Thursday, February 26, 2009
I wanted to kiss the earth after exiting his cab but... I simply crossed myself quietly (after he drove off) and rejoiced in all that was good (and reasonably safe.) Tonight, the opening of the IAM Conference, will be heady with Nicholas Wolterstorff and jazz pianists on the program. Tomorrow, in the "encounters" I'll spend time with other worship leaders learning how they bring the fullness of God's creative arts into their worship celebrations and have a conversation with a gallery owner about trends in 21st century aesthetics. Then, I hope, Indian food with the kids before heading back for poet Billy Collins and Makoto Fujimura.
The only down side to this experience is that Di decided that we needed the cash more than she needed this time away - so she is back in Pittsfield. Well, it is almost conference time so... until the next break. Blessings.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
After I get into Manhattan tomorrow I will be heading up to St. John the Divine (where this picture was taken in the children's garden) for evening prayer before a night with Nicholas Wolterstorff and others at the IAM conference. I will never forget going to evening prayer one night at the National Cathedral and it was just me... and the priest. So we sang evening prayer to one another and God and then went out for a beer. What a blessing.
Be well, dear friends, I will check in when I can.
Monday, February 23, 2009
We've got a hot little line up including Joni Mitchell's "Passion Play" as well as Chumbawumba's "Jacob's Ladder," Belle and Sebastian's "We Rule the School," an original upbeat song about peace as well as U2's "Mysterious Ways." (Probably Nanci Griffith's "Hard Life" and U2's "Dirty Day" along with some Taize, too, with "Pride in the Name of Love" to bring things to a close.) Probably Toad, too.
My sense of this year's Good Friday has something to do with the blessing amidst the darkness. John O'Donohue said it like this in the poem, "Bennacht" which is Gaelic for blessing.
It isn't easy making beautiful music together - it is often much easier to be a solo performer - but it always much more satisfying - and nuanced - to do it with others. And, yes, it takes more time and technology... but getting there is part of the learning in music. It takes practice and trust - good humor - and lots of time. But man is it worth it...
Thanks to the technology of Facebook I recently received this clip (again) from a long lost friend - the best damned guitarist I knew back in high school - who just happened to be the lead guitarist in our old band. It was sweet to reconnect - and sweeter still to do so through this musical treat.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
Take, for example, an up-coming gig we are working on: a Celtic collection of tunes that will morph into this year's Good Friday worship. Given the fact that we don't have a drummer - some hand drums but not a kick ass back beat rhythm section - I kept feeling/hearing the need to do U2's "Pride" in a different way from the CD. It needed to have more tension and build given our acoustic instruments... but it wasn't happening. Some of our singers, however, who grew up with the song and loved it as they've always known it resisted: why make it different?
That was a tough creative maze to find our way through because part of it was generational, part of it was training vs. improvisation and part of it had to do with finding a creative way of making something our own rather than playing it safe. Eventually we found a balance that built to a U2 climax... but I wasn't at all sure it was going to happen.
Two other songs come to mind: Belle and Sebastian's "We Rule the School." I would never have pulled this up but one the 30-something singers in the band heard the line, "do something pretty while you can..." and thought it worked. And she was right - which is one of the reasons I am so grateful to have her in the band - she brings the blessing of the inter-generational genre bending to my old rock and roll ears - and we're all the better for it.
Then there is the totally cool version of Coldplay's "Clocks" - which I don't pretend to understand at all - but in this version not only sounds like a meditation of the aching of our hearts for a place of safety (home) and healing, but also an invitation to join the search.
Being a part of a mostly acoustic rock band is a blessed challenge. Searching for genre bending tunes that speak to our spiritual/secular selves is a challenge, too, but more fun than ever with intergenerational music mates!
Friday, February 20, 2009
Calvin concludes: Our hope is of the right kind when we cherish humble and sober views of ourselves, and neither wish nor attempt anything without the leading and approbation of God. Douglas John Hall adds: Jesus says in his movement there is a new way for people to live:
+ You show wisdom by trusting people; you handle leadership by serving -
You deal with offenders by forgiving and manage money by sharing - You handle enemies by loving and deal with violence by suffering.
In fact, you have a new attitude towards everything and everybody: toward nature, toward the state in which you happen to live, toward women and men, toward slaved and every single thing. Because this is a Jesus movement - and you repent NOT by feeling bad, but by thinking different! How did St. Paul put it: Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Then you will be able to test and discern what is God's will.
Seems like it is going to be a rich and interesting Lent around here... maybe even like this Eucharistic feast!
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and shared their resources so that each person's need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw so that every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.
I know that this idealized scripture is much like the Jubilee passages of the Old Testament - the heart and soul of the Lord with a more sketchy human history - but as Walter Brueggeman says this should not diminish the power and authority of these words for those who trust and believe. So we talked about making hard choices:
+ how do we stop spending down the endowment to the tune of $90K every year?
+ how do we maintain momentum and support for ministries that bring healing and hope to real people?
+ how do we celebrate Christ's call to renew and rebuild this congregation with joy in these tough times?
After prayer and conversation, some scripture study and lots of questions we began to discern that we could reduce our woes by $30K right now - and implement a series of other commitments that will both generate money for mission while strengthening our ministries of healing and hope. To be sure, not everyone will go for these suggestions: they see the challenges in a different way and will probably not want to take the risks. So let me be clear and without judgment: that is just the way it goes when you choose to follow Jesus down off the mountain, yes? It is hard and demanding - not everybody wants to follow - and the blessings are so joyful and rich! In a word, last night the leaders of our church both affirmed that by faith God has led them this far and by faith will not let us down now - and - that we are no longer dependent upon our fears about the endowment. Indeed, there is life beyond it! As Jesus promised: I have come to give you LIFE - and it abundantly!
Makes me think of Joan Osborne's rendition of the old Motown tune:
So, not only will we share these new options with the congregation and let them be prayerful about them all throughout Lent; but after the Feast of Resurrection on Easter Sunday, we'll meet together again as the whole church for more bread and wine and table fellowship - probably more good desserts, too - and talk and pray about where God may be leading us. It will be quiet and tender - loving and non-anxious - so that maybe... just maybe... we might sense the nudge of the Holy Spirit. Bobby Mcferrin's setting of the Shepherd's Psalm speaks to my heart right now...
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
As Sr. Joan Chittister likes to say: the story of Jesus and his disciples on the mountain helps us determine whether our religion is essentially a private affair or a matter of the public good. “Do we see faith as a private refuge or a public presence… do we seek a spirituality to protect us from the world, or, change the way we live in that world?” A story from the rabbis gets to the heart of this challenge:
It seems that there was once an old Jew who used all of his spare time planting fig trees at the edge of his village. People would ask, “Why are you planting fig trees? You are going to die before you can eat any of the fruit or even glimpse their beauty?” To which he said, “I have spent many, many hours sitting under my own vine and fig tree eating from their bounty – and those trees were planted by others. So why shouldn’t I make certain that the ones yet to come might know some of the joy and blessings that I have known?”
So let’s see what this sacred story of Christ’s mountain top experience might have to say to us about the heart and soul of our celebration of Holy Communion. You may recall that throughout February we’ve been reflecting on a host of insights about worship:
+ we’ve spoken about music and how it can both help or hurt community building
+ we’ve looked at the importance of being grounded in scripture without being fundamentalist
+ we’ve talked about the importance of being connected to God’s beauty, majesty, mystery and holiness
+ and now we’re going to consider how we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion
First, let’s put this story of Jesus on the mountain top into some kind of context: do you recall what the symbol of a mountain means is our spiritual literature?
+ For Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists as well as many American Indians, mountains are those places where humans can touch heaven. The holy and the human can embrace on a mountain top. Think of the story of the 10 Commandments and Moses on a mountain top; or Elijah confronting the agents of idolatry; or even Dr. King on the eve of his assassination: “I’ve been to the mountain top… and I’ve seen the other side. I may not get there with you but I’ve seen the Promised Land.”
+ Jesus gave us the core of his message in that collection we call the Sermon on the Mount. So mountain tops are important in our spiritual geography; they tell us that some important and grace-filled encounter between God and humankind is going to happen.
And that’s what our story says, too. Jesus took his three closest disciples, scaled Mt. Tabor and was transfigured during a mystical conversation with Moses and Elijah. Transfigured means he was filled with light and consumed in beauty – a beauty and light that gave shape and form to God’s love – and when the study and prayer with the ones of tradition was over there was a voice from heaven saying: “This is my beloved – listen to him.”
Now pay careful attention to two insights from this mountain top experience: Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah – and – after all is said and done Jesus takes his troops back down the mountain into what some have called his confrontation with the valley of the shadow of death.
+ Tell me about Moses – he is at the heart of the Exodus – the one who hears God’s broken heart over the oppression of the slaves and uses his life to upset the status quo by bringing the children of Israel into the Promised Land.
+ And Elijah – what do you know about this brother? Besides Moses he is perhaps the essence of a prophet who not only scolded and warned King Ahab to quit serving false idols but took on Jezebel and her priests on Mt. Horeb to prove that the Lord our God was superior to the false idols of Baal.
What’s more, tradition has it – and the Passover Meal reinforces it – that before the Messiah returns to usher in the reign of God’s peace, justice and judgment, Elijah shall return. That’s why the Passover Table always includes a setting for Elijah – with a full cup of wine – and the children run to the door to see if the prophet has returned. Elijah is understood to be the sign of the Messiah’s arrival. So it is not accidental – mystically or theologically – for Jesus to be in prayer and conversation with Moses and Elijah, ok?
And we know this to be true because rather than remain on the mountain in spiritual ecstasy – as an alternative to cultivating a spirituality of personal and private piety – Jesus takes his action back down to the valley and the streets. Peter and the disciples want to stay blind from the implications of Christ’s way – they want to stay put on the beauty of that mountain top – but Jesus leads them down into the valley of the shadow of death to spread compassion, healing and justice.
So let the record be clear: immediately after Jesus departs from the mountain of mysticism and ecstasy he takes his followers directly to heal a boy possessed by demons. They don’t go to jail. They don’t go to temple, or church or a mosque. They do not pass go or collect $200 dollars: they return into the belly of the beast where wounded people live and unjust systems oppress. “Real religion” it would seem, “is not about building temples and keeping shrines. Real religion is about healing hurts, speaking for and being with the poor, the helpless, the voiceless and the forgotten who are at the silent bottom of every pinnacle, every hierarchy and every system in both church and state.” (Chittister)
Now I can hear somebody thinking, “What in God’s name does all this justice ranting about the mountain and the valley have to do with Holy Communion?” Well… I’m glad you asked because at the heart of the way we celebrate communion is the word community. This isn’t true for every Christian tradition – although Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox all agree that it plays a part in the feast – but it is primary for you and me and let me explain.
+ Our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends believe that Eucharist is essentially a reliving of Christ’s sacrifice. They believe that when a duly ordained priest speaks the words of consecration, the bread and wine become Christ’s true flesh and blood. This is the doctrine of transubstantiation where bread and wine are actually transformed by God’s love in prayer so that we take into ourselves the very essence of our Lord’s forgiveness. There is an element of community building in this Eucharist - and in some of the modern expressions of Eucharist it is boldly communal - but traditionally communion has been a deeply personal ritual act performed by the priest on behalf of the people. In fact, the people are not even necessary some times for Roman Catholic communion: just a priest offering the sacrifice on another's behalf.
+ Our Lutheran and other high church Protestants move a little closer towards the community of God with God’s people in their celebration of Holy Communion. They were the first to conduct worship in the everyday language of ordinary people – rather than Latin – and they practice what is called the priesthood of all believers. Everyone has a mission, not just an ordained priest, and that mission has to do with making Christ real in our midst. But their understanding of the bread and wine is still different from ours for they teach the doctrine of consubstantiation: here the bread and wine equally share the full nature of bread and wine while also taking on the full presence of Christ’s body and blood. It is simultaneously bread and body, wine and blood.
+ We accept that it is a mystery how this happens, we acknowledge that breaking bread and sharing wine help us have our eyes opened to the presence of Jesus within and among us but we don’t spend a lot of time worrying, arguing and debating how this occurs.
+ Rather, we seek to re-member Jesus by recalling how he first lived and brought healing and hope to the people – and how he continues to do that in our lives now – when we gather in community.
Writer Donald Miller, I think, says it better than most: How odd would it seem to have been one of the members of the early church, shepherded by Paul or Peter, and to come forward a thousand years to see people standing in line or sitting quietly in a large building that looked like a schoolroom or movie theater, to take Communion. How different it would seem from the way they did it, sitting around somebody’s living room table, grabbing a hunk of bread and holding their own glass of wine, exchanging stories about Christ, perhaps laughing, perhaps crying, consoling each other, telling one another that the Person who had exploded into their hearts was indeed the Son of God, their Bridegroom, come to tell them who they were, come to mend the broken relationships, come to marry them in a spiritual union more beautiful, more intimate than anything they could know on earth
Are you with me? We are not judging other traditions – they all have beauty and integrity – but they are different from ours. Our celebration of Holy Communion is about re-membering Jesus – reclaiming his presence in time and history and our lives – and drawing strength from his love within and among us in community.
That is why we welcome everyone to the Lord’s Supper – friend and foe, member and guest, insider and out – together Christ’s spirit actually transforms us and the community is changed from the inside out.
Once El Bulto – the bundle man – told me the story of “one stick – two stick.” There was an old woman dying so she calls to her side her loved ones. She gives a short, sturdy stick to each of her children and grand children and says, “Break that stick.” And with some effort they do, they all snap their sticks in half. “This is how it is when a soul is alone without anyone. They can easily be broken.”
Then she gave out another stick to all who had gathered by her bedside. “This is how I would like you live after I pass. Put your sticks together in bundles of twos and threes. Now, try to break these bundles in half.” And, of course, no one could break the bundles so she said, “We are strong when we stand together with other souls. When we are truly together, we cannot be broken. Go and do likewise.”
This is the good news for those with ears to hear: Lord, may it be so within and among us all.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
So tonight, even though I have had a full day of visitation and problem solving - and it would be tons easier to crawl up in from of the TV and "get lost in that hopeless little screen" as Leonard Cohen moans - I'm gonna jam. Acoustically, to be sure, for after all this IS the Berkshires - but jammin' I'll be. It will be prayer and letting go - it will be therapy and getting grounded - and it will be a chance to practice what Rabbi Heschel teaches about the Sabbath: that God really is in charge and doesn't always need me to be involved.
Monday, February 16, 2009
Writer Marilynne Robinson writes like these gentle holidays. It takes time and commitment to enter her prose for she evokes a way of living that is deliberate, real and bathed in Christ's spirit of compassion. Slowly and intentionally, she asks the reader to pause, pay attention and notice what both your heart and mind are saying: like the mystics, she invites us into a long, loving look at what is real. A true contemplative.
One of her on-going observations - in both her novels and essays - has to do with how many of us in the US have lost our sense of the common good. She would ask us to cautiously recall how our Puritan ancestors ached to build a commonwealth. It was imperfect, to be sure; but when judged by the standards of the day, rather than ideological obsessions to an anachronistic political correctness, these old saints did pretty well. And it was their understanding that all people are sinners who yearn for the grace of God that empowered them to live into their best selves.
American holidays like this often take me back to "Northern Exposure," that carefully collected cache of TV stories well told that also encourage contemplation - albeit in an entertaining and market driven way! My favorite episode, "Thanksgiving" from 1992, is a wonderful paradoxical mix of yearning for community, spiritual confusion and grace. You may recall that the Native American folk of the town mix their "Day of the Dead" festival with the Anglo Thanksgiving. They throw tomatoes at the white folk - marking them with gentle signs of death and anger and blood - and in a "trickster" like way transform their sadness into joy.
After the community-wide parade that is filled with images of death and genocide, everyone gathers together for a feast. And as St. Luke suggests, every one's eyes are opened with the breaking of the bread. History is not changed - or forgotten - it is owned and then transformed into something more than sorrow and shame.
And then there is an old friend, Laurie Anderson... she gets it right, too. Rest well.
Sunday, February 15, 2009
In my prayers last night I was reading Patrick Henry Reardon's notes on Psalm 131. He observed that this sweet, little Psalm sounds a lot like St. Paul's repeated admonition to the Church in Roman about being too puffed-up, haughty or snooty: "I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but with sober judgment, each according the measure of faith that God has assigned." Apparently this was a problem in Rome - and is often so in local churches, too - were some believe that their money, power or ego entitles them to more influence.
O Lord my heart is not proud (just look at this picture of me in worship this morning that my wife took!)
One of my favorites... still.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
I am really enjoying Carol Howard Merritt's book: Tribal Church. Not only does it describe most of the churches I have served over these past 27 years, but it also describes what I sense are the blessings of an intergenerational, broadly inclusive congregation in these high tech days of specialization and isolation. (check it out: http://tribalchurch.org/)
She notes that "tribes form around a common cause and belief... so we gather to connect with God... Second, tribes tend to the basic needs of one another... understanding that some need more care than others... Third, tribes celebrate and remember traditions... and appreciate the deep spiritual practices that form our communities... And fourth, a tribal church is relational in nature. It is less concerned with denominational labels and hierarchy."
In Tucson, for example, we began encouraging young people and their families to connect with us because "we had cool old people who would LOVE to cherish your babies - and you - as well as young families who are aching to connect with others trying to live Christ's values in this materialist culture." Over time we discovered that not only gay and straight couples with children began to find a spiritual home among us, but so did recent retirees who had left the Midwest for the warmth of the Southwest and middle age folk who were tired of the SOS they found in age segregated congregations. It seems that everybody is missing somebody: grandparents their extended families living halfway across the US, young adults alienated from their past, professionals and military personnel alone in a new city and on and on it goes.
And that is part of the mystery we are discovering here in the Berkshires where the demographics make church growth damn hard: in a high tech world, everyone is searching for a high touch community. Not just a church in the institutional sense, but a place where everybody knows your name... kinda like "CHEERS!"
Think about it: gay and straight, young and old, male and female, Democrat and Republican together in community. Not perfect peace, but bathed in compassion and hope with a good amount of humbling humor around the edges. Last week, for example, I baptized both a mom and her infant son. Earlier in the month a group of 50-something women had knit the mom a lap blanket and the baby a comforter and they made the presentation after the baptism. Nothing revolutionary, but man were the connections happening all over the place. It was electric and joyful.
Carol Howard Merritt notes that there are a few key commitments needed for the tribal church:
+ Fostering intergenerational relationships so that everyone has a place at the table
+ Encouraging economic understanding because the chaos of this moment is very different for young families and adults than those of us with established careers.
+ Cultivating unambiguous inclusion so that artificial and mean-spirited divisions find a gentle and healing way to answer Christ's question: who IS my neighbor?
+ Discovering affirming traditions that bring joy, depth and spiritual authenticity back into the mix - not all traditions are affirming so discernment matters, too.
+ Promoting shared leadership so that the cost and joy of discipleship becomes an antitdote to spectator religion and passive spirituality.
+ Nurturing spiritual community - address that ache in every one's heart by reclaiming the spiritual wisdom of the past for contemporary lives.
And so the discovery becomes a little clearer: First, we found out that God is calling us to connect at a deep level with some of the creative/artistic folk in this area because as we explore beauty together, we are all enriched and healed. Then it became clear that we needed to practice and embody a real community of faith and trust in our leadership team; so we are studying and praying and eating together - sharing and building relationships - and like the community in Acts, "awe came upon everyone because of the many wonders and signs being done..."
And now we are finding our calling into a "tribal church" - a gentle place of unambigous inclusion, humility, tradition and creativity - committed to advancing beauty and patient prayer.
Friday, February 13, 2009
I was reminded of this song -"Romeo Had Juliette" - this morning while reading the NY Times which quotes the Mayor of Mexico City as promising free Viagra to all men over the age of 60 because, "Everyone deserves to be happy." (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/13/world/americas/13mexico.html) It made me think of a quote from Chesterton about uncommitted sex being the cheap mysticism of those without faith. (I am searching for the reference...)
In a time of fear and emptiness - a time when many traditional religious answers ring hollow or at least confusing - there is still that thirst for a deeper connection. Like St. Lou, I have come to trust that even the cheap mysticism of the moment is still a prayer. It may be expressed in a broken or even pathological way as Jung has suggested, but the cry of the heart for God is still there. I see it in the wave of new horror films that speak about the life beyond the obvious, I see it in the flooding of the Internet with cheap pornography and I even see it in the weird return of the Roman Catholic Church's return to selling indulgences! (CORRECTION: I got busted for sloppiness here; they aren't SELLING indulgences... just requiring that you go to CONFESSION to get one. Thanks for the clarificaiton.)(http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/10/nyregion/10indulgence.html?ref=us) NOTE: you really have to read this story about the indulgences! I love this quote from a Lutheran pastor: After Catholics, the people most expert on the topic are probably Lutherans, whose church was born from the schism over indulgences and whose leaders have met regularly with Vatican officials since the 1960s in an effort to mend their differences. “It has been something of a mystery to us as to why now,” said the Rev. Dr. Michael Root, dean of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., who has participated in those meetings. The renewal of indulgences, he said, has “not advanced” the dialogue.“Our main problem has always been the question of quantifying God’s blessing,” Dr. Root said. Lutherans believe that divine forgiveness is a given, but not something people can influence. (NY Times, 2/9/09)
Man, are these fascinating times. St. Natalie Merchant put it like this:
Chesterton also said:"One of the chief uses of religion is that it makes us remember our coming from darkness, the simple fact that we are created." God's grace is free and some try to sell it to get people back into church. As Dostoevesky noted in the Grand Inquisitor, should Christ come back to set us free again, the church would kill him. So St. Pete Townsend keeps singing...
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Speculation: Along the Way
The roaring alongside he takes for granted —"Sandpiper" by Elizabeth Bishop
And when, of a given evening, say, an evening laced
with storm clouds skirting distance parsed by slanting light,
or when the thick air of an August afternoon by the late approach
of just such a storm turns suddenly thin and cool, and the familiar
roaring, for the moment made especially unmistakable
by distant thunder, may seem oddly to be answered from within
—that's how it feels, anyway—and when, of a moment, such roaring
couples as well with sudden calm—interior, exterior, it hardly matters—
in that fortunate incursion whereby the roar itself is suddenly interred,
you might startle to having had a taste of what will pass as prayer,
or a taste, at the very least, of how fraught, how laden the visible is,
even as you find a likely figure for its uncanny agency. Sure,
I'm making this up as I go, hoping—even as I go—to be finally
getting somewhere. And maybe I am. Maybe I'm taking you along.
Let's say it's so, and say we now commence.
One of the blessings of poetry - for me who came to it all well after 40 (except rock and roll) - is that it evokes feels and insights that are greater than the words, yes? It is, perhaps, no coincidence then that I married a poet? Once, when we were prowling a bookstore before we were married, I had an epiphany when I found an old volume which I now keep in my study (and use often) in which Robert Bly writes: While our European-American tradition questions and argues, and has to teach poetry to sullen students in English classes, other cultures, speaking Spanish, Russian, Arabic, to say nothing of the many tongues of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, grow up inside poems, drenched through with poetic metaphors and rhythms. As we learn to criticize, to take a poem apart, to get its meaning, they learn to listen and to recite.
By drawing this sharp contrast with other cultures, we are pointing to a defect in ours. We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation. Men blame their own lives for a deficiency in the culture. For, without the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, emotions and imagination flatten out. There's a lack of spirit and vision. The loss in he heart appears as a loss of heart to take up he great cultural challenges that are part of every man's citizenship. It is in this sense hat we have come to think that working in poetry and myth with men is a therapy of the culture at its physic roots.
I could not agree more. Today, while sharing lunch with one of the Berkshire's great pianists - who has also had a career interviewing some of the spiritual giants of our era - we spoke of Huston Smith and B.B. King in the same breath - two masters of the soul who won't be with us long. But both have helped so many find poetry and beauty and hope... and when I got home, she had sent me this link which says it all. Thanks be to God for those who bring such beauty to birth.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day – a lovely little moment in time that could be an occasion of gentle sharing and affection – but is too often just a mandatory display of sentimentality and crass marketing. Don’t get me wrong, my honey and I had a sweet, little date because we both love those times when we can refresh our commitment. But our celebration was a sanitized and reimagined version of that sappy and manipulative thing we now call Valentine’s Day.
That is to say, like many of our holidays and traditions that have been infected by a love and obsession with money, we have had to rediscover what is at their core – their heart – in order to experience their blessing. You see, the depth psychologist, Carl Jung, once noted that people need rituals and celebrations in their lives. We are hard wired for making connections between heaven and earth. When religion works, our rituals are life-giving and take us deeper, but when they fail, people create other experiences that are often pathological.
+ Think of what has happened around food. Once we supported a calendar of feasting and fasting – celebration and lament – but now that we are significantly more secular we obsess on dieting.
+ The same true with young people and gangs: once we had very clear rites of passage for boys becoming men, but now there is just the driver’s license and first job – hardly the stuff that tries and shapes a soul.
Gertrud Mueller-Nelson wisely writes:
Without a conscious way to feed and express our naturally religious nature, we create a vacuum, a void which is quickly filled in with its unconscious counterpart. Our religious hunger, you see, is not passing away; rather, our loss of a religious nurturance only makes us more aware of this hunger. We want meaning and fulfillment and wholeness. Rushing in to fill the void are the low-grade religious experiences which bedevil and taunt…
In place of the periodic, holy fast, we have become slaves to our perennial diets. In exchange for carrying our cross in the constructive suffering that every life requires, we complain of low back pain… The neurotic is religious material done unconsciously. Compulsive behaviors are the rites and ceremonies of the unconscious which have taken control of our nature… they are begging to be translated and heard and enacted… so that we might embrace the sacred. (To Dance with God, p. 13)
And what has become true for Valentine’s Day – or Christmas and Easter for so many – has also become true for worship: when the dominant metaphor in America is “the bottom line” – an economic and utilitarian concept, not a spiritual one – it should not surprise us that American worship looks more like a “purpose driven” performance than the Sabbath.
In our daily lives we attend primarily to that which the senses are spelling out for us: to what the eyes perceive, to what the fingers touch. Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space; even God is conceived by most of us as a thing. The result of our thinginess is our blindness to all reality that fails to identify itself as a thing, as a matter of fact.
Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self. That is why the Sabbath has no time for personal anxiety or care, for any activity that might dampen the spirit of joy. The Sabbath is no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even to pray for relief or anything we might need. It is a day for praise, not a day for petitions. Fasting, mourning, demonstrations of grief are forbidden… for it is indeed a sin to be sad on the Sabbath day.
Like Huston Smith once observed, perhaps the saddest loss in the blessing of Christianity has to do with forgetting to truly observe the Sabbath as our Hebraic forbearers: we don’t dance, we don’t feast and we certainly don’t sanctify time. For the love of God we can barely sit still in church for 60 minutes – and Lord have mercy should worship go much beyond!
What happened to the time when we could join the Psalmist and proclaim: All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God! Thank him to his face… for the Lord changed wild lament into whirling dance; you ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I'm about to burst with song; I can't keep quiet about you. O God, my God, I can't thank you enough!
Consider this morning’s gospel text in Mark where Jesus expresses compassion, tenderness, hope and anger as he brings healing to the leper. A social outcast who is a threat to the community approaches Jesus and begs for healing: “If you want to cleanse me,” he pleads, “you can do it.”
+ Filled with compassion the Lord reaches out to touch the pariah saying, “I do want to bring you healing and wholeness.” And when the blessing comes Jesus instructs the man to go back to the priests to show them he can now re-enter society.
+ Now did you catch that: go back to the priests? This is one of the key parts of the story; apparently the leper had already been to the gate-keepers of the spirit and they had sent him away. They condemned the leper to a life of pain and loneliness because for very good reasons, lepers were banned from the community. They were required by law to warn others that they were dangerous and unclean only to become the living dead.
But Jesus believed that God was breaking into creation in a whole new way – a way that both interrupted some of the old rules and rendered many others obsolete – including anything that separated real people from the love and support of God’s community. So Jesus acts like a priest – assuming authority and power that was not his to claim – but still touching the unclean man that he might be restored to wholeness. And when this happens, the leper rejoices. He tells everyone he meets about this blessing. He goes back to the priests to be officially welcomed back into town. And he starts to live a life that sounds a great deal like the psalmist who said: Sing your hearts out to God! Thank him to his face… For the Lord changed wild lament into whirling dance; you ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I'm about to burst with song; I can't keep quiet about you. O God, my God, I can't thank you enough
So let me suggest to you four insights about worship that I discern in all of this that speak to us as the whole people of God. First music is essential in helping us worship the Living God. It is best when our music is participatory rather than passive for the only function performance has in worship is to draw us deeper into contemplation and prayer – never ego. That means our choirs and ensembles have a ministry to strengthen not replace congregational singing. Our hymns and responses must be accessible, beautiful and meaningful. And all of our music is to be God directed lest we reinforce the self- serving ways of the culture.
Second humor that is humbling and honest is needed in worship now more than ever. Not sarcasm or cruelty, not harsh or crude jokes, but that sweet Zen-like self-deprecating humor that can help us laugh at our self and own our brokenness. Jesus used it all the time: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Be like this child – let her be your rabbi – for unless you become like one of the least of these you shall miss the blessings within and among you. I am a particular fan of the Sufi wise fool, Nasrudin, who so often helps me laugh at myself. One story puts him in a café drinking tea with a friend late one afternoon. And as they spoke of life and love, his friend asked, “Why did you never marry, Nasrudin?”
“Well,” the old one said, “to tell you the truth I spent my youth looking for the perfect woman. In Cairo, I met a beautiful and intelligent soul with eyes like dark olives, but she was unkind. Then in Baghdad, I met a woman who was a wonderful and generous soul, but we had no interests in common. One woman after another would seem just right, but there would always be something mission. Then one day, I met her: she was beautiful, intelligent, generous and kind in thought, word and deed. We shared everything in common and it was clear to me that she was, in fact, perfect.”
(Spiritual Literacy, p. 430)
Music and humor can help the whole people of God become more and more whole and holy. Third, the language we use must be broadly inclusive and accessible. When we shrink our words to what we know the best, we start to create God in our image, when we know that it was really the other way around. That’s why Brian Wren, one of the finest contemporary hymn writers, tells us of God’s creative power like this, “Bring Many Names.” There is a strong mother God, a warm father God, an old aching God, a young growing God – and a great living God, never fully known, joyful darkness well beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing, everlasting home: hail and hosanna, great living God. Our words speak of the God we know: and in an era filled with fear and judgment I choose to emphasize grace and light, paradox and hope, community and healing.
And that brings me to the fourth insight, namely that movement matters in worship: it helps us honors our bodies and respect the diversity of abilities within the whole people of God. We believe that the Word became Flesh – that the Incarnation is one of the deepest mysteries of our faith – so we are called to use our bodies in worship to reinforce this radical truth. We clap our hands and snap our fingers; we use our eyes to read, our tongues to sing and our totality to get up and embrace one another for the peace. At the same time we make certain that there is space for those with different abilities: nobody has to clap or move around for the peace.
You see, there is a place for everyone at the table – and if you aren’t as mobile as you once were, then the whole people of God will come to you. Music, humor, careful and loving God talk and movement are very important elements of our worship in the 21st century.
+ They lure us away from “bottom line” thinking and so-called “purpose driven” lives.
+ They help us reclaim Sabbath with healing, encouragement and humility us so that we might discern how to be our best selves in a harsh and often lonely world.
+ And they do it gently – like Jesus touching the hand of the wounded man in exile – and it restores us all to community.
So let me teach you a song that I would ask you to sing with me at the close of worship each week over the next few months. It is lovely and accessible, it is grounded in scripture and could help us go out of worship with the same joy as the healed leper or the Psalmist of old.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
And the love of our Creator
And the fellowship – the fellowship –
Be with us – for evermore – and evermore
And evermore – Amen
The first time we sing it in unison – reminding ourselves that we are all in this together – and the second time a Capella in parts – as a way of embodying our gifts and the joy of God’s grace within and among us. Are you ready to give it a try...?
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
It made me think of Psalm 30 and Peterson's reworking in The Message:
All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God! Thank God to God's face! God gets angry once in a while, but across a lifetime there is only love. The nights of crying your eyes out give way to days of laughter.... I called out to you, Lord; I laid my case before you: "Can you sell me for a profit when I'm dead? Or auction me off at a cemetery yard sale? When I'm 'dust to dust' my songs and stories of you won't sell. So listen! and be kind! Help me out of this!" You did it: you changed wild lament into whirling dance; You ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I'm about to burst with song; I can't keep quiet about you. God, my God, I can't thank you enough.
And man did we sing and pray with our songs. First we worked on U2's ode to the Holy Spirit, "Mysterious Ways" with wah-wah, congas and great harmonies. Then we tried Sarah MacLachlan's, "World on Fire" which was sweet and sad. Our other guitarist, Brian, has written a new song as a lament and peace prayer for the war breaking out in Gaza - and it is so soulful.
Then a new song by Belle and Sebastian that Liz brought to the mix with the lyric: Do something pretty while you can, don't be a fool, reading the Gospel to yourself is fine but do something pretty while you can! Then we gave Chumbawamba's anti-war, post September 11th, Jacob's Ladder a try and it began to take shape - even with a little of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" thrown in for good measure.
The lyrics to this song are particularly shocking:
Like the Sermon on the mountain says dumber got dumb
Hellfire and brimstone swapped for oil and guns
When we're pushing up daisies we all look the same
In the name of the Father, maybe, but not in my name...
In the streets down in Whitehall,
Dogs pickin' at the bones
Nine eleven got branded, nine eleven got sold
And there'll be no one left to water all the seeds you sowed
On this Jacob's ladder, the only way up is down
So we're back in the groove and life feels a hellofalot better! St. Sly, who is probably the funkiest mofo in God's creation, gets it right once again:
Chuck loved his motorcycle, supported our old Tucson band, Stranger, and helped us work sound on many, many events. He was almost mortally wounded in a motorcycle accident 5 years ago but came away to live another day. He was a fierce supporter of the work of the United Church of Christ in the desert Southwest and loved his adopted family of Briget, Abbey and Gabby. Rest in peace, dear man, rest in peace.
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