Monday, August 28, 2023

when the holy spirit shows up... hold on to the music

One of the MANY things I cherish about playing in our band, revolution, is the trust, skill, and creative vulnerability each person brings to the table. That most of us have been making music together in one form or another for almost 20 years is one of the reasons this band works. Another has to do with skill and trust: each member brings a unique skill set to the music with trust - and that trust includes feeling safe with one another, trusting that the Holy Spirit will show up when we need her, a commitment to the songs we bring for consideration, and an awareness that no one holds a monopoly upon wisdom. This is especially true when we're on a bandstand where we have to stand and deliver; but also whenever we gather for practice, too.
No where is this trust, skill, and creative vulnerability more evident than when we take an old favorite, deconstruct it in various ways, and then slowly reconstruct it to fit this moment in time so that our collective heart's commitment takes on shape, form, sound, and soul. Playing serious and spontaneous jazz with one another over the years has helped us let go of form so that we might playfully experiment with improvisation. Winton Marsalis wrote that playing live demands vigorous listening as well as a deep willingness to help one another out of the pit should a song start to go south. These three musical practices are a form of embodied spirituality and are grounded in faith: we believe that the sacred is every bit a member of the band as the rest of us. And the more we strive to honor this holy presence the more risks we're willing to take in pursuit of the pay-off.

About a year ago, while working on a benefit show for recently resettled Afghan refugees, we recognized that a beloved song, Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty," wasn't working for us when we tried to replicate it like the record. Our drummer, the wise and extremely tender-hearted Jon Haddad, suggested we try: 1) stripping the song down to just one acoustic guitar played in a finger picking style; and 2) emphasizing the haunting call and response nature of the tune's chorus: "running on - running on empty; running on - running blind; running on - running into the sun but I'm running behind." It took a few takes to find the right tempo - we finally settled on one about half as fast as the recording - then went to work experimenting with additional instrumental endings. In our rendering, this song highlights the spiritual quest that was always latent but hidden under the instrumentation. We can hear aspects of the dark night of the soul in the song - it is fundamentally a lament about feeling empty in the land of plenty - as well as an awareness that everyday life is a combination of trust and sacrifice: Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive; trying not to confuse it, with what you do to survive. I will be forever indebted to Jon for his vision in helping us take this song apart and reframe it, and bring it back to life. It is still melodically recognizable, but now with added gravitas and grace.

Consequently, we're now playing with a few others: by applying the same insights to the Foo Fighters, "Times Like These," we've come up with almost a Latin driven call to compassion that's world's apart from the kickass rock'n'roll of the original. On a fluke, we discovered that "Groovin'" by the Rascals worked as an ultra-laid back invitation to sensual mindfulness. And that "Gimme Shelter" by the Stones can be an agonizing call to solidarity. We start off acoustically with women's voices ascending and descending in spontaneous chant; the first verse is offered in a hushed tone; adding drums and percussion builds the intensity so that the extended instrumental break into the middle with a searing electric guitar that kicks things into high rock'n'roll gear. We tried it that way last night after discussing these possibilities. Without having played it this way, we could've had a train wreck. But when trust, skill, and creative vulnerability are  embraced by the Holy Spirit: it was a bit like Pentecost when that presence greater than ourselves lifted both the band and our gathered friends into another zone state of consciousness, Debriefing afterwards, confirmed that we all felt the buzz of being lifted beyond ourselves for about 8 sacred minutes.
Two other factors are worth noting, too. First, our lead guitarist, Dave McDermott, follows the flow of the Spirit in all his playing. If it doesn't FEEL real, he lays out, preferring silence to noise. Often he's said to me something like: when our music taps into the vibrations of life that are eternal but not often acknowledged, we are guided by a love greater than consciousness. David doesn't waste time playing random notes. Rather, he shares flourishes and fills as a song ripens and the offers up solos that come from some deep place within and beyond. When this happens, our songs become soul food. Second, each member of this ensemble carries with them a musical legacy that honors rock, soul, gospel, jazz, folk, and chant. I've rarely experienced such an eclectic mix before where we're just as much at home with Nora Jones, the Grateful Dead, and the Beatles as with Miles, Joni Mitchell, Hendrix or traditional country. Jazz poet, Jayne Cortez, put it perfectly when she crafted this:

I crisscrossed with Monk
Wailed with Bud
Counted every star with Stitt
Sang "Don’t Blame Me" with Sarah
Wore a flower like Billie
Screamed in the range of Dinah
& scatted "How High the Moon" with Ella Fitzgerald as she blew roof off the Shrine AuditoriumJazz at the Philharmonic

Add in the stunning natural beauty of taking in the music while contemplating the wetlands... and you get something that feels salvific. Jimi Hendrix once said: I used to live in a room full of mirrors; all I could see was me. I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors, now the whole world is here for me to see. Ain't THAT the truth? Dave and I will join the soiree as "Two of Us" tomorrow at the Sideline Saloon under the able guidance of host Elaine Morel @ 7 pm. Be there or be square! 

Friday, August 25, 2023

joy, sorrow, rhythm, and sound pulsating like the seasons...

As late summer slowly shifts into early autumn, and the multiple greens of the wetland morph into reds and browns, my heart returns to music-making. The next 90 days in these hills are my personal favorites: the luscious corn of Lamas passes the season's mantle to the wheat harvest, sumac and grape vines shimmer with their unique crimsons, the nights demand blankets on our beds again, and the autumnal equinox points us all towards Samhain and the liminal space of All Saints Day. David Cole writes in The Celtic Year that "the autumn season is the time when we lose all that has once been."

It is the season of harvest, when the crops get chopped down and the fields become empty. It is the season when deciduous trees drop their leaves and the ground becomes filled with yellow and brown... and it is the season which teaches us to let go: it carries with it the life-giving aspect of detachment.

Small wonder that our ancient Celtic mothers and fathers sensed that this was the transition that marked the start of a new year: November was the ancient beginning, not January, where darkness and death invite us into the primal womb of waiting in anticipation of new life. The Christian season of Advent is shaped by these truths where the days in-between show us how to slow down, focus, rest, discern, and return thanks for all that has been. We're not there yet, of course, but already the burning bushes are starting to look like fire and a few of the older trees are settling back in repose: a perfect setting for this year's Play Music on the Porch gathering.

The late Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead fame hit the nail squarely on the head when he told us:

People need celebration in their life. It's part of what it means to be human. We need magic and bliss, power, myth, and celebration in our lives - and music is a good way to encapsulate a lot of it.

Another wise old soul, Nick Cave, put it like this in a book-length conversation entitled: Faith, Hope, and Carnage. In response to Sean O"Hagan's query about the meaning of music, Cave replies:

Music can draw people out of their suffering - even if it is just temporary respite... That's because music has the ability to penetrate all the fucked up way we have learned to cope with this world - all the prejudices and affiliations, agendas and defenses that basically amount to a kind of layered suffering - and get at the thing that lies below and is essential to us all, that is pure, that is good: the sacred essence. I think that music, out of all that we can do artistically, is the great indicator that something else is going on, something unexplained , because it allows us to experience genuine moments of transcendence.

As these two souls dance together while existing in completely different spheres - death and life; the folk/rock/jug band vibe of the Dead next to the T.S. Elliot punk verve of Cave and the Bad Seeds - a unique song is given voice where celebration is practiced in the presence of suffering while magical bliss accompanies the enigmas of our existence. Lou Reed called it magic and loss. I encounter it as trusting the mystery of the journey that carries both blessing and tumult. Cave speaks to my heart when he says:

As I've gotten holder, I have come to see that maybe the search IS the religious experience - the desire to believe and the longing for meaning - moving us towards the ineffable. Maybe THAT is what is essentially important, despite the absurdity of it - or, indeed, because of the absurdity of it.

That's the paradox of music-making as I experience it, yes? It's the absurd AND the ecstatic. The restorative AND ephemeral. Joy, sorrow, rhythm, sound, movement, discipline, and abandon resting within a trust that pulsates like the seasons both in and out of time. When asked how he chose to engage the world after surviving the Holocaust, the late Elie Wiesel said: "I dance." The dance of life is resistance and surrender - it is embodied spirit on a journey of faith that not only acknowledges but accepts grief and healing, assurance and doubt, sound and silence simultaneously as well as the power of vulnerability. Cave wisely says:

To be truly vulnerable is to exist adjacent to collapse and obliteration. In that place we can feel extraordinarily alive and receptive to all sorts of things, creatively and spiritually. It can be perversely a point of advantage, not disadvantage... a nuanced place that feels both dangerous and teeming with potential and the more time you spend there, the less worried you become of how you will be perceived or judged and that is ultimately where the freedom comes from.

And so, at this point in the journey, I choose to link myself to my music-making mates who bring with them their own wounds and wisdom to share in an aesthetic stone soup of sound. That's what the songs we've crafted for this year's Play Music on the Porch feels like to me: nourishment from within shared in community as respite and rebellion. Or prayer and party. Or maybe simply dancing in defiance of all that defiles us. Poet farmer, Scott Chaskey, wrote:

The challenges that confront us daily in the twenty-first century - familial, social, economic, political, environmental - can be overwhelming. As we encounter what is reported as the greatest challenge humanity has collectively face - climate disruption - it is timely to revisit an ancient theme, an interspecies them: our kinship with nature. (Soil and Spirit)

Many of the songs we've selected are chill this year. There are a few kickass rockers but those are the exception to the flow. As we've been practicing over the past month, I've wondered why the vibe keeps coming out subdued and introspective. And now I have a few clues: that is what the season is singing to us. Be still - and know. Be grounded - and trust. Be awake to one another during the insanity of this era and bless be the ties that bind. When we sit upon our deck facing the wetlands each morning, not only is the foliage changing, but so too the birds and four-legged critters. They dance, to be sure, and sing some, too but all in preparation for a deeper change.

An agitation of the air, A perturbation of the light
Admonished me the unloved year
Would turn on its hinge that night.

I stood in the disenchanted field
Amid the stubble and the stones,
Amazed, while a small worm lisped to me
The song of my marrow-bones.

Blue poured into summer blue,
A hawk broke from his cloudless tower,
The roof of the silo blazed, and I knew
That part of my life was over.

Already the iron door of the north
Clangs open: birds, leaves, snows
Order their populations forth,
And a cruel wind blows.
(Stanly Kunitz, The End of Summer)

No wonder it felt like we needed "Ripple" as well as "Gimme Shelter."

Monday, July 24, 2023

another week of walking contemplation comes to a close...

On our last day of non-directive wandering, otherwise known as being le flâneur, we have put in a lot of miles. I was feeling it in my back yesterday but all feels find now; Di's reality is a horse of different color and we trust that this week's medical appointments will give her some relief. So, we move slowly these days: we cover less ground, take many more breaks, and still find it refreshing to wanted, watch, and wait upon this beautiful world. Interestingly, this morning Richard Rohr wrote:

If we watch our minds, we will see that we live most of our life in the past or in the future. The present always seems boring and not enough. To get ourselves engaged, we will often “create a problem” to resolve, and then another, and another. The only way many of us know how to motivate ourselves is to create problems or to need to “fix” something, someone else, or ourselves. If we can’t be positively present right now without creating a problem, nothing new is ever going to happen. We will only experience what we already agree with and what does not threaten us and our preferred mode of being. We will never experience the unexpected depth and contentment that is always being offered to us.

As is so often the case for me, when we step away from our routines and habits for a time of intentional wandering, not so much a "vacation" as an extended walking meditation into mindfulness, I realize just how much time I spend looking backwards. To be blunt, I'm reminded yet again: what a waste of time this is. So, too, with fretting about the future. Gratefully, as I was sitting in quiet reflection early today, this note popped up on the stunning Ravenous Butterflies site:

Sometimes, the strongest thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel weak, to stare your inherent vulnerability in the face and not retreat. There is dignity in the worst of circumstances; at the time it’s often impossible to comprehend this. The kindest treatment you can give yourself is acceptance. Allow yourself permission to feel broken; after all, you are human, just like all of us. One day you will look back, and your weakness will become your strength, your wisdom and compassion – so own it like there’s no tomorrow!

We stumbled upon a new Indian eatery last night after a long walk through le Vieux Port: it is almost enveloped by other small eateries and shops, has no current signage (it's just three weeks old), and nearly invisible from the sidewalk. The proprietor saw me struggling to discern an address so joined me on the steps to welcome us inside. It was lovely, reasonable, safe, clean, and delicious. It later stuck me as one of those quotidian moments of sacramental revelation: just beyond the obvious the present moment often holds delights to be savored if I am willing to be patient. 

I was really weary yesterday: probably a bit dehydrated, too. We got some good walking in but I was dragging. That's a bit of a blessing, too as it helps me pay attention to the wisdom of my body. Small insights, to be sure, but life enhancing. It made me think of a Mary Magdalene poem by Traci Rhoades I didn't get to use in yesterday's live stream reflection entitled: Let Me Be a Mary. In my sense of Magdalene as spiritual guide she trusts her flesh - she knows how it works and what it is telling her - and I need to do likewise - especially these days.

Lord, let me be a Mary.

Not Martha’s sister, who sat at your feet, although I find most days I’d much rather be there than in the kitchen. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:42)

Not the mother of our Lord, whose greatest honor brought forth her greatest suffering. A sword pierced her own soul just as Simeon prophesied. (Luke 2:35)

Let me be a Mary Magdalene, forever and always the first eyewitness to see an empty tomb. Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. (John 20:1)

Let this news move my feet. Every Resurrection Sunday, from sunrise to sunset let me proclaim your holy name to those who deny you and those whom you call beloved. He isn't here! He is risen from the dead, just as he said would happen. (Matthew 28:6)

And in our private moments of intimacy, let me recognize your voice the instant you say my name. “Mary!” Jesus said. She turned to him and cried out, “Rabboni!” (which is Hebrew for “Teacher”). (John 20:16)

Let me remember the desperate times in my past only so much as they show me my very real need for you. For only in our great need do we come to appreciate a Resurrection Sunday. After Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning, the first person who saw him was Mary Magdalene, the woman from whom he had cast out seven demons. (Mark 16:9)

Ah, yes, and one more small gift: it is way past time to unsubscribe and disconnect from many of my "news" notifications. Fear and trembling in, more fear and trembling out. Now's the time to hunker down into my contemplative commitments and devote my public energy to making music and sharing compassion. Back to the US of A in the morning and a summer fast from all the crazy noise!

Saturday, July 22, 2023

taking in the good, bad, and the ugly...

While on urban walkabout this week, I see signs of change everywhere: beautiful, baffling, and heart-breaking. Not that there aren't signs of transition in nature or around our country-ish home. There are - but they appear more gradually (as in the movement of the seasons) or sluggish (as in the culture, politics, and/or physical redevelopment.) To be sure, there are surprising changes at home, too - like the massive snow storm that felled two huge maple trees in our yard 12 years ago or the recent flooding that seemed to come out of nowhere - it's just that right now my awareness is heightened. 

Part of what I'm noticing involves the scars of covid: empty shops, abandoned buildings, supply chain inflated consumer goods, and the dramatic rise in public IV drug use. At the same time the outdoor cafes and terraces are full to overflowing, new and creative businesses are emerging, and street musicians are returning to the pedestrian walkways as murals and street art flourishes. I was talking to the owner of our favorite jazz club in the world last night. We talked at length about the madness of trying to keep his business afloat during the worst days of the pandemic: it was bedlam, he confessed, striving to keep people safe while scrambling to maintain the semblance of some cash flow. Many couldn't make it - and those who survived did so against herculean odds. So, after two years of semi-public lockdown, where a mixture of creativity and strategic nonchalance ruled each day, things are hopping again. It was a joy to visit and see a vital cultural component of this sweet city thriving once again. 

Sadly such was not the case for Archambault - a fixture in Montreal since the mid 1800's and housed in a four story, art deco headquarters built in the 1930's - that now stands empty and dark. How many jazz CDs have I purchased in this music mecca over the years? The second story once held a football field of recorded and printed music while floors three and four showcased every known musical instrument in the Western world ready for sale or rental. It always felt like a joyous "way-back machine" to a slower and more tender-hearted time where browsing was encouraged and reading slowly was a treasured art form. Now, the founders say, the snail's paced urban redevelopment around the university coupled with an epidemic of IV drug use has rendered the neighborhood surrounding this old flagship too dangerous for most shoppers. It's a haven for junkies, to be sure, but those interested in the arts must shop elsewhere. 

Small wonder I've been so tuned-in to the music of both Dead and Company and Tom Waits: like our current walking explorations - to say nothing of St. Mary Magdalene (whose feast day is today!) - they mix together the good, bad, and the ugly simultaneously albeit in wildly disparate ways. The Dead are currently a mix of old stoners, middle aged musical jam masters, and a few hot shot rock music all stars. They've tightened up the old improvisational grooves of past Grateful Dead efforts, added some genuinely satisfying (and consistently on-key) four-part harmonies as well, and brought the beloved good time vibes of the Summer of Love throughout the USA some 56 years after lift off. Bobby Weir, once the pretty boy-child of the band, is now a wizened Zen prophet who realized that the joy this band created still has a place even in the "Brokedown Palace" that currently passes for America. Watching five different generations dance together to this multi-aged musical ensemble is a sacramental act: the immediate beauty points to deeper truths about community building in a culture addicted to selfish bottom lines. I see the good, the bad, and the ugly all huddled together as these cats keep on sharing the music (as they do in this take on "Sugaree" that I first heard 50 years ago at Watkins Glen!)
And then there's brother Tom Waits: the heart of Saturday night as informed by the Beats and the paradoxical blessed community of dive bars. Waits came of age in the soft rock era of LA - think Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, CSNY, and Carole King - but chose to live on Skid Row rather than Laurel Canyon. He went searching for the promise of light in the darkness and often found clues among those most of us ignore, fear, or hate. Living amidst the wounded underbelly of the beast almost devoured Waits who has now been clean and sober for decades. The trap of a boozer's world almost destroyed his art, too until his soon to be wife, Kathleen Brennan, showed him how to incarnate his true iconoclastic gifts. Now he mixes his American stories with glimpses of redemption rather than total depravity. Think "Come on Up to the House" or "Hold On." He was once bathed in the bad and the ugly, learned to befriend and honor it, and now spends time celebrating the complicated good in love hard won. (NOTE: I played Waits' "Hold On" at my father's funeral as a way of paying homage to a man who was loving, wounded, sometimes violence but always searching for a bit of hope. In his own weird way, my dad was a bourgeois version of Waits before he got clean and recognizing this gave me eyes to see his heart - and find a measure of grace, too.)
These periodic and prolonged urban walk-abouts give me time away from interacting so that I can refocus on: writing, making music, loving those dearest to me, and discerning where to give my energy next. I look forward to this evening's small outing and wonder what will be revealed. It is no surprise that these ideas came together on the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene who not only lived into and through her own take on the good, bad, and ugly but learned to hold it all together as one. That's is my prayer, too.

Friday, July 21, 2023

the wisdom of rhythm...

My body was tired after so much walking yesterday: so when I awoke about 10 minutes before noon today, I wasn't surprised. After a midday break-fast of bagels and hot black tea, I considered some poems about Magdalene, a young indigenous woman's reflection on how her own body mirrors Mother Nature's four season, and Carrie Newcomer's blog on "a gathering of spirits." Today, you see, is a "down" day for us - one with very little activity - intentionally set aside to give weary feet and muscles a chance to rest. 

Intuitively, I appreciate this rhythm and am committed to supporting the wisdom of Di's body/mind, though I must confess my desire is to squeeze just a tad more wandering into the day before visiting a jazz club tonight. Such is one of the blessings and curses I've carried with me for most of my 70+ years. How did Ric Ocasek put it when he fronted The Cars?
The upside of this (for me) is that I can go and go and go - with just short breaks for periodic naps and nourishment - through most of the day right up to last call. The downside is that while I know better, emotionally I expect others to want to keep up with me - and can become disappointed when it isn't so. To say that learning to consciously own and then dial down this aspect of my shadow has been a work in progress merely hints at the magnitude of angst, frustration, and turmoil involved. I am still an all too reluctant novice when it comes to honoring the wisdom of life's rhythms.

At the same time I know that this is what love requires at this moment in my journey: slowing down repeatedly is not only good medicine for me, it is essential to sharing life with a partner. Given my cultural conditioning, my emotional land mines as well as my hopes and dreams, however, intermittent rest requires a radical inward sacrifice in order to celebrate its outward blessings. Talk about an existential paradox! 

That's another reason why taking time away from our routine is restorative for me: I must intentionally pay attention to the rhythm of my honey. Back home, our work and interests run parallel to one another; besides sharing breakfast on the deck and ten hours later a quiet supper, we're off doing our own things. These wandering adventures are a different kettle of fish. Walking together without an agenda let's me see just how hard some actions have become - not abstractly - but vividly in the flesh. As Canadian theologian, Douglas John Hall, writes: we learn new ways of being NOT by thinking our way into new life but by living our way into a new ways of thinking. Thought follows flesh so taking responsibility for my shadow - and its consequences - is always incarnational. And while it is still a work in progress, incrementally there is still momentum.

In Ms. Newcomer's morning essay, she quotes Jeff Tweedy of Wilco describing one of his son's conversation with the family rabbi:

"When our two sons were going to Hebrew school, preparing for their Bar Mitzvahs, one of them asked the Rabbi, “What if I’m not sure that I believe in god?” To which the Rabbi replied, “It’s unimportant that you believe in god. What matters is that you search for god, look for the sacred, and learn to recognize what is holy.” And with those simple words, my kids were not only liberated from their fear of trying to maintain a lifelong devotion to a single, abstract, static “belief,” but they were also given permission to put their faith into their own actions and efforts to be kind. Free to marvel at the strangeness of it all and stand unafraid of their “not-knowing.” To focus on the undeniable beauty as it unfolds in front of them. To watch and wait for wisdom. For god’s love to exist, it must be made visible through our own acts of love and our faith in each other." 
-Jeff Tweedy from Start Ship Casual

Then she adds her own reaction that resonates within me, too:

After I read this paragraph I had to sigh and take a breath. It is not necessary that I know, it is only needed that I search- not out of fear, but out of love and a call to something connecting and kind. I love the idea of focusing on the undeniable beauty before us (and within us). By leaning into what is true and beautiful, we begin to recognize holiness that may be not just in a special building or one particular way of spiritual practice, but all around us. Let us manifest that beauty and love in all we do, all we create and all give.

Walking through this week - as well as the requisite waiting and new sense of life's unfolding rhythm - is an act of NOT knowing for me. It's about being: being real, being aware, being attentive, being at rest so that together we can "focus on the undeniable beauty before and within us." Even as we age. Even as we ache. Even as we move forward not knowing what tomorrow will bring. "Leaning into what is true an beautiful" NOW, I too begin to "recognize a holiness that... is all around us." 
The rains come and go outside our window today. The sun sneaks back from behind the clouds before another torrent tears through this small community. Yesterday was sunny and cool. Today is wet and dark.  Tonight will be... who knows? The wisdom of rhythm is everywhere if I but have eyes to see, ears to hear, and a mustard seed of patience.

Thursday, July 20, 2023

objectivity born within subjectivity: nondual reflections and wandering...

NOTE: From time to time Di and I step away from our routine and work and just walk about. My reflections this week are grounded in our current time away.

From time to time my soul asks me to step outside my every day habits and commitments to rest: to watch, listen, and take life in rather than actively give anything back. My current commitment to contemplation is all about silence, song, and celebration. Such a spirituality necessitates stopping for a spell - being passive and receptive rather than fully engaged in sharing - in order that there is room for discernment. The new/old wisdom-keepers speak of contemplation at taking a long, loving look at reality. My practice includes a daily encounter with solitude as well as extended expressions that I have found wise to embrace from time to time for without both I tend towards weariness and then resentment. 

Richard Rohr writes that one of his mentors taught that "the only way to find authentic objectivity (about ourselves, others, and life in general) is to name, clarify and then heal our subjectivity." (Rohr, The Naked Now, p. 85) A sculptor in Tucson, who had been commissioned to work on the new cathedral in Los Angeles, once told me that she's able to communicate with others best when she crafts her artistic compositions through her most personal revelations. What is personal is truly the most universal. Over time that's why my soul has helped me realize: without stepping back periodically from the fullness of life there's no space within for new wisdom. And when I'm too full of myself there's precious little room for being fully present with others. I can neither see the forest for the trees nor distinguish my shadow from all the others. The poet, Juan Ramon Jimenez, put it like this:
I am not I.
I am the one
Who walks beside me without me noticing;
Who, sometimes, I go to visit,
And who, sometimes, I forget.
The one who is silent, still, when I speak,
The one who forgives, kindly, when I hate,
The one who travels where I have never been,
The one who will keep walking when I have died.

So that's what I'm up to this week: taking a long, loving look at my heart, my shadow, my subjectivity as I watch, listen to, and observe the world going on all around me. I've long been fond of a verse from St. Mark's gospel (6:31) where, after a busy time of engagement, Jesus says to his friends: Come away with me. Let us go alone to a quiet place and rest for a while. Both Di and I have come to trust that when the Spirit calls in this way it's a good idea to listen. So, we walk together - ever more slowly these days for a variety of reasons - without big plans or expectations just to take in whatever is happening. Slowing down without obligation helps me pay attention to what is real within and all around me - and part of this involves learning to accept the blessings and responsibilities of being saturated with paradox and contradiction. 

Rohr calls this cultivating nondual vision. In The Naked Now he notes that: 
The crucified Jesus calls for no recrimination against his killers reminding us that: I did not come to make the virtuous feel good about themselves, but for those who need a doctor. (Mark 2:17) Rather, the Great Forgiver welcomes us inside of God's universal breath and vision so that all of life's contradictions might be held and honored within us tenderly and honestly. Sinners, saints, lovers, and poets - all those whom now swim within God's ocean of nondual mercy - are able to share acceptance and compassion with others because inwardly they first allowed God to embrace their contradictions together with mercy. 

When I was a young man striving to make sense of my commitment to non-violence I became a vegetarian as part of my quest to eliminate contradictions in my life. Such a vulnerable marriage of hubris and innocence is part of the journey or as St. Paul confesses: when I was young I spoke like a child and acted like one, too. But now that I am ripening I have put childish things away... and trust faith, hope, and love. Some twenty five years after forsaking meat, I woke up one Christmas morning and ate fish for breakfast as I realized that after all this time I was no closer to reconciling or eliminating paradox from my life than I was as a naïve conscientious objector. Grace was patiently asking me to accept and honor myself rather than conduct an inward witch hunt against my fragile and often contradictory humanity. Learning to be real about reality meant owning what I once feared, hated, or hid. And as I considered myself with honesty, humor, and humility the journey became a tiny bit less harried.  

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

celebrating the feast day of mary magdalene...

This Saturday, July 22, is the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene. Pope Francis has advised the faithful to treat THIS feast day in the same manner as other festivals: with vigor, honor, and liturgical enthusiasm. The commitment of Francis stands as a small but vital sign to the wider church: Magdalene's witness is essential. It must not only be recovered - and celebrated - but also contemplatively explored as part of creation's healing. For that reason alone, this week's "Small is Holy" livestream on Sunday, July 23 will give attention to Magdalene (and briefly pause our consideration of Walter Wink's masterwork, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man.) 

As noted elsewhere, Magdalene is our tradition's original contemplative who not only learned to "see with the eyes of the heart" but let that charism shape her life into one of humble solidarity. Increasingly, Mary has become the spiritual archetype for living the extravagant grace of Jesus in clear defiance of the ascetic obsessions of a celibate institution. Most of traditional Christian spirituality, in the East as well as the West, embraces a literal kenosis or self-emptying. St. Paul articulated this in Philippians 2:

If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him even more highly and gave him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name given to Jesus
every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Historically, this has been practiced ascetically: fasting, celibacy, retreats, and the discarding of life's pleasure in pursuit of inner emptiness shapes this spirituality. Most religious traditions include a path of relinquishment and clearly it holds an obvious albeit literal appeal. But what if the spirituality of Jesus encourages a letting go through the abundance of grace, beauty, love, and solidarity? It is clear that the way of Jesus differs profoundly from that of John the Baptist: John came with fasting while Jesus encouraged feasting; John was considered a solitary hermit while Jesus was denigrated as a drunkard; John lived in the desert while Jesus not only engaged the world vigorously but built a small community of physical, emotional, and spiritual support. A literal - or fundamentalist - kenosis increasingly looks to me like the antithesis of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. The Rev. Melissa Florer-Bixler put it like this in a recent edition of The Christian Century:

My Mennonite sensibilities are out of place in this ritual. I prefer restraint and moderation. I am content with my small portion. Holes in T-shirts are a sign of a well-loved garment, and I’ve resoled the same shoes several times over the past decade. As for many Anabaptists, the image of Jesus I am most comfortable with is the itinerant preacher who owned no property, had no privately held money, and lived with few worldly possessions. And so it is an unsettling reminder that Jesus is often involved in extravagant consumption. The kingdom of God is like a wayward child who returns home after wasting half his father’s fortune—and in response his father throws him a lavish party. A shepherd, eschewing all sound financial advice and logic, leaves 99 sheep vulnerable while he goes off to search for the one. The kingdom of heaven is like a banquet for the poor. There is much more. Jesus produces more wine at the first public miracle in Cana than could be drunk at a hundred weddings—and this after the guests are already drunk. The miracle of the feeding of the crowds in the wilderness produces 12 baskets of leftovers. Several times, Jesus and his followers are accused of gluttony and drunkenness.

The significant differences between the paths of Jesus and John are clearly noted in Scripture (see Matthew 11). They are obvious, too by reading between the lines where abundance regularly trumps scarcity which invites questions about the institution's obsession with physical sacrifices that run counter to the embodied generosity of Jesus. With kindness, I think the best we can say is that from early on the masculo-centric hierarchy that came to shape and control Christianity applied a one-size-fits-all approach to spiritual practices that not only favored their culture's male initiation rites but did so counter to the living experience of Jesus of Nazareth. The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault cuts to the chase:

Right here, I believe, we come to the fundamental problem with these celibate models of transformation. It's not merely their monochromatic viewpoint or the implicit devaluing of a whole other stream of Christian spiritual wisdom whose roots are in passionate human love. Rather, it is the fact that at key points they seem to be slightly out of kilter with the path of transformation that Jesus himself walked and taught. One might say that this model points us toward John the Baptist rather than Jesus: toward those ancient and time-honored practices of renunciation, asceticism, and self-concentration through abstinence, whereas if we really look closely, we see that Jesus himself seemed to be constantly pushing the envelope in the opposite direction — toward radical self-abandonment, reckless self-outpouring, and the transmutation of passion in complete self-giving.

Consider the iconography of the Baptist next to that of Magdalene: both are shrouded in symbols that tell dramatically different stories.
The Baptist is attired in a prophet's garb: he is wizened and wild-eyed, fervent in his rejection of the status quo, he is swathed in earth tones and sweat that challenge traditional notions of fashion and beauty.
Now look at Magdalene:

She is bathed in serenity not fervor. Her countenance is at rest not at war. And her symbolism speaks of compassionate engagement: the egg, sometimes red and sometimes white, recalls both pagan culture's sacramental understanding of eggs symbols of new life as well as the apocryphal story of Magdalene's visit to Tiberius Cesar in Rome.
Holding the egg out to him, she exclaimed for the first time what is now the universal Easter proclamation among Christians, "Christ is risen!" The emperor, mocking her, said that Jesus had no more risen than the egg in her hand was red. Immediately, the egg turned red as a sign from God to illustrate the truth of her message. The Emperor then heeded her complaints about Pilate condemning an innocent man to death, and had Pilate removed from Jerusalem under imperial displeasure. In another tradition, it is said that Mary Magdalene brought a basket of white boiled eggs with her on Easter morning to the tomb of Jesus—perhaps as a meal for herself and the others as they waited for someone to roll the stone away. When she arrived at the site of the Resurrection, finding the stone already rolled away, she also found that the eggs in her basket had turned into bright shades of color. (Gretchen Fitz, Catholic Company)

The witness and spirituality of Magdalene is saturated in the extravagant grace that Jesus shared. Further, in the extra-testamental texts widely circulated during the first two centuries of Christianity, Mary sounds more like her mentor than most of the other original male disciples. Not that they didn't get grace, that's not mine to say. It's more like they took longer to get it than Mary which must be why Magdalene was chosen by Jesus to be the apostle to the apostles. Increasingly open-hearted and intellectually vigorous Christian scholars see that the witness of Magdalene more closely resembles the words and deeds of the earthly Jesus and warrants our reconsideration. We'll give it a shot on Sunday @ 4 pm.

Monday, July 17, 2023

grateful for the dead (in any incarnation)

In the summer of 1967, I purchased the first Grateful Dead album simply titled: The Grateful Dead. I had not, of course, heard their music on the radio yet - that was still to come - but I had read about them in the spring. And as the summer of love dawned I wanted an inside track on what was happening. My family was vacationing at Lake Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaug in Webster, MA and I was all of 15. When my mom was shopping for groceries, I slipped into the local department store and spent a whopping $2.98 for a taste of the Dead. I was immediately a fan.
Don't get me wrong: I had NO idea what to make of this music - no frame of reference for this revelry and abandon - I just knew it made me want to dance. My music collection took a wild left turn that summer as I added Surrealistic Pillow and Moby Grape to my Beatles/Stones collection. It was an ecstatic time - or as Grace Slick was later that years: It's a wild thyme!
I didn't use any extra-sensory resources back in the day but came to value the way they helped my counter-cultural heroes create new sounds and insights. So, no sooner did the Dead put out a new album than I was wearing it out on my Radio Shack component home stereo. My small bedroom was agog with black light posers, a ton of psychedelic music, and a modest headset so I could listen to the groove late into the night. Our small band, Creepin' Jesus, was playing the Who, Jeff Beck, improvised suburban blues, some early Hendrix, and the Dead's take on "Morning Dew." For the next five years, while I still loved some pop and soul, my musical tastes plunged into the new groove with abandon. To say that I couldn't get enough of the Dead would be an understatement. "Cosmic Charlie" from the band's third outing became my default position as it was totally opposite from everything my family and culture valued.
There were countless other songs and bands, too - it's important to note that my first live concert was at the Garrick Theatre in the West Village where Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were in residence - and there wasn't a month that passed when I wasn't taking in some show at Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore East. And after three semesters of college, when I quit to contest my draft status, after resolving my conscientious objector status to the war in Vietnam, my first head over heels in love girlfriend and I became total Dead Heads as I played music with a children's theatre group for a summer on Martha's Vineyard and then followed the Dead for part of the summer of '73. Two recordings shaped that year: Skull and Roses and then Europe '72.
After three years organizing with the Farm Workers Union, my life matured and I found myself married with a young child while finishing my undergraduate work in San Francisco. My love of the Dead only went deeper as we took in the songs on Blues for Allah and various gigs at Winterland. I found that I was more of a Bobby Wier Deadhead than a Jerry Garcia guy - and this song encapsulates why. In fact, given half a chance with our current band, my heart, soul, mind, and motor memory takes me right back here...
After seeing the Allmans, the Band, and the Dead at Watkins Glen 50 years ago, there was no turning back for me. They were in my blood.

So why all this musical history? Well, the current incarnation of the Dead - Dead and Company - has come to a close. They were a brilliant reworking of the early band with wildly creative new additions like John Mayer, Jeff Chementi, and Otiel Burbridge along with Mickey Hart and Jay Lane. Some Dead fundamentalists couldn't abide by the new brothers in arms but I thought they took the improvisational tunes to new heights of energy and beauty. These new cats could harmonize like nobody's business AND had paid their dues working with the genre's foundations.

What's more, from my perspective, they took the Dead ethos deeper. Their extended grooves linking songs together in a seamless flow was brilliant. Their commitment to a set list helped. And they'd clearly rehearsed together and in their own private woodshedding which made the whole trip more profound. And while the core was now in their 70s - damn if Weir doesn't look like and OT prophet - the combo of old and new brought new beauty and energy to what was time tested and transformative. Perhaps the BEST version of "Sugaree" ever happened this year as the band was bringing this current incarnation to a close...
The Dead are experiential - not rational. They must be encountered will all the senses. The Dead are also a social and spiritual phenomenon: when you attend a concert you are reconnecting with sisters and brothers form other mothers as well as aunts, uncles, and some unanticipated cousins who just want you to groove like there's no tomorrow. Because, truth be told, there ISN'T the promise of tomorrow. Just be here NOW. So dancing, laughing, watching, and singing along with the entourage becomes a spiritual practice of simply "letting go." One need not take in additional chemical/organic helpers because the music and the community can take you higher (just like Sly Stone prophesied.) When you are in Deadland, you are kin to hundreds of others from every walk of life - at least for a few hours - and the experience points to what could be: trust and tenderness with a backbeat.

My young grandson is now into the Dead. When he visits we play "Friend of the Devil" along with "Truckin'!" Soon we'll work on "Sugar Magnolia," too. I have no idea where the band will go now that Dead and Company are finished. But as one song puts it: the music never stopped. And I trust that it will keep on bringing blessing upon blessing whenever the faithful gather to be open to the love...

Sunday, June 25, 2023

come away with me

Today is Pride Sunday in the US, the 66th anniversary of the founding of the United Church of Christ, and it is my final Sunday serving as your interim bridge pastor. It’s been a deep blessing for me on a variety of levels and I want to express my gratitude to you all for the way you have welcomed and engaged with me over these past 150 days.

· We’ve laughed and wept, worshipped and studied, sung and kept silence, danced and mourn-ed, pondered and prayed, cared for one another with compassion, and gone a bit deeper into the grace of God revealed in Jesus the Christ. This could have been simply a season of place holding till your new settled pastor arrives. And while it’s been that, too, it’s also been a mystical pilgrimage into the sacramental surprises of learning to walk in the dark.

· At the close of worship on week three someone said to me: I’ve never really LIKED Jesus much before but the way you talk about him makes me WAAY more receptive. What a precious gift to give to your pastor. I’m so thankful – and want to build on that insight by including a new rendering of today’s reading from St. Matthew’s gospel. We know it as: come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest. The brilliant pastoral theologian, the Rev. Dr. Eugene Peterson of blessed memory, reframed it in what has become my all-time fav-orite Biblical poem. He writes:

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 – as you 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.

Two competing but not contradictory notions kept coming to me while preparing for this day: The first was a life-changing memory and the second, as you might imagine, was a song.

· The memory involves what a former pastor told me upon hearing this translation for the first time. The late Pastor Rada founded a tiny evangelical congregation in Tucson, AZ to the queer community during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As an out lesbian pastor in the late 70’s, she faced countless challenges from discrimination and hatred to misplaced fear and psychological projections from her often profoundly broken flock. The stories she told me of caring for her flock during that dreadful time still cuts me to the core: how funeral homes often refused to bury LGBTQ+ corpses or else required they be smuggled inside through the backdoor alleyway after dark; how struggling HIV/AIDS women and men passed from this life into life eternal convinced they had been condemned to a never-ending hell by a God who de-spised and hated them; and how too many in that community took their own lives in acts of unimaginable self-hatred.

· After hearing this text rephrased, Rada said to me as she and her wife were leaving worship: “I am SO burned out on religion, Pastor. I’m exhausted, heart-sick, grieving and aching to know something of Christ’s UN-forced rhythms of grace. So many in my community would still be alive if there were other churches proclaiming this truth.” Then she embraced me as we stood in the greeting line – and we wept together.

Those tears, hers and mine, opened her emotional flood gates and my commitment to craft a genuinely safe faith community grounded in the unconditional and unforced rhythms of God’s grace. This text – and how others responded to it – taught me that HOW we read and interpret the Holy Word is often a matter of life and death. The words we share in worship have consequences.

So, too the way we incarnate those words individually and in community. That’s where the song comes in: as I tried to articulate last week when some of our band was here sometimes the most important gift we can share in worship is the groove. How a song makes us feel regardless of its origins. We do that tacitly with the instrumental organ preludes and postludes that start and close worship so I’m just expanding on that truth. Like St. Wendell Berry put it: There are no unsacred places / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places. I fundamentally agree.

· So, as I sat with this Biblical text, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, I kept hearing Nor-ah Jones singing: “Come Away with Me.” When I mentioned this to Di at breakfast she said, “Well, I could sing that – I love it – and I’m going to be with you on your final Sunday.” To which I could only reply: thank you.

· So, take a listen to this sweet song of the soul as yet another way of meditating on the invitation of Jesus to rest into the unforced rhythms of grace…

Come away with me in the night – Come away with me – 
and I will write you a song
Come away with me on a bus – Come away where they can't tempt us with their lies
I want to walk with you on a cloudy day – In fields where the yellow grass grows knee-high So won't you try to come
Come away with me and we'll be free - On a mountaintop – come away with me –And I'll never stop loving you – I want to wake up with the rain falling on a tin roof While I'm safe there in your arms so all I ask is for you is to come away with me in the night: Come away with me

Do you feel what the text is trying to tell us here? Of course, it’s a love song – not a hymn – but as the late George Harrison insisted: ALL of our love songs hold multiple layers of meaning and if we trust that creation is infused with God’s grace, then even a jazz ballad can become a prayer. There are no unsacred places / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places. Indeed!

Stepping back periodically from the onslaught of issues, needs, demands, commitments, fears, busyness, tasks, trauma, and anxieties is essential for those allies of the holy who yearn to birth both solace and celebration in this savage culture. Activists and intellectuals are often put off by the call to contemplation thinking it’s a naval gazing distraction for people of privilege; while contemp-latives believe that hard-core activists don’t know how to consciously take either a breath or a break. But remember that old CERTS breath mint commercial: STOP you’re BOTH right!? Like Fr. Richard Rohr, I believe that contemplatives and activists need one another. The demands of com-passion and justice necessitate the linking of arms and fates as comrades if our quest for lasting social transformation and healing is to bear fruit. Back in 1932, T.S. Eliot sensed the importance of quiet discernment as part of any activist engagement in culture care. He put it like this in The Rock:

The endless cycle of idea and action, endless invention, endless experiment, brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; knowledge of speech, but not of silence; knowledge of words, and ignorance of THE Word. All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, all our ignorance brings us nearer to death, but nearness to death is no nearer to GOD. Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in know-ledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The gospel’s call to come away for time of rest and reflection before returning to the fray allows our flesh to be restored, our minds to be renewed, and our spirits to be reconnected with the source of life. Sabbath – in any of its forms – is a spiritual practice that helps us trust that God is truly in cont-rol whether we can feel it or not. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, ally of Dr. King, used to say that the reason God gave us the Sabbath is that if we can commit to deep rest for 24 hours, leaving crea-tion in the hands of the Creator for one full day, then maybe we can extend this trust beyond the Sabbath so that its blessing fill every day. Rest, you see, is soul food yet most of us don’t believe it.

When I was in Union Seminary in NYC in the late 70’s, I was deeply engaged in Central American solidarity work. I’d studied at Seminario Biblico in San Jose, Costa Rica, I’d read many of the early liberation theologians. And vehemently opposed the Reagan regime’s policies against Nicaragua. Early in my second year, as I was frantically organizing two busloads of students to go to DC to protest the regime’s support of the contras, my homiletics professor, the great Black preacher James Forbes, called me to his office. I had NO idea why this gifts orator wanted to speak with me, but I wasn’t going to miss the chance. 

So, after a few pleasantries, Dr. Forbes said: Lumsden, are you in hurry to get yourself killed? I was stunned! So, he added: Look, I’m no stranger to social activism, ok? You know my story. What you may not know, how-ever, is that ALL truly revolutionary activists regularly take time out for quiet rest and reflection: Gandhi did when he returned to India from South Africa, MLK did on a regular basis. So, too Cesar Chavez, Mary Lou Hammer and countless others. So why, can you please tell me in the name of God, are you wasting your quiet time in seminary with reactive and frantic acts of opposition when you only have a short time here?

I was dumbstruck and didn’t know what to say – so Jim brought our meeting to a close saying: Do not waste this quiet time, brother. You have the rest of your life to get yourself killed, ok? I left thinking that Dr. Forbes was totally wrong. I was young, bright, cocky, and full of energy so why in the world would I slow down? Some three years later, though, when I was totally exhausted, those words of wisdom came back to haunt and realized Dr. Forbes was right. About that same time, my first spiritual director gave me a beautiful copy of a prayer Reinhold Niebuhr had once scrawled quickly on the back of an envelope before a vacation bible school just down the road in Lee. Later it was published in 1951 as the Serenity Prayer and reads like this in its original form:

O God and Heavenly Father, grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed, courage to change that which can be changed, and wisdom to know the one from the other through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

The wisdom to know the one from the other is how prayer is balanced with politics and contemplation dances with action. Some of the wisdom-keepers in ancient Israel learned this both/and practice while living in captivity to Babylon 500 years before Jesus. Pete Seeger popularized their insights in his adaptation of Eccles-iastes 3 called “Turn, Turn, Turn.”

To everything there is a season: turn, turn, turn and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

Right now, I suspect someone is wondering: why on earth is he going on and on about rest and re-flection? He’s DONE and our new settled pastor will be here soon so let’s get to the party and move on. Well, I have a two-part answer: First, I’ve come to love and respect you so deeply that I want to plant a seed in your conscience and encourage you to seek balance as you face ALL the work that’s coming down the road in the months and years ahead. There are building issues to confront, fund raising concerns, the challenge of membership, as well as articulating the mission for this faith com-munity in a way that resonates with reality. Mother Earth is literally on fire. Political and spiritual polarization is at an all-time high. And fewer and fewer people care about the church.

The most recent survey of Massachusetts residents by the Pew Research Center shows that 34% of us are nominally Roman Catholic, 10% belong to our religious tradition, and a whopping 32% of our neighbors consider themselves spiritual but NOT religious – and are mostly unaffiliated. The Rev. Dr. William Barber, founder of the Poor Peoples Movement, adds an oft ignored context writing:

Though slavery officially ended after the Civil War, the Christianity that blessed white supremacy did not go away. It doubled down on the Lost Cause, endorsed racial terrorism during the Redemption era, blessed the leaders of Jim Crow, and continues to endorse racist policies as trad-tional values under the guise of a "religious right." As a Christian minister, I understand why, for my entire ministry, the number of people who choose not to affiliate with any religious tradition has doubled each decade: an increasingly diverse America is tired of the old slaveholder religion.

We KNOW at some profound level that part of our work for the next decade has to do with shaping a non-exclusive, non-judgmental way of following Jesus in a multi-cultural context where we can partner with others in pursuit of racial justice. Be a humble participant in a community movement to bring reparations and repentance to our genocidal origins. Tenderly explore revolutionary coop-eration with our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers as we pursue true equality. This is a massive, shifting agenda, beloved, and without balance and faithful discernment could easily lead us into cynicism or despair. So, PLEASE take stock: if Jesus realized back in the first century CE that he and his allies needed quiet time periodically to regroup, to listen carefully for the still small voice of the Lord, and build a measure of consensus: how much more so is deep rest needed in our 24/7 world saturated with the sounds and sights of calamity?

Back when I was finishing my undergraduate studies in political science at SFSU, my pastor’s spouse worked with Mayor George Moscone. One night we were over at Bill’s house talking about the upcoming birth of our second daughter when we got a phone call that Moscone and Harvey Milk had been murdered. There would be NO dinner that night as hundreds of grief stricken souls gathered at city hall to mourn the loss of these two champions of inclusivity. You may recall that there was NO violence that night. There was NO hatred. There was just a deep and disciplined public grief as we all sang: We are and gentle, angry people and we are fighting, fighting for our lives. Dear friends, THAT type of focused and public grief does NOT happen automatically. It comes from practice and disciplined patience – and the wider LGBTQ+ community taught us all about what it means to challenge the status quo of violence and hatred with love and sobriety. That’s the first reason I’m going out with this message: pastorally and personally I pray for your well-being. You are wise, kind, talented, resourceful, and filled with possibilities: add times of intentional discernment into the mix and blessings will abound.

The second reason is more complex but no less important: we who have come from privilege and power – and I include myself in this – are still learning what it means to partner and follow rather than lead. We are accustomed to being in charge – we’ve worked hard to get things done – and expect to be successful. Our churches were founded in this ethos coming of age in what Martin Luther, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Barbara Brown Taylor, Cynthia Bourgeault, and Douglas John Hall have all called a theology of triumphalism – a theologia gloria – that “fraternizes with empire and power,” celebrates control more than trust, and ignores the theologia crucis – the theology of the cross – that was incarnated in Jesus at Golgotha. Please, PLEASE know this NOT a scolding but a confession that our buildings alone document. They’re enormous – costly – beautiful but predic-ated on principles of power and grandeur not humility and solidarity – and for countless churches in our tradition have now largely become unmanageable and unsustainable. I’m not weighing-in on what you will eventually choose as you have wise and committed leaders already working on this.

No, I’m simply commenting on one of the manifestations of our former theological foundation that still holds consequences, ok? You see, this theology of glory and power was born of a dominance that once worked – at least for folks like you and me – but is now being thoroughly rejected by peo-ple all over our community who are spiritual but NOT religious because that old-time religion has burned us out. Douglas John Hall of McGill Seminary in Montreal is spot on when he tells us that for congregations and denominations like our own:

The only antidote to religious triumphalism is the readiness of communities of faith to permit doubt and self-criticism to play a vital role in the life of faith. Because we have ignored the rigors of critical thought, we too often naïvely embrace big technology as our savior; because we have celebrated numbers, we naïvely court power; because we rejects nuance and know next to nothing of the dialectical and dialogical character of truth, we naïvely cozy up to the tyranny of religious ideology (or even sentimentalism.)

What’s happening in many of our churches right now is just what happened to people like me in seminary. I come from a background of relative privilege shaped by a triumphal theology of glory and power. I was raised among the movers and shakers of suburban, white Connecticut and Massa-chusetts where CEOs, college professors, medical professionals, and Wall Street lawyers called the shots. You can’t get MORE white, entitled and bourgeois than First Congregational Church of Dar-ien. So, I came to expect that I would be listened to when sharing an opinion in class. But my ex-pectation to be considered clashed with the experience and vision of radical feminists, people of color, LGBTQ+ folk, and non-Christians colleagues who had long been silenced and dismissed by my spiritual forebearers. So, when I started speaking from my privilege, they called me out. Challenged my limited vision and experience and kicked my theological butt in ways that took me down a peg or three. It hurt my feelings. Confused my understanding of how the world worked. And broke my heart open to new ways of being, listening, and learning.

One important revelation had to do with trust: in a broken and polarized culture, trust must be earned by showing up as a participant NOT a leader. My mentor in urban ministry, Ray Swartz-back used to say: documenting your right to be heard is not portable; you must consistently show up before you can be trusted. New alliances and partnerships are vital for the Christian church of the 21st century. Church historian, Diana Butler Bass, recently wrote that a fascinating new trend, still small but real, is starting to take place across the US. One-time young evangelicals are leaving the fundamentalism of their past to dip their toes in the water of churches like our own:

What is happening now reminds me a bit of a similar (and often overlooked) movement in the 1990s… when, Catholics who were discouraged by their church’s views on women’s ordination and divorce — and angry about the sexual abuse scandals — found their way into progressive main-line churches…. Many of those who have left Christianity will — most likely — never return to any sort of church. This won’t be a trend where folks will knock down your doors. So, don’t expect a tsunami to overwhelm your congregation — but there will likely be a kind of spring of newcomers curious about who you are and how you practice faith. If you are part of a progressive congrega-tion or spiritual community and are open to such newcomers: You're going to have to prove your-selves trustworthy, open, and accepting. You'll need to earn their respect. Not only will some of the newcomers be hurt and apprehensive, but there are decades of animosity between evangel-ical and mainline Protestants. Ex-evangelicals were schooled in that (as were mainliners!). So, expect misunderstanding.

· Like you and me these ex-evangelicals are sick of Christian nationalism. They are horrified by the anti-science ideology of their former tradition and the violence it advocates against those deemed unworthy heretics.

· You are a people grounded in love: You possess intellect, humor, and commitment and I be-lieve YOU have a place in what the church of the 21st century will become. And if I’ve ever had a doubt: your weekly peace of Jesus dance documents a commitment to joy, humility, and the unforced rhythms of grace.

So, keep letting go of that old theological paradigm of control as this new program year unfolds with your new settled pastor. Practice trusting that small is holy and partnership is the new normal. Do what you can to build times of rest into day to listen, slow down, feast with one another, laugh and weep in solidarity, trust that beyond our intellect and the obvious, God continues to embrace us in-to the unforced rhythms of grace. Because as Allan Watts taught us: “the task of a liberated person is NOT to scold the world or preach to it, but to delight it back to its senses.” May it be so. Amen.

when the holy spirit shows up... hold on to the music

One of the MANY things I cherish about playing in our band, r evolution , is the trust, skill, and creative vulnerability each person bring...