Monday, April 30, 2012

Universal music of freedom and creativity...

Seems that yesterday was UNESCO's "International Jazz Day" - a time set aside by the UN organization to honor the way jazz unlocks freedom and creativity throughout the world. (Ooops, as brother Hal reminded me, that would be TODAY: April 30th!) I would take that deeper and say that jazz also speaks to the unique movement of the Spirit of God in community. (check out the article in the new york times @ http:// www.nytimes.com/2012/04/30/arts/music/united-nations-tunes-up-for-first-international-jazz-day.html_

In Duke University's Div School's most recent journal,Willie James Jennings writes:

Churches could learn much from reflecting on a jazz band. Here are a group of people who work very hard at listening, yet give up nothing of themselves in that process, but in fact only gain a true sense of themselves in the common task of making music, producing sound that makes a central statement that exists only through the constitutive performances of each musician. …the many driving toward the one—the one sound, and the one ecstasy of playing well. … Musicians live and play in tight quarters, which is not only a matter of the given but also a matter of choice. They need closeness to hear. Would that Christians could grasp this basic truth of our witness: We don’t simply need each other, we need to be close together in order to truly hear the words we should be saying to the world and, equally important, to hear more clearly the voice of the world, in its pain, suffering, and longing.

Jazz musicians in the midst of playing often gesture toward new possibilities, making visible the reality of hope. It is a moment of transfiguration. As we watch them play it is as though an in-breaking has occurred and who we thought they were and we were gives way to a new revealing.

I know that when our various bands play too spread out, the music doesn't work as well as when we're on top of one another.  Jennings is right:  we NEED closeness - to hear, to feel and to make intuitive and creative choices that help the whole groove.  Being too independent and disconnected wrecks the music.

This Thursday, the Jazz Ambassadors are back at Patrick's Pub for our monthly soiree.  I've missed the last two gigs because of Lent and I can't wait to strap on the bass and go at it.  Been practicing, too - always important - and our buddy Rob Fisch is sitting in on trumpet.  So there will be some Miles for sure, some Herbie Hancock and Monk, too to say nothing of some crazy blues and who knows what else? 

I'm hoping we'll add "A Little Help from My Friends" just for kicks because it was just about a year ago that we left for Turkey.  So much has happened in that region - and is still taking place - that I want to stand in solidarity with freedom and peace makers as part of this jazz party.

So comes the end of the day...

This was a beautiful and full day and I am grateful to God as it comes to a close. It began with "community worship" Sunday - an on-going experiment in liturgy planned and developed by our worship ministry team - and today was a rich and creative time.  At the heart of our celebration of God's love was the notion that the Body of Christ must become flesh.  Barbara Brown Taylor put it like this

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth.  My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.  My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul.  What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human and trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.

So five different members of the congregation shared their sense of how they live as part of Christ's body by doing justice, sharing compassion, teaching children, making music, organizing worship, encouraging the forgotten and unleashing beauty.  There were a number of highlights including:  a revitalized children's choir, our band's combination of a Sacred Harp song - Ecstasy - with a Paul Simon tune - Slip Slidin' Away, the choir's contemporary rendition of the 23rd psalm and two killer version's of Isn't It a Pity (a Good Friday reprise!)  One old salt told me afterwards:  "It just felt like everything came together today in celebration of the Body of Christ becoming flesh." I couldn't have asked for more.

The day didn't start out great, however, because when we attempted to head to church the battery in our car was dead.  (Apparently, while cleaning the interior of the car yesterday I tripped a "hidden" switch that keeps the parking lights on - a problem that is notorious for Subaru owners - and caused us some frustration, too.) Eventually, a band mate picked us up and we got through our morning rehearsals - and worship - with joy.  But I had to borrow a car to immediately head out to the funeral of a colleague who died unexpectedly just last Sunday night. (Thank God for generous friends.)

I think I have been in a daze about her death. I wept profoundly upon hearing the sad news but have been somewhat stunned ever since. Looking clearly at my own mortality is very sobering.  Most of the clergy from our Association were present; after all, our friend had only been serving here for a year. In fact, she had been installed just a year and 2 weeks ago ,so our sense of loss was palpable.  It did my heart good to see sisters and brothers gathered together in solidarity as we all were seated together.

I had to leave during the last hymn because our confirmation group was meeting this afternoon, too. And what a treasure that turned out to be:  all the parents and mentors were there (except Di who had to work) and everyone agreed that we needed to extend the confirmation conversation so that it could go deeper.  The opening conversation was about how many contemporary families have not found the support or encouragement they need to help their children cultivate an inner life. Clearly the emphasis in Protestant spiritual formation has changed over the past 40 years. Good things have happened in the emphasis on God's grace.  But something has been lost, too because few people know how to pray anymore - and families almost never pray together.

What's more, time continues to be squeezed out of each young family's day by a variety of competing interests:  school, sports, peer pressure, parents extended work schedules, etc. So without reinforcement and training, it is easy to see why the primary care of young souls has now shifted to Sunday School.  But we agreed that 45 minutes every week - or every other week - really wasn't enough time to build meaningful rituals or spiritual habits. Most young parents exercise more than their children practice spiritual rituals.
So, we agreed on three changes:  First, each family will get a copy of Gertrud Mueller-Nelson's book, To Dance with God, and start to find ways to use it with their children.  This is an excellent resource for the "domestic church" that will give parents a healthy grounding in the wisdom of the liturgical year as well as prayer rituals that make sense in a family context.  We also agreed that from time to time, parents and mentors will meet with me to see how we can help one another make this new commitment work.

+ Second, we decided that we needed to expand the time we spend together:  instead of concluding our conversations on June 3rd, we'll take a summer break and then return in the fall and continue to All Saints Day.  This will give us all another 3 months on Sunday afternoons.  And it will give everyone another six months to actually practice some of Mueller-Nelson's ideas. 

+ And third each mentor will concentrate most of his/her time on reading the gospel of Luke with their confirmand and building a relationship. We realized that the time originally set aside wasn't enough: if we're going to honor God and embody our commitment to Christ's body, we're going to have to work at it, yes?

It did my heart good to hear from our youth - as well as their parents and mentors - that everyone wants this time to be significant.  As another wise soul said, "Nobody needs MORE to do. But if we're going to do this - confirmation - let's do it right!"  So today was a real celebration of God's love in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Body of Christ became flesh in a variety of new/old ways that are intimately connected to the rhythm of our ordinary lives. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Recent letter to the editor...

NOTE:  What follows is my recent letter to the editors of our local newspaper re: the on-going retrenchment from Vatican II ideals within the Roman Catholic Church.  The presenting issue was the local bishop's request that Anna Marie College disinvite Mrs. Vicky Kennedy, the spouse of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, from bringing their commencement address.  The reason given for this request to disinvite Mrs. Kennedy was, of course, her outspoken pro-choice and GLBTQ rights commitments.

This sad act, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.  Within the past week Rome has also chosen to call the authenticity of Roman Catholic women religious into question because they have given more energy to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners and educating the poorest of the poor than opposing rights for gay and lesbian people. Add that to the renewal of the Latin Mass - and the odd and clumsy revisions of the English Sacramentary - as well as the 2007 declaration that Protestant churches are not "real churches" because we serve "man-made rather than apostolic" traditions (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jul/11/catholicism.religion) and it is hard to conclude that the joy and openness of Vatican II are anything but distant memories.

Sister Joan Chittister once said that she remains within her order because by faith she has learned to "see the eagle within the egg."  I admire her faithfulness and stand with her and countless others who grieve the current emphasis on obedience instead of faith.  All of my spiritual directors have been Roman Catholic priests and lay people.  I have joyfully con-celebrated Eucharist with brother clergy.  I have shared jail cells with fearless nuns. And I have been blessed by the wisdom of Roman Catholic theologians like Henri Nouwen and Gertrud Mueller-Nelson for over 30 years.

It is with great sadness that I sent this letter...

Dear Editors:

There is a systematic retrenchment from the commitments of Vatican II taking place throughout the Roman Catholic hierarchy that will reverberate in the lives of ordinary people with tragic consequences for years to come.  Recent examples include the insistence by Bishop Robert McManus that Anna Maria College disinvite Mrs. Victoria Kennedy from their commencement exercises (Berkshire Eagle, April 27, 2012) and the Vatican’s appointment of Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to a leadership role over American women religious in order to enforce doctrinal purity.

It is, of course, the institutional prerogative of both the Bishop and the Holy Father in Rome to pursue such actions.  What worries me as a Protestant clergy person with a lifelong commitment to seeking common ground with the Roman Church, however, is the way these acts confuse obedience for faith.  I fear both the Church and the common good will be harmed.

For generations, faithful nuns and lay people have cared more about compassion than abstract doctrinal purity.  Like Mrs. Kennedy, they have based their lives on the only non-negotiable of Jesus:  “Whatever you do unto the least of these my sisters and brothers, you do unto me.” (Matthew 25: 31-46) Consequently they have fed, clothed, educated and nourished people in need without worrying whether they were people of faith, unbelievers, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, the rich, the poor or anyone in-between.

My experience with women religious goes back to the early 1970s and our work with Cesar Chavez and his movement for farm worker justice:  We prayed together, shared jail cells together, studied the Bible together, fed one another and asked people of good will to join La Causa on behalf of the forgotten and abused.  I was blessed to share similar acts of compassion with Roman Catholic nuns and lay people in my ministries in Saginaw, MI as well as Cleveland, OH and Tucson, AZ. 

Such endeavors are now being questioned because of this confusion between obedience and faith. Sr. Simone Campbell, a member of the Sisters of Social Service and executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic political lobbying group, got it right when she said: “The (Roman Catholic) church is not used to a democratic culture, which leads me to think that the real fight is about the inculturation of our faith into a democratic culture. The culture in Rome is a monarchy, and in a monarchy you can control what everybody says. But in a democracy, we experience the truth, and it's found when we have questioning and vigorous debate. And in the end, truth emerges.”

St. Francis once admonished us to “Preach the gospel always – use words if necessary.” I stand with Mrs. Kennedy and the American Women Religious as they make the difference between faith and obedience clear for all who have eyes to see.

I long for the day when we can find common ground again.  Lord, may it be so for us all.

It is never enough and it is all we've got...

One of the paradoxes I embrace is living fully into the counter cultural vision of Jesus as part of a local church.  That means my energy, focus and resources are given to a small circle of people in the trust that God will multiply her miracles in ways that are faithful. And even though I have seen and experienced this blessing in action, when I pause for prayer and quiet reflection In the face of all the hurt and fear that surrounds and invades us, this never seems to be enough even though I know it is all we've got.

Such is yet another aspect of the foolishness of the Cross, yes?  I Corinthians 1 puts it like this:

The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It's written,

I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head,
I'll expose so-called experts as crackpots.


So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation


(NOTE:  I sense it wise to alter the text here because of the way Christians and others have historically used this and other verses to validate anti-Semitism and wage war on the Jewish people.  What Paul is trying to say in his context - and context is always essential - is that the old religion (Judaism) has one set of expectations that are shattered by the Cross while the philosophers (Greeks) have another rulebook that keeps them equally blind to the upside down wisdom of the Cross.)

While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God's ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can't begin to compete with God's "weakness."

But to those who are personally called by God (to Christ) the Crucified and Risen one is the ultimate miracle and wisdom of the Lord all wrapped up in one.  That's part of what it means to serve God in a local congregation: it makes no sense, the evidence of conversion and transformation takes a life time to observe and often it isn't clear that anything we do matters.  And yet...

... the church is one of the only places that shows us how to take "the crushing losses and defeats" of real life and offer them to God and one another in such a way that
these experiences, rightly held, can make us more compassionate and receptive, deepening our engagement with others and opening us to new life. The powers of the heart that transform personal anguish can also transform the way we do politics. For the suffering that undermines democracy by driving us into foxholes and fragmenting the civic community has the potential to also open us to each other, to hope and to the hard work required to sustain"
the common good.  (Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, p. 20)


Peterson writes that we don't trust the work of God in our small communities most of the time because (a) we mostly refuse to listen to the Lord and (b) because we have been convinced that the Christian life has something to do with what we do rather than what God has done. (His following words make this clear...)

+ Christian spirituality does not begin with us talking about our experience; it begins with listening to God call us, heal us, forgive us.  This is hard to get into our heads. We talk habitually to ourselves and about ourselves. We don't listen.  And if we do listen to each other it is almost always with the purpose of getting something we can use in our turn. Much of our listening is a form of politeness, courteously waiting our turn to talk about ourselves. But in relations to God especially we must break the habit and let God speak to us. God not only is:  God says...
+ (Consequently) the Christian Life consists in what God does for us, not what we do for God. The Christian life consists in what God says to us, not what we say about God... we are not to use the word Christian to disguise our narcissistic and Promethean attempts at a spirituality without worshipping God and without being addressed by God... Given our sin-damaged memories that render us vulnerable to every latest edition of journalistic spirituality, daily re-orientation in the truth revealed in Jesus and his Cross - and attested in Scripture - is required.  And given our ancient predisposition for reducing every scrap of divine revelation that we come across into a piece of moral/spiritual technology that we can use to get on in the world - and eventually to get on without God - our daily return to a condition of not-knowing and non-achievement is required.  We have proven, time and again, that we are not to be trusted in these maters.

No wonder the apostle writes:  No prolonged infancies among us, please. We'll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.

Feeling small, wondering about the value of serving and sharing together in a local church, doing most things without ever seeing the fruit of my labor and all the rest is part of both listening to the Lord and being converted to the ironic, upside down wisdom of the Cross. In this, I am still a child who must regularly renew my commitment to Jesus when he tells me:  Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

Friday, April 27, 2012

We are in this together...

Last night a devastating fire destroyed the home of a local rabbi and his family.  They escaped unharmed - two firefighters had minor injuries - but all their belongings were destroyed.  Rabbi David is married with three small children.  (Read more here: http://www.berkshireeagle.com/ci_20492554/fire-displaces-knesset-israels-rabbi?source=most_emailed)  To be sure, their congregation is caring for them in the wake of the tragedy - and will continue to support them as they rebuild, too - but isn't this also a time for those in the local Christian community to stand and deliver?


We are theological and ethical cousins in faith.  We are neighbors and friends in a small town.  And, as those of the majority faith, hold a unique moral obligation to offer care and compassion and solidarity in times of trouble.  St. Paul was clear that we (Christians) have been grafted onto the tree of faith first given shape and form by Abraham, Issac and Jacob. What's more, he is clear - despite millenia of action and words to the contrary - that God's first covenant with Israel has not been supplanted in any, way shape or form in Jesus Christ.  Rather, we have simply been welcomed into the family of God's love in a new way. As he wrote in Romans 13:

When you love others, you complete what the law has been after all along. The law code—don't sleep with another person's spouse, don't take someone's life, don't take what isn't yours, don't always be wanting what you don't have, and any other "don't" you can think of—finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can't go wrong when you love others. When you add up everything in the law code, the sum total is love.

If you are able to share some love with Rabbi David and his family, the synagogue's administrator, Chris, tells me we should go to their website and start there.  Soon, there will also be a list re: immediate donations to help the family get back on their feet, too.  Check it out @ http://www.knessetisrael.org/index.aspx

Thursday, April 26, 2012

An honor and a privilege...

It is an honor and privilege to be a part of this small section of the United Church of Christ: the Berkshire Association is a blessing.  A broken and incomplete blessing, to be sure, for as St. Paul is clear "we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." But a real and authentic blessing nonetheless. 

Tonight our diminished but faithful small group - a "community of spiritual practice" - met for supper.  Last year we began small and over the course of the year we have lost two of our friends to resignation and death.  Tonight we wept and prayed for them both even as we get ready to bury our colleague this Sunday. As one friend said in parting, "I am so glad I came tonight because I feel better than when I arrived."

Same was true last night, too at our church and ministry meeting:  this is the administrative meeting of those who serve as "bishop by committee" for our region of Massachusetts.  In light of all the pain in so many of our churches - and the recent death of our friend - we shed some more tears.  Then we talked deeply about ways we might strengthen our connections to one another in the the sacred but too often lonely calling of pastor.  We spoke about real prayer for one another.  And accountability.  And finding ways to bring this small but deeply parochial constellation of churches closer together.  And while we haven't cracked the nut yet, we are closer to coming up with ways to help one another know we are loved and respected.
It is a privilege and honor to serve with these saints - hard and tender, frustrating and complex - but also very real and sweet.

Ministry isn't heavy lifting - there are TONS of jobs that are harder - but being the pastor is often lonely, mostly misunderstood and very humbling.  Used to be a time when clergy held a role of respect and influence in the community.  Thankfully those days are over - but now too many think of us as huckster, pedophiles or Christian jihadists.  We have been forced by circumstances to give up our allegiance to a theology of glory and exchange it for a theology of the Cross. 

Only problem is, we need to strengthen our support for one another because NOBODY can carry the Cross all by themselves (no matter what the gospel hymn might suggest!)

Buechner put it like this: “Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

Lord may that be true for us all...

Listening carefully to the angel of death...

Last night I found out that my colleague and friend, the Reverend Dr. Holly Reed, died. It was unexpected.  She had led worship earlier in the day and... by Sunday evening she was gone.  She was part of my small clergy support group that gathers on the last Thursday of every month for supper, prayer, conversation, study, encouragement and accountability. She had just received her Ph. D.  She was just completing her first year at our small church in Richmond.  We were just growing in friendship and appreciation.

With careful consideration of boundries - and professional ethics - knowing that our friendship was not intimate nor anything more that collegeal, my mind still ran to this poem by Adrienne Rich:

One autumn evening in a train
catching the diamond-flash of sunset

its puddles along the Hudson
I thought:  I understand

life and death now, the choices.
I didn't know your choice

or how by then you had no choice
how the body tells the truth in its rush of cells

Most of our love took the form
of mute loyalty

we never spoke at your deathbed of your death

but from here on
I want more crazy mourning, more howl,
     more keening

We stayed mute and disloyal
because we were afraid

I would have touched my fingers
to where your breasts had been
but we never did such things

Fr. Ed Hays always says that the news of another's passing is a visit from the angel of death.  He urges us to pay attention to our reaction so that the gift of this death isn't wasted because we're too busy - or afraid - or distracted to notice.  Again, I found myself weeping and weeping: weeping for colleagues and friends gone too soon, weeping for pastors who remain faithful albeit solitary and often all too alone, weeping for congregations knocked over by grief, weeping for adult children wrestling with the loss of their momma, weeping for myself, weeping for Holly, weeping for our small circle of friends who will meet tonight without her...

Over the past 20+ years, when the angel of death has visited me I have heard her whisper to me about opening my heart and soul to beauty:  pay attention, man, because you don't have this forever. A poem by Alicia Ostriker gets it right:

The sycamores are leafing out
On West Fourth Street and I am weirdly old
Yet their pale iridescence pleases me


As I emerge from the subway into traffic
And trash and patchouli gusts—now that I can read
Between the lines of my tangled life


Pleasure frequently visits me—I have less
Interfering with my gaze now
What I see I see clearly


And with less grievance and anger than before
And less desire: not that I have conquered these passions
They have worn themselves out


And if I smile admiring four Brazilian men
Playing handball on a sunny concrete court
Shouting in Portuguese


Goatskin protecting their hands from the sting of the flying ball
Their backs like sinewy roots, gold flashing on their necks
If I watch them samba with their shadows


Torqued like my father fifty years ago
When sons of immigrant Jews
Played fierce handball in Manhattan playgrounds


—If I think these men are the essence of the city
It is because of their beauty
Since I have learned to be a fool for beauty.


I think the ancient words of Scripture get it right, too:

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

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Put on my blue suede shoes...

Returning from a regional meeting of clergy and laity trying to care for the ministries of our local congregations tonight, I was overwhelmed with a sense of sadness:  at least half of our 20 churches are in distress of one type or another.  Now, maybe this is nothing new - reading St. Paul and Revelations my hunch is that this has always probably been true - still the depth of loss is staggering.

+ There are congregations picking fights with their loving pastors and pastors wounding and dissing their loving congregations in arrogance and ignorance.

+ There are profound money problems in many of our churches who are struggling to stay open after steadfastly avoiding any type of deep stewardship education for the past 100 years.

+ And there are committed lay leaders who possess no vision except fear; consequently, the are making foolish and often cruel choices that have nothing to do with Christ and his Cross let alone the promise and presence of Easter.

I know I am not saying anything new... but it is still sad.  For me, there are three essentials for ministry:  loving Jesus, listening to God's people and leading towards the possible rather than the perfect.  This isn't a guarantee for success in ministry, just an essential foundation.  And time and again, this combination seems to be missing in both clergy and laity. Peterson once wrote:

It seems odd to have to say so, but too much religion is a bad thing. We can't get too much of God, can't get too much of faith and obedience, can't get too much love and worship. but religion - the well-intentioned efforts we make to 'get it all together' for God - can very well get in the way of what God is doing for us. The main and central action is everywhere and always what God has done, is doing and will do for us. Jesus is the revelation of that action. Our main and central task is to live in responsive obedience to God's action as revealed in Jesus.  That is, our part in the action is the act of faith.

But more often than not we become impatiently self-important along the way and decide to improve matters with our own two cents worth. We add on, we supplement, we embellish. But instead of improving on the purity and simplicity of Jesus, we dilute the purity, clutter the simplicity and become fussily religious - on anxiously religions - and get in the way.

You don't make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true.  Let's have more YES and NO.
Let's have more loving Jesus - and listening to the lives of God's people - and then leading our people towards what is possible rather than the perfect.  That's what I was thinking when I left tonight's meeting. A simple call to a little more faith and tenderness and grace.  A little more humility all over the place, too. Then who should pop up on my IPOD in the car but Marc Cohn singing his sweet, melancholy master piece, "Walking in Memphis?"  And again with the tears... (Lord, do I love this song.)

All the church has to offer the world is Christ Jesus - we don't have the best music, coffee or entertainment - so until Christ is the core of what we do it won't matter what insights we have about doing ministry in the 21st century.  We will remain in a sad state of distress.  So, I put on my blue suede shoes, turned up the volume, let the tears flow and sang at the top of my lungs:  YEAH TONIGHT I'M WALKIN' IN MEMPHIS!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Gathered, blessed, broken and shared for the world...

NOTE:  Here are my opening words for worship this Sunday, April 29, 2012.  Whenever the fifth Sunday of a month rolls around, our Worship Ministry Team plans and prepares worship in a style we're calling "community worship." It is boldly inter-generational, grounded in the rhythm of Eucharist - gathered, blessed, broken and shared - and geared to help us know one another better through Christ's grace.

This week 8 different lay people - and a variety of musicians and artists - will talk about how they find, experience and share the presence of the Sacred in their ordinary lives.  The broad themes will include:  doing justice, making music, sharing compassion, teaching children and creating beauty.  I hope we get the music - and commentary - on film so I can share it.  Here is how I will introduce the celebration...

One of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor, once wrote:

What is saving my life now is the conviction that there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on earth.  My life depends on engaging the most ordinary physical activities with the most exquisite attention I can give them.  My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul.  What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human and trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.

And that’s what we’re going to explore and encounter today in worship:  how some of us at First Church find, experience and share the essence of God’s presence by how we live in the real world.  In our real lives.   In our real flesh and blood bodies.  The apostle Paul taught something to the early church that many of us have forgotten so we are trying to reclaim it today.  I Corinthians 12 puts it like this:

What I want to talk about now is the various ways God's Spirit gets worked into our lives. This is complex and often misunderstood, but I want you to be informed and knowledgeable. Remember how you were when you didn't know God, led from one phony god to another, never knowing what you were doing, just doing it because everybody else did it? It's different in this life. God wants us to use our intelligence, to seek to understand as well as we can…

(So God gave us all gifts and skills to use in the world – and in the church – and you can see how this is supposed to work…) 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 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.

That wisdom is often lost or discarded in our generation:  we cherish – covet – and corrupt our individuality to such an extent that we are often cruel and mean-spirited to others and ugly and disrespectful to God.  A simple example – how we use our tongues – they are so small but they can do a whole lot of damage in record time.  Especially if we aren’t thinking about the consequences of our words – if all we’re doing is thinking about ourselves – apart from the body.  You know, I’ve heard people say some stupid and repulsive things about members of the body that they would be outraged over if said about them, right?

St. Paul’s counsel is wisdom from the heart – soul food, you might say – a sacred way to make certain that the words we speak and the actions we share in our real lives bring us closer to God.  And, of course, he learned this wisdom of the heart from Jesus.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us:

Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, and criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It's easy to see a smudge on your neighbor's face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, 'Let me wash your face for you,' when your own face is distorted by contempt? It's this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

Don't be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don't reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you're only being cute and inviting sacrilege. Don't bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn't a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we're in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate?

As bad as you are, you wouldn't think of such a thing. You're at least decent to your own children. So don't you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?  Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God's Law and Prophets and this is what you get.

So, dear friends and new friends – women, men and children of the Body of Christ – let’s see where the Spirit of the Lord leads us today as we explore how we find, experience and share the presence of God in our real lives…


Do no harm...

So last week there was the censoring of women religious in the USA because... they were spending too much time and attention caring for the poor and not enough time opposing abortion.  Nearly 50% of contemporary Americans live at or below the poverty line and 22% of our children are poor. This week brother Cornel West and Tavis Smiley bring the truth about American poverty to the Colbert nation...
A colleague put it like this tonight in our monthly men's gathering:  American politics is in a fog of confusion.  Are we entering a clear time of division like 1850 - before the Civil War - when calcified and ugly ideology destroyed the common good?  We're still sorting our way out of that war - and it doesn't look good for those committed to the commonweal.

That's why in May we're starting a 3 level conversation/study about justice in our faith community.  On Monday nights we'll be using Parker Palmer's new book - Healing the Heart of Democracy - because we consciously choose to oppose the hatred of this era with love and compassion. (for more information go to: http://www.couragerenewal.org/democracy.)

On Wednesday nights, our leadership team will read and discuss the wisdom and insights of Reinhold Niebuhr re: justice, grace and faith in politics.  And then in September and October - in the months before the November elections - I will be preaching about Christ's call to justice and
compassion and using the studies of Palmer and Niebuhr as a foundation.

Perhaps more than at any other time in my conscious memory I sense that these are times when gentleness, the wisdom of the heart, patience and quiet love are needed more than ever before.  I was kidding my sweetheart that in my heart and soul I WANT to be like Carrie Newcomer - gentle, tender and clear - in her ministry of truth, goodness and beauty but mostly I wind up sounding like Cornel West.  She smiled and said, "You just gotta be who you are, man!"

May I find a way for more quiet and gentle beauty...

Monday, April 23, 2012

A small but real affirmation...

I spent most of the first part of today listening carefully and answering deep questions about "why Christianity rings true" for 21st century people.  Three very bright, creative and compassionate adults wanted/needed to spend time asking questions about being a part of the church.  "I resonate with the values and ministry of Jesus... but so much of the rest of the church.. ugh!  I can't take it."

I get that.  Sometimes I've prayed, "Jesus, please protect me from your followers."  Hell, sometimes I've been one of those bad Christians who happen upon good people.  And still I am a part of the body of Christ.  In fact, this Sunday's community worship is all about different people in our church speaking about how they discern God and serve the Lord through some of our ministries (e.g. Sunday School, worship and the arts, mission, justice, etc.)  It will be a beautiful time of honest worship designed by our worship team ~ and most of the music will be written by members, too.

So today felt like a small but very real affirmation re: the way we DO church.  We are NOT a one size fits all congregation.  We are about faith formation not obedience.  We celebrate the questions as much as the answers - even when the questions leave us uncomfortable.  And in this era when so much of the Church has been reduced to either fundamentalism, entertainment or a gospel of prosperity, we affirmed how important it is to hang in there with people so that we all might embrace the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Not just one part of that paradox - say the teachings of Jesus without the Cross - or his sacrificial death with the reality of new life:  the whole enchilada.

And the timing of this affirmation is important:  late last week I got an invitation from one of the other pastors in town who wants to have a "consolidation" conversation with 4-5 of the other struggling churches in town.  "We can't continue to sustain our buildings and congregations for another generation," he wrote.  Already the Roman Catholics have closed 5 in Pittsfield alone and 22 in the county.  And he may be right - we can't continue to sustain the status quo - but I don't think the Spirit of Christ is about sustaining anything - especially the status quo.

I sense we have been called to ripen as the Body of Christ - to live and serve one another as part of a faith community - not a club of nice people.  So, while I'm going to the consolidation meeting, I also have a sense that renewal and rebirth are in the air, too.

All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it's not only around us; it's within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We're also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don't see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That's why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Portlandia rules...

I am totally hooked on "Portlandia."  What a freakin' hoot - a great satire on PC culture by hipsters who know and love the scene - and they are ruthless.

I mean... dude! I've been there and done that, yeah? 


Once, back in Tucson, when we were pulling into the local health food complex on Speedway, two totally protien dificient girls kept wandering off the sidewalk and into the path of our moving vehicle.  Now, I was a hardcore vegetarian for 25+ years, and I love the commitment and all the rest.  But these two blissed out knuckle heads were a danger to themselves and others ~ and all I could think was ~  please, for the love of Jesus, get a protien shake and then eat a steak, ok? They were out of control!

The thing I love about this show is that it shamelessly pokes fun of many of the things I hold near and dear.  It is like Sara Silverman joins Nirvana!  (You know this is a goof on "Louie, Louie" gone very bad, right?)  And such brilliant lyrics, too...

Check Portlandia out if you get a chance...

Saturday, April 21, 2012

I believe...

I believe... that when the student is ready, the Buddha will appear.  Last night we went to see Carrie Newcomer in concert. I've enjoyed her songs for some time, but now I cherish them - and last night's gig was soul food for me.  I've been blue and somewhat fragile for the past few days - always just on the verge of tears - and the littlest thing could open the flood gates:  a poem, a daffodil, the dead woodchuck in our front yard.  Sure, Levon's death was part of it, but sometimes even former cowboys get the blues, yes?  (And sometimes our soul's are just more aware of the thin places, too.)

When I bought the tickets a few weeks ago it was spontaneous - I REALLY wanted to see Springsteen in Albany - but didn't act on that one.  Instead, I got two front row seats for Carrie Newcomer in a small hall in Stockbridge.  All throughout the day, doing yard work and practicing the bass for Sunday, there was no sense of anticipation.  Not boredom - nor depression - just a hollow aching that over the years I've come to honor and listen to instead of fight, ignore or try to avoid.  Even on our way to the gig I had no idea how blessed I would be by her gentle music, her tender and careful words and a sense that God's love goes way beyond my feelings or insights.

At dinner we were surrounded by a group of people - at various tables - who head to the Berkshires whenever the weather starts to mellow:  the wealthy tourists (mostly from NYC.)  They clog the streets on the weekends, demand to be waited on in ways that locals detest and carry with them a sense of privilege and arrogance that can drive a person to violence. One woman in particular was a trip:  she gave the young, cute French waiter a laundry list of things she couldn't have in her dinner - it was huge - and then demanded that he tell her what she could eat.  He was sweet and non-plussed so we enjoyed our veggie entree, marvelled at his composure and hoped she didn't have a stroke from anxiety as she waited for a meal that was certain to disappoint and offend.  (NOTE:  Di works retail and wrestles with patience and grace whenever folks of this ilk come into the shop and demand obeisance, so at least a bit of this carping is born of experience, yes?)

Dinner was lovely and gave us a few minor laughs - and invitations to check our own self-righteousness, too.  But I was still blue by the time we arrived and only  mildly interested in the show.  And then Carrie Newcomer came on - and it was magic.  Truly, when the student is ready the Buddha will appear. 

In song after song, and story upon story, she shared insights about ordinary miracles, hope in the darkness, a love that will not let us go and the importance of being fully alive in every moment.  I was weeping by the second song and the tears kept flowing pretty much throughout the show.  But they were mostly tears of joy and beauty and they felt like prayers.  They still do...

And while driving home we both were struck by the deep, quiet and humble gift we had been given.

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

Friday, April 20, 2012

A few words and a song...

This Sunday - after worship has closed - our band (and maybe some of our local musical friends) will sing this in honor of Levon.  We use it to close our Thanksgiving Eve gigs each year and it has become a deep favorite.

Every year this song takes on a new meaning:  different folk take a verse and interpret it their own way.  Some go soulful, some make it playful and my man, Brian, makes it both with just a touch of lament.  (He OWNS the "crazy Chester" verse, yes?) 

So, we'll sing it as part of Levon's legacy in this musical ministry.  We'll sing it to say good bye with respect. And we'll sing it so that some of the young people in the congregation might learn it and keep it alive.  Like "the Boss" in the Seeger Sessions gigs made clear, each generation has a sacred obligation to keep the songs of freedom and hope alive.  And this doesn't happen in books - it happens in community - where you learn by hearing and seeing and doing.

We'll sing also because sometimes a few words and a song are all that's needed. Dear Mary Oliver put it like this in her poem:  It You Say It Right, It Helps the Heart to Bear It...

The comforts
   of language
      are true
         and deep;

in a cemetery,
   in the South,
      so many stones
         and so many

so small.
   Sometimes
      three or four
         in a row.

In this instance:
   Eliza May,
      Oceola,
         Joseph.

Can you imagine
   the condition
      of the heart
         of a mother

or a father
   watching these plantings?
      I cannot.
         But I try.

"God taketh
   his young lambs home"
      is carved there.
         A few words

like water
   on a stone.
      Cool and beautiful
         like water on a stone.

If you are in town, please stop by and sing with us, ok?

finding jesus in a wheelchair...

When I travel north to L'Arche Ottawa, I have an extended time of solitude in the car. The visuals are lovely - rock cliffs, rushing riv...