Trusting grace: our winter retreat cuts deeper...

Today is the fourth day of Christmas and our winter retreat continues to ripen (although we will slip back home tomorrow for worship and then return late in the afternoon on Monday.) It is valuable for me to take time at the close of this season to see what shapes and patterns have emerged in both my personal and professional lives during the past year. Fr. Richard Rohr writes:

When we celebrate New Year’s Day, and maybe Easter too, we celebrate a symbolic rebirth of time. We somehow hope for God to do new things with us and for us. We wait for the coming of grace, for the unfolding of Mystery. We wait for the always-bigger Truth. Such humble waiting and open-ended expecting allows us to fall into what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness.” 

One does not create or hold onto such wholeness (holiness?) consciously—it holds onto us! Our common code word for this hidden wholeness is quite appropriately “God”! When we agree to love God, we are precisely agreeing to love everything. When we decide to trust God, we are also deciding to trust reality at its deepest foundation.


But we cannot just wait. We must pray too, which is to expect help from Another Source. Our prayers then start both naming us and defining us. When we hear our own prayers in our own ears and our own heart, we start choosing our deepest identity, our biggest future and our best selves. We fall into our own hidden wholeness. 

As I try on this retreat to discern what I have heard in my own prayers from last year, I am aware of a few truths from my hidden wholeness:

+ First, I continue to wrestle with trusting that God's grace is sufficient. At my core, I often fret and worry - and it is exhausting. As some of my 12 Step friends continue to remind me:  If you are feeling NUTS, it is because you are Not Using the Third Step. For those unfamiliar with the spirituality of imperfection found in the 12 Steps, number three is: I made a decision/commitment to turn my will and life over to God as best I understand the Lord. 

Since 2001 I have been learning to trust God's grace and apparently I am a very slow learner. Small wonder I keep returning to these two portions of Scripture - Psalm 37 (do not fret) and Matthew 11: 28-30 (come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy-laden) - as touch stones. This year, as I have tried to come to terms with a profound exhaustion, I have had to accept that both my surrender to God's grace and my understanding of faith require a daily decision to trust that the Lord's grace is sufficient for the day. I know this in my head but apparently not deeply in my heart.  So I keep returning to the words of St. Paul in Romans 12:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.

+ Second, I have come to know both great joy and profound sorrow this year.  Last Advent was shaped by the massacre in Newtown and I know that I have grieved that tragedy deeply throughout most of the year. I have also been remembering and wrestling with a number of the sad deaths I have experienced throughout ministry. I don't fully know why I haven't been able to let go of some of these deaths. But when my old friend Michael Daniels died this fall in Cleveland, a wild rush of grief bubbled up and continues to spill out in ways that are beyond my control. One of my prayers this year has been to rest and trust that this grief will lead me to some place of deeper wisdom and compassion.  "But now we see as through a glass darkly..."

Simultaneously, there has been sweet joy. I have grown closer to my two adult daughters, opened my heart in new ways to Dianne and had a ton of fun. Our time in Montreal was delightful. The birth of my little man, Louis Edmund, was sacred. The musical events we worked on this year - the soberingly beautiful Good Friday liturgy and our two benefit concerts in June and November - were among the most artistically satisfying in my life.  And developing my Sabbatical proposal with key church leaders has been challenging, insightful, rewarding as well as illuminating. I have been blessed with colleagues at church whom I love and enjoy sharing the work of ministry. My abilities as a musician have ripened, I started to seriously work on upright bass and was able to realize some creative jazz liturgy projects, too.  What's more, I am in reasonably good health.  

Time and again, I find myself going back to Peterson's reworking of the Beatitudes as a way of holding the paradox of joy and sorrow together: 

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

+ And third this year has helped me find a new groove in that which is small, hidden and quiet. When we discerned that God was calling us to Pittsfield seven years ago, I had only a tiny clue about why. I knew it had something to do with a different type of ministry - and a different style of doing ministry for me - but I had no idea what that might actually mean. This past year, however, another clue was revealed during midday Eucharist. For me these days ministry is mostly about presence rather than programs.  It is about listening and loving rather than radical social change. It is about inviting and encouraging others to trust that the gentle love we receive from the Lord is the best gift we can share with one another.


In an article the Alban Institute published, The Jazz Church, N. Graham Standish shares an insight that I have been learning and living over these past seven years.  His articulation of how a congregation is like music has helped me grasp how my ministry has changed.  He writes:

Congregations are often structured like the music that either their worship leaders tend to play or their members tend to listen to. Each form of music has its own structural rules and principles that seem to transfer to the operation of their congregations.  For instance, many mainline congregations are "classical" congregations that cherish traditional hymns and choir anthems. Typically these congregations are structured like classical music itself. Like a symphony orchestra, they have a conductor (the pastor), first chairs (music director, education director and board members), second chairs (teachers, committee members) and the rest.  In this kind of congregation, everything has its place and time, and like an orchestra, the congregations pushes towards uniformity and clear roles. The conductor's role is to provide order, clarity and discipline while those in the orchestra perform their roles with competence and precision.

Standish goes on to summarize other types of musical congregations: Top 40-like evangelical communities that crank out hit after hit, Folk music congregations that are small and intimate, Country music churches that deal with the struggles of a hard life, Rhythm and blues congregations that offer uplifting and emotional worship and the Alt music church that mixes up a new/old groove born of post-modern ironies. The "jazz church," however, encourages a style of worship and service in the greater community that celebrates innovation born of tradition (playing the melody and improvising), playing both solo and support and blending mistakes into the groove.  He writes:

The value of playing on the mistakes has wide-ranging application. It requires looking at ministry from a perspective other than the "success-failure" angle that so many people in modern American life use. Playing on mistakes looks at ministry more from an "explore/learn" perspective that allows us to risk and discover new possibilities from our lives.

When we arrived in Pittsfield from Tucson, I knew the orchestral style of ministry all too well and was searching for something more real for me and more professionally satisfying for everyone involved.  In time we discovered a collaborative type of ministry that, like a small jazz ensemble, encourages both leadership and servanthood.  There is a lot of listening involved in this type of ministry - not just in developing our various musical offerings, but also in the direction and programming of the church - for we are about living as Christ's body.  Sometimes there are those who don't grasp the nuances of this musical metaphor - how it genuinely drives our decision-making and servanthood - for they think I am being mono-minded.  But when you talk with our leadership teams and listen to how we "do" ministry, these jazz concepts keep popping up over and again.  Not that we only play jazz music - we are far too eclectic - but we move to a jazz groove.

In a jazz congregation, the pastor and everyone else know when it is their role to be front and center, and when it is their role to step back, support and listen.  When I am managing an activity - preaching, teaching or doing something else that requires my direct leadership - I take charge.  But when we put on a play or a concert... I can intentionally take a back seat when that is best, too. (There are times) when my roles is simply to support and not be seen.  

Walking quietly in the woods gives me time to pull all these truths together and sort them out.  Earlier this year, I was so wiped-out that I thought the time had come to take early retirement.  But as the year has ripened I have come to see that my exhaustion was partly born of grief and partly born of fretting.  Indeed, the wisdom of my wound was helping me make a deeper commitment to grace.

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