"The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own." Frederick Buechner
Today is Sabbath time for us: hot tea, slow reading of the NY Times, snippets of conversation about the books we're reading and later taking down the Christmas decorations (we are a week late because my little man, Louie, joined us after Epiphany.) Large, dry, magical snowflakes are starting to fall. It is a good day to be inside to rest and reflect on where we are within the harshness and bounty of life. Buechner is right: we can do much by ourselves, but we cannot become fully human is solitude. 

As I look backwards over the week past, yesterday was a highlight. There were organizing meetings and phone calls for the social justice convention we're launching on January 25th. There were pastoral visits and quiet conversations, too. There was a small group accountability meeting re: finding mission partners within our local businesses and social service agencies. And a late dinner with my small sabbatical planning team (a mini-chapter of the larger working group) to sort through the multitude of great ideas for the congregation's sabbatical experience that we've been considering over the past six months. Five broad touchstones are taking shape and form that will be exciting:
+ First, during my journey into a jazz spirituality in Montreal, it will be summer time in the Berkshires - and that means we must NOT over-schedule the congregation's sabbatical experience. Life slows down. People go away. And we're not going to fight or ignore this truth.  So what we will offer is: a) worship that is creative and faithful; b) pastoral care that is compassionate; c) three broad study encounters with jazz and music; and d) two concerts at First Church to serve as sabbatical bookends. 

+ Second, the first concert of the sabbatical will kick off our engagement with a performance of Paul Winter's "Missa Gaia" on Sunday, April 19th . We will start working on this next week. Our band, Between the Banks, will form the core for the complicated vocal work and we'll bring in the church choir for supplemental work, too (plus a few important friends.) This announces the depth of what the sabbatical means: a radical rethinking of genre-bending music and spirituality within our Christian tradition. If you know Paul Winter's ground-breaking work, he not only incorporates jazz with traditional Western classical and liturgical music, but he has discovered some of the music of God's first word in nature. His "Kyrie" in this mass setting is built on a descending tritone with a flatted fifth - it is literally the song of an Alaskan wolf - a constellation of notes that was also once considered to be the music of the devi  by the Churchl. Winter, however, knows we are moving beyond superstition and fear (sometimes) and so embraces the once feared notes as a new song of unity. He puts it like this:

The Kyrie - prayer for mercy - contains the only Greek words left in the Western Mass and dates from the earliest years of Christianity. Ours is undoubtedly the first Kyrie composed by a wolf... Hers is for me a mystical melody. It includes the interval known as the tritone - three whole steps - which is my favorite as it evokes the mystery of the living earth. The occurrence of the tritone in this wolf-song, and our usage of it in the Earth Mass, are ironic. In the aesthetics of earlier centuries in Western culture, the tritone was regarded as the interval of the Devil. It was used by composers as recently as Wagner and Strauss to express the diabolical. That we can now use this interval without that kind of mind-set shows we are maturing... for just as we are now graduating from our inherited European fears of wolves and wilderness, so with the devils and dragons we conjure with our minds disappear as we re-member, through music and Mother Earth, our sacred connection with the universe.

It is a complex and challenging musical selection that will be taxing - and ecstatic.

+ Third, during June, July and August there will be a time for study and then an experience of transformative music. The popular jazz vocalist, Diana Krall, will be at Tanglewood in June so we'll have a three part encounter with Ms. Krall. One week there will be presentation about what she is doing with popular music as a jazz artist. Then people will attend her concert the next week (with scholarships available so that no one will be excluded because of the cost of tickets.) And for the third week there will be a discussion of what was heard and experienced - and why that matters. We'll do the same thing when Wynton Marsailis brings the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to Tanglewood in July. And during August, our study will look at: a) why we sing in worship; b) where does this music come from; c) how the old tradition can become new with jazz interpretation; and d) how does that work in our church community.

+ Fourth, after my return to worship in September, we'll start planning to present our second public jazz experience: a Jazz Vespers during the Pittsfield Jazz Festival in October. It is our hope that on the other side of this sabbatical - with lots of experience and conversation and listening - we will be ready to share a new way of being creative with the wider community.

+ And, fifth, just to sweeten the pot and let this sabbatical help us embody our best hopes and dreams, we hope to have a broadly inter-faith team lead worship for the first three weeks of my absence in May. For the core of the sabbatical, a trusted and skilled colleague will be in residence. But we want a rabbi, a priest and an ordained clergy woman from another tradition to be our worship leaders to kick things off. I could never have come up with this on my own. I need those I love and trust to help me do ministry - and they are all essential for this sabbatical. We have been able to synthesize six months of discussion into something focused and exciting. And now we need to bring the whole package back to the wider group both for review and correction - and to add new twists, too.

Buechner closes his reflection like this:  

...You cannot become human on your own. Surely that is why, in Jesus' sad joke, the rich man has as hard a time getting into Paradise as that camel through the needle's eye because with his credit card in his pocket, the rich man is so effective at getting for himself everything he needs that he does not see that what he needs more than anything else in the world can be had only as a gift. He does not see that the one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept, even from le bon Dieu himself, a helping hand.

Rest well - here's a clip from last week's concert - with our band doing "Both Sides Now."


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