Sunday, January 31, 2010

Annual meetings come and go...

Today we celebrated the 246th annual meeting of this faith community: we welcomed in 7 new members (most of whom were under 40 years of age which in this tradition is HUGE) as well as introduced the congregation to a daughter of the church who is now in seminary. Her dad, my predecessor, was in worship, too - which was another huge blessing. (He is a wonderfully bright, tender and insightful man who has maintained clear and careful professional boundaries.) I was thrilled to see him in the Sanctuary alongside his daughter who is in her first year at Yale Divinity School.

Last year at this time I was terrified: the stock market had gone south, there was fierce resistance to making changes in our music and programming ministries, it was bitterly cold and grey outside and I felt something similar within. As some may recall, I was not certain we were going to make it. Three things changed, however, so that a year later I am singing a very different song:

1) My band mates in "Between the Banks" kept praying and playing beautiful and powerful songs of faith, hope and love. We worked on both a TV program and a Good Friday show that kept pushing me out of myself and into the music. And every Tuesday night at rehearsal - and as the shows took shape and form - I could see a parable of faith being realized: out of the darkness came a light that the darkness could not put out. One of my on-going prayers continues to take shape with this band as we find ways to strengthen, encourage and enrich one another.


2) One of my dear church friends and colleagues had a WTF session with me one morning. (This has become a notorious and well-loved joke between us now, but she needed to ask me clearly: what the fuck are you thinking?) I was not living by faith - I wanted proof and signs - I was not practicing what I preached. So, without hesitation, she asked me: What the fuck? You can't be serious about throwing in the towel NOW! We've come so far... WTF!!!? (When I retold this tale to the pastoral relations team this past summer, they laughed until they wept - they expressed shock that she would be so blunt with the pastor - and all agreed that everyone needs a WTF conversation from time to time.) Let's just say that without accountability and perspective we can all get lost in the wilderness, yes?

3) And in time there were signs that things were coming together. This picture has become an icon of sorts for me; it was taken during Eucharist on Palm Sunday. Somehow the liturgy had been printed - and proofed - and I got to Sunday morning without realizing that our prayers for Holy Communion had been left out. So, being dispirited, I said, "Oh that's ok... we can just skip it today." At which point my WTF buddy looked at me in horror and said, "Snap out of it man, what do you mean we can just skip it? We can do this so let's make it happen." (You can see her holding the chalice right over my shoulder!)

So I mentioned to the congregation that we would be celebrating Eucharist after the regular liturgy was over - thinking that no one would stay - and 80 people crowded into the chancel. It was beautiful. I wept. There were old timers and little children, first time guests and strangers and friends. As one of my new members said, "Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about - THAT was going to church!" And he was right...

I was humbled and encouraged and blessed that day - and from that time forward we have been turning the corner in this church renewal experiment. Today was another sign - no need for WTF today - we could all sense it. And while we still have lots of work to do, God's spirit is leading us and I give thanks. Just like this little Advent tune says from last month...

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rest in peace dear brothers...

This week two GIANTS of the American soul died: J.D. Salinger and Howard Zinn. Sal linger was 91 and Zinn 87 and both contributed to the contemporary longing for greater authenticity in ways that are still being sorted out. One wrote of the inner journey while the other explored the outer journey in often unknown and revealing ways. Both will be missed...

I recall first reading Salinger in the eighth grade - and like many restless adolescents I found part of my voice in the angst of Holden Caufield. (The rest of that voice found expressions in Dylan, the Beatles, Hendrix and the Doors but that is another story.) And as I was want to do (and still do even to this day) I devoured everything else he had written so that I could get a deep sense of his spirit and soul.

My favorite as a young man - and still today - is Franny and Zooey. Here's a short clip that evokes the heart of the book:

There is evidently one rather terrible hallmark common to all persons who look for God, and apparently with enormous success, in the queerest imaginable places — e.g. in radio announcers, in newspapers, in taxicabs with crooked meters, literally everywhere. (My brother for the record had a distracting habit most of his adult life of investigating loaded ashtrays with his index finger, clearing all the cigarette ends to the sides — smiling from ear to ear as he did it — as if he expected to see Christ himself curled up cherubically in the middle, and he never looked disappointed.) …The hallmark then most commonly identifying this type of person is that he very frequently behaves like a fool, even an imbecile.

For a socially awkward kid who only found a connection with others at church and in my rock band, these words rang true. And 45 years later I think they are still true - albeit in an upside down way. The social foolishness matters less to me now for I want to be a fool for Christ - an absurdest who challenges the status quo in gentle and loving ways - more like the Clown in "Godspell" than the successful entrepreneur.

I have learned a lot from old, weird Salinger and give thanks to God that he had a long life. I don't fully grasp his obsession with seclusion - it doesn't strike me as romantic or Thoreau like - just weird and maybe sad. But like the James Earl Jones character in "Field of Dreams" suggests, it was his own weird journey and really had nothing for me to "get."


Howard Zinn was much more accessible - and stayed more obviously connected to the values he held dear - the quest for integrity in our public life. After fighting fascism in WWII he taught at Spelman College in Atlanta and eventually at Boston University where he remained for 25 years. His magnum opus, A People's History of the United States, was one of the first widely read critical histories of the US. He made the genocide of Columbus clear, he celebrated the brave role of farmers and working people and made certain to call into question the mixed motives of icons like Roosevelt and Lincoln. He wrote:

There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.... To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.

If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Springsteen - with Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine - put a lot of Zinn's insights into music. Rest in peace old friends... rest in peace.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The congregational way of spirituality...

NOTE: This coming Sunday, January 31, 2010, is the annual meeting of our congregation. To mark this celebration - it is the two hundredth and forty sixth such gathering - my sermon notes explore what the spirituality of the congregational way might mean for us in the 21st century. We will also be singing Carrie Newcomer's great tune, "A Gathering of Spirits" which is a somewhat lofty take on faith communities. But as one of my singers said, "Hey, without a vision the people perish." And that is the gospel truth! Join us if you are in town at 10:30 am.


Today is annual meeting Sunday – which to some is simply another Sunday celebration of the Sabbath (as if that should EVER be ordinary) and to others a bureaucratic necessity of the church as an institution – but I have to tell you that I believe our annual meeting is something altogether different.

• It is something sacred and beautiful – something unique to be treasured and protected – because the annual meeting at its core is about how we are empowered by God to live as the body of Christ in the world.

• To be sure, there are budgets to be considered and slates of officers and ministry volunteers to be affirmed – there are words of gratitude and remembrance to be articulated – and even disagreements to be shared.

But this is always within the context of how we have been led by God’s holy spirit to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor – jubilee as I said last week – a way of living that embraces the stranger, feeds the hungry and sets into motion a love that binds-up the wounds of the world.

How does St. Paul put it in the contemporary sounds of Peterson’s The Message?

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 God’s mysteries and making everything plain as day - if I have faith that says to a mountain, "Jump," and it jumps, but I don't love, I'm nothing. Even if I give everything I own to the poor and 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. You see, love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have: it doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always "me first," doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end… because, you see the love of God within and among us never dies.

We have been called by God to let the Holy Spirit help us become a living community of love:

• Not a museum of tradition because love NEVER looks back

• Not a collection of random, think and do what you will New Age spiritualists because this love is grounded in the Cross – a love that cares more for others than for self – a love that refuses to revel with others grovel

Our way of being the loving body of Christ has to do with a love that is simultaneously grace and responsibility – mission and ministry – spirit made flesh within the demands and realities of this moment in time. Julie Polter of Sojourners Magazine got it right when she wrote that we live by an alternative understanding of creation:

This is the big lie the world tells us: that the universe is connected by trade agreements, electronic banking, computer networks, shipping lanes and the seeking of profit—nothing else. Whereas this is the truth of God: all creation is one holy web of relationships, and gifts meant for all; that creation vibrates with the pain of all its parts, because its true destiny is joy.

And our annual meeting is all about giving shape and form to God’s love in suffering and joy. We call it discipleship – picking up our Cross and following – listening carefully for God’s still small voice amidst the whirlwind and responding with humble obedience.

• And people of faith have been trying to do this for 246 years in this place.

• You see, our tradition does not depend upon a bishop to tell us how to live into Christ’s love. We are not guided by a creed or a test of faith, we are not held accountable to a national or even international set of rules or ecclesiastical relationships and our way of being the church knows nothing about hierarchy.

No, for good or ill, our tradition is built upon the individual conscience listening for the invitation of the Holy Spirit to make Christ’s love real in covenant with God and one another – and then responding with joy-filled obedience.
Someone far wiser that I spoke of the Congregational Way like this and it bears repeating. “Ours is a covenantal rather than a creedal church. We join by promising one another that we will individually seek the truth (of God’s love) together. We will meet to find the ways of (making this love flesh) in respect and as best as we can see to do… for ours is a wise weakness.” (Lucinda Duncan)

Isn’t that an insightful way of putting it? Ours is a wise weakness – a humble insight – that must always be tested in community, affirmed through a democratic process and revised and changed when it outlives its usefulness. A wise weakness.

• Such a commitment was first articulated in the New World back in 1648 – 18 years after the first churches were established in Massachusetts – and our Congregational forbearers crafted something known as the Cambridge Platform.

• In part this document says our way of being Christ’s church in the world is based upon, “mutual care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation and relief and succor.”

In some ways it would be easier if we had a bishop to help us discern how to make this happen – but we don’t. Sometimes I wish there was a final authority I could appeal to when ethical problems arise – but there isn’t. And God knows it would be so much faster to get things done if I could say to church council – or even the annual meeting – well, father said so… so let’s get to it!

But our way – the Congregational Way – does not work like that: ours is a wise weakness – built upon prayer and scripture – nourished by individual conscience and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit discerned in community.

And that is part of what we honor and celebrate today. It is not better or worse than other forms of being the church. It is not any more likely to get God’s love right simply because we vote on something rather than follow the rules of a more structured and hierarchical setting. It is just our way – a wise weakness – searching to make God’s love flesh.

It isn’t always smooth sailing trying to enflesh this wise weakness of ours. Think about what happened to Jesus in this morning’s text. He read from the ancient scroll of the prophet Isaiah, gave the folks his spin on things and sat down to preach. At first, the crowd was thrilled that Mary and Joseph’s boy had turned out so well… but very quickly things go south.

• First he tells them that in their hearing the ancient words of Isaiah have been fulfilled, but what does that really mean? The year of Jubilee hadn’t been announced or realized: there are still people in prison, there are still beggars and homeless folk on the street and there are still wounded souls aching for comfort – then as well as today – so what was he talking about?

• And second when Jesus started to explain how he understood the blessings of God becoming flesh, he really upset the hometown expectations. They had been hearing great things about the carpenter’s kid – miracles and blessings all around – but now he was telling them that God’s love was as true for the insiders as the outsiders.

He told them about the prophet Elijah who made certain that a poor, pagan widow got bread during a crippling famine that killed countless widows in Israel. I can hear the crowd start to murmur: Is he telling us that God loves the Gentiles more than the Jews? (Stoffregen, www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke4x21)

• But it got worse because he went on to talk about the prophet Elisha – Elijah’s heir apparent – who helped bring about the healing of a pagan leper during a time when there were hundreds of Jewish lepers aching for healing.

• Are you with me? Do you see what’s going on here? Now the crowd is furious: we have sick lepers needing God’s healing so what are you talking about those damn outsiders for? We want to take care of our own – our membership comes first – we hate those Gentiles. Let’s get rid of this trouble maker…

And do you recall what the scripture says happened next? Yeah, they tried to throw Jesus over the cliff. This congregational way business is not for cowards because when you start talking about being the body of Christ for the world – not just the membership or the building – but the world… it gets risky. And dangerous. And not everybody gets it – it is a wise weakness.

This past year we did a few things that not everybody liked – things that grounded us more in a love for healing the world than simply caring for the insiders – but they were all about love:

• We put up a peace pole to be a visible prayer to God’s alternative vision – a vision of love and joy – rather than war and fear.

• We housed a group of folk over night that were walking across New England to talk with people about the war in Iraq. We brought hot chocolate to those on Park Square and began a study of Three Cups of Tea as a way of finding our way into God’s alternative vision.

• We also joined with the Berkshire Environmental Action Team – hardly a religious bunch – to clean up part of the Housatonic River to say nothing of organizing some of the other churches in town to raise funds to fight hunger.

In November we even held a quasi-secular/sacred revival on Thanksgiving Eve where we sang songs of hope and protest, hymns to the Lord and goofy songs, too, to raise money for our Berkshire neighbors in need of emergency heating oil.

• We opened our Sanctuary for quiet prayer and reflection during Advent, we celebrated a totally wild Christmas Eve pageant with our children where guests played just as vital a role as members and we celebrated Palm Sunday by giving our children cameras and letting them show us how they see what goes on here – for unless ye become as a little child you shall not enter the kingdom of God.

• Let me go so far as to suggest to you that even our hiring of Luke Massery, our new music director, who comes from a tradition VERY different from our own is part of what I mean by taking a risk on behalf of Christ’s love – he brings new insights and gifts to us – and I give thanks to God that he is here.

In a variety of ways we let our wise weakness lead us beyond the safety of our doors into the world this past year – and NEXT God is calling for more as 2010 unfolds. More in mission, more in risk taking and more in love: this is going to be a fun year, beloved, so hold on to your hats!

And when I survey what we did within the congregation in 2009 I sense that we also took another step down the road of making Christ’s love flesh:

• We affirmed a mission statement calling us into acts of justice and compassion – not building maintenance or institutional niceties – but compassion and justice. Did I hear someone say: Jubilee? Or the intoxication of the wedding feast and its wine?

• We reached out to our sisters and brothers in grief and brought them food – and prayer – and company: when did we see thee, Lord? Whenever you shared compassion with the least of these my sisters and brothers, you did so unto me.

Let me go deeper: in 2009 we worked at solving problems NOT by power trips or parliamentary manipulation – not by bullying one another or pulling rank either – but by listening and prayer – breaking bread together and discernment. And that happened not only with respect to our music ministry but also changing the direction of church finances, too. Through your hard and faithful commitments – your mutual care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation, relief and succor to use the words of 1648 – we are now saving $30,000 a year so that our mission and ministry in the world can grow stronger.

• We are conducting our church business under the model of a “blessed church” where we pray for one another and practice talking about hard things carefully and with love.
• We are thinking about fellowship in ways that welcomes the whole family of Christ – young and old, single and partnered – that is not only refreshing, but actually counter-cultural. Think of it: inter-generational BINGO in a congregational church. Man, I thought I was at Pentecost seeing all of God’s people here together in love and respect.

Well, you get my point and I won’t go on any further: this annual meeting business matters. It is one of our sacred charisms for this era. It shows others how hope can emerge from despair and light from the darkness.

Not perfectly – not consistently – sometimes not at all: for this is a wise weakness born of the marriage of spirit and flesh.

This year we need to go deeper into compassiondeeper into listening and noticing and welcoming in love our new friends deeper into justice and acts beyond our walls... but always with gentleness and joy and the intoxication of Christ's spirit. For that my dear friends is the good news for today.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Benefit for Haiti and Obama's state of the union...

My church is reading Greg Mortenson's book, Three Cups of Tea, and one of the themes that is repeated over and over is this: most of our differences can be worked out if we take the time to listen - and respect - one another. Mortenson's work of building schools in some of the most remote and challenging environments - often initially opposed by the Taliban - is a living proof to this way of living:

+ Listening - waiting - and trusting that inshallah - if it is God's will/and if it is in God's time - things will work out makes all the difference in the world.

+ I experienced some of that wisdom last week during the international telethon to raise emergency relief for Haiti. To date they have generated over $60 million dollar of private aid - and when that is combined with that from the nations and relief agencies... it staggers the imagination. This is money from people of good will of every political background and race, class and culture. This is one of the times when we have heard the cry of the Lord in the anguish of the Haitian people.


Madonna's genre-bending pop/gospel song gets this spirit so right: there is passion and pathos, commitment and sorrow, joy, hope and weeping all at the same time. (Please: cynics need not send me any notes about how easy it is to sing a song while the Haitians suffer. Just try WRITING a song that connects people of every race and culture let alone sing it in a way that truly touches the Spirit!0

And, I have to say, I felt some of that in President Obama's speech tonight: he was humble, angry, honest, challenging and real all at the same time. He was conservative, liberal, filled with peace in a time of war and aware that he can only do his part to ease the suffering. "Inshallah" is so right... It does my heart good to see other genre-bending artists pulling together like the President and making hopeful, hard and honest music that will save lives.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Returning thanks...

This has been a FULL and rich week of returning thanks:

+ It began with the sudden death of a man who has been a GIANT in caring for the community in Pittsfield in a populist way. He was the husband and father of a few of my members and they are still in shock over the loss. We buried him on Saturday and there were close to 300 at the funeral liturgy. I give thanks to God for men and women who care enough to give their lives in service to others in this age of the bottom line. I also give thanks to all those at church who worked so hard to host a HUGE reception: all the food, love and hospitality was a blessing and I am grateful to God for all your work.

+ As noted in another blog, not only did we create our first "musical mosaic" but we got my show "Sunday Street" on local public TV today. We have a ways to go before we get into the groove, but it is a start... and I give thanks to Paul for working so hard to make it happen.

+ In worship today there were a host of guests - two men from the Congo, a few folk who joined us for Christmas Eve and have been back almost every week since with their children, a few women and men who have relocated to the area and are searching for a community of faith grounded in "grace and accountability" - as well as a few folk who felt called to worship with us after yesterday's funeral. I give thanks to God that in spite of our frailties and imperfections - maybe even because of them - these folk sense something authentic going on within and among us.

+ I give thanks to my music leaders and choir who took a big step today and left the traditional choir loft to sit among the congregation. Not only did they strengthen singing in their new locale, but they were able to be a part of the interactions. I give thanks to God for their willingness to move beyond what is comfortable.

+ And my dear bandmates did a ROCKIN' good job on both "Siyahamba" as well as "Hands" - it was powerful, beautiful and tender and I give thanks to God for their gifts and willingness to make music together.

This coming Sunday will be our annual meeting - which is more than just a business meeting of the laity (although it is that) - it is a time to take stock of where we have been and where we sense God's spirit leading us. This tune by Carrie Newcomer gets it right for where I think we are being called...

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A musical mosaic

One of the faith experiments I am taking deeper in this current phase of ministry involves a spirituality of rock music:

+ music as embodied prayer
+ music as conscious critique of a wounded world
+ music as prophetic alternative to fear/guilt/hatred
+ music as joyful and beautiful nourishment for the journey

You see, I continue to believe that God's still speaking voice is at work in culture - popular culture as much (or more) than so-called high art - sharing wisdom and challenge with us to become our best selves. It is just part of God's nature to be in communion with creation - and if our world becomes overly secular or harried, that does not mean God stops speaking - it is part of creation's rhythm.

Just ask Mickey Hart, one of the drummers for the Grateful Dead, who has discovered the spiritual connections between drumming and the pulse of life throughout the earth and its peoples. Well, over the years, I have seen how the music of our everyday lives can help us reclaim a spiritual vibrancy - an intimacy with God - if we are encouraged to make the connections. At first even my musical partners are uncertain they are qualified to talk about the spirituality of music... but as we simply consider the songs that speak to us in our various parts we all discover new insights and revelations.

So, here is the first of a series of visual/musical experiments involving band practice and conversations that I hope will become a part of the religious education broadcasting we do locally throughout the Berkshires. Ben calls this a "Musical Mosaic."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Do not fret...

In the past few days I have seen a number of comments from friends and colleagues - and received a variety of personal notes - expressing a deep sorrow - even hopelessness - about the fate of life in the United States. Some have experienced this economic recession in harsh ways: they are without jobs, struggling just to pay interest on houses they can't sell, relocating to other job markets just to find NOBODY is hiring, etc. Others sense that their trust in Obama was misplaced - or at least high jacked. - and one year into his administration they feel betrayed. And some, to paraphrase Rick James, want to go apocalyptic on your ass because it is clear that St. Bob Dylan was right: money doesn't talk - it swears!

+ The US Supreme Court decides to keep treating corporations as individuals - a long and sordid history in itself - and reverses any hint of campaign finance reform.

+ A retrograde state senator from Massachusetts - with TONS of outside money - is able to exploit Americans fears and confusion about the political status quo to become the maverick from New England. (Just for kicks, take a look at two movies: Nashville and more recently Bob Roberts.)

And what about those same bright, well-heeled suburban citizens of Virginia and New Jersey who voted for Obama LAST year have now flip-flopped (again) and returned Obama's opponents into office? Like St. Marvin Gaye asked in 1970: what's going on? (Check this clip out as both a prayer of lament and a clue about where to find something of God's heart in the real world.)

Marvin got the question right: what IS going on? And this is where a grounded, biblical faith SHARED AND EXPLORED IN COMMUNITY can make all the difference in the world: the faith community - not the individual - but the community has been empowered by God to help us move from fear and despair to radical hope and action. Sadly, because the West has become so hyper-individualized - spiritually and socially atomized - we don't know how to search and pray in community. We really don't understand faith communities as the source of our healing and the font of hope. So, it is no wonder so many of us feel hopeless and bereft of faith.

The alternative - and I tend to think the antidote, too - involves a commitment to a faith community (not just a tradition, but a living, breathing, imperfect but tender gathering of people) where we can explore three inter-related insights:

First, in times of social upheaval and fear the community can always discover signs of hope and renewal by reclaiming the texts (and people) who have been moved/pushed/forced to the edges by the status quo. Walter Breuggemann, Hebrew Bible scholar extraordinaire, notes that whenever the arrogance of power or the myopic vision of greed and war dominated Israel's actions, the poets and prophets of the day began to explore the wisdom of the Bible from the perspective of who and what is being left out and excluded?

+ What voices are being silenced or forgotten?

+ What insights have been banned or buried?

By going back to these voices, texts and peoples the prophets of Israel were clear: THIS is where we will hear something of God's healing and redeeming truth. It will often be painful to hear these sounds - it will break our privileged isolation and cause us to see the consequences of power - but these voices will also align us with what is good, noble, holy and true.

+ Think of Jesus calling the official religion to task by resurrecting the blistering critique of Hosea: go and learn what this means - the Lord your God wants compassion not empty acts of religion.

+ Think of Micah denouncing the rituals and habits of his people by singing this song: You already know what the Lord requires, O Israel: to do justice, to love compassion and to walk with humility with one another and God.

Second, in addition to listening and living in solidarity with the poems, cries, songs and people who have been pushed to the edges, the prophetic testimony teaches that it is impossible to do this all by ourselves. We are neither strong enough, patient enough or dedicated enough to stand and deliver as individuals. Rather, we need others to encourage us when we want to give up, call us into accountability when we try to fake it or flee to say nothing of help us carry our burdens when we are just worn out.

+ St. Paul speaks of this as living as a part of the body of Christ, Jesus calls it being a community of disciples who work and walk the road of faith together and the prophets of Israel called the people back from exile time and time again to become the whole people of God NOT just a collection of individuals living next to one another, but a people living in concert.

+ Isn't that what the founders of AA discovered? When they tried to overcome alcohol or addiction, they could make it by themselves for a day or two - sometimes just an hour - but when they regularly came together and told their stories... they could stay sober until they came together again. So one day at a time they discovered that somehow there is a spiritual power unlocked by community that supports healing and hope.

How did that living spiritual/musical collective, U2, put it in "One?" We get to carry each other, carry each other. It is not a privilege, but a necessity - there's nothing romantic about it, it is hard work. And it is the only way we can overcome despair...

Having been a part of a faith community in a leadership role now for almost 30 years one of the things I have seen is how much contemporary people fight the discipline of community. We are so trained to be individuals - often so addicted to our own wounds and dramas, too - that we will blame our churches, synagogues and mosques before we will give up our pain. "I don't get anything from worship... I don't like the music... I find God's love more present out in nature." And on and on it goes.

+ But here's the real deal: this life - and your life - is NOT all about you! And you will never find God's peace or serenity if you stay locked in your self-absorbed isolation.

+ So blame away - mourn and weep and cry into your beer, too - but it will not get any better until you make the choice to join with others to walk together from bondage to freedom. (Excuse me if I get a little cranky at this point but I've seen too many people who want faith communities to fill all their emptiness and fix all their pathologies without showing ANY willingness to get over themselves. "Make me feel better - give me magic - take me outside of myself," they weep or demand - "just don't ask me to do this in community!"

And please don't tell me I have to make a real commitment to let go - become openly vulnerable - or share my true self and look foolish or wounded." It's like the beggars and broken souls who used to flee from St. Francis whenever he came into town: after he brought them healing, you see, he also told them to get on with a life lived in society - share your contribution rather than ask for handouts - and many preferred the security of their wounds to the health of living and sharing with others.)

And third, here's what happens when a community starts to embrace what has been pushed away and banished or forgotten: first we are humbled, second we find support and third we are offered a way of sharing the pain and fear together that leads to action. One of the GREAT and often forgotten psalms for this era is Psalm 37:

Do not fret because of evil people
or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.

Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Delight yourself in the LORD
and God will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in the Lord and God will do this:
God will make your righteousness shine like the dawn,
the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for the Lord;
do not fret when others succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not fret—it leads only to evil...

A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
though you look for them, they will not be found.
But the meek will inherit the land
and enjoy great peace.


We do not know how to keep from fretting by ourselves: it is learned through practice in community. We do not know how to search the "arch of the moral universe" as Dr. King sed to say, "to see that it tilts ever so slightly in favor of that which is good and true and just." We learn that only by carrying one an other's burdens in community.

And we don't even know how to be still all by ourselves; that takes sitting beside a dying friend and holding their hand until the sad but sweet peace of death arrives. It comes only in community - it can be any kind of community - but being together in faithful patience is the key rather than flitting in and out like a WalMart shopper.

One of the REAL old timers, Huston Smith, put it like this: there is an important difference between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is a way of being open to God's spirit and it is essentially individualistic. It has it's place but religion - a shared commitment to a spiritual path - is what brings healing and hope. Think of it like this: religion is what keeps soup kitchens and homeless shelters open every day, not spirituality. Religion is what drove the Civil Rights and Peace movements, not spirituality. Because religion shows us how to move beyond selfishness into the hard work of loving in community.

Want to find your way back to hope - make a commitment to a faith community - ANY faith community. Want to see evidence that there is good and beauty in the world? Want to see a sustained movement of compassion that transcends fear and pain and national borders? Want to see God's word made flesh? Get thee to a faith community - it will never be perfect - but it will cure your loss of hope.

Now in closing this rant let me openly acknowledge that faith communities are not perfect: sometimes they are mean-spiritied, narrow and ugly. And... they are bigger than that, too, and the only place we can learn how to deal with disappointment, betrayal and frustration is in community as well.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haiti, ONE and this week's gospel...

Sometimes the lectionary texts say NOTHING to me - and that is part of the rhythm of an ordered life - exploring what is flat, closed-off and all the rest rather than flitting from one buzz to the next. But sometimes those ancient texts sound like God is blasting a boom box at us with a vengeance - and this week's gospel text from Luke 4 is one of those times. It reads

As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written:

God's Spirit is on me;
he's chosen me to preach the Message of good news to
the poor,
Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and
recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the burdened and battered free,
to announce, "This is God's year to act!"


He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, "You've just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place."
(Luke 4: 16-21 - the Message)

As I was thinking and praying about the reality of Haiti in the light of this text - to say nothing of the Wall Street banks announcing their massive bonuses and profits - I got this invitation from the ONE Organization. It was a call to action to forgive Haiti's international debt:

ONE today called on global creditors to immediately cancel Haiti's $890 million debt and help give the earthquake-stricken country a fresh start by ensuring that new aid comes in the form of grants, not debt-incurring loans. In a petition email sent to the group's more than two million members, ONE's U.S. Executive Director Sheila Nix said:

"One way we can help Haitians build a better tomorrow is to convince global creditors to cancel Haiti's $890 million international debt. Thankfully, the United States has already forgiven Haiti's past debts and now only gives assistance in the form of grants. We need Haiti's other creditors-the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and countries like Taiwan and Venezuela-to follow our lead and do the same. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has the power to help make that happen."

Let me remind you of the biblical context: Jesus has just read to his synagogue from the prophet Isaiah - what some consider to be II Isaiah (speaking to Israel after their return from exile in Babylon) about the year of Jubilee. Peterson call it "God's year to act" and the more traditional English translations speak of "the acceptable year of the Lord." However you put it, the words reference Jubilee - that celebration of Sabbath celebrations - where debts are forgiven:

+ land is returned to their original owners
+ debt prisoners/slaves are set free to return to their families to start over
+ farms are to lay fallow and be replenished through Sabbath rest

+ and all of society is allowed to experience - and practice forgiveness: God's grace in the flesh

So one of the ways we can live into the promise of Jesus is to join ONE and urge the international financial community to embrace Jubilee: forgive the Haitian debt and let the poorest of the poor rebuild in dignity. (For more information on the ONE Campaign, check out: www.one.org/us/actnow/drophaitiandebt/

Another thing that is essential - if we want to move beyond the necessary acts of mercy to the more lasting acts of justice - is to fight social amnesia. Consider a few important highlights:

+ The island we know as Haiti was colonized for Spain by Columbus in 1492; the presence of Europeans on the island - and their bacteria/germs - essentially decimated the indigenous population through disease.

+ When Spain found gold in what we know as Latin America, the island slipped into disregard and became a haven for pirates; in 1664 France took control of the island under the work of the French West India Company and began to cultivate tobacco and sugar production which was becoming increasingly popular in Europe

+ African slaves were introduced to the island under the French so that production could increase at the lowest possible cost; by the late 1700s 40% of European sugar and 60% of Europe's coffee came from this island through the labor of approximately 790,000 African slaves

+ A slave revolt took place in Haiti following the inspiration of the French Revolution and in 1794 Haiti had completed their bloody break from France; France, however, did not officially recognized independence until 1825 when they demanded a payment in gold for each freed slave; the result cost the new Haitian government over $150 million gold francs.

This is the beginning of a nation born into debt to their former owners. Two other important facts are critical to recall in an effort to combat social amnesia:

+ First, after decades of being in debt to European banks to both pay-off France and strengthen their cash crop economy, the United States intervened under Woodrow Wilson. Haitian debt had been transferred to American banks by this time and from 1915 - 1934 the US essentially controlled the island of Haiti. The Great Depression brought an end of overt US control over Haiti, but the nation remained financially dependent on US Banks until 1947.

+ Second, after a brief time of political freedom, the military coup of Francois Duvalier - Papa Doc - took place in 1957. Papa Doc Duvalier, the former minister of health, was known to be a humanitarian but soon established a cruel and corrupt regime committed to amassing personal power and wealth. It is estimated that he had 30,000 Haitians murdered and forced the emigration of thousands of others, leaving behind only the poorest of the poor. Hison, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier ruled with increasing violence and corruption between 1971-1986.

By the time the Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertraud Aristede, was elected two additional tragedies had fallen full blown on Haiti. The "good neighbor policies" of FDR had tried to make Haiti into a West Indian economic success with an emphasis on agricultural export. When their projects failed, US aid was seriously diminished creating more poverty with fewer options. The same idea was at work under the Free Trade agreements of the 90s that flooded the Haitian economy with cheap American agricultural goods but no real market for Haitian exports. The result was a massive imbalance of trade that forced Haiti into greater debt with no way out.

What is critical to recall - in addition to the brutal realities of the events I have just noted - is that most of our founding Christian fathers - Pilgrims and patriots alike - not only participated in this deadly history, but sanctified it. And while the English colonists did not set in motion the ugly legacy of slavery and debt in Haiti, we were instrumental in the other West Indian slave/molasses/rum economies. In fact, our founders took captive Native Americans and traded them for African slaves throughout the West Indies.

So in many ways the words of scripture about the sins of the father and mothers lasting for three and four generations has become the tragic truth in Haiti. Not only is spiritual forgiveness a necessity, it must become enfleshed - incarnated - in debt forgiveness, rebuilding and deep support after the initial tragedy is over. This is what Jubilee demands for this IS the year of God's action.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thoughts on Obama after one year...

At my core I am an independent when it comes to political party affiliation: I tend to vote Democratic most of the time - especially since the Bush/Cheney years - but not always. In fact, there have been some great Republican moderates that I have found it fun to work with in Cleveland, OH as well as Tucson, AZ and Pittsfield, MA.

During the 60s/70s when many of my political friends were Marxist, I tended toward the Democratic Socialists who were long on pragmatism and short on ideology. That still resonates with me in 2010 because what matters most to me is that a politician commits to compassion and justice. I am a "values voter" with a Jubilee/social justice bent - much more Bono than either George W or Howard Dean.

That said, I am not at all shocked (or even saddened) that on the first anniversary of President Obama's historic presidency of the USA a rogue Republican - Scott Brown - has won a seat in the US Senate. For 30 years this seat was called "the Kennedy seat" - and that is part of the reason why it was lost yesterday - this is NOT a time for arrogance or business as usual. And I think there are three inter-related truths that warrant a comment:

+ First, there are more independents in Massachusetts than there are Republicans or Democrats: 40% of the American electorate is NOT affiliated with the major parties. In Massachusetts, 51% are independent with only 36% connected to the Democrats and 11% the Republicans. How did St. Lou Reed put it? "Stick a fork in them - they're done!" (This is one of the truest, saddest and most beautiful Lou Reed songs ever, but beware: it hurts!)


Increasingly throughout the United States brand names mean NOTHING. Just ask the once mainline churches who are now just a side-line phenomenon. People in the suburbs do not care about denominations, political affiliations, brand names, etc. because the real name of the game is "what have you done for me lately?" Or the retail version: "can I get that cheaper at Walmart?"

And just as non-denominational churches have exploded in popularity with their "shopping mall"decor, their low impact sense of commitment and an emphasis on entertainment rather than discipleship, so too the world of politics - especially in an economic recession. For a clue, take a look at what is going on with Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien if you want to understand why President Obama is personally well liked but mistrusted: he hasn't been able to deliver anything of value to most middle Americans.

So without understanding this shift in culture, NBC will try to save the bottom line by throwing Conan overboard and looking backwards - the Howard Dean/Keith Olbermann Democrats will become equally confused - and our generally well-respected President will hunker down from more study. But what Americans want is a better deal. We know NOTHING about delayed gratification because our values are shaped more by Walmart than spiritual integrity. And when Walmart comes to town, local shop keepers who have given value, service and respect to consumers for generations are sacrificed for the bottom line.

In Massachusetts, Scott Brown was an angry Walmart: he didn't talk about his record - which is often ugly, sexist, fear-mongering and mean-spirited - rather he drove a populist pick-up truck, dressed down and worked on the fear/anger most of us feel after a beer. No wonder he was victorious just 365 days after Obama became president: he is the white, suburban Obama - the outsider who was able to tap into the fears and angers of ordinary suburban independent voters looking for the best deal - just as the President did not too long ago.

+ Second, just as President Obama is going to have to use this set back as a catalyst for delivering to the base of independents - NOT just the democratic loyalists - so, too, the Tea Baggers. In 2010, it is not good enough to be a poser - Dick Armey et al can carp really well - but now Scott Brown is going to have to stand FOR something rather than take easy pot shots - and he doesn't have time on his side either.

I generally believe that the Obama folk have been responsible in shoring up our financial institutions and preventing another economic depression. They have been smart about sending monies to local communities for rebuilding roads and infrastructure, too. But these good acts have only kept things from getting worse. And as those of us in the renewal of churches know, maintaining the status quo feels like you are losing. There must be NEW members, REAL mojo in worship, BOLD acts of compassion and AGGRESSIVE engagement with helping other. In a word, our deepest values have to become flesh and blood deeds FAST - otherwise, the "shopping mall" mega-church will continue to look like much more fun at half the price - and besides they give away free coffee and donuts!

Perhaps politicians - and the President - should take some pointers from church renewal expert, Anthony Robinson, who says there are 6 essentials to real church renewal:

1) Choose life - take risks - don't be afraid of death
2) Choose community - break down barriers - oppose elitism of any type
3) Choose fun - most of the institutional work is boring - let it go
4) Choose boldness - most of the time we go too slow - make change and keep moving
5) Choose frontier - don't circle the wagons - go to the fringe and embrace it
6) Choose now - not later - or when it is safe or convenient - besides all we have is today

My President is too careful - and often too nice. He is bright and compassionate and committed but he is playing as an insider and people are losing heart. Only 34% of Americans think we're moving in the right direction. That's better than the Republicans - at 24% - but Obama can do better and embracing Robinson's ideas would be a good start. He has spent a year trying to build consensus and the bastards have stone-walled him at every turn. He needs to give Scott Brown a chance - and if Scotty is a real patriot rather than a demagogue, he'll find a way to move things forward. But after a VERY short season of good will, it is time to get some things moving and if Obama has to kick some ass to do it...

+ And third let's not forget what fear does to us when we mostly ache for security: it strengthens our worst selves. Erik Fromm wrote a penetrating exploration of the good, middle class church people of 1930s Germany - Escape from Freedom - and the overwhelming insight was that when people's economic and social security is threatened, we rush towards those who promise stability. We will sacrifice our deepest convictions, we will turn on one another in the ugliest ways, we will eat our young and devour our neighbors when we are at our worst. What's more, we will also give up our deepest religious convictions.

Interestingly, most of us saw this play out in spades in the United States after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Scott Brown manipulated our current fears just as viciously as President Bush/Cheney. (He also ran a much better campaign than Martha Coakley!) President Obama - being the Niebuhrian moralist that he is - will not manipulate us, so he has to deliver. And let's face it: he has been way too slow for most of us who are used to high speed Internet, instant access to entertainment and Walmart's deal of the week.

I have faith in Obama. In the long run, I have faith in the American people, too. But mostly I have faith in God's loving grace and know that it is only faith, grace and compassion that make life worth living even in these hard and fear filled times. So, God bless you, Mr. President - and maybe take a listen to Brother Joey Ramone...

A lost song found again...

There are three or four songs that I once loved and then lost. They seem to be quiet tunes with a gentle message of hope that got lost in the hustle of growing up, raising a family and all the rest. Recently, however, I've been finding their power and beauty again as they nourish my soul and remain strangely relevant. Curiously, I find that same thing happening with parts of scripture, too.

One such lost but found song is Elton John's cover of "Love Song" that was written by Lesley Duncan and appeared on his 1970 "Tumbleweed Connection" album.


His version is more wistful than Duncan's - more unresolved and open-ended, too - and nothing like his Liberace act of later years. There is a serenity to this song the makes me think of the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.


Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.


Last night, after a great band practice and planning for ways to share our music and spirituality work, I found myself thinking about another of those lost songs: "From the Cradle to the Grave" the 1973 masterpiece by Leo Koetke on his "Greenhouse" album.

This has been one of those songs - rather like Joni Mitchell's "Marcie" - that reappears in my heart from time to time with it's sad hopefulness and tender lament. In one way it is a weary and heart-breaking song - it sounds much like the wizened old preacher of Ecclesiastes noting that there "is nothing new at all under the sun" - but curiously the music rescues the singer from despair. The guitar riffs and drive are so lively and filled with soul that even when Koetke says "the thought of living scares me half to death" it is clear that there is more going on than giving up. Fascinating...


And then there is Yusuf Islam's "Peace Train" and "Where Do the Children Play" which only seem to grow in stature as the years go by. From an immigrant kitchen worker in his father's London restaurant, his rise to 60s/70s pop singer and the near drowning experience that led to a conversion to Islam in 1977 (with an intentional retreat from public life for almost 20 years)Yusuf's reworking of his old songs - and these two come from 1971 - add gravitas, humility and urgency in ways that eluded his younger incarnation.

In this version of "Peace Train" with a South African back-up band a la Paul Simon/Lady Smith Black Mambazo, the song becomes the prayer it always wanted to be. What's more, I find Yusuf to be an ambassador of hope and healing in these strange times.


Today I return thanks to God for lost songs that have been found again.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jubilee, compassion and hospitality...

NOTE: Here are my notes for this week's message on Sunday, January 24, 2010. The key text is Luke 4 where Jesus speaks of embracing and living into the promises of Jubilee. We will also be sharing the song "Hands" by Jewel as well as the South African "Siyahamba."
One of the most offensive, untrue and genuinely ugly lies that some Christians tell about Jews goes something like this: you know, there is really a huge difference between the god of the Old Testament and the New? Have you heard that lie before: that there is a massive and marked difference between the god of the Old and New Testament?

+ Sometimes it’s put like this: the god of the Old Testament is always telling the people of Israel to kill off this or that group – he’s really very violent – and what about all those rules, laws and regulations? The god of Jesus, however, is all about love – and grace – and is ultimately grounded in peace.

+ Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you heard that lie before – or maybe even repeated it out loud? I know that I have – I’ve heard it and mostly likely said it – and actually even believed it at one point in my ever changing and always wild journey into faith.

But I don’t any more: in fact, while there are very clear differences between Christians and Jews – to say nothing of the differences between Christians and Christians – what I now believe is that the god that takes up shape and form in Jesus is no different from the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob let alone Sarah, Rebeca and Rachel.

+ We are talking about the God of the psalms: the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want? Create in my a clean heart, O God, and restore a right spirit within me?

+ We’re talking about the God of the prophets: what does the Lord require of you, O Israel, but to do justice, love mercy and walk with humility with your God?

+ We’re talking about the God of the exodus: who hears the cries of her people in bondage and acts in history to set them free. Remember how the old gospel hymn puts it? Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land and tell old Pharaoh: let my people go!

We who have been called into the new covenant – not the first covenant God made with Israel – and NEVER revoked – but the second covenant born of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – we need to regularly remind ourselves of this fact. Because, Christian friends, we cannot grasp what Christ was talking about if we separate him from his Jewish roots and faith.

+ I know that you’ve heard this before – and essentially believe it, too – but it bears repeating over and over again because the lie is so deeply ingrained in our heritage.
+ We, like Jesus, worship, honor and celebrate in awe the God first revealed to the world through Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeca, Jacob along with Rachel.
Remember: Jesus learned to pray using the psalms, he probably learned to read using Genesis, his momma sang him to sleep and told him bedtime stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Israel. He was circumcised, dedicated to God at the temple in Jerusalem and bar mitzvahed.

So it should come as no surprise to us that shortly after starting his public ministry of preaching, teaching and healing, upon returning to his home faith community – the synagogue in Nazareth – he was asked to read one of the morning lessons. According to tradition, he stood up to read –reminding us that Jesus was literate – and was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Searching for the 61st chapter, Jesus read these words: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Then he rolled the scroll back up, handed it to the attendant and said: today this scripture has been filled full in your hearing.
Do you know what he was he talking about? What was filled full – or fulfilled – when he read from the prophet Isaiah? Do you know what Isaiah was talking about and why it could matter to you and me 2,000 years later? Any ideas? What strikes you about this lesson?

I think that there are three broad insights that were important once upon a time in first century Palestine – and continue to have relevance to us in the 21st century –if we’re willing to listen first to what Jesus the Jewish mystical poet was trying to communicate to those in that little Palestinian synagogue.

In fact there are three words – jubilee, compassion and hospitality – and those three words are at the heart of our new mission statement. What’s more, they help give shape and form to what it means to serve, honor, worship and celebrate the God of Israel. Three words:

+ Jubilee or yobel in Hebrew – compassion or mercy which is hesed in Hebrew
+ And hospitality – hakhnasat-orh.im – which literally means welcoming or taking in the guest

These three words are critical to us: for you see, when we put them together – when we covenant with one another to gather with God and each other to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and share compassion – we are embracing the heart of religion as first taught by the prophet Micah 800 years before Jesus. “What does the Lord require” asked the prophet, “but to do justice, to love compassion and walk together with God in humility.” (Micah 6:8)

So this morning I want to briefly review these words with you – jubilee, compassion and hospitality – so that we might better understand what Jesus meant to those who first heard him in the synagogue. And then consider what he might be saying to those who are gathered together in this faith community in 2010. And to help you open your head and heart to this study I’m going to ask my band mates to share with you the song “Hands” by Jewel.

This song not only captures a nuanced sense of awe and loving commitment – the marriage of head and heart/mercy and justice – it does so in a beautiful way. And as one of my favorite theologians, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, has said: The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin… and radical awe the antidote. So take a moment to rest in the awe of poetry, beauty and music…


She gets that so right: in the end only kindness matters. Not being right – not being the strongest or the best – or number one or any of what usually passes for wisdom in our bottom line existence. No, in the end, only kindness, mercy and compassion matters.

Jubilee – the acceptable year of the Lord as both Isaiah and Jesus call it – is about uniting holy and human kindness together. Jubilee comes from the Hebrew word yobel meaning “ram’s horn.” It was a trumpet like blast welcoming in a year of Sabbath living and is associated with the Latin word jubilo – to shout – in celebration. But shouting and trumpet blasts are not at the heart of jubilee – the Sabbath is – and there are some very clear Hebrew teaching about Sabbath living and jubilee celebrations.

What do you know about the Sabbath? What does it mean and how is it celebrated?

+ It is recorded in the Old Testament – in the 10 Commandments of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 as well as Genesis 2 – that creation was completed by God in six days and upon the seventh the Lord rested. So the Sabbath is a time for consciously savoring the beauty of creation.

+ In time it also became a religious labor law that prohibited work for all people so that every person – believer or not – and all of God’s creation – animals, the plants in the field as well as the earth itself – might be refreshed.

And Jubilee became a way of embracing the blessings of Sabbath rest in a social and even political manner. Every seventh year the land was to lie fallow so that it could rest and be refreshed – Israel was “green” long before it was popular or even necessary. It has been suggested that the Jubilee year started on the first day of the seventh month – on the festival or Rosh-ha-shannah or New Year – with a trumpet blast that invited all of creation into Sabbath.

And this idea of rest and renewal built upon the perfect number seven – the day of the Lord’s rest – was a gift that kept on giving. If the land was allowed to rest, so, too the workforce.

And if the workforce was allowed rest, so, too the debts that so often plagued the working and peasant class; that’s part of what we mean when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our debts as we forgive one another – not just sins and failures – but financial bondage was forgiven. So land was restored to its earlier owners – the goal was to forgive all debts – and encourage the totality of society to be refreshed by a Sabbath rest.

When there had been seven cycles of seven years – 49 years – a whole year of Sabbath rest was to begin with… a trumpet blast: Jubilee. And while it is not clear how much of this Jubilee spirituality was put into practice throughout the history of Israel, not only did it always remain the goal or promise, but it is what Jesus was talking about when he read from Isaiah.

+ Isaiah 61 is all about the acceptable year of the Lord – the Jubilee year – the crown of Sabbath rest and renewal.
+ Isn’t that what he says? I have been called by God to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord’s favor – one of the ways to speak of Jubilee – and now that scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

This way of living – this type of Christian spirituality – has NOTHING to do with “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior,” does it? No, this is about living in ways that are in harmony with others and the very land and creation itself.

St. Paul understood the Jubilee connection: that’s why he speaks to us living as one body. We are all connected – whatever happens to the weakest impacts us all. Whatever happens to Haiti – touches us all. Whatever happens in Afghanistan – or Iraq – or the homeless shelter or the home for abused children touches us all. Remember where Jesus told his disciples they would find God? Not in the temple or synagogue or prayer book or bible: wherever you care for one of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, there you will find the Lord.

And just so that we don’t miss how the Sabbath rest, forgiveness and social renewal of the Jubilee saturate Christ’s teaching, Jesus speaks specifically about compassion and hospitality: Hesed and hakhnasat-orh.im: you can’t make Jubilee flesh without these two ingredients.

+ Compassion – an English word borrowed from two French words – com (meaning with) and pati (meaning to suffer.) In English, compassion has to do with our willingness to suffer with another; to help them carry their load or burden or even their Cross. In Hebrew, hesed, is a reciprocal relationship – a love between God and humanity as well as between people – where the well-being of the other is just as important as our own survival.

+ And hospitality – radical hospitality – hakhnasat-orh.im – not only has to do with finding a place at the table for the unexpected guest and caring for him or her as you would your family. It is also means discovering the divinity within the other – seeing God in the face of the stranger – like the Hindus say in Sanskrit: Namaste. Literally, “the sacred in me recognizes the holy in you and bows in reverence.” Namaste – let me welcome you who are tired and hungry, cold and alone, poor and afraid – because the holy in my humanity recognizes the God within you and honors the Lord by caring for you.

These are radical and life-giving insights – this is a way of living 180 opposite the status quo – and it is all grounded in Sabbath. And unless we live and experience and share and celebrate Sabbath, beloved, we are unable to live into our calling of jubilee and compassion and hospitality. So what do we need to do to help us reclaim – and honor – a sense of Sabbath celebration within and among us?

What one act – or commitment – could you make that would allow you to be better rested, and, simultaneously more willing to express gratitude to God with your life?

+ Any ideas? What is going through your head or heart?

+ Let me offer one that is simple – and at the heart of Sabbath and Jubilee living: listening – listening to another, listening for God, being still without having to be the center of the universe.

The poet John Fox put it like this in his book Finding What You Didn’t Lose:

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 of 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 had 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.
Somewhere in the Bible we are told: be still and know that I am God. Such is the good news for those with ears to hear.

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...