Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Helplessly hoping...

"How good and pleasant it is, when sisters and brothers live together in unity! It is like fine oil upon the head that runs down the beard of Aaron (brother of Moses and first High Priest of Israel) and on to the collar of his robe. Unity and cooperation is like the dew that falls on Mt. Hermon that falls upon the hills of Zion. For there the Lord has ordained this blessing: life for evermore."

As I anticipate working ever more closely with area musicians in the Berkshires - not only on our Thanksgiving Eve projects of sharing music and poetry of gratitude with others (and maybe raising some money to help those in need of emergency heat) but in building a loving and respectful interfaith community of cooperation and trust - two truths continue to grow strong: First, when people of spirit move together and find ways of expressing and sharing beauty with others - in music, art and acts of compassion - we find a deep unity that transcends our differences. We found great solidarity recently with lots of sisters and brothers cleaning the river over the last few months. Same is true building Habitat houses in Pittsfield or in New Orleans. Or feeding our neighbors who are hungry. A deep sense of respect and unity is born when we find ways of being together for the common good.

Crosby, Stills and Nash come to mind in this regard: I remember growing up with the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and the Hollies (to say nothing of Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones.) But when these cats sang together - on their first album and in the various CSN&Y incarnations of the years - they brought all these gifts together to create something deeper and more beautiful. Just take a listen to "Helplessly Hoping" from 1969...

Second, as Psalm 133 suggests, when we open ourselves to going deeper into beauty and compassion - regardless of ideology or even religious tradition - the whole community experiences a saturation of blessing. The ancient poet of Israel speaks of the oil saturating Aaron's beard and gown and the dew "descending all the way from Mt. Hermon up to Syria, down to Jerusalem and into Judah." (Christ in the Psalms, Patrick Henry Reardon, p. 266)

That is why, I suspect, James Hillman urges us to speak of depth rather than growth: we need to mature, ripen, percolate and gestate rather than simply expand, grow or multiply. One of my favorite poets, Coleman Barks sharing the wisdom of Rumi, puts it like this in "Love Dogs" as he speaks of depth and emptiness...

Today a young man came into my study and spoke of spiritual questions and when I found myself sharing this very poem we were both speechless for a moment... and then I gave him a volume of Rumi poems that just happened to be sitting on my desk. (Just happened... yes?) Less than an hour later I was eating with another man who told me of his quest to bring a great jazz organist to the area - an artist who has worked with Paul Winter - an artist he met earlier this summer in Nova Scotia who just happens to have family in our area.

How good and pleasant it is, indeed, when sisters and brothers dwell together... in unity.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Two very different gifts

As many of you know by now, I believe that there are two very important gifts that artists can share with a hurting world: beauty and truth. They come in many forms but both are essential for they can "heal the world."

Often the blessing of beauty comes my way through music - and I just received this totally awesome film clip of a colleague and friend sharing music - she works with students of all types including those who are seriously challenged. (Due to funding realities/worries I have had to take down the original posting with one of her students which was too kewel for school; perhaps we can resurrect it but until then... dig this sweet clip.)

Jessica joined our band, Between the Banks, a few weeks ago for a time of music as embodied prayer and man, does she get it! I am so blessed to have played with her - and she will be joining us again on October 26th at 3 pm when we lead worship for the Berkshire Association of the United Church of Christ. (And I think she's going to join the party on Thanksgiving Eve, too, when local musicians and poets get together for a time of song, prayer and deep gratitude!)

Another clip I just saw left me speechless once again and in awe of what artists are able to to do with enough time and the right encouragement (and money!) It comes from a great movie that I continue to love and appreciate: "Across the Universe." My "faith and film" crew watched it together. This reworking of the Beatles' "Let It Be" - set in the context of the Detroit riots of 1965 and the escalating war in Vietnam - is another genre bender that brings out the gospel truths of this song better than anything I have seen in a long, long time.

All I can say is Thank God... thank God... thank God.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Reclaiming our symbols...

Today, as we sang the Wailin' Jennys' song, "One Voice," in church, I was struck with an awareness of how undernourished our collective soul is when it comes to feeding our deepest needs. Gertrud Mueller-Nelson writes: "Without a way to consciously feed and express our naturally religious nature, we create a vacuum - a void - which is quickly filled in with its unconscious counterpart. Our religious hunger is not passing away; rather, our loss of nurturance only makes us more aware..." that we are hungry for meaning, fulfillment and wholeness. (To Dance with God, p, 12)

Like Jung before her, Mueller-Nelson reminds me that nature abhors a vacuum and that without a conscious way of feeding our soul, we become obsessed with "low grade religious experiences which bedevil and taunt." For example: Instead of having ritual ways to meet the awesome, we are overawed by our ritual habits, our fears and symptoms. In place of the periodic, holy fast, we have become slaves to our perennial diets. In exchange for "carrying our cross" in the constructive suffering that every life requires, we complain of low back pain. The old taboos - which we think we are freed of - crop up as new varieties of superstitious and we take another vitamin.

The neurotic is religious material done unconsciously. Compulsive behaviors are the rites and ceremonies of the unconscious which have taken control of our nature. Symptoms and compulsions are the symbolic language of the soul begging to be translated out into consciousness - asking to be heard and enacted on the correct level. Neurosis is the modern parody of religion and the consequence of our lost orientation to the sacred.

Today's song brought her words back to mind because when I asked the congregation to reflect on what they had experienced and discerned from this beautiful and haunting tune - that adds layer upon layer to suggest the cost and joy of discipleship - at first they were speechless. They looked perplexed: "what do you mean describe what we discerned about becoming the body of Christ through a song?" said their eyes.

So I had to tease a response out of these gentle souls until eventually someone"noticed" (as the spiritual directors say) how each verse brought in a new harmony that was carefully woven into the fabric of the melody that simultaneously strengthened the entire song while giving it new depth and nuance, too. "It was like a tapestry" someone else said. Not a performance, however, or an incidental or entertainment, but a way of practicing and even experiencing the promise and responsibility of choosing to be part of the body of Christ. Each part built upon the next carefully and tenderly...

Paul is precise when he speaks of the church as a body in Romans: We are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we're talking about is Christ's body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn't amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ's body, let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren't.

One of the on-going challenges many of us face doing ministries of renewal seems to involve reclaiming ways to nourish our souls in community. It would seem that ministry - and music and visitation and acts of compassion and deep prayer - have been so professionalized and privatized for so long that many folks have forgotten that the church IS NOT a place where the minister ministers and the congregation congregates. That is a spectator sport. Rather, what the living body of Christ does is far more engaging and fun: we share the fullness of real life together. And so we have to reclaim singing - and visiting - and prayer and all the rest in an intentional way if we want to feed our souls in a healthy way.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live. (Isaiah 55: 2-3) The words of one of my dearest hymns comes to mind, too:
Won't you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.
We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road,
We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
I will hold the Christ light for you in the shadow of your fear
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I'll laugh with you
I will share your joy and sorrow till we've seen this journey through.

Somebody who is helping feed our collective soul in popular culture is Sarah McLachlan: she helps give shape and form to that spiritual hunger that so many have lost touch of but ache to have satisfied.

"Beauty," observes Buechner, "is to the spirit what food is to the flesh...unlike food, however, it is something you never get your fill of. It leaves you always aching with longing not so much for more of the same as for whatever it is, deep within and far yeond both it and yourself, that makes it beautiful. The beauty of holiness is how the Psalms name it (Psalm 29:2) and as 'the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee' (PSalm 42) is the way they describe the ache and the longing." (Whistling in the Dark, p.21) I think he's on to something...

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Art and Beauty as a "Thin Place"

In a book entitled, The Spirituality of Art, Lois Huey-Heck notes that "the Cross is sometimes understood as indicating a meeting place of spirit (the vertical bar) and matter (the horizontal bar...) and so the Cross becomes an image of the divine becoming human and the human becoming divine." (p. 17) As I have noted in other essay, I see the Cross also being that symbol for the church - the connection of the holy and the human - where we nourish our intimacy with God as well as our responsibilities to sisters and brothers in community.

This symbol has no "bottom line" to it: in fact, symbols are multi layered and complex - nuanced and inviting - rather than ideological. And what strikes me is that in this age of capitalism on steroids, where so many have forgotten how to go deeper and even notice the subtleties of heart and soul, the symbolic nature of art and the lure of beauty have a role to play in our healing. Could it be that as the US tries to figure its way out of the sins of our hyper-individualistic and greedy age - to say nothing of a war that cannot be won in a traditional sense - artists have a unique calling?

As my 12 step friends keep telling me, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got." And now it is not just the progressive religious world crying out that the "emperor has no clothes," but Wall Street and Main Street and every one in between sees it is true, too.

It is demoralizing, however, to listen to the current crop of political experts offer solutions that are so stupid and short sighted - they are all bright and committed - but as the Wall Street crisis continues to be exploited by fear and partisan bickering it is soul numbing because it is clear they have no deep vision. They have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, hearts that cannot discern the magnitude of suffering they have caused. Bono put it like this: "It's extraordinary to me that the United States can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G8 can't find $25 billion dollars to saved 25,000 children who die every day from preventable diseases."

Our sisters and brothers in the wider church in the 2/3rds world have recently issued "the Micah challenge" writing: "We know your works of love; these works have allowed millions of human beings for many generations in our countries in the South to receive the gospel, the Grace of Jesus Christ and the power of His Salvation. The U.S. church's untiring missionary effort planted in our lands Hope in Him who came to reconcile EVERYTHING. Nevertheless, the political, social and economic situation in the places where this hope has been announced is increasingly distressing. Millions of people in the global South are dying of hunger, violence and injustice. These situations of poverty and pain are not simply the product of the internal functions of our countries; rather they are the results of the international policies of the governments that wield global power." (For more information: http://www.micahchallenge.us/letter_to_the_church.shtml)

I think of that section from Isaiah 14 where God asks Jerusalem to ponder its loss - to reflect on what has happened and grieve - as a prelude to healing but they cannot because they are unable to see beyond their self-centeredness: As when a hungry man dreams he is eating and awakes with his hunger not satisfied, or as when a thirsty man dreams he is drinking and awakes faint, with his thirst not quenched, so shall the multitude of all the nations be that fight against Mount Zion. Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor, blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink! For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes, the prophets, and covered your heads, the seers. And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed.

When men give it to one who can read, saying, "Read this," he says, "I cannot, for it is sealed." And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, "Read this," he says, "I cannot read." And the Lord said: "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid." Woe to those who hide deep from the LORD their counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, "Who sees us? Who knows us?" You turn things upside down!

Proverbs 29: 18 is so clear: Where there is no vision, the people perish. And the vision of both the wisdom tradition and the prophets is NOT bottom line, political posturing a la Carl Rove et al. Rather, vision (chazown from the Hebrew chazah) has to do with perception and inspiration of an almost ecstatic type - think art, beauty, poetry, music and dance - rather than policy and short term political or economic fixes. Think of the visions of Israel's poetic artists:

+ Isaiah: Hey there! All who are thirsty, come to the water! Are you penniless? Come anyway—buy and eat! Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk. Buy without money—everything's free! Why do you spend your money on junk food, your hard-earned cash on cotton candy? Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best, fill yourself with only the finest. Pay attention, come close now, listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words... I don't think the way you think. The way you work isn't the way I work." God's Decree."For as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think.Just as rain and snow descend from the skies and don't go back until they've watered the earth, doing their work of making things grow and blossom, producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry, so will the words that come out of my mouth not come back empty-handed. They'll do the work I sent them to do, they'll complete the assignment I gave them. "So you'll go out in joy, you'll be led into a whole and complete life. The mountains and hills will lead the parade, bursting with song. All the trees of the forest will join the procession, exuberant with applause. No more thistles, but giant sequoias, no more thornbushes, but stately pines—Monuments to me, to God, living and lasting evidence of God."

+ Ezekiel: God grabbed me. God's Spirit took me up and set me down in the middle of an open plain strewn with bones. He led me around and among them—a lot of bones! There were bones all over the plain—dry bones, bleached by the sun. He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "Master God, only you know that." So God said to me, "Prophesy over these bones: 'Dry bones, listen to the Message of God!'" I prophesied just as I'd been commanded. As I prophesied, there was a sound and, oh, rustling! The bones moved and came together, bone to bone. I kept watching. Sinews formed, then muscles on the bones, then skin stretched over them. But they had no breath in them. So God said to me, "Prophesy to the breath. Prophesy, son of man. Tell the breath, 'God, the Master, says, Come from the four winds. Come, breath. Breathe on these slain bodies. Breathe life!'" So I prophesied, just as he commanded me. The breath entered them and they came alive! They stood up on their feet, a huge army. Then God said to me, "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Listen to what they're saying: 'Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, there's nothing left of us.' "Therefore, prophesy. Tell them, 'God, the Master, says: I'll dig up your graves and bring you out alive—O my people! Then I'll take you straight to the land of Israel. When I dig up graves and bring you out as my people, you'll realize that I am God. I'll breathe my life into you and you'll live. Then I'll lead you straight back to your land and you'll realize that I am God. I've said it and I'll do it. God's Decree.'

+ Micah: God has already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women.It's quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love and don't take yourself too seriously—take God seriously.

Enter the contemporary artist - seeing deeply, thinking symbolically, sharing what we hold in common or else pointing to the ugly suffering that wounds some while others live off their agony - and the task is clear. Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc" comes to mind right now - full of grief and symbols and oh God, such longing - it feels to me like this moment in history: so ripe with possibility yet so trapped in blindness. His art helps us feel this time - his music and passion connect us to that thin place we all share where the holy and human embrace - if we have eyes to see and hearts to feel.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Rainy Day Songs...

It is a totally blue day in the Berkshires: chilly, rainy, gray with the threat of winter just beyond what is obvious. I love these days and used to miss them terribly when we lived in Tucson. For those who don't have them in your blood, these days are kind of weird because they are somber and not clearly fun - rather like that old 70s song, "Rainy Days and Mondays" which I still love - but they are lovely in a quiet, introverted way.

This odd little song, by this odd little man (Paul Williams), is so melancholy and sweet. It captures perfectly what today feels like to me. We spent the better part of the morning reading the New York Times with hot tea and then wandered around the public library finding all sorts of little treasures. (That's another peculiar thing that I adore - wandering around libraries without an obvious plan - simply discovering unexpected blessings in the most unlikely places.) Today I found a new book based on Henri Nouwen's spiritual director teaching notes from his time at Yale Divinity School... plus some GREAT CDs including Maryanne Faithfull singing the tunes of Bertolt Brecht and some sweet acoustic guitar picking.

Three other rainy day songs come to mind: James Taylor's "Rainy Day Man" which is another one of those totally mellow/melancholy 70s tunes that seem to flow through my veins. This version is just too, too sweet - the essence of ol' Sweet Baby James - and it just feeds my soul to hear it again. (I LOVE this arrangement, too, essentially the sound of our current church band.)

Second would have to be Tom Rush's "No Regrets" which just sounds like a rainy day feels... I can remember seeing him play with my first real serious lover way back when: Man, this song is just all heartbreak and blowing leaves and tears... I dig it sooooo much! (This is from one of Tom's more recent gigs and it is too kewel that he's still doing what he does so well for so long...interestingly, another 70s thing for me.)

Which brings me to Eric Anderson's "Thirsty Boots," his tune about civil rights marchers and people committed to a cause who have a hard time staying put and loving the ones their with: this version includes Judy Collins and is totally lovely. I have been listening and playing this tune for 40 years and I never get tired of it.

And then just for because... my all time favorite Bobby Dylan song which always seems to push its way into my consciousness about this time of year: "Tomorrow Is Such a Long Time."

I call these kinda sad tunes to your attention because I continue to reflect on this quote from dear Frederick Buechner:

You never know what may cause tears. The sight of the Atlantic Ocean can do it, or a piece of music, or a face you’ve never seen before. A pair of somebody’s old shoes can do it. Almost any movie made before the great sadness that came over the world after the the Second World War, a horse cantering across a meadow, the high school basketball team running out onto the gym floor at the start of a game. You can never be sure. But of this you can be sure. Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention. They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go to next.

More than almost anyone else, Buechner continues to name the "signs of the times" that are at work within me - and for this I think him almost prophetic. And, so, on this rainy day in the quiet Berkshires, it is a prayer to hear these songs and let the tears come... and in time I will learn what the tears are telling me. For now I just give thanks... Makes me think of the Beatles so long ago and another song about "Rain."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thanks be to God for my United Church of Christ...

I LOVE this promo... not only because this little girl is so damned cute (and reminds me of my own daughters when they were that age) but because it is TRUE! The United Methodist Church did an ad campaign about being a church of the open doors but they lock out gay and lesbian clergy. I give thanks for my United Church of Christ... even if some of my New England friends (the birth place of this denomination) continue to be bewildered. Thanks be to God for the UCC!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One voice... making a choice for community

NOTE: This week in worship I will continue a series of conversations about our emerging mission statement which reads: In community with God and each other, we gather to reflect on our Christian faith, do justice and share compassion. Last week I encouraged the community to trust that God will provide - and to be careful about too much complaining during our transitions - because "murmuring" deadens us to the still small voice. This week I hope to share ideas about how to live and mature in Christian community. Specifically I want to underscore the practices of sharing compassion in humble service and looking for opportunities in our ordinary lives for times of gentle service as keys to getting over ourselves. We shall see...

Some of you know that my theology of the church is rather simple: it comes down to two parts – the two wooden beams that make up the Cross, actually – and I have come to believe that the Cross tells us all we really need to know about church. First is the vertical beam – our personal and even mystical relationship or connection with God – that nourishes and challenges us from the inside out by grace.

And second is our horizontal connection to the Lord – the cross beam – that we sometimes call community, fellowship or koinonia: it, too, is a way of meeting the Living God and being nourished and challenged by the very heart of Christ Jesus. Both beams are essentials for the Jesus life for you can’t have a Cross with only one or the other; and the Cross always points to the counter-cultural wisdom that shapes Christian spirituality at its best:

If you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all.

When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on th
e status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn't claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
(Philippians 2, The Message)

This morning, therefore, I sense we are being called to consider what it means to be Christ’s community formed in the image of the Cross. Our emerging mission statement tells us that that “in community with God and each other we gather…” and let me say that again: “in community with God and each other, we gather…”

+ Not, we sit all by ourselves and meditate – although that has merit.

+ Not we believe that religion is all about our own, personal spiritual needs – even though they are real and matter deeply to God.

+ And not we gather among people on Sunday because it is an obligation or some mildly sweet and nostalgic holdover of a former and gentler era.

No, we sense that we have been called by God to gather together in community – as the horizontal beam of Christ’s Cross – trusting that as we become servants to one another and the world in the image of Jesus, we become part of God’s kingdom of transformation and healing that has no end. In a word, we gather together in community to become one with Jesus. Which is totally counter-cultural in our marketplace-on-steroids context that asks us to evaluate everything we do according to the bottom line and seduces us into living like we are the center of the universe: that is a part of the mystery of the Cross, too.

And while I suspect that living into the horizontal beam of the Cross has always been challenging, in an era that has so forgotten its manners and commitments to the common good as ours… let’s just say that it is no wonder people treat the church like a club or a civic organization: we have forgotten – or maybe never knew – that at its heart the church is the living body of Christ in a new form.

Are you with me on that? Do you know what I mean when I say that the church is the living body of Christ in a new form? There are three central Bible passages that are helpful and perhaps we should briefly consider them: Matthew 25: 31-46, I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12.

All of these passages – and more, to be sure – underscore what it means to live and meet God within the horizontal beam of the Cross. First is that section of Matthew that I think every church member should know backwards and forwards because it is the answer to our final exam: when did we see you, Lord?

When I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me a drink, homeless and you gave me a room, shivering and you gave me clothes, when I was sick and you stopped to visit, and when I was in prison and you didn’t leave me alone and forgotten. Whenever you did this unto one of the least of our sisters and brothers, you did it to me.

Did you get that? Our horizontal connection is NOT limited to those who are the official and historic members of the congregation – and it has nothing to do with how much or little a person puts into the collection plate. No, the first insight into the horizontal beam of the Cross of community has to do with hurt and need: when did we see thee suffering, Lord…? Whenever you saw one of the least of my sisters and brother, you saw me, too. This is lesson one in what it means to meet God within the living body of Christ.

Lesson two and three come from St. Paul who puts it like this:
You can easily enough see (what I am talking about) by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you're still one body. It's exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

In other words, everybody has a part to play – great and small – everybody is needed in the living body – and nobody is more important or valuable than another. And then Paul gives us our marching orders for serving God in the body and meeting Christ through community:

Each one of you gets meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. And the body we're talking about is Christ's body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn't amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ's body, let's just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren't. So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Was that clear? There are three components to living together as the Body of Christ and meeting God in community: caring for those in need with compassion, doing our part as servants rather than control freaks and finding time everyday in our ordinary lives to practice giving to others rather than taking.

Now let’s be honest: I’m not saying this is easy – we’re talking about the Cross – but it is simple and clear. To be the church – to live the Jesus life in community – to act as the living body of Christ in the world demands compassion, humble service and practice… lots and lots of practice.

One of my favorite stories of the Baal Shem Tov, father of the Hassidic movement in European Judaism, tells of the master’s students questioning him about the wisdom of another teacher. “Every year we travel many miles to learn from you, Rebbe” they said. “And nothing could make us stop doing that. But we have learned of a man in our own town who claims to be a tzaddik, a righteous one. If he is genuine, we would love to profit from his wisdom. But how will we know if he is a fake?"

The Baal Shem Tov looked at his earnest Hasidim. "You must test him by asking him a question." He paused. "You have had difficulty with stray thoughts during prayer?" "Yes! Yes, of course" the hasidim answered eagerly. "We try to think only of our holy intentions as we pray, but other thoughts come into our minds. We have tried many methods not to be troubled by them." "Good," said the Baal Shem Tov. "Then ask him the way to stop such thoughts from entering your minds… and if he has an answer, he is a fake."

It takes practice to meet Christ in community – small acts of compassion and forgiveness many times each day – which is one of the reasons I have come to consider music one of the ways to practice entering the body of Christ. Singing can be prayer for me as some of you know – it is both a deeply mystical experience and a way to learn how to live – and there is a song we’ve been playing with called “One Voice” that makes the teaching of Jesus and Paul clear. See if you grasp what I mean as we share it with you – and you can join in, too – as the Spirit leads, ok?

What did you hear – or get – or experience in that prayer/song? To me that song is neither performance nor secular: it is a sacred discipline that makes visible one of the ways we can practice meeting God’s grace together in community. I think it is what Jesus was telling us in this morning’s parable of the two brothers: one said he would go do his father’s work and didn’t and the other said he was too busy but later changed his mind and did the labor but both children, it would seem, have some issues, yes?

Given the Palestinian context, you see, both sons would have dishonored and insulted their father: one said he would obey but didn’t while the other publicly challenged poppa but later repented. Do you see where this is going?

It is a story about doing God’s will in community – about changing not just our minds but also what we care about and are most concerned for – it is, you see, fundamentally a story about practicing the horizontal commitments of the Cross in community.

It is our song “One Voice” that recognizes that all of us are singers in the band – soloists and choir, rock’n’rollers and classically trained – tax collectors and prostitutes alongside church council and charter members – those with membership papers and those who just showed up not knowing entirely why they are here accept that they ache for a taste of God’s grace.

To be the body of Christ takes practice – a change of heart and a change of mind – a conscious commitment to compassion, humble service and daily practice. With it, Jesus says, God’s kingdom will be within and among us but without such practice we will be sent empty away. So let those who have ears to hear, hear the sound of one voice... making a choice for community.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I LOVE this place...

Many of my old East Coast or Southwest friends giggle when I tell them how much I LOVE living in Pittsfield - but it is totally true. (Some, however, know me as the ordained version of Chris in the Morning.) It is interesting, after growing up in the megalopolis of Boston/New York/Washington, DC - and choosing to go into urban ministry after studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and spending time in San Francisco, St. Louis and Cleveland - it would seem that I have been moving further and further away from metropolitan life with each phase of my ministry.

And now we live in a place that I lovingly call "Northern Exposure." Now, for some, that is a hip, big city put down of small town life, but I am enthralled with how different life is here - and how much healthier and holier it is, too. Tonight, for example, after watching my new favorite TV show, "Fringe," (and after having a GREAT band practice where we NAILED a new song, "One Voice,") I started flipping the channels and wound up on cable access. And to my delight and shock, there was a local entertainer, George Morrell, hosting THE most psychedelic and diverse 30 minute variety show I have seen since either Arthur Godfrey or Ted Mack back in the 1950s!

This guy was freakin' incredible - singing ballads, inviting a bunch of 80s looking young women tap dancers to perform along with a polka duo from North Adams - and he was accompanied by a blind guitar player. I laughed, cried and gave thanks to God that real, local talent (and there is lots of latitude in that word) have a chance to be on TV here. This really is God's country. And I am not being a snotty East Coast intellectual when I say that: people matter here - and it is beautiful. I give thanks that for a while God has led us to this wonderful and gentle place.

Take a look at these guys (from Dianne's camera video)...

Monday, September 22, 2008

A turning point...

Tonight my "Film and Faith" discussion group watched "The Lives of Others" together - and what a beautiful, powerful turning it point was for us all. Last year, during Lent, we began this experiment of gathering to talk about "Chocolat" which was a new way into Lent for my Yankee Puritans - and we had up to 18 people some nights.

Then we decided to deepen the "feasting" theme and watched "Babette's Feast" and "The Shawshank Redemption" with a discussion. It was a smaller crowd but about 15 stalwarts at the end put together a community feast that was freakin' incredible. Then we took a summer break, but as the days and nights got cooler we found ourselves back together watching a series of films about beauty, the power of the arts and where we see God at work in real life.

This is a long movie - over 2 hours - but we still took some time to talk about the turning points in this beautiful film of an East German Statsi officer whose conscience is awakened when he sees the corruption, greed and lust that is at the heart of his bankrupt government. I won't spoil it for those who haven't watched it yet, but let me give you a few observations from our all too brief discussion:

+ One, true believers who cannot handle paradox and the complexities of love in real life are always dangerous.

+ Two, sometimes beauty CAN save a soul - and a society - as when the secret policeman hears the anguished piano music written shortly before a composer's suicide. (This scene is when the movie turns in an important way... and it is grounded in music, beauty and acts of compassion!)

+ And three, each one of us - broken and frail as we are - can learn to stand and deliver love and compassion in the harshest times if we are encouraged to practice little acts of love many times every day. Practice in the values of Jesus, in other words, is THE key reason for having a church.

Thanks be to God for turning points...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Wild and crazy guys...

Ever since I can remember I have LOVED tricksters: think John Lennon in "A Hard Day's Night," Bart Simpson, Frank Zappa, Loki, the Jester in Don MacLean's "American Pie," Coyote in the Southwest, Br-er Rabbit in the Tar Baby stories of the American plantations, Reynard the fox in France, the Raven in the Pacific Northwest. But let's not stop there: think Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Charlie Chaplin, Eric Carmen of "South Park," Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Joan Jett, Iggy Pop, DC Comic's Joker and Riddler, Ferris Bueller, Chuck Berry, Big Momma Thorton, Janis Joplin (and sometimes Grace Slick). And let's not forget Groucho Marx, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Gil Scott-Herron, countless rappers, Phylis Diller, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, the whole "Office" and "Scrubs" crews, Robert Bly and Gil Grissom of "CSI nor Mr. Ed or Hawkeye Pierce either!

There is a Zen-like wisdom to these smart-ass, wise guys (and most are guys but not exclusively) that is sadly missing in most Western religion. Harvey Cox understood the prophetic nature of the trickster in The Feast of Fools and grasped how their absence in much of Western religion gives permission to an arrogant moral superiority that is unable to confess its own complicity in evil. Indeed, such a pathological blindness not only nurtures the necessity for scapegoats during hard and confusing times but let's otherwise smart people repeat half truths - think September 11th - over and over rather than bring healing to the beloved community.

He writes: As the true heirs of our Puritan forebears, we are taught to turn our backs on the world of fantasy - along with such accompaniments as mirth, intemperance and unseemly speculation - to labor diligently in the world of facts. That very Puritan man, Sigmund Freud, sternly warned us to respect the 'reality principle' and not to be tricked by illusion, future or otherwise. So we have obeyed... and are suspicious of any activity that appears to waste time or does not serve the concrete interests of the commonwealth.

Lord, have mercy: no wonder there is an atrophied imagination and mostly just a politics of fear in 2008! Which is why I give thanks to recently discovering "Dr. Who" on BBC America and the new TV show: "Fringe." They kick my butt when I take myself too seriously, help expand my worldview beyond the limits of my tired imagination and tease me with the consequences of limited thinking with all their apocalyptic mumbo jumbo. They are to this moment what Chuck Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" was to 1955, Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" was to 1965 or even what the Rolling Thunder Tour did 10 years later (check out Zimmy doing "Isis" in 1976 - btw the opening line was the inspiration of my wedding date!)

You don't see much of this in Christianity - a tiny lost remnant in John the Baptist and some of the Zen-like humor of Jesus - but we lost a lot when we gave up metaphorical thinking during the witch hunts and inquisition... thank God rock and roll helped us start to bring them back!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Learning from the wider family...

One of the things that I hope to share and encourage with my congregation this year is something I have learned from the wider Judeo-Christian family: arguing/wrestling with a text and God. I really value and respect this tradition in Judaism and ache for those of us in the Christian part of the family to reclaim it - especially as an antidote to fundamentalism and a tool for faith.

I am not fully sure I understand when we lost this ability to really wrestle with God (and scripture) as an essential component of faith. I suspect that it took root in the United States in the late 19th century when conservative Protestants began working on what eventually took form in 1910-15 as The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth and the creation of the Moody Bible Institute a short time later dedicated to the innerancy of scripture. What is clear in 2008, however, is that for most of popular Christianity what gets talked about as "faithful" is often either lifeless/mindless ideology about the scriptures or a spirituality I call "sloppy agape" (that saccharine sweet, "precious moments" pastel kind of living that avoids all the pain of real life like the plague.)

Peter Rollins (of the Ikon Community) writes in The Fidelity of Betrayal: It is all too common for Christians to attempt to do justice to the scriptural narrative by listening to it, learning from it and attempting to extract a way of viewing the world from it. But the narrative itself is asking us to approach it in a much more radical way. It is inviting us to wrestle with it, disagree with it, contend with it and contest it - not as an ind in itself, but as a means of approaching its life-transforming truth, a truth that dwells within and yet beyond the words. And, so, in our desire to remain absolutely, totally and resolutely faithful to the Word of God, we come face to face with the idea that we must be prepared to wrestle with, question and even betray the words... if we hope to be embraced by the truth that is affirmed there.

This story from the life of the Baal Shem Tov, father of Hasidic thought, says it best: Some students of the Baal Shem Tov came to him one day with a question. "Every year we travel here to learn from you. Nothing could make us stop doing that. But we have learned of a man in our own town who claims to be a tzaddik, a righteous one. If he is genuine, we would love to profit from his wisdom. But how will we know if he is a fake?" The Baal Shem Tov looked at his earnest hasidim. "You must test him by asking him a question." He paused. "You have had difficulty with stray thoughts during prayer?"
"Yes!" The hasidim answered eagerly. "We try to think only of our holy intentions as we pray, but other thoughts come into our minds. We have tried many methods not to be troubled by them." "Good," said the Baal Shem Tov. "Ask him the way to stop such thoughts from entering your minds." The Baal Shem Tov smiled. "If he has an answer, he is a fake."

I LOVE that kind of spirituality - honest, humble and humorous - a way of being faithful with the real human condition that is tender, encouraging and deep all at the same time. Much like Ernst Kurtz has noted in his Spirituality of Imperfection, our lives are a blessed blending of both the holy and the human. Curiously, contemporary Christian piety often depicts humility as the result of humiliation - and while there is a connection between learning from our mistakes and wisdom - perhaps the better and more helpful insight has to do with hummus (the earth) and becoming grounded : Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Pshishke told his disciples: Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words:"Bishvili nivra ha'olam. For my sake was the world created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words:" Ani eifer v'afar; I am but dust and ashes."

To that end, Psalm 131 and Micah 6:8 come to mind:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet and calm
Like a child upon its mother's breast my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the LORD, from this time and evermore.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Signs of the times...

Blaise Pascal said, "In difficult times you should always carry something beautiful in your mind." Writing from a Celtic spirituality, John O'Donohue adds:

We have often heard that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is usually taken to mean that the sense of beauty is utterly subjective; thee is no accounting for taste because each person's taste is different. The statement has another, more subtle meaning: if our style of looking becomes beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger. The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything. When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary.

I suspect that this is one of the reasons why some people of faith have such a hard time appreciating popular culture - especially music -as worthy of revelation. They have been trained NOT to have a graced eye that can see beauty, truth and goodness anywhere. In fact, one of the challenges before the traditional church in the United States today has to do with moving beyond old norms to discover "the grace of hidden beauty" that is everywhere.

Younger, postmodern folk get this intuitively - as do those from the fringe - partly because of the very nature of culture in the 21st century, partly from being pushed away from the core and partly, I suspect, because this is one of the ways our still speaking God is communicating with us at this moment in time. I love how the poet, Michael Blumenthal, puts it:

There is a voice inside the body.

There is a voice and a music,
a throbbing, four-chambered pear
that wants to be heard, that sits
alone by the river with its mandolin
and its torn coat, and sings

for whomever will listen
a song that no one wants to hear.

But sometimes, lost,
on his way to somewhere significant,
a man in a long coat, carrying
a briefcase, wanders into the forest.

He hears the voice and the mandolin,
he sees the thrush and the dandelion,
and he feels the mist rise over the river.

And his life is never the same,
for this having been lost -
for having strayed from the path of his routine,
for no good reason.

Greg Stevens, professor at Rochester College, has observed/confessed that for a long time he would not/could not see the depth and beauty in popular culture: it was fun and a diversion, but not a vehicle for truth or beauty. But then he was smitten by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all bets were off because he began to see how popular culture does three things:

One, popular culture reflects societal values. We gain a valuable insight into our culture by paying close attention to the stories we tell and the songs we write. The values we hold dear, for good or ill, seep into those expressions. Now that can be a frightening realization, just as any good look into the mirror can be. We learn that as much as we are a culture obsessed with wanton sexuality and enamored with the trivial (we've practically elevated Britney Spears to the level of deity, for crying out loud), we are a culture equally enthralled by the concept of redemption. Just spend a week in the movie theater or watching primetime television drama and count how many times this theme pops up.

Second, popular culture shapes societal values and beliefs. A culture shapes its values and beliefs through the stories it tells. The reason people get so upset about portrayals of violence or smoking on television or depictions of an abortion without subsequent emotional consequences is because they know that these portrayals do in fact influence thoughts and actions to some degree. People have even coined the phrase "the CSI effect" to refer to the impact that show has had on potential jurors who are now much more educated about forensic science and criminals who now have a better grasp of how to avoid detection. Because the songs we sing and the shows we watch help to shape our cultural agenda -- morally, socially, and politically -- it is important that academics explore these connections.

Third, popular culture matters to people. People take their favorite shows, musicians, and authors very seriously. They develop strong emotional attachments to these things and have sometimes profound aesthetic experiences of them. In other words, popular culture has become a form of popular art. Now this is not to say that there are not a whole lot of less than desirable pop cultural expressions out there. For every show like Battlestar Galactica, there are countless Temptation Islands. For every Citizen Kane, there are numerous Weekend at Bernie's. But this is nothing distinctive to popular culture. For every Mona Lisa, there are a thousand Velvet Elvises. But the best shows on television, for instance, provide viewers with a significant aesthetic experience and scholars are coming to realize the importance of studying that experience. In fact the philosopher Noell Carroll prefers to call popular culture "mass art" and says that such mass art provides people in western culture with their "primary access to aesthetic experience."
(For the whole article: http://caritas2.blogspot.com/2008/08/confessions-of-pop-culture-academic.html)

How does Jesus put it in Matthew 16: Some Pharisees and Sadducees were on Jesus again, pressing him to prove himself to them. He told them, "You have a saying that goes, 'Red sky at night, sailor's delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.' You find it easy enough to forecast the weather—why can't you read the signs of the times? An evil and wanton generation is always wanting signs and wonders. The only sign you'll get is the Jonah sign." Then he turned on his heel and walked away. (Matthew 16: 1-3)

And so it goes... Bruce Cockburn sings about the sign of Jonah in "Get Up, Jonah" and U2 wail on "Get Up, Deadman" but how often do you hear these prophetic cries in contemporary worship? If it isn't obscure and other worldly pipe organs and German chorales, it is trivial, me-centered so-called praise music. (Not that there isn't good stuff in either of these camps.) But where is the music like John Bell's from Iona that frames the prophetic complexity of our day in ways that feed both head and heart? Oddly enough it is in popular culture... go figure but it says something about forecasting the weather but not being able to read the signs of the time, yes?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Play that funky music (oh, ok, folk music) white boy

We gathered once again to play an outdoor street festival tonight in downtown Pittsfield. On these "Third Thursday" gigs I always feel like I am living in the midst of a "Northern Exposure" episode as regular and eccentric folk parade up and down the street listening to great music, visiting with one another, eating fun food and visiting the street vendors and art shops open late. It is a blessed experience and I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Tonight we were in competition with a pretty good cover band who was MUCH louder than our trio - even when I cranked up the old Rickenbacker for a little "Pink Cadillac" we couldn't compete with "I Want Candy" or their Tommy James medley. So... we just figured out what key they were playing in and joined them sometimes - doing a MUCH better version of "Keep Your Hands to Yourself" I might add!

But then for about 25 minutes we had the central square to ourselves and did some of our best tunes from Leonard Cohen's "Anthem" to our standbys "One of Us," "Slip Slidin' Away" and "Let It Be." We even got a chance to share my tune, "Hymn to Grace" about our wonderful and wounded little town.

Being in community with these people - and living much more in touch with both the pulse of the seasons and the folk - is humbling for it forces me to make certain that I don't live in the realm of ideas. You can run, as they say, but you can't hide in a small town and tonight I saw the local Habitat coordinators from our New Orleans trip, my former secretary, a few church members who have lived through incredible hard times and still have faith, hope and love, people I recently visited pastorally, colleagues as well as a bunch of good hearted souls who love our music and wish us the best. There is an immediacy to this ministry that is refreshing and keeps me fresh.

One of my band mates arrived after a miserable day of hard work and overwhelming demands - and started out singing all grumpy and pissed off - but as the music took root and we had a chance to love and support one another in song, found that the ugly feelings left.. and it was a sweet time after all. We even had one of our little Sunday school guys set up a make shift plastic bottle drum set to join in when we rocked out! Blessings abound even in the midst of economic insecurity and political confusion. And when we can make music that is beautiful, too... well, let's just say there is a healing that helps us all for a moment.

As I thought about this day at its close - the challenges, the joys, the expected FROST (omg), the people and poetry - this prayer/song came to me that I have always cherished by a woman of the North Country: Joni Mitchell.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

On complaining, community and God's grace...

NOTE: This week in worship I will begin a series of conversations about our emerging mission statement which reads: In community with God and each other, we gather to reflect on our Christian faith, do justice and share compassion. It is a simple and action oriented way of reshaping our work as a faith community. For the next few weeks I will consider some of the implications of "gathering together" as a Christian faith community.

Ellie Wiesel is one of my favorite thinkers and story tellers, a true moral compass for me. In his book, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, he tells a story that has shaped my understanding of community for more than 25 years – and has great value for us as a congregation at this moment in our lives, too.

It begins with a young Hasid – a passionate, committed young man of faith who devoted himself to study and prayer and experiencing the ecstasy of God’s grace by dancing out in the forest on the fringe of town – who finds that he has fallen in love with the daughter of his small community’s mayor. Now it is important to remember that Hasidim began as a mystical movement in 18th century Europe – a beautiful corrective of the heart by Baal Shem Tov – who sought to help his people experience the love of the Holy One as well as the wisdom of God’s law.

Which meant, of course, that the early Hasids were outsiders – the faithful on the fringe – who challenged the status quo by insisting that God’s presence could be found in the ordinary events of everyday life as well as the extraordinary: they danced in the forest, they were mystics and maybe even the Zen masters of their time and place. And so it is important to know that the hero in this story begins on the periphery – on the fringe – when he falls in love with this woman from the heart or core of society.

Well, as I understand it, the young Hasid was so smitten with this young woman that eventually he asked for her hand in marriage so they might court and mature according to the customs of the day. “You may have my daughter’s hand in marriage,” said the mayor, “on one condition: you must sever your ties with your rebbe and leave the Hasidic way behind.” In agony, the young mystic wrestled with this demand but eventually he agreed and the young couple was married.

Now as you might imagine, all was well for a while – it always is, right – but eventually the young man heard the call of the forest in his heart. For a time he resisted but the sweet grace of the Living God is too strong to ignore. So, quietly and carefully, he began to sneak back into the woods to pray and dance with his old friends.

And as also always happens, there came a time when the mayor discovered that the young husband had broken the family wedding contract – so he was hauled before the town rabbi and put on trial. Now it was all too clear that the evidence against him was strong – and the young man did not deny it – so the marriage was ended, he was thrown out of his home and eventually took to begging on the street. In short order, he became frail and sickly and when winter came, he died. (Now here is where the story gets really interesting for me…)

While in heaven, he meets the Messiah who asks about his broken condition and wants to know why he died of hunger and disease. And as the young man’s story is shared the Messiah shouts, “Wait, let’s bring together all the players and talk about this again.” So, that is what happens: the Messiah calls together the Mayor, the lawyers and rabbis and asks them to present this case again – which they do. For a long time there is silence in heaven as the Messiah takes it all in.

Then he turns to the father and says, “You, you are right.” And he turns to the lawyers and rabbis of the town and says to them, “You, too, are right.” And to the people of the town who supported casting the Hasid out into the streets he says, “And all of you, you are right: you were right in the way you upheld the contract. You were right in saying that the young man had broken his commitment.” And then he turns to the young, broken mystic – and embraces him tenderly – saying, “But I came… for those who are NOT right.” And he dresses the wounded one in heaven’s finest clothes and sends the rest away empty.

Quite a story, yes? “But I came for those who are NOT right” – sounds rather like Jesus in this morning’s reading from Matthew when he talks about welcoming ALL the workers into the vineyard no matter what time they showed up – and paying them the same wage, too. “This is the great reversal!” God said. And many of the first shall end up last and the last first because… can’t I do what I want with what is mine? Let’s not be stingy with one another because my very core is generosity.

Scholars agree that this selection of scripture is meant to tell the disciples that living the Jesus life not only subverts the normal way of operating, it turns everything upside down by welcoming strangers as equal, it also sets into motion what they call the “eschatological reversal” wherein God’s judgment at the end of time shakes creation to its core.

“Jesus explodes the hierarchical and patriarchal structure of his day,” writes one sage, “ by instructing disciples in a more egalitarian pattern: Husbands are not to rule over wives but to participate in a "one-flesh" relationship (19:3-12); all disciples are children, there are no parents (19:13-15); following Jesus, not procuring wealth and status, defines discipleship (19:16-30); and all disciples are to become slaves or servants to one another like Jesus so that there are no masters (20:17-28).” In a word, we’re being told that authentic followers of the Jesus-life make something of heaven visible now by living like it is the end of time. Remember the prayer? “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done… on earth as it is in heaven.”

Now let’s be clear about this: kingdom living does not happen by accident – nor does it occur because of good intentions – any more than Lou can play the organ or I can play the guitar because we want to. How does the old joke put it: a young woman carrying a violin case is running down the road in New York City and stops an old man to ask, “Sir, can you help me please: how do I get to Carnegie Hall?” To which the old one replies, “Practice, my dear, lots and lots of practice.”

Same is true for disciples: how do we live into the promise of Christ’s love and the very kingdom of God within and among us? Practice – which is why we have this faith community – church is a place to practice our deepest and most sacred values and commitments. I like the way Marcus Borg talks about church in The Heart of Christianity:

In my judgment, the single most important practice (in living into the way of Jesus) is to be a part of a congregation that nourishes you even as it stretches you… The goal should be to find a group of believers that makes your heart glad so that you can wake up on Sunday morning filled with the anticipation of the psalmist who said: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.” Church is not primarily about feeling good, of course, but church is meant to nourish us, not make us angry or leave us bored.

He then goes on to offer a few valuable clues about how being a part of church subverts us with the values of God’s kingdom and stretches us into our best selves:

+ First there is worship – all kinds of worship – and during worship we praise God. “And praise not only draws us out of ourselves, it also… affirms that God alone is the source of all blessing." Rabbi Abraham Heschel used to say, “Worship and Sabbath remind us that the world can get along without us for 24 hours because God is God… and thanks be to God, we are not!”

+ Second, there is formation – or education – that stretches beyond our opinions and habits. And third, church gives us a chance to work together for compassion and justice – not simply as individuals – but as a community. That is to say, church trains us in being a community – a gathering that practices the Jesus life together – and shows something of heaven to the world. Which is probably where our first reading for today – from Exodus – deserves mention: this story about the people of Israel complaining about wandering in the wilderness – and aching and carping about the good old days – is filled with wisdom for you and me at this moment in the life of our church.

First, it tells us that complaining and fear is natural, right? It would seem that God’s people have been doing it for a LONG time and we’re not likely to stop anytime soon. It isn’t pretty – it isn’t fair or even helpful – but it is a fact. Second, whenever there is complaining or to use the biblical expression – murmuring – it is important for the community leaders to understand what is at the heart of the complaint. In the story from Exodus the heart of the murmuring is fear – and a little bit of selfishness – because it is uncomfortable and uncertain and just hot and cold and confusing to be out in the desert for all that time.

And third wise community leaders need to be able to distinguish between the presenting issues of a complaint and the truth. In the desert the people said, “Look, back in the good old days things were better than being out here in the desert! Back in the good old days we had lots and lots of food to eat – why didn't God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You've brought us out into this wilderness to starve us to death, the whole company of Israel! – and on and on it went.

But did the slaves in Egypt have lamb stew and all the food they could ever desire? Did they have security and freedom and hope and all the rest? Of course not but in their fear and discomfort... well let’s just say they exaggerated the blessings of the past. It is normal, it is to be expected and… most of the time it doesn’t help because it isn’t true.

So listen carefully to what the scripture tell us happened next – after the people make their complaints known to Moses and Aaron – there was prayer and discussion and then Moses said: Tell the whole company of Israel: 'Come near to God. He's heard your complaints.'

And when Aaron gave out the instructions to the whole company of Israel, they turned to face the wilderness. And there it was: the Glory of God visible in the Cloud. And God spoke to Moses, "I've listened to the complaints of the Israelites. Now tell them: 'At dusk you will eat meat and at dawn you'll eat your fill of bread; and you'll realize that I am God, your God. And that evening quail flew in and covered the camp and in the morning there was a layer of dew all over the camp. When the layer of dew had lifted, there on the wilderness ground was a fine flaky something, fine as frost on the ground. The Israelites took one look and said to one another, man-hu (What is it?). They had no idea what it was. So Moses told them, "It's the bread God has given you to eat. And these are God's instructions: 'Gather enough for each person, about two quarts per person; gather enough for everyone in your tent.'"

God is faithful, yes? God will provide, right? God acts in God’s way – not ours for there are blessings God brings to each day that we may not initially comprehend: man-hu – what is this stuff? And yet… it is God’s very nature to make certain we have all that we need for a full and abundant life. That was true in the early and formative days of Israel, it was true when Jesus was training his disciples to live into the generosity of God that always trumps the selfish status quo, it was true when the Hassidic master, Ellie Wiesel, spoke of the Messiah who stands up for those who are NOT right… And it is true for us – right now – at this moment in our lives.

In times of transition – in times of uncertainty – people tend to slip back into what they know best and if today’s scripture is at all illustrative that would surely include complaining and murmuring. There is even a temptation to romanticize the past as the glory days. Well, apparently God understands this human reality and has created synagogues, mosques, ashrams and churches as a corrective – not to fortify our murmuring, mind you – but, rather to grow our generosity. That is why it is no coincidence that our emerging mission statement begins: we gather together with God and one another… We gather together to practice what doesn’t come automatically. We gather together, as the old pilgrim hymnal puts it, to ask the Lord’s blessing, he hastens and chastens his will to make known. We gather together because it’s NOT my sister, nor my brother but it’s ME o Lord that’s standing in the need of help when it comes to living with generosity.

And so we gather – together – to practice the Jesus life: where the first become last and those on the fringe are welcomed as long, lost friends; where wisdom is shown by trusting, leadership is cultivated by serving, offenders are handled by forgiveness and money is handled by sharing. In the Jesus life enemies are handled by loving and violence is managed with suffering because in the Jesus life everything is changed – and you repent NOT by feeling badly, but by thinking and living differently. And that is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.

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

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