Monday, September 28, 2009

Grace, turtles and old rockers never get old...

In writing a review of the new book by Scott Cairns (The End of Suffering) I had a chance to go back to his early poetry and came across one of my all time favorites: "On Slow Learning."

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how terribly difficult
paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper,
there remains one obstacle -
your tortoise's intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys,
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell, utterly
ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

What a truly homely way of evoking God's great grace for each and all of us, don't you think? "Failing, your tortoise may shy away for weeks... or look up with wet eyes and offer an honest shrug. Forgive him." It always touches my heart. As does this old, old tune by my man John Sebastian: "How Have You Been My Darlin' Children?"

It was part of his gig at Woodstock after he left the Lovin' Spoonful - a group that made me smile and weep and dance my ass off - as they blended jug band music with rock and roll and blues. Apparently, CSN&Y recorded it but never found a way to release it. It, too, evokes that turtle on the Long Island Expressway who hitched a ride on the back of Sebastian's guitar case...

I used to sing this song back in my earnest folkie days playing coffee houses at college - and in church, too - as a way of connecting my sense of our common journey with God's abiding presence and grace. It was a lovely bit of "monkey mind" that led me from Cairns to turtles to Sebastian and God's grace. What fun. Tomorrow I set off for NYC for a seminar - and a visit with the kids in Brooklyn - knowing that the road goes on forever... as do old rock and rollers intoxicated on grace. (I suspect I'll even find myself hummin' "Darlin' Be Home Soon, too, as I miss my dear Dianne while I am away...)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The end of suffering...

NOTE: A few weeks ago Paraclete Press asked if I might post a blog review about Scott Cairns' new book, The End of Suffering: Finding Meaning in Suffering. I was pleased to explore this work both because I value the poetry and essays of Cairns, and, because I am deeply interested in finding ever clearer ways of speaking about God and human suffering. There are a handful of truly helpful books on this subject: Gerald Sittser's, A Grace Disguised; Nicholas Wolterstorff's, A Lament for a Son; Dorothee Soelle's, Suffering; Jurgen Moltmann's, The Crucified God; and John Hick's, Evil and the God of Love. I sense that Scott Cairns has written a slim volume the could very well stand alongside these treasures. Here is my review.

Scott Cairns, best known for his incarnational and mystical poetry, has recently written an extended spiritual reflection on human suffering. Drawing upon his own experience, the wisdom of the Orthodox Christian tradition as well as artists like Dostoevsky, Dickinson and Milton, The End of Suffering: Finding Meaning in Pain (Paraclete Press, 2009) is a humble expression of how faith lived in Christian community can bring us a measure of both solace and serenity.

Like much of Cairn’s poetry, this work is playful without a hint of cheap piety. It is tender and truthful, careful never to claim too much, while also insisting that the mysterious presence of God’s grace is always sufficient. The 1985 poem, “On Slow Learning,” captures something of the spirit of this book.

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how terribly difficult
paper training can be
for some pets.

Even if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper,
there remains one obstacle –
your tortoise’s intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys,
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell, utterly
ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

Three inter-related truths ebb and flow throughout The End of Suffering: First, most of the pain and agony in our lives hold the possibility of becoming a “wake up call” for us to grab our attention: “I’m thinking that this is what most, if not all, of our afflictions are inclined to do… They grab our attention. They shake us up and, by thus rattling the bars of our various cages, they serve to shake us – blinking all the while – awake.” Quoting Simone Weil, he goes further: “Affliction compels us to recognize as real what we do not think possible… our afflictions drag us – more or less kicking – into a fresh and vivid awareness that we are not in control of our circumstances, that we are not quite whole, that our days are salted with affliction.” (Cairns, pp.6-7)

Most of us, Cairns argues, tend to avoid our wounds – those inflicted by our harsh encounters with real life as well as those that are self-inflicted – so that we are never fully awakened. And without this awakening we remain too full of ourselves – saturated in sensations but empty of insight. If, however, “we take care to acknowledge these truths (brought to us by suffering), and are canny enough to attend to them, faithful enough to lean into them, then the particular ache of that waking can initiate a response that the Greeks were wont to call kenosis – an emptying, an efficacious hollowing. Under ideal circumstances and duly appreciated, this hollowing can lead us into something of a hallowing as well.” (p. 8)

And that is the second truth: as we are emptied – as we die to ourselves – then Christ can take up residence within and among us. Much of The End of Suffering is devoted to exposing what this means for Cairns is certain that we live in an age of “childish privilege” overly concerned with our “own self-aggrandizement.” Like Robert Bly and Marion Woodman suggest in The Sibling Society, our obsession with self-esteem inhibits spiritual and social maturation. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Greek fathers and mothers, Cairns invites us to let pain empty our lives so that we might learn about and embrace our weakness. “Blessed is the person who knows his own weakness,” Saint Isaac counsels, “because awareness becomes for him the foundation and the beginning of all that is good and beautiful.” (p. 18)

He is quick to note that “suffering is no end in itself, and that affliction is, of itself, no great virtue.” Nevertheless, suffering can be a “means, a circumstance of our common journey that can offer us a clearer view of the task at hand. Along that journey, our afflictions and our suffering may also provide to us a glimpse of what actual virtue might require.” (p. 24)

The third insight in this extended essay suggests that our flesh is intended by God to be evidence that we are all a part of Christ’s body. Suffering is never transcended; rather it connects and awakens us to “how Christ saves us – He joins Himself to us.” (p. 38) Cairns is most persuasive in making the case for a bold understanding of incarnation that trusts that whatever wounds one, simultaneously wounds us all.

Let’s attend to the business of how intimately we are connected one to another. The connection is absolute. I daresay that if the innocent suffer, they do so because one of us – you or me or some other thug – now or in the past has set their pain in motion. And if the innocent continue to suffer, they do so because we have yet to take responsibility for their pain; we have yet to take sufficient responsibility for their relief. Our failure to appreciate the degree of our own responsibility encourages – and, more often than not, continues to enable – our famous disinterest in those who suffer… (pp. 58-59)

Simply stated, Cairns finds the “end of suffering” to be an awakening into the living body of Christ where “whatsoever you do unto one of the least of these my sisters and brothers, you do unto me.” (Matthew 25) “My hope for healing,” he concludes, “lies in my becoming more of a person, and more intimately connected to others. For us to succeed as we are called to succeed… I want to be saved from what passes for myself.” (p. 63/84)

“Ignorance and sin are characteristic of isolated individuals,” writes the Russian priest Father Alexander Elchaninov. “Only in the unity of the Church do we find these defects overcome. Man finds his true self in the Church alone; not in the helplessness of spiritual isolation but in the strength of his communion with his brothers (and sisters) and his Savior.” Elsewhere this same wise priest offers a word of caution: quoting Saint Paul, he observes, “And when one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” is said of the Church. If we do not feel this, we are not within the Church. (p. 80)

A contemporary hymn summarizes Cairn’s point:

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you, pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you, I will share your joys and sorrows till we’ve seen this journey through
(Servant Song, Richard Gillard, 1977)

This is a spirituality of radical community: the body of Christ alive in the world incarnating compassion and justice. It is faith communities consciously connected one to the other holding “the Christ light… in the shadow of our fears… holding our hands out, too, as we speak the peace we long to hear.” (Gillard, 1977) It is life awakened – and grace-filled.

The Reverend Dr. Warren Lee of San Francisco Theological Seminary used to tell his students that it was essential for those in the local church to “come to grips with the reality of God and evil. You need to wrestle with theodicy until you come up with something that lets you live with the gaps. You’ll never get it all figured out… but real lives are at stake here.”

Scott Cairns essay is another satisfying and helpful piece of the puzzle that closes another gap for me. It stands alongside Dorothee Soelle’s, Suffering, and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s, A Lament for a Son, as resources for strengthening the body of Christ in the 21st century.

images: photos of Scott Cairns; Robert Lentz' icon "Jesus of Maryknoll;" Theotokos icon @; Rublev's "Holy Trinity" icon

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Autumn in the berkshires...

One of my spiritual disciplines for this year is to read poetry on my Sabbath: not only are poets some of God's great messengers to an overly busy world, but poetry nourishes my soul in ways unique in art. So far this summer I have spent time with Mary Oliver, Robert Bly, Marie Howe, John O'Donohue, Joy Harjo, Billy Collins, Rumi, Rilke and Donald Hall. This week I am entering the gifts of Louise Gluck and Edward Hirsch. By nature I veer towards music - and I listened to and played some wonderful tunes yesterday - from Big Bill Broonzy's "Key to the Highway" to Yusuf Islam's "The Wind." (God, do I LOVE this song...)

I am often captivated by film and dance, too. To be sure, gazing meditatively at visual art is more soul food for me, but none are like poetry with its unique balance of thought and sensation. So, we spent part of the afternoon in the yard and garden and part in the library. Louise Gluck spoke to me in The Wild Iris with this poem, "Vespers."

In your extended absence, you permit me use of earth, anticipating
some return on investment. I must report
failure in my assignment, principally
regarding the tomato plants.
I think I should not be encouraged to grow tomatoes.
Or, if I am, you should withhold
the heavy rains, the cold nights that come so often here, while other regions get twelve weeks of summer. All this
belongs to you: on the other hand,
I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots
like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart
broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly
multiplying in the rows. I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term. You who do not discriminate
between the dead and the living,
who are, in consequence,
immune to foreshadowing, you may not know
how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,
the red leaves of the maple falling
even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible
for these vines.

As I let her words wash over me - and drip deeper within - I sensed the quiet dread of uncertainty. It is autumn in the Berkshires - beautiful, clear, crisp autumn - filled with color and the smells of celebration. But before I even realize it, autumn will become winter - cold, beautiful and often brutal to my sensibilities. What's more, autumn always evokes a sense that my time is much shorter that I would like to think. (Perhaps the fact that I am going to a pre-retirement seminar on Wednesday is adding to this, too!)

Perhaps, too, it has been my reading of Donald Hall - especially his essays on the seasons in New England - that has heightened my awareness of this gentle terror. He cherishes winter here when the light creates a cave of hushed darkness. He longs for the cold and anticipates the snow.
I do not... so I am making plans to discover ways to meet it, enter it beyond my fears and also escape from it at least twice when the frigid darkness becomes overwhelming. (Thank God my brother lives in San Francisco and Dianne's aunt is in North Carolina.)

And part of my preparation for winter is looking at the beauty of EACH season in this fascinating place... Dianne adores the seasons in ways that often escape me - and her photographs capture just a bit of that grace. Again, Gluck writes:

I know what you planned,
what you meant to do, teaching me
to love the world, making it impossible
to turn away completely, to shut it out
completely ever again -
it is everywhere; when I close my eyes,
birdsong, scent of lilac in early spring,
scent of summer roses:
you mean to take it away, each flower,
each connection with earth -
why would you wound me,
why would you want me
desolate in the end,
unless you wanted me so starved for hope
I would refuse to see that finally
nothing was left to me,
and would believe instead
in the end you were left to me.

I get that - I feel that - and perhaps that is one of the gifts this part of the journey is going to teach me. How does the Psalmist pray?

As the deer longs for the water-brooks,
so my soul longs for you, O God?
My soul thirsts for God,
athirst for the living God;
when shall I come to appear before the
presence of the Lord?
My tears have been my food day and night,
while all day long they said to me,
"Where is your God now?"
My soul is heavy within me;
therefore I will remember you in the land of blessing...
Deep calls to deep in the noise of your cataracts;
all your rapids and floods have gone over me.
The Lord grants mercy and compassion in the daytime;
in the night season, God's song is within me,
a prayer to the source of my life.
(Psalm 40)

We're buying snow shoes this autumn - and thermal sock liners and EXCELLENT long underwear, too - and when the estate is finally settled, Dianne is going to install a small sauna in the basement. So, as the poet, Edward Hirsch, writes in "I Am Going to Start Living Like a Mystic,"

Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater
and walking across the park in a dusky snowfall.
The trees stand like twenty-seven prophets in a field,
each a station in a pilgrimage - silent and pondering.
Blue flakes of light falling across their bodies
are the ciphers of a secret, an occultation.
I will examine their leaves as pages in a text
and consider the bookish pigeons, students of winter.
I will kneel on the track of a vanquished squirrel
and stare into a blank pond for the figure of Sophia.
I shall begin scouring the sky for signs
as if my whole future were constellated upon it.
I will walk home alone with the deep alone,
a disciple of shadows, in praise of the mysteries.
(photos: Dianne De Mott of our back yard in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.)

Friday, September 25, 2009


Last night the angels of God's grace in rock and roll - U2 - opened their show with "Breathe" - my favorite tune from the new CD. What a freakin' GREAT song...

Verse two says:

16th of June, Chinese stocks are going up
And I’m coming down with some new Asian virus
Ju Ju man, Ju Ju man
Doc says you’re fine, or dying
Nine-oh-nine, St. John Divine on the line, my pulse is fine
But I’m running down the road like loose electricity
While the band in my head plays a striptease
The roar that lies on the other side of silence
The forest fire that is fear so deny it
Walk out into the street
Sing your heart out
The people we meet
Will not be drowned out
There’s nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
Breathe now
Yeah, yeah

We are people borne of sound
The songs are in our eyes
Gonna wear them like a crown
Walk out, into the sunburst street
Sing your heart out, sing my heart out
I’ve found grace inside a sound
I found grace, it’s all that I found

Better than most, these guys are crying out to us to make connections - spirit and flesh, heart and soul, mind and love and all the rest - rather than embracing our cages and giving up. In my morning prayers I continue to reflect on Joan Chittister's words re: St. Benedict:

There are two ways to live in the world - as if were connected to it like a leaf to a tree, or, as if are a universe unto ourselves... The seduction of embarking on a spiritual life is that people can be fooled into believing that wanting it is doing it. (DIG THAT: fooled into believing that WANTING it is DOING it!) They begin to believe that by traveling they have arrived. Worse, perhaps, they begin to allow others to think that by traveling they have arrived, too. They mistake the idea for the thing and perpetuate the idea (that is abstract, disembodied truths that haven't yet taken up residence in our flesh.)

Man, do I experience this all the time in myself! And I find it is a particularly nasty virus in the church where it is so easy to slip into self-righteousness. How does Jesus put it? Seeing only the speck in the eye of another while denying and lying about the log in our own eyes?

My prayer for this Sabbath day is to get out of my own way long enough for the Spirit to move me into the gratitude of grace. Then let me cherish and nourish that grace carefully so that when I go out into the streets... I breathe. (And maybe even put on my sexy boots - and make it real, man!)

Free me from the dark dream
Candy bars, ice cream
All the kids are screaming but the ghosts aren’t real
Here’s what you gotta be
Love and community
Laughter is eternity if the joy is real

(NOTE: U2 was playing at Giants Stadium - in NJ - on Springsteen's 60th birthday: what a trip, yes? So they did a little of "She's the One" followed by their own Bo Diddley riffing on "Desire." Too kewel for school...)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

There are no more outsiders...

NOTE: Here are my notes for Sunday, September 27, 2009. I am trying an experiment with changing my study, prayer and writing day to Tuesdays so that I can fully participate in other wider church events in the region. It is a big/little shift for me as I've been doing my sermon work on Wednesdays for 25+ years. We shall see... At any rate, here goes and please know that if you are in the area it would be great if you stopped by any time. PS: some have asked if I am using Peterson's The Message for my quotes and that would be a big yes.

Most of us don’t hear today’s gospel as a summons to encouragement. If the truth be told, most would prefer not to even hear these words spoken in church:

If you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you'll soon wish you hadn't. You'd be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck… than to discourage or hurt one of these little ones. So, if your hand or your foot gets in God's way, chop it off and throw it away. You're better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet that lead to a furnace of eternal fire. And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away, too. You're better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.

This isn’t about feasting at the table of grace – setting a place for the lost and wounded – and celebrating the radical inclusivity of Christ – or is it? Could it be that even these harsh words have something to teach us about the upside down kingdom of God? Is it possible, as St. Paul liked to ask, that what seems like a stumbling block to some and total foolishness to others is really a way into the essence of Christ Jesus our Lord?

That is my hunch – that these words that at first sound so rightfully jarring and even frightening – are part of God’s sacred surprise for those who wrestle with them faithfully. “The message that points us to Christ on the Cross,” Paul wrote in I Corinthians, “seems like sheer silliness to those hell bent on destruction, but for those searching for the way of salvation – inner healing and outward integrity – it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works… as it is written: I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head and expose the so-called experts to be crackpots.” Interesting, yes? Paul continues:

Now tell me, where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated and truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God already exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God’s wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb… to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation. So take a good look, my friends… isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"?

I have come to sense – and even trust – that these initially harsh and judgmental words of Jesus are also part of his invitation to God’s feast. They are part of his counter-cultural directive in servant leadership – his call to become first with God by taking up last place – practicing, as St. Francis said, a life as an instrument of God’s peace:

Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, harmony; where there is doubt, faith; and where there is despair, hope… we do not seek to be consoled as much as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are pardoned and it is in dying to self that we are both to life eternal.

Scholars have noted that this section of Mark’s gospel is really a series of eight different sayings from Jesus that have been collected into one story. And it seems that there are two parts to this story:

+ One chastises the disciples – and those in our era that are paying attention – for thinking they have a monopoly upon God’s favor. Our text says:

The disciple whom Jesus loved – John – spoke up saying: "Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn't part of our group." Jesus wasn't pleased. "Don't stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he's not an enemy, he's an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice.

+ The other calls out anybody – in the church or beyond it – that causes a follower of Christ – particularly the most vulnerable and tender – to stumble.

If you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you'll soon wish you hadn't. You'd be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck.

Are you with me? Do you see the two parts to the story? Well, what I find fascinating is that Mark chooses to identify the disciple who asks the first question as John. Traditionally, John is called what? The disciple whom Jesus loved, right? Yes, he is the brother of James – one of the sons of thunder who is always making noise about who shall be first in Christ’s kingdom – and often they join Peter to become part of the inner circle of Christ’s closest confidants.

+ It is James, Peter and John who were up on the mountain with Jesus when they had that mystical experience we call the transfiguration – that blessed meeting between Jesus, Moses and Elijah – where God said, “This is my beloved one: listen to him!”

+ And tradition tells us that when Peter raced to the empty tomb after Christ’s resurrection, “he saw John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, following… he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the Passover supper and asked, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”

So I suspect that it isn’t coincidence why Mark singles him out here. No I think it has something to do with how insiders – even those we love and trust the most – can sometimes be blinded to God’s presence in the world. And I say this because of the way Jesus responds to his dear friend John. As good as our modern English translations of the Bible are, they don’t do justice to the way Jesus rips into his beloved. He isn’t annoyed nor is he seriously displeased: he is furious – outraged – incensed and livid because one of his most trusted disciples was still so self-centered and insecure that he missed God’s blessing when it was nakedly shared with the world by someone outside the fold.

+ What did the exorcist who spoke in Christ’s name do? He brought healing to a person, right? Set someone free from whatever spirits had oppressed him – gave one of the wounded a blessing of hope – just as Jesus taught.

+ And the disciples did… what? They stopped him – forced him to quit the blessings – because… he wasn’t an insider.

Can you see why Jesus came unglued? “We stopped him, Lord – we rebuked him and brought an end to the blessings because he wasn’t a member of our church – our group – our way of being faithful.” That is, he wasn’t one of us…

This insider/outsider business is dangerous territory, my friends: it can sanctify our bigotry, feed our fears and confuse our curses for God’s blessings. No wonder the seminary professor always told her introductory New Testament classes: "Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line! Jesus is always with the outsiders!"

That’s part one of the story – be on guard against dividing the world into insiders and outsiders – because Jesus will always be on the outside with the rejected. He’ll be embracing the wounded and welcoming the forgotten to God’s feast while we’re busy building walls and barriers to keep us apart: they may look pretty but they are not of the kingdom.

Part two of the story is also about the feast in a wonderfully upside down or paradoxical way – and it has to do with how most of the stumbling blocks to real community are of our own construction. Most of the things that get in the way of our loving one another as Jesus loves us do not come from out there – or far away – or beyond our ordinary experience. Listen to Christ’s words again:

If your hand or your foot gets in God's way, chop it off and throw it away. You're better off maimed or lame and alive than the proud owner of two hands and two feet, godless in a furnace of eternal fire. And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away. You're better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell. Everyone's going through a refining fire sooner or later, but you'll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.

Did you get that: hands and feet and eyes and the ordinary things of everyday living are mostly likely what trip us up when it comes to being open to God’s grace. Bruce Malina, a brilliant biblical sociologist, writes that Jesus is using metaphor and Palestinian hyperbole to make a point for:

These verses are a parable on recompense for moral behavior. Should one's previous activity (the hands and feet) or one's preferred way of thinking and judging (the eye) cause you to fail the tests of loyalty to God, one must put an end to such behavior. For it is better to endure the difficulties of ending them now, than to be requited with pain (in the life to come).

Is that clear? Our habits and biases and fears can cause us real trouble when it comes to embracing God’s grace – so let’s deal with them rather than make excuses, yes? Let’s deal with the fact that most people choose to leave the church – or reject its blessings – not because of the music or the lighting or the way we serve communion or even the way the building looks.

+ No, most people are turned off to the way of Jesus because some ordinary person hurt them. Wounded them – pushed them out of God’s love with a careless word or an act of neglect.

+ Do you know the book: When Bad Christians Happen to Good People? That’s what I’m talking about – people who use their eyes and mouths and hands to wound or discourage others in hundreds of ordinary ways that most of the insiders don’t even notice.

That’s part of what’s going on in the reading from Numbers today: Moses has been given a task by the Lord – the job of leading God’s people out of suffering and oppression into a land of justice and com- passion – and what do most of the people do? Rejoice? Celebrate? Live with gratitude and joy at the center of their being? Um…. I don’t think so:

The riffraff among the people had a craving and soon they had the People of Israel whining;

"Why can't we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt—and got it free!—to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna." Moses heard the whining, all those families whining in front of their tents. GOD's anger blazed up. Moses saw that things were in a bad way…

So Moses said to GOD, "Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to you to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? So why dump the responsibility of this people on me? Why tell me to carry them around like a nursing mother, carry them all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, 'Give us meat; we want meat.' I can't do this by myself—it's too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I've seen enough; I've had enough. Let me out of here."

In the ordinary, everyday realm it is all too easy for God’s people to get lost in habits and fears and prejudices that wound and discourage.

So we’re asked to make a choice – a conscious decision that we regularly revisit – and in our tradition it has to do with living in the name of Jesus. You see, this lesson isn’t really about hellfire and brimstone – unless you understand hell to be separation from God – but it is about judgment and choices. Specifically it is about choosing to face the painful work each and all of us must do in order to become disciples in the name of Jesus: women and men who make the healing and hope of Jesus real in the world we live in – so let’s be clear:

+ When we talk about “in the name of Jesus” we’re not talking about titles or traditions or denominations or even one spiritual path over another. No, to live in the name of Jesus is to incarnate his power in our flesh – to link his spirit with our own – to join our humanity with the blessings of heaven just as he did before us.

+ In other words, it is to be disciples who choose to let the power of Jesus – from the Greek word dynamis from which we get the word dynamite – become our heart and soul and mind and inspiration. To live and act in the name of Jesus is to take his motivation as our own.

And that is what all this fire talk is about – the refining fire – that burns away the dross and distractions and purifies us like salt: “Everyone's going through a refining fire sooner or later,” Jesus said, “but you'll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames if you let yourself become preservatives for God.”

We’ve got some work to do together, my friends, some real and sometimes painful work. The bad news is we’re likely to get it wrong as often as we get it right. The good news is that even our failures can help us become refined in the name of Jesus.

That’s how the upside down kingdom works: It is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are pardoned and it is in dying to self that we are born to life eternal.

So let those who have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

(this is the setting of Ubi Caritas our new music dirctor will have us sing after my reflections.) images: 1) Encouragement small steps @ 2) St. Francis @ 3) Cross @; 4-10 photos by Dianne De Moot; 11) Taize candles @

Monday, September 21, 2009

We get to carry each other...

My boys, U2, played Boston last night, but I was not able to be there: damn! I am always energized, blessed and challenged by their creative use of technology, sound, prayer, liturgy and music. Just look at this stuff...

Bono sings to a mixed crowd: "The more you know the less you feel - some pray while others steal: blessings are not just for the ones who kneel... luckily!"

Tonight I start a new class - To Begin at the Beginning - with my own mixed crowd at church (decidedly fewer than trekked to Gillette Stadium, to be sure!) And we'll talk about how hard it is to find words for God. Our working text, a book by the same name by Martin Copenhaver, is as good a jumping off point as any; in it he reminds us that the first story of God in our tradition comes from the Exodus. Freedom and God within our suffering is the beginning - followed quickly by the gift of grace and a response of gratitude: covenant and law.

Who knows who will show up? Who knows where the Spirit will lead us? All I know for certain that while our words are important - and I have given my life to this quest - it is always incomplete for how can you contain the sacred in words? Poetry, music, art and creativity are the only experiences that move us into that paradoxical realm where heaven and earth embrace. All the rest is... we get to carry each other.

PS - So my first class happened and it was... lovely. A variety of folks came - for many different reasons - and we talked about God. God as experienced and celebrated in Exodus, God in the covenant of Sinai and God in the covenant with Abraham as well as Noah. We talked about grace and responding in gratitude and how the experience of liberation and hope inspired the commandments and torah.

And the one constant word after this conversation was, "Thank you for helping us connect the dots!" I was startled - and grateful - for it would appear that there has been precious little time in our tradition for talking about the "big picture" in small groups - creating places where it was safe to talk about the stuff we don't even know we don't know - and now there is.

What's more, at least in our group tonight, people are hungry to explore what it means to be people of a contemporary and living faith. And just so that I got the point: as I was driving home who should be talking with Terry Gross but... Karen Armstrong. They were discussing her new book, The Case for God, and I will have to get it tomorrow.
image: Marc Chagall: Exodus

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Girls (and boys) just wanna have fun...

What an invigorating and healing time we had in worship today:

This tune by Cyndi et al is how it felt to me: community, fun, genre-blending, tears, laughter and prayer all driven by the Spirit of Christ within and among us. Our guest organist, John Anderson, rocked the house and literally pulled out all the stops on our pipe organ. Local folk musician, Linda Worster, who has an incredible gift for writing songs that touch the heart, helped us pray with her beautiful tunes, too.

It is crisp and chilly in the Berkshires - fall is just around the corner - but the sun was bright and many old friends were back after a long summer absence. There were lots and lots of tears today for lots and lots of reasons. But healing was truly in the air today, too - owning our wounds and being embraced within our brokenness - much like Psalm 131:

O Lord, I'm not trying to rule the roost,
I don't want to be king of the mountain.
I haven't meddled where I have no business
or fantasized grandiose plans.

I've kept my feet on the ground,
I've cultivated a quiet heart.
Like a baby content in its mother's arms,
my soul is a baby content.

Wait, Israel, for God. Wait with hope.
Hope now; hope always!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The challenge of this moment...

In the on-going challenge of exploring the state of American civil society a variety of people - myself included - have noted the role of racism in the populist backlash against President Obama. Two deeper insights need to be considered:

+ First, it is truly hard to escape the fact that only 48% of white America voted for Obama and that in the deep South that rate falls to 11%. Not that race was the only factor, but as Jimmy Carter has articulated, it cannot be denied. It should be noted, of course, that the South is not the only place in the United States where racism is all too alive and well. What's more, in many ways, the new South has made great advances when it comes to race relations. Simultaneously, however, America's grasp of racism is so immature - and at times deformed - it is both easier to deny and politically advantageous, too.

In his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me, James Loewen shares a host of empirical truths that have been systematically obscured in the teaching of American history. The result of this obfuscation is that most citizens of the United States know nothing of our racially progressive history and all too much of the "Gone with the Wind" revisionism that passes for fact re: slavery and the era of Reconstruction.

We don't comprehend the moral anguish Abraham Lincoln experienced over slavery - nor how his faith and ethics compelled him to wrestle with this bigotry - so we have no point of reference for doing likewise. The reality of John Brown has been carefully subverted, too. Most textbooks deem him to be a fanatic who was emotionally imbalanced, when in reality his acts of insurrection on behalf of African Americans was driven by a careful and prayerful application of Christian faith.

Most of us are equally ignorant of the overt racism that drove the modern policies and practices of Woodrow Wilson - including his affinity with a renewed Ku Klux Klan - so that we are essentially unable to put the modern Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s into a context. "I never held a slave or oppressed anyone," tends to be the extent of our contemporary conversations about race - with this addition: "So affirmative action is just racism in reverse." Without an understanding of where we have been, of course, we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of history.

+ Second, as David Brooks has written recently in the NY Times, there is also a populist backlash taking place against the Obama administration that is anti-intellectual and anti-urban. Brooks links this to the historic divide between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. He writes:

Hamiltonians stood for urbanism, industrialism and federal power. Jeffersonians were suspicious of urban elites and financial concentration and believed in small-town virtues and limited government. Jefferson advocated “a wise and frugal government” that will keep people from hurting each other, but will otherwise leave them free and “shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Jefferson’s philosophy inspired Andrew Jackson, who led a movement of plain people against the cosmopolitan elites. Jackson dismantled the Second Bank of the United States because he feared the fusion of federal and financial power. This populist tendency continued through the centuries. Sometimes it took right-wing forms, sometimes left-wing ones. Sometimes it was agrarian. Sometimes it was more union-oriented. Often it was extreme, conspiratorial and rude.

That is clearly a part of what is happening in America today: the voice of deep fears is finding shape and form - and it is extremely rude and conspiratorial. What's more, as Sam Tanenhaus observes in his new book, The Death of Conservatism, the moral and intellectual leaders of the conservative movement have been replaced by side-show barkers like Limbagh and Beck. They are loud and shrill but have nothing but fear and frustration to offer: they are not deep thinkers, have little to no deep moral convictions and look backwards rather than ahead. He writes:

"These radical people on the right – and they include intellectuals and the kinds of personalities we’re seeing on television and radio and also to some extent people marching in the streets – think America has gotten away from them. Theirs is a politics of reclamation and restoration... If you are a free-marketeer, or an evangelical, or a social conservative, or even an authoritarian conservative, you can all agree on one thing: you hate the liberals that are out to destroy us. That’s a very useful form of political organization. I’m not sure it contributes much to our government and society, but it’s politically useful and we’re seeing it again today... The paradox of conservatism is that it gives the overt signs of energy and vitality, but the rigor mortis I described is still there. As a philosophy, as a system of government that all of us can learn from as a means of evaluating ourselves, our social responsibilities, [and] our personal obligations and responsibilities, it has – right now – nothing to offer.”

At this moment in time, when political change is all around us and economic stability has been threatened, it is small wonder that these two constituencies should over lap. I would argue that the backlash is both/and rather than either/or - and needs to be challenged accordingly. There is a tradition of progressive and compassionate populism, too. I guess there is always more work to be done?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Days of awe...

Coleman Barks - interpreter of the poet Rumi for our generation - once told the story of inviting the "elders" of creation to intervene during the war in Bosnia. He mused about might happen if the wisest souls among us travelled to the most wounded places among us and shared their presence, compassion and insights. Nothing came to pass then...

... but some 10 years later the Spirit drew together our best and brightest and a collective of the world's elder was born. (

The story of the Elders started in a conversation between the entrepreneur Richard Branson and the musician Peter Gabriel. The idea they discussed was a simple one. In an increasingly interdependent world – a global village – could a small, dedicated group of independent elders help to resolve global problems and ease human suffering?

For inspiration, they looked to traditional societies, where elders often help to share wisdom and resolve disputes within communities. They took their idea to Nelson Mandela, who agreed to support it. With the help of Gra├ža Machel and Desmond Tutu, Mandela set about bringing the Elders together.

Prospective members were invited to join on the basis of a distinct set of criteria. Firstly, and most importantly, they should be independent. They should have earned international trust, demonstrated integrity and built a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership.

Mandela announced the formation of the Elders in July 2007, on the occasion of his 89th birthday, at a ceremony in Johannesburg. During the ceremony, he described the mission of the group:

"The Elders can speak freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes. They will reach out to those who most need their help. They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair." Nelson Mandela.
(From The Elders web page)

As the Days of Awe begin for my spiritual cousins in Judaism - and as the whole creation cries out for healing - I am drawn ever closer to the ministry of reconciliation and healing that the Elders have embraced. Harvey Cox, writing in his deeply satisfying book Common Prayers, speaks of the start of Rosh ha-Shanah like this:

The shofar blasts are sounds without speech. Speech represents the division of sound into varied and separate movement in the mouth. But sound itself is one, united, cleaving to its source. On Rosh ha-Shanah the life force cleaves to its source, as it was before differentiation or division. And we, too, seek to attach ourselves to that inner flow of life... The sound of the shofar takes us to that moment of outcry from deep within, to a place prior to our division of our heart's
cry into the many words of prayer.

Surely the sofar signals, as nothing else does, the chasm between the past and the future. It splits time in two. As the old year fades and the new one begins, we realize that the old one is gone forever and that, try as we will, we can never know what lies ahead. The shofar, since it is wordless, can both scream in terror and shout for joy with the same breath. Nothing else is worthy of the beginning of a whole new year in the only life we will ever have. (Cox, p. 38-9)

That is my sense of this moment in time, too. What's more, I sense the essence of the shofar's scream of terror and shout of joy more deeply than any other time I can remember. And it is drawing me to those like the Elders - women and men grounded in their own spiritual traditions who have come together to search for common healing - who see beyond the obvious. They can see the eagle within the egg, the possibilities within the moment or the man inside the child as U2 likes to say.

May blessings be open those entering these Days of Awe - and may the Spirit leads us all towards common ground.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hurry sundown...

One of the key voices in my musical maturation was part of the trio: Peter, Paul and Mary. Tonight word comes that Mary has passed from this life to life everlasting. And while I pray that she rest in peace forever, I also want to express my gratitude to her for beautiful music and great political courage.

As a young teen I was smitten by her bold semi-beatnik beauty. I loved the way she grounded Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow as they sang. And it was so exciting to see a young woman hold equal ground with two men in the folk music genre. She symbolized the hope of equality and creativity in a unique and transformative way for me as a young man.

I still remember buying each of their early albums - and when PP&M sang, "Blowin' in the Wind" - which I always associate with the 1963 March on Washington - I shed tears of joy and longing. In fact, I felt those same tears when Barrack Obama was elected President - and also at his inauguration. There was an innocence and hope in those songs and it nourished our hearts. What's more, there was an integrity to her voice that simply bathed my soul in something of God's loving presence.

I can remember lying in my 9th grade bed listening to my little red Japanese transistor radio at night when I was supposed to be asleep waiting for my favorite songs. Sometimes it was the Rolling Stones singing "Satisfaction." Sometimes it was the Beatles doing "Ticket to Ride." And sometimes it was Peter, Paul and Mary singing "Puff the Magic Dragon" or "I Dig Rock and Roll Music." They were as cool to me as the Mommas and the Poppas.

I baptized my babies to Peter Yarrow's tune, "Weave Me the Sunshine." Like many other guitar players, I shared Noel Paul Stookey's, "The Wedding Song" at the nuptials of my daughter's godfather. And I have listened to Mary Travers bring harmony and hope for almost as many years as I have been alive. I am truly sad that she has passed.

My all-time favorite song is their version of "Hurry Down Sundown," from the crappy Otto Preminger movie of the same name that was the first major motion picture to be filmed with a Black actress in the American South. While the film missed the mark, the song has always touched my heart. I pray blessing on Mary's husband and her musical colleagues. Thank you for all the joy and wisdom you shared with us all for so many years.

Embraced like a child of God...

NOTE: Sunday, September 20th we will have two GREAT musical guests with us for worship: Organist, John Anderson, is a wizard and Linda Worster, folk musician extradinaire, brings healing with her songs of spirit and soul. Here are my sermon notes for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost. Please join us if you are in town...

Yesterday was the start of Rosh Hashanah – the opening of the New Year for our spiritual cousins in Judaism – a celebration of all that is created – especially humankind formed in the image of the Lord. It is a festival filled with feasting on challah bread, apples and honey and pomegranates as well as sacred prayers and deeds of forgiveness, redemption and grace. It is a call to take stock of your life and what it has become in light of God’s image within and among us all.

One of my favorite writers, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, captures some of the sacred beauty of this holy day like this in one of her poems:

Indian summer: fat bees alight
on goldenrod and clover.
The crickets in our backyard
chitter their endless song.

Like the cat, I wouldn't mind
curling up in a patch of sun.
But every sound I hear
becomes a shofar blasting

awake from your sleep!
Time to stretch spiritual muscles
too-long unused, to extend
like a leggy weed.

Inside every shrunken husk
is a spark of holiness, seed
of a world still waiting
to be born. Crack me open.

(read Rachel at The Velveteen Rabbi)

Our readings for today, the twenty fifth Sunday after Pentecost, invite a similar awakening – or cracking open – as they call us to consider how it is we are cultivating holiness in our words, our hearts and our lives: “If you want to first,” Jesus told his disciples – and there is nothing wrong with being first when it comes to serving God – “then you must practice taking last place – living as a servant of all.”

And just so that there would be no misunderstanding, like the prophets before him, Jesus symbolically showed his friends what he was talking about: He took a small child into the middle of the room – and cradling the little one said: “Whoever embraces one of these children as I do, embraces me – and far more than me: the Lord who sent me.” (Mark 9: 30-37)

This is an invitation – and a challenge – to consciously and carefully put on a new way of living. It is a summons into kingdom conscious-ness – sacred living that brings the blessings of heaven into our ordinary human experience – a request to learn how to become Jesus for the world no matter where we find ourselves. The artists of God’s wisdom put it poetically in the first song of the Psalter like this:

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on God’s way they meditate day and night. In this they become like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in their season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.

Bible scholar, Patrick Henry Reardon, notes that three postures are described: walking, standing and sitting. This is a teaching psalm, you see, a consideration of how our lives can become full and rich like that mighty tree that stands beside the water and yields fruit in its season. The wise and awakened soul: “… will not follow – or walk – within the counsel of the godless… nor stand in the way that sinners go or take up a seat among the scoffers.”

+ Are you with me? Nourishing the counter-cultural values of God takes practice the poet is saying. They have to be nourished and cultivated so that our lives bear fruit.

+ Do you recall how St. Paul spoke of the fruit of God’s spirit? In Galatians 5: 22-23 he writes:

What happens when we live in God's way? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates all things and all people.

We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life on others and able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; harsh rules only get in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified—so that the Spirit may grow strong within and among us.

The first thing for us to consider today, then, is this: the way of Jesus and real kingdom living – a life that is fruitful and satisfying and nourishing – is not automatic. It takes practice. Encouragement. Making mistakes and accepting forgiveness – human and divine – over and over again and then learning something from these mistakes.

I love how our friends in AA put it: if you always do, what you’ve always done, you’ll always get, what you’ve always got! And the way of Christ – the way of living into God’s presence so that we are more of a blessing than a curse – is not about always doing what we’ve always done! Joan Chittister said it well:

Life is very short. To get the most out of it, we must begin to attend to its spiritual dimension without which life is only half lived. Holiness is in the NOW but we often go through life only have conscious of it, asleep or intent on being someplace other than where we are. We need to open our eyes and see things as they exist around us… noting what is valuable and what is not, what enriches and what does not, what is of God and what is not. (Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, p.30)

I’m rather fond of the way our mystical cousins in Islam, the Sufis, talk about discipleship and learning to live into God’s kingdom: one insight uses the image of a garbanzo bean – a chick pea – and its journey from garden to soup as the way of maturing into the Spirit. “Gradually the disciple softens and takes on the flavors the cook adds so that eventually he or she is tasty enough to be appealing and nutritious.” (Brussat, Spiritual Literacy, p. 228)

Rumi says: “A chickpea leaps almost over the rim of the pot where it’s being boiled. “Why are you doing this to me?” it shouts. The cook knocks him down with the ladle. “Don’t you try to jump out.” You think I’m torturing you when I am giving you flavor, so you can mix with spices and rice and be the lovely vitality of a true human being.” Remember when you first drank rain in the garden? That was for this!”

Grace first – then pleasure – then a boiling new life begins so that the world has something good to eat. Eventually the chickpea will say to the cook, “Boil me some more, man. Hit me again with that spoon. I can’t do this myself.” (Rumi, The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks)

Discipleship – or training in the ways of Christ’s kingdom – takes practice before we are tasty enough to bear good fruit. That’s the first insight for today. The second is this: our tongue needs a whole lot of training before it can sing the songs of Zion with anything that resembles sacred music.

You see, modern people don’t pay a lot of attention to the words we speak or the way we share them. We tend to think of ourselves as free agents who have purchased the right to say whatever we want whenever we want to. Look at goofy Kanye West at the Video Music Awards shooting off his mouth – or tennis player Serena Williams at the US Open hurling threats and expletives at a judge who made a bad call – and let’s not even go to some of the racist and mean-spirited garbage that fills so-called talk radio.

+ That our little tongue of ours can cause a whole world of hurt before we even realize it? Don’t you think that’s true? I know I’ve done it to those I love – maybe you have, too.

+ That’s why the path of spiritual maturity says the proof of God’s grace within and among us is most clearly documented by how well we care for one another.

The fruit of the Spirit is revealed in our words and how we nourish those closest to us.

God's wisdom, begins with a holy life… characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor. (James 3-4)

Compassion and justice are the most authentic signs of a spiritually fruitful life: like Mother Teresa used to say, “Love is a fruit that is in season at all times and within reach of every hand. Always start with love for if you give your time to judging, there will be no time left to love.

And that brings me to the third insight: why Jesus took a small child, embraced her tenderly and told his disciples to do likewise. The only way to learn the love of Jesus – the only way to let his compassionate kingdom consciousness become flesh within – is to be nourished and coaxed and encouraged – protected and sheltered and instructed – like a small child.

+ You can’t frighten a child into maturity – or abuse her into growing up – or force a tiny body into adulthood although it happens all the time.

+ No, the only way healthy children blossom and bear fruit is if they are cherished and taught. Let me say that again: cherished and taught – not spoiled or neglected – not idealized or left to make their own rules. Cherished and taught.

This isn’t a romantic notion of childhood – children are simultaneously wonderful and annoying – God’s creatures that fill our hearts with joy at the same time they mess their own pants. So please don’t think I am going soft on you, ok?

Jesus is not being sentimental; rather, he wants us to know that if we come to him as a child – open, vulnerable and willing to be trained – he will embrace us and show us how to live mature lives that bear fruit. To become adults filled to the brim with grace, we must paradoxically open our hearts and hands to a whole new way of being.

We don’t get this by ourselves – we have to be cherished and taught. For what looks insane on the streets – compassion and grace – is common coin here. What is madness to politicians and many business leaders is life breath here. What is unheard of in nice company is taken for granted here…” (Chittister, p. 41)

For this – this – is the upside down logic of the Jesus life where: You show wisdom by trusting people and handle leadership, by serving. You deal with offenders by forgiving and manage money by sharing. You handle enemies by loving and confront violence with suffering. Because everything is different in the Jesus life… and the key is this: in the Jesus life you handle repentance not by feeling bad but by thinking different. (Rudy Wiebe)

So he took a small child into his arms… And he embraced her tenderly and walking into the middle of the room said: “If anyone wants to be first, you must become last, a servant of all. For whoever welcomes one of these little ones – the broken and confused and vulnerable – in my name not only welcomes me… but the one who sent me.”

Let those who have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church: hear.

Images: Shofar; Aleksandr Shurlakov, Tenderness @; Psalm 1; Fruit of the Spirit @; Words @ Sufi @; MotherTeresa@; Childlike Joy @

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:...