Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shake the dust off your sandals...

In the recent edition of The Christian Century, M. Craig Barnes writes about the loneliness of a leader. It is worth the time - and found me at exactly the right moment. (check it out @ http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2015-02/lone-leaders) I was feeling blue - grieving on a few different levels, to be sure - but also a bit ambushed, too.


Usually I have the self-awareness after a funeral to disappear for a few hours. I am vulnerable and tired and rarely my best self. I know that many people want the pastor to hang-out and visit after the liturgy - sometimes go back to the house and talk more deeply, too - but I can't do that. I am totally played after a funeral. Spent. Toast. And no good for anyone - myself included. I know this about my soul. I've learned to practice self-care over the years and usually slip into the darkness after such an event. 


But for some reason I didn't do what I know to be best yesterday. After greeting folk on their way to coffee and refreshments, I lingered for a time in the Sanctuary. That's where I got ambushed - and while I could feel it starting to happen as I stood there listening, I was just too tired to put up a fight. So I got knocked around a bit verbally all with a smile and a sweet voice. Complaints, criticisms, triangulated snippets of gossip and other trash talk all shared in the dulcet tones of "I just want to be helpful." All offered like a knife between the eyes.


That's how soul vampires work, you know? They have a unique and well honed ability to sniff out your most vulnerable moment and then pounce when you are most defenseless. Those who aren't pastors - or church professionals - will think I am being paranoid here and I don't deny it; but for those who haven't worked in the institutional church, just ask around a bit - take a walk in your pastor's shoes, too - and you'll discover I am being overly gentle in my soul vampire description. Because, you see, there is almost nothing compassionate about a soul vampire's 
content or timing. Doing my own inner work, I can learn about my shadow from these vultures, but it requires an enormous amount of simultaneous translation. Left alone, their words and actions are poisonous.

Think about it: would you dare pick the first five minutes after a profound funeral to dump your accumulated criticisms on anyone? Of course not. Such an act is not only totally insensitive and inappropriate, it is cruel. Even mean-spirited. And that is the point: the style, content and timing of a soul vampire is designed to both personally hurt and then bleed a leader's insecurities. M. Craig Barnes notes that this is why leaders become lonely - you can't really lead people into new ways of living through consensus and focus groups - you often have to charge forward on your own. This leaves former power brokers in the dust, so leaders have to plan to manage their reactions. And leaders must also make certain they minimize the places where they might be ambushed.


In other words, there are very few people who know the challenges of the office and are prepared and able to stand with you in solidarity. That goes with the territory. Barnes is insightful when he writes: 


Pastors often talk about their loneliness, even though in their work they’re surrounded by many people. What pastors mean by loneliness is not what most people think of it as. And it’s not unique to their calling. According to more than one editorialist, President Obama has given up on building a grand American consensus and is now focused on what he always wanted to do as a leader. His old slogan “Yes we can” has become “I’ll figure out a way.”



This makes me wonder exactly what goes on in the mind of a leader who tires of building consensus and just strives to get things done. Americans have never agreed about anything. So our greatest presidents eventually found ways to be loyal only to the still small voice that kept whispering in their ears, “You know what you need to do.” This is how Washington found himself leading a revolution, how Lincoln got us through the Civil War, and how Roosevelt pulled the nation out of a depression. They were never leading a parade.

Opponents threw everything they could at them. All of these presidents had flaws that made them easy targets for gossip. And the politics of accomplishing their goals were staggering. At the end of every long day they were completely alone, but they kept moving in the right direction, haunted by a still small voice that would not let them stop.

Three thoughts have been swimming through my head since yesterday's encounter:

+ First, I am so very grateful that I have learned to NOT react immediately when I get whacked. Long ago I learned from Fr. Ed Hays that there is a wisdom to our wounds that more often than not teaches us how to grow into the Spirit of Christ. When something happens that makes me want to punch another, I must be peaceful. When I want to run away, I must pause and be present. When I feel furious, I must listen more carefully. And, of course, I must to do in a context of quiet contemplation before making any response.

+ Second, I am even more grateful that I have a life-partner - and a few colleagues on my staff - who both get the challenge of the soul vampire and trust and care for me enough to help me through the ambushes. They are true life-savers and I love them all more as each day goes by.

+ And third, I have come to see that these ambushes can be times of validation, too (after steps one and two, of course!) If we weren't making real and vibrant changes for the better, I wouldn't be getting complaints from the ancien regime. Without trying to romanticize or sentimentalize the problem, I think Barnes gets it right when he writes:

The most striking portrait of John F. Kennedy depicts him standing alone in the White House with his head bowed down, lost in a ponderous thought. I think he’s arguing with the still small voice. I can hear him saying, “They will never buy it.” But the voice just kept pushing him into his lonely convictions about leadership. It doesn’t matter if you are leading a nation, company, congregation, school, or family—a time comes when you just have to do what you believe to be right. You give up on consensus, being admired, or even appreciated. It’s the inner voice you have to serve.

This is never how the leader begins. Even the process of being chosen implies a contract to serve those who made the choice, and all leaders assume that means figuring out a way to bring everyone together around a spectacular dream. But it just doesn’t work out that way in the end. We shoot our dreamers. Sometimes literally, but always metaphorically.
There is something in our ever-so-democratic, antihierarchical, big-on-transparency, questioning-the-process affections that make us resist this core of leadership. But the Bible is filled with examples of women and men who had a vision from God and knew they had to throw their lives into fulfilling it even if it meant leaving town in a shower of rocks. It’s hard to find a prophet, apostle, or Jesus in search of a grand consensus.

I recently asked my current generation of church leaders to read and then re-read the "renewal document" that was fashioned as part of the process that led to my call.  It is a humble and even tame collection of ideas that were fiercely resisted by many who knew the church had to change but refused to give up their small, private favorite fiefdoms.  Some resisted sharing the power-making process; others refused to welcome the music of the 20th century into worship; still others were afraid to make an Open and Affirming commitment; and on and on it goes. I was called - some would say hired but the truth is I was called - to both implement this plan for renewal and then reshape it for our lived experience.

The first three years were complicated - exciting and challenging - but filled with resistance and fear. In time, trust was created, new staff brought into the mix, new lay leadership organized and the culture of the congregation began to shift. Not completely, and never all at once, but still profoundly. My ambush yesterday was a sobering reminder that we are on the right track. It is also proof that "rust never sleeps" as Neil Young sang so well. Just below the surface is an anger from some that our renewal has worked - and is working. The soul vampires among this cadre are relentless. Note to myself: NEVER forget this and NEVER (if you can help it) let yourself get sucked in the mire again. 

When I was back in seminary, my mentor - Ray Swartzback - used to say to me: we want every soul to be embraced by the loving goodness of our Lord - we just want some to experience this sooner than others! He also said that in every ministry there comes a time when the pastor and his/her team have to practice "shaking the dust off our sandals" and moving on. Amen and amen. As the ancient church fathers and mothers used to say from time to time:
illegitimi non carborundum."






Friday, February 27, 2015

A slave to intensity...

After today's funeral - a loving and quiet tribute to a gentle and creative
woman - I find myself caught in melancholia. No biggie, but those feelings are a clue: the wisdom of the wounds insight, right? When you feel like running away to hide, DO THE OPPOSITE! Made me think of one of my favorite poems:
The Time Before Death
Friend? hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think... and think... while you are alive.
What you call "salvation" belongs to the time
            before death.

If you don't break your ropes while you're alive,
do you think ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten --
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the
          City of Death.
If you make love with the divine now, in the next
life you will have the face of satisfied desire.

So plunge into the truth, find out who the Teacher is,
Believe in the Great Sound!

Kabir says this: When the Guest is being searched for,
it is the intensity of the longing for the Guest
that does all the work.

Look at me, and you will see a slave of that intensity.

Kabir

Two highlights of the liturgy: Dianne and Carlton's take on "Balm in Gilead" and playing Bill Evans' "Peace Piece" with Carlton. Pure heaven...

NOTE: When I am tired and sad - filled with grief and weariness - I can let the "soul vampires" slip into my vulnerable personal space. This is ALWAYS a mistake and I can feel my heart being sucked away while it is happening, but in that tired state, I don't have the fortitude to cry out: STOP. It happened again after today's truly tender funeral - and afterwards I was having what my AA friends call a "pity party." So, I took a wee nap and then my dog assaulted me because she needed attention. And guess what: when a crazy, needy dog is wrestling with you on your bed - chewing on your arm and begging for attention - there isn't much time or space to feel sorry for yourself. So, like my mentor in ministry used to say about his soul vampires: F***em if that can't take a joke. 

Life is better now - and I think it is time for steak!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Got a feeling and I can't let go...

No energy within me today whatsoever. "Grief will do that," Di said with tender wisdom. I awoke exhausted and just pulled myself through most of the day. After trying to write a funeral homily for 2+ hours, I gave up for the moment and just sat quietly with my puppy and let the feelings and thoughts swim around my head. In time I got a few clues... and will get up early in the morning to organize them for a 2:00 pm liturgy.

The highlight of my day came when I shared tea with a woman whose dear husband - a local artist and friend - died just a year ago. We spoke about how he spoke to me about his approaching death. We remembered how he tried to spare her the hard details because life was already hard enough with his broken body. We shared memories, conversations and hunches. It was hard, beautiful and another two hours of holy ground.

Tomorrow, at the funeral of one of the saints, the Spirit will intercede with sighs too deep for human words. Tonight I am going to honor my weary grief and take a break...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

These three abide...

One of the things I cherish about pastoral ministry is helping families prepare a funeral. Odd? Perhaps, but it is such a privilege to sit with those who have loved deeply and tell stories, listen carefully so that we might pull together the essence of what will become our last formal celebration of a person's life. Other, more informal blessings will happen, to be sure. We're planning such a gathering a year from now when we set my mother and father's ashes to their final resting place in Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagogg-chaubunagungamaugg.  But the closing ceremony of a person's life should be bathed in respect, reverence, love, humor, honor, humility and hope - so I ache to bring my best to these times. 

With gratitude, I had another of those sacred times this afternoon. I heard new stories about Grace who, at 94, left life much in the manner she lived it: with verve, faith, a commitment to caring for others and tenderness. We laughed and wept together, shared hymns and scripture along with many, many memories. As my predecessor in this office later wrote: this clan was filled with wonderful people. And if Grace isn't already in the warm embrace of God, there is no hope for any of us. It was holy ground, indeed.

My ministry has come to rest upon honoring these times - that and helping young people know they are beloved and making music with creative souls. St. Paul said: Faith, hope and love, these three abide, and I concur. But for me it would be these three abide: gently guiding grieving people towards the grace of God in hard times, playing with teens who want to be taken seriously and making music with artists who are in love with beauty. 

There were no clearly defined expectations for this funeral - just a collection of notes and poems - and memories of a life lived well and full. One hand written snippet made a nod to T.S. Eliott's "Four Quartets" and the four salvages - stones off Cape Ann, MA.

For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled...


Tonight I give thanks to God for the fullness of this day.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"Bewilderment and moral outrage" - Job part 2...

NOTE: My worship notes for Lent II 2015. My in-worship series on Job continues with a look at what Job's friends teach us about religion without compassion.
Introduction
The great Jewish author and ethicist, Elie Wiesel, once said about the Book of Job that throughout his ups and downs, God’s servant never lost his faith even in the midst of his most anguishing trials.  He may, however, have lost his mind at times – and it is to that development that I want to call our attention today. Specifically, I want to share with you some thoughts and reflections based upon two broad challenges:

+  First, how Job’s friends respond to his grief and agony. These three individuals love Job. They are people of faith and integrity. But what they say and do bring no hope or compassion to Job. And in this, the book of Job offers a biting critique of the ways traditional religions often response to suffering. Job’s friends make it clear that more often than not we get it wrong – so I want to spend a little time with Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar – Job’s three pious friends.

+  And second, I want to share with you Job’s response to both his own physical, emotional and spiritual agony and the truly unhelpful counsel that comes from his friends.  For what Job shows us – and expresses – is a healthy and holy use of anger.  And because Christians are so often uncomfortable with anger, I think it could be redemptive to pay attention to what God’s servant Job does with it, ok?

So, first the words and actions of Job’s friends and then Job’s angry response. And I am going to ask you to pray with me so that we might be grounded for this time of study and spiritual searching:

Our heart is comforted in its awareness of you, O Lord, for you are the soul within our soul and the life within all life.  Center us in your grace and open us to your truth that we might grow in faith, hope and love according to the pattern of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Insights
Because this study is cumulative, I wonder if anyone might be able to recap what we talked about last week so that everyone is starting from the same place. What broad themes did I share with you last week about the start of Job’s story? What has happened to him according to the beginning of the book? Does anyone recall? 

Four things:  1) we learned that Job is an anxious man who is always worried about pleasing God; 2) that God in heaven accepts Satan’s wager that Satan can make Job curse God by bringing him suffering; and 3) that Satan’s curse results in the death of Job’s camels, cattle and sheep – his livelihood – as well as his house and all his children – his family and security.

Do you recall that?  The first three chapters of Job set things up – so in addition to Job’s suffering – the last thing that happened is that Job’s wife asked him to curse God and die, but how did Job reply?  He said all of life’s blessings come from the Lord, so we must learn to be patient with the suffering, too. Does that sound familiar?

That’s the opening and presenting picture:  a faithful person – not necessarily a Jew – but an anxious God lover who finds his life turned upside down by tragedy.  The second part of the story involves what Job’s friends tell him about the meaning of his suffering. Each person advances a theological or spiritual perspective that was popular in the day.  Actually and sadly they are still popular in many religions including our own.

+ So what these various speeches represent – and I should tell you that each of the three men give three sets of speeches throughout this book – is a religious perspective on suffering.   Are you with me on that?

+ You see, what the theologians behind the story are doing is showing us how traditional piety and thinking about suffering is often inadequate and even sometimes cruel to those who are hurting.  In order to make the climax of the story even more persuasive, they set things up in a way that forces us to wrestle with three initially loving but increasingly ugly and offensive perspectives on suffering.

And I have to tell you that I think the theological editors of Job are brilliant in their construction of this story. In chapter two they make clear that Job’s friends are not to be considered straw men or caricatures. These are men who love Job.  When they come to visit him, the Bible tells us right away that they noticed their friend’s anguish – he looked like hell – so they cried out for him. They felt some-thing of his pain. And acted in solidarity with him:  they tore their own clothes and sprinkled their faces with ashes. This was a common way to express grief. Further, they sat with their beloved friend Job for seven days in silence.  These are NOT fair-weather friends. These are men of love and trust.

And it is my hunch that this was included in the text to show us what we
should do when we want to bring comfort to our loved ones in their suffering:  silence and presence. We can’t change anything. We can’t explain it or even comprehend it – but we can share it.  How does that hymn go: I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you; I will share your joy and sorrow ‘til we’ve seen this journey through. This is a foretaste of the wisdom expressed at the end of Job – and it stands in stark contrast to what happens over the next almost 28 chapters – is that clear? Any questions before I go forward?

Starting in chapter three and moving through chapter 38 of Job, there are a series of speeches and reactions – a theological dialogue, if you will – between Job’s friends and then Job himself.  Here’s my summary of what takes place – and you can read it all yourselves, of course – but here’s the USA Today version: 

Job’s first friend, Eliphaz the Temanite, starts off mild and composed but soon grows increasingly harsh.  The essence of his message is simple:  God does not punish the innocent; rather, only the wicked experience suffering. So, if you are suffering or experiencing travail, you must be wicked and sinful. Eliphaz tells this to Job over and over again: your suffering is proof of your sin.

+ This is an ancient but not forgotten approach to suffering. It is known in all theological and religious traditions and is grounded in the belief that God’s justice is experienced in this life unquestioningly.  If you are suffering, it is because you are guilty.

+ Some traditional Christian understandings of suffering have sprung from this harsh and uncreative interpretation of Deuteronomy and Leviticus that emphasize God’s justice in human experience. In his book, Why Does It Hurt, evangelical author Philip Yancey writes there are some traditional Calvinists who jump to this conclusion based on their fundamentalist reading of Scripture:  God knows all things – God fully rewards faith and punishes sin – therefore, if you are suffering there must be some sin you have neither confessed nor repented – and so your suffering continues.

Any one want to comment on that: what do you think about this approach to suffering?

Now here’s a challenge: Job essentially agrees that his Eliphaz is right – he, too, believes and trusts that God is just – that God punishes the sinful only as they deserve. But try as he might, Job can’t find any evidence or proof of his own sin – it doesn’t exist – and yet his suffering continues.This is what makes him lose his mind according to Elie Wiesel’s commentary, ok? His mind starts to split because his experience and reason are in high conflict with his theology. Eventually, Job cries out that his friend is unkind and cruel - Job asks God to let him die.  Because he can’t get his mind around the fact that his under-standing of God’s justice demands punishment for sin – and that no longer works for his experience.

It made me think of the transgendered teen, Leelah Alcorn, in Ohio last December who stepped in front of a 17 ton tractor trailer truck along Interstate 71 because her parents defined her as a sinner. After years of fear and judgment, she saw her only option as death by suicide because a harsh and narrow theology had turned her parents and her church into enemies. That’s just what Job concluded – so let’s never think the consequences of such theology are just for another place and time. They are tragically alive and well all around us.

Job himself begs for death rather than shout at God because his mind is breaking and his heart is sick: his life no longer jives with what his theology and he doesn’t know what to do. Notice one more nuance: Job never says that God doesn’t punish injustice with suffering. Not at all. Job never puts limits on the One who is Holy. He simply says if there is only ONE way that God works in the world, something is out of whack because my life no longer fits – and it is making him sick.

Enter Job’s second friend, Bildad the Shuhite, who takes the story from bad to worse.  Bildad’s position is essentially:  you must be a hypocrite, Job, because your pain is so awful. (How’s that for friendly compassion?) The more you complain, the more you mock the Lord and prove your guilt. “God never betrays the innocent or takes the hand of the wicked. God will fill your mouth with laughter (only) if you stop protesting and acting like a hypocrite.”

This is essentially a war of competing syllogisms. Job’s friends say: suffering comes from God; God is just; therefore Job is guilty because he is suffer-ing. Job says: Suffering comes from God; I am innocent; Therefore, God must be unjust (this is what breaks his mind.)

+ Sadly, nobody (except God at the end of Job) says: Suffering may come from the Lord; God is just; and Job is innocent (with NO therefore!) It would seem that both Eliphaz and Bildad are locked into very harsh notions of God’s eternal judgment, yes? (Stephen Mitchell, Out of the Whirlwind)

Now Christians have been known to say similar things albeit in a highly
sanitized manner. Have you ever heard – or said – something like: “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Whatever that might mean to the speaker, whenever a person hears it, it means shut up and deal with your problems, right? How about: “God has a plan for everything; if you wait faithfully you will find out what God wants to give you from this hard time. Just trust in the Lord.” Or even: “You may never know what this is all about but you will when you meet God after your death.”

+ From my perspective, those things may sound pious and spiritual but they are untrue and cruel. There’s no compassion – no solidarity – no heart-to-heart connection in such words.

+ In fact, as Stephen Mitchell notes in his commentary, the point of such sayings really has nothing to do with God and everything to do with human reactions. These are words that distance us from another’s pain – they use God as an excuse for pushing another away who might cause us sorrow or involvement or tender love.

Notice what the gospel for today tells us about Christian connections and authentic love.  After Peter confesses that Christ is Lord, Mark’s gospel says: "then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Authentic love makes a connection – and it includes suffering – for such is the true way of the Lord.  Peter tries to keep himself and his beloved Jesus safe by arguing with the Lord, but Christ calls him out saying with some anger and passion: Get thee behind me, Satan.

+ Using pious and religious language to diminish the cost of discipleship and the consequences of compassion are never of the Lord.

So let’s bring Job’s third friend, Zophar the Nahmathite, into the mix: he doesn’t add a lot that is new except one twist:  he wants Job to repent of his sins so that God might forgive him with mercy.  Zophar emphasizes a God who is more like a “Stalinesque tyrant” (Mitchell) than the author of Psalm 22 but he wants to remind us of God’s mercy. I think he truly wants God’s grace to come to Job even when he becomes mean spirited and belligerent in the process.  Have you ever said something stupid or cruel to someone you love when you are frustrated? I know I have – and the older I get the more examples I have to confess to the Lord.  Zophar goes too far – and in this he also makes a mess of things because he doesn’t take the time to really trust Job. He has a one-size fits all theology and he’s going squeeze Job into it no matter what.

Literalists tend to do that with theology, forcing their limited understanding of the sacred upon the rest of us, and that is never good for anyone. For those with a narrow take on how God’s justice works, everything that happens is directly controlled by the Lord – including our pain.

+ Some suffering they believe is given to teach us something; other pain comes to us to warn us away of deeper trouble and sin. And some anguish will never be fully understood in this realm, but will be explained as part of God’s loving plan after this life is over.

+ I think there is some truth in all of these claims. Some suffering teaches us not to touch a hot stove, right? Some pain warns us away of further danger and sin. When I was 8 I carelessly lost a neighbor’s electro magnet I had borrowed for a school science project. After hemming and hawing and avoiding this mistake, my father finally took me over to our neighbor’s house to explain what had happened, to ask for forgiveness and to work out a repayment plan. That pain taught me there are consequences to my actions and while I hated it, I also learned from it, too. Some pain warns us away of worse things to come.

+ And there is some pain I will never fully comprehend and trust that because now I see as through a glass darkly, later I shall see face to face.  All of these things are true – they are also incomplete. Not all pain is edifying. Not all suffering gives birth to greater moral wisdom. And certainly not all of our anguish is part of a cosmic lesson that will only be revealed further along and by and by in the sky.

Job’s friends give him every reason to be angry – and that is exactly what
happens as the book of Job unfolds.  It is poem written to give us permission to do what Job does: express bewilderment and moral outrage.  “My mind is breaking, Lord, because what I know of you is too small!  What I can figure out is too harsh. I KNOW you to be the source of life that drew me out of my mother’s womb and made me safe at her breasts.” (Psalm 22) So HELP me!

Conclusion
Beloved, we can never be too angry with God. There are no mysteries we must keep hidden away or silent about. And there is NO immediate certainly that we will grasp God’s compassion in the midst of our anguish.

This, beloved, is the path of Biblical wisdom. Don’t be in a rush for answers. Don’t be afraid to question the Lord with vigor. Never accept sloppy agape or cheap piety from your friends or your church in place of compassion. And always know that you can bring everything to the Lord in prayer – even those things that frighten or disgust you – even your sense of abandonment – because the mystery of God’s love is greater than even our wildest imagination. And so the journey of Lent deepens….

credits:
1) www.khackney.com
2) www.wikiart.org
3) www.gopixpic.com
4) imgkid.com
5) art.ekstrax.com
6) michellehinz.com

Monday, February 23, 2015

Freezing but grateful...

It is bitterly cold outside - and only modestly better inside the house. We have sweaters and long johns, multiple layers of socks, too. I am grateful that when the frozen pipe burst yesterday there wasn't more water. Twenty four hours later, the basement and garage are mostly dry. I came across this wonderful quote from one of my favorite books a short time ago. I read it in Tucson and commend it to you wherever you are now:

"What was asked of Jesus in the desert is what is asked of us, that we give up illusion–its false promises and its addicting inertia–and “come to our senses. If instead of waiting for stones to be changed to bread, we share the food we have; if rather than waiting for the fantasy job or lover, we engage the people and work of our lives; if rather than waiting for rescue, we lay down our lives for our friends, then we depart the world of deadly illusion for a living reality in which, “every day the real caress,” as Anais Nin wrote, “replaces the ghostly lover.”from "Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith" by Nora Gallagher.

This morning the local paper ran this article on my upcoming sabbatical - which is only 66 days away! Check it out here: http://www.berkshireeagle.com/local/ci_27578451/grant-will-allow-pittsfields-first-church-christ-minister) This morning we also did some long distance phone planning with a friend/colleague who will be the interim sabbatical minister during my time away.  There were a variety of other meetings - and planning for a funeral, too.

As this day comes to a close it is clear: Life is full. Life is good. I am frezzing, but grateful.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lift up your hearts...

I spent the morning at church setting up our in-worship study of Job. When we came home, Di heard a "strange" sound: water pouring into the back room of the basement. Alas... "suffering is ubiquitous" I had observed earlier. No shit, Sherlock, I thought as we mopped and bailed our way through 4" of freezing water. Oh well...

Later in the day we Skyped with my main man, Louie, and his dear momma. And now I'm making pork chops and mashed potatoes. Like is still good. Here is Louie sharing the Sursum Corda even while he is still working on English. "The Lord be with you... lift up your hearts," indeed.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ashes to ashes...

This morning's NY Times showed a provocative photograph - children in a cage surrounded by bombed-out rubble and fire - and it is captivating. You can't help but gawk at it much like rubber-neckers passing a car crash on the Interstate. It is horrifying and alluring both at the same time.
The headline, "Children Caged for Effect," tells a challenging story, one involving the 200,000 Syrians who have been killed since the start of the civil war and the "displacement of more than one third of the nation's population." These deaths, unlike the Tarantino-like executions of IS, have largely gone unnoticed - certainly quickly forgotten - by most of the world because they have sadly become part of the status quo. The Times reports:

And that difference in Western perception of the two threats exists partly because shock videos work. Even in Saudi Arabia, where beheadings are the state’s method of capital punishment, they are not broadcast. When images of a recent execution leaked, they created a scandalBut the perception gap is also because the shelling of cities in Syria has become almost numbingly normal. It is as if the value of trauma and shock has undergone a hyperinflation that neuters all but the most exaggerated images of violence. That, in turn, has pushed human rights advocates and activists to search for eye-grabbing images of their own. Baraa Abdulrahman, an anti-government activist in the Damascus suburb of Douma, desperate to direct the world’s attention to government airstrikes that were killing scores of people, set up a scene that echoed the Islamic State video in which the caged Jordanian pilot, in an orange jumpsuit, was burned alive.He ordered an iron cage from a blacksmith and placed it against a backdrop of collapsed buildings, and then filled it with a gaggle of neighborhood children dressed in orange. As the camera rolled, he waved a burning torch, asking why the world responded to the killing of the pilot but not to the deaths of children in Douma. Some of the children in the cage, he admitted, were frightened and cried.

Yesterday's Times printed an insightful column by David Brooks, the conservative liberals love to quote, in which he called out the incomplete and fundamentally useless political analysis of Islamic extremism currently being advanced in most Western, secular circles. "From the very beginning, we have treated the problem of terrorism through the prism of our own assumptions and our own values. We have solipsistically assumed that people turn to extremism because they can’t get what we want, and fail to realize that they don’t want what we want, but want something they think is higher." He then goes on to note what others have been wrestling with  since at least the time  Steve Earle wrote "John Walker's Blues."

Religious extremism exists on three levels. It grows out of economic and political dysfunction. It is fueled by perverted spiritual ardor. It is organized by theological conviction. American presidents focus almost exclusively on the economic and political level because that’s what polite people in Western capitals are comfortable talking about...In short, the president took his secular domestic agenda and projected it as a way to prevent young men from joining ISIS and chopping off heads. But people don’t join ISIS, or the Islamic State, because they want better jobs with more benefits. ISIS is one of a long line of anti-Enlightenment movements, led by people who have contempt for the sort of materialistic, bourgeois goals that dominate our politics. These people don’t care if their earthly standard of living improves by a few percent a year. They’re disgusted by the pleasures we value, the pluralism we prize and the emphasis on happiness in this world, which we take as public life’s ultimate end. They’re not doing it because they are sexually repressed. They are doing it because they think it will ennoble their souls and purify creation.

One of the reasons I continue to work in the Church - not the only reason but certainly one that I have made a conscious choice about - has to do with exactly what Brooks describes in "The Nationalist Solution."  Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse. You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision. There will always be alienated young men fueled by spiritual ardor. Terrorism will be defeated only when they find a different fulfillment, even more bold and self-transcending.

I am convinced that post-modern, compassionate Christianity CAN celebrate the heroic impulse. It CAN offer a life-changing, counter-cultural alternative to the cruel and greed-filled bottom line that continues to pollute Mother Earth while corrupting our best selves. It CAN burn just as wildly in our souls as jihadism - albeit in a peace-making mode. True, passionate and counter-cultural Christian spirituality often frightens those raised on "nice" religion, polite church and well-mannered rituals.  But Brooks is right when he writes:
Young Arab men are not going to walk away from extremism because they can suddenly afford a Slurpee. They will walk away when they can devote themselves to a revived Egyptian nationalism, Lebanese nationalism, Syrian nationalism, some call to serve a cause that connects nationalism to dignity and democracy and transcends a lifetime. Extremism isn’t mostly about Islam. It is about a yearning for righteousness rendered malevolent by apocalyptic theology. Muslim clerics can fix the theology. The rest of us can help redirect the spiritual ardor toward humane and productive ends.

One of the ways that progressive Christian Church in the United States can be a part of the alternative rather than a root cause of the alienation and boredom, is to reclaim our wild spiritual roots. We can reclaim the heroic impulse of our rites of passage - and put them into action. We can train our young women and men to be warriors for peace and combatants for compassion. We can challenge them in sacrificial ways that test their bodies as well as their hearts and minds. We can insist that our liturgies become more than book reports. We can weep and laugh, carry one another when our grief is too much to bear and celebrate the real benchmarks of authentic living. We can refuse to hate - and embrace one another by seeking common ground even in the midst of riddicule and fear. We can walk shoulder to shoulder with those who are oppressed, make circles of safety around mosques and synagogues, speak out and up for those without a voice and TRAIN our young people to do so humility and wisdom. 

I know that one of the reasons why I haved ached for my up-coming sabbatical is so that I can return to the struggle for the souls of our young people refreshed. I've seen churches waste the time our children share with us. I've seen us burden them with tasks that don't matter and push them to the periphery until they give up on us in frustration and boredom. And I've seen their deepest fears and anxieties minimized and ignored. Because I know that there is some real work to be done with our kids:, I pray: God give us the strength to seize this moment.

Friday, February 20, 2015

With sighs too deep for human words...

One of the matriarchs of our faith community passed from this life to life
eternal early this morning. I had the privilege to sit with her again for a short time last night and share prayers both spoken and silent in the company of her family. It was a quiet and dignified death - as befits her spirit - a truly good death as the Spanish poets like to say. Watching family members comfort her, shedding quiet tears together as we remembered stories of her spunky past and quick wit and tongue, is one of the deep blessings of this calling. 

It is a sacred privilege to be with people in these vulnerable moments, evidence of pure grace for me, for I know I can never earn nor deserve access to such intimacy mixed with fear and love no matter how hard I tried. For those who share my office, these are times of gift and holy obligation. And while we are always inadequate to the need, I have discovered that when we enter these encounters with open hands and respectful hearts, the Spirit truly does intercede for us with sighs too deep for human words and something hallowed happens beyond our control. In a vastly different context, Jesus told his disciples that they need not worry about what to say because "what you are to say will be given to you at the time, for it is not you who speak but the Spirit of God speaking through you." (Matthew 10: 19-20) That has certainly been my experience over the years - one of the ways the words of Jesus have been true for me - one of the reasons why I continue to trust Jesus in the times when I am confused: he was faithful then, so I will trust him to be faithful now, too.


The United Church of Canada has a way of putting all of this that resonates with me at times like this. Their "New Creed" is as follows:


We are not alone, we live in God's world.

We believe in God:
   who has created and is creating,
   who has come to us in Jesus,
      the Word made flesh,
      to reconcile and make new,
   who works in us and others by the Spirit.
We trust in God.
We are called to be the Church:
   to celebrate God's presence,
   to love and serve others,
   to seek justice and resist evil,
   to proclaim Jesus,
      crucified and risen,
      our judge and our hope.
In life, in death, in life beyond death,
   God is with us.
We are not alone. Thanks be to God.

It has been almost exactly a year since another of our saints said good-bye to those of us on this side of the great divide and crossed over into God's deeper care. I will be having tea later this week with his beloved wife. That, too, will be sacramental time for me - a true gift of holy love. And, of course, it is four months to the day since my own father passed from life into death and now life beyond death.


I wept calmly this morning when I heard of my friend's death. It was time. She was ready. But I already miss her with an aching in my heart that is palpable. I am grateful for her life. I am humbled by her death. St. Paul wrote to the church in Thessolonica that "we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died." And this, too, is pure gift - a consolation of grace - that I trust by faith. Even our tears are gifts, yes? 


As I was leaving the nursing home last night, and we were wiping away our respective tears, I remembered what Joy Davidman told her husband, C.S. Lewis when he grieved her slow dying. Lewis reprises his wife's wisdom at the close of the movie "Shadow Lands" saying: "Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers any more. Only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I've been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal."


That IS the deal. Today I give thanks for this deal - and this calling - in ways too deep for human words. Being a pastor always has a public dimension to it; I own and respect that, after all, our connection with the people we serve is always a public relationship. That is part of what healthy and honest boundaries are all about. But please never, ever think that being a pastor is a "role." Sure, there are some who play the part, I've seen them and have done it myself from time to time. But as a calling, this is never a role. It is a broken blessing that tears you up inside and binds you to the people you love and serve in ways unimaginable until you live it. It breaks your heart over and over again. And I, for one, have never gotten used to the pain of sorrow and loss no matter how many times it comes into my life. Never.


As odd as that might sound, I have come to know that this heart break is yet another of the gifts of this strange calling. Again, St. Paul says it best:


I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes* for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

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...