Thursday, March 27, 2008

God bless you, Paul Simon!

Tonight our local PBS station showed a program honoring one of my heroes: Paul Simon. I wept and cheered,"went to church" and boogied in New Orleans as the breadth and depth of his music washed over me. What a treat and what a blessing. Brother Simon continues to celebrate the best of my generation's hopes and dreams by bringing together the races and the cultures and the classes in a way that points out what is best and combats what is broken. To see Paul shake his ass with Ladysmith Black Mambazo - to see Lyle Lovett share with Buckwheat Zydeco - and to watch Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and the Dixie Hummingbirds rock the house with "Love me Like a Rock" was an answer to prayer in these crazy, divided, hope filled and frustrating times. God bless you, Paul Simon.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

what if god was one of us?

There is a great old country and western song by Montgomery Gentry that tells the story of a Vietnam Vet and a hot yuppie lawyer – two people as different from one another as night is from day – he’s got a gold tooth and ratty old Levi’s while she wears Gucci shoes and a tattoo on her derrière. But the only place they can find peace and acceptance in their busy but empty lives is… a bar.

He works way too much for way too little
He drinks way too early till way too late
He hasn't had a raise since New Year’s Day in eighty-eight gets trampled on by everyone 'cept when he comes in here
All my adult life that reality has struck me as fundamentally upside down and backwards – not the drinking or carrying on – but the fact that so often a sleazy old run down bar is a better example of Christ’s hospitality than his living body on earth we call the church. Yes, bars are filled with self-destructive and dissolute behavior, yes they often deepen a person’s wound rather than heal it, and yes, yes, yes bars can be unsafe, uncouth and unhealthy. But here’s a stone cold fact that the contemporary church of Jesus Christ has yet to learn: a good bar never judges you before it gets to know you. Remember the theme song from “Cheers?”

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name
And they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see our troubles are all the same:
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.

So Jesus stood among his terrified, broken, confused and troubled disciples a week after his resurrection and whispered, “Peace be with you.” One writer in Sojourner’s Magazine wrote:

Whenever I am in a worship gathering, but especially in street churches, before we share the peace I say: “When Jesus appeared to his disciples, they were hiding upstairs in a locked room – the friends’ who knew him best, who had betrayed him, who pretended they didn’t know him – who had run away when he was dying and hid when he was arrested and where frightened and ashamed. To these friends Jesus appeared and greeted them. He didn’t say, “What the hell happened? Where were you? You screwed up and hurt me!” No, he greeted them saying, “Peace.” So no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done or think you’ve done, whoever you have betrayed or let down, no matter how far you have gone from God, from Jesus, Jesus doesn’t say to you: where were you? You screwed up? Jesus greets you saying: peace. You are not accused in, you are invited.

Her reflection concludes: whatever it is that churches are saying to people today, what poor and marginalized folk hear from us is: you are not good enough, you are not welcome, the food bank is down the street or around back in the basement. But Jesus says: Peace be with you – you are not accused, you are invited – and accepted no matter where you are on life’s journey.

I want to talk with you about Christ’s peace today and what it might mean for us as we try to deepen our walk with the Lord in this place and time. You see, there was a time when the community of faith was not only an alternative to the sick culture all around it, but it was an attractive refuge of healing, too. That’s what the first reading from Acts is trying to tell us: preaching on Pentecost, Peter told the crowds that the inspiration of the disciples was not from wine or booze – it was not alcoholic spirits that gave life to the community of faith – it was the living Spirit and presence of Jesus within and among them that set true life into motion:

Listen carefully and get this story straight, Peter told them. These people aren't drunk as some of you suspect. They haven't had time to get drunk—it's only nine o'clock in the morning – what is going on here is what the prophet Joel announced would happen: "In the Last Days," God says "I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy also your daughters; your young men will see visions, your old men dream dreams. When the time comes, I'll pour out my Spirit on those who serve me, men and women both, and they'll prophesy. I'll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below… Eventually the crowd cried: Cut to the quick… what do we do?" Peter said, "Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is targeted to you and your children, but also to all who are far away—whomever, in fact, our Master God invites…. Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture!" And that day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.

It is Jesus – the Word of God made flesh for our time – that attracts, heals and transforms: not the sanctuary, not the organ, not our guitars, nor our music, not the preacher nor the teacher, not the children or the building – it is Jesus and Jesus only. Do you know that great Bible story from Matthew 17 we call the transfiguration?

Jesus needs time for prayer and discernment so he gets Peter and James to go with him up Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philippi. It is over 9,000 feet high – and what do elevated places suggest in the Bible? Something holy and sacred is going to take place, right. And what happens? Jesus has a mystical encounter with Moses and Elijah – the essence of the Law and the Prophets – meet him on Mt. Hermon to strengthen and encourage him. Which is a pretty cool thing to have happen – I would love it if one day in my prayers I was surrounded by God’s blinding light and given the chance to talk things over with Moses and Elijah – but that isn’t the whole point of the story. No, because what happens next? Peter and James get caught up in the moment and want to stay on the mountain top; it is totally human and they just want to keep having this magical mystery tour when out of nowhere comes the voice of God saying: THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED… LISTEN TO HIM. And when they looked up… they saw no one except Jesus alone.

They saw no one except Jesus alone – so let’s be clear about this from the get go – it is Jesus and Jesus only – his living spirit within and among us – that is going to attract others into the community of faith. So, based on this truth, what really fascinates me is trying to figure out how we make Jesus real and visible and alive for our time. How do we – in 2008 – show Christ’s living spirit to Pittsfield?

It is not coincidental that the gospel reading always assigned to the first Sunday after Easter is the one we’ve read today – and I think there are some important clues in it for us – so let’s look at it carefully. First, there are Christ’s words, “Peace be to you.” Most of the time we treat these words as a personal blessing for inner tranquility, but scholars are clear that the peace Jesus offers – eireneuo— refers to the social relations between the people of his community. When this word, peace, is used in Romans 12: 18 it has to do with cooperation among different types of people: Do not repay anyone evil for evil; but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. And if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves… do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Same is true in II Corinthians 13: Sisters and brothers, Paul says, put things in order, listen to my appeal and learn to agree with one another and live in peace… greet one another with a holy grace and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ… will be with you always.

So Christ’s peace has to do with social cooperation and acceptance of diversity; it also has to do with love: this is the love gospel we’re talking about where St. John gives us these clear words from the Lord: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. For by this love everyone will know you are my disciples if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34-35) And you know this love Jesus is talking about isn’t a sweet feeling of abstract, universal peace or Rodney King “why can’t we all get along” fuzziness, right? Not at all – listen to how old St. Paul put it in I Corinthians 13:

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.

And we can’t forget that Christ’s peace also has to do with shalom – right and just relationships between people – for that is at the heart of Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God: I have come to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight for the blind and the start of the year of the Lord’s favor so that debts are forgiven, dignity restored and hope blossoms throughout creation. Walter Brueggemann likes to say that shalom means finding out what belongs to another and giving it back.

Acceptance, diversity and welcome – disciplined and tender love – and social justice – radical hospitality, compassion and shalom – that’s what Jesus was sharing when he breathed and spoke words of peace upon his disciples. And I am convinced this is the right reading of the text for our day, too, by the way the majority treats Thomas – so let’s spend a little time with the so-called doubting disciple. John Sanford, one of the leading Jungian Christian theologians of our generation, suggests that Thomas is probably a person like most others – a sensate who is “strongly oriented to outer, physical reality and facts… in contrast to intuitive types who perceive what is real through an inner process.” (Mystical Christianity, p. 323)

Most people – in fact, the majority – are sensate types who, like Jack Webb on Dragnet, “just want the facts, ma’am.” Research has shown that clearly 70+ per cent of all people fall into this category, while 90+ percent of all clergy and spiritual leaders… are the opposite! We’re intuitives talking about inner things to Thomas who wants to see the wounds and feel the brokenness with his own hands. No wonder clergy and laity so often misunderstand one another! Now here’s what is even more important: it is likely that the other disciples – certainly John and probably others – don’t get Thomas. Every day since Christ’s death and resurrection, the early church has been meeting for prayer and encouragement – and every day Thomas demands proof! “We have seen the Lord” they tell him to which he can only reply: “Show me – I don’t believe you.”

And he didn’t just doubt the words on a page, he called into question the spiritual experiences of his dearest friends. Now think about this: how do you keep harmony in the community – how do you give space for vastly different realities in a family – when one doesn’t trust the other? That’s the challenge the Bible presents to us – how do we practice and embody radical hospitality, compassion and shalom – how do we share the living presence of Christ in our flesh with those who do not trust us?

Well, we aren’t given a road map but it is clearly suggested that whatever else the other disciples did to Thomas it did not include kicking him out, making him feel unwanted or diminished in any way, shape or form. In time, Thomas had his own encounter with Jesus and faith began to make sense to him – but it could have been harmed without the love, trust and safety the community created in the very spirit of Jesus, right? Did you know that there is no word in the Bible for doubt: it is either pistos or apistos – trust or the absence of trust.

Which tells me that one of the most important ways we can show those who don’t trust us that the spirit of Jesus is alive and well within and among us is by what we welcome and include in our worship on Sunday mornings: if real, live untrusting Thomas’ come into this Sanctuary and only hear sounds that seem to them elite, undecipherable or filled with judgment… what do you think will happen? Will they come back? Will trust grow? Will they sense that Christ’s spirit – not that of a sick culture – rules our hearts? Probably not… so it is vital – for me and all of us – to make certain that when people come through our doors on Sunday morning not only are they greeted and given space to be themselves, but that they hear sounds that makes sense to their lives – and in 2008 that includes rock and country and pop as well as all the standards of the faith we have come know and love.

I’m not kidding about this: when only 1% of Americans say they like and listen to organ music while 40% of a community at any point in time is curious about spiritual matters but afraid of the church… well let’s just say that it isn’t any wonder why bars seem more welcoming than the body of Christ.

Please don’t misunderstand or misinterpret: I am not speaking value here – one style of music or worship in NOT better than another – I am simply speaking about trust and hospitality. Faith cannot grow and mature without trust, beloved. Christian educator, John Westerhoff, puts it like this: there is a faith that is received – as young children it is passed on and experienced by imitating our loved ones; later it has to do with sharing in the group. After adolescence, if faith is to mature it then moves into a time of questioning and searching – so we must be certain to leave space for all types of doubt and fear. Because it is only after lots of searching and questions and mistrust that an adult can affirm her or his true faith and say like Thomas: My Lord and my God.

The community of faith – the living body of Christ at First Church – has been charged with welcoming and nourishing the questions and faith of Thomas and all his sisters and brothers. May we be bold enough, compassionate, creative and hospitable enough to make trust palpable in this place by the love of Jesus. For only when Christ becomes flesh in our time can his spirit be shared. So let those who have ears to hear, hear.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The NY Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, put it like this: The Iraq war is now going better than expected, for a change. Most critics of the war, myself included, blew it: we didn’t anticipate the improvements in security that are partly the result of last year’s “surge.” The improvement is real but fragile and limited. Here’s what it amounts to: We’ve cut our casualty rates to the unacceptable levels that plagued us back in 2005, and we still don’t have any exit plan for years to come — all for a bill that is accumulating at the rate of almost $5,000 every second!

More important, while casualties in Baghdad are down, we’re beginning to take losses in Florida and California. The United States seems to have slipped into recession; Americans are losing their homes, jobs and health insurance; banks are struggling — and the Iraq war appears to have aggravated all these domestic woes.“The present economic mess is very much related to the Iraq war,” says Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist. “It was at least partially responsible for soaring oil prices. ...Moreover, money spent on Iraq did not stimulate the economy as much as the same dollars spent at home would have done. To cover up these weaknesses in the American economy, the Fed let forth a flood of liquidity; that, together with lax regulations, led to a housing bubble and a consumption boom.”

And now comes the sobering headline that we've reached 4,000 American dead in addition to the 1,191,216 Iraqi deaths related to the war. Kristof continues: But if you believe that staying in Iraq does more good than harm, you must answer the next question: Is that presence so valuable that it is worth undermining our economy? Granted, the cost estimates are squishy and controversial, partly because the $12.5 billion a month that we’re now paying for Iraq is only a down payment. We’ll still be making disability payments to Iraq war veterans 50 years from now. Professor Stiglitz calculates in a new book, written with Linda Bilmes of Harvard University, that the total costs, including the long-term bills we’re incurring, amount to about $25 billion a month. That’s $330 a month for a family of four.

A Congressional study by the Joint Economic Committee found that the sums spent on the Iraq war each day could enroll an additional 58,000 children in Head Start or give Pell Grants to 153,000 students to attend college. Or if we’re sure we want to invest in security, then a day’s Iraq spending would finance another 11,000 border patrol agents or 9,000 police officers.

Imagine the possibilities. We could hire more police and border patrol agents, expand Head Start and rehabilitate America’s image in the world by underwriting a global drive to slash maternal mortality, eradicate malaria and deworm every child in Africa. All that would consume less than one month’s spending on the Iraq war.

As people of the resurrection - those who are allied with God's enormous "YES" over all the "No's" of the world - Christ calls us into acts of compassion and justice. As a pastor who has now had to love and support soldiers from my church who have been sent into this hate-filled tragedy, I continue to hold them close to my hearts even as I commit myself to a renewed effort to oppose and end this war. It is clearly a paradox of this calling - to love our warriors who would rather not make war - while urging our civilians to become more active citizens for peace. And it is so important to try to do this without stridency or self-righteousness... which is easier said than done.

And so the Prayer of St. Francis returns: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Thanks be to God...

Easter has come and gone - and blessings abound! On Thursday we gathered for a somber Tenebrae gathering of lights, readings and darkness. On Friday more than 80 joined us for a contemporary expression of Good Friday using new music, wild visual images and ancient scripture. What a joy! And then Easter Sunday - the Feast of the Resurrection - was a smorgasbord of traditional music and new songs, exuberant preaching and Eucharist. Perfect in this new place with new friends struggling for new life. I give thanks to God for the chance to be pastor of this church at this time as we find new/old ways of being faithful, fun and connected to God's spirit in this place. There were children and old folk, new people to the tradition and old stalwarts all embracing one another together. Thanks be to God: he is risen!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

After their Sabbath rest, as the first light of the new week dawned and Easter emerged out of the darkness, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to keep vigil at Christ’s tomb. Suddenly the earth reeled and rocked under their feet and God’s angel came down from heaven… The Roman guards were scared to death… but the women heard the angel say: “Get on your way quickly and tell the Master’s disciples that everything has changed for he has risen from the dead…” And deep in wonder and full of joy the women lost no time in leaving that place of death. Matthew 28: 1-6

Easter Sunday – the Feast of the Resurrection – the highest, holiest and most hallowed celebration in our tradition: it’s that great, getting up, shouting ‘hallelujah’ morning as some of my colleagues in the African American church like to say. Because on Easter Sunday, no matter that you’re down and out, rich or poor, at war or peace, feeling on top of the world or plunged into the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord comes by faith with a love greater than the tomb to tell is: I am with you always even unto the end of time.

And nothing – not angels nor principalities, things present nor things to come, not powers, height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God shared with us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not intellect or doubt, not longevity in church or newness to the tradition, not biblical illiteracy or scholarly acumen, not wisdom, time served or poetic sensibilities: I mean nothing. N O T H I N G – nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God shared with us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Because, you see, the blessed presence of Jesus given back to the world in resurrection on Easter Sunday does not depend on us. Thanks be to God the resurrection does not depend upon people like you and me and the other disciples – it comes from God - and is bigger and more real than all of our ideas and experiences rolled together.

The former dean of the Divinity School at Duke University, William Willimon, likes to tell about a debate between two of his friends, Stanley Hauerwas – the brightest Christian ethicist around who also has the dirtiest mouth – and Marcus Borg – leading biblical scholar from the Jesus Seminar. They were trying to explain the Lord’s resurrection on Easter: Marcus said that the disciples had an experience. They said, ‘Wasn’t it great being with Jesus before they killed him? You remember those great stories he told? The lectures, er, sermons? Just thinking about it makes him seem almost still here. So, yes by God, he is still here. Let’s all close our eyes and believe real hard that he’s still here… and so it will be.”

To which Hauerwas said: "Hey, Jesus Seminar people, the disciples weren’t that creative! These were not the most imaginative minds we’re dealing with here. They were the sort of people who in (John’s gospel) could see an empty tomb and then go back home so that it wouldn’t spoil their lunch. (They were the kind of people who could hear about the empty tomb from the women in Jerusalem and still decide that because they had a luncheon reservation in Emmaus they better head out of town and keep it.) You don’t get an idea like the resurrection of Jesus out of people with brains like Simon Peter’s" Hauerwas said. Because, you see, the disciples were people like us. And people like us are the sort of folk who like to believe that you can have resurrection and still have the world as it was yesterday. We want to have Easter and still have our world unrocked by resurrection. We are amazingly well adjusted to the same old world.

Which is why the Bible tells us that when the women encountered the empty tomb and all the rest… what happened? An earthquake – their world reeled and rocked under their feet – and they were filled with wonder, joy and awe as they fled that place of death. An earthquake – have you ever experienced an earthquake – where?

I remember my first earthquake – it was in San Francisco on Halloween back in 1978 – and I was taking a midterm exam. About two thirds of the way through the test the hanging lights began to sway – then the desks rattled and the walls shook – and everyone just looked up, eventually giggled a bit and went back to taking their exams. I hadn’t been in San Francisco all that long – and I guess I wasn’t all that interested in my grade either – because that earthquake scared me to death! And when I took the bus home afterwards, and saw all the folk dressed in costumes for the downtown parade, carrying on like nothing had happened, I was shocked: they had gotten so used to the ground shaking and the walls trembling that I wondered “what in the world will it take to really get their attention!”

We can be sooooo well-adjusted… which is why Matthew tells us that the resurrection came with an earthquake that shook the whole world! It is beyond our control – beyond our ability to comprehend – something from the Lord that shakes us up and awakens us to God’s tremendous love and power. So, please, don’t try to explain the resurrection, ok? There is intellectual content to our faith to be sure. The late William Sloan Coffin of the Riverside Church in New York City used to say:

There is nothing anti-intellectual in our leap of faith for faith is not believing without proof but rather trusting without reservation. Faith is no substitute for thinking; on the contrary, it is what makes good thinking possible… When St. Paul says, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels” – remember he is addressing our musicians, poets, preachers and artists – and when he says, “though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge” – professors, that’s your turn – “and though I bestow all my good to feed the poor” – radicals and social activists, take note –and “though I give my body to be burned” – that’s the very stuff of heroism, right? When we give our lives to Christ, if we leave familiar territory and take the leap of faith, what we receive in returns fills our minds altogether as much as it fills our hearts.
Simultaneously – paradoxically – we shall never fully comprehend or be able to rationally explain the miracle of resurrection this side of glory… so let’s not get distracted. Easter, beloved, is about God – and as brother Willimon said, “When we talk about God we are not speaking of the Lord as some empathetic but ineffective good friend, or some inner experience, but a God who creates a way when there was no way, a God who makes war on evil until evil is undone, a God who raises dead Jesus just to show us who’s in charge here.”

And that is what the Bible wants us to wrestle with on this grand, getting-up shouting “Hallelujah!” morning. Take the fact that in every account of Christ’s resurrection – including the one we heard this morning from Matthew – the Lord appears to whom first? The women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary’s – and do you know why? It would seem that it is the fulfillment of Christ’s claim that in the kingdom of God the last shall become first, yes? Think about it: after all the men flee – and Peter denies Jesus – it is the women who remain even through the crucifixion. The Bible says that it was the women who “ministered” – diakoneo – to Jesus during his time of suffering and need – and didn’t Jesus say somewhere that “those who wish to be great must become servants – diakonos – to all?”

What’s more, being at the bottom of the social hierarchy – human beings whose testimony was not acceptable as binding in the courts of the day – it makes perfect upside down kingdom of God logic for the women to be chosen as the first witnesses to God’s upsetting, unnerving and life-changing blessing in the resurrection. In life, in death and life beyond death, Jesus is consistent – that’s one thing we can affirm. And we can also affirm without reservation that resurrection faith comes to us beyond the obvious and in ways that are deeper than the evidence. Let’s be honest: the chief scribes, religious leaders and Roman centurions all had the same outward evidence as the women, right?

They saw the empty tomb, the rolled away stone, the cast aside garments and the uncontrollable courage and grace of the blessed disciples, but what did they conclude? That the body of Jesus had been stolen – that he had never really died but gone into some type of trance – that he had escaped or… who knows? What is clear is that these men of power and might saw the same evidence as the outcast women and drew vastly different conclusions – another reason why God asks us not to get distracted by our egos or intellects. After all, who do you want to be more like when you grow up spiritually: the soldiers and religious leaders who put Christ on the Cross, or, the women who let God rock their world?

Now let me add one more insight about all this resurrection business and what we can and cannot know: the Biblical testimony is also wonderfully clear that Jesus came to his loved ones in a variety of very different forms. Oh yes, there isn’t uniformity in Christ’s resurrection, only Jesus who touches us where and how we need his touch the most. Biblical scholar and preacher, Brian Stoffregen, says:

There is great diversity in the accounts of the appearances of the risen Christ and it is difficult to harmonize any of them. Perhaps there is a message in that: Our contemporary experiences of the risen Christ will differ. There are those who visibly see a white light and others don't. There are those who experience Christ in a radical transforming, "born-again," event in their lives. There are those for whom Christ as been such a reality throughout their lives that they can't think of a moment when Christ wasn't present to them or when there was a great turning point in their lives. How the risen Christ comes to people differ. Our stories about the risen Christ's presence in our lives differ.

Are you with me on this? The risen Christ comes to us in different ways so that we can receive him where and when we need him the most. What is a constant in all the accounts of biblical theology and personal experience, however, is that Jesus turns our world upside down and rocks and rolls us with a love that will not let us go so that we become filled from the inside out with faith, hope and love. My old spiritual mentor, Clarence Jordan, loved to say that on the morning of the resurrection:

God put life in the present tense, not in the future. God gave us not a promise, but a presence. Not a hope for the future, but power for the present. Not so much the assurance that we shall live someday, but that he is risen today. You see, Jesus’ resurrection is not to convince the incredulous not reassure the fearful, it is to enkindle the believers. And the proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not the vacant grave, but the spirit-filled fellowship, not a rolled-away stone but a carried away church!

And our town – our time – our congregation is aching for such carried away evidence from us. Not judgment, not tradition, not duty – but a spirit-filled fellowship and a carried away church that pays no mind to the rolled away stone or other so-called signs of evidence that distracts us.
And living lives distracted from the earth-shaking love of God is soooo easy to do. There is a true story told “(about) a young married couple who had a three year old daughter and the mom was about to give birth to the second child.” It comes from our old friend Marcus Borg:

The little three year old girl was really excited about having a new baby brother or sister, and when the new baby got home, the three-year old girl was absolutely insistent that she be permitted to be in the baby's room with the baby alone with the door shut. The parents were a little bit nervous about this, and then they remembered that they had an intercom system. So they let the little girl go into the room; the door was shut; they ran to the intercom, and then they heard the little girl say to her brother, "Tell me about God. I've almost forgotten."

Such a haunting story, yes? It tells us that we come from God, that we shall return to God and that we have a memory of God deep within us. But sometimes it takes an earthquake to awaken us from our forgetful, busy and wounded lives.

People of God: the earthquake has come – it is Easter – and everything is different. Judgment is over and the time is now to take a leap of faith and become that carried away congregation that remembers the love of God for our generation. Like the women of old, it is time to leave behind our old places of death and flee into the embrace of the unforced rhythms of God’s grace. God is calling to us in Jesus, beloved: are you listening?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?

I have come to cherish Good Friday when we mix contemporary music, post-modern art with the ancient readings and prayers of sacred tradition. And we will do it again on Friday, March 21st at 7 PM at First Church on Park Square (27 East Street, Pittsfield, MA).

This year's "Liturgy of the Nails" retells the Passion of Christ using scripture, the music of George Harrison, Cat Power, Over the Rhine, U2, Joan Osborne and the Beatles as well as a host of visual images. For the past six years, I have been experimenting with ways to reclaim the ancient Good Friday liturgy so that the reality and spirituality of the Cross isn't frozen in time. This is also part of our commitment to"Free Jesus" from all "isms" be they of the Right or the Left. It is also a chance for our emerging band to shine and the voices of my colleagues, Dianne and Jenna, are heavenly.

One of the Good Friday prayers puts it like this: Gracious and Eternal God, look with mercy on this your family for which our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed into the hands of his adversaries and to suffer death upon the cross; and grant us to rejoice in the benefits of his passion; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

For an encounter in radical incarnational spirituality - and some GREAT music - join us at 7 PM.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Lament for War on the Fifth Anniversary

Morning Prayer of Lament, based on Psalm 130 and the Pastoral Letter on the War in Iraq

Out of the depths I cry to you, O GOD.
Today is the fifth anniversary of the Invasion of Iraq. God, hear my voice!
Thousands of precious American lives have been lost; thousands more have been altered forever by injuries; tens of thousands more innocent Iraqi lives are daily being lost
to war and sectarian violence.
We grieve, we weep.

Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
We struggle in our hearts and in our churches
to know the truth of what is happening to the Iraqi people and to America:
Open our hearts to the voices of the world.

If you, O GOD, should mark iniquities, who could stand?
In our name human rights have been violated;
Iraqi infrastructure and lives destroyed.
Precious resources have been diverted
from education, health care, and the needs of the poor.
Efforts to restrain the real sources of global terrorism
have been ignored or subverted.
Trust and respect for the United States
has been traded for self-serving political gain.

But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.
We confess that too often the church has been little more
than a silent witness to evil deeds:
We have prayed without protest, and without action for peace.
As citizens of this land we have been made complicit
in the bloodshed and the cries.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

I wait for God, my soul waits, and in God’s word I hope;
Yet in the midst of our lament we may give thanks -
for pastors and laity who have raised courageous voices;
for military personnel who serve with honor and integrity,
for chaplains who care for soldiers and their families;
for veterans whose experience has led them to say, "no more;"
for humanitarian groups, who care for the victims of violence;
for the fragile Christian community in Iraq
that continues to bear witness to the Gospel
under intense pressure and fear,
for public officials who have challenged this war
risking reputation and career.
The Gospel witness has not been completely silenced, and we are grateful.

My soul waits for God more than those who watch for the morning,
More than those who watch for the morning, I wait.
Today we call for an end
to war, to reliance on violence;
Today we call for humility and courage
to accept the futility of our current path.
Today we cry out for creativity
to seek new paths of peacemaking.
Today we call for repentance in our nation
and for recognition in our churches that security is found
in submitting to Christ, not by dominating others.

O People, hope in GOD!
May we join protest to prayer, support ministries of compassion,
and cast off the fear
that has made us accept the way of violence.
May we return again to the way of Jesus.
Thus may bloodshed end and cries be transformed
to the harmonies of justice and the melodies of peace.

For with GOD there is steadfast love, and great power to redeem.
For this we yearn, for this we pray,
and toward this end we rededicate ourselves
as children of a loving God
who gives "light to those who sit in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace."

O GOD, redeem your People from all iniquities.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bless you, Barack Obama

Today I was proud to be a part of the United Church of Christ for I saw a son of our flock, Barack Obama, speak honestly and boldly about hard, complicated and politically sensitive things like race, class and inequality. And he did it without throwing his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, under the bus for being a fiery and controversial Black preacher.

I've been with Pastor Wright in mixed race public settings -- and I've had the privilege of being the only white guy in a closed gathering of Black clergy in Cleveland -- and while the good Reverend's message was always challenging it is clear that in an African American context -- where the sisters and brothers share a common history of oppression, exploitation, struggle, courage, shame and anger -- Dr. Wright's words took on a different feel. And well they should! To be sure, he has spoken in ways that I don't always like - or agree with - but he hasn't been wrong. To speak of "chickens coming homing to roost..." is echoes of what? Remember Malcolm X after John Kennedy's assassination? To speak of hatred for Americans given our greed and hubris? Just remember back to the tears some of us shed when Palestinians were dancing in the street on the news after September 11th.

And brother Obama spoke to that experience - and how complicated it is - and how his experience has been shaped by the Black reality but not in a static way. Further, he spoke about how you can love your pastor (and as a pastor I know this first hand) and still disagree vigorously with whatever she/he might say on a particular issue. Further, he showed a face of the Church in America that has been missing in the fundamentalist hegemony of late: disagreeing without being disagreeable. Further, he did not disavow or betray Jeremiah because when we do that to those we love, it is like betraying our Lord -- an essential message for Holy Week with Good Friday just a few days away. So rock on, Barack! Help us be the people we could be if we had strength and faith and courage and love. And if this moment hurts you politically, you lived into the greater good and God bless you for it!

Monday, March 17, 2008

On Saint Patrick's Day

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

BeannachtFrom O'Donohue's Echoes of Memory

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Post-modern Palm Sunday 2008

There is a great deal of confusion about what it means to be Christian these days – perhaps this confusion has always been, or, it could be that I am just paying more attention – but it seems to me to be true. There are those, writes Frederick Buechner, who think:

That a Christian is one who necessarily believes certain things: that Jesus was the son of God… or that Mary was a virgin… or that the Pope is infallible or that all other religious are wrong. Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things: such as going to church, getting baptized, giving up liquor and tobacco, reading the bible and doing a good deed a day. And some think of a Christian as just a Nice Guy. But Jesus tells us simply: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life…” He did not say that any particular ethic, doctrine, denomination or religion was the way, the truth and the life – he said that he was. And he didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you would come into the Kingdom of God – he said that it was only by him – by living, participating and being caught up in the way of life that he embodied.

Thus it is possible (Buechner concludes) to be on Christ’s way and with his mark on you without ever having heard of Christ – and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God. So, at best all we can say is this: a Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank. Because, you see, a Christian isn’t necessarily any nicer than anybody else – just better informed.

And I believe that it is the Cross, more than any other reality in Christ’s way, that offers us truth and life in his Spirit. When Paul tried to distill the heart of Christ’s way for the early church, he spoke of the Cross: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

When the great 16th century reformer of the Western church, Martin Luther, addressed the core of Christ’s ministry in his day, he, too, went back to the via crucis – the way of the Cross – as the fount of all reliable information about Jesus. And as Douglas John Hall has noted in our own generation, it is the way of the Cross that gives us the truest sense of Christ our Lord:

“Against the image of a divine Jesus,” he writes, the Cross shows us one who “does not want to take us out of the world but to put us into it so that we might resist and even mend it!” Against the image of a judging Jesus, who blames the wounded and emphasizes sin, the Cross shows us one who “recruited reconcilers and stewards and poets of creation” – women and men set on building up rather than “gather about himself a ban of nihilists ready to push over what is falling a la Nietzsche.”

And against the image of the accepting Jesus, who with eyes cast on a distant shore pointing only to a reward in some other life, the one on the Cross exposes a God who “never accepts the violence, injustice, inequality and degradation of our social or natural environment.” “If we are serious about seeing Jesus here and now,” Hall concludes, “we shall have to jettison most of the other images of the Christ that circulate in our midst and prepare ourselves to meet the transforming Christ who calls us to participate in his transfiguration of the creation” from the Cross.

Even my dear friend, St. Briget of Tucson, post-modern feminist preacher, pastor and theologian extraordinaire, recently wrote to me that as she endured the collapse of her health, the destruction of her marriage and the chaos of her family in the court system, the love of God exposed on the Cross began to make more and more sense to her: This whole illness, my wife’s leaving, the insecurity of what is going on with the girls has so opened my eyes to this Jesus stuff. Phil has helped a lot too. He told me of a time when he nailed nails into Christ’s hands each day so that God would understand the pain he was in. I’ve gotten in touch with that myself. And since you’re my favorite atonement guy, I’m missing that conversation BIG time.

So on Palm Sunday, when the Christian Church is symbolically united in word and purpose, let me call you to give your attention to Christ and his Cross for a short time that together we might be of the same mind that was in Christ Jesus our Lord. Specifically I would like to call your attention to the Cross in relation to the palms, the passion and our post-modern American context.

The palms – an essential ingredient for this Sunday – always used to confuse me as a child. I loved getting them – and processing around the church while singing, “All Glory, Laud and Honor” was always a hoot, too. What confused me, however, was that it always felt as if Palm Sunday was more festive in our congregation than Easter – and even as a child that did not make sense to me. Palm Sunday was the start of the passion – the movement into Christ’s betrayal and death – so why did Easter – the feast of the resurrection – pale in comparison? I don’t know about your church, but there was always much more happening on Palm Sunday – from confirmation and new members to better music and more activity – so much so that Easter felt anti-climatic.

What’s more, for a long time Passion Sunday was celebrated the week before Palm Sunday which really didn’t make any sense to me. The whole rhythm of the story was thrown off so that we didn’t spend any time with the Cross on Palm Sunday – and therein lays the problem. You see, Palm Sundays growing up were all about the wonderful parade – the procession of Christ as Messiah – and it almost felt like a religious Fourth of July to me. It was a celebration – a proclamation – and my church used to do it up right! But we only spent time with the first part of the story – the Hosannas – it has only been in the last 20+ years that a new/old emphasis on the Passion has been fused back on to Palm Sunday – and that was the problem: if you just concentrate on the first part of the story, where the crowds are celebrating Jesus as Messiah, you miss the paradox and drama. In fact, if you just concentrate on shouting “Hosanna,” you miss the chance to also cry, “Crucify him” – and that is an essential ingredient we cannot forsake if we are to put on the mind of Christ.

What the whole story of Palm Sunday shows is that everybody – not just one group or another – but everybody turns on Jesus. Gil Baile, one of America’s leading peace preachers, notes that Jews, Romans, the Sanhedrin, disciples, friends and enemies alike – women and men, young and old – are all to blame here. “It’s not just this person or that person needing forgiveness. It’s about all of us needing forgiveness – not just the persons there on that fateful Good Friday, but also every crowd of persons throughout the ages who have ever needed or used scapegoats” to make themselves feel better. The palms – which we wave in joy today but burn into the ash of repentance later – point us to the crowd on Palm Sunday, reminding us how scapegoats and the Cross, hosanna and crucify him are inseparable whenever fear drives our religion. And lest we forget what a horrible, unholy mess we make whenever we pretend otherwise, think Golgotha, think Abu Grahib, Auschwitz or My Lai. To put on the mind of Christ, we begin with the palms and their fullness in the Cross – this is the first blessing.

Second, the passion, which the late Henri Nouwen speaks of as the time when Jesus gave up his activity in the world so that he could be handed over to the others: to be sure, he was arrested, but the scriptures tell us that he was literally “handed over.” Nouwen writes:

So this word, “to be handed over,” plays a central role in the life of Christ. Indeed, this drama of being handed over divides the life of Jesus radically in two. The first part of his life is filled with activity: Jesus takes all sorts of initiatives. He speaks, he preaches, he heals and he travels. But immediately after Jesus is handed over, he becomes the one to whom things are being done. He’s being arrested; he’s being led to the high priest; he’s being taken before Pilate; he’s being crowned with thorns; he’s being nailed to a cross. Things are being done to him over which he has no control – and that is the meaning of the passion: being the recipient o9f other people’s initiatives.

Interestingly, Nouwen came to this insight while caring for a dear friend who once had been a social activist, but now was bed ridden and moving towards death with cancer. He pleaded with Henri to “help me to think about this situation in a new way. Help me to think about my not being able to do anything anymore so that I won’t be driven to despair. Help me to understand what it means that now all sorts of people are doing things to me over which I have no control.” To which Nouwen replied, once again we must go to the Cross – the passion – the handing over which also brings new life, yes?

In this setting, you see, the passion becomes a kind of waiting – waiting for “what other people are going to do… and all action ends in this kind of waiting… it is the mystery of work, the mystery of love, the mystery of friendship and the mystery of community – for in life there is always waiting” – and always the passion. Sometimes we wait for healing, sometimes for death; sometimes we wait for our children to mature, or wars to cease, or fears to end or addictions to abate or simply time to pass – sometimes we wait for love to fill our lonely lives or even God to join us in our agony. How did Christ put it from the Cross: “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” In this realm, there is always waiting and so… there is always the passion of our Lord.

Now what’s really interesting to me is that Nouwen went on to tell his dying friend that it is only when Jesus is living into the passion – waiting for the fullness of God’s love to be revealed on the cross – that we see the heart of God shine through him most clearly. He prays: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He assures the thief beside him on the Cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

New life, therefore, becomes visible in Jesus not only in the resurrection on the third day, but already in the passion, in the being handed over…it is in the passion when Christ is a helpless victim on a symbol of desolation that the divinity of God bursts forth through him most clearly…exposing to the world a love that does not seek to control.

And that is the second blessing: a love that does not seek to control. Nouwen came to realize – and subsequently teach his old friend – that as Jesus made peace with the waiting – as he embraced being handed over – new life shone through him from God. And that new life did not end on the Cross, but is available to us always. To put on the full mind of Christ is to enter the passion and let that love that does not seek to control shine brightly from within.

In post-modern America, where truth is mistrusted as relative and the eternal presence of God in acts of justice and beauty are often discarded for the grim, hip cynicism that passes for wisdom, the Cross is rarely valued as a viable alternative to the status quo. War seems relentless, the prescient cry of economic insecurity persistent and the logic of bottom-line ethics essential. Heroes become zeroes, hypocrisy trumps integrity and fear and loathing are epidemic. Nevertheless, the Cross of our Lord continues to stand as a bold antithesis to the chaos and pain we create in spite of ourselves – and it promises to help us put on the mind of Christ so that we might live as agents of healing and hope in this broken and sin-filled world with patient compassion.

Today we gaze upon the Cross, as St. Paul reminds us, as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face. But even now, on this side of the resurrection, the passion illuminates faith, hope and love showing that the greatest is that love that does not seek to control. Beloved, this is the good news for those who have ears to hear and eyes to see; Lord, may it be so among us.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A word to sustain the weary

NOTE: The following was sent as a pastoral letter to pastors and other leaders throughout the United Church of Christ. I share it in solidarity...

The daily lectionary invites us to read these words from Isaiah’s Song of the Servant on Wednesday in Holy Week: The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning my morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.

On Wednesday, March 19, as we mark the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq we seek words to sustain those who have grown weary with the drumbeat of destruction and the cadence of injury and death that have accompanied us and the people of Iraq over these long years. We listen for words that can call us beyond our weary lament to action, wakening us to commitment, rousing us from resignation, calling us to hope. And we dare to claim the vocation of God’s Servant, sustaining a weary world with a Word that speaks and acts for justice and for peace.

The betrayals, deceptions, and moral compromises of this war weigh heavily upon us. With the disciples we have felt the urge to run away from courageous word and witness against the war. We have tried to wash our hands of complicity in the crucifixion of Iraq and its people. Here and in Iraq we have buried the dead, sometimes in dignity and honor, often in frightened secrecy. We have wept for all who have slaughtered in this conflict, but have shrunk from bearing the burden of the cross. This Holy Week the “judgment of the cross falls steady, clear, and sure.” Is there a word to sustain the weary?

A prayer written by the Rev. Yousif al Saka, an elder in the Presbyterian Church in Baghdad, offers one word, full of poignancy and promise:

We beseech You, we humble ourselves for the name of our Savior Jesus Christ, to send your Holy Spirit to shade the land of Iraq, so that peace may prevail in its dwellings, and the acts of violence, kidnapping and persecution may cease; so that the displaced may return to their homes, the churches may reopen their gates without fear from shells and explosion; so that smiles may be seen again on the faces of children that have been stolen from them here in this difficult time;so that the elderly may lean back on their chairs in comfort and tranquility saying farewell to their children when leaving for school or work without anxiety or fear;so that mothers think only of happy, prosperous, and peaceful futures for their daughters and sons. O Lord, have pity on us, we Iraqis. Let the light of your face shine on us, bless us, strengthen our belief, and bestow patience upon us.

Can this word keep alive an imagination born of God’s promise, free from the grip of the world’s imperial projects? Can this be a word to sustain us?

Amid our weariness on this sad anniversary day, and in the midst of our Holy Week pilgrimage, may we be confronted once again with a messenger telling us “Do not be afraid!” May we turn from our vigil over the dead and the dying to a courageous witness to life and peace in the Risen Christ. May our lights, reflecting the light of Christ, dispel the shadows, that morning by morning our voices may sing and our deeds proclaim, “The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions has dispersed; let shouts of holy joy outburst. Alleluia!”

John H. Thomas, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Reclaiming Good Friday

Good Friday has been discarded by most of the contemporary church and ignored by the rest of society. I believe the time has come to reclaim this day of mystery and lament - so on Friday, March 21st at 7 pm we will do just that.

Using the music of Cat Power, George Harrison, U2, Over the Rhine and the Beatles, we will blend together a mystical evening of reflection on what the Cross means for our time.

There will be visual art, silence, prayer, movement, candles as well as the ancient readings of Scripture for this new/old worship encounter. If you sense the world is out of balance, if you long for solace and deep, honest grieving for the wounds of the world, if you are concerned about justice, spirituality and how real people can become a source of hope and healing within the brokenness, please join us:

FIRST CHURCH ON PARK SQUARE - 27 East Street,Pittsfield, MA
7:00 pm MARCH 21ST, 2008
Our "liturgy of the nails" will include these songs:
Satisfaction (Cat Power), Isn't it a Pity (George Harrison), Please (U2), One of Us (Joan Osborne), Changes Come (Over the Rhine) and Let It Be (Beatles) in addition to American gospel and folk tunes.
Join us for a time of radical hospitality, deep grieving for the state of the world and honest prayer grounded in God's grace.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Honoring our bodies is tricky business

Loving our bodies is tricky business, isn’t it? After worship last week I was acutely aware of the complexities as I held our community in prayer. I thought of those among us whose bodies are aging: with ears that don’t work the way we would like and eyes that sometimes fail to see – joints that ache and feet that hurt – to say nothing of the wonderful effects of gravity. I thought, too, of our children and youth growing up in an ever sexualized and violent culture that encourages exposing young bodies in ways that are provocative and seductive at younger and younger ages to everyone’s loss. And I held in prayer those among us whose bodies seem like they are betraying them with pains and brokenness that can’t be repaired: believe me, I wrestle with how tough it is to authentically honor the body as a temple of the Lord just like you.

During my meditative bath last week (a Lenten homework assignment) I came across this poem – as you know I have developed an abiding love of poetry in these later years – and it really helped me put the complexity of honoring our bodies into perspective. It comes from Mark Doty who is reflecting on the illness and eventual death of his partner from AIDS. I’d like you to listen to it carefully and see what words or images stick with you, ok?

Michael writes to me his dream:
I was helping Randy out of bed,
Supporting him on one side
With another friend on the other,

And as we stood him up, he stepped out
Of the body I was holding and became
A shining body, brilliant light,
Held in the form I first knew him in.

That’s what I imagine will happen,
The spirit’s release. Michael,
When we support our friends,
One of us on either side, our arms

Under the man or woman’s arms,
What is it we’re holding? Vessel,
Shadow, hurrying light? All those years
I made love to a man without thinking

How little his body had to do with me;
Now, diminished, he’s never been so plainly
Himself – remote and unguarded,
An otherness I can’t know

The first think about. I said,
You need to drink more water
Or you’re going to turn into
An old dry leaf. And he said,

Maybe I want to be an old leaf.
In the dream Randy’s leaping into
The future, and still here; Michael’s holding him
And releasing him at once. Just as Steve’s

Holding Jerry, though he’s already gone,
Marie holding John, gone, Maggie holding
Her John, gone, Carlos and Darren
Holding another Michael, gone

And I’m holding Wally, who’s going.
Where isn’t the question,
Though we think it is;
We don’t even know where the living are,

In this raddled and unraveling “here.”
What is the body? Rain on a window,
A clear movement over whose gaze?
Husk. Leaf, little boat of paper

And wood to mark the speed of the stream?
Randy and Jerry, Michael and Wally
And John: lucky we don’t have to know
What something is in order to hold it.

Mmmmmmm… what IS this body – and how do we honor it? The first thing that comes to me has to do with the mystery and majesty of our bodies: Psalm 139 suggests that we are wonderfully and marvelously made by the Lord – who has formed our most inward parts and knows us inside and out – and loves us both inside and out. Notice that the Psalmist takes her time to make this point: Patrick Henry Reardon, Orthodox priest and scholar from Chicago, writes, “The Psalmist could have written, very simply, ‘Lord, your knowledge of me is total.’ This would have summarized the first strophe of the prayer – read Psalm 139: 1-6 – yet here, instead of one verb to describe God’s knowledge of the heart, the author uses six.” It takes time to honor our bodies as people of God, yes?

Further, God’s intimacy with us is multidimensional: it occurs in the darkness and the light, during heights and depths as well as in the earliest phases of creation our in our mother’s wombs. I think of St. Paul’s hymn from Romans:

We believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… for we know that in everything God works for good with those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes. Therefore, we are certain that neither death nor life, angles nor principalities, things present nor things to come, power, height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 1, 28, 38-39)

I think that this is a reminder, dear people, that being human in God’s image is a lifelong endeavor: we have been invited to integrate body and soul, heart and head as well as strength and weakness and even “both life and death. According to the Hebrew Scriptures, we are our bodies, just as we are our souls. One is not better than the other; both are irreplaceable parts of the human person.” (Paulsell, p. 17) To honor our bodies in the 21st century involves taking the time to reclaim their sacred, marvelous and mysterious origins in the Lord. Another way of saying this comes from Stephanie Paulsell who writes: "This is our task… to learn to see our bodies and the bodies of others through the eyes of God. To learn to see the body as both fragile and deeply blessed. To remember the body’s vulnerability and to rejoice in the body as a sign of God’s gracious bounty." (Paulsell, p. 34)

First, God calls us to take time with our bodies – indeed, even a lifetime – to pursue honoring our flesh with the eyes of the Lord. This leads me to a second thought: the church – our community of faith – has been charged with training us to see our bodies through the eyes of God. Apparently, this doesn’t happen automatically – we need to learn it – and practice it so that over time seeing with the eyes of the Lord happens with regularity. So let me ask you: how does our church train us to see our bodies and the bodies of others through the eyes of the Lord?

I have learned it in two very different ministries: pastoral care with the sick and dying, and, the nurture and education of our children. Over the years, I have had the privilege of being with a number of people and their loved ones during death. I have sung their favorite hymns with them when they could no longer speak and seen them move their lips in silent harmony. I have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with them as they passed from this life into the next and I waited quietly and patiently with lovers and children as they say good bye to their beloved in their own unique ways. What’s more, I have been present through death enough times to know that the dying almost always share a final gift with the living if we are quiet and attentive enough to notice.

There is a true story I want to share with you about a mother and daughter, Kay and Thelma, who ministered one to the other during Thelma’s last days. It seems that from the time Kay was little, she shared a love of bathing with her mother so it came as no surprise that when Thelma was close to the end, Kay would help her with one final bath. She writes: Mother insists on being clean, and today Amy and I invited her to a bath if she was up to it in the late afternoon. The appointed time came. Mom worked and worked and finally sat up on the side of the bed, legs down, feet toward the floor. Then the vomiting began, violent vomiting taking her last bit of strength. She told me to draw her bath, showing me with her hands how deep. I turned the bathroom heater on. I cleaned the hair out of the drain trap. I ran all hot water at first to warm the tub, then moderated it, checking with my wrist. She shuffled to the bathroom, sat down on a towel I had placed on the edge of the tub. We undressed her. She stood up, grabbed the grip bar that dad had installed for her. I stood behind her, straddling the tub, ready to catch her in case she fell. She told me I needed to trust her to know what she could do.

And then that precious body that I have looked at and loved and memorized lowered into the water. She never opened her eyes – just lay there – still and silent. Then she put her hand out and I placed a plastic cup in it as we had discussed I would. She slowly lifted a cup of water and poured it over her arms. Lying back down, she poured another cup over her throat and neck, sighing a tiny sound of pleasure. The waters sounded like baptism, holy, quiet, small splashes. (The bath ended with Kay pouring cup after cup of water onto her mother’s head, gently moving her fingers through the tiny bit of hair still growing there… and as Thelma let go of tiny sighs of pleasure, they were matched by the sobs rising up from inside of Kay as tears fell into the water of her mother’s last bath.)
(Paulsell, pp. 37-38)

I love those words – intimacy and compassion, tenderness and heart break, life and death all together – and so much more. Such dignity, such simplicity, such sacredness: there is much we can learn – and give – as we become the Body of Christ to one another in the church during times of death. Now here is something truly remarkable to me: I first shared that story about 5 years ago back in Tucson – and as I did I noticed a young woman who had been in our church youth group when I first arrived in the last row and she and her mother were holding one another and sobbing. At first I thought they were simply touched by the tenderness of Kay’s story, but when I saw them both get up during the last hymn and leave the sanctuary in deeper tears, I knew something was up. Curiously, her dad, a former fighter pilot, was softly weeping, too.

Thankfully he stayed around after worship to tell me that just the night before in Phoenix, where their daughter was living, something horrible and frightening had happened – something that nearly took their baby’s life – and they had brought her home a total wreck just a few hours before. Later I came to find out that the whole thing had something to do with alcohol, cars, hanging with the wrong people and an interrupted act of sexual violence. But on Sunday all I knew was tears, sorrow and an odd rejoicing. A few weeks passed and I received a homemade tape of music from my old youth group girl – and a note saying: “I still can’t talk about that night, James, but when you spoke of honoring our bodies – and told that story of Kay and Thelma and that bath – all I could do was cry because I realized God had been watching out for my body that night. Even when I was not paying attention, God was there. So thank you for helping me reclaim the eyes of the Lord… maybe now I can get things right.”

I saw her again that Christmas – she still looked fragile -- but a few months later her dad and I met her in Phoenix for a Springsteen concert where she told me that things were starting to turn around. She never said much more about that Sunday, but it was clear that a healing had happened. Churches, you see, when they are faith communities helping one another see with the eyes of the Lord, can be places of blessing. Healing and hope, too.

Jesus was clear: healing and honoring our bodies are a priority for us. Born of love and expressed in tenderness, we come to know that we are wondrously and marvelously made. And what has been shared with us must then be given back to the world. This is our task: “to learn to see our bodies and the bodies of others through the eyes of God – to learn to see the body as both fragile and deeply blessed – and to remember the body’s vulnerability as we rejoice in the body as a sign of God’s gracious bounty.” Lord, may it be so among us according to your will.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Honoring our sacred and vulnerable bodies for Lent

Last Sunday I started a short Lenten series concerning “honoring our bodies” – and let me tell you that it has opened up a host of important questions for our faith community. Whenever you gather four generations of women and men – and their children – and start talking about living in ways that honor the image of God within and among us, sparks start flying. Some of us have been trained to neglect our bodies, others have been encouraged to indulge them and all of us have learned to hate our bodies when they fail to look like the latest sexy models – and this includes men as well as women. Think the FX-TV show, “Nip and Tuck.” Think of young women cutting themselves just to know they are alive. Think of women perpetually dieting and men regularly ignoring their wounds and stress only to die the day after they retire of a heart attack.

And just to make life more complicated, we Christians have to wrestle with our twisted spiritual legacy that on one hand celebrates the flesh – we are made in God’s image, Christ is God incarnated in the flesh whose body was resurrected – and on the other fears and denies it. Dear St. Bruce of Asbury Park, NJ captured this dilemma between flesh and spirit – to say nothing of the battle between the spirit of Jerusalem and the spirit of Antioch – best in his song, “Pink Cadillac.”

Well now way back in the Bible
Temptations always come along
There's always somebody tempting
Somebody into doing something they know is wrong
Well they tempt you, man, with silver
And they tempt you, sir, with gold
And they tempt you with the pleasures
That the flesh does surely hold
They say Eve tempted Adam with an apple
But man I ain't going for that
I know it was her pink Cadillac
Crushed velvet seats
Riding in the back
Oozing down the street
Waving to the girls
Feeling out of sight
Spending all my money on a Saturday night
Honey I just wonder what it feels like in the back of your pink Cadillac?
(NOTE: you may recall that Elvis bought his momma a Pink Cadillac after hitting number one. Springsteen loves to play with Elvis iconography as he explores life, faith, sexuality and politics in America. Also see "Johnny Bye Bye" on Tracks.)

So what’s a congregation to do? Stephanie Paulsell suggests three healing and hopeful alternatives to the status quo in her book, Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice. First she reminds us that no matter how hard we try to be strong, our bodies are fundamentally vulnerable: we know pain, we are wounded easily, and we can be broken in body and soul. Second, in order to truly care for our vulnerable bodies, we need others. “Fragile bodies require communal care… Young people encountering the pleasures and pains of sexual desire for the first time need a village just like small children. They need guidance and support from communities that openly articulate sexuality is a good gift. People who are so sick that they feel their bodies have betrayed them need to be touched by those who believe deeply in the goodness of the body.” And third, as we embrace our own vulnerability, we are called into solidarity with others – especially the poor and those suffering injustice.

I concluded my Sunday message with a homework assignment (as I am want to do): take a meditative bath sometime this week and see what you discover. Well, I actually said, “Here’s what I want you to do as this week’s Lenten discipline: take a bath! Not because you are dirty or need additional personal hygiene. But rather take a bath as a prayer – a body prayer – that invites you to be sensually in touch with God’s temple of the Holy Spirit for you.” Well, after the laughter, people told me what a great prayer that might be (we’ll see how many really do it) because, young and old alike said, mostly they have been too busy to take a bath. One woman even said, “I haven’t used my bath tub in 30 years!”

In a culture obsessed with body image and sexuality, the Christian community has a great opportunity to restore some balance and health if we can relearn to honor our bodies. There is so much body pain in our time – so much abuse and conflict and self-hatred, too. While in New York at an arts conference last week I came across this poem by Julianna Baggott that made me weep. It is called, “Ethel Water’s Mother, Louise – Raped at Twelve – Cannot Listen to her Daughter Sing ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow.’”

Lord, I know that the hem of your robe
could fill a temple – a flood of ribbon,
and now your hem pours from her mouth?
It is you, Lord, called up from her,
a song to teach me a lesson
for not raising my own girl.
I would rather listen to barking dogs,
the gagged utterances of the mute,
my own mother crying
over dirt, a grave.
It is my sadness that Ethel sings, Lord,
my grief riding your hem.
(This hem will not cure me.)
She may think it is her own sorrow,
but each note, so whole, so unbroken –
so lush it is from your robe, born
of your hem that could fill a temple,
that once filled me
(temples can be destroyed)
and that hem
has always been made of song,
the kind too tender for the world,
the kind only a little pregnant raped girl
can call back into her mouth
and swallow,
and Ethel was the baby inside
who, there, within my slender ribs – a cage –
first pursed her lips learning
to suckle and sing my grief.

I give thanks to the women and men and children of this congregation – and the artists among us, too – who with fear and courage are willing to find new/old ways of honoring our bodies. It may be one of the only ways to make the hope of the Lord flesh in our time.

Quick thoughts on a New York excursion

I was in the wonderful town of New York last week for the International Arts Movement annual conference. It was a full and blessed time of intellectual stimulation, making connection with other folk concerned with spirituality and the arts and critical reflection on transforming our culture. The central theme of the encounter was restoring the place of beauty: there are three fundamental truths that have always inspired and guided social transformation -- truth, justice and beauty. During the time of postmodern relativism, there was not a foundation for thinking about these realities in any objective way; but since September 11th that has changed. I will have more to say about all of this -- as well as some ideas stirring in my local congregation -- at a later time. For now, let me call your attention to the art and writing of IAM founder, Makoto Fugimura:

Let me also call your attention to an experiment in liturgy and the arts a few artists and I are working on for this Good Friday: March 21st at 7 PM at First Church on Park Square in Pittsfield, MA. We will be taking some of the ancient readings for Good Friday and blending them with a variety of contemporary songs - from Cat Power and George Harrison to Over the Rhine and U2 - to reclaim the power and challenge of Good Friday. The goal is clear: mixing contemporary art and music with traditional liturgy with the hope that both the old and the new illumine one another. Hearing Cat Power sing the Rolling Stone's, "Satisfaction" in the context of the conflict of Judas is wild - and makes great sense to me. We shall see if it resonates with others. And when U2 implores religious zealots to "please... get up of your knees" that, too,speaks to me in these weird electoral times of war and peace and religious scape goating. More soon.

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:...