Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Why do we hunger for beauty...

My main man in Canada - Black Pete - just reminded me of this most excellent song:  Why Do We Hunger for Beauty?  It is probably a wiser choice for my sermon blog than George Harrison's, "My Sweet Lord" so I include it, too as a voice from the wider living body of Christ and am grateful that Peter cares enough to help me... and so many others.  Check out is blog @ http://redwineandgarlic.blogspot.com/

Why Do We Hunger for Beauty
Music and Lyric by Jim Croegaert
Meadowgreen Music Company / Heart of the Matter Music (ASCAP)

Dark are the branches
Reaching for light
High is the path of
The hawk in its flight
Turning and gliding
Greeting the night
Why do we hunger
For beauty so right
Why do we hunger for beauty

Moon hanging lonely
Up there in the sky
Looking so holy
Like a host held up high
And off in the distance
There’s a train going by
Why does it move us
And cause us to sigh
Why do we hunger for beauty

Frost on the window
Is never the same
So many patterns
Fit in the frame
Captured in motion
Frozen in flame
And in the patterns
Is there a name
Why do we hunger for beauty

The feast of the ascension and why it matters...

NOTE: As is often the case on Tuesday, here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday - June 5, 2011 - which is the celebration of the Ascension of Jesus.  I am trying to explore the implications of Christ's radical grace in this message in light of tradition.  What's more, this feast day - Ascension - has been troubling for many contemporary people of faith.  So, here's a shot.  If you are in town, why not join us at 10:30 am?

Today marks the Feast Day of Christ’s Ascension into heaven: well, literally that took place on Thursday – 40 days after the resurrection of Easter – but given our penchant for convenience and efficiency, the contemporary church allows us to celebrate this ecumenical blessing on a Sunday. After all, more people are more likely to be in worship today than on Thursday, right?

• So what do you know about Christ’s ascension into heaven?

• The texts and the creeds tell us that he now sits at the right hand of the Father but what does that really mean? Any thoughts from today’s readings or your experience?

Most Christians in our tradition are baffled – and even embarrassed – by Ascension Sunday because on so many levels it just doesn’t make sense. We tend to be bottom line, empirical people – rational and even broadly scientific – who don’t have time for superstition or foolishness. Consequently, we tend to just skip over this Sunday without giving it much depth or thought because it sounds like antiquated religious mumbo jumbo and we want to know how faith can help us in our everyday lives:

• What do you mean literally lifted up? To where and how high? After the NASA space programs we KNOW that heaven isn’t UP; so what is scripture really trying to say to us?

• And what good could possibly come from confessing that Jesus’ post-resurrection body was truly raised into heaven right before the apostles’ very eyes? What would that even look like and why does it matter?

Protestants don’t do Ascension Sunday very well – I’m not sure Roman Catholics do it much better – but those in the Reformed tradition really don’t get it. So let me offer an alternative – maybe even an antidote – to our contemporary, bottom line obsession with facts and knowledge when it comes to this feast day because sometimes our “facts” blind us to God’s living presence in the bigger picture. 

Eugene Peterson, pastor and biblical scholar and poet, has observed that the Bible uses words in such a way that "the revelation of God to us in Jesus" is shown to be so "large and full of energy – and our capacities to believe and love and hope are so atrophied – that often we need help in hearing the Word made flesh” and living into its blessings. In his book, The Contemplative Pastor, he writes that most of us are so focused on results and doing that we no longer know how to hear the poetry of God's love in scripture. What’s more, because modern "people are not comfortable with the uncertainties and risks and travail of creativity,” we tend to confuse "knowing" with "wisdom."

Not all words, you see, create. Some merely communicate. They explain, report, describe, manage, inform and regulate. We live in an age obsessed with communication. And while communication is good, it is a minor good. Knowing about things never has seemed to improve our lives a great deal. So the pastoral task with words is not communication but communion - the healing and restoration and creation of loving relationships between God and God's fighting children and our fought-over creation.

Communion with God is what Ascension Sunday points towards: with poetry and creativity, we are offered a unique vision of God’s love for us that goes well beyond mere communication into wisdom. In the Reformed tradition, Christ’ ascension means:

…that in heaven there is one who, knowing firsthand the experience of suffering and temptation, prays for us and perfects our prayers… Christ’s ascension is a witness and guarantee of our own resurrection, as well as an invitation for us to set our hearts and minds “on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1-2) to rule over all things in heaven and throughout the universe (Eph. 1:10, 20-23). And the ascension of Jesus serves as the prelude to Pentecost, when the power of the risen Christ came upon all believers through the Holy Spirit – including you and me.
(Reformed Worship @ http://worship.calvin.edu/resources/resource-library/Ascension-Resource-Guide)

So let me sketch out for you what these deeper truths of Ascension Sunday might mean for us, so that we, too, are empowered by communion with Christ’s gracious spirit much like the early apostles were, ok? Because, you see, this story is NOT about something that just happened once in ancient history. Like our cousins in Judaism at the Passover Seder, we, too believe that as we enter the story faithfully, we experience and live into its blessings from the exodus to the resurrection.

First, consider the invitation to awe that is a part of this story: this is a reminder that God is the LORD – not our co-pilot, not our drinking buddy and not a distant clock mechanic who once set creation into motion only to step aside for eternity to watch in silence. We’re talking about experiencing the love of God in our flesh – a love that is like a fire – that melts and transforms and purifies and is vastly different from anything we can imagine.

• What did the apostles do when Christ was raised up and disappeared into the cloud? The text tells us this: After Jesus gave them his last words, the apostles watches as he was taken up and disappeared into a cloud. And they stood there – mouths gapping and eyes wide – staring into an empty sky.

• Ever been the Grand Canyon? The Taj Mahal? The cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC or St. Peter’s in Rome? How did you react? What did you feel in the presence of such enormous beauty and power?

That’s a clue – albeit pale by comparison – to what the apostles discovered on the day of Christ’s Ascension: they were awestruck by the love of God. No wonder their mouths hung open, their eyes were wide and they stood in silence. Awe evokes humility – wonder – and respect. In what is arguably the classic study of awe written in 1902 by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, we read that awe is:

• Ineffable – that is it is an experience with the sacred that cannot be fully expressed in words.

• It is noetic – that is the encounter creates clear feelings that we have learned something life changing from the inside out.

• And it is passive – a gift, if you will – given to us from beyond that we can neither control nor earn because awe is not an act of the will.
Ascension Sunday invites us to have our hearts awakened to God’s awesome love given shape and form in Jesus Christ – and that is a profoundly counter cultural invitation. Many are too busy to be awed – or too cynical – or just too tired or sophisticated.
So let me ask you: do our churches – as the body of Christ – help or hinder this lost sense of awe? 

For a long time “we used to focus so much on making worship reverent and holy that guests sometimes felt out of place or unwelcome. But today, as we try so hard to make people feel comfortable and included, our sense of awe has eroded.” (Joan Huyser-Honig)

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want anyone to be locked out of Christ’s awesome grace. At the same time, let’s think about some new/old ways of reclaiming a sense of awe in worship. Look at this place: one of the reasons I love it is because it is so grand – excessive and extravagant in its beauty – the whole architecture invites awe. So let’s keep alert for ways to awakened to awe.

Second, Ascension Sunday challenges us to give up our embarrassment about following Jesus. You see, at the heart of ascension poetry is the confession that Jesus is not only a historical figure from 2,000 years ago, but that he is alive today in the church as well as at the right hand of God the Father – or Mother – in heaven.

Last week I had a conversation with some members from another congregation in our area about church renewal. A few of you were a part of that with me – and I am grateful. And one of the things that I keep going back to as I revisit this conversation is how uncomfortable they became when I said, “At the core of church renewal is the living presence of Jesus. He is all we really have to share with the world – and without Him everything else is just technique.”

• Now the discomfort with that statement was palpable. Not because I was telling them that Christ is the ONLY way to God. I don’t believe that is true; Jesus tells us in St. John’s gospel: in my Father’s house are many mansions… and I trust him.

• No what created the discomfort was embarrassment: we educated folk don’t like to sound corny – or out of control – or like the fundamentalists. And we hate being lumped into the same category as those who use Jesus’ name to wound or shame or follow wacky theologies like the rapture.

Are you with me here? Do you know what I am talking about?
Well, what this embarrassment has created all over America is a wishy-washy, disconnected sense of God that no longer knows what to do with Jesus. One of the best minds of our time, Frederick Buechner, put it like this in one of his confessional novels – and pay careful attention – because he is talking about you and me when he references himself. The set up is a young man who has been asked to pray but doesn’t know what to say. So an older woman:

…tried to teach me to pray because I’m lousy at it. She’s prayed for me… and now wants me to pray, too… but the prayers are so corny. So she tells me I need to practice saying my prayers to Jesus… it’s important that you call him that – not Christ or Lord or anything else – because Jesus is the part of his name that embarrasses people to death when they use it all alone. Just Jesus… try it because underneath that embarrassment is he part of us that’s revolted by him… that part of him that comes to us in our weakness… And then she said this: what I want you to do for me is to walk back through your memory, as though it were a long hall, and ask Jesus to open all the closed doors and to bless whatever he might find inside.

Ascension Sunday speaks to us about a Jesus who is not just part of the historic past – he is alive now to bring us healing and hope – for on the Cross he experienced everything we know about pain, fear and temptation. So why not bring everything to him in prayer? How does the old song put it:

What a friend we have in Jesus – all our sins and griefs to bear – what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, o what needless pain we bear: all because we do not carry everything to him in prayer.

Preacher Rob Bell got it right when he said that the grace Jesus brings to us is costly: “It will require a death – a humbling – a leaving behind of the old mind. And at the same time it will require an opening up, loosening our hold and letting go, so that we can receive and expand, find, hear, see and enjoy God’s love that fills both heaven and earth.” This feast day is an invitation to get over ourselves – give up our embarrassment – and come to the banquet of God’s love with Jesus.

And that bring us to the third blessing: today tells us something about heaven. We don’t like to talk much about heaven – I guess there’s just way too much to speculate about – but do you understand that what we think and believe about heaven and hell matters here on earth? I am really serious about this: what we believe about heaven and hell matters here on earth so we need to talk about them.

Some Christians believe that heaven is an escape hatch – a way out of life’s pain – and the whole point of living is to get promoted to someplace else. Such an understanding, of course, has no concern for “the millions of people starving, thirsty and poor; the earth that is being exploited and polluted; or the disease and despair that are everywhere because… these Christians are only interested in getting into heaven.” (Bell)

See what I’m suggesting? What we believe about heaven matters – and it matters here as much as beyond. So what Ascension Sunday tell us about heaven could make a huge difference:

• Like knowing that when Jesus was raised to heaven to be at the right hand of the Father his flesh is now our flesh united with God. What happened to Christ, you see, is what he promises for us – no matter how sick, tired, afraid or overwhelmed we feel – we, too, will be united with God forever.

• So we need not live in fear or shame today. That is the only way the first disciples could go out into their streets and feed the hungry – and clothe the naked – and embrace the dying. They knew that even if the Roman Empire crucified them – and for a time it did – they, too would be reunited with God in complete healing.
So they became their best selves – their most liberated selves – their most courageous and compassionate selves – filled and empowered by the Spirit because after the Ascension they knew that Jesus was now at the right hand of God the Father. Jesus had made this clear to them saying: Everything mine is yours, and everything yours is mine… They'll continue in the world while I return to you. Holy Father, guard them as they pursue this life… so they can be one heart and mind as we are one heart and mind. As long as I was with them, I guarded them in the pursuit of the life you gave through me… (Now let me guard them forever in heaven.)

What was true then, dear sisters and brothers, is true today: Jesus and God are one – united – and we are united with Jesus on earth as it is in heaven. In this we can live in joy and freedom knowing that we can never be separated from the love of God. Never –not in life – and not in death – and that is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Thoughts about the next three years...

In the quiet of this Memorial Day - after tea and the NY Times - I find myself thinking about the next three years of ministry.  When they close, I will be 62 - old enough for so-called "early retirement" - but still profoundly committed to the cause of Christ and his Church.  And while I don't fully know what that might mean in three years, a few insights are becoming clear:

+ After our trip to Istanbul, it feels to me like "part one" of our renewal work in the Berkshires will be complete.  We have journeyed together from fear to hope, from anxiety about closing our doors to both modest numerical and spiritual growth and from randomness in mission to focus and connection.  We are partners with the Berkshire Environmental Action Team throughout the year in eco-justice work and hands-on healing of the Housatonic River.  (Just two weeks ago, one of our young men brought the movie, "Carbon Nation," to a local theatre and organized nearly 200 people's participation.)  Our work in Habitat for Humanity is strong and maturing.  And our peace-making commitments are increasingly creative whether that involves our support for the Jazz Ambassador's trip to Istanbul or the work we've done to support Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan (no matter what the jury eventually finds, his work for educating girls in this part of the world is still heroic.)

+ In these first three years of "renewal" work, we have also begun to trust God and one another in deeper ways.  Not that we've got it all together - that would be arrogant and just plain stupid to claim - but we have discerned a way of being together that is respectful while being challenging.  We don't look backwards as much any more; we don't begin with fear about the future either:  we trust that God has called this faith community together for a reason. 

And that reason is found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - NOT  being the first church in town, NOT existing simply to mark the life transitions of the city's elites and NOT as a burial society - but as a faith community born of the Cross.  We still have a ways to go, but like Jeremiah Wright once said about Trinity Church, Chicago:  we are unabashedly Christian (and unashamedly Black!)  We are becoming more unabashedly Christian in our identity - for that's the only way renewal happens. Techniques and gimmicks come and go but the presence of the Living God as made flesh by Christ is where we draw strength, inspiration and hope.    

So now that "phase one" of our renewal work is coming to a close, what will the next three years bring?  As much as I don't try to "read the tea leaves" or make predictions when it comes to what the Spirit will bring - folksinger Bob Franke likes to quote the gospel, "The Spirit blows where she will" and then adds: so beware the man selling tickets!" - I have a few clues.  And three books have been shaping these emerging insights:  The Pastor as Minor Poet by M. Craig Barnes, The Contemplative Pastor by Eugene Peterson and Love Wins by Rob Bell.  Each in its unique way suggest that the next three years in this ministry will include some of the following:
+ Poetic leadership:  Peterson speaks of the pastor as an apocalyptic poet who is called to use words in such a way that "the revelation of God to us in Jesus" is shown to be so "large and full of energy - and our capacities to believe and love and hope are so atrophied - that we need help to hear the Word made flesh" and claim their power and energy.  He also notes that because most pastoral work today is so focused on results and doing that it erodes the poetry of God's love - "people are not comfortable with the uncertainties and risks and travail of creativity" - we confuse "knowing" with "wisdom."

Not all words create. Some merely communicate. They explain, report, describe, manage, inform, regulate. We live in an age obsessed with communication. Communication is good, but a minor good. Knowing about things never has seemed to improve our lives a great deal. So the pastoral task with words is not communication but communion - the healing and restoration and creation of love relationships between God and God's fighting children and our fought-over creation.  Poetry uses words in and for communion.

Clearly, this is an invitation to go more deeply into the arts, yes?  Music and poetry, drama and dance, the visual arts and more are key to both our on-going spiritual renewal as well as our role in the wider community.  Barnes speaks to this when he writes:

What would the world be like if it were run by sacred poets? That is exactly the question answered by the biblical notion of the Kingdom of God. It would be a world in which enemies are loved, the poor inherit the earth and no one hurts another out of anxiety about what tomorrow may bring. These words depict the wisdom of heaven, but they appear foolish and naive when spoken anywhere on earth. So the poet stands in the midst of a world that has grown jaded with reality and speaks in such a way as to open the doors into the Kingdom of Truth. The poet's lifelong apprenticeship is to move others, stir them from their sleep reality and awaken them to the presence of the Kingdom in their midst.

The faith community as a parable of what the world should look like, yes?  That means we move forward with our Open and Affirming commitment that says to the world that ALL of God's children are cherished among us, but that we reclaim this blessing in the Spirit and presence of Christ who says to everyone:  come unto me, all ye who are tired and heavy laden, and I will give ye rest.  (Or a la Peterson:  if your are burned out on religion, come to me and learn the unforced rhythms of grace!)

That means we will push ourselves to discover the new/old ways of unlocking our imagination and creativity for worship and mission.  And, of course, it means deepening our commitment to spiritual and liturgical literacy so that we start to become more saturated in Christ's vision of grace than the mundane and deadening aspects of popular culture.  As Barnes writes, we are called to show an alternative to the status quo - an alternative from our obsession with being relevant - "and the alternative to being relevant is to be confessional."
... to be confessional is to refuse to accept the agenda as it is self-described and to insist on interpreting all human needs from a biblical perspective... for our calling is NOT about making the Gospel relevant to the individual, but about making the individual relevant to the Gospel.  It's not about you - You are about it.

+ Patient leadership:  after almost 30 years of ordained ministry I have discovered - often in frustration - that what I think should happen always takes twice as long to mature in the church.  Twice as long - as slow as dial-up on the information highway - agonizingly poky when compared to Microsoft and Apple.  And, of course, that is the blessing, too.  How did Niebuhr put it? “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.” 

In addition to nourishing the creativity of God's poetry within and among us, another part of this ministry over the next three years will involve cultivating a passionate patience: 

Bastard apocalyptic - apocalyptic that has no parentage in biblical sources or gospel commitments - promotes a progeny of irresponsibility... but the real thing, the conceived-in-holy-wedlock apocalyptic develops communities that are passionately patient, courageously committed to witness and work in the kingdom of God no matter how long it takes or how much it costs.

I sense that such revolutionary patience is going to mean we stop looking at membership numbers - and counting pledging units (is that ever a great insult to the Body of Christ or what?) - and start trusting people's participation in WORSHIP.  When I started there were 43 people in worship; today we average 75-90.  Not all are members - most are very regular - with a growing sense of commitment.  So one of the deaths that must happen over the next three years is trying to find security by counting the things we control - like the annual accounting of who is in and who is out - which is a bottom line worldview shaped more by the marketplace than the kingdom.  If we patiently trust that God is not going to go away, then we can give God's people space and time to build trust and relationships and hope, yes?

Rob Bell put it like this:

Millions have been taught that if they don't believe (like we do), if they don't accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell.  God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape form an endless future of agony.

If we are to go out and teach and baptize in God's name, we must be passionately patient about immersing others in God's grace - not judgment.  We must show in our worship and mission that God's kingdom - not our fears for security - are at the core of all we do.  Like Bell likes to say:  the gospel is better than most of what people have been told - much, much better.

+ Prayerful leadership:  that is, leading from an intentional and honest communion with God. It takes time to be prayerful - and to study and reflect on the scripture - you can't do it running around trying to be helpful.  Peterson tells a story about churches that thrive during an interim ministry (not always the case to be sure) when a LOT of the things pastors are expected to do are left undone.  Why?

People would rather talk to the pastor than to God... so instead of practicing prayer, which brings us into the presence of God, pastors enter into the practice of messiahship: we will do the work of God for God, fix people up, tell them what to do, conspire in finding shortcuts by which the long journey to the Cross can be bypassed since we all have such crowded schedules right now. People love us when we do this. It is flattering to be put in the place of God. It feels wonderful to be treated in this godlike way. And it is work that we are generally good at.

But we aren't called to be God - God is God - and we need to honor that truth in ourselves.  We need to be unhurried and prayer-filled.  Less time answering email and more time in quiet reflection, less time in meetings that don't need us and more time sitting with the dying, less time trying to fix things and more time "paying attention to God so that we might lead others to pay attention to God.  It hardly matters that so many people would rather pay attention to their standards of living, or their self-image or their zeal to make a mark on the world."  Our goal is to be saturated in the grace of God and lead others into this intimacy, too.
In the next three years I sense being called to work harder on my weekly biblical reflections.  I sense I am being asked to spend more time walking quietly with those with questions, too, in addition to church administration.  And I sense that I will be spending even more time in new and secular places like coffee shops and pubs rather than my church study.  I'll be there, too, but out in the wider community more as a presence - listening and learning from those at the diner - than waiting to be useful to insiders. There are hard questions ordinary people are asking - when they take a break from the grind - and if it is true that love wins, then listening to their questions - and being a presence for grace - is critical.

And then, after another three years we'll all take a long and loving look at what the Spirit has beendoing within and among us - and see what's going on.

(credits: the art work comes from the late Mark Rothko who suggests to me the essence of this next phase of ministry.  I continue to be grateful to his pursuit of beauty amidst the pain.)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Comin' home...

Jean Vanier, founder of the L'Arche Community, once wrote:  "Going home is a journey of the heart of who we are, a place where we can be ourselves and welcome the reality of our beauty and our pain. From this acceptance of ourselves, we can accept others as they are and we can see our common humanity." This rings so true for me. 

Today in worship, as we brought my "suffering" series to a close (next week we'll talk about heaven and hell) two thoughts kept coming to me:

+ There are some here today who are terrified of letting their true selves be loved by Jesus.  To avoid it, we gossip and carp - we critique and complain - so that we never let Jesus close to our hearts.  Frederick Buechner put it like this in one of his novels:

She tried to teach me to pray and I'm lousy at it... so she told me that you have to pray to Jesus - and call him that, too - not Lord or Christ or anything else - because Jesus is the part of his name that embarrassed people to death when they use it alone.  Just Jesus. She says that underneath that embarrassment is the part of us that's revolted by him... So you say Jesus to get that part out in the open where he can get at it... Then she prayed for me and asked Jesus to walk back through my memory, as though it was a long hall. She asked him to open all the closed doors and to bless whatever he found inside.

I think Buechner is right: many of us -most of us? - are embarrassed and revolted by our need for Jesus.  I know that has been true for me... and I see it in the tension on some of the faces in worship.  So he says, "Come to me all ye who are tired and heavy-laden - you who are burned out on religion - and I will show you the unforced rhythm of grace."

+ There are others who really want the "rest" Jesus promises - the comfort and assurance but they are afraid that they won't find it in our church.  For too long, church has been all about being nice - refined and cultured - and there isn't anything nice or refined about their pain.  In his description of an "apocalyptic pastor," Eugene Peterson writes:

The early church believed that the resurrection of Jesus inaugurated a new age. They were in fact - but against appearances - living in God's kingdom, a kingdom of truth and healing and grace. This was all actually present but hidden from unbelieving eyes and inaudible to unbelieving ears. Pastors are the persons in the church communities who repeat and insist on these kingdom realities against the world appearances and who therefore must be apocalyptic... Sin-habits dull our free faith into stodgy moralism and respectable boredom... apocalypse is arson - it secretly sets a fire in the imagination that boils the fat out of an obese culture-religion and renders a clear gospel love, a pure gospel hope, a purged gospel faith.

And then he confesses why pastors must push themselves well past the nice and cultured: it has to do with embodying hope for the most wounded!  He writes:
I have been a pastor for thirty years to American Christians who do their best to fireproof themselves against crisis and urgency. Is there any way that I can live with these people and love them without being shaped by the golden-calf culture? How can I keep from settling into the salary and benefits of a check out clerk in a store for religious consumers? How can I avoid a metamorphosis from the holy vocation of a pastor into a promising career in religious sales?  The answer:  submit my imagination to St. John's apocalypse - the crisis of the End combined with the urgencies of God - and let the energies of the apocalyptic define and shape my ministry.

Sometimes this demands being "edgy" - especially for those on the edge who mistrust the body of Christ.  Sometimes this means confessing and owning our complacencies - being the first church has been a place of privilege for 250 years - and we need to own that legacy in all of its complexities.  And sometimes it has to do with challenging the doubters to take a risk and join with the community. Call it a leap of faith - or a kick in the ass of spiritual laziness - sometimes we just have to get over ourselves, yes?  Like the 12 step say:  if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.  Fear and doubt just gets old, yes?  And that applies to the elite as well as those on the borders of faith.

Why not practice what you preach and take a leap of faith?  Test it out - and if it is real it will lead your heart "home."

credits:
1) Brandt @ http://www.masters-of-photography.com/B/brandt/brandt_going_home_full.html
2) Jesus
3) American Jesus @ http://www.goddiscussion.com/39434/right-wing-wnd-columnist-issues-a-call-for-christian-crusade-america-must-use-its-military-to-go-to-every-muslim-nation-in-the-world-and-convert-them-to-christianity/

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Love dogs...

We watched a German movie about music in Istanbul tonight - totally excellent - and a great way to say:  there are only 16 days until we leave for Turkey. 

"Crossing the Bridge" is about a Western musician trying to understand the soul of Istanbul through it's music. During the course of his tour, he records underground rockers, Kurds, Romany musicians and a lot of traditional artists, too.  In the end he admits that he still doesn't understand Istanbul, but has fallen in love with the deep and bold sounds of this incredible place.

In much of life - playing music, spirituality, cross-cultural peace-making or love - I think it is wise to admit when we don't "get" it.  I came across these words from Barbara Brown-Taylor who brings a little light into the darkness :

If I had to name my disability, I would call it an unwillingness to fall... This reluctance signals the mistrust of the central truth of the Christian gospel: life springs from death, not only at the last but also in the man little deaths along the way. When everything you count on for protection has failed, the Divine Presence does not fail. The hands are still there - not promising to rescue, not promising to intervene - but promising only to hold you no matter how far you fall.

As we prepare for the peace-making through music journey, the words of Rumi a la Coleman Barks keep coming to me.  I've been thinking we might do a Turkish jam incorporating these incredible words:

In so many ways this poem gets it right for me. As one of the Sufis in tonight's film said, "The best word for the spirituality of the Sufi is tolerance."  And that brought to mind another Rumi poem that might also be important to us in this peace pilgrimage.

Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.

"Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.

At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it's not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty."

Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment

melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn

and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy

and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender

and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.

A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect

because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes

is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying

that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.

Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,

who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!

No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.

But if someone doesn't want to hear
the song of the reed flute,

it's best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave.

Lord, may this be so for us as our journey unfolds.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Sabbath wandering...

Today was given over to Sabbath wandering: wandering the streets of Bennington, wandering the back roads of southern Vermont, wandering through the thoughts of our life together - and it was renewing.  It always is.  Always. 

During today's wandering I found the new collection of Robert Bly poems, Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, that includes:  Longing for the Acrobat.

There is so much sweetness in the children's voices,
And so much discontent at the end of the day,
And so much satisfaction when a train goes by.

I don't know why the rooster keeps on crying,
Nor why the elephant lifts his knobby trunk,
Nor why Hawthorne kept hearing trains at night.

A handsome child is a gift from God,
And a friend is a vein in the back of the hand,
And a wound is an inheritance from the wind.

Some say we are living at the end of time,
But I believe a thousand pagan ministers
Will arrive tomorrow to baptize the wind.

There's nothing we need to do about Saint John.
Whenever he laid his hands on earth
The well water was sweet for a hundred miles.

Everywhere people are longing for a deeper life.
Let's hope some acrobat will come by
And give us a hint how to get into heaven.

Bly's words ring true to me - everywhere people are longing for a deeper life - as one of the cards in a shop we also wandered into put it:  do not let the urgent interrupt the important.  This shop happened to be the only gallery where the block prints of Mary Azarian are sold.  Her work is brilliant - tender, witty, alive, earthy, simple and profound - all at the same time.  My daughter, Jesse, gave me a book with her block prints in it a few years back - The Man Who Lived Alone - by another Vermonter, Donald Hall.  After we return from Istanbul, I want to spend some more time back in this little shop sorting through which block print to bring to friends later this summer.

As you probably know, wandering is one of my spiritual disciplines - along with music making, laughing, feasting, reading and Eucharist - and I am slowly moving towards adding gardening - and maybe bread baking, too but it is going to take another few years to really work those two into they rhythm of my soul.  I still sometimes get confused by the urgent rather than the important, yes?

I like the way Mary Azarian put it in one of the block prints I saw today.  It is as sweet to me today as Bly's poem.  (For more on these block prints, go to her website and feast upon the beauty @ http://www.maryazarian.com/index.html) Blessed Sabbath wandering...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

So whose tradition are you talking about...?

One of the fascinating - and sometimes infuriating - challenges of doing "church renewal" in New England happens whenever  "tradition" is called into question.  It could relate to music, preaching styles, robes and vestments - who knows?  Whenever a beloved tradition is challenged... watch out!

Now, to be fair, New Englanders are usually no more change-phobic than any other people in the United States. With some unique exceptions, people in my church have been profoundly thoughtful and engaged as we've done some of the hard work of change. Generally, I think all people tend to hate those changes that call us out of our comfort zones and support the changes that reflect our preferences - especially if they don't interrupt our habits and mostly affect someone else. 

I know I bump up against this whenever road construction forces me to get to church by a new route:  I LIKE the way I drive to church and feel annoyed when I have to change.  I like road repairs, too, so I deal with it - but I get why change is problematic. So, the real problem isn't exactly change; it has more to do with calling certain beloved traditions into question - and here New Englanders  are clearly the winners.
Take the individual communion cup: old time Yankees LOVE these relics - I've heard people claim that the Eucharist just isn't holy without them - and fully act like these little cups have been used since the time of Jesus.  (Only a slight exaggeration!) 

Tonight, I asked my clergy prayer/support group, "Does any body know when these bad boys were first introduced to the liturgy?"  I had thought they might have shown up during the heady days of the Protestant Reformation when so much of the baby was thrown out with the bath water.  In fact, I was ready to lay the blame at the feet of Calvin. (When I mentioned this to my once Roman Catholic son in law, he burst out laughing:  "What a bizarre thing - it has NOTHING to do with Eucharistic spirituality - or community building!" Amen.)

But one of my wiser colleagues said, "You know, I think it was probably MUCH later.  In some of our oldest sanctuaries, why don't you see when the little cup holders were added as they will probably answer your question."  Hmmmm.... and as I did some research I discovered that this wasn't Calvin's fault at all. 
It seems that the little sacramental shot glasses were introduced to the US in 1891 in Cleveland, OH.  And then took off like wildfire for a variety of reasons - mostly having to do with the ascendancy of individual piety - but often blamed on the needs of increased sanitation.  Damn... they are only 121 years old - but treated like the freakin' Holy Grail. 

Some old time New Englanders literally freak out if these little "McEucharist" cups aren't used - and they swear it is our eternal tradition - when, in fact, most of our churches have been using the COMMON CUP for most of our history.  And I'm not exaggerating here: listen to clergy talk about intransigence sometime; it is often a very sad and sobering experience.  (check it out: http://sharperiron.org/article/who-first-adopted-individual-cups-as-regular-communion-practice )

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

BEING the body of christ...

I love being a part of a Eucharistic community - it puts life into perspective for me - and grounds my ministry in the essentials: BEING the body of Christ in the world. It can take a Reformed, Anglican or Roman Catholic style - and I tend to like the Anglican words the best - but ultimately it is the heart that matters and the heart is always centered in Christ Jesus.  I am indebted to Henri Nouwen and his insistence on celebrating Eucharist wherever he was living and working - and making certain that even if the bureaucratic church didn't welcome some believers, EVERYONE was a welcomed guest at the table of the Lord - because it can be life-saving.

+ In Cleveland I became a member of Jesus Caritas - a Roman Catholic community grounded in the way of Charles de Foucald - that celebrated a "ministry of presence" and beauty alongside the brokenness of the King/Kennedy housing projects.  Foucald expressed the soul of his vision as an oasis in the desert: What I am dreaming of is something very simple and small in numbers, something to resemble those simple communities of the Church’s early days. To lead the life of Nazareth, working humbly and contemplating Jesus, a little family, a little monastic household, something very small and simple. 

And like the Eucharistic community of Acts 2, this Cleveland chapter gathered daily for the breaking of bread and prayers before heading out to share compassion and a sense of Christ's presence wherever the Spirit led.  Over time - in cooperation with Habitat for Humanity - three city blocks had been transformed from urban blight to beauty - with a variety of urban gardens scattered among the restored houses.  And then every Thursday night we regrouped for prayer and Eucharist. It was the highlight of my week.

+ Later, I became affiliated with the Community of Iona - and made a pilgrimage to Scotland, too - to enter into their Eucharistic ministry.  And a highlight of that visit was sitting at table with believers from all over the world and being nourished by Jesus to become the body of Christ in the world.  Like Nouwen taught:  you are bread - taken, blessed, broken and shared - for the world.

Since Easter, we have been using a Eucharistic liturgy from Iona every Wednesday afternoon at 12:10 pm.  Sometimes 4 people show up, sometimes 10 - in this setting the numbers don't seem to matter - because "wherever two or three gather in my name, I am there in the midst of you."  I sense and experience Christ's presence every time we break the bread and share the cup.

Today I was able to get into the Sanctuary early and open the doors on to Park Square - get our sign out there, too - and it was a good thing.  For when I came back about 10 minutes later to light the candles and turn on the meditative music, a young man was seated in the last pew. He was quietly weeping.  When he was ready, he asked if it was alright if he just sat for a while in the quiet.  And after assuring him that he was always welcome - and preparing the bread and cup - I sat with him for a bit and listened to his story and shared his tears and a quiet word of prayer, too. 

Earlier this morning, another regular person at Wednesday Eucharist wrote to me wondering whether we might continue this gathering after Pentecost (our planned conclusion.)  My inclination was to keep it going no matter how many people came, but both her question and this young man's tears became a sign of confirmation to me that being the body of Christ like this mattered for this place at this time.

Many Protestants have an almost atrophied sense of Eucharistic spirituality - we are not a sacramental or incarnation people no matter what our theology suggests - so I've been tenderly teaching this crew to take BIG chunks of bread.  Make it a REAL feast so that you might taste and see the goodness of the Lord.  Today I asked them to drink from the cup - not dip a la intinction (which has its place) - but drink in the full goodness of the Lord.  As one friend said, "Really drinking - not just tasting - but filling my mouth with wine was a very sensual and powerful experience."  A body prayer I called it - and when another person talked about the earthiness of the chalice - this, too, was another body prayer.

This is a funny calling - and sometimes it seems as if "no good deed goes unpunished," right? But celebrating BEING the body of Christ in community puts everything into perspective.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

How Christ helps us trust God's presence even in hell...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, May 29, 2011 following the Common Lectionary readings.  This is still a part of my series influenced by Rob Bell's new book, LOVE WINS, but also grows out of the conversations around finding God in our suffering at First Church.  Special thanks to my buddy, Black Pete, of Thunder Bay, Ontario for sharing a quote from Charlotte Bronte.  And great appreciation for the sacred work of Georges Roualt whose paintings shape this week's posting. If you are in the area, please stop by for worship at 10:30 am. 

I want to speak very personally with you today – pastor to people as well as believer to believer – as we try to go still deeper into the question: where the HELL is God in all of this? You may recall that for the past few weeks I have attempted to outline a broad theological construct for discerning the presence of the Lord in the midst of our suffering.

• First, I shared with you what I call a spirituality of God at the beginning – a way of being attentive and prayerful about God’s presence at the core of your life – so that you learn to shift your focus from yourself to the Lord. The catch phrase for this spirituality might be: We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living, rather we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.

• Second, I spoke with you about God’s absence and silence, right? God’s wrath in the old words, but with a twist because this apparent absence is not meant to wound us, but rather to awaken a longing to return to God’s grace. “You want to see what it is like to live in fear – or greed – or lust? Fine, go ahead,” says the Lord, “have it your way – and then maybe you will want to return to grace.” Perhaps a summary for that second message would be: “When circumstances persist even though I bend every effort to eliminate them, then clearly those are the will of God for me – and there is something in them that I must learn to deal with.”

This brings me to installment number three – a highly personal testimony about where God meets us in the midst of suffering – because by faith I believe this is true. I believe – that is to say that I trust – that in the God made flesh in Jesus Christ, we are NOT left alone in our suffering nor are we abandoned by God because of sin. 

And that’s the clue I ask you to pay attention to this morning – the God made flesh in Jesus Christ – because, you see, your awareness of Christ’s true nature will either help you experience God in your pain or leave you out in the cold and all alone. In St. John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples just before facing the shame and agony of the Cross: “If you love me, show it by doing what I've told you. I will talk to the Father and he'll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you.”
Did you hear that? “You will ALWAYS have someone with you – a friend in the Spirit – shaped and informed by Christ’s love.” And it gets better…

This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. The godless world can't take him in because it doesn't have eyes to see him, doesn't know what to look for. But you know him already because he has been staying with you, and will even be in you! Listen: I will not leave you orphaned. I'm coming back to you. In just a little while the world will no longer see me, but you're going to see me because I am alive and you're about to come alive. At that moment you will know absolutely that I'm in my Father, and you're in me, and I'm in you. So remember: the person who knows my commandments and keeps them, that's who loves me. And the person who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and make myself plain to him."

Those who love me will keep and embody my commandments and I will keep them always in the Father’s love so that they will never be alone: sounds like it would be important for us to know what Christ’s commandments are, don’t you think? 

• Now let’s be clear: I’m not talking about the spiritual instructions of Jesus, ok? The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel is life changing, but it isn’t one of Christ’s commands.

• And please don’t get distracted by trying to remember all the Lord’s parables either; they have their place, too and can also take us deeper into the Jesus life. 

But for just a moment, try to focus on the unique commandments of Jesus, ok? There are just three of them – that’s a clue – and in just a moment I’m going to ask you what you think they are, ok?

And the reason I am pushing you on this is not because I want to be a hot shot preacher and show off how much I know – or remember – or can find on my computer while writing my sermon. In fact, this really has nothing to do with me – it has to do with you – and your grief and sorrow and pain – and your broken hearts. One of the reasons I believe we suffer so much in our lives is NOT because God is absent, but rather because we don’t know where to look for the Lord.

We neither know the commandments Jesus promises will unite us with the presence of God’s grace so that we will never be alone; nor do we grasp what they tell us about God’s true nature…

So let me ask you again because what you KNOW about God as made flesh in Jesus Christ can either help you experience the Lord in your suffering or else leave you out in the cold and all alone. What do you think are the three unique commandments Jesus has given his disciples that serve as a guide into the true nature of God?

First there is Matthew 22:36-40: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" And Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

• What is Jesus telling us about the true nature of God here?

• I think he is saying that love is at the heart of God and is to be our heart and soul, too. Not judgment – but gratitude. Not rule keeping and fear – but compassion and community. 

What’s more, I think he is telling us that unless we let ourselves be guided from that love which comes from above, everything else we do – including our quest for God in our suffering – will likely be futile. Not because God wants to stay hidden, but because we need to look in the right place. 

Do you remember the old Sufi story about the holy fool, Nasrudin, who lost the key to his door? Tradition has it that after losing this key he sent his friends out to help him find it. And after hours of looking, they came back empty handed only to find Nasrudin on his hands and knees searching for his key under a street light in a part of town totally unknown to him. “What are you doing here, man?” they shouted. “You’ve never been here before in your life.” To which Nasrudin said, “Yes, yes, I know but… the light is so much better over here.”
To find God’s presence in our pain, we must look in the right place – not judgment, guilt, fear or shame – but love: I believe that anything less takes us into confusion. Second Jesus explains God’s love for us with greater clarity in the next commandment found in chapter 13 of John’s gospel: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

And let’s be clear that when he said this he had a towel around his neck and was washing the dirty feet of his disciples in preparation for the feast of the Passover. So what do you think this commandment tells us about God’s nature as revealed by Jesus? 

• Could it have something to do with finding God in the tiny acts of mercy shared by those who love us when we are hurting? Is it possible that God comes to us in our pain when others get out their safety and comfort zones and risk loving us even when we are unlovable? 

• When our feet stink and our souls are filthy? When our hearts are broken or our minds confused? When we feel worthless but God comes to us still and embraces us beyond our wounds? Promising not judgment or hell, but a banquet?

So often we miss God’s presence either because we’re afraid of our own dirty feet and pain – and won’t let anyone see them – they call that the sin of pride but also fear and shame. Or else we’re so afraid of touching another’s dirt – we want sacred things to be sanitized – that we try to make the Body of Christ pretty and nice. 
Have you ever looked at a Crucifix? Protestants tend not to spend much time with Christ’s body on the Cross – we want to emphasize the Resurrection rather than the Passion – and that has its place. And Roman Catholics sometimes clean up the Cross, too – or else fetishized the agony – and that brings its own set of problems. But here’s the deal: often God comes to us in Jesus as his broken, wounded body – and what is true about Christ is equally true for you and me.

• But our pathological discomfort with the real Cross turns Church into a Miss Manners club where being nice is more important than meeting the Lord in the muck.

• My Canadian friend, Black Pete, recently reminded me that this isn’t a new problem for the Church. Listen to this quote from Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 masterpiece, Jane Eyre:

Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns. These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth: narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ.

Beloved, sometimes God comes to us – or we bring the spirit of the Lord to another – when we get out of our own way and let love touch that which is beyond the pretty and nice and proper:

• Thomas put his hand within the Lord’s open wound. Peter was allowed to feel the full measure of his grief and betrayal.

• Jesus let the broken woman from the street shed her tears upon his naked feet – and then washed the feet of his wounded disciples – saying: love one another as I have loved you. 

Then the third unique commandment of Jesus found in Matthew 28:18-20: "Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And know that surely I am with you always even to the very end of the age."

Do you see what’s happening here? Jesus is saying very clearly that our understanding and experience of the Lord will shape our encounter with God here and now more than we ever imagined. 

• This is not really a call to go out and convert or exploit or control or colonize other people, right? How would THAT embody Christ’s spirit? No, this is all about living in the world in such a way that we document God’s alternative to the status quo.

• Go teach and baptize the people – that is, go and immerse them in the love of God that meets them in the muck and offers a banquet of grace – so that they know the universe is not closed – so that they know there is an alternative to fear and shame and suffering.

So that they will know, writes Rob Bell, that: Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins with death; it’s about experience the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.

Now I’ve shared with you the three commandments of Jesus – each one tells us a little about God’s nature and promise – and each comes with the promise that if we immerse ourselves in them then Christ will be with us in all things just as God was with him in all things.

• Know that surely I am with you always even to the very end of the age. So listen: I will not leave you orphaned. I'm coming back to you.

• These promises and commandments are what I trust – not always perfectly – and rarely without doubts. But they are at the core of my faith – they are the heart of what I trust about God’s loving presence even beyond the evidence – and they are what assure me that God is with us even in the filth and fear and suffering.
Someone asked me last week, “Well, ok, I am with you in what you’ve said so far, but where is God when the innocent child is beaten or abused? Where is God when the innocent women and men are killed – or starved – or sent to the death camps? Is God with them? And do they know it?”

• By faith – given what I have experienced and been shown of God’s nature in Jesus Christ – trusting the testimony of the apostles and faithful throughout the ages – I have to say: Yes – without a doubt God is with those who innocently suffer death and disease and abuse.

• How could a God who looks like Jesus do otherwise? A God who looks like fear? A god shaped by superstition or karma? Yes, but not a God who looks like Jesus the Christ.

I believe that God shared Jesus us with us so that the One we mostly know in silence can have a voice: he is God’s word made flesh. “A voice to lead us through our questions – a love to be present with us in our doubts – a friend to wait with us in our silence and the assurance of grace until the silence is full and complete.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)

To trust this love “requires a death, a humbling, a leaving behind of the old mind, and at the same time it will require an opening up, too; loosening our hold and letting go so that we can receive, expand, find, hear, see and enjoy.” (Rob Bell) 
This is the good news, beloved, for those who are ready: so let those who have ears to hear, hear.

trusting the sacramental wisdom of the seasons: the autumnal equinox

Yesterday a little package arrived: my used copy of Christopher Hill's 2003 book Holidays and Holy Nights - Celebrating Twelve Seasonal ...