Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy birthday dear daughter...

Thirty two years ago, my first child was born in Los Angeles amidst a Farm Worker campaign. As has been her way since that day, she took her time coming into this world - about 36 hours of labor - and then she chose not to nurse for a bit, too. She has always been her own person and always operated on her own timetable. She is brilliant, sensitive, beautiful, so damn funny I can't control myself and one of the truly sweetest people I have ever met. It is a privilege to be her Dad.

Over the years we've danced to Elton John (when she was a baby I would rock her to sleep to "Bennie and the Jets" and Joan Armatrading's "Love and Affection.") and the Stones (she went to see them with me in Cleveland.) She is a hard core Springsteen fan but helped me appreciate both U2 and Iron and Wine. Her first concert, before turning 1, was the first Bread and Roses gig in Berkley with Odetta, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Richie Havens and the Incredible String Band. She can dance like nobody's business, teach tough little city kids how to open their minds and hearts and love her crazy-assed family, too. She is a blessing.

Today, after marrying a world-class young man (and giving me the honor of performing the ceremony), she is a middle school teacher in Brooklyn, NY. She's been a PK (pastor's kid) and a student, a helper in a bakery and a knock out student in both undergrad and grad school. She's been all over the place - mostly the UK and Italy - and is an incredible dancer and artist. I always knew she was remarkable but when she was 14 she danced a version of Copeland's "Simple Gifts" that set a new standard for poetry in motion and spiritual integrity.

As you can tell, I love her dearly and wish her many, many years of joy and good health. Happy Birthday, dear daughter...

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Anticipating advent...

One of the treasures of being a pastor is being with others as we go deeper into the faith - and one of my greatest joys comes when people engage the Advent texts and try to discern what the Spirit is saying to our church during this season. Tonight a diverse group of about 10 women and men will take some time for Bible study, conversation and prayer with me as we try to get a sense of where the Christ child is being born within and among us.

+ We will begin with a little quiet music medication - pray some of the traditional collects together - and then look at the texts from both Isaiah and the gospels.

+ My hope and prayer is that a theme will be discerned for us - a theme that will make the ancient texts speak to us now - so that we aren't engaged in either sentimentality or busy work but real spiritual listening.

And once our theme emerges, we will proceed in shaping worship and our Sanctuary space to help us more fully enter the new/old story once again. I look forward to this kind of anticipation of Advent for it is a healing antidote to the Christmas trinkets already being displayed in shops and grocery stores. At the same time, I no longer get all "wiggy" with even the early Christmas displays because they, too, are a sign of the Spirit moving in us even if it is in unfocused or obscure ways.

There is a very interesting "debate" that always pops up during any Advent planning about the use of Christmas music during the season of preparation. For years I was an "Advent Nazi" and simply forbade the use of Christmas songs in worship before the Feast of the Nativity. And I still appreciate the intellectual wisdom of this discipline... but then one day it hit me how artificial this act was - and I'm not simply talking about the way popular culture saturates us with Christmas sounds (mostly schlocky ones) non-stop for months.

No, I mean the way I listen to Carlos Nakai and George Winston and so many other Christmas instrumentalists from Thanksgiving Eve until Epiphany. And I mean the truth of the words of an old rabbi friend who once proclaimed, "Why don't you sing this songs more often, man, they are the best in your house!" And it has something to do with the joy these songs evoke. So, we will respect the tradition this year but there's no room for Scrooge in any of his/her incarnations.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Our words must LOOK like Jesus...

NOTE: Here is this coming Sunday's sermon notes. If you are in the area, please join us at 10:30 am. We will also being dedicating our restored Bell Tower, too.

A lot of people – way too many to number – have been wounded and even abused by the Church. For a number of reasons – mostly bad – the so-called Body of Christ and its leadership over the years has regularly neglected, offended, manipulated, violated, betrayed and defiled those who have come searching for comfort, hope and forgiveness.
What’s more this is true in every spiritual community no matter what form or shape it takes: Congregational or Catholic, Buddhist or Baptist, Muslim or Mormon, Jewish or Jain including clergy and laity alike. St. Paul got it right when he said, “All have sinned and fallen short of the grace of God – and I mean all!”

Sometimes it is clergy misconduct, sometimes a treasurer embezzles money; sometimes it is cruel prejudice and other times callous indifference. Sometimes the offense is huge and other times it seems inconsequential. Nevertheless, one of the facts of life in community is that because we hurt and wound one another with such regularity through both our sins of commission as well as omission, disciples have been charged – and I would even say required – to take regular stock of both our talk as well as our walk. This morning’s gospel puts it like this:

Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. "The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God's Law. You won't go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don't live it. They don't take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It's all spit-and-polish veneer… (So ask yourself: "Do you want to stand out?” Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty. (Matthew 23: 1-12 in The Message by Eugene Peterson)

You see, we are not the center of the moral universe. We are important and valuable to God and one another – formed just a little lower than the angels as the Psalms say – but none of us has a monopoly upon wisdom or compassion. Not liberal or conservative, male or female, traditionalist or contemporary, young or old or rich or poor. In fact, when we live like we’re the only person that matters in the world we become dangerous. Bill Coffin at Riverside Church in New York City used to point out that, “Many of us have a strong allergic reaction to change (or differences) of any kind.”

The result is an intolerance for nonconforming ideas that runs like a dark streak through human history. In religious history this intolerance becomes particularly vicious when believers divide the world into the godly and the ungodly – (insiders and outsiders, us and them) – for then, hating the ungodly is not a moral lapse but rather an obligation, part of the job description of being a true believer… but the Bible knows nothing of a moral majority… in fact, the Bible insists that a prophetic minority has more to say to a nation than any majority – silent, moral or whatever – because majorities in the Bible generally end up stoning the prophets…and wounding those in need of comfort and forgiveness.

That is the first insight I think that Jesus is trying to help us embrace: owning the effect that the gap between our walk and our talk always creates for ourselves and others. Let’s be clear: in his time Jesus was not claiming that the religious authorities were advancing a broken religion or a corrupt spirituality. Not at all: “our religion scholars and legal experts are very competent in the way of the Lord,” he said with honesty; “you won’t go wrong in following their teachings – but be careful about following them.”

+ Did you catch that? Their teachings – their words, their sermons and insights – are solid and helpful. It is their lives in action that are the problem: they talk a good line but they don’t live it. They don’t take God’s love into their hearts and then share it with others in their behavior.

+ There is a blindness – an arrogance – that wounds despite the beauty of God’s word.

And that is the second insight because in our era, this blind arrogance locks out and drives away more people from church than any other single offense: more than bad preaching, lousy music, shabby conditions, mold, mildew, poor lighting, sloppy theology or even periodic misconduct by church leaders, it is the stench of blind, spiritual arrogance that sends more guests and seekers running than anything else. And do you know why? Because they don’t sense anything of Christ’s sweet welcome and grace when the stink of arrogance is in the air.

It is not coincidental that when Paul went to the thriving metropolis of Thessalonica to build a new church in the year 51 CE, he began “like a nursing mother with her babies.” His ministry started with real and embodied tenderness. The scripture says:

God tested us thoroughly to make sure we were qualified to be trusted with this Message… we never threw our weight around or tried to come across as important, with you or anyone else. We weren't aloof with you. We took you just as you were. We were never patronizing, never condescending, but we cared for you the way a mother cares for her children. We loved you dearly. Not content to just pass on the Message, we wanted to give you our hearts. And we did… You saw with your own eyes how discreet and courteous we were among you, with keen sensitivity to you as fellow believers… You experienced it all firsthand. With each of you we were like a father with his child, holding your hand, whispering encouragement, showing you step-by-step how to live well before God, who called us into his own kingdom, into this delightful life. (I Thess 2: 5-13)

Paul was teaching by how he lived – his actions were the only Bible people could see – so if he was going to be effective in sharing God’s new vision of grace and hope in his day, he had to be certain there was congruity between his words and deeds. Now scholars have noted that at the heart of Paul’s ministry was an expansion of Peter’s vision of radical inclusivity that was shared by the Holy Spirit at the home of the Gentile Cornelius. Do you remember how that story goes?

+ Cornelius the Gentile was inspired by God to invite Peter the Jew to dinner – and Peter was inspired by God to accept. That was the first blessing – the potential for community beyond both racial and religious differences – but the blessings abound for you may recall that Peter freaked out when he realized hospitality was going to force him into eating a whole host of things that his Jewish tradition said were unclean: lobster, bacon, pork chops.

+ So the Bible tells us that Peter kept excusing himself while Cornelius was cooking so that he could go to the roof and pray for wisdom. And each time he went upstairs God sent him a vision of feasting at a boldly inclusive picnic that included all the former unclean foods.

Finally, after three such mystical encounters – it took Peter a LONG time to grasp the significance of this new way of being (which is one of the reasons Jesus nicknamed him Peter – Petras – it means rock or even blockhead) – eventually he discerns the voice of our Living God saying, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” He hears this three times – he’s a very slow learner like the rest of us – before he can reply: “Now I truly understand that God shows NO partiality…”

And that is the message Paul was sharing in Thessalonica. “Paul’s announcement of salvation and freedom from social conventions in a new, divine order,” writes Bruce Chilton, “appealed to many (but) especially to the prominent women of that city who knew that their capacities far out-stripped what their society would let them achieve.”

Do you see where this is going? Paul’s radical inclusivity broke with the social conventions and traditional spirituality of his era but struck a responsive chord within the souls of people who had been marginalized and minimized by the in crowd.

+ You see, the vision and words of Christ are always attractive: come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden –come to me all who feel burned out on religion – and I will give you rest in the unforced rhythms of grace – but they have to be embodied before people will trust them – and those who speak them.

+ That means that our words have to look like Jesus: a mother nursing her babes, a father holding the hand of his loved ones and whispering real encouragement, a servant stepping down so that there is room for another to step up. Not judge and jury, gate keeper or morals police – Jesus – for without him there is only the stink of arrogance in the room.

Every church – this one included – has to face this challenge and deal with it with clarity and conviction. We know that we will never get it totally right all the time because we are only human. But we can’t pretend that it doesn’t haunt and sometimes cripple us and wound others either for that would violate our best intentions as disciples.

To be faithful, said one wise old preacher, is to help one another distinguish between the heavy burdens we tend to dump on one another and the light burden of Jesus. And unless we are “practicing and proclaiming a Word that lifts the burdens of others – with our music, our worship, our liturgy, our organization, the way we share information as well as in acts of living compassion – then we are living under the critique of Christ as exposed in today’s scripture.” (Strofregen) The words of Robert Capon come to mind and warrant a hearing when he writes:

The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business… and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world's moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. As C.S. Lewis said, anyone who thinks the moral codes of mankind are all different should be locked up in a library and be made to read three days' worth of them. He would be bored silly by the sheer sameness.

What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business -- and that, of course, is the church's real job. She is in the world to deal with the Sin which the world can't turn off or escape from. She is not in the business of telling the world what's right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice.

But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense. Then the church becomes, not Ms. Forgiven Sinner, but Ms. Right and Christianity becomes the good guys in here versus the bad guys out there. Which, of course, is pure garbage for the church is nothing but the world under the sign of baptism
. [Hunting the Divine Fox, pp. 132-133]

I hope these words make you as uncomfortable as they make me. I also hope that they make the distinctions before us clear because then, dear people of God, then God’s grace will abound and faith will flourish. And as far as I can figure out, that is the good news for today for those who have the ears to hear. Join me as we sing a new affirmation together...

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Out of the mouths of babes...

I had a chance to play some songs at a local second grade today - and was it ever a blessing! We sang children's songs like "Bingo" and "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain" (with hand motions and sound effects), American folk tunes like "Oh Freedom" and "This Land is Your Land" as well as rock and roll, gospel and some Beatles' to boot!

And were these little ones savvy! After playing a country gospel version of Merle Travis' "I am a Pilgrim" I asked them what that sounded like and one little waif said,"That is in a country music genre!" When I played James Taylor's "Steam Roller" a little guy with a Beatles' haircut said, "Oh man I LOVE the blues." And then I taught them to clap on the off beat (a real trick) and sang a few tunes with harmony and dancing.

One little boy asked me, "Do you know 'We will?" and when I confessed I didn't the whole class broke into Queen's "We will... we will ROCK you." So I taught them the clapping and we did it again! Reminds me of the time my youngest daughter told me she had already seen Amadeus when I told her we had been given tickets to an outdoor performance of the play. And when pressed she said, "Oh daddy, I saw it on TV... you know.. MTV where they play, "Amadeus, Amadeus, rock me Amadeus..." I told her, "Oh, hun, I think there is more to it than that although that's a GREAT start." (check it out...)

But when somebody else broke into Twisted Sister's "We're Not Going to Take It" the teacher looked at me in mock horror and asked, "Where do they get this stuff?" It was a blast and I am so grateful to be in a place where my second grade buddy, Ethan, can ask his pastor to come to sing with his class - and it all works.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Rock'n'roll, New England and a loving church...

What do rock'n'roll, New England and a loving church have in common? Well, besides the obvious (me) yesterday I discovered that even the most frozen of the chosen congregations in ye Old New England not only know a lot about rock'n'roll but "get" listening to the voice of our still speaking God through popular culture. In fact, they do it all the time - with country music and adult alternative, classic rock, metal and every variety of alternative tunes you can imagine. What's more, contrary to the flinty opinions of some, they've been doing it for years... but no body's asked them about it so it remains in the closet.

One middle age housewife told me at our seminar on "embodied prayer, contemporary culture and beauty," that she is "regularly shocked by what she finds on her son's IPOD - really sweet melodies with songs of spiritual depth and longing." Another 50-something pastor said, "Every time I hear the old Byrds song, "Turn, Turn, Turn," I find myself prayerfully thinking back on the day or the week or the month." A few said that they even intentionally prayed with music: "I use the old African American gospel song "Over My Head'... Martina McBride's 'Anyway" works for me...same with Joe Jackson or Stevie Wonder, the Eels, the Beatles, John Prine, REM and U2."

And when the gathering was done - and some of us debriefed - two important insights had been revealed. First, despite the crusty old demeanor of some New Englanders who swear that they haven't tried anything new since the time of Lincoln, more and more are showing me that this doesn't apply to their interior lives. To nurture the soul in ways that are rich, nuanced, informed and lovingly shaped by popular culture my new friends speak of movies and music, TV and the Internet as forums where real prayer takes place.

I was particularly moved when I asked the group how their bodies felt after encountering the Eels' "Things the Grandchildren Should Know" and the guitar lament of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." One 70+ woman said that "she felt her heart breaking with God over the state of the world." Another younger woman was clear that "one song drew me inside reflectively while the other drew things out of me emotionally." Most importantly, with a little encouragement and guidance everyone let their bodies pray along with their hearts and minds.

And second, while many of our old Puritan churches have not understood how to bring popular culture into their historic sanctuaries, the people in the pews have already crossed the so-called sacred/secular bridge. In fact, many people said that some of our old forms of worship are not only calcified and funereal, they are also shrinking the spiritual landscape for people of all ages who are hungry and searching for insight and meaning in their lives. The two teens told their dad, "I paid attention in church for the first time in... like I don't know when."

So, we rocked on - talked about it, shared jazz, folk, gospel songs as well as prayers and questions - and then gathered around the communion table -young and old/ gay and straight/ male and female/ white and black and asian - and had a real celebration in the presence of Jesus, Kool and the Gang, Annie Lennox, the Wailin' Jennys,Eric Clapton and U2.(Dig this old, old tune that is still so much fun...)

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Not a Child of God but an Adult of God...

"Many of us have treated the gospel as an object that can answer a deep-seated need (for acceptance, happiness, companionship, a clear conscience)" writes Peter Rollins, "and in so doing have approached Christianity in self-centered weakness, hoping that it will be the pill that will cure us..." (The Fidelity of Betrayal) This reminds me of the woman in Tucson who once said to me, "All of my life I've heard about being children of God. I want to know what it means to be an adult of God. A woman of God or a man of God. I'm tired of childish religion."

I've been exploring and thinking about her words - and Rollins insights, too - for quite a long time. There have clearly been times in my life when I was like a child and felt a deep dependence on a God I needed. At the same time, I have also been moved and fed by developing a connection with God that is not childish - in fact, too often our churches cultivate a weird dependency that leaves many spiritually malnourished if not spiritually deformed in a state perpetual childishness, yes?

The sensual Sufi, Rumi, put it like this:

There is a smile and a gentleness inside.
When I learned the name
and address of that, I went to where
you sell perfume. I begged you not
to trouble me so with longing. Come
out and play! Flirt more naturally.
Teach me how to kiss. On the ground
a spread blanket, flame that's caught
and burning well, cumin seeds browning,
I am inside all of this with my soul.

The apostle Paul put it like this I Corinthians 13: When I was an infant at my mother's breast, I gurgled and cooed like any infant. When I grew up, I left those infant ways for good. Now we don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! So for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.

And whoever wrote Ephesians 4 echoed Paul's wisdom, too: No prolonged infancies among us, please. We'll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.

So Rollins wonders if it is "possible to embrace God out of love and lightness of heart, out of a seduction that is caught up in the call of God rather than the need of God." That is, can an authentically adult relationship with God be nurtured that does not begin in emptiness but rather abundance? Joy instead of desperation? "Where the individual does not enter into the relationship out of need but out of love... and it is the presence of the other (not in the other's absence) that gives shape and form to a need... so the need is born rather than abolished."

Nobody gets this better than Leonard Cohen (ok... we can debate this) and his "Tower of Song" speaks to what it means to live as an adult child of God: it is fun, gentle, hip, honest, sensual, sad and hopeful all at the same time. (This version with U2 as his back up band is just too cool.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

In your eyes...

Tonight I had one of those transcendent moments with my musical/prayer partners as we prepared for our October 26th worship celebration. We practiced our asses off - two hours of non-stop hard work and pure joy - getting the music right, sharing harmonies, trading riffs and finding the groove where 5 different people become one body by grace and commitment. (God, I hope if any of you are in the area you will join us at 3:00 pm on Sunday - it is so special and so sweet.)

I've already written about how I understand this prayer/song experience (see my earlier posts) and when it all comes together - with loving servants, talented musicians and people of spirit/soul/flesh - it always makes me weep tears of joy - and it happened!

It is just like this incredible song by Peter Gabriel - who may just be one of God's angels for this generation - who was singing this on the television when we got home:

Accepting all I've done and said
I want to stand and stare again
Til there's nothing left out,
It remains there in your eyes
Whatever comes and goes
I will hear your silent call
I will touch this tender wall
Til i know I'm home again

Ooh, In your eyes (in your eyes)
In your eyes (in your eyes)
In your eyes (in your eyes)
In your eyes

Love I get so lost, sometimes
Days pass and this emptiness fills my heart
When I want to run away
I drive off in my car
But whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are
And all my instincts, they return
And the grand facade, so soon will burn
Without a noise, without my pride
I reach out from the inside

In your eyes - the light the heat
In your eyes -I am complete
In your eyes - I see the doorway (in your eyes)
to a thousand churches
In your eyes
The resolution (in your eyes) of all the fruitless searches

In your eyes I see the light and the heat
In your eyes
Oh, i want to be that complete
I want to touch the light

When I least expect it... after lots of hard work and hard times... grace jumps us and blesses me with a gift that I could never have expected and certainly never deserve. Kathleen Norris writes that grace always takes us to where we don't want to go and shocks us with gifts we don't deserve. And it happened again tonight! Takes me back to the words of the prophet Isaiah:

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."

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Loving God and loving self...

NOTE: These are this Sunday's sermon notes/reflections on Matthew 22: 34-46 re: loving God and loving neighbor and self with a hint of I Thessalonians 2: 6-8.
It is often helpful and humbling for me to review what some of the great preachers of eras past have written about the same words of scripture that I am going to wrestle with for our consideration on any given Sunday. I say helpful, humbling and more often than not clarifying because their words help illuminate how deeper wisdom can emerge from these texts over the generations.

+ The great Protestant reformer of Geneva, John Calvin, for example wrote in his introduction to today’s text: Not all of the whole company of those that are called by the voice of the gospel are the true Church before God: for the most part of them would rather follow the conveniences of this life and some persecute very cruelly those that call them; but they are the true Church who obey when they are called… (And) for the most part they are also those whom the world despises.

+ Charles Wesley, who gave us the hymns “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” during the late 1700s, builds on Calvin saying: Many are called; few chosen; many hear; few believe. Yea, many are members of the visible, but few the invisible Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

+ And one of the father’s of our tradition, the Puritan Richard Baxter, taught: That the true meaning of this text – you shall love your neighbor as yourself – is that you must love him according to his true worth, without the diversion and hindrance of selfishness and partiality. As you must love yourself according to that degree of goodness which is in you, and no more; so must you as impartially love your neighbor according to that degree of goodness which is in him so that it truly extendeth into the reality…

Do you discern a theme from our reforming Protestant forbearers? It seems to me that their primary emphasis when considering these words of Jesus has more to do with judgment than grace – making clear that many within the church have not been faithful, only a few could be called righteous and that there have been more failures rather celebrations in the cause of Christ. To call them dour and harsh would be an understatement.

But to be fair, we have to remember their context: they were trying to renew, purify and reform an institution that had become corrupt and morally decadent over a thousand years of practice. They were challenging a spiritual tradition that had exchanged the simplicity and compassion of Jesus for the trappings of the Roman Empire and, quite frankly, the church had lost its soul to wealth, unchecked power, fear and spiritual ignorance.

+ Now please don’t misunderstand this critique for this is NOT an anti-Catholic rant. Ronald Reagan’s old speech writer, Peggy Noonan, once observed in her autobiography that anti-Catholic bias and bigotry had become for North American intellectual’s the anti-Semitism of the 20th century – and I think she is right. Much of what has been said about our Roman sisters and brothers is both stupid and mean-spirited and needs to be named and challenged.

+ Rather, in describing the context that informed our Protestant Reformers, I am pointing to a tragic reality that happens throughout time to all institutions – sacred and secular – when there are not clear and accountable checks and balances in place to mitigate against corruption all of us, by nature, become selfish and self- absorbed.

And lest you think I exaggerate, think Abu Grhaib – My Lai – the Salem witch hunts – the Jewish Holocaust – the Armenian holocaust by Turkey…

The poet, James Lowell, put it like this in 1845 in a hymn we have come to know as “Once to Every Man and Nation.” New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient truth uncouth. Born the son of a Congregational minister in Boston who served West Congregational Church for 55 years, Lowell’s original poem was a protest against a decadent and corrupt US government that was hell-bent on waging war against Mexico to acquire the state of Texas. It has now become an ode of confession that calls us to both consider what the signs of the times demand from us and how to live into them with humility and hope.

And the reason for this long wind up before the pitch of my message today is this: both time and context must always inform our study and interpretation of scripture. Taken at face value, you see, the words of our Reformers sound ugly, unhelpful and unholy. They seem to evoke the witness of the very people Jesus opposed. What’s more, when they are shared in our context as if they form the true center and spirit of the Christian message, they are alienating and dangerous because new occasions clearly teach new duties and time does make ancient truth uncouth!

As long as I endure I will never forget a young Latina mother who started to worship with our little urban congregation back in Cleveland, Ohio. She would sit in our cavernous sanctuary – towards the back – and mostly weep. She never stayed long enough for me to speak with her so it was months before I even knew her name. Over time she grew more comfortable with us – attending Bible study and bringing her son to Vacation Bible School – and over time there were fewer tears in worship – sometimes even a shy smile.

After almost a year of being a part of our struggling faith community, Elsa asked to speak with me after worship. And what she wanted was this: she wondered if we might conduct a memorial service for a child of hers that had been still born two years ago. As she told me her story – one I might add that still happens way too often throughout the so-called Body of Christ – I could hardly breathe for sorrow and anger.

She said that she had been a member of a vibrant but small fundamentalist congregation that loved her and offered deep fellowship: when she was hungry, they brought her food; when she was alone, they offered her company; when she needed help learning English, they were able to find a tutor. In so many good and healing ways they lived into Christ’s call that “wherever you find one of the least of these, my sisters and brothers, you will find me.”

When she got pregnant out of wedlock, however, things changed. She was shunned to some degree by her old friends, she was warned that she needed to get right with God for sinning; and when the baby in her womb was born dead, she was told that this was God’s punishment for her wicked and selfish lifestyle.

I wish to Christ that I was making this up – but it is true. And when she asked if her congregation – her pastor – would help her out by holding a memorial service for her dead baby, she was told in no uncertain terms that this was impossible: “We do not honor the fruit of human sin in this congregation.” So, my old friend tried to get right with God by going back to worship there, but she only lasted a few months. Her soul had been poisoned by their judgment and cold hearts and she felt alone, forgotten and unclean.

Somehow, and I never learned how, she wandered into our church two years later: we weren’t Spanish speaking, we weren’t Pentecostal and God knows we weren’t fundamentalist. But there she was – asking for a way to own her brokenness and lay her guilt and shame to rest – to say nothing of offering her dead child a sense of God’s amazing grace.

So we did – we held a memorial service for her still-born baby – we gathered up a few women of the church – young and old – and afterwards we had a little reception in the parlor. It was very small, very quiet, certainly not revolutionary or earth shattering and yet… it brought her a sense of healing and hope.

Jesus said, "'Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.' This is the most important commandment, the first on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: 'Love others as well as you love yourself.' These two commands are pegs; everything else in God's Law and the Prophets hangs from them."

It once may have made sense to speak to the church as corrupt and in need of cleansing. During the time of the Protestant Reformation it may even have been necessary to bring words of judgment so that the Body of Christ could be healed. But, Christian friends, to my way of thinking: those days are over. Time has made that truth uncouth because what we need now more than ever is a sense of the Lord’s unfailing and unconditional grace and forgiveness.

St. Paul understood this – sometimes – and his words to the church so long ago still ring true today: as Christ's apostles, we never threw our weight around or tried to come across as important, with you or anyone else. We weren't aloof with you. We embraced you just as you were. We were never patronizing or condescending, but we cared for you the way a mother cares for her children. We loved you dearly. For we were not content to just pass on the Message, we wanted to give you our hearts – and so we did.

Lord, may that be so among us, too.
(I think this incredible tune from the late Eva Cassidy gets the heart of Christ's gospel - and Paul's preaching - just right: for you... without judgment or qualification. Blessings.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Embodied prayer, popular culture and beauty...

NOTE: On Sunday afternoon, October 26th some musician friends and I will have the privilege of hosting a worship celebration for the Berkshire Association of the United Church of Christ at 3 pm. (First Church address: 27 East Street in Pittsfield, MA) What follows are my remarks and the songs we will be sharing as a way of experiencing what we call embodied praying with music. There will be readings fro the Iona Community of Scotland along with visual images from modern and contemporary artists, too. If you are in town, why not stop by?
Reflections on the Word in Music, Poetry, Silence and Prayer

Part One: Entering into Embodied, Incarnational Prayer
Today I would like to invite you into a different type of prayer: call it embodied or incarnational meditation – call it an experiment with beauty – or maybe just an encounter with a spirituality of popular music. Each of these definitions are at work in what we are testing out today – incarnation, beauty and music – because each have given us a way of authentically wrestling with our tradition and deepening it in some ways as well as naming some of the holes or shadows within it at the same time.

You see, for a spiritual tradition that proclaims, “In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God… and that Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of truth and grace,” our way of doing Christianity has been pretty long on the words and awfully short on the flesh.

+ Our liturgies are word saturated – idea drenched – while all the other senses get short shrift if not disdain and neglect. Our spirituality has devolved from one rooted in critical intellectual reflection on our physical acts of social justice and tender compassion , to paraphrase Howard Rice in his very helpful study Reformed Spirituality, to something anemic, aloof and alienated from matter.

+ One long time member of one of our congregations said to me not long ago, “When I come to worship I want to escape the world, rest for awhile from all the harshness of contemporary life and let my mind be filled with pleasant and beautiful thoughts.”

+ And I thought, “Hmmmm… escapism, retreat and sentimentality – hardly the path of Jesus” but this soul is not alone, right? Many in this neck of the woods confuse quietism with tradition, self-centered or personalistic piety as prayer and tepid or even vapid romanticism for spirituality. It is what one of my profs once called “Sloppy Agape” – a corny obsession with the incidentals of religion – that avoids and denigrates the messiness of real life.

Now please don’t misunderstand: I get why people want to escape from the furry of modern living even in the beauty and relative peace of the Berkshires. In his paraphrase of the Bible, Eugene Peterson reframe’s the words of Jesus – come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest – into what has become almost a mantra for me: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace because I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

Isn’t that beautiful? Are you burned out on religion – then come with me and learn the unforced rhythms of grace – I get that. I want that, too. Lots of us do: when I was in Tucson before coming to Pittsfield, one of the women in my congregation was a former pastor of the first GLBT congregation in town, an incredible fighter for those who have been shut out and denigrated as children of God for so long, whose church fired her because they said she had become too liberal in her theology.

Now get this: this church, which she founded out of a very conservative theology, after 10+ years turned on her and fired her because in addition to welcoming the gay and lesbian community – and fighting for just HIV/AIDS burials back in the day none of us knew what HIV/AIDS was – she also wanted to make sure that there was room at the table of Jesus for the hookers and the runaway kids, some of the street people around the church and those 2 or 3 straight allies who joined her in the good fight. And her folk said, “No, let them go someplace else because this church is ours!” And when she tried to remind and teach them that the church didn’t belong to them like a club – that it belonged to Jesus – they fired her.

She and her life partner had been worshipping with us for about 5 weeks when I used Peterson’s reworking of Matthew 11 – are you burned out on religion – and after church she took my hand and said, “God knows I am burned out on religion… what I need to taste is some of God’s grace.”

+ Learning how to feel the unforced rhythm of grace – to integrate word with our flesh – is part of what this experiment is all about.

+ And feeling – or experiencing – the blessings of grace is essential because for too long our tradition has mostly just talked about grace.

One of my favorite writers, Cathleen Falsani, is known as the God Girl because she interviews famous people about their encounters with the Sacred. In her most recent book, Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, she writes:

Why grace? Because some days it’s the only thing we have in common… because it’s the oxygen of religious life, or so says a musician friend of mine, who tells me: “Without it, religion will surely suffocate you!” Because so many of us are gasping for air and grasping for God, but fleeing from a kind of religious experience that has little to do with anything sacred or gracious. Because you can’t do grace justice with a textbook, theological definition or abstract concept but you can get closer by describing it with music and film, pictures and stories.

She then writes: I have a favorite T-shirt that reads, “Jesus is my mixtape.” When I bought it, I thought its slogan was charmingly quirky, but over time it has acquired this transcendent quality, a motto that sums up my belief that everything – EVERYTHING – is spiritual. At the center of that everythingness, as a pastor friend of mine likes to describe it, is a universal rhythm, a song we all play, like a giant, motley orchestra. Sometimes in tune, sometimes off-key. We call it by different names. Still, it remains – if only we have ears to hear it – the eternal soundtrack that plays in the background of our lives.

She is talking about the unforced rhythm of God’s grace – the integration of our ideas with our lives – our heads with our flesh and blood – our political and public lives with our private experiences – she’s talking about – and I’m talking about – learning to live into the promise and blessing of the incarnation within and among us.

So, as we move into this time of music and visuals – readings and silence – movement and conversation – please understand that this is not a performance or a concert: it is an experiment in using the stuff of ordinary life to both ground us in God’s grace and awaken us to the beauty that can change the world. As Cat Stevens once said, “If you want to sing out: sing out; and if you want to be free: be free.”

I hope you will join in singing the songs that you know – and entering the spirit of the ones that are new to you – to see what happens, ok? Try to notice the movement and feel of each tune, too, especially the way the first song embodies both the spirit and form becoming Christ’s living body together – bringing all our unique gifts – into one community.
(The first cycle of songs and readings takes place including: One Voice, Iona readings, A Thousand Beautiful Things, Mark 14: 3-9 (about compassion) and Mary’s Eyes.)

Part Two: Why Popular Culture and Music
This text from Mark 14 – in which a woman does something excessive and beautiful for the Lord by using something from everyday life and letting it become the stuff of healing and grace – is critical for us. The scholars tell us that one version or another of this story appears in each of the gospels so it should cause us to pause and reflect on its significance.

+ In John’s gospel she is Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha, who anoints Jesus just six days before the Passover feast; Luke offers her as a woman of the street while Matthew and Mark leave her unnamed but active just prior to Christ’s death during Passover.

+ All of the texts agree, however, that when this passionate woman uses precious oil and her hair to be prayerful, the men freak out: Judas cries about how this sacrifice could have been used for the poor – and the others seem to agree – leading the contemporary painter, Makoto Fujimura, to note that “her embodied and extravagant prayer evoked an equally opposite and ugly reaction from those who were supposed to be devoted to the master. One disciple gave her whole self while others betrayed him.”

I think that is often what happens when we get Incarnational with our religion and break down the phony barriers between what some call sacred and secular. Do you remember the old founder of Koinonia Farms and the progenitor of Habitat for Humanity Clarence Jordan? He used to tell the good old boys in the segregated South that they would affirm the heresy of Docetism in a heartbeat if they ever under-stood that the Word of God took up residence in the flesh of a person of color. What’s more, he used to say it was in every believer’s best interest to embrace integration right now rather than be shocked at the end of time when every tribe and race is dancing together around the foot of God’s thrown in a radically integrated life beyond life.

So evoking and blending the beauty of everyday life in a radically Incarnational way is often jarring to lots of people – it is even sometimes shocking and off-putting – so let me share three quick insights about why using popular culture and music can be helpful to us in doing theology in the post-modern context. Because even in the Berkshires – and greater New England – post-modern thinking and attitudes are becoming the dominant cultural reality of the day and we need to know how to engage it. Greg Stevens of Rochester College summarizes it like this:

+ First, popular culture reflects society’s real values. We may not always like what we see – a good mirror often tells us that – but as they say on those make over shows: “The 360 mirror doesn’t lie!” One scholar said that by looking at what we see in the world as it is, “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) we are also 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.” We are aching for something to fill the emptiness to say nothing of searching for signs of hope and meaning.

+ Second, popular culture shapes society’s values and beliefs. And this happens through the stories we tell. “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.” The songs we sing and the shows we watch often shape our cultural agenda – they give us eyes to see and ears to hear – and wisdom about the signs of the times.

+ And third, popular culture matters to real live 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, we can be elitist about this – and there’s a ton of crap out there – but it is equally true that the “best shows on television 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."

Are you still with me: popular culture, in other words, offers us resources and insights into the real lives of the people in our churches – and speaks the language of many of those who feel alienated and locked out of church, too.

So listen and sing – feel and embrace – the next prayer cycle as we share two of the most important song/prayers of this afternoon: “Things the Grandchildren Should Know” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” The first, by the Eels, is a hauntingly confessional tune about how a broken soul comes to love his equally broken father – it’s about redemption and healing – while George Harrison’s classic uses the guitar to evoke the broken heart of the Lord watching creation maim and kill and wound itself over and over again. As Jesus told those at the feast in Bethany, “This extravagance is a blessing for she has done something beautiful for the Lord.”

(The second cycle of songs and readings take place including: Matthew 11: 28-30/Cathleen Falsani: Sin Boldly – Things the Grandchildren Should Know – Iona readings – While My Guitar Gently Weeps.)

Part Three: Beauty Can Save the World
Ok, what did that feel like to you? Let’s talk about what you felt, ok? What I was trying to suggest – and evoke – is something of the God of compassion. One of my favorite poets, Scott Cairns, has written about what he calls “The Spiteful Jesus” – the figure of a burned out religion rather than heart of grace – who:

Is angry… He is just… And while he may have died for us, it was not gladly.
The way his prophets talk about his, you’d think the whole affair had left him
Queerly out of sorts, unspeakably indignant, more than a little needy
and quick to dish out just deserts. I saw this Jesus when, as a boy in church,
I first met souls in hell. I made him for a corrupt, corrupting fiction when
My own mortal father (mortal that he was) forgave me everything, unasked.

He goes on to say that as he grew up, he longed for the other Jesus – the Jesus that rang true to grace and wasn’t burned out on religion – or at the very least didn’t offer up a burned out religion when w really need the unforced rhythms of grace. And I have to say that I’m there – that’s what I’m looking for, too – the Jesus that reaches out to me and offers refreshment, strength and grace. Which is my final insight: reclaiming the role of beauty in our world. Jonathan Edwards played with this idea – as did some in the Russian Orthodox tradition as well as the Roman Catholic theologian Hans von Balthazar – suggesting that the mission and ministry of the Holy Spirit is to bring beauty into creation.

Now think about that: many of our theologies are pretty well-developed when it comes to God as Creator or Father or Mother, and our Christologies are often deeply considered, too. But when it comes to the Holy Spirit, well, we get a little loosey-goosey and aren’t really sure what to say about her… which is why some have been exploring the way the Spirit evokes and inspires the creation of beauty as the very heart and core of the Spirit’s ministry in the world.

+ Certainly our tradition holds that in the beginning the Spirit hovered over the face of the deep and brought order out of chaos, yes? Interestingly, Karl Barth in his 1956 little book about Mozart confessed that “… if he should ever get to heaven, he would first of all seek out Mozart, and only then inquire about Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Calvin and Schleiermacher… (For) the music of Mozart offers us a parable of the kingdom of heaven… he heard – and causes those who have ears to hear even today – what we shall not see until the end of time: the whole context of providence.”

+ Then there is the understanding that it is the business – dare we say the ministry – of the Holy Spirit to inspire and fill us with the essence of God? Celtic theologian John O’Donohue notes that: this is precisely how beauty works in the world: 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; there 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. Can we then say that beauty inspires – fills us with the Spirit – so that we can see the sacred beyond all limits?

+ And then Gregory Wolfe, editor of IMAGE a journal of mystery and art, writes: Only beauty can incarnate truth in concrete, believable, human flesh. Beauty also has the capacity to help us to value the good, especially the goodness of the most ordinary things… (Because) its essence is to remind us of the everyday and to transmute it into a sacrament. Beauty tutors our compassion, making us more prone to love and to see the attraction of goodness. Art takes us out of our self-referentiality and invites us to see through the eyes of the other, whether that others is the artist herself or a character in a story. And because beauty endows goodness with mercy, in enables us to see how difficult it is to achieve goodness, how often one good exists in tension with another.

I am coming to trust that beauty is both the ministry and the clearest manifestation of the Holy Spirit – and our tradition has a lot of work to do in order to catch up with the movement of the Spirit. Now there is a lot more to say – and I mean a lot more – so if you want to go deeper into some of these thoughts I’ve put together a little booklet of some of my writing on this matter which I will be happy to share with you.

But let’s bring this time to a close with one more experiment, ok? It has been said that every person in all of creation was born with their own unique note – some sing high and some sing low, some sing without regard to obvious melody and some are organically harmonious – but when you put everyone’s note together, it makes a beautiful chord. A unique sound that gives us a clue to the very grace of God within and among us.

+ Now every time I try this it comes out different: back in Tucson my congregation made that sound of a very traditional choir: deep, rich and four part of harmony. A few weeks ago when I tried it in Pittsfield, we got a jazz chord: oh my God it was hot and totally unexpected. And I have no idea what kind of sound we’ll come with this afternoon, but I know it will be wonderful.

+ So here’s how we’ll do it: we’ll use the word Jesus used for God in prayer – ABBA – an intimate and tender word of trust and sweetness, ok? Abba – and on the count of three – I want you to sing your note to the sound of Abba.

+ I don’t know what your note is, right? Maybe you don’t even know what it is, but God has given us all a note – and when we sing it and share it – it creates something beautiful – and maybe even inspirational.

Do you understand what I’m asking? At the count of three, we’re going to sing our God given note using the word Abba. Can you say, “Abba?” Ok, one… two… three… ABBA

So let those who have ears to hear… hear.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

People living into grace...

Today our worship felt lighter - brighter - more hopeful. Part of the reason has to do with new people playing new roles that honor the past but aren't trapped by it either. Another reason is that it is autumn and everything feels more crisp and beautiful: the sun, leaves, air and our moods. Still another has to do with different settings being used on the pipe organ. But the biggest reason, at least for me, comes down to this: as a faith community we are learning how to live from a place of compassion and gratitude - not form or history or even right doctrine - just honest and deep sharing with one another (and the world) out of our encounters with grace.

The Franciscan, Richard Rohr, says: "Unless and until you understand the biblical concept of God's unmerited favor, God's unaccountable love, most of the biblical text cannot be interpreted or tied together in any positive way. It is the key and the code to everything transformative in the Bible. In fact, people who have not experienced the radical character of grace will always misinterpret the meanings and the direction of the Bible. The Bible will become a burden and obligation more than a gift."

That's a big change for the oldest church in the town to take. Oh I suspect that those early Pilgrims understood grace 245 years ago. Dear Jonothan Edwards certainly did dispite his overly Calvinist perspective because for him his encounter with beauty and joy - grace - colored everything he did and wrote. Somewhere - and I am clueless where or how - this was lost, however, or at the very least it had been forgotten. And not by everyone, to be sure, but by enough so that grace and joy realized from the inside out was not how this congregation understood their faith. But that is beginning to change - not all at once and not completely - but authentically. Deeply. With a sweetness that is palpable. And today I saw two signs:

+ First, before worship began there was a whole gaggle of teens and tweens hanging out in the balcony of our Victorian sanctuary. They were laughing and leaning over the edge a bit (not unsafely) and their demeanor said that they wanted to be there. Two other 12 year old boys were in another part of the balcony watching the new organist in awe. For the first time in 14 months this place felt "kid friendly" to me. Like the spirit of hope and new life was in our veins and there was safe space to be truly ourselves in all our messy humanity.

+ Second, after worship and conversation and some GREAT goodies ended, I gathered this year's CROP walk for Church World Service. We walked 5K to raise money and awareness of world hunger and appropriate techonology issues in our community. I took this over at the last minute and wasn't able to really organize people to participate the way I would like but still there 25+ walkers and we raised $1,000! It was a gorgeous fall day and we had great fun praying and walking, talking and laughing together with a neighbor congregation. Next year, we said like a Passover seder, next year there will be more!

Grace is nurtured. Grace is spontaneous and needs safe space to take root. And grace has to be noticed - like a mustard seed - and named and honored lest those serious people all around us snuff it out in the name of religion. Robert Bly's poem, "People Like Us" comes to mind:

There are more like us. All over the world
There are confused people, who can't remember
The name of their dog when they wake up, and
Who love God but can't remember where

He was when they went to sleep. It's
All right. The world cleanses itself this way.
A wrong number occurs to you in the middle
Of the night, you dial it, it rings just in time

To save the house. And the second-story man
Gets the wrong address, where the insomniac lives,
And he's lonely, and they talk, and the thief
Goes back to college. Even to graduate school,

You can wander into the wrong classroom,
And hear great poems lovingly spoken
By the wrong professor. And you find your soul,
And greatness has a defender, and even in death
you're safe.

Sometimes it all seems so random until there is a small epiphany and grace puts life back into perspective. This prayer/song by Mary Gauthier is just about the most perfect way to bring this day to a close...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

At the close of the week...gratitude

One of my favorite prayers: Almighty God, give us faith to live this day not knowing where it will lead, but with the assurance that your love and guidance are with us always; through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

How true, yes? Who can imagine the sorrows that await us tomorrow? I was listening again to Springsteen's, "You're Missing" and it always grabs me right where I live on so many levels: the unexpected disaster of September 11th but also all the other ways we find ourselves missing those we love from illness and broken hearts to say nothing of simple distance and the necessities of work.

Same with blessings - they are too many to even number! I heard Scott Ritter this morning encourage us to stand tough and challenge the fear/war machine that has taken hold of the American imagination, I got a card from my daughter thanking us for an anniversary gift, I walked with my wife through our garden in the fall leaves and then cooked dinner with her and shared a simple but lovely meal in the warmth of our Berkshire home.

(OMG... I LOVE this freakin' song... it has SUCH passion and gratitude amidst all the toughness and attitude!)

So this week ends - and I get ready for worship tomorrow and then a little CROP walk for sustainable technology and hunger concerns - and I want to rest in the assurance that God's love and guidance are with us all always. Blessings be with you all my friends. (This last song, "Shut Up and Drive" is just too much fun: sexy and embodied and so damned catchy. It was everywhere when we were in London two summers ago and it always makes me laugh at the goodness of God's love in our real lives.)


Friday, October 17, 2008

Radically incarnational: time and beauty meet real life

Let me go a little deeper with a reflection that I began yesterday about a spirituality that is radically incarnational. I continue to be awed when great artists help me both see and experience the truth of real life more deeply. I am mostly attuned to this in music but also find it happening with dance, the visual arts, poetry, deep thinking, gardens, forests, children, acts of compassion, lives lived simply for justice and on and on...

This photomontage by Scott Mutter is one example of such integration of head with heart - and both have to be present for me if I'm going to engage a work of art - because one without the other is only half a truth which some say is a lie. (I think of listening to most of John Coltrane's later recordings; intellectually I am fascinated and appreciative of what this master is doing with time and sound but... these anti-melodic songs fail to grab my heart. Likewise with most fun pop music - "I give it an 85 Dick cuz its got a good beat and easy to dance to" - for they usually fade away fast even when the tune has been a quick blast of fun. Contrast that with "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan which I am still listening to 40 years later - same with early Miles - for they integrate head and heart.)

I have the same visceral and intellectual reaction to this sculpture by Mary Temple who has taken an ordinary American room, watched the way shadows move across the walls and then painted these shadows upon a manufactured wall in such a precise way as to evoke a reactions that is simultaneously beautiful and disconcerting.
"Isn't this REALLY a picture?" I kept asking myself as I encountered this creation - trying to find where the projector was hidden - when, in reality it is truly a sculpture and painting of profound beauty and skill.

Both creations take me deeper: Mutter into the assault of that lonely little business man fighting his way across a dangerous sea only to have to go up the escalator of his work place that overwhelms him in every way; Temple in how the ordinary can be extraordinary if there is time and perspective to see what is always right beyond the obvious.

Now one of the biblical stories that people wrestling with a spirituality of the arts point to when considering the importance of beauty and creativity comes from Exodus 31: Bezalel and Oholiab. The One Who is Holy tells Moses that both these men have been filled with the divine spirit in order to create beauty.

I've filled Bezalel with the Spirit of God, giving him skill and know-how and expertise in every kind of craft to create designs and work in gold, silver, and bronze; to cut and set gemstones; to carve wood—he's an all-around craftsman. Not only that, but I've given Oholiab... an aptitude for crafts and the skills to make all the things I've commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Chest of The Testimony and its Atonement-Cover, all the implements for the Tent, the Table and its implements, the pure Lamp stand and all its implements, the Altar of Incense, the Altar of Whole-Burnt-Offering and all its implements, the Washbasin and its base, the official vestments, the holy vestments for Aaron the priest and his sons in their priestly duties, the anointing oil, and the aromatic incense for the Holy Place—they'll make everything just the way I've commanded you. (Peterson, The Message, Exodus 31)

Preacher Maren Tirabassi has noted that "God asked Moses to set aside and consecrate Joshua's nephew Bezalel and his friend Oholiab because of their gifts of stone-cutting, woodwork, metallurgy, and fabric arts... and then five chapters of Exodus are devoted to the details of their crafts." Two insights come into focus from this for me:

+ The connection between beauty, creativity and the Holy Spirit.

+ The use of ordinary things - rock, wood, wool and time - to fashion lasting beauty.

I am also struck by the observation that five chapters of Exodus are given over to this creative process: it takes time, yes? Time to create and explore, time to ripen and mature, time to notice and want to notice. Henri Nouwen once spent time with Mother Teresa: he was frought with anxieties and confusion and spilled out his chaos to her one night during a conversation. "What am I to do" he pleaded to which the old sage said, "Spend an hour each day adoring God, never do anything that you know is wrong... and you will be fine!" Take time to be centered in God's love and beauty - pay attention and share compassion - and everything else will work out.

The Cowboy Junkies understand this connection between time, beauty and cultivating a non-anxious presence in life and they share it clearly in their music. Their remake of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" is just incredible. Now, don't get me wrong, I LOVED this song the first time I heard it with my girlfriend back when WNEW-NY was cutting edge. But I find I listen to the Junkies version over and over because it is nuanced and true. It is for me a moment of meditation amidst the waters of the flood and the threat of the escalator.

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:...