Thursday, May 31, 2012

So what do you think should be included: top 7 stories of the old and new testaments

Ok here is the challenge:  as a post-modern culture, we have moved so far from holding ANY set of moral/ethical norms in common that our only touchstone is... the marketplace!  As noted last week, NY Times columnist, David Brooks, shared his take on this reality on 5/24 in the column, "The Service Patch."  His observation rings true with mine:
Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It’s about resource allocation. People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are.

In a word, Brooks notes that we have lost a moral vocabulary:  today the only way many know how to talk about the common good is in marketplace images.  He continues: In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence. So how should you structure your soul to prepare for this? Simply working at Amnesty International instead of McKinsey is not necessarily going to help you with these primal character tests.    
   
Furthermore, how do you achieve excellence? Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These, too, are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations.
When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.   
    
It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/25/opinion/brooks-the-service-patch.html?ref=davidbrooks)

Today NY Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, weighs in with his take on the same theme in an article he calls: Markets and Morals.  His insights springs from a recent book by Michael Sandel, What Money Can't Buy, in which Sandel argues that our reliance upon the market has diminished our capacity for fairness.  How far down this path do we want to go?

+ Is it right that prisoners in Santa Ana, CA can pay $90 per night for an upgrade to a cleaner, nicer jail cell?

+ Should the United States really sell immigration visas? A $500,000 investment will buy foreigners the right to immigrate.

Kristoff continues:

Does it bother you that an online casino paid a Utah woman, Kari Smith, who needed money for her son’s education, $10,000 to tattoo its Web site on her forehead? Or that Project Prevention, a charity, pays women with drug or alcohol addictions $300 cash to get sterilized or undertake long-term contraception? Some 4,100 women have accepted this offer...

The marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives,” Sandel writes. “We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/31/opinion/kristof-markets-and-morals.html?ref=nicholasdkristof)
This is our reality:  good people - and I mean truly good people - have lost a common language for talking about moral and ethical decisions.  We have become so enslaved and addicted to marketplace thinking that we don't know how to talk about the common good without inserting entrepreneurial concepts.  Forget the Paschal Mystery, forget the Cross, forget compassion; we have lost the ability to imagine anything greater than the bottom line.

So after lamenting this tragedy and grieving it - something I think has some merit a la Parker Palmer's "politics of the broken hearted" - I think the wisdom of the German mystic, Miester Eckhardt, is in order:  "Reality is the will of God - it can always be better - but we must start with reality." Rather than roll over and simply accept this reality, the prophetic challenge is how to offer an alternative. In my case this means an alternative born of Christ's grace and compassion because anything less would be hopeless.

Enter my summer 2012worship series:  THE SEVEN TOP STORIES OF THE OLD AND NEW TESTAMENTS.  What I have discerned is that most people have either lost touch with the alternative vision of Christ and his kingdom or never have heard it.  So I'm going to jump start a community conversation re: God's alternative to the stifling and demoralizing status quo.  Each week I will share weekly insights into key stories from the word of God in scripture so that we might embrace a quiet revolution.

First, we'll talk about these stories on Sunday. Then I will ask people to take them home and discuss them as a family or with friends.  And when we regroup the following Sunday, I will invite people to share what the Spirit has brought them during the week

So here are my TOP 7 in each category.  NOTE:  I had to put a limit of some type on how many stories to explore and thought I might as well go with the sacred and holy number of God's perfection: seven (as in God rested on the seventh day, Sabbath, etc.)  I would be curious to know what stories you might include besides these in your top seven:

+ Top 7 OT Stories:  the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah, Tower of Babel, Moses/Exodus, Abraham and the Covenants (sounds like a band, yes?) and the Great Prophets (Jeremiah/
Isaiah/Micah)

+ Top 7 NT Stories:  the birth and baptism of Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Key Parables, Stories of Table Fellowship, Passion of the Lord, Ministries of Peter and Paul, the meaning of the Church Year

My hope is for two things to happen:  we find a common language for talking about God's vision within human reality, and, we learn to share images and insights that go deeper than the bottomline of the market place when it comes to serving the common good.  There is an old song that goes:  we have ANOTHER world in view... Let's see what that might mean for us throughout the summer.

Mysticism and the spirit...

Totally loving Richard Rohr's current series re: mysticism and the spirit.  For this old Congregational boy it rings true and cuts out all false dichotomies between thought, prayer, body, action and faith.  Let me know what you think?

To span the infinite gap between the Divine and the human, God’s agenda is to plant a little bit of God, the Holy Spirit, right inside of us! (Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 14:16ff). This is the very meaning of the “new” covenant, and the replacing of our “heart of stone with a heart of flesh” that Ezekiel promised (36:25-26). Isn’t that wonderful? It is God doing the loving, in and through us, back to God, toward our neighbor and enemy alike, and even toward the sad and broken parts of ourselves.

Mysticism is when God’s presence becomes experiential for you, as opposed to intellectual. Mystics are not talking about belief systems, but rather a felt sense of Mystery.  A hallmark of mystics is the integration within themselves of what I have identified as the Ego's Four Splits. To create our mental ego, our false self, there are Four Splits that the mind goes through. I'm going to very simply describe the Four Splits for you and show you how, in embracing the way of the mystics and people like Francis, we just might “get it” earlier than at the very end of our lives.
The First Split is the split between my-self and your-self.  “I'm here, and you're over there.”  We would call that dualistic consciousness. We learn to see this way as children, and most of us live with it for the rest of our days.  In the first half of life (and for many, into the chronological second half of life), we spend most of our time just accentuating and accessorizing that separate self.  “This is me. That's you.  I'm better than you; you’re smarter than me. I'm better looking than you; you’re wealthier than me.” It's all about separation, and using the self as the central reference point.  The modern word we use for this Split is the ego. This is the first Split to form, and usually the last to die.

When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor and to love the enemy, he's training us in overcoming this split. What you do to another, you do to yourself. What you do to the neighbor, you do to Christ. “You are one in God, and one in me,” so it becomes what Julian of Norwich calls “One-ing”: overcoming the splits, little by little, so in the end there's just One. As Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” The whole point of Christianity is the experience of unity with creation, with the neighbor, with the enemy, and with God. This creates a basis for universal mysticism. God is not so far away. God is not so transcendent. God is not found in glory, but in humility. It really re-positions the spiritual journey. Now the goal is the bottom, not the top.

Your old men shall dream dreams...

Most of you know that I don't really like "praise" or "CCM" tunes:  they are mostly too "precious" in the worst sense of the word. I remember seeing the Precious Moments Chapel advertised along the roadside in Missouri on our sojourn from Cleveland to Tucson and was stunned and horrified by the very concept. (And I am totally serious: it is in Carthage, MO and you can check it out @ www.preciousmoments.com/content.cfm/park_chapel)

Let's just say I'm not a big fan of kitsch and sentimentality when it comes to the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord.  (Now, ironic religious kitsch - like the prayer cards that have both the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Jesus Ascending into Heaven - that is a whole other kettle of fish. One of the finest interprets of all that is schlocky and often wrong in Christianity used to be found @ http://www.wittenburgdoor.com/)

But there are SOME old praise tunes that still speak to me at a deep level.  They can't be done with saccharine synthesizers and 101 strings and voices that drip with artificial piety or I'll have to hurl.  I still remember the first time I heard "Father I Adore You."  An ecumenical group of about 35 clergy closed a prayer breakfast with that song - it was lead by a Roman Catholic priest who eventually became my landlord - and when we got to the final "alleluias" - and kept singing it as a round - I was knocked out.  Something deep inside was unlocked by that song and I still love it.  (In fact, we're singing it this Sunday as part of Trinity Sunday worship.)

Same goes with an equally dated but sweet song, "Seek Ye First" - add the descant on verse two - and I'm a goner again.  It is simple, lovely and beautiful and evokes a sense of prayer and awe that nourishes humility.  It has the same sensibility as "Day by Day" and "Won't You Let Me Be Your Servant" - a folk groove - that really works with group singing and harmonies. (Too bad all the choral YouTube versions are so schmaltzy; still this guy plays it with grace and heart and deserves to be heard.)


Seek ye first the kingdom of God and its righteousness
And all these things shall be added unto you
Allelu, Alleluia

Ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and ye shall find
Knock and the door will be opened unto you
Allelu, Alleluia

Truth be told, I was very moved by the charismaniacs of the 80s - and the Jesus People of the 70s, too - and don't regret for one moment their encouragement in leaving the ways of the frozen chosen.  Our theology was never quite the same - and we have a very different understandings of how the church should work - but those cats loved to sing from the heart. 

And I learned to love the Lord in a whole new way with their music. Think Amy Grant and Michel W. Smith. Think the REZ Band and Petra and Phil Keaggy. Think the King of the genre:  Larry Norman and let's not forget Norman Greenbaum. (This song from Any Grant's "Lead Me On" still works for me - it speaks of Pentecost on many levels - with a solid beat and musicality that stands the test of time.)

So from time to time, in addition ripping on U2 and Pearl Jam, the Beatles, Sarah McLachlan, Springsteen to say nothing of the jazz and gospel and all the rest... I need to sing songs of pure adoration and praise.  I don't go down this road very often, but every now and again it does my heart good.

We used to use this song, "Sanctuary," to close worship in Tucson.  Gathering in a circle and holding hands, we'd sing and sing and sing - modulating up as the band felt inspired - until like the Lord said through the prophet Joel: I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.  

 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A little practice goes a long way...

Every Wednesday @ 12:10 pm we hold a quiet and contemplative Eucharist @ First Church. Using some Taize chants, silence, lectio divina and liturgical prayer, we practice being together as God's people.  And then we gather around the communion table to receive and share the bread of life and Christ's cup of blessing.
Dorothy Bass, writing in Practicing Our Faith, puts it like this: Worship is to daily life, a wise pastor has said, as consomme is to broth. In liturgy at its best - in the common work of the people assembled to hear the Word of God and celebrate the sacraments - the meaning of all the practices appears in a form that is thick and tasty, darker and richer than what we get in most everyday situations. In Holy Communion, every one of the Christian practices finds guidance.  The worshipers experience the extravagant hospitality of God at the table and commit themselves to extend God's welcome to others; they collectively say not to what is harmful and yest to what is good; they keep the Sabbath holy in a joyful celebration of Christ's resurrection.

We've been celebrating our midweek Eucharist for over a year and it has become a touchstone of stability and refreshment in my week.  I physically and emotionally miss the blessings of quiet, community and the Lord Supper when I am away.  I have also found that without our weekly shared conversation concerning God's word in Scripture, my week feels a little flat and incomplete.

Not surprisingly, this Eucharist rarely attracts more than 10 people at a time - and more often than not we're about 7 - because it takes time to step outside of our busyness and rest for a while in the presence of the Lord.  This has become both a physical oasis in the middle of the city and a spiritual oasis in the middle of a busy week.  Like the Psalmist encourages:  Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thoughts about Trinity Sunday 2012...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this Sunday, June 3, 2012.  It is Trinity Sunday - the first Sunday after Pentecost - in that long road we know as Ordinary Time.  Here's my take on the continued importance of the Holy Trinity.

Introduction
The ancient rabbis of Europe were known to tell their congregations that “a community is too heavy for anyone to carry alone.” (Chittister, Rule of Benedict, p. 128)  And that rings so true for me:

·       It is too much work for any one person to accomplish, it is too much responsibility for a solitary suffering soul to bear, it is too spiritually overwhelming given the challenges of real life and too morally exhausting to endure given the magnitude of human pain, sin and confusion.

·       I think the rabbis were right: a community is just too heavy for anyone to carry alone.

That is why by faith we were called into the body – we can’t live into God’s will all by ourselves – we need others to help us carry the load in love.  And that is why the Christian tradition teaches the sacred mystery that God is not alone either; rather the Lord our God is a Holy Trinity of love in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit/Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit. God is over us, God is with us and God is in us.  God as Holy Trinity, you see, is not only our best way describing the Lord’s nature, it is also the best model we have for how to live together in Christ.

Now before your eyes glaze over and you quietly tune me out, let me tell you that most of the problems and pain we know in our congregation – as well as in the wider church – all stem from an unwillingness to wrestle with what it means to worship God as Trinity.  So if you care about this congregation, if you care about real justice and compassion in the wider world and if you care about spreading the deep love of God beyond the superstition and narrowness that so often passes in public for the true Church of Jess Christ, then you might want to stay awake:

·       Yes, the truth of God as Trinity is complex; of course it calls into question our addiction to selfishness and bottom-line thinking; and you better believe it confronts our obsession with quick fixes in a paradoxical and mysterious way.

·       And here’s why:  according to the Apostle Paul, “God's Spirit beckons us – it is calling to us – because there are things to do and places to go!  This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life.  It's adventurously expectant, receiving God with a childlike, "What's next, Papa?"  God's Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are so that we finally know who God is and who we are:  Our heavenly Father and his earthly children.

Did you get that?  Paul is telling us that the Spirit of God is calling to us through Christ – calling us beyond a grave-tending life into the power and presence of real resurrection – but we have to pay attention.  Do you recall how Jesus says the same thing in today’s gospel?  “Take it from me:  unless a person is born from above, it's not possible to see what I'm pointing to—to God's kingdom.”  God is calling to us and has things for us to do that will not only lighten one another’s burden, but also give us meaning and integrity in ways we never imagined possible.  And THAT, of course, is why we speak of God as Trinity…

So let’s take a little time this morning to talk about God’s nature as Holy Trinity because I specifically want to share three key truths with you:

1.     What it means to say that God is Three in One and One in Three:  a unified community of love.

2.     Why we specifically use the words Father, Son and Holy Spirit along with other expressions in describing the Trinity.

3.     And how the Trinity models a way for us to live as God’s authentic children in community.

Is that reasonably clear?  Ok, let’s give it a shot now trusting fully in God’s grace: Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be made acceptable to you through the living presence of your grace made real to us in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Insights
Our first insight has to do with what it means to speak of God as Three in One and One and Three:  this is mystical, prayer language people, ok? It is NOT linear arithmetic, it is NOT traditional logic and it is NOT a way of speaking most of us use very often.  It is paradox – it is wisdom beyond the obvious – it is trust in God’s presence even when the evidence is obscure. 

·       St. Paul regularly teaches that:  now we see as through a glass darkly but later… what?

·       Later we shall see fact to face – later God’s presence and truth will be revealed fully – later we shall GET it – but not now.   No, now all we can grasp are parts of the sacred reality…

And one part of the Lord we have sensed over time is that God’s protection and power is OVER us – God’s inspiration and authority is OVER creation - and God’s clear call for justice and compassion is OVER human relationships, right?

·       At the same time we have experienced God’s presence in both history and our souls through Jesus, too:  in Christ we have known God as the one who literally walked the dusty roads of first century Israel WITH us, who suffered human pain and shared divine forgiveness WITH us and, as John’s gospel puts it, who came at the right moment in history to move into our neighborhoods WITH us so that we might see the glory of God WITH our own eyes. 

·       Now, although we don’t have understand all of this, many of us have grasped that God not only creates and preserves life OVER us and simultaneously shares and redeems love WITH us, but God also empowers, transforms and renews us from the inside out:  we sense and experience that God’s Spirit is IN us as well as OVER us and WITH us.

So theologians and pastors over the centuries have given names to the way God is over and with and in us calling these different but intimately related truths:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Are you still with me on this?  Have I clearly given shape and form to the notion that the one true God has come to us and been experienced as a God who is OVER, WITH and IN us? 

Now here is one of the problems:  sometimes when people talk about these different aspects of God they call them the three persons of the Trinity, right?  And that just doesn’t make any sense to our 21st century minds – and there’s a reason for our confusion: 

·       Back in second century Greece the word person meant the mask an actor wore at different times during a play.  Sometimes the same actor wore many different masks – all of which revealed a different face or truth in the drama – but always came from the same source.

·       Well, that understanding of person is long gone in our culture and does nothing to explain how God as Trinity is simultaneously three in one and one in three. 

The best we can do is acknowledge that we experience God in different ways – OVER, WITH and IN us – and that God is revealed in different ways – as FATHER, SON and HOLY SPIRIT – but always as the same God.  Does that make any sense to you?  First we speak of God as Holy Trinity because this is how we both experience the Lord and how God comes to us:  OVER, WITH and IN us all. 

Second, we look to both the story of Jesus in scripture and the way the wider Bible speaks of God to give us clues about how we might refine our words about God’s three-in-one nature.  This is where we’ve come up with calling God:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And as you might expect, there are both problems and insights for us here, too. 

·       The biggest problem for 21st century people is in the masculine nature of this God language:  the words we use to describe anything matters; so to only speak of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit degrades and limits the feminine.

·       Same thing would be true in the other direction, of course, but let’s be clear that feminine images of the sacred have never been dominant in Christianity.

So we’ve been experimenting for the last 30 years with inclusivity – sometimes we speak of the Trinity as Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit and sometimes as Maker, Redeemer and Sustainer – and while I am down with using any and all of these innovations, let’s be clear:  they are just as incomplete and problematic in their own way as the old words.

And let me attempt to say why the new words create unintended but very real problems, too:   what the Trinity is trying to explain in poetic form is the relationship between the three faces God.  There is a spiritual nuance evoked between Father and Son because this is relational language, right?  There is a mutual intimacy in this poetry as well an awareness that the Son gives shape and form to the Father. After all, Jesus spoke of God as “Abba” – tender Father or Poppa – in order to help us grasp that the source of all creation and power is also cherished and near.

·       So here’s the rub:  this truth is lost in the new innovations.  As helpful and creative as they are – Creator, Christ and Redeemer – describes functions rather than an on-going, intimate relationship. 

·       And this betrays the very purpose of Jesus’ ministry:  to show us as much of God’s face as we could comprehend in our ordinary, everyday lives.  He came to offer us intimacy with the Lord not just ideas about power, function and abstraction.

So we use both sets of limited poetry – the old words AND the creative innovations – knowing that neither are sufficient and both contain only a part of the truth of God in Trinity.

And third the wisdom of the Trinity models for us a way to live in the world as God’s authentic children:  in community.  Left to our own devices most of us will treat our own failings with more grace – and curse the sins of others with more vitriol than is necessary – because that is human nature.  We all know what is good and just and beautiful, we just can’t do it consistently for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God:  you – me – everyone.

The wisdom of God in Trinity, however, gives us an alternative to both the status quo of sin as well as the ideologies of the hour.  Just as God is bound together as Father and Son by the love of the Spirit, so too each of us in this place:  what unites and strengthens and encourages us is NOT our own effort but the presence of the Lord who comes to us as Spirit to nourish us from the inside out.  That’s what dear old Nick misunderstood in this morning’s gospel reading:

Jesus told him God’s spirit could come upon him from above – not really born again as some insist – but more accurately born from above:  God’s spirit can come to you, brother, and be over and with and in you, too so that you will have the strength, willingness, grace and desire to live beyond yourself.  But this wise old teacher was completely baffled, right?  Do you recall how Nicodemus replied to the promise of the Spirit by Jesus?  All he could do was sputter and protest:  what does this mean and how is this even possible?

To which Jesus said:  the time has come for you to trust God more deeply, my man.  There is a love bigger than us all – a love that binds me to the Father by the Spirit – this love will cause me to lay down my life for the world.  And if you trust in this love, if you let the Spirit guide and nourish you in this love, you can be in on the blessing, too.  John’s gospel puts it like this:

This is how much God loved the world:  He gave his Son, his one and only Son.  And this is why:  so that no one need be destroyed; by trusting in him by the Spirit anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending his Son into the world merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came in flesh and spirit to help and put the world right again.

Conclusion
There is much more to say about the blessings of the Holy Trinity but this is enough for now:  God comes to us, God loves and heals us and invites us into community to share that love with the world.  Let those who have ears t hear, hear.

It was a blessed time...

It did my heart good to spend time with my loved ones today... Jesse and her husband got into town on Saturday evening so we had a lot of time to talk, cook, catch up and enjoy one an other's company and insights. She just completed her MA in Library Science (she finished her MA in Education 7 years ago) and we haven't visited since January. With another month to go before middle school is Brooklyn, NY is done this was a nice break from the city and a total treat for the old man. 
Michal and her loved ones arrived early this afternoon and joined us in feasting, bocce ball and sharing lots and lots of laughter. She's farming as well as writing and working for UMass as the associate director of communications for the Center for Public Policy and Administration (CPPA.)  We met their goats and chickens two weeks ago when we finally got to visit their new digs. It was a treat to share this sweet summer day with these two women and their cherished partners.
Over the years we've all changed:  we've shared celebrations and sorrows, weddings and divorces, times of uncertainty along with encounters of profound trust and compassion. For a long time we lived half way across the US and could only spend Christmas or periodic holidays together. We know what a wonderful gift it is to now live reasonably close to our adult children. Time is sacred and should never be taken for granted: life is just too short, uncertain and complex.
So at the close of days like today, after the feasting is finished and both girls have returned to their private lives and homes, my soul sometimes drifts towards the opening lines of this poem by Yeats he called "A Prayer for My Daughter."

I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour
And heard the sea-wind scream upon the tower,
And under the arches of the bridge, and scream
In the elms above the flooded stream;
Imagining in excited reverie
That the future years had come,
Dancing to a frenzied drum,
Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

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

Because it is a privilege to celebrate with my loved ones - daughters, partners and wife - I want to honor what time remains in the joy we share as a gift from God.  (I also find myself singing this tune in my heart - it comes from the slightly warped perspective of a father - and doesn't pretend to capture the complexity of what happens between real fathers and daughters.  But, it is still a bunch of fun and rings true, too.)

Monday, May 28, 2012

A day to pause and reflect...

Like many Americans today I mostly enjoyed a cook-out with my family.  Sure, we played bocce ball and spent a lot of time talking about politics, literature and films, too because that's what we do when this family gets together.  In a word, it was a time of relaxation, reconnection and renewal that I found very nourishing.  (family pictures will follow, ok?)  But now, after the kids have left for their homes and we've cleaned the kitchen and showered (once again), I needed to pause for a moment to reflect on the nature of what this national holiday means to me.  Memorial Day, says Wikipedia:

... is a federal holiday observed annually in the United States on the last Monday of May.[1] Memorial Day is a day of remembering the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces.[2] Formerly known as Decoration Day, it originated after the American Civil War to commemorate the Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. By the 20th century Memorial Day had been extended to honor all Americans who have died in all wars. It typically marks the start of the summer vacation season, while Labor Day marks its end.

In my life time I've seen veterans too often used as both political footballs and cannon fodder - and 2012 doesn't seem a whole lot different. We have sent young heroes to their deaths for impure reasons.  Those who were once cheerleaders for our current engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq have now mostly abandoned our soldiers because it has become politically convenient.  And the current administration continues to put young lives in harm's way until after this election cycle is over; only then do they sense that they can bring the troops home without fear of being smeared as weak or ineffective.

I was touched by what my friend and colleague, David, wrote:  Let us remember this on this day: let us remember never to ask brave young Americans to die for mere national vanity, or for political expedience or because we lack the imagination or the courage to solve problems another way. Let us remember that whenever America calls, her brave, young men and women WILL answer ... and some them will die. 

So, beyond the sunshine and relaxation, this is a sobering holiday - a day of sacred responsibility - and as it comes to a close I want to return thanks for all those I never had the chance to meet because they lived into the call to serve and protect and never came home.  It has been my privilege over the past 30+ years to talk with and serve the cause of Christ alongside women and men who have been in every armed conflict since WWII. They have shared some of your stories, old friends, so we pause to reflect and give you thanks.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

And so summer begins...

Today was a stunning day in the Berkshires:  sun without much humidity, rest (after worship) with loved ones and a chance to prepare a small feast with my dear daughter.  I was blessed. And so summer begins in this part of the USA even though it is a full month away on the calendar. There are three things we'll be doing this summer:

+ Starting next week, we begin a summer worship series called:  The Top 7 Stories/Ideas of the New and Old Testaments.  14 weeks of reclaiming key stories about human nature, the heart of God and why we need a common language to grow deeper in the Spirit.  Next week I will kick things off with a conversation about the Holy Trinity using John 3.  I am convinced that the doctrine/story of the Trinity not only speaks to us about God's mysterious and loving nature, but also models for us how the Lord comes to us and reveals the essence of grace.

+ In later June and early July we head to our adopted sister city, Montreal, for the Jazz Festival.  We'll be totally chill walking about, speaking/misunderstanding French and letting go of our usual commitments as part of our annual ritual of renewal.  In late August, we'll make another little trip to explore what the land offers in a one hour circle around the core of Montreal in order to explore potential retirement locales.  Our dream is to spend time above the "medicine line" in a French area to relearn the language and explore the culture. 

+ And throughout the summer we'll be making a ton of fun music:  Between the Banks will be in full swing at church throughout the summer and the Jazz Ambassadors will be doing Patrick's Pub, too.  Next week, for Trinity Sunday, we've got a contemporary version of the Beatles' "The Word" set - we'll take the next week off for some brewskis and conversation about the summer - and then it is full steam ahead with jazz, rock, folk, alternative and some of our own compositions, too.

After worship today, I am more certain than ever that our small, gentle commitment to offering a compassionate alternative to the bottom-line/market-driven culture of this era is what God is inviting to embrace in spades.  Like Joan Chittister once wrote:

We have been asked to (join God) in filling up the emptiness and healing the brokenness in which most of live by offering sensible, humane, whole and accessible spiritual options to a people who are overworked, overstimulated and over scheduled... this includes reclaiming depth in a world given over almost entirely to the superficial and the tinny... and sharing a standard of living that is not addicted to the quick fixes and gimmicks of the status quo.

As we said before coming to this sweet and challenging place five years ago:  Whatever we do has to be fun - it has to emphasis God's joy and grace - and it has to build real community or we're done.  Well, it is clear that we've got some joy and grace and fun to share in community as we go deeper into the life, death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord. Tomorrow we'll feast with our daughters and their loved ones... and then let the summer begin! (This song ALWAYS screams summer to me - and the hip hop verse speaks of the mission of this moment, too - so dig it!)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Old friends...

Yesterday afternoon there was some commentator on the TV talking about the need to learn how to lose your old friends.  Really - I'm not kidding - learn to lose your old friends.  Now, I've been reading Wendell Berry of late, who talks a lot about the importance of place and time in a grounded life, so I listened a little more carefully.  And, as I expected, the so-called wisdom being hawked boiled down to two things:

+ If you want to be a happy and independent consumer, you need to learn how to let go of the constraints of place:  Cut loose from your historic ties of place and time because if you want to be all that you can be you're going to need mobility.

+ Old friends keep you thinking and acting like you were still in high school - and who wants to be a 30 year old high school student?

My first reaction to this pop psychology was, "OMG have we become SO freakin' shallow that friendship and home have been reduced to a McDonalds-like drive through sensibility?  Get what you want and then move on to the next purchase?"  And, of course, the answer is yes we have become that shallow and obsessed with marketplace understandings of life, love and friendship.  To be sure, I've moved all over the place - and love to travel and explore - and wouldn't change this for anything in the world.  But there is a difference between travelling and returning home and wandering aimlessly in pursuit of the next bargain, yes?

So I started to wonder about my own experience with old friends.  In just the past 3-4 years, for example, I've reconnected with a quite a few of my old buddies from high school through the mixed blessings of FaceBook and I haven't once felt constrained, trapped or denigrated. These men and women are not commodities to be traded and used; they are living souls who have given me joy and insight. They are loving beings with families and pain who have created beauty and justice in their respective lives.

What's more, it became clear to me that one of the truly exciting things I've experienced over these past 10 years has been renewing some of these old friendships and relationships that had fallen by the wayside.  Whenever we took the time to reconnect, it was always filled with laughter and tender hearts. And after a little bit of reminiscing, we quickly moved on to conversations about how life has changed us over the years: without exception our time was spent considering the way both blessings and curses have altered who we thought we were back in the day - and there was nothing demoralizing or inhibiting to any of it.

Berry wrote:

A family member or neighbor is by definition needed - and is needed not according to any standard of usefulness or any ration of cost and price - but according to the absolute standards of kindness, mutuality and affection.  Interestingly, the Amish have remembered, unlike most of the rest of us, that the best, most dependable, most kind safety net or social security or insurance is a coherent, neighborly, economically sound local community (of friends, family and neighbors.)

This morning I read Fr. Richard Rohr's words about the movement of the historic Jesus into the Christ - how it involved the totality of his life but also his death and resurrection - and what that means for us, too.  And the alternatives between a life of chasing bargains and following Christ were never more clear to me...

Jesus is the microcosm; Christ is the macrocosm. There is a movement from Jesus to the Christ that you and I have to imitate and walk, as well. A lot of us have so fallen in love with the historical Jesus that we worship Him as such and stop there.  We never really followed the same journey He made, which is the death and resurrection journey—Jesus died and Christ rose. 
Unless we make the same movement that Jesus did—from His one single life  to His risen and transformed state—we probably don’t really understand,  experientially, what we mean by the Christ—and  how we are part of the deal! That is why He said, “Follow me.” The Jesus that you and I participate in, and are graced by and redeemed by, is the risen Jesus Who has become the Christ, which is an inclusive statement about all of us and all of creation. Stay with this startling truth in the days ahead, and it will rearrange your mind and heart, and change the way you see everything, because you are the Christ Mystery too!

Jesus didn’t move from Jesus to the eternal cosmic Christ except through death and resurrection to a larger space and time. We don’t move from our independent, historical body to the Christ consciousness without dying to our false self, either. As Stephen Levine says, death is the “imaginary loss of an imaginary self.” Imaginary because it thinks it is separate.

We, like Jesus Himself, have to let go of who we think we are, and who we think we need to be. “Dying at 30? I am just getting started!” He must have thought. We have to let go of the passing names by which we have tried to name ourselves and become the “naked self before the naked God.” That will always feel like dying, because we are so attached to our passing names and identities. Your bare, undecorated self is already and forever the beloved child of God. When you can rest there, you will begin to share in the universal Christ consciousness, the very “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

When we finally allow life to take us through the Paschal Mystery of passion, death, and resurrection, we also will be transformed into the Christ Mystery. At this stage we will have found the capacity to hold the pain of being human, not to fear. When we finally allow life to take us through the Paschal Mystery of passion, death, and resurrection, we also will be transformed into the Christ Mystery. At this stage we will have found the capacity to hold the pain of being human, not to fear it or hate it or project it onto other people. Actually, it is really God holding the pain in us, because our little self can’t do it.

But the Big Self, God in us, can absorb it, forgive it, and resolve it. We know it is grace when we no longer need to hate or punish others, even in our mind. We know someone else is working through us, and for us. Our little life is not our own; henceforward, we do not need it so much. We are now a part of the Big and One Life of the eternal and cosmic Christ, “who will inherit everything and through whom everything that is, was made” (Hebrews 1:2). The early Franciscan tradition put it this way: Christ was the first idea in the mind of God and will be the last idea. As Scripture puts it, He is “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). History now has a definitive arc and direction—and we are part of that arc of history and God—which includes both life and death.

The life part is so big now that we can trust the death part.

I think that is just about perfect - so now I have to cut the grass before the kids arrive later tonight.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Some upside down thoughts about being faithful...

My favorite conservative, David Brooks, wrote yet another column about the upside down state of moral discourse in the USA at this moment in time.  At the heart of today's work is this insight:

Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of enterepeneurism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It's about resource allocation. People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are... (All around me) I see young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tend to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions of what to do.  (check it out @ http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/25/opinion/brooks-the-service-patch.html?)_r=1&ref=davidbrooks

As I've noted before, when the only working metaphor of a culture is the market place - and the only tool for evaluation is the bottom line - is it any wonder that our best and brightest no longer have a moral vocabulary?  What's more, given the public track record of our religious institutions - Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim - it is no wonder that our youth are not learning their moral vocabulary from our spiritual traditions. In a highly publicized survey conducted by Georgetown University's Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs it was reported that:  while 76% of millenials (young people between the ages of 18-24) believe that Christianity has good values and moral principles, a staggering 62% of these same people find Christianity harsh and judgmental - and have left their churches in droves.  And 64% of these spiritual but no longer religious millenials cite the church's attitude and teaching towards the LGBTQ community as proof!

Mary Catherine Bateson, writing in her new book, Composing a Further Life, says that in general "conversations and dialogues between (differing) communities are hindered by the fact that members (of these communities) describe their own faith in terms of ideal norms within the community while outsiders characterize them with negative examples of actual behavior in the past or present. Thus, Christian have mounted crusades and have sometimes owned slaves, Jews have sometimes been moneylenders, Muslims have sometimes been terrorists and so on and on."  Given this huge divide, it is clear that old Feurbach was right:  you ARE what you eat!

Brooks concludes:

It is worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can also spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets and more Dostoevsky and the Book of Job.

What Brooks doesn't address, however, is how this shift in the conversation towards moral vocabulary takes place.  And from my perspective of doing ministry for 30 years in the local church, I've come to two conclusions:

+ First, in 2012 we are starting from scratch.  Not only have we lost touch with our historic moral vocabulary, but we now have 3-4 generations who don't know the time tested stories of ethical exploration.  Not only haven't they read or heard of Job, they don't know the 10 Commandments.  They may have gone through the DARE program in school, but they haven't talked about the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount or the 23rd Psalm around the dinner table.  So, we are at ground zero and have to start again. (Hmmmm, no wonder I love those post-apocalyptic movies, yes?)  Now you can piss and moan about this, or, you can say like Meister Eckhart: "Reality is the will of God - it can always be better - but you have to start with what is real."

+ Second, while the old stories are essential, old school shame and guilt no longer cuts it (if it ever did!) Not only will the old judgments drive our young families away (see the millenial survey from Georgetown above) but they will guarantee that another generation becomes deaf, dumb and blind to the ethical wisdom and moral vocabulary of our various spiritual traditions.  I've seen it happen over and over:  a hate and fear filled preacher like Worley gets public notoriety for a few days and more young people run away from the insights of religion.  More than ever, I sense that faith communities are being called to do "family moral education" rather than incidental Sunday School as an alternative to the status quo.  Let's face it:  45 minutes every other week does NOT create a moral foundation to deal with the hard ethical realities of this (or any other) generation. We need something deeper.  More real.  And certainly more bold that what is currently taking place in most of our congregations.

And this is, perhaps, the real upside down moment:  faith communities are being given a new chance to reclaim our moral vocabularies if we are willing to seize the moment. In an era Parker Palmer calls "the politics of the broken hearted," we can begin to show what an alternative to greed and the bottom line looks like.  We can begin to retrain young families in the time-tested stories of ethical development.  And even do so in an environment of encouragement, hope, joy and moral integrity. (Carrie Newcomer models this commitment in her sweet song, "I'll Go Too.")

To seize this moment with tenderness and patience is the challenge - even the patience of Job.

summertime is half over...

A gentle rain is falling in the Berkshire hills this morning. Already it feels like a day of contemplation and quiet rest. There was a Fac...