Monday, February 25, 2008

these are a few of my favorite things

After visiting with my sweet community members tonight - and watching/ discussing clips from our Lenten discipline movie, "Chocolat," - I went looking for a few old blogger friends that have nourished me over the years. Like Coltrane's version of "Favorite Things," these blogs just get better over time... and I thought it kind to share them with you. And joy upon joy, I found some copies of some of Robert Lentz's radical icons, too. So, in no particular order, but all a delight I invite you to check out: Velveteen Rabbi, One Hand Clapping, the Dude Abides, Refractions, Gregory Wolfe, the Painted Prayerbook, the Arts Abbey and Soulforce. (These are all listed on the side bar with links so you can go right to the good stuff!) I am heading to NYC later this week for my second International Arts Movement Conference/Encounter. Last year at this time we travelled to Manhattan from Tucson to check it out - and that trip eventually led us to a new call in the Berkshires. Who knows what wild blessings this trip will bring, but one will surely be visiting with children in Brooklyn and maybe actually getting to MOMA!

Tonight at our Lenten conversation we talked about having fun as an essential spiritual discipline - laughing at ourselves and taking time to be conscious of an other's needs, too. The blessing is that we are finding new and even tender ways to claim God's presence for us in the ordinary events of everyday life. In that light, dig this poem by James McAuley: "In the Twentieth Century."
Christ, you walked on the sea
But cannot walk in a poem,
Not in our century.

There's something deeply wrong
Either with us or with you.
Our bright loud world is strong
And better i some ways
Than the old haunting kingdoms:
I don't reject our days.
But in you I taste bread,
Freshness, the honey of being,
And rising from the dead:

Like yolk in a warm shell -
Simplicities of power,
And water from a well.

We live like diagrams
Moving on a screen.
Somewhere a door slams

Shut, and emptiness spreads.
Our loves are processes
Upon foam-rubber beds.

Our speech is chemical waste;
The words have a plastic feel,
An antibiotic taste.

And yet we dream of song
Like parables of joy.
There's something deeply wrong.

Like shades we must drink blood
To find the living voice
That flesh once understood.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The spirit of the scripture brings life or death

Last night I watched Julie Taymor's beautiful and moving film, All Across the Universe, which retells the story of America in the late 60s through the music of the Beatles. It was a brilliant, tender and visually arresting exploration of what a passionate commitment to art and social justice once meant and might mean again! In the commentary portion of the DVD, director, Julie Taymor, speaks of the importance of our words and actions - an argument we have recently heard in the context of the Obama/Clinton debates - and one I take very seriously as a preacher and musician.
It brought to mind this insight of Frederick Beuchner's concerning art and spiritualiy: Literature, painting, music - the most basic lesson that all art teaches is to stop, look and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as a vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the ime it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble aong from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idead of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things. Is it too much to say that 'Stop, Look and Listen' is also the basic lesson that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us? Listen to history is the cry of the ancient prophets of Israel. Listen to social injustice, says Amos; to head-in-the sand religiousity, says Jeremiah; to international treacheries and power-plays, says Isaiah... And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command is to love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look and listen for God in what is happening around us and inside us. (Beuchner, Listening to Your Life, pp. 51-52)

Taymor also observes that in an era of social amnesia, it is vitally important for artists to show contemporary young people what it might mean for them to catch a glimpse of the connections between art, spirituality and social transformation. This week's sermon found me wrestling with both the words we embrace and how the spirit of the scriptures we honor with authority have life and death implications. (Take a look at the "Let It Be" section of this movie if you have any doubts! It is BRILLIANT!)

Insights from the sermon
Many people are hungry to know how to really identify God’s will for their lives: liberals, fundamentalists, seekers, doubters, scientists, skeptics and everybody in-between have at one time or another asked, “How can I really know what God wants me to do?” Does that ring true to you? Have you ever asked: “Lord, show me the way? Help me know what to do next?” It could be about your career – or your loved ones – an ethical conflict at work – how to use your money – or even how to best enter the realm of politics: it seems to be part of the human condition to wrestle with understanding God’s will for our lives.

Certainly that was at the heart of this morning’s gospel reading where John the Baptist – who had baptized and anointed Jesus as Messiah – had second thoughts and doubts after he was locked away in prison. “Are you the one who is to come, Jesus, or must we wait for another? Tell me what is going on?” (Matthew 11: 1-6) So let’s talk about this dilemma – let’s try to be clear about the time-tested insights our tradition has come up with over the years for honestly discerning the will of the Lord for our lives – and let’s also try to be clear about what is not helpful, ok? Specifically I want to call your attention to 4 clues that can help you grow closer to hearing God’s call for your life. I have come to think of them as touch stones that are safe – and, indeed, I use the acrostic SAFE to help me remember.

I don’t know if you find it necessary, but sometimes I need a little help remembering important things: that’s why I always hang up my car keys in the same place and keep important phone numbers listed on both my cell phone and an address book. And the way I have come to summarize the 4 clues is the acrostic – SAFE – which stands for scripture, alternatives, following and elders: SAFE. So let’s talk about each of them and see where they take us. The first is scripture – which over the years I have come to modify into the spirit of the scriptures because I’ve seen people do some pretty weird and mean-spirited things with just scripture plain and simple, right?
The recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the on-going brutality between Palestine and Israel, the bigotry and cruelty in Northern Ireland as well as the horrors of September 11th are all the result of people twisting scripture into vicious and violent action. The same is often true when it comes to homophobia, sexism and race hatred in 21st century America: the naked word of scripture can easily be manipulated and deformed. This is why scholars and people of good will urge us to consult the spirit of the scriptures in addition to the specific words on a page.

Walter Wink, one of the finest biblical interpreters of our day, reminds us that there are three or perhaps four distinctive spirits that shape and inform our holy scriptures: did you know that? I think he is right because very different conclusions can be reached depending upon which spirit of the scriptures you choose to follow. And let me give you an example of how I have applied this from my own life: during the early 1980s, when the culture wars were really starting to heat up, I sensed a calling from God to try to better ground myself in the spirit of Jesus – to go deeper as a follower, not an admirer to use Kierkegaard’s words – which led me into serious Bible study. You may recall that one of the hot button issues of that time – which still has some juice today – has to do with homosexuality. Specifically, some people of faith were calling gay folk an abomination to the Lord, others were advocating an “open and affirming” perspective and lot of us in the middle were confused.

Now here’s where it gets interesting and holds some very real and serious implications for each of us: when I reread and studied the simple words of scripture in my new found zeal – without interpretation or consideration of the spirit of the scriptures – I found myself coming to the conclusion that God’s love had been withheld from those in the GLBT community. Let’s face it: there are parts of Leviticus 18 and 20 as well as St. Paul’s words in Romans 1: 26-27 that are unambiguous.

So for a few years – in the spirit of Romans 12 I tried not to be “conformed to the spirit of this world, but rather to be transformed by the renewal of my mind” – especially concerning the words of scripture – so that I might “discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” for my life. And that caused me to oppose homosexuality as an acceptable way of living for those in the church. I am not happy to confess this to you out loud – I am not proud of the pain it caused my gay sisters and brothers in the day – but it is a fact. What changed my thinking – and what led me to pastor the first Open and Affirming congregation in the state of Arizona – was also my wrestling with scripture. But now I was trying to discern the spirit of the scripture and that spirit will lead you in very different directions. When it comes to sexuality, the Bible has three very different spirits. First there is the spirit of the law – articulated most clearly in the morality codes of Leviticus but also in some of the words of St. Paul and the epistles – and this spirit strictly prohibits homosexuality. “If a man lies with a male as with a woman,” says Leviticus 20, “then both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them."

What the spirit of the morality codes also forbids, however, are certain activities which we now think of as normative while encouraging other sexual practices which have become problematic to contemporary folk. For example the spirit of the law forbids intercourse during menstruation and teaches that violators should be cast out of the community and even stoned to death. It encourages polygamy, capital punishment for adultery, the prohibition of all forms of public nudity – which would include locker rooms and the privacy of our own homes – it grounds the sanctity of marriage in a woman’s fertility, mandates endogamy – marriage only within the 12 tribes of Israel – and supports prostitution as a way of safe-guarding the property rights of a husband whose wife must be virginal prior to the wedding ceremony.

Do you see where this is going? Our society values love, fidelity and equality when it comes to an ethic of sexuality – not patriarchal property rights – which makes a simple or even an uncritical allegiance to the spirit of the law in scripture problematic if not destructive. Yes, there is a spirit of the law in the scriptures, but there is also is a spirit of nature in the scriptures – something St. Paul tends uses from time to time – which draws analogies for human behavior from the realm of animals and plant life. Now far be it from me to question nature; I love it and find great beauty in God’s creation. So without belaboring the point, let me simply say that we have learned a great deal about human and animal nature over the past 2,000 years that have rendered a simplistic 1st century reading of natural law as deadly and wrong in 2008.

And that brings me to the spirit of love and justice in the scriptures – the way of Jesus whom we trust to best show us what a love ethic looks like – and when we consider Christ on this matter not only are there no references to homosexuality – ever – but he gives us the permission to use our own minds and hearts and context. In Luke 12: 57, during an argument with the legalists of his day, Jesus said: “Why do you not learn to judge for yourselves what is right?”
My mentor in discerning the spirit of the scriptures, Walter Wink, goes on to say: If now new evidence is in on the phenomenon of homosexuality, are we not obligated – no, free – to re-evaluate the whole issue in the light of all the available data and decide what is right, under God, for ourselves? Is this not the radical freedom for obedience in which the gospel establishes us? What most saddens me in this whole raucous debate in the churches is how sub-Christian most of it has been. It is characteristic of our time that the issues most difficult to assess, and which have generated the greatest degree of animosity, are issues on which the Bible can be interpreted as supporting either side. I am referring to abortion and homosexuality. We need to take a few steps back and be honest with ourselves. I am deeply convinced of the rightness of what I have said in this essay. But I must acknowledge that it is not an air tight case. You can find weaknesses in it, just as I can in others'. The truth is, we are not given unequivocal guidance in either area, abortion or homosexuality. Rather than tearing at each other’s throats, therefore, we should humbly admit our limitations. How do I know I am correct interpreting God's word for us today? How do you? Wouldn't it be wiser for Christians to lower the decibels by 95 percent and quietly present our beliefs, knowing full well that we might be wrong? (

I know that was a pretty long-winded overview concerning the spirit of the scriptures, but it is important: one step in trying to discern the will of God’s call for our lives has to do with seeing if our lives line up with scripture – and the spirit of the scripture will make a huge difference in how we hear the voice of the Lord. Ok, if first we consult the scriptures and their spirit, second we are called to consider the alternatives involved in our choice. And by alternatives I mean at least these two things: what would happen if I didn’t act, and, is there a realistic possibility or opportunity to make something happen? Does that make sense? When trying to discern God’s calling, we have to consider both what would happen if we did nothing as well as if there is the realistic opportunity to make our ideas flesh. Sometimes doing nothing is of the Lord – can you think of a time when inactivity would be sacred? What about assessing the opportunity for action: what does that say to you?

First we consult the spirit of the scriptures – S – then we consider the alternatives – A – third we find out if others will follow our lead: F? I can’t over emphasize how important it is to test you calling among others: if you can’t get a following, then something is up. Maybe the time isn’t right or it could be that you have more work to do on the issue. Jesus always had his disciples test out their calling by finding followers: he sent them out two by two to invite folk to follow and we should not shy away from this practical tool either because it will save us a lot of wasted work and heart break. The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, liked to say: “Reality is the will of God, it can always become better, but we must start with what is real.” Step number three has to do with finding a following.

And that brings me to – E – our elders, specifically the wisdom of our elders. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time we have a major life decision, right? If we talk to 3 or 4 wise and experienced souls, they can tell us what life has taught them so that we don’t go off half-cocked. Yes, yes, I know that we all have to make our own mistakes – and each generation has to learn this for itself – but we don’t have to be foolish and arrogant about it when God has given us elders to help us discern what is truly possible, good and holy.

Do you have wise advisors to talk with? Who are they? If not, it would be good to find some – that’s one of the reasons we have a church community – so that the wisdom of real life might be shared and passed on from one generation to another. But let me be clear that not every old person is wise, right? I know some really nutty and unhealthy old coots I would NEVER consult with no matter what.

But there are some wise old souls who have aged well and embody some of the grace and wisdom we need and they can save your life. One old Jewish rabbi back in Saginaw told me at the start of my ministry to always carry two scraps of paper in my pocket. On one write the words of Psalm 8: “when I look at your heavens, O Lord, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? And yet you have made us just a little lower than the angels and have crowned us with glory and honor.”And on the other put these words from Ecclesiastes 3: “All of us go to the same place: from dust we came and to dust we shall return.”

We are the Lord’s beloved, to be sure; and not all that special at the same time. And so it is that the Lord speaks to us if we have ears to hear. It takes work to discern God’s will for our lives – sifting through the spirit of the scriptures, carefully weighing the alternatives before us, sharing our concerns with others to see if they might follow and consulting the wisdom of time-tested elders – all are essential.

And then please know this: even with all our work we might still get it wrong, right? So Paul, in a flash of inspiration, reminds us that God can take even our mistakes and failures and turn them into blessings if our hearts are filled with love. And he ought to know having made mistake upon colossal mistake throughout his ministry. He writes:

There is NO condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus for we know that God works ALL things for good when we love the Lord our God… that is why we say we are certain that neither death nor life, angels nor principalities, things present nor things to come, powers, height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 26-28/35-39

And that sounds like the good news for today to me – so let those who have ears to hear, hear.

Monday, February 18, 2008

My city of ruins: New Orleans and Habitat

To be with 27 sisters and brothers from the Berkshires last week in New Orleans was another sign of God’s grace in a broken world. When we left Hartford at 6:00 am ten days ago, we were young and old, male and female, rich and poor and in-between, gay and straight, Democrat and Republican, Christian and Jew, skilled and klutzy, committed to a week of building houses together in one of our nation’s dearest and most wounded cities. To be sure, there were friendships among us – some had travelled and worked together before – but as a group we began this mission as a collection of individuals but ended as a team – and that was the blessing for me.

Coming together across division and difference is not something we Americans do very well anymore. There was a time when Americans pulled together: think “the Greatest Generation,” the Civil Rights movement or even “Woodstock Nation.” Today, however, we value our “space” more than community. We celebrate our individuality as something sacred. And God knows we cop an attitude – or worse – when another challenges our bias or privilege. How did the President put it? “Either you are with us or against us!”

Thankfully Habitat for Humanity has an alternative vision for how life might be lived and we were given a chance to embrace that alternative last week. You may know that Habitat grew out of the work of Clarence Jordan and the Koinonia Community in Americus, Georgia in the late 60s. Jordan, a renegade Baptist preacher, had organized a racially integrated community in the heart of the segregated South after WWII to be a parable of hope. In time, a local business man, Millard Fuller, caught a glimpse of Christ’s alternative world at Koinonia and gave up his million dollar publishing work to advance the housing ministry we now call Habitat for Humanity.

Sometimes it is minimized – or even forgotten – but two key Christian principles guide this ministry: the economics of Jesus and the absolute integrity of the body of Christ. Jordan used to describe the “economics of Jesus” like this: everything in life is a gift –including wealth – so the key to living according to God’s will is to share our gifts with one another as freely as God has shared with us. When it came to building houses that meant gathering money from the wealthy so that it could be lent without interest to those in need; this loan would still be paid back, of course, but would go into a revolving fund to be lent out again so that both rich and poor would help one another build a more just society one house at a time.

Two scripture references are essential: Luke 4 – in which Jesus reclaims the Jubilee goals of ancient Israel – and Matthew 25 – where Christ makes it clear that we meet God in our treatment of the least of our sisters and brothers. And intimately connected to these two scriptural insights are the words of St. Paul in I Corinthians 12 concerning the Body of Christ: this metaphor reminds us that as a part of a body we hold different gifts and abilities – indeed there are a variety of strengths and weaknesses as well as unique and very different organs – but all work together for the common good. “For just as the body is one and has many members… so, too, the body of Christ. If the foot would say, ‘because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part… Indeed, God has so arranged the body… so that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one suffers, all suffer with it; if one member is honored, we all rejoice together.”

Slowly – and imperfectly and not without some hurt feelings – as we opened ourselves to the Habitat ethos, we found ourselves living into the truths of these texts: the unskilled learned from the experienced, women builders were just as valued as men, the weak found important ways to help the strong and those on top found opportunities to share compassion. What’s more, the impatient among us had plenty of chances to get over themselves, too, so that by week’s end – in concert with our sisters and brothers from New Orleans who will one day live in these new homes – hope took root in the 9th Ward. Dignity and justice were restored for four families in a wasteland, and, those of us from the North found we had given some of our heart and soul to the South. We experienced the blessing Jesus promised when we discern God within and among the least of our sisters and brothers. Beyond race and class, we became one as the body of Christ.

I don’t think we should be shy with these words: they are transformative, counter cultural and at the heart of this ministry. One of my favorite popular musicians, Bruce Springsteen, used them in a song that continues to move Americans: “My City of Ruins” When he debuted it shortly after September 11th it spoke to the world – and it continues to hold meaning for us in New Orleans today. (Check out the video at: As Bruce leads, the band responds – it is classic African-American gospel music in a contemporary integrated setting – so that what is old becomes new and each individual creates something as an essential part of the whole. When we left New Orleans, our Berkshire team was like Springsteen’s song – and it was a taste of what could be if we were open to God’s invitation.

For another take on the integrity of body of Christ moving beyond limits, genres, class, race and all the rest, check out what U2 and Green Day did as a way to raise funds for rebuilding New Olreans at: Come on, rise up!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

A lenten wilderness in New Orleans

We arrived in New Orleans on the first Sunday of Lent – a day often associated with the temptation Jesus faced in the desert (see Matthew 4: 1-11) – and there was a real sense of wilderness in the city as we ventured into the 9th Ward. You may recall that this was the poorest area of town and the most devastated by the failed levees. Two and a half years later there are still block after city block of mostly abandoned homes and businesses. For some this is because their homes have been rendered uninhabitable by water damage, mud and disease. For others there simply is not enough money or energy left to repair things. Wounds and crime have kept others from returning and some have made a fresh start in Mississippi, Michigan or even Massachusetts.

Whatever the reason people have not returned, it is obvious that half the pre-Katrina residents are missing from New Orleans and in the most damaged areas of town their absence breeds a quiet sadness and fear everywhere you look: random fishing boats lie discarded in vacant fields, former three story apartment buildings are not only empty but still caked in mud and garbage and countless homes and business continue to bear the rescue efforts “street markings” of spray paint telling when a building was visited, who did the inspection and how many dead humans or animals need to be removed. Like scar tissue after a wound, the pain of New Orleans is not far from the surface in this paradoxical place.

We went to the French Quarter on our free day – the historic “crazy” party center of New Orleans – where great food and fine jazz was in ample supply. The “Quarter” was only minimally damaged by Katrina and is working hard at recovering its tourist business: Bourbon Street balcony apartments were listed for $250K for Mardi Gras weekend, luxury French Quarter condos are selling for $2.5 million and most of the restaurants and clubs were reasonably full with out of towners on an off night. Shop keepers told me that every month more and more of the tourist trade is returning and even the NBA did their part by bringing the “All Star Game” to town. (Some of basketball’s greats even joined us for a few hours building houses for Habitat for Humanity!)
Curiously, the vibrancy of the French Quarter and the agony of the 9th Ward are bringing the challenge of a Lenten spirituality into greater focus for me this year partly because both are real, but also because both have claims on my heart. Two songs by U2 come to mind: “Vertigo” and “Please.” In U2 BY U2 Bono speaks of contemporary life as vertigo – it feels like a blur of drunken sensations that almost make you sick –and when you try to get some air all of a sudden you’re staring at some sexy girl with a crucifix around her neck – or maybe it is Satan – who whispers seductively: All of this… all of this can be yours if you just give me what I want no one will get hurt! Hello, Hello! Hola!I'm at a place called Vertigo (¿Dónde está?) [Where is it?]It's everything I wish I didn't know but you give me something I can feel! (
But it is not just out there – beyond us – it is also within and among us, too. “Please” puts it like this: So you never knew love until you crossed the line of grace - and you never felt wanted' til someone slapped your face - so you never felt alive until you'd almost wasted away - you had to win, you couldn't just pass, the smartest ass, at the top of the class - your flying colors, your family tree and all your lessons in history. Please... please... please... get up off your knees. Please... please... please...please... So you never knew how low you'd stoop to make that call - and you never knew what was on the ground until they made you crawl - so you never knew that the heaven you keep, you stole! Your catholic blues, your convent shoes, your stick-on tattoos, now they're making the news, your holy war, your northern star, your sermon on the mount, from the boot of your car. Please... please... please... get up off your knees. Please-yeah... please... please... leave it out!?! (

I love the jazz of this city – we went back Monday night to listen to more – and it was a blessing. And we ate some more of the good Creole food and wandered through the beauty of some art galleries, too. But the naked pain so close by kept haunting me – and well it should! No matter that the city has existed for centuries within this tension. Sure, it is where black, white, red and brown have lived, worked and played together in relative peace for generations – indeed, it was the city where all the major whore houses were registered and published for “the sporting life” tourists of the day with the acceptance and blessing of the city fathers and mothers – and it was a haven for bohemian artists like Faulkner and Capote and the birthplace of jazz. Beyond a doubt, New Orleans embraces paradox – and I think it is even fair to say that the events before, during and after Katrina simply exposed the complexities of these paradoxes – but they come with a price.

Which leads me to Job who, after ranting at the One who is Holy about the cost of being faithful, is answered from out of the whirlwind: “Where you there when I laid out the foundation of the earth? Have you commanded the morning since your days began…?” (Job 38-41) In other words, do you have any idea what the vision of the Lord encompasses? It is complex - paradoxical - and spans life and death, justice and shame, joy and despair and everything in between. To which Job, humbled by his mystical encounter can only say: “Before I uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know… but now my eye sees… and I shall repent.” Before it was all in my head; now that it is a part of my life everything is different.

There is enough blame, shame and pain to go around in New Orleans – no one has clean hands – so what strikes me as a blessing this Lent is the simple fact that healing can happen in a broken place. Everywhere we went, when shop owners or people in the grocery store found out we were down for a week from Massachusetts to work on rebuilding some houses with Habitat for Humanity, everyone said: “Thank you… you are a sign of hope for us.” It was humbling and joyful – ugly and sad – complicated and very, very simple all at the same time this work of reconciliation and compassion. It was “Vertigo” with the plea to “get up off my knees” and own what it is like to have to crawl. In one of my readings for this Lenten sojourn I came across these words from Thomas Merton: "The Christian must not only accept suffering: he/she must make it holy. Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration."

Rather, Lent is a journey into the beautiful mystery of compassionate solidarity with those in the most ordinary and broken places; it is the commitment to discern the living presence of Christ within and among us; and it rests on the faith that sharing by all means scarcity for none. Frankly, it would have been easier to have stayed home and sometimes when my hands ached from driving nails or carrying wood - or simply being baked by the New Orleans sun - I really wanted to be home. And yet today I return thanks for those who helped me go into the places I would rather not go and meet my God. Like Jesus told his old friend, Peter, after the shame of the cross: “Brother, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt around yourself and go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will lead you to where you do not wish to go… so come: follow me!” (John 21) "Please, Lord, get me OFF my knees!"

(Thanks to Di for the pictures!)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday Lavender

I have been doing a lot of thinking in anticipation of this year’s Ash Wednesday. For some in our new church it is a way to reconnect with the faith of our past – our youth – our tradition. Some of us grew up Catholic – or Lutheran – or Episcopalian… and now after a few – or maybe many – years we sense something calling us back to worship. For others Ash Wednesday is something new – we never did it as a child – it was never a part of our worship tradition but this year we want to go deeper on the spiritual journey and so we, too, find ourselves back in worship. And there may be those who never had any formal spiritual tradition but find something is going on deep within this year.

A poem I just discovered by Anja Sladek, “I Am Not,” puts it like this: I am not a pessimist but this world is dark and I do not see the dawn. I am not a traitor but I cannot love my country whilst friends are being killed. I am not optimistic but I cannot help but feel there must be something better. I am not a believer but I find myself praying to god in the evenings. I am not a poet but I must write this down and make somebody read. I am not a coward but I am very afraid of what will happen next.

It is my growing conviction that for whatever reason we find ourselves yearning for something deeper this Lent – from longing and fear to a thirst for refreshment -- as my beloved United Church of Christ likes to say: whoever you are – or where ever you are on the journey of life – there is a place – even a spiritual home – for you on Ash Wednesday. It is a time to acknowledge that all of us get it wrong more often than we get it right – that all of us are wounded – and that all of us ache for a God whose grace is bigger than our hurts. Ash Wednesday – and really all of Lent – is a journey more than a destination – a way of discerning and searching for the holy in the ordinary events of our human lives – and as you know if you have ever travelled, some journeys are wonderful and rich, some are messed up and filled with trouble, and some never get off the ground and seem empty or DOA. I love how U2 puts it on “Some Days:”

Some days are dry – some days are leaky - some days come clean - other days are sneaky -some days take less but most days take more - some slip through your fingers and onto the floor - some days your quick but most days you're speedy - some days you use more force than is necessary - some days just drop in on us - some days are better than others - some days it all adds up and what you've got is enough - some days are better than others.

In other words, as Paul Simon sings, "These are the days of miracle and wonder, this is the long distance call - the way the camera follows us in slo-mo - the way we look to us all - the way we look to a distant constellation that's dying in a corner of the sky: these are the days of miracle and wonder and don't cry baby, don't cry, don't cry." Let’s take this Lent slow, in other words, and see what happens. Let’s also go the extra mile by sharing some of the ups and downs of our Lenten experience with another because one of the only ways to make it through any difficult or troubling journey is with the help of others. My boys U2 once again remind us that “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own.” Bono said (shortly after his dad died of cancer): "My father worked in the post office by day and sang opera by night. We lived on the north side of Dublin in a place called Cedarwood Road. He had a lot of attitude. He gave some to me - and a voice. I wish I'd known him better."

Tough, you think you’ve got the stuff - you’re telling me and anyone you’re hard enough - you don’t have to put up a fight you don’t have to always be right - let me take some of the punches for you tonight. Listen to me now, I need to let you know, you don’t have to go it alone. And it’s you when I look in the mirror and it’s you when I don’t pick up the phone: sometimes you can’t make it on your own.

So let’s be clear: for Lent to be rich and deep, we have to make some connections with the people who have joined us on the journey. Every trip requires helpers, right? If you are driving on a trip, who helps you make the trip happen? What about air travel? Ever stay in a hotel… ok you get my point: part of the Lenten journey is recognizing – and embracing – our connections. It even has something to do with reaching out of our comfort zone so that we make new connections. You see, the traditional scripture readings for Ash Wednesday tell us something crucial about both the journey of Lent and our relationship with those who are travelling with us: Left to ourselves, most of us invert an important teaching from Jesus – we have him saying that “where your heart is there will be your treasure also” – but that is biblical dyslexia. In reality the text tells us that wherever you put your treasure that is where your heart will end up. Do you see the difference?

The United Church of Christ posted a blog for today that notes that in a world defined by the market place and bottom lines, much of the time our dollars follow our heart’s lead: Jesus seems to be saying something more profound and more hopeful than that, affirming that wherever you put your treasure that is where your heart will end up. To be sure, how we spend our money reveals something about the kind of people we are. But Jesus seems to affirm that how we spend our money determines the sort of people we become. "Give from the heart," people say. But Jesus speaks of a different dynamic: Give where you want your heart to be, and then let your heart catch up. If you want to care more about the kind of car you drive, buy an expensive one. If you want to care more about property values, remodel your house. If you want to grow in your relationship with God, bring an offering to God. Wherever your treasure is, your heart is bound to follow.

One of my favorite author’s, Kathleen Norris, likes to say that one of the reasons Jesus tells us to learn from children is so that we pay attention to the basics. Once, when she was working as an artist in residence at an elementary school she began to notice that some children had the capacity to rework the ancient Psalms into their own life experiences. For example:

Children who are picked on by their big brothers or sisters can be remarkably adept when it comes to cursing psalms, and I believe that the writing process offers them a safe haven in which to work through their desires for vengeance in a healthy way. Once a little boy wrote a poem called, “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates when his father yells at him: his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: “Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done all that.’”

“My messy house” says it all (when it comes to the Lenten journey): with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for him that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on his way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?

Part of what I’ll be doing this Lent is cleaning up my messy house – and I hope to be doing some of the cleaning with others so that they can help keep me on track when I get lazy or cranky or just too tired or afraid to care. Too often this religion stuff is just busy work – and I need a clean house for the Lord – a house built on a love that satisfies like the poet Gerald Stern suggests in “Blue Like That," rather than misplaced intentions:
She was a darling with her roses, though what I like is lavender for I can dry it and nothing is blue like that, so here I am, in my arms a bouquet of tragic lavender, the whole history of Southern France against my chest, the fields stretching out, the armies killing each other, horses falling, Frenchmen dying by the thousands, though none for love.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Wandering Through the Beauty of Ordinary Things

Took a trip into the wonderful city of Boston this week to explore – it was my hope that we would see some music and theatre in addition to a museum or two – and while some of that happened, it was also just a lovely two days of wandering and exploring. Used to be that I needed to PLAN my time away and work-out all the details so that I could clearly say: I am not wasting time! But ever since a sabbatical trip to New Mexico about 15 years ago with Dianne, I am learning the value of wasting time and simply wandering wherever the Spirit leads.

And the blessings of this way of travelling never cease to delight: first, as we were entering a rest stop just outside the city, who should I see buying coffee but one of my favorite painters, Makoto Fujimura (see Refractions for his website) from NYC. He was on his way to Gordon College to talk about his new book and the on-going dialogue between the creative process and God’s call to “transform and heal” our culture. (I will be with Mako and other artists at the end of this month at the IAM – International Arts Movement annual conference in TriBeca.) We had a brief and lovely conversation before we both moved on – made me think of one of my favorite hymns: “we are pilgrims on a journey, we are strangers on the road, we are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” Then, as we schlepped through the North End towards Faneuil Hall, in front of a row of Irish Pubs there was a simple but moving sculpture commemorating the Holocaust. And I kept thinking “how many other wonders and signs have I missed in my hurry from one important place to the next?” We took time to walk slowly in the cold through this invitation to remember both the incomprehensible evil of the Nazis and how it keeps happening in new forms.

Later we took in Old South Church – and Trinity Cathedral and an organ recital featuring “Peter and the Wolf” (which brought back memories of watching Leonard Bernstein on TV sharing this work of Prokofiev with America’s children.) We ate some incredible sea food, stood perplexed and in awe of an opulent shopping mall for the elite and wandered through the Museum of Fine Art until I had sensory overload and needed a nap. We ended the mini-sabbatical with a trip to Durgin Park – a very New England eatery – where my parents and grandparents used to go for baked beans and brown bread in another era. As we headed back to Pittsfield – through an enchanted glaze of an evening ice storm that left the Turnpike coated in diamond-like reflections – I found myself returning thanks to God for all the beauty we had wandered into over these past two days.

Ash Wednesday will soon be here – and then our trip with Habitat to New Orleans for a Lenten build in post-Katrina carnage – and then into what is often the hard work of the Lenten journey but I am thinking that this year’s Lenten wandering will be even less about denial and more about discovering beauty in even the most unlikely places. Because, as Gregory Wolfe of IMAGE Journal recently noted:

Strange as it may seem, beauty still needs to be defended. In the history of the West, beauty has played the role of Cinderella to her sisters, goodness and truth. I don’t mean to say that beauty in art or nature hasn’t been appreciated throughout history—though there have been times when beauty has been the subject of frontal assaults—but simply that when we start getting official, when we get theological or philosophical, beauty becomes a hot potato. The ambivalence about beauty at the heart of western culture begins at the beginning. In Jerusalem, proscriptions against idols and graven images coexist with paeans to the craftsmanship of God and Bezalel, the artificer (described in Exodus) of the desert tabernacle. In Athens, Plato celebrates the divine madness that the poet experiences when the muse descends, but he also kicks the poets out of his ideal republic as unreliable, disruptive sorts.

In theory, goodness, truth, and beauty—traditionally known as the “transcendentals,” because they are the three qualities that God has in infinite abundance—are equal in dignity and worth. Indeed, in Christian thought there has always been a sense that the transcendentals exist in something of a trinitarian relationship to one another. But in practice it rarely seems to work out that way. The funny thing is that secular and religious attacks on beauty are nearly identical. Beauty is seen as an anesthetizing force that distracts us from the moral imperatives of justice and the quest for truth. There isn’t much difference between a stern proponent of Iconoclasm in the eighth century and a modern Marxist attacking beauty as nothing but an opiate to lull us into acquiescence to the powers that be. Both critics abhor what Wendy Steiner has called “the scandal of pleasure.” The time has come to bring beauty back, to give it the glass slipper and invite it to the prom…

When you remove beauty from the human equation, it is going to come back in some other form, even as anti-beauty. A good deal of modern art can be understood in this light. In modernity, beauty has been seen as an appearance—ornamentation, sugar coating. Secularists and believers alike have either rejected beauty altogether or argued that beauty should make the pills of truth and goodness go down easier. Beauty must serve some other end; it is not an end in itself. But the transcendentals were always understood as infinitely valuable, as ends in themselves. When it comes to beauty, however, we are afraid to assert that much. We feel the need to harness it, because beauty is unpredictable, wild. Here’s how I have tried to comprehend these deep matters. If you think about these three transcendentals in relationship to our human capacities, what are the faculties that correspond to these three transcendentals? Goodness, I would say, has to do with faith, the desire for holiness. Truth is pursued by reason. We are all familiar with that pairing: faith and reason. That’s standard-issue language in the western tradition. But what about the third element? What faculty does beauty correspond to? I would suggest that it is the imagination. The imagination is the faculty honed to apprehend beauty and unfold its meaning.

How often do we say the Judeo-Christian tradition is a tradition of faith, reason, and imagination? This is what I mean by saying that we treat beauty as the Cinderella. “Go make pretty pictures,” we say to beauty, “but don’t start acting like you are a pathway to knowing the universe.” Yet this is precisely what the definition of a transcendental means. That’s easy to see when it comes to truth. But the same applies to goodness: when we act justly, we come to know more about reality. And so it is with beauty. Beauty allows us to penetrate reality through the imagination, through the capacity of the imagination to perceive the world intuitively. The intuitive perception of meaning that art provides helps us to see that imagination is akin to reason: both seek truth through the apprehension of order and pattern.

Art employs beautiful forms to generate objects that penetrate reality. Beauty tends to elicit in us a type of shock. We draw a breath in. Why? If beauty tells us about the eternal verities, whence the surprise? Ezra Pound once said that the artist’s task is to “make it new.” The “it” is the truth of the world. A work of art doesn’t invent truth, but it does make it accessible to us in ways that are not normally available because words and images have been tarnished by overuse or neglect. Art fails when it merely tells us what we already know in the ways that we already know it.

That is why art is so deeply related to the prophetic dimension and the place where it connects to truth. That prophetic shock, that challenge to complacency, that revelatory reconfigura- tion of the way things are, gives us a truer picture of the way that the world is. Truth without beauty is fleshless abstraction, a set of propositions. Only beauty can incarnate truth in concrete, believable, human flesh. Beauty also has the capacity to help us to value the good, especially the goodness of the most ordinary things. The greatest epics, the most terrible tragedies, all have one goal: to bring us back to the ordinary and help us to love and to cherish it. Odysseus encounters Circe, Cyclops, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, but his real destination is home and the marital bed that makes it his place in the world.

The Boston folk singer, Bob Franke, puts it like this in a tune I have been singing with my loved ones for almost 25 years: "It's so easy to dream of the days gone by, it's a hard thing to think of the time to come. But the grace to accept every moment as a gift is a gift that is given to some. What can you do with your days but work and hope, let your dreams bind your work to play; what can you do with each moment of your life but love 'til you've loved it way: love 'til you've loved it way."

Lord, may it be so.

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:...