Thursday, February 26, 2009

Enter the city...

I made it safe and sound to the wild and ever fascinating New York City. It is warm and almost sunny here today - and as vibrant as ever. What made this day especially blessed is my cab ride with a man who, let's say, did not have a deep command of my native tongue but sure as Hell knew how to drive at break neck speeds, scare the CRAP out of pedestrians and get me from Grand Central Station to TriBeca in under 20 minutes!

I wanted to kiss the earth after exiting his cab but... I simply crossed myself quietly (after he drove off) and rejoiced in all that was good (and reasonably safe.) Tonight, the opening of the IAM Conference, will be heady with Nicholas Wolterstorff and jazz pianists on the program. Tomorrow, in the "encounters" I'll spend time with other worship leaders learning how they bring the fullness of God's creative arts into their worship celebrations and have a conversation with a gallery owner about trends in 21st century aesthetics. Then, I hope, Indian food with the kids before heading back for poet Billy Collins and Makoto Fujimura.

The only down side to this experience is that Di decided that we needed the cash more than she needed this time away - so she is back in Pittsfield. Well, it is almost conference time so... until the next break. Blessings.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A blessed Ash Wednesday...

Just concluded a blessed Ash Wednesday gathering... lots of humble and honest conversation, lovely and gentle music and a fun and celebrative Holy Communion. Then I packed and repacked for my trip to NYC and Ohio. Seems I just don't have room for my PC so... I will use my daughter's when I can but I guess part of my Lenten fast will involve being away from the Internet. Not all bad....

After I get into Manhattan tomorrow I will be heading up to St. John the Divine (where this picture was taken in the children's garden) for evening prayer before a night with Nicholas Wolterstorff and others at the IAM conference. I will never forget going to evening prayer one night at the National Cathedral and it was just me... and the priest. So we sang evening prayer to one another and God and then went out for a beer. What a blessing.

Be well, dear friends, I will check in when I can.

Off to IAM...

After tonight's Ash Wednesday gathering I will be heading off to NYC for the International Arts Movement conference. It will be my third and it has become a nourishing reprieve for me. This year Nicholas Wolterstorff, Billy Collins, the Jose Limon Dance troupe, jazz pianist Helen Sung, the chamber jam band Ljova and the Kontraband and visual artist Makoto Fujimura (plus others) will be present to share their gifts and reflections in a reasonably intimate setting. (For more information:

The organizers say this about the gathering: We come together to consider how the world that ought to be is in our midst; a world filled with truth, goodness and beauty; a world inhabited by diverse and vibrant cultures from which, like deep rooted springs that converge into a river bringing life everywhere it flows, emanate hope, peace, love and call all people to truly be human.

Each evening I will have a chance to visit with my daughter, Jesse, and her husband who live across the river in Brooklyn. It is always a blessing to hang out with these two wonderful souls. And it is exciting and challenging to go back to Manhattan - the place where I went to seminary, the place where the girls began to grow up, the place that still bears the scars of September 11th.

I hope to share some observations about the whole affair over the next few days - and then I am off to Cleveland, OH to preach the installation service of two California friends who have recently relocated to another of my favorite places. More on that, too.

But now it is time to reflect on my mortality and brokenness as the community of faith gathers for Ash Wednesday prayer and Holy Communion.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Who you gonna get when all the slaves are free...

Tomorrow - MARDI GRAS - we'll start another round of practice/jams both to get ready for an up-coming TV show and the heart of this year's contemporary music worship on Good Friday. For some reason it feels like this song by Toad the Wet Sprocket...

We've got a hot little line up including Joni Mitchell's "Passion Play" as well as Chumbawumba's "Jacob's Ladder," Belle and Sebastian's "We Rule the School," an original upbeat song about peace as well as U2's "Mysterious Ways." (Probably Nanci Griffith's "Hard Life" and U2's "Dirty Day" along with some Taize, too, with "Pride in the Name of Love" to bring things to a close.) Probably Toad, too.

My sense of this year's Good Friday has something to do with the blessing amidst the darkness. John O'Donohue said it like this in the poem, "Bennacht" which is Gaelic for blessing.

I love this poem and one of the things that is becoming clear is that even in the worst darkness there can be a new light. Like this symbol from the Celtics for anam cara - soul friends - who help one another reclaim the light amidst the darkness.
The ancient prayer for the Easter Vigil on the Saturday before the Feast of the Resurrection says: O Happy fault, on necessary sin of Eve and Adam, that gained for us so great a redeemer! Not that it was God's plan for creation to suffer pain and alienation, but rather even in the midst of our mistakes the One who is Holy can bring us out of the darkness into the Light.
St. Paul got it right when he cried: We believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (NOTE: and let us say those who are in God's love) for we know that in everything God works good for those who love God and are called according to God's purposes.
And so I look forward to Mardi Gras - band practice especially - but also the start of a blessed and holy Lent.

Stand by me...

One of the most inspiring and hope-filled clips I've seen in a LONG time is the song, "Stand By Me," produced by Bono and the RED Group. Theologically it reminds us that while we all have different gifts - and sounds and styles - we are not only all in this thing called life together but that we can make beautiful music together if we have the heart and soul to try.

It isn't easy making beautiful music together - it is often much easier to be a solo performer - but it always much more satisfying - and nuanced - to do it with others. And, yes, it takes more time and technology... but getting there is part of the learning in music. It takes practice and trust - good humor - and lots of time. But man is it worth it...

Thanks to the technology of Facebook I recently received this clip (again) from a long lost friend - the best damned guitarist I knew back in high school - who just happened to be the lead guitarist in our old band. It was sweet to reconnect - and sweeter still to do so through this musical treat.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Inter-generational genre bending...

One of the truly fun things about our new band is that it is a mix of people of different ages: not a HUGE spread but still enough to give me a taste of inter-generational genre bending. And I LOVE that! To be sure, having a few classically trained singers is a hoot, too, as we periodically have to do that dance (or even wrestling match) about how a song FEELS versus how it might be SCORED! (I've learned that most of the time it is usually a both/and on this one because some scores just suck and some of my intuitive riffs just don't work either... but that's a subject for another blog!)

Take, for example, an up-coming gig we are working on: a Celtic collection of tunes that will morph into this year's Good Friday worship. Given the fact that we don't have a drummer - some hand drums but not a kick ass back beat rhythm section - I kept feeling/hearing the need to do U2's "Pride" in a different way from the CD. It needed to have more tension and build given our acoustic instruments... but it wasn't happening. Some of our singers, however, who grew up with the song and loved it as they've always known it resisted: why make it different?

That was a tough creative maze to find our way through because part of it was generational, part of it was training vs. improvisation and part of it had to do with finding a creative way of making something our own rather than playing it safe. Eventually we found a balance that built to a U2 climax... but I wasn't at all sure it was going to happen.

Two other songs come to mind: Belle and Sebastian's "We Rule the School." I would never have pulled this up but one the 30-something singers in the band heard the line, "do something pretty while you can..." and thought it worked. And she was right - which is one of the reasons I am so grateful to have her in the band - she brings the blessing of the inter-generational genre bending to my old rock and roll ears - and we're all the better for it.

Then there is the totally cool version of Coldplay's "Clocks" - which I don't pretend to understand at all - but in this version not only sounds like a meditation of the aching of our hearts for a place of safety (home) and healing, but also an invitation to join the search.

Being a part of a mostly acoustic rock band is a blessed challenge. Searching for genre bending tunes that speak to our spiritual/secular selves is a challenge, too, but more fun than ever with intergenerational music mates!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Go figure: Calvin, Hall and a bunch of songs...

Go figure: for some reason - probably after reading Marilynne Robinson's rethinking of John Calvin - I find myself going back to the old man's insights - and some from Douglas John Hall, too - in anticipation of this year's Lent. “God tolerates even our stammering, and pardons our ignorance whenever something inadvertently escapes us - as, indeed, without this mercy there would be no freedom to pray.” God knows I need this sense of radical grace - especially as I look backwards over the stupidity of parts of my past! (NOTE: Isn't this sculpture by artist, Bob Clyatt, wonderful!?! See more of his work at:

I am particularly drawn to his careful and loving reflections on the Psalms. In my current Psalm-mantra - Psalm 131 - Calvin notes: The quiet of the soul he alludes to is opposed to those tumultuous desires by which many cause disquietude to themselves, and are the means of throwing the world into agitation.... In the passage now before us, what is recommended is that simplicity of which Christ spake,“Unless ye become like this little child, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of God.”
(This clip from "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" puts this into a visual prayer: you start with what is broken, apply deep trust and patience like a child and...) Another scholar notes: Of all explanations the best is that of considering the comparison to consist between the humbleness and simplicity of the Psalmist’s mind, and that of a little child, in whom there does not exist a sufficient consciousness to create an ambition for any worldly object. The comparison is not with יונק, a suckling; for it has a longing after the mother’s breast, and, therefore, such a comparison would not be appropriate. The same, indeed, may be said of a child who has only just been weaned; for, in that stage, how often does it cry and mourn after that of which it has been deprived, and the possession of which was just before its chief pleasure? We therefore conclude, that the comparison is intended to be with a child who has been weaned a sufficient time to have forgotten its infantile nutriment, and who is not conscious of any particular desires or cravings, and quietly resigns itself to its mother’s care and training.

Calvin concludes: Our hope is of the right kind when we cherish humble and sober views of ourselves, and neither wish nor attempt anything without the leading and approbation of God. Douglas John Hall adds: Jesus says in his movement there is a new way for people to live:

+ You show wisdom by trusting people; you handle leadership by serving -
You deal with offenders by forgiving and manage money by sharing - You handle enemies by loving and deal with violence by suffering.

In fact, you have a new attitude towards everything and everybody: toward nature, toward the state in which you happen to live, toward women and men, toward slaved and every single thing. Because this is a Jesus movement - and you repent NOT by feeling bad, but by thinking different! How did St. Paul put it: Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. Then you will be able to test and discern what is God's will.

Seems like it is going to be a rich and interesting Lent around here... maybe even like this Eucharistic feast!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me...

Tonight I broke bread and shared wine (and some great lasagna and ice cream, too) with a few key church leaders committed to finding Christ's spirit in our struggle with the current economic crisis. I have taken real solace in the words of Acts 2:
Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and shared their resources so that each person's need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw so that every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.

I know that this idealized scripture is much like the Jubilee passages of the Old Testament - the heart and soul of the Lord with a more sketchy human history - but as Walter Brueggeman says this should not diminish the power and authority of these words for those who trust and believe. So we talked about making hard choices:

+ how do we stop spending down the endowment to the tune of $90K every year?

+ how do we maintain momentum and support for ministries that bring healing and hope to real people?

+ how do we celebrate Christ's call to renew and rebuild this congregation with joy in these tough times?

After prayer and conversation, some scripture study and lots of questions we began to discern that we could reduce our woes by $30K right now - and implement a series of other commitments that will both generate money for mission while strengthening our ministries of healing and hope. To be sure, not everyone will go for these suggestions: they see the challenges in a different way and will probably not want to take the risks. So let me be clear and without judgment: that is just the way it goes when you choose to follow Jesus down off the mountain, yes? It is hard and demanding - not everybody wants to follow - and the blessings are so joyful and rich! In a word, last night the leaders of our church both affirmed that by faith God has led them this far and by faith will not let us down now - and - that we are no longer dependent upon our fears about the endowment. Indeed, there is life beyond it! As Jesus promised: I have come to give you LIFE - and it abundantly!

Makes me think of Joan Osborne's rendition of the old Motown tune:

So, not only will we share these new options with the congregation and let them be prayerful about them all throughout Lent; but after the Feast of Resurrection on Easter Sunday, we'll meet together again as the whole church for more bread and wine and table fellowship - probably more good desserts, too - and talk and pray about where God may be leading us. It will be quiet and tender - loving and non-anxious - so that maybe... just maybe... we might sense the nudge of the Holy Spirit.
Bobby Mcferrin's setting of the Shepherd's Psalm speaks to my heart right now...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Communion, community and coming off the mountain...

NOTE: Once again I am posting my notes for this Sunday - our marking of the Feast of the Transfiguration - and what they suggest about a Reformed perspective on Holy Communion. If you happen to be in town at 10:30 am on Sunday, please join us.

Trapped in the trappings – religion for real or for show – that’s what we’re going to talk about today. For you see, this the Feast of the Transfiguration, the last Sunday before Lent begins, and it offers us a unique opportunity to discern whether we’re on the right track with Jesus as he heads into Jerusalem, or, whether we’re off on one of our own distracting and often self-absorbed ventures.

As Sr. Joan Chittister likes to say: the story of Jesus and his disciples on the mountain helps us determine whether our religion is essentially a private affair or a matter of the public good. “Do we see faith as a private refuge or a public presence… do we seek a spirituality to protect us from the world, or, change the way we live in that world?” A story from the rabbis gets to the heart of this challenge:

It seems that there was once an old Jew who used all of his spare time planting fig trees at the edge of his village. People would ask, “Why are you planting fig trees? You are going to die before you can eat any of the fruit or even glimpse their beauty?” To which he said, “I have spent many, many hours sitting under my own vine and fig tree eating from their bounty – and those trees were planted by others. So why shouldn’t I make certain that the ones yet to come might know some of the joy and blessings that I have known?”

So let’s see what this sacred story of Christ’s mountain top experience might have to say to us about the heart and soul of our celebration of Holy Communion. You may recall that throughout February we’ve been reflecting on a host of insights about worship:

+ we’ve spoken about music and how it can both help or hurt community building

+ we’ve looked at the importance of being grounded in scripture without being fundamentalist

+ we’ve talked about the importance of being connected to God’s beauty, majesty, mystery and holiness

+ and now we’re going to consider how we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion

Because whether we’re talking about high church or low – traditional, contemporary or experimental liturgies – there is unanimity among Christians that how we celebrate holy communion communicates what we believe about our faith to the world – particularly those who are not yet insiders. Eucharist, you see, makes something of our deepest truths flesh in ways that matter. So, let’s do a little of creative thinking together.

First, let’s put this story of Jesus on the mountain top into some kind of context: do you recall what the symbol of a mountain means is our spiritual literature?

+ For Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists as well as many American Indians, mountains are those places where humans can touch heaven.
The holy and the human can embrace on a mountain top. Think of the story of the 10 Commandments and Moses on a mountain top; or Elijah confronting the agents of idolatry; or even Dr. King on the eve of his assassination: “I’ve been to the mountain top… and I’ve seen the other side. I may not get there with you but I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

+ Jesus gave us the core of his message in that collection we call the Sermon on the Mount. So mountain tops are important in our spiritual geography; they tell us that some important and grace-filled encounter between God and humankind is going to happen.

And that’s what our story says, too. Jesus took his three closest disciples, scaled Mt. Tabor and was transfigured during a mystical conversation with Moses and Elijah. Transfigured means he was filled with light and consumed in beauty – a beauty and light that gave shape and form to God’s love – and when the study and prayer with the ones of tradition was over there was a voice from heaven saying: “This is my beloved – listen to him.”

Now pay careful attention to two insights from this mountain top experience: Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah – and – after all is said and done Jesus takes his troops back down the mountain into what some have called his confrontation with the valley of the shadow of death.

Moses and Elijah: why these two saints? Well, it could have something to do with the fact that these are the prophets of liberation and freedom. Scholars are quick to point out that Jesus was not in consultation with “Aaron the priest who was the chief interpreter of the Law nor was he talking with King David the defender of the state.”(Chittister

+ Tell me about Moses – he is at the heart of the Exodus – the one who hears God’s broken heart over the oppression of the slaves and uses his life to upset the status quo by bringing the children of Israel into the Promised Land.

+ And Elijah – what do you know about this brother? Besides Moses he is perhaps the essence of a prophet who not only scolded and warned King Ahab to quit serving false idols but took on Jezebel and her priests on Mt. Horeb to prove that the Lord our God was superior to the false idols of Baal.

What’s more, tradition has it – and the Passover Meal reinforces it – that before the Messiah returns to usher in the reign of God’s peace, justice and judgment, Elijah shall return. That’s why the Passover Table always includes a setting for Elijah – with a full cup of wine – and the children run to the door to see if the prophet has returned. Elijah is understood to be the sign of the Messiah’s arrival. So it is not accidental – mystically or theologically – for Jesus to be in prayer and conversation with Moses and Elijah, ok?

And we know this to be true because rather than remain on the mountain in spiritual ecstasy – as an alternative to cultivating a spirituality of personal and private piety – Jesus takes his action back down to the valley and the streets. Peter and the disciples want to stay blind from the implications of Christ’s way – they want to stay put on the beauty of that mountain top – but Jesus leads them down into the valley of the shadow of death to spread compassion, healing and justice.

So let the record be clear: immediately after Jesus departs from the mountain of mysticism and ecstasy he takes his followers directly to heal a boy possessed by demons. They don’t go to jail. They don’t go to temple, or church or a mosque. They do not pass go or collect $200 dollars: they return into the belly of the beast where wounded people live and unjust systems oppress. Real religion” it would seem, “is not about building temples and keeping shrines. Real religion is about healing hurts, speaking for and being with the poor, the helpless, the voiceless and the forgotten who are at the silent bottom of every pinnacle, every hierarchy and every system in both church and state.” (Chittister)

Now I can hear somebody thinking, “What in God’s name does all this justice ranting about the mountain and the valley have to do with Holy Communion?” Well… I’m glad you asked because at the heart of the way we celebrate communion is the word community. This isn’t true for every Christian tradition – although Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox all agree that it plays a part in the feast – but it is primary for you and me and let me explain.

+ Our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends believe that Eucharist is essentially a reliving of Christ’s sacrifice. They believe that when a duly ordained priest speaks the words of consecration, the bread and wine become Christ’s true flesh and blood. This is the doctrine of transubstantiation where bread and wine are actually transformed by God’s love in prayer so that we take into ourselves the very essence of our Lord’s forgiveness. There is an element of community building in this Eucharist - and in some of the modern expressions of Eucharist it is boldly communal - but traditionally communion has been a deeply personal ritual act performed by the priest on behalf of the people. In fact, the people are not even necessary some times for Roman Catholic communion: just a priest offering the sacrifice on another's behalf.

+ Our Lutheran and other high church Protestants move a little closer towards the community of God with God’s people in their celebration of Holy Communion. They were the first to conduct worship in the everyday language of ordinary people – rather than Latin – and they practice what is called the priesthood of all believers. Everyone has a mission, not just an ordained priest, and that mission has to do with making Christ real in our midst. But their understanding of the bread and wine is still different from ours for they teach the doctrine of consubstantiation: here the bread and wine equally share the full nature of bread and wine while also taking on the full presence of Christ’s body and blood. It is simultaneously bread and body, wine and blood.

Not so with our tradition – not that we deny the full presence of Christ at the supper – but we really don’t place a lot of emphasis on the elements. No, what is important in our way of celebrating communion is that when we gather – and pray – we trust that Christ spiritually lifts us all into his sacred presence. Do you grasp the difference here?

+ We accept that it is a mystery how this happens, we acknowledge that breaking bread and sharing wine help us have our eyes opened to the presence of Jesus within and among us but we don’t spend a lot of time worrying, arguing and debating how this occurs.

+ Rather, we seek to re-member Jesus by recalling how he first lived and brought healing and hope to the people – and how he continues to do that in our lives now – when we gather in community.

Writer Donald Miller, I think, says it better than most: How odd would it seem to have been one of the members of the early church, shepherded by Paul or Peter, and to come forward a thousand years to see people standing in line or sitting quietly in a large building that looked like a schoolroom or movie theater, to take Communion. How different it would seem from the way they did it, sitting around somebody’s living room table, grabbing a hunk of bread and holding their own glass of wine, exchanging stories about Christ, perhaps laughing, perhaps crying, consoling each other, telling one another that the Person who had exploded into their hearts was indeed the Son of God, their Bridegroom, come to tell them who they were, come to mend the broken relationships, come to marry them in a spiritual union more beautiful, more intimate than anything they could know on earth

Are you with me? We are not judging other traditions – they all have beauty and integrity – but they are different from ours. Our celebration of Holy Communion is about re-membering Jesus – reclaiming his presence in time and history and our lives – and drawing strength from his love within and among us in community.

That is why we welcome everyone to the Lord’s Supper – friend and foe, member and guest, insider and out – together Christ’s spirit actually transforms us and the community is changed from the inside out.

Sometimes I think we can get trapped in the trappings, spend lots of time in arcane theological debates and rule-making about who is in and who is out rather than pay attention to the Christ who comes down off the mountain top. This is a our perspective. Not better, not worse, just different – I have come to think of our way of celebrating Holy Communion like this old story from Africa:

Once El Bulto – the bundle man – told me the story of “one stick – two stick.” There was an old woman dying so she calls to her side her loved ones. She gives a short, sturdy stick to each of her children and grand children and says, “Break that stick.” And with some effort they do, they all snap their sticks in half. “This is how it is when a soul is alone without anyone. They can easily be broken.”

Then she gave out another stick to all who had gathered by her bedside. “This is how I would like you live after I pass. Put your sticks together in bundles of twos and threes. Now, try to break these bundles in half.” And, of course, no one could break the bundles so she said, “We are strong when we stand together with other souls. When we are truly together, we cannot be broken. Go and do likewise.”

This is the good news for those with ears to hear: Lord, may it be so within and among us all.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On guitars, Lent, healing and Voodoo Chile...

About 10 years ago my Lenten discipline involved spending two hours every Tuesday night jamming on guitar with one of the area's finest guitarists. I left church meetings early to jam - I built my prayer and visitation schedule around jamming - and I made damn certain that even if I was bone tired I would get my ass into the practice room, plug in my Rickenbacker and get down to the blues, Hendrix, Clapton or whatever else the maestro had in store for me that night. That was the year I found my balance between being and doing: it was also the year that mental health came flooding back into my ministry.

Don't get me wrong: my church didn't understand WHAT the HELL I was doing?!! "What do you mean your Lenten discipline is going to play/practice/jam on your electric guitar? We have a meeting." And I would smile and wave and just leave... I didn't need to explain why spending 35 minutes in an extended blues jam in E was more healing than their meeting. And there was no way I could ever make anybody understand that for a guy who had given 20+ years of his life to sitting and helping church people find a way to make their meetings more productive, what my soul needed that Lent was some "Voodoo Chile" turned WAAAAY up! So I didn't even try.

So tonight, even though I have had a full day of visitation and problem solving - and it would be tons easier to crawl up in from of the TV and "get lost in that hopeless little screen" as Leonard Cohen moans - I'm gonna jam. Acoustically, to be sure, for after all this IS the Berkshires - but jammin' I'll be. It will be prayer and letting go - it will be therapy and getting grounded - and it will be a chance to practice what Rabbi Heschel teaches about the Sabbath: that God really is in charge and doesn't always need me to be involved.
This crazy assed song- and the spirit of the Dead - is at the core of my being. It is the way I do prayer: structure and improv, a theme and lots of meandering until it all comes together in something new. I LOVE the way Bobby Weir transforms Chuck Berry into a call to action - and St. Jerry Garcia just lifts his rifts beyond the mundane to something ecstatic - before offering us all the rock and roll invitation to give our lives over to some "Good Lovin'!"
So all I can say is: Oh my God, onward to Lent!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Happy dance continues...

A few of the pictures from our first "Happy Dance" photo shoot with our church children. We still have to get 10 little camera pictures developed... but here are a few of the first shots. First, there is me teaching the congregation and children how to DO the happy dance. Then a picture of one of our youngest photographer getting ready for an adventure.

And then this totally feeble attempt of some of the kids actually trying to do the happy dance. More to come.

Another gentle holiday...

Today is Presidents Day in the United States - an odd little holiday that once evoked the legacies of both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln - but is now mostly the start of a three day weekend and public school vacations. I find it another gentle holiday - and I'm grateful. These little holidays, unlike Independence Day or the whole Christmas season, give me time to pause, reflect and return thanks.

Writer Marilynne Robinson writes like these gentle holidays. It takes time and commitment to enter her prose for she evokes a way of living that is deliberate, real and bathed in Christ's spirit of compassion. Slowly and intentionally, she asks the reader to pause, pay attention and notice what both your heart and mind are saying: like the mystics, she invites us into a long, loving look at what is real. A true contemplative.

One of her on-going observations - in both her novels and essays - has to do with how many of us in the US have lost our sense of the common good. She would ask us to cautiously recall how our Puritan ancestors ached to build a commonwealth. It was imperfect, to be sure; but when judged by the standards of the day, rather than ideological obsessions to an anachronistic political correctness, these old saints did pretty well. And it was their understanding that all people are sinners who yearn for the grace of God that empowered them to live into their best selves.

American holidays like this often take me back to "Northern Exposure," that carefully collected cache of TV stories well told that also encourage contemplation - albeit in an entertaining and market driven way! My favorite episode, "Thanksgiving" from 1992, is a wonderful paradoxical mix of yearning for community, spiritual confusion and grace. You may recall that the Native American folk of the town mix their "Day of the Dead" festival with the Anglo Thanksgiving. They throw tomatoes at the white folk - marking them with gentle signs of death and anger and blood - and in a "trickster" like way transform their sadness into joy.

After the community-wide parade that is filled with images of death and genocide, everyone gathers together for a feast. And as St. Luke suggests, every one's eyes are opened with the breaking of the bread. History is not changed - or forgotten - it is owned and then transformed into something more than sorrow and shame.

And then there is an old friend, Laurie Anderson... she gets it right, too. Rest well.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Too,too funny...

We launched our "Kids with Cameras" project this morning - and it was a madhouse! I don't think any of our children took pictures of anyone doing the happy dance. But we did create some energy and insight about trying to see life from another's perspective. And, man were those kids funny! They were running around everywhere trying to take artistic pictures of the adults; I can't wait to see the results after my wife and her partner-in-crime get them back from WalMart.

Afterwards, we had a small group conversation about how worship music can either build up the community or reinforce our isolation. It was unanimous that group singing is preferred to choirs or soloists. It was also clear that among those who were participating, the music needs to have integrity and beauty. It doesn't matter what style it is, it needs to take us deeper, encourage our hearts and feed our souls. Otherwise, it feels like a waste of time... and life is already too busy.

In my prayers last night I was reading Patrick Henry Reardon's notes on Psalm 131
He observed that this sweet, little Psalm sounds a lot like St. Paul's repeated admonition to the Church in Roman about being too puffed-up, haughty or snooty: "I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but with sober judgment, each according the measure of faith that God has assigned." Apparently this was a problem in Rome - and is often so in local churches, too - were some believe that their money, power or ego entitles them to more influence.

In Marilynne Robinson's essay on "Puritans and Prigs" in her collection, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, she notes that when John Calvin reflected on what would inspire greater compassion, generosity and hope in the world it was NOT more personal introspection or private prayer. Rather, it was loving another as God loves us... anything less merely reinforces our selfish sinfulness.

It will be fascinating to see how the perspective of others through the lenses of these little ones will help us "think not more highly of ourselves." Maybe they might even push us towards a little more love... we shall see.

O Lord my heart is not proud
(just look at this picture of me in worship this morning that my wife took!)
My eyes are not raised too high.
I do not occupy myself with matters too great for me
Or with marvels that are beyond me.
But I have stilled and made quiet my soul
Like a weaned child nestling to its mother
So like a child my soul is quieted with me
(and rests in you)
O trust in the Lord
From this time forth and forever more.

One of my favorites... still.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Beauty, prayer and a tribal church...

I am really enjoying Carol Howard Merritt's book: Tribal Church. Not only does it describe most of the churches I have served over these past 27 years, but it also describes what I sense are the blessings of an intergenerational, broadly inclusive congregation in these high tech days of specialization and isolation. (check it out:

She notes that "tribes form around a common cause and belief... so we gather to connect with God... Second, tribes tend to the basic needs of one another... understanding that some need more care than others... Third, tribes celebrate and remember traditions... and appreciate the deep spiritual practices that form our communities... And fourth, a tribal church is relational in nature. It is less concerned with denominational labels and hierarchy."

In Tucson, for example, we began encouraging young people and their families to connect with us because "we had cool old people who would LOVE to cherish your babies - and you - as well as young families who are aching to connect with others trying to live Christ's values in this materialist culture." Over time we discovered that not only gay and straight couples with children began to find a spiritual home among us, but so did recent retirees who had left the Midwest for the warmth of the Southwest and middle age folk who were tired of the SOS they found in age segregated congregations. It seems that everybody is missing somebody: grandparents their extended families living halfway across the US, young adults alienated from their past, professionals and military personnel alone in a new city and on and on it goes.

And that is part of the mystery we are discovering here in the Berkshires where the demographics make church growth damn hard: in a high tech world, everyone is searching for a high touch community. Not just a church in the institutional sense, but a place where everybody knows your name... kinda like "CHEERS!"

Think about it: gay and straight, young and old, male and female, Democrat and Republican together in community. Not perfect peace, but bathed in compassion and hope with a good amount of humbling humor around the edges. Last week, for example, I baptized both a mom and her infant son. Earlier in the month a group of 50-something women had knit the mom a lap blanket and the baby a comforter and they made the presentation after the baptism. Nothing revolutionary, but man were the connections happening all over the place. It was electric and joyful.

Carol Howard Merritt notes that there are a few key commitments needed for the tribal church:

+ Fostering intergenerational relationships so that everyone has a place at the table
+ Encouraging economic understanding because the chaos of this moment is very different for young families and adults than those of us with established careers.
+ Cultivating unambiguous inclusion so that artificial and mean-spirited divisions find a gentle and healing way to answer Christ's question: who IS my neighbor?
+ Discovering affirming traditions that bring joy, depth and spiritual authenticity back into the mix - not all traditions are affirming so discernment matters, too.
+ Promoting shared leadership so that the cost and joy of discipleship becomes an antitdote to spectator religion and passive spirituality.
+ Nurturing spiritual community - address that ache in every one's heart by reclaiming the spiritual wisdom of the past for contemporary lives.

And so the discovery becomes a little clearer: First, we found out that God is calling us to connect at a deep level with some of the creative/artistic folk in this area because as we explore beauty together, we are all enriched and healed. Then it became clear that we needed to practice and embody a real community of faith and trust in our leadership team; so we are studying and praying and eating together - sharing and building relationships - and like the community in Acts, "awe came upon everyone because of the many wonders and signs being done..."

And now we are finding our calling into a "tribal church" - a gentle place of unambigous inclusion, humility, tradition and creativity - committed to advancing beauty and patient prayer.

Friday, February 13, 2009

And Romeo loved his Juilette...

Back in the early days of the Ronald Reagan regime, St. Lou Reed released what may be his life's work: New York. It was a long, hard and loving look at reality - the very essence of contemplation the mystics tell me - in which he considers love, sex, economic, politics, hope, fear and all the rest.

I was reminded of this song -"Romeo Had Juliette" - this morning while reading the NY Times which quotes the Mayor of Mexico City as promising free Viagra to all men over the age of 60 because, "Everyone deserves to be happy." ( It made me think of a quote from Chesterton about uncommitted sex being the cheap mysticism of those without faith. (I am searching for the reference...)

In a time of fear and emptiness - a time when many traditional religious answers ring hollow or at least confusing - there is still that thirst for a deeper connection. Like St. Lou, I have come to trust that even the cheap mysticism of the moment is still a prayer. It may be expressed in a broken or even pathological way as Jung has suggested, but the cry of the heart for God is still there. I see it in the wave of new horror films that speak about the life beyond the obvious, I see it in the flooding of the Internet with cheap pornography and I even see it in the weird return of the Roman Catholic Church's return to selling indulgences! (CORRECTION: I got busted for sloppiness here; they aren't SELLING indulgences... just requiring that you go to CONFESSION to get one. Thanks for the clarificaiton.)( NOTE: you really have to read this story about the indulgences! I love this quote from a Lutheran pastor: After Catholics, the people most expert on the topic are probably Lutherans, whose church was born from the schism over indulgences and whose leaders have met regularly with Vatican officials since the 1960s in an effort to mend their differences. “It has been something of a mystery to us as to why now,” said the Rev. Dr. Michael Root, dean of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., who has participated in those meetings. The renewal of indulgences, he said, has “not advanced” the dialogue.“Our main problem has always been the question of quantifying God’s blessing,” Dr. Root said. Lutherans believe that divine forgiveness is a given, but not something people can influence. (NY Times, 2/9/09)

Man, are these fascinating times. St. Natalie Merchant put it like this:

Chesterton also said:"One of the chief uses of religion is that it makes us remember our coming from darkness, the simple fact that we are created." God's grace is free and some try to sell it to get people back into church. As Dostoevesky noted in the Grand Inquisitor, should Christ come back to set us free again, the church would kill him. So St. Pete Townsend keeps singing...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

I love Scott Cairns...

Here's a new poem by a guy I have come to love: Scott Cairns. Funny, I was just saying yesterday to my wife that I prefer his older poems - and now this one pops up and is just as good as the old timers. Thanks be to God. He recently spent time at this monastery: Mt. Athos in Greece.

Speculation: Along the Way
The roaring alongside he takes for granted —"Sandpiper" by Elizabeth Bishop

And when, of a given evening, say, an evening laced
with storm clouds skirting distance parsed by slanting light,

or when the thick air of an August afternoon by the late approach
of just such a storm turns suddenly thin and cool, and the familiar

roaring, for the moment made especially unmistakable

by distant thunder, may seem oddly to be answered from within

—that's how it feels, anyway—and when, of a moment, such roaring
couples as well with sudden calm—interior, exterior, it hardly matters—

in that fortunate incursion whereby the roar itself is suddenly interred,

you might startle to having had a taste of what will pass as prayer,

or a taste, at the very least, of how fraught, how laden the visible is,

even as you find a likely figure for its uncanny agency. Sure,

I'm making this up as I go, hoping—even as I go—to be finally
getting somewhere. And maybe I am. Maybe I'm taking you along.

Let's say it's so, and say we now commence

One of the blessings of poetry - for me who came to it all well after 40 (except rock and roll) - is that it evokes feels and insights that are greater than the words, yes? It is, perhaps, no coincidence then that I married a poet? Once, when we were prowling a bookstore before we were married, I had an epiphany when I found an old volume which I now keep in my study (and use often) in which Robert Bly writes: While our European-American tradition questions and argues, and has to teach poetry to sullen students in English classes, other cultures, speaking Spanish, Russian, Arabic, to say nothing of the many tongues of Africa and the Indian subcontinent, grow up inside poems, drenched through with poetic metaphors and rhythms. As we learn to criticize, to take a poem apart, to get its meaning, they learn to listen and to recite.

By drawing this sharp contrast with other cultures, we are pointing to a defect in ours. We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation. Men blame their own lives for a deficiency in the culture. For, without the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, emotions and imagination flatten out. There's a lack of spirit and vision. The loss in he heart appears as a loss of heart to take up he great cultural challenges that are part of every man's citizenship. It is in this sense hat we have come to think that working in poetry and myth with men is a therapy of the culture at its physic roots.

I could not agree more. Today, while sharing lunch with one of the Berkshire's great pianists - who has also had a career interviewing some of the spiritual giants of our era - we spoke of Huston Smith and B.B. King in the same breath - two masters of the soul who won't be with us long. But both have helped so many find poetry and beauty and hope... and when I got home, she had sent me this link which says it all. Thanks be to God for those who bring such beauty to birth.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Celebrating the WHOLE people of God...

NOTE: Here are this week's worship notes for Sunday, February 15, 2009. They build on the newly adopted mission statement -- We gather in community with God and each other to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion - and a need to rethink some of our worship habits and experiences. Join us if you are in town at 10:30 am on Sunday.

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day – a lovely little moment in time that could be an occasion of gentle sharing and affection – but is too often just a mandatory display of sentimentality and crass marketing. Don’t get me wrong, my honey and I had a sweet, little date because we both love those times when we can refresh our commitment. But our celebration was a sanitized and reimagined version of that sappy and manipulative thing we now call Valentine’s Day.

That is to say, like many of our holidays and traditions that have been infected by a love and obsession with money, we have had to rediscover what is at their core – their heart – in order to experience their blessing. You see, the depth psychologist, Carl Jung, once noted that people need rituals and celebrations in their lives. We are hard wired for making connections between heaven and earth. When religion works, our rituals are life-giving and take us deeper, but when they fail, people create other experiences that are often pathological.

+ Think of what has happened around food. Once we supported a calendar of feasting and fasting – celebration and lament – but now that we are significantly more secular we obsess on dieting.

+ The same true with young people and gangs: once we had very clear rites of passage for boys becoming men, but now there is just the driver’s license and first job – hardly the stuff that tries and shapes a soul.

Gertrud Mueller-Nelson wisely writes:
Without a conscious way to 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, you see, is not passing away; rather, our loss of a religious nurturance only makes us more aware of this hunger. We want meaning and fulfillment and wholeness. Rushing in to fill the void are the low-grade religious experiences which bedevil and taunt…

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 neurotic is religious material done unconsciously. Compulsive behaviors are the rites and ceremonies of the unconscious which have taken control of our nature… they are begging to be translated and heard and enacted… so that we might embrace the sacred. (To Dance with God, p. 13)

And what has become true for Valentine’s Day – or Christmas and Easter for so many – has also become true for worship: when the dominant metaphor in America is “the bottom line” – an economic and utilitarian concept, not a spiritual one – it should not surprise us that American worship looks more like a “purpose driven” performance than the Sabbath.

For Sabbath, says Rabbi Abraham Heschel, symbolizes the sanctification of time. Listen carefully: Creating holiness in time requires a different sensibility than building a cathedral in space: “We must conquer space in order to sanctify time.” There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”

In our daily lives we attend primarily to that which the senses are spelling out for us: to what the eyes perceive, to what the fingers touch. Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space; even God is conceived by most of us as a thing. The result of our thinginess is our blindness to all reality that fails to identify itself as a thing, as a matter of fact.

Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self. That is why the Sabbath has no time for personal anxiety or care, for any activity that might dampen the spirit of joy. The Sabbath is no time to remember sins, to confess, to repent or even to pray for relief or anything we might need. It is a day for praise, not a day for petitions. Fasting, mourning, demonstrations of grief are forbidden… for it is indeed a sin to be sad on the Sabbath day.

Like Huston Smith once observed, perhaps the saddest loss in the blessing of Christianity has to do with forgetting to truly observe the Sabbath as our Hebraic forbearers: we don’t dance, we don’t feast and we certainly don’t sanctify time. For the love of God we can barely sit still in church for 60 minutes – and Lord have mercy should worship go much beyond!

What happened to the time when we could join the Psalmist and proclaim: All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God! Thank him to his face… for the Lord changed wild lament into whirling dance; you ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I'm about to burst with song; I can't keep quiet about you. O God, my God, I can't thank you enough!

Part of the answer to this lament is clear: somewhere along the way we got trapped in the trappings of religion and forgot that worship is for the WHOLE people of God. Not the clergy or the choir, not the professionals or intellectuals, but the WHOLE people of God: children as well as adults, insiders as well as guests, those who are wounded and those who are well, those who are lost and those who are found. And we’re talking about the WHOLE people of God in all the ambiguity of that expression.

Consider this morning’s gospel text in Mark where Jesus expresses compassion, tenderness, hope and anger as he brings healing to the leper. A social outcast who is a threat to the community approaches Jesus and begs for healing: “If you want to cleanse me,” he pleads, “you can do it.”

+ Filled with compassion the Lord reaches out to touch the pariah saying, “I do want to bring you healing and wholeness.” And when the blessing comes Jesus instructs the man to go back to the priests to show them he can now re-enter society.

+ Now did you catch that: go back to the priests? This is one of the key parts of the story; apparently the leper had already been to the gate-keepers of the spirit and they had sent him away. They condemned the leper to a life of pain and loneliness because for very good reasons, lepers were banned from the community. They were required by law to warn others that they were dangerous and unclean only to become the living dead.

But Jesus believed that God was breaking into creation in a whole new way – a way that both interrupted some of the old rules and rendered many others obsolete – including anything that separated real people from the love and support of God’s community. So Jesus acts like a priest – assuming authority and power that was not his to claim – but still touching the unclean man that he might be restored to wholeness. And when this happens, the leper rejoices. He tells everyone he meets about this blessing. He goes back to the priests to be officially welcomed back into town. And he starts to live a life that sounds a great deal like the psalmist who said: Sing your hearts out to God! Thank him to his face… For the Lord changed wild lament into whirling dance; you ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I'm about to burst with song; I can't keep quiet about you. O God, my God, I can't thank you enough

So let me suggest to you four insights about worship that I discern in all of this that speak to us as the whole people of God. First music is essential in helping us worship the Living God. It is best when our music is participatory rather than passive for the only function performance has in worship is to draw us deeper into contemplation and prayer – never ego. That means our choirs and ensembles have a ministry to strengthen not replace congregational singing. Our hymns and responses must be accessible, beautiful and meaningful. And all of our music is to be God directed lest we reinforce the self- serving ways of the culture.

Second humor that is humbling and honest is needed in worship now more than ever. Not sarcasm or cruelty, not harsh or crude jokes, but that sweet Zen-like self-deprecating humor that can help us laugh at our self and own our brokenness. Jesus used it all the time: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Be like this child – let her be your rabbi – for unless you become like one of the least of these you shall miss the blessings within and among you. I am a particular fan of the Sufi wise fool, Nasrudin, who so often helps me laugh at myself. One story puts him in a café drinking tea with a friend late one afternoon. And as they spoke of life and love, his friend asked, “Why did you never marry, Nasrudin?”

“Well,” the old one said, “to tell you the truth I spent my youth looking for the perfect woman. In Cairo, I met a beautiful and intelligent soul with eyes like dark olives, but she was unkind. Then in Baghdad, I met a woman who was a wonderful and generous soul, but we had no interests in common. One woman after another would seem just right, but there would always be something mission. Then one day, I met her: she was beautiful, intelligent, generous and kind in thought, word and deed. We shared everything in common and it was clear to me that she was, in fact, perfect.”

“So what happened?” he friend shouted, “Why didn’t you marry this wonderful blessing?” To which Nasrudin sighed as he sipped his tea reflectively. “Well, it is a sad thing: it seems that she was looking for the perfect man.”
(Spiritual Literacy, p. 430)

Music and humor can help the whole people of God become more and more whole and holy. Third, the language we use must be broadly inclusive and accessible. When we shrink our words to what we know the best, we start to create God in our image, when we know that it was really the other way around. That’s why Brian Wren, one of the finest contemporary hymn writers, tells us of God’s creative power like this, “Bring Many Names.” There is a strong mother God, a warm father God, an old aching God, a young growing God – and a great living God, never fully known, joyful darkness well beyond our seeing, closer yet than breathing, everlasting home: hail and hosanna, great living God. Our words speak of the God we know: and in an era filled with fear and judgment I choose to emphasize grace and light, paradox and hope, community and healing.

And that brings me to the fourth insight, namely that movement matters in worship: it helps us honors our bodies and respect the diversity of abilities within the whole people of God. We believe that the Word became Flesh – that the Incarnation is one of the deepest mysteries of our faith – so we are called to use our bodies in worship to reinforce this radical truth. We clap our hands and snap our fingers; we use our eyes to read, our tongues to sing and our totality to get up and embrace one another for the peace. At the same time we make certain that there is space for those with different abilities: nobody has to clap or move around for the peace.

You see, there is a place for everyone at the table – and if you aren’t as mobile as you once were, then the whole people of God will come to you. Music, humor, careful and loving God talk and movement are very important elements of our worship in the 21st century.

+ They lure us away from “bottom line” thinking and so-called “purpose driven” lives.

+ They help us reclaim Sabbath with healing, encouragement and humility us so that we might discern how to be our best selves in a harsh and often lonely world.

+ And they do it gently – like Jesus touching the hand of the wounded man in exile – and it restores us all to community.

So let me teach you a song that I would ask you to sing with me at the close of worship each week over the next few months. It is lovely and accessible, it is grounded in scripture and could help us go out of worship with the same joy as the healed leper or the Psalmist of old.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ
And the love of our Creator
And the fellowship – the fellowship –
of the Holy Spirit
Be with us – for evermore – and evermore
And evermore – Amen

The first time we sing it in unison – reminding ourselves that we are all in this together – and the second time a Capella in parts – as a way of embodying our gifts and the joy of God’s grace within and among us. Are you ready to give it a try...?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The healing of our songs...

Our wonderful little band, Between the Banks, met tonight after a WAAAAY TOO LONG BREAK - and it was sweet soul music for my tired and cold Berkshire soul. Yes, exercise and Vitamin D are important in this north country, but damn does playing, singing and making music with dear ones bring healing to me. Dobie Grey got it so right...

It made me think of Psalm 30 and Peterson's reworking in The Message:
All you saints! Sing your hearts out to God! Thank God to God's face! God gets angry once in a while, but across a lifetime there is only love. The nights of crying your eyes out give way to days of laughter.... I called out to you, Lord; I laid my case before you: "Can you sell me for a profit when I'm dead? Or auction me off at a cemetery yard sale? When I'm 'dust to dust' my songs and stories of you won't sell. So listen! and be kind! Help me out of this!" You did it: you changed wild lament into whirling dance; You ripped off my black mourning band and decked me with wildflowers. I'm about to burst with song; I can't keep quiet about you. God, my God, I can't thank you enough.

And man did we sing and pray with our songs. First we worked on U2's ode to the Holy Spirit, "Mysterious Ways" with wah-wah, congas and great harmonies. Then we tried Sarah MacLachlan's, "World on Fire" which was sweet and sad. Our other guitarist, Brian, has written a new song as a lament and peace prayer for the war breaking out in Gaza - and it is so soulful.

Then a new song by Belle and Sebastian that Liz brought to the mix with the lyric: Do something pretty while you can, don't be a fool, reading the Gospel to yourself is fine but do something pretty while you can! Then we gave Chumbawamba's anti-war, post September 11th, Jacob's Ladder a try and it began to take shape - even with a little of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" thrown in for good measure.

The lyrics to this song are particularly shocking:
Like the Sermon on the mountain says dumber got dumb
Hellfire and brimstone swapped for oil and guns
When we're pushing up daisies we all look the same
In the name of the Father, maybe, but not in my name...
In the streets down in Whitehall,
Dogs pickin' at the bones
Nine eleven got branded, nine eleven got sold
And there'll be no one left to water all the seeds you sowed
On this Jacob's ladder, the only way up is down

So we're back in the groove and life feels a hellofalot better! St. Sly, who is probably the funkiest mofo in God's creation, gets it right once again:

Another friend is gone...

Word just in from Tucson that another friend has passed from this life to life everlasting. Chuck Ballard, sound man/techie at First Church in Tucson (where my friend Briget is pastor), notified us two weeks ago that he had entered hospice - and now he is dead. Life is so unpredictable and nothing - absolutely nothing - can be taken for granted. It is all grace upon grace - and the dark times are part of the bargain.

Chuck loved his motorcycle, supported our old Tucson band, Stranger, and helped us work sound on many, many events. He was almost mortally wounded in a motorcycle accident 5 years ago but came away to live another day. He was a fierce supporter of the work of the United Church of Christ in the desert Southwest and loved his adopted family of Briget, Abbey and Gabby. Rest in peace, dear man, rest in peace.

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:...