Sunday, January 31, 2016

REALITY GRIEF AND HOPE: PART FOUR....

WORSHIP NOTES

The grandfather of comparative religion in the United States, Huston Smith, once said that “Exclusively oral cultures are unencumbered by dead knowledge and facts. Libraries, on the other hand, are full of them.”  That means we must be on guard against knowledge that is outdated or dead, too whenever we approach the Bible.  For the Bible is a library of sorts:  it is a compilation bound together from separate sacred scrolls once written on papyrus.  As a Greek word – biblos – it literally means scroll from the early days before the individual “books” of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments were gathered together into a coherent collection.

Apparently, the Hebrew oral tradition began to be gathered during the days of King David – 1000 years before the Common Era – but took another 700 years before being synthesized into its current form.  The Christian stories were also born of the oral tradition although the letters of St. Paul were circulated in a written form as early as 30 years after Christ’s death while the whole of the canon was not codified for another 250 years. The reason I start with this reminder as I continue my series into what the wisdom of the ancient prophets of Israel have to say to those of us in 21st century America is simple:  it takes some work and careful attention to sort out what is living from what is dead within this sacred library. 

And you’re not going to get much encouragement from the dominant culture to do this type of sorting:  not only do we all have jobs that need tending, families to feed, wars to wage, mortgages to pay and addictions and distractions by the truckload to divert our attention; but the ethos of this era is so driven by the limited vision of scientific empiricism and marketplace capitalism, that we tend to see almost every situation, condition and person set before us as a problem to be solved. We so fervently desire answers, solutions, and resolutions that we barely comprehend the prophetic task of waiting upon the Lord as enunciated bu the in the Bible. Smith puts it like this:

The scientific method is nearly perfect for understanding the physical aspects of our life. But it is a radically limited viewfinder in its ability to offer values, morals and meanings that compose the center of our lives.  Indeed, science is like a flashlight in the hands of people living inside a huge balloon. They can illuminate anything within the balloon, but cannot shine a light outside the balloon to see where it is floating – or even if it is floating at all.

For that type of light and insight, Smith tells us, we must go to the sacred scrolls of our Biblical library and learn to slowly sift through the stories in order to discern the living wisdom of God even as we bury what is dead. It is not that the scientific, deductive path is wrong, mind you – I am grateful for it in the care of my wife of late – it is just incomplete – especially when it comes to the work of discernment.

Smith concludes his warning by telling us: “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we will discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.” Did you hear that?  The BEST of religion offers us the distilled wisdom of the HUMAN experience!  And one of those living insights carrying wisdom within it for contemporary humanity is found in ancient Israel’s prophetic poetry.  As I have been trying to clarify since Christmas, the prophetic task is to teach us that whenever there is cultural, spiritual, emotional, political, personal or institutional transition taking place, God’s people are required to spend time in the house of lamentation and grief before we can move into a new residence that lets the past become the past.

Professor Walter Brueggemann calls this the work of relinquishment:  “I am one,” wept the prophet Jeremiah from within the devastated walls of a defiled Jerusalem, “who has seen affliction under the absence of the Lord… my soul is bereft of peace and my happiness is gone forever.” Call it the blues or lament, the distilled wisdom of the human race embedded in prophetic Scripture is clear that we cannot move faithfully, patiently, creatively or assuredly into the future without grieving. This is God’s promise to us: we do not have to dwell in the house of denial forever nor reinvent the wheel when it comes to aligning our souls with the way of the Lord where God’s banquet table awaits us with a cup that runneth over.

But we do have to pay attention to the testimony of our sacred ancestors – that great cloud of witnesses – who are waiting to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death – our season of relinquishment – so that on the other side of this life not just the next, we might be enveloped by the goodness and mercy of the One who promises: Comfort, comfort O my people, speak tenderly to Jeru-salem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

That, in a concentrated nutshell, is the core of this message:  lament born of a new reality is foundational:  grief embraced by faith is our way through the valley of the shadow of death – and hope poured into our hearts by God comes to those who wait upon the Lord

This is not at all the methodology of our problem solving obsession, but it is absolutely essential for a mature and healthy soul. Brueggemann writes:  The hard work of relinquishment accepts no short cuts. This task requires a trust that does not blush and a history that does not blink… For prophetic ministry in any generation requires a courage beyond fearlessness… a willingness to live beyond all proof, and a trust that relinquishment positions us to receive blessings from the Lord… yet again” when the time is right.

So today I invite you to first consider with me what the destruction of Jerusalem meant to ancient Israel emotionally, politically and theologically. Second, let’s try to tease out what that suggests for us as 21st century Americans. And third allow me to encourage each and all of us as First Church to tenderly move through our own grief into a hope that is already being born among us in small ways for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

But let’s recap this series thus far for both those who haven’t been here each week as well as for those who may not know these ancient tales, ok? To date, I’ve tried to say the following: Because the stories of Scripture are our shared heritage within the Judeo-Christian realm, we need to mine them for meaning.  It’s not that these are necessarily the best stories about spirituality – and they certainly are not the only ones – they are simply our stories. It’s like our families: they too may not be the best families and are certainly not the only families in creation, but they are our families and to overlook them is an act of denial.

Further, I believe that real wisdom emerges from depth in one discipline rather than sampling fads or trends.  Knowing a little bit about a lot of things has its place at a cocktail party, but in matters of the heart and soul, shallowness is not our ally: we need depth not merely breadth.  So I have pushed profoundly into the prophetic wisdom of ancient Israel because this is the soil into which we have been planted.  It is the tradition that Jesus embraced as well as our own spiritual progenitors. So, by way of summary, over the past three weeks I have noted:

First, how our ancient ancestors in Israel wrestled with three different understandings of covenant and faithful living with God.  Some believed that worship rituals were the essence of faith; others concluded that God had made them a holy people through the bloodline of Abraham; and still others – particularly the prophets – sensed that Sabbath keeping and right relations between neighbors was the fulfillment of covenantal life. These are the Davidic, Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.

Second, how there was a fierce and on-going debate between each of these spiritualities. Over time, the prophets demanding justice and compassion found themselves in opposition to those who emphasized either the way of racial purity or just the practice of sacramental duties.

And third, when the city of Jerusalem and its Temple were sacked by Babylon in 587 BCE, most of ancient Israel was rendered emotionally and spiritually devastated. They had no way to comprehend how God could seem to turn away from the so-called chosen. To which the prophets countered:  God’s absence is NOT forever; so learn to weep – own the agony of this era – and cry out unto the Lord without ceasing for only those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. 

That’s the summary, ok?  It is, to use Brueggemann’s insight, the way reality helps us grieve our way into hope – and that’s where we’re going today. After the obliteration of Jerusalem, there were two groups of mourners: those who were taken away as slaves into Babylon and those who remained in the burned out debris of a once holy city. Too often we forget this second group of mourners, those left behind when the elite were shackled and forced into exile. But it is often the case that those who are forgotten and marginalized grasp God’s truth more profoundly than the best and the brightest: not only do the broken have less to lose from the status quo, they have been shut-out for so long and on so many levels by the dominant class that they are light years ahead of us when it comes to opening our hearts to the liberating power of lament. 

Think of what the feminist movement brought to those of us trapped in the dismissive and condescending ways of our sexist habits. Consider what the environmentalists have brought to the table about climate change that are only now being taken seriously by the elite. Take a moment to appreciate how the Black Lives Matter movement is calling you and me back into our long journey out of white privilege and closer to the beloved community.

The Reverend Traci Blackmon, one time pastor of Christ the King church in Ferguson, MO during the rioting and now working on racial justice matters for the national United Church of Christ put it like this:  Nobody gives up privilege willingly, but living in God’s kingdom is all about relinquishing our comfort and convenience.  That’s why this moment in time calls us to nurture bravery, humility, diversity and empathy so that we can discover how to disagree well – for it usually involves more listening. Jesus said much the same thing to his homies when they questioned his integrity by appealing to a contemptuous but facile familiarity: Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, “Doctor, heal thyself.”  And you will demand that I do some miracle here, too. That’s why I’m telling you NO prophet is ever accepted in his or her home town.

And he went on to challenge them as one of Israel’s prophets saying: quit playing games.  If you want to know the will of the Lord in our generation, go to the hungry, the lonely, the broken and oppressed: When did we see Thee Lord?  When I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Whenever you do this unto the least of my sisters and brothers, you do so unto me.

In the Hebrew Bible the story of those left behind in burned-out Jerusalem is found in the book of Lamentations. This is the accounting of those who “were subject every day to the sights and smells of a city in shambles…this is the testi-mony of their deep sense of abandonment made evident in the poetry born of the ruins.” Chapter 3 succinctly summarizes their plight:  “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; over and over I weep: “Gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

Now the Hebrew word, ‘abad, is translated here as “gone” – gone is my glory – gone is all recollection of hope.  But most scholars argue that ‘abad should actually be rendered: “perish.” Do you sense the difference?  Gone is abstract, but perished is heart-breaking. This was the birth of the blues in Israel, when both the poor and the powerful realized and accepted that they had been called away from “any emotional sense of well-being to one of loss, from any political sense of guarantee to one of acute vulnerability, from any theological sense of chosenness to one of abandonment. This new context of loss, vulnerability, and abandonment (touched everyone) and amounted to a vindication of prophetic realism against the ideology of exceptionalism and prophetic grief against (all forms of) denial.”

Now maybe it’s just me, but I hear something similar taking place in both the long abandoned cities of our nation as well as the once prosperous neighborhoods of America’s shrinking middle and working class.  There is lamentation in the air –  anger and confusion, too.  Sometimes it is expressed in the overtly hateful diatribes of Mr. Trump’s fascist hymns; but it is there, too in the equally heated populist protest songs of Mr. Sanders.  Many of our people believe we are the brink of despair – and we very well may be.  Professor Brueggemann put it like this in a way that resonates in my heart: There is an anger in America being acted out in the disguise of nostalgia: a yearning for the good old days of a simpler life.  It looks innocent enough on the surface but contains a dreadful truth just below our view.

Remember the provocative mantra of the 2012 political campaign:  take back our country? This slogan reflects the sense that someone has seized our world from us, not unlike the way in which the Babylonians seized the world of Jerusalem away from its inhabitants. Nostalgia is an attempt to recover the world that is gone – perished – if indeed it ever existed.  Nostalgic anger is manifest in the “stand your ground” gun laws that are shot through with macho fear and racism… Nostalgic anger is alive in our culture that is obsessed with apocalyptic, end of the world motion pictures… and it is active in the “every man for himself” ideology that has turned Washington, DC into an unsustainable political quagmire. Can you believe that a second-rate ideological novelist like Ayn Rand is now  being held up for us as a legitimate public philosopher of value and wisdom? This is pure lunacy. But, in our nostalgia, the disappearance of any notion of preserving the common good validates the feeling of many that we have been abandoned – bereft of peace – with joy and hope gone for at least the foreseeable future. (Brueggemann)

And what about closer to home: in a culture bereft of peace the current heroin epidemic consuming the Berkshires makes sense. Same with random acts of violence:  this past Wednesday I was heading home from midday Eucharist on First Street when two young, white gang bangers jumped out of opposing cars and started to beat the snot out of one another.  And if that weren’t bad enough, the friends and neighbors who gathered around this fracas didn’t try to stop it but, cheered them on.  Before I could get my phone to dial 911, they jumped back into their SUVs and sped off in opposite directions. Denial of our cultural disease is no longer possible. We know better: the reality we see all around us has exposed a culture empty of generative power and bursting at the seams with destructive anxiety.

So pay careful attention here: it was into a comparable moral vacuum that both the elite in Babylon and the working poor in Jerusalem began to hear songs of hope, dream dreams of deep change, and claim visions and write poems of a healing that was greater than anything they could imagine. “In the midst of exilic despair over destruction and displacement,” you see, God breaks into our reality and moves our laments from grief into the promise of a buoyant future.  Now we can’t do this ourselves, beloved, we can’t abrogate the time table of the Lord.  We can’t bind the chains of the Pleiades or loosen Orion’s belt. We can’t lead forth constellation in its season or shake water from a stone. We can’t even imagine what a new heaven and new earth – a new temple, a new city, a new covenant – might look like.  All we can do is wait upon the Lord who has promised to renew our strength. Wait upon the Lord – are you listening? Wait upon the Lord: this is NOT a call to passivity or navel gazing. It is taking the time to feel in our core the agony of the world’s suffering. It is rediscovering our common bonds – the social good – where all humankind is made in the loving image of the Lord. AND… it is trusting that when we are ready, God’s time will break into our time with a promise that overrides despair.  Brueggemann is persuasive on this point:  “As long as the displaced are preoccupied with the palpable causes of their despair – the city in shambles, the hegemony of the empire – the utterance of sacred promise is not credible. It is simply more wishful thinking.”

And that is why the prophetic task insists upon the power of the Lord in these circumstances. Confessing that all true utterances of hope “arise from elsewhere – from the God who indwells the abyss and who initiates a new historical possibility that is not disrupted by the city in shambles nor restrained by the force of empire,” the poetry of the prophets throws conventional wisdom out the window and “raises up a word from outside all explanatory categories” that resonates with our hearts and liberates our minds: it is the cry I have a dream!  Sing a NEW song!

Take the poetry of Isaiah: We listen to it in an unhistorical way every Advent as we sing:  Comfort, comfort ye my people, or, How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace and brings good news. But we rarely, if ever, recall that these songs were born in exile – in Babylon – when beyond all reason, science, logic and linear thinking the ancient prophets began to see visions and dream dreams. They had cried themselves crazy with lament and pushed those in denial to do likewise. And then – and ONLY then – came God’s word of hope born of grief and saturated with reality but blessed with sweet hope nonetheless.

And THAT, people of God at First Church, is why I’ve been burdening you with this series.  Some of us haven’t grieved the loss of the old First Church profoundly enough – and I know because I hear the yearning for the old days all over town. Not so much here – although sometimes – but more in the coffee shops where people say things like:  “We just need another GE to come and then our problems would be over.” Those days, beloved, are gone:  forever!

That’s one reality – but there is another: some among us – and sometimes I fall into this group – haven’t yet allowed ourselves to grieve over the fact that we haven’t yet been able to solve the financial problems facing our church. After all, we’re smart and reasonably successful professionals in our day jobs who can solve other problems: how come we can’t crack the nut here? I know, I’ve spent numerous sleepless nights fretting about this one – and I know some of you have, too.

To which the witness of the ancient prophets tells us:  wait upon the Lord. Trust God more than self – know that God has still more light to be revealed. We are not the all-powerful Oz. We are not the one who threw the stars and planets into orbit. But damn if we don’t resist being pushed towards humility, smallness and an active waiting upon the Lord.

Once upon a time, a Jewish grandma was walking on the shore of the Pacific Ocean with her grandson whom she adored. She worshipped the ground this little boy walked on and was delighted that his momma et her take him out for the day. She’d bought him a new pair of shorts and sandals and a sweet little straw hat to keep the sun off his 2 year old head. So, as they were strolling by the water laughing and loving one another, out of nowhere came this monster wave.  It was 12 feet high and slammed down on the shore with an earth shattering crash.  And when grandma looked up, the little boy was gone. Once she caught her breath she looked up to the heavens and prayed with one arm outstretched as she beat her breast with the other:  Blessed are You, O Lord our God, creator of heaven and earth, King of the Universe. I plead with you in your mercy to return my grandson, the apple of my eye. In humility I beg of you, Lord.  And with that, another wave crashed upon the shore… and the little boy was returned.  As you might imagine, grandma ran and embraced him, picking him up in her arms and covering him with kisses. Oh my God this was such a delightI give you thanks and praise, Lord she cried in gratitude.  But after a moment, she looked back up at the heavens and said:  You know when he left, he had a hat.

We’re a stubborn lot – and don’t honor God’s push and pull towards humility with the respect it deserves – so we have to keep learning what it means to wait upon the Lord over and over again. And that is part of what I think is taking place at First Church right now.  We’re being asked yet again to wait upon the LORD to restore our strength; it’s not something that comes easily to anyone especially hard working, middle class folk like you and me. But that’s ok, because God isn’t going anywhere and when we’re ready to get it, I believe that blessings and hope and a new ministry of integrity and joy will be revealed.  It is already taking shape in small ways among us for those who have eyes to see.

But there’s a third group who are really bringing in the hope – they don’t have your history or my concerns – and they hold some powerful potential. And the reason I know this is from Bible study.  You know, I always thought that the Lord is my Shepherd was one of the Psalms of David, but apparently not. We know this because it closes with the words: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, right?  Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Well, there wasn’t a house of the Lord in David’s time – there was a tent - there wasn’t a Temple – that came on Solomon’s watch.  And it was destroyed in 587 BCE and wasn’t rebuilt again until 517 – that’s nearly 500 years after David and 70 years after the exile. But those who came after the anguish, they could see the beauty that was waiting to be born – and could see the Lord’s banquet table.

So, the symbol I’m going to put on the communion table today is this little string of prayer beads.  It isn’t a check for half a million dollars that would help close our budget deficit. And it isn’t a well articulated plan to rescue our building and ministry from reality or grief or change. It is a simple string of wooden beads that reminds me that ALL I can do is actively wait upon the Lord with trust.


Last year I started to make prayer beads for myself – and then for a few others who needed a small reminder that: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for… what? Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. The God who loves us will not only bind up all our wounds, but will surround us with goodness and mercy that shall follow us all the days of our live life: and we will dwell in the house of the Lordforever. Say that again: forever.  

Saturday, January 30, 2016

quiet thoughts at the close of our sabbath...

NOTE:  We spent the better part of today resting - walking the the snowy scrub with Lucie - and bringing some more order to our cluttered little house. As I was cleaning out CDs I no longer want - and papers stacked high yet again on my desk - I can across this homily from last year's All Saints Day. I was pleased to see that it still rings true for me. What's more, I can see how this whole year after our sabbatical has been built upon small acts of tenderness, small steps into contemplation, and small invitations of solidarity with God and our neighbors. I'm going to make some pizza and salad for dinner tonight to bring our Sabbath to a close.
When I walk in the almost winter woods of this season – with the low, rich sunlight of late October and early November pouring through the almost naked trees - I often hear the voices of the saints in my life. They are the ones who shared love with me in my family, my circle of friends and the different churches I have served. They are Michael and Don - Dolores and Roger - Rick, Vicky and Grace - Jim, Betty, Beth and Linda - and let's not forget St. Lou Reed.

In some ways these saints are very different; they are black and white, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight. They are well educated and street wise. Very, very different – on the surface – but in one way they are all the same:  they were vulnerable and open to God’s love. They let me share some of their wounds and I felt safe enough to be fully human with them, too. You see, all we really have to share with another is ourselves:  our time, our love, our broken humanity. And when we take the risk to do this – and it is received in trust – then something beautiful and even sacred happens:  God’s love becomes flesh within us right here and now. This love – peace – serenity is not JUST for life after death – it is for right now. Our hungers can be filled at the Messianic banquet table and our wounds can be soothed in a deep way right now.

I know that modern people don’t believe this – most people throughout history haven’t believed it – that’s why we have ministry. The late Henri Nouwen put it best:

Ministry is how we make the world more transparent to the other so that the world speaks of God and people are enlightened by the love of God... Ministry is to help others open their eyes and ears, so to speak - to make what is cloudy and opaque clear and beautiful - to proclaim to to others what we have experienced in prayer: God's beauty, truth and wisdom is here for you, too... Life becomes an unbearable burden whenever we lose touch with the presence of a loving Savior and see only the hunger to be alleviated, thin injustice to be addressed, the violence to be overcome, the wars to be stopped and the loneliness to be removed. All these are, of course, critical issues and Christians must try to solve them; however, when our concern no longer flows from our personal encounter with the living Christ, we feel only the oppressive weight.

In other words, the whole point of ministry – and church – is to help one another move deeper into God’s love RIGHT NOW.  It is all about helping one another transform and convert our loneliness into solitude with the Lord. That’s what I hear promised in the reading from Revelations:  God will wipe away every tear from our eyes – in the great beyond, of course – but also right here and right now.

There are three road blocks, however, that we have to reckon with – three challenges that always distract and dismay us – and they have been in existence since the beginning of time:  our culture, our religious traditions and our inner emptiness. Our challenge – and it is only work that WE can do – is to trust Jesus when he tells us:

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all. God’s kingdom is there for the finding. You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry. Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal. You’re blessed when the tears flow freely. Joy comes with the morning.

Every person I’ve ever met – myself and my spiritual guides included – wrestle with this truth. We don’t want to believe we have to quit our allegiance to our culture, our religious traditions and our inner neediness to move into God’s peace – so we fight it most of our lives. We want to believe we can make it happen all by ourselves. It has NEVER worked that way and NEVER will, of course, but that doesn’t stop any of us. We are stubborn and cantankerous and strong willed… until we become sick and tired of being sick and tired… we will remain that way, suffering under the illusion that we can really work our way into deep and lasting peace.

Let’s start with our culture:  we’ve bought into the lie hook, line and sinker that if we work hard enough – and buy enough things – we will be at peace.

We put great effort into convincing ourselves and those around us that if we dress well, live in nice homes and keep work hard to be upwardly mobile we’re on the right track. But here’s the deal: no matter how hard we try, we are still racked by insecurities, we still find it hard to love ourselves or others and we are still destined at the end of all of our striving for a hole in the ground.

Now don’t be too hard on yourself because that’s the message that inundates our culture.  Get
all the nice things and keep up with the latest trends and all will be well.

The caustic and endlessly charming commentator and writer Rex Murphy of Canada observed in 2005 that '"a culture that offers intellectual hospitality to the chatterings of Dr. Phil and the romps of Desperate Housewives doesn't have the stamina to pursue the idea of faith and its agency. 

Ours is a viciously consumerist culture that is saturated with shallowness.  What’s more, the effort required to keep up with the latest junk is killing us and polluting Mother Earth. Another Canadian religious scholar, Charles Davis, speaks of our addiction to busyness as self-inflicted violence.  Think of the way Jesus operated: he was always going off to a lonely place to think and pray to the Lord. He learned how to step away from his culture and convert his loneliness into true solitude with God because without this effort, God’s peace doesn’t come.

People hate to hear this – in Christ’s time and today – but it is an essential truth: until we disengage and unplug ourselves from the demands of our culture, there isn’t room inside for God to grow and mature and heal us from the inside out. That’s why when we talk seriously about nourishing a life of prayer – taking time to convert our loneliness into solitude – some people get snarky and angry.  It happened in Christ’s time – and not much has changed. That’s why he taught us:

Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.

The first road block to nourishing God’s deep peace that passes understanding is culture. The second is our allegiance to outdated religious traditions. Israel’s prophets were ALWAYS saying that following the rules isn’t at the heart of God’s way – FREEDOM is – so if the rules get in the way of freedom, then the rules have to change.  That’s what Pope Francis is trying to communicate to the world – and to his own bishops and priests – we are to be a church of mercy he said – the embodiment of tenderness.  He’s got a tough job convincing those under 35 because they’ve seen just the opposite.  Lawrence Freeman puts it like this:

It is puzzling and frustrating to try and understand how the mainline Churches, despite all their determination and resources, still seem unable to connect with the profound spiritual needs of our time. Most young people are ready for idealistic and sacrificial commitment and hungry for inspiration. And yet, instead of discovering in the Church an inclusive vision and a comprehensive philosophy of life and spirituality, they dismiss what they find as narrowness of mind, intolerant dogmatism, internal feuding, inter-denominational sectarian, medieval sexism and their most damning criticism: the lack of spiritual depth.

Did you hear that? What most people in Western Europe and increasingly the USA say is missing from the institution is spiritual depth.  We don’t teach the ways of contemplation – we don’t urge people to make some hard choices – we sometimes don’t even believe it ourselves. Because choosing to become hungry for the spirit is scary; it means we aren’t in control. Yes, Jesus promises a Messianic feast – yes the promise of the Lord is that God will wipe every tear away from our eyes – yes the prophets cry out for the way of freedom… but we like to do things on our terms not God’s.  We want a consumer religion where we come to church, someone entertains us and gives us a product and provides education for our children so that we can go back and keep on doing what we’ve always done.

To which Jesus says: it doesn’t work that way. If you keep doing what you’ve always done – even in your churches, synagogues and mosques – you’ll always get what you’ve always got. And for the last 50 years what we’ve always got has been more and more people fleeing our institutions because they don’t take us deeper.  They don’t help us find peace and healing in our real lives. They are often superficial and empty.

The second stumbling block or challenge is often our religious institutions that are more interested in their history than God’s liberating freedom. And the third truth that keeps us from living into God’s grace, faith, hope and love is… our own insecurities – or fears – or shames – or addictions – or emptiness. Most people spend their whole lives trying to fill the God-shaped hole in their lives with junk: things – sexy – work – booze – drugs – distractions – anger – shame… the list is endless.

When we run out of excuses, options and distractions, then God steps into the hole and fills us from the inside out. What WE must do after this blessed gift, is nourish time and space for the Lord to KEEP filling us.

A life without a lonely place, that is, a life without a quiet center, easily becomes destructive. When we cling to the results of our actions as our only way of self-identification, then we become possessive and defensive and tend to look at our fellow human beings more as enemies to be kept at a distance than friends with whom we share the gifts of life. In solitude we can slowly unmask the illusions... and discover in the center of our self that we are not what we can conquer, but what is given to us. In solitude we can listen to the voice of the One who spoke to us before we could speak a word, who healed us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could free others and who loved us long before we could give love to anyone. It is in solitude that we discover that being is more important than having and that we are worth more than the result of all our efforts... Our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared.

When we run out of gas, Christ steps in to fill us. For what is the promise of mercy to those who are not weak, forgiveness to those who have not sinned, grace to those who do not need it or life to those not dead? It is at best meaning-less and more likely downright offensive. That is why only, losers can appreciate the blessing Jesus offers and confers.

Only as we recognize our own existential and basic poverty of spirit can we grow less afraid of actual poverty and less attached to our own security. Only as we recognize ourselves as those losers for whom Christ died might we reach out to those the world declares losers and embrace them as brothers and sisters. Over time, this is what I have learned from the saints in my life. I give thanks to God for all of them and rejoice particularly in Dianne, Jesse, Michal, Michael, Louie and Winton.  Shabbat shalom.



Friday, January 29, 2016

time after time...

This week I have finally found time again to practice the upright bass.  After a gloriously liberating sabbatical, that included almost daily sessions with my new bass, it has been hit and miss for the past few months. And with the exception of getting ready for "Missa Gaia" and then Christmas Eve, I simply haven't made time to experiment or hone any new musical challenges. But that shifted a bit this week and I am starting to get back in the groove of playing scales and arpeggios before moving into new adventures in sound. I note this return to practice for three reasons:

+ First, it is almost Lent - and last year at this time we were solidifying last minute details in preparation for heading out on sabbatical. Almost a full year has traveled by us - and in us - in what feels like a blink of an eye.

+ Second, Paul Kantner's death yesterday (he of Jefferson Airplane fame) hit me hard. I truly loved the music the Airplane created as well as the groove of living they celebrated. Like the loss of Lou Reed three years ago, my sadness around St. Paul's leaving at 74 awakens me (again) to the shortness of my existence.

+ And third, given the rushing of time, I am aware once more of the aching  have inside to do
three things well:  nourish the spiritual lives of my congregation, play/create beautiful and soul satisfying music, and tenderly love those closest to me.

A poem by Carrie Newcomer, "Addition," says it well:

My father taught me about numbers,
How to carry forward
What had grown too large for its column
Add the 5 to the 7
Leaving only a 2.
It is like that,
Taking all you've me through,
Combing everything gathered and lost,
Add to the sum a little kindness
For doing the best you could
With what you knew at the time.
Tally up all the fives and sevens,
All the sixes and fours,
All that came up odd or even,
Then carry forward
Your expanded self
Which has grown beyond the limits
Of the first container.
Nothing is every truly gone;
It only changes places. 

Today, our Sabbath, will be given to quietly rearranging rooms and discarding more CDs and books in a quest to simply. Get rid of all that does not bring you joy is the invitation - and so it goes.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

rest in peace brother paul kantner...

My heart is sad tonight:  brother Paul Kantner co-founder of Jefferson Airplane is
dead. I LOVED the Airplane and came of age listening to them in the 60s. When my baby was very young in San Francisco and we lived in the Haight, we would greet him walking through Golden Gate Park by the Carousel.  He once smiled and said, "Beautiful little girl, man." Decades later, when I was doing doctoral work at San Francisco Theological Seminary - and would come into North Beach to hang at my brother's apartment - I would see him at The Saloon or Vesuvius or sometimes Cafe Trieste. Apparently, Kantner was cantankerous and surly - but damn if he wasn't a blessing in the music he helped bring to birth. I felt a stab in my soul upon reading of his passing tonight. 

(check out what the SF Gate had to say here:http://www.sfgate.
com/music/article/Jefferson-Airplane-s-Paul-Kantner-dies-at-74-6791483.php)

Back in the day, Surrealistic Pillow  blew me away. That summer our garage band, Creepin' Jesus, welcomed a young singer by the name of Molly Cheek into the band as she wanted to do songs off that album - so we were happy to oblige for the next two months.. Not only was she delightfully alluring and attractive, but she could sing like Grace Slick and rock the house in a miniskirt, too. What more could a bunch of goofy guitar playing adolescent guys want in that grand summer of love 1967! 

Then came my all time favorite: After Bathing at Baxter's. I can't begin to count how many times I played that vinyl LP over the next few years. About three years ago I repurchased this gem on CD and found myself enchanted over and over again. Other great tunes kept coming with Crown of Creation, Volunteers, Bark (w/Poppa John Creech on electric violin) and the cosmic Live at the Fillmore East. For a moment in time, and it was really just a moment, the world of politics, religion, culture and art came together and it felt like love was stronger than cash or war. It didn't last long and the drugs made it so much worse. But, there was a moment...

And crazy at it sounds in 2016 I still hold that moment close to my heart. Sometimes people say to me: Dude, you are just an old hippie. But that isn't a slam: it is a badge of honor. For those who can remember beyond the haze of acid and ganga, there really was a connection of heart and soul for a moment that was cosmic. And while there are a ton of reasons why it all went down the tubes, there are still sisters and brothers out there who tasted the magic - and are keeping it real all these years later. They didn't cave to the market and they didn't sell their souls to the highest bidder. They kept making music - and sharing love - and I give thanks to God that some of them are still alive (and actually make music with ME from time to time!
Kantner's "Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil" was one of my favorites (along with "Saturday Afternoon/Won't You Try) as it was free-form, wild, sensual and so alive! When Paul put out his solo album during my freshman year in college, I think I wore out the grooves of "Blows Against the Empire." And then there was David Crosby's solo outing that brought his buddies from the Airplane into the studio for two of my all time favorites:  What Are Their Names and Music Is Love.
Tonight I give thanks to God for the music and untamed spirit that Kantner shared with us - and continued to share with us. I honor his brokenness, recognize his obnoxious arrogance and will always value his tender generosity and commitment to being real, too.  Thank you, music man, you brought blessings to my world and I hope I can give to others just a bit of what you shared with me in your day..I am so wishing I was with my brother Phil and sister-in-law Julie right now: we'd head down to the Saloon and hoist a few in Paul's honor. Hope you guys make it happen!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

saying yes and saying no...

Here's a follow-up thought to my post about Fr. Martin and the wisdom of asking people who want and/or need help to take their commitment seriously: the nature of commitment always involves community rather than simply personal ethics and convenience. That is, a commitment puts you in relationship with others who not only count on your regular participation, but are also nourished by your presence.  So why is that over and over I find that people treating commitment as if it is primarily a personal conviction with essentially solitary implications?

Some have suggested that our culture no longer helps us know how to "say yes and say no." Rather than lament this truth, folks like Dorothy C. Bass at Valparaiso University have chosen to help us treclaim and refocus attention on this as a spiritual practice. Note the emphasis on practice - not only is a practice something we need to work on - but something we address on a regular basis. What's more, a spiritual practice avoids the currently complicated sound of the old words: spiritual discipline. In Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a  Searching People, Bass grasps that one of the reasons contemporary life feels so uprooted has something to do with our inability to say no. Or perhaps it is our uncertainty over what saying yes really means in a way that gives shape, form and structure to our lives and those whom our life touches.

Throughout Christian history, it has been clear that spirituality is not a spectator sport. Tough decisions and persistent efforts are required of those who seek lives that are whole and holy. If we are to grow in faithful living, we need to renounce the things that choke off the fullness of life that God intended for us, and we must follow through on our commitments...We must learn the practice of saying no to that which crowds God out and saying yes to a way of life that makes space for God. 

Saying yes and saying no--it is an important part of life and especially the life of faith. Have you heard about the little boy? Someone asked him his name and without any hesitation at all he replied, "My name is John Don't." "John, don't! No! No!" He didn't want any "nos" in his life, because his parents had enough for all of them!" But parents soon realize that it becomes necessary to say "no" to their children. Often, it's a matter of urgency. If we don't say "no," they might burn themselves on the stove, run out into the street or drown in the swimming pool. And so parents, speaking on behalf of their children, learn to say "no" to some things so that they can say "yes" to others.

There is a bit of a "John Don't" in all of us, and as we grow and mature, we learn to say that "no" for ourselves. As students we say "no" to one elective course, so that we can say "yes" to another. Those who marry learn to say "no" to all others so that they can say "yes" to the one person with whom they will spend the rest of their lives. This past Tuesday was Election Day and when we cast our vote we said "no" to one candidate so that we could say "yes" to another. Those in the military say "no" to many things throughout their career, so that they can say "yes" to their country. We honor them this Tuesday which, as you know, is Veterans' Day. In so many ways, you see, we exercise our God-given free-will whenever we say "yes" and "no." In her essay, Shawn Copeland says:

To say yes and no means taking on responsibilities and obligations. Saying yes and saying no are companions in the process of constituting a whole and holy life.

http://www.practicingourfaith.org/saying-yes-saying-no-0

One of the hardest things for me in my pastoral office involves consciously saying no to some people while saying yes to others. Or saying yes to some event but no to another.  Even as I was writing my IPhone just went off with my "prayer bell alert" inviting me to say no to busyness for a moment so that I might say yes to God's love - and why I am alive!

Robert Bly and Marion Woodman wrote a book, The Sibling Society, in which they lay out one source of our phobia with yes and no. With so many corrupt and broken models of maturation in our Western world, more and more of us have tried to avoid growing up. We don't want to become like momma or daddy - or Father This or Sister That - so we choose NOT to make choices. We stumble through existence and let others clean up after our messes. We avoid connections where commitments and choices are essential. That is, we remain children - siblings rather than adults - who rarely engage in the hard work of saying yes and saying no wisely. Oh, we may do it capriciously - or passionately - or in ecstasy or anger - but not consciously as an adult who takes responsibility for self and knows how our decisions touch other lives. In a word, we choose to deny the value of earned wisdom - and act like perpetual adolescents singing "we want the world and we want it... now!" 
(I love this song - and the Doors - but their self-absorbed convictions didn't serve them or anyone else well over time.)

Monday, January 25, 2016

returning thanks today for fr. martin...

Once upon a time there was a brilliant and wonderfully helpful AA counselor by the name of Fr. Martin. Like all the best teachers, he knew from which he spoke - of both heaven and hell - God's grace and the agony of addiction. After becoming clean and sober, and learning from friends and AA folk, he attended Rutgers Summer School for Alcohol Studies before creating his "chalk talks" on a variety of issues related to addiction. He made educational films for the US Navy, worked for the State of Maryland and became a prized helper throughout the world before his death in 2009. Fr. Martin was 84 years old.

I was turned on to him by two addict friends in Cleveland - and I've been grateful ever since. One of the straight shooting things he said about those seeking sobriety and stability was simple: "If you come to me and ask my advice, I will share everything I know to be true with you. But here's the deal  you have to FOLLOW my advice. If you think you are smarter than me about addiction or ways to get sorted out in the head, you are free to follow your own lead. But I won't let you waste my time any more. So either you follow my advice or you move on. I will still love you and pray for you but life is too short to waste with those not willing to do their own work." MAN is that every the truth on so many fronts!!!

Now some think Fr. Martin is being arrogant. Bullshit - addicts are users who work any angle possible to avoid and deny their brokenness. I know. I've played that game on an off for decades - and you can't bullshit a bullshitter. Fr. Martin just refuses to put whipped cream ON the bullshit. Follow my advice on the subject of getting clean or move on.  He doesn't pretend to be a genius about everything. He doesn't shame or force you into submission either because, as a wounded healer himself, he knows that shame is violence and he loves God's gift of life and grace too much to add insult to injury. No, he simply asks you to respect his hard won wisdom and not waste any one's time - especially his (but really yours, too!)

I cannot tell you how valuable this little snippet of practical pastoral advice has been over the years - and continues to be so even now.  It has given me direction and clarity whenever hurting people want to share their pain with me but aren't really interested in moving on to peace and joy. I listen - for a few hours. But if they consistently subvert the proven ways of getting healthy, if they keep bullshitting me and making excuses for themselves....? Well, as Jesus told his own disciples, you have to shake the dust off your feet and move on.  Don't waste my time - or your own!

One of the stories told about St. Francis picks up on this noting that whenever Francis entered a town, he and his brothers would sing. Then he would gather in the town square and offer blessings and healing prayers. In time, the tale goes, when the beggars and lame who did NOT want to become well heard his songs, they fled and hid. I use this story to help me evaluate how my work at church is going from time to time:  if the word doesn't get out that I refuse to put whipped cream on bullshit, some thing's wrong. If people are still hanging around or showing up and asking me for appoints but aren't willing to do their own work, somethings wrong. Don't misunderstand:  I grieve for their pain - and often continue to lift them in prayer. But until they are willing to trust a love greater than themselves and accept/surrender/fall upward or whatever you want to call it, serenity will elude them and I won't conspire with the bullshit.

Once I was interviewed by a class of seminarians who were about to graduate. They asked me for some practical advice that I had never heard in seminary. So I told them: don't put bullshit on whipped cream. Don't let the users waste your time. You must still love them - and never ever denigrate them - but don't be seduced by them either. And after 35 years, nothing has changed. Young clergy will be eaten up and devoured by broken people who have not yet hit bottom hard enough to want a reprieve. Older clergy have often worn themselves out aching to be useful and loved only to wake up one morning totally burned out.  I've been there and done that one, too.

You may find Fr. Martin's insights useful - whether you are an alcoholic or not. 

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...