Sunday, October 29, 2017

full to overflowing...

Tonight was one of those times when I cherish living here. The day began with our local paper running a column I wrote about taking on the reality of racism, sexism and antisemitism in our community.  Our small, white congregation likes when their pastor steps up to the plate for justice and compassion. (And I like when they do, too.) There were good vibes all around. (You can check it out here:,523082

Later this afternoon I had the honor of introducing one of our saints to the wider Berkshires at the BIO MICAH Awards ceremony. There were activists and church leaders from the region there and I got to check in with a few dear souls I haven't seen for years. Then, while sipping local fresh apple cider, a woman from St. Mark's Parish taps my shoulder and asked, "What did you think of the show last night?" She was referring to the local production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at Berkshire Community College. "We LOVED it" I replied setting off 20 minutes of reliving the naughty foolishness of this splendid production. Then an immigrant pastor from the Philippines and I chatted about doing the work of love and justice in a wildly secular culture. I checked in with a few other sweet activists and found that one man was moved by Jean Vanier when he read him in undergraduate school. (Small world, yes?) I shared a conversation with a local spiritual director, too and we agreed to do an on-line "abbey of the arts" retreat together for November. And right before the awards ceremony started I was asked if I would lead the closing song because "Sr. Natalie had to leave early."

Introducing Dick was tender: he is a kind and generous man who spoke about the five lights in his life.  Recalling his beloved parents - and then his treasured wife - brought him to the edge of tears. Mine spilled over. For two hours we were white and black together, Protestant, Catholic and Jew as well. At the close, I mentioned that "Sr. Natalie would have sung this like a Sister of St. Joseph, and many of us know it from Bible camp, but I first heard it in the Deep South so we're going to try it a slower and more soulfully."  Leading a solid clap on the offbeat, we brought it home with "This Little Light of Mine."

As I was leaving I got to speak with a few local colleagues who feed my heart. Walking out to my car, the whole family of our honoree were present so I got to meet the newest member, Rory, as well as daughters, son-in-law and their momma. Pulling into the grocery store to get a few last minute items, I heard, "Hey, James... nice job!" from a music minister friend who holds forth just down the block from us. "Getting a mostly older, spread out crowd to sing with soul was... awesome." While at the check out counter, a young, African American woman said, "Excuse me, sir, but that is the BIGGEST tomato I have ever seen! It's way more interesting than my pork chops."  We laughed, exchanged hand shakes and names before she said, "So if I see you again you HAVE to tell me if that tasted as good as it looks."  

Heading back to my car, the local hunger center coordinator waved as she went into the store and I left. And then a young woman and her small child were almost blown away by the wind. I stopped to help only to hear, "James! Oh James, that's you!" It was Tessa and baby Eve in rain gear. I haven't seen them since Spring. We hugged before they scampered off as the rain grew more fierce. I've played music with her dad here for 10 years. We went to Turkey together. I celebrated her wedding and baptized baby Eve. I think the world of this young, wise and immensely talented person.

Clearly, while one door closes here another is already opening. I give thanks to God for a fascinating day and deep connections reaffirmed. It is our oldest daughter's birthday, too and for the gift of her sweet self - and her precious family - I am full to overflowing.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Que le pèlerinage continue!

My reflections on retirement have become an extended exercise. It is my hope that they prayerfully honor both the close of my ordained days while openly exploring emerging possibilities. Some may have already grown weary of this written pilgrimage. It wears me out at times, too. After all, I have been on this road for 30 odd months and am only now claiming a measure of clarity. Fowhile the close of the ordained chapter is set - Sunday, January 28, 2018  during 10:30 am worship - what is to follow is only now beginning to take shape and form. 

Last night at dinner with dear friends in a favorite local eatery, someone said, "You two look GREAT!" On the drive home, Di amplified this observation with: "I am really eager to see you after January comes and goes and you finally lay this burden down." Moi aussi mes amis mais il y a un travail important à faire avant de lâcher!  A few commitments still remain that are energizing, vital and of possible significance to our wider community:

+ After last Sunday's forum on racism, sexism and antisemitism, and the critique that younger voices are still not at the table, a poetry slam has been proposed for sometime before the end of this calendar year. I am charged to see this come to pass. Our younger local artists have insights and wisdom the wider community needs to hear and embrace. These artists need affirmation and encouragement, too.  Stay tuned as this is a fast moving train with exciting possibilities.

+ In early January 2018, I have two music projects that are coming into
focus: one involves marking the one year anniversary of the Four Freedoms March and the other hosting a salon with my brother from another mother Hal Lefferts. The Four Freedoms anniversary portends to be an interfaith gathering of artists and musicians sharing songs, poems and dance as an act of solidarity with our African American and immigrant sisters and brothers in Pittsfield. My hope is that this will be a time of joyful and creative resistance to the rising white supremacist hatred that continues to rear its ugly head in America. The white community must stand up and be counted and this is one of the ways I can help. The salon - and worship time with Hal- is an experiment in sharing truth-telling about this moment in time through song. We'll hold a dialogue in music and spoken word during my sermon time then invite folk back to our home a few hours later for a house concert. During the private gathering, we can go deeper into the meaning and response of Hal's beautiful and insightful compositions. (This is a particular joy for me!)

+ In December, I will have the privilege of sharing one final Advent with this faith community - and my final Christmas Eve, too.  That will be a tender and even bitter sweet time for me. For while we've had our differences over the past few years - and grown in quite different directions - our love is deep and what we have shared has been sacred. I love this community and its people as I have learned to love the Body of Christ in Saginaw, Cleveland and Tucson. They will always be a part of my heart.

+ I will also be building my on-going relationship with L'Arche Ottawa during this time of transition. In November there is a formation retreat. In December a chance to share supper in community and some acts of service, too. After the New Year arrives and we sort out how often I can be in the North Country, it is my deepest hope to work out a regular schedule where I can volunteer.  My heart has been warmed beyond my understanding by L'Arche Ottawa and I am eager to see where the Spirit leads us together. By summer of 2018 I suspect we'll have greater clarity.

And then there is all the other time for music making with Hal and friends and being with my grandchildren!  Two years ago I participated in an on-line retreat and shared a photo of our old garden gazebo.  The wetlands behind the house was shrouded in fog and one of the spiritual directors said: this suggests a mystical portal into a time of mystery and new beginnings. She was right and now I have stepped through it: Que le pèlerinage continue!

Friday, October 27, 2017

21st century loving-kindness...

For most of my days in ministry - and all of my days as an advocate for social justice - I have been energized by a call to compassion. In different eras, this calling emphasized varying nuances. Early on, my outward perspective tended towards the stark challenge of Isaiah 58:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Like many privileged bourgeois activists, not only did I privatize the ancient prophet's words shared once with a post-exilic Israel, but I wrestled with them without context.  Self-righteousness is often the result of such study - and my assertiveness was no exception. Without a community to help me understand these words in history - and without mentors to plane off the rough edges of my zeal - I was cocksure I knew what the Lord's will meant better than most - and acted accordingly. I was blunt, insensitive and impatient towards others. I was equally blind to my own arrogance and emotional aggression. After all, with a monopoly upon truth, why waste time in the company of those who were too slow, frightened or compromised to topple the status quo?

My laboratory for experimenting with moderation was Union Theological Seminary in NYC. Many of my peers were equally doctrinaire - and articulate. Women called me out over sexism. GLBTQ colleagues did likewise over my shallow sense of human sexuality. People of color publicly and privately took me to task for denying my racism. And key professors quietly cautioned me to move beyond my materialist reading of reality into a more complex appreciation of our shared human experience. As one feminist friend said to me in a class Dorothee Soelle was teaching about anxiety, "You could quote Marx chapter and verse with authority. You had a history of organizing and nonviolent action. But the way you spoke came across like a club rather than a tool. Your vigor was obnoxious and isolating." To be sure, my seminary experience took me down a few pegs. I was invited by some - and directed by others - to learn to listen and share rather than control and lead.

Becoming a pastor in discrete communities of faith strengthened the call of downward mobility.  With real people to love - and real consequences to my thoughts and words - the practice of patience and greater silence took on a new urgency. I still too often spoke without thinking, but now the effects of my words mattered. The local church is where I learned again and again the relationship between humility and humiliation. It is also where I began to find allies willing to help me go beyond denial, overconfidence and antagonism. This was especially true in the recovery community.  Along with a wise and tender spiritual director, they showed me new vistas of compassion and encouraged me to honor the gift of silence. Henri Nouwen once wrote:  without dedicated time each day for resting in communion with God's love there is no way to authentically share it in the world.  By the end of my tenth year of ordination, a new text from the Bible had become my mantra:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Matthew 11: 28-30, The Message)

By my twentieth year of ministry, I was ready to throw it all away.  Entering the doctoral program at San Francisco Theological Seminary was a life saver: this is where I learned to integrate intellect with pastoral ministry. It was also where I explored how the arts give shape and form to the most profound human truths. Here was a new language that cut deeper than the sanitized liturgies I grew up with; here, too, was a way to speak to those beyond the confines of organized religion. In time, my dissertation on popular culture and a "still speaking God" shaped my new direction in ministry.  Psalm 37 became my guide:

Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday. Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices... Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land.

And now, with 36 years of ordained ministry at my back and 40 years of working in the local church, yet another insight about compassion and justice is being revealed.  Jean Vanier of the L'Arche community wrote in his ground-breaking Community and Growth:

The Hebrew word 'Hesed' expresses two things: fidelity and tenderness. In our civilization we can be tender but unfaithful, and faithful without tenderness. Our world is waiting for communities of tenderness and fidelity. They are coming.

I have long wondered about "loving kindness" in the English translations of
Scripture. For decades this rendering seemed too meek. Incomplete. But not so any longer.  A word search reveals that "hesed" becomes mercy 149 times in the Bible and loving kindness another 30 times.  And my heart suggests that the both/and of loving kindness is more useful in the 21st century as action and intent embrace.  Psalm 85 is illuminating concerning the marriage of heart, mind and body:

Steadfast love (or the loving kindness of hesed)and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky. The Lord will give what is good and our land will yield its increase. Righteousness will go before him and will make a path for his steps.

In our age, we are saturated with fear and overwhelmed by callous indifference and selfishness.  Loving kindness is indeed a balm for our wounds - and a clear alternative to the status quo. As Vanier has written elsewhere: the most any of us can do is share love with those closest to us. Applying the 10 foot rule keeps us focused and resourceful without giving in to despair.  And that is where my soul finds rest this day:

O Lord, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not raised in haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters, with things that are too high for me. But I have quieted and stilled my soul, like a weaned child on its mother's breast; so my soul is quieted within me. O Israel, trust in the Lord, from this time forth for evermore.  (Psalm 131)

God knows I still have my blind spots - and my shadows that I barely know are there - but such is the human condition, yes?  

Thursday, October 26, 2017

homily at a celebration of life: kathy arzt...

NOTE: Today we celebrated the life of Kathy Arzt, church member and sister in Christ, at a memorial service.  My life was changed for the better because of her vibrant faith. I will miss her profoundly even as I rejoice that she has gone home to the Lord beyond all pain and suffering. Here are my homily notes. 


“We do not want you to be uninformed or confused, brothers and sisters, about those who have died” wrote St. Paul to his small community of faith in Thessaloníki probably 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. “And we do not want you to grieve as others do who have no hope,” he continued. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring to him all those who have lived and died by faith.”

In times like this, I hang on to those words. Not only do I cherish them in my heart and find them to be a source of incomparable comfort, but they offer me a pattern for living into authentic Christian grief. And I have to tell, when my sister in Christ, Kathy Arzt, passed from this life to life everlasting last week, I was rattled. I was surprised and unnerved. Don’t get me wrong, I knew her death was coming – we had talked about it on and off for nearly five years – but I had just been with her the day before and she didn't look like she was ready to let go.

I mean, the night before she’d eaten some prime rib and that very morning enjoyed a poached egg. Yes, she was on a journey that was drawing to a close, but man… I wasn't fully prepared for it to arrive so soon. “In the blink of an eye,” St. Paul wrote elsewhere, “we will all be changed.” And he was right. As his forbearers in faith once noted, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born… and a time to die.” For me, and maybe for you, it just came like a thief in the night no matter how emotionally and spiritually prepared I thought I was.

So this morning, as we return thanks to God for the life, death and gift of life eternal that the Lord has shared with us through Kathy Arzt, I want to simultaneously celebrate the fullness of her humanity and faith and do so in a way that helps us grieve as authentic Christians. Because, grieve we must, NOT as those who do so without hope – in ignorance or confusion about God’s grace – but as those who know and trust that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the core of God’s beloved creation. God’s promise is that through Jesus we shall all be brought home into his loving embrace forever.

Jesus told his first followers – of whom we are in debt – “do not let your hearts be troubled – trust in God – and trust in me.” That’s what the word believe really means: trust. It isn't doctrinal nor is it abstract, ok? Back in my more cocky days I used to ask young teens in confirmation if that “believed” in that stool. (PUT A STOOL IN FRONT OF THE COMMUNION TABLE.) They often thought I was crazy so I would ask them: What is the point of this stool? “To sit upon” they usually replied. So, do you trust that stool to hold you up? I continued. If you do, come over here and sit upon it!

THAT is what trust means: not abstract, idealized theological concepts, but rather embodied acts of obedience. So when Jesus tells us to trust God rather than let our hearts be troubled, he’s teaching us about how we are to live and act and think. That’s St. Paul’s point, too: grieve as those who trust Christ’s resurrection.

That’s how Kathy lived – and trusted – she knew from the inside out that when this realm was over, it wasn't the end of the story. “If I go and prepare a place for you,” Jesus said, “then I will come again and take you to myself.” She counted on returning to Jesus. She spoke to him constantly in those later days about returning to his love for eternity and being embraced fully by his gracious love. And now she has gone home – where for Kathy there is only love and healing and light in the presence of the Lord. It hurts us that she is gone – we feel empty – and well we should. She was a powerful and significant personality, right? There was nothing meek or retiring about Kathy Arzt.

I remember the early days of getting to know her: outwardly what I saw was a bold and commanding professional woman who dressed for success, knew her own mind and wasn't afraid to tell you what she was thinking. Truth be told, at first Kathy intimidated me: she was a force of nature who didn't pull her punches. She wasn't cruel, just forceful and I knew from the get go that I didn't want to be on her bad side. So, let’s be honest, with a personality that big, you can’t help but miss her now that she is gone. That’s part of our authentic Christian grieving. But it isn't the END of the story.

Because over the last five years I saw Kathy take all that bold strength and courage and love that was truly a gift from God in its time, and practice turning it over to the Lord so that she might have the strength to find her way through the reality of her cancer. It was a hard road taking on that cancer – there were times of agony and total darkness – times when she made the words of the Psalmist her own: Out of my depths I cry to you, Lord; hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy as I await your love.

Some of you here today – including her beloved, Bill – heard those cries. You held her in her agony, wiped away your mutual tears when none of the pain meds touched her suffering and endured an aching darkness and despair. How many times did Kathy tell me that in those moments YOU became Jesus for her: she called some of you her saints because you sat with her and comforted her when nothing else helped. In faith, hope and love, you waited upon the Lord with her and gave her the only thing any of us really have to give another: our presence, our time and our love.

And after the pain was over, she rejoiced for the love you shared with her in those horrible hours. So I want to say out loud that over the past five years I saw Kathy bring all of the strength and power she once used to raise a GREAT family – and I mean a GREAT family Stephen, Tessa and Bill – all the power and pizzazz she once used to become a professional woman of depth and integrity – all that power that on the surface used to intimidate me – all that power to become a disciple of Jesus who trusted and lived into his resurrection even when she could only feel his death on the Cross.

Kathy had faith. Somebody once said, “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to hell. FAITH is for those who have already been there.” And Kathy had certain been there and back. “Yea thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death… what? THOU art with me, Lord. THY rod and thy staff they comfort me. Man, Kathy HAD faith. Faith – trust that the Cross is at the core of creation – grieving as authentic Christian who are not ignorant of God’s love in Jesus Christ is about letting go of what we think we know and letting God be God. In Eugene Petersen’s reworking of St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to us: You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. Theologians call this the Paschal Mystery – the great reversal of God’s love – where the end becomes the beginning of blessing.Towards the end of his earthly life, St. Paul put it like this: God told me that ‘My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in your weakness.’ That is why I now boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Today I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong by God’s love.

Over and over again I saw this ripen in Kathy. About a month ago, when she was down in Great Barrington I stopped by to see her at about lunch time. She was eating like a horse that day and when she saw me, she greeted me, waved me and said, “Don’t mind my bald head and don’t be upset that I’m cursing like a sailor these days. Just come on in, it’s good to see you.” I was in awe – she was radiant – and I don’t mean just figuratively – I mean the radiance of God’s loving presence was pouring out of her. And when I told her this she gave one of those hearty bursts of belly laughter and said, “James, everyone is tell me this. Well, I just know it isn't ME!” (In my weakness, Lord, you make me strong.) She said two other things that afternoon I will carry with me forever.

First she said, “James why did I spend all that time and money on makeup and clothes and hair dye? Now I’m bald as a cue ball and my skin looks about 150 years old, but I feel more beautiful than ever before.” And who was I to argue with one in communion with the Lord? She was right: totally radiant and vibrant with life even as she was dying.

Second she said, “I’m ready to go now. I don’t want to – I would much rather be able to see Paula's baby – but that may not be up to me. I am at peace with God and whenever He’s ready for me, I’m going home.” And after a knowing pause, she laughed, put her hand on my chest and said, “Bless you – just make sure everyone knows that I’ll be pulling for you in God’s presence. It’s ALL going to be ok.” I almost wept but kept it together until I got back in my car.

In Kathy’s Bible, this passage from I Peter was marked with special importance:

Since Jesus went through everything you’re going through and more, learn to think like him. Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want. You've already put in your time in that God-ignorant way of life, partying night after night, a drunken and profligate life. (How many times did she used to say: Thank God we lived before the days of social media?)Now it’s time to be done with the old ways for good. Listen to the Message. It was preached to those believers who are now dead, and yet even though they died (just as all people must), they will still get in on the life that God has given in Jesus.

Kathy Arzt lived by faith – by trust – by love born of Jesus from the inside out.
She cherished her babies Tessa, Steph and Bill like a Momma Lion, treasured her grandchildren – Paula and Jonathan, Lexi and Victoria, Ryan and Sean, Fiona and Bodie- with an intensity and gentle humor that only Nonnie could make real – and loved so many of us in all our broken beauty that we can’t help but feel empty even as we give thanks to God that he pain and suffering are over.

And oh did she loved her man Bill. For 44 years she loved that man like there was no tomorrow. She loved him in ways that were holy and human, sacred and sensual all at the same time and brought heaven and earth together. They would laugh and love like nobody's business - and it was a wonder to behold. On the day she passed from this life, as Bill knelt by her bedside and prayed and wept, after a time Kathy opened her eyes, whispered softly, "I love you" and let go as she was accepted into the arms of everlasting light. Oh, did she love that man.

After her first series of operation – and treatment – and recover, Kathy and Bill used to faithfully come to our midday Wednesday Eucharist. It was a quiet little time of talking about Scripture and our lives, prayer and sharing the body and blood of Christ around the communion table. Time and again she would say: I know God has some-thing important for me to do now that I am getting well. I know it my heart. I just don’t know what it is. 

Over the years we talked about just exactly what this special ministry might be – Bible study for lay people? Visitation? What? And I have to tell you, that in the end it was none of those things. Or maybe all of them and more. Because I can say with certainty now that Kathy’s last special act for the Lord was sharing her presence with us – her vulnerability, her suffering and her love in a humble and honest way. Because when she was weak, she empowered us to reach out beyond our comfort zones in love and trust God in ways that have changed us forever. Kathy helped us become weak so that God could become our strength.

Now, before we hear from the Arzt family, I'd like you to pray with me the last prayer I shared with Kathy in this life:  the Hail Mary. She and I used to joke that we were some of the most renegade Congregationalists around because be BOTH loved the Blessed Virgin Mary and called out to her in prayer often. So, perhaps you can join me and then we'll sing what we often shared before Eucharist:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed art Thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of Thy woman Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the time of our death.

In life, in death and life beyond death, Kathy Arzt was a gift from God:  Alleluia...

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

healing the breach part two...

Here's a follow-up I've proposed to our local paper re: taking next
We're also exploring a poetry slam event before the end of the year to find new ways to bring younger voices into the work of healing the breach.

I recently had the privilege to participate in the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregation’s forum “Healing Pittsfield: A Conversation about What Divides Us.” Each of my colleagues on the panel brought wisdom and years of commitment to the challenge of overcoming racism, sexism and anti-Semitism in the Berkshires. The moderators, Rev. Shelia-Sholes-Ross and Rabbi Joshua Briendel, were equally sensitive and insightful in moving the conversation deeper. It was an important local step in our quest towards reclaiming the Beloved Community of MLK’s dream.

What happens next, however, is vexing. As one member of my congregation observed to me after the event, “This was very important – and I am grateful. But it seems that we’ve been lamenting exactly these same problems without moving towards life-changing solutions for over 50 years.” A sentence in The Eagle’s editorial of 10/24/17 (“Pittsfield’s Divisions Are Cultural and Tangible”) makes the same point: “If there was a simple solution, it would have been found by now – in Pittsfield” and other American communities. And therein rests our dilemma. There are, indeed, solutions, but they are far from simple. They require sacrifice, time, candor, humility and resources at a moment in our history when all are in short supply. Nevertheless, at the forum, I suggested three time-tested next step actions that would address our collective ignorance while strengthening the ties that bind us together in community. They are:

+ An interfaith, grassroots, multi-year commitment to The People's Suppers movement. (
The goal of this effort links ends with means: slowing down to break bread with others gives us a chance to meet those who are different from ourselves. As we listen carefully to one another’s deepest concerns with humility we begin to rebuild “brave places” where our vulnerability becomes our strength. Founder Emily May put it like this: “We aim to repair the breach in our interpersonal relationships across political, ideological, and identity differences, leading to more civil discourse. And, we plan to do it in the most nourishing way we know – over supper!” Guidelines for each supper are provided – as well as personal training – so leaders need not reinvent the wheel. At each gathering, we begin by sharing personal responses to three questions: 1) What's the first moment that you understood what it means to be a citizen? 2) What do you dream for your community? 3) What was a moment in which you were made to feel not welcome? Every one of us eats – and almost every one of us in Pittsfield yearns for a more perfect union. Using this new/old resource gives shape and form to one of our oldest prayers: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies… my cup overflows.”

+ A full year of researching and reporting on Pittsfield’s “shadows and light” re: racism, sexism and anti-Semitism. Our wounds have a deep history. Sadly, most of Pittsfield’s white population knows nothing of our culture of overt and covert oppression. One example is illustrative: how many of us know that it was illegal for Jews to own land in Pittsfield until after 1890? Without land, there could be no cemetery – or synagogue. That does not mean that Jews did not contribute to the well-being of our town before Knesset Israel was founded in 1893. It does mean that they were systematically denied the right to worship freely. During Pittsfield’s 250th anniversary, the Eagle and other local institutions ran daily mini-stories about events and people that had an impact on our community on that date in our past. My challenge builds on this: consider the insights we might discern if not only the Eagle, but the Athenaeum, the NAACP, the Jewish Federation, PACC and the Samuel Harrison House collaborated on a yearlong project of sharing our “hidden” histories? Both the ugly and exhilarating truths? If we want to change the trajectory of our culture, we must do the hard work of telling the truth to one another our loud.

A regional Truth and Reconciliation Commission that culminates in public ceremonies of repentance and forgiveness. When apartheid came to a close in South Africa, the nation’s leadership understood that laws on paper were important, but they did not change human hearts – especially hearts baptized in decades of hatred and blood. Under the tender but strong leadership of Bishop Desmond Tutu, a multi-year voluntary project was initiated that brought together people who had oppressed others for honest conversations. In time, two things transpired: many of the oppressors came to ask their victims for forgiveness, and, many of the hurting found the strength and courage to do so in ways that liberated both parties. Canada recently spent a few years of learning about its own subjugation of First Nations’ People in a similar process. This led to new initiatives to combat police brutality towards indigenous women. I confess that I do not have a monopoly on wisdom about how something similar might take place among us, yet it is clear that without owning our sins in public – and working towards reconciliation – there can be no deep healing.

There are certainly other ways to move deeper, too. The PACC team of panelists is already considering creative, “out of the box” events that would welcome younger Berkshire citizens to this essential conversation. I stand ready to do my part and pray that the Spirit of creating brave and hope-filled space continues.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

going deeper with a more radical challenge...

On Sunday I participated in an important local event re: challenging and healing
the breach caused by white supremacy, sexism and antisemitism. The local paper, the Berkshire Eagle, is working hard to be a voice of wisdom and solidarity in our community. And while I always yearn for greater depth, it is working hard and I support it. The modest review of our symposium can be found @,522558.

Today, the editors weighed in on this matter. Another good sign. But for whatever reason, they missed my deeper challenge. Black and white allies have been talking about this for 50 years - and not much has changed. We all tend to report out the obvious facts, without pushing the envelope towards radical change. And, IMHO that's what the paper left out.  What follows is my letter encouraging a redress so that we might do the hard work of listening, learning, unearthing our shadows and light and then seeking concrete ways of living into repentance and forgiveness.

To the editor:
I was pleased that the Eagle chose not only to send a reporter and photographer to the recent PACC "Healing Pittsfield Conversation About What Divides Us," but also to go deeper with today's editorial. There were, however two omissions in your editorial. The first, and least important, is that Rabbi Josh Briendel was not a panelist, but a moderator. I, in fact, was the fourth panelist. The second and far more important omission was my challenge to Pittsfield that included:

1) A grassroots commitment to supporting The People's Suppers movement that brings strangers and potential political opponents together for an evening meal and conversation. As the event's other moderator, the Rev. Shelia Sholes-Ross noted: Pittsfield could stand to do some bread breaking together in pursuit of healing our fractured identity. When I was pastor in Cleveland, OH the Community Relations Board regularly brought merchants, citizens and politicians together with clergy and civic leaders for a supper. A lot can happen when we pass one another the butter beans and are not meeting in a polarized setting. (for more information:

2) A shared year of research and reporting on the "shadows and light" of our community when it comes to racism, sexism and Antisemitism. So many of our neighbors don't know the ways we have historically wounded one another. Nor do we know the ways we have strengthened our better angels over the past 255 years. My proposal asked the key institutions to engage in a year of changing our collective ignorance and neglected history so that we might grow beyond our divisions. My friends in Canada recently did something similar in uncovering their own broken history re: First Nations People.

3) A public ritual based upon our year of story telling much like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We will not advance the cause of solidarity by repeating the obvious facts. Rather, we must dig deeper and acknowledge the wounds we have caused - and ask one another for forgiveness. Then, and only then, will we have a fighting chance of overcoming the divisions we have only talked about for the past 50 years. .

I know the Eagle is committed to getting the story right and thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.

The Rev. Dr. James Lumsden

tasting grace with colleagues in ministry...

Once upon a time, during a casual pastoral visit with a retired clergy person, he said, "You have a great staff right now - and a great sense of momentum. Honor it, man, and cherish it because this only happens once, maybe twice, in a lifetime." As I look backwards over nearly 40 years of ministry in the church, I know I have been blessed because I experienced an extended taste of God's grace with my different colleagues at least four different times. 

The first took place in Cleveland with a consortium of lay leaders. We made a commitment to one another to gather every two weeks for Eucharist and study. We also pledged to listen to the Spirit moving within and among us to select our leadership team. No filling slots, no overt parish politics, please; just prayer and honest conversation. This created an environment where neighborhood ministry flourished along with new music and a commitment to bring a measure of hope to the public schools.  I give thanks to God for Fran Apltauer and Kristie Greene for those sacred days. 

When life took us to the desert Southwest, there were two incarnations that felt holy to me. Bringing Sean Schulze on as music director - a gifted musician 
from South Africa - kicked up our worship groove. And for the two years that Amy O'Brien served our children, youth and young families, we had a dynamic team that was faithful, creative and way too much fun. Especially given the gifts and wisdom my dear colleague, Debbie Anderson, brought into the mix. When Sean and Amy moved on, Debbie deepened her commitment to lay empower-ment - and we added Thomas Azar to the music staff. Then we REALLY cooked in the music realm as Linda Schloss, Kim Elliot, Eric Johnson, don E Merson, Ina Merson and Dianne De Mott joined forces and gave birth to Stranger (our band.)

I would also celebrate an extended sacred run in Pittsfield, too as my colleagues David, Becky and Carlton joined forces with another gifted musical team that included Jon, Eva, Elizabeth, Sue, Brian, David and Andy. Janet's on-going devotion to our children added to the blessings. It was a joy doing ministry when this team was vibrant.

With all blessings, however, there is a time to revel in them and a time when they end: to everything there is a season. I grieve when those sacred times pass, but honor this holy rhythm knowing that I was fortunate enough to encounter them not merely once or twice, but four distinctive times. Jean Vanier reminds me that there is no ideal when it comes to a living community.

The ideal doesn't exist. The personal equilibrium and the harmony people dream of come only after years and years of struggle, and then only as flashes of grace and peace. Peace is the fruit of love and service to others. I'd like to tell the people in communities, "Stop looking for peace. Give yourselves where you are. Stop looking at yourselves, look instead at your brothers and sisters in need. Ask how you can better love your brothers and sisters. Then you will find peace.

Indeed, there is no ideal - but I've tasted something close and give thanks to God for the feast!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

healing the breach...

Today I had the privilege to join with three others local civic leaders in the first of a series of community conversations - and plans - for challenging racism, sexism and antisemitism in the Berkshires. About 75 people attended. My prepared comments are as follows. Many thanks to the Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross, Rabbi Josh Breindel, Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant and Dennis Powell. 


It is my joy and privilege to be asked to share a reflection with you this day: thank you. As an old, straight, white Protestant guy getting closer to retirement, it would be so easy for me to settle back into all my privilege and just hold up in my study reading books, praying liturgies and playing music. And that’s what often happens with a lot of old, straight, white, privileged retired guys: we are so used to acting like we’re at the top of the food chain that don’t even consider doing something different. We may carp and complain about the world going to hell in a hand basket, but as my friends in AA say: if you always do, what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got. So I’m here to affirm that white, male, nativist, racist, anti-Semitic misogyny must be challenged. And what I’ve learned over the past 40 years of doing justice, practicing compassion and trusting God’s guidance with humility includes these three commitments.

The first task for me – and people like me who want to address the social sins of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism – is for us to shut up and learn to listen. My first practice must be hearing and believing those who have been wounded by my privilege. It is the only way I can credibly commit what the late German theologian, Dorothee Soelle, once called race, gender and class suicide. First, listen and believe.

Second, show up in solidarity.
That might mean standing in the rain for a pop up demonstration on Park Square or writing a well-crafted letter for the editorial page of the Eagle. Whatever form it takes, showing up in solidarity is essential. My mentor in ministry, Ray Swartzback, a veteran of both the Battle of the Bulge and the American Civil Rights struggle of the 50s and 60s taught me that white guys need to understand that our credibility is not portable – it must always be earned – and the only way to earn trust is to consistently show up in solidarity.

And third, celebrate the 10 foot rule.
Individually I don’t have much power but I can change what happens 5 feet in front of me and all around. I need not be over-whelmed by fear or immobilized by anxiety if I practice the 10 foot rule. Take, for example, what a young woman from Brooklyn, Emily May, can teach us with her People’s Suppers. To challenge the status quo, she started to invite people into her home to break bread. The concept is simple: Bring a group of willing people together for a meal, give them the opportunity to truly hear from and see each other, face to face (and see what happens when we claim) a "brave space" from within our vulnerability. Most folks, she says, do show up albeit a little nervous. But they almost always all leave a little more open, a little more understanding, and a little more brave. Next to everybody's plate is a card: These dinners can be places for healing – and places for bridging. At each dinner, we ask the same series of questions: What's the first moment that you understood what it means to be a citizen? What do you dream for your community? What was a moment in which you were made to feel not welcome? There are other themes to these peoples dinners including intra-faith gatherings and those focused on building solidarity with those who have been wounded by sexual violence and harassment. But all give shape and form to the 10 foot rule.

Like the Sikh scholar and activist, Valarie Kaur, I sense this present darkness is more of a womb than a tomb – a sacred moment when new life and hope is struggling to be born. And as an old hippie who home delivered BOTH of my daughters I know that this birthing is holy ground – along with a lot of pain, hard work and love. For me it requires listening and believing, showing up in solidarity and using my time and resources to give justice and compassion shape and form through the ten foot rule. Mohandas Gandhi is reputed to have said, “BE the change you wish to see in the world.” And what was true then in toppling the British Empire is no less true as we confront patriarchy, racism and anti-Semitism in the Berkshires.

Friday, October 20, 2017

the challenge of community...

In a self-absorbed era like our own, filled with fear and mistrust, it is a daunting challenge to try and build true community. Not impossible, by any means, but always complicated and often incomplete. Michael Ignatieff, in the recently published The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, notes that as our world becomes ever more interconnected, globalization has yet to give rise to a shared ethic of the common good. "While we once may have thought that democratic values and human rights advance hand in hand, we are learning that the contrary may be the case. Democratic sovereignty and the moral universalism of human rights are on a collision course everywhere."

Because human beings do not agree on the Good, even though they can recognize goodness, they also disagree about who has moral standing; in other words, who is to be trusted and believed... (everywhere) democratic majorities have been rejecting universalist claims - the right of asylum in one place, the right of strangers to nationality in another - all in the name of a democratic defense of local values. (pp. 206-207)

Let me suggest that in a small and humble way authentic Christian communities offer a potential alternative. Henri Nouwen once wrote that honest Christian adults know that the "church is holy and sinful, spotless and tainted." He wrote:

The Church is the bride of Christ, who washed her in cleansing water and took her to himself "with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless" (Ephesians 5:26-27). The Church too is a group of sinful, confused, anguished people constantly tempted by the powers of lust and greed and always entangled in rivalry and competition. 
When we say that the Church is a body, we refer not only to the holy and faultless body made Christ-like through baptism and Eucharist but also to the broken bodies of all the people who are its members. Only when we keep both these ways of thinking and speaking together can we live in the Church as true followers of Jesus.

This is not to say that local churches always honor or appreciate this truth. But it is core to our identity. Jean Vanier amplifies this call to humility when he writes in Community and Growth:

Community means communion of heart and spirit; it is a network of relationships. This implies a response to the cry of our brothers and sisters, especially the poorest, the weakest, the most wounded and a sense of responsibility for them. And this is demanding and disturbing. That is why it is very easy to replace relationships and the demands they bring with laws, rules and administrative devices. It is easier to obey a law than it is to love people. This is why some communities are swallowed up by rules and administration instead of growing in gratitude, welcome and gift.

The key here is relationship rather than regulation. I have seen blessings ripen in a local church when relationships built on the Paschal Mystery - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus - are primary. I have also experienced the total opposite, too as creativity and verve are sucked out of the community by those who get lost in rules and administration. Nouwen suggests that these two polarities require vigilance and regular reformation.

Over the centuries the Church has done enough to make any critical person want to leave it. Its history of violent crusades, pogroms, power struggles, oppression, excommunications, executions, manipulation of people and ideas, and constantly recurring divisions is there for every-one to see and be appalled by. Can we believe that this is the same Church that carries in its center the Word of God and the sacraments of God's healing love? Can we trust that in the midst of all its human brokenness the Church presents the broken body of Christ to the world as food for eternal life? Can we acknowledge that where sin is abundant grace is superabundant, and that where promises are broken over and again God's promise stands unshaken? To believe is to answer yes to these questions.

After nearly four decades of leadership and participation in the local church, I am soon to step away from ministry for a season. My retirement, however,t is not about resignation, but rather entering into new encounters with community. More than ever before I believe that people of faith must strengthen small groups of those committed to the love and justice of God, and, that these communities can serve as a sign of hope in a broken world. Brother Roger of Taize used to speak of his community as symbol of festival amidst a world of suffering. This rings true in my heart, too and is one of the places I sense new life for me.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

maps do not know everything...

Yesterday was a complete surprise - a beloved community member passed from this life to life ever- lasting - and I was taken by surprise. Oh I knew it was coming. We've been in prayer together since February. I just didn't know it would arrive so soon. Only the day before I was kneeling at her bedside praying the "Hail Mary." A few minutes later, I was sitting close by her husband catching up on meals shared and next steps. Then the great mystery of life and faith broke in to reveal yet again that we are not in control. 

The shocking realities, the bewildering mysteries, the total surprises of this journey can become gifts if we're open to receiving them. For the dear one who has now gone home to the Lord, she is free from anguish and pain. St. Paul was adamant in his reminder that "we do not grieve as those without hope." Yes, we grieve. Yes, a death wounds the living. Yes, there is darkness and emptiness and regret. But for the departed, there is peace and light and love for eternity. We do not grieve as those without hope. And for those who remain on this side of life, even the surprises and shocks can become blessings that awaken us to the short uncertainty of our own existence.

The angel of death gradually became my ally over the decades. Sitting alone in the darkness of our sun room last night, I thought through the hundreds of funerals and memorial services I have celebrated as a few key departures rose to the surface with significance. Certainly my sister Linda's death rattled my cage and impelled me to change the direction of my life back in Cleveland. So, too, with Don Wooten's  passing a few years later. Those deaths impelled me to go inside my heart and ask: "what must change in order to live with more joy?" In time I was divorced and moved from the industrial heartland to the desert South West. In Tucson, the exceptionally "good" death of dear Dolores Brown not only gave me a chance to journey with a faithful soul as she readied herself for the end, but clarified for me that the end of that ministry had arrived. Without Dolores, one of the true saints in light, it was clearly time for me to move on. And now here in Massachusetts, this death - and that of Michael Daniels four years back - evokes an ending of sorts, too. But I also see a new beginning already as I journey into new worlds of music and compassion. (Indeed, I am doing some bass tutorials to get the hang of some reggae, man!)

There is nothing linear or rational about how the angel of death brings gifts of awakening to us. I simply know that if I am paying attention, a blessing is often revealed. This morning as I read a poem by Ruth Feldman, "Detour," this odd paradox of death and new life rang true one again.

I took a long time getting here,
much of it wasted on wrong turns,
back roads riddled by ruts.
I had adventures I never would have known
if I proceeded as the crow flies.
Super highways are so sure of where they are going:
they arrive too soon.

A straight line isn't always the shortest distance
between two people.
Sometimes I act as though I'm heading somewhere else
while, imperceptibly, I narrow the gap between you and me.
I'm not sure I'll ever know the right way,
but I don't mind getting lost now and then.
Maps don't know everything.

Maps, indeed, do not know everything.  So let me honor that and know that it is now time to take Lucie for a long, quiet romp in the woods.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

our new world faces a complicated birth...

NOTE: In light of the extraordinary sea change that seemingly has taken place
over night in our culture with the #Me Too campaign, but which is more like a tipping towards justice and hope for all women and the GLBTQ community after eons of abuse, it felt timely to re-up my September Op-Ed reflection in the local Berkshire Eagle. Not only has the #Me Too campaign empowered millions of women, it has awakened the better angels within men, too. As I suggest below, Valerie Kaur is right, this is a birthing moment.  A new way of being is beginning to take root in our land that honors and protects all life. It, too, is built upon the efforts of suffragettes, abolitionists, labor union organizers, pacifists, feminists and civil rights activists from generations past. As one veteran of the Freedom Marches told me on a farm worker picket line back in the 70s: Every generation must reclaim the call and drive for freedom and make it their own. 
Like the labor process itself, we are still struggling - albeit in different ways - to give shape and form to "the beloved community." So despite the current mean-spirited misogyny, racism and ignorance that reigns in the White House, yet again we are seeing that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. Perhaps local folk can join me this Sunday, October 22, 2017 for a panel colloquy re: racism, sexism and Anti-Semitism in the Berkshires @ First Baptist Church in Pittsfield.


PITTSFIELD — My granddaughter just came into this world at Maimonides Medical Center where Jewish physicians work side by side with Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs and non-religious colleagues pursuing the cause of healing. These Asian, African, Latino, Russian, Middle Eastern, and Anglo professionals have laid aside their differences in search of common ground. Likewise, this baby's parents, who hail from a Scots-Irish-Italian heritage and Protestant/Roman Catholic spiritualities, are committed to helping her honor Ramadan and Yom Kippur as well as Christmas, as they have already done with her four-year-old brother. Collectively, it seems to me, there is a new America a'bornin' even though it is proving to be a truly complicated birth.

Sikh scholar Valerie Kaur suggests that our present darkness is not so much a tomb as it is a womb. A matter of perspective, faith and imagination, to be sure, but Kaur notes that: "Where a tomb conjures the words cold, damp, lonely, finite, the womb draws up notions of warmth, safety, love, and potential. As we know, the womb is where we, as beings, begin to grow, develop, and equip ourselves with the tools we need to enter into the unknown world. What if our experience of darkness offered this same opportunity?"

Polling and experience document that a majority of Americans yearn for the birthing of a more perfect union. We were unnerved by the neo-Nazi, white supremacists who threw away their sheets in Charlottesville. We have been anxious and afraid as our president acts more like a collaborator with the Klan than the commander-in-chief. Perhaps it is time to reclaim the wisdom of spiritual midwives who have guided those traveling the road into God's beloved community before us.

* First, we must embrace a willingness to nourish inner peace because "we can't give what we ain't got." Whatever spiritual practice nourishes your soul and grounds you in grace, now is the time reclaim it. Contemplation trains distracted and often confused individuals to be soul warriors for peace. Meditation incarnates within us the change we ache to see in the world, and without it we always fall back into the habits of privilege and power.

* Second, we need a vigorous campaign of community truth-telling because white Americans don't know our own history. Long before Mr. Trump's false equivalencies, white politicians have been playing the race card. Whether by erecting statues of Confederate soldiers as acts of domestic terrorism in support of Jim Crow, voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, de jure segregation, lynching, rape or the careful manipulation of cultural racism through coded Klan rhetoric called "dog whistles," our history has been saturated with intolerance — and most of us don't know it. Santayana was right that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The wise souls in AA are even more direct: If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.

* And third, the 21st century aches for a renewal of public ceremonies of repentance. "The extremist right-wing groups [in the US] are not counting on majority support, but they are counting on majority silence they do not expect media adulation, but they are eager for media attention. And they are emboldened by our president. For all these reasons, it is crucial for Americans — especially white Americans — to find every way they can to loudly and clearly condemn white supremacy for what it is: an evil lie and a dangerous cancer in a nation that seeks to provide dignity and justice for all." (The Christian Century).

Repentance is not about shame, but changing the direction of our lives, literally choosing life over all the mechanisms of death, fear and evil we have avoided, hidden and denied. Acceptance is the only way the truth sets us free. It is also the only way to rebuild trust among wounded people. Birthing is hard work. It is not accidental we call it labor. But imagine what a series of shared public ceremonies built around owning our legacy with racism might bring to birth in Pittsfield. Imagine an interfaith gathering with music, poetry, commentary and reflection that was honest, faithful and inclusive.

Imagine our shared grief — and the possibilities for forgiveness. Imagine such a world a'bornin' within and among us. And know that now is the time for people who have tasted, seen, wept and dreamed about such a birth not only to carry this child to term, but to nurture her in solidarity.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

we have this treasure in earthen vessels...

Once upon a time I trusted the local church like a child. Now I love it as an adult. That means I am neither nostalgic nor naive about what it can and cannot accomplish. This morning, for example, the Henri Nouwen website posted this reflection from the late master.

The Church is holy and sinful, spotless and tainted. The Church is the bride of Christ, who washed her in cleansing water and took her to himself "with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless" (Ephesians 5:26-27). The Church too is a group of sinful, confused, anguished people constantly tempted by the powers of lust and greed and always entangled in rivalry and competition. When we say that the Church is a body, we refer not only to the holy and faultless body made Christ-like through baptism and Eucharist but also to the broken bodies of all the people who are its members. Only when we keep both these ways of thinking and speaking together can we live in the Church as true followers of Jesus.

Jean Vanier, reflecting upon Nouwen's life at his funeral eulogy, was equally un-sentimental. "The first thing I want to say about Henri is that he was a man of great energy, vision and insight, but also a man of great pain. Anguish often fueled many of his activities, his movement... and I was always moved when I sensed the depth of his pain." (Jean Vanier, Essential Writings, p. 129) Like the local church - or the wider Body of Christ - Vanier notes that Nouwen was always a "brilliant and wounded man who walked through the years of changes in the church and the world... always seeks, yearning searching, fueled by an anguish, fidelity and friendship that was sometimes terribly demanding, but always so beautiful." (p. 130)

Some in the church hate any critique. Others only see our feet of clay and our failures. At this late stage in the game, whatever complaints I have (and they are considerable) I also honor the blessings. The church - and each of us when we are driven by grace and compassion - are wounded healers. We are "beautiful healers because (we) are not ashamed to love." (p. 131) Today I experienced the blessings of being a wounded healer as I followed-up on pastoral connections, played glorious music and then sat in prayer with one who is tenderly saying goodbye to his beloved. There was agony, indeed. Tears as well as laughter, beauty, healing and hope, too mixed with our awareness that all we can bring to this moment is an open and tender heart. Like the paradoxical, exasperating and wonderful St. Paul wrote:

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. (II Corinthians 4: 7-10)

Monday, October 16, 2017

a journey can become a sacred thing...

Closing out one's ministry is a complicated affair, yes? It's not that I don't
have some clarity about what will happen next. Nor is it that I am second-guessing myself. No, I just wasn't prepared for all the competing feelings that race through me at all hours of the day.  Grief, joy, bitterness, relief, confusion,
satisfaction and everything in-between. Those who don't really know me have been all too quick in sharing their advice about how I should be managing this transition. The best I can summons is silence when I receive their half-baked, gratuitous platitudes about what I should be doing or need to be feeling at this time. I much prefer the words of poets who evoke rather than advise. Today I read these words on Facebook from the late John O'Donohue:

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing.

Make sure, before you go,
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you towards
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life;
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

Later in the day a new friend reposted Parker Palmer's words from his On Being column that included this poem by Wendell Berry:

To Hayden Carruth

Dear Hayden, when I read your book I was aching
in head, back, heart, and mind, and aching
with your aches added to my own, and yet for joy
I read on without stopping, made eager
by your true mastery, wit, sorrow, and joy,
each made true by the others. My reading done,
I swear I am feeling better. Here in Port Royal
I take off my hat to you up there in Munnsville
in your great dignity of being necessary. I swear
it appears to me you’re one of the rare fellows
who may finally amount to something. What shall
I say? I greet you at the beginning of a great career?
No. I greet you at the beginning, for we are
either beginning or we are dead. And let us have
no careers, lest one day we be found dead in them.
I greet you at the beginning that you have made
authentically in your art, again and again.

All of which is to say: this journey of letting go is like beginning all over again. Those words speak to my heart. My friend Pam says it is a birthing - and birthing is hard business, as my beloved family in Brooklyn knows all too well - and those words fits me, too. I disdain the controlled and manipulating sounds spoken by professionals about the ebb and flow of light and darkness in our hearts. Especially from those who have not journeyed long and hard enough or don't passionately grasp the contours of mystery. Robert Bly's translations of Goethe's "The Invisible King" is just what the doctor ordered.

Who rides at night, who rides so late?
The father rides on, his child in his arms.
His arms are curled and firm round the boy,
He keeps him from falling, he keeps him warm.

"My body, why is it you hide your face?"
"Dad, over there do you see the king?
The Invisible King with ermine and staff?"
"Dear boy, what you see is a rolling mist."

"Hey there, my boy, come along with me!
I have the neatest games you'll ever see.
On the shore my daises blow in a line.
My mother has shirts all golden and fine."

"Dad, is it true, you don't hear at all
The little gifts the King is offering me?"
"Calm down, my boy, no need for all this -
It's a dry oak leaves making noise in the wind."

"Child, good child, do you want to go?
My daughters will care and wait on you so.
The great circle dance they do every night,
They'll sing and dance and tuck you in tight."

"Dad, it worries me that you don't see
The Daughters there at that ugly spot."
"I see the spot very clearly, my boy -
An old gray willow, that's all there is."

"Your body is slim, and I love you.
Come now, or seize you is what I'll do."
"Dad, listen, please Dad, he's got hold of me!
He's done something bad to me, he has!"

The terrified father rides wilder and wilder;
The boy is now groaning as he sits slumped over;
In grief and fear at last the father got home.
The boy lay dead in the father's arms.

(NOTE:  Bly writes, "The rationalist father denies, frantically, any suggestions of "the other world" or the spiritual realm, and the result is that his son dies. This poem is a miniature history of Europe.")

synchronicity, clues of the holy in the ordinary and mary magdalene...

In two unrelated blogs that I read regularly - Richard Rohr and Matthew Fox - each have been exploring separately the sacred feminine and th...