Saturday, October 31, 2009

A whole new approach...

One of my favorite writers is Brian McLaren. Recently he wrote an open letter to President Obama re: leading in Afghanistan with development rather than military troops. His words demand a wider audience.:

I am a loyal supporter of your presidency. I worked hard in the campaign and have never been as proud of my country as I was when we elected you. I’m writing to ask you to find another way ahead in Afghanistan. I wrote a similar letter to President Bush when he was preparing for war in Iraq.

I believe now, as you and I both did then, that war is not the answer. Violence breeds violence, and as Dr. King said, you can murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. As the apostle Paul said, evil must be overcome with good, which means that violence and hate must be overcome with justice and love, not more of the same.

Obviously, you know things the rest of us don’t know. And you have pressures and responsibilities the rest of us don’t have. But we have based our lives on the moral principles that guided leaders like Dr. King, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela. We share a profound faith in a loving, non-violent God. We share a commitment to live in the way of Jesus the peacemaker. That’s why escalation is not a change we can believe in.

I don’t argue for leaving Afghanistan high and dry as we’ve done too often in the past. Evil can’t be overcome by passivity or abdication, but only by positive good and creative action. In that spirit, I offer this humble proposal:

1. Take the $65 billion we would have spent there in the coming year and turn it into an aid and development fund. If you want to go farther, you could put a value on the cost of American lives that would be lost there (I have no idea how this inestimable cost could be calculated), and add that sum to the fund. $65 billion could build a lot of peace-oriented schools and hospitals in Afghanistan. It could serve as start-up capital for a lot of new businesses and it could pave a lot of roads. It could train a lot of police officers and it could enhance a lot of social infrastructure. It could give hope to a lot of women and girls who currently don’t have much hope, and it could provide a lot of constructive outlets for men and boys who right now don’t have many options besides picking up a machine gun and joining a warlord.

2. Other nations might contribute to this fund as well, and the fund could be extended into the future based on the number of years our military would have been engaged in Afghanistan. The fund could be administered by the U.S., or better (in the spirit of international cooperation), an IAEC-like agency could be created, subsidiary to the United Nations, to monitor progress in Afghanistan.

3. Then a set of benchmarks could be set, and the money could be released for development in Afghanistan as the nation reached appropriate benchmarks. This fund would be an enticement to mobilize public opinion in the direction of peace and justice, as people would know that their lives could be substantially improved if their factionalized leaders would start collaborating nonviolently for the common good.

4. With this kind of approach, the people of Afghanistan (and Pakistan) would have two clear choices. Al Qaeda and other extremists offer violence and unrest. But the international community would be offering support for order, rebuilding, collaboration, justice, and peace. This choice is a much clearer and better one than the choice between two groups of leaders who both depend on violence to achieve their aims.

5. Conservatives could support this kind of approach because it emphasizes personal choice and responsibility among the Afghan people. It would come alongside them in their own nation-building efforts at their own best pace, rather than trying to impose our own nation-building on them at a pace we determine. Progressives could support this approach because it changes the role of the U.S. in the global neighborhood — from reactive bully or intentional dominator to responsible neighbor and partner for the common good.

Mr. President, you have my respect and my prayers at this important time. I believe you have the intelligence and insight to find a creative way to use a new kind of force in the world — something far more powerful than bombs, guns, and bullets: the generative force of creativity, of justice, of collaboration, and yes, of hope. Can we find a new and better way to help Afghanistan rise out of chaos and complicity with Al Qaeda? You know the answer many of us will shout and chant: yes, we can.

Please be prayerful about these ideas... and act as the Spirit moves you. I will, too.

Friday, October 30, 2009

If not now, tell me when...

It will soon be Halloween - and then All Saints Day - and this old year is rapidly coming to a close. The ancient Celts and Gaels sensed that this time of year was one where the veil between this world and the next was very thin. Bonfires were lit, the time of light came to a close and the dark half of the year began. My old friends in Tucson celebrated Dia de los Muertos at this time of year - and I have always honored All Saints Day as a time of taking stock of those who have passed.

Mostly, you see, because I believe the dead share gifts with those who remain alive in this realm. It often takes time to discern these gifts, but they are real. My sister, Linda, when she died almost 17 years ago gave me the gift of new life by forcing me to take stock of what my life had become before it was too late. My old mentor, Dolores Brown, pushed me out of a rut, too, and that led us to Pittsfield.

This year, as All Saints Day grows within me, I am aware that the cries of the dead are speaking to me in a unique way. The scriptures for All Saints Day speak of Jesus weeping for his dear friend Lazarus. The prophet Isaiah also promises a time when God's love will be so real that all the tears will be wiped away from the eyes of the fearful and confused. For some reason, I am aware of Christ's tears in a new and profound way as I listen to the weeping of those who grieve so many dead in Afghanistan - and Iran - and Iraq. There is so much fear and confusion and hatred - so much blood - so much darkness.

So, just as my youngest daughter (who is traveling tonight to Mexico to celebrate the wedding of a childhood friend) once inspired me into proactive work on behalf of making peace with my Russian sisters and brothers in the midst of the Cold War - and travelling to Soviet Russia four different times on behalf of people-to-people trust - something is percolating now that has to do with Afghanistan.

+ What would a commitment to reconciliation and reparation - atonement - with the Afghan people look like at this moment in time when the President is prayerfully and strategically considering a new direction?

+ As I wrote earlier, I think Jim Wallis and Sojourners folk are on to something in suggesting that the time has truly come for a war of development and reparation.

Call it serendipity - or the Holy Spirit - but as we visited Northampton today, I saw that just last week there was a gathering of Christians, Jews and Muslims studying the book, Three Cups of Tea, and planning to raise funds to support the work of building schools with Mortenson's organization. I am sensing that I am going to throw away my sermon notes for this Sunday and suggest that we cast our fate with such a movement: we could use our money, time and energy to push for real healing in Afghanistan. We could work with Three Cups - or Church World Service - to build up rather than tear down. After all, we are dedicating a Peace Pole on Sunday for God's sake...

Nearly 25 years ago, when a flock of Canada geese confused our air defense forces who were ready to launch a nuclear attack on Russia only to discover it was geese flying over the USA instead of bombs, I was so "awakened" that I challenged my Michigan congregation to join me in a people-to-people mission of discovery, trust and faith. Eventually we brought 50 teens and their parents to Russia and did our part in changing the fear and hatred of the age into a little more love. Rather like St. Francis going into the Middle East in the midst of the hatred of the Crusades... and after September 11th and the ugly, senseless war in Iraq... a new wind needs to be blowing.

Singer Carrie Newcomer puts it like this:

Let's be prayerful - and active - together.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

There IS a God and... she is gracious!

Today I read the most hopeful article about international relations I have seen in what seems like my life time: go to the details.

+ At the heart, Jim Wallis of Sojourners suggests that rather than dump money and countless innocent lives into the dark pit of Afghanistan, why not bring the REAL development experts - Church World Service and other hardworking NGOs - together for a conversation of supporting DEVELOPMENT rather than war?

+ Have you read Three Cups of Tea? Run, do not walk to your local bookstore or on-line shop and BUY IT NOW! It, too, lines out the BEST way - the most healing and hope-filled way - of making lasting change in that broken and wounded land. (Check out:

Make no mistake: this would not eliminate the need for armed forces and security. But it would also change the whole conversation - and outcome! Perhaps it is no coincidence that on this Sunday we will dedicate a Peace Pole at our church - AND - that it is the celebration of All Saints Day. Such a shift is something I would want to give my life to see come to pass. Such a change is at the heart of the message and mission of Jesus. And such a commitment would make such a difference in the world that my mind and heart is still spinning.

THIS is what reconciliation and atoning for the sins of my nations is all about!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We get to carry each other...

NOTE: This week's sermon notes are much like the U2 song, "One," where Bono sings: we get to carry each other. It is not a sentimental nor romantic notion, rather much more like the hard work of loving and carrying another when they can't move forward on the journey. It also has something of "Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own" running through it, too. All Saints Day is often a blessing and a burden - and this year it truly feels like both to me. Please know you are welcome to join us any time you are in town.

Today is our marking of All Saints Day – a unique and profound anniversary in the Christian tradition – that always holds two truths in tension: the often agonizing grief we feel upon losing a loved one to death, and, our commitment to journey with God through even our darkest grief so that in time our lives might bear something of the fruit of grace born through even our suffering. It is a tough commitment – neither easy nor automatic – and it is always fraught with detours and distractions.

This morning’s readings expose precisely the complexity of this paradox: first we are told that on the Lord’s Holy Mountain all suffering and death will be banished; and then we are reminded that Jesus himself was overcome with grief and wept harsh, bitter tears over the death of his sweet friend Lazarus. Are you with me? Do you see the challenge our tradition asks us to embrace?

Sometimes St. Paul would say: by faith we are called to live trusting that everything can be turned towards good for those who love God – not that everything IS good because that would be a lie – but rather that everything CAN be used for good for those who love the Lord – even tragedy and loss – even bitterness and fear – even our hardest and most bitter tears. Look at Jesus:

• He wept for the loss of a dear and trusted friend Lazarus.

• He wept for the grief he knew in his own heart as well as in the souls of Mary and Martha.

• And he wept because while he trusted by faith that God’s presence would continue even in the darkness, it felt like God was absent and only tears can express such despair.

Do you see what I mean? This is a complicated commitment – a genuine paradox – that requires maturity and discipline before it bears fruit. It is a truly adult spirituality that cannot be accomplished by children. I have come to rely on these words of St. Paul again and again as recorded in Ephesians chapter four as rephrased by Peterson in The Message:

Here is what you have to do… in all humility and discipline – not in fits and starts – or actions that lead nowhere… But as mature adults fully committed to the way of Christ… (You see, there can be) no prolonged infancies among us, please! The body of Christ cannot tolerate babes in the woods, small spiritual children who are an easy mark for impostors. No, God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and live into it in love – like Christ Jesus in everything… So please, I insist on this and the Lord backs me up, there shall be NO going along with the crowd – the status quo – the empty-headed, mindless ones… who have lost touch with both God and reality.

Like an old spiritual director of mine once said with a totally straight face: if you want to mature in the spiritual life of Jesus you can’t put whipped cream on bull… caca (she was actually more graphic but for the faint hearted I’ve tried to clean it up, ok?) This is adult spirituality – the real deal for people who live in the real world – so let me cut to the chase.

• There are spiritual tools and resources that are available to us to help us weep and still live by faith. You may recall if you’ve been here over the past three weeks that I have already given you two touchstones for entering the darkness and cultivating its wisdom, right?

• Do you recall the first two touchstones that we talked about? (By the way, I have put them all into a little booklet for those who are interested and you can pick it up after worship.) What did we say were the first two touchstones that our tradition tells us are important when entering and embracing the dark night?

First there is shock: everything feels like it is falling apart because it is! And the challenge of the shock is to feel it. Don’t run away or medicate it – don’t deny or ignore it – just feel it. Let it push you into tears like Jesus – let it make you feel helpless and childlike – this may be the only way to begin trusting that there is something bigger – mysterious and God like – at work beyond your control.

So first we feel the shock and second we let it nourish or encourage our imagination. Remember when I asked you what creative movies, songs, plays, poems or books have spoken to your soul? Some told me of Dostoevsky – or Field of Dreams – or the poems of Emily Dickinson – or even the somber beauty of Brahms’s, Requiem. Thomas Moore has so rightly observed that: “Darkness and anguish stimulate our imaginations in unique ways so that we might finally see truths ordinarily overlooked.” And that is why spiritual masters of every tradition have encouraged us to jump into the arts when we are hurting: not only will we find new insights but we will learn how to use even the pain in creative and healing ways.

Now there are two other touchstones in addition to feeling the shock and feeding the imagination: One has to do with asking for the guidance and company of a spiritual friend to accompany you during the hard times, and, the other involves choosing to stay grounded in worship even when you want to stay away. You might say the first two touchstones are personal and have to do with the inward journey, while the second are public – they take us beyond ourselves – and are grounded in the journey outward, ok?

You see, there is an unholy and dangerous lie that most of us have accepted and affirmed – often without really knowing it – that sounds something like this: God helps those who help themselves. Have you heard that before? It isn’t true – completely – and doesn’t even come from the Bible. Like I’ve said before, this is an aphorism from the St. Ben Franklyn – who was a wise old dude – but not a spiritual master.

And the fundamental problem with buying what Ben was selling is that it tends to drown out the authentic voice of God. If all we hear and know is that God helps those who help themselves, then we will forget that God’s true voice says, “Come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

If all we can hear is the command to tough it out in private all by ourselves we will become deaf to the Lord’s sweeter but more quiet song that says: “here on this mountain, God will banish the pall of doom hanging over all the people, the shadow of doom darkening all nations. Oh yes, God will banish this forever… for God will wipe the tears from every face, remove every sign of disgrace from his people wherever they are.” And nourish them with grace from the inside out. (Isaiah 25: 8)

You won’t hear that promise outside of worship, my friends. It just isn’t a song that is celebrated in popular culture. The wisdom of our consumer society is if you work hard enough – and pay dearly enough – you can get everything you want and need. And if you don’t… you are a loser.

And that is why our tradition urges us to get back into worship even when we feel like staying all by ourselves: it is an antidote to the lie. It is a time-tested balm of healing that gently pushes us beyond our fears and limited vision. What’s more, worship saturates us with an alternative vision grounded in grace rather than judgment, hope not fear, blessing beyond the obvious suffering.

What was the first thing we sang today? “One Voice,” right? A message of drawing strength from one another in love – and our second song – what was that? “For All the Saints” and its promise of rest and love beyond the suffering.

• Does anybody remember what we’re going to sing just as soon as I am done – no looking at your bulletin – or go ahead! “Holy, Holy, Holy” – the song tradition teaches the angels sing forever as a prayer for those of us on earth – encouragement and praise to the God who would not take death on the cross as the final answer.

Worship gives us an alternative vision – it trains us in seeing the bigger picture – where we are not the center of the universe. And when we are feeling tired, afraid or worn down by anguish – and we really just want to stay in bed and be by ourselves – hearts and souls far greater than ours remind us that that is precisely when we need worship the most.

Because, you see, if you get your behind into gear and just park yourself in a pew, then God’s grace in worship can begin to work on you like water smoothing a stone. The contemporary writer, Ann Lamott, tells the story of when she was at her worst: over the years she had become an alcoholic and if that wasn’t bad enough she also found herself knocked up and pregnant without any hope or desire of marrying the baby’s father. She was truly cruising in the valley of the shadow of death – and had no place to go.

So what she found herself doing – often totally blasted on cheap wine – is stumbling into the back pew of a little urban Presbyterian Church in the Bay Area where she sat and listened to the hymns. She always left before worship was over so she wouldn’t have to talk to anyone – but she stayed for the songs. And almost always the songs made her cry – weep and heave like Jesus – songs like “Precious Lord… hold my hand” or “softly and tenderly Jesus is calling… come home, come home, ye who are weary come home.” She did this for years – sat and wept and then snuck away – until finally she was ready to see whether this alternative vision of hope amidst the despair was real. And now she is clean and sober and caring for that fatherless baby who has become a big, loving and smart mouthed adolescent – a little bit of divine irony – but Annie Lamott testifies to anyone who will listen that her healing BEGAN in worship: Amazing grace…

But she also tells us that worship led her to ask for help – and that’s the other touchstone – opening ourselves to the wisdom and assistance of a spiritual friend. Spiritual friends can help us realize that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the journey of our darkness. Others have been there before and have discerned how to make the best of it.

• Spiritual friends – anam cara in Gaelic which means soul companions – are wise folk who have been through the darkness and know how to keep going. They are wise folk who can listen and direct us – correct and share compassion with us, too, when we are bereft – because soul companions or spiritual friends have been called by God to be food for the journey.

• They know something about the paradox of being adult people of faith; they have spent time searching the darkness and are not afraid of it like children; they can take your hand when you feel alone and quietly assure you that this is not the end of the story.

How does that great hymn put it: “I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you; I will share your joys and sorrows til we’ve seen this journey through.” Soul companions are critical for the dark journey – and let me be clear about this: NOT everyone is qualified for this ministry.

Just because someone says they will journey with you does not mean you should let them, ok? Soul companions have experience – they have been tested and often trained – they have boundaries and perspective and are responding to a calling from God not a psychological need of their own. In a word, soul friends know how to carry you when you just can’t do it on your own and then get out of your way.

Perhaps you know the story of the woman from Pittsfield who came out of Target into the parking lot of the mall only to find a big dent in the back of her car – and a note stuck under the windshield wiper. It said, “I have just smashed into the rear of your car. There is a whole crowd of people watching me. They think I am writing down my name and address. They are wrong.”

• Going through the motions does not make a spiritual companion. Outward appearance and deception don’t cut it either.

• No, soul companions are called by God and not everyone who cries, “Lord, Lord…”

Next week after worship I will be holding a conversation for those who would like to explore their calling as a spiritual friend or soul companion. We need such a ministry here – a small group of prayerful people committed to carrying another for a time and then getting out of the way – because a pastor can’t do it alone. The darkness is often too profound, but you have to believe me: it isn’t for everyone.

So, let the Spirit speak to you this week. Give that still small voice of the Living God within you a chance to be heard… and let’s see where this leads. For if we are growing in faith – and deepening in the paradoxical challenge of All Saints Day – some will be called to take the next step even if the path is still dark.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thanksgiving eve poster...

November 25, 2009
7:00 PM

On Park Square in Pittsfield, MA
27 East Street, Pittsfield, MA 01201


An evening of American folk, rock, blues and country music
A benefit to raise emergency heating fuel for our Berkshire neighbors
in cooperation with
PACC (Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations)


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Gifts of striving to be the whole people of God...

Today was Reformation Sunday - I posted my sermon notes for today earlier - and as so often happens, found that I only ended up sharing about half of my prepared text. It seems the Spirit was nudging me towards a deeper reflection on the blessings and hardships of doing church in our tradition: one that is radically democratic as well as committed to discerning the will of God through the body. Not a priest. Not a rule. Not a law... we seek to listen to God through scripture, prayer and participation with the whole people of God in covenant.

And by covenant I do not mean the dispensationalism that some consider wise, but rather a dynamic three way vow between God and believers in concert with the living Body of Christ. It is a style of church that is much more interested in discernment than Robert's Rules of Order (as valuable as they may be from time to time.) And it is a commitment born of St. Paul's insight that Christ has come again within and among us as the Living Body we know as church. In this body not only are all parts essential for health, but the parts that are sometimes diminished or held in lower regard are now given special blessings in the upside down body of Christ.

This took us into an extended conversation about how slow our work can be and how sometimes others grow frustrated that all voices have to be honored and heard - especially those accustomed to having their voices listened to because of power or prestige. At the same time we also acknowledged how deeply we own our commitments when we live into the patient promise of this unique charism. All of which moved us into this musical summary of our highest ideals for the body of Christ.

photo credit: ben garver

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Harvest dinner blast...

What a sweet, sweet day - something that only seems to take place in small congregations of faith in these fast and demanding times. We held our annual harvest dinner tonight - a tradition for ages - and often it has been a time for some in the church to gather for food and fun. Thankfully, the vision is shifting from one exclusively for adults to something more wiggy and intergenerational because tonight was totally young family/children friendly... and it was a blast!

+ There was goofy songs and group singing

+ The whole evening was designed to be a kid friendly environment where little boys could run around like maniacs without some stern, sour face scolding them - and little girls, too

+ There were inter-generational games, GREAT FOOD and lots and lots of laughter

This is part of the emerging vision for our congregation - a place that is safe and loving and nurturing - and little by little this vision is taking hold. Clearly it is not for everyone: people who can't share space with children aren't comfortable and those who may take themselves too seriously often do not feel at home either. But folks who know how to laugh at themselves, enjoy the pure joy of little people playing games with their parents and grandparents and are willing to learn as well as share may find that this is a little part of what Jesus was talking about when he taught that we had to welcome God's realm like little children.

I think Carol Howard Merritt is on to something in her Tribal Church reflections. A summary of her book puts it like this:

Many churches are seeking ways to reach out to younger generations. Unfortunately this often manifests as either a “come be just like us!” attitude—suggesting an unwillingness to change in order to be inclusive of young people—or as a slick marketing campaign that targets young adults in much the same way secular advertising does. Both of these approaches often leave young adults feeling that their particular spiritual gifts and needs are unwanted by the church. “We only want you for your demographic” is the message given.

Carol Howard Merritt, a pastor in her mid-thirties, suggests a different way for churches to be able to approach young adults on their own terms. Outlining the financial, social, and familial situations that affect many young adults today, she describes how churches can provide a safe, supportive place for young adults to nurture relationships and foster spiritual growth. There are few places left in society that allow for real intergenerational connections to be made, yet these connections are vital for any church that seeks to reflect the fullness of the body of Christ.

Using the metaphor of a tribe to describe the close bonds that form when people of all ages decide to walk together on their spiritual journeys, Merritt casts a vision of the church that embraces the gifts of all members while reaching out to those who might otherwise feel unwelcome or unneeded. Mainline churches have much to offer young adults, as well as much to learn from them. By breaking down artificial age barriers and building up intentional relationships, congregations can provide a space for all people to connect with God, each other, and the world

Check her out at: I am really blessed and proud of the folks who pulled THIS year's harvest dinner off - it was a total blessing and total blast.

Our next BIG event will be our Thanksgiving Eve gig - Wednesday, November 25th - and I just got word today that TWO of the coolest local musicians are going to join the soiree! I am so psyched - and after tonight it is clear that we need to add a few kids songs to the mix - to keep the groove going!

May I have Meoghan's hand in marriage?

One of my dearest friends sent this out the other day... and it really hit me hard. Creatively and wisely done, yes?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Embracing another autumn sabbath...

As I slowly ease into this autumn Sabbath, I find myself listening to Rokia Traore and reading Mary Oliver.

We came upon Traore in London a few years ago doing a concert marking 500 years of Mozart's music. Wondering how she might meld West African sounds into classical European music was enough of a challenge to get us to her show... and it was unlike anything I have ever experienced. To be sure, Traore did NOT perform anything even remotely Mozart-like; but she DID capture the composer's playfulness, skill and commitment to beauty. What's more, she blended her songs into a video montage that simultaneously told the story of an immigrants entry into England and a West African wisdom tale. Brilliant.

Mary Oliver, writing in another context entirely, thinks of Mozart like this in her poem, "Mozart, for Example (in Thirst, Beacon Press: 2006.)

All the quick notes
Mozart didn't have time to use
before he entered the cloud-boat

are falling now from the beaks
of the finches
that have gathered from the joyous summer

into the hard winter
and, like Mozart, they speak of nothing
but light and delight,

though it is true, the heavy blades of the world
are still pounding underneath.
And this is what you can do too, maybe,

if you life simply and with a lyrical heart
in the cumbered neighborhoods or even,
as Mozart sometimes managed to, in a palace,

offering tune after tune after tune,
making some hard-hearted prince
prudent and kind, just by being happy.
photo credit: dianne de mott

Thursday, October 22, 2009

At the close of the week...

This week has been full and demanding: planning for Advent, pastoral calls, prayer, administration and all the rest. I am grateful to have some Sabbath time with my beloved tomorrow. I am ready for a rest.

Tonight we did some important work sharing the planning of Advent 2009 with the Worship Ministry Team. Team work is always more time consuming and complicated that planning by the "experts" (read: staff) but it is also the way church should be. So tonight we wrestled through what Advent might feel and sound and look like this year; what's more we tried to discern what the Holy Spirit might be saying to the church, too. We shall see...

At any rate, as I get ready to watch "Project Runway" with my life partner - and share a glass of red wine - let me share another episode of worship with you as recorded by my video partner.

And here is part two...

Now it is on to Sabbath time!!!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The gifts of a reformation people...

NOTE: Here are my sermon notes for this coming week, Sunday, October 25, 2009. As you can see I am taking a week off from my reflecitons on emptiness and darkness to give some time to the on-going truth of my Reformed tradition. Not perfect, but sill important. Stop by if you are in town as I would love to visit with you.

Peter Gomes, pastor of the chapel at Yale Divinity School and one of this nation’s finest preachers, tells a story of celebrating Reformation Sunday in his hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts. In the cradle of the congregational way – at the birthing center of the Reformed tradition in America – Gomes recalls that the best thing most preachers could say on Reformation Sunday – our celebration of the spiritual movement initiated by Martin Luther and the Holy Spirit in 1516 – was that we Protestants were not Catholic.

“On the last Sunday in October,” Gomes writes, “Protestants gathered together to celebrate the fact that a Protestant was not a Roman Catholic. Although Reformation Sunday was meant to affirm the inheritance of a reformed and evangelical Protestantism, with a particular emphasis upon the contributions of Martin Luther, more often than not… it was an exercise in affirming the negative. Like the Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the Publican, we rejoiced that we were not like those others--that is, like Catholics.”

+ Which means that just as the Pharisee got what he prayed for in his empty negativity – precisely nothing because that is what he asked for – so, too, with our negative definition of Reformed spirituality: for you see, “an identity that continues to define itself by what it is not is in an increasing state of crisis.” (Gomes)

+ So what do we stand for, beloved, and why does our way of being Christ’s church matter – especially at this moment in time?

Let me offer three insights this morning that may be helpful – three clues about what the Reformed charism brings to the world that deepens and strengthens the cause of Christ in our generation – ok? For while there are other truths, to be sure, and other traditions that are equally faithful to God, these three are critical and deserve our close consideration as heirs of the Reformation.

+ But before I share my three positive observations, let me ask you a basic question: what do you know about the founding father of the Protestant tradition?

+ Tell me what you recall about the life and contribution of Martin Luther and the heart of his ministry, ok?

Here is an all too brief summary highlighting a few of the essentials:

+ Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic priest and monastic of the Augustinian order. He was a gifted preacher and teacher in Germany who was obsessed with pleasing God. In fact, it is likely that he entered the monastery in fear rather than joy, believing that if he fasted longer and prayed harder than anyone else, God’s love would fill him and heal him of all his fears. It didn’t…
+ Which, of course, drove Luther into deeper despair and a more profound search for the promise of God’s love; eventually, he discovered the writing of St. Paul in the Bible and began to see that God’s forgiveness and healing are given to us as gifts – grace – never as a reward for enduring harsh fasts or suffering through hours of prayer.

In time Luther began to question all of the outward practices of his medieval faith which put him into conflict first with his monastic superiors and eventually with Rome and the Pope. To make a long story short, Luther began to teach that God’s free gift of forgiveness and grace had to become the heart of Christianity – not tradition or the authority of Rome – which created a painful and prolonged schism in the Church. Luther was eventually banished – excommunicated by Rome – and only then did he start a new denomination built on the three insights I want to consider with you today:

+ At the heart of this new tradition was a commitment to the presence of God’s grace along the way of the Cross.

+ At the soul of this new tradition was a style of worship grounded in the vernacular where preaching took place in the common tongue of ordinary working people and hymns and music borrowed freely from popular culture.

+ And in the mind of this new tradition was a radical trust that because everyone had part to play in discerning God’s wisdom, no one could have a monopoly upon the truth or authority.
Are you with me? Theologically he emphasized grace and the cross, liturgically he embraced the ordinary and the importance of biblical interpretation and organizationally he advocated democracy and equality in decision-making –truths that still have meaning for us today.

+ In fact, we have affirmed these truths anew in our mission statement that reads: “In community with God and each other we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion.”

+ These, to my mind, are the gifts we bring into the world as people of the Reformation. Other traditions know these gifts, too, and I would never be so arrogant as to say that we have a monopoly upon God’s wisdom. And yet Reformation people do have a unique and distinctive way of giving these gifts shape and form.

Let me emphasize what I mean by grappling with the words of grace in Jeremiah who said:

The time is coming when I will make a brand-new covenant with Israel and Judah. It won't be a repeat of the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took their hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt…. No this brand-new covenant that I will make with them is different: I will put my law within them—write it on their hearts!—and I will be their God and they will be my people. They will no longer go around setting up schools to teach each other about God. They'll know me firsthand, the dull and the bright, the smart and the slow. And I'll wipe the slate clean for each of them forgetting they ever sinned! Listen – for this is God's Decree!

With an emphasis on grace, we begin by affirming that there are a variety of ways to respond to God. Did you hear that? That is often the minority report when it comes to religion: there are a variety of ways to respond to God. Not ONE way, not one TRUE and time-tested way, but a variety of ways for our expression of the Reformed tradition practices religious tolerance. George Hunsinger, another wise soul from Yale Divinity School, speaks of our perspective like this in the current Christian Century:

Some believers practice “enclave theology” which teaches that there is a single tradition that is true and has little to no interest in other traditions when it comes to defeating or withstanding them. In contrast, “ecumenical theology” presumes that every tradition in the church has something valuable to contribute even though we may not be able to discern at the present time what that may be. Ecumenical theology does not assume that we can make traditions agree by forcing artificial agreements, but rather seeks deeper unity in which all traditions are faithful to Christ. And then in contrast to both of these there is an “academic theology” that has no allegiance to any tradition or to norms such as those established in our creeds and statements of faith.

One very conscious commitment of our tradition – a boldly ecumenical tradition – has to do with searching for God’s grace amidst the divisions in the church and the world. How do we put it? “Whoever you are – and wherever you are – on life’s journey, there is a place for you here.”

Consequently, when reading Jeremiah in this light we note that there is one very old and time-tested way of responding to God that creates a check list – a collection of helpful and wise rules – so that people can live with integrity and compassion. In some ways that is how we have come to understand the 10 Commandments and the Law of Israel: when God graciously brought our ancestors out of the bondage of slavery, their response was to construct a rule of life that helped people share God’s justice and generosity.

The Law, you see, is about pointing people in the right direction so that every act of life can be a part of the Lord’s beautiful commitment to freedom and justice that was first experienced and expressed in the Exodus, ok? A rule of life, therefore, is one way of living faithfully in response to God’s grace. It is the older way – not replaced or outdated or superseded – just older, time-tested and practical.

The new way – or new covenant – is different: not better just better for some. And while it still values the ethics of the Old Covenant and teaches believers that the goal of our faith is still to love God and honor our neighbors as God’s chosen people, our checklist is no longer out there on a tablet of stone or a catechism or rule of life. Now we sense that God has written the law of creation on our hearts so that from the inside out we can make God’s will flesh.

Are you with me on this distinction? We start in here – with the heart – which in the Hebraic tradition is both the center of the intellect and the core of the will. So the new covenant is not about feelings and emotions nor rules and traditions: our Reformed take on this new covenant has to do with giving shape and form to the forgiveness of God that we first experienced within.

I think that is what Jesus consistently teaches: my way does not look backwards nor is it obsessed with tradition. The past and our rules of life have their place; we can appeal to relatives and descendants, too; but disciples are made and formed and shaped not born. The privilege of birth has nothing to do with faithfulness.

In his argument with those who had started to follow him but were wavering as recorded in John’s gospel for today, Jesus was explicit: the old ways have their wisdom, but the power and truth of living forgiveness is how the new covenant works. So if you join this new movement you can be jumping back to the old ways – it doesn’t work – either you are in or you are out. And if you are in, please understand that it is not easier even if it has been simplified. “All I can tell you,” Jesus seems to conclude, “is that the way of forgiveness will set you free to live as God’s chosen people.”

In one of my favorite devotional books, The Empty Manger, Walter Wangerin tells the story of how his young son used to steal comic books. Now Wangerin was an inner city preacher and everybody in his small church used to watch his children like hawks to see if they were people of integrity. And having been in that situation myself, I can tell you that as a young preacher caught up in the often harsh judgments of God’s people, he felt like he had to try everything to cure his son from stealing – but nothing worked. It can be a fishbowl experience.

Well, for three years as young Matthew grew from 7 to 8 to 9 years of age Wangerin gave it his best shot. But finally, exasperated and uncertain of what to do next, he spanked his child. Hard and in real frustration he spanked his son which Wangerin writes forced him to run out of the room and weep his own tears.

“I fled the room crying” he writes, “ but Matthew didn't cry. To be sure Matthew did finally stop stealing from that day onward, but it wasn't because of the law or the punishment. Listen to how he puts it next:

What wasn’t true, however, was how I thought the change had occurred in my son. I thought it was the spanking. I thought the law had done it. Well, the law can do many things, of course. It can frighten a child till his eyes go wide. It can restrain him and blame him and shame him, surely. But it cannot change him.
So it was with Israel. So it is with all the people of God. So it was with Matthew. Mercy alone transfigures the human heart – mercy, which takes a human face. For this is the final truth of my story: Years after that spanking, Matthew and his mother were driving home from the shopping center.

They were discussing things that had happened in the past and the topic of comic books came up. They talked of how he used to steal them, and of how long the practice continued. Matthew said, “But you know, Mom, I haven’t stolen comic books for a long, long time.” His mother said, “I know.” She drew the word out for gratitude: “I knoooow.” Matthew mused a moment, then said, “Do you know why I stopped the stealing?” “Sure,” said his mother. “Because Dad spanked you.”

“No, Mom,” said Matthew, my son, the child of my heart. He shook his head at his mother’s mistake. “No,” he said, “I stopped but because Dad cried.” Hereafter, let every accuser of my son reckon with the mercy of God, and fall into a heap, and fail.

For love accomplished what the law could not, and tears are more powerful than Sinai. Even the Prince of Accusers shall bring no charge against my son that the Final judge shall not dismiss.

Satan, you are defeated! My God has loved my Matthew. Do you know why I stopped the stealing? Sure. Because Dad spanked you. No, Mom. No. It’s because Dad cried. (Wangerin, pp.131-132)

The gifts of our Reformed tradition are forged in forgiveness – and grace – and a common brokenness that needs one another in our search for God. Pray with me now as my partners in music share a tune born of the very heart of the Reformation…

credits: peter gomes @ google images; reformation stained glass @ spring valley united methodist church, dallas, texas; the soul project @;%20the katrina project; art and soul project @; marc chagall, "clown" @
exhibitions/20090611_russian_avantgarde_in_geneva.html; gary powell, "rhapsody of the soul shadow" @ category/shows/rhapsody-of-the

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Getting ready for Thanksgiving Eve...

For almost 30 years I have been blessed to gather folk, rock and country musicians together on Thanksgiving Eve for a time of sharing American music in the churches I have served across the United States. From Saginaw, MI to Tucson, AZ - with a long stop in Cleveland, OH - we have found ways of making music together on the day before Thanksgiving.

The idea came from both the Bob Franke song called "Thanksgiving Eve" and the Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger tradition of playing NYC during this holiday weekend. When I was in seminary, we took the kids and went ALL the time. So our little tradition is just a small way of keeping up the celebration and helping folk reclaim the goodness of group singing. It is a whole lot of fun and the music is always incredible.

+ Sometimes it takes on the air of an early Pete Seeger gig with TONS of group harmonies.

+ Other times it has become a little gospel revival with Bruce Springsteen overtones.

+ And often I've been able to find a few great story tellers who bring a "Prairie Home Companion" feel to the event.

This year feels like an "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" groove and I am lining up both our folk/gospel choir for "Down to the River to Pray" and "I'll Fly Away" as well as some other stunning musicians to bring their guitars, banjos and harmonies together. We'll raise some funds for the emergency heating fund in the process.

Now let's be clear about the point of all this wildass music making:

+ First, for me it is all about community building in the best way. Americans have lost touch with what it means to sing in a group. Schools have been stripped of their free music programs, much of what takes place in the public realm is rhythm rather than melody driven and more and more congregations emphasize "praise" choruses sung by professional worship teams than ordinary hymnody. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE hip-hop rhythm and think there is much to be gained in the new music realm of the church. But... without union halls and public school programs, more and more Americans just don't know how powerful it is to sing together. That is, of course, why Springsteen did his "Seeger Sessions" tour a few years ago: not only did he re-educate a whole generation on how to sing together but he reintroduced our songs of protest and hope, too.

+ Second, as the tradition puts it: when you sing, you pray twice! This is prayer time even when the words are earthy. It opens our hearts, it opens our imaginations and it opens our mouths to make something beautiful out of the harsh realities of our lives. Music, to me, is one of the ways we experience the blessings of incarnation: the word takes form and creates beauty within our flesh.

+ And third the experience of reconnecting with our roots in song and story is healing. Most of us don't know the truth of the American story: we neither appreciate the depth of race hatred nor the power of our authentic cross cultural heroes - and we need to know both. There are stories in our songs that help us find hope and courage. And these stories aren't being shared widely these days so why not in the local church.

Once, in Arizona, there were 100 people singing "Oh Freedom" slowly and with passionate rhythm. It gave us an opportunity to speak of places all over the world where the struggle for freedom needed prayer and encouragement. So when the song resumed, the intensity was electrifying. Another time, in Michigan, we found ourselves able to laugh at ourselves by singing the "new" words to "Old Time Religion" - and to my way of thinking, whenever we can laugh at ourselves the gift of humility is present. And on and on it goes. We get people singing gospel and the blues - country, folk and rock, too - and sometimes, if we're lucky, we get a little line dancing! I think Ry Cooder caught the spirit in this version of "Jesus Is on the Main Line." It can be al little bit Pentecost, a little bit Christmas and a whole lot of Thanksgiving!

So... while it is just a month away - Wednesday, November 25th @ 7 pm - if you are going to be in the area, plan on joining us. You won't be sorry!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Here's your assignment...

Sometimes when I am preaching - actually OFTEN when I am preaching - I find the written conclusion of my message doesn't quite live up to the challenge of the rest of the sermon. So... more often than not I end up extemporizing something that involves a homework assignment to explore the ideas of my message more deeply. This past Sunday, for example, after talking about how the creative arts are the best way of unlocking our spiritual imagination and communicating our journey with another, I invited folk to discern what movie, poem, TV show, song, sculpture, painting, dance or classical composition says something to their soul at this moment in time - and then let that work of art saturate them in its wisdom.

What do the old preachers say? "Be careful of what you pray for?" Well, as I was doing other work at church today I got a call asking if I would sing a justice song for an upcoming meeting of the wider church. Hmmmm? Wonder what that will be... (leaning towards either U2's "Pride" or Bob Franke's "The Great Storm.")

And then I got a note from a friend who found himself watching "Field of Dreams" and weeping tonight. It always touches me deeply when my words connect with an other's spiritual journey - it is always a blessing - and a burden, too. So, as we struggle to find a NEW language - a way of speaking the truth that is in our soul - we find ourselves called to the arts.

Thank GOD for our artists...


Sunday, October 18, 2009


There is a joy and simmering sense of new commitment in worship these days... and I am grateful. After worship, we held our second annual CROP Walk to Fight Hunger in Pittsfield and there were twice as many walkers this year - 65 - and more than twice the offering - $2,225 - too. It was a blessing to be with members of 5 other congregations as we found ways to be together that made sense.

And my mates in the band did a splendid job with "Jubilee" which went something like this...

Over the next few days I'll share how other parts of this worship gathering shook out, too.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Movin' on...

The writer and spiritual friend of the seeker, Thomas Moore, once observed: "To be comfortable with emptiness, which I believe is the same as having faith, is to tolerate a free fall into a life made up of mysteries rather than facts...

(for) spiritual emptiness does not lead to resignation or depression; on the contrary, it gives hope and frees us from the anxiety of having to be in control. Some people can't fly in an airplane because it asks for a degree of trust they can't muster. Similarly, some people can't be "religious" because they feel such a strong need to know and be in control. The solution is to tread more lightly on the earth, to be more hollow than solid and to trust more and believe less." (The Soul's Religion,p. 13)

Souls far wiser than I have pointed to the opening lines of Dante's Inferno as a mid-life reflection on what it might mean to embrace emptiness as an act of faith: "Midway upon the road of our life I found myself within a dark wood, for the right way had been missed." Certainly Robert Taplin's (check it out: contribution to the "These Days: Elegies for Modern Times," currently on display at MassMoCA starts with this wisdom. His exploration of the collapse of civilization is sobering and tragically beautiful. He points to the signs of destruction all around us - starvation, refugees, war and despair - yet concludes with Dante surviving his journey on the River Styx. It is a hauntingly clever invitation for each and all of us to go deeper into the emptiness of both our soul and society.

George Bolster's work in this same MassMoCA exhibit, "Reckoner," urges a similar deep journey by placing Christian religious iconography alongside Radiohead's song, "Reckoner" in a stylized chapel of mirrors where the icons literally weep for the world. Upon first entering the chapel, however, the tears are neither obvious nor experienced - you have to wait and let the new context surround you -before you see and feel the tears from above fall upon you in sadness. It is a powerful experience that builds on the religious fervor surrounding other weeping Madonnas throughout the world. And it asks those who enter the chapel to feel what all creation in heaven and earth knows: tears are the key to compassion and healing.

A musical artist who is calling to my soul these days is Rosanne Cash
- especially her new work. On "The List," a collection of songs her father, Johnny Cash, said were essential for singing with conviction and integrity, she shares a duet with Springsteen and reworks this old country standard, "Movin' On." I've done this song for years first hearing it in a speed freak rendition by the young Rolling Stones. Cash slows it way down - makes it more of a blues than a smart-mouthed slight of a loved one - and fills it with longing. Clearly, she knows something of the emptiness and makes good use of it.
And that is one of the gifts of our dark, dry or empty times: to make good use of it. As Moore says elsewhere, THIS is the real purpose: to cultivate a "constructive means for being open to the influence of mystery."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Wrestling with God's absence - part two

On this Sabbath day (for me) I am getting ready to head out to the most incredible art museum I have ever visited: MassMoCA - the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, MA. (Check it out: It is a vast and meandering refurbished factory revived into a center for the creative arts. It is also a sanctuary for my soul from time to time - a place of renewal and challenge and beauty - and I cherish the time spent wandering, thinking and feeling. Three random thoughts are swimming about before we depart:

+ First, I got a chance to hear some great Dixieland jazz last night. My buddy, Andy Kelly, is the leader of Pittsfield's Jazz Ambassadors - our sister city touring band - and yesterday they were doing their Dixieland incarnation. Great and sweet sounds with lots of soul - and they even asked me up to do a Satchmo version of "Hello Dolly."

Now, besides the kick of performing - and being with a GREAT band - this song takes me back to the time my Poppa Fred asked me to sing it for him. I was a smart-assed teenaged rock and roller and couldn't be interested in playing such sentimental crap - even for my grandfather. So I blew him off - and refused to play "Little Green Apples," too. I offered George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" but that didn't resonate with him. And now, all these years later, at a time when I could be a grandpa (although nothing is on the horizon) I am sad for this missed chance to share a little happiness with a man who brought so much joy into my life. So, for dear old Fred, it was a gift to give it a shot.

+ Second, I found a book of new/old poems by Mary Oliver entitled, "Thirst," a collection of her insights and reactions to the loss of her beloved, long-time companion Molly Malone Cook. While all of them speak to my theme of "wrestling with God's absence," this one jumped out:

From the complication of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.

Which is the only way to love, isn't it?
This isn't a playground, this is
earth, our heaven, for a while.

Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.

And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song.
And I say to my heart: rave on.

The depth psychologist, Thomas More, walks with Jung, Woodman and Hillman in saying that only the creative arts can give us a way to speak of our deep and dark truths. Only a poetic mind, heart and soul can express the emptiness we all know but cannot articulate. Only time spent with the masters of the arts - in any of their forms - can give us the ability and courage to say what is true even beyond our imperfect words.

+ And here is part two of the message I was sharing last Sunday as it actually shook out in worship. (NOTE: for those with MACs, you may want to go directly to the YouTube station, Stevensoul7, for this video clip. Some have told me that sometimes rendering films through the PC world causes choppy replays on Apple equipment. At the very least, the sound will be better, ok?)


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Silence and darkness...

Today is a quiet, cold and increasingly grey day in the Berkshires: a portent of things to come as winter matures, yes? We were going to hike Mt. Greylock - the highest point in Massachusetts -but now we're headed to a more hospitable place: bookstores and art museums. As my blogging friend from Thunder Bay, Black Pete, has noted, winter has its own spiritual and physical rhythm that must be entered and embraced. Made me think of this poem by Louise Gluck minus that part about summer's deep sweetness:

Time to rest now; you have had
enough excitement for the time being.

Twilight, then early evening. Fireflies
in the room, flickering here and there, here and there,
and summer's deep sweetness filling the open window.

Don't think of these things anymore.
Listen to my breathing, your own breathing
like the fireflies, each small breath
a flare in which the world appears.

I've sun to you long enough in the summer night.
I'll win you over in the end; the world can't give you
this sustained vision.

You must be taught to love me. Human beings must be
taught to love
silence and darkness.

This tune by Rosanne Cash - with her late poppa Johnny - feels like this season to me: it is a unique and inward time, yes? A season for reflecting and taking stock of what is real and what is dross, what time is left and what amends still must be made. In that spirit, we went to a Mason Jennings show last Sunday night: it was freakin' brilliant! He is showcasing his new CD, "Blood of Man" which has a darker and harder edge to it... like this knock out song: "Ain't No Friend of Mine." (As it was rocking out, Dianne whispered to me: "Damn... this has got Good Friday all OVER it!")

Later this evening is the closing "Third Thursday" in town - a blast of jazz and street performers - that we'll check out (with the aid of long johns and fleece vests) to see what other blessings the day has in store for us. As the planet shifts - and winter ripens - and the rhythm of life takes on a new beat, I sense different spiritual questions beginning to rise to the surface. Louise Gluck captures this insight like this in "Matins."

You want to know how I spend my time?
I walk the front lawn, pretending
to be weeding. You ought to know
I'm never weeding, on my knees, pulling
clumps of clover from the flower beds: in fact
I'm looking for courage, for some evidence
my life will change, though
it takes forever, checking
each clump for the symbolic
leaf, and soon the summer is ending, already
the leaves turning, always the sick trees
going first, the dying turning
brilliant yellow, while a few dark birds perform
their curfew of music. You want to see my hands?
As empty now as at the first note.
Or was the point always
to continue without a sign?

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:...