Thursday, December 31, 2009

What we need...

With all the year end reflections and insights, I have been wondering what I might add as my final post for this vast and demanding year... and then I found it: this is my prayer - my heart - and my soul for 2009 - and my commitment for 2010. Lord, may it be so for us all. Happy New Year...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Three ideas about Epiphany...

NOTE: My sermon notes for this coming Sunday: January 3, 2010. A reflection on the key characters involved in Matthew's story of Christ's birth on Epiphany. Please join us at 10:30 am if you are in town.
Today is our Sunday celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany – which is actually set for January 6th – but is usually honored on Sundays in the West where most of us are too busy to come back to church in the middle of the week. Epiphany comes from the Greek word, epiphania, which means manifestation or revelation and seeks to help us grasp two mysteries:

• First, that the child “in the straw is also the fullness of God in the flesh” (Nelson, To Dance with God, p. 117) – the Messiah – the essence of God come to live within and among us.

• And second, that this blessing is intended for more than just those who first encountered Christ’s birth in the stable; Jesus has become a great light for all creation for the Magi have seen the star in the East and followed it, too.

Epiphany writes Gertrud Mueller-Nelson “reveals to us the other side of the mystery of the Incarnation” that we first honor on Christmas Eve:

Beyond those simple people who happened to be in the area and who saw and recognized the wonder of the Christ Child in the stable, beyond the provincial is the vision offered to all the world and to all peoples in the vision of those wise men who came from far-off lands to find the Messiah in a tiny town called Bethlehem. In Jesus we see the Messiah born to all of us: Jew and Gentile alike. (To Dance with God, p, 117)
But most of us will miss the inner wisdom of this feast if we don’t first grasp who and what the characters in this story are telling us. Because, you see, each player in this tale embodies part of the truth God reveals to us in this feast – all the characters add up for a cumulative revelation – and if we’re not paying attention, we will miss the blessings just as easily as most folks did at the first birth of our Lord. So let’s carefully review what is being offered to us in the story’s three key players: Herod, the Magi and the little town of Bethlehem.
Now you probably know this but let me remind you that Matthew was written about 40 years after the life of Jesus by a Jewish Christian. His goal was to underscore the links between Jesus and the people of Israel. That is why more than the other gospels, Matthew points to the ways Jesus fulfills many of the ancient Jewish prophecies: his genealogy goes back to King David, his challenge to the religious authorities are grounded in the prophets of Israel and the ebb and flow of his ministry from mountain tops to deserts resembles the journey of Moses leading his people out of bondage into freedom.

It is probably safe to say that Matthew paints Jesus to be a new Moses – and that is why the background to each of today’s characters is so important. Take Herod: what do you know about him in history or scripture?

Matthew’s story wants to make certain that we know that in Jesus Christ God is acting in history and time just like the Lord did when the Hebrew slaves were set free in the Exodus. So, Matthew explicitly mentions King Herod by name because Herod was every bit as evil and cruel as Pharaoh. Here are some facts:

• Herod the Great was not a Jew – he came from the region of Edom just south of the Dead Sea in what is now Jordan – and the Edomites were thought to be the ruthless, pagan descendants of Esau.

• The legend in Genesis tells us that the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah – the founding family of Israel – were Esau, the first born twin, along with Jacob – and they took very different paths. Esau eventually sold his birthright as the leader of Israel to Jacob for a pot of stew – he was short-sighted and selfish – while Jacob went on to be a wise ruler for God’s people. In time those of Edom abandoned the faith made known to creation in Israel and became a nation of wandering thieves and desert bandits.

No wonder the Jewish people hated King Herod: not only was he a king appointed by the hated Roman occupation troops but he also came from a vulgar and despised nation of people who had turned their back on God for a pot of stew! Herod reigned in Jerusalem from about 20 BCE to 64 of the Common Era and gave shape and form to the people’s hatred.

In order to retain his status as King of the Jews, Herod had to murder his wife, his three sons, his mother and brother-in-law as well as his uncles and hundreds of others unrelated to him by blood.

• And Herod is the first character in Matthew’s unfolding Epiphany story: an illegitimate adult king who rules by violence and death who stands in opposition to the child king who appears illegitimate at his birth in a stable but who rules with truth and grace.
• Are you with me: any thoughts or questions come to mind?
Then there is the second cluster of characters who are collectively known as the Three Kings or Magi and they, too, are ripe with wisdom and symbolism – but we have to give up any hint of sentimentality if their truth is going to speak to us about God’s revelation. For you see, the Magi were Gentile dream interpreters from Persia – which is modern day Iran – or perhaps Yemen.

• In their own culture the Magi were honored as spiritual and visionary leaders. But in Jewish culture, the Magi – from which we get the word magician and magic – “were not so much respectable wise men or kings but horoscope fanatics (a practice condemned by Jewish law.)
• Today we would probably compare them to those who run fortune-teller booths or even the ‘psychic hotline.” (Stoffregen, Exegetical Notes at: /brian/matt2x1.htm)

Do you see the tension here? To the faithful of Israel the Magi represented NOT worship or authentic religious piety but the pinnacle of “Gentile idolatry and hocus-pocus phony religion – dabblers in chicken gizzards and smoke and mirrors, forever trotting off here or there in search of some key to the future. (Stoffregen, ibid.) As one scholar put it:

The Magi should not be there. They are heretics. They don’t worship the right God. They are the wrong race, the wrong denomination, the wrong religion. They don’t know how to worship God ritely – and the gifts they bring to the Christ Child – gold, frankincense and myrrh – are all about magic not true worship.

Do you see how complicated this story can be? First we have Herod – the phony king who rules with blood and fear – in opposition to Jesus – the King of kings – who rules with truth and grace. Second we have the Magi – symbols of everything that Israel finds degrading and scandalous in the Gentile culture – coming to worship Jesus as Lord and Savior – while the most of the rest of Israel doesn’t even notice his birth. It is a wild picture of the ultimate outsiders getting it right while the consummate insiders are both blind and disinterested in God’s deeper blessings.

• And that tension between outsiders and insiders is something Matthew will continue to exploit throughout the rest of his gospel, yes?
• Think of all the times Jesus has to tell those who should understand the will of God that they need to go and learn what this means: the Lord your God wants compassion not religion – acts of hospitality not blind ritual.
And the mystery of Epiphany has one other unique character – the little town of Bethlehem – which lies just nine miles south of Jerusalem. One of our era’s finest Old Testament scholars and theologians, Walter Breuggemann, writes that the Magi first journeyed to Jerusalem because it was the center of power, authority and religious truth. It was the heart of the Jewish nation and the seat of political power. What’s more, the Magi knew about the poem we heard earlier this morning in Isaiah 60: it was written during one of Israel’s worst trials – their captivity in Babylon – and speaks of a great renewal and revival that will sweep over Jerusalem restoring Israel to greatness and power. There will come to Jerusalem a new king so that all of Israel will:

Arise, shine, for your light has come…and the glory of the LORD rises upon you. Look and be radiant, your heart will throb and swell with joy; the wealth on the seas will be brought to you and the riches of the nations will come, too. Herds of camels will cover your land… And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praise of the LORD.

This poem and prophecy by Isaiah was part of what drove the Magi to Jerusalem. And when these Iranian fortune tellers arrive and meet with Herod, they share this poem with him, too. Which unnerves the king because the prophesy is about a new king, yes? Breuggemann puts it like this:

In his panic (at hearing Isaiah 60) Herod arranges a consultation with the leading Old Testament scholars of his day and says to them: Tell me all about this Isaiah 60 poem? What is all this business about camels and gold and frankincense and myrrh? And the scholars tell him: you have the wrong text from the Bible – and so do the wise men outside your window – Isaiah 60 is all about Jerusalem returning to its former greatness. It is about the restoration of a great urban center at the heart of a global economy where the old power brokers return to their glory and the good old days of Israel return.

Which, as you might guess, does not thrill King Herod a great deal because if this poem is true – and a new king is coming – then the old king is toast: “So do you have another text” Herod goes on to ask? And, with fear and trembling, the scholars suggest that there is another poem, from another prophet – Micah – who makes a vastly different prediction. “You, O Bethlehem… though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come one who will rule Israel as from the ancient times.” Again, Breuggemann is clarifying when he observes that:

This is the voice of a peasant hope for the future, a voice that is not impressed with high towers and great ball parks and arenas, banks and urban achievements. It anticipates a different future, as yet unaccomplished, that will organize the poor into a resistance to the forces of empire. What’s more, the prophet Micah envisions a leader who will bring well-being to his people not by great political ambition, but by attentiveness, compassion and right relations between citizens… And when Herod hears this story, he tells the Magi the truth… and they head off nine miles down the road.
Three key players – Herod, the Magi and Bethlehem – and all of them invite us to make a choice:

• Do we seek to be citizens of Jerusalem with all its pretensions or Bethlehem with its modest pursuit of compassion?

• Do we choose to serve Herod and his empire of violence and manipulation or Jesus and the kingdom of God’s grace?

o Do we follow the light of the Lord regardless of our pedigree – seeking to find God in Christ Jesus – or are we too busy to notice?
Epiphany is a feast – and a mystery – and a choice: it reveals to us the fullness of God’s love while asking us if we will become different because of Christ? The Bible closes today’s story with these fascinating words that reverberate the challenge: ... and after sharing their gifts with the Christ Child and worshipping the essence of God within him… they return home a different way.

This is the good news for today so let those who have ears to hear: hear.

credits: Epiphany by Janet McKenzie @; the Holy Family by Janet McKenzie; He Qi Gallery, The Magi @; Serenity Prayer @; Bethlehm quilt; Art on the Wall in Palestinian Territories @

Sunday, December 27, 2009

And miles to go before I sleep...

The poet, Robert Frost, once wrote words that may be the most repeated in the English language.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sounds the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

I have been saying that last line over and over to myself the past few days - and miles to go before I sleep - because I have one of those damned winter colds and there seems to be so much I want to do right now! There are family feasts to share, connecting times with loved ones and friends to be forged to say nothing of the books and writing that sit before me urging me to go deeper.

What's more, one of my recent blogs - my sermon notes for Sunday re: nourishing a faith for children - has caused a fascinating little stir and there is so much I want to say in reply. But my head is so damned heavy with congestion and my mind not a lot clearer so... there may indeed, be miles to go before I sleep but I'm gonna have to take a nap!

With, perhaps, this one caveat: my favorite theologian, Douglas John Hall, notes that it is a good thing that Christianity in the mainstream tradition is withering on the vine. It will give us a chance to die and be reborn into something more authentic. If George Barna's research is true, there may be a withering in the evangelical realm, too - and that will be a blessing in time as well. But all death is hard. I've been with enough people in the journey from life to life everlasting to know that even a good death is hard work. And filled with pain and sorrow and a great deal of confusion, too.

In many ways we in the once mainstream and now side-line churches are trying to both manage the death and journey into a birth at the same time - which is pretty exhausting at times, yes? No wonder Robert Frost keeps visiting me... I want to reply to those who are offended by religion - or scandalized by the hypocrisy of the church - that they are right in many ways. I also want to wrestle with the limits of their vision that are as narrowly fundamentalist and biased as those they decry. I think the shallow critiques of the New Atheists - Hitchens and Dawkins et all - are simply the ugly mirror to the crass and mean-spirited religious fundamentalists they vilify (often in the most ugly and ill-informed ways possible.) I think of Bertolt Brecht's late in life poem confession: "Forgive us for we became what we hated..."

But now it is time for that sleep, ok? (Or at the very least, a little nap in front of the TV.) Blessings and Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Reflections on nurturing faith in children...

NOTE: Here are my sermon notes for Sunday, December 27, 2009. Traditionally this is a "low" Sunday after the festivities of Christmas Eve. Nevertheless, I often find this to be a tender and spirit-filled time. My reflections are built upon the insights of Christian Educator, John Westerhorff, and suggest where we as a congregation may be turning. Blessings.

Throughout the four gospels there aren’t many stories about the childhood and youth of Jesus – and the same is true with our carols and hymns. There are a host of songs about the Lord’s birth – from “Silent Night” and “Away in the Manger” to “Love Came Down at Christmas” and “Joy to the World” – but only “Once in Royal David’s City” speaks about Jesus as a child. And only Luke’s gospel tells us a few childhood stories:

• Matthew gives us the details of the Wise Men and the flight into Egypt and then jumps to the ministry of John the Baptist 30 years later.

• Neither Mark nor John tell us anything about the earlier years; so we only have Luke to give us a few passing stories: Christ’s circumcision eight days after his birth, his presentation in the temple after his mother’s time of purification was over, the reaction of both Simeon and Anna to the young Messiah and his teaching of the elders during Passover twelve years later.

Not a lot of childhood stories in our gospels to go on, are there? To be sure, there is a reason for this – the emphasis is always on Christ’s adult teachings, his journey to the Cross and beyond – and that is as it should be. And yet there is this wonderful little sentence in today’s lesson – “and the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, so that the favor of the Lord was upon him” – and I would like to spend some time with this clue with you thinking about how we can help our own children grow into faith in the spirit of Jesus.

• Faith and a life of holy wisdom are not accidental, you know? Neither are they matters of heredity or casual habit. As the old-timers used to say: Disciples are made, not born – for our faith is always only one generation away from extinction.

• Are you with me? Do you know what I’m trying to say with that phrase: disciples are made, not born?

It takes training – intentionality – a host of small and clear choices in the home and at church to nourish a child in the wisdom of the Lord. For what was true in the childhood of Jesus is equally true today: to become strong and filled with God’s favor is all about guidance and the long haul.
St. Luke wants us to make the connection between Jesus and the great leaders of the Hebrew people. That’s why he uses many of the same words found in the Old Testament.

• Our Old Testament reading this morning comes from the book of I Samuel – it is part of a cycle of stories about how his mother, Hannah, was unable to bear children. – and what happened because of her faithfulness.

• The story opens much like that of Abraham and Sarah the parents of Isaac – or even Zechariah and Elizabeth the parents of John the Baptist – initially they are unable to bear children. But after great patience and fervent prayer, a blessing occurs and the child who is born is dedicated to the Lord calling him, “Shemu’el,” meaning “God has heard.”

And after careful training and spiritual nurture, Samuel grows into one of Israel’s strongest prophets, leading the people of God against the Philistines in battle and restoring freedom for his people. And just as I Samuel tells us that “the young boy grew in stature and favor with the Lord and God’s people,” so Luke says the same about Jesus who “grew in wisdom and stature and the favor of the Lord was upon him.” The picture that is painted is one of intentional and careful religious and spiritual training.

But there is a huge difference between the early childhood religious education that Samuel and Jesus received and what happens with our children in the 21st century – and it has to do with the loss of institutions that support faith – a change that has really only taken root in the last 50 years.

Sunday School, you see, only came into being in the late 1780s in England and the first Sunday School in the United States didn’t open until 1785. Originally these schools were missions of justice and equality geared for children of the poor and working class; on Saturdays and Sundays, tutorials and deeper learning took place in these schools so that in time the underprivileged could escape poverty and enter the bounty of the middle class.

By the middle 1800s they had become well-established and were teaching religious values as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. Only with the rise of the public school system for the poor did the emphasis shift from general education to something more grounded in spiritual development.

Christian educator, John Westerhoff, makes this important observation: for most of our history as Americans, Sunday School was not the only institution shaping and forming young lives of faith. There used to be five other institutions including the wider community, the extended family, the public schools, the church and the world of entertainment.

• Now think about that for a moment: all the support and reinforcement – all the encouragement and back-up taking place – to sustain spiritual values.

• And now let me remind you that it has been just in our lifetime that all of this has changed: families are profoundly different, there is a deep separation between church and state, fewer and fewer people really know their neighbors anymore and let’s not even talk about how the entertainment industry has changed.

• Where there was once six strong and inter-connected institutions supporting the work of nourishing faith now there are maybe… two.

And often we expect our Sunday School and church to do what the whole culture once did for our children. Further, we are baffled and angry that there are not more faithful young people when during their formative years they spend less than 45 minutes a week in religious education. Hmmmm…

• How did St. Bob Dylan put it? “The times they are a ‘changing!” (And sometimes we didn't even notice it was happening!)

• And while I would never argue that we should try to turn the clock backwards – this is both foolish and impossible – we do need to be clear about what a dramatic change has taken place, ok?

If it is true that it truly takes a village to raise a child in faith and integrity, then parents and churches need to acknowledge that we are in a tough place today because there is neither a culture of support nor a successful model for nourishing faith in our post-modern context. George Barna, the leading religious sociologist of our time, has noted that among the biggest and most successful churches in America, less than half of all teens believe that they will be living a life of faith when they become adults.

In a message some have called the, “Opie Doesn’t Live Here Any More” syndrome – a reference to the “Andy of Mayberry” television show – he paints a picture of a growing number of young people who mistrust their church, feel lonely and alienated from their peers and are confused about where to turn. Now it would be easy right now to go into a rant about the damage our fundamentalist sisters and brothers have done over the last 25 years – how they have tried to turn the clock backwards and throw away all the advances of contemporary culture – and that wouldn’t be such a hard rant for me to work up some steam about, my friends.

• But worship is not the place to argue about evolution vs. creationism, the complexities of the pro-life and pro-choice commitments and all the rest.

• We should discuss and study and learn about all of them and more – it would be beneficial and healing – but not in worship.

After all, if I were to make the case that evangelical zeal has been part of the problem – and it has – I would also have to remind you that liberal or mainstream apathy has just as bad – and it has. So let’s move beyond the blame game and do something that could make a difference.

Specifically, let’s use the wisdom and insights of John Westerhoff – clearly one of America’s finest Christian educators – who offers us all – evangelical and liberal – some good tools that can help parents and grandparents and Sunday Schools and churches take stock of how to nurture faith in our new reality. Because, as the German mystic preacher, Meister Eckhart used to say, “Reality is the will of God – it can always be better – but we must start with what is real.” And Westerhoff is a reality-based, time-tested, practical and profoundly faith-filled mentor on how to nurture faith in our children.

First, he tells us, there is the faith of experience – the rituals, sights and sounds of our tradition – that all small children must be welcomed and encouraged to join. It is the faith of our senses – what we see and hear and taste and touch and even smell – and there is no need to explain to our children what all of this means. We simply need to make them feel a part of the experience.

• Children’s choirs where EVERYONE is welcome and there are NO auditions.

• Communion where there is joy and healthy chunks of bread and juice and sharing and hospitality.

Singing the doxology week after week – saying the Lord’s Prayer or Hail Mary – alongside of our loved ones on a regular basis: get the picture? Westerhoff writes “that when children experience warm and loving feelings in worship, they are more likely to value church and, more importantly, associate God and church with love, warmth and joy.” So the best we can do for young children is hold them and hug them and welcome them into worship. If we want to nourish young faith, this can’t be a place for just adults.

Second, there is what he calls affiliative faith, belonging to the tribe. Sometimes this looks like youth ministry, often it includes confirmation and opportunities to serve and share alongside older members. And always this stage of faith gives young people a lot of time to talk and think and ask hard questions. This stage of faith takes teens seriously – it expects them to contribute and helps them sort out what that might look like in age appropriate ways – and it never, ever shames or pushes young people away.

Contemporary research shows that teens in the United States and England grow up uncertain that they are loved and safe. They aren’t sure whether they are valued “as unique individuals or wanted by society or even their families.” As a consequence, gangs are epidemic… because they create a place to belong.

• Now, you know who does a GREAT job at welcoming and training young people? The Mormons – I don’t like or even pretend to understand some of their theology – but man, do they treat their young women and men like serious human beings.

• They have rites of passage, they have meaningful ways to serve and they regularly reward and recognize the contributions their young people make every week.

So, if we are serious about nourishing the faith of our teens, helping them grasp and experience a sense of belong is essential.

This brings me to the third stage of faith – often called a searching faith – and is filled with questions, doubts and fears. Often this is the place where churches get into most trouble because they don’t honor the hard questions or like to acknowledge that life in the 21st century is different than times past. It is risky business to explore the darker questions and often church people don’t want to deal with these doubts.

• Which is why most churches lose their young adults – we don’t know how to honor their questions and searching – and we don’t know what to do with our own fears, too.

• Most people give up on the church during this phase – they are shunted aside or made to feel inadequate or inferior because of their doubts – and they never come back.

So tell me: have you noticed that massive sign above our doorway outside? What does it say? “Questions WELCOMED here?” Not "WELCOME!" Every church in the United States will tell you that they are a "friendly" church where everyone is welcome - even when that isn't ture - and it mostly isn't. You see, this questioning and searching faith is serious business. If we want to grow the church – and mature beyond the angry sense of shame that seems to dominate our culture – we must welcome ALL questions here.

Because, you see, the fourth stage of faith is what might be called an owned faith and it rarely takes shape or form before age 30. It is build upon a foundation of welcome and early experiences of love, a deep sense of belonging and an honest wrestling with doubt and fear. And when this faith matures, it is no longer something passed on by family or culture: it is owned. It is real and personal and deeply powerful.

• That’s why we are called towards life-long learning and reflection. That’s why almost every Monday night we have a time for study and conversation.

• And that’s why churches that don’t study and think and question atrophy and die – adult faith has to be owned.

Jesus lived in a family and culture that helped him grow in wisdom and stature and strength. We don’t – so we have to do faith development in a new way. And we are – and will grow deeper with your help. St. Paul once said to his church leaders:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. Be thankful: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

He’s talking about faith development: so let those who have ears to hear – hear!

images: icons 1-4 public domain; icons 5-6 from the work of kathleen anderson @
icon 7 from the work of jesus carlos de villalonga;image 8 public domain; image 9from st. martin's in the field, london; image 10 dianne de mott

Friday, December 25, 2009

Silent night - and silent day, too...

There is a wonderful man who worships with us whom I have come to love and respect. He took this picture during worship last night that really says it all for me... (thanks for sharing this, Ben.)

A number of folk said that our reflections this year - both the written ones and those experienced in worship - have helped us all go deeper. Last night was a sweet and tender encounter with tradition, innovation and simply listening to ancient/future story once again in the presence of others.

And it was also clear that many of us were aware of what we sometimes call "that great cloud of witnesses" - the communion of saints - who have passed from this life into life eternal. They surrounded us and sang with us, they comforted us and encouraged us, too, so that as a body - Christ's body - we were united with the past and the future while singing praise in the present.

So after a full night of worship - that included our children's pageant and a later lessons and carols Eucharist - Dianne and I returned home to share some red wine and speak of feeling the presence of loved ones within and among us. Tears were shed, laughter, too, and then we both realized that now that the Christmas holiday celebrations are winding down... we can let ourselves feel the colds that are coming on!

This morning Dianne was up early taking photos of the frost on the trees. We shared gifts - mostly new music for Dianne and resources about Montreal for me - and soon I will start to cook our Cornish hens. And then we will give thanks together - quietly - after a full and blessed Advent season.

Oh yeah... this year our family gift was to the work of "Kids with Cameras" (check them out @ This year they are trying to build a house for children in the red light district of Calcutta called Hope House. Our Christmas card - with a contribution to the campaign - is as follows...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Day...

Home alone this morning on Christmas Eve Day - quiet, different, a little melancholic and peaceful - as Dianne is at work and the girls at their their respective in-laws for the feast. As I sip hot tea, contemplate the tree and think of years gone by a flood of memories come into view. When the girls were little there was always excitement in the air on this day: last minute shopping and wrapping, going with me on visits to the hospital and getting ready for worship.

+ We have always had an extensive Christmas music collection so John Fahey's guitar tunes were often in the air as we baked bread and last minute cookies. Later it became Carlos Nakai, Loreena McKinnit, Bert Jansch and the ancient noels of Europe; music has always been prayer in this home.

+ As my daughters matured, one of our rituals involved recalling - often in great detail - some of the truly horrible Christmas Eve sermons I have preached! They would be able to remember the most hideous and offensive details - and recount them with brutal clarity and zeal - that I would wind up laughing so hard I could barely move. (There were years of real stinkers!)

+ And later still, when they were in college or starting their professional lives, this day often included a trip to the airport, too, with the accompanying anxiety about air travel, snow delays and all the rest. There has always been a GREAT deal to do on this sacred day...

... and now there isn't. I rarely preach on Christmas Eve any more: as Black Pete says, "This is a heart time... and sermons are for the head," so worship preparation is less stressful. In middle age, I want to let the ancient/future story carry the load.

Like my dear friend in Tucson, don E, says: there is really just a magic about the story. But it is hard to submit to it because it is a scary, out on the wing of the airplane, experience. Everything that can go wrong for our heroes goes wrong and a small helpless child makes it all better. God by placing itself into such an incredible fragile state shows us a trust in us beyond belief. It is a story of faith of God in humankind and that is just incredible beyond words. (Freakin' brilliant, yes?)

There is still music to practice for worship tonight, of course, and still gifts to wrap and probably others things I have forgotten and will regret in the morning. But everything feels so much more subdued today - at least in my world - and that is part of today's spiritual blessing, I think: this really isn't about me. Already I have heard from a friend at church who is on the way to NJ following last night's death of his mother; the US Senate just passed their version of health care reform (finally) and there are wars still raging in a variety of places across the world as well as heartbreak and despair.

What a quiet, tender and arresting reminder of the Christ child's birth, yes? It happens in spite of my feelings and circumstances, it happens in the most unexpected way and place and yet in a completely ordinary way, too. "How funny," don E puts it, "but the most non-business-as-usual event in history inspires the let's do this the business-as-usual strings in people. It seems to me that traditional Christmas should be listed in the oxymoron dictionary. The oddest, most improbable event in human history can't really be codified but I, like everyone else, tend to want to make some "traditions" to make a stimulus-response to Xmas happiness."

This is an odd celebration, yes? Blessed, ordinary, sacred, hopeful and frightening all at the same time - often invisible, too - and yet life changing. I put it like this in my weekly note to our faith community in Massachusetts:

For those not grounded in the rhythm of the Christian faith, this season is often filled with frantic partying and gift buying. One commentator recently noted that it is not unusual that people in northern climates would give one another gifts at the darkest time of the year: it makes us feel better. And there is nothing wrong with gift giving - unless it is compulsive - leads us into greater debt. But materialism and giving/receiving gifts is not really what our faith tradition calls for; rather throughout Advent we have been practicing watching and waiting so that we might discern where the small child of God is being born within and among us. We celebrate not only Christ's first birth, but his continuing birth among us in often the most unexpected places.

Additionally, many folk feel their emotional losses deeper at this time of year because, once again, the culture emphasizes happy and joyful family celebrations. The public articulation of this holiday rarely acknowledges the loneliness or dark feelings that so many of us feel for a variety of reasons: death, job loss, disease, broken hearts and so much more. And yet the Christ child story is filled with longing and fear, anxiety and quiet trust amidst the suffering of poverty, political oppression and social confusion. But this is not a part of popular culture and so many feel "out of place" during these holidays.

Our goal - my goal both personally and professionally - is to stay rooted in the spiritual wisdom of my tradition and try to welcome everyone (myself included) into the feast of God's love made flesh in Jesus Christ. Merry Christmas, dear friends.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

You're a mean one Mr. Grinch...

For many, many years I had advoided the Grinch. Not that I have anything against Dr. Suess - I don't - I rather like him; and I love a lot of pop-culture Christmas specials. But I was always a Charlie Brown kinda guy and the Grinch just grab my heart. Then my wife got me to watch it about 10 years ago and... I loved it! I loved the spirituality of it, the humor as well as the music and art.

But I didn't know the music well. I know the Vince Guaraldi music for the Peanuts Christmas special like I know some hymns - they are a part of my soul - and my holiday celebrations. I once had my pianist in Tucson play the "Linus and Lucy" music for the Christmas Eve children's worship offering - and I found a LOT of baby boomers coming ba ck to check out worship after that one!

So I thought it rather important to pay attention to three references to the Grinch music in just the past week. First, a friend in Canada, Black Pete, noted that one of his favorite secular Christmas tunes is "You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch." Then a music buddy who invited me to play a morning radio show with him today asked me to sing it: You have a great deep voice and could have a ball with it! (And I did.) And then today, while searching out some Christmas gifts in a music store what greeted me when I walked in but... "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch!"

As Santa told me while doing this morning's radio show, "Even the Grinch is given a chance to respond to grace - given an extra chance, too - because that's just how God is." And he was right...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Eve un-homily...

NOTE: On Christmas Eve, in addition to our first unrehearsed children's pageant (which I hope to have video of to post), we will also celebrate a lessons and carols candlelight eucharist. Here are my un-sermon notes for that sacred night. Join us, of course, at either 4:00 pm or 7:30 pm on December 24th.

Most preachers – and most congregations – don’t want to hear a traditional sermon on Christmas Eve. It is a unique and sacred time in our faith and we yearn to treat it with tenderness and deep reverence. That is one of the reasons why we host a Lessons and Carols celebration tonight – it helps each of us hear the story of God’s love made flesh in Jesus Christ in our own way – so I am with those who say let’s have no traditional sermons on this holy night.

But let’s also be explicitly clear why we say this – and do what we do because there are a host of good and bad reasons:

• Some people don’t want to hear a sermon tonight because they think they already know everything there is to know about Christmas: but that is arrogance and sin speaking through them. How in the world could we ever think that we could totally comprehend and contain the miracle of the incarnation in our generation? We’re talking about the word made flesh within and among us and that is always more than the human mind can imagine.

• Other folk have experienced a life-time of bad preaching on Christmas Eve and simply want a break. Too many times we preachers try to include every important theological insight that has ever been discerned about the Lord’s birth into our Christmas Eve homilies until they become too long, too boring and too irrelevant.

• And let’s face it, sometimes we come to worship on Christmas Eve hurting and wounded and broken and alone and all we want to hear are the sweet carols and the assurance that in spite of all the evidence in our lives, God really is taking up residence with us.

Please believe me, I understand that there are a ton of good – and bad – reasons not to preach on Christmas Eve. So, some of you are wondering, what the devil am I doing right now if NOT preaching, right? Well, I hope I am offering a context for you to hear the lessons and the carols that will follow. You see, most people who come to Christmas Eve worship don’t really understand why we do what we do – and that means they don’t experience the fullness of this type of worship.

• “Why do you read all those little portions of the Bible – and sing all those songs?” some people ask me.

• Others assume that this type of worship has been happening for 500 – or 2000 – years and believe it is the only way to really celebrate Christmas Eve and are offended if they discern any changes or innovations.

• And still others wonder why we use the ancient words and traditional carols instead of new and more relevant music that speaks to those of the 21st century?

Well, here’s the real deal about why we worship in this manner on Christmas Eve.

• This style of worship is only 130 years old. It began in the small English town of Truro when the Anglican bishop of that town realized that the traditional, big and bold and even ostentatious Christmas Eve celebration that was usually performed in their Cathedral couldn’t take place on this night. Because, you see, they had to worship in a small wooden chapel. Their new cathedral had not yet been completed so they needed something new and appropriate for a more humble dwelling.

• So, given the challenge of the moment, Bishop Edward Benson came up with something new: a worship celebration that would begin at 10 pm – mostly to keep the men from staying in the pubs – and used the town’s favorite carols mixed with readings from the Old and New Testaments.

• The lessons were selected to mirror the story often told right before Easter at the Vigil how God worked through time and history to bring Christ into the world – and advance the cause of forgiveness and healing.

So this was originally designed to be an informal and innovative time of worship that was distinct and separate from business as usual. What’s more, it was to be filled with carols rather than hymns – and I need to ask you if you know the difference – because most of us don’t? Do you know what makes a carol different form a hymn?

• Hymns are written to teach a theological truth – they are didactic – and filled with theological language. But carols – from the word koros which means a circle of dancers – tell stories. They are narrative rather than instructive, ok?

• Someone has said that carols are more like stained glass windows in a church – they tell the story of important events in the life of God’s people – unlike a book of theology that seeks to explain.

• What’s more, because carols came from the folk culture – originally the pagan songs of the season – they were often more lively and more fun, too. They were certainly better known than most hymns.

What I am trying to say is that this wonderful service of lessons and carols that we often treat with such piety and reverence was once a radical innovation that was intended to be informal and playful, ok? What’s more, it used the music of the people in ways that helped the story be told without ever trying to explain it.

And that, dear friends, is why we don’t preach on Christmas Eve: we have simply been invited to hear the ancient story of how God works through time and ordinary people to bring us hope and healing and forgiveness in our generation. The poet, Mary McDevitt, put it like this:

If this Christmas finds you burdened with no happy, joyous smile;
Maybe Mary being weary might rest with you awhile.
If in her shelter-seeking from inn to crowded inn
She meets but greed and battle, hatred, death and sin.
But finds a humble welcome in the dwelling of your heart
Though it bring you pain and sorrow could you ask her to depart?
When submitting, you accept her burden with a prayer…
Oh the glory of your joy to find the Christ child is born there.

Beloved, let us journey with our sister Mary with fresh ears and eyes and hearts.

Monday, December 21, 2009

One more from U2...

To round out the best rock songs of Christmas I have to conclude with U2's cover of Darlene Love's classic: "It's Christmas, Baby Please Come Home." A totally great cover - filled with respect for the original girl group - and saturated in U2's own energy and passion.

This comes from that "Rattle and Hum" time when the band was exploding in popularity and exploring lots of their American rock and roll connections: check out "The Joshua Tree" as the prelude and key tunes from "Rattle and Hum" like their Bo Diddley tribute - "Desire" - their ode to soul music (recorded in the home of Elvis' first tunes at Sun Records) - "Angel of Harlem" - the gospel reworking of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" - their collaboration with Bob Dylan - "Love Rescue Me" - and their powerhouse with B.B. King - "When Love Comes to Town" - from which I take the title of this blog.

After this period, the band reinvented themselves in an ironic and insightful attack on consumerism, ideology and fundamentalism of all types in the Zoo TV/Achtung Baby/Pop brilliance. I love that self-consciously prophetic stuff - it is all brilliant and the live shows from that era redefined rock concerts - but the straight ahead rock of Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum is damn sweet, too. Dig it...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Three other Christmas song essentials...

Over the past week I have been thinking about the secular Christmas tunes that continue to carry value and power. Some of my favorites include: "Merry Christmas, Baby," (Springsteen version) "Run, Run Rudolf," (Dave Edmunds) "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"(the Boss again) and the Elvis classics (which were the A/B side of the original 45 rpm way back in the day) "Blue Christmas/Santa Claus is Back in Town." (And oooops... I forget to mention Greg Lake's, "I Believe in Father Christmas," too. Thanks Steve.) These are all fun, upbeat songs that play with the tradition and help us rock, too.

There are three others, however, that speak to the suffering of the world and embrace the upside down values of Christ's kingdom. My favorite is "Peace on Earth" by U2. It was written after the Good Friday peace accords between Northern Ireland and Ireland. In the wake of the end of the armed struggle, a fringe group of the IRA detonated car bombs in the heart of Omagh to keep the ugly resistance alive. Bono has said that this was one of the times when his faith was most deeply shaken - the senseless slaughter of the innocent - because hope had been raised so high. And he goes on to name some of the children and parents who were slain by name: Breda Devine, aged 20 months; Sean McLaughlin, 12; Julia Hughes, 21; Gareth Conway, 18; and Ann McCombe, 48. This song is arguably the mature cousin of "Wake Up, Dead Man" and "Drowning Man " from their earlier recordings.

In many ways U2 picks up where John Lennon left off (something they consciously do in other songs, too, like "God: Part Two.) It is "prefigurative" in the trust that we can't create something without first being able to imagine it. While U2 laments the tragedy, Lennon points towards the possibilities. Where U2 takes a specific tragedy and finds the universal truth, Lennon reaches for the sky and invites us to incarnate it in our own context (although this was written during the Vietnam debacle.) So I sense that both songs are true - it is that both/and paradox - that causes us to weep and celebrate together. And over the long haul this song stands up better for me than most of Lennon's rants. I recently watched his "Live in NYC with Elephant's Memory" and most of his overtly political songs sounded trite and without poetry or grace. Ok for the moment like most topical songs, but without any lasting power. But this one... continues to ring true.

And then there is Joni Mitchell's profoundly meloncholic, "River." In so many ways it captures what this season feels like to those who are alone or wounded. It is simultaneously beautiful and relentlessly sad at the same time. In many ways the song is perfect as it evokes feelings with a gentle nudge, but never feels the need to resolve them. Just as the song itself fades away into a Chritmas carol... it speaks to our anguish and heartache and loss. Incredible.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More great Christmas tunes...

Ok, so in addition to Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas," two of my other all-time favorite Christmas songs are by the King: Elvis Presley doing "Santa Claus is Back in Town" and "Blue Christmas."

Now, I've already called attention to Springsteen's rendition of "Merry Christmas, Baby" so let me not forget to mention his remake of The Crystal's version of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" back in the glory days of Phil Spector.

Then the top ten list HAS to include Dave Edmund's version of the Chuck Berry classic, "Run, Run Rudolf" that just works the old riffs into total Zen bliss for me as he sings: Said Santa to a boy child, "What have you been longing for?" "All I want for Christmas is a Rock and Roll electric guitar" and away went Rudolph a whizzing like a shooting star! Oh man, ain't that the truth...?!!?

All these tunes - while totally and completely commerical - also transcend the rut and help me both laugh and want to share some good times. So, in my book, each is a cut above the usualy schlock that saturates the airwaves at this time of year.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I believe in father christmas...

Next week I will join a friend and local musician on an early morning radio show to play some music and share a little hope about the upcoming celebration of Christmas. I got the offer last night as our families were sharing dinner together at a GREAT local Italian place. It isn't a BIG gig - just a few songs and lots of laughs - but it will be another way of sharing our inclusive vision of God's feast.

Tomorrow I'll be meeting with another local artist/academic who is interested in helping me promote my "Spirituality of Rock" workshop and writing. I am very curious to get his ideas and see how we might expand our ideas re: God is still speaking through popular culture (if you have eyes and ears to discern.) Should be fun and insightful.

One of the songs I am thinking of doing on the radio show is my acoustic reworking of Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas." We shall see...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Living into the Magnificat in our generation...

NOTE: Here are my sermon notes for the fourth Sunday of Advent - December 20, 2009. This is the conclusion to my mini-series re: Mary for Protestants. It has been a lively and fun time to consider her charism for our generation, too. I look forward to going deeper with her - and other often neglected saints - in the new year. The various pictures and art works are from throughout the world with a special emphasis on the Black Madonna tradition.

Sometimes I need a musical prayer to help me hear and embrace the startling words of God in scripture. So, before I share some of my insights and ideas with you this morning, I’ve asked Dianne to help me set the stage. Because, you see, the gospel of Luke makes abundantly clear this morning that we need a context to grasp the insights, challenges and promises of this beautiful song of Mary.

That is how I hear our sister in faith, young Mary, singing her tender and revolutionary praise to the Lord. Her song holds great wisdom for us – it is a bold call to listen for God’s new melodies in our ordinary and even mundane circumstances – an invitation to let God’s grace be born in our flesh by the Spirit so that shalom might be embodied in our generation.

At the same time, Mary insists that the radically good news of Jesus Christ come to pass by saturating ourselves in the presence of God’s compassion not judgment. “My soul rejoices in God my savior… I am blessed… and God’s mercy and compassion is from generation to generation.” In the most unexpected way, says the prophet Micah, “from the runt of the litter shall come your leader and shepherd… who will gather the scattered together and welcome them home as a peace-maker.”

Not as a traditional warrior; not as a hard line ideologue of either the Left or the Right; and not as one who is more interested in being right than strengthening love.

No, the healing presence of God as proclaimed by our sister in faith Mary is about bearing fruit that deepens joy and nourishes hope – it heals what is broken within and among us – rather than remain addicted to keeping score or being immobilized by fear.

Such is the stage that St. Luke sets for us in chapter one of his gospel. And as scholars have observed, it would be a mistake to listen only to Mary’s song without first noting the story of Zechariah. Because the dissimilarity between old Zechariah and young Mary offers us a clear contrast in faith, so let me remind you of what takes place, ok?

The old priest, Zechariah, is visited by the angel Gabriel and told that beyond all reason and evidence his aged wife, Elizabeth, will bear Israel’s final prophet: John the Baptist. And how does the old man respond? With joy? Or trust?

• Not at first – there is a much more doubt and mocking – so the story says he is struck mute as a consequence of his confusion.

• He becomes a priest of the Temple who cannot speak. What a fascinating symbol, don’t you think?
Now compare Mary to this silent priest: when the same angel or messenger of God comes to her and gives her equally troubling news about bringing God’s love to birth through her flesh, how does Mary respond?

• At first she is quiet – intentionally reflective but not struck mute – for she ponders God’s new way in her heart.

• Then, in her own good time, she goes to be with Elizabeth – I see this as the meeting of aged and young in a way that overcomes the generation gap – and when they embrace – and the little baby John the Baptist jumps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb – Mary she breaks out in song.

Do you see the dramatically different pictures St. Luke offers in this opening overture of his gospel? There is Zechariah – old and rendered hushed – alongside Mary – young and filled with a song. There is a mature man of power and prestige forced into quiet watching and waiting; while the young and often overlooked woman is celebrated as God’s favored one. You might even say that in this story we begin to see how the first became last and the one at society’s bottom became the host for God’s banquet of love.

Let’s face it, writes United Church of Christ theologian, Kate Huey, women with babies were not at the top of the heap – especially gathering in the dust at the back door of a priest’s house:

“Zechariah, a professional, licensed and learned, knows-what-he's-doing expert in matters of faith… (is) without a voice, literally, which sets the stage for us to hear from the women and children” about God’s new blessings. (UCC, Worship Ways for December 20, 2009)

Am I making sense to you? Do you see the upside-down kingdom at work here in the very opening chapter of Luke’s gospel? And does anything strike or grab you here? Anything you want to share before I go on?

Ok, then listen to something Henri Nouwen wrote about this passage as I think it helps us go deeper into Mary’s wisdom. He tells us that for three months, Elizabeth and Mary lived together in the home of Zechariah the priest, new mothers trying to make sense of God’s new way in their very flesh.

“Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? But Mary said, 'Let it happen to me', and immediately realized that only Elizabeth would be able to affirm her 'yes'. For three months Mary and Elizabeth live together and encouraged each other to accept and celebrate the motherhood given to them." As Nouwen reads this story, neither woman had to wait alone for the extraordinary events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: "They could wait together and thus deepen in each other their faith in God, for whom nothing is impossible. Thus, God's most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community."

I suspect that Nouwen is right: unlike John the Baptist heading out into the desert to figure all of this out on his own, Mary goes to Elizabeth. The novice goes to the wise – the young seeks the embrace of the experienced soul – so that together both might be strengthened.

Otis Moss, Jr., Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, says that this was a Pentecostal moment – a moment filled with the Holy Spirit – where the older generation makes space for the younger as Elizabeth literally makes room for Mary in her house. “Mary shadows her older cousin in order to learn and Elizabeth includes Mary in imagining the future… welcoming her fresh ideas even as they share the core treasure of their faith.”

Is it any wonder that scholars of both the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions tell us that Mary is the Biblical model for becoming the church?
In her story we see how she was open to the Spirit and gave birth to God’s presence. She and Elizabeth then model for us the value of building community. Eventually they even show us how young and old, rich and poor, learned and unschooled can learn the interdependence of creativity and experience together across generational lines. For isn’t that what happens on Pentecost according to the book of Acts – which is really just chapter two of Luke – because they were written by the same writer?

In chapter one, Mary is open to the Spirit and gives birth to Jesus, right? In chapter two, the gathered disciples are open to the Spirit and give birth to Jesus in another form, yes?

• Am I getting through here? Does that make sense? Mary is our model for being the living, breathing, acting and dare I say singing church in our generation?

So let’s be clear about what her song has to say to us in 2009? The Magnificat – Mary’s song of radical hospitality and revolutionary grace – writes theologian, Elizabeth Johnson, “stands in the long Jewish tradition of female singers from Miriam with her tambourine in Exodus to Deborah the judge, Hannah (the mother of Samuel) and Judith (who questions the faith of Israel’s ruling class while under the domain of Greece) all of whom sang dangerous songs of salvation” that challenged the status quo. “Their songs are psalms of thanksgiving, victory songs of the oppressed…” and speak to us of two inter-connected truths. (Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister, p. 265)

First, God has clearly chosen a Galilean peasant woman to fill with mercy and honor: this is not an accident of history or a coincidence of time and must never be spiritualized. For you see, to select Mary as the one to bear Christ Jesus for the world is to embody the very presence of God wherever the poor, the wounded, the broken and neglected are being healed and cherished and liberated.

Mary’s song, you see, is a broad political indictment against any and all forces that keep humanity from living a full and vibrant life. Let us be clear that when Mary “rejoices in God her Savior,” this is not a sentimental or disembodied act: “This is messianic joy, paschal joy,” the joy realized in experience God amidst the horrible oppression that most of the world endures and suffers. And just so you don’t think I am off on some liberal or socialist tangent, please know that the very song of Mary states that God has looked with favor upon the lowliness of his servant.

• Lowliness – the English translation of tapeinosis in Greek – which “describes the misery, pain, persecution and oppression” of the poor.

• “In Genesis,” Elizabeth Johnson reminds us, “it describes the agony of the slave woman Hagar” who was abandoned in the desert. “In the Exodus story, it describes the severe affliction Israel experienced” as slaves in Egypt.

And never forget that Mary is not speaking metaphorically: “She is articulating her actual social position. Young, female, a member of a people subjected to economic exploitation by powerful ruling groups and afflicted by outbreaks of violence… this first-century Galilean peasant woman living in occupied territory, struggling for survival and dignity” (Johnson, p. 265) knows something about lowliness. And she rejoices – sings and dances and celebrates – because from deep within she knows that God has chosen her and filled with the Spirit so that compassion and justice might be born amidst the agony.

And that is what the second half of her song is all about: if part one is about her joy at being chosen by God – and what that means for all the lowly of creation – part two heralds what God’s embodied promise in Christ will look like in the flesh.

• God scatters the arrogant and welcomes the humble; God upsets the status quo and honors the forgotten

• God fills the stomachs of the starving, heals the bodies of the wounded and refuses to be silent when the rich and powerful demand obedience because justice is what God’s love looks like in public.

How did Jesus describe his ministry during his first sermon in Luke 4?

God's Spirit is on me because God has chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor, to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free and to announce that: "This is God's year to act!"

What about when John the Baptist got cold feet in prison and demanded to know whether Jesus was the promised Messiah or a phony, do you remember the Lord’s reply? "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”

As one wise feminist theologian said, “With the singer of the Magnificat as his mother, it should not surprise us that Jesus’ first words in the gospel of Luke… are also a mandate for radical change.”

• Think of the Beatitudes in Matthew: blessed are the poor.

• Think of his commitment to God’s mercy when he told the religious authorities of his day: Go and learn what this means – the Lord your God desires compassion not religion

Even his death and resurrection speak of God’s incredible reversal where compassion trumps cruelty and grace trumps karma. And, beloved, this great reversal in the Christian tradition begins with Mary…

God’s choice of Mary to give birth to the Messiah is typical of God’s (upside down) action… for just as God has chosen a female servant of low estate to bring the Lord into the world – and exalted her – so too will God overturn the proud, rich and mighty and exalt the faithful, poor, hungry and humble. (Johnson, p. 271)

That is the promise, that is the song and that is the good news for today: so let those who have ears to hear...

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lone Wild Bird meets Shine...

Ok so I am a techie-wannabe... here's the opening clip from our Thanksgiving Eve gig (and my first experiment with YouTube uploading.) There were a few glitches (as you can hear) but overall lots of fun.

I hope to pull together the best of this gig in the next few days - it was a 90 minute show that was pretty raggedy but had some sweet and soulful moments. More soon...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Thoughts about ends and beginnings...

I had a most insightful moment today about the changed and changing nature of ministry in my faith community. This morning we laid to rest one of the town's prominent native sons - a person who contributed greatly to the social well-being of the Berkshires - and who inspired hundreds of people to turn out to pay their respects. It was an honor to the legacy of his work, a tribute to his family and wife and an honest public display of sorrow and loss. It was also a privilege for me to assist the family as they begin the journey from sadness into grief and beyond.

Now, two sociological insights struck me as the ceremony matured:

+ First, the Sanctuary was filled with people from the business and philanthropic community in the region who had worked and played with the deceased over the past 50 years. They were - and sometimes still are - the captains of industry - who have a deep and abiding love for the Berkshires. Back in the day, many of these movers and shakers were members of our congregation, but not any more and their absence helped me appreciate how hard it must be for those of a certain generation to own and accept this change.

Our church, you see, is no longer the center of the elite. As a faith community, we are neither the "country club at prayer" as people used to say nor the heart of the town's spiritual life. Today - like much of the formerly "main line" but now "side line" churches - we are often barely relevant as the world rushes past our doors. To be sure, we are the first church - an historic fact born of a time when Massachusetts towns could not be chartered without a Congregational church - but contemporary folk have little to no understanding of what that means for 2009.

During my first month in town, for example, I discovered that most of the merchants on main street don't know where our building is located even though we are at the center of the town square (hence my commitment to informally identifying ourselves as First Church on Park Square.) But we still have an enormous job before us because on Thanksgiving Eve even the desk sergeant at the police station right behind our church couldn't tell people where to find our folk music concert! It would seem that the days of being at the heart of it all are over.

Now, I can see this because as the new kid on the block I have beginners mind about the role of the church; but for the once elite, this change is problematic and unsettling - so much so that some choose to act like it never happened. We have endured a massive cultural and spiritual shift in a very short period of time. Part of my calling, therefore, has been to encourage the whole church to embrace the various stages of grief on the road towards renewal. Another part of this calling is to help others not only own our new reality but also find God's mission for us in this new context. As the book of Revelation puts it: what is the Spirit saying to the church today! And while I think we have turned a corner in embracing our new reality, seeing the old world in action today helped me appreciate all the various layers.

+ Second, there was a surprising unanimity of comments from those retired folks or those who have taken new jobs: "Oh, we just ache for the loss that has happened here." Simultaneous translation: we - and this church - were once at the center of everything; we had the money and power to make things happen and now that is all gone away. One of the clergy who had been ordained here back in the early 50s even blurted out something about how "it must be so hard to continue after the great days of this church are over." (NOTE: I wanted to ask, where did you learn to do such arrogant theology but simply bit my tongue observing the old axiom that you simply have to pick your battles, yes? I this too harsh? Maybe...)

I do not want to suggest in any way, shape or form that those who made these comments are somehow morally bankrupt or spiritually inept. (Except, perhaps, those with some theologicaly training who fail to distinquish between culture and context?!!?) They are not. They are good-hearted and often faithful people. At the same time it is equally true that the great days of this church ARE NOT OVER. Our changes are not a curse, but a blessing.

For what has happened here - and throughout much of North America -is is not a tragedy but an opportunity to be authentic to the Living God in the spirit of Christ in this generation. Theologian Douglas John Hall has clearly articulated that the charism of this time for once powerful churches is that we no long have to maintain the illusion of influence. Because we are no longer the "country club at prayer," we can embrace a mission with those that remain in the region. We can learn how to live and do ministry together. And it will be grounded in partnership, not noblesse oblige or civil religion - and that is another huge shift.

Two biblical texts come to my mind. Jeremiah 29 speaks of God's call to build houses in what had become a place of exile: put down roots in your new reality - take wives and husbands and have sons and daughters with those in your new land - and seek the welfare of the city... for in its welfare you will find your welfare, too. This is an invitation and call to live in the present, not look towards the past. It is a challenge to let go of the tears of weeping that took place by the waters of Babylon and get on with creating new life beyond the grief.

The other comes from the gospel of Matthew where in chapter 16: 3 Jesus speaks to the religious and social leaders of his day saying: "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times." That is, you know about the past and certain immediate realities, but you can't and won't deal with the big picture. My old buddies in AA are clear: if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. 2010 is very different from 1950 and we can lament the passing of time (or not) but we can't escape it.

To say it was a fascinating time - in addition to the blessings of comfort born of the liturgy - would be an understatement. I give thanks to God for the whole of it.

(credits: various pictures of Pittsfield, MA as it has changed.)

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:...