Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Moving towards Easter...

One of my old friends back in Ohio recently wrote that many - if not most - of our children do not know what makes this week "holy" because Western Christianity has become so culturally conditioned by convenience. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Jewish Seder that asks, "what makes this night (Passover) different from all the rest?" he goes on to say that without entering the liturgical expressions found in both Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, contemporary Christians - children and adults alike - remain clueless. While this is probably equally true within contemporary Jewish homes, too, I have a few reactions to his insight.

+ First, participation in Protestant or Roman Catholic liturgy does not a disciple make, yes? And while I would never assume to understand the mysterious working of grace in the heart of a person in worship, I also trust that the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives will be visible. The word will become flesh: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Galatians 5:22)

+ Second, I know that my experience in Reformed liturgy left my understanding of Holy Week malnourished for years. Growing up, Maundy Thursday was a time for table communion - sometimes Tenebrae - but never foot washing. Why? Because that was what Roman Catholics did - so I was trained in a somber Eucharist without any understanding that God's gift of grace was to be shared in radical servant hood. Also, many Reformed believers only celebrated Eucharist in an "upper room" mode - fearful, quiet and obsessed with Christ's death - and then only four times per year. Where do we learn about the Emmaus Road Eucharist - that opens our eyes to the Resurrection and God's joyful presence? Or our encounter with Christ in community Eucharist?


(This Tenebrae setting is, obviously, a monastic one - which is where the liturgy began; too often the Reformed appropriation is a pale and limp approximation of this rich and nuanced worship experience.)

What's more, my early encounter with both Palm Sunday and Good Friday were equally truncated by the anti-Catholic fears of my Reformed history. Palm Sunday, as a child, was often more jubilant than Easter - or else Easter felt redundant. And Good Friday was mostly ignored altogether so where was I to learn about the Paschal Mystery? Or the healthy - and unhealthy - aspects of venerating the Cross? Or, as Harvey Cox notes in his excellent Common Prayers (a look at both Christian and Jewish liturgical celebrations through the eyes of a Christian who has married a Jew) what about the horribly anti-Semitic liturgies that are still sung and celebrated in our more liturgical Reformed churches?

+ And third, while I have found great solace and succor in the ecumenical liturgical renewal movement that has enriched my tradition since the 1980s, I still believe with Frederick Buechner that God's presence comes to us most often in our ordinary lives: in the midst of us. He writes:

Jesus is apt to come into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but... at supper time, or walking along the road. This is the element that all the stories about Christ's return to life have in common: Mary waiting at the empty tomb and suddenly turning around to see somebody standing there - someone she thought at first was the gardener; all the disciples except Thomas hiding out in a locked house, and then his coming and standing in the midst; and later, when Thomas was there, his coming again and standing in the midst; Peter taking his boat back after a night at sea, and there on the shore, near a little fire of coals, a familiar figure asking, "Children, have you any fish?"; the two men at Emmaus who knew him in the breaking of bread. He never approached from on high, but always in the midst, in the midst of people, in the midst of real life and all the questions that real life asks.

I know we need training to have eyes to see Jesus in the midst - and the liturgy can help and shape - but in this age we can't be cranky and demanding. My old friend and liturgical scholar, Tom Dipko, used to say something like: no excuses - every age has its own challenges - ours is to discern what they are and live into the resurrection fully. The rest is up to God and we must trust that.

I am looking forward to Maundy Thursday worship this year. We are doing foot washing in this old New England town that has avoided it - for a host of good and poor reasons - for 246 years. Three people actually volunteers including one little 9 year old girl who left a note on her momma's bed saying, "I will have my feet washed this year in church... it is right." And we will celebrate Eucharist and then have the service of shadows - Tenebrae - too.

And we'll do Good Friday at 7 pm with our experiment with art and spirituality: "Sounds of Solace." More than many gatherings, this liturgy always opens my heart to the way Christ is in our midst -often within culture - and often beyond my understanding. We'll have a few guest musicians joining the band this year, too: a piano rendition of both Vince Guaraldi and Chopin and a jazz guitarist and vocalist bringing something new into the mix.

But only if we are ready - and that is totally up to God's grace - will anything of the Lord be discerned in these liturgies - as holy as they might try to be.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A time for contrition...

In this morning's New York Times, yet another columnist - and a few articles, too - speak of the challenge confronting the Roman Church re: the sexual abuse of minors by ordained priests. Ross Douthat makes a number of important observations and I was particularly struck by this at the end of his article:

... It was a conservative hierarchy’s bunker mentality that prevented the Vatican from reckoning with the scandal. In a characteristic moment in 2002, a prominent cardinal told a Spanish audience that “I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign ... to discredit the church.”

That cardinal was Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. Since then, he’s come to grips with the crisis in ways that his predecessor did not: after years of drift and denial under John Paul II, the Vatican has taken vigorous steps to promote zero tolerance, expedite the dismissal of abusive priests and organize investigations that should have happened long ago. Because of Benedict’s recent efforts, and the efforts of clerics and laypeople dating back to the first wave of revelations in the 1980s, Catholics can reasonably hope that the crisis of abuse is a thing of the past.

But the crisis of authority endures. There has been some accountability for the abusers, but not nearly enough for the bishops who enabled them. And now the shadow of past sins threatens to engulf this papacy. Popes do not resign. But a pope can clean house. And a pope can show contrition, on his own behalf and on behalf of an entire generation of bishops, for what was done and left undone in one of Catholicism’s darkest eras.

This is Holy Week, when the first pope, Peter, broke faith with Christ and wept for shame. There is no better time for repentance.
www.nytimes.com/2010/03/29/opinion/29douthat.html?ref=todayspaper

In an odd twist of fate, while the stories have been coming fast and furious about the sexuality of Rome, I find myself reading a book (about addiction) by one of the Reformed tradition's finest thinkers re: contemporary sexuality: James Nelson. His work in the 1980s - particularly Body Theology, Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and his series of articles in The Christian Century - helped many bring a sense of biblical wisdom to the emerging sexual ethics of that generation.

A summary of his reflections in The Christian Century includes this insight:

There has been a shift from understanding sexuality as either incidental to or detrimental to the experience of God toward understanding sexuality as intrinsic to the divine-human experience. Sexual dualism has marked much of the Christian tradition. In this dualism, spirit is opposed to body, with spirit assumed to be higher and superior and the body lower and inferior. The companion of this dualism has been sexism or patriarchy: men identify themselves essentially with the spirit (mind), while men identify women with the body (matter), and assume that the higher needs to control the lower.

Implicit in sexual dualism has been the notion of divine impassivity—the apathy of God. If the body is marked by passion and if spirit is passionless, then bodily hunger (eros) has no connection with the divine. God is without hunger, and the human hungers (of which sexuality, with its drive to connection and intimacy, is one of the most basic) seem to have no connection with our experience of God....

Accompanying the attack on dualism has been the reclaiming of incarnational theology. This theology emphasizes that the most decisive experience of God is not in doctrine, creed or ideas but in the Word made flesh—and in the Word still becoming flesh. Here has been another opening to the possibility that sexuality is intrinsic to the experience of God. Such experience has been described by Nikos Kazantzakis: "Within me even the most metaphysical problem takes on a warm physical body which smells of sea, soil, and human sweat. The Word, in order to touch me, must become warm flesh. Only then do I understand—when I can smell, see, and touch." (The rest of the article is worth the time, too: www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=114)

Once, while hosting a conversation with gay/straight parents re: how we might explore a class on human sexuality and ethics for our teen program (Tucson), there was such tension and confusion in the two hour adult conversation, that we scrapped the idea until we could find a way to help the adults. Sadly, we never were able to go further given staffing and programming changes.

Yesterday, after my pastoral observation re: sexuality, safety and the love of God in Christ, most of the parents who spoke to me after worship were very supportive. Some were uncomfortable, but that is more a part of being an American: we are saturated in sexy images all day long and then taught it would be sinful to act on these images. We are a nation bathed in pornography AND a pseudo-Puritanical sexual ethic.

I suspect that one of the ways our faith community might become something more of God's light in the current darkness could come down to exploring what a sexual ethic for the 21st century might include for teens, young adults, seniors and everyone in-between. More on this after Easter...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Follow up for Palm Sunday...

If you haven't seen this story in today's New York Times, it is worth the effort as it continues to give context to what is sometimes reported as an anti-Catholic story. As much as I am conflicted by the theological narrowness of the current Pope in Rome - and as clearly as I celebrate and affirm my Reformed tradition - I am also equally committed to the goals of honest ecumenism. And faithful sharing of the truth - and this OP ED article helps both causes. Check it out:
www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/opinion/28allen.html?ref=todayspaper

This link, from Union Seminary, is good, too: like me the author wonders about the theological and human choices that were made throughout the unfolding of this tragedy. Good food for thought.
http://unionindialogue.org/paulknitter/2010/03/28/wheres-the-dictatorship-of-relativism/

Worship today embraced the sad beauty of the tension of Palm Sunday where Christ's joy is prelude to his passion. Our little guitar dudes - and their singing partners - rocked the house. It was a joy to have our children with us in worship - and for an incredible feast afterwards - before they head off to Quebec City. And the congregation seemed grounded in this strange journey into Holy Week where we renew our commitment to the counter-cultural grace of God made flesh in Jesus.

Michael Meade writes: It is our knowledge of death that makes us pray. Every path a child takes looks precarious to the parent's eye. And it is - for precarious is an old word that means full of prayers... And so we enter Holy Week - and confront the death of Christ - and what it speaks to us of God's love.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A pastoral note concerning the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Church...

NOTE: The following is what I am going to share early in worship tomorrow - Palm Sunday - before we begin to tell the biblical story of Christ's journey towards the Cross in Jerusalem. I am in great debt to the posting of Cathleen Falsani who noted an excellent summary in the Huffington Post by the Jesuit writer, The Reverend James Martin,http: www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-james-martin-sj/how-could-it-happen-traci_b_514965.html)

As a rule - and a spiritual practice - I almost never preach on Palm Sunday: the liturgy is too rich with symbols for me to add any additional wisdom or insight. What can I add to the time-tested story of God’s love made flesh in Jesus Christ? In a teaching - not preaching - mode I can sometimes highlight how the way of God in Christ Jesus is most clearly different from the ways of the world on this day by pointing to the Lord’s action:

• He enters the city in triumph but knows that it will lead to his death.

• He embraces fully the agony of suffering without ever letting himself be defined by it: he is always God’s servant during the passion – even in his doubts he calls out to God and trusts that God will not fail him even when there is no physical evidence.

• He is silent when the world screams for vengeance, he is a man of peace while the world acts with violence, he is a person in prayer when the status quo is obsessed with politics and he is aligned with all who suffer and are wounded when the world looks towards power, prestige and ego satisfaction.

In a word, on Palm Sunday – and later on Good Friday – Jesus most clearly exposes the upside down way of God’s path in the world. And the story tells it all… why should I only complicated matters?

But sometimes the events of our lives demand a word and to hide behind the liturgy would be wrong and even destructive to those who seek to follow the way of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. And the recent reporting of the sexual scandals within the wider church, I believe, demands a word or two on this day. For while it may be true, as Jesus taught, that if his disciples failed to lift up the gospel the very stones of Jerusalem would cry out, it is also true that to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up 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 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.

So let me speak to you as your pastor – not a preacher, not a prophet nor a priest – but as your pastor: one called by God to protect and comfort the flock in the spirit of Jesus. This is not a sermon, rather I hope it is a pastoral comment that can help us all move closer to God’s grace as Holy Week unfolds. Like many of you, I am heartsick, angry and bewildered by the most recent revelations of pedophilia and sexual abuse in the church. It is wrong – it is evil and sinful – and it must be prosecuted by more than canon law and secret church hearings.

• Lives have been destroyed and violated. Trust has been shredded and trampled upon.

• And everyone involved – the wounded innocent, the sexual predators hiding in the cassocks of the priesthood, the church leaders who abdicated their moral responsibilities at every level and the wider public of every denomination and spirituality – have been soiled by these heinous acts.

So let’s first be clear about the facts because sometimes our feelings can obscure the truth – and there are some big and raw feelings going on as we try to make sense out of all this ugly pain. Most of us want to know: how this could happen? Many people are asking why it is that so many Roman Catholic priests in the United States – and now also Europe – have abused under age children – and how could it have gone on for so long without any just and meaningful intervention?

• According to the best statistical information it seems that about 4% of all priests ordained in the United States between 1950 and 2000 have been accused of abuse. This is only slightly higher than other professions that work with children – including teachers – because most sexual abuse of children takes place in the family.

• Please don’t misunderstand: this is still horrible and too high a percentage – and I am not trying to hide or shield anyone’s complicity in evil – but the sad fact of the matter is that most sexual abuse happens within the family.

So one of the deeper pastoral questions the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to consider is how do we teach one another – and our children - about a healthy sexuality? How do we encourage a love and respect for life-giving sex? How do we talk about sexual responsibility? And how do we help our children learn God’s way – rather than the way of the world – when it comes to sexual intimacy and communion?

You should know that since 2000 in the Roman Catholic Church – and the mid 1980s in our Congregational tradition – candidates for ministry must now undergo a battery of psychological testing, interviews with wise and healthy clergy and a variety of other procedures that have begun to weed-out those afflicted with pedophilia and other serious psychological problems.

Frankly, it just used to be too easy to become a priest or a minister and all denominations are now working harder to eliminate dangerous or profoundly broken candidates. This doesn’t ease the pain for those already wounded, but you need to know things are getting better.

And since the 1990s churches like our own have developed some very clear and meaningful safe-guards known as “safe church” procedures to help protect our children even further. At First Church, we put our own safe church procedure for Sunday School teachers and staff into effect last year.

• Our goal was to use time-tested practices that minimize the potential for abusive situations: like there must always be at least two adults present with children, there must always be open doors in our Sunday School activities and we make certain that another person – usually our church secretary – is both in the building and knows who I am meeting with at any and all times.

• Parents may want to request a copy of this safe church procedure both for their own peace of mind as well as to know why it is we do some of the things we do – so please do so!

It is true, of course, that no set of procedures alone can keep our children or congregation fully safe: if someone is driven by a sexual compulsion we must ALL be on alert. Still, I want you to know that we have been proactive on this matter. And, if any violation takes place that wounds our children or a congregant, we will prosecute to the full extent of the law. It is not only the right thing to do morally, it is also essential for the well-being of those who have been hurt to know that we will not tolerate secrets or illegal and immoral activity.

As your pastor I want you to know how seriously I take the safety of your children – and your safety, too – because we can’t be the body of Christ together if we aren’t safe.
How can we act for justice and compassion in the world if we fail in our own community? How can we speak truth to power if we fail to deal with our own brokenness? And how can we live into the words of Jesus if we ignore them closest to home? Jesus was explicit:

You will find me wherever you find the hungry, the vulnerable, the broken, the wounded, the naked, the innocent and those who are oppressed.

So as we go into the deeper truths of Holy Week – walking with Christ towards the Cross – let me ask you to be prayerful for all the wounded in this tragedy.

• Please do not demonize all Roman Catholic priests because of the actions of a few. Perhaps this goes without saying but we have been called to be people of peace, not hatred or prejudice. I recall right after September 11th how so many of our Muslim friends were not only subjected to renewed hatred and violence, but were unfairly lumped into the category of terrorist by the accident of their birth. So let us not advance anything that would play into bigotry – including anti-Catholic fear.

• Let us be equally clear that justice for the victims – not words alone – is essential for healing the wounds of sexual violence and abuse. When you talk about this ugly reality with friends and colleagues, never forget that there is a place in God’s heart for punishing sexual predators. Their sacred calling must never get in the way of experiencing the full consequences of their actions for there is not one set of rules for the laity and another for the clergy. What’s more, those who have been abused NEED to see their abusers punished.

Finally let us strengthen and share the ways our own tradition works to keep our children – and adults – safe and accountable. We have some time-tested ways that are very different from the Roman Church – we don’t idealize our clergy, for example, nor do we give them responsibility without accountability – and the whole church might be aided by sharing these charisms in a careful and humble way.

We have a part to play in bringing healing to this tragedy because we are a part of the body of Christ in the world. Thank you for listening carefully. And now, as we prepare to re-enter the story of our Lord’s journey towards Jerusalem, let me ask you to be with me in prayer:

Almighty God, in your tender love for humanity you sent Christ Jesus to take up the essence of our nature. In this he experienced betrayal and fear, loneliness and even death on the cross. In our own sorrow, Jesus stands with us now in humility, empowering us to embrace our own suffering as we move towards the resurrection. Hear our prayer, for we share it in the spirit of Jesus, who with you lives and reigns together with the Holy Spirit as one God, now and forever. Amen.

Preparing to enter the silence...

On a recent trip to New York City for an arts/spirituality conference, I came across the new book by Daniel Barenboim while waiting for my train in Grand Central Station. Music Quickens Time is his exploration of how music can change the world and how he has used music to advance the cause of peace and justice in the Middle East. It is both a remarkable story and a compelling read - especially for those of us about to enter Holy Week - and I am grateful for the serendipity of discovering it.

For those (like me) who are unfamiliar with Barenboim, he is a master concert pianist from Argentina who currently resides in Berlin.


He holds citizenship in Argentina, Spain and Israel and was granted a Palestinian Authority passport, too. In addition to his stunning piano work, Barenboim is also a highly respected conductor. It is his work in creating the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, however, that shapes the insights of this book.

This youth orchestra - created in 1999 by Barenboim and the late Eduard Said - is made up of young musicians from Egypt, Israel, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. Barenboim describes the Divan like this:

The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance.

A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I'm] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to - and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago - ...create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.


He writes in the first chapter of Music Quickens Time that "each note must be aware of itself, but also of its own boundaries; the same rules that apply to individuals in society apply to notes in music as well... Each note cannot be self-assertive, wanting to be louder than the notes preceding it; if it did, it would defy the nature of the musical phrase to which it belongs.


So a musician must posses the capacity to group notes - and this very simple fact has taught me the relationship between an individual and a group. It is necessary for the human being to contribute to society in a very individuals way; this makes the whole much larger than the sum of its parts. Individuality and collectivism need not be mutually exclusive; in fact, together they are capable of enhancing human existence."

For those of us in the Western Christian tradition, tomorrow (March 28th) is Palm Sunday. My own part of this tradition, the United Church of Christ, has constructed one of my favorite liturgical prayers for this day (probably from the pen of Thomas Dipko.) It proclaims:

O God, who in Jesus Christ triumphantly entered Jerusalem, heralding a week of pain and sorrow, be with us now as we follow the way of the cross. In these events of defeat and victory, you have sealed the closeness of death and resurrection, of humiliation and exaltation. We thank you for these branches (the palm fronds used on Palm Sunday) that promise to become for us symbols of martyrdom and majesty. Bless them and us that their use this day may announce in our time that Christ has come and that Christ will come again.

Brilliant: the closeness of death and resurrection - the embrace of humiliation and exaltation - the dance of martyrdom and majesty. The liturgy begins with celebration and dance - shouts of "Hosanna" fill the air - and then, almost before you know it, the hymns and prayers are talking about the cross. For years I thought this was theological schizophrenia but now... now it simply seems true. Perhaps that's why we lift up prayers of joys AND sorrow, yes?

This closing clip is from another of Barenboim's insights: he was the first to break the social taboo of playing the music of Wagner in Israel. His courage, audacity and spiritual commitment to the paradox of a healing spiritual encourages me to prepare to enter the silence...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Giving thanks amidst the sorrow...

Yesterday word of an old friend and colleague's death came my way: Jim Gall, my former music and choir director while in Tucson, passed from this life to life everlasting. He was a big man - full of love and pain - who shared some of my most important years in ministry and I give thanks to God for the nearly 7 years we worked together while I feel a deep sadness, too.

Jim was born in Strasburg, North Dakota - hometown of Lawrence Welk - and grew up in a strict German Protestant family. His father had been organ master at a small church and Jim discovered his love of church music - and organ playing - by sitting alongside the old man week after week after week. In time he realized that Strasburg was going to be too small for his personality and talent so he completed all but the dissertation of his doctorate in music. What's more, he served some of the largest and finest progressive churches in the United Church of Christ including Wayzata Community Church in Minnesota, Claremont United Church of Christ in California and Rincon Congregational United Church of Christ in Arizona. He was an excellent and eclectic musician who died way too soon.

You see, Jim had an early onset of Alzheimer's Disease - an illness that was not diagnosed in time to be treated well - which caused him great professional trouble and tremendous personal loss. I first experienced the confusion of this while negotiating with him about his salary package. After bringing an intense search process for a musical director to a close, Jim and I met in a coffee shop at 3 pm to work out all the details - which we did - in anticipation of a Personnel Committee review and approval four hours later.

But when he arrived at what I thought was going to be a quick and easy gathering, he acted like the agreed upon figures were completely unfair. It was crazy making in the worst way because I knew that we had worked this all out - but now he was not only angry and confused - he was acting as if I were trying to screw him. We eventually toughed our way through to an agreement - and signed it on the spot - but I was baffled: what the hell was going on? And what did this mean for working with such a manipulative knuckle-head?

Similar things happened over the next few years. Jim was the organizing music director of Revilee - the Tucson Gay Men's Chorus whom he brought to worship a number of times - and they became an incredible musical and social force in Tucson. But given his erratic behavior and extreme "forgetfulness," the chorus eventually fired him - which broke his heart. He was also fired from his secular teaching jobs, too, because he had become so irresponsible. I know that there were times when I, too, was ready to fire him because he kept screwing up. We would go over the Easter Vigil music at 5 pm and at 7 pm... it was all gone. He would miss appointments on a regular basis. And whatever the choir practiced on Thursday there was no guarantee that he would recall on Sunday. So I came to do worship always thinking 4 or 5 steps ahead of his music just in case things tanked - as they sometimes did. It was freaking exhausting and very troubling.

So for the first few years I tried being an administrative hard ass: evaluations were tough and there were frequent meetings to help get Jim back on track. And mostly this only made matters worse.

After experiencing my own emotional, spiritual and personal melt down, however, I came back from summer vacation and realized I needed to have a heart to heart with Jim. Fighting, pushing and using a secular model of accountability had totally failed so maybe living into a heart of openness might make a difference. It certainly couldn't make matters worse. I asked my administrative assistant (and blessed friend) Debby to be a part of this conversation because I found I always needed a witness to make sure we didn't go crazy.

And just said: "Jim, it is clear that something is terribly wrong. You know it, I know it and the congregation knows it. But we haven't wanted to push you out because we all thought it could be worked out administratively. But that is clearly wrong. So, here's the deal. As part of your continued employment I need for you to see a doctor this week. This is obviously a medical issue so we need to help you help yourself."

And he wept... wept like a child. Earlier he had told Debby that he was certain I was going to fire him. He didn't know what to do so we just held one another for a bit and wept. Then he composed himself and told me what I already knew: he didn't have medical insurance which is why he hadn't gone to a doctor yet. I had already secured the support of the lay leadership to cover these initial medical tests and made that clear to Jim, too. Which, of course, brought more tears...

When the tests came back - and Debby participated in almost all of this testing - the diagnoses was clear: Jim needed a variety of meds to slow the disease and other blood work to help with other medical concerns. So we agreed as a church to cover Jim's medical expenses - some how - and also bring his wider family into the mix, too. They loved him dearly but were completely in the dark about the Alzheimer's (even though their father had suffered from this.) By bringing them into the conversation, however, more resources - financial and spiritual - were created and more love was shared.

This went on for three years: for a long time the meds arrested Jim's decline - but they can't work miracles - and eventually he could no longer continue in ministry. It tore my heart apart to have to tell him that the time had come to bring his ministry to a close, but it had to happen. So at the end of one summer, we worshipped together - with guests throughout Tucson - to honor God and give thanks for the blessings of Jim Gall's ministry. It was a time of sweet agony...

For a few years after his forced retirement, we kept tabs on Jim in Tucson with home visits and lunches. But that, too, came to an end for he could no longer drive or care for himself and had to go live with one of his sister's back in the Midwest. It was there that he recently died.

Working and sharing ministry with Jim Gall pushed all my buttons:

+ Early in my new position, he forced me into celebrating our GLBTQ commitments early on by asking to preach during my second Gay Pride Sunday. It was clearly a test - and I was anxious and angry - but knew that this was a time to stand and deliver so... preach he did. He told his story of coming out and what that meant for him as a man of faith. He also brought the Reville Gay Men's Chorus into our lives and many of those men became dear to my heart. It was one of those "put up or shut up" moments and I am grateful for his verve and passion.

+ He wrote a gospel mass which we recorded and shared with the wider community during the early days of his ministry, too. It was a blast and really helped our church move into a new way of doing worship and having fun at the same time.

+ He was drop-dead hilarious at the church talent shows and staff meetings: sometimes he would show up in a hula skirt - or worse. At potlucks he would find a way to dance with some of the conservative straight ladies who just came to love this big, goofy gay man with all their hearts.

Being in ministry with Jim - and Debby - took me deeper. His suffering caused me to find ways to live into my best self and call the church into being its best self, too. It was terrifying and complicated. It regularly ripped us apart in sorrow and confusion. And it was a blessing I will always give thanks for amidst all the sorrow.

I have no idea how Jim's life will be marked in his final home - but he changed my life and brought me to a deeper faith - and I give thanks to God that for Jim all sickness and sorrow are now over. May you rest in peace forever dear man.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Saying yes and no...

Tonight I missed choir practice - which is rather important because usually there are only 2 guys (sometimes 3) in our small 12 voice choir - because I was on the phone with a woman trying to arrange a memorial service for her mother who just died. It took much longer then I expected and when it was over I was so tired I had to crash. (Or more honestly, eat dinner at 7:45 pm and then crash.) That's one of the challenges in ministry of being present to people in pain that some church folks just don't get: sometimes whenyou have to say yes to someone that also means saying no to others at the same time.

Don't get me wrong - I LOVE being in ministry - I have given almost 30 years to this gig and cherish it as a sacred responsibility. But I still hate it when some of the folk I love have to take a back seat so that I can be present with others I love, too. I felt that same tension last night driving home from a ministry association meeting: there is only one night in every seven when Di and I can be home together without another commitment. You can get used this - and we both understand that it goes with the territory of two working adults - but after having 6 days together in a row in Tucson... well, like I said: sometimes saying yes to some really does mean saying no to others and there are times I really miss my sweetheart.

And the next two weeks will be particularly emotionally, spiritually and physically full for we are entering that time of all times: Holy Week. Many folk in the Reformed tradition only mark Maundy Thursday but I have been so influenced by both the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox realms that I feel called to claim it all: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil of Saturday and the Feast of the Eucharist. And for each of the ceremonies, there are the corresponding rehearsals - for both music and liturgy - and training and recruitment which is another one of those saying yes and saying no realities.

One of my colleagues used to say, "By the time we get to Easter Sunday all we can do is help get Jesus out of the ground, the rest is up to somebody else..." because by Easter Sunday afternoon most clergy claim super crash time. And, curiously, my experience with Holy Week is that something always goes wiggy- some tragedy or unexpected sadness hits at the worst possible time - and we have to confront another part of that yes and no rhythm of ministry.

So, here we go: my regrets to my choir mates - my loving family - and those who are bewildered by this odd yes/no tension. I give thanks to God for being a part of it all and simultaneously understand that something always gets left undone. How do they say it at the Easter Vigil? O happy fault - o truly needful sin of Adam - that puts to flight all evil...? May it be so within and among us. The great Spanish poet, Antonio Machado, plays with the Easter Vigil prayer in a way that always gives me hope:

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error -
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: along which secret aqueduct,
oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error -
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt - marvelous error -
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night, as I slept,
I dreamt - marvelous error -
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

So, tomorrow we will rest - and feast with our children in the evening - and get ready for some new marvelous error that will involve saying yes and no... and then discerning where God is within the mix.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It is ALL about the unforced rhythms of grace...

Here is a clip we recently did for local TV that came out pretty good. If you want to check it out:


+ Second go to: schedule (on the top of the menu) and find March 21st - and look for "Sunday Street" with Rev. James Lumsden at 11:30 am.

+ And third click on "watch now..."
There is always more to say, of course, but for me it is mostly ALL about the unforced rhythms of grace.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

As Lent comes to a close...

It seems that Lent is racing towards a close this year. Sometimes it takes forever to get through the 40 days, yes? And then there are times when it is over before it really take root; that is what this Lent has felt like to me. I had GREAT plans and disciplines this year...

... but only one loaf of bread got made - and it while it was tasty it was more like a hockey puck than the staff of life. And only two books on my list were finished and way too much music and prayer fell by the wayside.

Still, there was a wedding feast in Tucson and two study groups and an exploration of a "spirituality of Eucharist" at church. What's more, I got the chance to spend time with some of my young guitar buddies in the congregation and encourage the making of joyful music in their hearts. And we'll have a feast with both daughters this weekend before a full Holy Week that will include Tenebrae, foot washing, a Good Friday "sounds of solace" gathering and the Celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

This year I have invited the clergy in the congregation who are not serving a church to vest and join me in the celebration - and our young seminarian from Yale will be a part of the fun, too. (It is a sweet irony and blessing that she is the daughter of my predecessor - another encounter with our "still speaking God's" enormous grace - and she brings to us all a new sense of being embraced by God's presence in ways beyond our understanding.)

Nevertheless, Lent has nearly evaporated - and I wish there was another week or two - but that, too, is beyond my control. Made me enjoy this poem by Mark Conway all the more...

I'm afraid of nothing but the world my son
will inherit, don't think I'm not caught
like all the rest. I just don't want him here

watching the thin men memorize the sorrows.
Unforgivers, they sit in dark cafés,
their endless clubs and halls, stirring

beers, mumbling, calling out small dreams
of violence: how they ought to—should have—
tossed out the wife, knocked the shit out

of the neighbor. They're doomed to remember
and rage, rage and reminisce. They sleep
like horses, standing, and keep their tee
th

in kerosene to be reminded of revenge. And
I'm one of them, a gifted scholar of the sorrows:
I remember, I'll always remember you.

But why worry, my son can't see the gray men
invisible as pigeons. He's taking in the Campo
like there's no tomorrow. He's heard the latest

revolutionary rumors: that his parent's imperial
order will soon be overturned. He can feel his youth
come in and is free in the complete indifference

of Italian time, both of us off the map and wandering.
We eat in the old shops, play and beat on
the same crooked pinball machine, I watch him

watch the lovely woman walk her sweatered pug.
She's Roman, young, severely chic, a slender
polytheist out adoring the dusk and blue swifts

writing hieroglyphs above the Tiber. Who
could worship a god who doesn't love
the other gods? My son walks these paths

I walked with you, I adore the forms
the world puts on: eyes and mouths set above
a pantheon of necks and tanned chests,

a blur of endless changing faces, smoking,
standing in front of more faces, arguing
and eating. I adore the obstinacy of objects

that put on Renaissance façades and the sweaters
of dogs, then lose their features in the endless
rub and interrogation of the Tiber.


I look up, see my son leaning against
a wall of Etruscan rust and ivy. Near the corner
children wash a Fiat at the local fountain.

A parrot sits on the smallest girl's shoulder,
swearing slowly, cazzo, stronzo, cazzo, as the car
begins to shine inside a shield of ancient water
It is waaay too late and I am waaay too tired after working on our Good Friday visual presentation most of the day, but tonight's concluding prayer gathering was powerful. It seems as if this group of folk REALLY wants to go deeper into prayer - and acts of compassion, too - for when the class was over, they didn't want to leave...

+ So we talked about next steps after Easter and what emerged looks like a weekly gathering for common prayer followed by study into the ways of the heart.

+ I am going to use the new book that utilizes the late Henri Nouwen's insights re: Spiritual Direction (edited by Michale Christensen and Rebecca Laird.) Six weeks of looking into the heart, the scriptures and the community for clues of where our "still speaking God" may be calling.

+ In the Reformed church spiritual direction/friendship usually starts in a group and I think this makes sense for us, too. Ours will be part prayer meeting, part study, part accountability conversation and part exploration of our tradition at its best.

And then we are onto a study/conversation about Greg Moretnson's second book, Stones Into Schools, because our folks want to sponsor a teacher - or fund a school - that supports educating girls in Afghanistan. And then we are on to our summer river clean-up projects with the Berkshire Environmental Action Team. Makes me think of this old, old tune... (one of my all time favorites.)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Living with gratitude...

Tonight, like many other Americans, I am watching the closing comments - arguments as well insights and posturing - of the health care reform debate in the United States. There will be time later to note both the vision and hypocrisy that has ebbed and flowed over the last 14 months - and to my mind, there has been way too much of the later and not enough of the former. That said, tonight I sense it valuable to lift up a commitment to living with gratitude rather than either obligation or fear.

Fear is real - and obligations and commitments are crucial to maintaining responsibility and accountability - neither speak to the Jesus-life as I understand the gospel. Glenn Beck et al can rant about "social justice" being a communist/nazi plot throughout history, the tea-baggers may play fast and loose with race hatred and the Grover Norquist tribe are likely to continue the economic anxiety of countless good-hearted people.

But the one I turn to for spiritual insight and integrity was explicit: whatsoever ye do unto the least of these my sisters and brother you do unto me. I am a very middle-age, straight white guy who is both spiritual and religious. I understand that my way of being church is no longer dominant - it once was even in my life time - but no longer. And as theologian, Douglas John Hall has written, this is a blessing for it allows us to live into the deeper truths of Christ Jesus. In fact, now that we are no longer required to practice the "civil religion" of the United States, we can be free to follow the way of the Cross: we can advocate openly for the poor and wounded, we can trust that God will be with us when we defend the forgotten and we will experience both the cost and joy of living as disciples.

In other words, we can live with a sense of gratitude rather than fear or obligation. That is one of the reasons I suspect Jesus spoke about becoming child-like. NOT childish - but child-like - for children who are loved and protected live with a sweet trust that looks a lot like faith. Last weekend, while celebrating a wedding for a friend in Tucson, their two little flower girls showed me something of the grace a "still speaking God" aches to share with the world - and I give thanks.

There is evil in this world - real evil to challenge - and I want to stand with sisters and brothers who are serious about offering an alternative to this evil. There are reasons to be afraid and angry, too - for example, this weekend marks the seventh anniversary of the war in Iraq - but our fears and angers must not be manipulated with mean-spirited lies or self-serving pandering. Yes, America is a very polarized place in 2010 and no one is without fault.

So this night I pray for the path of gratitude: it may be our best path towards peace. St. Francis comes to mind:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon

Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light,
Where there is sadness, joy.


O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much
seek to be consoled as to console,
not so much to be understood as to understand,
not so much to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
it is in dying that we awake to eternal life.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Trashy tunes that still feel good...

Last night I listened to Lady Gaga's new hit, "Telephone," and read an article about it by NPR's Douglas Hopper www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124909700&ft=1&f=1008 in which he suggests that her Lady-ship is to 2010 what Cyndi Lauper was to the 90s, and I found a whole new appreciation for the world of Gaga. From the start I have seen her as a smart, savvy, sexy and sophisticated pop diva who not only knows how to craft pop-hooks that get under your skin, but shake your booty, too. Just check out her current playful/faux cynicism with Beyonce in this interracial nouveaux "Thelma and Louise" dance track that already has 250 MILLION youtube hits...


OMG - I started having visions of Madonna - Cyndi Lauper - Mick Jagger - James Brown - Little Richard - Bob Dylan as the Trickster - Frank Zappa and countless others. Now most of the time I write about music from the perspective of the sacred, incarnational and compassionate. But let's face it: there are some terrific trashy tunes that just make us FEEL good! And that is a blessing, too, yes?

And that set my troubled mind on a search last night and this morning for some of my all-time favorite trashy songs that I once loved and still cherish. You probably have your own and I would love to know what they are. VH1 calls them "Guilty Pleasures" (in a show hosted by one of my favorite guilty pleasures: William Shatner!) So here's my list - send me yours.

1950s: There are five that NEVER fail to get my mojo workin' - and have had pretty much the same effect on me since I first heard them at about age 5 in my auntie's basement:
+ "Good Golly Miss Molly" and "Tuitti Fruitti" by the incomparable Little Richard
+ "Hard Headed Woman" by the King himself: Elvis Presley
+ "Carol" by another giant: Chuck Berry
+ "Great Balls of Fire" by the MAN - the Killer - Jerry Lee (freakin') Lewis


1960s: I could got totally mental here but have kept the list down to the five essentials in the trashy songs department that always get my ass out onto the dance floor...
+ "Liar, Liar" by the Castaways (dig this clip from under appreciated film classic "It's a Bikini World")
+ "Lies" by the Beatles sound alike band from NYC: the Knickerbockers
+ "Gloria" by the Shadows of the Night
+ "Sally Go Round the Roses" by the Jaynettes
+ "Pushin Too Hard" by the Seeds


1970s: this was an equally daunting decade to keep the list to five but here we go... (and as the lists continue I see why I am a Lady Gaga-ite.)
+ "Shake Your Booty" by the Florida legends KC and the Sunshine Band
+ "Brown Sugar" in what was their least PC hit ever: the Rolling Stones
+ "Play That Funky Music White Boy" by Wild Cherry
+ "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees
+ "Hot Stuff" by Donna Summer


1980s: and the songs keep getting trashier... and now my children are dancing to them, too!
+ "Funky Cold Medina" by Tone Loc
+ "Nasty Boys" by Janet Jackson all grown up
+ "Pour Some Sugar on Me" by the one armed drummer et al in Def Leppard
+ "Addicted to Love" by the late Robert Palmer (who had a GREAT video)
+ "Money" by the dadaist band Flying Lizards


1990s: what do you think: are there more?
+ "Respect Yourself" by another great trashy lady: Madonna
+ "Cream" by the master of men's trashy music: Prince
+ "U Can't Touch This" by the man with the great pants: MC Hammer
+ "Cowboy" in which Kid Rock blends Run DMC with Lynyrd Skynyrd

2000: only four so far...
+ "Unbelievable" - by EMF
+ "Lady Marmalade" by the new trashy queens: Christina Aquilera, Lil Kim and Pink
+ "Shut Up and Drive" by Rhianna (my all time favorite)
+ "Girl Friend" by the totally nasty Avril Lavigne

Well, this is clearly not my most edifying list of tunes - BUT - they do get some of us back into our bodies and dancing and I think that is a damn good thing.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A gentle day...

Today was a gentle day in the Berkshires: the weather hit 60 (F) - we raked pine cones and old leaves and took everything slow. Well, there was one errand that involved getting new phones. On our last night in Tucson my cell phone was stolen - and two nights before that Dianne's decided to take a jump into a glass of water! Fortunately we were both eligible for upgrades so we spent part of the day making the switch.

The only glitch is that we have no access to the old numbers of friends and family (save a few) so... if you'd like to email yours I would be grateful. And while I sound like a dinosaur saying this: I was glad to get a phone with a camera - not a blackberry or smartfone or droid - just a nice little camera. Two weeks ago, while wandering around New York City, I kept thinking how much fun it would be to have a small camera for candid shots... and now I do.

Tomorrow is supposed to be equally gorgeous outside so I will do a little more yard work, knowing all the while as my neighbor just told me, "We're not out of the woods yet, man, remember there is still April!" How could I forget? Three years ago in April I preached here for the first time and there was a blizzard. And now it feels natural...

I'll also get to stop by the house of my young friend, Ethan, for a guitar lesson and supper. This third grader is hungry to play the guitar and I've been sharing riffs with him on and off for a few months. I may actually commit to teaching him - and creating a music/mentoring ministry, too - as I have had a 20 year passion for helping boys and young men become healthy, gentle warriors. As I've noted before, I am intentional about both words - gentle and warrior - because there are times when a man's strength and passion need to be used in a protective way, yes? (Not that this isn't true for women, too, but how that comes to pass is not for me to say.)

At lunch yesterday with my spiritual friend, we talked about "the sibling society" - a term Robert Bly lifted up - in which there are no mentors or novices - everyone is just a sibling - with nothing to share or learn or pass on. The result is often unformed and soft men who never become elders - a loss to everyone - women, men and children. I am grateful that there are more and more women's groups reclaiming rites of passages for girls. Perhaps it is time for me to join with other men - I have some great resources - and explore what it might mean for us to start acting like mentors on the way to becoming elders. I know that I have grown and been helped by 3-4 key elders in my day - and all but one have now passed from this life - so I'll see how this shakes out.

Sam Keen once observed that men in their 50s often have one last chance to grow deeper and more compassionate or else become a cynical and cranky old fool. Some of us go nuts in these times - buying red sports cars, leaving our loved ones, caving into lust and acting like we're back in college - which is mostly a sad and immature projection of our fear. And if we keep projecting we will miss the chance to grieve - and go deeper - so that when we're in our 70s we are just mean-spirited, resentful and stupid. The alternative - to go into our fears like Christ into Jerusalem - means death and pain - as well as gravitas and resurrection.

Henri Nouwen experienced both the stupidity his fear created as well as the sorrow, death and deepening he encountered by embracing that fear in his later years. He wrote: "The first stage (of going deeper) is much like the man who, after years of living with open doors, suddenly decides to shut them. The visitors who used to come and enter his home start pounding on those doors, wondering why they are not allowed to enter. Only when they realize that they are no longer welcome do they gradually stop coming...

Meanwhile, I have leaves to rake, gardens to till, guitars to tune and prayers to share as this Lent wanders ever more quickly into Holy Week. (Love the way these old dudes get it...)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Mary is our teacher...

NOTE: Here are this week's Sunday notes for March 21, 2010: the Fifth Sunday of Lent. We just returned from 6 days away in Tucson. As noted earlier, it was a good and very clarifying trip in many ways, but it delayed my prayer and writing schedule by a few days. I am really glad to be back in the Berkshires: the weather has been STUNNING these past few days - temps at about 60 and LOTS of sunshine - and it seems like that will continue through the weekend end. So... if you are in town, please stop by for worship at 10:30 am. This week's biblical texts include: Isaiah 43: 16-21, Psalm 126 and John 12: 1-11.

Oh LORD is this a great story?!? We’ve got women and men together – arguments between those committed to beauty and compassion and their colleagues in the radical social justice camp who are concerned with the poor – we’ve got a dead body brought back to life alongside a living body about to be crucified before it, too, is resurrected by God’s love.

• We’ve got perfume and deception in the air, fear and faith in the hearts of those gathered around the banquet table of Mary and Martha and Lazarus of Bethany and honor and betrayal in the minds of each person at this peculiar and providential feast.

• What’s more, we have the example of Mary – sweet and humble disciple of Christ – doing something extravagant for the Lord – something that Jesus will share with his disciples just a week later at the Last Supper – we have Mary washes the feet of the one she loves.

Kate Huey puts it like this:

This woman who takes an expensive jar of perfume and lavishes it upon Jesus' feet is making a gesture, a heartfelt gesture, with a broken-hearted sense of what is to come at the end of the journey to Jerusalem. Perhaps her heart is full, and perhaps it is breaking, too. When our hearts are full, when our hearts are breaking, we don't waste time calculating our expenses. When our hearts are full, when our hearts are breaking, when we're not sure what's coming but we feel deep down that it may mean loss and grief anew, we don't waste time computing the cost of our commitment.

Can you picture Mary, while Martha (as usual) is doing all the kitchen work, and Lazarus (as usual) is sitting in the living room talking with the other men – Mary, in the storeroom, the one with a lock… is looking at that last jar of expensive perfume….looking long and hard…thinking about Jesus, who had risked his life to come back and help her and her sister, to grieve with them for a moment and then to bring life out of death (for Lazarus.)

What amazing and wonderful thing can she do, what can she say not with words but with her whole self – so Mary takes the best she has to give and in an hour of need, as death looms over this little band of disciples, Mary takes the best and breaks it open over the feet of Jesus, the one she loves, the one she is about to lose…

… And shares her best with the world just as Christ had taught.

Oh this is an incredible story, dear people of God, perfect for us as we start to bring Lent to a close – for it invites us to look at how we, too, might share our best with the world by God’s grace. Like the prophet Isaiah says in his poetic challenge:

Behold, I the Lord your God, am about to do something new in the world – not something born of the former things nor that which is past and old – but something new. Radically new – and you will not be able to perceive it if you are looking backwards.

And Mary is the key:
the one who is made extravagant by God’s grace, the one who leads with her heart in the face of tragedy and fear, the one who is peripheral and second class to those in power but essential to all who seek the way of the Lord. Because, you see, it is Mary who lets God work within and through her to bring about something new in the world.

• She does not rely upon her own vision alone – nor her own power or inspiration either – she does not act like she is the center of the universe.

• Rather she listens – and waits – and follows the calling or prompting of the Holy Spirit who always empowers us to share ourselves in ways that enrich God’s creation.

Remember how St. Paul spoke of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5: 22? Peterson’s translation is so good:

When we are open to God’s spirit, God leads us into a new way of living… in much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates all things and all people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely (rather than waste ourselves away.)

Mary – extravagant, humble, generous and compassionate – is one of the best teachers we have for what it looks like to trust God. Not only does she give shape and form to the fruits of the Holy Spirit, she shows us how God can take whatever is small and often simple in our lives and transform it into a gift that can be shared with the world like bread at Eucharist. Remember our Lenten theme born of the words of Henri Nouwen? He tells us that our entire life can be a living prayer if we allow ourselves to be…

• Taken – or chosen – by God like the bread at Holy Communion

• And then blessed by God’s love – and broken by the wounds of the world

• So that we might be shared in the world for healing and acts of extravagant hospitality

In his little book, The Life of the Beloved, Nouwen writes: There is a mysterious link between our brokenness and our ability to give to each other and share ourselves with the world… (It seems as if) our brokenness opens us to a deeper way of sharing our lives and offering each other hope. For just as bread needs to be broken in order to be given, so, too, do our lives… (and) don’t you think that our desire to eat and feast with those we love is an expression of an even deeper desire to be food for one another? To nourish one another?

Think of a baby “at its mother’s breast” – clearly one of the most sacred signs of human love – a tender integration of body, spirit, heart and soul, yes? Perhaps it is no coincidence, therefore, that the biblical Hebrew word for compassion – rachamim (רחמים) – and its cousin in the Koran – rahman—are both derived from riham from rehem meaning the mother or the womb. Is it any wonder that St. Paul insists that when the Spirit takes up residence within us, our bodies begin to bear fruit that gives evidence of God’s grace?

• Are you still with me? Do you see where I’m going with this insight?

• To live prayerfully – like Mary in today’s gospel lesson – means following the call of the Spirit so that we can be shared with creation like bread – or perfume – for the world.

And I think that there are two key truths about this sharing that I want to call to your attention so that you won’t be confused.
The first has to do with recognizing the devastating hunger and emptiness of the human condition. It is my hunch that this has always been the case – we human beings like to think that we’ve changed a great deal over the years – but the facts tell us that we are not really all that different from our heirs in either the Old or New Testaments. We lust like King David, we betray like Judas, we serve one another like Mary, we wound one another like Cain and Abel and sometimes we even make it through our worst selves to become a person of depth and integrity like Peter or Mary Magdalene. The wise old preacher got it right in Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanity, all is vanity… one generation passes and another arrives but the earth abides forever. The sun comes up and the sun goes down… the river runs into the sea but the sea is never full… for there is nothing new under the sun.

And yet I have to confess that I was startled – and not a little shocked and saddened – by a story I read earlier this week in The New York Times about the so-called “mall girls” of modern Poland 20 years after the fall of communism. Perhaps you saw it, too? It describes an ominous phenomenon in a society hell bent on filling it’s emptiness after the horrors of totalitarianism and the apparent irrelevance of the church: young girls and boys – from the age of 14 to 20 and mostly from middle-class Roman Catholic families – are now prostituting themselves not for money but Channel scarves or expensive sushi dinners and gold trinkets.

Film-maker, Katarzyna Roslaniec, says these mall girls – who gather in the upscale shopping centers of Krakow and Warsaw – are “the daughters of contemporary capitalism. Their parents have lost themselves in the race after a new washing machine or car and are rarely home… and a 14 year old girl needs a system of values” shaped by something bigger than the market place. “Instead, these girls live in a world where there are no feelings, just cold calculations,” empty homes and random sex acts performed in restrooms for designer clothes, fancy gadgets or concert tickets. It would appear, she concludes, “that the shopping mall has become the new cathedral of Poland.”

Isn’t that heart-breaking? But probably not all that different from our reality, too: I think St. Bob Dylan was right when he said that money doesn’t talk – it swears. But it is this precisely this emptiness – this brokenness – this sadness that can be our clue for offering a healing and redemptive alternative. Henri Nouwen writes: “…in our highly competitive and greedy world, we have lost touch with the joy of giving… and yet our lives only find their deepest fulfillment in giving ourselves to others.” So why not nourish and cultivate the way of Mary in the world?

• Why not live as an extravagant parable of God’s grace and love in the midst of selfishness?

• Why not pour out perfume – share beauty – practice hospitality in all the little venues of our daily lives?

• If our children see no alternative to greed… if our enemies see no alternative to violence… if our loved ones and neighbors see no alternative to emptiness and fear… where is the Word made flesh?

The way of Mary is a quiet sharing – bold and wild, too – but mostly tender and compassionate: insight number one. And insight number two is equally simple: we cannot sustain a life of compassionate sharing all by ourselves. There are forces at work in our hearts and world that want to grind us down – shut us up – force us into hiding.

• They were there in Christ’s time – they were active when Isaiah shared his poetic challenge not to look backwards – and they will always be just over the horizon.

• That’s why over the generations people of faith have come up with a prompt to share whenever it looks the darkest. Maybe you know it: Illegetimi non carborundum? Anyone know the translation? Don’t let the bastards get you down – it is a simple reminder that we need one another if we’re going to be an alternative to the emptiness.

And the key here is one another – not one person – not the pastor or the moderator or the music director or your spouse of best friend but one another. The body of Christ. The community of faith. One another.

That’s what today’s psalm tries to underscore: we’re in this together – we need all of us to do our share – everyone is essential. Did you get that when we sang the psalm earlier?

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion – that is the community of faith – we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” And the LORD has done great things for us so we rejoiced. And now we pray: Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

Now I don’t know exactly what you need to do this week to reinforce your calling to share yourself with the world like Mary, but I suspect it has NOTHING to do with consumption. What’s more, it is my hunch that the greatest blessing you might share with the world has something to do with simply being present with another who needs you.

• Most of the time, we can’t fix what hurts – we can’t take away the pain nor change the consequences of sin – but we can be present.

• And by the grace of God – and God’s love – that can make all the difference in the world.


My friends, you and I have been chosen, blessed, broken and given to the world by God. “We may be little, insignificant servants in the eyes of a world motivated by efficiency, control, greed and success. But when we also affirm that God has chosen us from all eternity, sent us into the world as the blessed ones, handed us over to suffering so that we might share solidarity and compassion… then can’t we also trust that our little lives will multiply God’s blessings and fill the emptiness of countless empty hearts?” (Nouwen)

• I invite you – encourage you – challenge and bid you – to find a way to share just yourself with someone this week.

• For then you will be the good news… and Christ’s love will blossom.



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...