Sunday, February 28, 2010

The pilgrimage...

For the past four years I have made a pilgrimage to an annual arts and spirituality conference. The first took us to Houston, Texas - others have taken place in New York City - and I look forward to these journeys and events for a variety on unrelated reasons.

+ First, when the conferences are in NYC, I get to stay with my oldest daughter and husband who have purchased a condo in Brooklyn. Not only is that always fun, but it feeds my soul to reconnect with my children. They always feed my soul - even when we are at odds - and thankfully that is rare.

+ Second, it gives me a time away from the work of the parish for reflection. I always return refreshed and renewed both physically and spiritually. These events are filled with serious and authentic thinkers who are also people of faith. When I was younger I questioned the need for such times away - there were too many important things to be accomplished - and now I hope I am not in such a rush. Besides, as Niebuhr observes, really worth accomplishing will be bigger than my life time.

+ And third I have started to cultivate a sense of pilgrimage about these trips that adds another dimension.
They are no longer just about the conference - or the difficulties involved in getting from one place to another - they are also about who I will meet along the way and what I will discover about myself.

A few years ago, for example, I found that returning to New York City terrified me. I wasn't physically afraid about crime, but I was overwhelmed at how fast the city moved. And how slow I had become - partially through aging - but also through contemplation. At first I wasn't sure why there was such anxiety rushing through my veins when I got on the subway. And then as the sweat poured off me it began to become clear that I no longer knew this terrain and needed more time to get my bearings. I now like to pause and make certain I'm heading in the right direction - and the NYC crowds already know where they're going!

I also came to realize that because I know longer know the drill, I feel like a rube. A sitting duck. At the very least a mugging waiting to happen until I get my "city attitude" back and can fake it. Back in seminary I used to have travel late on night on the subways - from Jamaica, Queens to the Upper West Side of Manhattan - and it always terrified me. But I was quicker and cockier back then - and I had a great street disguise, too that made me look like a homeless mad man - so NOBODY messed with me back then. Today... well let's just say I've been nurturing more of the tender warrior and it takes about 48 hours to get the urban groove back. Very humbling.

And I still love the pilgrimage. I meet the kindest most fascinating people on the drive - on the train - on the subways - and at the events. I am given the privilege to study and think deeply about art and spirituality and I embrace this as a sacred responsibility. And I get a chance to feast with two of my favorite people which is blessing upon blessing.

Once again I will travel solo this year because of Di's work commitments - and that always changes the nature of the pilgrimage - and I will miss her. I am ready for this next pilrimage to begin...
NOTE: After posting this I had a chance to sit and read the Sunday NY Times - one of my most favorite habits - and what do I discover by an article called, "Soulful Music at Its Heart" about a jazz club. Tillman's, at 165 W. 26th Street in Chelsea is just a stone's throw from my conference this week. Hmmmm.... looks like part of the journey is already being revealed. (www.tillmansnyc.com/)

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tourist at a miracle...

Another day of snow, taking care of busynesss and maybe some bread baking soon. I filmed a TV show early this afternoon for when we are away in Tucson in a few weeks (we do a weekly 30 minute show focus on my weekly spiritual message.) Today was a combo of reflection on one of my favorite passages of scripture - Matthew 11: 28-30 - some thoughts about how music has become a way of prayer for me and ways God might be bringing solace to those of us who have experienced religious burn-out.

At the end, my camera-man friend and parishioner wiped away some tears and simply said... "wow... that really connects." I am always surprised - and grateful - when I can both get out of my way enough to be real in these experiences and vulnerable, too. (Music friends: this was rather like taking Bob Franke's "Thanksgiving Eve," the Stones' "I Know Its Only Rock and Roll," George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," Dylan's "Just Like a Rolling Stone" and Joni Mitchell's "Marcie" - all of which I used - and putting it into a video blender with a little bit of Peterson's reworking of scripture. A lot of fun but I can't wait to see how it hangs together.)


When I got home, I came across this sweet little poem by Mark Statman that also seemed to be a part of the day:

hubo un milagro, she said,
a miracle
but in such a quiet voice
I had to ask her
to say it again
which she did
she didn't like it like that
a voces (loud)
it didn't seem as true anymore
she looked at me
it seemed just then
she must hate me
must hate anyone like me
she pointed down the road
curving, dusty
she said it was the way to the ruins
I didn't know
if I wanted to go
I already knew
I wouldn't see what she had seen

Off to make bread now... many blessings.

Friday, February 26, 2010

What I believe on yet another snowy day...

From time to time I like to add up the various "what I believe" insights that have flowed my way in life. Currently I have been touched by the following as yet another monster snow storm visits us for a while:

+ From the poet, Michael Blumenthal, who writes:

I believe there is not justice,
but that cottongrass and bunchberry
grow on the mountain.

I believe that a scorpion's sting
will kill a man,
but that his wife will remarry.

I believe that, the older we get,
the weaker the body,
but the stronger the soul.

I believe that if you roll over at night
in an empty bed,
the air consoles you.

I believe that no one is spared
the darkness,
and no one gets it all.

I believe we all drown eventually
in a sea of our making,
but that the land belongs to someone else.

I believe in destiny.
And I believe in free will.

I believe that, when all
the clocks break,
time goes on without them.

And I believe that whatever
pulls us under,
will do so gently,

so as not to disturb anyone,
so as not to interfere
with what we believe in.

Another poet, Matthew Rohrer, takes this direction:
I believe there is something else

entirely going on but no single
person can ever know it,
so we fall in love.

It could also be true that what we use
everyday to open cans was something
much nobler, that we'll never recognize.

I believe the woman sleeping beside me
doesn't care about what's going on
outside, and her body is warm
with trust
which is a great beginning.

Kevin Costner in the movie, "Bull Durham," makes his belief clear to Susan Sarandon like this:


William Thakeray gave his credo a shot like this:

For the sole edification
Of this decent congregation,
Goodly people, by your grant
I will sing a holy chant--
I will sing a holy chant.
If the ditty sound but oddly,
'Twas a father, wise and godly,
Sang it so long ago--
Then sing as Martin Luther sang,
As Doctor Martin Luther sang:
"Who loves not wine, woman and song,
He is a fool his whole life long!"

The wiley old Robert Fulagm of All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten writes:

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge-
That myth is more potent than history.
I believe that dreams are more powerful than facts-
That hope always triumphs over experience-
That laughter is the only cure for grief.
And I believe that love is stronger than death.

Reinhold Niebuhr believes that:

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

And I have become rather taken with this affirmation from the Community of Iona:

With the whole church we affirm that we are made in God's image, befriended by Christ and empowered by the Spirit. With people everywhere we affirm God's goodness at the heart of humanity, planted more deeply than all that is wrong. With all creation we celebrate the miracle and wonder of life; the unfolding purposes of God, forever at work in ourselves and the world.

And I still find myself gettin' back to it with songs like this from Trace Adkins - which is so wonderfully genre-bending in the best country/gospel/blues way - that it always grabs me where I live.


credits: 1) abs by gloria-aniela @ www.deviantart.com; 2) Faraway So Close by Alexandru 1988 @ http://www.deviantart.com/ 3) Sunday Morning Snow by bythewater @ http://www.deviantart.com/ 4) Holy Water by kolaboy @ http://www.deviantart.com/ 5) Makeshift Escape by DefaultUserName @ http://www.deviantart.com/

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Always changing and going deeper...

In addition to being really sick for the past week (this is finally over) I have been trying to work through a new insight about myself. Over the weekend an unsolicited offer to interview for a fascinating new job was sent my way. Now let me be clear to my congregation in Pittsfield, I am neither looking nor interested in leaving the calling God has shared with us all in this ministry of renewal. We are in this together and have some more good and important work to do together.

At the same time, I was stunned when this possibility came my way: in addition to the chance to live overseas in one of our favorite places, it was all about creative worship, hospitality and acts of compassion. From time to time these kinds of offers float through my life - and I am always flattered to be considered - but this one... Well, let's just say it stopped me in my tracks. So I took it into the realm of prayer - quiet and patient prayer - to see where I might be led. And I was rather stunned at having to own these three new insights.

+ First, for much of my life I have tried to live into a bold, social justice activist mold when in reality I am a much quieter poet and artist. It isn't that I don't believe in radical social change - I do on a host of levels - but my heart is much more contemplative. Artistic. Quiet. It always has been and I suspect it always will be. Sure, I love wildass rock and roll, too, but mostly I find myself playing quieter, bluesier music. (Dig this for example...)


Curiously, it has only been in the last five years that I have bee able to honestly embrace this truth and have changed my way of operating and the focus of my ministry. And still I am startled to have to own the very clear distinction within me between the outward activist and the inward artist.

+ Second, in order to honor and nourish this contemplative heart, I have come to see that I need to spend some quiet and alone time every day if I am also going to be energized and focused in my public work as pastor. For much of my professional life I have ignored this truth, pushing through each day with a vigorous schedule so that I could meet with LOTS of people. Too often, however, my presence in these meetings was either exhausted or resentful, because I really didn't want to be there. Or more accurately, I hadn't given myself enough quiet time to adequately meet my friends and parishioners so I was often not fully present.

In a sweet little book, The Pastor as Minor Poet, M. Craig Barnes focuses on part of the contemporary pastor's dilemma: in a market-driven world where marketplace metaphors define how we understand value and worth, pastors have come to believe that they must both satisfy the complaints/need of the congregation while always striving to expand and grow their church. The result, of course, is burnout and disappointment. We can NEVER satisfy the demands and needs of a congregation - that is God's job - all we can do is faithfully discern where God is breaking into the ordinary and journey there with our people.

This, too, takes time and careful listening, yes? Eugene Peterson writes in The Contemplative Pastor that the only solution is to let your calendar become your guardian. If you need an hour with Dostoevsky every week, pencil it in! If you need time to walk and think, make that happen, too. And then, when asked to offer a prayer at the Kiwanis comes up (or anything else because I like the Kiwanis) you can simply say with full honesty: my schedule won't allow that. No need to fabricate or avoid. To be a contemplative in an action-oriented world takes planning and strategies.

+ And third I have to own - and it is really hard but true - that I have not been called by God to live in some type of monastic-like community. One of the provisions of the job offer in question would require us to live in a very intentional Christian community. And that made me increasingly uncomfortable - and most of the past few days I've been trying to name why? What is it about living in close proximity to colleagues that feels oppressive and stifling to me? Selfishness? Partially, sure - lack of experience? Without a doubt. A break with 30 years of being on my own? Oh yeah...

But it is also that I haven't been called into that life: despite my very public work, I am an introvert who has to work very hard at being fully engaged in my public activities. And when they are done for the day, I crash - often really worn out - and need quiet and rest-filled breathers before going back out into the world. It isn't because I don't like people or social activities: they just drain me. So the thought of spending ALL my time living into my public calling was simply overwhelming. I am a minor poet who needs time away from the crowd. I tend to go into the hermitage model of prayer when visiting retreat houses. I love being engaged and need to step back, too.


It has been a wild roller coaster in prayer and sickness these last few days. I give thanks to God that I am not only feeling better physically but have a little more clarity about how I am always changing and going deeper in the Spirit, too.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Be careful of what you ask for...

On Monday I mentioned something about loving a snow day... and then woke up this morning (and got myself a gun?!?! No, no, that's another gig for another time) and found twice as much snow on the ground as there was when we went to bed. (For those who don't get the reference, it was the theme song to the HBO monster show: The Sopranos - and I was/am a hard core fan. So here's the original music clip - kinda rough in a 21st century Beggars Banquet way - but still a freakin' GREAT song!)


So I got the snow day I obliquely asked for, yes? A good time to hunker down for some more Tervor Herriot and his reflections on searching for wildness within the realities of contemporary life: Jacob's Wound is not only well written, it is engaging and challenging.

It is also a careful spiritual exploration of how the loss of wildness in our religion has blinded us to the presence of the sacred all around and within us: in nature, our loved ones, our politics and our psyche. He is precise and respectful with his words, a refreshing alternative to the often enraged polemics of those in the eco-justice realm, aways seeking a way to reclaim what has been plucked out of the Christian tradition.

In this I find a soul mate of sorts - he names what is both healthy and wounded in this faith - and then tries to discern how the integration of wildness, passion and depth might breath health back into that which has grown claustrophobic, weak and toxic. I think of Herriot much like this poem by Jan Sutch Pickard at the Community of Iona:

How can we comprehend it, God, this beauty and this pain?
How does it hold together?
Is there pattern our purpose?


On a still day,
warp and weft glimpsed in the gold threads of the dawn sky,
in the blue-grey restless waters of the Sound,
in our laughter and our tears,
in our life together in this place –
your mysterious weaving of the world.


In the song and surge of the waves
and the living silence of the hills.
In the welter of winter gales
and the sheltering space of the church or home.
In angry exchanges that unravel,
and words and spaces that heal.


In isolation and in solitude.
In welcomes at the jetty
and in saying goodbye.
In the wind-bent trees, blasted by salt
and flowers flourishing in the village gardens.
In busyness that leave no time
and folk making time, here and now.
In the richness of all we have lost.
In discord –
and in ceilidhs music,
stumbling in the dark –
and dancing under the stars.


How can we comprehend it:
Your beauty and ours – who are made in your image?
Our pain and yours – who chose to share our lives?
We cannot hold it together – but it holds us.

Help us to see pattern and purpose,
and our part
in the weaving of the world. Amen.


At the same time Herriot is honestly critical of the cost this blindness has brought to creation. Using the story of Jacob and Esau as a guiding archetype, he builds a case that the duplicity and violence set in motion by the conquest of the hunter/gather society by the agricultural realm can no longer be sustained in the 21st century. From the beginning, Jacob and Esau have been in a wrestling match - in the womb, in the world, in their youth and later in maturity as they wrestling with reconciliation.

The children of Jacob have come lately to the riverside in guilt and fear, our dreams of renewal and prosperity turned to nightmare's of wrestling with ancestral spirit, the hunters' guardian. Plundered gold and silver may have financed the centuries of war among the colonizing empires, but the fight that defines us now is our ambivalent embrace of the people whose blood has known these hills and plains the longest. We can no longer let the missionaries do our spirit grappling for us.

On a blustery and snow-filled day like today, it is clear that there is a partnership to living with this wildness that will probably take the rest of my life to discern. So, for now, I will give thanks for this unexpected retreat and celebrate the snow day quietly...

credits: Di and I took these two similar photos about 12 hours apart.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Still whacked by the flu... and now the snow!

Well as much as I feel better, I am still wiped-out with a stomach flu bug that I've been doing battle with on and off for the past week. I was really out of it on Monday and spent the better part of Tuesday writing and taking it slow. I am headed in the right direction now but feel knocked-down again tonight. And we just got about 8 inches of new snow - with a prediction of 6-20 more inches by tomorrow - so I will be moving very slow on Wednesday, too.

That said, after Di went skiing this afternoon in the snow, she came in and spent a few hours working on new pictures. (You can see some of her artistry on her facebook postings and more at her blogsite: cumulus)

So with her doing editing work, I found myself heading to my computer to pull up a few truly horrible pictures of me and my family from the teen wolf years. The first is a shot of the family from about 1969. I am the hulking mass in the coat next to my father wearing the brown tinted shades - a standard for me in those oh so glorious days of yesteryear. And, say, aren't my sisters stylish, too, in their late 60s gear?

Next comes a shot from the old family vacation home in Webster, Massachusetts at Lake Chargoggoaggmanchauggogoggchaubunagungamaugg. (And if you think I am making this up or simply reeling from a former drug-induced state, please visit: www.websterlakeassociation.com/ where you will find authentication.) At any rate, this lovely picture was taken in 1968 with my sister, Linda, my dear friend, Cathie, and my brother, Philip, performing one of his various comedy acts while I played "Alice's Restaurant" in the background.

One of my oldest friends, Ross, and I heard a folk singer rip Arlo's tune off after being at the Newport Folk Festival that year - and that song became a theme of mine throughout that wild and strange summer. If you want to get a feel for that era, check out these photo's from the Festival - it is a trip in the "way back" machine, for sure - but lots of fun: www.landyvision.com/photos/60s_artists/index.htm

The old "lake" cottage was a place beloved in our family - it had been purchased by my grandparents in the 30s - and many of our clan found themselves on an inexpensive and rustic honeymoon in that old barn. Church groups and family vacations, too. But when the family aged and moved all across the country - and taxes became too great - we had to sell off the old treasure...

Now, here's a treat: my brother, Phil, back in New College in Sarasota, Florida back in the day when he was a wildass poet. I am guessing this is in the late 70s but who really knows for sure?His future wife, Julie, is seated just below him and who knows the name of the babe seated next to him? They currently live in the Mission in San Francisco and we hope to visit them in May of this year after his duties as registrar are finished. They are both dear to my heart and I remember this look as if it were yesterday.

Finally... here's a picture from 1969 that I thought had been erased by time only to have another old high school friend send it - and post it - on Facebook. (This is a mixed blessing innovation, to be sure!) As the Vietnam War began to truly divide North Americans - and the student movement gained momentum - the October 15th "moratorium day" was an important event. All over the nation the goal was to pause and critically reflect on the whole nature of the war.

And at the conclusion of a day of conversation - and argument - in addition to study and lots of questions, there was a march through the center of our home town to speak out against the war. And guess who was at the head...?

Well, thanks be to God that Dianne takes beautiful pictures and that my flu bug will soon be over - but it was fun to find this shots - and humbling to post them. Here's one of my favorite tunes from that era...

Come on up to the house....

NOTE: Here are my sermon notes for the second Sunday of Lent - February 28th. As the next installment in my series re: Eucharistic spirituality, I am considering what it means to live as a blessing - both those who are blessed by God and those who advance blessings in God's world. I am particularly curious about the words of Jesus re: God coming to us like a mother hen to gather and protect her brood; as well as being unable to see Christ again until we can say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord." And, despite another snow cancellation, the band is going to try Tom Wait's tune, "Come On Up to the House" as part of the celebration. Join us if you are around, ok?


There is a life-time of wisdom for the church in the words Jesus shared with that small group of Pharisees on his way to the Temple:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killer of prophets, abuser of the messengers of God! How often have I longed to gather your children, gather them up like a hen with her brood safe under her wings— but you refused and turned away! And now it's too late: You won't see me again until the day you can say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

He’s talking about being a blessing to others – not a curse.

• He’s reminding them that God seeks to share comfort, healing and joy with us – not judgment and shame.

• And he’s making it clear that all too often religion becomes part of the problem rather than the solution to the brokenness of the world – and it breaks his heart.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, would that you had ears to hear and hearts to respond to the Lord – but you did not.” This is a lament – a grief filled expression of sorrow – a judgment from Jesus shared in the minor key of the blues that is intended to get under our skin and rattle us. There is nothing nice or safe about these words. They are supposed to wake us up, grab us where we live and shake us into an awareness that our lives often wound God’s beloved.

• But I don’t think they do that anymore: no, I suspect that rather than wake us up, they mostly put us to sleep – or sound irrelevant or worse.

• Because, you see, most of us don’t believe that Jesus is speaking to us in this passage. He’s talking about the Romans in first century Palestine – or else to those religious leaders with corrupt hearts who were plotting to kill him two thousand years ago – or maybe even to those in our day who talk about loving God but then murder abortion providers during worship or fly planes into buildings in the name of the Lord or want to put the 10 Commandments up in our courtrooms but have no commitment to living them out in their everyday lives.

It is like what Mark Twain used to say about the definition of a good sermon being one that goes right over my head to hit the person sitting behind me square in the heart. That’s a hard word, I know, but the documentation is that the fastest growing spiritual group in New England and all of the United States is to be found among those who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

• They don’t want to have anything to do with organized religion anymore because they think we’re hypocrites – stone cold phonies – who want the church to be our personal burial societies rather than the living body of Christ.

• They say that for the most part churches in our land might sing the old revival hymn, “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer” from time to time, but we don’t really believe that it’s ME, it’s ME, it’s ME, O Lord – not the preacher, not the deacon but it’s ME, O Lord – that’s standin’ in the need of prayer.

And I think they are on to something – but it is NOT that we have a monopoly upon hypocrisy – that’s just human nature and is true across the religious spectrum. My rabbi friends like to tell the story of the day when the local rabbi, “in a frenzy of religious passion, rushed before the ark of the covenant, fell to his knees and starting beating his breast, crying, ‘I am nobody. I am nobody!’”

The cantor of the synagogue, impressed by this example of spiritual humility, joined the rabbi on his knees, crying: “I am nobody! I am nobody!” Then the custodian, who was watching all of this from the corner, found himself filled with zeal and couldn’t restrain himself any longer. So he rushed to join the other two holy men on their knees calling out: “I am nobody, Lord. I am nobody!” AT which point the rabbi, nudging the cantor with his elbow, pointed at the custodian and said, “Hmmmm… look who thinks he’s a nobody!”

So, let’s be clear: nobody’s got a monopoly upon hypocrisy. Rather what I think our spiritual but not religious critics are helping us see is that unless we can show real evidence of being grounded in Christ’s radical love – a community of faith that acts like that momma hen gathering God’s children together for healing and hope – then we should be abandoned just as Jesus told us. Put more positively, we have been called by God to be a blessing – so let’s be clear about what that means for our generation.

It is my conviction, you see, that living as part of God’s blessing for the world asks us to integrate God’s grace on two levels: the strategic and the spiritual – the institutional and the personal – the public and the private. And let me explain both so that we’re on the same page.

Publicly I don’t think the people of Jesus Christ can preach to the world any more - at least not for the time being. We’ve shot ourselves – and often everyone else – in the foot too many times to be taken seriously. So what I sense this moment in time requires is a bold sense of humor mixed with an earthy spirituality that assures broken people that we’re all in this together.

• Humor, you see, is ultimately about sharing the truth with humility. It comes from the word humus – of the earth – and has to do with being grounded in God’s grace.

• How does the Bible put it: in the beginning – on the day the Lord made the earth and the heavens – the Lord God formed a human from the dust of the ground – adam ha adama – and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life so that the earth being became a living being – nephesh chayah – filled with the breath of the Lord?

This is not an age for didactic or doctrinal preaching – there’s simply no trust nor common ground – except in our brokenness. Henri Nouwen puts it like this in his little book, Life of the Beloved.

I suspect that many people suffer from a deep sense of being cursed not blessed. When I simply listen to what they are talking about during dinner, in restaurants, during work breaks, I hear much – much blaming and complaining in a spirit of passive resignation. Many people, and we too at times, feel like we’re victims of a world we cannot change and the daily news doesn’t help with that feeling. (NOTE: Nouwen wrote this in 1992 – way before the 24/7 assault of cable news – which has only intensified these feelings.) Look at what is happening throughout the world – look at the starvation – the refugees – the prisoners – the sick and the dying… Look at the poverty, the injustice and war. Look at the torture, the destruction of nature and culture… look at your daily struggle with our relationships, our work, our health… where is the blessing?

That’s where humor – and humility – and storytelling and music come into our ministry: they help us find common ground. They help us discover God’s blessings in the most unlikely places. And they help us claim where the blessings of the one who comes in the name of the Lord are taking place every day. Humor and humility, you see, are about honesty.

In his autobiography, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold, wrote: Humility is just as much the opposite of self-abasement as it is of self-exultation. To be humble is not to make comparisons. Secure in its reality, the self is neither better nor worse, bigger nor smaller, than anything else in the universe. It simply is… (simultaneously) nothing and yet at the same time one with everything.

Strategically – publicly – institutionally, humor is one of the ways we can communicate something of God’s blessing with a world that doesn’t trust us. Do you hear what I’m saying? I am convinced that one of the best ways to share the good news of Jesus Christ is through clear and thoughtful self-deprecating humor. Because, when we can laugh at ourselves, we don’t have to laugh at another’s expense: it is a spiritual commitment for rebuilding trust in a broken world.
The same goes for how we use music in worship: if we only celebrate the sounds of the elite and perfect here we are communicating that there is no place for our brokenness in our church. And that is not only untrue – adding insult to injury – it advances the judgments of the world rather than the earthy forgiveness and grace of God.

• That is why I insist that there be something besides German chorales every Sunday – not that I have anything against high culture.

• But given the brokenness of the world and Christ’s calling to reach out in healing to all who are tired, wounded and beaten down by shame… we have to go the extra mile – and as jarring as it is to some ears, the music of the people in popular culture says: there is a place for you at our table.

Take this song by one of the most low-down jazz artists of this era: Mr. Tom Waits. He sounds like a junkyard dog, he is about as lovely as sin itself. Yet he speaks of God’s grace in ways would make even Mozart and Bach envious. (This is a little sweeter version than Waits' original, but still right on!)


With humor and earthiness this “gospel song” is about invitation and hope - it speaks of living with gratitude not obligation – and it bubbles up from below rather pours down from above. To be sure, I am not saying this in the ONLY sound we should include in worship. Just look at what’s on the menu for today and you’ll see that it includes: a great old American folk hymn, chants and responses from Africa, the classical sounds of Europe as well as a modern Roman Catholic song of praise. And when we add the music of Tom Waits to the mix, well let’s just say that it makes certain that we set a place for EVERYONE at the blessing table of Jesus Christ.

Those are a few of the strategic and public commitments I believe are critical for us in communicating Christ’s good news at this moment in time. And there are two personal and spiritual commitments that are important to nourish privately if we’re going to be authentic, ok?They include:

• Time in prayer: Henri Nouwen puts it so well when he tell us that in order to live as a blessing in the world, we need to spend time everyday being nourished from the inside out by God’s love. This takes quiet practice where we simply accept God’s grace. He writes: “I am so afraid of being cursed and hearing that I am no good or not good enough that I can quickly give into the temptation to start telling God what I need rather than remain still… but when I let myself rest in the voice of God’s love” I discover that God’s presence is soft and healing. Like a mother hen…

• He suggests sitting quietly and using a simple phrase to ground your heart in God’s grace. Maybe something like the words of St. Francis – make me an instrument of thy peace– or just a word – Abba – Healer of my soul – gentle spirit. By resting in God’s presence, we let ourselves be filled and healed from the inside out.

That is the first inner commitment – and the second is equally gentle: looking for and naming the blessings that happen every day in ordinary ways. You don’t have to invent them – and you don’t have to fake them either – they are all around if you aren’t too busy to claim them. They are everywhere: The laughter of children – the beauty of the snow fall – the embrace of a friend – the cooperation of colleagues at work – the safety and serenity of this Sanctuary – the grace of sobriety – the humor of gentle poetry and storytelling – the beating of our hearts.

When we practice these two inner spiritual commitments – quiet prayer and recognizing the blessings of our ordinary existence – Nouwen writes this: “I must tell you that when you claim your own blessedness by God, it always leads to a deep desire to bless others. For the characteristic of the blessed one is that wherever they go, they always speak words of blessings to the world.”

That is they build trust – they break down barriers – and they make connections beyond fear and hypocrisy. I think the American poet, Billy Collins, got this perfectly right in his poem, “The Lanyard.” It not only feels to me like what church could be in the spirit of Jesus, but resonates with the Lord when he told us: you won’t be able to see me again until you can say blessed in the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Collins writes:

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light


and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

Gentle humor and humility – earthy spirituality mixed with quiet prayer and gratitude – such is the path that nourishes God’s blessings within and among us. So let those who have ears to hear, hear.

Credits: 1) Irv Davis, "Painting of Jerusalem Palms" @ About.com: Judaism; 2) David Avisar. "Praying for Jerusalem" @ Jewish-Art-and-Gifts.com; 3) Spiritual Formation @ Missionaloutreachnetwork.com; 4) Norman Rockwell, "Do Unto Others" 5) St. John's Genesis @ Per-Crucem-ad-Lucem; 6) Chidi Okoye, "Humility" @ modernartimages.com; 7) Michelle Levian, "A Song for You" @ amapedia.amazon.com; 8) Arthur Danto, "Posture of Contemplation" @ intersectcommunity.com; 9) C. Robin Janning, "Pour Out the Heart" @ Image and Spirit.blogspot.com

Monday, February 22, 2010

Sick day...

Today... is a sick day (damn it!) When I was a kid, I LOVED sick days when I could stay at home, watch TV with my mom or just read comic books and rest. And while I still love adult SNOW days - so quiet and gentle like an unexpected mini-retreat - I don't have much patience for sick days. But my wife said she'd kick my ass - gently and lovingly to be sure but still... - if I went to work today, so I am home.

And I've been thinking a lot about tears all morning: when they swell up within me, why I so often resist them and how hard it has been to simply let them come. About a hundred years ago, Dianne shared with me a poem by the Native American poet, Pat Mora, that taught her something about the wisdom of tears - and this was long before we moved to the desert and saw the way the earth spoke these truths. "Lesson 1" puts it like this:

The desert is powerless
when thunder shakes the hot air
and unfamiliar raindrops slide
on rocks, sand, mesquite,
when unfamiliar raindrops overwhelm
her, distort her face.
But after the storm, she breathes deeply,
caressed by a fresh sweet calm.
My Mother smiles rainbows.

When I feel shaken, powerless
to stop the bruising sadness,
I hear My Mother's whisper:

Mi'ja

don't fear your hot tears
cry away the storm, then listen, listen.


That is one thing I have come to trust about tears - I rarely understand them until after they flow - then, very much like the Sonoran desert, there is refreshment and a measure of wisdom and insight.

It seems that there is another element to tears, too: they open my heart to both the deep sadness that is all around us, and, they connect my heart to the possibility of compassion. With striking regularity I weep EVERY TIME I hear - or sing - this song by Mary Chapin Carpenter.


When she gets to the line, "And I can see by the way you're searching for something you can't even name - that you haven't been able to come to the table - I'm simply glad that you came..." I weep. I weep for all the sadness and hurt that still is locked away inside, I weep for those whom my religion pushes away from Christ's open table of grace, I weep for the wounds my country inflicts for good and for ill and sometimes I just weep because of the aching sorrow that haunts the world.

Curiously - and almost simultaneously though - I realize I am also weeping for the grace and joy that lives right alongside of the pain. Grace that I have tasted and touched, too. Such a paradox calls to mind some verses in scripture:

+ First from Psalm 126: they that sow in tears shall reap in joy; and the one who goes forth in weeping will bear precious seed and doubtless will return with rejoicing bringing bounty, too. Commentators suggest this was born from the time Israel's captivity in Babylon when the joy of release was ecstatic. It evokes that memory as a means of faith so that any experience of tragedy and tears can be named as only part of our reality. It will not last forever. Interestingly, some translators suggest this reading: they that sow in tears shall reap in songs of joy בְּרִנָּ֥ה. Certainly the intensity of music deepens both my sense of sorrow and gratitude...

+ Second there are these words from Ecclesiastes 3 and Matthew 5: they clearly remind me that weeping is not only part of the rhythm of sacred living, but one of the path's to God's comfort.

To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to reap that which is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. A time to get and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace


Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
.


+ And then the insights of St. Paul in both Romans 12 and II Corinthians 6: Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another.

As I understand it, in Romans Paul's catalog involves his instruction in counter-cultural spirituality: a follow
er of Christ Jesus is NOT conformed to the world, but rather lives as one resurrecting the life of Jesus in her/his flesh. And part of this resurrection living has to do with compassion - sharing the wounds of others rather than ignoring them - yet moving towards joy at the same time: χαίρειν μετὰ χαιρόντων, κλαίειν μετὰ κλαιόντων.

And he repeats this commitment to paradoxical spirituality in II Corinthians: as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

I rather like the old translation that keeps everything active: ὡς λυπούμενοι ἀεὶ δὲ χαίροντες, ὡς πτωχοὶ πολλοὺς δὲ πλουτίζοντες, ὡς μηδὲν ἔχοντες καὶ πάντα κατέχοντες. As sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing and yet possessing all things.


NOTE: (about 5 hours later plus a nap) While watching TV it came to me: HOW COULD I HAVE FORGOTTEN THE MOST OBVIOUS SCRIPTURE? JESUS WEPT....

Hmmmmmm? Well, now it REALLY IS time to go back to being sick again...



Sunday, February 21, 2010

Feast or fast...

My honey is out cross country skiing while I am inside shaking with a fever and nasty stomach flu. I made it through worship - thank God for a printed manuscript when I feel unable to complete a sentence - and then rushed back home for bed. A lot of Lenten thoughts running through my head today - from a guest in church commending the film "Precious" to the start of a new children's choir preparing a punked-up tune called "Undignified" for Palm Sunday - but all of that will have to wait until this bug passes. Until then, here's a little reflection on fasting and feasting that I found touched me...

Fast from worry; feast on trusting God.
Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation.
Fast from negatives; feast on affirmatives.
Fast from hostility; feast on tenderness.


Fast from judging others; feast on Christ dwelling in them.

Fast from fear of illness; feast on the healing power of God.
Fast from words that pollute; feast on speech that purifies.
Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude.

Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from discouragement; feast on hope.


Fast from suspicion; feast on truth.
Fast from lethargy and apathy; feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from gossip; feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from problems that overwhelm; feast on prayer that sustains.

Fast from thoughts that weaken; feast on promises that inspire.
Fast from apparent darkness; feast on the reality of light.

Tonight I have friends and loved ones in Nicaragua, Israel, and Afghanistan that I want to hold dear in prayer and God's love. I have "blogging buddies" from Canada, the UK and Australia that I also hold in prayer. My sisters caring for my wildass father, my daughters travelling home after time away and my dear wife.

Today's prayer feels like this sweet tune from Altan...


Friday, February 19, 2010

A day of contradictions...

The wonderful African-American poet, Lucille Clifton, died last weekend at the age of 64. I used one of her poems on Ash Wednesday as an invitation to embrace the season of Lent as an inward journey. Her poem, "we are running" is spot on:

We are running
running and
time is clocking us
from the edge like an only
daughter.
our mothers stream before us,
cradling their breasts in their
hands.

oh pray that what we want
is worth this running,
pray that what we're running
toward
is what we want.

I was thinking of this poem as our Sabbath began with a long and leisurely read of the New York Times over breakfast before we headed out into the woods for cross country skiing. The snow was too wet and sticky, however, to really be satisfying so after about 45 minutes of mostly walking in our skis, we called it quits. It clearly was not what we wanted.

Later in the day, I had been invited to give an invocation for a National Guard troop of engineers who are about to deploy for Afghanistan. It was a humble and complex honor and I wept more than I expected riding over to the event. I wept, too, as a new friend sang the National Anthem (I almost always do) and I was moved deeply when the young men entered the auditorium.

One of the complexities of this war is that more often than not, it is our troops on the ground who are best able to advance the cause of peace. Given the extreme violence and volatility, NGOs are mostly ineffective - or simply AWOL. So it is too harsh for the usual peace-makers to play a role. So now there is a two tiered process that I pray will be successful: One involves driving Al Queda out of their rural strongholds; and the second has to do with sharing resources, security, road building and even the building of schools with the remaining civilians.

In Greg Mortenson's new book, Turning Stones into Schools, he tells how General McCrystal understands that counter-insurgency must be about sharing resources, hope and schools with people who have been forgotten and abused by urban politicians for decades. This is not a war that can be won simply with ground troops or so-called "smart" weaponry. It must be about sharing safety, justice, resources and hope with those who have historically been used and discarded. And now Three Cups of Tea is required reading for all troops deploying for Afghanistan.

So, I prayed for these young men (they were exclusively men) who will bring their engineering skills to this wounded place - and wondered if all this running would be worth it. I prayed for peace, I prayed for caring for comrades in arms as well as the Afghan civilians and I prayed for a safe and honorable end to this tragic war.

It was an unusual Sabbath, to be sure, and it made the cost of this war and peace vivid for me in new ways. I will be following our Berkshire troops as this year unfolds and holding them close in my heart. I will also be urging out new church peace-makers to both raise immediate funds for Greg Mortenson's schools in Afghanistan and build a long-term commitment with his organization so that we might be a part of the rebuilding of that land. For I am certain that THAT type of running would be worth the effort.

And at the end of this Sabbath I found myself feeling like this tune by Kings of Leon...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The day after...

Today I spent the noon hour talking with a colleague in ministry about church renewal - something I have rather stumbled into over the years - and hold dear to my heart. Like so many other congregations throughout the US, this one is small and struggling - perhaps more interested in survival than discerning a new mission - and stuck. It was a blessing to be asked to share some ideas over lunch and I look forward to seeing what the Spirit will bring to this faith community as this new year unfolds because there is clearly creativity, faith and commitment at work.

As I drove back to town, loving the sight of fresh snow and sunlight on the mountain, I had the chance to think about a few of the things I have learned doing this work over the past 28 years. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but each of these things are important:

+ Serving, creating and sharing must be built on joy and gratitude rather than obligation. My Pentecostal sisters and brothers got this right and it is essential: we are about life - and life in abundance - not fear, rules, habits or building maintenance. Like Jesus said, "I have come so that your joy may be full." We came here to both share what we've learned AND to do it with joy. So every now and again we ask ourselves: are you still having fun? And if not - why?

+ Most existing congregations have been trained poorly in practicing hospitality - radical and life-sustaining hospitality - and half the challenge of renewal is turning this fact upside down. I just finished reading Susan Drinker Moran's book about the first Congregational church in Cambridge, MA - Gathered in the Spirit - and she helps clarify why it is so often so painful for our churches to welcome the stranger like Christ. In England before 1630 - and in the New World since then - membership was a tight, closed and highly exclusive discipline. Only those who had fully experienced their total depravity as sinners - and been given the free gift of God's healing grace - could be members of the early Congregational churches.

Which, as Moran notes, meant that for the insiders the community of faith was secure and homogeneous; but for those without the necessary spiritual experiences - for guests or those not part of the in group - church was a painful and off limits house of shame and rejection. And while most of our congregations have rejected the old theology (thanks be to God) the old ways are deep in our spiritual DNA - mostly as sins of omission rather than commission - but they still push out, ignore and overlook guests. And until this culture is interrupted, clearly named and a strategy created for learning new ways of radical hospitality, most people will stay away - or at the very least not return.

+ In addition to replacing gratitude for obligation and radical hospitality for an exclusive understanding of membership, churches have to clearly stand for something counter cultural. It is not enough to be the "country club at prayer" - or a spiritual Kiwanis - or just a vaguely prayerful Girl Scout troop. That the Cross has been lost in many of our faith communities - forgotten or else privatized and spiritualized - becomes clear when real hospitality and joy starts to take root: as soon as new folk start to explore an old church - and the idea of renewal has to become flesh rather than intellectual abstraction - there is always fear, confusion and prejudice to deal with. Why? Too many churches think of themselves as "burial societies" rather than the living Body of Christ - and as Moran notes - this has been part of the challenge of the church in what we now call the United States since 1650!

One of my mentors, who used to work a tough neighborhood in inner city Detroit, used to say: Look, all we have to offer people is Jesus. Disneyland does entertainment better. Bars offer more people to date. And movie houses and theme parks do recreation better than we ever can. All we have is Jesus - but Christ is enough - because his love and grace and presence brings healing and hope. So just work at nourishing and feeding Christ in your congregation - the full Christ including his life, death and resurrection - and with patience and creativity he will rise from the dead.

I still believe he is right: I have seen this - I have experienced this - and I have found that my ministry has been built on the life, death and resurrection of Christ, too. So as this Lent is starting I am grateful for the reminders on this beautiful day in the Berkshires. Thanks for the chance to have conversation and lunch over the mountain and thanks for the chance to reflect and pray on the drive home. With patience, trust, humor, prayer, community, the willingness to take risks, real Christian formation study and a profound willingness to rest in the care of the Holy Spirit... Christ can bring our churches into new life. Like Mark Twain said when asked if he believed in infant baptism: Believe in it - man I've SEEN it!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

I love Steve Earle's take on the words of Ash Wednesday: ashes to ashes, dust to dust...

So as Ash Wednesday unfolds here in the Berkshires the Sanctuary is prepared - communion bread is ready and the candles are set - all that's needed is a little olive oil in the ashes and we're ready for 7:30 pm worship. I like the way Gertrud Mueller-Nelson speaks of this observance:

Thinking about Lent is not my favorite thing to do. In fact, I rather hate it. Every year, when the subject comes up, I see myself resist. I can think about Advent, about expectancy. It holds some concerns, but to be impregnated with new life is a rather hopeful subject. During Advent we rejoice as we open ourselves to the mysteries of the marriage of heaven to earth. But in Lent we come to know that the only way to our own healing and wholeness comes paradoxically through dismembering - and appallingly painful process which life offers us, ready or not, and which Lent give us the form and meaning for. "They have piece3d my hands and my feet and have numbered all my bones.


It is a very old tradition of God's to pick his inept, reluctant, non-eloquent types to carry the message of change and atonement. Worse yet,peddling penance is unpopular. It doesn't sell. That makes anyone trying to carry his message home a candidate for painful ineptitude.

The good news about doing Ash Wednesday amidst New England congregationalists is that it is all essentially new territory for us. To be sure, we've seen our Catholic and Episcopal neighbors with their ashes marked by the sign of the cross, but in 246 years, our congregation has only observed Ash Wednesday twice - both on my watch - and this year will be round three. So there is a freshness in reclaiming this ancient ritual designed to help us practice dying to self so that the true self might grow stronger. I am intellectually and emotionally ready for the fast to begin but as is so often true for me: the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. And so we pray:

All Loving God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Notes for Lent One: Taken

NOTE: After our observance of Ash Wednesday tomorrow - February 17th - we will move into the 40 days of a Holy Lent. Here are my worship notes for Sunday, February 21st, the first Sunday in this season. I will be going deeper into the "Eucharistic spirituality" that has grabbed my attention over the past two weeks. Drawing heavily from Henri Nouwen's little book, The Life of the Beloved, we will explore what it means to be "taken, blessed, broken and shared." Our Lent will also include two study conversations: on Wednesdays at 12 noon, Luther Pierce and I will host a conversation re: "Faithfully Facing Dying" using study material from the United Church of Christ. And on Mondays at 7 pm, I will lead a group in "Lord, Teach Us to Pray" as an exploration of many styles of prayer.


Lent is a time to remember, writes Dianne Bergant, remember specifically that we are dust. And the reason the Church calls us to Lent again and again is so we might remember the salvation that only God can give. Apparently it is human nature to forget – to overlook – to become so busy and self-obsessed that we start living as if we were the center of the universe.

• Politicians and marketing companies know this – and saturate our days with jingles and commercials and images that are so catching and seductive that they worm their way into our deepest selves without our ever knowing.

• Ever find yourself humming or singing one of those insipid but addictive commercials – and the harder you try to quit the more insistent and maddening it becomes?

It is small wonder that some of our most creative – and well-paid – minds go into marketing, right? Human beings can only manage so much information at one time. So if you want your message to be dominant, then you have to remind and reinforce over and over again.

And so we return to Lent – our annual spiritual infomercial – that was created to help us remember the salvation that only God can provide. Because, you see, given all the competing messages that are at work for our attention, another human truth is that most of us will only hear and honor what we want to hear and embrace. Frederick Buechner has written that:

Because the Word that God speaks to us is always an incarnate word – a word spelled out to us not alphabetically, in syllables, but enigmatically, in events and books and even the movies we see or the music we listen to – the chances are we will never get it just right. We are so used to hearing what we want to hear and remaining deaf to what it would be well for us to hear that it is hard to break the habit. (It takes practice)… to keep our hearts and minds open as well as our ears, but if we do this we will come to recognize, beyond all doubt, that however faintly we hear God, the Lord is indeed speaking to us… (about a salvation that only God can give.)

And so we return – again and again – to Lent asking for ears to hear. Like Jesus in the desert wilderness, it is very easy to become confused – especially when confronting choices about how we live that might bring us greater comfort, honor and social satisfaction. Who doesn’t want their lives to be simpler, less painful and more rewarding? As Kate Huey of the United Church of Christ has asked: Why shouldn't Jesus satisfy his hunger with a little bread, and wouldn't it be great if Jesus ruled the world (instead of the hated Romans), and how impressive would it be if Jesus flung himself off the temple roof and a thousand angels came to rescue him? If Jerusalem witnessed that one amazing thing, early on in Jesus' ministry, perhaps there would be no need for the rest of the Gospel, right?”

• That’s the wisdom of marketing, right? Razzle dazzle – sex appeal – the lure of power and prestige? NBC television received over $261 million in advertising for this year’s Super Bowl. One executive said, "The Super Bowl has become one of our country's biggest holidays, a uniquely American day, and advertisers recognize the value in being a part of it."

• And what was advertised? Doritos, Budweiser, sexy women, stupid men and high priced cars. There is a whole subset on the Internet ranking what are the best Super Bowl commercials of all time, did you know that?

In some ways, the community of faith born of Jesus Christ doesn’t stand a chance against that kind of money, power and sex appeal. But it never has – and winning in terms of the world has never been Christ’s goal. Theologian Sharon Ringe puts it like this: "Public relations stunts contradict the gospel, and indeed, the heart of Jerusalem will prove to have another welcome for Jesus – the Cross – because of the nature of the gospel he brings" and his refusal to play by their rules.

And so we return to Lent – quietly and carefully – with song and prayer and silence. Very different from the Super Bowl, yes? And we return to our consideration of how it is we might live as God’s beloved. Throughout the season of Epiphany, God’s light illuminated the true nature of Jesus as the Lord’s beloved. Remember last week when amidst the prayers on the mountain the voice of God shared these words with the disciples: this is my beloved with whom I am well pleased? Well, Lent is one of the ways we are asked to remember – and practice – how to live as God’s beloved.

Using Henri Nouwen’s insights that just as there are four movements offered to the bread of Holy Communion – it is taken, blessed, broken and then shared – so, too, are there four spiritual commitments to living as God’s beloved in our daily lives. Today we go more deeply into the first discipline: taken. Nouwen writes:

To become the beloved of God we, first of all, have to claim that we are taken. That might sound very strange at first, and yet it is essential to becoming the Beloved… therefore the first step in the spiritual life is to acknowledge with our whole being that we have already been taken by God.

Now think about that: God has already taken you and claimed you as the Lord’s beloved. There is an abruptness and force to this grace that is supposed to remind you that even though you must put this blessing into practice, first and foremost, the blessings of God are an act of God. God takes us – calls us – and chooses us before we are ever involved.

• Like bread at the Eucharist, we don’t bake ourselves – we don’t come to the table all by ourselves either – we are carried, chosen, taken.

• You see, to be taken by God is a humbling awakening – it tells us that God cherishes us profoundly and there is nothing we can do to earn this love.

• Did you get that? There is NOTHING we can do to earn God’s grace – and that makes some people crazy: we want to be in control – we ache to be in charge – we love having things to do and lists to check off.

But Lent isn’t about what we can do – it’s about what God wants to do for us – and the temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness blast that out like a trumpet call for those with ears to hear. Each of Christ’s temptations – certainly their goals – could be good. What’s wrong about wanting to “feed the hungry, bring the world under the control of good and trust in God's power to protect us?” Our motivation suggests one scholar:

So often we choose to accomplish good things in ways that are less than admirable. We try to perform the extraordinary so what we do reflects favorably on us. We use brute force in order to achieve control. We put God to the test rather than live peacefully with God's plan as it unfolds within and around us. We seek to become the super-hero, the super-minister, the super-Christian, on our own.

Over and over again, even when scripture is quoted and tradition invoked, Jesus tells his adversary: Stop – it takes more than bread to be fully alive – so I will not tempt the Lord my God. Stop. The first insight to living as God’s beloved is that it is all up to God – not you or me or any of our actions – which should be simultaneously humbling and liberating.

I love the way Nouwen puts this in his book The Life of the Beloved when he writes:

From all eternity, long before you were born and became a part of history, you existed in God’s heart. Long before your parents admired you or your friends acknowledged your gifts or your teachers, colleagues and employers encouraged you, you were already chosen. They eyes of love had seen you as precious, as of infinite beauty, as of eternal value And when love chooses, it chooses with a perfect sensitivity for the unique beauty of the chosen one – what’s more it chooses without making anyone else feel excluded. For to be chosen is not about competition… it is about embracing… which is perhaps something only our hearts can ever grasp.

Isn’t that right – that perhaps only our hearts can grasp that since the beginning of time you and you and you – were embraced and chosen in love to be God’s precious beloved? How counter-cultural is that? The anti-thesis of the Super Bowl! And I’m not picking on professional sports – although I think it is obscene and unholy that athletes are paid in the millions of dollars while teachers and doctors and nurses and counselors are treated like yesterday’s fashion. No, what I’m trying to show is how totally counter-cultural – upside down – and humbling are the tender values of Jesus Christ.

• They have NOTHING to do with what we call civilization. That’s why Jesus is out in the wilderness, you know? He wants to show us that the way of God – the life of the beloved – is born outside the status quo. It is not only beyond the rules and habits of the privileged, it is born at the borders of the city. In the wilderness – on the fringes of everything we know to be nice.

• That’s why Jesus is out in the desert, you know? “Out beyond the domestication of reality as defined by culture and human exchange,” writes Marcus Borg, Jesus is searching for the wild and liberating truth of God. Like his mentors throughout Jewish history – Moses and Elijah whom he prayed with on the mountain last week or his wild man cousin, John the Baptist – Jesus is on a vision quest.

He is in training for how to live in a way that will turn the world upside down so that it can finally be right-side up according to the very grace of God. Dare I say he is practicing how to live and trust that he is the beloved of God? And if Jesus had to practice – and remember – let’s just say that it is likely that we do, too.

So here are two ways of practicing, cultivating and saturating yourself in the knowledge that you truly are the beloved of God:

• First, when the world hurts you: when your loved ones wound you – when the marketing gurus assure you that you are too fat or too thin – too stupid or too boring – too old or too young – too ignorant or over qualified – whenever that happens and it happens every single day of our lives YOU have to reclaim the truth of God.

Every time you feel hurt, offended or rejected, you must say to yourself: These feelings, strong as they may be, are not my true self… for I am a chosen child of God – precious in the Lord’s eyes – beloved from all eternity and held safe in God’s everlasting embrace.

• And second the best way to remind yourself that you are beloved is to find countless little ways to say thank you to the Lord.
“Gratitude is the most fruitful way of deepening your consciousness that you are not an accident, but a divine choice,” writes Nouwen. We are inclined to complain – go towards bitterness rather than gratitude – carp rather then find a way to celebrate and it poisons us heart from the inside out.

I’ve seen it in action – I’ve witnessed how destructive it can be to the ones I love – and I’ve seen how well intentioned church people can suck the joy out of life because they grasp bitterness rather than gratitude.

So I’m going to give you something that you can take home with you – something that has changed my life and helped me practice choosing to know that I am God’s beloved – ok? And you can use it or discard it as you like. I don’t remember where I found it – I have no idea who wrote it – but I’ve been carrying it around with me for about 15 years and it really helps.

It’s called a letter from God and you can read it whenever you need it. It says…

Dear James: This is God. Today I will be handling all your problems for you. I do NOT need your help. So, have a wonderful day. I love you.

PS – remember… if life happens to deliver you a situation that you cannot handle, do not attempt to resolve it all by yourself. Kindly put it into the SFGT box – something for God to do – and know that I will get to it in my own time. All situations will be resolved, but in my time, not yours. And once the matter is in the box, do not hold onto it by worrying. Instead, focus on all the blessings that are present in your life right now.

If you find yourself stuck in traffic, don’t despair: there are people in this world for whom driving is an unheard of privilege. Should you have a bad day at work, think of the man who has been out of work for years. Should you despair over a relationship gone bad, think of the person who has never known what it is like to love and be loved in return. Should you grieve the passing of another weekend, think of the woman who has to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week just to feed her children or purchase health care.

Should your car break down, leaving you miles away from assistance, think of the paraplegic who would love to take that walk. Should you notice a new gray hair in the mirror, think of the person with cancer in chemo who wishes she had hair to examine. Should you find yourself at a loss and pondering what life is all about, asking what is my purpose: be thankful – there are those who didn’t live long enough to get the opportunity.

And should you find yourself the victim of another’s bitterness, ignorance, smallness or insecurities, remember: things could be worse – you could be one of them.

This Lent, dear people, God wants you to know that you are the beloved being made whole in Christ Jesus our Lord.

credits: seasonal cross by Gertrud Mueller-Nelson in To Dance with God; Desert Garden by Byashim Nurali; St. Joseph with Jesus by Michael O'Brien

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