Saturday, October 30, 2010

Stumbling towards Bethlehem...

I spent the morning in conversation with a young man about ministry - preparing for seminary, process and what that might mean for him - and it did my heart good. If he moves forward, and I think he will, that will mean we will have two students in the in-care/discernment process from our small congregation at the same time! What a treat. What a privilege. And what a responsibility. I think that by Christmas he will have a written narrative of his calling ready to review and then we can move forward in the new year as a congregation to help him affirm and discern what happens next.

When I was very young - 16 years old - I first discerned my call to ministry. By 18 I was "in-care" of my local church and the association in Connecticut where my family lived. As would become clear to me, however, although I never doubted the calling, I still had to test it repeatedly. Consequently, I was in-care of my local church for 13 years before I completed seminary and took a position in a local church in Saginaw. There is NO rush in sorting this commitment out.

I also recall that during my internship with Ray Swartzback in my senior year in seminary he said something to me like: a congregation that doesn't give birth to new ministers from within is spiritually dead. That has stayed with me for nearly 30 years. At first I didn't know what he was talking about, but it became clearer in time. It has something to do with experiencing both the presence of Christ in a congregation and sensing that the clergy are intimate with the Lord, too. The ministries, the community and the pastor must all authentically express something of God's grace and Christ's love in their unique ways. For without this, church life is only seen as either a series of meetings or an abstract, intellectual exercise.

So, as this brisk, autumn afternoon comes to a close, I've been thinking about the people who have sensed a call to ministry on my watch. As best I can recall, I have had the privilege of being part of this quest for 4 people - each circumstance very different - and each discernment process equally unique. I am prayerful about the young man I spoke with today. We shall see...

Friday, October 29, 2010

Two contrasting world views...

This morning I had to report for jury duty - not necessarily what I wanted to do on my Sabbath day - but in the spirit of "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" and all that I showed up at 7:54 am and was duly registered. At about 8:50 am, the attending constable welcomed the roughly 85 other civic minded Berkshirites, invited us to watch a 25 minute video about "what to expect as a juror" and then told us that once the judges started court at 9:00 am we would eventually find out if we were needed.

There we sat - and sat - and sat some more. Until at 11:53 am we were notified that none of us was needed and that we could all go home. To say that many thoughts ran through my mind at that moment - from HOW it came to pass that it took nearly three hours to decided ALL of us were unnecessary to just WHO exactly showed up on a Friday morning to court anyhow - would be an understatement. Still, it was better than waiting until 4:00 pm, yes?

So, during my enforced waiting I got a lot of church planning finished - from liturgies to brochures - and some serious and light reading, too. About a week ago, while waiting for another meeting to begin, I had about 20 minutes to wander through the local independent bookstore in Lenox aptly named The Bookstore and came across a collection of essays by Milan Kundera entitled Encounter. I have long valued both Kundera's fiction - especially the Book of Laughing and Forgetting, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality - as well as his critical reflections on art and artists. This book falls into the second category and considers a range of themes from "the comical absence of the comical" in Dostoevsky's The Idiot and the meaning of the "intellectualism of the heroes in the novels of Philip Roth (who "yearn to keep past times on (a) novel's horizon (so that) the characters in each book are not left in the void of where our ancestors' voices have ceased to be audible") to the frustration of art in the age of motion pictures.

In a fascinating essay, "The Painter's Brutal Gesture: On Francis Bacon," Kundera carefully considers what Bacon is attempting with his grotesque portraiture. After noting that Bacon always strives to go beyond the face to the essence - a challenge in the modern age of violence and mass society - Kundera writes of Bacon's obsession with the slaughterhouse:
To link Jesus nailed to the cross with slaughterhouses and an animal's fear might seem sacrilegious. But Bacon is a nonbeliever, and the notion of sacrilege has no place in his way of thinking; according to him, "Man now realizes that he is an accident, that he is a completely futile being, that he has to play out the game without reason." Seen from this angle, Jesus is that accident who, without reason, played out the game. The cross: the final point of the game played out the end without reason. So, no, not sacrilege; rather a clearsighted, sorrowing, thoughtful gaze trying to penetrate to the essential. And what essential thing is revealed when all the social dreams have evaporated and man sees "religious possibilities... completely canceled out for him?" The body. (pp. 13-14)

Upon returning home from my anti-climactic time at court, I lay down to take a nap and started to browse through David Schindler's American take on the theological insights of Hans Urs von Balthazar: Heart of the World, Center of the Church. (Ok, ok, so it is a cold, rainy day in New England and my thoughts have wafted towards the heady - it is in the air today, man!) Where an entirely different worldview is articulated with these opening words:

Christ did not leave the Father when he became man to bring all creation to fulfillment; and neither does the Christian need to lead his center in Christ in order to mediate him to the world, to understand his relation to the world, to build a bridge between revelation and nature, philosophy and theology... for this is what the saints are full aware of: they never at any moment leave their center in Christ. They give themselves to their work in the world while praying at all times... and this is a more serious incarnation. Just as the Son of God, the more he became a man 0 until he appeared only as a naked man on the cross - did not lose his center in God and indeed revealed it with ever greater clarity - so too the community of faith will become similarly paradoxical through our deeper engagement with the world. (Balthasar)

One view - honest, humble and horrified at the emptiness of contemporary life - comes to trust only what can be revealed in the flesh. The other - equally honest, humble but also hopeful - sees in the flesh of Christ both the meaning of life and the purpose of creation: the invitation to move through even suffering and death with compassion born of the presence of God's love at our core. One vision searches for meaning within the absurd and tragic emptiness of our material existence. The other searches for the presence of God within our bleak world but discerns beauty, turth and goodness amidst the madness and so moves beyond the obvious towards hope.

+ I think of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot vs. Cormac McCarthy's The Road

+ I see the visual work of Damien Hirst vs. Makato Fujimora

+ I see goth kids aching for contact with the supernatural and the whole explosion of vampire romanticism of Twilight vs. the equally edgy but spiritually honest music of Bono or Arcade Fire

+ I recall the writing Jean Paul Sartre vs. the novels of Morris West to say nothing of the current shallow aetheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris - who poke holes in charactictures and straw men they call Christian - versus the careful, nuanced and question works of Frederick Buechner, Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard or Thomas Moore

I have a friend in Tucson who once said something like this: "I used to really be into Nietzsche and his dark insights until I started to notice that all my Nietzsche buddies were either becoming alcoholics or taking their lives. I guess if you follow Nietzsche's way you become like him... so I started searching for an alternative." We wound up calling our take on the alternative something like "Johnny Cash" Christianity - that was dark and honest and very clear about the brokenness and pain - but also connected to a grace that was bigger than the pain.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came at this from a different direction in his Nobel Lecture in 1970 when he wrestled with the claim that "beauty can save the world." (And who is better equipped to explore and facing the apparent deafening emptiness of the modern?)

One day Dostoevsky threw out the enigmatic remark: "Beauty will save the world". What sort of a statement is that? For a long time I considered it mere words. How could that be possible? When in bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, uplifted, yes - but whom has it saved?

There is, however, a certain peculiarity in the essence of beauty, a peculiarity in the status of art: namely, the convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and it forces even an opposing heart to surrender.But a work of art bears within itself its own verification: conceptions which are devised or stretched do not stand being portrayed in images, they all come crashing down, appear sickly and pale, convince no one. But those works of art which have scooped up the truth and presented it to us as a living force - they take hold of us, compel us, and nobody ever, not even in ages to come, will appear to refute them.

So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfil the work of all three?

It has been a very interesting day... and as it comes to a close I STILL find myself standing with Mako and McCarthy and Bono and Dillard and Solzhenitsyn.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Moving slowly...

The rains have ended and the sun is bright in the Berkshires today: stunning and crisp! At the same time, I am moving slowly today (for a variety of reasons) which may be why I have even noticed the majesty of this day in the first place. Two inter-related although very different thoughts about contemplation have been swimming around my head all day as the beaty washes over me.

The first, from Franciscan Richard Rohr, in his reflection on vision for the 21st century: One increasing consensus among scholars and spiritual observers is that conversion or enlightenment moves forward step by step from almost totally dualistic thinking to non-dual thinking at the highest levels. We call that higher way of seeing and being present contemplation. If this ancient gift could be clarified and recovered for Western Christians, Muslims, and Jews, religion would experience a monumental leap forward. We could start being present to one another. We could live in the naked now instead of hiding in the past or worrying about the future, as we mentally rehearse resentments and make our case for why we are right and someone else is wrong.

Good religion is always about seeing rightly: “The lamp of the body is the eye; if your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light,” as Jesus says in Matthew 6:22. How you see is what you see. And to see rightly is to be able to be fully present—without fear, without bias, and without judgment. It is such hard work for the ego, for the emotions, and for the body, that I think most of us would simply prefer to go to church services.

The second from Frederick Buechner also cuts to the chase in a whole different way: English-speaking tourists abroad are inclined to believe that if only they speak English loudly and distinctly and slowly enough, the natives will know what's being said even though they don't understand a single word of the language. Preachers often make the same mistake. They believe that if only they speak the ancient verities loudly and distinctly and slowly enough, their congregations will understand them. Unfortunately, the only language people really understand is their own language, and unless preachers are prepared to translate the ancient verities into it, they might as well save their breath.

No wonder the wisdom teachers speak of contemplation as "a long, loving look at the real." It takes time - and silence - and lots of discernment to know how to see and speak about what is real. This Sunday I am NOT going to be preaching - four members of the congregation will share a story about how God has been real to them - which will not only give me a chance to listen/experience the language of this faith community, but will also give the people a chance to speak and listen to themselves. The band will sing the song I wrote two years ago, "Grace Is Rising Now at Last," as an introduction to this time of congregational story telling - and then we will all sit back quietly and take a long, loving look at what is real within and among us.

I rather like the way the late John O'Donohue put it in his book of blessings: To Bless the Space Between Us. One entry entitled, "The Inner History of a Day," gets it right:

No one knew the name of this day;
Born quietly from deepest night,
It hid its face in light,
Demanded nothing for itself,
Opened out to offer each of us
A field of brightness that traveled ahead,
Providing in time, ground to hold our footsteps
And the light of thought to show the way.

The mind of the day draws no attention;
It dwells within the silence with elegance
To create a space for all our words,
Drawing us to listen inward and outward.

We seldom notice how each day is a holy place
Where the eucharist of the ordinary happens,
Transforming our broken fragments
Into an eternal continuity that keeps us.

Somewhere in us a dignity presides
That is more gracious than the smallness
The fuels us with fear and force,
A dignity that trusts the form a day takes.

So at the end of this day, we give thanks
For being betrothed to the unknown
And for the secret work
Through which the mind of the day
And the wisdom of the soul become one.
credits: Dianne De Mott

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jazzing up the blues...

Oh my Lord - in addition to taking care of business at church today - I also had my second bass guitar lesson. Today we spent an hour "jazzing up the blues" and man did I ever learn a LOT! First, Andy is in incredible teacher who really affirms this old dog trying to learn new tricks. Look, I know the basic rock and roll groove, but OMG are there ever sweet variations when it comes to playing jazz bass.


Second, I have NO illusions that in a year I am going to be able to do what some players have been working all their lives to formulate. And that is very humbling in all the right ways. At the same time, it is also an incredible opportunity to both stretch my mind and my ability as a musician - and there is NO down side to this at all. In fact, I am totally pumped about practicing at least an hour each day. As my honey said this morning at breakfast: there aren't many 58 year old guys who are willing to learn an entirely new form of music. I'm not surprised your mind hurts. (And sometimes it does because this is all so new!)

And third, what a privilege - and spiritual blessing - to be able to step outside of ministry to just work on music with a very talented musician who is also a dear friend. He is giving up his time and talent to work with this dinosaur - and I feel blessed - because this is yet another sign of God's grace in my life and today I am so very, very grateful. Too often clergy don't take care of themselves - I know - I've done the martyr/self-sacrificing trip before and it is a total burnout and bore!

It reminds me of the Lent that I made the commitment to ANOTHER favorite guitar man - don E of Tucson - to simply play/jam with him every Tuesday night from 8-10 pm. It became my Lenten discipline one year - a time to both nourish my soul and explore my music with a soul mate - and it changed my life. After 90 minutes of a meeting, for example, I would tell the folk: "Well, it is time for me to go pray with rock and roll." I would leave the meeting - often to their shock and disbelief - and head over to a jam session that challenged and healed me. For a while the church people thought their pastor had flipped, but I was practicing self-care. You know, that love your neighbor as YOURSELF stuff.


Groovin' cleared my head. It opened my heart and my senses, too. And it gave me a chance to grow in friendship, musicianship and prayer. I feel that way about the work Andy and I are doing in preparation for Istanbul: it is all pure grace - and I am one of the luckiest men alive!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Random thoughts about community building and music making...

We had a very sweet band practice tonight - a little bit of work on my song about Pittsfield for Sunday - and a whole lotta shakin' goin' on for Thanksgiving Eve. One of the things I have always been blessed doing on TGE is an "homage" tune for those musicians who have died over the past year - a sort of rock and roll All Saints/All Souls Day - and this year we're going to use the Isley Brothers anthemic "Shout" to return thanks for people like Solomon Burke, Marvin Isley, Leana Horne, Johnny Maestro and Kate McGarrigle (we'll do her version of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," too.) This shortened version from 1959 is just a gas...


My dearest aunt, Donna, who died about 12 years ago this winter, taught me to DANCE to this song. She was 5 years older than me - more of an older sister than an auntie - and we used hang together LOTS throughout the years. When I was not yet in school, she played me Little Richard's "Tutti Fruitti" and that changed my world! One Easter break when I was 7, I spent the week with my grandparents - Donna was 12 - and she kept playing this record over and over and showing me how to dance "dirty" to it! Damn, it was the best and after all these years without her EVERY TIME I hear the Isley Brothers start to wail, I am transported to that little aqua-marine living room by the Atlantic Ocean in southern Connecticut where Donna taught me to dirty dance to "Shout!"

So we practiced it tonight with my church folk - and it was a blast. A little ragged like good rock and soul should be - some sweet harmonies along with lots of sweat and laughter, too - all of which set me to some random thoughts I have discovered about Christian community from my years of making music in church:

+ First, community requires proximity and practice with a defined group of people. Individuals can jam - and that's a lot of fun - but it is only when the same group of musicians get together over and over - and work through a song - that something exciting and beautiful happens. Not everybody understands this truth; sometimes people think they can just show up and be allowed to sing or play and it will work. Well, not EVERYBODY is able to sing or play music - which is why there is something called an audience when it comes to musical performance - or a choir and a congregation, right? The choir helps the congregation participate and sing well. Same with authentic Christian community: it takes practice and intentionality and lots of time spent together listening, correcting, rethinking, suggesting new directions and tons of repetition before a song - or a band or a community - comes together.

+ Second, authentic community has rhythm. There are up times and down times, seasons when things fit almost like magic and other times when the best you can hope for is just showing up. Making music is like that, too. After a group of musicians have been working together for a while, they understand the ebb and flow of one another; they can sense the moods and intuitively respond. But not at first: in the early days of a band you do a lot of bumping in to one another and stepping on one an other's toes and groove. Hopefully, in time, you become less awkward and clumsy so that you listen and watch with greater sensitivity. In other words, you grasp the rhythm of the music making. Tonight, after we worked through Mary Chapin Carpenter's song, "Why Shouldn't We" and ended it with an a capella version of "Amazing Grace," it felt like things were over. I wanted more - I get obsessive with band practice and wanted to push the envelope - but clearly the Spirit had spoken: you are done. Anything more would have been both selfish and exhausting. So we quit - the rhythm had moved us all from music into silence - and we violate that rhythm at our own risk.

+ Third, in all good music making there is always a place for both tradition and innovation. Everybody LOVES to sing their old favorites - and it is crucial to give this expression - while at the same time pushing the envelope, too. Singing memory bank hymns or folk songs gives us all a chance to connect and shine in a deeply satisfying way. At the same time, it nourishes a community for individuals to be given a chance to both improvise on a riff as well as introduce new and creative music into the mix so that the gig is more than sentimentality or nostalgia. Gertrud Mueller-Nelson once wrote in To Dance with God that sentimentality is a half-truth - a partial emotion - and half truths are... lies. The best bands know this and creatively mix up old favorites with new songs - even reworking some of their old chestnuts - so that a new insight can be born. Look at what Springsteen does with one of his old haunting acoustic blues from Nebraska during the Seeger Sessions tour: here is the new/old thing - with lots of room for tradition mixed with creativity - in a way that leaves everyone blessed.


+ And fourth, just as every good band has a natural leader - or group of leaders - so, too, with community. If everybody is in charge, it is chaos; if nobody is in charge, nothing creative happens. Think of Lennon and McCartney who drove the Beatles; yes, sometimes they were too overbearing and Harrison suffered; at the same time, they had a creative vision and achieved some of the most enduring, meaningful and beautiful pop music of our generation. Or Springsteen. Or U2 - who explore both the vision of Bono and the Edge in communion with Larry and Adam. Leadership is essential for music and community, but it has to be a careful and attentive leadership lest it miss the cues others have to share.

We experienced all of these truths tonight sorting through some of our TGE tunes. We kept working on the bridge to one gospel song - or refining the harmonies at the end of another rocker - or even practicing taking visual cues from the leader during "Shout." It was a whole lot of fun and a whole lot of work. There are great singers alongside modest amateurs and there was space - given planning - for both to shine. There is NOTHING automatic about this kind of sharing and there is nothing automatic about authentic Christian community either: making fun and satisfying music or helping everyone's gifts to shine takes TONS of careful attention and planning by a leader. I would go so far as to say that there is nothing romantic about playing music in a band or Christian community either and those who think otherwise are more part of the problem than the solution.

So, here's to making beautiful music in real Christian community...


Monday, October 25, 2010

The festival of American music and poetry...

Our annual Festival of American Music and Poetry is just five weeks away: the publicity posters are ready to be picked up and displayed (starting tomorrow), I have begun rehearsing the ad hoc gospel choir (more work to be sure but a great beginning last week) and a tentative set list is now in motion (we shall keep revising as the weeks mature.) I have a GREAT sound man for that evening and even two of the congregation's youngest guitar players are IN for the gig.

Earlier today I came across two observations that give some shape and form to why I continue to celebrate American music and poetry each year at Thanksgiving. Richard Rohr, writing from the Franciscan tradition, writes:

Hugh of St. Victor (1078-1141) and Richard of St. Victor (1123-1173) wrote that humanity was given three sets of eyes, each building on the previous one. The first eye was the eye of the flesh (thought or sight), the second was the eye of reason (meditation or reflection), and the third eye was the eye of true understanding (contemplation). I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the separation and loss of these three necessary eyes is at the basis of much of the short-sightedness and religious crises of the Western world. Lacking such wisdom, it is very difficult for churches, governments, and leaders to move beyond ego, the desire for control, and public posturing. Everything divides into oppositions such as liberal vs. conservative, with vested interests pulling against one another. Truth is no longer possible at this level of conversation. Even theology becomes more a quest for power than a search for God and Mystery.

And Brian Woodcock, a member of my own Reformed tradition, tell us that:

Being spiritual is not the same as being religious. Religion is about what you believe and do. Spirituality is what to do with quality; it is a matter of the heart. Religion draws lines while spirituality reads between them. It tends to avoid definitions, boundaries and battles. It is inclusive and holistic… it is characterized by sensitivity, gentleness, depth, openness, flow, feeling, quietness, wonder, paradox, acceptance and waiting.

My experience has always been that all of the creative arts help me claim "eyes to see" and move in the way of the Spirit. Writer Dallas Willard once observed that most of us today live on the Emmaus Road. All around us God is pouring out something of the sacred into our hearts, minds, souls and lives and yet we have been conditioned NOT to see:

We live in a culture that has, for centuries now, cultivated the idea that the skeptical person is always smarter than the one who believes. You can be almost as stupid as a cabbage - as long as you have doubt. (NOTE: I do not sense that doubt is the absence of faith but a counter intuitive way of opening to God.) The fashion of the age has identified mental sharpness with a pose, not with genuine intellectual method and character. Only a very hardy individualist or social rebel - or one desperate for another life - stands any chance of discovering the depth and promise of the spiritual life today.

So... we share the depth of joy and sorrow in music and poetry on Thanksgiving Eve because like the Quakers: how can I KEEP from singing!?! I don't do share music to be didactic or manipulative, but simply to say: the Spirit of God is alive and well - can you feel it - can you claim it - are you alive? Here's a tune Dianne has sensed she wants to share at this festival in this very spirit...

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sometimes you are the windshield...

This morning in worship there were some real ups - being with the children, singing in both Between the Banks and the choir - and some not-quite downs - I got lost in my thoughts during my morning message. The sermon time eventually came together - mostly - but only by the grace of God and it was humbling to be moving through things only to realize: damn, this isn't really working!

+ That's one of the funny things about preaching - sometimes no matter how hard you work, the message heads south - and you have to get out of the way and see where the Spirit leads.
I recall hearing Jeremiah Wright speak to a group of African-American pastors once about preaching. One of his many insights was: even Ted Williams got a hit only once every three times up at bat - and THAT got him into the Hall of Fame. So take it slow; we have these treasures in earthen vessels and if you get a hit every three times, you are doing as well as Ted Williams!

+ There's a lot of humility to preaching - it is one of my spiritual disciplines - and most of the times when a message heads off a cliff I trust enough to smile, get out of the way and let the Spirit lead me back on track. Today was one of those days.

Later in the day, the Berkshire Association met for Taize worship and it was SWEET. Janet came and played the most heavenly flute and Quentin brought his violin and made it sing, too. It was a good way to end the day after spending the weekend with my children. Now for some quiet time and dinner with my honey. (Damn, do I love this song...)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

I like weddings...

I like to celebrate weddings. Over the years I've discovered that many of my colleagues HATE them, but not me - and there are probably to obvious reasons. First, my mentor in ministry, Ray Swartzback, told me to establish a wedding policy at whatever congregation I served or else it would be expected that I would be a "marrying Sam." (This cultural reference to the comix in the local newspaper to Al Capp's "Lil' Abner" is probably lost to many...) His point was simple: without a clear and practical policy that embraced good theology and solid best practices for a faith community, you will find yourself doing weddings (and other stuff) that you both hate and should never do.

So, based upon Ray's own clear policies, I have established these broad guidelines:

+ First, the couples must agree to meet with me well in advance of the ceremony 4-5 times to explore a "family systems" approach to marriage. During these conversations we talk about the families history, relatives, dynamics while I make "gen-o-grams" helping me visual each person's story. Then we talk about what strikes me - and each of the couple, too - about both the oral and visual story.

+ Second, almost always I insist that the couple spend time with us in worship before we start our conversations. This not only weeds out those who just want a "rent-a-minister" but also lets them know what is important to the faith community. What's more, they get to hear me offer my take on the scriptures, too. After they have worshiped with us a few times, then we meet to see whether the Spirit is still calling us to work together on their ceremony.

+ Third, right out of the gate I share with them the simple but clear fee structure for "doing" a wedding in our Sanctuary. At first, like many liberal Protestant clergy, I always low-balled these fees until it hit me that many couples plan on spending thousands of dollars just on the wet bar alone; so why not fairly compensate the custodian, organist and clergy given the time we each spend on this celebration. To be sure, all fees - even at the church - are inflated - and I reserve the right to wave these fees, too, given certain conditions - but making sure that my staff is well compensated makes a huge difference as nobody is resentful or stressed out.

+ Fourth, I also insist that all our preliminary planning is finalized BEFORE the wedding rehearsal. No negotiating with family members at this event because not only is it already a stressful and emotional time, but too many times family members or friends have ulterior motives that derail a couples plans. So, at our final session I both finalize all our ceremonial plans and make certain that everyone knows before the rehearsal that I am in charge. And I run the rehearsal that way too - with the couples full knowledge and blessing - so that whatever suggestion or change comes up I say, "Thanks for that insight but... we have already worked out these details carefully. So, let's get back on track..." Oh yeah: I've had a few disgruntled step-mothers - or pushy bride's maids - want to mix it up with me after side-stepping their "concern." But I've also NEVER had a wedding rehearsal that wasn't fun and satisfying.

+ And fifth, I always tell the couple - and those who gather for the wedding rehearsal - that we already know that something is going to go wrong during the ceremony - we just don't yet know what! Some who have never planned a wedding think that I am being too harsh or frightening, but it is not only a practical truth but a spiritual insight as well. Something IS going to go wrong - with our plans, with our dreams, with our bodies and our lives - and we not only don't know what that is but we're going to have to figure out the best, most healthy and holy way of dealing with it, too. (At the point I'm tempted to list some of my wedding mishap war stories but that is for another posting!)

So, with these five practical guidelines I am not overwhelmed with outside wedding requests AND I have some foundations that help us all move towards a ceremony that has integrity. Like I said, I like weddings...
(pictures for the ceremonies of my two daughters...)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Heading out to see the kids...

It is a beautiful, cool, crisp and completely autumn type of day in the Berkshires. In a bit we're headed out to share a fall feast with our daughters: Jesse is coming up from Brooklyn and we will meet at Michal's forest home in Monterey. Sometime this weekend we'll also celebrate Jesse's 34th birthday, too...

I hope Michal bakes some of her award-winning bread! Dianne baked some whole-wheat herb crackers for the party and I know there will be some Monterey goat cheese (as Michal works there part-time.) One of the joys about being back in this neck of the woods - beyond the obvious joys and challenges of our new ministry - is being closer to the girls. Living on the other side of the United States became way too tough to continue given how important these two young women - and their husbands - are to Di and myself.

Being the father of these two adult women continues to be fascinating - and humbling - and joyful. And sometime during each visit, I almost always find myself full to overflowing with tears for some unexpected reason. Buechner speaks of tears nicely:

You never know what may cause them. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music or a face you've never seen before. A pair of somebody's old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.

They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

So... we're heading out now to see the kids. (These tunes from my favorite Joni always speak to me of autumn, children and getting together for feasts as the days roll by.)

Pilgrims on a journey...

Ever since I first encountered the Community of Celebration in Aliquippa, PA I have been taken with the song, "Won't You Let Me Be Your Servant?" For those who don't know this ecumenical contemporary monastic order within the Episcopal tradition, you might check them out @ http://www.communityofcelebration.com/.

I first discovered their unique commitment to liturgy, spiritual renewal, blended worship, the way of St. Benedict and acts of compassion at my first church in Saginaw, MI. I received a test copy of their music book, Cry Hosanna, in the mail. A few years later, when my family moved with me to Cleveland, OH I discovered that it was only 2 hours to their community house.

And over the almost 12 years in that ministry, I made the trip to Aliquippa often - attending conferences, midweek evening prayer and regular week long quiet prayer retreats - as well taking some trips just to learn how they weaved together contemporary music, traditional liturgy, charismatic prayer, dance and silence. They have helped me grow in spirit and commitment to Christ and while I am no longer a member of the extended community - I now sense a greater harmony with the Community of Iona - I treasure their ministry and the friends I made along the way.

Which brings me back to the song whose second verse goes: We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road; we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load. Two experiences are running through my heart and mind as I reflect on these words.

+ First, I had the chance to share tea with a colleague who is becoming a friend. Unbeknownst to me, we have shared some common themes and experiences over the years - time in California working for social justice, ministry in affluent, suburban Connecticut as well as world travel, divorce and a deep commitment to the realm of the intellect - and now find ourselves back in New England.

Three years ago we met for lunch on a ball-bustingly cold day and even then I sensed a kindred spirit. But the work of church renewal - to say nothing of learning a new culture and figuring out how to do ministry in these brutal economic times - took up most of my time and energy so we haven't really taken the time to grow deeper. But that started to change in August - and continues to happen now as we have discovered another common commitment in the importance of nourishing the inward journey. Call it spiritual discipline, praying the hours or just the way of the heart, our shared United Church of Christ has been too long on talk and too short on prayer over the years. So, in different ways, we have gone outside our tradition to explore what our inner emptiness was trying to tell us.

And like so many others in the once mainstream Protestant tradition have discovered, it is only through a deep connection with Christ (in the Christian realm) that we are nurtured and sustained to engage the world with acts of compassion and justice. In fact, without the presence of Christ guiding and healing us - correcting and encouraging us, too - we will usually end up either burned out or becoming what we hate. So, I am delighted that he both took the time and the risk to open our hearts at a deeper level with one another. Now, not only are we pilgrims together on a journey in the home of the Pilgrims, but we are also here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
+ Second, I am struck by the hunger so many of our churches have for authentic Christian community. To be sure, some folk are so addicted to individualism and busy-ness that they avoid and denigrate any exploration of community, while others are so needy as to be exhausting in every sense of the word. Both are unable and unwilling to learn the rhythm of Christian community that includes giving and receiving, sharing and taking, light and darkness as well as word and silence.

The third verse of this hymn says it so well: I will hold the Christ-light for you in the shadow of your fear; I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear. First, the community is about Christ's light - not that other lights aren't real or valuable - but we are about the light of Jesus. For reasons good and bad, some fear/avoid Christian community because they don't want to be associated with those who also claim Jesus. Hence the "spiritual but not religious" reality - which makes sense - but doesn't feed the spiritual hunger. Second, there is the truth that we must face our fears and move towards Christ's peace. And that is NOT an intellectual quest: it is experiential, it takes practice and lots of vulnerability. It also takes time and in a culture obsessed with commodities and bottom lines...

There is also a sense that the rhythm of Christian community must be shared - no one person can carry everyone's load - nor can others reach out to the wounded with Christ's light if the fears are not expressed - or owned. What's more, part of the rhythm of community includes being alone - and this is REALLY bewildering. Sometimes you have to be by yourself - and deal with it - do your own walk so that you really can walk the mile and bear the load. I like the fact that the hymn doesn't say "I will carry you" or "I will take away the load." Rather it says we are here to help each other - and from that help we find a way bear the load of our own lives.

The closing stanza wraps this paradoxical rhythm of Christian community together: when we sing to God in heaven we shall find such harmony, born of all we've known together of Christ's love and agony. Community is not about singing solos AND it includes both Christ's love and agony. Our ups and downs - fears and hopes - joys and sorrows together in a balanced and honest way.

This fall the Spirit seems to be calling to me in ways that speak of Christ's community in a deeper way. I am grateful.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Gotta love this artist...

The NY Times ran an article and photo spread on the recent TED prize winner for 2011 - the artist J R - whom they describe as "a Parisian provocateur with a global orientation. Check this out... in-freakin-credible!


What a BRILLIANT conceptual artist who takes real life and explores both the promise and the problems of certain contexts by sharing them in larger than life ways. He is embracing but also challenging the ordinary by exposing the extraordinary so that we might see what is almost always right before our eyes but we're too busy - or afraid - or even biased to notice.

The Guardian (UK) writes: As a teenager, he started out as a graffiti artist but began taking photographs when he found a camera on the Paris M├ętro. Now aged 26, he mixes the two forms and styles himself a "photograffeur", pasting oversize black-and-white photographic canvases in surprising public locations. It is something of a point of honour never to ask permission from the authorities.

"The fact that I stay anonymous means I can exhibit wherever I want," he explains with a broad grin, a plate of microwaved lamb tagine balanced precariously on his knees. "No one knows my name, so it's easy for me to travel."

In the aftermath of the 2004 riots in the Parisian suburbs, JR chose to exhibit in the grand central districts of his home town, pasting up photographs on the walls of the Marais. Portrait of a Generation featured close-up pictures of the young residents of the banlieues pulling funny faces through a fish-eye lens. Instead of the immigrant thugs of popular imagination, the Parisians who walked past JR's photographs were confronted with a more human image. "Most of the media shots of the rioters were taken with a long lens," explains JR, who comes from a mixed-race background with Tunisian and Eastern European heritage. "I used a 28mm lens to capture them really close up."
(read more @ http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/mar/07/street-art-jr-photography)

Dude... this guy is the real deal.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Invited by God to be Christ's body...

NOTE: It took me a long time to write this week's worship notes, but they are finally done. I'm going to give them to you plain and simple today - without much art - because apparently blogger is doing some maintenance and will be disabled for a bit. We'll see...

My earliest memory church – and its life-giving community in Christ – involves music. I know that comes as a huge surprise to you, but it really is true. Sometime about second grace, my parents decided that we needed to get back to church, so we wound up at First Congregational Church of Newtown, Connecticut.

• I got my first Bible there, I later interviewed there while we were courting one another during the search process and I’ve had a few friends serve there, too.

• At any rate, in second grade, when my family showed up, the elementary school children were working on a version of “Jesus Loves Me” and I was thrown into the mix.

• We practiced for what seemed like forever – probably only three weeks – so that when the first Sunday after Labor Day rolled around, we could sing it in church.

I still have some recollection of both how big that Sanctuary looked to me back then, as well as how happy the people looked when we were singing. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure why everyone looked so happy – we weren’t the best children’s choir in the land – but I can still remember looking out and seeing real joy in people’s eyes. So, even though I couldn’t tell you why, I knew it felt good – and involved music and Jesus – and I didn’t really need to know a whole lot more.

• Jesus loved me – his people seemed pleased when the children sang to the Lord – and there was a place for everyone – young and old – in that big, old New England Congregational Church.

• Not much has changed for me over all those years…

Oh sure, I’ve gone to seminary – been ordained into Christian ministry for almost 30 years – and done my doctoral work, too. I’ve raised a family in the church – been divorced and remarried in the church, too – and served five congregations in pastoral ministry. But mostly I’m still that kid singing “Jesus Loves Me” in church trusting that in God’s own way and time – which is almost a total mystery to me – God will work all things out. Like we often say in the United Church of Christ: whoever you are – and where ever you are – on life’s journey, there is a place for you among us.

For you are invited here – encouraged here – welcomed here to become your best self as you give glory to God. As that wise old theologian, Karl Barth, is reputed to have said after being asked, “After all of your writing, is there something you want the world to know?” To which he said, after pausing and smiling, “You bet… Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

Today I want to talk with you about God’s invitation. We’ve started this year’s Stewardship campaign which some people hate – and other fear – and most merely tolerate. Because, you see, most people think of the stewardship campaign as just fund-raising.

• And to be fair, that is partially true: every year it takes almost $60,000 to keep this place open, heated and in reasonable shape.

• It takes another $150,000 to pay the various salaries and benefits and insurance – to say nothing of our mission and ministry. So, yes, there is some fund-raising taking place during the campaign for that is just a fact of life.

But raising money is not ALL of the campaign: fundamentally, what we are doing is considering what God’s invitation to us means – and making some decisions about what we’re going to do about it. So let me suggest to you three insights about God’s invitation to us that you may have not considered.

First, Christ calls us – each of us and all of us – to live beyond the lowest common denominator of our culture. Jesus invites us to live beyond the bottom line – the bare minimum – what is often either the easiest or the least costly approach to people, problems and real life. You see, the way of Christ is NOT just about being nice. Being nice has its place, to be sure, but when Jesus tells us that we must pick up our Cross to follow him, he wasn’t just talking about manners and being nice.

He was inviting us to live beyond the lowest common denominator of existence – which is quite a counter-cultural notion. Back in Tucson, there was a young father named Paul who got very, very angry with me one day at church council when I said, “Look, the time has come for us to start emphasizing what we can give back to the Lord rather that just what we can take from church.” To which he exploded: “No, no, no, no, no! The church exists to help me and my family – I don’t have time to give back much beyond our small contribution – so stop talking about this giving back and sharing crap… or I’ll quit.”

• Now, you need to know something about your pastor: don’t ever threaten me or try to hold your membership or your financial contribution hostage with me, ok?

• Not only will I be all over you like white on rice about how unfaithful to Christ Jesus such selfishness is, but I will also out-stubborn you on this one because holding back money or time as a bribe is an insult to the one who gave his life for us on the Cross. End of discussion - next question - please!

Well, as you might imagine, at first I was stunned by Paul’s corrupt notion of the church. He was operating out of a cultural understanding that sees everything as a commodity to be bought and sold. He believed the church was to provide a service – at the lowest possible cost – and if he wasn’t pleased with his service, then he would go elsewhere just like he would at a restaurant or gas station. He was – and probably still is – trapped in a lowest common denominator understanding of the church.

Much like the Pharisee in today’s story from Luke who celebrated his accomplishments – which for his social group were the lowest common denominator of the day – it was all about getting the most and spending the least – which has NOTHING to do with the way of Jesus and his love. Small wonder the Lord tells his disciples: both men got what they prayed for – one asked for nothing and got it – and the other accepted his emptiness and prayed for grace and was filled with the love of heaven. First, Christ invites to live beyond the lowest common denominator, ok?
Second, God invites us to live beyond our fears. What does the prophet Joel tells the broken-hearted and wounded souls of Israel?

Fear not, Earth! Be glad and celebrate! God has done great things.
Fear not, wild animals! The fields and meadows are greening up.
The trees are bearing fruit again: a bumper crop of fig trees and vines!
Children of Zion, celebrate! Be glad in your God.

Fear not – another counter-cultural invitation – don’t you think? Every where I look – or listen – there are fear-mongers at work to manipulate:

• It would be easy to pick on the politicians right now – it is election season – and fear and anger are flowing almost as fast and furious as the special-interest money.

• But religious leaders exploit our fears – as do bankers and credit unions in this economy – and way too many others.

So let me ask you: what does Scripture teach about fear? Does anyone recall the teaching that perfect loves casts OUT all fear?

• What does the angel Gabriel say to Mary when the young virgin is startled by the Lord’s invitation to give birth to the Savior? Fear not… What about the song of the angels to the shepherds on that first Christmas Eve? Fear not once again…

• What does Jesus tell his disciples in the upper room before the horror of Good Friday? Fear not, I am going away for a while but where I go, you shall come, too. So fear not…

• And to Mary on the other side of Easter when she is grieving in the garden and doesn’t recognize the Christ of the Resurrection? One more time: fear not!

And what was true then is still true today: God invites us to live beyond our fears into the hope of Jesus Christ and his resurrection.

And third, God’s invitation to us is always to live beyond ourselves: do you remember what St. Paul’s favorite name for the church was? The BODY OF CHRIST! Not the hyper-individualized expression of faith that is so popular today – not the cranky curmudgeon of Christ – or the obsessively childish or adolescent notion of Jesus either. Rather, the body of Christ – the inter-related, inter-connected, living, breathing, loving, hope-filled and forgiven body of Christ.

God decides who gets what and when. You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you're still one body. It's exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently and call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive… A body isn't just a single part blown up into something huge. It's all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, "I'm not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don't belong to this body," would that make it so? If Ear said, "I'm not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don't deserve a place on the head," would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.

We are one body – Christ’s body – not MY body or your body –but Christ’s body called to give shape, form and expression to the resurrection in our community. And that is what God’s invitation is all about: the Lord takes us beyond the lowest common denominator of our culture, beyond our fears and beyond ourselves into the love of Jesus. And here’s the thing: it takes a life time of practicing this to live into the invitation – I’m not kidding – a whole life time and I am just as frail and confused about living into this invitation as anyone else.

At church council last week, we were talking about some of the ways challenges we have faced as a congregation when one member asked me, “Did you ever feel discouraged or disheartened in your ministry with us?” So I told him what I have shared with only a few: “Oh my God, yes – from right after our first Christmas all through that first Lent I kept saying to Dianne, “I’ve made a mistake – I’m going to give them my letter of resignation.” It was a tough time – for a lot of good and some bad reasons – but it took its toll on me and I was thinking I should throw in the towel.

Well, that caused a certain awkward silence at council (as you might expect) which prompted Jon to ask, “So was there a clear moment when you had a change of heart?” To which I said with equal gusto, “Oh my God, yes – on that first Palm Sunday” – and let me explain…

Somehow or another given all our planning, the communion liturgy for Palm Sunday had been left out of the bulletin. I really still don’t know who was to blame, but it happened. And after a series of discouragements during the previous months, I came to worship that day very, very frustrated. Jennifer Kerwood and Sara Milano were going to set up communion but when I got here I said in a totally defeated voice, “Oh never mind. Somehow it got left out of the bulletin so let’s not make waves today.” I have to tell you that both women STARED at me like something out of invasion of the body snatchers until Jennifer sputtered: “WHAT are you talking about? You’ve been teaching us about not letting go of the little crap and celebrating the big picture. Come on man, get with it and practice what you preach!”

I reluctantly said, “Yeah, sure, we’ll do communion – after the regular liturgy” – but I can tell you that my heart wasn’t in it and during the morning announcements I said as much. Then, during the passing of the peace, Bobby Hyde said to me, “Let’s do communion around the table, ok? It’s so much better that way.” To which I probably whined some sad sack, “Yeah, sure, whatever…”

And at the end of worship, I remember saying, “Ok, after the postlude those who would like to stay for communion” – expecting it would only be 10 people – “can join me up here around the communion table if you like” and sat down. I closed my eyes and listened to the organ postlude before glumly walking up to the table thinking this was going to be yet another disappointment. And nearly EVERYONE in church that day – 85+ people – joined me around the Lord’s Table – to CELEBRATE communion. To BE the Body of Christ. – to claim the Lord’s resurrection and live into the invitation that God shares with us in love.

And that’s when it hit me once again: this invitation is NOT about ME – or you – or you or you – it is about how God has invited all of us beyond the low expectations, fear and our self-centered obsession into Christ’s grace. I have a picture of that Sunday and keep it on my computer to remind me again and again that God doesn’t’ give up on us but keeps inviting us to dream dreams and claim visions. And THAT is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Just a matter of time...

Well, it was just a matter of time but my old jalopy did NOT pass the Massachusetts car inspection. Too bad - it is a GREAT old 1995 Geo Prism - but it is riddled with rust and the breaks are giving up the ghost, too. To be sure, this car would have NO problem passing the tests in Arizona but that is another story. So, we'll soon be back to one vehicle again for a while. We got a good 18 months out this freebie so I can't complain (although I still might?!) I am kinda curious, though, what will happen next?

Funny things with cars: anybody else get sentimental about them? This one is NOT a beauty - the former owners let it totally go to seed - but it was so cute! And I love NOT putting my money into big car/bank payments. What's more, this bad boy took us to Montreal last year and all over Massachusetts and Vermont, too.

Here's a great old car and love song - not that we did any racing in my Geo - but still...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A fascinating revelation...

Today one of my singing buddies at worship said something like, "When I looked around today I think the average age was 40; this is the YOUNGEST crowd I've ever seen in worship." We had a TON (well, ok 26) of children today - and our littlest guest was baby Josie born just three months ago to Christina and Charlie. The last time I saw baby Wyatt he was still crawling and now his is a big boy - and big brother, too. It was sweet.

This revelation is important to me for two reasons. First, we have been on a quest to bring the spirituality of the mainstream Protestant church to a new generation. This is a way of being church that respects serious thinking, embraces paradox and questions while giving people space to be themselves as they grow into community. Not everybody understands this way of being the church: some want to JUST be an individual - for good or bad reasons - and find they don't resonate with meeting God in a horizontal way. Some yearn for the assurances of fundamentalism - the sometimes "one size fits all" theology that has been so popular in these uncertain times - but we firmly reject that, too. As Carol Howard Merritt notes in Tribal Church, our type of church gives people maximum space to build community while also encouraging responsibility. I can see clues that we are on the right track in reaching out to our target audience and being faithful in the process.

Second, at a stewardship conversation after worship, EVERYONE gets that we are talking about encouragement and invitation rather than guilt or wooden obligation. Each week, a different person from the congregation is going to share their story related to a theme (i.e. invitation, mission, dedication and thanksgiving.) During the second week of the campaign, four members will take over the sermon spot, too. I can't wait to hear what they come up with because each person grasps how important this new/old hybrid really is.

Today's music was a microcosm of the shift God has been helping us embrace: there was traditional Protestant hymnody alongside contemporary Celtic chant; there was a choral offering in polylharmonic Latin right next to Leonard Cohen's "Anthem" as well as South African freedom songs and spontaneous and liturgical prayer. To be sure, our spiritual and numerical growth has not been staggering - about 10-15% each year - but it is evident that we are starting to connect with our target group of young adults 25-40 in a new and creative way. I am grateful.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thanksgiving Eve 2010...

I just finished checking in with this year's TGE 2010 performers and have started to recruit/invite folks into the annual "ad ho gospel choir." It is going to be a BLAST. We will start rehearsals in two weeks on a lot of great old country gospel tunes like this...


Some treats will include a new gospel song from our own Brian Staubach and the return of great friends like Andy Kelly, Linda Worster and Bert Marshall. I am also delighted that two new performers - but dear souls - are joining the fun: Graham Sturtz and Hal Lefferts. I had the privilege of celebrating Graham's wedding a few years back.

And Hal - well we've known one another on and off since junior high school - and have played music with each other back in the day. He was the lead guitarist in our high school garage band known as "Creepin' Jesus" - and played some acoustic gigs together a few years later, too. It will be a very sweet reunion. (BTW you should check out his totally excellent radio show - WTF - @ robinhoodradio.com/schedule.php)

You can check out these artists here:

+ Hal Lefferts: www.reverbnation.com/hallefferts

+ Bert Marshall: www.gospelofmarkalive.com/music.html

+ Linda Worster: www.lindaworster.com/

+ Andy Kelly: www.berkshireeagle.com/berkshiresweek/ci_16272829

I am hoping a good size "ad hoc gospel choir" will turn up for the group tunes - trying to keep that tradition alive, too. And as I did some research into our "thanksgiving for North American musicians who have gone on to the big band in the sky" we'll remember Solomon Burke, Kate McGarrigle, Leana Horn and some of our brothers in both the Temptation and the Isley Brothers.

So... come on down and support our music and raising funds for emergency fuel in the Berkshires this winter. The fun starts at 7 pm on Thanksgiving Eve: Wednesday, November 24th at First Church on Park Square. Here's a clip from last year...

Friday, October 15, 2010

A few more thoughts about suffering...

It was recently brought to my attention (again) that there are some obvious differences and disagreements in how some of us understand suffering - and these differences are both important and perplexing. I tend to stand in the tradition that sees suffering like the Princeton Educational Dictionary defines it:

+ agony: a state of acute pain
+ misery resulting from affliction
+ distress: psychological suffering
+ troubled by pain or loss
+ feelings of mental or physical pain
+ miserable: very unhappy

In this definition suffering = pain = an inevitable part of life that can either be avoided, embraced or exploited. Consequently, the challenge for those who follow Jesus becomes what are we going to do with this inevitable pain of living? Eugene Peterson suggests that Christianity - at its best - has historically offered the world a unique way of embracing and learning from the inevitable pain of life in Jesus Christ - which has created two distinct spiritualities.

One has come to embrace suffering as a fetish - a conscious choice that brings more pain upon one's self - in order to grow more like Christ. Think of the beloved Pope John Paul II and his flagelism - or the Irish monks standing in freezing water on one leg - or the Jansenists or evangelicals having themselves nailed to the Cross on Good Friday. This spirituality is attracted to suffering and pain because it causes the individual to grow closer to Christ and his agony.

To my way of thinking, this is a horrific twisting of the Cross and a sado-masochistic spirituality that bears no relationship to Jesus. Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ" comes to mind with its obsession on the agony as a way into God's presence. Perhaps some in our overly antiseptic and pain phobic culture found the gore of Gibson's vision edifying as a corrective to the way so many numb themselves, but I found it ghastly and heretical.

Which suggests a whole other take on suffering: it is one of the mysterious portals embedded in our everyday living that can bring us into a deeper faith. It is not automatic by any means, nor is the pain a choice. Rather, like the Serenity Prayer, this spirituality of suffering suggests that because the pain of life in inevitable, we must either learn to "accept" it like Christ or else we will come to avoid suffering it in unhealthy ways or else become addicted to it. Acceptance is the only path that is liberating and of the Lord.

In this approach, the Cross speaks to us of the harshness of our lives - even the brutal cruelty - while also pointing to the trust that God is not only fully present with us in our pain but invites us to go through it with dignity and grace. The Cross speaks of our experience of God's absence, too, as well as the maturation of faith that learns how to trust beyond the evidence. No longer is faith dependent upon immediate pay offs - this is childish and simplistic - when I was a child, I acted like a child... but now that I have grown up, I have put childish things away knowing... that for now we can only see as through a glass darkly, yes? Later we shall see face to face, but not right now.

Please understand that I am NOT saying that God causes our pain so that we can mature nor that God wants us to suffer. Too often our traditional but legalistic Reformed and Roman Catholic spiritualities of suffering obscure the mystery of acceptance by teaching that suffering is our way of entering into intimacy with God. This denies the bounty of joy and feasting and grace in abundance that guides and shapes MOST of the way of Jesus. It also encourages people of faith to look for ways of suffering to mature as followers of Christ. No wonder, Jung responded to this notion in his reflection on Job by saying, "If this is the nature of God, who needs Satan!"

I believe that the mystery of suffering is better discerned as I Peter 2: 21 puts it: This is the kind of life you've been invited into, the kind of life Christ lived. He suffered everything that came his way so that you would know that it could be done - and also know how to do it, too, step by step. As we are embraced by Christ's grace - and enter into faith/trust more intentionally - we are given way to both accept (as in the Serenity Prayer) the pain/suffering of our lives and the suffering of the world and use it go grow deeper in compassion and trust.

Another favorite writer, Frederick Buechner, has observed: You can reconcile any of the following two propositions with each other, but you cannot reconcile all three: God is all-powerful, God is all-good, terrible things happen. The problem of evil (and I would add suffering) is perhaps the greatest single problem for religious faith.

There have been numerous theological and philosophical attempts to solve it, but when it comes down to the reality... none of them are worth much. When a child is raped and murdered, the parents are not apt to take much comfort from the explanation (better than most) that since God wants man to love him, man must be free to love or not to love and thus free to rape and murder a child if he takes a notion to.

Christian Science solves the problem of evil by saying that it does not exist except as an illusion of the mortal mind. (I would note that the same is true for various New Age spiritualities.) Buddhism solves it in terms of reincarnation and an inexorable law of cause and effect whereby the raped child is merely reaping the consequences of evil deeds it committed in another life.

Christianity, on the other hand, ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil or suffering so dark and so obscene - not even this - but that God can turn to good.

I have experienced this perspective to be true... what do you think?

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...