Sunday, September 28, 2014

Deep river...

Sometimes you just have to go with the heart, yes? Today I did something in worship that was counter-intuitive and risky: I told a series of four "spiritual autobiography stories" - linked by a few tunes - trusting that the Spirit would guide the congregation in ways greater than my prose. I didn't exegete the biblical texts out loud, I didn't spend much time (if any) explaining how I had come to discern a connection between the scriptures and my stories. I just acted as St. Paul once encouraged us knowing that the Spirit will intercede for us with sighs too deep for human words. I like the way Peterson reworks Romans 8:

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Years I go I learned from my feminist friends that  the "the personal is always political." Various working artists have also affirmed this same truth: what is true at the most deeply personal level is also usually true in a universal way in sculpture, dance, visual art and music. So, on a day when I was feeling particularly vulnerable and fragile, I stepped off the banks of my time-tested and "safe" style and trusted that my quest for "the river of faith" would resonate with the experiences of others. I think some folk got it... and that's the best any preacher can hope for, yes?

+ I spoke of nature and the mystical union of soul, prayer, music and experience. Who knows why or how God chooses certain moments to embrace us? I just know that when it happens, it is deep, powerful and demands gratitude.

+ I spoke of learning - or not learning - from our mistakes: how so much of life involves doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.  And how God's grace is relentless in spite of our stubbornness.

+ I spoke of how our past shapes our future - and how our children often know us better than ourselves.

+ And I spoke of how the most unlikely people can open our hearts to new love and grace if we are willing to be surprised.

The music we used was shared with tender conviction and sheer artistry: Carlton's piano playing on "Moon River" was exquisite, same for "Deep River" with Eva and Dianne singing a soulful jazz take that was chilling, Jon and I did a loving job with the "Ballad of Easy Rider" and the whole band cooked on Garth Brooks' "The River." It was a public expression of faith without any certainty that what made sense to me would matter to the faithful who gathered hoping for some good news today. We shall see...(this version of "Moon River" will have to suffice until I get a copy of C's most excellent rendition later this week!)

There is an irony taking place in my heart today that is not unusual: you see, after celebrating our grandson's glorious first birthday with my dearest family yesterday, tomorrow we will leave for Maryland to be with my father as he moves closer to his death. There is an ebb and flow in all of this that I am being called to trust. Today I trusted that my stories and the music would be all the interpretation of scripture that the congregation needed. For me, the music was yet another "rainbow sign" of God's abiding presence and grace a midst all the trials and suffering (my text was the story of Noah.) Tomorrow I will trust that the road and being present will be enough, too.

I like this prayer from the Iona Community: artists' prayer:


God of vision
you give us gifts of creativity.

Bless us
with courage to take new risks,
boldness to be adventurous
and faith to know your presence.

Inspire us
to open our eyes to fresh vision.

Awaken us
to our creative possibilities,
enabling us
as empowered artists
to transform our lives
and the life of the world.
Amen.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A bluesy, soulful birthday road trip...

Today we head off for Louie-ville (aka Brooklyn) to celebrate our little man's first birthday! It will be a treat to share time with our extended family as we pause to return thanks for all the blessings that have flowed to us from this small child (and his parents.) It is a stunning fall day and will only be more beautiful tomorrow.

Last night, after a full week of various church commitments, I found myself listening - and then playing - some of the acoustic blues tunes that have been in my head as I anticipate our Thanksgiving Eve gig (Wednesday, November 26 @ 7 pm.) Three tunes really grab me...

+ "On the Road Again" - a traditional American jug band blues that probably comes from Memphis, TN. In an early Jerry Garcia band, Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions, it was a standard and was brought into the repertoire of the Grateful Dead about 1966. They revised their take on it for various acoustic incarnations - and I have always wanted to play this with some hot shot musicians 'cuz it is such a gas.


+ "Momma, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" by the incomparable Ruth Brown from 1953. Ms. Brown's version is pure jump band/proto-rock and roll abandon that includes a small horn section and raucous drumming. I first heard it, however, on Delaney and Bonnie's fourth studio album, To Delaney from Bonnie, that includes Duane Allman on guitar, Little Richard on piano and the kiss ass backup band that came to be Derek and the Dominoes (a la Eric Clapton.) Their version starts with Robert Johnson's "You Better Come On in the Kitchen..." and closes with the folk standard "Going Down That Road Feelin' Bad." I used to play this record over and over again when it first came out and still find it is blue-eyed soul at its best.


+ "Big Boss Man" the 1960 Jimmy Reed smash that has been covered by singers as different as Elvis Presley and the Grateful Dead. I first got hooked on this song when the Dead did it on their 1971 live album: Grateful Dead. The late, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan makes it his own and plays the hell out of his harp break. His light gave out all too soon but he was a hard livin'/hard drinkin' SOB. I still love this whole groove...

This year's show is going to be funkier, bluesier and more mellow than some of our previous Thanksgiving Eve gigs - mostly because we're going to do most of it in an acoustic vein.  If you can, make plans to join us.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Sloppy communion - part two...

Earlier this week I shared a mild rant about "sloppy communion" - how
it is poorly celebrated in worship by many in the Reformed tradition -  and even wrapped in superstition and/or boredom by clergy and laity alike. The same could be said, however, for much of what passes for worship in my tradition. It is often sloppy in construction, filled with too many words and too little sensuality, obsessed with "relevance" from either a social justice or sentimental spirituality perspective and so emotionally and aesthetically dead that all you can say is: stick a fork in it because it is done!

Now part of the cause for this dreadful truth starts with Protestant theology about worship. While there are some wise and insightful Reformed practitioners in the academy, too many pastors in our local churches design worship from either habit or history. And because so much of our habit and history has been defined as "not Catholic," what we too often get is anemic, disembodied psycho-babble instead of bold, sacramental celebrations of God's love made flesh. As one soul said to me years ago, most of what passes for worship in our realm boils down to three hymns, a poem and the pastor's book report. There may be music as an opener and closer - and sometimes there is choral music of one type or another, too - but that's about it. Almost no liturgical movement, depth or awareness of how the church year corresponds to both the maturation of the soul and the journey of Jesus from life to death and life beyond death.

Small wonder then that when it comes to the Eucharist, which many Protestant churches only served four times a year - very often at evening services that were solemn replications of the Last Supper - this feast was robbed of its sacramental vitality. I think back to the congregations I have served and realize that more often than not, the only time their tradition allowed an embodied liturgical act in worship that held nuance and multiple meanings of spirit in the flesh came on Maundy Thursday. This seemed to be the only time when emotion and liturgical aesthetics was allowed to marry intellect and history. 

Sadly, to my way of thinking, it was restricted to a retelling of the Last Supper. Holy Communion, therefore, was shaped and limited to Christ's death. In fact, many of these churches had never celebrated Eucharist on Easter Sunday before my insistence so they had no experience or comprehension of the resurrection in the bread and cup. And, because so little sacramental work took place during the rest of the year, the Maundy Thursday liturgy became crammed full of symbols, sensuality and emotion. People told me they LOVED this worship - they wept, they moved and used their bodies during the liturgy, they experienced the dread and solidarity of being in total darkness with others - and so much more. In time, it dawned on me after hearing this over and again: the reason why these Maundy Thursday gatherings were so beloved had something to do with the sacramental nature of the celebration. It didn't happen for the rest of the year, but it happened in spades on this night - and the people cherished it and yearned for more.

There is a lot of liturgical reform and education that must take place in my Reformed tradition to move us from our current moribund habits and histories to something life-giving and joy-filled. There are a few authentically Protestant liturgical centers that are profoundly committed to this quest that deserve our support. They have kept abreast of liturgical renewal since Vatican II with both creativity and zest. Yale Divinity School is one exception to the rule as are the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the journal Reformed Worship are two other places of light and hope. (check them out @ http://worship.calvin. edu/ and http://www.reformedworship.org/)
I rather like the way Fr. Richard Rohr pushes the envelope and helps us claim WHY sacramental worship matters - especially our celebration of the Eucharist - it leads us into knowing that ALL of creation is sacred. Not just the bread and the wine - but my flesh and yours - our neighbor's flesh as well as our enemy's, too. And let's not forget our beloved pets and plants, farm animals and sea creatures and on and on it goes.
The Incarnation Mystery is being repeated and represented in the Eucharist. Here we have material reality, in the form of these universal foods of bread and wine, as the hiding place and the revelation place for God. We are reminded that God is always perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed in the material world. This is the Cosmic Christ presence. If we deny that the spiritual can enter the material world, then we are in trouble, since we hope to be just that—spiritual and fully material human beings. We had best encounter Incarnation in one focused, dramatic moment, and then theparticular truth has a chance of becoming a universal truth, and even my truth.

The 16th question in the Baltimore Catechism, “Where is God?” is answered straightforwardly: “God is everywhere.” The summit of Christian prayer is accomplished when you can trust that you are constantly in the presence of God. You cannot not be in the presence of God! Where would you go? As the psalmist says (Psalm 139:7-9), if you go up to the heavens or underneath the earth, you still can’t get away from God. God is either in all things, or God is in nothing.

In the Eucharist, we slowly learn how to surrender to the Presence in one place, in one thing, in one focused moment. The priest holds up the Host and says, “See it here, believe it here, get it here, trust it here.” Many people say they believe it here, but they don’t make the transference to everywhere—which is the whole point! They don’t seem to know how to recognize the Presence when they leave the church, when they meet people who are of a different religion or race or somehow strangers. They cannot also trust that this person—every person—is created in the image of God. Jesus spent a great deal of his ministry trying to break down the false distinctions between “God’s here” and “God’s not there.” He dared to see God everywhere, even in sin, in enemies, in failures, and in outsiders. Usually, early stage religion is not yet capable of that, but fortunately God is patient.

There is an often un-named reason why people don't go to worship today: it is about death not life.  God's love - and God's people - deserve better. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wherever two or three...

Today was a full and demanding day - and just to make matters more complicated my father is slowly failing. It has been coming on for a few years, but the signs are clear. And while he is not yet ready to die - he has agreed to a feeding tube in his stomach for a few months to help him regain a measure of strength - the trajectory is clear. I pray he outwits us all and is able to both reclaim enough strength to walk again as well as get back to his home with my sister in Frederick, MD. We shall see.

So, that has been floating in the back of my mind all day. As I prepared for our
midday Eucharist today I thought, "Maybe the time has come to bring this small oasis to a close. Only a few people come out each week and I wonder if there isn't a better use of my time?" I vested and came to sit on the Chancel where we gather for song, prayer and Holy Communion - and only two souls had chosen to join me. "This is confirmation that we should wind this up," I thought, "knowing that unto all things there is a season."

So I said, "When there are only 2-3 of us I tend to put away the printed liturgy and have a conversation about whatever is going on in your lives: is that ok?" And it was a rich, loving and restful time where we talked about families and autumn, food and relationships and a whole lot more. After 50 minutes, we stood around the communion table, shared a brief prayer and broke bread with one another and Christ. And guess what? It doesn't matter how many people come to midday Eucharist. We ALL need it. We ALL need to know that it is available, too - especially when we need to step away for the bustle and just rest in the shelter of God's grace.

Funny how these things turn out, yes?  I guess it really is true that wherever two or three gather in Christ's name there he is in the midst of us.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sloppy communion...

For most of my conscious life I have found Holy Communion frustrating when celebrated and served in most Protestant churches. I am equally frustrated at most Roman Catholic Eucharists, too but that is more about the excessively exclusive language (God is always He) and often un-singable music that doesn't take me to the heart of the feast. It seems that most Reformed communion liturgies confuse sloppiness for informality. We also tend to either overly dramatize the ancient Eucharistic language (rendering the feast into a performance) or treat the holy meal with such physical, theological and aesthetic casualness that all mystery and awe is erased. 

There are at least two reasons for this that I have discerned - and probably more. First, the Protestant tradition is all over the map when it comes to Eucharistic theology. We can't decide whether the meal is a sacrament, a memorial or something in-between. We aren't certain whether the Lord is fully present in the bread and wine, merely in our hearts and minds by memory or has actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus beyond our ability to discern him in the elements. 

What's more, I often experience an uncomfortable sense of superstition among both clergy and laity at many Protestant Eucharistic celebrations. Everyone has a hunch that something sacred is happening - you can tell because no matter the age or the history of the people, everyone becomes silent during sharing of communion - but nobody is clear what that sacred thing is in this ritual. They intuitively know that the holy words (and clumsy gestures) are supposed to evoke reverence, but because the ritual is served in such an sloppy manner, the people leave confused. They pretend that something special has happened
without knowing or experiencing the what, why or how of the celebration.

And with the risk of being too snarky, it would be generous to call most of what happens in these services a "celebration." Given our obsession with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Holy Communion is all about the death of Jesus for so many in the Reformed world.  It doesn't matter what liturgical season of the year it is - nor what the ancient tradition of Eucharist teaches - more often than not Holy Communion is about Christ's death. It is as if Easter never happened nor Pentecost (and let's not even think about Christmas or the Ascension!)

My understanding of Eucharist was enriched by three non-Reformed sources:

+ First, during our days working with Cesar Chavez and the farm workers there was a regular, weekly midweek Eucharist offered for all who wanted to gather in solidarity. It was often, but not always, celebrated by a Roman Catholic priest who made it clear that everyone was welcome. During the liturgy, both the Bible and our struggle for justice formed the core of the message so that by the time we heard about the brokenness of Christ, it was clear that we were rededicating ourselves to his way of justice-making. Whether we were on the streets or on a picket-line or someone's house, the table was always set intentionally with care and beauty. The wine was always robust and the bread hearty. And the passing of the peace became a visible sign of our spiritual commitments.

+ Second, my various trips to what was then Soviet Russia brought me into contact with Russian Orthodox worship. In fact, given our preparation one year with the National Council of Churches, I had 4 weeks at the American Orthodox Seminary outside of NYC. The icons were stunning. The daily sung Evening Prayer was stirring. And the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist - full and saturated with incense - took my breath away (no puns intended.) That I could not fully participate in this Eucharist - or any in Russia - was theologically sad but emotionally, spiritually and aesthetically irrelevant. After all, once the official feast was complete, everyone was allowed to break their fast by eating from the unconsecrated bread. This was the first time I saw the importance of how ritual and art worked together to lead people deeper into the sacrament.

+ And third, for nearly 10 years I often participated in the worship and teaching seminars of the Community of Celebration in Aliquippa, PA. These charismatic Episcopalians were reclaiming the Rule of St. Benedict for the 20th century. They were also writing new, folk-based music for worship that was simple and beautiful to sing. And they celebrated Eucharist midweek in a way that brought everyone into the drama of the story.

Each of these groups helped me discover what was missing from my own
tradition. I'll never forget talking with a former Catholic monk about the simple Eucharistic theology that Henri Nouwen articulates in his book For the Beloved. He speaks of both the Eucharistic bread and the whole people of God as being those who are "taken, blessed, broken and shared" for the healing of the world. "This is basic stuff," my monkish friend said, "but so many Protestants react like Paul on the road to Damascus when they hear this!" When I told him that not only was this basic Eucharistic theology never taught in most of seminaries, he was perplexed. But when I added that we also never learned what some call liturgics - the movement and art of celebrating the liturgy - he was horrified. "That explains it..." he added sadly.

Yesterday morning, Fr. Richard Rohr wrote these words about the Eucharist that I find clarifying and helpful. Maybe you will, too.


At his Last Supper, which was really the Jewish Passover meal, Jesus gave us an action, a mime, a sacred ritual for a community that would summarize his core and lasting message for the world. After I leave, said Jesus, just keep repeating this until I come back again, and the deep message will slowly sink in until “the bride” is fully ready to meet “the bridegroom” and drink at the eternal wedding feast.

1. Take your whole life in your hands, as I am about to do tonight and tomorrow. In very physical and scandalous incarnational language, table bread is daringly called “my body” and alcoholic wine is called “my blood.” We are saying a radical “yes” to both the physical universe itself and the bloody suffering of our own lives and all the world.

2. Then thank God (eucharisteo), who is the origin of all life. Make a choice for gratitude, abundance, and appreciation beyond the self, which has the power to radically de-center you. Your life is pure gift, and it must be given away as gift—in an attitude of gratitude.
3. Break it, let your life be broken, give it away, and don’t protect it. The sharing of the small self will be the discovery of the True Self in God. “Unless the grain of wheat dies, it remains just a grain of wheat” (John 12:24). The crushed grain becomes the broken bread, becomes the active “Body of Christ.”

4. Now chew on this mystery! “Take this,” “eat and drink this”—not alone, but together “until I return,” and you will have the heart of the message, a “new covenant” of indwelling love that is not grounded in worthiness in any form, but merely in a willingness to participate and trust. Your drinking and eating is your agreement to “do what I can to make up in my own body all that still has to be undergone by Christ for the sake of his body the church” (Colossians 1:24). We should hold ourselves apart from this meal only if we are not really sure we are willing and ready to do this! (Which might mean that many of us should not participate!) It is an act of radical solidarity and responsibility much more than a “prize for the perfect” as Pope Francis says.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Is there hope for the church? Today.. I think yes!

There are days when I think I have wasted most of my life caring and nourishing the church - it can be SO life-defying and cruel - but today was not one of them. In fact, this weekend reminded me (AGAIN) of why I have given 35 professional years to the church (3 years of internship in seminary and 32 years as an ordained clergy) to say nothing of 15 conscious years as a lay person (and lots more before I had a choice!) 

Yesterday was the dedication of a Habitat for Humanity house - the 29th home for the Central Berkshires chapter - and it was joyous and humbling time.
Here's a picture from the invitation (and here's a link to the article in today's local paper @ http://www.berkshireeagle.com/news/ci_26576660/pittsfield-family-welcomed-home-built-by-habitat-humanity) Members of our congregation worked hard on this house - as did others from the wider community - and a few key church members made certain that there was a special basketball hoop up in the back yard for this young man's development! It was a moment of quiet grace and deep faith. As Clarence Jordan used to say, "Faith is the turning of dreams into deeds." And our faith was made flesh (and bricks and mortar and more) for this family.

Worship was equally tender and rich: we spoke of knowing our place in God's cosmos and how that liberates us from shame and fear. We are PART of life - not the core - but a beautiful part of it. The music we sang and played touched me deeply. And who among us could not smile and pray as our friends James and Ashley - soon to be parents for the first time - sat in the center of the Sanctuary while Newell read these words from St. Paul in Romans 8:

The joyful anticipation deepens. All around us we observe a pregnant
creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Throughout the whole worship celebration I kept thinking to myself: God I LOVE these people! There are times when I wonder if the institutional church has a place in God's redemption of the world, but today I knew THIS group of saints and sinners did! Later in the day, I gathered at a local microbrewery with one of my favorite colleagues for a time of conversation, carping and celebrating the strange and perplexing calling we share. It, too, was healing and sacred time. 

My colleague and friend, Carlton, reminded me after worship that this week marked his THIRD anniversary! What a blessed journey this shared time has been - and there is much more to come. After his wedding in 3 weeks (and time away to rejoice and rest) we'll embark on both deeper sabbatical planning and a host of other music-making excursions.

So much of the institutional church all around me feels dead and destructive: moribund is the word that keeps coming up. And well it may be, but there is clearly something new, hopeful, filled with joy and hope being born within and among us. And today I rejoice that I have been give a chance to be a part of it all. (Here's a picture of me with some of the climate change young people who are at today's demonstration in NYC>)


Saturday, September 20, 2014

NOW we can be officially public...

Ok, now that the Christian Theological Seminary in Indiana has officially announced the 2014 Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal grants, I can finally be totally public with our plans for 2015. WE ARE GOING TO MONTREAL! (read the official press release here: http://www.cpx.cts.edu/renewal/news/2014/09/ 16/christian-theological-seminary-announces-140-congregations-awarded-lilly-endowment-2014-national-clergy-renewal-program-grants) There are four broad aspects of this sabbatical plan and each is as exciting as the other.
+ First, this is a CLERGY renewal grant. It has a congregational component to it - and that is a vital part - but the heart of the grant recognizes that not only has the meaning of being a clergy changed in the 21st century, but the demands of this calling are 24/7. It is by no means the hardest job in the world, but it is unique in the multifaceted nature of its commitment - and therein lies the need for renewal. The Lilly Foundation has discerned - and the research verifies - that clergy burnout and depression is at an all-time high. So, they ask a simple but vexing question:  what makes your heart sing? Answering that in a programmatic fashion, with assistance from a team of lay people, took the better part of 9 months to write. Not only is it hard to draft consensus when working with 8 additional co-editors, it requires a great deal of conversation, prayer, trust-building and time to craft a document that has both a measure of poetry as well as passion. That meant that first I had to be rock solid in what I wanted and needed for this sabbatical because for perhaps the first time in my ministry: this IS mostly about me.

+ Second, before we could complete the congregational sabbatical plan,
we had to explore and enrich my presenting proposal. The answer to the question, "What makes your heart sing?" involved music and liturgy. All of my life I have been playing with this art form. It began in high school when we would draft "youth services" based upon contemporary rock songs that cracked open passages of Scripture and continues today as we revision the Good Friday liturgies for the 21st century. But what about music and liturgy would be so radically different - and enriching - that the Lilly Foundation would pay for me to do it? With some serious soul-searching and conversation, I zeroed-in on a plan for me to strengthen my upright bass playing as the heart of my sabbatical. The thought of devoting serious time each day for practice and performance - with special emphasis on jazz - was liberating, so that became the core of our proposal. And just to make it exquisite, we proposed a residency in Montreal. I LOVE that city - and it is home to the Montreal Jazz Festival, too. To make this holistic, we built in a commitment to regular prayer, rest and exercise as I know I need this to be a time of renewal for heart, soul and flesh.

+ Third, the Lilly folk have enough experience in clergy sabbaticals by now to insist upon maximum time away as well as transition time on both ends of the journey. All of the study literature about clergy sabbaticals are clear: four months is always better than three even though congregations get antsy with longer sabbaticals. So once we came to agreement on the four month commitment, the front and back end transitions needed attention - and that's where the singing heart question helped again. Another of my favorite things in the world to do is take meandering road trips with Di and simply explore new places together. I am fascinated by the stories people tell me along the way. And after reading William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways I became a believer. So that is the third part of this sabbatical. After a farewell liturgy in late April 2015, we will rent a car and visit three jazz liturgy centers - NYC, Nashville and Ann Arbor - and we'll take it slow in-between destinations to rest and watch and see what the Spirit is saying to our souls. On the back end of our 3+ months in Montreal, we will wander back to the USA via the Eastern Townships of Quebec - a rural wonderland of small towns, wineries and art centers - before resuming responsibility at church in mid-September 2015.

+ And fourth, the Lilly people insist on not only planning the clergy part of the sabbatical in cooperation with key lay leaders, but also building in a bit of sabbatical experience for the congregation. As I have heard it said, most congregations celebrate their clergy's sabbatical but simultaneously dread them, too. Many of my key leaders have told me, "We loved it when the pastor had a time for rest and reflection, but we barely hung on by our finger nails and ached for his return." So that both pastor and congregation make the best use of this sabbatical, a "church sabbatical" must be part of each proposal. What will the congregation do that enriches what the pastor is exploring in his/her absence so that everyone takes a sacred break? We have discerned a few broad areas - jazz education, encounters with local artists during worship and hands-on creativity workshops - and will spend the next three months nailing down the details. This, too, is done collaboratively and takes a lot of time and conversation as well as a ton of prayerful discernment. We now have a new planning team in place for this part of the sabbatical and I pray God's guidance for us all.
At the end of this summer, Di and I took another quick trip to Montreal to look for potential housing and make arrangements to rent an instrument rather than carry my upright bass (as well as guitars, amps and Lucie) northward. It was a successful outing so at the end of May 2015 we'll take up residence in the eastern part of Montreal's Plateau neighborhood. It is young, filled with families and children, ethnically and economically diverse and very Francophone. One of my hopes is that both Di and I will grow in our ability to speak (and sometimes think) in Quebecois French. Nous verrons! 

Two closing thoughts: a LOT of people worked hard on this grant proposal. And while it was mine in concept, it took a disciplined team to craft it. Then there was another dedicated crew of people who worked vigorously in the closing months to edit this proposal so that the foundation would read and act upon it. This was truly a team effort. To be sure, we all made some whopping big mistakes along the way. But we also cooperated in ways that have strengthened the leadership of the church. I am profoundly grateful to everyone who was a part of the process. Thankfully, there were no prima donnas on this team - it was truly an act of living as the body of Christ. A HUGE debt of gratitude to: Dianne, Jon, David, Scott, Holly, Carlton, Dana, Chris, Liz, Martha, James, Ashley, Renee and Sue!

The other thought is that one of the unique blessings of the Lilly Grant is that it gives seasoned pastors a break for renewal. As the US population both ages and goes into a new baby boom, a great deal of aging Boomers are returning to worship along with this new generation of young adults. Both groups have little to no experience with church but posses profound spiritual questions and needs. There is some value in keeping some of the elders around and active in ministry during this unique season of transition - and I am excited to be a part of it all. Without this time to step away from the daily hustle, I know that my weariness would prevail. This past year was particularly taxing mostly because I bumped up against a ton of buried grief that just wore me out. Having spent some time in that hard place, however, I am ready now to go deeper into the challenge of being a faithful congregation for this generation. And the sabbatical - both the promise and the eventual reality - has become another encounter with faith, hope and love. En route pour MontrĂ©al!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Refreshment, renewal and resistance: the blessings of contemplative prayer...

The invitation, call or even command to "love God" involves a commitment to contemplation, don't you think? Over the years I have discovered that when I am well-rested, prepared and at my peak performance, loving God is simple. It is something I do joyfully - and loving God's people is equally easy. It is when I am tired, parched, ambushed or betrayed that my love of the Lord starts to wobble. Frederick Buechner put it like this:

To be commanded to love God at all, let alone in the wilderness, is like being commanded to be well when we are sick, to sing for joy when we are dying of thirst, to run when our legs are broken. But this is the first and great commandment nonetheless. Even in the wilderness - especially in the wilderness - you shall love the Lord.

Contemplation has become for me both a time of respite as well as resistance. As a resting or hiding place, quiet prayer and reflection is like an oasis in the wilderness. And while I may think I do not need refreshment and renewal, if I pass the oasis by in my hurry to do something else, I always regret it. Always. There is a place for fasting - abstaining from food or engagement with others or whatever form of emptying you choose - but never from resting in the grace of God's love. Since I was a child I have cherished the Advent hymn, "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People" taken from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah's poetry.

Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,mourning 'neath their sorrow's load;
Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover and her warfare now is over.


Some contemporary people don't "get" traditional hymnody - it is true these songs rarely sound like anything else we listen to - but their melodies are stunning and they are an excellent way to make the Scriptures part of the soul. Singing this hymn grounds me in God's promises - especially when I am weary and in need of rest - and that is most of the time.

Make ye straight what long was crooked make the rougher places plain:
Let your hearts be true and humble as befits his holy reign,
For the glory of the Lord now o'er the earth is shed abroad,
And all flesh shall see the token that his word is never broken.


So first there is refreshment emotionally, physically and spiritually: then there is challenge. And I think the challenge is simultaneously social and profoundly personal. To choose to step out of the busyness, is a counter-cultural commitment. To ground yourself in the enormity of God's grace - and the whole body of Christ - is to practice living like you are NOT the center of the universe. To discern your place within the whole is to trust that God's love is greater than your wisdom, gifts or energy. Socially this is the polar opposite of popular culture's teaching that EVERYTHING is about YOU:  be all that YOU can be! Politically this is true, too because our vision is on the common good rather than the whims of the individual. Fr. Richard Rohr puts it like this:

It seems to me that contemplation makes it almost inevitable that your politics is going to change, the way you spend your time is going to be called into question, and any smug or inferior social and economic perspective will be slowly taken away from you. When anyone meditates consistently, the things that we think of as our necessary ego boundaries—giving us a sense of our independence, autonomy, and private self-importance—fall away, little by little, as unnecessary and even unhelpful. This imperial “I,” the self that most people think of as the only self, is not substantial or lasting at all. It is largely a creation of our own minds. Through contemplation, protecting this relative identity, this persona (“mask”), eventually becomes of less and less concern. “Why would I bother with that?” the True Self asks.

If your prayer goes deep, invading your unconscious, your whole view of the world will change from fear to connection, because you don’t live inside your fragile and encapsulated self anymore. In meditation, you are moving from ego consciousness to soul awareness, from being driven to being drawn. Of course, you only can do this if Someone Else is holding on to you in the gradual dying of the False Self, taking away your fear, doing the knowing, satisfying your desire as a great Lover. If you can allow that Someone Else to have their way with you in contemplation, you will go back to your life of action with new vitality, but it will now be smooth, a much more natural Flow. It will be “no longer you” who acts or contemplates, but the Life of One who lives in you (Galatians 2:20), now acting for you (Father) and with you (Holy Spirit) and as you (Christ)!

The challenge of contemplation is clearly social, but it is equally personal. My spiritual director in Cleveland once had me practice this very simple and very difficult exercise: twice each day he asked me to sit quietly until I experienced myself resting in the palm of God's hand. That was it - no intellectualizing on the scriptures, no breathing practice or yoga postures - just resting until I felt myself surrounded, embraced, filled from the inside out and resting in the palm of God's loving protection. It took about six weeks and I didn't realize it at first - but when I felt this love from the inside out as well as all around me - I knew it was real in my heart.  Again, Rohr observes:

Contemplation is the key to unlocking the attachments and addictions of the mind so that we can see clearly. I think some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear. I find most people operate not out of “consciousness,” but out of their level of practiced brain function, which relies on early-life conditioning and has little to do with God encounter or grace or mercy or freedom or love. We primarily operate from habituated patterns based on what Mom told me, what went wrong when I was young, and the defense mechanisms I learned that helped me to be right and good, to be first and famous, or whatever I may want to be. These are not all bad but they are not all good either.

All of that old and practiced thinking has to be recognized and accounted for, which is the work of contemplation. Without contemplation, you don’t see clearly. Everything is all about you, and you just keep seeing everything through your own agenda, anger, and wounds. Isn’t that most people you know?  Few ever achieve much inner freedom. Contemplation, sadly, helps you see your woundedness! That’s why most people do not stay long with contemplative prayer, because it’s not very glorious. It’s a continual humiliation, realizing, “Oh my God, I did it again. I still don’t know how to love!” We need some form of contemplative practice that touches our unconscious conditioning, where all our wounds lie, where all our defense mechanisms are operative secretly. Once these are not taken so seriously, there is finally room for the inrushing of God and grace!

All three consequences of contemplation are blessings - disciplined blessings, to be sure - but blessings nonetheless. Last week I found myself saying in worship, "From time to time, people ask my 'why are you always urging us to practice slowing down? You sound like a broken record. That is so unimaginative!" And that is true.  But, I continued saying, "I can't help but be redundant when we continue to be so bad at contemplation. When people complain to me that their lives are so busy - when wounded souls tell me they ache for some spiritual refreshment - and when loving people act-out in ways that are crazy and hurtful ... it is clear that we aren't practicing the disciplines that can cure our souls. In a word, we're carping without resting in the blessing of contemplative prayer."

Earlier this week I found myself being ambushed and hurt - it came out of nowhere - and threw me into a panic. And I found out - again - how much I need to keep practicing resting in the Lord. Thank God for the tiny reservoir of grace I sensed that was born of past encounters. It is what I trusted and it is what compelled me to go deeper.

Do not fret because of the wicked;
   do not be envious of wrongdoers, 
for they will soon fade like the grass,
   and wither like the green herb. 
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
   so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. 
Take delight in the Lord,
   and he will give you the desires of your heart. 
Commit your way to the Lord;
   trust in him, and he will act. 
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
   and the justice of your cause like the noonday. 

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him;
   do not fret over those who prosper in their way,
   over those who carry out evil devices. 
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
   Do not fret—it leads only to evil. 
 For the wicked shall be cut off,
   but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.

 I like the way Rohr wraps this all together:

When we are introduced to the One Life, our smaller life becomes a
matter of lesser importance. We are less concerned about how, when, where, and whether. A new, larger Self takes over. It’s all about getting your True Self right. “Who are you?” is the master’s insistent question. Who I am, and the power that comes with the response, answers all my questions. Life becomes a joyful participation in Being! Basically, you are enlightened every time you awaken to your True Self! I do not believe it just happens once, although the first time is a whopper, as we see in the enlightenment of the Buddha.

Every time you are tempted to hate yourself, just think, “Who am I?” The answer will hopefully come: “I am hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3) in every part of my life. In Christ, I am bearing the mystery of the suffering of humanity, its sad woundedness; but I am also bearing the very glory of God, and even “sharing in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). I am a living paradox of divine and human, just as Jesus was and which Jesus fully accepted.

It seems that God keeps looking at what is good in me, what is God in me, and of course always finds it entirely lovable. God fixes God’s gaze intently where I refuse and where I fear to look—on my shared, divine nature as God’s daughter or son (1 John 3:2). And one day my gaze matches God’s gaze (frankly, that is what we mean by conversion and prayer). At those times I will find God fully lovable and myself fully lovable at the same time. Why? Because it is the same gaze, but they have become symbiotic and look out at life together.

Now it is Sabbath time on a stunning autumn day that just begs for a walk in the woods.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

YOU are a part (but only a part) of the sacred whole...

NOTE:  Worship notes for this Sunday, Wilderness Sabbath, in the
season of creation cycle. The key text is Romans 8.


The broad theme for our prayerful consideration today is wilderness – what does the wilderness show us of the Lord, what can we discern of God’s power and grace in the wilderness, how do we come to trust that the One who is Holy is not merely symbolized by the enormity of the wilderness but actually lives within in it, too – this is the challenge.  Fortunately we’ve been given some excellent biblical texts to wrestle with:

The ancient Hebrew prophet Joel grasped that when people live in an unbalanced, selfish and bottom-line way, the earth itself suffered:  … the seed shrivels in the ground, the granaries are ruined and empty, the animals groan, the cattle flee and our flocks of sheep roam the land in a daze. The Psalmist, most likely Israel’s David, wrote of a time that the earth reeled and rocked, the mountains trembled and the heavens roared. And St. Paul reminds us that there are times when all of creation groans – humans and animals, land and water and air – aching to be set free from bondage.

Now, as a Bible geek, I LOVE playing with these texts: the nuances of their poetry call me deeper; the quest to unlock spiritual mysteries awakens both heart and mind.  But not everyone has the time or inclination to be playful with the Scriptures.  In fact, as a number of you have told me over the years, because life is so full and demanding, mostly you want something helpful and useful to come from whatever I share on Sunday morning. How do journalists put it: news you can use? So I’ve been thinking hard about how to talk with you about the blessings of today’s wilderness theme: 

+  How and why do they matter to people struggling to keep up with all their bills in a responsible way?  Or people juggling a few jobs just to keep their heads above water?  Or those caring for children – or aging adults – in addition to work and love and the demands of being a faithful citizen?

+  How does any of this matter beyond an abstract fascination with spiritual words and my introverted, intellectual meditations?

Here’s my hunch – there are at least two ways all of this matters – one is cosmic or macro and the other is intimate and personal. To know the Lord of the wilderness is to experience a love and power that is so vast and grand that most of our puny indiscretions and sins shrivel up and become irrelevant – they even look absurd – in contrast or comparison. It is to confess and celebrate the enormity of God’s greatness and grace in a way that puts our fears and shame into perspective.

+  Let me ask you: have you ever spent any time in a place of wilderness? It could be the Grand Canyon – or parts of the great American desert in the Southwest – or in the forests and mountains of Montana and the Dakotas

+  Where have you encountered and experienced something of the wilderness – and what did it feel like to you?

One of the spiritual mentors I often use as a guide is Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Contemplation and Action in New Mexico.  His writing and reflections are a touchstone for me when I am trying to discern why something biblical matters. Not long ago he wrote this and it speaks to the God of the wilderness to me – let’s see what it says to you.

YOU are about LIFE.  Before a unifying or transformative encounter with God or
creation, almost all people substitute the part for the whole and take their little part far too seriously—both in its greatness and in its badness. But after any true God experience, you know that you are a part of a much bigger whole. That is you know that life is not about you; you are about life. You are part of a universal and even eternal pattern. Life is living itself in you.

+  Are you still with me?  Do you hear what he’s trying to say:  that when we have been touched and embraced and encountered by the enormity of God’s love, our part in the totality is given perspective?

+  We grasp that too often we treat both our sins and our celebrations as too important?  I’ll ask you for your reactions in just a moment, but let me finish this quote.

(Such an awareness of God’s vast love and power) is an earthquake in the brain, a hurricane in the heart, a Copernican revolution of the mind, and a monumental shift in consciousness. Frankly, most do not seem interested.
Understanding that your life is not about you is the connection point with everything else. It lowers the mountains and fills in the valleys that we have created, as we gradually recognize that the myriad forms of life in the universe, including ourselves, are operative parts of the One Life that most of us call God.

And here’s the part that blows my mind and cuts to the chase about WHY and HOW this matters.

After such a discovery, I am grateful to be a part—but only a part! I do not have to figure it all out, straighten it all out or even do it perfectly by myself. I do not have to be God. It is an enormous weight off my back. All I have to do is participate! My holiness is first of all and really only God’s, and that’s why it is certain and secure —and always holy. It is my participation, my mutual indwelling, but never my achievement or performance…. True spirituality is not taught; it is caught once our sails have been unfurled to the Spirit. Henceforth, our very motivation and momentum for the journey toward holiness and wholeness is just immense gratitude—for already having it!

+  Did you get what Rohr was saying?  Can somebody summarize all of that in your own words…?

+  And what do you think about this insight – that the enormity of God’s love and power not only reminds us of our small place within it (freeing us from fretting so much about our sins and accomplishments) – but also shows us how we are connected to something so much bigger than us that all we have to do is respond in gratitude?

It seems to me that one of the blessings of wilderness – as reality and as part of the biblical story – is to give us God’s perspective on our lives.  It shows us that we are a part – a beautiful, loving but nevertheless small part – of the whole.  That is part of the reason why the gospel tells us that the Spirit of God drove Jesus out into the wilderness:  did you notice that choice of words? It wasn’t a studied choice or a deliberate action: the Holy Spirit drove him out into the wilderness where he fasted and wrestled with his demons for 40 days and 40 nights.  There are two really wonderful truths being shared with us in poetic and narrative form here: 

+  The first is a vision of harmony between heaven and humanity, creation and all that is a part of it, during the baptism of Jesus. When he comes up out of the Jordan we have an image of integrity in creation:  the sky opens up, the heavens announce Christ as the beloved, the Spirit is present, the waters and air and even our flesh participate in an act of gratitude.

+  And the second points to something that is essential for every one of us – a vision quest – a spiritual encounter with the vastness of God’s love so that we grasp and own our part in the enormity of grace.  Jesus is driven out into the wilderness so that he too can see where he fits in the plan.

In this Jesus is a symbol for you and me – we need to know, as Fr. Rohr wrote, that we are not the center of the universe. Before a transformative encounter with God or creation, almost all people substitute the part for the whole and take their little part far too seriously—both in its greatness and in its badness.

But afterwards… well what does the gospel tell us?  Jesus found his place in the wilderness even as he wrestled with demons and let the angels and animals minister to him. That’s the first macro reason why Wilderness Sunday matters – and here’s the news you can use summary – something I shared with you from Frederick Buechner earlier in the Spring:

Don't Worry, Trust God. Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . . What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter.

+  Are you with me?

+  Before I continue let me stop and ask what you what you think about this – does any of it hold any beauty or power or meaning for you – and questions?

Ok, now here’s the other reason I think this maters – the small, micro and personal reason this matters:  listening the groaning of creation – the weeping of the four-legged ones, the agony of the birds of the air and the fish of the sea to say nothing of the cries of our trees and land – invites us to hear the tears all around us and to respond with tenderness.  We aren’t being asked to solve every problem.  We aren’t being scolded for not doing something huge or changing the course of history. Listening more carefully and responding with tenderness helps us live more fully our heart.  It strengthens compassion and encourages living in harmony rather than discord. And here’s what I mean:

Loving and caring for my strange and often skittish dog Lucie does not change the world in any obvious way – but it changes me.

·   Since she has come into our life I have become a little more patient, a little more aware of how my life affects hers, a little more conscious of how my tenderness might ease a little of her suffering.

·   In a way, Lucie has been a spiritual guide for me, showing me how to become more tender and that has a number of consequences – not the least of which involves the couple hundred people I meet and talk with every week. They, too have wounds and pain, they too are riddled with anxieties and blessings, hopes and fears. 

·   And truth be told I’m not always aware – or sensitive of the needs of others – I can miss the clues in profound and sad way.  And not because I want to, but because I’m too wrapped up in my own agenda and my own hopes and fears.  But my four legged spiritual director, Lucie, shows me what a dead end that can be – how I lose out by not sharing tenderness – and how others do, too.
 
It is a small thing, right? But I’ve learned over the two years she has been in our home that the more I pay attention, the better I am at living into the values I most value and respect.  Listening to creation groaning evokes the best in us – right where we live – so that we can share our best with those who need us. I just read a tragic story from Japan. Maybe you know about this, too.  There are coves along the coast of Japan:

… where one can hear the penetrating screams from dolphins being murdered. It seems that fishermen pound the water with metal poles to confuse these sound-sensitive creatures – the dolphins – and in their confusion they are herded into covers where they are then slaughtered and sold in tins at the supermarket. The dolphins know what is happening to them, they know they are being murdered. Like humans they are self-aware and groan in anticipation. After spikes are driven into their heads, they are held under water until the blood pours out. They take five minutes to die and all the they are bleeding out their companions are crying in sympathy as the sea runs red with blood. (The Advertiser, Oct. 31, 2003, p. 3)

·   The apostle Paul tells us that as the whole creation groans, the Spirit of God groans, too for the Lord shares our pain – the pain of all of creation – a pain that is raised up as sighs too deep for human words.

·   And as we ache, as creation groans, the Spirit intercedes for us – comes to us with a presence of grace – that is also deeper than human words.

Theologians and those far smarter than I have said this is akin to Christ crying
out on the Cross:  Jesus felt all the agony of human suffering on the Cross – a sign and symbol to us that God feels our pain – and here we’re told the Holy Spirit joins us with sighs too deep for human words in the midst of creation groaning. 

+  Knowing that God is with me in my fears and pain doesn’t take away the agony; knowing that the Spirit is with all of creation in our groaning doesn’t make it any less horrible or ugly.

+  And yet knowing God’s presence is with me allows me to continue even in the most broken experiences of life.  And more than continue, says St. Paul in Romans 5, knowing that God is with me in my pain I can trust that my suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and this hope does not disappoint because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

There is a big picture that empowers us NOT to worry but to trust – there is a little picture that invites us to listen more loudly and live more tenderly – and there is a cosmic picture that assures us that God is with us even in our worst agony and fear.  And I don’t know if there is any BETTER news we can use, beloved, so let those who have ears to hear, hear the good news for today.

summertime is half over...

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