Friday, July 31, 2009

Getting my vacation groove on...

Tonight we head to Tanglewood - the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra - for an evening of Beethoven, Debussy and Ravel. I adore the French Impressionist music of the later two composers - and what's not to treasure about Beethoven, oui? So even though the weather has been like a rain forest (we're inside and covered), we're off to hear:

+ Beethoven's Violin Concerto - with the Russian violin master, Vadim Repin

+ Debussy's La Mer Symphony (or symphonic impressionist sketch)

+ And Ravel's Suite No. 2: Daphnis et Chloe - his most impressive composition

Ok... now we're back 4 hours later
- and it was a GREAT show! As expected, the two French impressionist compositions were the highlights. Can you imagine a symphony orchestra with 15 double bass players? And woodwind section - including a bass flute and piccolo - that were breath taking? It was a treasure and well worth the effort - and the chilly, damp weather - to hear these symphonies played to perfection. Next stop... Monday in Montreal!

Moments of joy...

Another Friday - and yet another torrential rain storm is upon us (over 10" of rain this month when the average high is 4") - and I am reading more poems. This one by Denise Levertov touched me: "Moments of Joy."

A scholar takes a room on the next street,
the better to concentrate on his unending work, his word,
his world. His grown children
feel bereft. He comes and goes while they sleep.
But at times it happens ason or daughter
wakes in the dark and finds him sitting
at the foot of the bed
in the old rocker: sleepless
i his old coat, gazing
into invisible distance, but clearly there to protect
as he had always done.
The child springs up and flings
arms about him, presses
a cheek to his temple, taking him by surprise,
and exclaims, 'Abba!' - the old, intimate name
from the days of infancy.
And the old scholar, the father,
is deeply glad to be found.
That's how it is, Lord, sometimes:
You seek, and I find.
This Great Unknowing: Last Poems, New Directions Books: New York, 1999

Earlier this week I spent some time with another older scholar - my spiritual friend - who said he would review my dissertation and help me discover a publishing strategy. It was an insightful and humbling time. "Great stuff - challenging and insightful," he said. "Get an editor, however, if you want to make a go of it as a book." Good words - "oh, yes, and mine it for a few articles, too. That way you can find out how to write for more than your doctoral committee." (I love this guy!) That's how it is, Lord, sometimes: you seek and I find!

To be sure, like most writers, I WANTED to be told, "Tweak this and lose that and... you got a winner" but life is rarely like our lazy desires, yes? Sometimes you got strip down and run into those places you don't want to go... rather like this clip from "Northern Exposure."



This seems to be the lesson I am called to embrace as I age: strip down to the essentials, man, and live into the most basic truths with abandon and trust. So, after a time of wandering and exploring in Montreal next week, I'm going to do that: mine the damn thing for a few scholarly articles (I'm already thinking about one re: Harvey Cox and Feast of Fools at 40) and get an editor!

And so... another poem - this time by Jane Hirshfield: "Against Certainty"

There is something out in the dark that wants to correct us Each time I think "this," it answers "that."
Answers hard, in the heart-grammar's strictness.

If I say "that," it too is taken away.

Between certainty and the real, an ancient enmity.
When the cat waits in the path-hedge,
no cell of her body is not waiting.
This is how she is able so completely to disappear.

I would like to enter the silence portion as she does

To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live,
one shadow fully at ease inside another
After: Poems, HarperCollins: New York, 2006

(Van Gogh's Chair @ www.art.com/products/p10041441-sa-i783636/vin...)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Rock camp...

Today, after visiting with church members in their homes and talking with couples about getting married and making plans to audition and hire a new music director, I spent the afternoon at the local community college at "rock camp." About 90 young people between the ages of 10-18 have been at work for the last 2 weeks learning to put together a band. Some of the Berkshires BEST jazz and rock musicians are helping them, too! (http://www.rockoncamp.org/about.html)

I had two reactions. First, what a great opportunity for young musicians. Many of these kids have GREAT chops - some good intuition, too - but many don't have much experience playing with others. Mostly they've learned in SOLITUDE! One of the downsides of the internet-computer world, yes? Second, how weird is it to have to show teenagers how to create a GARAGE BAND. Don't get me wrong, I think garage bands are GOD'S music - they have saved millions of kids and given them focus and purpose - but who would have thought that kids would have to be TAUGHT how to form a garage band.

(Take a moment to stop by Springsteen's buddy/guitarist, Little Steven, on his garage band website: http://www.littlestevensundergroundgarage.com/rgroundgarage.com/) Or check out his written reflections on what being in a garage band meant to him at: http://www.littlesteven.com/essays.html)

This camp combats the isolation that reigns supreme it would seem to me! It is one of the redemptive aspects of rock and roll which too many people just don't get.

Two other thoughts: there were LOTS of girls with guitars - which is waaaay cool - and a big change from my garage band days.


And a lot of these kids are really hot players. I heard a young girl sing Linkin' Park this afternoon - with a synth, bass, guitar and drummer - and she was freakin' incredible. I heard two dueling guitars bring "The Boys Are Back in Town" alive, too.


So, before heading off to Tanglewood tomorrow night to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra do Ravel and other sweet French classical songs, I'm going to stop by Berkshire Community College and listen to some of these young bands come alive. What a treat... and a blessing~

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Claiming suspended space and manna...

NOTE: I'm getting ready to head out on vacation in a few days. I will be in worship this coming Sunday, August 2nd and then heading out to Montreal for a week - other parts of the area for a week, too. So, I will likely be away from the computer for some of this away time - certainly for Sundays - although I will probably add some observations about music and art along the way. My prayers for a renewing and relaxing time are with you all. This week's reflection builds on an observation from Peter Rollins.


Today I want to speak with you about our table manners: specifically the table manners we learn and use when coming to the Lord’s Supper. At its best, the body of Christ asks us to practice a form of radical hospitality in suspended space when we come to the communion table that is not only healing and counter- cultural inside these walls, but also boldly revolutionary and life-changing when made flesh out in the world.

+ How did John’s gospel put it? “I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus said. “Those who ally themselves with me will hunger and thirst no more… so come and feast on the bread that will not die.”

+ Come – and feast. It is a way of living that we’ve gotten wrong as often as we’ve done it right: excluding those who hunger for God’s grace, forcing wounded souls to jump through hoops that are mean-spirited and cruel, trusting our small minds and cultural habits more than God’s grace.

Oh my Lord, we can make a mess of it… Think of Moses and his faith community wandering in the wilderness on the way toward the Promised Land. After only two months of freedom, what’s happening?

+ Everyone is complaining – exaggerating the hard times – and waxing nostalgic about the good old days of… slavery!

+ "Why didn't GOD let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You've brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel!"

Now historians have documented that the slaves who built the pyramids of Egypt were – how shall I put it – not over fed Habitat for Humanity volunteers with all the lamb stew and bread they could eat. They were human animals in bondage – men kept in chains – and driven by the whip.

And still the story tells us that after only two months, they complained about the good old days… This is one of the places where the Bible is descriptive rather than prescriptive about human nature. It tells us how we tend to be with one another when we’re stressed or afraid – and it is not a pretty picture. But pay careful attention, too, to what happens next because it can be instructive to learning the table manners of grace:

+ First, Moses listens patiently to everyone – no one’s concerns are overlooked – yet no one’s words are given greater weight or importance either. This is about community, you see, not hierarchy and privilege so Moses receives everyone as an equal.

+ Second, he takes it all to the Lord in prayer – the joys and the concerns, the advice of the powerful and the insights of the poor – understanding that most of the time God brings us blessings that we do not yet know how to receive. No one has a monopoly on wisdom so Moses asks for eyes to see and lives to respond.

+ And third he tells his faith community that while God will listen to all their complaints – big and small, real and imagined –blessings are gifts of grace not the fruit of whining. That is, it is ok to be afraid – and to act out of our worst selves – but never, ever think that this forces God’s hand: blessings are a gift – bread from heaven – and never a pay off.

And in time, what happens? The heavens rain down manna – the mysterious bread of the Lord – as food for the journey and sustenance for body and soul. At first nobody knew what it was – literally manna is a “Hebrew pun on mah hu which means, “whaddayacallit” – but Moses helped them find eyes to see and they gathered up the blessings to be well fed. (Gail Ramshaw, Christian Century, July 28, 2009, p. 20)

I sense that it is important for us to hear this story of Moses and the manna regularly in preparation for our coming to the Lord’s Table. We, too, have hurts and fears and complaints, yes? Sometimes we’re angry or confused by God – other times we’re upset with one another – and all too often we don’t have eyes to see the manna that is already raining down within and among us all. What’s more, even when we know better, because of human nature and the culture we have grown up in, we really do believe that life really is all about me. We can’t help it – that’s how we are – remember how Paul put it in Romans 7?

I obviously need help! I realize that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it's predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I've tried everything and nothing helps

One of my favorite new theologians, a bright young man from Ireland by the name of Peter Rollins, recently observed that because we are so much like the Israelites complaining and wandering around in the wilderness, God gave us the church. Imperfect as it is – and as self-centered as can be – it still gives us what he calls an hour of “suspended space” every week to practice a new way of living.


+ For an hour a week, we get to try on the upside down values of Jesus with one another; for an hour we get to practice what it would be like if Jesus were our manna.

+ For an hour we get to try out living like there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, Republicans or Democrats, rich or poor, gay or straight. Because for an hour we have entered suspended space – a place set aside for learning the unforced rhythm of grace – an pretending that there are no distinctions.

Rollins goes on to say, “Now let’s be clear: we can’t really do this – I can’t forget that I’m really a guy – and that I’m not really poor – and that we’re not really in this church at this moment in time.”

But at the same time we let ourselves enter into a moment that is greater than historical time – a space that is deeper than our differences – where we lay aside our theologies and political ideologies and all the rest… and for just one hour we try to encounter another beyond the color of their eyes… Now, we know that we can’t do that for very long… but maybe after spending that one hour in suspended space – in the church – maybe when we go back to being political and argumentative… maybe we can recall that there is something deeper here that joins us all together… and we can turn the volume and the fear and the hatred down a bit.

Suspended space – letting go of our divisions – laying aside our differences – entering a deeper and more authentic level – is how we come to the Lord’s Table. Like Moses, Jesus welcomes us all and we all belong. Like manna in the desert, Jesus promises to nourish our deepest hungers – to become the bread of heaven for us – if we have eyes to see. And like Israel wandering in the desert, everyone will be nourished only if we all share.

+ The moment we start to horde the blessings – the instant we start to shut someone else out or elevate ourselves – the feast and the bread turns to worms in our hands.

+ I love these ancient words of invitation to holy communion – they get it so right – when they tell us: come, those who love Christ and those who want to love him more; come, you who have much faith and you who have little; you who have been here often and you who are here for the first time; come you who have tried to follow and you who have failed; come, not because it is I who invite you but because it is our Lord. Come because it is God’s will that we meet Jesus here and be filled and never hunger again.

Come, beloved, embrace this suspended space – let Christ be for you the bread of heaven – manna – sustenance for the journey of faith: for then we shall be bread for a wounded and hungry world.
(credits: wine and bread @ http://thejosevilson.com/blog/2009/06/29; norman rockwell, "do unto others," @ http://www.ncftitusville.org/Sermons; bread and wine @ http://www.congregationalresources.org/ProcessNotProgram/Components.Community.asp)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Imagine...

It appears that a summer camp for "atheists" is being opened in England this summer by Richard Dawkins. As the Christian Century reports it, children between 7 and 17 will encounter "lessons on rational skepticism and moral philosophy as well as traditional outdoor and musical community activities." (CC, July 28, 2009, p. 9) Not surprisingly, the camp sing-a-long will include John Lennon's "Imagine" - one of the blessed gifts the cranky and dare I suggest misanthropic Beatle shared with creation in the aftermath of Beatlemania - which is always a good thing.

A far better song, however, is George Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity?" What's more, I would suggest that Harrison's laments, songs of hope and acts of compassion have brought more healing and beauty to the world than all of Lennon's angry words and sarcastic attempts at art and social change.

For years I loved the "in your face" style of Lennon: he was sexually aggressive, quick witted and always over the top. But when I think about who I would want to spend time with right now, I am certain that Harrison was right: beware of darkness. Sadly, John was trapped in his darkness and all the heroin, sex, alcohol, money, fame and attention couldn't fill the hole that tortured him for most of his life. Philip Norman's new biography of my teenage hero makes this all too clear.

So, good luck to Dawkins and his team as they sing, "Imagine" - it is a great song and I wish them well. But I think they'd be better off singing Lennon's best contribution: "Help."

Monday, July 27, 2009

You can run, baby, but you can't hide...

So here's a little bit from yesterday's worship that came out pretty good: I'm talking about why popular culture - particularly music - gives us an earthy context for understanding the lofty ideas of grace and hope. At the heart, you see, is a love that will not let us go...

special thanks to Steve Forfa for the taping... and my mates in Between the Banks for their sweet soul music.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A day for gratitude...

Let me share a confession: I have a totally SWEET little band - and I am FILLED with gratitude. They are hard working, talented and SOOOO much freakin' fun that it almost NEVER seems like work when we are putting together worship or a gig. Today, as noted earlier, we did a worship pointing to God's still speaking voice in popular culture. And all I can say is: GOD DAMN these cats know how to GET DOWN! (Can I say that I LOVE these guys!)

What's more, a dear friend recorded the event so that we can begin to share it beyond the walls of our small congregation. There are a few bugs to work out... but we are starting to do some really wonderful and cutting edge worship here that opens the doors of the church to many who have felt shut out. Here's a practice tape that captures just a bit of my buds getting down!

After worship - and lots of very supportive conversations and then a kinda crazy vegetarian lunch from our garden and frig - everyone left: Jesse and Dianne (daughter and wife) headed back to New York State to get the remnants from Di's momma's stuff; Mike (son-in-law- headed back to NYC for work) and I crashed. So at the end of a really sweet day I am filled with gratitude - and overwhelmed that the RAIN finally ended, too!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Goin' up the country...

Today we're "goin' up the country, momma do you wanna go?" as the Allman Brothers put it all so long ago...


With daughter and son-in-law from Brooklyn, we're headed to Chatham for tag sales, exploring small towns along the way and their respective art shows - maybe even dine in the Welsh pub! There is finally a break in the rain so... we've got to get our groove on!

Now, truth be told, I don't really like tag sales all that much - I get bored too easily, I guess - but I love my daughter - and her husband and my dear Dianne - so I'm gonna get my ass in gear and be a part of the solution instead of the problem... or the slug... or whatever. Jane Hirschield put it like this in a poem I am loving:

What is usual is not what is always.
As sometimes, in old age, hearing comes back.

Footsteps resume their clipped edges,
birds quiet for decadesmigrate back to the ear.

Where were they? By what route did they return?

A woman mute for years
foprms one perfect sentence before she dies.

The bitter young man tires;
the aged one sitting now in his body is tender, his face carries no regret for his choices.

What is usual is not what is always, the day says again.
It is all it can offer.

Not ungraspable hope, not the consolation of stories.
Only the reminder that there is exception.

I love that: so I'm goin' up the country, momma do you want to come?" (Here's another take on that old song - not as hot - but just as much fun.)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sabbath ramblings...

About a year ago, I stumbled upon a quote by Barbara Brown Taylor and immediately snatched it up. I was certain it would be used immediately. Reality, however, has been different and these sweet words have waited patiently within my computer for a proper airing. The right time. Or something.

That seems to happen a lot with me - I hear a great joke but file it away for a few months, I find wonderful recipes but wait for the "right time" to share them - same, too, with poems that get collected or cut out only to be filed away and sometimes forgotten. Last night I stumbled over Taylor's sweet words again and they still ring true - especially on my Sabbath.

We are lovers of a God who specializes in turning the world’s values upside down. We are followers of a Lord who waited tables and washed feet. We are heirs of a Spirit who has power to revive the whole creation, beginning with us, but only if we will allow it - by giving up all illusions that we know how to save ourselves and begging God, one more time, to show us how it is done.

One reason we run from God’s wisdom, I think, is because we do not know how to behave once we have surrendered our power. Do we just go limp now? Probably not. We should probably go on trying to be the best we know how to be, using the best tools at hand. We just should not fool ourselves into thinking that we know what is really going on. It is entirely possible that some of our proudest achievements are embarrassing to God, and some of our most dismal failures please God very much.

There is simply no way of telling, since our wisdom is so different from God’s wisdom. The only thing we can be sure of is that everything we offer up is eligible for the transforming power of God, who loves nothing better than bringing the dead back to life.

Bringing the dead back to life... this has so many possibilities, yes?

+ The NY Times ran a story this morning about a group exhibition currently at the Chelsea Art Museum: Iran Inside Out. Like the current novel, Censoring An Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour, these artists are striving to up-end cultural stereotypes along with the expectations of fear so that the humanity of the Iranian people - particularly women - are restored to life.

+ The late, Denise Levertov, in her final collection of poems, This Great Unknowing: Last Poems, speaks to this same upside down and life restoring gift like this in "Once Only."

All which, because it was
flame and song and granted us
joy, we thought we'd do, be, revisit,
turns out to have been what it was
that once, only; every initiation
did not begin
a series, a build-up: the marvelous
did happen in our lives, our stories
are not drab with its absence: but don't
expect now to return for more. Whatever more
there will be will be
unique as those were unique. Try
to acknowledge the next
song in its body-halo of flames as utterly
present, as now or never.

As this Sabbath starts to take root, I am drawn to the words of Douglas Coupland - writer and techno-geek who coined the expression GEN X - from his little book, Life after God:

Now - here is my secret:
I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you heart these words. My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.
Me, too... "For the only thing we can be sure of is that everything we offer up is eligible for the transforming power of God, who loves nothing better than bringing the dead back to life." (Barbara Brown Taylor)
(credits: "are we ignoring jesus" @ revgreg19.wordpress.com/.../) photo from aaran gallery, tehran in ny times, july 24, 2009;

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Art, beauty and the pursuit of God's presence...

One of the on-going themes of my ministry - as a young person and as a maturing (most of the time) adult - is the connection between art, beauty and our encounter with God's presence. Last year, I began a series of reflections on this theme. They are now collected at:
http://docs.google.com/View?id=dfcp748t_3cdhvjf2j

Two thoughts come to mind in bringing these essays to your attention:

1. This is not every one's cuppa... but I still wanted to consolidate them in case you want to go deeper with some of the ideas I've been exploring.

2. This continues to be a work in progress... just like Stevie's song keeps taking on new ideas.


My hope is that these ideas evoke more conversation and insights... I look forward to your insights.
(CREDIT: "Creativity for Faith," by dreaminbox @ http://dreaminbox.deviantart.com/art/Creativity-for-Faith-76158674)

Thanks for the blessings, Peter...

I read today that Gordon Waller of the English duo, Peter and Gordon, died this weekend. I loved those guys - really loved their music - and owned all their records (45s and albums) when I was in Jr. and Sr. High. That Peter went on to produce some of my other soft rock favorites like James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt was a bonus because for a few magical years, Peter and Gordon gave me lots of fun.

Sure, they were along for the ride the Beatles started - who wasn't? I started playing guitar because of the Beatles. And even though most of their hits were Beatles' related (read Paul McCartney) it was still fun. My favorite, however, was their cover of a Del Shannon song: "I Go to Pieces."


What teenage boy DIDN'T feel like this growing up? Their music gave expression to my sensitive side: I was never going to be one of the Rolling Stones - or even the Animals for that matter. And I wasn't interested in the bubble gum foolishness of Herman's Hermits and the real rip off kids from England... but Peter and Gordon? Two skinny guys - one with glasses - playing guitars and singing about love and heart break? They were my boys... (take a look at what kind of music Peter was producing just 10 years later... in-freakin-credible!)


Yeah, I soon moved on to the Yardbirds and Kinks - the Who and the Jeff Beck Group, too - given all the dope, weird and wildness, who wouldn't? But my heart was always back in the sweet harmonies of those who cherished the Beatles. And curiously, with significant other influences and ideas, I STILL love those sweet harmonies. Here's my current band doing our take on Coldplay's most recent tune: "Viva la Vida."


I give thanks for the sensitive men - and women - who have given me joy and sweet, sweet harmonies: Rest in peace, old friend, rest in peace.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Everything belongs: secular music in our sacred places...

NOTE: Here are my notes for this coming Sunday's message. As a part of our summer series, Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace, I'm building on last week's insight re: "everything belongs." This week, using texts from Genesis and John 1 as well as five "secular" songs, I want to show how God's still speaking voice is present to us all in even a vastly secular culture. Further, I want to suggest how weaving our ordinary music into our sacred culture brings added depth and context to an incarnational spirituality. Join us at 10:30 am if you can...

Introduction
The 16th century French theologian, Jean Cauvin – better known to us as in the United States as John Calvin – once observed that knowledge of self leads to knowledge of God while knowledge of God always points towards knowledge of self. In his life’s work, The Institutes of Christian Religion, this brilliant and broken thinker observed that: “No one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he ‘lives and moves’ (Acts 17:28)” and has his being.

Positively, when we acknowledge our blessings – our gifts and abilities as well as the essence of life itself – we sense that we have been formed by a creator. “By these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us,” Calvin wrote, “we are led by rivulets to the spring itself.”

And negatively, when we consider our failing and wounds – our emptiness or sin – we yearn for God, too. “Just as hunger drives us to look for food, so also our unhappiness drives us to seek the source of true happiness… for we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God.”

Whether we win or whether we lose – whether we suffer or celebrate, begin with so-called secular considerations or those of the sacred realm, reflect on ourselves first or look to God in everything – all of creation points us in the direction of grace. St. Paul was clear: “we know that our suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character leads to hope and our hope does not disappoint because it has been poured into our hearts by the very Holy Spirit of the Lord.” (Romans 5: 3-5)

So, during this month that marks the 500th anniversary of Brother Calvin’s birth, I thought it prudent to begin our consideration of how secular popular music can enrich both our worship and our prayer lives with this insight from the master. Our tradition, you see, is holistic – comprehensive – attuned to the truth that God’s still speaking voice is present in the totality of creation. That is why we can confess that contemplation of self inevitably leads us to seek God. You see, from the very beginning… the word was becoming flesh within and among us.

Words from Scripture
GENESIS ONE: First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don't see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God's Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss. So God spoke a word: "Light!" and light appeared. God saw that light was good and separated light from dark. So God named the light Day and named the dark Night. It was evening, it was morning— Day One.

Then God spoke another word: "Sky! In the middle of the waters; separate water from water!" And God made sky… And there it was: It was evening and it was morning— Day Two. Once again God spoke a word: "Separate! Water-beneath-Heaven, gather into one place; Land, appear!" And there it was. God named the land Earth and named the pooled water Ocean. God saw that it was good… and there was evening and there was morning – day three.

In time God spoke again: "Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature so they can be responsible for the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, and, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of Earth." So God created human beings; created them godlike, reflecting God's nature. God created them male and female by speaking a word… and then God blessed them: "Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of Earth."

And when God looked over everything that had been created by the Word it was so good, so very good! It was evening, it was morning— Day Six… and on the seventh day when God looked at all creation and called it good… God rested.

JOHN ONE:
First this: the Word. The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through the Word; nothing—not one thing!— came into being without him. And what came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by. The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness; and the darkness couldn't put it out…

Now the Life-Light was the real thing: Every person entering Life is brought into Light. In the beginning the Word was in the world, in fact the world was there through him, and yet the world didn't even notice. He came to his own people, but they didn't want him. But whoever is open to the Word, those who believe and follow, he made them to be their true selves, their child-of-God selves. These are the God-begotten, not blood-begotten, not flesh-begotten, and not sex-begotten. And the Word became flesh and blood and moved into our own neighborhood.

Reflections
One of the challenges that people of faith in the 21st century wrestle with is how to construct an integrated spirituality. This was actually Calvin’s challenge, too, but he lived in a far more “God conscious” era than we do – a time when people began with God at the center of creation – rather than as an afterthought. That’s why I have come to articulate the quest for a contemporary spirituality like this:

• We are yearning for a way of integrating our public with our private lives – our sacred and our secular ethics – our sense that everything belongs with our experience of segregation and alienation.

• How do we strengthen compassion and justice – community and hope – when all around us we are confronted by us and them rhetoric and that incessant chorus about winners and losers?

Our Reformed tradition suggests that one antidote to the insanity and busyness of the world is worship – and I think that is true. Worship can be a place of both silence and stimulation - solitude and community - a center where I can raise my voice in song and prayer to the One who is Holy while wrestling with and reflecting upon my immediate human experiences.

You see, I need help discerning where the word has become flesh: I need a context – an earthy reality check. And all too often, I don’t find that in the music and prayers of my tradition. I find lofty hymns and words that point to God’s transcendent power and presence. And I find a great deal of elevated poetry. But not a lot about the messy and earthy reality of God’s word made flesh where I spend most of my time. Here’s a song – and a prayer – that offers an alternative.


(from a recent practice....oooh that penultimate note in the break really hurts!)

Here – alongside the beauty and majesty of tradition – is something of my real experience: a slob like one of us. This unity of the holy and the human – the joyful and the wounded to extend Calvin’s insight – gives me hope because I need both, yes? Both God’s healing power and God’s suffering presence within my pain.

• That’s the first insight I want to affirm with you today: some of the music of popular culture points to where God is taking up residence within and among us. In fact, it often is much richer and more real in this regard than most of our hymns.

• Listen to how country singer, Mindy Smith, expresses the ideas found in “Amazing Grace” in a modern context…

(Play “Hard to Know” by Mindy Smith…)

This is a prayer – a lament – and a confession that sounds like St. Paul to me. First she is saying that no matter how hard I tried all by myself, it led to only pain and emptiness. And second, God never abandoned me even when I was in the pit.

• Are you with me? In a raw and thoroughly secular way, she is preaching the wisdom of the Cross.

• How did Paul put it in Romans? “We are certain that neither death nor life, angels nor principalities, things present nor things to come nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

That’s a message the culture is aching to hear – that’s a message I am aching to hear – and she found a way to get it out there through the power of country radio. My man, Mark Everett, the heart and soul of an alternative rock band called “The Eels,” pushes this edge a little farther in his song: “Hey Man, Now You’re Really Living.” In fact, I think he gets it better than most sermons when he talks about how God’s love is flesh in the totality of our human experience…

St. Paul took up the quest of Christ in the first century and invited all different kinds of people into the spirituality of the incarnation: Jews and Gentiles, women and men, rich and poor, strangers and friends, those who loved the Lord and those who hated everything religious. And one of the ways he did this was through borrowing the poetry and music of the popular culture of his time.

• Chapter 17 of Acts tells of the time Paul travelled to Athens and shared the gospel with a sophisticated Greek audience. All around him were statues to Greek deities, poems and songs from Greek culture and images and ideas from a rich and noble tradition very different from his own. There were wounded people alongside incredible beauty. There was pain and there was wisdom.

• So Paul began his conversations with the poetry and beauty of the popular culture of his day. Whatever is true and beautiful and noble, he taught, is of the Lord whether that starts in Greece or dare I say rock’n’roll.

Over the years, I have found that by blending secular music into worship – making spiritual connections with the ordinary life experiences of those who don’t usually consider themselves spiritual – we begin to discover a common language. What’s more, when the music of our work place is played in our worship centers and sanctuaries, everything is lifted up. This isn’t dumbing down as some suggest; rather, it is searching for the sacred in even the lowly manger – or on a Cross – on in human flesh.

• The British band, Coldplay, is a master when it comes to blending sacred and secular images in their music. And right at the time of our economic collapse and crisis, they put out this song about the healing and hope that comes with lowered expectations.

• In language very similar to that found in Ecclesiastes, they sing about once ruling the world and the misery it caused – but now that they have changed course – and experienced forgiveness – they can ask, “Who would ever WANT to be king…?” What's more, like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, they warn about the consequences of building a life on shifting sand.

(Play “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay…)

Conclusion
This morning we have shared with you a few songs from the vast repertoire of popular culture in the 21st century that deserve a place in worship. I think that these tunes are simultaneously prayers as well as part of God’s still speaking voice to our culture.

Not all pop culture does this – and I am not speaking about baptizing the vulgar and violent – let alone the stupid and obscene. Rather, I am trying to make three points:

• First, God is speaking to us – even when we’re not in church – through some of the best songs on our radios.

• Second, some of the music of popular culture can deepen our prayers and help us live into the challenge of incarnating Christ in our generation.
In fact, some of this music is more honest and authentic when it comes to the word made flesh than we are comfortable with…

• And third, the language of popular culture can help us build bridges – and overcome alienation and segregation – with those who yearn for hope and a loving faith community.

So, we’re going to close this portion of worship with a contemporary song that is really more gospel anthem than rock and roll. It speaks not only of the pain and confusion we knew after September 11th, but of the chance to rebuild in the spirit of humility and hope.

• In a word, it speaks of creating a safe place where we can expose our doubts and fears, an honest place of radical hospitality and humility and an open place that transcends fundamentalism of any hue.

• That is a holy/human place that is big enough to receive my tears and laughter as well as my gifts and wounds with equanimity.
Music communicates on a host of levels - it can say to people your experience is real and has a place among us, or, it can tell folks to stay away - it can remind the gathered that all of our human realities are embraced by God's grace - or it can say we are a club for those who look and act right. My belief, my deepest conviction, is that Christ's incarnation despises anything that would diminish or degrade our humanity. Lord, may it be true among us...


SPECIAL THANKS TO STEVE FORFA FOR RECORDING OUR PRACTICE AT FIRST CHURCH: you rule!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dancing in the streets...

Ok, this will totally date me (oh well) but one of the first so-called "secular" songs I did in church was a postlude with jazz pianist and drummer - me on bass - to Martha Reeves and the Vandallas, "Dancing in the Street." It just felt right to close our summer youth worship with an improv on this anthem of unity, spirit and shaking your ass to great tunes so... we did it! And the folk gathered in our old Congregational church - young and old and everyone in between - first looked shocked and then... laughed in joy!


No wonder I kept thinking of this tonight as our little band - Between the Banks - worked on the music for this Sunday's conversation with music. To be sure, we'll be completely 21st century on July 26th at 10:30 am in Pittsfield, but the heart of what we are doing is much like this old Motown anthem - combined with our Good Friday gig. (Here's a rough taste of where we are going with gratitude to Steve who set up his camera during Good Friday worship.)


Steve recorded some more of our takes on tunes like Mindy Smith's, "Hard to Know" as well as Springsteen's, "City of Ruins" and Coldplay's, "Viva La Vida" during band practice. I will be posting my theological reflections on these tunes tomorrow - maybe even some of Steve's video, too - because we want to share what we sense as a growing edge in "incarnational spirituality." Through music our band - and I suspect many, many others, too - not only prays but finds ways of integrating our hearts with our bodies and minds. Music is not only our expression of beauty and hope but our exploration of what is percolating deep within.


So... maybe you can join us this week. And if not, would you send me some of your ideas about how God speaks to you through the music you listen to? I would be grateful...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Guilty pleasures and little blessings...

Today I read that Paul McCartney played the NEW Citi Stadium on Friday night. What a sweet time: not only did he play the OLD She Stadium with the Beatles back in 1965 when they created stadium rock shows, but he closed down the old Shea by joining Billy Joel. (Dig this with Ed Sullivan himself welcoming the Fab Four...)


These guys are the reason I started playing guitar after seeing them on Ed Sullivan in February 1964 - as well as seeing Dave Von Ronk and Michael Cooney (two classic folkies) play "Cocaine Blues at a small club in New Haven - and I thought of the Beatles today during worship when my little guitar protege, Ethan, joined me for his debut. He just finished the 2nd grade and has been playing guitar little bit since Christmas. Today, along with 19 adult voices, my little buddy played a G chord along with me as we shared our version of "I'll Fly Away" with the congregation. It was too, too sweet...

And sweet moments with music is what keeps us who play going, yes? I think of sweet guitar moments as a part of the larger "guilty pleasures" genre of little blessings that make life just a little easier to embrace. I will probably be sharing a decade by decade collection of my "guilty pleasures" with you over the next few weeks before we head out on vacation because it is just so much fun! What's more, my guilty pleasures will evoke yours... and the blessings will just keep rolling on and on. So, because I happened to get hooked on a VH1 80s show last night: here are 10 guilty pleasures from the 80s in no real order. (It would be a blast if you share your with me in return...)

1. Love Shack: The B52s know how to dance, laugh, boogie to the cows come home and make fun of themselves all at once - and this song is freakin' infectious. Every time I hear it I have to shake my bootie and I can't help but smile... which is a sweet guilty pleasure AND a little blessing, too.


2. Walk Like an Egyptian: the Bangles. My youngest daughter LOVED this band of sexy, fun young women - and we would dance throughout our Cleveland house whenever this song came on the radio (or our stereo.) Many years later, my Tucson band made it our own all over again with a multi-generational cover version.

3. Legs: ZZ Top. Who remembers seeing the fur brothers on a "St. Elsewhere" episode with a bunch of interns and sexy nurses in mini-skirts singing this song throughout the hospital? Certainly not a source of redemption in the traditional sense but... come on! This was fun and hot all at once.

4. Nasty Boys: Janet Jackson. There isn't a hotter 80s song that this one from the fabulous sister of Michael Jackson - the sister with talent. Janet smokes her way through this tune with such a sassy style, strong attitude and bold sensuality that if you don't give thanks to God for being alive when you hear it... then you are already in the grave. Check out the moves on this girl!


5. I Need You Tonight: INXS. Another totally smokin' song of sensuality... hmmmm I am discerning a theme? Any how, my kids turned me onto this one, too, and it still rocks.

6. Here I Go: Whitesnake. Who can EVER forget the video for this song? It stopped the heart of weaker men.. .and found a perfect parody a number of years later when Bowling for Soup put out "1985."

7. Money: The Flying Lizards. This is perhaps the BEST remake of this song ever. It is funny, rude, sexy and social critique all at the same time with their Dada-esque refashioning of the Motown gem.


8. I Melt with You: Modern English. I can't help myself for loving this song... it is just addictive and I hate it and love it at the same time.

9. You Shook Me All Night Long: AC/DC. I often pair this song with Bob Franke's "Thanksgiving Eve" as the inner battle I used to fight between the rock and roll freak and the spiritual good boy before therapy! I actually got to play this song with a Tucson bar band a few times and crowds ALWAYS love it.

10. Pour Some Sugar on Me: Def Leppard. What's not to like about a one armed drummer with a backbeat almost as strong as Ringo's? Or a stripper song that drives both women and men crazy on the dance floor? It is just a PERFECT guilty pleasure.


As this sweet Sunday comes to a close with LOTS of sweet tunes running through my head, I give thanks to God for all the little blessings that have come my way through these guilty pleasures. What about you?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The extraordinary within the ordinary...

One of the complications of living into a spirituality where "everything belongs" - a way of being that consciously refuses to divide creation into holy and human/us and them/sacred and secular divisions - involves integrating and balancing our public and private lives. To be sure, they are connected - I suspect that anything less would be almost schizophrenic - and yet they possess rhythms, boundaries and needs that are highly distinct.

In worship, for example, I need both silence and stimulation - solitude and community - a chance to raise my voice in song and prayer to the One who is Holy and the opportunity to wrestle with and reflect upon my immediate experiences. Further, I yearn for a taste of that which is beyond my comprehension as well as the assurance of God's grace in the flesh. I desire a safe place to expose my doubts and fears, an honest place of radical hospitality and humility and an open place that transcends fundamentalism of any hue. In a word, a holy/human place that will receive my tears and laughter as well as my gifts and wounds with equanimity.

This implies, of course, that worship not be seen as a privatized commodity where spiritual consumers seek only a soul cleansing. That this seems to be the dominant definition of church in the early 21st century makes this quest all the more difficult as this ancient Sufi story illustrates: One went to the door of the Beloved and knocked. A voice answered: "Who is there?" She replied, "It is I." And the voice said, "There is no room here for me and thee." So the door remained shut. After a year of solitude and reflection, however, this same woman returned to the door of the Beloved and knocked. A voice from within asked: "Who is there?" And the woman answered, "It is You." And the door was immediately unlocked and opened...
Ed Hays, Secular Sanctity, Paulist Press: New York, 1980

In other words, I have my work to do before worship can touch me where I most need to experience God's grace. Back in Cleveland, I became a part of a small, inter-racial Eucharistic community following the spiritual insights of Charles de Foucoult. Every Thursday night about 40 people gathered for Holy Communion in the parlor of the Oasis House - a home converted into a retreat center directly opposite the King/Kennedy housing projects.

I loved the priest who was the spiritual mentor - he became my spiritual director - and I cherished the work of the community as they restored safety and beauty to the blighted ghetto one street at a time. Working with Habitat for Humanity, local gardening groups and city developers there were urban gardens all over the neighborhood in addition to well cared for homes and playgrounds. And I cherished making retreats in the Oasis Room where I could take 36 hours for prayer and rest once every month. It was manna in the desert...
... what used to drive me crazy was the music for the liturgy: I LOVE good music and there was no plan or focus to what was sung at Thursday night Eucharist. In fact, it sounded a lot like what I imagined Marat/Sade to be like - and it used to piss me off! (Such a musical snob!)

One day, however, one of my new friends at the community said to me after I moaned and groaned about the music: "You know, this isn't really about you and your aesthetics. Why don't you just go and receive what is there instead of complaining about what is missing?" His words have made all the difference in the world; now, in addition to whatever commitments, insights and wrestlings I bring to worship, I am learning that there are already blessings to be embraced if I can be still enough to receive and experience them. What's more, in that setting I was empowered to offer my musical gifts to the community - not as an expert - but just as another guy in the band - and we had a ball.

Authentic worship helped me integrate my public and personal life in a way that honored both without diminishing either. I sense that this is one of the blessings of this era that we can make more explicit. In The Art of Celebration: 20th Century Painting, Literature, Sculpture, Photography and Jazz, Alfred Appel, Jr. observes that there has been a clear movement towards integration and wholeness in our generation. What was once "primitive" and rural has now been embraced by the sophisticated city, what was once abstract is now used to help us discern our deepest truths, what was once the realm of the purely holy has now become the fount of human creativity to say nothing of the blurred lines between popular and high culture. In a brilliant interpretive insight, Appel writes:

The polarities of modernism - and one might say of human temperament - are defined by the spectacle of Gregor Samsa in his bed at the outset of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, transformed into a dung beetle, and by the voice of voluptuous Molly Bloom in her bed in the last chapter of James Joyce's Ulysses, where, during her unpunctuated, forty-five page interior monologue, she says YES eighty-seven times, in a subtle orchestration of the word that rises to a famous crescendo.

I rather like the way Dave Matthews puts it in his reworking of "In My Life." Everything belongs...


CREDITS: Incarnation @ www.missionalchurchnetwork.com/.../; Yin and Yang @ www.slowleadership.org/.../ ; Interfaith @ www.bahai.us/interfaith; Jazz @ www.songsofdavid.com/CJANewMembersAnnouncemen...)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Fridays are for poems...

There is an old Christian hymn, "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind," (sic) that continues to be one of my favorites - mostly as an invitation to prayer. The text was penned by John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker from my new home state of Massachusetts, as a part of a much longer poem, "The Brewing of Soma" in 1872. In the original poem, Whittier - an abolitionist and prolific New England writer - compares the "frenzied ecstasies of a sect of Hindu priests to the noisy Christian tent revivals he found so offensive" - and offers a more mystical and contemplative alternative.
(New Century Hymnal, United Church of Christ: Cleveland, Ohio)

For years I have been using two verses at the start of my Sabbath prayers:

Dear God, embracing humankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

There is often not much in contemporary living that even hints of "our ordered lives," is there? We get into a groove sometimes, maybe even have a schedule, but an ordered life that is grounded? I was visiting with a couple from church at their home last night, and as an incredible thunder storm struck, we spoke of how disorienting it is when the doctor calls and says, "Yes, it is cancer... you'd better come in." Nothing exposes our turbulence like that simple phone call. Or the news of the unexpected death of a friend or a public figure: we are awaked, to be sure, but not to our grounding in God's presence. More often than not it is to the rut or haze we've been living through only half aware.

One of the poets I have been reading on Fridays in my attempt to reclaim a taste of order, Marie Howe, puts it like this in her poem, "Prayer."

Everyday I want to speak with you. And everyday something more important
calls for my attention - the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage
I need to buy for the trip.

Even now I can hardly sit here
among the falling piles of paper and clothing, the garbage trucks outside
already screeching and banging.

The mystics say you are as close as my own breath.
Why do I flee from you?

My days and nights pour through me like complaints
and become a story I forgot to tell.

Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning
to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence.
(Marie Howe, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, Norton: New York, 2008)

Pretty insightful and spot on to me: what's more, she evokes that longing for her ordinary life to be a part of her prayer. So I am playing - not striving or working, you understand, but playing -with ways for Friday to be for me a time of poetry - a Sabbath feast of sorts - so that I don't forget what "thy still dews of quietness" taste or feel like. Here's how my boys the Cinematics put it on "Evolution."

(CREDITS: Eduard Steichen, from his Tonalist period, Clark Institute of Art, Williamstown, MA, www.packetinsider.com/blog/nature/?cat=564; Van Gogh, vangogh4, www.cinematicpassions.wordpress.com/.../;

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Here's to life...

This week has been FILLED with music: we started off with a show by Steve Earle doing the material of Townes Van Zandt. This music is an acquired taste for most of us - and I love some of Townes' tunes - and admire a lot of Earle's music and acting. But, sadly, for the most part the show was flat with mushy sound - a real problem for an acoustic set. Still, it was great to support a man I respect and do our part to keep acoustic music in America alive...

Then our band - Between the Banks - finally got back together after an all too long break and started working on a set for Sunday, July 26th. The theme of worship - grounded in the whole "there is NO sacred or secular anymore" theme - will explore how contemporary popular culture helps fill the incarnational whole found in too much public worship. We wrestled with what new music tunes fit best and ended up with five key songs - the newest being Coldplay's "Viva La Vida." It takes some creativity and finesse to workout an essentially acoustic version of this anthem... but we had fun finding a way to do it.

Today I spoke with a friend about helping me make MP3s and videos for YouTube for this worship - he will be recording our practice next week - and worship, too. We have a good thing going - not perfect - but beautiful and soulful and we'll finally be able to share some of it soon.

And then tomorrow - our Sabbath - we're headed out to Arlo Guthrie's place of music and worship - yes, the old Alice's Restaurant - with some friends to hear one of my all time old favorites: Tom Rush! He helped bring Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and others to a wider audience back in the day and helped white boys like me learn to love blues finger picking guitar. I have seen him many times through the years and still get chills when he does "No Regrets/Rockport Sunday."

And then this Sunday we'll do Allison Krausse's version of "I'll Fly Away" in worship AND have a guest musical family on piano, violin and clarinet join us, too. OMG... I pray you blessings like these as your Sabbath comes however you embrace it...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Everything belongs... again

NOTE: This week's message takes me deeper into the Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace series with a two part look at what it means to embrace a spirituality where everything belongs. (Richard Rohr's title but an idea I've been wrestling with for 10 years.) It is a logical - if minority report - for those who affirm a radical sense of the incarnation. Next week I will use a variety of contemporary songs to show why they are crucial for a healthy and balanced spirituality. Not that tradition is abandoned; but tradition alone tends towards the transcendent not the earthy dimensions of grace. So... if you are around, stop in at 10:30 am.


At this moment in time, filled as it is with both promise and pain simultaneously, churches all over creation are once again experiencing the agonizing but amazing birth pangs of creativity and compassion made flesh. For some, this cyclical movement of the Spirit is terrifying and sad while for others it has become a season for celebration and rejoicing.

As the author Phyllis Tickle has noted in her latest book, The Great Emergence, there seems to be “a pattern of upheaval every 500 years in which the church cleans out what is old and ill-fitting so it can be relevant to the culture at large. These upheavals—the last was the Protestant Reformation—can be thought of as “rummage sales,” where the very structures and institutions of the church are shaken out and re-examined. The result is a “Great Emergence” – a shattering of the old structures of institutionalized Christianity – and the birth of new and vital forms” of faith that are concurrently a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time of love and a time of hate, a time to lament and a time to rejoice. (www.faithforum.ca/GE/greatemergence.html)

• You see this in the recent schism our Episcopalian cousins have endured as the conservatives storm out of communion while the progressives affirm equal rights for all of God’s children: gay and straight, rich and poor, male and female.

• It has taken place throughout our tradition in New England – the very birthplace of the Congregational Way – where now mega-churches and evangelical gatherings make-up the super majority of Christians rather than the once dominant First Churches throughout the land.

• And let’s not forget that this same dynamic has been alive within the Roman Catholic realm to say nothng of the once mighty Southern Baptists and Mormons.

To paraphrase the secular prophet, Bob Dylan, “something is going on all around you and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” I sense that Tickle and others are right: it is the Great Emergence, the sacred rummage sale, where structures are being shaken out and re-examined.

And one of the essential insights of this new era is that everything belongs: No longer is there a false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular – insiders and outsiders – matters germane to in the church and concerns best left for the captains of industry, education and science. In this era, everything belongs.

• Christ’s table is about hospitality and gratitude rather than judgment and church membership.

• Our check books – and the stories they tell – are just as important to our growth as disciples as the stories we learn from the scriptures.

• Even our humor and laughter can advance or inhibit our intimacy with God as I have been discussing with you over the last few weeks.

So this morning I want to outline for you the two key biblical insights that undergird this perspective; because next week – in a very different and highly musical liturgy – I want to explore with you some of the ways that the music and art of popular culture can enrich our commitment to Christ. Ok? Are you with me? Now, let’s be clear from the outset that this notion that everything now belongs to our experience as people of faith is not necessarily a new insight. I would argue that a spirituality that is boldly inclusive and embraces the totality of creation has been embedded within Judeo-Christian wisdom for millennia. How does the ancient psalm put it?

• With the Lord as my shepherd I can wander from the ecstasy of the mountain top through the angst of the valley of the shadow of death for… thou art with me in both locales!

• Thou revive me and bring me rest, thou nourish and encourage me so that even in the presence of my enemies… my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall be with me while I am alive and when I die I shall experience you even more intimately.

This isn’t a new idea, friends, but it is a new emphasis. Like that colleague of Emerson and Thoreau, James Russell Lowell, said back in 1845: New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth, they must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. And this is the first insight for our great emergence:

• In sorting out the will of God during the sacred rummage sale, wisdom is most often found on the periphery of our traditions.

• The wise old Walter Breuggemann said that when the center starts to give way, God’s still speaking voice is most often to be heard on the borders of life – among the forgotten and discarded – amidst those who have traditionally been locked out of our understanding of the holy – and within those sacred texts that we have not explored carefully in our recent history.

Look at today’s gospel: as a sacred teacher, Jesus first did what everyone expected him to do with his disciples; he led them away from the hustle and bustle for a time of quiet reflection and retreat. That is the norm – this is what we tend to expect when we consider spiritual or religious matters – solitude, silence and serenity. “Come with me by yourself,” Jesus tells them so that we might find a place for quiet and rest.

And that is a piece of the puzzle – quiet, rest and careful spiritual reflection have their place – but it is not the whole challenge, right? Because as the story unfolds we are told that out of nowhere a crowd emerges in the middle of the disciples’ prayer retreat. And rather than send the folk away – and listen carefully – the text says: When Jesus landed and saw this large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

• Conventional wisdom and practice likes to separate the sacred from the secular – the spiritual from the physical – but the new emphasis of Jesus embraces both: he teaches the weary people with compassion – that is, he includes those who aren’t among the select chosen of his band of disciples – and then what?

• He makes sure that the people are fed: do you see the unity between the holy and the human in this story?

This is Breuggemann’s point in spades. His disciples, representing the status quo, argue with him: “For the love of God, master, there are too many people here for us to worry about – after all they are interlopers who crashed our party – besides it would take almost eight months of wages to feed this rabble. So come on, give us a break and send them away!” But Jesus is resolute – you might even call him stubborn – insisting that there be no division between insiders and outsiders – members and guests – those with privilege and those with need.

• Again this wasn’t new – how does psalm 85 put it? Mercy and truth shall embrace, compassion and justice have kissed; integrity is breaking out of the soil and right relations on earth are flowing from heaven?

• This is an ancient psalm – not a 21st century New Age concoction – that clearly tells us that acts of compassion express the essence of God in the world; that tenderness and right relations - the holy and the human – are always intertwined in authentic religion. For this is how God gives shape and form to the divine amidst the ordinary realities of our working and struggling lives.

This wasn’t new – but it was a new emphasis – born by paying attention to what had been forgotten, overlooked and misplaced. In these periodic seasons of the sacred rummage sales, you see, first we are asked to pay attention to what people and words have been pushed to the periphery. It is one way to get our bearings.

The other is to recall that when Jesus was crucified the veil in the Temple was torn. That doesn’t sound all that interesting, does it? I can’t tell you how many times I have read those words over the past 50 years and not given them another thought. But Richard Rohr, one of this era’s most interesting spiritual teachers, notes that:

When the crucifixion of Jesus is dramatized in the Gospels, we have this very interesting image of the tearing of the temple veil from top to bottom. Now the word for temple is fanum. Everything outside the temple was pro fanum. (Hence we get our word “profane.”) There was “the holy” and it was distinguished from “the unholy.” The tearing of the temple veil from top to bottom is saying that the divisions of life are over. Everything is now potentially the fanum, the holy, the temple. There is nothing now that is not spiritual. Richard Rohr from the Cosmic Christ

Which means, “there is nothing now to which God is not available and given.” There is no longer a sacred and secular – one set of perspectives for church and another for business – that’s part of how Madoff and Wall Street got us into this economic mess in the first place with their phony and destructive separation of private and public ethics.

• Since the veil was torn: everything belongs. Religion isn’t about getting away for rest and solitude – as valuable as they are – it also includes feeding the hungry and noticing who has been locked out and embracing what is wounded within and around us.

• Rohr concludes: this integration of God’s word becoming flesh is the core of the Incarnation where matter and spirit are forever united. As Thomas Merton said, “now the gate of heaven is everywhere!”

And that is what the sacred rummage sale of our current great emergence is trying to come to terms with: now the gate of heaven is everywhere. For nearly 2,000 years most of Christianity hasn’t paid attention to the torn veil… for we still want to live with purity codes, debt codes, worthiness systems and exclusionary policies to protect ourselves from the “profane.” To divide the world into them and us – insiders and outsiders – those worthy of God’s grace and those who aren’t.

The conflict and confusion we see all around us – and let’s not forget the very real pain and loss – are not, however, signs of death. They may look harsh but in truth they are more like the birth pangs of our still speaking God taking new shape and form amidst the compassion and radical hospitality of those willing to move beyond the veil.

What new shapes will finally take root are still to be revealed. All we can say for certain today is that during the rummage sale only compassion and justice are certainties. Everything else requires a light touch, a keen sense of humor and creativity. I think our cousins in Judaism got it right when they told the story about Rabbi Yitzhak of Berdichev. Once there was a very, very wealthy man who had great resources that could be used for good. So the rabbi invited him once for tea.

When he arrived, the rabbi implored him, "There is a poor family who needs our assistance. I have asked all the others to give to a fund but a substantial sum is still needed. I have no one else to ask but you." "Rabbi, it pains me to refuse you. I obey every commandment, every mitzvah. You know that. But I will not give to any of these special causes. In fact, I wish you wouldn't even ask me in the future. That way, I won't be forced to dishonor you by turning you down."

Well, time passed and Rabbi Yitzhak was visited by the brother of that wealthy man. The brother was very poor, had many children and now needed money for the marriage of one of his daughters. Naturally, he had asked his wealthy brother for assistance – and had been turned down. The Rabbi looked at the man for a long while and then said, "Do not worry. I believe I know what to do." And the next day, Yitzhak appeared at the wealthy brother's door.
When the surprised man escorted the rabbi inside, Yitzhak walked to a chair and sat down saying nothing. Respectfully, the wealthy man stood in front of him, waiting for the rabbi to speak. But the rabbi just smiled and said nothing. After a long time, the wealthy man sat down. Even so, Yitzhak remained silent. An hour later, still smiling, he got up and left. The next day, Rabbi Yitzhak appeared again at the wealthy man's door. Again, the wealthy man sat in silence for an entire hour, waiting for the smiling rabbi to speak. And a third day, he appeared once more sitting silently for another hour, then got up to leave.

As he rose, the wealthy man said, "I can't bear this, rabbi. Why do you come here and say nothing? And why do you smile the whole time?" Settling back into his chair, the rabbi said: "Our sages say it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to give a rebuke when it will be heeded. And they also say we are commanded not to chastise when it will not have a positive effect.

“All these years, my friend, I have fulfilled the first of those commandments many times. But the second one? The people in this town have been eager to hear what I want and to do what I ask. And as a result, I have never had the opportunity to fulfill the commandment not to offer a rebuke. So I smile in pleasure at fulfilling a commandment for the first time!" With that the wealthy man turned red with embarrassment… and finally asked: "What is it you wish me to do?"

When Rabbi Yitzhak told him, he gave a large sum of money for his brother – and the Rabbi left with an even bigger smile on his face
. The Rabbi’s Smile,www.hasidicstories.com/index.html

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