Monday, March 31, 2014

Don't waste your time - part two...

Let me offer a brief addition to yesterday's post as a few have wondered about my insistence that we "not waste our time on soul vampires." To be sure, as people following the radical path of Jesus Christ, we are called to "love our enemies." But here's the thing, more often than not, I've seen people do grave damage to themselves trying to act on this with conviction. As a result, they have wounded themselves and wasted time that could have been given to others who were actually hungry for that love.  More often than not, I have come to trust that leaving people to God's care is the best thing I can do for them. Three broad examples come to mind:

+ Toxic people - however defined - must be left to God's care. I don't think it abrogates the Lord's injunction to love our enemies if we leave them to God's compassion and grace, do you? God is more loving and more capable than I am in every possible way. What's more, we are not only unable to change narcissists, users and those under the demon of various addictions, but we often cause ourselves excessive and unnecessary pain in the process. Jesus once told his disciples that there are some people we must simply leave to the Lord as we shake the dust off our sandals and move on. 

+ Evil people - however defined - are beyond the care of most of us. I mean that: we must not mess with them - because we are neither trained to do spiritual warfare - and most of us have other levels of loving to accomplish. There are people, I've met them and trust them, who are skilled in dealing with evil. But that isn't most of us, right? Rather, most of us have families and jobs and friends to contend with; we have limited time and energy and unique passions that call us into action, too. So let's be clear that we don't have to fix everything. In fact, it is arrogant and stupid to try.  I say leave certain work to those who are called by God to do so. After all, isn't that what the Spirit teaches us through the blessing of our various gifts?

+ Long standing, well-armed and highly energized enemies - however defined - are also not those most us us should engage in with acts of love or listening. I think of my friends who put themselves on the line in acts of civil disobedience. Or those who are "witnesses for peace." They are both called to such acts of radical love and well-trained. Dr. King used to conduct non-violent training before kicking off a campaign for justice.  Anything less is not just foolish, it is dangerous.  I knew an unbalanced young man in Tucson, vigorous in his faith but totally ungrounded in reality, who sensed that Jesus was calling him to make peace with his ancient Korean relatives in the North. He is now incarcerated and who knows how long he will remain in that hell hole? His act was foolish and wrong.

So let me push this envelope a little further. There are people in our churches and families and circle of friends who are... users. They consume our attention and love, but suck us dry in the process. Beloved, only some of us are called to remain in relationship with these individuals. Most of us are simply called to love one another as Jesus loved us but not to try and re-enact the Crucifixion. Jesus went to the Cross one time - indeed, he asked us to pick up our Crosses and follow him - but not be be martyred again, again and again. Paul taught us to live as fools for Christ, but that doesn't mean being foolish and blind. 

We may weep for the selfish. We may pray and agonize over those lost to the various demons that haunt so many. We may even ache that we might make someone else's journey a little lighter by listening or sharing with them. But here is the nitty gritty: after trying a few times to right a wrong - or open a door with a difficult person - even Jesus advised letting them go and treating them like a Gentile. We must forgive 70 x 7 while understanding that we can't fix every broken person. 

What we can do with hope and conviction is leave them to the Lord. What we can do is love those who are closest to us and share our hearts with them with abandon. What we can do is give our love and trust to God knowing that God is God and we are not. What a liberating and joy-filled way to live.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Beggars to god...

This morning I said to my small congregation: "Last night before I went to
bed I had a thought - what would I want to say to you if I knew I only had one more hour to speak and share with you - what would I want to say?" Then I looked at my sermon notes and tossed them up in the air: "Well, I KNOW it wouldn't be this..." What followed came out something like:

+ With only one hour left to share I would want to tell you to LOVE those who are closest and most dear to you.  Love them and embrace them, dance with them and forgive them and build a feast together for life is so short.

+ Don't waste ANY time on those who are resistant to your love - or whose sole purpose seems only to be be a soul vampire - leave them to God. Trust that God has embraced them and will bring them what they most need. No, don't you waste any more time on them; just give your heart to those who most need your love. Who most ache for your love.

+ For if the Lord IS our shepherd, then we shall not want. God has provided for us what we need - so don't waste the love and time that has been given to us - it is all we truly possess. That's what I would want to say to you if I knew I had just one more hour to share: love one another as I have loved you as Jesus told us.

+ Remember, that when Jesus said those words he was on his knees with a towel around his neck washing the feet of those he loved the most. He knew that in a short time he would die - die a horrible and lonely death - but look what he did. He gathered those he loved the most close to him, he loved and served them, then he feasted and prayed with them - even forgave them for things that they hadn't yet done - and then he blessed them.  That's how we must live with one another, too.  Love one another as I have loved you...

I probably said one or two other things, too.  I mentioned that recently I had read some words from one of our own shepherds, John, who said that most of the time a shepherd gives a little care to his lambs, maybe frightens off a coyote or two as well but mostly shovels a whole lot of shit because that is what is needed.  But that doesn't matter because it is all grounded in love. But that was mostly it - and then I sat down. 

I was thinking all the time of Bob Franke's wonderful song "Beggars to God"Make love to each other, be free with each other, be prisoners of love til you lie in the sod; be friends to each other, forgive one another, see God in each other: be beggars to God - and after worship I can't tell you how many people were weeping.  A number made a point to tell me that this was JUST what their soul's needed to hear today.  

I didn't really know if it was communicating, but I knew I just needed to trust the Spirit completely today.  For as is so often the case, when I catch a little whisper, it is always best to trust that more will be revealed.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dance as embodied prayer...

I wonder how many references to DANCE there are in my spiritual vocabulary? How many songs have helped give shape and form to this spirituality, too? When I was very young I can remember watching early episodes of "American Bandstand" and being enthralled by the ways young bodies could move to the rhythm of a song.  Everyone looked much happier than the people I knew at church.  Later, my Aunt Donna, would teach me some of the line dances of the early 60s - another embodied prayer - and I soon I was doing the stroll. It was an easy jump to the twist, the pony, the mashed potato and watusi.

I couldn't get enough of the Dovells - You Can't Sit Down or Bristol Stomp - and I was unglued when Dion and the Belmonts got the crowd doing the stroll. Major Lance and "the monkey" felt like a mystical experience to me and I used to fall down laughing at the pure exuberance of "the limbo."

I remember playing an instrumental version of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas' song, "Dancin' in the Street" as the "postlude" at a youth worship celebration.  And then there was the time my buddy Ross played Zappa's "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance" as part of another worship encounter. For the longest time I didn't realize that dancing was a part of the early worship life of my Jewish forebears but rejoiced when I made the connection between Miriam and Moses and David and Bruce Springsteen, Sly Stone, Little Eva and Grace Slick.  
When I saw my first Russian ballet, the connections between body, beauty and spirit just grew deeper.  (Not so much "liturgical dance," however, as that is all too often sentimental and sloppy - although I've seen some that has reduced me to a pool of tears.) Put Alvin Alley working out Nina Simone's take on "O Sinner Man" and I was just jello.  But my world was changed forever the first time I saw Springsteen during the "Born in the USA" tour in Detroit and he pulled a young woman from the audience and they rocked to the house to "Dancing in the Dark."

And so it keeps getting deeper:  the more songs about dancing that grab my attention, the more I find myself needing to listen.  They keep pushing me towards an embodied spirituality.  When I was a kid I used to watch Soul Man Number One - Mr. James Brown - every time I could. He knocked me out... and still does.
Whether it is free form a la Grateful Dead - or something more intense and focused like the brothers in Cameo - or even the wild street scene of break dancing and now hip hop - it is all sacred to me.  I once wrote about the Holy Spirit working through both Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley back in the day; their bodies not only broke down racial barriers, but they also celebrated the joy that can take place when the spirit embraces the flesh.  So here are a few tracks that are just... outta site!

This is a total favorite...

And who could forget one of the best EVER!

And this wild and fun reworking of my current favorite...

Friday, March 28, 2014

Why do I find myself in the same place OVER and over again...

In the journey of the soul, it is easy to become distracted.

"Prayerfulness," writes Robert Wick, "calls us to meet anger (or distractions) by taking a step back, looking at our emotions and thoughts and beliefs that are producing them with a sense of intrigue instead of blame for others or ourselves." What a satisfying and challenging word:  intrigue!  He goes on to note that authentic spirituality dawns upon us "when God becomes as real as the problems and joys we face each day."

We grow and deepen when we seek - with a sense of intrigue - to fathom new knowledge about ourselves at times when we feel upset and vulnerable. It is a shame to waste these opportunities by running away of becoming defensive... nothing will change in us even when God is giving us the opportunity to become freer and to see how humility can teach us to be strong. (Prayerfulness, p. 82)

Today it is raining - again - and soon it will be snowing and sleeting - again.  As I've learned over the years, I need to listen to what the music I am playing is telling me about the inward/outward journey because that is how I encounter part of the deeper wisdom of the soul.  Small wonder, therefore, that I've been almost obsessed with Daft Punk's "Lose Yourself to Dance." It may not be the right song to start our Good Friday encounter with song, story and silence this year, but it is certainly speaking something of the sacred to me on a personal level.

I know you don't get a chance to take a break this often; I know your life is speeding and it isn't stopping. Here take my shirt and just go ahead and wipe up all the
Sweat, sweat, sweat:  lose yourself to dance!

As a call from beyond myself, I hear two things in this song (or maybe three.)

+ First, it is a reminder that I am searching once again for another musical expression/experience now that our recent jazz work has taken a break. Our very satisfying church band keeps getting stronger, to be sure, but I also want to play and grow musically in something unrelated to church. Over time I've discerned that too much church makes me cranky and uncooperative. So the time has come to start making this happen because while there are a few new musical possibilities starting to emerge on the horizon, they are going to take some time to bear fruit. Just knowing how important this is to me, however, is a source of hope. Like the hipsters sing: I know you don't get a chance to take a break this often, I know your life is speeding and it isn't stopping. 

+ Second, I love the invitation to "lose yourself to dance." Abandon, intrigue and playfulness is where I find myself saturated in sacred joy - and much of what has been going on in my life of late has not been very playful -it is  all good and important, but not playful.  So that's another clue that there is an imbalance that needs the corrective of being lost to dance. We're going to take a long walk in the woods and rain with the dog soon just to do some thing embodied that isn't about results and productivity. Time has come to sweat, sweat, sweat!  (Or dance, dance, dance - or play, play, play - as I already do enough work, work, work.)

+ And third I suspect that in addition to finding a new musical expression for creativity and growth, I need to let go of a few of my wider church commitments.  This may be a season just to be a pastor and love my flock with tender attention and presence. What does the Psalm for this week say? With the Lord as my shepherd, I shall not want... hmmmm?

This video version of "Lose Yourself to Dance" makes me smile... dig it.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Lent Four: worship notes...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for the fourth Sunday of Lent. I am grateful to the wisdom of those at Working Preacher for some parts of this reflection on Psalm 23. BTW there is SO much schlocky "art" for Psalm 23 - and my days was so full - it has taken me a while to find some visuals that worked.

The more I seek God’s love – and experience it as grace – the more I must live into that grace with others. That is, the more I encounter God’s loving patience with me, the more I am called to practice patience with others.  It is the practical part of praying the Lord’s Prayer, right? 

Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is already experienced in heaven… forgive us our debts as – what? – as we forgive our debtors. Not as YOU forgive them, but as WE do unto others what YOU have done unto us.

Are you with me here?  The more I know and practice trusting God’s grace, the more I am called to share and honor this grace with others – even if that means in the presence of my debtors and enemies.

All of the readings for today point to this brilliant albeit counter-cultural truth:  left to our own devices, we want God’s mercy for ourselves and God’s justice for everyone else.  We ache for forgiveness and patience for our sins but have precious little room for the failings and wounds of others – especially if those others look or act or speak in ways that make us uncomfortable.  Each of today’s bible lessons casts a light on such selfishness:

+  St. Paul, who once lived as the master of judgment, tells us in Ephesians:  Once you groped your way through the muck, but no longer. You’re out in the open now. The bright light of Christ makes your way plain. So no more stumbling around. Get on with it!

+  The Old Testament lesson from 1st Samuel speaks of God’s word to the prophet Samuel who was asked to anoint Israel’s new king:  When you are searching for my beloved, do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature… for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

+  The gospel of John tells us a story of Jesus healing a man who suffered with blindness for 38 years only to find that after his healing this man is harassed and judged by the strict fundamentalists of his day. It seems he was acting and living out of joy rather than fear:  Obviously, some of the Pharisees announced, this Jesus cannot be a man of God because he does NOT keep a strict Sabbath like we do!

And then there is the ultimate Psalm of trust – the Shepherd’s psalm – that clearly tells us that God’s grace is with us always:  in every kind of circumstance, whether we recognize it or not; in dark times or in lightness, in fear as well as joy, beside still waters or surrounded by our enemies the Lord is my shepherd so… I shall not want.  From my perspective, the cumulative core of these lessons is clear:  those who know and love the Lord are called to share the grace and trust we have experienced rather than foment more fear and judgment – and that takes a lot of practice.
If you are anything like me – and I think you are – you know that sharing grace, withholding judgment and snarky comments, and trusting God more than self doesn’t happen quickly.  It takes a lifetime of practice – decades of trying and falling down – accepting God’s forgiveness and starting again and again and again.

+  Do you know the old gospel song “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer?” The chorus goes:  It’s me, it’s me O Lord standin’ in the need of prayer.  And that is certainly true, but it is the verses that cut to the chase:  Not my father, not my mother but it’s ME o Lord – not my sister, not my brother but it’s me o Lord – not the preacher, not the deacon but it’s me o Lord.

+  Sometimes we learn those songs when we’re small, but we can’t REALLY sing them until we embrace the wise and time-tested humility of Jesus the servant. 

And that takes practice:  in the school of applied spirituality we get it wrong at least as often as we get it right because that’s how we learn and grow, that’s how we mature in trust and grace. And therein lays the trap door:  if this is true for us personally then it must be true also for others, right? If God is eternally patient with me, then I have to accept and trust that God is eternally patient with you, too – and you and you and you… and everyone.

So here’s what I’ve observed over the years:  not only do most of us despise this paradox in our souls, but even when we try to embrace it, we’re not very good at it without lots of practice AND a loving measure of accountability.  We simply need help to live and share grace in our everyday lives because part of us doesn’t want to DO it and the rest of us doesn’t know HOW to do it.

That’s why we have Psalm 23 – the Shepherd’s Psalm – it offers us a prayer built upon trust to bring comfort and a way to practice living by grace.  And what I’d like to do right now is walk you through this psalm so that you might have one more tool to help you forgive your debtors as the Lord has forgiven you.  Psalm 23 is usually described as a psalm of trust.  And scholars tell us that “trust psalms presume a particular type of life setting and regularly include two types of language.”  So let’s look at this carefully and be clear about both context and contents in the psalm of the Good Shepherd.

A psalm of trust is different from a psalm of lament or a song of praise.  Laments are cries of complaint – I am suffering and help me NOW, Lord – but not so with a psalm of trust.  Here the emphasis is no less urgent, but the expression is about comfort rather than complaint.  Do you see the difference? In a lament there is an anguished cry for relief; in a song of trust there is a deep experience of blessing. 

Maybe that’s why psalms of trust use metaphorical descriptions of life’s suffering more than specific problems and pains. That is certainly true in Psalm 23 where the crisis has been called “the valley of the shadow of death” or “a feasting table set up in the presence of mine enemies.” In fact, much of the language of this psalm – and other psalms of trust – paint word pictures that allow us to bring our own experiences into them so that wherever we find ourselves, we can become open to trusting in God’s presence.
Can you think out loud with me for a moment about how you might use some of the images in this psalm to talk about your life?

·   If the Lord is my shepherd, then when have you felt like a lost sheep:  can you say something out loud about your experience?

·   When have you felt like God’s presence in your life was like lying down in a green pasture or resting beside a gentle stream?

·   What about the valley of the shadow of death?  Or feasting at a welcome table surrounded by the presence of your enemies?

That’s one of the ways to use this psalm:  let it bring to your mind both the times of comfort and the times of challenge because BOTH were saturated with God’s grace and loving presence.  The language of the trusting psalms offers us the reassurance of God’s intimacy no matter what our station in life, ok?

There is one more gift the psalms of trust offer us in their language:  “in
addition to metaphorical depictions of a situation of crisis, the psalms of trust also include language that expresses trust in God’s presence and deliverance. In Psalm 23, the person in crisis confesses: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” “he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul; he leads me in right paths for his name’s sake… and prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies and … my cup overflows.” (Working Preacher)

That is to say, this psalm gives us words to use when we’re in trouble to reconnect with God’s comfort. Sometimes people tell me, “I don’t really know what to say or how to pray.” Well, my friends, Psalm 23 are a great place to practice using words that have been time-tested and scrubbed clean over 4,000 years of use.  One of my friends in AA puts it like this:  sometimes we have to FAKE till we MAKE it.  So if you are in distress or confused and don’t know how to pray… try this.

·   You, O Lord, are my shepherd.  This is an invitation to let God be God so that you don’t have to try.  Give yourself permission to think about all the things a shepherd does – including feeding the sheep and sheltering them – rescuing them when they wander away and protecting them.

·    In you, O Lord, I shall not want.   What would that mean – to live in such trust that we don’t worry or fret – or judge or fear?  Any thoughts?

See where I’m going with this: there are a LOT of helpful words to give shape and form to your prayers, so why not USE them?  Practice them?  Fake it with them until you make it with them?

At the heart of our psalms of trust is a promise from God – I will be with you always – and we must decide whether or not we believe this promise. Either we’re going to trust that God is God, or, we’re not.  Either we are going to live our lives like there is a calling and meaning greater than our selfishness and fears, or, we’re not. Either we’re going to construct a way of being that honors God’s presence even in the valley of shadow of death, or, we’re going to live like the world revolves around us.

·   I know what I’m like when I live into my selfishness – and fear – and sin – and it is not a pretty picture.  When I read the NY Times every morning I see signs of what it looks like when others live into their sin and selfishness, too and it makes me weep.

·   That’s why God gives us an alternative:  I am with you always.

I have chosen by faith to trust that this is true.  I have elected to live in ways that challenge my own selfishness.  I have been embraced by God’s grace in such a compelling way that I have to practice sharing it with others. And so do you, if you have any sense of commitment to Christ.  It isn’t easy – I am rarely consistent – but it is so much better than the alternative.  And that, beloved, is the good news for today.

1) Michelle Keck @
2) John Levesque @ First Church

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Lose yourself to dance on good friday...

Not everybody thinks like a song - ok I get that.  There are engineers and mathematicians; there are systematic theologians and cynical politicians, too. But my mind and my prayers are saturated in song so that is where I go when I am striving to know what is happening within and beyond me.  All day long I have been hearing Daft Punk's "Lose Yourself to Dance" just below the surface of everything that's been happening. It is prophetic and accessible at the same time - it has a killer groove that is infectious - and so totally badass that I can't get enough.
As I went from our Eucharist to writing liturgies - then church and ministry committee meetings to a financial stability dinner for our church's future partnership - I kept hearing these lyrics:

I know you don't get a chance to take a break this often
I know your life is speeding and it isn't stopping
Here take my shirt and just go ahead and wipe up all the sweat...
Lose yourself to dance.

And let's not forget that KILLER bass groove and the synth that moves up from the bottom to the top as the chorus matures! I think this is the song we need to play as people gather for Good Friday when we explore what it means for God, Jesus, Spirit and ALL of us to wrestle with being misunderstood. Just listen to the complexity that compliments each of the parts as this dance track ripens.  Pure genius with a super-sized dose of fun!  (And dig Nile Rogers shakin' it up in the video, too!)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Misunderstood: this year's good friday experiment...

Can you believe that it is only a month until Holy Week? O I understand
that most people don't measure their time in reference to the church calendar - a loss for some and a blessing for others - but I do. Not only is my professional life grounded in the cyclical realm of liturgy, but so too my private life. Like an old monastic, it gives shape, form and rhythm to my days. Right now we are in the middle of Lent - we just marked the third Sunday in our journey to the Cross - and there are only four more weeks until the Feast of the Resurrection on Easter morning.

So we start to kick into high gear as we start to shape this year's Good Friday experiment in song, silence and story:  MISUNDERSTOOD.  Last year we built an evening around DISORIENTATION - how God's grace and the whole story of Jesus turns everything upside down - and this year we are playing with the notion that not only was the life and message of Jesus misunderstood by those closest to him, but that we, too share a sense of being misunderstood in our everyday lives. Our sexuality is often a mystery to us - or others - same for our politics, our inner reactions to wounds and shame - even our commitment to a spiritual path is more mystery than clarity.

I am so ready to work on this new creation: not only is the process an act of co-creation with colleagues and Spirit, but the end result often opens new insights to God's grace that were never imagined when we began rehearsals. This poem by Pamela Spiro Wagner gets at the heart of it all:

First, forget everything you have learned, 
that poetry is difficult, 
that it cannot be appreciated by the likes of you, 
with your high school equivalency diploma, 
your steel-tipped boots, 
or your white-collar misunderstandings. 

Do not assume meanings hidden from you: 
the best poems mean what they say and say it. 

To read poetry requires only courage 
enough to leap from the edge 
and trust.  

Treat a poem like dirt, 
humus rich and heavy from the garden. 
Later it will become the fat tomatoes 
and golden squash piled high upon your kitchen table. 

Poetry demands surrender,
language saying what is true,
doing holy things to the ordinary.

Read just one poem a day. 
Someday a book of poems may open in your hands 
like a daffodil offering its cup
to the sun. 

When you can name five poets 
without including Bob Dylan, 
when you exceed your quota 
and don't even notice, 
close this manual.

You can now read poetry.

The poet Rilke put it like this - and this rings true, too:

You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts. Well now, since you have given me permission to advise you, I suggest that you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one.

There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, "I must," then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge.

Then draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose. Do not write love poems, at least at first; they present the greatest challenge. It requires great, fully ripened power to produce something personal, something unique, when there are so many good and sometimes even brilliant renditions in great numbers. Beware of general themes. Cling to those that your every- day life offers you. Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful. Describe all that with fervent, quiet, and humble sincerity. In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects of your memory.

If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty—nothing is insignificant or unimportant.

Methinks we'll start with the words Jesus spoke about "taking the plank or log out of our own eyes before evaluating and judging others" and then cut to silence before his cry:  My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me? Time and again I keep hearing:  some thing's going on all around you and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?

Monday, March 24, 2014

The monday evening club of pittsfield...

Tonight I hosted the men's "Monday Evening Club" of Pittsfield.  It was founded in 1869 and has maintained a tradition of education, fellowship and fraternity in the context of civil discourse.  I probably wouldn't hang with most of these guys if I hadn't been invited into the fold - and I am so glad I was. 

It seems that back in the early and cold days of winter, one of the town's leaders, Thomas Plunkett, yearned for intellectual stimulation and social interaction.  He extended an invitation to 16 other men in 1869 and the rest is history.  One of our members, Rabbi Harold Salzmann (one of the beloved saints of our town) composed this history of the Monday Evening Club. It is a gas and tonight was a lovely time surrounded by men who truly care for one another.

I arranged for some killer baguettes - prepared potato soup and turkey chili - and served up a huge chicken Caesar salad.  I found a wonderful red wine from Southern France and some great English cheeses, too.  (This group is made up of thinkers AND foodies.) So after cleaning all day (and part of yesterday, too) I lit the candles, put on some Miles Davis and let the good time role. I am grateful for this blessing in my life.

Check out Harold's words history here:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Giving birth to something new...

One of the most fun things that took place in the past week was getting "out of Dodge" for a wedding. We got into Saratoga a day early just to walk around, practice a little self-care and take in the vibe - and we loved it! A highlight was finding this groovy little jazz club that looks like a speakeasy, holds about 25 people comfortably (there were 60) and serves some of the best single malt Scotch ever!
Being away gave me a chance to rest so that I was very much at peace today in worship.  We played some sweet jazz, riffed on the Scriptures and then celebrated Eucharist. After a bit of post-worship grocery shopping, I started to think of next week's gospel text from John 9. In particular I have been realizing how the same "split" between the insiders who were offended by the compassion of Christ and the outsiders who were nourished and encouraged, is still all too alive and well in many of our congregations. 

Last week, after the ecstasy of our 250th anniversary, I received two fascinating sets of emails. One set - and in truth, only two - expressed discomfort with what we emphasized during the celebration - namely our partnership with those doing non-religious things to care for the common good. It's not that these folk were in opposition to our partnership, they were just challenged because it wasn't really "churchy." (Smile... sigh... could that have been the point?!?) The other set of notes - and in truth there were over 10 - expressed joy and solidarity in a church intentionally celebrating un-churchy commitments.

In the gospel for next week, Jesus faces judgment and rejection because he brings healing to someone on the Sabbath.  It made me think of these recent reflections by Richard Rohr:

One of the best ways to study Scripture is to use the lens of cultural anthropology; in other words, to learn about the social setting in which Jesus lived and the problems with which he was dealing. What we find is that the Mediterranean culture at his time was overwhelmingly dominated by an honor/shame system largely based on externals. Actually, we still live that way in the United States and Western Europe, although we pretend we don’t!

Honor and shame are personal commodities that you can lose or gain. They’re what we would call ego possessions. You don’t have them naturally. You have to work for your honor and then show it off and protect it. You have to deny your shame, which is what we would now call the shadow self. At Jesus’ point in history, and frankly with many today, there is no inherentsense of the self. There is no natural dignity that comes from within.

Religion at its best and most mature is exactly what is needed for this problem. Without healthy religion, you have no internal or inherent source for your own dignity and positive self-image. You have to find your status and your dignity externally by what you wear, by your title, by how much money you have, by what car you drive. That’s a pretty fragile way to live. You are constantly evaluating, “How am I doing? How am I looking?” And your dignity can be taken away from you in one moment of loss of public status. This is the insecure post-modern world we live in. It is a moveable famine grounded in a sense of scarcity and “zero sum.” Only true religion inhabits the world of abundance; it even draws upon an infinite abundance.

The new/old church we are bringing to birth rejects the external judgments that separate any of US from any of THEM. It celebrates ONE table where we each have gifts to bring to the banquet and NO ONE fails to receive an invitation to the party. And it refuses to get caught up in the status judgments of those whose only sense of dignity comes from some place besides the heart.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The appearance of tears...

We were at a sweet, sweet wedding today.  We went up early to chill and visit with one another in Saratoga - a new favorite place - and then attended the ceremony.  The couple expressed and evoked such innocence and tender affection for one another that we all wept. During the simple ceremony, this poem was shared:

imagine the very first marriage a girl 
and boy trembling with some inchoate
need for ceremony a desire for witness: 
inventing formality like a wheel or a hoe 

in a lost language in a clearing too far from here 
a prophet or a prophetess intoned to the lovers 
who knelt with their hearts cresting 
like the unnamed ocean thinking This is true 

thinking they will never be alone again 
though planets slip their tracks and fish 
desert the sea repeating those magic sounds 
meaning I do on this stone below 
this tree before these friends yes in body 
and word my darkdream my sunsong yes I do I do
(Peter Meinke)
The best man wept, too, when he told of his friendship with the young groom - a musician - and the time they believed they had discovered "free jazz." It was a heady moment, he told us, that only came 40 years too late.  Then the young ones danced to Satchmo and held one another with an intimate fragility that brought out more tears.

When we arrived back home my sister had posted pictures from my father's home. This summer we will move him from his house of nearly 40 years to a small apartment in my sister's house. It is absolutely time and he is humble and maybe even wise enough to acquiesce. But when I saw the pictures of the furniture that has been a part of my life since before I was born, I was stunned - and yet a few more tears made an appearance. One of my daughters noted on FB that there is a basin and pitcher in one of the photographs that she was baptised in and hoped it might be available for her farm house

My mind went to the closing words of A River Runs Through It in which Noman MacLean writes:

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. 

I am haunted by waters. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Going home again...

It has all been said before about David Brooks - the conservative that liberals love and all that - but I genuinely enjoy reading him twice a week in the NY Times.  And mostly I celebrate his thoughtful, non-ideological reflections on our culture, economy and politics. I am particularly interested in his current incarnation - post-sabbatical - as he reflects on what brings meaning to our lives rather than the usual obsessions of inner-belt political junkies. It is simultaneously refreshing and rewarding.

Today, for example, his column "Going Home Again" begins with a recent TED Talk presentation by Sting. The maturing rocker-artist spoke about his early successes and then a long dry spell where he was unable to create new music. What changed the impasse in his imagination turned out to be a journey back in time to his origins. When he physically and then emotionally returned to his first home, he listened carefully to the inner narratives of his personal history. 

He went back and started thinking about his childhood in the north of England. He’d lived on a street that led down to a shipyard where some of the world’s largest ocean-going vessels were built. Most of us have an urge, maybe more as we age, to circle back to the past and touch the places and things of childhood. When Sting did this, his creativity was reborn. Songs exploded from his head. At TED, he sang some of those songs about that shipyard. He sang about the characters he remembers and his desire to get away from a life in that yard. These were songs from his musical “The Last Ship,” which he’s performed at The Public Theater and which is expected to arrive on Broadway in the fall.

Brooks goes on to make two observations that resonate with my work as a preacher and teacher.  First, human beings need to regularly look backwards: it helps us make sense of our past and discern where we must go in the present and future. It is one of the reasons why we read from the ancient Scriptures every week:

Historical consciousness has a fullness of paradox that future imagination cannot match. When we think of the past, we think about the things that seemed bad at the time but turned out to be good in the long run. We think about the little things that seemed inconsequential in the moment but made all the difference. Then it was obvious how regenerating going home again can be. Sting, like most people who do this, wasn’t going back to live in the past; he was circling back and coming forward.

Second, such reflection helps us shape an inner narrative for our lives that can not only grounds us, but moves us back towards our best selves when we get off track.  Stumbling, wandering in the wilderness, being struck blind, fasting and all the rest are symbolic ways of talking about the fact that all human beings lose their way. From the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane this theme is a constant. So rather than simply give up, we look back to the stories of our origins to reclaim our bearings.

Historical consciousness has a fullness of paradox that future imagination cannot match. When we think of the past, we think about the things that seemed bad at the time but turned out to be good in the long run. We think about the little things that seemed inconsequential in the moment but made all the difference. Then it was obvious how regenerating going home again can be. Sting, like most people who do this, wasn’t going back to live in the past; he was circling back and coming forward. The person going back home has to invent a coherent tradition out of discrete moments and tease out future implications. He has to see the world with two sets of eyes: the eyes of his own childhood self and the eyes of his current adult self. He has to circle back deeper inside and see parts of himself that were more exposed then than now. No wonder the process of going home again can be so catalyzing.

The process of going home is also reorienting. Life has a way of blowing you off course. People have a way of forgetting what they originally set out to do. Going back means recapturing the original aspirations. That’s one reason Jews go back to Exodus every year. It’s why Augustine went back during a moment of spiritual crisis and wrote a book about his original conversion. Heck, it’s why Miranda Lambert performs “The House That Built Me” — to remind herself of the love of music that preceded the trappings of stardom.

That is one of the beautiful albeit demanding gifts I find in observing a holy Lent.  Revisiting the arc of my life - and the lives of other fragile and frail people like me - is not an exercise in sorrow but a way to rediscover hope.
(See David Brooks @

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Grace: a LONG obedience...

So here's a thought I will "walk with" for the next few days and see if it comes together for Sunday: there is a connection between the "evolution" of St. Paul and the woman at the well - and it has something to do with God's grace NEVER giving up on us.

+ Paul is struck blind by God's love in Christ:  first he feared it, then he was overcome by it; at his weakest he was nourished back to health by Ananias of Damascus who was a servant of grace and later still Paul bet his life on sharing the grace of God in Jesus with the world.  Somewhere, however, he spent time thinking and praying and practicing making this grace an integral part of his world.  From the opening words of Galatians, it seems that Paul spent three years wandering the desert (what he calls Arabia but what others have posited was his trip to Mt. Sinai.) And then there is a 14 year gap in Paul's story - the so-called "missing years" - of which there is no record.

+ My hunch, and it is only that, is that Paul gave himself to prayer, study, silence and discipleship. He needed to learn - experience - and wrestle with this new way of living.  As Bono says, "Grace trumps karma every time" but this is so upside-down and counter-cultural it takes a LONG time to embrace.

+ The gospel story for Sunday has to do with the Samaritan woman at the well whom Jesus blesses.  What I sense is that she, like Paul, needed to meet and experience someone (in both cases Jesus) who gave shape and form to God's grace before she knew what to do with it.  Jesus asks her simply to go and sin no more - and she responds by telling others how Jesus brought her new hope.  In this, she is just like Paul - or just like me - because her story is part of my on-going conversion.

I don't know if this has legs, I think so, but I need to "walk around with it for a time" like Fr. Raymond Brown used to suggest.  We're off to a wedding tomorrow and a little down/away time.  More on the flip side...

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Finding God at the movies starts tonight...

Tonight we initiate a new film series at church: Finding God at the Movies.  It is a five part look at both select films and an introduction to critical thinking from a Christian theological perspective. I have always loved the movies, but it wasn't until Martha Baker introduced me to serious art films during my freshman year of college that I began to consider their deeper significance. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy entertainment as much as anyone. And, there are times when the artistry of the cinema can take me to a deeper place. So, tonight we'll start a conversation about acquiring some tools and resources that might assist others in going deeper, too.
We'll kick things off with the prologue and opening sequence from "Godspell" both because it is so much fun and because I want to ground our exploration in a Christian worldview.  It suggests that in the midst of everyday life, the call of the Lord is shared with us.  Sometimes we have ears to hear, sometimes not, but the call continues to invite us deeper and is extended to everyone. My hope is that this will give us an encounter with the "still speaking" insights that will guide this series.

From "Godspell" this week, we'll move into Kieslowski's "Decalogue" next week with other serious motion pictures to be explored with the group.  I am working as part of a team for this series with another clergy person; I will share the film clip and the theological and critical background notes and he will lead a group sharing discussion.

Session number one includes the following: Considering a Christian Perspective for Evaluation. We will present and discuss a few tools for evaluating movies through the lens of our Christian faith. 

One set of questions explores the tension between God’s glory and human sin:

+  God is at work in the world and a spiritual realm is real:  how is this depicted in films?  Where are there examples of love, justice, truthfulness, courage and truth in your favorite films?

+  Human sin is real and evil exists:  how is this depicted in films?  Can you think of movies that show a loss of innocence – evil – or a conflict between what is true and noble and what is expedient?

+  God offers forgiveness and the possibility of redemption:  where do you see this in films old or new? 
Another lens to consider comes from the God is Still Speaking perspective:

+  Are there spiritual implications that point to God in movies that are not explicitly Christian?

+  What are movies with strong villains – and why are they so appealing?  What do they tell us about the nature of evil?

+  Can you think of movies that use images and metaphors of chaos, injustice, pain, suffering and alienation to suggest a broken world?   What does this tell us about sin?

+  Why do so many people want only happy endings?

A third lens to evaluate the presence of God in a film might include these considerations:

+  Does the film promote and celebrate individualism or the common good?  What values are implicit in either perspective? 

+  What does melodrama teach us about reality?  How does this connect – or not – to the deepest Christian truths about human nature?

+  What do our films teach us about love of money and love of God?
And yet a fourth lens might include the following:

+  How do films invite us to be awake and engaged in the present moment?

+  How do films help/hinder our ability to affirm the mystery of other people?

+  How do films depict the transformation of conflict?

+  How do films encourage us to search for unity?

During the first two years of this ministry I offered three different film series:  1) Chocolat for Lent (using the film "Chocolat" as a starting point); 2) The Power of Small Choices (Hilary Brand's guide to "Shawshank Redemption" and "Babette's Feast); and 3) A Quest for the Beautiful (a series including "Pay It Forward," "All Across the Universe" and "Koyaanssqatsi" among others.) Folk have been eager to return to these resources and I am excited to give it a go.Two excellent, albeit very different, resources include: In a New Light by Ron Austin and Eyes Wide Open by William Romanowski.

We'll see who might show up?

synchronicity, clues of the holy in the ordinary and mary magdalene...

In two unrelated blogs that I read regularly - Richard Rohr and Matthew Fox - each have been exploring separately the sacred feminine and th...