Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Grace is rising now at last...

NOTE: Some of you know that after trying to find songs about my new hometown - exclusive of Springsteen's "My Hometown" which has a lot of parallels with Pittsfield in the last 25 years - and finding only a few tunes most of which were excruciatingly sad, I wondered out loud if maybe I should try writing a lovely and hope-filled song about this place. And some of my blogging buddies encouraged me. So... this sermon and their support became the catalyst for doing exactly that; and now I have the early stages of a tune and lyrics about opening to the blessings that are within and among us in this sad, beautiful and ever more creative place. My thanks to Nick, Cosmo and Black Pete as well as Nancy Fitz and her blog, "Pastor's Post," for the story included below.
+
We live in an odd and challenging time. I suspect that every generation tells itself something like this for we all like to feel unique and special. And yet, is it fair to say that there seems to be a harshness – even a coarseness – to our public lives that ...

+ reduces the blessedness of human life in all its phases – cradle to the grave – to merely bottom line commodities?

+ denigrates once treasured public standards of manners and morality as sentimental artifacts of a bye gone era to such an extent that road rage, rudeness and often murder, rape and assault are now considered commonplace if not inevitable? (Just think back to yesterday's shotgun attack at a Unitarian Church during a children's performance of "Annie" for God's sake!)

+ and regularly confuses the beauty born of God’s creativity with glamour and glitz – substituting the poetry and integrity of the imagination for “the highly fickle and commercially driven enterprises” that perpetuate this charade?

No wonder the old gray haired prophet of Israel, Isaiah, told us: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than yours…” (Is. 55: 8-9)

Ok, I know you think I’m on a rant as they say on the street – a jag about what happens to people when we lose touch with beauty – maybe even a tirade that borders on the obsessive. But listen to how the poet and moral philosopher, John O’Donohue, puts it:

(When beauty is forgotten) linear thinking dominates and gentleness dies out. We become blind: nature is rifled, politics eschews vision and becomes the obsessive servant of economics and religion opts for the mathematics of system and forgets its mystical flame. Instead of true leadership which would the servant of vision and imagination, we have systems of puppetry which are carefully constructed and manipulated from elsewhere. We never know who we are dealing with; hidden agendas operate to deepen our insecurity and persuade us to be hopeless. Our present dilemma is telescoped in this wonderful phrase from the Irish writer and political visionary Michael D. Higgins: This acceptance of inevitability in our lives is consistent of course with the suggestion that there is but one vision of the economy, an end of history, the death of ethics and an reprobate individualism that eschews solidarity and any transcendent public values.

I don’t think O'Donohue is far off the mark. So, I did a little test to see whether this sense of doomed inevitability and coarseness was as pervasive in our community as so many people like to suggest: I went searching for a joyful song about Pittsfield – or the Berkshires – or even the great commonwealth of Massachusetts. And guess what I found?

There is one incredibly sad lament about Pittsfield by Sufjan Stevens – and some very lovely but totally melancholy tunes about this area by James Taylor and Juliana Hatfield – there is even a wickedly funny, but angry Celtic punk rock rant about Massachusetts by the Dropkick Murphys: but only Arlo Guthrie’s hymn to this area speaks of faith, hope and love – unless you include “Alice’s Restaurant” which falls into another category altogether. Only one song about hope and beauty…
And that puzzled me – troubled me – made me very sad because this is a beautiful part of the world. And so many people are working so hard to reclaim the cause of beauty here whether it is in the arts revival or politics or business. And the physical beauty – oh my God – it is stunning. We’re going to take some of our vacation time this year just sitting in our back yard enjoying the splendor we’ve been blessed to share because it is just that beautiful. We're calling it a "staycation" because this place is freakin' gorgeous!

So this sadness – and this beauty – got me to thinking – and praying – and I found myself looking at some of the parables of Jesus because he, too, lived in an odd and challenging time filled with fear and anxiety and a punishing sense of the inevitable pain of life. And his parable of the mustard seed came to mind: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.

I don’t know if you recall this but a mustard seed was considered unclean by the religious authorities in Christ’s day: it was a weed that could take over the garden and choke out the productive produce. But Jesus tells us that something little – overlooked – and often considered irrelevant and maybe worthless, can bring blessing and comfort and even a sense of rest: “it is the smallest of seeds but when it has grown into the greatest shrub it provides the birds of the air a resting place to nest.”

Hmmmmm… little things that seem irrelevant can sometimes bring beauty and comfort and even hope and joy to the least among us. So as I was letting that sink in I came across an old story posted by a new blogger buddy, the Reverend Nancy Fitz down in Virginia, about a monastery – a community of monks – which was going through a rough time. It seems that the monks first faced persecution and later had to endure life after it became unfashionable to go to worship or enter a religious order. What had once been a very successful faith community had now shrunken to a solitary refuge run by five very old men – and they were charged with keeping up the gardens and the buildings and all the flowers. And as you might expect, the older they got the more discouraged they became because it was harder and harder to keep things going.

Now it happened that in a nearby town lived a rabbi, a wise man who led his own community of faith, and the rabbi had a habit of taking times of quiet reflection in the little hermitage in the woods near the monastery. Sometimes the abbot would visit with him, and at this time of great tension and concern, the abbot hoped the rabbi might have some wisdom for him. They visited together and commiserated over the changing times. No one seemed to be as committed to a life of faith as they had been in the good old days, they both agreed. When it was time to go, the abbot said to the rabbi, "I hoped you would have some advice for me, but it seems we have the same kinds of problems". And the rabbi said, "I’m sorry, I have no advice. All I can tell you is this: one of you is the Messiah."

Totally bewildered by these words, the old monk returned to the monastery and when his colleagues questioned him about what the rabbi’s advice, he told them: “He says one of us is the Messiah!” And with that, each of the monks began to look at one another differently:

Looking at one and then another, they wondered: could it be he? And because this possibility had been raised, the crankiness that had become part of their worried lives together began to give way to a sweetness of face and voice, for if we look into another person’s eyes, wondering if that person might be the Messiah, it makes us look at that person differently, makes us choose our words and our tone very differently.

Now the one thing that brought people to the monastery was its beautiful grounds. They came to picnic or to walk and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation and for a long time they had probably done this despite the fact the monks were grouchy and not very hospitable. But as the monks changed their way of treating one other, the atmosphere of the monastery changed, too. Visitors could feel the extraordinary respect shared among the brothers and they wanted to come back again and bring their friends.

And in time, it came to pass that younger men wanted to know more about this life of beauty, hope, integrity and compassion – and they joined the order which allowed the monastery to grow beyond its once feared death. Everything changed – the people, the prayers and the place – all because of the “small seed of mystery and respect planted by the rabbi.” (My thanks to the Rev. Nancy Fitz for her story adapted from the work of M. Scott Peck.)

Small changes – often seemingly insignificant and maybe even once considered unclean – can bring miracles to birth, yes? I believe this is one of the texts we need to embrace as a community of faith: The faith of the mustard seed – the trust that small acts of kindness and beauty matter – and can even bring to birth an encounter with God’s healing and hope in a community.

So… because I believe it is essential to practice what I preach – even though I know I get it wrong at least as much as I get it right – I’m trying to write a joyful song about our new home in Pittsfield. It isn’t finished yet – I have to test whether the words and melody really hang together – but it’s a sign or symbol to me of what it might mean for us to trust that our little acts matter, and, that we can help heal the sadness with God’s beauty with a mustard seed faith. (Once I get the groove worked out - and really test the lyrics - I'll post it so you can hear the tune which.... I think mostly works.)

After the haunting of the sadness
And the shadows pass away
There’s a gentle, healing madness

And a song that seems to say…
Rest awhile from all your labors
Let the evening come to pass
Hear the calling of your hearts
Grace is rising now at last

You wear your wounds upon your coat sleeve You fear the worst is yet to come
And while you’re locked into this grieving
You miss the rising of the sun…
Rest awhile from all your labors
Let the evening come to pass
Hear the calling of your hearts
Grace is rising now at last

There’s a hunger here for beauty
A hundred ways to kiss the ground
A cleansing of the Housatonic
As the Berkshires chant this sound

As the snow comes down from heaven
And the rain washes the earth
So God’s blessing will anoint us
As we journey towards rebirth

Rest awhile from all your labors
Let the evening come to pass
Hear the calling of your hearts
Grace is rising now at last

There's a little of old Isaiah in there - I hope a bit of Jesus, too - reminding us that the time has come for each of us - and all of us together – to trust that doing something beautiful for the Lord – no matter how small – is part of our Easter and mustard seed faith.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

You just never know...

As I was reading through the comments to this blog, I came across a total surprise: a response from my mentor's daughter! I had written that Ray Swartzback had taught me about ministry being an emotional roller coaster - he taught me a lot more, too - and I guess now is as good a time as any to put some of it out there. I was unable to get back to Jamaica, NY for his funeral and then his dear wife, Jane, died so quickly afterwards, too.

Ray was my man: when I met him he was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, NY. I was a Union Theological Seminary senior doing an internship in urban ministry. I had interviewed at a number of places but all felt like a waste of my time until Ray agreed to meet with me. He interviewed me - found I had worked with the Farm Workers and been a CO during the Vietnam war - and told me that we might be able to have some fun. And man-ee day (one of his favorite expressions and mine, too) did we ever!

Every week I was with him in worship - he was a "confrontational" preacher who took on the issues of the day from the pulpit - and shared top notch biblical wisdom with a prophetic kick in the ass from time to time. He was a champion of peace and justice, GLBT civil rights and social justice for people of color. OMG could that man preach! For years I wanted to be Swartzback. I still weep over the way he remembered MLK - and spoke of knowing Rosa Parks - and putting himself on the line back in the 50s in Cincinatti, OH.

He preached my ordination sermon - "Trapped in the Trappings" - which I still reference in my meditations 27 years later. He came out and joined me for an urban ministry convocation in Cleveland when I was serving an urban church there (he once asked me if I was trying to follow in his footsteps because he had been in Detroit and I went to Saginaw, then he was in the Glenville neighborhood and I went in Cleveland, too.)

He inspired me for urban ministry; he studied and taught with the best in the movement throughout the 50s and 60s and was faithful to the end. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star but always advocated for the way of Jesus and his peace. He taught me to walk the streets of my "parish" and get to know the barbers, grocers, cops and hairdressers as a way to get the pulse of what is really happening. He also was clear: people will follow you into rough places IF you first demonstrate you love them and are there for them. So visit, visit, visit and make sure you delilver! He taught me to think of Jesus as "the man for others" which changed my piety forever.

After my divorce and sabbatical in the Southwest - where he had gone to do a convocation at Ghost Ranch with urban ministers - we got together in his retirement home to reconnect. He was carving wooden birds - more beautiful than anything I had ever seen - and preaching a bit and pushing his denomination to live into the spirit of Jesus with the GLBT folk. He even came up to Cleveland again to preach at my church one more time before we left for Tucson. Our last meal together was at an Ethiopian place in Cleveland which he thought was a hoot because you ate so much food with your fingers. We kept in touch at Christmas and a few other times. Then Janey called to tell me that "my old buddy had died..."

Ray was one of two father figures for me (the other being Sam Fogal who also recently passed on and about whom I will write more later.) When my first marriage was going south, he was a counselor. When I did not know how to fit into the civil rights movement as a white liberal, he gave me perspective and told me, "You ALWAYS have to pay your dues, man. And you can't take your street cred with you... it is not portable.. you gotta earn it again every time you move." He was so proud when I became part of an inter-racial School Board team in Cleveland and got elected twice -serving as the Vice President and a friend of the Mayor's while still serving my little church. He taught me well... and I still miss him.

I am so glad his daughter found my site and hope she will be in touch. He changed my life, gave me wisdom, love and courage to do the right thing at the right time and helped me become a real preacher. I loved him then and love him now. God bless you, Ray Swartzback.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The ups and downs of life in a small community...

My blogger buddy, Nick, over at Songs for the Journey (http://songsforthejourney.blogspot.com/) a totally cool site about music and faith that I check every week (or more) recently posted a blog about his favorite songs about where he lives. I loved this posting - and songs - and wondered what would happen if I did something similar about my new hometown. He lives in London and has LOTS of great options... so I started browsing YouTube and Google and discovered another of those up and down truths about living in a smaller place: there are precious few songs that mention Pittsfield! Boston, of course, has the Standell's "Dirty Water" - and Springsteen and others write about NYC and Jersey and the Eagles wrote about Tucson, but precious little has been written about this wonderful part of the world - and most of it is way sad!

The first, of course, is "Pittsfield," by Sufjan Stevens. It is lovely and very, very sad. Then there are the three obvious ones that speak of this area: "Sweet Baby James" by James Taylor and his "Berkshires looked dreamlike" reference - and two by our boy Arlo: "Alice's Restaurant" (which happened just down the road) and the tune "Massachusetts."

James Taylor reappears with a Bay State reference in "Mill Worker" (a pretty cool song inspired by Studs Turkel's writing) and a totally drop-dead rave by a Celtic Punk band, Dropkick Murphys, called "The State of Massachusetts." There is a horrible old Bee Gees song that I can't even bear to mention and two more sad songs - Julianna Hatfield's "Feelin' Massachusetts" and the Willard Grant Conspiracy's aptly titled, "Massachusetts." And then there is the alt. band - Vampire Weekend - who all hail from our fair state and sing about it in a way that sounds like Paul Simon's "Graceland" met The Talking Heads in 2007 at college.


So... maybe this is another part of the gig? We shall see...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

You find the strangest things on You Tube...

So... I was surfing the Internet for insights on our new town and what should I discover on You Tube but... an interview with ME and a song about Pittsfield.



To be sure, I was not at my "loveliest" nor was I all that articulate but.. .what a hoot.




And this wistful tune by Sufjan Stevens about growing up and coming to terms with parents:

I'm not afraid of you now, I know
So I climbed down from the bunk beds this low
I can talk back to you now, I know
From a few things I learned from this TV show
You can work late till midnight, we don't care
We can fix our own meals, we can wash our own hair
I go to school before sunrise, in the cold
And I pulled the alarm, and I kicked up the salad bowls
Since that time we meant to say much
Unsaid things begin to change
After school we shoveled through the snow
Stayed inside with silence in the cold
You can remind me of it
That I was lazy and tired
You can work all your life as
I'm not afraid of you anymore
If I loved you a long time, I don't know
If I can't recall the last time you told me so
Here in this house in Pittsfield
The ghost of our grandmother works at the sewing machine post
Hiding the bills in the kitchen on the floor
And my sister lost her best friend in the Persian Gulf War
There was a flood in the bathroom last May
And you kicked at the pipes when it rattled oh the river it made
Stand there, tell me that I'm of no use
Things unspoken break us if we share
There's still time to wash the kitchen floor
On your knees, at the sink once more
You can remind me that I was tired
You can work late and give yourself up
Now that I'm older, wiser, and working less
I don't regret having left the place a mess
You can remind me that I was lazy and tired
You can recall your life as I'm not afraid of you, anymore
Anymore

The blues...

This morning in worship we talked about the blues: the psalms of lament - the hard truths and hard times of real life - the aching for comfort in a world of pain. Five different people spoke to me afterwards about their own blues: a new believer who has just been diagnosed with cancer, a young soul leaving an abusive relationship, a teacher still hurting after surgery, a realtor trying to find a way through the collapse of the housing market and a husband grieving the sudden death of his mother-in-law. And there was a lot more sorrow and blues just under the surface from the professional confronting post traumatic stress triggers to families quietly fearing for their children in the military in the Middle East.

I am so glad we are finding ways to get these long-suffering wounds out into the open at church. Not everybody gets - or likes - being open. But as Buechner has written about his experience at AA showing him what REAL church could be like - a group of openly broken souls seeking comfort and encouragement through honesty and humor - that is what resonates with me, too. I love his words about a woman who can't quite name the blessing she is aching for:

She doesn't know God forgives her. That's the only power you have - to tell her that. Not just that God forgives her the poor little adultery. But the faces she can't bear to look at now: the man's, her husband's, her own half the time. Tell her God forgives her for being lonely and bored, for not being full of joy with a houseful of children. That's what sin really is. You know - not being full of joy. Tell her that sin is forgiven because whether she knows it or not, that's what she wants more than anything else - what all of us want. What on earth do you think you were ordained for?

Sounds like Clapton playing,"Groaning the Blues" to me:



Or Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese."
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body,

love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It is also the oddly beautiful - and paradoxically disturbing - "Piss Christ" of Andres Serrano which embraces Christ's incarnation boldly; by literally using one of the body's natural creation's to house an image of the Lord, Serrano celebrates a long line of Spanish artists who mix beauty and violence to evoke jarring new insights - especially something about how uncomfortable spiritual people still are with our bodies. As old Clarence Jordan used to say, "If Christ came back to the South during the day in all his dark skin, they would give up their commitment to the "word becoming flesh" faster than a New York minute." Embodied spirituality is deeply disturbing.
I think of the tragic work of Luis Bunuel as well as the political paintings of Goya in response to Napoleon's cruelty. They are not classically beautiful, but they point to the truth. "Art isn't at all like dogmatics. It isn't even very much like constructive theology. Visual art, like poetry, doesn't restate propositions or even directly parallel them. It projects a vision, one that we must see to understand, and whose truth lies outside of verbal explanation. Thus, good art is about truth..." Robin Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith and the Christian Community.
And so Jesus said: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it - learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

God, let's hope so!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Thank you, thank you, thank you...

About 100 years ago (or so it seems), I was driving up Mt. Lemmon in Tucson, AZ to join a youth ministry retreat on spiritual formation. My wife was leading a 3 day retreat with 14-17 year old young people who wanted me to do a session on centering prayer and meditation. (This was a once in a life time group of kids; she had already lined up folk to do art, music, movement and lectio divina with the kids and they were totally into it!)

As I was slowly moving up the four climate zones of the mountain - leaving the desert heat in the dust for the cool air of the mountain - this HONKIN' song came on that literally made me pull over and listen... and weep and try to find who did it! It was Alanis Morissette doing, "Thank You," and I have loved it ever since as a prayer and a call to gratitude.

And as I get ready to do another summer retreat tomorrow - this time with adults about discerning our calling in mission and ministry and going deeper into becoming a blessed community of Christ's grace - I am moved by the song again. I want to give thanks to the people of this faith community who are so willing to go into the wilderness in search of the promised land. I am so grateful for those who read my lengthy blogs and write me words of encouragement - or criticism, too. I am so grateful for my wife who puts up with my crazy sense of ministry - and who has joined the music part of it with such gusto, wisdom and tenderness. I am so blessed to have a chance to do ministry with REAL people - not folks fakin' it or snowed by the bullshit - but REAL people who know they are broken and ache for God's healing. There is so much to give thanks for...

Today I buried a 21 year old man/child who in the bleakest moment of depression took his life. What a privilege to be with his loving family - to weep and curse and pray and dream with them - as they live into the totality of this tragedy. My old friends in Aliquippa, Pa - the Community of Celebration - used to sing: Celebrate the WHOLE of it...! Sometimes that means silence - sometimes that means tears - sometimes laughter and sometimes... who knows. But they were right... and Alanis says it better than most.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Between the Banks

Our little band, Between the Banks, took another step in advancing the cause of beautiful music and social consciousness tonight by doing a taping with the local cable access TV. I needed to ply my sweetie with a pomegranate margarita, but it was worth it - and she sang like an angel! So did my other band mate - who nailed her vocals on "Lone Wild Bird" and "I Wonder as I Wander" (our intro to Joan Osborne's "One of Us.") Tonight's gig - and our daughter's recent wedding - has underscored two abiding convictions: there is a deep hunger in this land for a spirituality that is deeply ecumenical and honest, and, connected to a liberating encounter with the arts. So many of the young 30 somethings from Jesse's wedding spoke to me afterwards of how their hearts were touched by the way we conducted the wedding. To be sure, there was a LOT of feeling there as I LOVE that girl more than life itself - and that came out in spades. But so did the way we carefully reflected on welcoming all - Muslim, Jew, Christian and others as well as Gay and Straight and everyone in between. It was a little Pentecost for us all - and so was tonight as even the techie guys wanted to know more about how and why we do church.

I think of Joel 2: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions... upon women and men I will pour out my spirit.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How can we sing the Lord's song...

This is Part Two of a four part series exploring the role of beauty for mission in our church. Last week the question was asked, "But what do we do with art that is ugly, harsh or shocking?" These are my notes/research out of which will come (God willing) a Sunday message.

“Politics, religion, economics and the great institutions of family and community have all become abruptly unsure,” in our generation wrote the late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, shortly before his death. Perhaps that is why God seems to be calling more and more us into the promise and potential of beauty: prophetically, poetically, personally and socially a growing number of God’s people are wondering if there might really be a way to sing the Lord’s song by the waters of Babylon. To reclaim, in other words, the promise of Dostoevsky that “beauty really can save the world.” The poet, James McAuley, spoke of our generation like this:

Christ, you walked on the sea
But cannot walk in a poem,
Not in our century.
There's something deeply wrong
Either with us or with you.

Our bright loud world is strong
And better in some ways
Than the old haunting kingdoms:
I don't reject our days.
But in you I taste bread,
Freshness, the honey of being,
And rising from the dead:

Like yolk in a warm shell -
Simplicities of power,
And water from a well.

We live like diagrams
Moving on a screen.
Somewhere a door slams

Shut, and emptiness spreads.
Our loves are processes
Upon foam-rubber beds.

Our speech is chemical waste;
The words have a plastic feel,
An antibiotic taste.

And yet we dream of song
Like parables of joy.
There's something deeply wrong.

Like shades we must drink blood
To find the living voice
That flesh once understood.


Something is wrong yet we dream of a song – parables of joy – that might help us find the living voice that flesh once understood. “By the waters of Babylon, there we lay down and wept… on the willows there we hung up our harps when our captors and tormentors asked us to sing the songs of Zion.” (Psalm 137)

It is tough business being creative in troubled times – it is jarring and counter-cultural to seek out beauty when pain, fear and crudeness are the norm. Think of the prophet, Ezekiel: “The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out by the spirit to set me down into the middle of a valley – and it was filled with bones – dry bones. And the Lord God said to me, ‘Mortal one, can these bones live?” and I answered, “Only thou knowest, Lord, only thou knowest!” (Ezekiel 37) O how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

And yet… sing we do – and paint and dance and write hymns and poems – make movies and sculpt images – find color to combat the drabness and cultivate flowers in the face of death and so much more. Barbara Sonek’s poem, “Holocaust,” comes to mind:

We played, we laughed, we were loved.We were ripped from the arms of our parents and thrown into the fire.We were nothing more than children.We had a future. We were going to be lawyers, rabbis, wives, teachers, mothers. We had dreams, then we had no hope. We were taken away in the dead of night like cattle in cars, no air to breathe smothering, crying, starving, dying. Separated from the world to be no more. From the ashes, hear our plea. This atrocity to mankind cannot happen again. Remember us, for we were the children whose dreams and lives were stolen away.

I think also of Springsteen’s songs about September 11th or even Johnny Cash singing those harsh words of despair born of the industrial-dance groove artist, Nine Inch Nails:


These are the words and sounds of what biblical scholars call the songs of lament – the minority report of scripture – the voice of those who have been wounded, defeated, forgotten and passed over. They are the cries of the broken and lame, the blind, poor and maimed. Old Testament professor, Walter Breuggemann, says that these are the voices that Empire always tries to drown out. “The imperial consciousness lives by its capacity to quiet these groans and to go on with business as usual as though nobody was hurting and there was no agony in the world.” (The Prophetic Imagination, p. 91) Rock and roll performer, Bono, is more direct:

King David in the Bible was said to have composed his first psalm as a blues and that's what a lot of the psalms feel like to me: the blues. Man shouting at God: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?" (Psalm 22) I hear echoes of this holy row when un-holy bluesman Robert Johnson howls, "There's a hellhound on my trail" or Van Morrison sings, "Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child." Abandonment and displacement are the stuff of the blues and the psalms are full of them – even honesty to the point of anger: "How long, Lord, wilt thou hide thyself forever?" (Psalm 89) or "Answer me when I call" (Psalm 5).

And here’s where it gets really interesting because scripture is clear that when God’s people both listen to the cries of the wounded and give voice to their oppression – that is, when we know how to sing the blues – then injustice begins to collapse. Breuggemann writes: “If the groans become audible, if they can be heard in the streets and markets and courts, then the consciousness of domination is already jeopardized.” The blues, you see, the groans of the wounded and songs of lament in the Bible are to music and scripture what the jarring, shocking and even ugly is to visual and performance art. So, the challenge for us is not only learning how to listen, hear and watch, but to take these cries to heart as part of our mission in the world.

What has Jesus asked this morning but, “What does the Lord require?” And do your remember how he responds: “Listen – hear – shema yisrael – understand that the Lord our God is one – one with you, one with me, one with creation, one with the wounded, one with the Palestinians as well as the Jews, one with the Muslims as well as the Christians – so make sure that you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and your strength by… loving your neighbor as yourself!”

Do this – use the totality of your being to love God and neighbor – and you will be very close to the kingdom. Peterson puts it: Love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy… because that's better than all the offerings and sacrifices put together! Do this… and you're almost there, right on the border of God's kingdom."

Learning to hear – and maybe even sing – the blues is what we’re being asked to do. And I understand how hard this is to do particularly because there are two challenges that often get in our way of hearing and singing the Lord’s song by the waters of Babylon let alone the valley of dry bones. The first is generational and posses a huge problem for people like you and me. You see, in most congregations like ours there are at least four or five generations present every Sunday morning.

There are those Tom Brokaw calls the Greatest Generation – women and men 70+ years of age – there are the boomers – people like me between 40 and 65 – Gen Xers in their 30s and early 40s and the millennials in their 20s – to say nothing of our children and youth. And while there is much to celebrate in this experience of age integration rather than segregation, each of these generations have learned to look at and hear the blues in very different ways.

Most of the Greatest Generation – and those before them – never heard the blues; in fact, they were taught to consider the blues inferior music. Art historians, you see, make it clear that until the 1950s beauty was generally defined by the high art of 19th century Romanticism. Think of the harmony and radiance in Handel’s Messiah or the grandeur and passion of Beethoven. Think of Delacroix, Turner or even the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the realm of painting.

The essence was balance, proportion, structure, nobility and a profound nobility pointing towards the highest and best. And without turning this into an art history lecture the problem came to be not the works of art of the era, but the slavish insistence by the captains of culture that only this type of art was valuable. And you know what happens when you tell free people – adults or children – not to touch that cookie (or cross that line or stay out past curfew), don’t you?

They do it – sometimes with a vengeance – and they’ve been doing it with vigor for the past 50 years. So much so that today – right in this place – are some who have no idea what to do with rock and roll and some who have no idea what to do with the organ. And as art in the 20th and now 21st century becomes more and more abstract, discordant and rule breaking… there is often confusion and hard feelings when it comes to defining the ugly and true beauty.

That’s the first challenge – learning to own and appreciate the very different standards by which beauty is experienced given cultural and generational differences. The second is theological and is just as complex as the first. Most western – and especially American – God talk falls into a category I call the via positiva: it is utilitarian, positive, hope-filled, confident and often playful. It is a very lovely way of exploring the goodness of God and is essential for balance.

The problem arises, however, when our lives and relationship with God are not positive, productive, hope filled and all the rest. Where do we find the Lord – and how do we sing the Lord’s song – when we got the blues? Unemployment? Disease? Enter the via negativa which is more about finding God in the darkness and silence – in the absence and the longing – even the suffering and the blues. This is where the songs of lament and hearing the cries and groans of the oppressed comes in – it is an antidote to being naive – or overly utilitarian – or even imbalanced.

We might say that the via positiva is found in our favorite hymns – How Great Thou Art, In the Garden, God of Grace and God of Glory and all our Christmas carols – while the via negativa comes up during Lent – When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Go to Dark Gethsemane, Where You There When They Crucified My Lord. The Sufi mystic, Rumi, explains the via negativa best in his poem “Love Dogs” which says:

One night a man was crying,
Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
"So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?"

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.

He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
"Why did you stop praising?"
"Because I've never heard anything back."
"This longing
you express is the return message."

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

Are you with me? Do you grasp the difference? One of the important theologians in the Western tradition to get the via negativa in art was Paul Tillich. After fighting for Germany in WWI when he returned to civilian life he discovered that the heart and soul of God was not often found in the sterile and soulless churches of his day, but rather in the challenging, harsh and mostly wounded artistic works of abstract expressionists and others on the fringe that were coming to the surface in post war Europe. He saw them giving voice to the marginalized – embodying the feeling and fears that the poor were crying in the street – giving shape to the agony of the forgotten.

Tillich heard God’s songs of lament and blues and it prompted him to reshape our working definition of beauty: “If beauty means a creation whose harmonious forms produce immediate pleasure, only a few and very questionable artistic styles are concerned with beauty. If, however, beautiful means the power of mediating a special realm of meaning by transforming reality, then much in art is bound to be beautiful.” (NOTE: for more information on art history - and abstract expressionism - see: http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http://www.harley.com/art/abstract-art/images/(gorky)-one-year-the-milkweed-(small).jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.harley.com/art/abstract-art/index.html&h=319&w=400&sz=40&hl=en&start=15&tbnid=V6Hsb-_zMupn1M:&tbnh=99&tbnw=124&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dabstract%2Bexpressionism%26gbv%3D2%26hl%3Den)

The first challenge for us generational – the second is theological – and both keep us from hearing the voice of the Lord in the cries of the wounded, forgotten and often ugly. And so we read the songs of lament in the Scriptures – in worship – and we play the music of Bach and Handel as well as Messiaen and Johnny Cash and Springsteen and U2 – in worship – so that we can break down what divides us and overcome what seeks to keep us wounded, alone and afraid.

Hear, O Israel, listen and pay attention that the Lord your God is One and so are you – one with another and one with the Lord – and the way these words become flesh within and among us is by loving your neighbor as yourself. The blues – the ugly – the harsh and challenging are the voice of the Lord walking the via negativa and can teach us to sing the Lord’s song even in the presence of our tormentors… if we have ears to hear.

Picasso heard the blues – and “Guernica” came to birth in the face of Spanish fascism. Messiaen heard the blues – and composed his “Quartet for the End of Time” to weep with those in the death camps. Rembrandt heard the blues – and gave honor to the face of Jews by painting all his biblical themes based upon those in the ghetto of his day.

Marvin Gaye heard the blues – and gave us a lament about war in peace set to a Motown groove. Miles Davis – John Coltrane – Johnny Cash – Lucinda Williams and U2 heard the blues – as did Copeland, Barber, Brecht and Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Leonard Cohen.

What often strikes us as ugly in our security is an invitation to go beyond the safety zone and hear – really hear – the weeping taking place by the waters of Babylon. And all too often loving our neighbor as ourselves has to do with tears. So let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts... sing to you, O Lord, even by the waters of Babylon.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

An emotional roller coaster

Back in the days of seminary, I remember my mentor in urban ministry, Ray Swartzback, telling me that "ministry was an emotional roller coaster... and there is no other gig filled with as many daily challenges." I think there are harder and more demanding jobs - I used to joke with the blue collar guys back in Michigan and Cleveland that my job rarely involved heavy lifting - and I know there are jobs that demand more sharpness and quick thinking - air traffic controllers and our armed service folk come to mind to say nothing of police, ER/EMT personnel, doctors, nurses and so many more. But doing ministry in connection with real people is a total emotional roller coaster and there is rarely a week that goes by without tears of rage, joy, sorrow as well as little clues of God's grace, deep presence and quiet joy.

Today included a conversation about how our church once hosted a primer African American soprano and her pianist was none other than Samuel Barber! (I am not kidding: I saw the news article and pictures!!) A few minutes later I had a call from the local mortuary wondering whether I would do a funeral for a young suicide - the family had no church ties and the minister at whose church they wanted the service was away - but there were two younger siblings and they didn't know where else to turn. (Of course I would do the funeral - who knows the aching of God better than parents of such a wounded child?)

As I was getting ready to do some visits I got a call about the death of a member's mother-in-law who had been feeling on top of the world 4 days ago so that changed everything. Then there was writing in my study about the importance of beauty for social justice and spiritual renewal, a premarital conversation with a young couple and an evening visit for spiritual direction with a divorced person wrestling with fear, middle age and uncertainty about how to best be open to God. An emotional roller coaster to be sure and I probably forgot some mistakes I made with someone along the way as well as getting a loved one to work (we only have one car), administrative stuff and planning for a leader's retreat this weekend.

Frederick Buechner writes: I believe that we know much more about God than we admit we know, than perhaps we altogether know that we know. God speaks to us, I would say, much more often than we realize or than we choose to realize. Before the sun sets every evening, God speaks to each of us in an intensely personal and unmistakable way. God's message is not written out in starlight, which in the long run would make no difference; rather, it is written out for each of us in the humdrum, helter-skelter events of each day; it is a message that in the long run might just make all the difference...

God speaks to us about ourselves, about what God wants us to do and what God wants us to become - and this is the area where I believe that we know so much more about God than we admit to even ourselves... A face comes toward us down the street. Do we raise our eyes or do we keep them lowered, passing by in silence? Somebody says something about somebody else, and what he says happens to be not only cruel but also funny, and everybody laughs. Do we laugh, too, or do we speak the truth? A friend has hurt us, do we take pleasure in hating him, because hate has its pleasures as well as love, or do we try to build back some flimsy little bridge? All the absurd little meetings, decisions, inner skirmishes that go to make up all our days. It all adds up to very little and yet it all adds up to very much...

It is an emotional roller coaster that has a lot to say. I think of the poem, "Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey," by Hayden Carruth:

Scrambled eggs and whiskey in the false-dawn light. Chicago,
a sweet town, bleak, God knows,
but sweet. Sometimes. And
weren't it fine tonight?


I am grateful that I have allowed to keep trying to do this job for 27 years. I know I get it wrong at least as much as I get it right and am trying to see that even this is a blessing. Made me think of dear Nick Cave's song, "Hiding All Away," from The Abattoir Blues CD. (We did this once in Tucson for Good Friday and it unnerved folk more than anything else we ever played except maybe U2,'s "Numb.") I share it with you because it, too, is an emotional roller coaster and hints that God's presence is rarely found in those places we expect it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Staying connected

We had some wicked weather here over the weekend which not only took out our power but destroyed our modem. For 48 hours we were without phone or Internet - which held its own blessings and quiet - but also cut us off from friends and those we like to stay connected with.
So, now we are back and I am grateful for conscientious service people, women and men who know how to keep my world working and people with patience. In the solitude, however, I rediscovered this poem by Goethe that warrants sharing.


Tell a wise person, or else keep silent,
Because the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
What longs to be burned to death.

In the calm water of the love-nights,
Where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
A strange feeling comes over you
When you see the silent candle burning.

Now you are no longer caught
In the obsession with darkness,
And a desire for the higher love-making
Sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter,
Now, arriving in magic, flying,
And, finally, insane for the light,
You are the butterfly and you are gone.

And so long as you haven't experienced
This: to die and so to grow,
You are only a troubled guest
On the dark earth.

Friday, July 18, 2008

What would you include...?

APOLOGIES: Dear friends - I had a picture posted here earlier that suggested shadow and truth to me (at first) but upon closer examination turned out to be totally unacceptable for this blog. I ask your forgiveness. RJ

I am beginning work on a special project re: worship, our encounter with beauty and contemporary music (especially U2) and would like your wisdom/help. As I collaborate with a local jazz/classical pianist - as well as my own trio - it would help me greatly to hear your thoughts about:

1) What U2 songs (and others) speak to you about how beauty touches/heals our wounds?

2) What songs do you relate to the following text from scripture: the final chapter of Job 42 -I am particularly fond of poet Stephen Mitchell's rendering of 42: 1-6.

3) Visual images - paintings, films, etc - that express the power of beauty to bringing healing.

As those of you who read this blog know, I am committed to going deeper into uncharted territory so don't be afraid to be edgy or subversive: Walter Breuggemann is clear that in times of chaos and oppression, God calls us to go to the periphery - in scripture, sociology and art - in order to hear a word of challenge, healing, hope and liberation. To date, the U2 songs that speak to me on this theme include: Dirty Day, Daddy's Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car, Mofo, Beautiful Day, Grace and Pride.




I look forward to hearing from you as this project matures. Many thanks.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lots of fun...

We played our third "Third Thursday in Downtown Pittsfield" tonight - this time outside in front of the church. Lots of fun: we sang impromptu children's tunes for little ones, we did lots of great gospel/folk/soul songs, a subdued but excellent version of Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side"and even a spontaneouss version of "La Bamba/Good Lovin'" for some ageing hippies who were enjoying the groove. Too much fun and a great way to meet the wider community.

When I came home I found this Bob Dylan satire by Weird Al that has to be shared. I have to tell you that I LOVE Weird Al - his spoofs of Michael Jackson and so many of the 80s/90s musicians - are to die for and this goof on my man Dylan is spot on. I have included the original, "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (one of my all time favorites... with Allen Ginsberg in the background) for context (especially for those who haven't encountered the original.) What a great night...

The original...



The satire...


Jesus in the city painting...

A number of blogger friends - and folk at church - have been asking me for more information about the artist who did this cross. For a while I couldn't find anything about the artist... but I recently found this from one who knows her. Apparently Sarah Brown is a high school senior who wrote these words about her piece. Thanks, Sarah, for your work. Here is the link:
http://www.emergingcity.com/2006/02/the_cross_and_the_city_i_am.html

Lately I’ve had a lot jumbled up in my head about Christianity. I’ve been wondering why our lives, as Christians, contradict the way Jesus lived his life. Why don’t we hang out with the prostitutes and tax collectors? Why is it ok for a lawyer in the congregation to get divorced, but not the pastor? Why is it unacceptable for a couple to have premarital sex, but acceptable for people to gossip about them?

My youth pastor made a comment one time that has stuck with me. “Jesus died for everyone. Even child molesters.” Through all the years of felt board stories, hymns, and sermons that had never registered the way it did at that moment. I guess when I thought “Jesus died for everyone” I was unconsciously picturing the balding heads in the pews around me. Certainly not the sick twisted people who would exploit an innocent child. Jesus’ sacrifice took on new meaning for me. He died for Hitler? Marilyn Manson? Wow. Then once that had sunk in, it hit me like a load of bricks. Not only did Jesus pay the price for what these people had done, in the eyes of God he became these people. The great I AM became the filth of the earth. Jesus the paradox.

If Jesus had enough love to give his life for those people why is it so hard for us to love them? And in the end, sin is sin. A Sunday school teacher is equal to a mass murderer. I’m the same as that child molester because God has offered us the same love. That was hard for me to accept. Then I decided that the answer to all these questions is love. We are called to love like He does. Matthew 25:40 can be interpreted, “And the King will tell them, I assure you, when you [loved] one of the least of these my brothers and sisters you were [loving] me.” The old song says, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

We’ve got a lot of loving to catch up on, so let’s get started.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Why all this waste...?

What follows are my sermon notes for this coming Sunday. They build on a host of ideas that have been swimming around in me for a long time and recently errupted in my three part reflection on U2's "Dirty Day." They form the introduction to a worship series re: beauty, justice and redeeming culture that we are starting at First Church this week. Hope they make some sense. Please note that some of these are pix Dianne shot during our recent trip to NYC and St. John the Divine. This one, of course, made me think of St. John who still helps me make it through the night from time to time.

Please consider three inter-related insights concerning the importance and value of beauty and art both for the wellbeing of our souls as well as the healing of God’s creation. The Jewish sage and mystic, Lawrence Kushner of Sudbury, Massachusetts, tell us that:

Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle.
And so it goes.
Souls going this way and that
Trying to assemble the myriad parts.
But know this: no one has within themselves
All the pieces of their puzzle.
Like before the days when they used to seal
Jigsaw puzzles in cellophane. Insuring that
All the pieces were there.

Everyone carries with them at least one and probably
Many pieces to someone else’s puzzle.
Sometimes they know it.
Sometimes they don’t.

And when you present your piece
Which is worthless to you,
To another, whether you know it or not,
Whether they know it or not,
You are a messenger from the Most High.

The Protestant theologian, Karl Barth, in his 1956 little book about Mozart confessed that “… if he should ever get to heaven, he would first of all seek out Mozart, and only then inquire about Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin and Schleiermacher… (For) the music of Mozart offers us a parable of the kingdom of heaven… he heard – and causes those who have ears to hear even today – what we shall not see until the end of time: the whole context of providence.” (Patrick Sherry, Spirit and Beauty, p. 1)

And Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his unspoken but published lecture to those who had awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, asked us to recall the Russian Orthodox Dostoevsky who, in The Brothers Karamazov, said: “Beauty can save the world” to which he added:


For a long time I considered (this) mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved? There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender… a work of art bears within itself its own verification…So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply the empty, faded formula we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three? In that case Dostoevsky's remark, "Beauty will save the world", was not a careless phrase but a prophecy.

One tells us that we are created by God in such a way that we only become whole and healthy by connecting with others who carry within themselves something of our salvation. Another says that artists like Mozart allow us to experience what “thy kingdom come on earth” could be like as it is already realized in heaven. And a third affirms that beauty is God’s chosen way of saving a world rent by fear, propaganda, torture and moral confusion.

Unfortunately, because we have done precious little serious thinking about the intimate connections between the Holy Spirit and art – the power of God to bring healing and hope into the world through inspiration and beauty – we are, to use the words of theologian Patrick Sherry, impoverished in both imagination and vocabulary. So what I want to do today – and over the course of the next three Sundays – is share with you some of the ideas that our best thinkers have discerned when it comes to the meaning and importance of art and beauty.

You see, I have been persuaded that one of the true challenges of our generation – especially in these post September 11th days – has something to do with reclaiming beauty as the mission of God’s Holy Spirit. Gregory Wolfe of the IMAGE Journal puts it like this:

How often do we say the Judeo-Christian tradition is a tradition of faith, reason and imagination? (Too often) we treat beauty as the Cinderella. “Go make pretty pictures,” we say to beauty, “but don’t start acting like you are a pathway to knowing the universe…” (And yet) a work of art, while never inventing truth, does make truth accessible to us in ways that are not normally available because words and images have been tarnished by overuse or neglect.

Wolfe adds one more important insight that warrants another quote when he writes:

…art is deeply related to the prophetic dimension and the place where it connects to truth. That prophetic shock, that challenge to complacency, that revelatory reconfiguration of the way things are, gives us a truer picture of the way the world is. Truth without beauty is fleshless abstraction, a set of propositions. Only beauty can incarnate truth in concrete, believable, human flesh. Beauty also has the capacity to help us to value the good, especially the goodness of the most ordinary things… (Because) its essence is to remind us of the everyday and to transmute it into a sacrament. Beauty tutors our compassion, making us more prone to love and to see the attraction of goodness. Art takes us out of our self-referentiality and invites us to see through the eyes of the other, whether that others is the artist herself or a character in a story. And because beauty endows goodness with mercy, in enables us to see how difficult it is to achieve goodness, how often one good exists in tension with another.

I think that is brother Kushner’s point: art and beauty put us in relationship with those who can make us whole – people who hold some of the missing pieces of our puzzle – and help us get over ourselves. And that is what the apostle Paul seems to be calling to our attention in the first reading of the day in Philippians 4:

Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Now remember something: Paul is writing these words to his friends from prison. He isn’t out on vacation by the pool or taking a massage at a resort; he is being held against his will by Rome for challenging the status quo – and yet he still tells us: “Don’t fret… fill your minds on things that are true, noble… compelling and gracious – the best, not the worst – the beautiful, not the ugly.”

Why? What did Barth say: the beautiful puts us in contact with both God’s truest nature as well as God’s plan for us all in the kingdom so that we can see “the whole context of providence?” And nowhere is the importance of beauty made clearer than in our second reading – the story of Mary who anoints Christ’s feet with expensive perfumed oil – in Matthew. I had forgotten that this story is retold in each of the four gospels – with important variations and distinctions, to be sure – which suggests that it is one of the essential stories for knowing the heart of Christ Jesus our Lord.

So let’s review the details so that we are all on the same page:

+ John’s gospel tells us that the woman who pours the perfumed oil on the Master’s feet is… Mary – sister of Martha and Mary fame as well as Lazarus whom Jesus has just raised from the dead in a previous chapter. Luke’s gospel reshapes the identity of the woman – calling her a sinful woman from the street (that is, a prostitute) – but the other three maintain that she is the sister of Martha and Lazarus from Bethany.

+ And they all tell us that this event took place at a feast just 6 days before the crucifixion. In other words, this was a tense and fear- filled time, yes? As the men are talking about serious matters like Passover and the building tension towards Jesus, a woman – someone from the periphery – breaks into the moment and offers Jesus an extravagant gift.

+ Scholars are clear that the perfumed oil she poured on Jesus’ feet was worth on person’s wages for a year – so depending who you are and where you live we are talking about $30,000 US dollars or more – and she just pours it over his feet and then caresses them with her hair. Totally wasteful. Extremely sensual. Intentionally beautiful.

+ And what are the reactions to all this waste and extravagance? Judas flips – this becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back for him and pushes him into his betrayal – as he cries: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” One artist wrote: “The passion of (her) extravagant act provoked an equally opposite and ugly emotional reaction in Judas; and as one disciple devoted herself to the master, the other betrayed him.”

You may recall that I used this text when I was courting you and trying to discern whether God’s spirit was calling us into ministry together. You may also recall that at that time I told you that I believed art and beauty were a part of God’s mysterious and healing plan not only for this congregation and community but also for our nation. Art and beauty are a way out of our debilitating cultural wars and into a deeper relationship with truth, goodness and community.

But art and beauty always look extravagant – even wasteful – to some. Why don’t we use that money for the p
oor? Why do we keep repairing this damn building? Why do we insist on fixing the organ – or painting the walls – or paying musicians – or poets – or preachers? Why…?

Because devotion to beauty – the act of extravagant creation – is giving voice a
nd form and content to God in our generation: it is entering the very mission of the Holy Spirit to make God’s word flesh within and among us so that goodness and truth thrive. In his essay, “Modern Culture and Christian Renewal,” Gerald Vann writes that art teaches us how to be still so that we can be inspired by the Lord.

Man (sic) was first made to be a gardener; and as now his art must turn wilderness and wasteland into fields and gardens, so instead of the primitive cave-shelter he must have the amenities of a home well built and furnished, and the primitive raw materials of speech and song must evolve into the beauties of language and music… Working these transformations, however, requires reflection, stillness, receptivity. The world today is shadowed by political fears and troubles and by economic anxieties and stresses that tend to blind us to the deeper psychological crises which mankind is passing. And perhaps the greatest of those crises can be expressed by saying that generally speaking the human psyche is forgetting how to contemplate.

NOTE:
by contemplation I mean taking a long and loving look at what is real. To use St. Paul’s words: Don't fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It's wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life...Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

And then Vann concludes: “Man must be contemplative before he can hope with success to be active; he must receive and assimilate reality before attempting to give it out again. The artists, of course, know this, the poets and painters and sculptors and musicians know this: they beauty they create is a beauty they have first received.”

When I look at the New York Times and see how far apart the races still are in the United States – when I contemplate the tragedy and horror of the wars raging not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but also against the Palestinians and Israelis and Pakistanis and all the rest – when I see our own citizens having to decide whether they can buy heating oil or medicine…

I am drawn back to Solzhenitsyn who has contemplated the prophetic challenge that “beauty can save the world” longer and harder than I ever will. And what he has discovered – and what I trust with every fiber in my soul – is that in the face of human suffering and degradation – in the presence of an evil that numbs the mind and fills our hearts with a fear that silences the conscience – in our epoch of darkness, sorrow and grief where truth and goodness are not only obscured but also sold off to the highest bidder…

… the mysterious but objective existence of beauty – in poems, music, cinema, literature, sculpture, painting, liturgy, architecture, drama and dance – “has it in its power to help mankind, in these its troubled hours, to see itself as it really is, notwithstanding the indoctrinations of prejudiced people and parties.” He is speaking of contemplation, yes? And he goes on:

World literature has it in its power to convey condensed experience from one land to another so that we might cease to be split and dazzled, that the different scales of values might be made to agree, and one nation learn correctly and concisely the true history of another with such strength of recognition and painful awareness as it had itself experienced the same, and thus might it be spared from repeating the same cruel mistakes. And perhaps under such conditions we artists will be able to cultivate within ourselves a field of vision to embrace the WHOLE WORLD: in the centre observing like any other human being that which lies nearby, at the edges we shall begin to draw in that which is happening in the rest of the world. And we shall correlate, and we shall observe world proportions.

He is speaking of how compassion is awakened – community, solidarity and hope, too – through our experience and encounter with beauty in all its extravagance.

“Why all the waste,” we ask? “Why preach to the starving when they need bread?” “Why pour out the perfumed oil – or the costly stones – when there is such agony and need all around us?” Because we have been called by God to restore and heal our very humanity – created from the beginning in the very image of the Creator – but we “cannot save others from brutality if we ourselves are subhuman.”

Beauty points to its source – the Lord our God – who has said to us: This woman has done a beautiful thing for the Lord… so I tell you that wherever the gospel is preached throughout the whole world, what she has done must be told in memory of her.” Let us be as wildly extravagant, too. Take a moment now to enjoy what Barth knew so well...



summertime is half over...

A gentle rain is falling in the Berkshire hills this morning. Already it feels like a day of contemplation and quiet rest. There was a Fac...