Friday, June 30, 2017

joy marbled with sorrow...

Today was given over to yard work, tonight the celebration of birthdays. As dinner was coming to a close, a message arrived from my sister about the death of a woman close to our family. She grew up with my sisters in Maryland. Her parents were my folks drinking buddies. She cared for both my mother and father in their failing years. And now I read that she has taken her own life.

Isn't that the core of what life is: gracious and grand joy marbled with excruciating and unexpected sorrow? I never knew her well. I was long gone from the ins and outs of daily family life by the time she entered the story. So I searched out a prayer book that I have used for almost 30 years after getting home tonight. Fr. Ed Hays wrote Prayers for the Domestic Church to help us honor the holy in our humanity and mark the sacred in our everyday lives. Sadly, there is nothing in here about suicide. Still, because I have used this prayer book at my brother's wedding in San Francisco, the baptism of my nephew, the funerals for both of my sisters and both of my parents, it is a source of comfort for me. I have notes from each of these liturgies tucked into the book's leather cover. It, along with the Book of Common Prayer, is often my resting place and source of solace when my own words fail.

With every death, expected or bewildering, Fr. Ed asks us to give thanks to the Angel of Death who reminds us to cherish the love we have shared and rededicate ourselves to living whatever time remains with gusto. Tonight I give thanks for the love Gm shared with my family and so many others. I hold her up to the Lord's eternal embrace trusting that her anguish is now finally over.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

a vision rendered cruel by its obliviousness...

When I was "called" into ministry in 1968, I was 16 years old, Dr. King and RFK had just been murdered and the war in Vietnam was raging. Now in the swan song days of ministry some 50 years later, I find my homeland to be as politically, racially and morally confused as when I started. This isn't to say that America has remained stagnant. Far from it: we are more racially and culturally diverse than ever before. Two thirds of my neighbors throughout the country support and honor same sex marriage and our air and water is cleaner than ever before (for the time being.)  And yet fear and loathing seethes throughout the American culture and we stumble from tragedy to acts of careless cruelty and senseless violence.

David Brooks recently put it like this in the NY Times. In his critique of the moral abyss the Republican Party has currently created with apparent enthusiasm, he writes that the current Senate/House health plans do not put forth a conservative vision of American society. Rather, they had birthed: a vision rendered cruel by its obliviousness

I have been trying to think about the underlying mentality that now governs the Republican political class. The best I can do is the atomistic mentality described by Alexis de Tocqueville long ago: “They owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.” 
(check it out @ https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/27/ opinion/the-gop-rejects-conservatism.htmlrref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Fdavidbrooks&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=collection

This should not come as a surprise to us, of course, as we have allowed the beast to grow and flourish. Check out the way Glennon Doyle Melton puts it. She is spot on...

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

worship notes for Sunday, June 25, 2017

Spiritual Practices 1
For the next two months I am going to share with you some thoughts concerning discipleship: contemporary, Christian discipleship. This is not a popular word with fashionable people. We prefer to err on the side of spontaneity and maximum free choice – what some have called salad bar religion or smörgåsbord spirituality – where we pick this up here and that up there, mixing and matching practices and notions as suits our fancy, but mostly grazing superficially rather than hunkering down and growing deeper in the ways of the Lord.

As Dr. Joseph Driscoll of the Pacific School of Religion has observed in his book, Protestant Spiritual Exercises, other Christian traditions have reclaimed the importance and value of discipleship. But in the mainline Protestant churches: Believers can affirm the existence of God, the importance of the Scriptures, and the need to hear the Word of God in sermons, but discourse that claims a personal relationship with God at an experiential rather than an intellectual level is largely discouraged.  For a variety of reasons good and bad, we in the American Protestant Church have largely abandoned the teaching of spiritual practices since the late 1950s. Consequently, we now we have generations who only consider the way of the Lord when it comes to social ethics or personal tragedy. In the lived experience of faith, Professor Driscoll writes, most in our tradition restrict God’s leading to two areas: the ethical conscience and the response to profound grief.

During times of crisis, when our radical dependence on God becomes a daily act of faith, mainline Protestants often speak of God’s presence with them. The affective depths at which daily life has been impacted legitimizes this often-passing sense of personal relationship with God. Mainline Protestants live their faith in the paradoxical space between being too modest to speak for the Lord except on social issues, and too reasonable to be truly dependent on God except in times of tragedy.

My experience over the past 35 years of ordained ministry and 40 years of service in the institutional church confirms Driscoll’s sobering conclusion: some of us have a deeply personal relationship with God but we are inhibited or embarrassed to talk about it out loud, others have a mostly abstract intellectual connection to a transcendent loving force but not an abiding intimacy with God’s grace, while still others are uncomfortable and even disturbed by any and all talk of personal familiarity with the Divine.

Once, during an Outreach ministry meeting in Tucson, I asked a small group of seven adults if they had ever spoken to another at church about sensing the presence of God in their lives. There was a moment of awkward silence before Jack G, who had served the Bank of America internationally in Egypt and South Africa, told us that he once felt what he believed to be the presence of God while jumping out of a plane during WWII. For some reason his parachute didn’t open while in the Pacific Theatre; for a moment there was only complete terror before he found himself dangling safely in some trees in the jungle. “All I could do,” he quietly confessed, “was give thanks to the Lord in a way that was spontaneous.”

Now, we could have said to Brother Jack – whom I grew quite close to over 10 years in AZ– look, we are children of the Enlightenment – women and men who have lovingly added science and reason to the realm of faith – and none of us desire to go backwards into superstition so knock it off. We could have questioned him too about how did he really know this was the hand of God? Wasn’t he just lucky? We are often rightly skeptical in insisting that human wisdom and vigorous analysis have a place in the Lord’s house alongside both Scripture and Tradition. To interpret “God’s sovereignty to mean God causes all circumstances is a dangerous theological game.”

This week the publisher of the Christian Century magazine wrote about a helicopter air-lifting a 19 year old member of the congregation to a regional hospital “after a hit-and-run driver skipped a stop sign and plowed into his motorcycle.” Peter Marty writes: “When a family friend learned that Pete’s right leg had to be amputated, she phone Pete’s mother to reassure her that this hardship was part of God’s plan for Pete. Rightfully, this mother was aghast… God does not yank our strings whenever God pleases… and while God may work in inscrutable ways, a combination of faith and reasons reminds us that there is no evidence that God works in nonsensical ways.”

And yet, many are ill at ease in accepting my friend Jack’s experience as truly holy. St. Paul suggested that we might to do well by accepting that “now we see as through a glass darkly and only later shall we see face to face.” Bonhoeffer asked us to remain silent in trust with those encounters we cannot explain or comprehend. And by the Spirit of the Living God and God’s grace among us that night in Tucson, that is exactly what we did: we remained silent and in awe. Which prompted Jack to conclude: I have served on Church Council, Finance, Stewardship and Outreach at this church – I have been a member of the Congregational church since my confirmation in the 1930s – and this is the first time I have been asked to speak about my experience with God –ever!

Think about that: sixty plus years in the church and never once a conversation about intimacy with the Lord. May I be so bold as to suggest that something is terribly out of balance with this reality? Not that we must return to the uncritical superstitions of an old time religion, but that we might discover anew the devotional practices that open us to complimentary truths beyond the obvious and analytical? What other traditions call the practice of piety – or ascetical or spiritual theology – acquiring a language that reconciles the affective dimension of faith with our critical sensibilities? Professor Driscoll puts it like this and it has captured my imagination:

The cutting edge for many mainline churches (like our own) is the recognition that it is possible to maintain one’s suspicion of authority and one’s fears about speaking for God and still sustain an experiential relationship with God that offers nurture, correction, transformation and redemption… we can affirm our historic Protestant suspicions while affirming the meaning that comes from an experiential relationship with the divine.

Over the course of this summer I want to share with you words and practices that can help you ripen in this realm: an integration of heart and mind, if you will. I will be using three guidebooks as my primary resource:

· Reformed Spirituality by Howard Rice of San Francisco Theological Seminary

· Protestant Spiritual Exercises by Joe Driscoll of Pacific School of Religion

· Practicing Our Faith edited by Dorothy Bass of Valparaiso University

But before I go deeper I have a simple question: what practices do you use to bring yourself into communion with God? How do you nourish your personal experience with the Lord? And let me say right at the start, I am not about to judge or critique your answer, ok? I simply want to get a sense of what you are already doing so that as I construct the rest of the summer’s study, I can be helpful. So, what do you do to draw closer to God?

There are two ideas from today’s Scriptures that I find useful for next steps: Paul’s reminder that when we were baptized into Christ Jesus we were baptized into his death; and, the gospel of Matthew’s insight that a disciple is not above his or her teacher. Paul is using metaphor to help us grasp two things:

Being a Christian – following Jesus in our lives – gives us a different set of values from popular culture. That was true in the first century of the Common Era and it is true in the 21st century. The way of Jesus is NOT simply being nice or a good public citizen. The way of a disciple is to make flesh God’s compassion in our small lives. It involves training our eyes to see and our bodies to act upon the way of the Lord beyond the big, transcendent picture into the facts of our ordinary reality. Paul says in Romans 6: those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have died with him – our old ways are over – so that we can now live new resurrection lives. In Romans 12 he is less poetic and more direct: 


So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

+ To nourish Christian values – to strengthen our consistency as disciples who make visible signs of God’s kingdom in our everyday lives – requires practice. Specifically spiritual exercises that train us in the resurrection values, habits, worldview and ethics of Jesus. Baptism for St. Paul is a journey or a process by which we learn to die to our old habits that are saturated in selfishness so that we can live in new and more tender ways. In contrast to fundamentalism, we are regularly being born again – or more correctly, sired from above by God’s spirit every day – so that we can make Christ’s love real within and among us. And this is as true for our commitment to social justice as it is for ordinary acts of compassion and piety.

That’s why Jesus trains his followers: they must practice being like him – doing what he does rather than thinking they can eliminate the essentials or skip a step. They are not above him but more like servants or apprentices under the guidance of a master. And here’s the take away for today: by practicing his way, Jesus promises his beloved that they will acquire an intimacy with God that is stronger than fear. That’s what most of the text is about – do not fear your opponents, do not fear trials, do not fear those who kill the body – practice growing closer to God and God’s love will become greater than all your fears. “It is those who lose their lives for my sake that will find them.”

This is a call to discipleship – to experiential intimacy with God – that can withstand resistance to evil. And in Christ’s day as in our own, there is tremendous evil to be resisted. And none of us have the strength to do what Christ asks all by ourselves – only tyrants and crazy people think they are all sufficient. Servants of the Lord, disciples, accept human weakness in humility and trust that God can take even the Cross and make it into a blessing.

Over the summer I am going to share with you a variety of time-tested practices that have proven essential for discipleship. I will provide you weekly handouts and readings to help you on this journey – and I’ll want to hear back from you how each week unfolded: what did you practice? How did it go? What did you learn and feel because the way of Jesus requires accountability as much as grace, right?

Today I have a simple first step: interrupting ordinary time to remember God’s love not just when it is convenient but throughout the day. As contemporary disciples we can use our technology and wisdom to help us become more consistently awakened to God’s presence rather than burdened. So I am going to ask you to set your phone alarm clocks for three or four daily interruptions: set the chimes to 8 am, 12 noon, 4 pm and 8 pm just like you were living in a monastery. Or for 6 am – 12 noon – and 6 pm like you were living in the time of Jesus – or whatever other rhythm works best for you.

I did this two years ago for Advent – and it blew my mind. I was part of an extended on-line Advent retreat where we checked in with one another two or three times a week. The Celtic poet John O’Donohue set the stage: The ancient rhythms of earth have insinuated themselves into the rhythms of our hearts. The earth is not outside us, it is within: the clay from which the tree of the body grows. We are children of the earth and in contrast to our busy, frenetic lives, the earth offers a calming stillness. When we reconnect, we remember just who we are and why we are here. For the full season of Advent each day I was awakened anew to God’s love when I was least prepared. It was wonderful. I stopped, breathed deeply, made the sign of the Cross and sometimes offered up a simple prayer. But like so many others, once Advent was over and I was no longer accountable, I started to forget and soon quit doing it altogether. I still have the settings on my phone, mind you, I just became too busy to bother. But I need to be reminded. I need to be awakened. I need to be reassured and renewed – and I suspect you do, too.

I have copied for you resources you can use to start this 9 week series with me. So do you understand what I am asking you for this week’s practice?

+  Pause three or four times each day to rejoice in being loved by God – especially when you are least prepared. 


+ Use your smart phone chimes on the alarm clock to act like prayer bells at 8 am - noon - 4 pm and 8 pm.

+ Use this (or any other) simple prayer: "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who by the grace of Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, welcomes me as your Beloved forever. Amen."

From this experience we will craft other practices to take us deeper into greater intimacy – but it all starts with trusting that we are God's beloved from the inside out. Thanks be to God who in Christ Jesus calls us to live as disciples of the Kingdom by the inspiration of the Spirit.


Friday, June 23, 2017

a return to discipleship...

For the past few months I have written precious little about the political mess my beloved USA continues to experience. Under the current regime, the world feels less safe to me, my deepest values as a public citizen have been denigrated and discarded, and out nation's 50 year commitment of caring for the most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers has been reversed and ended. The recent rolling out of the Republican health care plan in the US Senate is but the most toxic example of warped priorities driven by greed.

Not that the individual Senators are universally mean-spirited or corrupt. I do not believe that for a second. Like all public officials, most are committed to the common good in their heart of hearts. The party leadership, on the other hand, has sold its soul to corporate interests and demands loyalty and obeisance. So it takes a strong moral center - and a vibrant support community - to call out Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan for their cruel albeit authentically held ideology. Few politicians are able to muster the resolve to oppose so much organized cash. And given the numerical super majority of both the House and the Senate, not much is going to change for at least the next year. (NOTE: for two insightful analysis of the recent affront, please see

1) Eugene Robinson's recent WaPO article @ https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/senate-republicans-ready-themselves-for-a-massive-theft-from-the-poor/2017/06/22/902a1a96-5777-11e7-a204-ad706461fa4f_story.html?utm_term=.f6058404e800 

@)NPR's clear chart comparing the proposed health care changes @ http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/06/22/533942041/who-wins-who-loses-with-senate-health-care-bill?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20170622

The old Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, used to say: reality is the will of God, it can always be better, but we must begin with what is real. Those in the 12 Step movement tell us much the same thing when they pray the Serenity Prayer for acceptance of what cannot be changed and courage to change what can be altered. And let's not forget the wisdom to discern the one from the other! So much of the carping that I read and hear from the Left has no grounding in what is real: pipedreams about impeachment, fantasies of electoral revolt in historically Republican voting districts, the rise of a moral revolution among Republican moderates. What a self-absorbed and self-satisfied waste of time. More liberal magical thinking that fills a sound byte but signifies nothing.

As a person committed to the way of Jesus in my heart and my community, I have come to see that reality demands a dramatically different response: discipleship. Right living rather than an obsession with right thinking. Personal practices and group commitments that lead us away from the status quo of busyness and business into the realm of sharing and compassion. The old preacher and teacher, Walter Brueggemann, puts it like this:

We who are now the richest nation are todays main coveters. We never feel that we have enough; we have to have more and more, and this insatiable desire destroys us. Whether we are liberal or conservative Christians, we must confess that the central problem of our lives is that we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God's abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity - a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly. We spend our lives trying to sort out that ambiguity.

Brueggemann makes his case from both the Hebrew and Greeks texts of Scripture. In Joshua 24 the choice is articulated as: "I don't know about you, but me and my house will choose the way of the Lord trusting God's generosity over human selfishness."

Jesus said it more succinctly: You cannot serve God and Mammon. You cannot serve God and do what you please with your money or your sex or you land. And then he says, "Don't be anxious, because everything you need will be given to you." But you must decide. Christians have a long history of trying to squeeze Jesus out of public life and reduce him to a private little savior. But to do this is to ignore what the Bible really says. Jesus talks a great deal about the kingdom of God - and what he means by that is a public life reorganized toward neighborliness.

From my perspective of 35 years doing ministry, it looks like the time has come to train our congregations in the way of neighborliness. We have forgotten what that looks and feels like. We have been consumed by market place values, language and goals and exchanged our love of God for an addiction for more. "We now have a love affair with more - and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy (for 21st century America). It has become a demonic spiritual force among us, and the question facing us is whether the gospel has the power to help us with stand it?"

It seems counterintuitive in the midst of our crisis to revisit a call to discipleship. Shouldn't we be out in the streets? Well, of course, and much more, too. And there will be times to stand shoulder to shoulder with sisters and brothers of all faiths and call out the demonic greed that has captured our nation's spirit. But an inner moral revolution is necessary, too - not another pious self-help program - but training in spiritual resistance so that compassion drives our hearts and neighborliness informs our actions. To use another Brueggemann term, Christians must learn again how to live as "odd people" within our culture. This has been all but forgotten. In an essay entitled, "Preaching as Sub-Version," Brother Walter writes:

It occurs to me that the Jewish imagination of the Old Testament is so peculiar and so particular because Jews are always the odd men and women out, always at odds, always at risk, always in the presence of an empire with its insistent version of reality, always telling their boys and girls that we are different, different because we have been in the demanding presence of the Holy One, and now we must keep re-deciding for a life propelled by that presence. The Jews, over time, devised signals of oddity - Sabbath, kosher, circumcision.

In parallel fashion, for like reasons, the baptismal imagination of the New Testament is so peculiar and so particular because Christians are always (to be) odd men and women come together in odd communities and congregations, who are always at odds, always at risk, always in the presence of large cultural empires that want to dissolve our oddity for reasons of state, always telling our girls and boys that we are different because we have been with Jesus. We are forever reimagining and retelling and reliving our lives through the scandal of Friday and the rumor of Sunday. We, like Jesus, devise signals of our oddity: the notice of new life, the bread of brokenness, the wine of blessedness, and the neighbor - always the neighbor - who for us is a signal of the love of God.

Like the close of Matthew's gospel that returns the frightened disciples to Nazareth to start the ministry of Jesus again - or the story of Siddhartha, the emerging Buddha, who keeps finding himself at the same place before the River Ganges at different stages of life - training disciples and equipping the saints for the demands of ministry is where I find myself - and what I'll be addressing for the next nine weeks as summer unfolds in the Berkshires.

credits:
http://www.rejesus.co.uk/blog/post/crowds_gather_to_be_ignored_by_jesus/




Thursday, June 22, 2017

thank God for interfaith friends...

It was my hope to explore the second haunting Leonard Cohen song today, "It Be Your Will," but I need more wisdom and insight.  I will, therefore, be in conversation with a rabbi friend and colleague next week about the text of the Hebrew prayer Cohen uses for inspiration and its actual use within the Sabbath liturgy before offering up my take on this masterpiece. Thanks be to God for interfaith friendships, yes?
My life has been enriched one hundred fold by gentle souls from other faith traditions who have graciously shared their spiritual acumen with me over the years. They have been some of my most inspirational mentors on the journey of faith. From the Saginaw, MI rabbi  from Argentina who introduced me to the Talmud, the Cleveland imam who gave me hours in the Cleveland's Community Relations Board, the Tuesday morning African American ministers' breakfast collegium that welcomed a white boy from the 'burbs with open arms, and now my sisters and brothers in Berkshire County's Jewish community, I have been blessed to know wise souls with open hearts willing to reach beyond our differences to search for common ground. They tenderly correct me when I am confused, they bring gravitas born of experience to our conversations, make clear where our worldviews differ,
and encourage me to remember that no one has a monopoly on the truth.

So I will pause in gratitude before exploring "If It Be Your Will."  Stay tuned as I move on to other aspects of all things Leonard Cohen over the summer.  Next up, "Anthem" so enjoy this feast of sound from two of the master's favorite back-up singers who now own this song: Perla Batalla & Julie Christensen.

Friday, June 16, 2017

leonard cohen continues...

There are two songs by Leonard Cohen that are currently giving me pause: "If It Be Your Will" and "Heart with No Companion" from the Various Positions collection. Poetically, structurally, melodically and theologically these songs ring true to me in ways I could never have anticipated. As the world came to realize in the closing decade of his life, Cohen was not the prince of pessimism. Rather, Cohen was a careful contemplative who "took a long, loving look at what is real" and honored the whole truth.

He neither turns away from our suffering nor exaggerates its effects or consequences. Like Bonhoeffer before him, who also refused to let simple-minded piety diminish the anguish of our days, Cohen clearly names our pain while uncovering our beauty. "God does not love some ideal person," Bonhoeffer wrote in a meditation on the Cross from Nazi Germany, "but rather (God loves) human beings just as we are, not some ideal world, but rather the real world."  Cohen articulates how an adult person of faith, one come of age to continue the Bonhoeffer connection, might honestly engage the world with sacrificial tenderness. "There is a crack, a crack in everything: that's how the light gets in."

These two songs close his 1984 masterpiece, Various Positions. It should be noted that upon completion, Columbia Records USA decided not to issue this record. "We know you are important, Leonard" they told him, "we just don't know if you are good." This was the year of Prince, Michael Jackson, Springsteen and Madonna and nothing on Various Positions sounded like a dance club/stadium hit. The album soared in sales throughout Europe and a year later was on released in the US by a small, indie label. Today it is recognized as one of Cohen's most insightful recordings including both "Hallelujah" and "Dance Me to the End of Love."

"Heart with No Companion" has often been performed live by Cohen as an upbeat country song.  In his early days in Montreal, he loved the music of Nashville and first went public as a performer at McGill University with the Buckskin Boys. Later, while living on the island of Hydra in Greece and writing his second novel, Beautiful Losers, he endlessly listened to Hank Williams as well as Ray Charles. The sound of the original recording, while still flavored with a soft-country groove, is less ironic than later recordings. Here the lyrics alone evoke the paradox of contemplative living - trusting the reality of God's grace beyond all evidence - much like St. Paul taught in I Corinthians:  now I see as through a glass darkly, then I shall see face to face.  In two penetrating verses, Cohen gives shape and form to both the joy and the anguish of adult faith:

I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair
With a love so vast and shattered
It will reach you everywhere
And I sing this for the captain
Whose ship has not been built
For the mother in confusion
Her cradle still unfilled
For the heart with no companion
For the soul without a king
For the prima ballerina
Who cannot dance to anything 


Singing from experience rather than doctrine, Cohen testifies that there is life beyond sorrow and despair - what he calls love.  Not sentimental feelings or the sloppy agape of untested piety, however, but an intimacy with one another and the Divine that is beyond both comprehension and brokenness.  In my tradition, this sounds like "the wisdom of the Cross" where even tragedy is not the end of our encounter with the Holy. And just as Cohen proclaims the blessing he has experienced, each couplet extends the promise:  to the captain, to the mother, to the heart and soul and prima ballerina. None have yet tasted the fruit of renewal, all are parched and waiting, so Cohen sings words of assurance in the darkness.

Verse two describes the ethics of living into and through our personal and social brokenness:

Through the days of shame that are coming
Through the nights of wild distress
Tho' your promise count for nothing
You must keep it nonetheless


Sr. Joan Chittister, Benedictine teacher extradinaire, once said that she lives in this world as one who "sees the eagle within the egg." She, like Cohen, know that the alternative is nihilism. This is loving for the long obedience.  Small wonder that Cohen reworked his tune into a foot stomping country barroom bash: living for love and integrity beyond what is seen is a wildass experience - and the core of true spirituality.

(The next installment will consider "If It Be Your Will" Cohen's reworking of the traditional Jewish Sabbath prayer.)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

writing on retreat...

It seems that I have not written much of anything in two full weeks. I have another Leonard Cohen consideration brewing, but it is taking its own sweet time in achieving fermentation. Truth be told, I left my lap top home last week when we zipped up to Montreal for three days, too. Still. since we returned, I have been oddly distracted - emotionally unable and physically unwilling to sit in a focused way - so my discipline of written reflection seems to be on strike.

Or maybe a better term would be on retreat: its not that I am shutting down or even protesting; rather, this feels like a season beyond words. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of playing a jazz gig at a house party. I was pretty rusty, but loved it all. Tomorrow I am playing with two great colleagues at the Berkshire Museum as a part of their recent guitar exhibition. When we rehearsed earlier this week it was pure ecstasy: laughter and joy, sweet harmonies and sexy rhythm'n'blues, and more songs tumbling out of each of us that we could cram into five hours. And I'll have the blessing of playing another jazz gig next week before returning to our dance band on the last Sunday of the month. So, maybe it is true as the wise old preacher observed: to every thing there is a season. 

This past sabbath I was able to construct my Trinity Sunday message around "the experience of the holy" using three Leonard Cohen songs. What better way to celebrate the mystery of God's love in our lives than through the music of a Zen Buddhist Jew from Montreal? This morning, in the daily Buechner blast I receive on-line, I read these words:

THE MUCH-MALIGNED doctrine of the Trinity is an assertion that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, there is only one God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery. Thus the Trinity is a way of saying something about us and the way we experience God. The Trinity is also a way of saying something about God and the way he is within himself, i.e., God does not need the Creation in order to have something to love because within himself love happens. In other words, the love God is is love not as a noun but as a verb. This verb is reflexive as well as transitive. 

If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and obfuscating, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and indivisibly the one and only You.

I reminded the faithful that even the words/names Father, Son and Holy Spirit were poetic symbols for that which we experience as grace.  The Cappadocian Fathers spoke of simulacrum - not formula - for this mystery. We concluded with "Dance Me to the End of Love." Clearly dancing and playing music are luring me deeper these days. Maybe the writing groove will be ready to return next week?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

who by fire...

Today was given over to the quotidian mysteries (a la Kathleen Norris) of yard work, bill paying and being deeply quiet. No meetings. No church work. No outside conversations. Just grass cutting, sorting out how to pay whom and how much, being fully present to Di and Lucie, but mostly being still. This is one of the greatest gifts I have received since moving into part-time ministry: more silence. Henri Nouwen taught that the purity of heart that defined the life of Jesus was born of silence. In quiet reflection, I learn how to focus more on the doing of God's will so that my distractions and denials can take a back seat - at least for a few minutes each day.

I didn't sleep well last night. I was hurting for one of our own who is battling the agony of lung cancer. The pain was agonizing last night. Relentless. And all who care are helpless to bring relief. Finally, the doctors upped the meds and blessed rest "poured down like honey from our Lady of the Harbor." (Still thinking about St. Leonard, ok?) 

One of Cohen's songs is haunting me right now: "Who By Fire." Tomorrow I am going to write about the way Cohen wrestles with an ancient Yom Kippur prayer in his ultra contemporary manner through this song. It is haunting and asks is God really the source of so much of our agony? It was a song I kept singing over and over last night to stay present with my friends suffering. Not surprisingly, I didn't sleep well but that is how it should be in faith, hope and love. "I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I'll laugh with you..." as the song teaches. (Listen to this incredible genre-bending version of Cohen's song with the genius of Sonny Rollins added to the mix...)

Then this morning, it was a stunning day in the Berkshires, a sacramental reminder that in the midst of suffering there is also beauty and rest. I sat on the deck, sipped Scottish tea and read the paper as Barth recommended: with my Bible in the my other hand. Later I heard that our friend's pain subsided and that a measure of relief was taking place. I heard from other friends who are eager to make music in these strange times. And a colleague who is deeply committed to the course of spiritual direction reached out to me, too. It was a time to rejoice in small blessings.

Still, all day long, I have been singing "Who By Fire." To be pure of heart is to hold the paradox of pain and pleasure, dark and light, questions and clarity together as one whole even when that is disturbing. 

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...