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.


Black Pete said…
There's a lot there, my man.

And I'm glad you opted for the older version of the hermit in the woods story (which is also in William J. Bausch's excellent Storytelling: Imagination and Faith). Antonio de Mello wrote a corrupted version in which the hermit told the abbott that his community lacked the spirit of Christ in their lives--I remember my head shot up and my jaw dropped when I heard that version in a sermon. Gnashing of teeth...

Best of luck and inspiration on your song project. Thanks for a thoughtful meditation among many such--I do not know when you sleep {grin}.

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