Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Blessed new year...

It is a hard and sometimes lonely gig to leave one community and move to a new one - especially doing the church renewal work that seems to be my lot. I remember doing labor organizing with the Mississippi Woodcutters Union oh so long ago and concluding that "I don't want to be an wandering organizer; I need a home base community to work within." And yet... here we are in yet a new place.

So as this year comes to an end, it is clear that all of these changes have caught up with me: sadness, death, missing family and old, old friends to say nothing of the desert sunshine and that wildass Chicago Bar dance crowd. I know I have not been the messenger of joy lately - there seems to be so much to grieve right now - and at the same time, as the scripture says, there is joy and celebration and love and hope. "To everything there is a season..."

Right now we are listening to a young musician live from Tucson via the miracles of the internet and Dianne's computer. She is the loved one of one of our dearest young friends in the southwest - a confirmand and young artist - who is sending text messages while her beloved plays guitar live in a studio. What a weird and wonderful life this is, yes?

So I asked Di to take a picture of us on the last night of 2008. And as I looked at my tired old self with my sweet heart I saw lots of joy and hope - filled with a very real sadness to be sure - but still very real and deep. It made me laugh and realize I am grateful for the whole of life - our move and the new gig with all of the challenges - and I pray blessings for you all as 2009 unfolds. Made me think of this great old tune by the Cowboy Junkies (although I first learned it at a Tom Rush concert.) Happy New Year...

Saying goodbye...

I have always hated good-byes: they usually make me cry - and that will be true for 2008, too. It has been a full and challenging year for me personally and for many of us collectively. I give thanks for the election of Barrack Obama, I grieve with so many about the unending downward spiral of violence in the Middle East, I wait anxiously for a way to end the war in Iraq and join the world in cutting back expenses during these uncertain economic times. The words of the Psalmist keep coming back:

Don't bother your head with braggarts or wish you could succeed like the wicked.
In no time they'll shrivel like grass clippings
and wilt like cut flowers in the sun.
Get insurance with God and do a good deed,
settle down and stick to your last.
Keep company with God,
get in on the best.

Open up before God, keep nothing back;
God will do whatever needs to be done:
God will validate your life in the clear light of day
and stamp you with approval at high noon.
Quiet down before God,
be prayerful before the Lord.
Don't bother with those who climb the ladder,
who elbow their way to the top.

Bridle your anger, trash your wrath,
cool your pipes—it only makes things worse.
Before long the crooks will be bankrupt;
God-investors will soon own the store.
Before you know it, the wicked will have had it;
you'll stare at his once famous place and—nothing!
Down-to-earth people will move in and take over,
relishing a huge bonanza....

Less is more and more is less.
One righteous will outclass fifty wicked,
For the wicked are moral weaklings
but the righteous are God-strong....

Wait passionately for God,
don't leave the path.
God will give you your place in the sun
while you watch the wicked lose it.

(Psalm 37 - The Message)

This waiting business is the key, isn't it? So damned hard... Last night as I was closing the day in prayer I found myself thinking about all the public and private figures who have passed from this life in 2008. It was humbling... and sad. I know it sounds trite and fluffy, but there are musicians, artists and other creative public people I will miss. I think of:

+ Tim Russert and Paul Newman
+ Delaney Bramlett who gave Clapton a place to do the rockin' blues after Cream
+ Sculptor Robert Graham, writers Harold Pinter and Dave Wasserman
+ Country guitar player Jerry Reid and folksinger Odetta
+ Clive Barnes and Miriam Makeba
+ Studs Terkel - the voice of real people
+ Levi Stubbs - the heart and soul ofthe Four Tops
+ Motown writer Norman Whitefield
+ Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio (a politician I knew back in the day)
+ LeRoi Moore of the Dave Matthews Band
+ Jazz/soul record producer at Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler
+ Issac Hayes
+ Alexandr Solzenhietzn
+ Jesse Helms
+ George Carlin and Bo Diddley
+ Harvey Corman and Sydney Pollack
+ Dick Martin (of Laugh-In)
+ Hamilton Jordan (from Jimmy Carter days)
+ Artist Robert Rauschenberg
+ Danny Federici (with Springsteen from the start)
+ Neill Aspinall (the 5th Beatle)
+ Arthur C. Clarke, Howard Metzenbaum
+ Jeff Healey and William F. Buckley
+ Marharishi Mahesh Yogi (turned the West on to TM)
+ Heath Ledger, Suzanne Pleshette and Bobby Fisher

Lots of people who have nourished me and challenged me - angered me and helped me get life into focus, too - all who have now said good-bye. I watched Heath Ledger last night in "The Dark Knight" and he was brilliant and sad and twisted all at the same time. I think of my colleague and friend, Vicki Forfa... like I said, good-byes have always been hard for me.

Waiting, too. Maybe Springsteen said it best in saying farewell to his old bud, Tim Russert. It is something I hold on to in times like these.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Thinking different...

NOTE: Just finished this week's sermon notes for our celebration of Epiphany on Sunday, January 4th 2009. I wanted to get this completed as I will be away on retreat until Saturday. So, if you're in town and would like to stop by for worship, join us at 10:30 am as we begin a 4 week series into our proposed mission/vision statement: In community with God and each other we gather to reflect on our Christian faith, do justice and act with compassion." After worship, we'll regroup to talk about this, too.

Today is the Feast of Epiphany – the celebration of God’s light being shared with all creation – a liturgical moment that brings the season of Christmas to a close. At its heart, Epiphany is a spiritual invitation for us to explore both how God’s grace is active and present in the world, and, what new wisdom or insight has been born within or among us because of this light.

Epiphany, you see, does not look backwards into tradition. Rather, it calls us straight ahead into the unknown future trusting that God will continue to bring light into our darkness. After all, how does the story of the Magi conclude?

… the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: they were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time! So they entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him… opening their luggage and presenting gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh. And then in a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, they left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country by a different way.

That’s why I thought it wise to begin our discussion of the new proposed mission and vision statement today:

+ Like the Magi, we have been following the light of God into new discoveries – the presence of Messiah born into our hearts, minds, bodies and history – and now the time has come to “work out another route – return to our ordinary lives by a new and different way” – follow the star and God’s dream into new places.

+ Like the theologian, Douglas John Hall, is fond of saying: In the Jesus life, there is a new way for people to live. You show wisdom by trusting people; you handle leadership by serving; you handle offenders by forgiving; you handle money by sharing; you handle enemies by loving and you handle violence by suffering. In fact, you have a new attitude toward everything and everybody… because in the Jesus life you repent NOT by feeling bad, but by thinking different.

And that is precisely what our new vision statement challenges us to figure out: how to think differently from the status quo of both church and society, and, why this matters? In clear, direct and bold language, this new articulation of our mission says: In community with God and each other we gather to reflect on our Christian faith, do justice and act with compassion.

For the next four weeks I’m going to be unpacking some of the ideas and implications of these words for our life together as a congregation. Your church leadership has worked hard to give expression to how they sensed God’s new and different way working within and among us. And now they have asked me to lead a series of conversations about why these words are important. So, on Epiphany we begin at the beginning: we gather to reflect on our Christian faith. That is, we gather to learn how to think differently and there are four Biblical texts that inform this invitation.

Isaiah 55 which begins: Come all who are thirsty, come to the water… come, buy your drinks, your milk and wine without money. Don’t spend your hard earned cash on junk food… listen to me and eat the best, fill yourselves with the finest… because (and pay careful attention here) my ways are not your ways – I don’t think like you think – and the way you work is not how I do it. For as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think. Just as rain and snow descend from the skies and don't go back until they've watered the earth, doing their work of making things grow and blossom, producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry, so will the words that come out of my mouth not come back empty-handed. They'll do the work I sent them to do, they'll complete the assignment I gave them.

Are you with me? Part of what it means to reflect on our faith is to explore and learn about God’s very different – even upside down – way of thinking, acting, loving and being. For the way of the Lord, thanks be to God, is NOT like our way: God is about grace, not karma – justice, not the status quo – light beyond the darkness, not fear and ignorance.

One truth about reflecting on our faith has to do with learning about the upside down kingdom of God. Another is to be found in the advice St. Paul gives the church beginning in the 12th chapter of Romans.

Romans 12: So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

When I first learned these words I delighted in the admonition: do not be conformed to the manner of this world but, rather, be transformed by the renewal of your mind so that you might know what is good and acceptable, your spiritual worship of the Lord. Isn’t that powerful? Use your mind to become part of a new way of living…

First, reflection involves a careful consideration of God’s grace-filled ways. Second, it has to do with challenging ourselves to give up conformity and renew our minds in the love of God so that our ordinary lives will begin to look more and more like Christ in action. Third, reflecting on our Christian faith has something to do with wrestling with how to make the words of Jesus flesh in our time and place.

Matthew 5: Let me tell you why you are here. You're here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You've lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here's another way to put it: You're here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We're going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don't think I'm going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I'm putting you on a light stand. Now that I've put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven. Don't suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures— either God's Law or the Prophets. I'm not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God's Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God's Law will be alive and working.

What do you sense going on here? There’s study of the scriptures involved in our type of reflection, right? Not memorization, but wrestling and arguing with the word. But first – and I really mean this – we have to know the words; we have to understand, comprehend and cherish them as a way of seeing something of God’s alternative way of being.

And then I would add this additional insight from St. Paul about learning to live without always knowing – learning to live by trust – or as Richard Rohr puts it: “Your great spiritual teachers always had to balance knowing with not knowing and knowing that you don’t know. This has been almost totally lost. Even the Christian churches largely define faith as knowing, when in fact; biblically it means exactly the opposite. Faith is being willing not to know, and still being content, because God knows. Now that’s a gift from God—to be able to live with the freedom not to know.”

I Corinthians 13: Now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face. Now we're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing God directly just as God knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly and love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love… because Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn't want what it doesn't have. Love doesn't strut, doesn't have a swelled head, doesn't force itself on others, isn't always "me first," doesn't fly off the handle, doesn't keep score of the sins of others, doesn't revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies.

One of my favorite Sufi stories – from the mystical Islamic tradition – tells of Nasrudin who has lost the keys to his house. Frantically he searches for them in the shrubs and the garden and eventually gets on his hands and knees under a street light to keep up the search. One of his students happens to come by and ask, “What’s going on? What are you searching for?” and Nasrudin says, “My house keys – I’ve dropped them and lost them.” So his student gets on his hands and knees under the street light, too, and begins to search. Eventually he says, “I am not finding anything here: are you sure you dropped them in this spot?” To which the old fool replies, “Oh my goodness no, I dropped my keys over in the alley but… you see the light is so much better here.”

Reflecting on our faith is not searching like a fool: it involves a long, loving look at scripture, culture and human nature all from within the radically upside down grace of God – and even then there is often more darkness than light. But we have tasted love – and so we go on.
(NOTE: Nobody captures the alternative to a life of faith better than Radiohead on this song they call "Faust Arp." What a killer, yes?)

RECOMMENDED READING FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Here are the five books that will better ground us in our reflections. They range from basic and practical to more scholarly but all are very helpful.
1. Practicing Our Faith - Dorothy Bass
2. The Heart of Christianity -Marcus Borg
3. To Begin at the Beginning - Martin Copenhaver
4. Common Prayers - Harvey Cox
5. Thinking the Faith or The Cross in Our Context - Douglas John Hall

Monday, December 29, 2008

Singing a new song at the end of an old year...

A few months ago, Gordon Atkinson (of Christian Century blogs) asked if I might put together a collection of spiritual songs that are essential to me. I am still working on that list - and will get to it this week - but in the interim I have been thinking of the songs from popular culture that have touched me deeply this year. To be sure, they come from a host of seasons - not just 2008 - but here are the tunes that have really rocked my world, touched my heart and soul, brought healing and challenge to me and made me laugh, dance and weep.

But before I go to the songs - and the YouTube clips - let me go to this midrash on Isaiah 42 which I am currently wrestling with on a variety of levels. You see, I believe that at the heart of rock/country/soul/rap and jazz is the spirit of Exodus - freedom - restoration - justice and compassion. Yeah, there's greed and lust in there, too - and racial/sexual exploitation along with some ugly and mean-spirited people ripping off our deepest longings. But.. in this realm of incarnation where the word of God is always mixed with our true human realities, I guess that is to be expected, yes? Anything less would be naive, docetic or worse.

So, in addition to the first historical context of the words from the Prophet - consolation by the servant poet of justice and compassion for the Jerusalem that lies in ashes after the conquest by Babylon - I am intrigued by the challenge of hearing God's still speaking voice of justice, compassion, forgiveness, renewal, despair and outrage in the sounds of contemporary poets and artists. Where is a new and prophetic song being sung amidst our Babylon?

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him
and he will bring justice to the nations.
He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.
In faithfulness he will bring forth justice;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his law the islands will put their hope.
This is what God the LORD says—
the one who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it,
who gives breath to its people,
and life to those who walk on it:
"I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness;
I will take
hold of your hand.
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people
and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind,
to free captives from prison
and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.
"I am the LORD; that is my name!
I will not give my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
See, the former things have taken place,
and new things I declare;
before they spring into being
I announce them to you."
Sing to the LORD a new song,
his praise from the ends of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
you islands, and all who live in them.
Let the desert and its towns raise their voices;

let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice.
Let the people of Sela sing for joy;
let them shout from the mountaintops...
"For a long time I have kept silent,
I have been quiet and held myself back.
But now, like a woman in childbirth,
I cry out, I gasp and pant.
I will lay waste the mountains and hills
and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn rivers into islands
and dry up the pools.
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
I will turn the darkness into light before them
and make the rough places smooth.
These are the things I will do;
I will not forsake them.

To my crazy soul, this is an invitation and call to restoration - a healing of the nation on every level. Breuggemann tells us that justice in this context is "finding out what has been taken from the people and returning/restoring it" to them. So here are some songs that sing this new/old tune of the Lord so that the blind might see and the deaf hear and restoration begin within and among us all.
1. "Falling Slowly" - the Swell Season: we used this song at the end of a contemporary music and art Good Friday - with Peter reflecting on his betrayal of Jesus and what that might have felt and sounded like. It is so beautiful and sad that it aches for redemption and healing...

2. "Roads" - Portishead: This song ACHES like God's breaking heart over our greed and violence. It helps me feel what the One who is Holy experiences every day - and breaks my heart, too, over and over again. It also speaks of what so many of us feel every day - rich or poor - alone and weeping, "How can it feel this wrong?" Freakin' brilliant!

3. "Signed, Sealed and Delivered" - Stevie Wonder: Now I have ALWAYS loved my man Stevie Wonder. He is one of the living signs that God still loves us. As a kid my high school band played his stuff - dig it: white kids in Connecticut doing the master of soul - and I used this tune to court my wife after being a total asshole! But when Barack put it to an even higher use... man I was moved to tears. And all I can say is: THANKS BE TO GOD!

4. "Things the Grandchildren Should Know" - Eels: Our church band, "Between the Banks" does a KILLER version of this song that seems to connect with people in every walk of life. We all have so many regrets, we've all screwed things up so much and really don't know how to be with our loved ones... and then along comes Mr. E and reminds us that in spite of most of what we do, there is a love that is greater than ourselves that offers healing. What's more, my wife sings our version - and she (like Mr. E, too) once hated her father but came to love him at the end in spite of all his stupid shit. That is one of my prayers for a lot of us.

5. "One Voice" - The Wailin' Jennys: This is my affirmation of faith every week in worship (whether we actually sing it or not.) It is my prayer for my current church - the trust that we can find a way to celebrate our individual gifts and bring them all together so that everyone is strengthened - as well as for the body of Christ in the wider world. We are so cruel to one another... and most of it makes no sense. So when these women sing and blend their voices, it is truly the sound of hope for our generation.

6. "Satisfaction" - Cat Power: Now this song is another one we used for Good Friday - so different from what I danced and flirted to back in '65. (There was this English girl 2 years older than me who taught me to dance and kiss to this song!) Cat Power makes it a lament for all the emptiness... sounds like Jesus singing the blues to me. One of the saddest sounds I have ever heard.

7. "I Think I See the Light" - Yusuf Islam: Back in the 70s I loved this song on "Mona Bone Jakon" but it is even wiser and more fun now. After spending a summer in the Muslim section of London - what an eye opener - I found myself going back to Cat's old/new music and this song gives me hope, opens me to confession and teases me into my best self.

8. "Dirty Day" - U2: For some reason I keep going back to this song from Zooropa - there is so much social/emotional critique here, so much anguish and hope, too - that I just hear God reminding us that as f**ked up as most of us are there is still more grace to come. None of it is deserved and still "these days, days, days run away like horses over the hill."

9. "Need One" Martina Topley Bird: Another tune from England that is a genre-bender. It is so tough, so honest, so "shake your booty" hot that I hear it as a call to confession: "You're gonna kill some, you're gonna free some, you're gonna lose someone, you're gonna fake some, you're gonna want some, you're gonna need someone.. but what you're feedin' me, don't make a mark on me, I don't bruise so easily no scars inside."

10. "Breathe" - Cinematic Orchestra: a call to creation and spirit on every level... another sweet genre-bender, too.

That's my prayerful take on songs that have brought healing and humility to my soul this year: may blessings be with you always.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Study,songs and wrestling with the Spirit...

Now that our family - and church - Christmas feasting is over (the kids have returned to NYC although we'll still be enjoying carols through Epiphany) - I will mostly be away from work until after the 1st of the year. I am going to pray, study, listen to a ton of new/old music for my soul (and my ministry), visit a few of the area art galleries and ring in the New Year with verve, music and lots of love from my sweet wife! (Man, was THAT ever a long sentence!) We'll keep the tree lights blazing until January 7th, but I will really be out of the loop until after Epiphany.

Historically I have found that the week after Christmas is a time for me to get grounded AND refocused in prayer and the work of the soul. In Tucson, I would go to the Desert House of Prayer. In Cleveland, the Jesuit Retreat Center. Here in the Berkshires, I haven't found a prayer/retreat center - but I am in need of solitude and reflection. This Advent/Christmas has been exhausting for me given the death of my friend and colleague, Vicki., plus the retirement of a beloved church musician. And having a daughter who is experiencing the angst of very deep psychological demons has been sad and very trying, too. So, in all candor, I need a time of quiet reflection as I get ready for another year of renewal work in this wonderful but complicated congregation.

I will be blogging - it is a way of cutting to the spiritual heart for me - but I will NOT be answering the phone for church, doing pastoral calling or much of anything outwardly productive. I guess the desert really got into my soul when I was in the Southwest and I need some down time to get focused and ready for action. Right now I feel like this...

During my sabbatical in New Mexico so long ago, Dianne and I encountered this music in the Taos Pueblo. An Indian sculptor working with bones and clay turned us on to Coyote Oldman and shared the challenge of trying to honor the past while meeting new allies in the 21st century. So... when I get ready for deep prayer and reflection - really wrestling with what is nourishing and what work needs to be done - I tend to move towards these tunes... as well as these by my friends in Altan:

May God's sweet grace nourish you in these dark days between Christmas and Epiphany.

What it feels like...

Whenever the kids come to visit - and then leave... whenever Dianne and I have to be apart for an extended period of time... it feels like this old, old song by Joni Mitchell. Joy Davidson, wife to C.S. Lewis, once told him that the sadness we feel in leaving is connected to the joy we feel when we're together: you can't have the depth of love without the sorrow of emptiness. I rejoice in our Christmas feasting this year and... always ache when it is over.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Roots, rituals and renewal...

NOTE: Here are this week's sermon notes for the first Sunday after Christmas. They are grounded in the text Luke 2: 22-40.

One of the joys of reading stories – or playing – with small children is their insistence that we “do it again – do it again!” Sometimes this can be maddening, but mostly it is wonderful. (For a delightful and insightful blog on this, please see Katherine's insights, "Homage to Little M"

I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “do it again, daddy, do it again” when the girls were small: throw me in the lake again – play that game again – read it again, daddy, read it again. Once when Jesse was about 3 (she is now 32 and teaching in Brooklyn) I was reading one of her favorite stories but I was bone tired – just beat – so I started to skip parts which she busted me on and made me go back and read them just as they had be written. And when I’d dose off and try to summarize the action, she made me stop again and go back because she could tell me exactly – verbatim – what the story said. And when I finally made it through the story, she looked at me with total innocence and said, "Do it again, daddy, do it again!"
Children love repetition and familiarity – and I suspect that there is a part of all of us that continues to adore that which we know well and cherish: traditional Christmas carols, candle light communion, our favorite foods at the feast, the golden oldies music of our past and our favorite hit songs at a concert. So I have come to see that there is a strong connection between our historic roots and the rituals we use in our lives to bring us renewal. And that’s what I want to consider with you this morning: roots, rituals and renewal.

The gospel of Luke makes a point of emphasizing the Jewish roots of young Yeshua whom we call Jesus. Pastor Brian Stoffregen tell us that five times we are told that Mary and Joseph observed the Law (vv. 22, 23, 24, 27, 39). What's more, just before our reading, Jesus has been circumcised and after it we find that Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover – that it was their "habit" – or as Stoffregen notes "a literal reading would put this 'according to their custom or habit'... or even according to their ethical tradition.”

Why do you suppose Luke makes such a point of the Jewish roots of Jesus? Some scholars have suggested that it has to do with prejudice in the early church. Luke, you see, was written primarily for a Gentile audience and we know that there was often tension between Jewish Christians and the newer Gentile converts.

The emphasis on Christ’s Jewish roots, therefore, does two things:

+ First, it challenges any and all anti-Semitism head on: by making it clear that Jesus was a Jew right from the start, Luke is telling us that the historic lies and prejudices against Jews have no place in the community of Christ.

+ And second, these very unique cultural and religious roots remind us that in Jesus God became flesh – was incarnate – was here within and among us. Not as a lovely thought or some abstract ideal, but as a real man – a Jewish man (or at least a baby) – who had real flesh and blood, feelings and fears.

And both of these truths need reinforcing in every generation, yes? If we forget Christ’s Jewish roots, we can fall victim to our own prejudice and bias towards Jews – or really anybody that looks or worships differently than us. Remember that old line about “In the beginning, God made man in his image and ever since we have been trying to repay the favor?” Well, making God in OUR image is not the way the story goes – so let me say it again, daddy – God made US in God’s image, not the other way around.

What’s more, our story says that God became flesh and blood as a Jew and we ought never to forget that this connects us with a unique way of being in prayer, grounds us in 4000 years of history and helps us understand how real justice is to be made flesh in the world. Not that we are called to become Jews, but we must never forget out roots. And one of the truths about our roots in this place and time – our roots as a people with a unique and important history – that is, Congregationalists within the United Church of Christ – is that like our Jewish forbears we believe in a still speaking God. We believe that God continues to make God’s will known to us today in culture, in scripture and in our very lives.

That is, God’s will continues to be revealed to us because there is ever more wisdom and light to be discovered: We are not fundamentalists or literalists when it comes to the scriptures or even tradition; rather we believe that God is still speaking IF we are listening.

Now there are three other truths about our roots that warrant a comment, too, because one of the things I have discovered over the years is that people in our tradition often misrepresent and misunderstand what it means. Back in one of my previous congregations, after a new member ceremony, one of the pillars of the church – a bright and committed woman – shook the hand of a new member and said, “Welcome to the congregational church – you can believe whatever you want here!” I was horrified! I was shocked and chagrined because not only is that NOT true, it’s the last thing you want to say to a person new to the Christian faith: everything goes? No way…

So let me give you three other essential truths to our roots as people of faith and each is as important as the other.

+ First, we are Christians – not Unitarians, not Jews and not Buddhists – we are Christians. As one song puts it, "We bear the marks of Christ." And while we believe and trust that there is truth and beauty in every religious tradition – WE have committed to following the way of Jesus. And that means we DON’T believe whatever we want to but rather we wrestle with spiritual insights and discipline from within the Christian story. After all, UCC – united church of Christ – does not stand for Unitarians CONSIDERING Christ. But, rather, the United CHURCH of Christ. That’s the first truth: we follow the way and light of Jesus.

+ The second is related: we affirm the historic truths about Christ – the wisdom of the scriptures and tradition – but we also insist that every person explore their own story with Christ, too. That is, we ask people to learn their testimony – the wisdom of their own story with Jesus – as essential to their spiritual life rather than just the words of a creed. Do you know why that is important? It is called emphasizing our testimonies of faith rather than insisting on tests of faith. Do you grasp the difference? A living faith has as much to do with personal experience and individual conscience as memorization and knowing the rules of the past, yes? A living faith is alive and real and growing whereas a mechanical faith is more concerned about getting the rules and tradition right. So first, we follow Christ. Second, we celebrate our personal stories more the historic rules.

+ And third, we trust that God’s truth will be revealed to us as a congregation – and let me unpack this, too. Some traditions are organized with a priest or a rector or a bishop at the top – and all teaching and authority is passed on down from this religious leader. Not our tradition: we insist upon a “learned clergy” – trained and educated – who is charged with preaching and teaching in community. But when it comes to congregational decisions – and not all decisions ARE congregational ones – but when it comes to common decisions we have discovered that God’s will can often best be discovered together – listening and arguing – praying and studying – talking and discerning as a community.

We believe that Christ is often discovered best when we take enough time to listen and include every voice – especially those that tend to keep quiet or exist only on the periphery – before making deep and serious decisions in the church. Is that clear? Not every decision is a congregational one, ok? Calling the plumber is something our secretary can do. Choosing the hymns is something that is best NOT decided in committee.

But figuring out what renewal means – exploring how to grow and heal a broken congregation – charting new ways of being compassionate, faithful and just -those are ALL areas where you want to listen to every voice carefully. And there are just two guidelines for doing this:

+ First our congregational roots encourage us to find unity in the things that are essential, diversity in things that are not essential and charity in all things. Unity in Christ, diversity in how we meet Christ and compassion and love in everything we do together. That is first.

+ Second our tradition insists that everyone has the responsibility to both listen and challenge one another in love from time to time. Because people say stupid and even mean spirited things to one another in church from time to time and they have to be corrected or even challenged if the spirit of Christ is going to thrive. Have you ever heard – or said – something stupid or mean-spirited to another in church? Have you ever gossiped? Or complained about someone behind their back?

Well, let me be clear with you: as we enter a new year of mission and ministry together – as we wrestle with ways to make renewal, growth and spiritual vitality flesh within and among us – we’re going to need to hold on to our roots and practice them boldly. We’re going to have to challenge one another – and love and seek out charity with one another, too – because we have some really hard work to do together. We cannot be a church where the minister ministers and the congregation congregates. We cannot be a congregation that says to one another and the world do as I say but not as I do. We cannot be a church where the words of Christ fail to become flesh in our bodies.

So I am going to call us all to be very clear about our roots – they are some of the unique gifts and blessings of our tradition – for just as Christ’s parents honored and embraced them in his day, so, too for us as well. In many ways, we are being called to be like Mary and Joseph – or Simeon and Anna – people so in touch with our roots that we discern where God is calling us into renewal through our rituals. You see the rituals that are described in this morning’s text – offering a dove for the birth of a child, having a male child circumcised or sharing prayers with others in the temple – are not efficacious in and of themselves. They are neither magic nor transformative. But, with eyes to see and ears to hear our still speaking God, not only can we discover the blessings of God in our ordinary existence; we can even find our way through the harsh wilderness of the challenges before us with both grace and truth.

Mary and Joseph – like Anna and Simeon – were bathed in a unique understanding of ritual that allowed them to see that there was a blessing in every moment. In his on line exegetical notes, Brian Stoffregen quotes New Testament scholar, Alan Culpepper, as saying:

Essential to Judaism is the praise of God in all of life. The Jewish law taught that God was to be honored in one's rising up and lying down, in going out and coming in, in how one dressed and what one ate. . . The pressures of secularism and modern life have reduced the significance of ritual observances in the lives of most Christians. Busy schedules, dual-career marriages and after-school activities mean that families eat fewer meals together. Prayer before meals and family Bible study are observed in fewer homes today than just a generation ago.

For many, religious rituals are reduced to church attendance at Christmas and Easter and to socially required ceremonies at births, weddings, and funerals. The marking of both daily and special events with rituals that recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday is practically extinct. In the minds of many it is associated either with superstitions and cultic practices of the past or the peculiar excesses of religious fanatics. The result has been that God has receded from the awareness and experience of everyday life. Many assume that God is found only in certain places, in sacred buildings, in holy books, or in observances led by holy persons.

Their lives, on the other hand, move in a secular realm devoid of the presence of the holy. Daily experiences are reduced and impoverished. They have no meaning beyond themselves, no opening to transcendence. Little room for mystery remains in the everyday as it becomes increasingly subject to secularism and technology. What have we lost by removing ritual observances from our daily experience?

Culpepper concludes, however, with these words: The challenge to modern Christians, therefore, is to find effective rituals for celebrating the presence of God in the ordinary. We need to learn to greet the morning with gratitude; to celebrate the goodness of food, family, and friendship at meals; to recognize mystery in beauty; and to mark rites of passage – like a sixteenth birthday and the freedom and responsibility that come with a driver's license – as life affirming rituals because rituals are not restrictive; they celebrate the goodness and mystery of life.”

We have unique roots and some life-giving rituals, too. Part of our work in the new year will be to reclaim them. Another part of our work together will have to do with discerning whether our roots and rituals assist or distract us from the challenge of renewal. And then we will have to help one another make these words flesh. My prayer is that we each enter it like Mary and Joseph, Anna and Simeon, bathed in the spirit of charity for then, even when we get it wrong, we will grow in God's love.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas

One of my favorite Christmas songs - and bands - the Corrs doing John Lennon's, "Happy Christmas." So simple and so alive... may it be true as the New Year unfolds.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas in the trenches...

One of my dearest and most loved tunes - by John McCutcheon - which many of you know but which needs to be heard over and over.

Merry Christmas people of God.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Three different celebrations all at the same time...

As I get ready to lead the community in worship tomorrow night for Christmas Eve I am acutely aware that there are at least three different Christmas celebrations all taking place at the same time. First, and most obvious, has precious little to do with Jesus or even church, right? This is the feast of reunion when family and friends from far away reconnect and embrace. It is a joyous time for those with loved ones but anguishing for those who are alone. This feast usually includes lots of food and gifts - laughter and emotion - and I love parts of it. I cherish seeing my children and their new husbands, I love to feast on great food and laugh over family stories... but I am ever more aware of how depressing and haunting this feast can be for those on the outside looking in. And to forget them is to bring curse instead of blessing into the congregations.

The second feast is the feast of the innocent. It is nostalgic and sentimental: it is rooted in childhood and is a place many adults want to reclaim - if it was once a good time - or flee from and bury if it was troubled. This, too, has precious little to do with the Incarnation and causes trouble when expectations can not be met: the preacher didn't help me feel jolly, the music wasn't like I remembered, something at dinner was different, somebody was missing (or even dead), I couldn't feel like I did when I was little and still waited for Santa Claus.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Santa Claus and given my Scots-Irish roots (and a little single malt assistance) can be as sentimental and nostalgic as they come. (In fact, I still find time during the Christmas season to put on quiet Celtic songs, turn on the tree lights and take off my eyeglasses to relive those childlike times of mystical delight.) But all of those expectations are freakin' deadly, wastefully expensive and too emotionally heavy for me, for those I love and for those coming into our congregations. So I have come to treat this type of feast as something best saved for late night moments by myself. There is nothing holy about dumping the past on those we love.

Now, the flip - or shadow side - to this feast of innocence is when the wounds of the world become overwhelming for you can't see the light because of the darkness: homelessness, war, fear, economic collapse and so much more. Some in the church want to bring comfort and joy to everyone they meet - especially the most broken - during Christmas. And when they run out of time, money and patience, they feel guilty for they have become a human "doing" rather than a human being. So, this feast has its limitations, too. I can remember feeling like such a failure because I ran out of time and didn't get to visit everyone who was in need - or wanted a visit - or some church leader told me I NEEDED to visit. God it was oppressive - and stayed oppressive until I began to see that I couldn't bring healing to others - man, I could barely make a change in my OWN life. So... I had to let the public expression of this feast go, too.

Which brings me to the only way I currently know how to share Christmas in a church: the feast of the Incarnation. This is a quiet invitation to discover where God's surprise is being born within and among us. It is always in the most unlikely places and is always shocking simple. It isn't about doing, but being alert enough to receive - humble enough to return thanks - quiet enough to feel gratitude. Which is why I love midnight Holy Communion in candle light the best; a few souls gathered around a simple table sharing blessings in community and trusting that God's presence is sufficient even when the evidence is not yet clear. It is radical and healing and filled with hope all at once. There is always room at the table for one more and always enough grace to go around.

I used to experience this on Christmas morning when I would meet those without families for 9:00 am Eucharist. No musicians - just our simple voices - no printed bulletins - just some carols and scripture - and shared bread and wine. It was always enough for such is the blessing of the feast of Incarnation - may it nourish us as we enter the flurry we know as Christmas Eve.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Another vision of church...

Somewhere I read that "it's not what you don't know but what you do know that ain't so" that causes most of the trouble in the world. Certainly most of the misunderstandings... Perhaps the corollary, "No good deed goes unpunished" provides the necessary breadth and depth for those who seek the road less traveled, yes? Or how did Dire Straights/Mary Chapin Carpenter put it: "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug?"

I have just been sitting back in this brutal cold snap thinking of how the year has gone:
lots of highs and some real lows, too. And one of the hardest things for me to discern is how to be a part of a church renewal process with folks who have been a part of the community for a long time. Training new people in the ways of discipleship is clean and clear - they don't have history or baggage - hence the words of Jesus about it being damn near impossible to put new wine into old wine skins. And yet in so many of the existing churches throughout the US part of the challenge is teasing out a vision of the church that is blended - new/old, missional and pastoral - without being heavy handed, right? One that authentically embraces the old timers as well as the newly committed? Didn't Pete Townsend already sing, "Meet the new boss - same as the old boss?"

And herein lies the paradox: letting go - creating room for others to imagine - being free to honestly evaluate what works and helps and what doesn't - to say nothing of doing the hard work of letting the Spirit and demands of justice change our hearts is not something those who have preserved the status quo even know how to do! Many are genuinely lovely people of faith but you might have to say: it has been their lack of vision or something that created the problem in the first place so... how do you find space for everyone's ideas/opinions without simply being frozen in the past? Springsteen was right: "Everybody's got a hungry heart" - but finding the patience, wisdom and trust to remind one another that not every hunger is the same is perplexing.

That's why I keep going to music metaphors - contemporary music metaphors - not because I can only think in these terms but because they get us out of the old sacred/secular arguments. In popular music, there is always something new breaking through that blends the best of the old with new insights. In church there will always be more voices pointing to the past; it seems that renewal demands pushing forward even when folk would rather wander in the desert for 40 years than head on into the promised land. I came across this lovely tune by the Wailin' Jennys not long ago that is another snap shot of what part of the new church has to embody:

Take me to the breaking of a beautiful dawn
Take me to the place where we come from
Take me to the end so I can see the start
There's only one way to mend a broken heart

Take me to the place where I don't feel so small
Take me where I don't need to stand so tall
Take me to the edge so I can fall apart
There's only one way to mend a broken heart

Take me where love isn't up for sale
Take me where our hearts are not so frail
Take me where the fire still owns its spark
There's only one way to mend a broken heart

Teach me how to see when I close my eyes
Teach me to forgive and to apologize
Show me how to love in the darkest dark
There's only one way to mend a broken heart

Take me where the angels are close at hand
Take me where the ocean meets the sky and the land
Show me to the wisdom of the evening star
There's only one way to mend a broken heart

Take me to the place where I feel no shame
Take me where the courage doesn't need a name
Learning how to cry is the hardest part
There's only one way to mend a broken heart

I think this is the challenge - even part of the vision: take me where I feel no shame, where the angels are close at hand, where I can see when I close my eyes, where love is NOT for sale, where I don't feel small at the breaking of a beautiful dawn. And so we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, come within and among us as we wait for Christmas - and beyond.

That's what it is: the old blends with the new BUT... and this is always the rub... the OLD must give way to the NEW and let the outsiders start to define the new agenda - the contours of the new community - the ebb and flow. There is a place for tradition and what has gone before but it CANNOT define what is to come or else... it will become like vinegar rather than wine. And that is what the old community finds so hard to do - let go so that the future can fill the space and not be suffocated - and that seems to be what I have been called to help faciliate. Whew... what a strange, strange calling.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A totally upside down worldview...

What a wonderful celebration took place today during worship. Over the past 36 hours we have had about 10 inches of snow - and it started again before church. But still about 100 people showed up! The little folk joined me in lighting the Advent candles - the 8 year old acolyte then turned and winked at my wife (God is he cute!) There was jazz, gospel, classical music and Advent hymns - traditional choirs and folk music ensembles - guitar, organ and piano - a real feast.

(Worship today felt like this sculpture outside of St. Martin in the Fields, London which shows a life sized baby emerging from a massive marble block with the "And the word became flesh..." etched along the side. Incredible.)

There was no sermon, just a conversation about what the music evoked in us: how birthing and honoring women helps ground us in the true heart of this season, how God promises to come in those most unexpected places and how the little baby John the Baptist danced for joy in his momma's belly. At the conclusion of our time of reflection, our Mission Team came to the front of the Sanctuary and started distributing envelopes to everyone gathered - young and old, members and guests alike - with a $10 bill, a blank card and a note asking them to bring a blessing to someone in whatever way they felt inspired by the Spirit through this cash. In other words, be like Mary and let God fill you so that you might bring a blessing to birth in the world.

The place went wild. You see, we are a struggling congregation. We have an endowment that has been devoured over the last 30 years. Conventional wisdom tells us that unless we turn things around in 5 years, we will have to close. Or change. Or something. So the idea of giving away $1000 just doesn't make sense. But then neither does the Incarnation or the Lord's birth or anything else we honor at this time of year. So we did it and man was it wonderful. And now we get to wait and see what blessings people share...

And then to wrap things up, a new guitar choir debuted doing "Silent Night" - 5 adults who love music and have just started learning the guitar together on Thursday nights - led us all in our favorite carol. A true blessing and a truly upside down worldview... there just might be hope for us yet. Made me think of my favorite Celtic Christmas tune...

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dancing for joy in the womb...

NOTE: Here are my notes for this Sunday, Advent IV, where I look at the image of John the Baptist dancing in his momma's womb as an invitation for renewal. It will be worship with children and adults, guest musicians and more. Join us at 10:30 am in you are in town.

One of the central truths of Christmas involves birth: the birth of Jesus – the birth of God’s grace incarnate within and among us – the birth of new possibilities in our church and world.

+ What other truths come to you when you consider the promise of birth at Christmas?

+ Certainly there is the simultaneous awareness of innocence, humility and the ordinary in the birth of Jesus, yes?

Frederick Buechner is quick to point out that there is nothing more humble and ordinary than birth – tiny and naked and helpless – babies are about the size of a loaf of bread. And innocent and helpless, too. So what does that tell you about one of the ways God comes to us, any hunches? The great German mystic, Miester Eckhart, used to say what good does it do us if Jesus was only born once 1500 years ago? The challenge is to find how he is coming – and continues to come – within and among us today. Listen to one of the lessons for today and see if it gives you a clue. It comes from Luke and tells the story of Christ’s mother, Mary, visiting Elizabeth.

Mary didn't waste a minute. She got up and traveled to a town in Judah in the hill country, straight to Zachariah's house, and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,

You're so blessed among women,
and the babe in your womb, also blessed!
And why am I so blessed that
the mother of my Lord visits me?
The moment the sound of your
greeting entered my ears,
The babe in my womb
skipped like a lamb for sheer joy.
Blessed woman, who believed what God said,
believed every word would come true!

And Mary said: I'm bursting with God-news;
I'm dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
I'm the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others. His mercy flows in wave after wave
on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It's exactly what he promised,
beginning with Abraham and right up to now.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then went back to her own home.

Any clues come to you upon hearing these words? Any insights about birth, Jesus, Christmas and the way God comes to us through humble and ordinary events and people? Ok… take a little time – listen to the way the choir puts this truth - and then we'll see what you come up with after they sing. (Choir anthem takes place here...)

Now what is going through your heads and hearts? What this evoked for me can be found in one of the old Christmas songs that I learned as a child: The 12 Days of Christmas. We used to sing it in the car on long trips to visit our wider family in Connecticut – my dad taught it to us – and with three little children it was a good one to help pass the time.

Musicologists tell us that it was probably written as a 12th Night event for a memory game. They think that people went around in a circle and added a new verse but also had to sing all of the previous ones, too. So who knows what a 12th Night Celebration is all about? It marks the end of the Christmas season when the Magi – the 3 Kings – are said to have arrived after following a star. It is the time God’s promise to Israel was expanded and shared with all people. This old song, the 12 Days of Christmas, is both fun AND a way to teach folks about the wider truths of our faith. But before I tell you the symbolic meanings of each verse, let’s sing part of it so that we all are on the same page. And here’s one of those great moments when the older members of the community can really help the younger so that we all learn it together. Are you ready?

On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me… a partridge in a pear tree. Try the next one: On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me… 2 turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree.

Here are some of the ideas that people have come to believe are involved in this old song – and they are kind of fun as well as theologically significant – and help us recall that even in the most ordinary of things there is always something of the Lord being born.

+ First, Jesus is supposed to be the deeper meaning of the partridge in a pear tree – Jesus who died on the cross – a tree. Second, what do you think the 2 turtle doves are all about? The Old and the New Testaments.

+ Third we have… 3 French hens – and they are the key virtues of our tradition: faith, hope and… love. Fourth – four calling birds are… the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

+ FIVE GOLDEN RINGS: what in the world do they mean? The Torah – the first five books of the Old Testament and the key to the Jewish tradition – and they are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

+ Six… six geese a laying? The six days of Creation after which God rested and created – the Sabbath! Seven… the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit which include: wisdom, knowledge, discernment, courage, understanding, piety and awe or fear of the Lord. They come from both Isaiah 11: 2-3 and I Corinthians 12: 8-13

+ Eight… the eight Beatitudes found in Matthew 5: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek who shall inherit the earth, those who mourn for they shall be comforted, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers and those who suffer for their faith.

+ Nine… the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Ten… the Ten Commandments, right.

+ Eleven… the 11 faithful disciples… hmmmmm! And 12… this is a tough one: the 12 points of the Apostles’ Creed – the first creed of the early church – and a key document for people of faith. Are you ready?

1. I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth.
2. and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord
3. who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary,
4. suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried: He descended into Hell:
5. the third day He rose again from the dead.
6. He ascended into Heaven,
7. and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
8. From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
9. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
10. one holy Christian Church, the fellowship of saints,
11. the forgiveness of sins,
12. the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

This old song – a song many of us considered just an old children’s ditty – also has some important truths – truths that need to be shared and taught and passed on. And that’s another of the important truths about this birthing process at Christmas: We have to nourish and nurture this faith – pass it on and help our children get its essence – because too many contemporary Christians confuse their opinions – and biases and sometimes their very worst habits – for the heart of the faith.

+ I’ve seen modern folk do this with music – evangelical young people who say we can only have NEW music in church – and the treasures of our tradition are lost – and I’ve seen it go the other way, too….

+ I’ve seen well-respected church people confuse their habits and preferences and racism and class bias for building up the body of Christ, too: being critical when it would be better to be still, gossiping or even lying about one another, shutting grace out for some who need it profoundly.

That’s why we used to teach – and preach – about the Gifts and Fruits of the Holy Spirit: they help us overcome our worst selves so that we might become our BEST selves. One of my deepest hopes for us in the New Year is that we can help our best selves come to birth as we let the Spirit heal our worst selves. Christ’s birth within and among us is how it begins. It made the little baby John the Baptist dance for joy… and I suspect it can do the same for me and you? This is my prayer for us all so... let those who have ears to hear, hear.

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...