praying the reality of the Times...

In this morning's NY Times, three different articles captured my attention:
1) Mark Oppenheimer's "Examining the Growth of Spiritual but not Religious" (check it out:; 2) the Editorial Board's "Israel's War in Gaza" (read it here: /2014/07/19/us/examining-the-growth-of-the-spiritual-but-not-religious.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0); and 3) Michael White's "After a 19 Year Run, Passing the Baton" (check it out: 2014/07/19/arts/ music/ david-zinman-ends-his-tenure-with-tonhalle-in-zurich.html?ref=todayspaper) Each items speaks to the complicated, joyous, confusing, terrifying and all together anxious times we live in; taken as a whole, they also point us towards the hard work and trust necessary to move faithfully in this realm of brokenness and beauty. 

Meister Eckhart, the 12th century mystical Dominican priest, once wrote that: "There exists only the present instant... a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence." A popularized restatement of this insight puts it like this: "Reality is the will of God - it can always be better - but we must always start with what is real." I rather like Reinhold Niebuhr's take on this in the Serenity Prayer: God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Here's how I see the connections:

+ First, 7% of the American population self-identify themselves as SBNR - spiritual but not religious - a body of people exploring a host of spiritual paths that is larger than either the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Jewish tradition in the USA or Islam. Where I live, in New England, this is true in spades - as it is in the Pacific North west, too - and has been so with increasing vigor over the past 30+ years. Visible signs are everywhere, from the boarded up sanctuaries of the once mainstream churches to the proliferation of yoga studios, arts and spirituality workshops and Zen meditation groups. As Paul Simon still sings: 

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long-distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all, oh yeah
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby don’t cry...

Many of my colleagues are crying, however, as we lament and despair our shared reality. We ache for a former time when traditional religious institutions were at the center of our common life. We blame ourselves, search for magic bullets to solve our declining congregations, cast aspersions on both New Age practitioners and participants alike while trying to hold on by our finger nails for retirement as best we can. It is hard work with precious few rewards. Most of us have not been trained for this new reality - countless studies and books document our bewilderment - and note that a morose cloud of discouragement hangs over many of our congregations today. A low grade depression that is palpable shapes many of our clergy as we struggle with a reality we never expected.

Jaco Hamman's book, When Steeples Cry, offers the best advice I have found for those of us stuck in such sadness. Like anyone approaching grief, we have some hard work to do - hard work that includes reality and surrender and acceptance - for without it we will remain hopeless. "Reality is the will of God - and while it can always be better - we must start with what is real."

As a leader in your congregation you facilitate growth and bring change. You are called to empower your congregation to be the body of Christ. Inevitably, your call includes not only being with those who grieve and mourn, but introducing loss to your congregation. The face of change-as-loss is varied and always morphing into a new image: a congregation is thriving with rapid membership growth; a pastor leaves; a congregation commits to a building project; a church member dies; programs are introduced and then disappear; a congregation becomes an island in a sea of societal change. Your effectiveness and creativeness as an agent of growth and vitality for your congregation depends on your ability to facilitate the work of mourning.

+ Cut to the third story in the Times re: Daniel Zinman's transformation of the Zurich Orchestra. Here is a man who honored his musical tradition - and that of the venerable city of song - but also had the patience, persistence and inspiration to claim a vision greater than maintenance - and bring it to birth within the orchestra. Commenting on the recent release of a 50 CD box set of his work in Zurich, the White writes in the NY Times:

The achievement is evident, and you can hear it in a 50-CD boxed set just released by Sony to commemorate his music making with the Tonhalle. It documents a journey from the ordinary to the exceptional, which tallies with the orchestra’s trajectory. “It wasn’t that I arrived 19 seasons ago thinking, ‘This is a second-tier orchestra I’m going to raise to the first.’ It was good from the start,” Mr. Zinman said recently in an interview during a London stopover. “But it was kind of bored with its existence and seemed to function with a civil-servant mentality that lacked inspiration and self-confidence. Exactly how we turned that around I’m not sure, except we decided nothing succeeds like success, so let’s go for it. And we started hiring more ambitious players. That fed on itself.”

My experience in congregations mirrors that of Mr. Zinman: to bring renewal and hope to the once mainstream, but now side-lined, church involves creativity as well as a commitment to excellence. We need to grieve, to be sure, and at the same time bring in "more ambitious players." Without creative and ambitious musicians and support staff, our congregations will slowly limp along towards death. Without greater expectations - as well as compassionate Christian formation for our laity - we will slog through yet another season of expectations formed by the lowest common denominator. And, as Christopher Smith and John Patterson state so well in their new book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, without a profound trust in God's gracious guidance and presence in the midst of our work we will lose our way to workaholicism and collapse.

All around us we see the "huge spontaneous upheaval of the entire human race" that Thomas Merton talked about, a revolution he rightly predicted would be manifested in desperation, cynicism, violence, self-contradiction, fear and hope, doubt and belief, creation and destruction, and "obsessive attachments to idols, images, slogans, programs that only dull the general anguish for a moment until it bursts out everywhere." In the midst of the frantic, churning, disturbing and roiling shallow waters of post-modernity, Slow Church seeks to anchor itself in the deep, still waters of a remarkable patient yet radically immanent God. This isn't escapism. Rather it is part and parcel of living as the peculiar people of God. Someone once said, we're in the world but not of the world, so that we can be for the world.

Without high expectations of ourselves, our congregations and the Living God - without taking bold chances that call into question the status quo of our congregations - and without a radical trust that God's grace always trumps karma, nothing will really change for the better.

+ Jump to the editorial about Palestine and Israel: the ugly political and theological truths that are working themselves out in Gaza are reality. God knows it can always be better, but for now death and moral intransigence
define the hour no matter how deep our grief. The Times editors note with sobering sadness: "After 10 days of aerial bombardment, Israel sent tanks and ground troopsinto Gaza to keep Hamas from pummeling Israeli cities with rockets and carrying out terrorist attacks via underground tunnels. The tragedy is that innocent civilians on both sides of the border are paying the price, once again, and that military action will not guarantee long-term stability or peace."

Hamas can’t defeat Israelis, so it tries to terrorize them. Innocent Palestinians are being killed and brutalized: four Palestinians boys playing on a beach; four children playing on a rooftop; a rehabilitation hospital, all destroyed by Israeli firepower. The United Nations says that of the more than 260 Palestinians killed, three-quarters were civilians, including more than 50 children. Hamas leaders deserve condemnation for storing and launching rockets in heavily populated areas, cynically knowing they will draw Israeli fire to places where civilians live and play. Still, in a call with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Obama was right to express concern about the “risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.”

Military action, however, is not a long-term solution, as Israeli operations in 2012 and 2008-9 showed. Israel seized Gaza in 1967 and withdrew in 2005. It is hard to see how re-occupation would serve Israel’s interests...
The best solution remains a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, headed by the Fatah faction, which operates in the West Bank American-mediated negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority failed in April. After that, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, reached a reconciliation agreement with Hamas, which has lost support in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. That moment could have been a chance to erode Hamas’s political standing further and boost Palestinian moderates like Mr. Abbas.

The agreement created a government that had no Hamas members, reaffirmed the Palestinian Authority’s longstanding commitment to living in peace with Israel, and would have given the authority a foothold in Gaza. But Israel opposed the reconciliation agreement and, according to Nathan Thral lof the International Crisis Group, the United States and Europe undermined it, which led to the current crisis.Without a political strategy, another cease-fire may be the most anyone can hope for at this moment. But Hamas leaders have rejected one proposed in the past week by Egypt and are demanding better terms. Meanwhile, Palestinian civilians suffer the consequences.

Watching innocent children die on the beach is reality. Watching both Israel and Hamas posture for political advantage is also sadly reality. Watching and waiting is the reality of this moment no matter how profound our sorrow and frustration. Most of us are ill-prepared to watch and wait and grieve. We are utilitarian people who want to get things done! But until all parties involved are truly sick and tired of grief and death - until the partners of both Israel and Palestine are able to broker a more creative and hopeful solution with more ambitious players - it is clear that more "Palestinian civilians will suffer the consequences" and more Israelis will have run towards bomb shelters in terror.

This tragedy is supposed to break our hearts - and make us angry - and move us towards solutions. We are not meant to remain trapped in sorrow and fear. But nothing will change without honestly feeling the depth of this horror and grieving it.  And so we pray again as Niebuhr taught us:

 God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. 


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