon which facism flourishes.

How many times have you heard people complain: where are the moderate Muslims to condemn this act of terrorism? I confess that I've said it and maybe you have, too. Well, now is the time to ask: where are the moderate (or radical) Christians who will stand with the innocents and call out the fear and hatred of our sisters and brothers in Christ? The time has come to boldly challenge them with the alternative of contemplation and compassion. In ways I could never have imagined, today I feel more solidarity with secular French allies who make music in the face of guns and boldly reassert the power of love in the public square rather those who cower in our churches and foment fear, anger and bigotry.  

This Sunday - at 3:00 pm - we're going to share some compassion and beauty and love in a tender, contemplative way -. and I hope you will join us for MISSA GAIA.  This concert wasn't intended to be a protest against the fear and anger of this era. Rather, it was conceived as part of our sabbatical experience wherein we offered a benefit concert for one of our mission partners. But in my heart, making this music in concert with this group of musicians has become a living a testimony to the world I want to live in. 

It calls to mind the pianist in Paris who dragged his instrument on his bicycle to the Bataclan to play "Imagine" for those still in shock. "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one... I hope some day you'll join us and the world will live as one."

I truly hope this day you will join us.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Saying yes and saying no...

I have a friend and colleague who recently said to me, "I just don't have the time or energy to
worry about people who make up their own issues. There are too many people I know and love who are hurting and sick and I can only do so much..." Let me add a hearty "AMEN!" to both that sentiment and reality: any thing else is a prescription for burn-out. And I know - I've been burned-out - or to paraphrase Arlo, "I been hung-up, brought down, inspected, dejected and rejected!"

That's one of the hard things for both clergy and dedicated congregation members to come to terms with but sooner or later we must own that the church is NOT about being nice. It is NOT about getting your own way. Yes, there is comfort to be claimed in the liturgy and community, and these blessings are God-given and human-centered. At the same time tissue-paper feelings and an over-abundance of entitlement are not the same thing as authentic human suffering. Compassion, you see, is about sharing bread with those who are wounded, being with another to ease their loneliness or simply listening without judgment or even a spoken response. It is about giving shape and substance to the face of Christ in the here and now. It is also about knowing how to say yes and no. 

In her book, Practicing Our Faith, Dorothy C. Bass includes a chapter on Christian asceticism - including learning how to use our energy, time and passions for the cause of Christ.  Life in a consumerist culture makes this practice complicated. We have grown accustomed to having everything we want - or mostly - whenever we want it. "But having said yes to the acquisition of so many material things, we are unable to say yes to the demands of the spirit. Slowly, perhaps even bitterly, we come to realize that we do not own our possessions, they own us...To say yes and no means taking on responsibilities and obligations. Saying yes and saying no are companions in the process of constituting a whole and holy life." (p. 65) The text goes on to quote T.S. Eliot:

The endless cycle of ideas and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.  
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But dearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? 

Being a companion for the journey involves our time, our mind, our heart and soul but it is one hundred and eighty degrees from being used, abused, taken for granted or becoming an unwilling substitute target for an other's inner demons or boredom. Young clergy often feel they must be available 110% of the time. Older, more seasoned clergy, are often shamed when they practice saying yes and saying no. In my early days in Cleveland, a spiritual director once asked me about a few old people who regularly complained that I didn't visit them often enough: "What are they doing to solve their own boredom?" When I confessed my ignorance, he went on to say, "Look, I served parishes for over 40 years and here's the skinny: you could visit them every day for an hour and as soon as you left they would be bored and lonely. Your presence - or not - in their lives is not YOUR problem. It is their problem!" This wasn't cruel or harsh. It was saying yes and saying no.

I faced something similar in Arizona when a beloved woman complained that I didn't leave enough time in worship for her to be in quiet prayer. I asked, "Do you spend any time during the week in introspection or contemplation?"  Bewilderment first passed over her face and then frustration, "No," she said bluntly, "I am too busy. That's why I come to church." I sat with that for a moment before responding, "Well, one hour of public worship can never satisfy your need for quiet time. How about nourishing that before complaining about how I organize Sunday morning?" She looked insulted - and rarely came back to worship after that. Which, I suppose, was a good thing because at least for 60 minutes she had the solitude she said meant so much to her soul.

Over the past six months I have become a huge fan of Barbara Brown Taylor. Right now I am slowly reading through An Altar in the World. In the introduction she notes that at this point in her life - middle age - "there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth... What is saving my life right now is become more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world." That rings true to me and I am slowly living into this wisdom, too. She goes on to note that if you are truly going to be a companion with another on life's journey - if you are going to share compassion and bread - you must have the ability to honestly pay attention - and that takes time.

Most of us move so quickly that our surrounding become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable... (but) reverence requires a certain pace. It requires a willingness to take detours, even side trip, which are not part of the original plan.

Once upon a time, I was full to overflowing with energy and enthusiasm. These days I get tired.
Sometimes my back hurts. Or my head throbs. Often my heart breaks. And periodically I need a nap. Every day I have to practice saying yes and saying no. I just don't have the energy or ability to try to do it all. Today, for instance, I had the opportunity to be with a few people who needed a companion and a prayer. They needed a loving embrace and someone to listen and take them seriously. I also had the chance to sing with our choir. This not only helps the musicality of our Sunday worship, it gives me the chance to be with 15 people who would not ordinarily cross my path in a week. It helps me share my time in a way that feeds my soul, too. 

Those who are not introverts don't get that about their minister: in any day or week there is just so much energy to go around. To make a judgment call about how I can stand and deliver is a matter of faithful stewardship on my part. Most of the time there is precious little time or inclination to schmooze. As another spiritual director said: "Vanity visits are not high on any one's list of priorities if you take ministry seriously." There is a place for being present in the quiet times, potlucks or fellowship hours. And there is a time when being fully present in the hospital - or for a late night beer or on the phone - takes precedence. It really is a matter of practicing saying yes and saying no.

The Hebrew Bible records this challenge:  I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live. (Deuteronomy 30: 19) Tonight I give thanks for the chance to share love and prayers with people who needed a reminder that they are loved by the Lord. Tomorrow I get to celebrate Eucharist midday and then prepare for Sunday worship. Lord, help me choose life.

Monday, November 16, 2015

the subversive nature of christ the king sunday...

So, the Advent/Christmas Eve liturgies are done, the press releases for our Sunday concert
have been updated and an emerging albeit humble youth ministry calendar is starting to take shape. This Sunday we will bring the church year to a close with Christ the King Sunday. Now I've been challenged by both the name of this feast day as well as the traditional theology and imagery of Christus Victor. Not the power of God's love conquering fear and death, but rather the notion that Christ now sits as eternal judge over heaven and earth. That just doesn't ring true with the testimony of faith.

First the name: Americans don't know what to do with the title of king. Our political history neither embraces that realm nor does our psychological imagination grasp the deeper wisdom of the archetype.To add insult to injury, Christ as King underscores the unquestionably masculine limitations of our language as well as its legacy of discrimination and oppression. This dilemma has given birth to such anemic substitutions as the "kindom of God" or "the dominion of Christ." Try as I might, these alternatives leave me cold. They fail to grasp the theological irony of Christ's kingdom with weak poetry and forced but incomplete analogies.

So, I've bitten the bullet and tried to own the word king in all of its mythopoetic grandeur. Both Douglas Gillette and Robert L. Moore have done some insightful work into this realm. Starting with their neo-Jungian book - King, Warrior, Magician, Lover in 1990 - they have helped reclaim the maturation process for contemporary men rather than honoring our culture's obsession with youth and immaturity. To integrate the psychological and spiritual wisdom of aging and experience is a journey of a lifetime.  But without it, the shadow of the king - the tyrant - rules within and without.

In the psyche of the man, the King archetype is the central archetype, around which the rest of the psyche is organized. If the King energy in us is weak, our psyche falls in disarray, and chaos threatens our lands. The man who is constantly overwhelmed by life - who can't seem to find harmony or order - must develop the King energy, often in conjunction with Warrior energy to protect his borders.

The two main functions of the King are:

1.   Live according to the Tao, the Dharma, the Word, and the lands will flourish

2.   Bring fertility and blessing. The King is the masculine equivalent of the Great Mother, and he is wed to the lands. The king's vitality and sexuality directly reflect on his kingdom.

For me, these are some of liberating ways I make sense of the word king. The theology of Christus Victor has been equally challenging. It flows more from Roman hierarchy and a control model than the witness of Jesus in Scripture. And that may be its deeper beauty: this is a king who has become the servant of all. It is the upside down kingdom where we move towards God by going down rather than up. It is about acceptance, not power - joy rather than control - compassion instead of conquest. As I have started to prepare for Sunday I have been drawn once again to St. John's story of how Jesus washes the feet of his friends:  do this for one another for this is my new commandment - that you love one another as I have loved you - a very different type of king, yes?

And that's why I want to use the word king: to challenge and subvert its limited and oppressive definitions with the better way of foolish love, compassion and servant hood.   Barbara Brown Taylor has written that the only way  we truly learn new insights about God is when they touch our flesh. We grow in wisdom when we DO the will of this upside down king. Then the Word becomes flesh indeed full of truth and grace. 


Sunday, November 15, 2015

good bye thanksgiving eve and hello missa gaia...

It is incomprehensible that our annual fall concert will be upon us NEXT Sunday:  November 22 @ 3 pm. Ever since I saw Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie do their show at Carnegie Hall after Thanksgiving I have been hosting a "Thanksgiving Eve" music gig at whatever church I happened to be serving. We've done them in Saginaw, MI - Cleveland, OH - Tucson, AZ - and Pittsfield, MA. They have ALL been a gas and I have cherished the connections I was able to make with various musicians in each of those sweet communities.
Last year, we got snowed out. And I mean totally snowed out.  It broke my heart and made the whole Thanksgiving experience feel a bit empty. I was blue for three days running. And, at the same time, the snow and cancellation was liberating:  no more stress and hassle right before Thanksgiving Day. We postponed the gig, rescheduled for late in January and had a ball doing it. A number of people throughout the community were sad that it couldn't come to pass, but they turned out for the new date and enjoyed the whole scene.

So, this year, as a part of our sabbatical planning we decided:  1) NOT to do a Thanksgiving Eve show (I think the time has come to bury that dear friend); but 2) to host a performance of Paul Winter's "Missa Gaia" instead. We have a few wonderful musical guests opening this show - Hal Lefferts and Linda Worster - and a 20 person choir singing. What's more, some of my favorite instrumentalists get to play this concert, too (including: Charlie Tokarz, Carlton Maaia II, Jeff Hunt, Tyler Story, Rider Stanton, Andy Kelly and Win Ridabock.) And all for the benefit of BEAT (Berkshire Environmental Action Team.)
We will do two other shows during this program year:  a rock and soul gig in January to support the drive for emergency fuel assistance in the Berkshires and a Good Friday take on Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" in honor of God's grace and the 50th anniversary of that masterpiece.

In the wake of the recent "daesh" terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris, I am reminded again of Leonard Bernstein's comment about why the music must continue: I hope that you will join us if you are in town. The music is stunning, the commitment of all the singers and instrumentalists is astounding and the whole gig will be a blast.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

not my sister, not my brother but it is me, O Lord...

So many of us in the United States live such insular lives - myself included. In my small, quiet neck of the woods, it is relatively easy to remain aloof from the wounds of war, terrorism, violence, race hatred, sexual exploitation and misery. Add to this that I am an older, middle class, straight white guy with way too much education and the security of my isolation becomes a documentable fact. The accident of my birth, race and gender allows me the choice of hiding away from the ugly suffering of reality so that I might remain mostly at peace.

That's what some people think contemplative prayer is - hiding away from reality in aloof privilege - gazing at something selfish rather than sharing in solidarity the brokenness all around us. Bullshit. Contemplation is one of the only ways to engage the world's problems without making them worse. Thomas Merton is wise when he writes:

Prayers and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and against war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it. And the first job of all is to understand the psychological forces at work in ourselves and in society

In other words, the true contemplative has learned three heart-breaking and humble truths:

+ Whatever happens "out there" is first born "in here." In our hearts - in our souls - in our minds and habits. Those who are unable or unwilling to sit in this sobering silence too often rush to judgment and then scramble into action. More often not, like President Bush after September 11th, they make things worse not better. Contemplatives accept the tragedy and brokenness of the world within them as the first step towards peace-making. . 

+ Only as we sit and own our sins and wounds will God's loving grace and presence heal us from the inside out. We cannot make peace all by ourselves. Just look at how we live our lives all by ourselves: they are a mess. Like the alcoholic, we can't fix the mess by doing what we've always done. We need a love greater than ourselves. A grace stronger than shame, fear and hatred. And once we taste that blessing, once we know God's love to be true, then we can move towards acts of compassion and justice albeit filled with fear and trembling.

+ A true contemplative, however, not only asks for wisdom and healing for the sins within, but also asks for a broken heart. "Create in me a clean heart, O Lord," the Psalmist prays, so that I might feel the reality of those who suffer. So that I might ask, "What more can I do to bring a little mercy into this anguish?" Creative introspective prayer and silence is how we grasp a little bit of light that can be shared in hope.

Merton continues:

It is true, political problems are not solved by love and mercy. But the world of politics is not the only world, and unless political decisions rest on a foundation of something better and higher than politics, they can never do any real good for men (sic.) When a country has to be rebuilt after war, the passions and energies of war are no longer enough. There must be a new force, the power of love, the power of understanding and human compassion, the strength of selflessness and cooperation, and the creative dynamism of the will to live and to build, and the will to forgive. The will for reconciliation.

I know that, once again, my heart was broken watching the news about Paris. Given my profound affection for Montreal, I feel an unspoken affinity with that great city. I am not ashamed to say that I quickly added this symbol to my Facebook as a small sign of solidarity.
But all day long my prayer has been pushing me to wrestle with the magnitude of my own isolation and privilege. That's what contemplation does: it demands that you become connected to the sorrow of creation. One of my spiritual directors said: We are called to take a long, loving look at the world. As I did today, I found myself drawn to these words that offer the larger, more authentic and truly sacred perspective.

Mother Teresa used to say that the only way for us to feel true compassion is for our hearts to be broken. Apparently, they must be broken over and over again. I don't blame God. I don't blame Islam. Or immigrants or Republicans or Democrats or Christians or Jews. Rather, like the old Baptist hymn tells us:  It's not my sister, not my brother but it's... me O Lord standin' in the need of prayer. 

Quiet, creative, introspective silence is the only place that I might hear the still, small voice of God calling me into solidarity in the midst of all the suffering. (Check this out for the way other people of contemplative traditions across the world are reaching out to one another: