Monday, March 30, 2009

A feast of fools...

Here's hoping that a new "fringe arts" event really takes off this weekend. Inspired partially by the ancient "feast of fools," this weekend's events include a masquerade ball, mimes and clowns for the children as well as a new, original play lampooning some of the history of the community's first church.... and that would be us!
I thought it a grand idea to not only support this local arts endeavor but also to host a spoof on our tradition. Let me tell you that some New England history buffs have turned tradition into a fetish that cannot be altered - way too freakin' self-important for my tastes - so let's lighten up.

And what better way to show the creative folk in town who are curious about us but are still suspicious of our past that we can laugh at ourselves with the best of those. In fact, let's clearly say that we embrace the fact that once we were at the core of the elite, but now we are on the fringe, too.

Further, it has been said over and over that churches have some healing and repair work to do with the creative community - and one of the ways we can prove that we are faithful is to not only buy artists' creations but put our time, energy and resources into their well-being. The farce will be held in our Sanctuary.

Interestingly, a young, local artist who grew up in this congregation was one of the creators of this wild time that has captured the imagination of the local museum, creative vendors to say nothing of our hometown brewery. (For more details see: http://www.berkshirefoolsfestival.org/page.php?PageID=1636&PageName=Home) So if you are in town this week, stop by for a GREAT and CREATIVE good time. The play will be happening on Thursday, April 2nd at 7 pm and then Saturday and Sunday - April 4th and 5th -at both 2 and 7 pm. Should be a hoot!
PS: I should confess that my doctoral work was rooted in the Feast of Fools - both Harvey Cox's book of the same name and "Godspell," as well as the ways this ancient spirit has been realized in a spirituality of rock music. So... for me this was a no-brainer!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A sweet day ends...

A little purple crocus finally peeked through with a flower yesterday - and today it rained! OMG did it rain - and thunder - and lightening, too. We worshiped with our faith community in the morning and had a great time - and later talked in depth about what the "mercies of God" might mean in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Then we were led in Hebrew prayer and yoga/body prayer, too. I came home with a sense that our time after Easter must include:

+ a very edgy film series including "The Third Miracle," "Jesus of Montreal," "Doubt" and "Constantine's Sword"

+ as well as a Marcus Borg meets Brian McLaren series called: Everything Must Change!

It was a sweet day - Dianne roasted a chicken and baked bread, too - which led me to this song and this poem.

Sometimes a man can't say
What he... A wind comes
And his doors don't rattle. Rain
Comes and his hair is dry.

"There's a lot to keep inside
And a lot to..." "Sometimes shame
Means we..." Children are cruel.
"He's six and his hands..."

Even Hamlet kept passing
The King praying
And the King said,
"There was something..."


And this sweet, sweet tune...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Dreams, perspective and courage...

Flash guitarist, Jeff Beck, once said about playing music, "Things turn out better by accident sometimes... but you can't organize an accident." If you've never heard him play "Beck's Bolero," Howlin' Wolf's "Ain't Superstitious" or the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" you haven't really heard rock guitar at it's best.

His words came to me while reading Deborah Warren's poem, "Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit." I like the style and energy of this poem - it gets so much right - and is very hip and ironic. And at the same time it feels to me like she's missing the point of growing older - even demeaning the wisdom of those who make the transition from frenetic passion to a more gentle way of being in the world - that makes me sad. Thomas Moore has noted that tender humor and clear but never harsh irony point us towards courageous and compassionate living in the world. (Here's her poem, what do you think?)

Too many of my dreams these days are boring.
I expect to drop into the pillow
and see the kind of action night is for—
a psychic workout, romance, close escapes:
Not much gets accomplished in a still-life;

nobody looks at asters as a way
to get a taste of life. I want to happen,
not to slightly rearrange my day
nightly in a recurring tablescape.
Dreams! However beautiful the apples,

fruit is low on drama, and I miss
passion, flying, falling, being chased,
crashing, panic—trauma—and I miss,
small and quick, a movement in the grapes,
and the shiver of a petal in the vase.

Is this an honest lament for things gone by - or whining? Is it a cry about missed opportunities or just the musings of some privilleged soul being hip? Didn't one of the sages say that much of our emotional distress and drama is born of boredom and a lack of courage to go deeper? I hear some of that in Warren's poem - maybe because I've been there - in the boredom and fear and it nearly ruined me. (To say nothing of what it could have done to those I love most dearly.)

In rereading Tillich, I find his challenge to claim the courage to be alive in each moment persuasive. Like our AA friends say so clearly: "the only problem with the geographic solution is that where ever you go... you have to take yourself!"

I find GREAT joy in seeing the purple crocuses peeking through my Berkshire garden. (I am heading out to it momentarily.) I find tremendous beauty - and depth - in the paintings of Gustave Caillebotte or Claude Monet. And I find a powerful courage in those people who have gone deep enough into real life that they come out kinder and more tender. Constructing the good life has a lot to do with how we embrace and accept the accidents of life, yes?

Over the years I have discerned less and less interest in art, politics, religion or people who are calculatingly ironic. Isn't simply being enough? Isn't life hard enough without wounding another with words or music/art? Isn't there something of God in all of us? Life is too short for hip cruelty. No wonder I keep going back to the poetry of Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Rumi and Robert Bly. I still laugh out loud - at myself - at these words from Rumi:

Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself
chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others
and fall in.

I should be suspicious
of what I want.
I think Carrie Newcomer gets it just about right:

Friday, March 27, 2009

This is the evening of the day...

It is the evening of the day: we dug in the garden, we planted peas, we rested and gave thanks. It was a good Sabbath.


I spent a little time going through the books I have been wanting to read and found SIX great undiscovered treasures:

+ The World of Silence - Max Picard
+ Poetic Medicine - John Fox
+ Zen Guitar - Philip Toshio Sudo
+ Dark Night of the Soul - Gerald May
+ The Soul's Religion - Thomas Moore
+ On the Boundary - Paul Tillich

And we had a chance to watch our greatest guilty pleasure: old episodes of "Battlestar Gallactica." Tomorrow, I will finish raking the gardens and getting things ready for planting while Di is at work - and then we'll sit on the deck together and take in the sunset.

Like Maryanne Faithfull, life has slowed down a great deal: there are parts that are filled with sadness and parts that are so beautiful I can't even find words. What's more, there are delights and little surprises that make me laugh and rejoice that I used to miss completely. All in all, a truly blessed Sabbath.

Fret not...

Today is Sabbath time for me - both Rabbi Heschel and Eugene Peterson have taught me how essential it is to rest and not fret on my Sabbath - a time for renewing my body and soul while trusting that the One Who is Holy is really in charge. It is a humble time... and now that the sun is out and the snow is gone, I am heading back outside to rake and get the garden ready for a new season of growing and beauty. Made me think of this moving version of Yusuf Islam's reworked old/new song, "Peace Train."


Sabbath time also feels like this poem by John Fox entitled, "When Someone Deeply Listens to You."

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you've had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top fo the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you,
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind's eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!

When someone deeply listens to you,
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

How does Psalm 37 go?
Fret not because of the wicked: or envy those who do evil.
For they will soon dry up like the grass;
whither like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
then you shall dwell in the land
and find safe pasture.
Find your delight in the Lord;
and the Lord will share with you your heart's desire.
Commit your life to the Lord;
put your trust in the One who is Holy
so that the justice of your cause
will break forth as the light
and your acts of compassion like the sun at noon.
Be still and wait for the Lord in patience...

Fret not. Sounds like a plan...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Time to shake our Lenten butts...

Since moving to the Berkshires, the biggest loss is going out on Fridays to shake our booties to the house band at the Chicago Bar: the Rowdies. They were the ultimate garage band with a kick ass bass player, dyno-mite drummer and Mr. Music himself, Chris Davis. And as much as I love our new gig - and the church is wonderful - man, do I miss dancin' with my honey!

This clip from the Boss Man is about as good as it gets except... I just found out there is a Motown Show happening in our neck of the woods! Could truly be good rockin' tonight (well, at least tomorrow night) as we find time to shake our Lenten butts in these almost thawed Berkshire hills!

Radical hospitallity and humility...

NOTE: My weekly installment of worship notes and more... Hoping that this Lent is maturing well for you. Who could imagine that Palm Sunday is just around the corner? Join us if you are around at 10:30 am on Sunday.

There is an old American folk proverb that goes: “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you so; it’s what you do know that ain’t exactly so!” I think it is safe to say that there’s a whole world of truth in those 18 short words. And that’s what I want to talk about with you today: the importance – or better still the necessity – of cultivating honesty and humility in our lives as we seek to embody Christ’s radical hospitality.

Honesty and humility – along with authentic Christian love – helps each and all of us become fertile ground for God’s grace.

+ In tandem, they cultivate hearts through which the Holy Spirit can work; apart, however, honesty often become a blunt club – a brutal weapon of selfishness – while humility is discarded as wimpy and irrelevant!

+ You know what I’m talking about: how many times have you heard someone say – or even said yourself – “I’m just trying to be honest…” when the real motivation was anger or worse?

St. Paul cut to the chase concerning honesty and humility in Galatians 5 when he wrote: What happens when we live God's way? God brings gifts into our lives much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard: things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Without this unity… well let’s have Paul speak for himself when he says: If we choose NOT to be led by the Spirit…

Then it is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; Cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. This isn't the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God's kingdom.

There is a sacred union between honesty and humility – it is one of the laws of kingdom living that God has tried to teach us repeatedly throughout history – and it is a part of all and every living spirituality. So what I’m going to try to do this morning is:

+ First give you a context from our tradition for reclaiming a radical commitment to both honesty and humility.

+ And second, show you how Jesus made this flesh during his celebration of Passover.


Our tradition has regularly claimed the words of the ancient prophet of Israel, Jeremiah, as foundational. Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, said that Jeremiah’s vision has always pointed people towards a gospel of grace and forgiveness. Listen to what the prophet said:

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!" God's Decree. (Jeremiah 31: 33-34)

I love these words: they speak to my heart and inspire my soul to live fully into the liberating grace of God made real for me in Jesus Christ. What is often forgotten, however, is that while Jeremiah was clearly celebrating a spirituality of grace and freedom, he was doing so in a context of covenant – and too many contemporary people either don’t know or don’t remember what a covenantal relationship between God, grace and humanity is all about.

Covenant talk – sacred contract language – is a holy promise made between two parties: in this case, God and God’s people. It is a vow with two parts: what God will do and we will do to maintain the covenant. Are you with me? In this covenant, God promises to fill us from the inside out – write sacred Torah upon our hearts and bathe us in grace – if we, in turn, become clear and living parables of this grace.

No longer will it be enough to go about just talking and teaching about God – using words and ideas only – no, now we will live so that our lives make the words flesh. From the inside out, we have known the Lord first hand, so we are called to make this blessing visible.
Anything less, said the theologian who challenged Hitler in World War II, Dietrich Bonheoffer, is cheap grace. And it abrogates the covenant – violates the contract – nullifies the relationship. God promises spiritual intimacy and grace, if we promise to turn these blessing into lives of honesty and humility and love.

Is that clear? This is a covenant – a new way of living – costly grace that is always free but saturated with consequences. This is essential because like I said at the outset: “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you so; it’s what you do know that ain’t exactly so!”

That’s the context for honesty and humility in community – our covenant with God and one another – point one. Point two is what Jesus did with this covenant and for that let’s take a look at what happened at the celebration of his last Passover feast.

Now, what do you know about Passover? It is an annual feast celebrated in Jewish homes that marks both God’s liberating grace and every Jew’s ongoing commitment to freedom and justice. But it goes deeper, as Harvey Cox writes in his reflection on being a Christian married to a practicing Jew, in Common Prayers: it is also an on-going reflection upon the dialectic of exile and return.

For thirty-five hundred years – in history, myth and imagination – the dialectic or exile and return has throbbed in Jewish thought like a symphony. It has colored Jewish thinking about history, human nature, God and the cosmos itself… What is the spiritual meaning of exile? The Hasidic teacher… held that exile is both corporate and personal. They believed that just as the Jewish people, however dislocated and mistreated, always retained a core of dignity and freedom, so individuals also bear within themselves a nucleus of freedom that can never be eradicated. They suggest that Torah and the prayers of Jewish worship nourished this inner flame… and it became a paradigm for the individual soul of all Jews – and ultimately of all people.

There is a social, spiritual and personal nature to what happens at Passover, yes? Using food, story, song and table fellowship, those at the feast not only remember an event in the past but actually participate and experience in a deeply spiritual way what that exile, suffering and joyful liberation of the Exodus means right now. So, it is not surprising that Jesus would choose a Passover feast to teach and advance some of his insights about radical community: it was a time when all of his friends and followers might be open to a new way of living into the blessings of God’s covenant.

Now remember one thing more: the gospel of John tells us that as the disciples were getting ready for their last Passover together, they were also arguing about who was the greatest. They were also bickering about who might betray the Master. Some were getting haughty and others were pointing fingers – just your typical church potluck – but Jesus wanted more than business as usual. He wanted to give them one more example of a different way – a healing way – a way of hope and integrity.

So the story tells us that rather than use words alone, he knelt at the table and began to wash their feet. He acted as a servant – or slave – to his followers. He did not scold them nor offer a verbal lesson: he just showed them with his life what his new community might look like. This is part of the new covenant, right?

Letting our lives become a living parable of the blessings of the Lord in our hearts – an alternative to shame and judgment – the word of love made flesh in honesty and humility? It would have been easy to scold the disciples – it would have been simple to look the other way, too – but Jesus chose to put his flesh into action and offer a better way. He held his tongue and acted with humble and honest love – and this is what cut through the pride and fear at that Passover. It changed everything.

And even when Peter got uppity and protested in embarrassment – which I suspect happened all the time – Jesus still acted with humble honesty. In fact, what he documented for Peter was the importance of knowing how to receive as well as give a gift. Peter, we might guess, liked to be in control. He enjoyed helping others and found deep personal satisfaction and worth in being the one who gave gifts to others.

But Jesus showed him that his way was not complete: to be a true person of the covenant means knowing how to receive as well as give a gift. To practice radical hospitality in the real world means knowing how to be good guests as much as generous hosts, yes? And just think of the implications that has for us – as peace makers – people committed to finding common ground rather than hurtful division – those who cherish sharing as much or more than consuming?

+ First, we use our bodies to make flesh the humble and honest love of God in our hearts.

+ Second, we refuse to scold or humiliate, but use our lives as gentle and generous guests as well as hosts.

+ And third, we revel in honesty and humility because it nourishes God’s joy within and among us.

After washing his disciples feet and showing them with his flesh a better way, Christ said: "Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as 'Teacher' and 'Master,' and rightly so… That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other's feet. I've laid down a pattern for you. What I've done, you do. I'm only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his or her master; an employee doesn't give orders to the employer. If you understand what I'm telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life. "

As the ancients tell us, “what we ourselves do not live, we have no right to require.” The promise is blessing – in covenant – not as free agents or independent contractors but in community – in sharing love with honesty and humility. And when this word become flesh we find that we can laugh at ourselves, not take life too seriously and even give one another the space and freedom to stumble and fall and then get back up again in dignity. I leave you with this story from our mystical sisters and brothers in Islam:

One day the poet Rumi asked one of his young, arrogant disciples to give him an enormous picnic basket filled with rich and delicious food. This alarmed the young disciple because it was known that Rumi was living a life of fasting and prayer. “Aha, now I’ve really got the master – what he really wants to do is go off by himself and become a hog!”

So, he prepared the feast and then secrete followed Rumi through the dark streets of Konya, out into the fields and finally into the wilderness. Eventually he saw his master go into a ruined tomb and thought, “I am going to bust him and unmask his haughty pretensions.” But when he entered the tomb he saw Rumi feeding by hand an exhausted momma dog with six starving puppies.

Knowing that he had been followed Rumi turned to his disciple and said, “Don’t stand there, man, help me!” Extremely moved by Rumi’s compassion he said, “How on earth did you know that this dog was out here? And how did you know she was hungry? She’s miles away from where you live.” To which Rumi laughed softly and then said, “When you have become awakened, your ears are so acute that they can hear even the cries of a sparrow ten thousand miles away.”

“If you understand what I'm telling you,” Jesus said, “act like it—and you will live a blessed life.”




Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Shadows, sound, silence and symbols...

Good Friday
an evening of paradox, promise and prayer

FRIDAY, APRIL 10, 2009 @ 7 PM

FIRST CHURCH ON PARK SQUARE

27 east street, pittsfield, mass - 413-447-7351

In a season of chaos and confusion - a time when many of the old rules are crumbling and time-tested traditions no longer satisfy - it is easy to forget one of the counter-cultural truths of Good Friday: God's light can be found within the darkness for those with eyes to see. Using the music of U2, Eels, Joni Mitchell and others, you are invited to join us for a meditation in sound, silence, shadows and symbols.

Jesus on the back beat...

Some days the blessings just seem to pop out of thin air. First, my secretary (a totally sweet woman) gave me a hug and told me, "Thank you for doing marriages for same sex people... my sister in law is gay and they have to deal with soooo much shit. Thank you!" There were tears in her eyes and it really touched my heart.

Then I had a TV preaching gig at a colleagues church that was just too much fun - followed by a conversation with a man from church I am really coming to care for and respect. And he gave me a totally great CD and then shared some important conversation with me about spirituality, paradox and the blessings that can emerge out of our brokenness and wounds. Finally, after getting home, I find a note that my main man from Tucson has sent me a note on Facebook saying he's posted a new song dedicated to me: "Jesus on the Back Beat."

I love this guy so much: he is a MONSTER guitar player, one of the men I consider a brother of my heart and just a great mind and soul (a sweet dad, too.) Here's the tune...


Blessings like this are treasures -and they seem to come along just at the right time. I don't pretend to understand why or how... I just love them and celebrate them.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The beauty of paradox...

As this day comes to a close I am caught up - once again - in the beauty of living this paradoxical faith. Deep within my soul I am at peace - filled with a sense of God's grace and presence - and at the same time I am broken hearted over the needless suffering so many must endure - often as the result of those acting in God's name. In fact, with the risk of sounding totally weirded-out, it is as if there are two video clips playing in alternating currents in my heart.



Brian McLaren gets it so right in this first clip; so much of my religious tradition is about maintaining useless, cumbersome and even mean-spirited elements of the status quo: homophobia, fear, hatred and pettiness. As he notes, while over half of creation claims to love and serve the same God - Christianity, Islam and Judaism - we spend most of our time arguing over the details and causing one another harm rather than opening our hearts towards compassion. It is truly heart-breaking.

And - and this is what blows my mind more and more - at the very same time I find myself challenging the narrowness of such religion, I am also overwhelmed by God's incredible generosity and tenderness. Like Luka Bloom, I find myself singing: "I'm happy man in the world."


Tonight's prayers end with these words: May Christ who calls you to take up your cross, give you strength to bear your own and one another's burdens... Christ give us grace to grow in honest humility, embracing the humanity of all of us so that we might enter into the blessing of God - Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer - now always. Amen.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The weird al of celtic tunes...

I brought the instrumentalists of my band together today after church for another rehearsal. We met for three hours on Tuesday night but the acoustics in the practice hall were so dreadful that I had no idea what we were playing. OMG... it was like the Beatles at Shea freakin' Stadium - so much echo and other noise - all we could do is listen to ourselves and trust everyone else was doing the same. Impossible to even hear another's harmonies!


Today's practice, however, was much better - and lots more fun. I could hear the other guitar and bass so that we could work on texture and nuance. Thanks be to God for that, too, because we're taping a TV show on Tuesday. If you blow a live gig, it stinks but generally isn't preserved for the future. What's more, people around here WATCH these local music shows so I wanted us to give it the extra mile.

And as I was heading home it hit me that we've created a Weird Al's version of Celtic Music for this TV taping: not parodies of others songs - just totally strange tunes by Gaelic artists - or very different versions of some familiar songs. We'll begin with a collection of tunes that includes "Loch Lomond" and "Blackbird" in the spirit of Julie Fowlis before morphing into U2's "40."


After a John O'Donohue poem about blessings - Bennacht - it is on to our acoustic "Mysterious Ways," Nanci Griffith's "Hard Life" and Glen Hansard's lovely "Falling Softly." A beautiful new song was recently written by our other guitarist, Brian, about peace that will be a sweet debut - and we will follow that up with Belle and Sebastian's "We Rule the School," Jean Ritchie's "Now Is the Cool of the Day" and Chumbawumba's anti-war rant "Jacob's Ladder."


After another prose poem from the Iona Community, we'll do Gaelic Storm's tender "Mary's Eyes" and Luka Bloom's "Holy Ground" (about contentment and being a happy man in your own skin!) Then we'll bring it home with our acoustic rendering of U2's "Pride in the Name of Love."
The whole set is subdued and beautiful. One of our vocalists, another clergy person, Liz, brought us the Belle and Sebastian tune because of the line, "Do something pretty while you can don't be a fool: reading the Gospel to yourself is fine..."

This is a ministry of beauty and hope in a time of pain and fear. Sometimes we can't see or even grasp what truth and goodness might mean given the confusion and clutter - but beauty seems to cut through the bullshit and noise. So, while our Celtic set is not a bunch of drinking songs about the "troubles" or even those sweet fiddle reels and jigs that are so much fun, it is still an invitation to dance and trust that there is a love that is bigger than ourselves at work within and among us.


Once, when it was pouring rain in Edinburgh, Dianne and I ducked into a small, stone Anglican church off a side street. It turned out to be Old Saint Paul's Scottish Episcopal Church - the oldest Anglican church in Scotland - and home of the 12' painting "Still" by the Scottish artist, Alison Watt. It evokes the sadness of Christ's burial clothes but the beauty of God's love beyond the obvious, too. It was not created for the side chapel in this church, but when the artist visited it became clear that no other setting would work for this truly stunning visual meditation.

It was in this chapel that my understanding of the ministry of art, music and beauty came together as I read a dedication to "Still" which spoke of it in terms of the costly oil poured on Christ's feet - a total waste of resources - but also a healing and unique blessing that did something beautiful for the Lord. And so we go forth to create beauty - and share hope - for like our friends at Taize say: we seek to live like a parable of joy for our time.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

So let's not forget the UPSIDE of monkey mind...

Yesterday I noted my proclivity towards "monkey mind" - creative connections that sometimes distract me from centering or resting in the moment/or God's love (which may be the same thing, yes?) Today my Tucson "brother" (who also corrected me re: time suck not slut... but I think my mishearing is better) noted that sometimes there are real upsides to monkey mind.

Now let's be clear that this is the man who took the facebook "what author are you"and came up Jack Kerouac - which didn't surprise me one iota - because he loves that Hunter Thompson stream of consciousness groove in all manner of things. (He also turned me on to Douglas Coupland's writing, too.) But... I think he's right: there is value in making wildass connections if they advance love and hope and trust - creativity, too - like the scripture says: to EVERYTHING there is a season. For example dig this...


If this isn't the upside - and blessing - of monkey mind, I don't know what is! Ginsberg is spot on with insights that are still sadly true all these years later. Dylan makes this happen many times, too, because he doesn't fight the associations but trusts that it is the Spirit making the connections, yes? That's what I love about Peter Rollins and his insights about true faith...


As a musician there have been a lot of helpers in this realm of giving up the pursuit of a single answer: Zappa helped me with this - certainly Dylan and the Dead, too - but also Beethoven, Stravinsky and Ravel - Miles Davis and Coltrane as well. And let's not forget Brubeck, Dave Von Ronk and Scott Joplin. Jeremy Begbie suggests that perhaps music is even the best way to teach the complexities of faith and theology... and that suits my monkey mind just about right. And when I need a break from making connections, I find that I can rest in the simplicity of this prayer by contemporary composer, Arvo Part.


Like the Iona prayer concludes: gathered and scattered...in suffering and hope... now and always and I would add - centered or making wildass connections - God is with us.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Blues run the game...

So... I am closing the day last night with some new prayers from the Community of Iona (below) when I get an idea about a song - Loch Lomond - that we're playing with for an up-coming TV show. I've known the song in its bowdlerized contemporary version - you know, "You take the high road and I'll take the low road..." - but this has often felt like a bastardization of some much more mournful.

Cut to an Internet search which, as many of you already know, can be a total "time slut" as my man (the original computer geek/techie) in Tucson likes to say... and he's right: before you know it I'm listening to NPR stories on this sad song, searching down tangents about my family's clan in Scotland and even portraits of Bonnie Prince Charlie. (All while I am supposed to be in prayer, mind you, which should be all the evidence you need about my "eclectic and sometimes undisciplined commitment to prayer" as a spiritual director once noted.) Check it out: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4766584

And WHAT should I discover (besides tons of fascinating trivia that will forever be in my mind for no discernibly good reason) but a portrait of said dear old prince... that looks EXACTLY like my late sister, mother and some of her children. (One of my daughters, too.) Now we've known for sometime that the Mescall side of the family - my maternal ancestors - were transplanted Scots who went to Ireland and then to America but we wondered who they looked like, you know?

My father's folk ALL have that distinctive Scots thing going - tall, thin faces, long legs with that extended middle that is prone to go round with too much brew - rather like Billy Connolly my wife likes to tell me. (When we first watched, "Mrs. Brown" with Connolly and Judi Dentch and he runs into a loch for a quick dip after tossing aside his kilts, she turned and gasped, "NOW I know where your people come from!") And when we wandered around Scotland for a month a number of years back, we saw lots of mini-Me's and tons of Scots beauties that resembled daughter number two - but the other side of the family was conspicuously absent - until now!

A mystery has been solved - I showed this portrait to my honey this morning and she, too, burst out laughing, shouting that Bonnie Prince Charlies is a total dead ringer for that side of the clan. Oh, thank you, Lord, for the Internet I sighed... only to realize that, once again, my prayer time had been frittered away with things fascinating - and sometimes even useful - but not really prayerful. Centering prayer master, Thomas Keating has observed that even with careful discipline and practice our minds can run away from us with many good and even healing ideas during prayer. The challenge is to let them pass rather than follow...

... and that has been my history with prayer: I have Monkey Mind and can find thousands of good reasons to feed it rather than sit with it patiently and let it slow down. Maybe you know what I mean... So, I'm back to the Iona prayers to read:

God says: I will woo you and lead you into the wilderness and speak to your heart. Blessed be God for ever...God of all my life, I lay it before you... and nothing is hidden. You are before me, Lord and you are behind. You are around me, God, and you are within. So I bring the faith that is in me and the doubt - I bring the joy that is in me and the sorrow - I bring the hope that is in me and the despair - and I bring the hurts that I carry as well as the hurts that I have caused.

And to them all - the faiths and doubts, joys and sorrows, hopes and despairs, hurts carried and caused - I join myself with sisters and brothers of faith and doubt, joy and sorrow...

Do not cast me asway from your presence... restore to me the joy of liberation and sustain in me a willing spirit. For you have shown me the paths that lead to life and your presence will fill me with joy.
The liturgy ends like this: Gathered and scattered, God is with us - In suffering and hope, God is with us - Now and always, God is with us. And so we go... Nick Drakes takes it home:

Thursday, March 19, 2009

My first celtic song...

Dianne made this picture for me tonight - made me laugh out loud - because there was also a cartoon balloon saying: "I love these guys!" And it got me to thinking about my first Celtic song...

Remember: I grew up at a time when assimilation was essential and valued - ethnic festivals and pride wasn't on the horizon - so I never learned any of the Scottish or Irish tunes of my ancestors. No, my first Celtic song came from Van the Man Morrison in the form of "Gloria!" And I didn't even know he was a Celt back then because I heard it first in the garage band version by the Shadows of the Knight!

I guess I knew about Van Morrison and Them - I certainly did by the time I formed my first band - but not at first. In fact, the first time I heard this was in a gym at an 8th grade dance. So much for cultivating the tradition of my elders, heh?


Through Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Jean Ritchie I began to listen to some true Celtic/Gaelic songs - and Pete Seeger (who will turn 90 this summer) helped a lot - but mostly I was a rock and roll guy in the early days. I played folk music, too, but my heart sang to the big beat. To be sure, Van Morrison's mystical sounds intrigued me - and I was smitten by Cat Steven's experiments, too - and I loved Pentangle, Steeler's Wheel and Fairport Convention in spades - sometimes the Incredible String Band and Donovan, too. (He helped me make the connection to both Bert Jansch and John Renbourn whom I have continued to appreciate for years.)


It wasn't until seminary in 1978,however, that I began to reconnect with my roots in Ireland and Scotland - and I fell hard. And it has been 30 year love affair even though I favor bending the genre like Pentangle more than some purists like - hell I love the Gaelic reworkings of Beatles songs! So sometimes I find myself in a groove with Julie Fowlis from Scotland - too kewel for school.


And sometimes I get down with Loreena's genre bending stuff, too:


The poet, John O'Donohue, who died way too young (52) put it like this in "On the Death of the Beloved"...

Though we need to weep your loss,
You dwell in that safe place in our hearts,

Where no storm or might or pain can reach you.

Your love was like the dawn
Brightening over our lives
Awakening beneath the dark
A further adventure of colour.

The sound of your voice
Found for us
A new music
That brightened everything.

Whatever you enfolded in your gaze
Quickened in the joy of its being;
You placed smiles like flowers
On the altar of the heart.
Your mind always sparkled
With wonder at things.

Though your days here were brief,
Your spirit was live, awake, complete.

We look towards each other no longer
From the old distance of our names;
Now you dwell inside the rhythm of breath,
As close to us as we are to ourselves.

Though we cannot see you with outward eyes,
We know our soul’s gaze is upon your face,
Smiling back at us from within everything
To which we bring our best refinement.

Let us not look for you only in memory,
Where we would grow lonely without you.
You would want us to find you in presence,
Beside us when beauty brightens,
When kindness glows
And music echoes eternal tones.

When orchids brighten the earth,
Darkest winter has turned to spring;
May this dark grief flower with hope
In every heart that loves you.
May you continue to inspire us:
To enter each day with a generous heart.

To serve the call of courage and love
Until we see your beautiful face again
In that land where there is no more separation,
Where all tears will be wiped from our mind,
And where we will never lose you again.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Radical Hospitality Part Three...

NOTE: Here are this Sunday (March 22, 2009) worship notes for my message on Lent Four. (Where did the time go?) Please stop by if you are in town at 10:30 am.

I came of age in the 1960s – a time of countless changes, blessings and curses – an era that was simultaneously optimistic and filled with fear. And while I have no interest in revisiting that wild time – or refighting its battles – I continue to be nourished by the music of the Beatles who were the cultural ambassadors of my generation.

They began their all too short career singing rock and roll songs of love and longing like “Please, Please Me” and “She Loves You.” As they matured they created some very sophisticated pop tunes like “Yesterday” and “Michelle” that are still being covered by torch singers all over the world.

+ And then they entered the realm of social commentary with music like “Eleanor Rigby,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and “Revolution” that gave us vignettes of broken hearts and broken social structures.

+ No wonder that the incredibly gifted Broadway director, Julie Tamor of The Lion King fame chose Beatles songs as the score for her visual history of the 60s called “Across the Universe.” They were brilliant.

And one of their most important songs goes like this:
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn to play the game
It’s easy… All you need is love – all you need is love
All you need is love, love – love is all you need



Do you know it? Want to try the chorus with me…?

Small wonder that Christian social commentator, Steve Turner, wrote a book called The Gospel According to the Beatles: he understood that love was at the core of almost everything they created just as Jesus had taught us. When asked by his disciples at what we know as the Last Supper to condense the essence of his ministry, the Master said: “A new commandment I give unto you, that you should love one another even as I have loved you. By this others will know me: if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35)

So today – in the third part of our Lenten investigation into what Christ’s radical hospitality might mean for you and me – we’re going to look at what the scriptures tell us love looks like both in general and in particular. Like the Beatles – and Jesus and St. Paul – said: “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done… all you need is love.”

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don't love, I'm nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God's Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, "Jump," and it jumps, but I don't love, I'm nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don't love, I've gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I'm bankrupt without love.

Peter Rollins talks about this when he tells us that Christian leaders are those who REFUSE TO LEAD. That is, they are people who refuse to let OTHERS do the hard working of loving - women and men who understand we are all in this together - so the BODY - the priesthood of all believers has to stand and deliver.

First, love in general with two insights from St. Paul. In his letter to the church in Rome, which Paul wrote after about 10 years of ministry, the apostle wants to remind the gathered community that God is the source of all grace and that everybody needs it. That is, we can follow all the rules perfectly – sing all the notes like a professional – and give all our time to strengthening the institution, but without the gift of God’s grace alive within and among us, we will always be alienated from God and one another.

+ Like I sometimes tell you: you can sit all night in your garage and that won’t make you an automobile anymore than baying all night at the moon will make you a coyote, right?

+ God’s grace – God’s life changing and always amazing grace – is essential.

In general, therefore, Paul teaches that when we have experienced God’s grace and are willing to trust it as the ground of our being, then we can:

+ First, love from the center of who you are and not fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply and practice playing second fiddle. Romans 12: 10 tell us that there is intimacy in a true church – we know and care about each other – so much so that we are willing to serve and even protect the other.

+ And second, reach out and welcome one another to God's glory. Jesus did it; now you do it! Jesus, staying true to God's purposes, reached out in a special way to the Jewish insiders so that the old ancestral promises would come true for them. As a result, the non-Jewish outsiders have been able to experience mercy and to show appreciation to God. Romans 15: 7 is clear: Jesus practiced radical hospitality with insiders and guests – with those who fit and with those who needed to fit in – and we, too, need to make God’s grace visible.

Now, there really isn’t a lot of room for argument in these general descriptions of Christian love, right? In fact, there is broad unanimity throughout the Church – conservative, liberal, evangelical and new age – that we are to be a people created in the love of God as made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord. Where we get into trouble, however, is when the general becomes particular – when the word becomes flesh – and when the abstract becomes concrete.

Do you know the story of the psychology professor who had no children who used to regularly lecture the parents in his neighborhood on the right way to raise children? He was always telling them not to do this or that – never to spank their little ones – and always to love your kids rather than punish them.

Well, one day as fate would have it, the professor put in a new cement walk in front of his house. And after working for hours on his hands and knees with a trowel to make it just right, he noticed out of the corner of his eye a little boy making hand- prints in the cement. And before he knew it, he rushed over to the child and started to spank his butt. A neighbor who was hanging out her clothes noticed all of this and hollered, “Hey professor, what’s going on: don’t you remember you’re supposed to love the child?” To which the psychologist yelled back, “Yes, of course, and I do love this child in the abstract… but NOT in the concrete!”

It is in the hard realities of real life – broken hearts, betrayal, job loss, humiliation and fear – that Christ calls us to trust both God’s grace and human discipline in a radical way. Our Old Testament story this morning makes that clear in the complaining and moaning and groaning of God’s chosen people. This is a classic example of selective memory and blaming our woes on everybody else rather than take responsibility for real life. Remember that Moses has just led this group OUT of the oppression of slavery in Egypt:

+ By God’s grace they have been rescued and set free; by God’s grace they have crossed over the Red Sea from despair and fear into the possibilities of liberation and hope; by God’s grace their future is limitless.

+ And still… and still the people rescued and set free by God’s grace… complain. Oh, the food is crap here – better we should return to the chains of slavery: at least Pharaoh fed us well. And our living arrangements – what a mess? At least in the days of bondage we had a warm place to rest and safety from the elements.

Do you get what is going on? The Biblical and archeological evidence is clear that the slaves of Egypt did NOT eat well – garlic wasn’t even a part of their diet – and God knows they were not well cared for in slavery. But they chose to believe it – and carp about it – because the alternative was to trust God ever more deeply and make some hard choices.

And as we know all too well, it is easier to carp and blame than trust God and move forward boldly in faith. But that is what loving in the particular is all about. St. Paul is very clear in the second half of I Corinthians 13 that:

+ First, love doesn’t fly off the handle or keep score of the sins of another. Rather, love refuses to go bitter when times are tough: those bathed in Christ’s love look for evidence that God is with them, they take a deep breath when people become irritable and they look beyond the other’s failures so that they can find ways of serving together. “In fact, this expression of love refuses to traffic in unexpressed resentments” (Charles Swindoll) because they become just like those poisoned snakes in the desert: they kill and wound and keep on biting long after the actual offense is over.

+ Second, love doesn’t revel when others grovel but takes pleasure in the flowering of truth. There is just nothing to celebrate when somebody stumbles. Remember the Religious Right and President Clinton? Where was the love? Especially when both those in elected office and in pulpits across America who were hurling stones were committing multiple acts of infidelity themselves to say nothing of their subsequent financial scandals.

+ Look: people of Christian love reach out a helping hand when a sister or brother stumbles – we don’t kick another when they are down. And when we do have a problem or disagreement – and we often do – we go to the other and talk about our differences openly and with sincere affection. As one preacher likes to say: “It is better to be bruised by the trustworthy words of a caring friend, than to be flattered by the deceitful compliments of a self-serving foe.”

+ And third, love puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back but keeps going to the end. What Paul is telling us is that love doesn’t have tissue paper feelings: if we are overlooked, it isn’t the end of the world; if a confidence is broken, we don’t give up or turn on the other; and if our hearts are broken… Well, we look to Jesus who was neither easily wounded nor distracted from his calling of love.

Are you with me? Have I been clear? First love in general is broad, helpful and inclusive: we don’t fake it, we regularly share it like Christ did and we know that God is at the center of any and every act that is authentically loving. Second, the particulars of Christian love in a congregation include: refusing to hold grudges, searching for forgiveness and reconciliation when sin and alienation does happen and trusting always that God’s love is bigger than our feelings. As the old preachers like to say: It may be Friday… but hold on, baby, cuz Sunday’s coming!

Now there is one last word I need to share with you and it is not easy: please don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can embody this type of love all by yourself. You can’t – I can’t – nobody can: it takes the whole community of God’s people encouraging one another together for us to grow and mature in grace. It is romantic but sentimental hooey to believe that we can love like Jesus all by ourselves. And it is equally self-centered and ugly to say that we’ve tried to love but people are just too cruel so we’re going to take care of number one.

Lots of churches do precisely that – and then they shrivel up in their self-centered stupidity and become a burden to the Lord and a pain in creation for those aching and searching for true Christian love. Mike Yaconelli, one of the finest youth ministry experts in the United States, once put it like this and we need to hear his words because we are about to embark on a journey that could be filled with snakes. As we make bold and radical decisions about how we are going to use our resources to advance Christ’s love, count on the fact that there are lots of snakes waiting to poison us.

Yaconelli writes: “There is something wrong with the organized church. You know it. I know it. We all see that something is wrong – drastically wrong. Just one semi-close look at the organized church – with its waning influence, its corruption, and its cultural impotence – tells us that something has gone awry. But, the question is, what has gone awry? What is wrong?”

I think I know. The problem with the church is not corruption. It is not institutionalism. No, the problem is far more serious than something like the minister running away with the organist. The problem is pettiness. Blatant pettiness. Visit any local church board and you will be immediately shocked by the sheer abundance of pettiness.

The flower committee chairman has decided to quit because someone didn't check with her before they put flowers on the altar last Sunday. The Chairman of the Board is angry because a meeting was held without his knowledge. One of the elders is upset with the youth director because the youth director wants to take the church youth group to a secular Rock concert. The Woman's Kitchen committee is up in arms because, at the last youth group meeting (which has mushroomed from 15 kids to 90 kids in six months), the kids took some sugar from the kitchen. The janitor is threatening to quit because the youth group played a game on the grass over the weekend and now the lawn needs extra work.

Now let’s be clear: his gripes are not our gripes, right? We don’t have 90 kids in the youth program – or even a lawn to be really worried about. But we do know something about pettiness – so listen carefully to the way he wrap us his comments – because they are in the spirit of making Christ’s love particular:

Churches are so preoccupied with the petty that they can't spend the time required to do what matters. So, I would like to say what people in church leadership are apparently having a difficult time saying today: There is no excuse for pettiness in the Church. Pettiness should have no place at all in any church for any reason. Petty people are ugly people. They are people who have lost their vision. They are people who have turned their eyes away from what matters and focused, instead, on what doesn't matter. The result is that the rest of us are immobilized by their obsession with the insignificant.

It is time to rid the church of pettiness. It is time the Church refused to be victimized by petty people. It is time the Church stopped ignoring pettiness. It is time the Church quit pretending that pettiness doesn't matter. Pettiness is a cancer that has been allowed to go undetected; a molehill that has been allowed to become a mountain. Pettiness has become a serious disease in the Church of Jesus Christ -- a disease which continues to result in terminal cases of discord, disruption, and destruction. Petty people are dangerous people because they appear to be only a nuisance instead of what they really are -- a health hazard.

I want to join brother Yaconelli by saying that the “most basic result of the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives is our deliverance from the sin of pettiness. It really is true that, in Jesus, we are freed from the bondage of the insignificant and let loose from the tyranny of the trivial.” As someone far wiser than me once said, “all you need is… love.”


O Lord, may it be true within and among us by the spirit of Christ Jesus our Lord.




Monday, March 16, 2009

Money vs. Sally Go Round the Roses...

Ok this is pretty obscure for most newbies but this past weekend I got a blast of great tunes in a variety of styles - and the two BEST were the old Berry Gordy, Jr. "Money" and my favorite reworking of the Jaynettes, "Sally Go Round the Roses." Many people will not think either of these tunes are particularly "prayerful" in the traditional or pietistic vein, but man have they been a part of my worldview for waaaaaaaaaay too long: a real integration of body, soul, spirit and heart.

Let's start with "Money." When I was a kid, my Aunt Donna (may she rest in peace) turned me on to the Isley Brothers, Little Richard and and the kewel dance stuff of the late 50s and early 60s. (Don't hold it against her: she liked the Dave Clark 5 more than the Beatles but that's because they sounded like Little Eva (dig "Locomotion") and she could dance her ass off to Little Eva.) She turned me on to the first version of "Money" written by Berry Gordy, Jr. and recorded by Barrett Strong. Music geeks to to: It was early Motown - pretty hot and fun - but just a start.

The Beatles' nailed this song a few years later - first in their Hamburg wildass days - and then on "The Beatles's Second Album" in the USA (also "Twist and Shout" which my dear auntie taught me to dance to with the Isely Brothers at the helm.) And when Lennon did his thing - and the boys sang back-up - my I was on FIRE!


Jump ahead nearly 20 years (ok just 18) and the Flying Lizards remake this song in a Dadaist way - part critique and part spoof - of the ego-centric, wealth obsessed 1980s: this, too, is so freakin' hot that I can't even think straight. So spot on and insightful, too.


For this song - which every church ought to use at least once for a fall stewardship campaign - these three versions bring it all together: 1) body and soul with Motown; 2) sex and candy with the Beatles; and 3) social critique and attitude with the Lizards. What could be more fun AND prophetic...?

Jump to "Sally Go Round the Roses" and the totally mysterious sound of that song. When I first heard it back in 1963 with my Aunt Donna, it sounded sexy, mysterious... and frankly underwater. The Jaynettes, who nobody really knows much about except that they were a weird marketing experiment, had a #2 hit with a song that I used to hear in my brain before I went to sleep during the summer of '63. It was haunting...


Flash ahead to the summer of love: playing guitar, falling in love with sexy hippie girls, riding around in Mustang convertibles, drinking Mateus at the beach and all the rest and who should show up by Grace Slick - before Jefferson Airplane - and SHE is singing "Sally Go Round the Roses." I fell in love with Grace - and this song - all over again. (All throughout the summer of 67, we had a girl singer in our band who LOOKED like Grace: 8 feet of legs, long straight hair and a soulful innocence as she swayed to the beat.) It is kinda psychedelic... but also mystical, too. It isn't the greatest version, but still lots of fun and I listened to IT every night that summer all over again for it connected me with the Jaynettes and my Aunt and Motown! (Even the Dead covered, "Dancing in the Streets!")


Then, at the end of the 60s, my FAVORITE version of this song was brought to birth by Pentangle - that Celtic folk/jazz meditation in song - who define this tune better than I am able to even understand: they embroider it with riffs, speculation, teasing while diving for cover without ever giving a clear articulation of what is at stake. It is pure genius!


Then there is this beautiful, soulful and killer version by Sophie and the Abusers - a cross between Patti LaBelle singing Laura Nyro and Nora Jones - so sad and hip and broken-hearted all the while aching for hope...


Now, I think of these two songs prayerfully during Lent for two reasons: they both show me how to reinterpret the old with the spirit of the times to give nuance and insight without being dated - AND - they push me towards integrating heart, soul, mind and flesh in pursuit of all that is true, compassionate and real.

Unless my spirituality can do that, it is just nostalgia and wishful thinking. To be sure, some people will call this unrepentant hippie nostalgia - and that might be true as I remember the old days fondly - but it is equally true that unless I can find ways to make the old truths real for this moment in time... they are just "dust in the wind."

Music gives me a way to experiment with the truth of God so that I can sing a new song...

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...