Monday, May 24, 2010

Going underground...

For the next full week, I will be away from my computer. It seems kind of funny that in the heart of what was one of the birthplaces of contemporary technology - the Bay Area - I won't have real access to the Internet. But as my lover says: "It will be good for you! Go and just be present with your brother." So, I am off to be with Phil and Julie in their sweet condo in the Mission...

Di has lent me her camera so that I can take some pictures of this pilgrimage. I imagine that there are a host of street scenes that will find their way to this blog when I get back: the Haight, jazz clubs, the Castro, lots and lots of North Beach, Golden Gate Park and the beautiful San Francisco Bay. I also need to take pictures of Phil and Julie. I realized that when my sister, Linda, died nearly 18 years ago, I didn't have any pictures of her. Same when my mom died four years ago. And while I expect Phil to be around for a long, long time, I am very aware that there are no guarantees... and I need to update my photos. (This one is Phil from a much different era; and while his hair and beard are still the same length, he now looks more like Jerry Garcia than Grizzly Adams.)

So while I will miss Dianne fiercely - she can't join me because of her work schedule - at the same time, I know that now is the right time for this trip. It has been too long...

One more beat thought...

One of my favorite rock/culture critics is Mikal Gilmore. He not only understands the artists and contexts he explores, he knows how to evoke a sense of "being there" for his readers, too. His reflection on the death of Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, helped me reconnect with a number of truths that I still honor from the whole Beat generation. He notes:

Just as Dylan would later change what popular songs could say and do (and btw as I write let's remember to wish brother Bob a happy birthday: May 24th). Ginsberg changed what poetry might accomplish, how it would speak, what it would articulate to and for... (because) Ginsberg was someone who once summoned the bravery to speak hidden truths about unspeakable things and some people took consolation and courage from his example... he overcame the legacy of neediness and uncertainty that his unstable mother bequeathed him (and) and gave his entire life to a process of opening himself up to possibilities... in doing so he helped set loose something wonderful, risky and unyielding in the psyche and dreams of our times.

Ginsberg celebrated life. In his beautiful but wounded way, he invited us to see the holy in the human - the marriage of heaven with earth - so that every moment was sacramental. For most of my conscious adult life, I, too, have been exploring this spirituality.


As a young musician I glimpsed the possibilities first through Dylan - who clearly got it through Ginsberg - and then George Harrison of the Beatles. I used to think I was a Lennon fan - there is a funny Myers-Briggs spoof that divides the world into Beatles with Lennon vs. McCartney as the major split - but as all things have passed I realize that it was always Harrison who spoke to me most profoundly. (NOTE: I still LOVE many of Lennon's tunes and understand that it was no accident, of course, that Lennon changed the spelling of the Beetles - his homage to both Brando and Buddy Holly - to the BEATLES as his debt to the Beats deepened.) Indeed, Gilmore once spoke of Harrison as a bluesman who had learned how to live alone in the world - not always happily - but with few illusions. And his song, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" continues to be at the core of my experience of God in the world.

But it has only been recently that I have come to realize that is was the Beat reworking of William Carlos Williams' conviction that poetry should be spoken in the honest language of real life that shaped and formed the music of both Dylan and the Beatles. Back in the day, I didn't know why I was bored with what became known as "art rock" - Emerson, Lake and Palmer et al and all their rococo friends - it seemed more like frosting on a a cake than real food. Now I understand why they became increasingly irrelevant to me while Dylan's "John Wesley Harding" or "Blood on the Tracks" increased in value.

So, one of the things I hope to do with my brother this coming week in San Francisco is to prowl around some of the old Beat haunts and photograph them. Less for nostalgia sake (I hope) but more as reckoning. Both Philip and I are getting older - his brush with mortality was another push towards trying to be real - and alive. And he knows this realm - and city - far better than I so I want to learn from him. And hear his poems and maybe know a little more of what's inside his heart.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Message in a bottle...

Pentecost worship was full and sweet: an a capella anthem a la Palestrina, gospel group singing, children, art work and a little blast from our band Between the Banks reworking the Police classic - Message in a Bottle. It was a whole lotta fun...

Thanks to Andy and Jon, Dianne and Eva and Ben and Steve... you guys rock!

Later this summer, my friend and colleague, Rick Chrisman, will join me in a trial faith and culture TV program for local television. We have been hatching this idea for a few months - both of us have been influenced by the visionary work of Paul Tillich - and in June we're going to give it a shot. Three 30 minute tapings each Monday morning for a month mixing art, music, poetry, prose and our peculiar take on culture and faith. He is currently working out the techno-details and after Memorial Day we'll pull it together.

Like Jesus said: the Spirit blows where it will (and Bob Franke added: so beware the man selling tickets!) Who knows where this is headed, but it has something to do with Pentecost for sure.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

And the beat goes on...

After posting a few random thoughts about San Francisco, Dylan/Ginsberg and the beats I began to think more deeply about my affinity for the whole beat thing. Clearly the music, art and poetry of that movement is always just below the surface in my thinking - with a whole lotta San Francisco Renaissance, too. Whether its the Beatles or Chuck Berry, Patti Smith or U2, Leonard Cohen or Lucinda Williams, the spirit of Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg is always lurking just beyond the obvious for me.

In the opening chapter of the Rolling Stone Book of the BEATS (a comprehensive and insightful anthology), Brian Hassett writes:

Fire lights and smoking nights
And splashes of dripping paint;
Jazz explosions and constant commotions
LEAVE IT TO BEAVER this ain't!

He continues: It was the halftime show of the century: 1945-1955! Life was pretty uncertain after two world wars and two atomic bombs in too little time... Centuries old nations were tumbling by the month. Blackouts, rationing and depression were a way of life. The end was surely near. But leaning forward into this tension wind were some courageous artists transforming their media into gloriously honest expressions of the furthest and sometimes most beautiful reaches of our mind.

Through a door opened by Freud and into a room lit by Jung, Reich, Stanislavsky, Breton and others, the expression of the subconscious self - the center, the soul, the truth - became the new goal of artists all over the world... Jack Kerouac was blowing apart the novel and Allen Ginsberg the poem, Jackson Pollock was exploding canvases on Long Island, Charlie Parker was breaking the sound barrier on 52nd Street and Marlon Brando was ripping his chest open on Broadway.

As his essay, Abstract Expression: From Bird to Brando continues, Hasset makes all the right connections between the inward and outward journeys of artists, actors, dancers, musicians and painters in post WWII America who are searching for a way to live beyond the masks. I think the first two musicians who made this quest clear for me were Dylan and Zappa. I was intrigued by the poetry and politics of the early Dylan, but pushed deeper and lifted to some place beyond myself by songs like "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Gates of Eden," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Rolling Stone," and "Ballad of a Thin Man."


Dylan fused the jazz experimentation of Beat poetry with the rock and soul blues of American roots music. He has written that he was going to chuck it all in 1963 given the rigid ideological posturing of his Leftist backers - and then while driving from Seattle to New Orleans he heard the Beatles. "God damn... I want to do that with American music." And he did - like Springsteen has often said: the world broke into a new and exciting tomorrow when Dylan began "Like a Rolling Stone" with that incredible opening snare drum crack!" Here was Ginsberg, Jesus and Paul Goodman rolled into Elvis and Muddy Waters. I know the heavens opened for me...

When I first heard Zappa, I was frightened. What do you want from an 8th grade suburban, white kid? I had no context: Edgar Varese? Freak-out? What did I know then? It is not a coincidence that the same jazz producer who worked with Dylan on his electric material (and later Simon and Garfunkel) also signed and produced the Mothers of Invention: Tom Wilson. He went on to work with another Beat-inspired favorites: the Velvet Underground from which hails St. Lou Reed and England's Soft Machine (inspired by William Burroughs's experimental novel of the same name.)

Zappa pushed the Beat critique of "plastic society" into clarity for this 14 year old boy. In addition to his do wop tunes, there was the Kafka-esque "Who Are the Brain Police?" as well as the wild ass, rambling "Help I'm a Rock" which my high school band used to do from time to time at various Jr. High School dances. It is part spoof, part jam, part social commentary and part verbal improv all in the spirit of pushing the edges


In so many ways, Zappa brought out the best of the Beats for me before I knew where to look for deeper insights. He once said, "Jazz isn't dead... it just smells funny." As well as: "Let's not be too rough on our own ignorance, it's what makes America great." With the rise of flower power - which he slammed as dangerous and naive - as well as the escalating war in Vietnam, it seemed that Zappa was on to something.

Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is THE BEST... The creation and destruction of harmonic and 'statistical' tensions is essential to the maintenance of compositional drama. Any composition (or improvisation) which remains consonant and 'regular' throughout is, for me, equivalent to watching a movie with only 'good guys' in it, or eating cottage cheese.

I think of Richard Brautigan - novels and poems - Richard and Mimi Farina's sweet music. I think of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the gentle beauty of Jefferson Airplane and the joyful embracing of all styles of music by the Dead. I think of Lenny Bruce and Bill Graham and the Fillmores on both Coasts and the great shows I saw in both. I think of walking with my baby, Jesse, through Golden Gate park and coming upon Paul Kanter at the carousel. I think of delivering my second baby, Michal, with midwives in a Haight/Ashbury apartment. I think of the first Bread and Roses Festival in Berkley. I think of City Lights Bookstore and Modern Times, too. I think of Country Joe and the Fish. I think of the Roxie Theater in the Mission. I think of Lawrence Ferllinghetti and Aldous Huxley. And I think of Grace Cathedral, the arts festival in North Beach and sipping wine at the edge of Chinatown. I think of Philip and Julie. And I think of walking forever with Dianne until our feet ached...

It will be interesting to see where this leads as Philip and I wander through some of contemporary San Francisco with a firm grasp on the Beat perspective, too.

A trout-colored wind blows
through my eyes, through my fingers,
and I remember how the trout
used to hide from the dinosaurs
when they came to drink at the river.
The trout hid in subways, castles,
and automobiles. They waited patiently for the dinosaurs to go away.

Friday, May 21, 2010

If you're going to San Francisco...

On this coming Tuesday, I head off to one of my favorite cities in the world: San Francisco. I lived there in the mid-70s. One of my daughters was born just a few blocks from Golden Gate Park in the Haight. And I finished my undergraduate work - and later my doctoral studies - there, too. Not only does the spirit of the city nourish a part of my heart - the beat/jazz/counter cultural part of me - but the weather, spirituality and ambiance of the town sets me at rest. It is a city with real soul.

In some ways, it is the Bob Dylan/Allen Ginsberg thing that I find most attractive. In many ways, I find their partnership/friendship one of my guides in the spiritual quest. Both men tried to find a way to live and express the freedom and creativity of jazz in both their art and personal lives. Sometimes the result was brilliant:

+ There is no finer and more precise description of the American experience for young people of soul in the 50s and 60s than Ginsberg's masterpiece: Howl.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz...


+ And Dylan pushed that wisdom and raw brilliance one step farther with his incredible electric fusion work of 65-67.

Together they embraced the experimentation of the jazz of John Coltrane and Miles Davis - bebop Gillespie and angry Mingus, too - with words and the rhythms of the city. (To be sure, they had incredible failures, too, but even their artistic horrors were writ large and filled with creative passion. They were not afraid to fall.)

And then they brought the best minds and musicians of their generation together for the Rolling Thunder Review - beats and hippies, rock and rollers and shamans - touring America with an alternative to the fear and hatred that was dominant. As tricksters and spiritual renegades, they asked us to live into our best selves - our compassionate selves - our cooperative selves. And they embodied this wisdom and vision in the very music they played: everyone backed everyone else up, they combined wooden and electric music with poetry and art and the whole "show" as an alternative universe for a moment in time.

My brother and his wife live in this glorious and odd city. In fact, they used to live in North Beach before it became gentrified and overly commercial. They would hang out at Vesuvius - the original Beat bar - or the Saloon -my favorite watering hole. On Sundays, they would head off to Coppola's wine bar and chat up the poets and artists of the area. They know the best bar tenders, the wildest visual artists and more and more the finest working poets, too.

My brother was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few months ago and is in treatment. All seems to be going well, but we miss one another dearly. We need to hang together - my Dylan to his Ginsberg - for our mutual healing. So we'll walk through the old neighborhoods and hang out in our favorite bars and coffee shops - we''ll see some of the jazz greats and some fine rock and soul players, too - and spend some time in City Lights Books. I love my brother - he belongs to San Francisco - it will be good to be in their embrace.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A day of connections...

Today was a day of connections: visiting folk in the hospital, sending out liturgies for those who will cover for me when I am in San Francisco, practising music with the choir, thinking through with my secretary ways we can be more effective, talking with folks who just happened to stop by the church. It was a day in which nothing BIG happened: the weather was beautiful - it was the return of Third Thursdays in Pittsfield and it was very well attended - and all the people I encountered today just seemed to be aware of one another. A gentle time of making connections...

In a way, this day felt like a quiet blessing with lots of gratitude just below the surface. It made me think of this old, old Arlo Guthrie tune that I still love so well.


It has been a day of returning thanks.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wind and fire at Pentecost...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, May 23, 2010. It is Pentecost - which hardly seems possible - because wasn't Easter just two weeks ago? The year is almost half over and my head is spinning. Nevertheless, we will be celebrating Pentecost with a FEAST of sound, symbol and celebration. Our Sunday School has created a banner of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, our worship team has created the liturgy and a team of artists have filled the Sanctuary with new visual art that is stunning. After worship - and a shared organ recital with St. Stephen's next door - I will be taking a week off to visit my brother in San Francisco.

What a day – what a FEAST day – what a celebration day – a day in which we acknowledge that by grace the Lord’s Spirit has saturated the hearts of the faithful and empowered us to live as the body of Christ in the real world. That’s what the scripture says in this morning’s text from Acts.

• Our English translations are way too passive. We read: When the day of Pentecost had come… Arrived – like the mail or the morning paper– or noticed like an afterthought.

• But the BIBLICAL TEXT is dynamic – powerful – pregnant with possibilities saying: when the day of Pentecost had been fulfilled. That is, saturated. Filled full with everything God had intended since before the beginning of time – sumplhrou'sqai – completed and made whole then they were all together in one place.

Do you see the difference? And that’s why we have gone all out this morning: all of the symbols, sights and sounds of Pentecost in the Christian tradition speak of Christ saturating our older understandings of God’s love with grace – not discarding them, to be sure, but filling them full to overflowing – so that we might advance the Lord’s blessings in our generation.

• When speaking to the literalists and rigid rule-keepers of his day, Jesus said: Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; not at all: I have not come to abolish, but to… fulfill – saturate – renew. (Matthew 5: 17)

• And when he went to the wedding feast at Cana of Galilee and the wine ran out – do you recall what happened there? There were six stone water jars used for the Jewish rites of purification – foot and hand washing to be exact –and Jesus asked the servants to fill them full – fulfill them, yes? And when the vessels of the old tradition were poured out and the wine steward tasted the water… what? It had become the best wine of all – completed and saturated with God’s grace – so that the feast and celebration might go on. (John 2: 1-11)


So let us be clear: Pentecost is not about NEW birth, it is about REBIRTH. Renewal – even resurrection – where what was once tired and worn out -- maybe even afraid and confused – is filled with God’s Spirit and power so that the feast may go on. Isn’t that what the story in Acts tells us? That when the Spirit had saturated the day…

All those who had been together IN ONE PLACE heard a sound like an explosion – or violent wind – that filled the whole house. And when the disciples looked around they saw tongues as of fire resting upon each of them – divided but also connected – giving them the ability to speak to others of God’s grace by the Holy Spirit.

Now listen carefully because on this day when we celebrate the saturation of the disciples’ hearts with God’s love, we’re being told to pay attention to two essential symbols or truths: wind and fire.

• Wind – pneuma/ruach – symbol of God’s Spirit and breath that brings order to the chaos at the beginning of time and inspiration to the hearts of God’s people throughout history.

• That’s what the poetry of Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones is trying to convey: when we are open to God’s spirit, dry bones can live – dead hearts can feel – and frightened souls can act with courage and truth.

Because God’s spirit is not a weak breeze gently moving the leaves on a spring afternoon: how does the story put it? This is a “mighty, rushing wind – a wind in a hurry – like a hurricane that smashes through the whole house and fills up not just the pulpit or the preacher” as Clarence Jordan used to say, “put also the pews and all the people, too. Because this wind goes into every nook and cranny… and leaves not one bit of the house unturned.” (“Incarnational Evangelism, Cotton Patch Sermons, p. 22)

And what else does God’s Spirit and Breath symbolize in our Christian story? Do you remember what I told you last week about waiting like Mary? When we are receptive and ready, when we are ready to be saturated, the Spirit of the Lord also impregnates us grace so that we, too, might give birth to Jesus in the world. And not our own personal and privatized, spiritual and safe Jesus: but the historical Jesus who breaks down barriers, challenges injustice and makes God’s compassion essential for living authentically in the kingdom of the Lord.

And that’s just the wind – there’s also the fire – so what do you think that symbolizes?Throughout the Old Testament, fire was one of the key ways that the Lord revealed herself to the people:

• Father Abraham was called into covenant with the Lord through a fire in which he burnt a calf, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. (Genesis 15: 7-10) At another fire, in which young Isaac was almost sacrificed, God spoke to Abraham again saying, “You now have my blessing and it will extend to your offspring like the stars in the heavens or the sand of the sea.” (Genesis 22: 17)

• Or think of Moses and the fire of the burning bush – a vision that inspired a liberation movement – or the pillar of fire by day and the cloud of smoke by night that the children of Israel followed on their march from their oppression in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. (Exodus 3/13)

Are you still with me? Fire speaks of God’s revelation – God’s inspiration – God’s energizing power. So please notice that the fire symbolized in the Pentecost story was a sustained fire: yes, it appeared over the heads of each of the disciples, but it was a fire that didn’t go out. It kept burning… just as Jesus promised it would.

• In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus promised that after his death and resurrection, he would send the Comforter – the Advocate – a source of spiritual inspiration that would always remain within and among God’s people of faith.

• “If you love me… I will ask the Father to send you the Advocate – the Spirit – who is the inspiration of truth… who will abide in you. I will not leave you orphaned and alone… the Spirit will come to be with you always to teach and lead you… so that you may have my peace.” (John 14: 15-27)

So on Pentecost, when the disciples were ready to be filled full, the Spirit of Jesus came upon them and saturated them with inspiration. And as long as they stayed connected to Jesus – plugged into his inspiration – then his Spirit set them on fire. It energized them and gave them some of the same power that had first energized and inspired him. Wind and fire – God’s revelation and inspiration – just as Christ had promised.
And here’s where it all comes together: what happens in the story once the wind and fire take up residence within and among the disciples? They start to act – act like Jesus in their generation – preaching and teaching and healing and challenging injustice with the same fiery intensity as Christ himself. Isn’t that what the story says?

• They started communicating with all kinds of people just like Jesus did – rich and old, male and female, Jew and Gentile, bold and meek, young and old – and race and gender and class just didn’t matter anymore.

• Because they were all together in ONE place – living and acting as ONE body – the Body of Christ.


In this, God has healed the breach described in the story of the Tower of Babel. Then, arrogance and pride ruled the day – we can act like God rather than follow the Living Lord – and what happened when God’s people started acting too big for their britches?

• They were knocked back down to size, their arrogant temple was destroyed and confusion ruled the day. That seems to be one of the ways God works: if you want to live like you know more that the Source of Creation, then God steps back and says, “Go on… have it your way – and we’ll see how it turns out.”

• Last week, as I was reading the NY Times at breakfast, I saw one horrifying example after another of what it looks like when we insist on doing it our way: 1000 American dead in Afghanistan to say nothing of the thousands of Afghani civilians, oil and fear spewing from the Tower of Babel in the Gulf Coast and ideologues of every political hue and stripe exploiting the fear, anger and economic confusion of our time with abandon.

And then, as a tender and quiet alternative, there is the vision of Pentecost: wind and fire empowering God’s people to be on fire with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. Now, every week it is my job to both name and encourage this alternative spirit of Jesus for you so that you might grow in his spirit. But today I want YOU to name the places and the people who are on fire with Christ’s spirit in our church… because today we celebrate Christ’s healing and hope-filled alternative to chaos in you!

• Where, for example, do you see people in this faith community on fire for something Christ-like?

• Where do you see something of Christ’s compassion being made flesh within and among us?

• And where do you see a sign or presence of Christ’s healing and hope here at First Church?
(After everyone shares a sign…)

Let me close our sharing with the words of a wise old soul who sounds a great deal like the Spirit of Jesus in our generation. Sam Hamilton-Poore speaks of Pentecost like this:

Closer to us than our own breath and breathing, the Risen Christ fills us with his own Spirit – quietly, intimately. With this breath, this power, we then go about the everyday, unspectacular, grubby work of forgiveness. Breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive; breathe, forgive. Although we often long for the dazzling or spectacular – dramatic signs of God’s wind and fire – we live in a time and world in need of people who breathe in, regularly, the quiet power and grace of Christ's Spirit – and people who, likewise, breathe out, regularly, the power and grace of forgiveness. Our world – so spectacularly broken and burning – needs people for whom reconciliation is as normal and natural as breathing.

Lord, may it be so within and among us.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

White boy loves the blues...

Ok, in the 21st century - given world music and all the rest - it isn't so unusual for white boys (and girls) to love (and play) the blues. Nor is it all that unusual anymore for people of color to sing the great classical works of Western music or play with other genre bending forms. I guess that's why it gives me a great thrill to know that my brother in San Francisco got us some tickets to Mose Allison. (I'll be hanging with he and his dear wife after Pentecost in their totally excellent condo in the Mission.)

+ Mose Allison, of course, is one of the FIRST white boys to refashion the blues - not in a way that robbed or plagiarized - but rather in a way that gave tribute to the greats and reinterpreted their work. I think musicians like John Mayall, Eric Clapton and Texas white boys like Stevie Ray Vaughn did something similar in their generation. So it will be a treat to see/hear this giant as he moves towards the end of this journey.

+ I hope to pay homage to a few of the great NYC jazz temples this coming year, too, as my daughter and I make pilgrimage to the Village Vanguard, Blue Note and other locales. Not only do I want to return thanks for those hallowed halls that created some of the greatest American sounds, but I want to see what new songs are being played in these old places, too. Earlier this year, while attending an arts and faith conference, I had the chance to stop by a few other important music venues - Cafe Wha? and the Bitter End - but I want to go deeper with the jazz halls.

This past Sunday I had a chance to hang and jam with some local jazz musicians. What a trip! I don't know much about playing jazz so it was a real challenge trying to keep up with these cats. They were really smokin' - and I was a total novice - but... it was still lots of fun to listen and then take a few baby steps out into the jamming groove. I have a LOT more work and practice to do before I try this again - and that's as it should be. How did Bobbie Dylan put it: I will know my song well before I start signing?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Day has begun...

Today is mostly devoted to getting ready for Sunday's celebration of Pentecost. We've had a small crew of visual artists working on a "descending dove" sculpture for about a month - they constructed it our of the prayer requests of the congregation - and we'll suspend it tonight.

+ A variety of musicians - classical, folk and jazz - will be sharing their gifts on Sunday, too: a stunning choral meditation on the Holy Spirit, a touching Keith Green song as well as our reworking of "Message in the Bottle" by the Police.

+ The Sunday school has created a three dimensional banner portraying the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit and others have made pin wheels for the front lawn out of recycled "stuff" to evoke a sense of the Spirit of the Lord blowing where she will.

+ There will be young and old - male and female - conservative and progressive all together. Some will speak in French and others in German, some in Spanish and some in Russian and one will share a little Chinese, too.

So, it is clear, the day has begun - and some might wonder if all this work, creativity and coordination matters. It clearly doesn't immediately advance the cause of compassion. It does nothing to challenge the wars. And the politicians won't even know what we're doing. So, on one level, who cares?

On another level, however, something beautiful is being done for the Lord - and that beauty and creativity brings a little healing to our wounded culture. As Gregory Wolfe, of IMAGE Magazine is known to say: the healing and transformation of culture is far more lasting than politics. In a recent interview, Wolfe put it like this:

... there are two forces that are diametrically opposed in the world: ideology and imagination. The ideologue is somebody who has a closed system of abstract certainties about the world that results in pride and a loss of connection to reality. So, the ideologue has to impose his vision on the world more by violence than by persuasion.

Imagination is an awareness of reality outside of ourselves and our limited natures, the difficulty of being able to comprehend not only the mysteries of the universe, but even the full ramifications of political and social action. Imagination cultivates a sense of our contingent nature as human beings and seeks humility before that mystery... And what moves people's hearts? I think it is in the great stories and images that we are able to discover who we really are - the political process involves debate - but the meaning of that debate begins in art and culture. So if you reduce everything to technocratic and political/economic terms, you lose the capacity to move anyone. That's why I was drawn toward the effort to renew the twin wellsprings of culture: art and faith.

Me, too, brother Wolfe, me too.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Day is done...

As a old folkie - with a decidedly rock and roll obsession - there are two old tunes that often reach up from out of nowhere from time to time and grab me. One is the Peter, Paul and Mary classic, "Day Is Done." I've been loving this song for 41 years- singing it, too - and even used to sport a look not too different from that of Paul Stookey's! (What a humbling journey down memory lane this is...)


We welcomed new members into the faith community today - and there are others who will join the mix later this summer - and that felt good. This was true, of course, for all the obvious reasons, but also because it is a sign that we are living into the promises of being a "tribal church" in our small city. Imperfectly, to be sure; and not without hesitation. Still, ours is a small, truly intergenerational place of worship, service, study and acts of compassion.

Not many places in our culture eagerly welcome old and young people - and those of us in-between - but we have discerned this as part of our sacred calling. My liturgists today were two women - one in her 50s and one in her 20s - one a mother, the other a first year seminary student. Our new members were a young, blended family - with their various "tween" children - along with a middle aged woman exploring her own spiritual journey now that her children are grown. In a few months we'll welcome a professional woman from China, two other young families with children as well as some 50-something adults who are deepening our ministry into the arts.

So as I return thanks for the joys and challenges of this day, I find myself singing this old, old tune and giving thanks for the way our community is quietly becoming a parable of hope. "And if you'll take my hand my son, all will be well when the day is done..."

(This song actually popped into my head yesterday while I was cutting the grass and thinking about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, my recent conversation with Vietnam Vets and the two wars America is waging in the Middle East. And while I haven't sorted out exactly what I want to say about all of this, it is clear to me that the values and dreams many of us "counter-cultural" types were celebrating in the 60s have a whole lot more health and possibility to them in 2010 than the greed of the Reagan years, the fear of the Nixon generation and the timidity of the Clinton generation... but that's a rant for another time.)

The other song about living each day as a gift comes from Godspell: "Day By Day." I've been loving and singing that song, too, for at least 40 years. It never gets old for me. And while some may think it is a sentimental journey to a simpler place in time, it is just a medieval prayer set to the sounds of American folk music. It doesn't hurt that it, too, was saturated in the counter cultural values of the 60s.


As this day comes to a close - and I wrestle with how to best give evidence of Christ's grace and compassion through my life in the days to come - I find myself grooving to these two old tunes. They are blessings that continue to nourish my soul. Here's a prayer from Iona...

Lord, bring new life
where we are worn and tired,
new love
where we have turned hard-hearted,
forgiveness
where we feel hurt
and where we have wounded,
and the joy and freedom
of your Holy Spirit
where we are the prisoners of ourselves...
To each and to all
where regret is real,
God announces release and pardon
and grantsus the right to being again.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.

(Here's another 40 year old favorite that I'm aching to play again!)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Loving my family...

From time to time some pictures emerge that just touch my heart - mostly pictures of my family - near and far. Yesterday my posting included a photo of my daughters from my seminary days back in NYC. They were 5 and 3 respectively. (As you can tell, I LOVE this picture!)

Earlier this year, my oldest daughter, Jesse, posted a few shots from her new home in Brooklyn. She and her beloved husband, Michael, bought a condo right on the edge of Brooklyn's Chinatown - in what is known as Sunset Park - and I just love these pictures, too. They speak of a young woman having a ball living her own life and loving deeply. And, they have a certain Meryl Streep quality a la "Julie and Julia" that I find so endearing as perhaps only a poppa could... And you can still see the "little person" inside the adult, yes?I think of the poem William Butler Yeats wrote for his daughter that includes these lines:

May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking-glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.

This fine young lass, who so resembles the Irish side of the clan, is one of the reasons I have hope in life. It was my privilege to deliver her in a Los Angeles apartment back in the 1970s - while organizing with the Farm Workers - and even when we've pissed each other off... she has been a treasure.

My other daughter, Michal Clare by name, is equally beautiful, bright and engaging. She lives a mere 45 minutes away and works as a part-time writer, sometimes editor and regular part of the area food bank bringing emergency supplies to seniors throughout the Berkshires. She is another ray of hope in my world. This picture came about shortly after Di and I returned from the UK and Michal was being interviewed by a NY Times reporter about parents who come to stay in your small apartment for a visit. (This used to be her kitchen in NJ - her current kitchen is not much bigger!)

This special child is equally close to my heart but in a very different way from her sister - and well it should be. When Dianne and I were wandering around Scotland, we kept coming upon her likeness as she is truly the Scot of the family. What's more, in addition to be a perceptive and creative writer, she is a baker with an incredible gift for bringing the blessing of bread to those in need. In an almost primal way I think she knows, to paraphrase Gandhi, "that there are people so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread." She recalls for me the words of Simone Weil: "The danger is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry."

I have been blessed with two bright, loving and very real young men as sons-in-law - both wonderful guys - and both fascinating in their own unique ways. Jay, who is Michal's husband, is a farm mechanic with a graduate degree in economics. He has been in the military, done organizing with health care unions on both coasts and LOVES Springsteen, Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie. He is a voracious reader with a careful mind. We just came upon this picture of him playing at a recent farm talent show. He is a hunter, lover of dogs and a sweet partner for my daughter. He, too, is a joy in my life.

His counterpart in the wider family - if such a thing can be said - is Michael who is quiet, stone-cold funny, patient, loving and a great soccer/basketball player. He is another fine baker and cook - some thing he and Jesse treasure - so when they come up from NYC it is always a feast.

For the longest time I didn't know what was going on in his head - he is soooo quiet - but now that we've spent a few years getting to know one another, I realize that in many ways he is much like Dianne. Still waters run deep - and he is still and deep with a biting sense of humor that is spot on. I was blessed with celebrating their marriage ceremony - and as I thought of them both I kept coming back to my favorite Scott Cairns poem - which goes:

The thing to remember is how
tentative all of this really is.
You could wake up dead.
Or the woman you love
could decide you're ugly.
Maybe she'll finally give up
trying to ignore the way
you floss your teeth as you
watch television. All I'm saying
is that there are no sure things here.

I mean, you'll probably wake up alive,
and she'll probably keep putting off
any actual decision about your looks.
Could be she'll be glad your teeth are so clean.
The morning might be
full of all the love and kindness
you need. Just don't go thinking
you deserve any of it.

I know that I don't take any of them for granted. In an almost childlike way, I still give thanks to God for them all before I go to sleep almost every night. Some might say that is not very "post-modern" of me, but I know that the love we share is never deserved and always pure grace.

And then there is Dianne: quiet, hard-working, tender and hard often at the same time, my favorite person who welcomed me into her heart when we were both wounded and confused. She was embraced by my daughters when they were teens - no mean feat. She has matured in creativity and spiritual depth - a true partner in ministry and music. And she is the most fun person I have ever known who loves to travel with me and knows how to cajole me out of my cranky old man impersonation (which sometimes is not an impersonation.)

Here is one of my favorite pictures of her taken in Quebec City last summer... each of these beloved people speak to me of blessings - especially as the poet, Kabir, puts it in this poem.

Friend, hope for the blessing of God while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think... and think... while you are alive.
What you call "salvation" belongs to the time before death.

If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,
do you think
ghosts will do it after?
The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten -
that is all fantasy
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment
in the City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now,
in the next life you will have the face
of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find our where the blessing is,
and believe in the Great Sound!
Kabir says this: when the Guest of Blessing is being searched for,
it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest
that does all the work.
Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ordinary and extraordinary...

One of my favorite writers, Joan Chittister, regularly remarks that the way of God is the embrace of what seems paradoxical: sin AND grace, fear AND trust, the holy AND the human. I have been moved by her emphasis on the connections between the extraordinary within the events of our ordinary human lives. So, today was a VERY ordinary day - spring cleaning in all its gritty reality - and also a day of extraordinary beauty.

After cooking my dear heart breakfast - and doing some errands to gather cleaning supplies - we decided to first tackle our bedroom. When I looked at my part of the room... OMG what a wreck! Books scattered everywhere, unpacked suitcases from a host of trips and piles and piles of magazines. It made me want to hide but after two hours of careful attention, six months of neglect was sorted out into order, cleanliness and modest beauty. The same drill applied to the bathrooms, my study and the kitchen so that by the end of the day the simple beauty of our home was obvious once again.

Too often I can get caught up in the so-called GREATER demands of the day - my work at church, my writing, pastoral calls - until I come to resent the ordinary needs of cleaning and cooking and clearing away the clutter. Now, I don't have any illusion that this imbalance is going to change dramatically because I have a high tolerance for clutter when I'm in a groove. But today was yet another gentle reminder that by regularly attending to the ordinary tasks of the day, beauty and order can be restored. At least in a small measure...

And in a season when the full catastrophe of the Gulf Coast oil spill is only partially understood and my nation is waging two wars in the Middle East while trying to figure out a way through a complicated economic collapse... maybe it is time for me to truly pay attention to more of the ordinary things. I don't want to be an ostrich - and Bonhoeffer's spirituality of calling out the forces of evil and the demonic is growing in my heart. At the same time, I need to nourish a way to stay grounded to the ordinary beauty and grace that God offers every day.

Brennan Manning, in his reflections on what he calls the Ragamuffin Gospel, writes: Not far away from us, there is someone who is afraid and needs our courage; someone who is lonely and needs our presence. There is someone hurt needing our healing; unloved, needing our touching; old, needing to feel that we care; weak, needing the support of our shared weakness. One of the most healing words I ever spoke as a confessor was to an old priest with a drinking problem. "Just a few years ago," I said, "I was a hopeless alcoholic in the gutter in Fort. Lauderdale." "You?" he cried. "O thank God!" When we bring an ordinary smile to the face of someone in paid, we have brought Christ to him (or her.)

So here's the challenge - personally and professionally - in each regular day, what helps you stay grounded in the ordinary? One of my favorite Psalms puts it like this:

O LORD, I am not proud;
I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother's breast;
my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the LORD,
from this time forth for evermore
.


I am curious what you do to help you stay grounded to the extraordinary in the ordinary? Any ideas you are willing to share?

credits:
1) weburbanist
http://weburbanist.com/2008/04/06/3-more-kinds-of-unusual-art-from-ordinary-objects-toothpick-sculptures-to-hammer-and-nail-portraits/
3) my children in nyc in the 80s...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Coming home...

One spiritual theme that is taking greater shape and focus in my life is that of coming home. I know that it is a nuanced part of radical hospitality - and it is clear that I have been energized by biblical stories like the Prodigal Son and Christ's invitation to rest in Matthew 11 for most of my adult life - but coming home is slightly different, yes?


(check out this SMOKIN' band: with Clapton and the whole Derek and the Dominoes crew!)

+ First, there is an awareness of being adrift - lost - at the very least unsettled within and confused about where to fit in and belong, too. Henri Nouwen speaks of this as an inner and outer loneliness. "Too often we will do everything possible to avoid the confrontation with the experience of being alone... Our culture has become most sophisticated in the avoidance of pain - not only our physical pain, but our emotional and mental pain as well - so we have become so used to this state of anesthesia, that we panic when there is nothing or nobody left to distract us." (Reaching Out, p. 17)

No wonder we try to multi-task. Or keep the television on just below the surface while guests try to visit. Or support cable news 24/7. Or all night supermarkets. First, we are called to be attentive and aware of our loneliness.

+ Second, God uses this loneliness as an invitation. When we stop hiding - or self-medicating - or distracting ourselves long enough to honestly embrace our aching and sometimes empty soul, we face a choice: do we want more of the same or something different? Like my friends in AA, "When we realize and accept that we are hurting, what do we want to do about it? If you always do, what you've always done, you'll always get, what you've always got." Precisely right!

I think of the psalms: be still and wait upon the Lord... as a hart pants for flowing streams, O Lord, so does my soul thirst for you. Or the words of Jesus in Matthew 13 when he says:


Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That's why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they're blue in the face and not get it. I don't want Isaiah's forecast repeated all over again:

Your ears are open but you don't hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don't see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won't have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won't have to look,
so they won't have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.


First the emptiness, then the awareness followed by acceptance: I really am lonely. Then and probably only then are we ready for the third understanding: salvation as belonging. The Benedictine monk, David Steindl-Rast, who has deepened the inter-faith work between Christians and Buddhists begun by Thomas Merton, puts it like this:

The message of Jesus is about God as the one who is towards us, who speaks to us, to whom we belong. To experience this mutual belonging is salvation. In that experience God's saving power is made manifest. In contemporary terms we might say that salvation means belonging...

For the opposite of salvation is alienation - estrangement from God, self and others - and we know what alienation means. Alienation means our utmost misery. That is why I say that the opposite of this misery is belonging... living in a way where you don't have to earn a place at the table... it is a given fact - the most basic truth of your life - so accept your belonging. Snap out of your alienation and don't hang on to your private little self. Open yourself to the gift of belonging for then all the joy of heaven is yours for the taking - no, for the giving of yourself. (Christ and the Bodhisattva, p. 104)

No wonder I have been exploring more and more tunes about welcome, returning and making connections! As that sense of belonging matures - as we challenge all the forces within and beyond that support alienation - hope and healing emerge. Like a friend at church told me last week: the BEST song about this whole process is "Message in a Bottle" by the Police... It starts out with a castaway at sea feeling lonely. So he sends an SOS to the world. A year goes by and nothing happens but a deeper loneliness. And then, out of the blue one morning he finds a hundred billion bottles on the shore EACH with their own SOS. "A hundred billion castaways looking for a home!"


Naming the longing, taking responsibility for the emptiness and embracing God's belonging - personally and in community - is how salvation happen, yes?
credits:
1)
http://kyvoice.com/winchestersun/newerworld/?m=200906
2) alex shotov
www.naturephotography.org.ua/landscape/loneliness.html
3)
www.spiritweaves.com/rites-of-belonging.html

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tribal church insights...

My church leadership team has begun reading Carol Howard Merritt's book, Tribal Church, and tonight is our opening conversation. Two of her early insights deserve a comment:

+ First, more and more and more, "our secular viewpoints outside the church seem more gracious, loving and responsible - more consistent with Christ-like behavior - than those inside the church." Ouch... but so true. This is the cutting edge for transforming church culture - radical hospitality - authentic welcome with no strings or pressure. A whole different approach for a church in transition and I am grateful we are making progress simply embracing folks wherever they are on life's journey. But it takes LOTS of practice and intentionality without getting caught up in trying too hard. It also demands that we refuse to give in to gimmicks while teaching over and over and over that church is NOT about us. In a culture that is so addicted to consumption, to say THIS IS NOT ABOUT YOU ONLY is a challenge!

+ Second, more and more 20-30 year olds are choosing to leave the evangelical world because it is often so narrow and harsh, but they don't yet trust the once main-stream congregations - and with good reason. Mother Theresa noted 30 years ago that the leading disease in America is loneliness - not HIV/AIDS or cancer - loneliness. What's more, given the intense political polarization, more and more of us are aching for community. But traditional churches have been more like clubs than communities over the past 100 years, so we have to relearn - and earn -credibility. And not just the pastor, but the body has to practice what we preach. And in a spectator society, this too is counter-cultural.

"... in our culture, our lives and more and more divided based on age... Older folk may watch the nightly news, while younger generations get their information from the Internet. Television producers gear programs toward target audiences, so much that we not only find a simple distinction between adult and children's programming... we find discrete shows for infants, toddlers, children, tweens and teenagers. My 60+ friend can't comprehend that my favorite shows are usually adult cartoons and fake documentaries, and I can't understand how a person can come home after a hard day's work and watch an exhausting hour-long drama." (p. 20)

Merritt suggests - and my experience supports this - that there is much to be learned and affirmed by bringing the generations together. Not easy, but essential - as part of the healing of our land. Oh this is going to be a fascinating summer...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Getting ready for the power from above...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, May 16, 2010. It is Ascension Sunday - a tough liturgical day for many in our tradition - and one filled with challenges and insights. I love this Sunday and share a few reasons why in my reflection. Perhaps you will find yourself in town - if so, please join us for worship at 10:30 am.

Today is the Feast of the Ascension of Christ: it is one of my favorite celebrations in the life of the church, but also one that has become ever more complicated for people of faith in the 21st century. As one scholar observed, before the realm of science – before the work of the space program – we didn’t really have to wrestle with this feast day.

On a flat earth it was easy to point to where God lived. God was up beyond the dome (of the sky) and in fact was partly the dome itself holding back the chaos that seemed so close in that early world devoid of simple scientific rationale. Coming with this middle-eastern cosmology to the events of Jesus’ death, resurrection and re-assimilation into God it was easy (therefore) to speak of him having “ascended” back to God: literally back beyond the dome… but that doesn’t work so well in 2010.

Such simple-mindedness, however, just makes our brains hurt in this generation: where IS up from a planet suspended in space? And “given what we now know about the size of the Universe, ascension gets us into all sorts of problems such as how far, how high, which galaxy?” (Peter Woods, “Up, Up and Inside,” May 11, 2010)

So let me suggest that we put any and all inclinations toward literalism aside in our contemplation of Ascension Day and consider what deeper insights our still speaking God might be sharing with us on this sweet celebration. For when we put the insights of the scriptures into a context, they begin to reveal both the comfort and the challenge of being Christ’s disciples in our generation. Like St. Paul told the early church:

It's in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone… (and) once you heard this truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), you found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what's coming, a reminder that we'll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life (in God’s own time.)

So first let’s remember that the story St. Luke tells us about Christ’s ascension into heaven takes place… when? Do you recall? The words of Luke in Acts tell us it was 40 days after the resurrection – 40 days after Easter – so why do you think this is important? What do you recall about the number 40? We know that our ancestors in faith – our Jewish cousins in Israel – used the number 40 repeatedly to speak of significant encounters with God’s presence in history:

• Noah and his brood were on the ark after the flood for 40 days and nights.

• The children of Israel wandered the wilderness and were tested and purified by God’s spirit for 40 years.

• Moses spent 40 days on the mountain with the Lord.

• The prophet Elijah spent 40 days hiding in a cave when he was most afraid and confused about his mission to a decadent society.

• And of course, Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and night before beginning his public ministry.

So, by using the number 40 St. Luke is not only asking us to make a connection between the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the story of God’s love in Israel, he is urging his community to pay attention. Whenever you hear the number 40, he wants us to remember, then something important is about to happen. That’s the first insight on Ascension Sunday – and it has nothing to do with cosmology, science, spatial relations or literalism. It is an invitation and a warning: take notice because something big is about to happen.

The second insight takes place when we realize that St. Luke is retelling the story of Christ’s birth and ministry in the book of Acts.
You might even say that Acts is chapter two of the Luke’s gospel because the same person wrote it.

• Did you know that? I’m not telling you something new here right?

• Luke wrote both the gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles – and he does something quite important in chapter two – when he tells us that just as Jesus was conceived in the trust and humanity of Mary the first time – the same thing happens again through us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the first book, Theophilus,(which means one who believes in God) I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Do you see the connection? It doesn’t become full blown until next week – Pentecost – but let’s review the background that Luke is summarizing right now so that we will be ready for the feast. And here is one of those wonderful challenges for Protestants of any era: if we want to be faithful to the Biblical story and embrace the wisdom of the Ascension and Pentecost, then we have to reconsider how we understand Mary – the mother of our Lord – because she is both the key and the model for what it means to be the body of Christ.

• Back in chapter one of St. Luke we read that in the sixth month (of Elizabeth’s pregnancy – and Elizabeth is Mary’s relative – most likely a cousin) the angel Gabriel visited a young Palestinian peasant girl by the name of Miriam.

• Gabriel – however you understand a spiritual messenger of the Lord – is the same angel who came to Zechariah (a high priest of Israel) and Elizabeth when they were very, very old and promised that they would bear a child – John the Baptist – who would announce the coming of the Messiah.

Are you still with me? Do you see where this is going? Spirit – Israel – becoming pregnant by God’s grace and deep faith? The text continues: Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son and you will name him Jesus. And when Mary asked how this was going to happen, Gabriel said: the Holy Spirit will come upon you… and by faith this child will be born and called the Son of God. And what did Mary reply? Here I am, Lord, your servant; let it be with me according to your word.

That is part one of the story – Mary is the model of faith through whom Christ Jesus is born – by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Again, we’re not talking about science or literalism: this is a testimony to what can happen by faith. New life can be born, new hope restored; blessings and bounty can take up residence in old and new flesh alike.

• And then this story is repeated by St. Luke in chapter two – what we now call the Acts of the Apostles – in exactly the same manner as chapter one: by the Holy Spirit, God is going to plant the seed of Christ in the new Mary – the church – and once again the body of Christ shall be born by faith.

• In both the book of Luke – the final chapter – and the book of Acts – the first chapter we are told that Jesus said these words to his disciples: You are witnesses to all that God has created. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high… for you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Luke 24/Acts 1)

Am I being clear? Do you follow what St. Luke is trying to tell us? By faith, Mary received God’s promised Holy Spirit and gave birth to Christ in the real world. In like fashion, by faith the disciples – including you and me – are promised the Holy Spirit – God’s power from on high – to also give birth to Christ in another form – the church – so that God’s grace may spread throughout the world – first in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria but then to the ends of creation.

• Do you see why Mary is so important? She is literally the model for how God calls us to become the church.

• So what are you thinking? What’s going on in your heads and hearts?

First, Luke wants us to connect the ministry of Jesus with the grace of God revealed in Israel. Second, he wants us to understand that God’s promise is to continue in creation through you and me and all believers as we give birth to Jesus in our day just like Mary did in hers.

And third there is a very unique promise of both waiting and power involved in these stories: Stay here in the city until you are clothed with power from on high Jesus tells his disciples in Luke – and this is repeated in Acts with the words – wait until you receive my power through the Holy Spirit. Now both waiting on the Lord and embracing the power of Christ can be frightening and frustrating, so let’s take a moment for clarity so that we know about what is being asked of us as disciples and don’t go off half-cocked.

First, wait – kaqizo – which some versions translate as stay or even settle down. Throughout the New Testament this little word means to sit down and stop being preoccupied with other concerns. It has to do with resting and being fully present to what is happening right now.

• Psalm 37 captures the spirit so well: do not fret because of the wicked… trust in the Lord… sit down and wait… be still before the Lord and wait patiently… do not fret for it only leads to evil.

Like the folk musicians, the Wailin’ Jennys, said when we went over to Northampton to hear them last month: why do you keep fretting and worrying over and over? Worrying is like praying for things you don’t want to happen!

The invitation – the spiritual wisdom – is to wait like Mary: it takes time for this pregnancy to mature – it takes waiting – and letting go. How did old Ram Das put it back in the 60s? “Be here now, man!” Now, let’s be fair: such waiting and resting and living by faith takes practice, yes? It is not automatic.

Left to our own devices we’ll worry and fret and flit from one imagined catastrophe to the next without ever once resolving any of our anticipated anxieties. In fact, some have become so addicted to drama and angst that we have no idea what Jesus was even talking about when he asked us to rest and settle down. The poet, T.S. Eliot, puts it like this:

Endless invention, endless experiment, brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; knowledge of speech, but not of silence; knowledge of words and ignorance of the Word… where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

And if that is too esoteric, consider the pop culture alternative:

The paradox of our time is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less; buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less common sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We've learned how to make a living, but not a life and added years to life not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space.

To truly settle down and wait upon the Lord takes practice – cultivation – a commitment to the spiritual life. Jesus isn’t talking about gimmicks or schtick – tricks that lure people into worship or church – trinkets that distract but starve our soul of depth and integrity. He’s talking about the time-tested disciplines of being still and settling down; something that is almost unheard of in our day of multitasking and electronic devices that follow us everywhere.

Well, that is part of what Jesus is saying, but not the totality. Because he goes on to tell us that if we learn to settle down and rest in the Lord, he promises that we will receive power from on high. Dunamis – from which we get the word dynamite – the Holy Spirit who will empower us to be as Christ in the world.

• And please be very clear about what this means: it does NOT mean that we will become perfect – or sinless – or obsessed with doing, doing, doing good and noble work no matter how important.

• No, to be Christ in the world is to be his witness – people who have experienced and trusted both repentance and the forgiveness of sins – and are committed to sharing these gifts with others softly and tenderly.

We have, you see, been invited to show the world an alternative – God’s life giving alternative – because time and again, we refashion religion and the heart of God into our own broken image – and that is deadly. St. George Carlin once described his take on religion like this – and for many it is all too true:

Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man…living in the sky, who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever and suffer and burn and scream until the end of time. But he loves you. Oh yes, he loves you and he needs your money.

We have been asked to make flesh an alternative – Christ’s alternative – inspired by the dynamite of his grace. I think the words of M. Craig Barnes, pastor/teacher at Pittsburg Theological Seminary, transcend his description of what congregations want from their pastor when he writes:

What we really want to see… are those who know what it means to struggle against temptation and despair, just like we do. We want to be led by someone who has also stayed up all night fretting over choices, regrets and fear, but who then finds the quiet grace to start over the next morning. We want to see the Gospel incarnated in a human life that is still far from complete but has become more interesting because the human drama is now sacred. In other words, we want a pastor – or I would say a witness – who knows what it means to be human, but in communion with God. Innocence is precious, but it’s the glimpses of redemption that truly compel. (The Pastor as Minor Poet, p. 53)

And that, beloved in Christ, is why Ascension Sunday, is so important: it helps us begin to see the possibilities God has in store for us by faith. Such is the blessing of the good news, so let those who have ears to hear: hear.
2) monica sheldon www.agnesbugeragallery.com/Paintings.aspx?ArtistID=56
2) caroline levis http://www.levisart.com/

6) mary bogdan flickr.com/photos/marybogdan/50529853
7) cyprian adagi ogambi www.insideafricanart.com/artists%20main%20pages/Ogambi.htm
8) cubism pet-portraitartist.com/learning-to-paint-and-draw/painting-styles/Cubism.htm
9) monica sheldon, ibid
10) chidi okoye
www.modernartimages.com/galleryofcubismpage1.htm

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