Saturday, December 30, 2017

get up, jonah...

The snow is falling softly on our Berkshire hills this morning making the town feel quiet and peaceful. The Governor released designated funds for emergency winter housing yesterday so some of our most vulnerable friends will have shelter from the storm tonight. Our grocery shopping is done. Lucie romped with me for a spell in the cold. And Di is attending to pile after pile of dirty laundry. In other words, we're settling in for three days of quiet retreat from the world as this old year ends. Next week will be full getting ready for Sunday's interfaith concert and worship, to say nothing of starting to clean out my study at church in anticipation of my final few weeks of ministry. It seems like a good time to lay low and be still, yes?

Carrie Newcomer recently wrote, "It has been a year of challenges for so many of us, ongoing concern, heartbreak and rebuilding. It has also been a year of wide eyed wonders, small daily miracles, friendship, resilience and a tenacious kind of hope - the kind of hope Parker J. Palmer describes as holding in creative tension all that "is" and all that "should and could be," and everyday taking some action to narrow the distance between the two." This resonates with me. It is a good time to take stock of these truths. Like many, I need serious quiet time to let the wisdom of the past year bubble up to the surface. I know it is deep within, but not immediately accessible. So, starting today I will take a three day fast from both Facebook and blogging just to sit and listen to what the Spirit is quietly saying to my heart.

Yesterday's insights from Fr. Richard Rohr continue to reverberate in every part of my being.

The word change normally refers to new beginnings. But transformation more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart—disruption and chaos—invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is not working anymore. The mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, darkness, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. We will do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart.

For almost 36 months I have walked this road of transformation. A new reality eventually took hold of my heart - a small, quiet spirituality of tenderness - but it has been a long time a'bornin. While on sabbatical in Montreal, my old calling came to closure in ways that were experiential and clarifying. What was not at all certain, however, was what would happen next. To use Rohr's paradigm, what was needed was, "
patience, guidance, and the freedom to let go instead of tightening our controls and certitudes." So I wandered and waited, fretted too much from time to time, and trusted that the way of Christ's mercy was where I wanted to be - and in good time the path was revealed. 

Perhaps Jesus is describing this phenomenon when he says, “It is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). Not accidentally, he mentions this narrow road right after teaching the Golden Rule. Jesus knows how much letting go it takes to “treat others as you would like them to treat you” (7:12). Transformation usually includes a disconcerting reorientation. Change can either help people to find a new meaning, or it can cause people to close down and turn bitter. The difference is determined by the quality of our inner life, or what we call “spirituality.” Change of itself just happens; spiritual transformation is an active process of letting go, living in the confusing dark space for a while, and allowing yourself to be spit up on a new and unexpected shore. You can see why Jonah in the belly of the whale is such an important symbol for many Jews and Christians.

I remember saying to my church leadership early in my return from sabbatical:  "Something is going to be different now. Something within me, for sure, and maybe among us. I just don't know what that means yet. I trust it will be revealed, but apparently not without 
some uncertainty." This was unsettling for us all. Rohr observes that "we are a culture of progress and efficiency, impatient with gradual growth. God’s way of restoring things interiorly is much more patient—and finally more effective. God lets Jonah run in the wrong direction, until this reluctant prophet finds a long, painful, circuitous path to get back where he needs to be—in spite of himself! Looking in your own “rear-view mirror” can fill you with gratitude for God’s work in your life." But it takes a lot of time and stillness and trust to get there. Listening to the "deep “yeses” carry you through. Focusing on something you absolutely believe in, that you’re committed to, will help you wait it out."

I absolutely believe/trust God's grace as revealed in Jesus Christ. I absolutely sense that this is best expressed in my life through small acts of tenderness. I absolutely know that I am not very good at living into these two truths. And that is why my whole existence is being transformed away from busyness and into the quiet. Into the music. Into the prayers. And into the writing. That is why the Spirit kept leading me back to L'Arche Ottawa, too. My favorite Bruce Cockburn song, "Get Up, Jonah" cuts to the chase.

Friday, December 29, 2017

a spirituality of music and grace: taste and see...

As I reflect on the arch of my ministry, the gestalt of creating and performing music in public has been foundational. Not only does sound resonate in our flesh, music touches our emotions and minds, too. How we respond, consciously as well as beneath and beyond our consciousness, is a marvelous
mystery that holds the potential for healing. I thought of this last night after a few hours of working together with musicians I love, trust and respect. Two truths strike me as useful to note:

+ First, jazz master Wynton Marsailis has noted that the trust and disciplined intuition of musical comrades on the bandstand simultaneously creates an experience of vulnerability and cooperation among the players; and, shows the audience what is possible in a world where listening, commitment and creativity are blended with respect and joy. When performers are in the groove, when each and all are hearing what is taking place in the moment while anticipating the possibilities of what might yet develop, a synergy happens that is mystical. The players are energized, lifted into a place of beauty greater than their individual gifts and possibilities, that is pure grace. It is a prospect impossible to own or control yet always anticipated, if only in the most amorphous way. At the same time, those who are experiencing the blessing of the bandstand can find themselves equally strengthened and renewed. The skill and shared compassion of the players is contagious for those who are willing to be touched. It doesn't happen at every performance. The realities of both musicians and audience always shape what is experienced, as well. But when the stars are aligned in a way beyond comprehension, heaven and earth meet as hope and justice embrace in a kiss.

+ Second, once the miracle of the bandstand is encountered, it cannot be denied. It can be forgotten or ignored. It can be dismissed or denigrated as emotionalism or manipulation. But for the pure of heart, when music touches our hearts as pure gift, sensuality and spirituality become real. We know beyond words that solidarity is possible and compassionate trust is the way through the darkness. Even mistakes can lead to new discoveries for those listening well and willing to use their skills with love. Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock tells of a time in Paris with the Miles Davis band that he was playing a well rehearsed tune when out of nowhere he hit a clunker. Davis looked at him out of the corner of his eye and proceeded to echo the wrong note on his trumpet. Miles made the chord "right" in a way that turned Hancock's mistake into a new road to explore. Davis covered the slip-up with humor, grace, respect and genius - and Hancock learned what grace can mean in life.



Please don't misunderstand: I am not saying that those who have tasted this forgiveness in music are consistent in sharing it. We're not. Such is the human condition. Rather, what I know is that when my errors in playing are accepted and transformed into something beautiful by my band mates, I have been schooled in grace. I have been taught the way of gratitude. And it is up to me to pass on to others as good as I have been given.  And that continues to be why I insist on doing music in church - and beyond. When we taste and see, we are forever transformed.

As our small jazz ensemble of vocalists, guitar players, piano maestro and bass player prepare for our January 7, 2018 gig, I give thanks to God for what I have experienced. I pray, too that we might share it in a way that is palpable and true. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

coming sunday, january 7, 2018 @ 2 pm

On Sunday, January 7, 2018 @ 2 pm (open house at 1 pm) I am thrilled to announce that we are presenting the Four Freedoms "Songs and Sounds of Solidarity" concert at First Church.  (for more information, check it out @ https://www.facebook.com/events/380609329043389/)


This event represents both the culmination of a full year of creative alternatives to the current climate of fear and hatred in the US as well as a dream come true for me personally. Since arriving in the Berkshires 10+ years ago, I have longed to host an interfaith music event. There have been modest successes and failures over my tenure here - including some creative Thanksgiving Eve outings - but nothing like this. Somehow it is fitting that during my last month of professional ministry we're finally able to pull it off.

Three regional poets will bring their wisdom and beauty to this mix along with Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist and Sufi musicians. Anglo, African American, European and Latino songs will be shared in solidarity with immigrant sisters and brothers- and communities of color - who are under attack in these once United States. And, some of my dearest musical colleagues are reuniting with me to rework Herbie Hancock's take on Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up." A few loved ones will remain MIA - but Hal will join the ranks - as we shake it up one more time. If you are free on the 7th of January, consider joining us for a grand old time at the start of the New Year.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

music expresses that which cannot be said...

Some people get it and... well, some never will: I am referring to a spirituality of music. Victor Hugo wrote: "Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." That gets close, yes? Beethoven noted that: "Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life." In my experience, music unifies my body with my mind and heart. It allows me to know from the inside out what Psalm 85 calls the "marriage of heaven and earth" - that sense of God's "steadfast love and faithfulness embracing; God's justice and compassion kissing one another (in an embodied ways) while trust springs up from the earth and right relations gaze down from the sky" - a sensual, spiritual energy of encouragement that transcends race, class, gender and nationality.

My judgment about those who get it and those who don't must not be taken as a moral indictment. It isn't. Nor am I condemning the aesthetic sensitivity of those who do not encounter music like me. Rather, I am trying to give expression to what I know - and it is different from the way many meet the mysteries of music.  Mickey Hart, drummer extradinaire of the Grateful Dead, feels it as the primal beat of Mother Earth's heart pounding throughout creation. "Life is about rhythm. We vibrate, our hearts are pumping blood, we are a rhythm machine, that's what we are... In the beginning, there was noise. Noise begat rhythm, and rhythm begat everything else." That is how the creative love of the holy speaks to me: through rhythm, through harmonies, through melodies and lyrics so sweet they break my heart open and then heal it, too. Some folk groove on Aquinas or Augustine or Hildegaard. Not me. Even after all these years those doors remain locked. But let Herbie Hancock deconstruct a Joni Mitchell song or Lisa Fischer rework the Rolling Stones? I am lifted to another zone that is pure soul food.

Same goes for playing music with those I cherish, trust and respect: when it all comes together, that too is a taste of heaven on earth. Perhaps that's why I am so excited to be making music again with my "brother from another mother." l love Hal. I value his skilled soulfulness. And I often resonate with where he is willing to let the music take us if we just listen carefully.  It is so sweet that he is not only going to join us for what will be my last gig at First Church - the Songs and Sounds of Solidarity for the Four Freedoms Coalition on Sunday, January 7, 2018 @ 2 pm - but will work with me on music for worship the following Sunday, January 14, 2018, too. Our hope is that soon we'll get a whole set together to take out there and see what happens. It is a blessing that I not only want to experience, but to share.


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

telling my part of the story at christmas...

At the close of a gloriously full day of comfort, joy and feasting with my precious family, a thought came to me about the nature of my Christmas Eve sermons: I almost always choose the pastoral rather than the prophetic path.  Pope Francis and the Rev. Dr. William Barber stand on platforms quite different from my own. They speak to a broken world - and their messages are challenging in all the right ways. My calling, however, has mostly been to a specific people in a discrete place and time.  And while we recognize and engage in the issues of our day, from standing with refugees, women and people of color to advocating with our friends in both the LGBTQ and peace movements, the words of our high holy days sound different from those of national/international leaders.  Indeed, they are much more personal and far more tender.

In the past, some have been annoyed when I make this distinction between what might be spoken to the cameras when all the world is watching and what I share with 100 people on any given Sunday morning or Christmas Eve. Ministry for the long haul recognizes that in the local church, most of the prophetic work takes place in small groups of study, action and reflection. There are obvious times for bold, formal messages that take on the injustice and cruelty of the status quo. But I have found that most Sunday mornings - or Christmas Eves -are not the best time to start such a process.  It always makes sense for Pope Francis to call out the short-sighted policies of the United States towards Palestine on Christmas Eve: the whole world is watching Bethlehem. The Archbishop of Canterbury rightly gives great attention to the violence and hatred that right-wing ultra-nationalists inflict upon our society.

But for me as a pastor of a small, local church in a modest city located in the hills of Western Massachusetts, my Christmas Eve work is to lovingly remind those who gather that Christ's invitation to love comes in small, forgotten, broken and often invisible ways to those with power or too much to do. In the cycle of Christian stories,  Christmas Eve begins our education in the upside-down realm of Jesus who arrives as Messiah in the flesh of a poor child rather than a mighty monarch.  Indeed, the arch of the Christian story is a way for us to shape and evaluate our own actions:  do they honor what is forgotten and overlooked? Do they mature through a time-tested wisdom tradition? Do they take on the status quo so that the vulnerable are protected, the lost are embraced, the lonely find community and the hungry are fed? Do we pick up our own Crosses rather than remain silent in the face of fear, prejudice and oppression? Are we willing to live into our highest values - even unto death - or do we deny what is true and hide in privilege like the disciples? From the story of Christmas through the Triduum, we have been given a way to reflect on our lives. 

My job as pastor of a local church is to invite people back to this path with hope and vigor.  I give thanks for the national and international preachers who have a stage on which to call out the violence. My calling, to borrow a phrase from T.S. Eliot, is less grand: I am to be a lesser poet, reminding those in our house that a fresh start is always possible. God is with us. May we humbly watch for the light to grow within and among us as we walk towards Epiphany.

Friday, December 22, 2017

o come let us adore him...

One of the sacred mysteries that often eludes secular control-types in or outside of the church involves worship - particularly preparing for our various high holy days. What I have discerned after nearly 40 years of practice is that I need to be attentive to the Spirit with: a) extended silence without busy work; b) time to "walk around with the Scriptures" as the late Ray Brown used to advise to hear what they are saying at a deep level; c) a measure of solitude to listen to what God is saying within my own heart (a la Henri Nouwen); and d) lots of prayer.  As an intuitive with a mystical bent, filling-out-the-forms or phoning it in doesn't cut it for me at this time of year - or during Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension Day or Pentecost either. In fact, I have never once taken an old sermon and re-issued it. Never. I may have reapplied lessons that I've learned or reworked time-tested stories. And I am sure I have repeated myself out loud from time to time, too. But NEVER has it been acceptable to simply fill-in-the-blanks even during Ordinary Time! And sadly, this is not the work model that defines most of contemporary life.

When I started in this gig, I often became frantic as the High Holy Days dawned. Until my dying day, I must beg forgiveness from my children for becoming too tightly wound, snappish and harsh. I hated to be around myself so I can only guess what they experienced!  Eventually, I started to let go of trying to say too much on Christmas Eve - and trying to look like I was busy. For a number of years I simply let the lessons and carols speak of God's grace and beauty. From time to time, the woes of this world demanded a prophetic word at Christmas so I gave that a shot - especially during the last two years. But, as a rule, I learned not to say too much and to give myself LOTS of quiet time and space - often physically away from the grind of the local church - so that I might hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. Anything less is crazy-making for me.

I know that those who don't "do" worship don't get this. It is counter-intuitive to the multi-tasking, one-size-fits all frenzy that defines the current business model. Like Henri Nouwen used to say, "Please don't start a conversation off by saying, 'I know you are sooo busy but... If I am too busy to listen to you - or the Spirit of the Lord - then I am NOT doing my job." To be sure, at this time of year there are often those who try to make their lack of planning into my emergencies. I'm hip to those games and rarely fall into that trap. All the more reason to step back and let the quiet call the shots.

So here's the insight I have learned after trying to do Christmas Eve in every wrong way possible:  this is a little, small, tender and quiet holiday. The polar opposite of the secular hoopla.  It is all about the baby. Yes, babies are earthy and demanding, vulnerable and afraid, who demand an enormous amount of energy in order to love and care for them well. Nevertheless, this is not a time for too much. It is a time, as the carol says, "to come and adore him." Let that be enough. That's why for the past 15 years, I often get away from the grind for a few days to prepare my heart for adoration. If I don't, I can't hear the still small voice of the Lord trying to bring comfort and joy into all the season's demands. Driving to and from Ottawa has become for me an almost monastic time for prayer. And this year, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Now I am ready. Now I have taken the time to be still and know that the Lord is still the God of heaven and earth. Now, like the Psalmist sang, I have quieted my heart like a child resting upon her mother's breast. And I can sing faithfully:  O come let us adore him.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

thinking about christmas eve.

Thinking deeply about my final Christmas Eve message this week. The liberation
theologian, Leonardo Boff, once wrote:

How does one understand that this man, with his individual and datable history, is at one and the same time God? What greatness, sovereignty, and profundity must he not have revealed and lived in order to be called God? What does “God” mean now? What sort of human being is he, that we can make such an assertion about him? What does the unity of the two – God and man – concretely signify in a historical being, one of our brothers, Jesus of Nazareth? This is one of the central facts of our faith that sets Christianity apart from other religions. Once Christianity affirms that a man is at the same time God, it stands alone in the world. We are obliged to say it: This is a scandal to…all the religions and pious peoples of yesterday and today who venerate and adore a transcendent God: one that is totally other, who cannot be objectified, a God beyond this world, infinite, eternal, incomprehensible, and above everything that human beings can be and know.

Boff doesn't claim as some do that this religion is better - it isn't - but it is unique. Yes, there are fundamental similarities in our respective calls to justice and compassion. And yes other faith traditions have their unique insights into the holy, too. But the revelation of the incarnation - the Feast of the Nativity - is that God is with us in our shared humanity. Of course there is a transcendent dimension to the sacred, but the scandal of the Christian tradition moves beyond generalities to the particulars of compassion and justice in a unique way.

The photograph of a sculpture outside St. Martins in the Fields in London makes this clear. So does Jean Vanier's insistence that the way God comes into our humanity is through cherished vulnerability: God comes to us in a tiny package. And God is nourished through the very real flesh of his mother's breasts. This graphic recently posted on Face Book kicks up the incarnational truths of Christmas.  There is littleness and earthiness, vulnerability and intimacy, the invitation to cherish, nourish and change. I still don't have my quiet and tender Christmas Eve homily yet. But I've been walking around with these ideas for a few days praying they might lead me somewhere faithful.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

resting at the close of advent three...

On the third Sunday of Advent, as I prepare to head out for another quick retreat with my friends at L'Arche Ottawa, I found myself reflecting on the tender aspect of John the Baptist. For nearly 40 years I have been listening to these texts but never once realized that St. John's gospel never speaks of John as the Baptist - always the witness.  In my worship notes, I put it like this:

One of the most beautiful affirmations in the Christian tradition is the Angus Dei: the Lamb of God. It enters the Christian imagination early in St. John’s gospel, when Jesus traveled across the Jordan River to Bethany, where his wild man of the desert cousin, Yohanan, was ritually purifying people in a sacramental bath, symbolizing the forgiveness of sins by the grace of God.

· We know him as John the Baptist, but St. John’s gospel never gives him that title. Rather, in this story, John is the witness – the martyria in New Testament Greek – the one who always points to the Messiah. His testimony is clear: he is not the Savior, not the Lamb, not the prophet, and not Elijah. No, Yohanan was a witness, a voice crying out in the wilderness with his whole being that God’s light was shining by grace even in our darkness.

· John’s Hebrew name is one clue: Yohanan literally means “Graced by Yah” one early Hebrew word for God – or as we would put it: “God is Gracious.” Another is his description in this gospel as a witness. We get our English word, martyr, from the Greek root martyria meaning one who stakes his or her life on some-thing as true. It is used 45 times in 21 chapters in St. John’s story of Jesus – yet another clue by emphasis, I think – asking us to pay attention to this witness who publicly yet humbly gives over his life so that we might pay attention to the grace of God in Jesus.

“Behold,” observes John the first time he meets Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” On this Third Sunday of Advent, I think there are three questions for us to consider. First, is our witness to the world as people of faith public or merely private? Second, is it clear, certain, something beautiful and compelling or is our commitment to Christ fuzzy, hackneyed or habitual? And third, do we live our commitment to Jesus in humility rather than belligerently or even punitively? The story St. John’s gospel gives us of John the Baptist is a model for how we might live into the light of grace in the world. One writer put it like this: “Like the man whose name was John, the church is sent into today's world as a witness. Focusing specifically on the texts for Advent 3, let me characterize this witness as public, certain, and humble… three qualities that are in tension with the spirit of our age.” (Working Preacher, Mark Allan Powell, December 14, 2014)

How many times have you heard something said out loud about Christianity that you have found offensive, stupid, embarrassing, untrue and/or mean-spirited? There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think to myself: how in God’s name can ANYONE who loves Jesus – the man for others – the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by grace – do or say that!?!

· And by THAT I mean any of the vicious nonsense that haunts contemporary Christianity: giving our elected leaders a pass on sexual harassment or predatory acts played out upon children. Pandering to white supremacists – fear mongering against Muslims – demonizing the GLBTQ community – proposing tax policies that pauperize the poor, victimize our vets, bleed the working middle class and line the pockets of already rich folk with tax breaks? I understand this ideologically, but NEVER in the name of Christ.

· It strains credulity – to say nothing of grace – to hear Christians equate hatred and greed with the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world! Beloved, that testimony stands in opposition to the very words of the Lord’s mother who sang: my spirit rejoices in God my savior for… the Lord has looked with favor upon the humbleness of his servant… scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts, bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away.

It has never been true, but now more so than ever before for those of us in the USA who trust in God through Jesus Christ, to confess that our faith can never be treated as merely private affair. It wasn’t a private matter for John the Baptist. It clearly wasn’t a private issue for Jesus or the prophet Isaiah or the Blessed Virgin Mary. So why do we believe that our faith must be held quietly within and never offend, question or challenge the status quo? 

 I read the perfect summary of what our silence has created: training our children never to speak about religion or politics in public has created a culture where NOBODY knows how to talk civilly about religion and politics with another. With prescient clarity, 75 years ago Gandhi presciently said that: “those who tell us that religion and politics don’t mix have no understanding of either religion or politics.” What do these words from the prophet Isaiah sound like to you?  “The Lord has anointed me… to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… I the Lord your God love justice and hate your robbery and wrongdoing.

I know that many come to worship seeking only comfort and joy - and I believe that comfort and joy are essential - at the same time arrogant, belligerent and ugly acts of religion only protect the privileged. So what does our public life of faith look like?  Roy Moore and his bravado? Or the humble witness pointing to Christ Jesus?  The sneering and brash fundamentalist Press Secretary for the current regime, Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Or the mother of our Lord and her Magnificat?

Jean Vanier put it like this in his commentary on the gospel according to St. John. Jesus needed one to prepare his way because people would never have expected to look for the Messiah in the form of a poor, peasant baby or a homeless, itinerant rabbi: "Jesus did not come in power and majesty but as a lamb, in humility and littleness… Jesus was not spectacular. He dressed simply. He did not live in the desert of the prophets nor the mansions of royalty, but in an obscure village with ordinary people like us… further, Jesus came into the world from out of the womb of a woman who some thought was tarnished… an ordinary woman who shared with him her presence, her love, her warmth, even the nourishment of her breasts… "

Humility matures in community, beloved, making mistakes, by falling down, by getting it wrong and asking for forgiveness, by carrying one another’s burdens, by being silent when we want to shoot off our mouth, by learning that we must decrease so that Christ might increase within and among us in community. May your witness and mine be one that honors the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

farewell good and faithful servant...

NOTE:  Today I celebrated what I hope is the last memorial service in this ministry. To a packed church of 300+ people, friends and family, we laid our brother in Christ, the Rev. Dr. John Messerschmitt, to rest. I was grateful to God that his family - and a variety of others - found a spirit of peace and acceptance in the ceremony. I was particularly glad that my words resonated and even helped John's daughters and beloved wife. My homily is as follows... farewell, good and faithful servant.

Our friend and brother – your husband, father and grandfather – our colleague and co-conspirator for com-passion and justice in the world, John, is gone. For each and all of us, the word UNEXPECTED has taken on a new burden since John’s passing two weeks ago was, as we say, UNEXPECTED. It was a shock, a stab in the heart, an emptiness that continues to reverberate in mysterious ways in our souls.

To be sure, we give thanks to God that John’s end time was not prolonged or bleak. Carol has said that there was a peace that passed over John when he breathed his last that was reassuring and grace-filled. Those who have witnessed such a paradoxical blessing understand exactly what St. Paul taught when he assured us that we do NOT grieve as those who have no hope. Just a few weeks before John’s death I reiterated that promise to those gathered for worship on All Saints Day – we do NOT grieve as those who have no hope – and yet grieve we must. John would not have counseled us otherwise: a pastoral therapist to the end he would have told us to make certain not to stuff our feelings or run away from them with distractions or denials. And then to trust that in God’s own time, our grieving would lead us out of emptiness into a darkness that would, in time, move us towards a quiet peace.

It is a journey we never really get over or resolve; but with time and support we learn to live with it in new ways. Like the ancient Psalmist of Israel sang:

I wait upon the Lord, my soul waits and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, yes, more than those who watch for the morning. O Israel, trust in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love and great power to be healed.

So, in the spirit of quiet trust, saturated with both love and honesty, let me note that as I look back on the life John lived among us, two great themes that stand out: comfort and shalom.

John expressed them in his own unique way. Yet he was clear that both comfort and shalom –what we know as peace but defined as right relations between people, creation and the sacred - were essential for the well-being of individuals and society. And he gave his time, money, energy, thought and love to enfleshing God’s shalom and comfort throughout his full and productive life. Those commitments shape this liturgy – especially the two hymns that bookend today’s celebration of John’s life:

+  God of Grace and God of Glory hails from the Protestant cathedral of social justice and creative thinking: the Riverside Church in New York City, John’s home. It is just a block away from John’s alma mater: Union Theological Seminary. And flows from the pen of Riverside’s first pastor, the dean of liberal Protestant theology, Harry Emerson Fosdick. “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage” the chorus urges us: “for the living of this, hour, lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal, that we fail not man nor Thee” o Lord. It is a confession of sin and faith, a call to social action against our warring madness and an invitation to cast our vision upon the Beloved Community rather than the lowest common denominator of our broken culture. Further, it just sounds like John: bold, decisive, elegant and earthy.

+ The same for our closer, For All the Saints, the elegant end of life poem Ralph Vaughn Williams set to music at the start of the 20th century.
It, too, speaks of comfort and peace, a rest born of a life dedicated to the cause of Christ within the real world. Not in an ivory tower nor entombed in abstract theology, but practiced every day in the flesh and blood acts of compassion and justice right here and right now.

The words of Isaiah 40 evoke John’s ministry as I knew it over the past decade, too. Comfort, comfort o my people, tell of peace, thus sayeth the Lord. Comfort those who sit in darkness bowed beneath oppression’s load. Speak you to Jerusalem, of the peace that waits for them; tell them that their sins I cover and their warfare now is over. When I first arrived, we were trying to figure out how to bring some focus to our Outreach Mission Ministry. In time, we zeroed in on four broad themes: caring for the earth, hunger, homelessness and peace. And John was down with EACH of these emphases. He was in a canoe for our river clean ups with BEAT. He was on Park Square with Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice nearly every Thursday. We spent a lot of time in conversation building houses on a Habitat for Humanity trip to New Orleans. And John fed others from his own well-being, too: sometimes that was with food, sometimes with his teaching ministry and sometimes it was in his service as a tutor. Comfort and shalom – healing and social justice – were bound together in the life and ministry of John Messerschmitt.

+ My first autumn in Pittsfield, John took me on a long hike along the Housatonic River near his house to see the beauty of nature – and the destruction caused by human waste and PCBs. Later that year he and Dick Noble taught me to snow shoe and cross country ski. And that first spring we all went to New Orleans with Habitat. John was a member of the search committee that brought me here, too. We spent a LOT of time together.

+ That’s why the gospel reading for this day speaks to us of John Messerschmitt, too: like the early disciples of Jesus who encountered the Risen Christ incognito at a dinner table, John relentlessly encouraged this community to make time to eat and talk with one another on a regular basis. He knew that something holy happens around the table when we break bread together. Small wonder that he was a regular at hikes and winter ski outings, harvest dinner bingo games as well as the more formal events for social justice with the Berkshire Association.

Others will soon eulogize John and share some of their special memories of him in a moment, so let me close by being vulnerable with a blessing that came to me late in our relationship: John and I didn’t always agree. Well, that isn’t exactly right; we mostly agreed on goals, but for nearly ten years we often disagreed on tactics. He was direct, I was more obtuse. He wanted his pastor out on Park Square; I believed that most of my work was in the training of the saints – the laity – to do the public work of ministry. He wanted me to take more aggressive social justice stands in the community, and I tended towards doing that with the arts and contemplation. For a long time, we differed on the how of doing church – and sometimes even hurt one another in the process. Never intentionally, but it happened.

Then two things took place beyond our mutual control that began to change and even heal our differences: 

One had to do with the election of this current regime and my active participation in the resistance. NOW we were on the same page. Now there were regular messages on Sunday morning – and in the Berkshire Eagle – calling out the vulgarity, selfishness, racism and greed of Washington and its swamp rats. So we often found ourselves together protesting some ugly or mean-spirited policies spewing from Washington. So I have to say something out loud I never dreamed I would utter: I give thanks to Donald Trump for creating a situation wherein John and I could claim common ground. Talk about the blessings of the Paschal Mystery, right!  Where something horrific leads us into healing and blessings!

+ That was one thing that changed. And the other was that during those times of protest, we had time to talk. Yes, we talked about the issues. But time and again we especially talked about becoming older, white clergy men whose bodies didn’t work quite as well as they did when we were younger. Whose hearing and eyes and backs weren't quite as chipper as they once were - and what the hell happened to our memories? In a sign of God’s grace and glory – to say nothing of God’s upside down sense of humor and wicked sense of humor – it was on the picket line in the wind, rain or snow where we found ourselves together at the same place for the same cause, and ended up talking together like those two old guys on the Muppets Show sitting up in the balcony. It was Christ’s calling to comfort and shalom – compassion and social justice – that gave rise to a change in my heart. 

Whereas I had always valued and respected John, now there was love and affection – and even trust. God works in mysterious ways her wonders to behold, yes?  Today we give thanks to God for the life and ministry of our brother, John Messerschmitt. Today I give thanks to God for this man who always showed up here and never quit living into the promise of comfort and shalom.





Thursday, December 14, 2017

let every segment of life produce its own yield...

Today I enrolled in Social Security - over the phone - and it was a breeze! To be sure, I had already done the on-line Medicare part last year so that wasn't an issue. And, we're still enrolled in the denominational health plan (for the foreseeable future.) So to be honest, the Medicare was the emotionally complicated boundary for me to cross because it screamed: YES, you are a senior citizen now. Tant pis, mais oui?  And therein lies the challenge: to accept what is real and honor it. Sr. Joan Chittister put it like this:

The secret of life is to let every segment of it produce its own yield at its own pace. Every period has something new to teach us. The harvest of youth is achievement; the harvest of middle-age is perspective; the harvest of age is wisdom; the harvest of life is serenity... There is a built-in danger in old age which, if we give in to it, makes aging one of the most difficult periods of life, rather than one of the most satisfying - which it should be. The danger of old age is that we may start acting old.

So far I've been spared that affliction: my hearing has been diminished, my back hurts from time to time, I can't lose weight like I used to and my energy level falls off after 10 pm. But my heart is still strong and my soul is open to the paradoxical invitation of the Spirit. So, like Fr. Richard Rohr says:

All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect. That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God. Such people can connect with everybody. They don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody...

To say that I am down for this next phase of the adventure would be a gross understatement. We'll never be rich. We may barely be "comfortable" but now is the time for a whole new way of being. Que le festival commence! I play a jazz gig tomorrow night. I bury a saint of the church on Saturday - and then get our Christmas tree! On Sunday I celebrate the humility of St. John the Baptist and the wisdom of the Blessed Virgin Mary and celebrate Eucharist. And on Monday, I head off to join my friends in the L'Arche Ottawa community. By the following weekend it will be Christmas Eve and the whole family will gather for carols, worship, Eucharist, laughter, tears and story telling. Then feasting on Christmas Day with the clan and resting together. Before getting ready for a concert of resistance and solidarity to kick off the New Year. Que le festival commence!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

U2 at christmas...

The new U2 album is out and I hope to listen to it before Christmas. That hasn't happened yet, but life is full when a loved one injures her back, a saint of the the church suddenly dies and you're planning the closing liturgies of a long ministry. There are some older, really potent U2 songs that cry out for posting as the Advent season ripens for believers.

One is the reworking of Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas." Check it out
and try to convince me that it doesn't evoke some of the tender hope the Christ child brings into the world...



The other is more somber, "Peace on Earth" from their comeback album, All That You Can't Leave Behind." It hurts to hear this song - and it should - given the avarice, cruelty and blind disregard for the least of Christ's sisters and brothers. Every time I hear it I am taken deeper in confession and renewal.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

I must decrease so that He might increase...

The snow is coming down vigorously again today. It started all shimmering and dry but is now big and wet. It will likely yield another two inches to the existing four. Winter has clearly arrived in the Berkshires. 

Yesterday my time was given mostly to Bible study and writing for Advent III. The texts are a strange brew of Johanine insights about John the Baptist as witness mixed with Mary's maginificat. Along the way I learned that St. John's gospel never refers to Yohanan (Hebrew for "Yah is gracious") as the Baptizer, but always as the witness (martyria) who points us towards Jesus. "I must decrease," he humbly tells us early in the story with a confessional tone, "so that He might increase."

There was my last Church Council meeting last night, too as well as work on this Saturday's memorial service. Today has been meetings, administration, pastoral follow up and all those little, rarely seen but essential bulletin and technical details that clergy and secretaries do to get the congregation ready for Christmas.  Our secretary is a saint - not perfect - but thorough, committed, compassionate, funny and smart. We have worked together for over nine years - and it will be sad when we have to finally say good-bye. As allies, we have helped transform the administrative culture of our community from old school hierarchical to more of a 21st century techno-aware transparency. There are those who have come along after the battles who are understandably opaque about the intensity of those former days. That is how it should be and I give thanks to God that we've helped make the institutional culture a little more heart-oriented and modestly more user-friendly for them. Still, there are times when my secretary and I smile like old vets hoisting a beer at the VFW and say: "If they'd only ask, we could save them a lot of headaches."


Such is the cost and joy of aging - and retiring, right? Still those words from St. John the Baptist re: decreasing and increasing remain pregnant with meaning for me in these closing days of ministry. I know less and less about the day to day work of our congregation. I let go of more and more into the hands of... trust? Mostly with a bit of fear and trembling, too. And, as I wrote to the congregation earlier in my weekly email:

In my transition out of ministry and your transition into an interim ministry, you must rely upon a new charism to lead you into deeper sharing and belonging. St. Paul taught the early church how to do this in I Corinthians 1: "Consider your call... God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world" to help everyone find their place with the Body of Christ. We are First Church are no longer powerful, or strong or even wise in the ways of the world. We are small. Little and sometimes frail. This is our blessing. It helps us go deeper in caring for one another. My prayer is that First Church will honor being little so that Christ's love will guide you through this time of uncertain transition. With God at your core, blessings will abound.

And for our mutual well-being there are some leave-taking protocols we will share together over the next month. There will be an "Exit Interview" meeting for myself and Council on Monday, January 8, 2018. There will be a retirement luncheon on Saturday, January 13th. And a leave-taking liturgy at the close of worship on Sunday, January 28. After my season of service at First Church is complete, my public and pastoral relationships with you will come to a close. Yes, I will continue to love and pray for many at First Church. But I will not be available for baptisms, weddings or funerals. Further, it is recommended that we break email, social media contact and casual gatherings for one full year, too. I am committed to honoring the ethical boundaries of my vocation and know that you will, too. This has been summarized by the United Church of Christ in the following language:
\
"Upon my retirement I will not interfere or intrude upon the ministry of

my successor. I will not perform pastoral services within this parish or for a member of the congregation without the consent of the new pastor. I will deal honorably with the record of both my predecessor and successor."

I MUST decrease so that God's new blessing might increase within and among them. I hold this close even as I prepare to head to Ottawa next week.




Monday, December 11, 2017

advent II redux...

One thing I failed to articulate yesterday about the conflict in my calling was that I have always trusted that the local church MUST be a place of both deep and tender compassion, and, profound commitment to the social good. It is NOT an either or proposition even though I find my greatest personal nourishment in attending to the work of the soul. That is what my mentor, Ray Swartzback, taught me: social activists must be connected to the local church; just as local congregations must stay engaged with social transformation.This is part of what the John the Baptist/Jesus continuum teaches us.

And over 40 years, the Spirit has helped me not only connect deeply with individuals in the work of discipleship and spiritual direction, but become more tender in the process. Of course I can be an asshole at times. Further, I remain committed to the work of radical compassion and peace-making even as my focus has been given to smaller and smaller venues. Jean Vanier once wrote:

Jesus did not come in power and majesty but as a lamb, in humility and littleness… Jesus was not spectacular. He dressed simply. He did not live in the desert of the prophets nor the mansions of royalty, but in an obscure village with ordinary people like us… further, Jesus came into the world from out of the womb of a woman (who some thought was tarnished… an ordinary woman) who shared with him her presence, her love, her warmth, even the nourishment of her breasts…

Today I honor the blessings shared with me in the call to littleness even as I work on big projects. I am grateful beyond measure that God has helped me become less brusque and more quiet. May that transformation continue forever.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

advent II

NOTE: This morning I baptized two precious children from a family I cherish. I
married this couple almost 10 years ago, baptized their older boys and now had the blessing of welcoming the younger two into the community of Christ. I also said good-bye to two dear church friends who will be away until Easter; given the protocol of the United Church, after I leave this pastorate, we are obligated to stay apart for a full year. I have shared TONS with this loving couple and rejoice in it all. We had hoped to sup with them last night, but a snow storm interrupted our plans. This was a sad leave taking. And I noted that just a week ago, not long after worship, another brother in Christ died unexpectedly - and I will bury him this coming Saturday. Today was a full and rich time in the paradoxical blessing of serving God as pastor. My hour is coming to a close - and it should.  Here are my modified worship notes from this day as I returned thanks to God and God's people...

It is a particular privilege for me to share these words with you on this second Sunday of Advent both because I cherish the Biblical texts assigned for this morning; and, because I adore Pitor and Elizabeth’s precious family. To celebrate the baptism of two of their beautiful babies in the company of First Church is grace upon grace for me. For it is days like this one that helped me know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that for a season I truly was called into parish ministry.

· I’m not sure if you know this, but even after I was called by Christ’s Spirit into ministry – way back in 1968 shortly after Dr. King’s assassination – most of my mentors and advisors told me that I should NEVER go into local church ministry. I was too brusque they said; too much like John the Baptist and not enough like Jesus; too interested in radical social justice and not enough in the slow transformation of human hearts that comprise the essence of ministry in the local church.

· Even the President of the United Church of Christ at the time, Paul Sherry, said to me: Lumsden, I don’t think this is a good idea. There’s NO question about your commitment to Christ, but change probably happens too slowly in the local church for your temperament. So you might want to think about other options!

Well, nearly 40 years after hearing this advice, I’ve discerned that the time has come to bring this phase of serving Christ to a close. But if you were to ask my wife what part of ministry brought me the most joy – fed my soul and nourished me in the bleak times – she would say clearly and without equivocation, being a local church pastor: visiting the sick, marrying and supporting lovers, baptizing their children, burying their dead and celebrating Eucharist as often as possible. And she would be right. The times we live in have demanded that people of faith become part of movements for social change: when did we see Thee Lord and feed you, clothe you, visit you and love you? Whenever you shared compassion and justice with the LEAST of these, my sisters and brothers! Action on behalf of the common good is a spiritual discipline for us much like prayer or fasting or coming to worship on a regular basis. But social action is not what has nourished my heart over 35 years of ordination.

No, it was days like today the made my heart sing, times when the tender hours I spent building relationships of trust and respect began to bloom and bear fruit. Writing editorials, organizing protests, engaging in social analysis is how God called me to use the intellectual gifts the Lord gave me at my birth. But it has always been the one-on-one connections of pastoral care that gave me life.

Perhaps that’s why the poetry of Isaiah resonates so soundly within me: Comfort, comfort o my people, tell of peace thus says the Lord. Comfort those whose hearts are shrouded, mourning under sorrow’s load. Speak unto Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them; tell them that their sins I cover and their warfare now is over. I love that hymn, I love that passage in the Bible, and I love the invitation into both God’s strength and God’s tenderness that it promises.

· Originally this poem emerged when ancient Israel was living in despair: their Temple had been destroyed and burned to the ground, Jerusalem lay in rubble and the best and the brightest had been taken into bondage by Babylon. For 150 years God had been warning Israel to start taking care of the poor and quit giving perks to the fat and greedy. The first 40 chapters of Isaiah tell that story – check it out and tell me if it doesn’t evoke some contemporary concerns for you. First were the warnings: and from my perspective, 150 years of warning seems long enough for a patient God to wait, don’t you think?

· So then came the consequences of selfishness and greed for that’s how God’s judgment works. What we set in motion bears fruit – and it can be either the fruit of righteousness – what we speak of as compassion and right relationships as good neighbors – or it can be the fruit of injustice – like racism, fear-mongering, sexual harassment and social inequality. What ancient Israel experienced was the fruit of their own selfishness – and that is what the Bible calls judgment.

Now here’s a little aside: in the first chapter of Romans St. Paul explains to us how God’s judgment works when he tells us that the Lord has set creation in motion with order and balance. When we respect God’s order – when we follow the ebb and flow of God’s balance – life flourishes: neighbors are cared for, food is sufficient so that no one starves, and the weak and vulnerable are treasured as special ambassadors of love not a burden.

But when we violate this order, when we act only for ourselves, when we neglect and wound one another, St. Paul writes then we experience God’s wrath. But let’s be very clear about this word: wrath does NOT mean violence poured down from heaven – that is superstition – rather God’s wrath means God’s willful absence. Much like a loving parent who has tried everything to help a rebellious, self-centered child change his or her ways, eventually the Lord says to us in love: Ok, you really want to live like you are in charge? Go ahead and do it – see what it feels like to be without my comfort and grace – please, do it: it will break my heart – and cause you incredible pain and suffering – but go ahead and try it. Maybe then you’ll want to stop having it your own way.

· God’s wrath is God’s absence given to us to help us return home like the Prodigal Son when he realized he truly needed his father’s help. Are you with me on this? This is so important: God’s wrath is God’s broken heart giving up control so that we might freely choose to return to love.

· And individuals and nations often seem to need this absence before we’re ready to repent – and please recall that repentance means changing our direction – returning to the gracious balance of God’s order. And THAT is what this portion of Isaiah’s poem tells us: after 150 years of warning, God’s protection was withdrawn and ancient Israel experienced 75 years of consequences for their selfishness. Human beings, you and me included, are slow, slow learners: 75 years of consequences.

And then, when the season was right and the hearts of God’s people were broken open, there came a word of comfort from the Lord: my absence, saith the Lord, and your wounds need not be forever. Now that you are ready to return to my order, I will make a highway for you in the desert so that you can come home to my love. That’s originally what the words of John the Baptist referred to: God creating a safe and straight highway from Babylon back to Jerusalem. This return would NOT be like the Exodus with all that wandering in the wilderness: this would be a super highway of grace. What’s more, their long absent God would now come like both a warrior to protect and a tender shepherd who bends down to embrace the tiny lambs. 

How does the Psalmist put it: Justice AND mercy shall kiss? Compassion and right relations shall embrace? This was the promise - a return to life within God’s holy order – and just so that we don’t miss what this really means, we’re given the story of John the Baptist to show us what the marriage of tenderness and strength looks like in person. And like everything else about the Lord, it’s upside down defying the status quo. Think about it:

· John is born into a priestly family – but where does he choose to live – out in the desert, right? He abandons his power and privilege to preach and pray about right relations between neighbors and getting back into the groove of God’s balance again. Then along comes Jesus – and where was he born? In a stable on the periphery of power – and where does he eventually die? In Jerusalem, the center of religious, political and economic power in his era. John acted out in his life the upside-down kingdom that Jesus embodied in his birth, life, death and resurrection.

· Mark’s gospel goes on to tell us that John the Baptist understood that in time another would come along who would be more powerful than himself – a Messiah whose sandals he was not fit to untie – and yet, if you know the story: what happens when Jesus finally goes to meet John at the River Jordan? John, the lesser, embraces Jesus, the stronger; and Jesus the powerful subordinates himself to the Baptizer, right? This whole relationship between John and Jesus is a sign to us of God’s great reversal: Jesus the Savior is held in the arms of John the unworthy and plunged into the Jordan for the forgiveness of sins.

And, that is the ultimate charism and blessing of the local church: serving one another with unconditional love. We’re not called to LIKE one another – become best friends for life – or anything so trite and sentimental. No, we’re called to serve one another like John served Jesus – and like Jesus served the world.

· So often we make excuses for ourselves: o my life is too hard, o I’m too tired, o that person is such a schmuck and all the rest. Beloved, that’s not of the Lord. It may all be true – we may, indeed, be too tired and our lives may truly been too hard – and God knows there are enough schmucks to go around, right?

· But there are consequences to selfishness: there is judgment – and isolation – and fear. St. John writes that mature love casts out all fear. Not without sacrifice. Not quickly or over night. It takes a life time of walking that highway of grace in the wilderness that brings us comfort. 


This morning, before worship, as I looked out upon the silent snow in the wetlands behind my house, I felt the peace of God's comfort. And I gave thanks to the Lord that there are small communities of faith where we can gather as God's broken people called to the highway of grace. I gave thanks that I would have this chance to celebrate with Elizabeth and Pitor. And I realized that as we gathered today our voices were crying out in the wilderness of our culture showing those with eyes to see  that there is another way.  A way of comfort beyond the selfishness of our own hearts. A way of tenderness and hope in the midst of challenges too bleak to name. So my heart was at peace. I give thanks to the Lord this day for this community - for these children - and parents and those who love them and pray you never take this blessing for granted. 



Saturday, December 9, 2017

as the snow surrounds us all in a sweet silence...

I love this moment in time: the first real snow of the season.  Yes, it will be a bit tricky driving tonight when we join friends for dinner. Sure, it will slow things down re: getting to Sunday worship, too. And, of course it reminds us that next week will be bitterly cold. But that's part of the bargain; with the beauty comes the cost. Besides, worship on the first day after a real snowfall is always exciting as even octogenarians act like little children. 



Parker Palmer put it like this in his "spirituality of the seasons" essay: One gift is beauty, different from the beauty of autumn but somehow lovelier still: I am not sure that any sight or sound on earth is as exquisite as the hushed descent of a sky full of snow.

Two poems evoke my feelings right now as the Berkshire snow intensifies. The first, by Wallace Stevens, is "The Snow Man." It speaks to me of the patient mystery of such a moment, the waiting and even emptiness necessary to see the storm as more than a sloppy nuisance.

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


The second, by the equally enigmatic Louise Gluck, is simply called "Snow." It brings me back to similar times with my own children, times long gone, but also a time beyond time that we share even now. There is a sadness here, a tender wisdom, too that reverences love. I rejoice in them both.

Late December: my father and I
are going to New York, to the circus.
He holds me
on his shoulders in the bitter wind:
scraps of white paper
blow over the railroad ties.

My father liked
to stand like this, to hold me
so he couldn't see me.
I remember
staring straight ahead
into the world my father saw;
I was learning
to absorb its emptiness,
the heavy snow
not falling, whirling around us
.


I've just returned from a conversation with one whose beloved partner passed from life to life everlasting unexpectedly last week. There is a paradoxical sense of both shock and the harsh reality of this moment taking place in our hearts. It is fitting, I suppose, that the snow chose now to surround us all in its sweet silence. Let me return thanks to God for life, for death and for life beyond death.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

take a sad song and make it better...

The Beatles broke up. Both genius incarnations of the Miles Davis band came and went. Eric Clapton left John Mayall and the Blues Breakers - and the Yardbirds - and brought Cream to a crashing conclusion before finding his own new groove. Cat Stevens made incredible music for a few years, took a multi-year retreat into Islam, and then began writing new material for a new era even as he reinterpreted his old songs. That is, nothing lasts forever. 


I've been thinking about this a great deal these days as I enter the last two months of my ministry. My colleague in the church office and I shared some serious tears last week while preparing our last shared work on a Christmas ad. I have been full to overflowing a few times as well during November as I celebrated my final All Saints Day and Christ the King Sunday.  You see, I have had the privilege of serving four distinct congregations (six if my two internships are counted.) Each have been a blessing while the charism burned brightly. Each have been sad to leave, too even when the time was right. Whether it was burying my parents, taking my daughters to their dorms for college, waving good-bye to my precious grandson (and now granddaughter) or kissing Di before heading to out to Ottawa: good-byes are rarely easy.

They are, however, inevitable. What I have slowly learned, but must regularly pause to remember, is that there has been beauty, grace and joy in each of its seasons. That is what deserves to be honored. Not a sentimentalism that clutches outdated blessings forever like whithered flowers in Miss Haversham's attic. Nor with bitterness, sorrow or regret. For to everything there is a season, yes?  In every ministry, in every marriage, in every shared musical project or performance, there are golden times to be treasured. I love those moments. I can recall them with passion and verve. And then, the curtain comes down and life goes on. That is how I am feeling as Advent ripens: these are sacred, once in a life time moments. They deserve appreciation and respect - and then they must be released without looking back.

When I returned from sabbatical, I knew inside that my ministry in its current
form was over. At the time, I didn't have the words nor the wisdom to articulate what this meant, but this is often the case with discernment. Even ancient Israel had to wander in the wilderness for forty years before they were ready for the Promised Land. Seeking the light requires time in the mysterious darkness - and many of us are afraid of the dark. (See Barbara Brown Taylor's insightful memoir Learning to Walk in the Dark.) What's more, I have always been more inclined to the apophatic path than the more linear kataphatic tradition - the road less traveled - the via negativia rather than the via positivia. This, too makes public ministry more dicey. But in time we figured it out - in fits and starts, to be sure - and not without some pain and confusion. But we all came to realize that it was time for us to move on in our own ways - and are doing so with some grace and gratitude.

Recently, I was speaking with a former bandmate about the "good old days" and observed:  "Part of me would love to revisit and replay some of our favorite tunes but I know that can never happen." When a puzzled look washed over this friend's face, I continued:  "You can never go back home. I don't want to do the old things over again. I want to honor what was holy and then let them go with appreciation." We sat in silence for a moment before nodding and smiling together in under-standing. In my life, there is now new music to play. There is new ministry to explore and new adventures to encounter. At the same time there are a host of sweet memories swimming around in my heart that I will celebrate forever. But, please Lord, never let me try to go backwards. 


Sunday, December 3, 2017

advent one 2017

And so the cycle of the church year begins anew as the seasons go round and round and the painted ponies go up and down:  Advent 2017 is here. Over the years I have sensed that at the start of this liturgical season people gather for worship wanting something different. Some want a prophetic word of social change, while others are looking for inner reassurance. Some want comfort and joy, others think they want John the Baptist in all his glory. Most of us arrive with unrealistic expectations at one time or another wishing that this time maybe the faith community might be more: more loving, more alive, more spiritually sophisticated, more poetic, more articulate, more tender, more artistic, more vulnerable or just something beyond what we already know. We show up wanting more... and Advent asks us to become... empty. 

The wise souls of AA have an aphorism for this dilemma when they talk about the geographical solution.  They say with a wry but sympathetic smile, "The fundamental problem with moving someplace new in your search for being filled with something more is that wherever you go on this quest, you always bring yourself with you!" Oh how we resist owning who we really are at any one given moment in time: others are snarky, I am just witty - those people are judgmental, I simply have high standards - unsophisticated fundamentalists might be able to buy all that Bible talk, but I am well-educated and successful and can't abide by any of it - they are racists, but I am color blind - there's a cultural war taking place in this country and all the preacher talks about is love. Blah, blah, blah. It happens in conservative circles as well as progressive ones: it is always the other who is insufficient and the real reason we can't seem to get that something extra that we're certain will make everything alright.

So I mostly put away my prepared worship notes today and emphasized that Advent is all about hollowness before its about being filled. The waiting - and alertness - we're asked to nourish is NOT so that we become more patient people. No, it is so that we have less distractions clawing for attention in our hearts. It is so that we can be free to love those who need our love when they need it. When Jesus needs it. Not when we're ready. Or better prepared. Or more satisfied. But when they need it. It was a small message. Hardly anything "more." I mentioned that just before getting ready to leave for worship, I read an Advent reflection from the late Henri Nouwen:

Be alert, be alert, so that you will be able to recognize your Lord in your husband, in your wife, your parents, your children, your friends, your teachers, but also in all that you read in the daily newspapers. The Lord is coming, always coming. Be alert to his coming. When you have ears to hear and eyes to see, you will recognize him at any moment of your life. Life is Advent; life is recognizing the coming of the Lord...

Still, I keep making my mistakes. Tonight I went to The Stuntman, a movie about the making of a film. The movie was so filled with images of greed and lust, manipulation and exploitation, fearful and painful sensations, that it filled all the empty spaces that could have been blessed by the spirit of Advent... Why do we keep missing the most obvious signs of God's coming and allow our hearts to be filled with all those things that keeps suggesting, not that our Lord is coming, but that nothing will happen unless we make it happen?

I hope and pray that Advent will not be filled with stuntmen, but with the Spirit of him who invites us to listen carefully to the sounds of the New Earth that are manifesting themselves in the midst of the old. Good and gracious God, you know how much clutter fills my heart these days. Help me to pay attention to your presence in my life. Help me to look far and find opportunities this Advent to become more aware of how you touch my life each day. May I become evermore a sign of your love in the world. Amen.


"I can't say it any better or more intensely than Nouwen," I concluded. "All we have is this moment - not one second more - besides more won't make us any happier. The only thing that will do that is sharing a bit of love. That's what makes life worth living. Love." Then we sang a hymn as I set the communion table thinking, "I wish I could give them more. I wish I could give them what they wanted. Or needed. But all I know is Jesus and his love." Preaching in this season is humbling. I always feel inadequate.

And mostly that's true: I am inadequate - and that is the charsim of preaching. It's not about us. It's about Jesus and his love. So after the Eucharistic blessing, as I was sharing the Body of Christ with those gathered, a young man who has always stayed in his seat during communion came forward with a huge smile on his face to be a part of the feast. I thought, "Hmmmm..." And after worship, an older member said to me, "You know, if you change the word wait from a verb into a noun - and make it waiter - you get at what you were talking about this morning: being ready and prepared to serve another with love." Hmmm again.

You just never know, right? Whether we're in bourgeois America during the darkness of the Trump regime, or Aleppo and the bombs are falling, it isn't about more. It isn't about the geographic solution. And it isn't about giving people what I think might make them satisfied during Advent. It's about Jesus and sharing something of his love. May the darkness surround us so that we can see the light.

part three of waiting in advent: grief, lament and hope

In my previous posts I have shared two distinctive aspects of Advent waiting: a spirituality of simmering, fermenting, listening, percolatin...