Saturday, August 31, 2013

At the end of a day...

I am a VERY domestic kind of guy:  it gives me great pleasure to get my house cleaned.  I may be sloppy when it comes to landscaping - I get the basics done - but my soul needs a clean living space in order for me to feel rested.
For the past few days, since our return from Ipswich, I have been taking on a different room of the house.  The most pressing for me was my study (above.) Throughout the year I write sermons, newsletters, blogs and so much more from this place.  And as is my habit, I gather articles, newspapers and stacks and stacks of books as each season matures.  That means that 3 or 4 times a year I have to give myself 3+ hours to dig myself out of the clutter.  I also have to dust and wash the floors - I am a get down on your knees kind of scrubber - so that the place FEELS cleansed.
Now, for the first time in six years, I have actually organized my books in my study.  Yes, the CDs are organized, too (although we have about 200 that need to be put into the mix) but it is a grand relief to now have my books and music in some clear order where I can FIND them!

Next came the kitchen:  it is modest and can get cluttered with almost no effort at all.  I found myself washing the floor and cabinets two or three times just to make sure they got a proper treatment.
Then it was on to the living/dining room. I painted this space last year at this time.  And with two or three exceptions, I have not given this room much loving attention for almost a year.  Sure, Christmas decorations and when a few guests joined us, but mostly it was sagging under the weight of clutter, old mail, tea stains and newspapers. It felt good to reclaim this space as one of beauty where I love to rest and reflect.
Tomorrow it is on to the the bedroom and the bathrooms.  I want to get this done before I head out for two days of prayer and retreat before returning to work on Thursday.  Kathleen Norris put it like this in her Quotidian Mysteries: “The ordinary activities I find most compatible with contemplation are walking, baking bread, and doing laundry." One of my friends who has known me since I was a freshman in college, Martha, likes to say that I revel in the quotidian - the ordinary - and make it seem like a celebration.  I think that is mostly true.  One of my favorite psalms is 131:

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.
I also like this quote from Kathleen Norris:

The Bible is full of evidence that God's attention is indeed fixed on the little things. But this is not because God is a great cosmic cop, eager to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us - loves us so much that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless workings of daily life. It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is "renewed in the morning" or to put it in more personal and also theological terms, "our inner nature is being renewed everyday". Seen in this light, what strikes many modern readers as the ludicrous details in Leviticus involving God in the minutiae of daily life might be revisioned as the very love of God. 

The thunder storm has come and gone - the power was out and now back on - and soon it will be time for sleep.  It has been a holy day - and Lucie's got the right idea.

We are all fundamentally the same...

"We are all fundamentally the same, no matter what our age, gender, race, culture, religion, limits or disabilities may be.  We all have vulnerable hearts and need to be loved and appreciated."  This simple but elegant confession of Jean Vanier's resonates deeply in my soul.  Like the song that starts Psalm 42 I sense a common ache within each of us: 

As a deer pants for flowing  streams

 so my soul longs for you, O God. 
My soul thirsts for God,
   for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
   the face of God?

Last night as I was reading Vanier, I came across two tender but rich quotes that clarified part of my recent quest for discernment in ministry.  He writes that when we choose to "become human" in a conscious and committed way:

We begin the movement from exclusion to inclusion, from fear to trust, from closedness to openness, from judgement and prejudice to forgiveness and understanding.  It is a movement of the heart. We begin to see each other as brothers and sisters in humanity.  We are not longer governed by fear, but by the heart... (and when this happens we see) that the inclusion of those who are marginalized bring a gift to all, to each of us as individuals, to the larger forms of human organization, and to society in general.  The excluded, I believe, live certain values that we all need to discover and to live ourselves before we can become truly human.  It is not just a question of performing good deeds for those who are excluded but of being open and vulnerable to them in order to receive the life that they can offer:  to become their friends.    

I am so touched by these words - the wounded and excluded have a gift for those of us who believe we have it all together - they show us how to become friends.  Not clients, nor projects, problems or challenges:  friends.  Jesus spoke to those closest to him as friends, too in John 15.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Vanier notes that friends change us:  friends "call us to be people of mutual trust, to take time to listen and be with each other... they call us out from our individualism and need for power into belonging to each other and being open to others. They break down the prejudices and protective walls that give rise to exclusion." That has been true in my life - those whom I have let into my heart have changed me with love - and that is probably why it takes so long for me to become friends with others.  I know a lot about fear and keeping myself safe; being vulnerable, open and trusting isn't easy.

What that tells me about my ministry right now is simple:  there must be lots of space and time for people to learn they can trust one another.  No forced or rushed intimacy - and no phony acts of sloppy agape.  Less projects and more time together - open to God's loving presence - without pressure or expectation.  More quiet and less talk, more invitation and less challenge, more love and less fear.  "The heart is the place where we meet others, suffer and rejoice with them. It is the place where we can identify and be in solidarity with them. Whenever we love, we are not alone."

The second quote from Vanier's Becoming Human that touched me was this and it confirms what I have been discerning re: social transformation:

I am not suggesting for a moment that each one of us must welcome into our homes all those who are marginalized. I am suggesting that if each one of us, with our gifts and weaknesses, our capacities and our needs, opens our heart to a few people who are different and become their friends, receive life from them, our societies would change because that is the way of the heart.

For a number of years I have sensed that my calling at this moment in time was NOT to be engaged in acts for social change that I celebrated in my youth.  There is a place - and often a need - for marching and bold challenges to the political status quo.  But my experience over and over again is that I become what I hate in these arenas.  I become brittle and narrow minded.  In fact, I become the opposite of a friend.  Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that I am complacent or that evil must not be confronted.  Just that the old ways of doing so no longer work for me - and haven't advanced the cause of compassion and justice for some time.
So what I have been discovering in the writing of Parker Palmer, Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen is a different and human-scaled way of advancing the values of Jesus:  taking the time to become friends with a few people who are very, very different from me.  Different in abilities, different in religion, different in gender, race, class and politics.  And as we become friends, a small change takes place in my heart and, I trust, in the greater community, too.  "The science of the heart," Vanier writes, "permits us to be vulnerable with others, not to fear them but to listen to them, to see their beauty and value, to understand them in all their fears, needs and hopes, even to challenge them if need be.  It permits us to accept others just as they are and to believe that they can grow to greater beauty."

That is, the way of the heart lets me become a friend and friendship leads us away from taking ourselves too seriously.  It leads us away "from an overly serious world into a world of celebration, presence and laughter: the world of the heart."  Years ago, in the adolescent innocence of the 60s, I used to sing a song that was laughed at by those in charge.  Today I understand their cynicism - I've been there and done that - and that's why I have come to believe that the song's wisdom is actually more significant now than it was back in the day. 

This seems to becoming more and more true with a LOT of the old songs: they have a depth that cuts deeper than cultural nostalgia for they are songs of the heart.


Friday, August 30, 2013

Syria and the serenity prayer...

It is now clear that soon the United States will engage in some type of symbolic military action against the Assad regime of Syria.  As Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times wrote yesterday:  "It looks as if we'll be firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria in the coming days - and critics are raising legitimate concerns."  Both he and liberal columnist, Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, are tentatively supportive of such military engagement given both the context of Syria's devolution and what an attack means for US interests in the region. 
David Brooks, writing in this morning's Times, offers a popular interpretation of what is at stake beyond symbolism.  "The Syrian civil conflict is both a proxy war and a combustion point for spreading waves of violence."  He goes on to observe:

This didn't start out as a religious war. But both Sunni and Shiite power players are seizing on religious symbols and sowing sectarian passions that are rippling across the region. The Saudi and Iranian powers hover in the background fueling each side.... the strife appears to be spreading.  Sunni- Shiite violence in Iraq is spiking upwards... Turkey, Pakistan, Bahrain and Kuwait could be infected (too)... (for) it has become clear over the last year that the upheavals in the Islamic and Arab world have become a clash within a civilization rather than a clash between civilizations.

He then offers three options for the Obama administration that are currently on the strategy table noting that "it is pretty clear that the recent American strategy of light-footprints withdrawal and nation-building at home has not helped matters.  The United States could have left more troops in Iraq and tamped down violence there. We could have intervened in Syria back when there was still something to be done and some reasonable opposition to mold."  The options before us are:

+ Containment:  trying to keep each nation's civil strife within the borders of each country.

+ Reconciliation: using all forms of economic and diplomatic maneuvering to create a measure of rapprochement between the Saudis and Iraqis.

+ Neutrality: refusing to covertly or overtly encourage our Sunni allies in their war against their Shiite and Alawite opponents.

I don't pretend to know what is best here - or almost anywhere else - I am a person of faith and art.  I pray for peace and hold world leaders up to the Lord as they search for wisdom and compassion.  Like most Americans, I am weary of my nation's recent wars.  I am all too aware that in almost every case of American intervention since Vietnam, it has been a disaster for my country as well as the nations we have invaded.  At the same time, I am not an ideological pacifist and know that sometimes the best we can do is offer a measure of action when all the options are horrible.  Like Brooks concludes: Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall of the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling. Will a few dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles accomplish this?  I am doubtful.

Eliot Abrahms has offered a cogent middle course proposal at the Council on Foreign Relations (
that offers important insights.  Donald Anton at The Drum offers an alternative that emphasizes aggressive humanitarian assistance and ramped-up international condemnation and isolation - including challenging Russia and China.  (See

At this moment in time, my heart and head resonate with the peace-making alternatives.  They will not, of course, bring the horrible civil war to an end. They will, however, set in motion a peace-making agenda that can make the existing horror as good as it can be.  Like Niebuhr wrote in anticipation of the violence demanded for the common good before WW II:  

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Irony, sorrow, lou reed, mlk, syria and reinhold niebuhr...

All day long I have been thinking about the incongruity of President Obama exploring a potential military strike against Syria: it is all too much like President Bush almost 10 years ago.  To be sure, there is obvious aggression and possibly real chemical weapons being used by Assad against his own people; nearly all of the Bush information re: weapons of mass destruction was either fabricated or born of ideology.  In this, Obama is NOT like Bush. And yet the determination to act without evidence or broad-based support is all too similar and is profoundly troubling.

I understand that President Obama is a Niebuhrian - one who wrestles with the unintended consequences of actions especially when all the options are bad - in this he is unlike President Bush who was simple-minded and too easily persuaded by his ideological colleagues.  To be sure, both are decent men who have had to wrestle with unimaginable challenges.  And while I would always opt for the Niebuhrian in these moments - they are more always more circumspect and measured - in the heat of the moment all bets are off and leaders have to trust their instincts and advisers.  
I personally pray that Obama discerns it best NOT to act in a unilateral way against Syria.  Sadly there is going to be ever more bloodshed and chaos whether or not the US engages in a symbolic act against the Assad regime. This is now an all-out civil war and it will have to get worse before it gets better.  I grieve for the innocents who have been lost and those who will be killed in the days and months to come.  And, no matter what the US does at this point symbolically, it won't matter.  More agony and death is inevitable. We might engage in some strategic support of the opposition, but we don't have a great track record in this arena either. Think of Afghanistan and our alliance with those who opposed Russia: they were the brains and brawn behind the Taliban and September 11th just a decade later.  We often simply do not know how to hurry up and do nothing when nothing is the best of some very bad options.
There is another irony in all of this, too:  on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where MLK shared with America the depth and breadth of his dream, President Obama finds himself speaking publicly about the King legacy while planning privately for covert military actions.  I don't question the fierce urgency of now when it comes to foreign policy decisions like responding to Syrian evil, but I do grieve that this administration chose early on NOT to explore paths that make for lasting peace.  

What would have happened if in addition to whatever military actions was necessary in Afghanistan, President Obama had chosen to work with Greg Mortgenson's three cups of tea movement in the early days of his administration? What would have happened if we built schools and fed people rather than just listened to those committed to the military surge and zero sum solutions?  No one will know now, of course, and Obama is not going to make any bold changes in his last two years in office.  If he had started six years ago, however, we would be looking at a very different playing field in the Middle East.  And our integrity would be so much better than it currently is after two failed wars and only a legacy of violence.
I have also been thinking a little more about the whole tawdry Miley Cyrus/ Robin Thicke event. It isn't the end of the world and doesn't rank up there with our current war machinations, of course; but what really troubled me about that scene was not the totally UN-sexy groove - if you watched, it was simply stupid and course in the most vulgar way - but rather the pandering to what has been called our "cheap mysticism of promiscuity." In a culture devoid of awe and obsessed with the bottom line, the flutter of cheap sex is about as close as we get these days to something truly transcendent. Frank Zappa nailed t iin "Cruisin' with Ruben and the Jets" but Lou Reed cut deeper still in "Romeo Had Juliet."

Manhattan's sinking like a rock
Into the filthy Hudson what a shock
They wrote a book about it
They said, 'It was like ancient Rome"

The perfume burned his eyes
Holding tightly to her thighs
And something flickered for a minute
And then it vanished and was gone
Without the ability to wait - and grieve - without a connection to something deeper than tweeting and instant gratification - without the nourishment of grace and forgiveness and prayer we inevitably sink to the lowest common denominator.  And these days that is pretty freakin' low.  

I don't know about you, but I wept a little yesterday as I listened to the March on Washington speeches... mostly because 50 years ago we were a people of real hope and cooperation and today we are so saturated in our stupid selfishness that is killing us - and too many others, too.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Weakness and belonging...

Yesterday we spent a few hours walking along a stunning beach - Crane Beach in Ipswich - five plus miles of sand, sun and gentle surf.  Later we explored Gloucester - another lovely coastal town - and closed the day learning to swing dance at the Ipswich River Walk.  Today we're going to the small rural cemetery where Dianne's first American relatives are buried before heading to Lawrence, home of the "Bread and Roses" strike 101 years ago.  Then we'll meander across US 2 on our way home and see what strikes us along the way.
While reading Vanier's Becoming Human last night - in the section he calls belonging (in contrast to the first chapter on loneliness) - a few insights spoke to me.  First, the heart of this book is about living honestly in the midst of life's polarities: birth and death, individuality and community, sin and grace.  Second, Vanier seeks to reclaim the importance of heart in an era obsessed with the head.  Each of his illustrations from various personal experiences at L'Arche are stories - not analysis - of how patient love brings a measure of healing to broken people.  He writes, "We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts."  And that rings true to my experience, too.

Three quotes are worth pondering as this day unfolds...

+ First, is the paradox of weakness.  Vanier writes:  "Throughout our lives, we are pone to fatigue, sickness and accidents. Weakness is at the heart of each one of us. Weakness becomes a place of chaos and confusion if in our weakness we are not wanted; it becomes a place of peace and joy if we are accepted, listened to, appreciated and loved. Some people are infuriated by weakness; they are disturbed by the cry of a child. Weakness awakens hardness and anger in them. Equally dangerous, if less obviously so, weakness pushes other people to a possessive love."

Both responses to our own weakness - and the frailties all around us - keep us reactive rather than responsive.  We are either denying the brokenness or trying to cure it and neither are necessary.  Vanier continues:  "To be small, to be sick, to be dying, to be dead are stages of powerlessness, they appear to us to be anti-life and so we deny them... (but) if we want to always be powerful and strong, we deny part of our being, we live an illusion.  To be human is to accept who we are: a mixture of strength and weakness."  Honoring and recognizing this polarity sounds like the song of ancient wisdom:  to all things there is a season.

+ Second, there is a special charism given to weakness.  "Weakness carries within it a secret power. The cry and the trust that flow from weakness can open up hearts. The one who is weaker can call forth powers of love in the one who is stronger.  Do those who are stronger respond with love because in an unconscious way they identify with the one who is weak? Do they, in some way, know that one day they too will be weak and will cry out for help, recognition and love?"

Hearing, honoring and responding to the cries of those in need is one of the ways we become human.  It is also how we learn to see our selves honestly and own our own broken and weak places.  As Vanier writes later:  "We do not discover who we are, we do not reach true humanness, in a solitary state; we discover it through mutual dependency, in weakness, in learning through belonging."  I think it took me 50 years to learn that simple but life changing truth.

+ And third, when our weakness is integrated into our hearts, it can be a gift for others, too:   "One who is weak, who lives in true communion with another, will not see his/her own weakness as something to be judged, as something negative, he will sense that he is appreciated and that he has a place." That is, our weakness will help us find a resting place within a community where we can be safe and creative.  I think of my life-standard from Matthew 11: 28-30.  Come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy-laden and I will give ye rest.

I have another week of away/vacation time to ponder all of this... but now it is time for cold pizza for breakfast and the start of another adventure.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Prayer, loneliness and swing dancing...

During this time of vacation, in addition to some wandering around the beaches of the North Shore with Di and practicing my bass, I am reading two authors who have touched me deeply in the past:  Jean Vanier and Henri Nouwen.  In Vanier's Becoming Human I am finding a gentle and poignant primer concerning a mature spiritual life.  Two quotes really speak to me:

+ The first has to do with prayer:  We need space to re-read each day... we need time to listen to the inner voice of hope calling us back to the essentials of love, essentials we may have forgotten because of busyness and selfishness. To pray, then, is more about listening than about talking.  To pray is to be centered in love,; it is to let what is deepest within us come to the surface.  For me, it is all that and more. Prayer is also a meeting with the One who loves me, who reveals to me my secrete value, who empowers me to give life, who loves us all and calls us forth to greater love and compassion.  Prayer is resting in the quiet and gentle presence of God.
As I have been discerning this summer, I am hungry for more quiet resting time in God's love.  Vanier's words are both encouragement and affirmation that a part of my heart has been thirsty for this type of deep refreshment.

+ The other quote is about the paradox of loneliness.  In his work with those who have been abandoned, discarded or abused Vanier has discovered an aching loneliness.  His experience is that only when this ache has been healed can a person live into their potential and responsibility.  He writes:  Loneliness seems to be an essentially human experience. It is not just about being alone. Loneliness is not the same thing a solitude. We can be alone yet happy, because we know that we are part of a family, a community, even the universe itself. Loneliness, however, is a feeling of not being a part of anything, of being cut off. It is a feeling of being unworthy, of not being able to cope in the face of a universe that seems to work against us.  Loneliness is a feeling of being guilty. Of what? Of existing? Of being judged? By whom?  We do not know - but loneliness is a taste of death.

This speaks to me at the deepest levels of both my personal and professional lives... it also points towards the antidote:  the healing of God's grace and life in community. 

Today we're going to wander through Ipswich - a small North Shore town that was founded by Captain Bixby in 1630 - and Bixby is the family from whom Di's mother hails.  We'll wind up by the beach at some point and close the day doing swing dancing by the river. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

As tears go by...

Like many other artists and musicians, I was saddened to see the tarted-up performance of Miley Cyrus on last night's VMAs.  Like so many other young female vocalists who are breaking out of their adolescent persona, Ms. Cyrus chose (or was advised) to exploit her body for notoriety.  Nothing novel in this, right?  Not only is it almost expected in our hyper-sexualized culture, but it is also the norm since Madonna (think Brittany, Janet et al.)
And while I might wish that other young female performers embraced the career arc of Taylor Swift - who even in her exploration of her bad girl side never chose to degrade herself in public - why are we shocked?  When marketing agents advise middle of the road super stores to sell leopard print bikinis to 6 year old girls - when we have lived through generations of seeing alluring and half naked women draped over automobiles to boost sales - when pop culture celebrates rape and degradation as a form of entertainment - when airlines like Korea Air serve up soft core pornography as an invitation to fly - why are we surprised when a young female singer shakes her booty in a nude bra as part of her dance routine before millions?

Three thoughts run through my mind:

+ First, who among us has not shared some form of breaking the rules as we come of age?  It is not only natural, it is necessary for us to learn boundaries. Tightly controlled teens often go wild when they leave home for college - or the military - or move into their first apartment.  Kids get drunk - and mostly learn from their hang overs.  Highly chaste teens get laid - and start to sort out just how much of themselves they want to give away in the future.  Young men and women try on outrageous hair styles, clothes, speech patterns and all the rest as they experiment with identities.  So, I am not at shocked that Ms. Cyrus wanted to experiment with the scandalous as she tries to find a new style beyond pop fluff-chick with a country twang of her first incarnation.  Clearly, she's not daddy's little girl anymore but who she will become remains uncertain. 

+ Second, young female performers recognize that they possess an exciting albeit dangerous energy when they become overtly sexual on the stage.  They have a power over their fans that is palpable and for young women who have not had much control over their lives this can be intoxicating. Who wouldn't want to use this new found power? At the same time, ruthless managers and bottom line confidants eager to cash in as quickly as possible often exploit the beauty and innocence of these young performers in a way that doesn't happen to young men.  And without a grounded guide to shepherd them through these high times, all too often these young women find themselves eaten alive and then spit out as trash. We may all be tempted into Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame, but at what cost to our souls? 

+ Third, while I would never advocate censorship - the cost and responsibility of living in a mostly free society is too precious to put into the hands of Big Brother or Sister - I do fret over how the two-thirds world will respond to yet another example of American excess.  Janet Jackson's nipple, Brittany and Madonna's kiss, Miley Cyrus and her tongue: we really can do better!  I long for the artistic ambassadors like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.  Or Bruce Springsteen. Or Cyndi Lauper. Not long ago I was speaking with a visitor from Pakistan who said something like:  we do not want to raise our families in a culture like yours where young girls are turned into whores and young men become animals.  I noted, of course, that while the United States did not have a monopoly upon misogyny - think of the horrible gang rapes in India or the honor murders in Pakistan - his point was valid.  Too often what passes for culture in my beloved America looks like a violent, sex-crazed movement of ignorant, mean-spirited, fat and intolerant people jumping from one addiction to another interrupted only by a drug induced sleep.  

So, today I pray grace and a touch of maturity might come to Ms. Cyrus - and a ton of other young female artists - sooner rather than later.  Not only for the sake of their hearts, but for the advancement of their art.  I really think Taylor Swift knows how to do it.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

All the lonely people...

For most of my conscious life I have been fascinated by the beauty of society's underbelly.  At first it was purely intuitive - preferring the blues to American Bandstand (although I spent a lot of time there, too) or Pearls Before Swine and Dave Von Ronk to the Association and the Four Seasons - but in time this quest became intentional.  There is something illuminating about the human experience when viewed from below and this attraction to things forgotten, discarded or rejected has become a constant in my spiritual formation.

My first recollection of this calling came sometimes in 1963 while I was reading a Life Magazine article about heroin addicts going cold turkey.  "What would drive a person to fill their veins with poison?" I wondered as only a 5th grader can. "What type of sorrow or sickness would inspire a living death?"  The photo montage of junkies in various poses both frightened and intrigued me so I kept reading and rereading that article for weeks.  Later came the Kennedy assassination - and watching the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald live on TV - as well as the ambush of Malcolm X in 1965 and I knew there was something hard, broken and important happening just below the surface of the American Dream, but I had no idea what it meant.  Like Bobby Dylan sang in 1965, "some thing's going on all around you and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"  
The music of Joni Mitchel was the second major clue for me: with beauty and tenderness, she told the stories of people who were wounded and cast away like used tissues.  What's more, the anguished subjects of her songs sounded a lot like the people of my world.  How many times did I listen to - and then perform - "I Had a King" or "Marcie?"  Later it became "For Free" and "River" as well as "Banquet" and "Lesson in Survival."  She was able to share with me a bitter sweet taste of what loneliness meant for my generation. In a parallel revelation, Mitchell's male counterpart, Bob Dylan gave shape and form to the fear and rage born of rejection - and I couldn't get enough of "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Gates of Eden," "Just Like a Rolling Stone" and "Visions of Johanna." Hell I must have performed "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" hundreds of times in my room or in little coffee houses.  The more I listened to these two artists, the more I trusted my obsession with the underside even if I didn't understand it. 
In time Mitchell and Dylan led me to Leonard Cohen as well as Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye and Nina Simone. For a straight, white kid from the suburbs, the music created by these artists was a safe way to saturate myself in the sounds of the walking wounded. And they tutored me well because when I heard George Harrison play "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" the scales finally fell from my eyes: Eric Clapton's searing guitar solos were not simply the pyrotechnics of a guitar god, they were the cries of all the forgotten people of the world; and Harrison's vocal lament was not just his contribution to the Beatles' White Album, it was a prayer of solidarity with all the weary mothers, fathers and children of the earth run ragged by war and poverty.  Their art became holy communion for me.  

My awakening in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was clearly built upon the foundation laid by other artists.  It also became the key to unlocking my obsession:  the underside of life is what all people hold in common.  Rich and poor, white and black and brown and yellow, male and female, gay and straight all know something about suffering because like REM sang:  everybody hurts.  Not every one's pain is the same - sociologists speak of the relative depravity factor - but everyone is broken. Iraneus of the second century taught that our brokenness is how we learn what is true, just and beautiful and how we become more god-like.  Leonard Cohen put it more poetically: there's a crack, a crack, in everything.... that's how the light gets in.

I remember visually experiencing this truth the first time I drove into the city of Cleveland in 1984 for my first interview with a West Side urban congregation. I was smitten by the strange beauty of the abandoned steel plants.  Not only did they evoke the heroism and strength of the men and women who sacrificed their bodies for God and country during the great American industrial revolution, but given the right angle in the early twilight, they also became eerie urban sculptures of once honored but now forgotten idols.  Like the human beings who were once fed to these monsters to keep them running, now they too had been abandoned. Having served their function for a time, they had been tossed upon the dustbin of history like the gods of Greece or Babylon. 

But for me these forgotten buildings - as well as the people who once worked within them - were still weeping through the silence.  At least in my heart they became physical expressions of lament akin to the cry of Psalm 137 or even Ginsberg's "Howl."   
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows
* there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'

But how can we sing the Lord's song in this strange land?

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
  hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of
  cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in
  wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall...

I see much the same truth in the art of Georges Roualt "whose artistic vision was so infused with spiritual depth that he was able, even through such seemingly secular subjects as prostitutes, clowns and judges, to impart a sense of the sacred and the religious dimension of human existence... Aside from his explicitly religious (paintings) Rouault was endlessly fascinated with three settings: the brothel, the circus and the courtroom.  Each offered an opportunity to reflect on the themes of sin, hypocrisy and judgment; and thus, in the pathos of the human condition to suggest a symbolic link with the passion of Christ."  (All the Saints, Robert Ellsberg)

I felt that yesterday walking around Times Square after leaving my daughter in Brooklyn:  so many people, so many faces, so much suffering.  There is joy, too - and that is a gift.  But all through the busyness, the colors and the sounds was a sadness that was palpable.  It felt like walking through "Eleanor Rigby."  Later, when I was at home and gone to bed, I read Jean Vanier's words:

Loneliness comes at any time. It comes in times of sickness or when friends are absent; it comes during sleepless nights when the heart is heavy, during times of failure at work or in relationships; it comes when we lose trust in ourselves and in others. In old age, loneliness can rise up and threaten to overwhelm us. At such times, life can lose its meaning and loneliness can feel like death. When people are physically well, performing creatively, successful in their lives, loneliness seems absent. But I believe that loneliness is something essential to human nature; it can only be covered over, it can never actually go away.  Loneliness is part of being human, because there is nothing in existence that can completely fulfill the needs of the human heart. (Becoming Human)

Listening to the sounds and wisdom from below, embracing and treasuring the shadow and the underside, standing in solidarity with our shared suffering has become one way of being faithful to God for me.  In 21st century America, it is one of the roads less travelled - but for me it has been a path filled with grace. It has helped me better love my own broken family.  It has given me the courage to share myself with others as they pursue freedom and safety.  It has even shown me how to love my own broken self.  In this I recall the way Anne Frank put it shortly before she was betrayed to the Nazis just after her 15th birthday:

In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart... I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right... in the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

Tonight we will share supper with my other daughter - a young woman who is a unique blessing - and then head out for a few days exploring the roots of Dianne's family on the North Shore of Boston. Today I give thanks to God for the whole of it - the sadness and the celebration, the healing and the wounds, the tears and the laughter - and I especially give thanks for being awakened to the sacred beauty of the underside.


Friday, August 23, 2013

You just never know how much time you have left...

One of the ways God has blessed my life is through my daughters:  they are both beautiful, bright and creative young women.  They are unique from one another in style, personality and disposition and yet deeply connected, too.

Today I spent the better part of the day wandering Brooklyn with Jesse.  It was a day of errands for her as she both gets ready to return to school - she is the lead teacher at a middle school in Brooklyn - and settles into her last month before becoming a momma.  During this last month she and her husband Michael are working extra hard to get their condo ready for the baby's arrival at the end of September.  

So there were small chores to do and I got to tag along as we went to a Chinese tailor for slip covers, an upholstery shop in the heart of Hasidic Brooklyn, small bakeries and then a little bistro in Park Slope for lunch. Nothing special happened today - we walked a lot - and enjoyed strolling the land of Hasidim before sunset.  We went into one Judaica store where I risked asking for a new Jewish prayerbook in English.  The clerk looked at me - and my earrings - made a slight frown and assured me that his stored did not carry such an item.  After we left I chortled that I should have known better; after all, it was a Reformed prayer book.  (I also had to laugh out loud as we came upon a shop marked "lingerie" only to discover cotton house coats, etc.  Let's just say there is a world of difference between Orthodox Jewish lingerie and let's say… Victoria's Secrets.)

Later we'll head out for a late supper and an even later movie - something we've been doing since she was a small child - as we both love seeing a show in a theater.  I am grateful to spend gentle, everyday time with her.  It is an ordinary but very sacred celebration to me.  Tomorrow I'll do a little more wandering in Manhattan before heading home.  Then on Sunday I'll get the chance to know another set of blessings at dinner with my other dear daughter.

Not long ago I did a funeral for a man who as nearly 90.  His daughter said to me that just a month before he died they had a chance to spend two full weeks with their dad:  it was a time of ordinary blessings and conversation, telling stories and long walks.  "I am so grateful for those two weeks" she told me again and again.  "Because you just never know how much time you have left…" Ain't that the truth?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

That your joy shall be full...

When we left Tucson six years ago, we said to one another: in this new ministry whatever we do must be fun - if it isn't fun, then we're NOT going to do it.  So we took two weeks to slowly drive across the country and then spent a month in a little flat in London exploring that great city.

I realize now, however, that "fun" was too small a word - too inconsequential, too - to define this phase of ministry.  What I really meant was "joy" - this time of leadership and service must be saturated in joy both shared and received - for that is what the Lord was calling for from both of us.  And as I look back over the past six year, clearly not everything has been "fun." 

We have buried loved ones and family too early and felt the agonizing hole in our hearts made real in grief. We have endured the worst economic recession since the great Depression and seen friends lose their homes and move away in search of real employment.  We've witnessed those trapped in fear or addiction give up on hope. We've wept with parents who must stand in silence as their children tumble towards oblivion. We've buried beloved pets. We've prayed with adults still reeling from the abuse of their broken childhoods. And we've been embraced by those who have been marginalized and shamed because of their sexuality.

So "fun" is too shallow a word, but "joy" has been a constant - that deep abiding awareness that come light or darkness, heaven or hell - we are not alone but held beyond all comprehension in God's love.  I think of Psalm 126 as this morning starts to ripen:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

On this last day before my vacation begins, I was overwhelmed by the joy I know in this ministry.  Today I get to celebrate Eucharist at 12 noon with a small cadre of dedicated contemplatives.  Later I'll do some planning with my creative colleague who serves as our director of music; and then meet with the executive team of the emerging ecumenical justice organization we are slowly bringing to birth in the Berkshires.  I'll have a little time to play with the dog and then share a late supper with a family in the congregation - and maybe play a few tunes with their son who is quickly becoming a monster guitar idol.  In the morning, it is off to Brooklyn for a few days with my first born before she becomes a momma.

Jesus said to his friends towards the end of his life on earth:  s the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant You did not choose me but I chose you.

Today I give thanks to God that I was chosen and even captured by joy - and I have been brought to a place to share it.  I also give thanks that we have been given to a congregation and community eager to let joy guide our hearts.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

For all the saints...


One of the things I am discerning for this moment in time - and my current fascination with "the great cloud of witnesses" we call saints - comes from Robert Ellsberg's introduction to All the Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Time.  "Saints are those who, in some partial way, embody - literally incarnate - the challenge of faith in their time and place. In doing so, they open a path that others might follow."

In the reflection for August 19th - Blaise Pascal - Ellsberg writes:  "Pascal recognized that the age of reason was at heart an age of doubt. One could not offer a defense of Christianity that rested on the appeal to authority - whether of the church or Scripture - or on the existence of prophecies or miracles. These latter might confirm the believer's faith but they could not establish it. Nor could one follow the traditional philosophical method of arguing from nature back to first causes. This might 'prove' the existences of the Deist God or mathematical truths, but not the Christian God of love." (p. 359)

(So) his approach was to begin with an examination of the human condition, the experience of what he called "inconstancy, boredom, anxiety" and then to show that Christianity offered an explanation of this predicament... (for our brokenness) is not the last word... there is a yearning for the infinite that points us in the direction of our origins... (this) haunting introspection into the mysteries of the human heart (link) him to a broader tradition that spans St. Paul, St. Augustine, Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky.

This vacation time seems to be calling me to reread Ellsberg volume that I bought 11 years ago along with Nouwen's Spiritual Direction.  and Jean Vanier's Becoming Human.  And I've got some wild upright bass exercises to work on, too so that I not only "feel the pureness of each note" as my bass master told me today, but that I start walking the shit out things in new ways, too.


Monday, August 19, 2013


Starting to slowly shift gears today as I prepare for another 2 weeks of vacation.  In each church I have served over the years a unique rhythm has emerged that is both soul-satisfying for me and unique unto the congregation.  In Michigan, when my daughters were small, we took three weeks in a row and travelled back to Massachusetts and the family cottage in Webster.  It was an inexpensive and mostly relaxing way to stay connected with family and rest by our sweet Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg (I'm not kidding - check it out: http:// www.nytimes. com/2004/11/20/ national/ 20lake.html?_r=0)

(Note:  he butchers the name but  after all it is Fox New so...)

In Cleveland, where the girls were still small, we made some trips to the lake but also visited our respective families from time to time - including a regular week away at my parents' home in Bowie, MD after Easter.  By the time we hit Tucson (sounds like a Jimmie Webb song) life had changed and the demands of ministry were different; both daughters had moved into their adult lives and we were older so we most often took a full month away at the end of the summer to camp in the quiet of Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM. 

Ghost Ranch, a massive Presbyterian retreat center that was once the home of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, is serene, private and beautiful.  What's more, their small but sophisticated library was open 24 hours a day so what more could two church geeks want - especially if it rained!  Once each trip we would head into Santa Fe for a look at the museums and then make one more sortie to Taos. For most of the month, however, we were mostly hiking, reading or loving the whole groove from the safety of our little our tent.  We also always made a brief pilgrimage one afternoon to Holy Chimayo - the Lourdes of North America - a place of history and prayer where some of the best chilie peppers are grown and sold, too. (Check it out @http://www. index.html)
When we arrived in quiet New England, however, not only were we older still - and not so ready to sleep on the ground - but let's face it:  this place is MUCH colder than New Mexico.  So, a whole other rhythm has emerged that works well for us as introverts who love to travel.  Every six to eight weeks we get away to a small arts town in greater New England for 1-2 nights - it is a retreat and renewal time for us both from the busyness - then each summer I take two weeks at the start and two weeks at the end of the season.  The front end always takes us to my home away from home:  Montreal and one of their music festivals.  And for the last week of August and the first of September we do some further exploration of the beautiful part of the US.  This year we're going to the North Shore of Boston and Ipswich (where Dianne's people settled when they first came to his continent from jolly old England.)

I will also have some time to visit with my daughters, do a LOT of practicing my upright bass and take in some of the local clubs while reading a combination of mysteries, lives of the saints and jazz history.  After Labor Day, we hit the ground running with a variety of commitments to church and community that includes strengthening our congregation based justice network, working with local artists on a project to open the Sanctuary as a gallery-workshop, hosting a youth dance for our LGBT allies, introducing the congregation to the new liturgical season of CREATION (we've been working with artists to "dress" the Sanctuary in a new way; for some good background, please go to: and pull together our annual Thanksgiving Eve Festival of American Music (a concert with local musicians designed to raise emergency fuel assistance funds.)  And then, of course, it will be Advent.

And sometime in the next 30 days, our first grandchild will be born!  So, today is a gentle unplugging from the rhythm of work:  I have a few meetings but we'll also meet a couple tonight for a glass of red wine and some jazz funk, too. As once was said, "Summertime..."

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Thank you for letting me be myself again...

Today we wrapped up our "spirituality of jazz" series - and I must say that my band mates were on fire this morning!  We had a LOT of jazz - as well as traditional European sacred music, songs of praise from Ghana and South Africa - and our reworking of the scripture into a blues jazz groove.  The climax, however, was our reinvention of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and our extended jam on Carlton Maaia's "Golden Stone."  Pure ecstasy.

In practice, both songs were ripening so I was hopeful. But in worship, after setting the context re: improvisation with the text from Hebrews, "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses..." each band member took a verse of the song and interpreted it according to their own gifts and soul. And when these sounds were added to the flatted 5th I put in the chorus, something mystical took place within and among us.  So as one dear friend said, "Hearing about it last night was one thing, but being present today was heavenly."
After worship, about 20 of us gathered with three guests who work in the LGBTQ community for a conversation and potluck.  We've been trying to find ways to help those in church who want to go deeper in spirit and soul make it happen, so we've set up a three part series of luncheons with provocative speakers.  After their opening, we spent about 45 minutes talking about the questions our guests had formulated for us. It was powerful - and painful - and always sacred (much like Cohen's song.) 

When we closed, two very upbeat ideas rose to the surface about how we can continue to live into our Open and Affirming commitment:  1) we're going to hold a dance with the Live Out Loud team for LGBTQA youth in our building; we have a big old hall and it would be a creative partnership in support of our kids who need to know they are safe and loved.  And 2) we're going to put some time, money and effort into creating a unisex bathroom that is small, private and secure.  Hearing the testimony of one new friend who is a transgendered person helped us realize that our verbal commitments must become flesh if they are to matter in this broken world.
One of the speakers noted that I had recently taken some public hits in the local newspaper for being an ally.  (I just read them and they are mean-spirited and so unlike Jesus it blows me away.)  But trashing my name in public is small potatoes compared to what so many LGBTQ youth and adults have to face every day. It is ugly to read their insults, but Jesus was clear in the Sermon on the Mount:  if you are going to be an advocate for grace and justice, people are going to hate you.  So I give thanks for the insults and celebrate the love and solidarity we share with our partners in ministry as we work to make this place a little more safe and open for all of God's children.

And I have to tell you, as I head into my late summer vacation, the thought of hosting a LGBTQA dance - with a bit of karaoke in drag - is killing me anticipation!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Any idiot can find God alone in the sunset...

The innovative, bright and sometimes witty preacher/writer, Lillian Daniels, recently Tweeted:  "Any idiot can find God alone in the sunset. It takes a certain maturity to find God in the person sitting next to you who not only voted for the wrong political party but has a baby who is crying while you’re trying to listen to the sermon."  I concur - and have been thinking about spiritual maturity a lot of late.

+ I am very moved, for example, by this picture of Egyptian Muslims creating a living wall of protection for their Christian sisters and brothers in Cairo.
Photo: Muslims protecting Catholic Christians during mass in Egypt. Powerful picture
Those who have followed the anguish in Egypt beyond the headlines know that once again some in the Brotherhood have been attacking Christians with the hope of further polarizing that wounded society.  As one Bishop recently wrote, the Brotherhood have been hiding weapons while fomenting fear and rage against their Christian neighbors.  This picture is one sign of those who are spiritually mature - people who know that when one is unsafe then all are unsafe - and are willing to put their faith into living action.  To be sure, both sides in the Egyptian struggle have moved beyond any hope of compromise - there is such unbridled hatred and rigidity alive that only a civil war seems likely in the short term - and there will be a great deal more death and destruction before cooler heads and loving hearts prevail.  Nevertheless, polarization is not the only truth and when spiritually mature people step into the chaos a measure of light returns to the darkness.

+ Last night we watched Sarah Polley's 2011 film, Take This Waltz, and hoped her point was the rant shouted by Sarah Silverman in the penultimate scene.  Fo without this brief interlude, the rest of the movie was a beautiful albeit frustrating and sometimes annoying romp through emotional and spiritual immaturity.  No body in this film was interested in growing up - not the men nor women - not the stars nor the incidental players.  Only Silverman, still buzzing after falling off the wagon after almost a year of sobriety, has the courage to name Margot's actions as those akin to her own destructive benders:  EVERY life has a gap that you need to learn how to life with... cuz just changing partners is not a solution.  (Like our AA friends know so well is something they call the geographic solution:  wherever you go, you still have to take you with you.)  I loved Polley's other two films, her brilliant debut - Away from Her - and the emotionally haunting documentary - Stories We Tell - but this one felt ill formed.  Maybe Pollely's point simply gave shape and form to the immaturity that abounds?
Fr. Richard Rohr offers an alternative when he writes:
Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing—that we must go down before we even know what up is. It is first an ordinary wound before it can become a sacred wound. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control.”
All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If your religion is not showing you how to transform your pain, it is junk religion. It is no surprise that a crucified man became the central symbol of Christianity. If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter—because we will be wounded. That is a given. All suffering is potentially redemptive, all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what you do with them. Can you find God in them or not?
If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it, and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down, and the second half of our lives will, quite frankly, be small and silly.

Tonight we're going to be sharing a quiet dinner with two couples from church who have lived through joys and sorrows. They bring joy and hope to the world. They are tender and tough, humorous and humble and a whole lot of fun. They are people of gravitas - spiritual maturity - and I give thanks to God for the blessings they share.

inverted, indoor tomatoes...

One of the strangest things I have read recently was a note from an organic gardener in New England offering advice on ripening tomatoes. He...