Monday, November 30, 2009

A spirituality of rock and roll on the road...

Tomorrow Di and I take our "spirituality of rock and roll" presentation on the road to the local community college: Berkshire Community College. It is a big old concrete, neo-Stalinesque place with about 2,300 students. We'll have a chance to play some tunes, give an overview of our ideas about integrating music with spiritual growth and see where it takes us all. The heart of our conversation goes something like this:

+ Our ordinary, everyday life is NOT separate from the sacred - and using the music of popular culture can help us get grounded in a spirituality that takes our real lives seriously!

+ Not all rock music is healthy - there is some that is self-destructive and trapped in the pain of living - but there are lots of other types of music besides the slave/prisoner archetype and we'll do a quick survey of how the hero, the orphan, the trickster and the prophet play out in rock and roll.

+ Rock and roll can help connect us to a love and grace larger than ourselves - which is essential for health and hope - in ways that many churches cannot.

The tunes and examples will include:

+ Springsteen/U2 as the obvious hero archetype - and we'll do "Reason to Believe."

+ Radiohead, Coldplay and the Eels are the orphan archetype and we'll do "Things the Grandchildren Should Know" to make this point.

+ For the trickster we have to start with Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues"
and make the connection with Chuck Berry, Ginsberg and Eminem.

+ And we'll wrap things up with something prophetic from Joan Osborne - our theme song - "One of Us."

We will also do our take on Collective Soul's "Shine" and share a little from NIN's "Closer" and U2's "Put on Your Sexy Boots." It should be a lot of fun - already some of the staff is getting excited about seeing how this will all shake out - and it will give us another context to do our funky outreach for the cause of compassion and grace.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

It must seem like a broken record...

It must seem like a broken record (or at the very least a scratched CD or malfunctioning MP3) when I keep going back to the role compassion plays in my emerging theology. But it is all too clear that both professionally and personally I continue to understand and experience the essence of God just like St. Jewel says: in the end only KINDNESS matters.

In this concluding autobiographical reflection on theology and ministry at the close of the church year (earlier I have blogged about the role of both the arts and feasting) I continue to be surprised at how important the words from Matthew 9 are to me: go and learn what this means - God desires mercy/compassion - not sacrifice or religion.

These were not the words that first called me into ministry. No, back when I was 16 sitting in the Potter's House in Washington, DC I was touched by the words of Jesus in Luke 4. Like many aspiring social activists I was energized by the way Jesus made the prophesy of Isaiah his own: The Lord has called me to proclaim good news to the poor, release of the captives and all the rest. Nearly 30 years later, this call to justice is still vital - and I am committed to living into ways that bring healing to our wounds - but I have come to see that I was not called to large acts of social transformation.

When I entered seminary, however, this realization was not clear. In fact, by the time I entered Union Theological Seminary my social justice emphasis had intensified. Luke 9 fueled my zeal: "No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." It was ALL about commitment I believed and I was a spiritual hard ass on myself and anyone who would listen. Once St. Jim Forbes calling me into his office and said: Man, why are you in such a hurry to get yourself killed? Even Gandhi took some time off for study and reflection. Can you give yourself permission to do likewise? Good words from one of this land's finest preachers... but I was too stubborn and unhappy to listen.

Like the old timers put it: when you're only tool is a hammer, everyone looks like a nail. It was all very black and white - good and evil - right and wrong to me for a long, long time. And it wasn't until my life was falling apart for the first time - during my divorce when all my religious friends were more interested in judgment and being right than helping me deal with my inner demons - that I came across the words of Jesus concerning compassion. In some ways, I was reaping what I had sown - and I hated it.

How ironic and holy that it was only the outsiders - the lesbian, atheist and feminist - who had room for me in my broken and wounded incarnation. And it was through their ministry of presence and patience that I was able to hear Jesus when he said to me: "Go and learn what this means; the Lord God desires compassion not sacrifice." These are the words that continue to shape ministry and bring life to me.

I guess it is often true that you can't give what you don't have - and you can't really walk the walk without getting rid of a whole lot of garbage. In preparing for today's worship I came across some words by Walter Breuggemann, whom I value and respect dearly, about how the wounds of the world are signs of what is wrong or out of balance. And while I suspect there is truth here I have also come to think that this type of zeal is part of the problem; rather I sense that the wounds within and among us are reality.

Like the mystics say: Reality is the will of God - it can always be better - but we have to start with what is real no matter how harsh or painful. Sometimes these wounds can be healed but sometimes not. So the real invitation is to journey with other wounded souls in solidarity for this brings compassion to birth. And when grace and compassion are made flesh... miracles abound.

Two other scriptural parallels have taken on new meaning, too. First there is Peterson's reworking of Matthew 11: are you tired and burned out on religion? come away with me and learn the unforced rhythms of grace. BRILLIANT. And second is Psalm 131: O Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters or with things that are too hard for me. No, I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother's breast, my soul is quieted within me.

Now I'm ready to enter Advent and learning how to better wait with Mary the Christ-bearer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A light shines in the darkness of Black Friday...

Today in the afterglow of Thanksgiving in the US we are moving slow... and most of the culture is in a frenzy of shopping. Dianne has to go out to work soon and we've been musing on the real contradictions about all of this when I read this truly insightful posting on The Advent Conspiracy. Let me invite you to check it out:

The more I dwell on my ever-changing faith - especially the beauty and promise of Advent - I am certain that Jewel got it right when she sang: "In the end, only KINDNESS matters." Kindness in challenging the status quo, kindness in living an alternative and kindness to all the chaos around us. And now... onward into Advent and something of the spirituality of Mary, yes?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving blessings in Pittsfield...

Well, we had over a hundred people at last night's gig and raised over $1000 for emergency fuel assistance in the Berkshires - and MAN was it a blast! I have been blessed with making friends with a wonderful group of musicians and artists in town and they came through in spades last night.

+ First, Andy Kelly really knows how to play anything that can make music. He was on five string banjo and he played that sweet thing in every style possible. And he brought his talented son, John, to the gig to lay down a bass track and man can THAT cat play, too!

+ Second, both Linda Worster and Bert Marshall worked their magic with us. Their solo tunes were authentic blessings - and they cooked with the larger band as well - adding great guitar and vocals to the whole mix. For a taste of their blessings go to one of the following:

Bert's website:
Linda's website:

+ And third, my band and church mates totally rocked the house. They sang and played out their hearts and everyone left smiling. Like I predicted: it was a total blast. And the fact that we were able to raise over $1,000 just blows me away. Great music, great generosity and great compassion. Now I can't wait to see what the gig looks like on local TV...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Looking for God in all the wrong places...

NOTE: My sermon notes for the first Sunday of Advent - November 29, 2009 - suggest that one of the tensions in the lectionary readings for this week involve the human longing for justice and God's full presence in our lives and the more ordinary and less dramatic presence of the one who is holy. So I wrestle with the prophetic anticipation of a "final" day of the Lord vs. the more humble fig tree image of Jesus. This is the first in a series of reflections on the spirituality of Mary for those of us in the Reformed tradition. We'll see how it shakes out.

Back when I was a young student in seminary – about a hundred years ago – there was a very popular country song playing on almost every radio station in America: “Lookin’ for Love in All the Wrong Places.” Do you remember it?

• It was included in the 1980 movie with John Travolta and Debra Winger, “Urban Cowboy.” It was a monster hit record for Johnny Lee. And it became a part of the sound track of that era when Americans were held hostage in Iran, a new television network – CNN – was launched and Ronald Reagan became the president of the United States.

• The chorus goes: “I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places, lookin' for love in too many faces, searchin' their eyes, lookin' for traces of what I'm dreamin' of. I was hopin' to find a friend and a lover - I'll bless the day I discover - another heart lookin' for love.”

In many ways, I think that silly pop song is prophetic: not only does it capture the essence of a generation, but it also speaks to a universal spiritual truth. Namely, that many and most of us know what it feels like to look for love – and God – in all the wrong places. That’s what most addiction is at its core – trying to fill the aching emptiness with something that will take away the pain – suicide, promiscuity and greed, too.

• Anybody here ever have a tooth ache – or chronic pain – or a broken heart or wrestled with addiction?

• Then you know what I’m talking about: when our bodies hurt – when our soul is empty – when our life is filled with agony or despair we want it to end. Period. End of the story, yes?

That’s how we were created – in God’s image – we were built to want to extinguish the fire and eliminate the pain. But here’s the thing: while St. Augustine was essentially right when he noted that within every heart there is God shaped hole that can only be satisfied from above, sometimes our religious traditions don’t help.

Sometimes our spiritual heritage is shame based, right? Sometimes it is more rooted in fear than hope. And sometimes it is just so other worldly and heaven centered as to be no earthly good whatsoever. And this is not unique to Christianity – it is as true to every religion as it is true to every family or business or nation – there is always a tension present between what is helpful and holy and what is broken and confused.

• That’s true in every individual, right? We each know something of the light as well as the shadow; we each know a part of the truth amidst a whole bunch of lies, too. And most of the time we can’t quite discern which is which.

• Like the poet, Robert Bly, used to say at the beginning of some of his workshops: today I am going to tell you something that is profoundly true AND I am going to give you a bunch of BS. So listen carefully because most of the time I don’t know the difference.

So when I tell you that sometimes our religious traditions don’t help us when we’re searching for love and God in all the wrong places please understand that I am NOT trying to throw religion away. That’s what adolescents do: they discard everything that has gone before them because they are certain that they know best. But if, by the grace of God, they live beyond their early 20s, most come to see that they, too, are a combination of light and dark and a whole lot of shadows and that there is wisdom and healing outside of their experience.

• I love the way Mark Twain put it: when I was a boy of 14 my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But by the time I had reached 21 I was astonished at how much he had learned in 7 years.

• He also said that education consists mainly of what we have unlearned. And in the realm of religion there are some important lessons for us to unlearn – especially if we want to quit searching for God in all the wrong places – and Advent is a good place to start.

Today’s texts, for example, ask us to hold two opposing truths in tension: our longing for justice and peace – our aching for love and healing and hope and grace – AND the necessity of knowing how to wait on the Lord in the spirit of sacred patience. Here’s what I mean:

• The vision and commitment of the prophet says that there will come a time when all evil and injustice – all pain and suffering – will end.The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

• Now contrast the wisdom of Jeremiah with the words Jesus offers us on this first Sunday of Advent: “It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking… So look instead at the fig tree or any tree for that matter. When the leaves begin to show, one look tells you that summer is right around the corner. The same here—when you see these things happen, you know God's kingdom is about here… so be on your guard. Don't let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise…”

Scholars suggest that on the one hand the prophetic text from Jeremiah speaks of a deep human need to believe that one day God is going to make everything right. There may be trouble and pain today but in God’s own time all things will be made right. How does the old spiritual put it? “We shall overcome… someday. We shall live in peace… we’ll walk hand in hand.” The poet, Stephen Mitchell, has written in his commentary on Job as well as his reflection on the life of Jesus that this longing for the lion to lie down with the lamb is as old as the beginning of time: Jeremiah and Isaiah proclaimed it as did Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. It is deep in our hearts. And yet mostly this longing remains, yes? The dream endures but it is rarely realized…

• So could it be that this is part of the tradition we have been called to unlearn? Could it be that our romantic and idealized sense of God’s justice in our day – or even at the end of time – is part of the way we have been looking for God in all the wrong places?

• That it is an illusion – even a distraction – that keeps us from paying attention to the fig tree of reality?

Not that the quest for compassion or dignity is wrong – I’m not saying that – but what if there is a better way: a way that grounds us in the truth of the moment, helps us move into acceptance instead of fantasy or delusion and deepens our ability to wait and live with patience and compassion?

• The German mystic, Meister Eckhart, said: Reality is the will of God – it can always be better – but we must start with what is real in order to know the way of the Lord.

• Reinhold Niebuhr said much the same thing in what we know as the Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

The preacher and author, Barbra Brown Taylor, is on to something when she urges us to pay attention to the humble and ordinary fig tree in the words of Jesus. Too often, she notes, we get caught up in abstractions when it comes to things like “judgment and salvation, or else dramatic things like earthquakes and plagues. But by directing our attention to a sprouting tree, Jesus invites us into a simpler and more gentle way – a way of not working so hard – so that we might see in the most ordinary events of our lives” what is at the heart of God. (Kate Huey, Sermon Seeds for Advent, worship/ samuel/november-29.html)

Which leads me into the way – or the spirituality – of Mary rather than Jeremiah or John the Baptist or any of the other prophets of our tradition: they have a place… but Mary offers a better way. She is much like the fig tree in Christ’s example: she waits for God’s time – she ponders much of what seems perplexing in her heart rather than get depressed or anxious – and she rests in the trust that God really is God so she need not try to be. One of my all time favorite writers, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, puts it like this in her book, To Dance with God:

In Advent, we are to be a people pregnant: pregnant and waiting. We long for the God/Man to be born and this waiting is hard. Our whole life is spent, one way or another, in waiting. Information puts us on hold… our order hasn’t come in yet. The elevator must be stuck. Our loved one is late. Will the snow never melt, the rain never stop, the pain ever dry? Will anyone ever understand? Will I ever change?

Very earthy and ordinary realities, yes? And who but a pregnant Mary speaks to us in about such things? Certainly not the prophets – St. Paul only rarely – and even Jesus only cryptically. No, Mary has much to teach us in Advent about waiting in pregnant anticipation. Gertrud Mueller-Nelson continues:

Advent invites us to understand life with a new and even feminine state of being. (It is a way towards balance, you see?) Our mostly masculine world wants to blast away waiting from our lives. Instant gratification has become our constitutional right and delays an aberration. We equate waiting with wasting… And the more life asks us to wait, the more we anxiously hurry… But listen… as in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not reconciliation or justice or a new relationship, a work of art or even social change. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth that which is not whole or strong or even alive.

No wonder so many of our Advent/Christmas traditions involve brewing and baking, ripening and simmering, right? I am certain that quiet, ordinary and profoundly pregnant Mary has something to teach us all about waiting and hoping and discerning where God is already breaking into our lives.

This season I invite you to explore with me the way of Mary – certainly a different way for many of us – and maybe even a better way. She can be our guide into the wisdom of today’s psalm that prays:

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me into your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long… Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! For you lead the humble in what is right and show us how the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.

Lord, in your mercy, may it be so within and among us all.

(This is my favorite Marian composition: from S. Rachmaninov's Vespers, "Rejoice, O Theotokos" it is PURE heaven.)
credits: 1) Robert Lentz

Monday, November 23, 2009

Heading towards Thanksgiving Eve...

We had a totally GREAT band practice tonight in anticipation of our Thanksgiving Eve gig to raise Emergency Fuel Assistance funds for neighbors in need in the Berkshires this winter. Man, am I blessed to be SURROUNDED by great musicians and sweet people! One of the joys of my life has been finding musicians who are willing to share their skill with me - AND - who are also totally lovely human beings. As some of you know, there are tons of great musicians but some are a pain in the ass! Some are cruel, too.

But MY band mates... OMG they are a little bit of heaven this side of glory. Sure, we are all wounded in some ways - grieving and searching, stumbling and getting it wrong as often as we get it right - and at the same time these folk are generous, humble, talented and committed to sharing music so that it feeds the soul of all that is good, beautiful and noble in creation. As I think I noted earlier, we're going to be recording this gig for local TV - we have a crew of sweet and loving folk working the cameras, too - so I hope to be able to share some of the fun with you soon.

Made me think of Kathy Mattea and her on-going work... join us on Wednesday at 7 pm.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Theology and bread: living into the feast...

NOTE: this is part two of an end of the church year reflection that began with my growing interest in theology and the arts. Today's posting explores the roots of the feast in ministry and soon I will explore the importance of grace/compassion. If you want to see part one, please check out the post for November 20th.

A second major theological commitment that has continued to inform and inspire all aspects of my ministry over almost 30 years is the feast. This includes the Eucharist, to be sure, but is not at all limited to it. In fact, the table fellowship of Jesus has become the central organizing principle of the way I preach, evangelize and try to do my administrative work.

I suspect this all began back when I was wrestling with how to best live into my commitment to nonviolence. As a young conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, I wanted to work out the contradictions in my life (something I have come to see as both hubris and one of many overly idealistic notions that drove me as a young man. Today... well, let's just say that mystery and humility - even laughing at myself - makes more sense.) But in those days I wanted to be ethically and politically in sync - which led to 25 years of vegetarian living.

+ Three key writers to my emerging vegetarianism were: Dick Gregory - the African American social activist and satirist - Francs Moore Lappe - whose research and insights about world hunger in Diet for a Small Planet continue to resonate with me - and Mohandas Gandhi - the Indian freedom fighter who showed how nonviolent "soul force" could change the world.

+ Additional intellectual support came from Gene Sharp's trilogy: The Politics on Nonviolent Action as well as my work with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

In the midst of learning to fast - and eat in a more sustainable way - I also found myself working in one of the first vegetarian restaurants in St. Louis, Missouri: Our Daily Bread. With the two co-owners I learned to bake whole wheat bread - a life long passion - and immerse myself in the alternative culture of St. Louis. These very practical skills gave me an abiding interest in the different ways "feasting" feeds both body and soul.

While in St. Louis, I came to the second influence concerning the feast as I shared Eucharist with farm workers and union activists in a highly political context. I had never grasped the social justice dimensions of the sacred meal before, but the connection between "sharing by all so that there is scarcity for none" became an on-going theme.

I also spent significant time hanging a Jesuit priest, John Little, as he worked with the Farm Workers and cared for those in his tiny impoverished parish near Soulard Market. Going into dark and lonely houses to serve home bound elders Eucharist helped me appreciate how vital the Lord's Supper is for an embodied spirituality. There is nothing abstract about breaking bread together and sharing the cup: hands touch hands, food and wine is swallowed and love and trust are experienced.

+ This was clearly an antidote to the hyper-individualized communion of my Protestant youth where individual tiny cups of grape juice were passed in silence alongside antiseptically cut cubes of white Wonder Bread. In that world, communion was all about me and Jesus - and the body seemed to be an unfortunate after thought.

+ I still didn't have an intellectual or theological grounding in the new way of experiencing Eucharist - that came during seminary - but I knew that old habits were giving way to new and more nourishing realities. Clearly, the word was becoming flesh through the bread for me. Family dinners - hosting community Seder's - and celebrating Eucharist after ordination was the third great influence as I searched for new ways of being authentic in the old tradition:

+ In Cleveland, I started to study different theologies of Eucharist and discovered that both John Calvin's mysticism and the ideas of Henri Nouwn, Charles de Foucoult and Jean Vanier resonated with me. I became a member of a small Roman Catholic "community of presence" on the East Side of Cleveland that held a community Eucharist every Thursday night. They didn't care if I was a Protestant. They didn't care if I was a middle class white guy either. All that mattered is that we were committed to experiencing the Risen Christ together at the table and then serving him with our lives in compassion afterwards.

+ I also held a Lenten study on Eucharist based on both the writing of Eric Liddle - the Scottish athlete the movie "Chariots of Fire" is based on - as well as other cinematic expressions of the feast including "Brother Sun, Sister Moon," "Babette's Feast," "The Big Night," "Like Water for Chocolate" and the Thanksgiving edition of "Northern Exposure." This was not only liberating for those of us searching for more than our Protestant background offered, it also gave us images of how God's abundance, grace and community can be strengthened through the feast.

Then, after moving to Tucson - and now Pittsfield - I made a commitment to study and refine this embodied theology of grace that finds expression in feasting and all types of bread. I read - and studied - everything I could get my hands on about this theme beginning with both the Reformers and theologians from the Catholic and Orthodox realm and then moving on to those who were writing on the spirituality of bread. Here are some of the best resources:

+ Food for Life by Shannon Jung
+ Stations of the Banquet by Cathy Campbell
+ A Spirituality of Bread by
+ The Spirituality of Feasting by Holly Whitcomb
+ The Eucharist and Ecumenism by Gerorge Hunsinger
+ Feast of the World's Redemption by John Koenig
+ Making Room by Christine Pohl
+ The Ongoing Feast by Arthur Just

As I reflect on my ministry at the close of the church year - in anticipation of Christ the King Sunday - there are two more influence upon this theology of shared bread and feasting: being privileged to serve the first Open and Affirming congregation in Arizona and giving birth to the band Stranger. When we left Cleveland - and our work in urban ministry - one of the challenges we faced in Tucson was helping one another learn to be a congregation open and supportive of the GLBTQ community. Our church knew how to make intellectual commitments - afterall we were good Protestants - but this incarnational stuff was the greater challenge. How would/could we become a place that honored everyone's sexuality as an integral part of the holy/human experience without becoming obsessive or patronizing.

It took us years of timidly studying - and haphazardly trying to make connections - before we got it right. Our openly gay choir master, Jim Gall, helped a great deal. He brought in his Tucson Gay Men's Choir and shared his faith testimony. From that two choristers sensed that they had found a spiritual home and John and Pete helped us grow in love and authenticity. And little by little, we started to really practice the radically open table of Jesus. I was asked to celebrate two glorious same sex wedding ceremonies - and the WHOLE church (almost) joined in the feast.

In time we deepened our minstries with the local GLBTQ center and took a lead in fighting the state wide ban on gay marriage (the only time we have been able to defeat the forces of fear and hatred on the ballot.) We found ourselves welcoming transgendered folk into worship, too. Clearly something of the sacred feast was becoming flesh within and among us and I will be forever grateful for being welcomed and trusted by the GLBTQ community of Tucson.

The birth of our rock and soul band, Stranger, continued to extend the table beyond the confines of the religious ghetto of church. To be sure, we still played mostly for worship but our emphasis became secular songs from the everyday world that spoke to us of God and grace. We wound up doing U2 Good Fridays, playing for GLBTQ rallies and helping/pushing/challenging one another to start looking for God beyond the obvious. That is, to take the incarnation seriously and find God in the shit as well as the sunshine and everything in-between. Joan Osborne's tune, One of Us, where God is describes as "just a stranger on the bus trying to make her way home" became the source of our name and theology.

And now there is really no disinction between feasting and the work of compassion, justice and Eucharist for me: like the United Church of Christ communion liturgy states so clearly, "sharing by all means scarcity for none" and that has to do with food, hospitality and grace.
credits: 1) 2)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Theology and the arts...

As I both embrace and wrestle with the close of another year of mission and ministry, it seems that three key commitments are taking shape and form in my ministry on the eve of Christ the King Sunday: A life-long experiment with doing theology through the creative arts is maturing on a variety of fronts. A commitment to Christ's radically open table - a theology of the feast - is equally important to both my preaching and pastoral ministry. And the pursuit of radical compassion - personally, politically and culturally - is growing as a way of finding common ground in our ever diverse context.

Clearly four influences have been at work in my engagement with the arts:

+ The on-going artistry and theological reflections of Makoto Fujimura especially within the context of the International Arts Movement (IAM). They are bringing together people of faith and practicing artists with the conviction that our common quest for beauty can help us discover common ground amidst the alienation and mistrust. What's more, they are certain that one of the roles for those called by God of whatever spiritual tradition is to bring God's grace and light into an increasingly cynical and consumerist culture. I continue to reverence their annual "encounter" in New York City and invite others to explore their work.

In 2007, Jeremy Begbie (see below) was the key note speaker. In 2008 artists and theologians engaged one another in deep and challenging conversation. In 2009, poet Billy Collins and Nicholas Wolterstorff helped us make new connections and ask deeper questions. For more information see: Also note Mako's blog at:

+ The writing and "theology through the arts" experiments of Jeremy Begbie is a second important influence. Not only has he taken up the intellectual challenge of academic theology, but he has found ways of helping local congregations enter into the creative dialogue. Especially important is the continuation of the project he began in the 90s in the UK in its new incarnation as Duke Theological Seminary: "Massive shifts are taking place as we move from what the commentators call a 'modernist' culture through a 'postmodernist' one towards a relatively unknown future. A growing disillusionment about the grand claims once made for the sciences has led many to the world of the arts and the imagination. The communications revolution has made the arts accessible as never before. Barriers between 'high' and 'low' art are crumbling rapidly. People of all generations are increasingly artistically literate. Young people in particular are influenced in a myriad of ways by the arts." His work not only nourishes the mind but feeds the soul. For more information see:

+ The on-going work of Gregory Wolfe and the IMAGE Magazine collective is a third key influence as they seek to recreate a new Christian humanism. As they note, they work at the intersection of art, faith and mystery. Like IAM, Wolfe et al are serious artists as well as people of faith who bring together others for study, conversation and the rebuilding of culture. "Living as we do in a fragmented society, the need for cultural renewal is greater than at any time in our history. Despite the rise of secularism, America remains a religious nation, and it is ultimately in religious vision that healing and renewal are to be found. Unfortunately, many Christians have allowed themselves to become so estranged from contemporary culture that they have essentially given up any hope of influencing the artists who will create the visual images, stories, and music that shape our time. Few Christians have applied the concept of "stewardship" to culture itself. While it has been natural for Christians to see themselves as stewards of natural resources, or wealth, or the institutional church, there has been little sense of stewardship over our national culture. IMAGE speaks with equal force and relevance to the secular culture and to the church. By finding fresh ways for the imagination to embody religious truth and religious experience, Image challenges believers and nonbelievers alike."

Five years ago, Dianne and I visited one of the IMAGE conferences in Dallas, Texas. A few months later, we found ourselves exploring the creative edge of faith and mystery in the artistic connections throughout Scotland and England. And clearly this conference helped us realize that we were being called to an ever more intentional ministry that embraced the arts. For more information see:

+ And five key written texts are equally important:

1. Arts, Theology and the Church: New Intersections ed. Wilson Yates
2. Theology and the Arts by Richard Viladesau
3. Art and Soul by Hilary Brand
4. The Substance of Things Seen by Robin Jensen
5. The Feast of Fools by Harvey Cox

Let me close with this clip from Peter Rollins - a favorite writer/thinker - who brings together a lot of what grabs me these days...

(paintings from the work of Makato Fujimura)

Feeding the soul...

"The danger," wrote Simone Weil, "is not lest the soul should doubt whether there is any bread, but lest, by a lie, it should persuade itself that it is not hungry." Brilliant - and a good summary of how I think about theology, spirituality and all the rest. On this increasingly grey Berkshire morning filled with bluegrass guitar licks in my head and breakfast with my soul mate on my mind, I keep going back to a new poem I discovered last week by Mary Karr. She calls it "Disgraceland" and it goes...

Before my first communion at 40, I clung
to doubt as Satan spider-like stalked
the orb of dark surrounding Eden
for a wormhole into paradise.

God had first formed me in the womb
small as a bite of burger.
Once my lungs were done
He sailed a soul like a lit arrow

to inflame me. Maybe that piercing
made me howl at birth,
or the masked creatures
whose scalpel cut a lightning bolt to free me -

I was hoisted by the heels and swatted, fed
and hauled through rooms. Time-lapse photos show
my fingers grew past crayon outlines,
my feet came to fill spike heels.

Eventually, I lurched out to kiss the wrong mouths,
get stewed, and sulk around. Christ always stood
to one side with a glass of water.
I swatted the sap away.

When my thirst got great enough
to ask, a stream welled up inside;
some jade wave buoyed me forward;
and I found myself upright

in the instant, with a garden
inside my own ribs aflourish. There, the arbor leafs.
The vines push out plump grapes.
You are loved, someone said. Take that

and eat it.

As this Sabbath day dawns for me, I think: Blessed are you, Gracious One of renewal and presence, for bringing another day of rest. May it be so within and among us. Amen.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Maybe its the time of year or...

Back when Joni Mitchell first sang, "maybe its the time of year or maybe its the time of man and I don't know who I am but life's for learning" her words had a wistful lament quality. Years later I heard Eva Cassidy sing the same song and it took on a whole new layer of meaning.

And that is how I feel today upon reading - and signing - this open letter to President Obama from the Sojourners Community. It is an invitation to go deeper than war making in Afghanistan and take up the real challenge of winning the peace. Check it out - and if you can sign it and forward it to those you love - please make the effort. For maybe its the time of year but...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Compassion is the heart of it all...

Ever since reading Karen Armstrong's The History of God, I have been exploring the ways that compassion is at the heart of my tradition as a follower of Jesus: not doctrine, not creed and not dogma, but compassion.
Compassion is how I have experienced grace, it is what drives my prayers on the inward as well as outward journey and compassion grounds me and urges me toward forgiveness and expressions of joy and awe in worship. To be sure, some believers revel in theology - and I both enjoy and benefit from the work of the mind - others celebrate the contemplative life in spades - and I am nourished here, too - to say nothing of our commitment to peace and justice.

But nothing is as complete to me as compassion.

The Charter for Compassion puts it like this:
The Golden Rule requires that we use empathy -- moral imagination -- to put ourselves in others' shoes. We should act toward them as we would want them to act toward us. We should refuse, under any circumstance, to carry out actions which would cause them harm.

For more information, go to:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Celebrating the counter-cultural blessings of Christ the King...

NOTE: Here are my sermon notes for this coming Sunday, November 22, 2009. They are grounded in the texts for Christ the King Sunday including II Samuel 23, Psalm 133 and John 18: 33-37. Let me invite you to join us for worship if you are in town at 10:30 am. It would be wonderful to see you.

Today is the celebration of Christ the King Sunday – a relatively new feast day in the life of the church – and it is filled with both promise and potential. The promise is that by grace each of us – and all of us – will find ourselves living more and more authentically as Christ for the world. And the potential is that as this happens – as the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ grows within and among us – the world will be healed.

Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity… It is like a sacred anointing… or even the refreshing morning dew that falls upon Mount Hermon and brings blessings to all of creation. (Psalm 133)

But there is a catch: in order for the promise and potential to become flesh among us, we have to be emptied of expectations about Christ as king. It’s like the old Zen story about the young visitor coming to the master about enlightenment.

As they sat in the study of the sage, the young guest kept talking and talking about his own concerns and wisdom instead of listening. So after a while, the master got up and served tea – and he kept pouring and pouring the visitor’s cup until it was full and overflowing. Unable to bear the mess any longer, the guest protested, “Stop, don’t you see that my cup is already full? It’s just not possible to get anymore in.” To which the sage said, “Ah, just so: and like this cup, you, too, are filled with your own ideas. How can you expect me to give you any insights unless you first are emptied?” (Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict, p. 136)

So let’s playfully but faithfully consider three questions:

• First, what does it mean to use the title “king” for Jesus?

• Second, what kind of king is described in the scriptures?
• And third, what does it mean to follow and serve such a king?

And to get grounded in such an inquiry, I’m going to ask you to pray with me: All loving and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things under the grace of Christ Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords: mercifully grant that we who are so often divided and broken by sin, might be freed and made whole by his gracious presence. For we pray in your power and presence, now and always. Amen.

Let’s start with what we know about kings and queens because, let’s face it, as Americans this isn’t our forte, right? What comes to your mind when you hear these words?

• What royalty do you know about in literature or history?

• What do you recall about the nature of such royalty?

• Do you know anything about the archetypes of the king or queen?

In their research into the sociology of the New Testament, scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, write:

For most U.S. readers of the Bible, the words king and lord are perhaps the most difficult New Testament words to appreciate. Most people today simply have no experience of persons embodying these social roles, much less of the social system that supports such roles. For pre-enlightenment people (before the eighteenth century C.E.), the king was the author and guarantor of the prosperity of his people -- if he followed the rules of justice and obeyed divine commandments. ... [The king's] proper function was to promote fertility about him, both in animals and vegetation. Kings ensured prosperity on land and sea, with abundant fruit and fecund women. Thus, subjects expected peace and prosperity, security and abundance, from their kings. [pp. 364-5]

Do you know the ancient story of the Fisher King or the quest for the Holy Grail? At its core it speaks of the social decay and moral corruption – to say nothing of the fear and physical starvation – of a kingdom when the king is wounded or broken or out of sync with God’s divine justice. And only when the grail – the mythical chalice used by Jesus at the last supper – is found and restored to its rightful place with the king can social harmony and spiritual integrity return.

• Are you with me on this? Do you grasp something of the symbolic and sacred significance of the king or queen?

• The king is at the center of social justice, a healthy earth and spiritual honor within and among all people.

That’s what the Old Testament lesson is emphasizing today: the king is the sacred vessel through which God speaks and acts in creation. The second king of Israel, King David, at the end of his life is explicit in these words from II Samuel: The spirit of the LORD speaks through me and God’s word is upon my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken, the Rock of Israel has said to me: One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God? For the Lord has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure. Will God not cause to prosper all my help and my desire? But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand; to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot. (II Samuel 23: 2-7)

And it is this symbolic role of sacred protector and source of God’s guidance that we give to Jesus on Christ the King Sunday. Jesus is king – Jesus insures prosperity on land and sea – Jesus extends God’s peace, justice and compassion to all of creation. Now I don’t want there to be any ambiguity about this royal designation: to speak of Jesus as king is to remind ourselves that we are not the center of the universe. And in an age of hyper-individualism some people balk at such piety while others reject it outright as oppressive.

• And let’s be honest: there are oppressive kings and queens and dictators and governments – and all too often even the servants of Christ in the church have acted more like secular monarchs than humble men and women bearing the face of Jesus for the world, right?

• Think of the evangelical pastors raking in money hand over fist as they condemn homosexuality only to discover that they are hiring gay prostitutes with church funds. Or what about the priests and pastors who have abused young boys and girls only to be given a pass by church bureaucrats so that they can move on and do it over and over again? And not just in the Roman Church either – in our tradition – and every tradition.

• And let’s not forget those who lock the doors of Christ’s love to those who frighten them while Jesus begs: come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy-laden and I will give ye rest.

It is understandable why many would resist calling Jesus a king given the oppressive and abusive experiences we have known in culture. But that is the challenge of being a part of Christ’s alternative society. You see, to be a part of the Body of Christ is to let Jesus shape our hearts and minds – not the culture – and that is an important distinction. Too often modern people let their spiritual ideas be informed by the culture, when our calling is to let the presence of Christ guide and inform us so that we might shape and influence our culture. Remember how St. Paul put it in Romans 12?

I beg you, sisters and brothers, by the mercies of God to present your bodies to the Lord as a living sacrifice, a gift that is holy and true, for that is how to worship the Lord. Do not be conformed to the ways of this world – this is, do not be squeezed into the mold of this culture – but rather be transformed by the renewal of your mind – so that you bear the image of God from the inside out. (Romans 12: 1-2)

Just because we have little to no experience with a king – or just because there is evil and oppression in some people of power – does not mean that we can’t learn and benefit from Christ as king. We have to let Jesus shape our understanding of what a sacred king is all about – and that is our second question – what kind of king do the stories in scripture describe?

• Where was this king born? In a palace? No… in a cave with humble Palestinian peasants surrounded by darkness and animals.

• Who bore this king for the world? A princess? Royalty? Someone of power and prestige? No… an unmarried peasant girl with no place to lay her head and a fiancée who wanted to ditch her as quickly and quietly as possible.

• Shall I continue – am I making sense? And when this king grew up, who followed him? The wise and influential or the broken, confused and so-called sinners of the age?

• And what was his abiding message? Love one another as I have loved you – and how did he love his disciples? He served them as an equal and went to his death to show that love is stronger than hatred and forgiveness is more powerful than being right.

This, dear friends, is NOT your typical king: this is the upside down kingdom of Christ where children are often our rabbis, where women are equal to men, where outsiders are welcomed to the feast and where God is discovered in the least of these our sisters and brothers. One writer put it like this: “Jesus' earthly ministry was not one of military might or oppressiveness.”

Rather, it was one of peace, liberation, and above all, service. Jesus turned the whole concept of lordship and primacy on its head saying: You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to become great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Jesus takes the ancient notion of king and turns it on it upside down and inside out: he offers the world a new way of living – a way founded on grace within us and compassion among us – so that those who follow him might advance the way of God in our ordinary lives. For that’s what really matters, you know? Not that we hold the right thoughts about Jesus – or say the correct creedal words – or read the right Bible or belong to the one true denomination or church.

No, what matters about following Christ as King is that his grace and truth take up residence in our everyday, busy and complicated lives. That way the Lord becomes flesh within and among us, yes? And our transformed flesh touches and impacts the real people where we live.

Too often our religion ends up being just personal piety – sloppy agape as one of my profs put it – which makes me think of something the poet, Scott Cairns, said. He was visiting the monastery at Mt. Athos in Greece when a young and very enthusiastic evangelical asked one of the old monks if he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior? “Well,” said the old monastic ignoring the hubris of such a question and responding with a twinkle in his eye, “sure, but mostly I prefer to share him.”

That’s where it matters – like St. Francis said: preach the gospel everywhere you go – use words if you have to. We are about to enter Advent – isn’t that wild – where did the time go?
Advent… and during this season we are asked to practice becoming empty that we might be filled. In fact, as weird as it is to some Protestants, we’re being asked to become like young Mary who let herself become completely empty so that she might bear Christ for the world. There are two models of transformation in Advent: John the Baptist and the young Mary.

• Most of the time in our tradition we listen to the Baptist – and there is a lot to learn from him – but there is wisdom and healing to come from Mary, too.

• So we’re going to take some time with Mary over the next month and learn about being Christ-like through her. What a counter-cultural thing for Protestants, yes? To pray with Mary throughout Advent!

But let me make you a promise: if you are open to her spirit – and if you let go of your opinions and habits and prejudices – something beautiful and even Christ-like can be born within you. You see, Mary isn’t just a fairy tale character or Roman Catholic prayer fetish: she is a model for living in faith and becoming the church of Jesus Christ.

Today we proclaim that Christ is King – and then we learn how to bear him for the world like Mary. This is going to be a fascinating Advent, beloved, so let those who have ears to hear, hear.

credits: 1) 2) 3) 4) 5) 6)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Anticipating Christ the King Sunday...

For many in the church, this Sunday will be celebrated as the last Sunday of the liturgical year: Christ the King Sunday. In some circles this is also known as the Realm of Christ Sunday - and while I affirm a deep commitment to inclusive language - I also want to honor the challenge of exploring what type of king Jesus is because his realm is clearly one that turns the status quo upside down! Like Borg/Crossan say so clearly: what would it be like if Jesus were the king of creation and our secular/religious leaders were not?

In this mode I suspect I will be inviting myself and others to recall some of the boldest examples of the great reversal:

+ Forgiveness rather than judgment is the corner stone of this new world with the corollary being compassion as our new language

+ The elevation and honoring of those most often forgotten or abused is another key element in the upside down kingdom

+ And a commitment to humble service as the new expression of power is certain to be a necessary part of the celebration

+ Finally, Christ's parables and radically open table fellowship give expression and form to his parallel society or movement that is always in the world but not a part of it

It is interesting to me that this feast day was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a bold challenge to the rise of fascism in Europe. It was first celebrated on the last Sunday in October - the Sunday before All Saints Day - but was changed to the last Sunday in the liturgical calendar in 1969. At the core of this feast is not secular prestige or economic power but authentic love and a willingness to share the joys and sorrows of life in community.

It is also valuable for me to recall that historically the most accurate embodiment of this way of life is found in Mary. I will be exploring, dancing with and being challenged by a Marian spirituality during Advent - especially as articulated in the Magnificat - as my very Reformed congregation and I see what new wisdom she holds for us this season. (Dig this version of the Magnificat being sung as round on the Metro in Brussels!)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Wrestling with the weird words...

Today in worship, I shared some reflections on the importance of apocalyptic writing in our tradition. Like Matthew Fox and others, I have come to see the wisdom of including these "weird words" of scripture in the lectionary because not only do they teach us to go deeper than what is obvious, but they also remind us that God's grace and justice are bigger than the evil and sin all around and within us.

I have come to treasure being pushed into reconsidering these weird old words much the way that Bob Dylan came to love the strange songs of old weird America. They show us truths that awaken us from the slumber of the status quo: sometimes they are frightening and sometimes they are funny and almost always - even in exaggeration - they give us a piece of the truth.

If you know the music of Dylan, the lost "basement tapes" with the Band show his experimentation with the tunes of the old, weird America. They are the songs of this land before we were homogenized. They celebrate regional eccentricities, they speak in native tongues long forgotten and they evoke the passions and prejudices of the American people in an almost primal way.(Greil Marcus wrote an insightful book on this called, The Old Weird America: the World of Bob Dylan.)

And so, too, the words of scripture speak in weird ways of God's grace and justice that is bigger than the fear and evil that surround and infect us: what a great and weird blessing.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

This time of year...

At this time of year - just before Thanksgiving and the start of Advent in the USA - it helps my spirit and soul to get away from the grind for a short mini-retreat. This has been part of my spiritual rhythm for almost 25 years. So, we found a place for the dog (he is an old coot who loves the kennel) and headed out for Brattleboro, VT.

What an oasis for us: art galleries everywhere, an old time restored movie theatre AND five - count them: 5 - independent book shops! We had found our new "get-away" retreat and it is only 90 minutes away. Travelling through the hill country of Northern Massachusetts was lovely and the wee town of Brattleboro, built along the Connecticut River, is JUST what we were looking for, too.
We stopped by the "In-Sight Photography Project" consortium for teens which has intrigued Dianne for years. Their website notes:

The In-Sight Photography Project was conceived by Bill Ledger and John Willis when they were distracted by a large number of teenagers hanging around aimlessly in downtown Brattleboro and by the police who were moving them along for loitering. This scene was so distressing that they decided to teach a free course for these youths. The plan was to offer a one-time, one-month class during the summer break for area youth. Encouraged by an outpouring of community support, John and Bill built a gang darkroom and teaching facility at the Brattleboro Teen Center (now known as the Boys and Girls Club) and the one-month course quickly blossomed into a year-round program.

As photographers committed to their medium, the volunteer staff at In-Sight knows the value of the photographic image and its use of visual language to help individuals discover themselves. This process of seeing and discovering helps teach individuals about themselves through a visual language that can then be used to communicate with others. The result is teens who have greater self-esteem and who are more willing to develop a viewpoint and present it to others. The medium of photography thus becomes a tool for building both self-esteem and communication skills.
(check them out:

Later we visited local artist. Marilyn Buhlman, who is working on a "Sacred Spaces" project using a variety of styles. And serendipitously, upon returning to our hotel room we discovered that her art work adorns the walls of our room - another gentle affirmation that this little trip was food for our souls. Then after resting and fine food, we watched "Pirate Radio" with about 300 local hipsters. On the surface this movie is mostly soundtrack - GREAT 60s rock and pop tunes - and some fun and eccentric characters.

And that would be enough - some movies are just about fun - and this show works on that level. But there is something else going on, too, and that has to do with the battle between cynicism and joy. Or repression and beauty. Or between pausing for refreshment and being trapped in the grind of the status quo. And this is where "Pirate Radio" shines...

It is worth the effort to see it - especially with someone you love who LOVES rock and roll - it will not only make you smile, it will also feed your soul. Music matters, my friends. Beauty matters. Art and poetry and dance and movies matter.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

New tools for Afghanistan...

There is growing momentum for exploring authentic new tools for Afghanistan. Jim Wallis in Sojourner's Magazine writes:

When all you have is a hammer everything seems like a nail. No famous line more aptly applies to the president’s current dilemma of seeking the best solution for Afghanistan. When it comes to foreign policy, if all you have are military options, then every situation becomes an argument for a troop escalation. For Afghanistan, President Obama has been presented with four options -- all hammers -- ranging in size from 10,000 to 40,000 more troops. Fortunately, he has sent his advisors back to the drawing board to come up with some new options.

The Times of London reported that President Obama also spoke with Karl Eikenberry yesterday, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who has raised concerns about increasing U.S. troop presence without clear progress from President Karzai in cleaning up corruption and mismanagement. Without a dependable and reliable partner in Afghanistan, our ambassador to the country is raising fundamental concerns about adding more forces. As a former general himself, Mr. Eikenberry is well aware of the military issues at stake in the country, having commanded the U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 2006-2007. But that experience has also increased his concern that the U.S. is failing when it comes to a strategy vital to our success in that deeply battered country: development.

For more information, go to:

All we are saying is.... give peace a chance.

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:...