Saturday, January 31, 2009

Praying and resting in the scriptures...

Over the course of the last 27 years I have found myself praying and resting in different portions of Scripture. It is almost as if these different passages give shape and depth to my ministry for a time. When I left seminary and began work in urban ministry in Michigan, I discovered that even though I had experienced a great intellectual awakening, I had not learned much about the Bible. For good or ill, I knew a great deal about liberation theology and not enough about the stories of our faith.

This began an angry few years where I educated myself both in the texts and their tradition - and I found myself embracing Luke 4 like many (if not most) young hot headed preachers:
God's Spirit is on me; he's chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, "This is God's year to act!"

Man, it is all about social justice and getting things right inside and outside the church I used to say so often that I'm sure I was insufferable. (Actually, I know I was insufferable!) Nevertheless, I was a young minister with a mission and this text gave me focus and purpose. And that sustained me for about 10 years. But amidst a hard and painful divorce (are there any other types really?) when I found so many of those old church friends more interested in pushing me to stay in a lifeless and ugly relationship than discern God's still speaking voice for my life, I found myself drawn to this text from Matthew's gospel:

Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew's house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus' followers. "What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and riffraff?" Jesus, overhearing, shot back, "Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: 'I'm after mercy, not religion.' I'm here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders."

I guess it was a case of incarnational theology because only when I had become one of the sick, riff raff whose life was falling apart did I realized how important it was to be with a part of a community grounded in God's grace not judgment. Christ's reference to the ministry of Hosea - who sought a way to be faithful to his wounded and broken wife in her worst hours - spoke tons to me in mine... and sustained me when the Church and its people did not.


When I started the work of rebuilding a life after that harsh time in the wilderness - and when I started trying to understand how to be part of the social healing needed in America during the wildass Clinton year's - I was greatly influenced by another passage - Psalm 37 and the call not to fret:

Don't bother your head with braggarts
or wish you could succeed like the wicked. In no time they'll shrivel like grass clippings and wilt like cut flowers in the sun. Get insurance with God and do a good deed, settle down and stick to your last. Keep company with God, get in on the best. Open up before God, keep nothing back; he'll do whatever needs to be done: He'll validate your life in the clear light of day and stamp you with approval at high noon. Quiet down before God, be prayerful before him. Don't bother with those who climb the ladder, who elbow their way to the top. Bridle your anger, trash your wrath, cool your pipes—it only makes things worse. Before long the crooks will be bankrupt; God-investors will soon own the store.

It was a call to nourish my inner life - and for another 10 years this text kept calling me back to that quiet center - it was all about being grounded in God's grace. Not my fears or the demands of ministry: fret not. To be sure, I wrestled with this text because I wanted a more active and demanding ministry but it was not to be. I even almost destroyed my second marriage trying to fight God on this call to stay grounded... which is when this text from Matthew 11 grab a hold of my life:

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.

The unforced rhythms of grace... hmmmmm. Sounds like something a 50 year old clergy person should know about, yes? But I didn't, so the time had come to learn. As one counselor/therapist told me, "Ok, you've now discovered all the wrong reasons why you went into ministry. Let's see if we can find the right ones." So we did... and life became more balanced - and a whole lot more fun. I wept and laughed more. I let go and trusted that God really wasGod like Abraham Heschel had taught so long ago.

And when we found ourselves returning to New England after ten years in the Sonoran desert, I held on to this text and the importance of living within the unforced rhythms of grace. That is still a resting place for me, but now a new text is emerging that reinforces the blessings of grace. It, too, is an old, old Psalm - 131 to be exact:

O Lord, my heart is not proud;
my eyes are not raised too high.
I do not occupy myself with matters too great for me;
or with marvels that are beyond me.
For I have stilled and made quiet my soul,
like a weaned child nestling to its' mother
so like a child, my soul is quieted within me.
O trust in the Lord:
from this time forth and for ever.

Maybe, as Jung suggested, resting and trust is what this phase of the journey is all about. Clearly it is essential as I work on the renewal of this scrappy little congregation. Same, too, with my inner and family life: trust and rest, quiet and humble focus seem to be at the heart of things right now. Not that I don't fret - and scramble - forget and all the rest. But my heart and soul is set on little things - kindness and compassion, being present and less harried - so we shall see...

So I am curious if others have found themselves praying and resting in key texts over their years in ministry?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Farewell good and faithful friend...

I just heard that Bob Seaver, Professor of Speech and Drama at Union Theological Seminary in NYC (my Alma mater), passed from this life into life everlasting on Tuesday. He was 90 years old and had recently been plagued with Alzheimer's. He was a feisty old saint, a brilliant teacher, a gentle old queen and a good and faithful friend.

He scared the shit out of me my freshman year in seminary. Coming from a waay low church tradition, I had no idea what he wanted when he told us that all entering students had to prepare a reading of the Nunc dimittis as an opening day audition:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace : according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen : thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared : before the face of all people;

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel

I had never done any public speaking - or reading - before that week in seminary so when I got to the podium I had neither prepared nor knew how to proclaim anything from scripture. And before I got halfway through this short reading, Seaver said, "Um, it is clear Mr. Lumsden that you could benefit from my class. You're in!"

And I HATED his class: it was like CPE for public speakers - and Seaver could be brutal. One day after I butchered another reading, he told the whole class, "Are you trying to sound like that irritating and nasty new singer... um what the hell is his name.. the guy who sings and whines through his nose?" "James Taylor, sir?" I suggested. "OMG yes.. that's the monster. Are you trying to sound like him?" (Now, if the truth be told, I had spent a whole summer learning to finger pick while working in an all night gas station right after James Taylor broke with "Sweet Baby James." And yes I had spent 2-3 years learning to play and sing like him. Why not? I got a LOT of dates that way!) And before I could tell him this story, he shook his head and said, "Let's please try to find your REAL voice and spirit in public, Mr. Lumsden?"

For a whole freaking semester I endured Seaver's taunts and insults, jabs and corrections... with only incremental improvement. Then, just to spite him, I found a poem, The Photographer, that I worked my ass off to get right: it was ribald, it was witty and it was totally outside what Seaver expected of me.

Well early Saturday morning, I was strolling in the wood
I came upon a lady who by the wayside stood
And what, pray tell, would such a lass as you be doing here?
I've come to take some photographs, said she as I drew near

Said I to her, I do declare, this is a fateful day
For I have come to photograph, the same as you did say
Then I took out my Nikon-F and placed it in her hand
She said that's quite a camera, sir, you have at your command

My camera so delighted her, she could no more delay
She let me see her camera case, wherein her accessories lay
I'm sure, she said, you have most everything that can be bought
Just let me stretch my tripod out before I take some shots

We photographed from haylofts, and up against the wall
If you've not shot on Saturday night, you've not photographed at all
She had her shutter open wide, for daylight was all gone
Likewise my naked camera lens, it had its filter on

This lady had experience with cameras, yes, indeed
And I thought her exposures the best I'd ever seen
Although she seemed to tire not as on and on we went
I said I'll have to stop now, my film supply is spent

She said I've had Mirandas, Yashicas and Rolleis
Hasselblad and Pentax, likewise a Polaroid
Fujica, Canon, Nikkormat, a Kodak and the rest
But now I've seen your Nikon-F, and surely it's the best

He laughed his ass off... then smiled at me and said, "Yes, yes, Lumsden, I think you're going to be just fine."
20 years later Bob came out to my church in Tucson to do a workshop with lay readers for Christmas Eve. It was two full days of pure Seaver and it was magic: he bullied the Marine colonel into reading with passion, he teased the sexy mom into become a REAL woman with a voice, he helped young teens find their grounding and all with grace, verve and skill. And then I got to serve him Eucharist the next day - and he wept.

I haven't seen Bob Seaver for 10 years and it saddens me to hear that he has died. He was a good and faithful friend who helped me and so many others. I give thanks that he will be buried out of his spiritual home in NYC: St. John the Divine. Rest in peace old friend. Here's a song for you, too:

How good and pleasant it is...

Last night we met - we broke bread with one another, laughed, prayed, shared stories and questions from scripture - and began to discern what God might be saying to us amidst our financial concerns. It was tender and sacred, honest and hope-filled, blessed and awkward all at the same time.

After a simple but elegant supper, we gathered for conversation: our moderator - a bright, sensitive woman of great depth - began with an example of her on-going, maturing faith journey. She ended with an invitation to help all of our church - this group and others - try to claim and live into the presence of Christ who is within and among us whenever we gather. You could see how deeply this touched the others: trust and hope was palpable.

Next I invited the folk to share a story or passage from scripture about how you hear God speaking to us at this moment in time - and this, too, was sweet. The stories included hearing God's invitation to see the light in the darkness; a call to discover the hidden Christ walking with us on our own Emmaus Road; a reminder that some feel like they have been grieving the past for a long time (like those after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem) but are now finding ways to 'plant gardens and harvest them and build houses and live in them' even in a strange land; as well as words about living as Christ's body with one another and seeking joy in all things.

It was remarkable to me: no pissing and moaning, just a little fear, a heart to heart sharing by people who meet in faith. It was sacred. And they talked about how these words might become flesh - and there were lots of ideas from shared ministries/staffing with others to new ways to raise money. This, too, was both honest and healing - maybe even hopeful! And then we agreed to stay with these stories and ideas in prayer over the next few weeks before gathering again for a meal and more prayerful conversation and discernment.

Two truths became clear to me during our time together: a healing is happening among these people - and it is born of God's grace - and their encounters with joy. Their season of grieving is ending... it may be too soon to talk about dancing although one wise soul kept saying, "We need to be doing the Happy Dance big time right now!" The second is that although we are not out of the woods, this church is also committed to being creative with our money so that we advance mission and ministry not just the maintenance of a big old building. As another said, "Maybe we've gotten over our 'edifice complex!'" Hallelujah. (NOTE: to be sure, we've got staffing and funding problems to beat the band but amongst the leaders I experienced a deep trust in God's abiding grace.)

I am grateful for the prayers and notes you have shared. This song by Luka Bloom, "Don't Be Afraid of the Light That Shines Within You," comes to mind - especially this verse:

Out of the cold, dark winter space
We come together, looking for Brigid's grace
We dip our open hands deep into the well
Where our rivers run to
Who can tell, who can tell?
We warm our hearts and faces
In the heat of the burning flame
Something about our spirit
Never stays the same
Don't be afraid of the light that shines within you
Don't be afraid of the light that shines within you
Don't be afraid of the light that shines within you
Within you




All of this calls to mind the gentle Psalm 131:
O Lord my heart is not proud:
My eyes are not raised too high.
I do not occupy myself with matters too great for me;
Or with marvels that are beyond me.
For I have stilled and made quiet my soul,
Like a weaned child nestling to its mother;
So like a child, my soul is quieted within me.
O trust in the Lord
From this time forth and forever.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Come holy spirit...

Tonight a small gathering of key church leaders will meet for supper, prayer and discussion about how best to deal with our financial crisis brought to a head by the world's financial crisis. As I noted earlier, when we came to do ministry with this struggling congregation the endowment fund gave us a 7 year window to turn things around; now that whole fund has been cut in half which means 7 has become 3 at best. It would be very easy for us to become like this old Benedictine convent on the Isle of Iona: beautiful, broken down and abandoned.

I sense, however, that now there is finally the energy and need to make hard choices: we can begin to find a way to be the church God is aching to be born rather than one trapped in the 1950s - or 80s - or 1700s! But three things need to happen before we can hear what a still speaking God might be saying:

+ We're going to have to learn to PRAY together - not a long suit here - but an absolute necessity.

+ We're going to have to explore God's imagination in scripture rather than rely on conventional business bottom line thinking. A corollary is that we're going to have to give up any illusions that we possess a monopoly on wisdom and learn to trust God in a whole new way.
+ We're going to have to trust one another in a new way, too. No more insiders vs. everyone else, no more information hogs, too.
It should be interesting tonight... which is why we're starting with supper together. Not only is it one of the only ways to get busy people together, it evokes the Messianic feast and Christ's table fellowship, too. Then we'll pray, share some insights and see where the Spirit leads. I'm hoping for something wildly creative - new/old with lots of tradition and creativity, too - in the spirit of Tommy Emmanuel's reworking of "Classical Gas."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Radical hospitality and worship...

NOTE: On this wild and blustery New England day of snow and freezing rain when EVERYTHING is closing down, I have finished my notes for Sunday morning, February 1st. Last week I shared some ideas about worship and sensed a need to deepen and continue this jag so... over the next month I'm going to play with a host of other worship ideas, too. Please know that if you are in the area at 10:30 am, you would ALWAYS be welcome to join us.

Welcome, beloved of God, welcome. I know we’ve already shared the peace of Christ together – and it is true that I’ve already spoken a formal greeting to you at the start of the liturgy. But if our texts for today assure us of anything it is that we cannot welcome one another with affection, respect and gratitude too often. For, you see, when we rejoice in receiving another as a true sister or brother, we are indeed celebrating and recognizing the very presence of our Lord Jesus Christ within and among us.

Jesus asked his friends, “What were you discussing as we walked along the road today?” The silence of their response was deafening because they had been arguing over who among them was the greatest. So he sat down in their midst – a sign that he was going to teach them something – and said, “If you want first place, then take last place and live as a servant to all.” Then putting a small child in the middle of the room, Jesus cuddled the little one in his arms, saying, “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me – and far more than me – you embrace the Lord who sent me.”

This is not a sentimental rave about children – although little ones are essential and beloved – this is about hospitality. Religious sociologists, Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, write:

Contrary to our ethnocentric and anachronistic projections of innocent, trusting, imaginative and delightful children playing at the knee of a gentle Jesus, childhood in antiquity was a time of terror…. Children were the weakest, the most vulnerable members of society with an infant mortality rate of 30%, a death rate of another 30% by age six and over 60% of all children dead by the age of 16. (The Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p. 33.)

So we’re talking radical hospitalitydangerous compassion – lives so constructed on generosity and welcome that they make God visible to even unbelievers. And guess what, Christian friends? Unless this radical hospitality is expressed and experienced in our worship, you can almost always guarantee that it will elude us in our daily living. Because as some of our African American preachers put it: “You gotta walk the walk, not just talk the talk… and you can’t live what is not inside you to give.”

So let me share with you three insights about hospitality and worship that can deepen our commitment to living into God’s bold welcome and bring a measure of hope and joy with the world. As we say in our mission and vision statement: In community with God and each other we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion. So let’s talk about community in worship.

The first insight about worship and welcome is so obvious that I almost hate to say it out loud but I will: our worship celebration must always point us towards God. It is from God that we receive strength to love those who are unlovable. It is from God that we experience the grace and forgiveness we need to live life exuberantly. It is from God that we are given eyes to see the light in the darkness, hope amidst despair and the eagle within the egg. And it is from God that we find a way to become our best and truest self.

That is to say, authentic worship helps us get out of our own way so that God’s healing love can be discerned. Experienced. Considered and embraced. When Jesus placed that child in the midst of his friends and disciples – when he embraced and nourished him – he was saying: the time has come for you to get over yourselves. Your vision is too narrow. Your habits are too parochial. And your hopes are too selfish. Look what I am doing: from now on the least powerful and valued people will be at the center of our life together. So if you want to be first – and there is nothing wrong in being first – but if you want to be first you will do the same as me: you will act in an upside down way by elevating those at the bottom. You will live in solidarity with the least of your sisters and brothers. Look at this child:

In ancient culture, children had no status. They were subject to the authority of their fathers, viewed as little more than property. Membership within the community of the faithful will now involve giving status to those who have none. Accepting such an unimportant member of society in Jesus' name is equivalent to accepting Jesus. And accepting Jesus is equivalent to accepting God. So hospitality, a major aspect of life in the ancient world, is to be extended to the most unlikely… indeed hospitality to the unimportant will be a hallmark of the circle of Jesus' followers, as it was in Jesus' own ministry. And this has everything to do with faithfulness to the one whose rejection and death mark the way to glory and eternal life. (Juel, Mark Augsburg Commentary.)

The first commitment we make in worship is to be grounded in God’s grace. For “there’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in God’s justice which is more than liberty. There’s no place where earth’s sorrows are more felt than up in heaven; there’s no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given. For the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.” First, we’re grounded in God’s gracious presence.

Now I just came across the most fascinating illustration of how difficult and counter cultural this grounding can be for us in this tongue and cheek description of a new way to make our stewardship/ fundraising campaigns more successful. They call it the Lord’s Lottery and the bottom line thinking it advocates says that in times like these we all have to find new and better ways to get more money into the offering plates on Sunday morning. So, here’s the proposal:

When the ushers bring the offering plates forward, the pastor will place all the offering envelopes in a big round tumbler on the communion table. One of the ushers will then step forward and draw out one of the offering envelopes from the big round tumbler on the table announcing that the 'winner' (the person or family whose offering envelope has been drawn) will receive DOUBLE THEIR MONEY BACK!!

Just think of the benefits that the Lord’s Lottery offers to us:

+ More and more members will begin using offering envelopes. When you make offering envelopes available only to members you will be astounded at how quickly your membership will grow.

+ Members will naturally put in more money because they know that if their envelope is drawn they will get more money back (note: never underestimate the intelligence of your members.)

+ Worship will reach new heights of excitement. Can imagine the excitement and drama each Sunday as the winning envelope is drawn. And you will have no trouble lining up ushers because of the excitement, honor, and prestige that comes with the job.

Hmmmm… if our first worship commitment is to be grounded in a God who empowers us to become our best selves by learning to get out of our own way, then our second has something to do with bringing a childlike enthusiasm to all of life – worship included. One of the blessings I received over the Christmas holidays came from a mom and her daughter who told one of our young mom’s that Christmas Eve was the first time she had ever received communion – and it changed her heart. She felt welcomed. Loved. Important to God.

Now pay attention to this: she didn’t know all of the doctrinal truths about Eucharist. And she couldn’t say the prayers or explain what was actually taking place at that sacred supper. But she felt and encountered the love of God. Christian educators, David Ng & Virginia Thomas, have studied the way that children can teach adults about the love of God during Holy Communion.

When children partake of bread and wine the "tables are turned." Their participation in the sacrament of the Lord's Table teaches the rest of the church something very important about God and our relationship with God. We are prevented from a Gnostic practice of our religion. The essence of Gnostic religion is the right knowledge of certain secrets; thus is the path to salvation. But the Lord's Supper and baptism are meant as gifts to be received in faith. We do not claim God's gifts through our superior intellect or knowledge of certain secrets kept from others. When children have the audacity to receive God's gifts, which they could in no way deserve on the basis of their knowledge or experience, the rest of the church can learn again the meaning of trust and faith. In the matter of a "right practice" of the sacraments, it is possible that the children shall lead us.

There is an old story from the Hassidic tradition that tells of the town’s rabbi trying and trying to study and find something insightful to tell his congregation about God’s love. He looked down at the sacred words. Then he looked up and sighed. How could he study the holy texts with so much on his mind?

For one thing, there were people in his care. Was he being too strict with them or too lenient? Should he spend more time listening to those in need? Or would his time be better spent talking to the wealthy, convincing them to meet the needs of the poor? For another thing, his office was in perpetual disorder. But how could he use a precious hour like this one to straighten his office, when he might be gaining wisdom from the eternal words? And then there was the demand of time: the Sabbath would soon be upon him and he had no insights to share.

All of a sudden he heard a loud squeal outside his house. He stood and looked out his tiny window and saw two children, a boy and a girl, running after a ball. They reached it, accidentally kicked it ahead of them, then squealed with delight. They ran after it again, laughing and shrieking. Sometime later, the rabbi's wife entered the front room of their little house and noticed that the door to the outside stood ajar. She walked over to close it when she noticed that her husband was standing just outside.

She watched him. He stood there, shaking his head. Following his gaze, she noticed the children, still chasing their ball. "Are you all right, Payshe?” she asked. “Are the children disturbing your holy work?" He turned to face her. "Oh, dear woman," he said. "I am disturbed, but it is not the fault of the children. Look at them, do you see how they run so purposefully after the ball? How every muscle, every bone in their bodies moves them toward the one thing they seek at the moment?"

Then he put his arm on her shoulder, as they both gazed at the playing children. "I am disturbed because I cannot seem to do that. Can you imagine how quickly the whole world would be made holy, if we could all serve God with that much single-mindedness?" She slipped her arm around his waist and the two of them remained in their doorway a long time, reading the miraculous text before them.

Jesus regularly spoke of such wisdom and enthusiasm and even child- like abandon. And I am of the conviction that worship can help or hinder this quality in us: it can make us dour, grumpy and fearful old souls or those with the soul of a child chasing a ball. But again we have to get out of our way long enough for some of God’s grace to break through our flinty exteriors.

And you know what? I’ve seen those beautiful children in you: I’ve seen you clap and snap your fingers on the offbeat even when you feel a little silly. I’ve heard you sing like angels with gusto on some of our songs that feed your spirit. And I’ve heard you laugh in worship – and seen some of your tears, too – as you start to trust and open up.


Keep going, beloved, it is a beautiful thing to come to worship with childlike enthusiasm. There are already too many old grumps – and how did Jesus put it? “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me – and far more than me – you embrace the Lord who sent me.”

And one thing more – the third insight about worship and welcome – our words, our music, our actions and even the way we use this Sanctuary must clearly show that God’s loving grace is available to everyone: those we love and those we hate, those who think like us and those with very different visions, those who are old and those who are new, those who are traditional and those who are post-modern, those who are politically incorrect and those who are way PC! For we have been called to be servants – ministers – bearers of God’s grace to the world. One more story from our Jewish forebearers: It tells of a very wealthy merchant who comes upon a poor old man in the train and treats him with rudeness and disdain.

When they arrive at their common destination, the merchant finds the station thronged with pious Jews waiting in ecstatic joy to greet the arrival of one of the holiest rabbis in Europe, and learns to his chagrin that the old man in his compartment is that saintly rabbi. Embarrassed at his disgraceful behavior and distraught that he missed a golden opportunity to speak in privacy to a wise and holy man, the merchant pushes his way through the crowd to find the old man. When he reaches him, he begs the rabbi's forgiveness and requests his blessing. The old rabbi looks at him and replies, "I cannot forgive you. To receive forgiveness you must go out and beg it from every poor old person in the world."

Worship in our tradition is God centered: God’s grace empowers us to get over ourselves and out of our own way, it encourages us to enter and experience worship – and all of life – with a childlike exuberance and it challenges us to share grace and hospitality with all. “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me – and far more than me – you embrace the Lord who sent me.”

Let’s affirm the core of this truth by faith as we sing together:

When peace like a river upholds me each day when sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say: it is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well – with my soul – it is well, it is well with my soul

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A long and winding road...

We took a long and winding road from Pittsfield to Poughkepsie today... and it was beautiful. The stark winter terrain is much like the desert at this time of year: clear browns and greys against barren trees or clearings. Plaintive. Open. Clarifying. It was also beautiful to have two full hours of quiet and conversation with the woman I love.

Visiting with Di's old friend was sweet in its own understated way: Jon is caring for an aging and increasingly frail mother with Alzheimer's. He shares this act of mercy with two sisters. Our lunch was just a little break along the way - a chance for old friends to reconnect - a time for three middle age hippies to talk, enjoy good food and a little tenderness before getting back to the grind.

As we traveled home, the after effects of last month's ice storm was shocking: mile after mile of trees split and broken and dying in the bitter cold. There is another 12 inches of snow predicted in the next 24 hours. It is good to periodically take a break on the long and winding road for some down time, conversation and affection because tomorrow it is likely that the blizzard will arrive.

Monday, January 26, 2009

She doesn't ask much of me...

My wife doesn't ask much of me: maybe she's learned that being married with a clergy person means being very clear about what she needs vs. what she might like because she doesn't like to make life harder. (HINT: sometimes church folk don't get the needs/wants thing!) But she does - and I am grateful. It could be that we've been through enough rough times together - dealing with our individual shit as well as married issues - so that she really doesn't like to waste either of our time. And it could be both of these plus the fact that she is a totally sweet and wise woman.

So, when she DOES ask for something, I've learned to pay attention. That didn't come naturally or easily for me, but listening to her is part of my mature spiritual discipline (most of the time.) And this weekend she asked if I might go with her tomorrow to visit an old friend/ flame whose mother has been cursed with Alzheimer's. It is really just a journey of mercy because there is nothing we are going to change or fix. Just sit and listen and be there for a few hours - and listen - and maybe shed some tears along with some laughter. (That's what most of ministry is, yes? Showing up and being present?)

So, even though I've been sick for the last two weeks and have LOTS of church work to catch up on, I changed my schedule and we'll head out tomorrow (before the snow) to sit and visit and listen. Later, maybe we will reflect and pray and enjoy one another's company on the ride home. This song always reminds me of my wife... and I've probably never told her. Tomorrow I will.


St. Scott Cairns, the poet, put it like this:

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how terribly difficult
paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper,
there remains one obstacle -
your tortoise's intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys,
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell, utterly
ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Let's rethink it all...

The economic chaos that is crippling all of us personally, publicly and politically has become an inspiration for some at church to rethink everything. Remember that great old Bob Dylan song, "Everything is Broken?" Well... I'm not saying that EVERYTHING is broken but everything is up for grabs!

And that is a genuine blessing for this congregation because it is going to give us the permission to really become a blessed church. Not without more struggle - even a fight - and not without pain. But we have neither the resources or energy to "play" at being church anymore. Time has come to either BE a community of compassion that trusts deeply, prays boldly and gathers people together in love or... let's quit now.

But my leadership team is sensing that God is asking us NOT to quit - not to fake it - to really go deeper and take risks in faith, hope and love. You would almost think Brian McLaren was talking to us...

Instead it is everyday women and men saying these thing - people who have been pushed by the chaos into both the promise and joy of Christ's faith - hmmmm... can't wait to see what happens at our annual meeting next week!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sign o the times: at last AND change gonna come...

Two of the most popular songs from last week's inauguration of Barrack Obama - "At Last" and "Change Is Gonna Come" - hail from another era but pack a ton of contemporary meaning. Who could fail to grasp the life-changing significance of seeing our first African American presidential couple embrace and dance to Etta James' sexy lament of waiting? This is a song rich in symbolism - it oozes sensuality, evokes history and finally resolves in ecstatic contentment - much like Michelle Obama's smile itself: smart, sassy and satisfied.





And what a story exists in the music and history that we have lived between Etta James and Beyonce! Both are true R and B divas who had to pay their dues - Etta James through the early days of "race records," the checkered reality of moving through Chicago Chess records, heroin addiction and the emerging civil rights movement; Beyonce as the talented hottie of Destiny's Child who broke through type casting into acting and a solo career in the age of Obama.

Then there was the resurrection of Sam Cooke's last record, "Change Is Gonna Come" that Jon Bon Jovi and Bettye LaVette shared at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial. Cooke's story is one of the saddest in all of rock and soul history: a talented and insecure gospel singer from Clarksdale, MS, Sam Cooke stepped out of the world of segregation to create cross over hits in the 50s and 60s like "You Send Me," "Bring It on Home to Me" and "Wonderful World." After hearing Bob Dylan sing "Blowin' in the Wind," however, Cooke said, "How can a white boy sing something like that?" His response was "A Change Is Gonna Come," a soulful black reply to the protest genre of the day. Sadly, Cooke never lived to see this song take on its historic significance as he was murdered in a hotel in Los Angeles in what is still a highly disputed case of manipulation and deceit.

Nevertheless, his song became a true anthem: it was played at the funeral of Malcolm X, Spike Lee revived it years later in his movie version of the life of Malcolm X and the hip hop culture continues to sample it in awe and respect. So, it is only appropriate that in anticipation of the inauguration of our truly radical Black president, Sam Cooke's anthem would be revived.

And man did these two COOK on this song... totally smokin' with a little blue eyed soul, too!


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Seven worship truths for our time...

NOTE: Here are my notes for this coming Sunday's worship message: January 25th at 10:30 am. After worship we will be hosting two Fellowship of Reconciliation guests recently back from a peace mission to Iran. Join us if you can...

To say that there is confusion and polarization when it comes to the meaning of Christian worship in the 21st century is an understatement. There is bewilderment and dissent about the content and purpose of this sacred Sunday hour, there is division and uncertainty about what each of the elements of worship mean and accomplish and there are often generational, class and cultural tensions swimming around in the mix, too.

What’s more, there are profound and practical theological differences at play in how worship is experienced within the wider Christian community: the contemporary Evangelical world, for example, is currently grounded in a style of worship that is mostly performance and spectator based while our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers remain fixed within their rituals. Some speak of worship as a holy obligation, others consider it a time of personal spiritual enrichment and renewal and still others believe that worship is essentially a sweet and wonderful waste of time – a Sabbath – that documents just how much they trust the Lord.

+ Some people hate new music, others despise the old standards. Some of us would prefer to celebrate Eucharist every week while others don’t really get what’s going on with the bread and wine no matter how many times we get it.

+ There are those who think that worship is just for adults and those who yearn for an inter-generational experience. There are some who love the fullness of musical expressions – Bach and the Beatles as well as Russian, African and European choral treasurers – and those who only come for the sermon – or just for a few minutes of quiet and beauty amidst the hustle of life.

I think of the Sunday School teacher who was helping her students learn the value of worship. As she was preparing to take them into the Sanctuary she asked, “Does anyone know why it is important that we keep quiet in church?” To which one little girl said without missing a beat, “So that we don’t wake the people who are sleeping?” Could be…!

Today, as I draw to a close my reflections on our proposed mission and vision statement, I need to think out loud with you about worship: what it means in our tradition and why we do it in certain ways. As a part of our democratic process, you see, the word “worship” was recently added to the statement so that it now reads: "In community with God and each other we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and share compassion.” It is a good and helpful addition because not only is worship the front door through which people learn about our way of being the Church, it is also how our lives are shaped into something resembling Christ’s people in the world.

So what I want to do this morning is share seven key principles about worship with you – I’ll even give you a cheat sheet – so that we might better understand what practices and ideas have shaped our tradition. Everyone, you see, is entitled to their opinions and preferences but worship is really not about opinion and personal style: worship is fundamentally about bringing ourselves into relationship with God.

Worship is about God – much less about you and me – and that is often forgotten. But before I go deeper into the heart of worship let me state something about worship music that needs to be said boldly and clearly: it does not matter WHAT style of music we use in worship – secular, sacred, traditional, contemporary, folk, rock, jazz or classical – unless the music is vibrant and helps us open our hearts to God, it is a problem. Music must help us all go beyond ourselves and into the heart of our Living God. Our quest – our goal and purpose – is to be with God in worship and music must support rather than hinder this act.

Also, music style does not build a church. The large evangelical congregations are NOT large because they have a great band or do worship in a certain style. These things can help, but the fact of the matter is unless the living spirit of Christ is present so that people can feel and experience it, it doesn’t matter what kind of music you perform. Worship must touch and heal our hearts and souls and that can happen with Gregorian chant, German chorales or soft rock praise choruses. So let's disabuse ourselves of any trite notions we might hold concerning music, yes?

To advance the cause of Christ in this generation, we need to look carefully at the essential elements and truths that have shaped worship in our tradition and see what they tell us. I will be using some of the wisdom from the Calvin Institute of Worship in Grand Rapids, MI to do this as well as the writing of both Marva Dawn and Martin Copenhaver.

First, Christian worship needs to evoke a vivid awareness of the beauty, majesty, mystery and holiness of our triune God. Worship is where our knowledge and imagination about who God is and what is important to God takes place. We learn of creation – and redemption. We are invited into confession and forgiveness – and all of it happens in community. This is not merely intellectual or experiential – but all that and more. Worship invites the use of all our senses and the totality of our being so that we are awakened to the true nature of God - to the beauty and majesty, mystery and holiness - of the Living God. So, tell me, how does this happens among us?

Second, worship invites the full and conscious participation of the whole people of God – intergenerationally – as a community of faith. We are not a family but a freely chosen community of young and old, gay and straight, male and female, rich and poor and all of those in-between. Further, worship is NOT just what I do – or the organist or the musicians – it is what WE do TOGETHER. And one of the key functions of what we do together is break down barriers for this is at the heart and soul of Jesus Christ. So, let's think of how this happens here...

Third, authentic worship brings us into a deep engagement with Scripture. We read from the tradition – we reflect and ponder how and why it matters – we work with truths beyond our habits and choose to grow in the ways of God. Scripture, you see, is one of the ways we wrestle with the counter-cultural commitments of our God. It gives us perspective.

William Willimon, Bishop of the Alabama region of the United Methodists, once said that one of the reasons teens were so prone to suicide is that they have no perspective. They have little history and no appreciation of the complexities of a long life because... they haven't lived it. One of the values of reading and reflecting on scripture, therefore, has something to do with cultivating a long view of real life. It also grounds us in a sense of hope even when the evidence is murky.

Fourth, worship involves both the joyful and solemn celebration of baptism and Holy Communion. Why both joyful and solemn? When is communion joyful? When is it solemn? And in baptism: what is joyful in this sacrament? And what makes it deep or solemn?

Fifth, worship must encourage an open and discerning approach to culture. One scholar said that Christians need to be able to bring into worship elements that are universal and beyond culture as well as those things that ground us in culture or context; at the same time we need to always keep alive our counter-cultural perspective. So we use symbols and acts that connect with the human experience beyond place and time, find ways to be relevant to the questions and challenges of our generation always in the spirit of Jesus who is breaking down barriers and bringing people together in hope.

Sixth, worship always cultivates a disciplined creativity with the arts. If God is the first creator – and creativity is one of the ways we live into God’s image – then worship must utilized everything in the creative arts to open our hearts, minds and souls. Music, to be sure, but not just music: dance and sculpture, visual arts, poetry, humor, touch, smell and movement. Too often worship in our tradition has been a head only affair – if you couldn’t read… you were in trouble - so how is that changing?

Seventh, worship must embody the radical hospitality of Christ. Unless all are welcomed, Jesus is not fully present. Unless we are intentional about the embrace, someone will be ignored.

One of our texts today tells the story of Jonah: Jonah had no interest in expanding God's grace. When God commanded that he go into a different culture and share a word of judgment and healing, he refused. He did everything possible to keep his prejudice intact and his associations homogenous. And after trying to run away and being thwarted, he angrily spoke God's word to his enemies only to find them repenting - and this angered Jonah, too. He is a prime example of what we must always fight against when it comes to God's new song: God calls us into new situtations, new communities, new possibilities of serving and sharing hope and healing.

Why? Because this is God's chosen way for spreading the love of Christ - and if we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always got! And Jesus is clear: what we've always gotten is just a pale image of the beauty, mystery and majesty of God's love. So, worship is bathed in hospitality.

Seven key ingredients that describe what is at the heart of worship on Sunday morning; by way of summary let me put it like this: Worship is an encounter with the Living God in a conscious way. It is creatively grounded in scripture and our senses. In joyful and profound ways, worship leads each of us into the presence of Christ’s radical grace and offers hope and healing to all.

Each of these factors is important and inter-related and it is hard to have authentic Christian worship if any are missing. Together there is history and innovation, tradition and creativity, celebration of the holy as well as meeting the needs of our humanity in the presence of the Living Christ who calls us to follow him. Jesus invites us to become our best selves, beloved, those who will pick up our Cross and follow. So let those who have ears to hear: hear.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

Come on up for the rising...

What could be more perfect than Springsteen and a mass gospel choir welcoming the new president? Nothing... absolutely nothing.

Except, perhaps, U2 singing for the man as well. You are soooo beautiful.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Compassion...

NOTE: I finally was able to get my Sunday sermon notes done - hope they make some sense.

Mother Theresa once said that a spiritually mature soul chooses to walk towards the pain of the world because they understand that our hearts must be broken in order to release all of God’s love. Frederick Buechner came to understanding our calling – that is, living in a way that was in harmony with God, self and creation – as finding the intersection of the world’s greatest need and our greatest joy. Apparently there is a connection between authentically embracing the will of God and opening our hearts to others in love – and they call it compassion.

Compassion is the willingness and commitment to open your heart to the suffering of the world – feel it rather than flee from it – and respond to it with tenderness and solidarity. Marcus Borg has observed that: Some people find the experience and practice of compassion as a spiritual discipline to be a more direct route to the transformation of the heart than prayer. It is not that prayer does not or should not play a role in their lives, but their way to the opening of the heart lies through deeds of compassion. "Just do it" summarizes this path of transformation.

And almost every spiritual tradition celebrates compassion as one of the most direct and bold ways of encountering the heart of our Living God. Like the Dali Lama said: The whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, forgiveness. That is why our proposed mission and vision statement ends with a call to action: “In community with God and each other, we gather in worship to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion.”

+ First, we gather in community – not as a collection of individuals – but as a living body with a common heart and soul to reflect, think, question and express our doubts about what it means to follow Christ in the 21st century.

+ And second, after worship and other times of reflection, we move into the world for action doing justice in the spirit of God’s grace – and sharing compassion with open hearts.

So let me continue to explore some of the implications of what this call to compassion might mean for us. Specifically, let me share with you four key verses from our Biblical tradition about what compassion in the spirit of Jesus could mean for us. And then describe why this discipline is simultaneously dangerous and essential to our vitality as a congregation.

Literally compassion means to suffer with – to stand in solidarity alongside those who are wounded – from the Latin “pati cum.” It is not sympathy, empathy or pity – it has nothing to do with feeling sorry for another – and everything to do with actively sharing in the brokenness of creation. A prayer by one of the ancient Hassidic rabbis, Nachman of Breslov puts it like this:

Teach me to search for the fine qualities in others, to recognize their immeasurable worth. Teach me to cultivate a love for all Your children, for no one, no one is without redeeming value. Let the good in me connect with the good in others, until all the world is transformed through the compelling power of love.

Quite a prayer, yes? So how do we cultivate and deepen such a way of being so that more often than not we move in the direction of compassion rather than anger, habit, prejudice or judgment? Consider Psalm 51 – a call to experience God’s compassion so deeply that from the inside out we are cleansed and made whole. This is a healing psalm of forgiveness and grace – an invitation to let God transform us so that we might live in the world in the spirit of gratitude not guilt. Two parts are essential:

+ Generous in love—God, give grace! Huge in mercy—wipe out my bad record. Scrub away my guilt, soak out my sins in your laundry… I've been out of step with you for a long time… and what you're after is truth from the inside out. Enter me, then; conceive a new, true life.

+ God, make a fresh start in me, shape a Genesis week from the chaos of my life.
Don't throw me out with the trash or fail to breathe holiness in me. Bring me back from gray exile, you…

One part of cultivating a compassionate heart has to do with experiencing God’s healing compassion from the inside out through forgiveness. Like the old timers say: you can’t give what you ain’t got, and you can’t go where you don’t know! Compassion begins with an inner healing – a Genesis week shaped from the chaos of our lives – so that there is order, and focus and rejoicing within us.

Then, you see, we can live in gratitude rather than guilt – and gratitude makes all the difference in the world. Gratitude puts everything into its proper place and perspective. It rejoices at all of God’s gifts, is always ready to light the candles of the banquet table and refuses to be enslaved by the old cronies of boredom, despair and taking-things-for-granted. So first we begin with God’s inner healing and compassion and say: Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a right spirit within me.

Second, consider Jeremiah 31 – a pivotal portion of scripture for the early Protestant Reformers – that holds great promise for us, too:

The time is coming when I will make a brand-new covenant with Israel and Judah. It won't be a repeat of the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt… This is the brand-new covenant that I will make with Israel when the time comes. I will put my law within them—write it on their hearts!—and be their God. And they will be my people. They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God. They'll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. I'll wipe the slate clean for each of them. I'll forget they ever sinned!

Did you get that? I will put my law within them – I will write it on their hearts – and they will make the way of the Lord visible by how they live! The covenant of the Lord – the promises God made with Israel in the desert, after the flood and after exile – will now be a part of our inward being. In Hebrew, you see, to speak of the heart is not to reference our emotions, but the soul and source of all wisdom. We might even call it our conscience or the core of deepest convictions. So the promise is that in our heart of hearts – at the center of our being – we will know the will of God and be able to make it flesh and blood through our living – not merely our words or texts – but through our living.

Which brings me to the third text in Matthew 9 where Jesus not only explains but embodies the promise of the prophets when he tells us: Go and learn what this means. The Lord our God desires compassion not religion! Here’s the context:

+ After healing a paraplegic, Jesus tells him to go because his sins are forgiven – and this unglues the traditionalists and rule-keepers of the day because they believe that only God can forgive our sins. Now pay careful attention because what they do in response to Christ’s generosity is what almost always happens – even today – with those who choose the rules over God’s grace: their mouths start to spew the ugliness that is already in their hearts. That is, they start to gossip and slander.

+ So Jesus challenges them to put up or shut up as is the Middle Eastern style: What is more important – healing and helping – or keeping the rules? The rules have their place and can be helpful, but go and learn what this means – and he quotes a passage from the Old Testament prophet, Hosea, saying – the Lord our God desires compassion not religion.

Mercy and loving-kindness rather than rituals and rules – generosity and gratitude in place of guilt and gate-keepers – hope and humanity in place of ideology and icy, frozen hearts. The new covenant of the heart brings hope and healing for those who need it the most. It also challenges us to let go and trust God more than we trust the rules because sometimes our rules lock the love of God out of the world.

There’s a story about two neighbors who were visiting over coffee. As they sat in one woman’s kitchen she started to complain about what a poor housekeeper her other neighbor was. “You should see how dirty her children are – and her house. It is almost a disgrace to be living in the same neighborhood as her. Take a look at those clothes she has hung out on the line. See the black streaks on the sheets and towels!” So her friend walked up to the window, took and look and then said, “I think the clothes are really quite clean, my dear. The streaks are on your window.”

Go learn what this means: the Lord our God desires compassion not religion. I think that is what is driving St. Paul’s words today, too. He is reminding the young Christian community that there is a discipline required to the new covenant – it isn’t all about us – it is about how we live in community with one another responsibly. How do we help one another become our best self? How do we keep each other from inflicting wounds or shame or pain?

And that leads to the fourth text in Luke 10 which some of us know as the parable of the Good Samaritan. Last week, as I was fighting a truly nasty and debilitating flu bug, I started to read through some of the sermons of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. both in anticipation of his feast day tomorrow as well as the inauguration of Barrack Obama. In many ways this new president makes Dr. King’s dream real – the fulfillment of a dream deferred for 40 years – and besides I love the way King writes.

One of the sermons that has always touched me is the one he preached on the night before his assassination in Memphis – and I had forgotten that he used the parable of the Good Samaritan as his closing point. After offering some possible interpretations of why the minister and choir master didn’t stop to help the wounded man by the side of the road he said:

There are many reasons for why these souls did not act… perhaps they were going down the Jericho Road to organize the Jericho Road Improvement Association. That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the casual root of the problem rather than get bogged down with an individual effort. But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that these men were afraid… it is a dangerous road… in the days of Jesus it was known as the Bloody Pass. And you know it is possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or they may have thought that he was faking it, acting like he had been robbed or hurt in order to seize them and lure them over for a quick and easy robbing.

And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” And that… that is the question for all of us!


The compassion of Christ – the grace of God – and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit all urge us beyond ourselves to ask, “If I don’t stop, what will happen?” Claiming a commitment to compassion is dangerous: not only does it take us outside of our comfort zones, it trains us to include others – especially the most wounded – as a part of our well-being.

+ It pushes us beyond the safety of religious rules into acts of generosity and hope, it unlocks the doors of our building and hearts so that real human needs can be met and it punctures any sense of self-righteousness we might carry by showing us how hard it is to really make a difference.

+ You know, most of the time, all we can do is show up and be open, right? I can’t bring healing to another – I can’t end the carnage in Darfur – I can’t bring this stupid and ugly war to an end. In so many, many ways my compassion and love feels impotent.

+ And… at the same time I know that showing up makes all the difference in the world – even if nothing changes. Sitting with a loved one as they are sick – or dying – opens up the possibility of comfort. Standing in solidarity with those who have been wounded helps us all move towards hope. Living without judgment defuses the hatred and guilt that traps us up so often.

So let me ask you to learn a simple prayer designed to deepen your commitment to compassion. This comes from our friends at Spiritual and Practice) There are three parts:

+ First, sit in a relaxed position, close your eyes and center yourself saying: Blessed is the Compassionate One who gives us compassion as a way of touching and being touched by the world around us.

+ Second, as you breathe in say to yourself: be compassionate…

+ And third, as you breathe out, say: as God is compassionate.

Lord, may it be so among us now and always.

Friday, January 16, 2009

I can see (a little more) clearly now...

For the past week I have been on my back with an ugly flu bug and not able to do much writing (I know, I know, stop your whining life could be worse!) Today, as the old song says, "I can see clearly now..." Well, a little more clearly to be sure as this damned thing is finally giving up the ghost. Made me think of Johnny Nash from back in 1973 (dig his clothes!)


In addition to practicing what I often preach about self-care, however, this little break from work has kept me from preparing for Sunday's message. Over the years sermon writing and study has become the heart of my week: it is both a spiritual discipline for me personally - as it grounds me in prayer, scripture, tradition and challenge - and a way for me to be prayerful and strategic about the people I serve in this small congregation. To say that my inability to get on with it this week has left me a little unfocused would be an understatement.

My theme for Sunday is compassion - this is part 3 of a 4 part series on our new mission and vision statement - and curiously these words from Marcus Borg keep coming to mind:

Some people find the experience and practice of compassion as a spiritual discipline to be a more direct route to the transformation of the heart than prayer. It is not that prayer does not or should not play a role in their lives, but their way to the opening of the heart lies through deeds of compassion. "Just do it" summarizes this path of transformation.

I have also identified 4 key portions of scripture that seem to be calling to us as we wrestle with how to go deeper into the commitments of compassion:

+ Psalm 51: a cry for God's compassion and inner healing so that we might advance the cause

+ Jeremiah 31: a call to a new covenant written on our heart and filled with compassion for the world

+ Matthew 9: where Jesus invokes Hosea's admonition to learn that God desires compassion not religion and rule-keeping

+ And Luke 10: the story of the Good Samaritan - with MLK's insights from his very last sermon preached the night before his assassination

Well, that's what is clear to me right now: I am grateful for the chance to lay low and get better. I am grateful, too, for so many of your kind prayers and encouragement. And now, for those in the USA, on to MLK Day and the Inauguration!

Blessed is the Compassionate One who gives us compassion as a way of touching and being touched by the world around us.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hurting, waiting and down time...

About four years ago I came down with pneumonia. It was awful. Apparently after spending time in the New Mexican mountains, I was exposed and totally run down. But for about three weeks kept avoiding what everyone else understood: something was wrong and I was hurting. So, my dear friend and colleague in ministry, Debby, forced me to the doctor's and within 10 minutes he confirmed that I had pneumonia and had to be out of the loop for 3 weeks and then only part-time for another month.

Part of me hated this hurting and waiting and down time: after all, I'm a man of the Baby Boomer generation - not some slacker - and I had things to do, god damn it! It isn't any wonder that one of my favorite passages from Scripture is Peterson's reworking of Romans 12:

So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Ever since my calling into ministry at 16 - in the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination in 1968 - I have been wrestling with doing precisely this: presenting my body as a living sacrifice to use the old words. And now in my illness, I couldn't do it. I couldn't finish writing my doctoral dissertation, I couldn't preach or teach, I couldn't visit - man I could barely pray - because I was always falling asleep. (NOTE: it was only during this enforced sabbatical of sickness that the words of an old monk started to make sense; when asked, "Is it wrong that I fall asleep almost every time I pray?" the old one said, "oh my dear no - you are getting God's reply in the most clear way - because apparently you need to sleep.")

So for almost two months I rested - and slept - and prayed a little. I watched tons of foreign movies - slept through most of them - and became a fan of the TV program Homicide: Life on the Street all over again. And, I got used to living in my own skin again. Apparently there was really something to this away and quiet time; thankfully I was able to listen a little more carefully. For during that waiting two more scriptures became part of my heart, too:

+ Matthew 11: 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."

+ John 21: Peter was upset that he asked for the third time, "Do you love me?" so he answered, "Master, you know everything there is to know. You've got to know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my sheep. I'm telling you the very truth now: When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you'll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don't want to go." He said this to hint at the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. And then he commanded, "Follow me."

A Zen master helping me with spiritual guidance once said, "Don't expect to make BIG changes in your life, ok, man? Inner change is incremental. Slow. Be gentle with yourself - and others - because you don't want to make things worse by your striving, ok?" So, I am relearning this right now - this week - once again when there are a TON of things that need to be done and addressed and I want to be a part of them all. But, after waking up and aching like I had been hit by a truck and having a low grade fever, it is quiet waiting time, yes?

T.S. Eliot put it like this in Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong things; wait without love
For love would love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the
dancing.

"What we strive for," said Jean Hardy, "in the effort to resolve the tension between our sense of inferiority and our grandiosity is not modesty, but humility - that is, spiritual dignity." I love that: staying closer to the ground - humility - is what spiritual dignity is all about. And it often takes a time of hurting and waiting for me to recall this timeless truth. Like St. Alanis Morissette said so perfectly: "thank you dissillusionment... thank you silence..."


So... hi ho, hi ho, its back to bed I go.

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...