Friday, December 31, 2010

Towards a few New Year's non-resolutions...

I generally am not one for making New Year's resolutions - not that they are bad - but like most of us I know they will likely be broken before the year is a week old. What's more, as my commitment to the way of Jesus ripens, most resolutions bore me. They hold no real interest and, in fact, are often distractions. As I read more Buechner during Christmastide, this passage seems to speak loud and clear:

What deadens most of us to God's presence within us, I think is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort, as the huge monk in cloth of gold put it, than being able from time to time to stop the chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.

So as I've let those words seep within for a bit, two non-resolutions keep calling to me - perhaps they are more like spiritual teasers calling me beyond the lethargy of my own status quo - and I'm curious about how I might dance with them both throughout the new year.

+ First, again from the pen of Buechner, this insight for living faithfully: Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge or manage the lives around you - your children's lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends - because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are NOT your business. They are their business. They are God's business because they all have God whether they use the word God or not... This is an astonishing thought and can become a life-transforming thought.

+ And second, also from Buechner, a reworking of the wisdom, promise and challenge of taking Christ's incarnation seriously: One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.... to deny the reality or significance of the material, the fleshy, the earth-bound (and even) themselves.

Perhaps these non-resolutions are what the old rabbis meant when they advised people to keep two notes in their pockets. On one is written: Remember that you are just a little lower than the angels. And on the other: Remember that from dust ye came and to dust ye shall return. I feel drawn to dance with these polarities this year, what about you?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Meeting the sacred in our daily lives...

As I continue to "nurse" my aching back today, my thoughts have turned to prayer and the insights of two "masters" of the art: William Stringfellow and Richard Rohr. Twenty years ago I recall reading about Stringfellow cooking a feast for his friends - spending the better part of the day in preparation - and then, after gathering about a splendidly set table, telling his guests something like: "Dig in and enjoy - no phony blessings offered here - besides if this food hasn't already been blessed by my loving attention all day... it ain't going to happen now!" (To be sure, this is a paraphrase but it gets close to the sacramental nature of his spirituality.)

This particular quote, too, is equally instructive to me as it states so my current experience with what might be called "prayer" and the commitment to living sacramentally: The event of prayer, certain acts called prayer, the very word ‘prayer’ have gathered such ridiculous associations. That is not only the case with the obscene performances, which pass as public prayer, at inaugurations, in locker rooms, before Rotary luncheons, and in many churchly sanctuaries, but also the practice of private prayer is attended by gross profanity, the most primitive superstitions, and sentimentality which is truly asinine…. When I write that my own situation [during my illness] in those months of pain and decision can be described as prayer, I do not only recall that during that time I sometimes read the Psalms and they became my psalms, or that, as I have also mentioned, I occasionally cried ‘Jesus’ and that name was my prayer, but I mean that I also at times would shout ‘Fuck!’ and that was no obscenity, but a most earnest prayerful utterance. (A Second Birthday, pp. 99, 108-9).

Don't get me wrong - I sense there is a place for careful words spoken before some meals and at other occasions, too - Fr. Ed Hays has helped me in this regard throughout the years. But his notion of prayer, borrowed from our ancestors in Israel, is more about "meeting the sacred in our daily lives" rather than proclaiming food or meetings holy simply by our words or awareness. "The blessing of persons or objects," Fr. Hays writes, "is not done for the purpose of making them holy..."

... since all that God has created is already good and holy. Rather, blessings call forth a special grace from God to use an object as its artistic creator intended.... (Thus) the frequent and devout blessing of the people and objects of our day to day life will lead us to meet the Divine at every turn. Our prayer will seek the sacred in all the events that confront us - in all the states of life in which we find ourselves - for that is what God desires.

I also rather like the way Richard Rohr puts it:

For some reason, it is easier to attend church services than quite simply to live and fully accept our reality, to reverence the real—“the practice of the presence of God,” as Brother Lawrence (c. 1614-1691) called it. Making this commitment requires vigilance, desire, and willingness to begin again and again. Living and accepting our own reality will not feel very spiritual. It will feel like we are on the edges rather than dealing with the essence. Thus most run toward more esoteric and more “spiritual” postures instead of bearing the mystery of God’s suffering and joy inside of themselves. But the edges of our lives—fully experienced, suffered, and enjoyed—lead us back to the center and substance of everything “until there is only Christ, when he is everything and he is in everything” (Colossians 3:11).

No "sloppy agape" here - no empty holy words spoken because they sound good but mean nothing - and no separation between the holy and the human. Buechner gets it right when he tells us that: "The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments, if we don't stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us and around us and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God, too."

My old friends over in Collective Soul have nailed this type of prayer for me as we move into Epiphany...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas 2010 feasting...

Well, the jury is in: I'm an old guy! Not only did I have to go home from work today because my back was killing me (partly from the snow) but when Di and I looked over the family feasting photographs for Christmas... Well, let me just repeat her words: "Honey, we're over the hill and really look like... grandparents!"

Don't get me wrong, there are worse things to look like, yes? And I feel totally blessed to have been able to feast and celebrate with our small brood this year - the first time we've all be in the same place at the same time in over 10 years - so I am not lamenting. More like stating a fact about looking - and sometimes feeling - like an old guy. It beats the alternative, but is also humbling, too - especially in this hyper-youth oriented culture.

And that set me to thinking about one of the truths in my spiritual journey towards wholeness: when I was obsessed with my weight and the color of my hair, I was not only harsher towards those I oppose than I am now, I was also highly judgmental of self, family, church, loved ones and just about everyone else. One of the truly humbling realities that has seeped into my life over the past 15 years, however, is that as I have learned more about grace than judgment, I have gained more weight. Yeah, yeah I know that some of that is laziness (one of my New Year challenges) and part of that is genetics; but part of it is also learning to stop worrying so much about the externals so that I can give my attention to what really matters. No shit!

So it is an odd and somewhat ironic reality to me that the more I have come to honor the Spirit of Jesus, the more I have also had to accept myself as old - and sometimes too heavy - with a totally white beard and a back that goes out from time to time, too. No wonder I hold dear that portion of scripture from St. John where Jesus tells Peter: Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.

Could it be - at least for me - that to practice grace in ministry also meant that I had to learn how to let it be true in my own body? Hmmm...?
And while I am going to (once again) get back into the groove and drop some poundage before we get to Istanbul, I would much rather be who I am today - back pain, white beard and all - than the man I used to be: no question! I love how old St. Bobby Dylan put it:

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Just a little Dublin cheer...

Epiphany and listening beyond the obvious...

NOTE: Here are my worship/sermon notes for Sunday, January 2, 2011 for the Feast of Epiphany. I am still basking in the fullness of the 12 Days of Christmas and hope you will revel in it, too. The children just left, there are a few tasks at church to attend to before the New Year, but mostly this is a time for quiet reflection and joy. If you happen to be in town for Sunday worship, please join us at 10:30 am.

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany: it is the culmination of the 12 Days of Christmas, the beginning of a new spiritual season dedicated to discerning God’s presence within and among us and it is a time when we’re asked to try to listen to those outside the faith about what is most important in their lives.

• Did you know that? Part of the spirituality of Epiphany, of course, applies to our own spiritual maturation and growth; but another part has to do with learning what is important to people outside of the church and then searching for common ground together.

• That’s the really interesting and challenging part of the story of the Magi or Three Kings, right? The story tells us that they were strangers to Israel yet drawn from their homes by a mysterious light; what’s more they were pagan scholars and magicians from Iran and Iraq – people from Jerusalem’s nemesis in Babylon – who now find themselves seeking hospitality and hope in a strange and often hostile land.

Kate Huey of the United Church of Christ gives this insight shape and form when she observes that:

These “strangers” come from "the East" – the same direction from which most of Israel's conquerors approached (the Promised Land) including Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. What’s more, these travelers evoked everything in Israel’s past that was East of Judea: the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers…. the Garden of Eden… Ur of the Chaldees to say nothing of Babylon, where Jews lived in Exile after the destruction of the first Temple.

And that truth is what I want to give some attention to this morning because American Christianity desperately needs to deepen our sense that religion is bigger than just personal salvation. How did someone put it: too often Jesus-talk in the United States sounds like an individualized insurance policy for the next life with no meaning for the here and now?

• That’s the Glen Beck heresy that spiritualizes Christianity while demonizing everything that challenges the status quo.

• It’s the same old, worn out mistake that is so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good at all. It is very popular in the United States today: the hipsters call it the “Jesus is my girlfriend” approach to religion because all it talks about is how much I personally love Jesus and how much he means to me. We might also call this a spirituality of narcissism, right? (Me, me, me, me!)

So remember: just because a lot of people do it, doesn’t mean it rings true with way of Jesus. The way of Jesus always makes our love bigger not more selfish; it always enriches and breaks our heart rather than makes us safer; and the way of Jesus pushes us beyond our comfort zones into the upside world of kingdom living. Howard Thurman perhaps said it best:

When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with the flocks, then the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost, to heal those broken in spirit, to feed the hungry, to release the oppressed, to rebuild the nations, to bring peace among all peoples, to make a little music with the heart… And to radiate the Light of Christ, every day, in every way, in all that we do and in all that we say. Then the work of Christmas begins.

Heresies, my friends, are usually beloved and attractive and always misdirected – from the left or the right – which brings me back to Epiphany and the strangers who arrived asking questions of the faithful and searching for the great light.

• So who are these people and what do they want?

• How we answer this question will help us embrace the wisdom of Epiphany for our generation or blow it on lies and sentimentality.

Sometimes scholars speak of the travelling strangers as Magi – sometimes as kings or wise men – and sometimes as gentile astrologers who were drawn to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ before even Israel. What this diversity of description tells us, however, is that nobody really knows who these people were.

In the world of Jesus, Persian magi were known as magicians – not scholars - but slippery, un-respected horoscope fanatics who were more like those working at a “psychic hotline” than model spiritual seekers. (Stoffregen) They might have been revered in their own tradition – and probably were gifted people of spiritual depth in their own world – but in first century Palestine they were heretics and con artists.

So all we really know from this story is that there are always people in every time and place that are searching for truth and meaning in life – often outside of traditional religion. And those of us who have found grace and healing in Christ Jesus have been given a special calling by God to listen to their questions and critiques because together we might actually discover the new born king.

• Now don’t be confused: I’m not saying Jesus wants us to become door-to-door evangelists who must shove the Lord down peoples’ throat; those ugly and mean-spirited days need to be buried forever.

• No, I am suggesting that part of the truth of Epiphany is that rather than try to protect our holiness from all the questions and challenges of the world – rather than try to build a wall around ourselves and dwell within it to remain safe and spiritually sanitized – perhaps we have been invited by the Lord to carefully listen to the heresies and critiques and questions of others to see if together we might find something of Christ’s new light for our generation.

When I hear Glen Beck rant – and fill the airwaves with heresies about personalized salvation and what a communist the President really is for paying attention to the pain of this world – I hear a man articulating the fears of millions of Americans. They are terrified of economic chaos. They are bewildered about what it means to share power and integrity with people of color here and abroad. And they are clueless about how to live in a new world with shifting sands and changing rules and information that moves at the speed of light.

• No wonder they want clear lines of authority. No wonder they find solace in that “old time religion” of personalized salvation and empire. I get it when I hear this heresy recycled…

• And I also remember what happens when this heresy is ignored or excused for Hitler used this same heresy to manipulate and organize the fears of another confused and economically chaotic nation just two generations past. Just last week our friends at Temple Anshe Amunim had their walls desecrated again with a swastika. The fear is alive – and we can’t ignore it.

Epiphany urges us to wake up and take to heart what is being said and done all around us. There are people who are lost – and wounded. There are souls being discarded and violated with abandon. And there are others who are “craning their necks for a sign of hope, ready to follow whatever appears, make whatever journey is necessary for them to find redemption” even from the most unlikely source.

That’s one thing the kings – or magi – or strangers from the East are telling us if we have ears to hear. First, we, as Christ’s people, have something to hear and learn from those who don’t come to church – or even think of themselves as spiritual.

Second, if the light of Christ isn’t hidden by our fears or habits or prejudices, then it can not only expose our wounds but also call our out need for grace. You see, St. Matthew’s story of the Magi following the sacred star to the hidden and overlooked stable of the infant king isn’t about piety. It’s about longing – and God’s amazing grace. Not only do the objectionable outsiders like the heretical Magi sense their need and get it, but in time so do:

Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers and ostracized lepers… Matthew writes his Gospel in light of the Jewish texts familiar to his audience… and recalls that the prophet Isaiah described "the wealth of the nations" (read, Gentiles) will come to "you," and bring "gold and frankincense," as together they proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Huey)

Are you with me? Like the old gospel song says: first listen – then let it shine – and then go home by another way. That’s how the Epiphany story ends: the Magi returned home by another road. Another way. They were changed – they responded to the Light of Christ in a new and creative way – “they no longer acted or believed the same way they had before.” (Stoffregen) And so they went home by another way.

• You may recall that the earliest believers who embraced the grace of God in Jesus Christ were called what…? People of the way – people who walked through life in a new and creative manner – people, who recognized strangers, shared compassion, loved their enemies, didn’t think of themselves as the center of the universe yes?

• The Magi learned to trust God’s grace by following – their assumptions and habits weren’t enough – nor were their fears. Only as they trusted and followed was God revealed. And here’s the thing: once grace has been revealed – experienced – encountered – you really can’t go back to the old ways. They don’t fit – they don’t work – they don’t reveal the light of God. So you start to live in a new and graceful way.

Our friends the Sufis in Turkey put it like this in a story about the poet Rumi – and maybe it is good to hear spiritual truth told from the perspective of the outsider today – after all, it is Epiphany, yes?

It seems that one day Rumi asked one of his young, snotty disciples to give him an enormous amount of rich and delicious food. Now, this young soul was alarmed and offended because how could the saintly Rumi live in abundance while others starved? Didn’t Rumi pray all night and hardly eat anything at all? “Damn” he thought, “I’m going to bust him now!”

So, he prepared a feast and gave it to the master and secretly planned to follow the holy man through the streets of Konya – which he did. Through the city streets and into the fields he went; even further through the forest he went until Rumi came to an ancient ruined tomb. “Now I’m finally going to expose his pretensions” thought the young disciple. But what he saw when he went inside was Rumi bending over an totally exhausted bitch with six puppies – and Rumi was feeding the dog with his own hand so that she could survive to feed her babies.

After a time, Rumi turned his head and spoke to the young disciple who had followed him saying with a smile, “See?” With tears the young one said, “How on earth did you know that she was here?” How did you know that she was hungry so many miles away from where you live?” To which Rumi laughed and said, “When you become awake, your ears are so alive that they can hear the cries of a sparrow ten thousand miles away.”

Such is the challenge and blessing of Epiphany, beloved, for those who have ears to hear…

1) Epiphany @
2) Magi @
3) Christmas tree
4) Van Gogh: Starry Night
5) Searching for Truth @

Monday, December 27, 2010

Loving the seasons...

One of the many blessings of being in this part of the woods is the profound shift of the seasons. To be sure, it still jars me that it can be pitch black at 4:30 pm for part of the year - and I am still sometimes overwhelmed by the intense and nearly oppressive grey that haunts part of the winter days - and at the same time I have also come to love and cherish the movement of the seasons. Gertrud Mueller-Nelson has written:

I am not sure that we modern people are any more comfortable with time (than our ancient ancestors) even if we are preoccupied with it. Our lives no longer follow the path of the sun or the pull of the moon. We can light up our nights and darken our days as we will. We can eat strawberries in the dead of winter if we want. Taming nature, however, cannot eliminate the questions that all of us still have to ask ourselves from time to time: "Who am I and where am I going?" We are a restless and uncertain people...

I often felt this restlessness more in the desert sun than here. In some ways the warmth of Arizona -and the convenience of air-conditioning - means that you never have to think of the weather or the seasons before acting. Not so here where there is still a natural, albeit modified, rhythm to life. Today, for example, was a snow day. We had 15 inches of snow fall in less than 24 hours. Now these people know how to move the snow around and clear the road - and by midday you could get out the grocery store if necessary - but almost everything else was closed - as it should be. This is a day for being quiet and reflecting - staying warm and thinking - sipping tea and remembering your place within the grand scope of life that stops for no one.

One way I try to stay connected to that rhythm - and reflection - is by photographing what it looks like outside my study window. These images are little icons of one of the ways God is speaking to me in my ordinary life. And if I honor what God is saying, often my restlessness is diminished. But I have to pay attention.

The the late John O'Donohue uses the seasons to capture something of the sacred in a poem he calls "The Eyes of Jesus."

I imagine the eyes of Jesus
Were harvest brown,
The light of their gazing
Suffused with the seasons:

The shadow of winter,
The mind of spring,
The blues of summer,
And amber of harvest.

A gaze that is perfect sister
To the kindness that dwells
In his beautiful hands.

The eyes of Jesus gaze on us,
Stirring in the heart's clay
The confidence of seasons
That never lose their way to harvest.

This gaze knows the signature
Of our heartbeat, the first glimmer
From the dawn that dreamed our minds,

The crevices where thoughts grow
Long before the longing in the bone
Sends them toward the mind's eye

The artistry of the emptiness
That knows to slow the hunger
Of outside things until they weave
Into the twilight side of the heart,

A gaze full of all that is still future
Looking out for us to glimpse
The jeweled light in winter stone,

Quickening the eyes that look at us
To see through to where words
Are blind to say what we would love,

Forever falling softly on our face,
His gaze plies the soul with light,
Laying down a luminous layer

Beneath our brief and brittle days
Until the appointed dawn comes
Assured and harvest deft

To unravel the last black know
And we are back home in the house
That we have never left.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

On the feast of Stephen...

Today's worship was quiet and modestly attended - the blizzard was just threatening us this morning - and most folk are still recovering from the Christmas feasting. But we had a baptism to celebrate - and the good news to proclaim - so it was a treat to be in the quiet Sanctuary after the fullness of Christmas Eve. We spent some time singing the great carols of the Western church - and then talked about how we might better explore and deepen our commitment to the counter-cultural values of Advent next year - and it was fascinating. Three insights bubbled up from the Body of Christ that are worth mentioning:

+ Next year we're going to devote most of November to studying and preparing for Advent; most of us still don't get it. So, we'll do Bible study in our adult classes - forsake the realm of crafts in Sunday School - and really spend some time with scripture and tradition so that we want to welcome this odd spiritual season. Two helpful resources: Living in God's Time by Margaret McMillian Persky and To Dance with God by Gertrud Mueller-Nelson will be our guides.

+ We will also spend some time practicing, listening and exploring the message and music of the songs of Advent. Many people still don't understand the gentle Advent discipline of not singing the carols of Christmas too early. Only a few of us old church geeks know - and love - "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," "The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came" or "People Look East." We agreed that rather than rewrite Christmas carols with Advent insights, why not just learn the time-tested tunes of the season? And we can use technology to help us, too: each week I can link a hymn from You Tube to my church email re: prayers and programs and include spiritual themes and theological ideas about each song. They might even become our weekly prayer, too.
+ And we will make the start of Advent - and its observance - central to our December worship in ways that integrate ALL our senses. Music is key, of course, but so is movement, smells, the visuals of worship to say nothing of taste and touch. Too often Reformed worship is a "head thing" and the time has come to celebrate a more sacramental approach to worship. Not that this will be simple - or comfortable - but it will help us enter into Advent more authentically so that we might" grow up into Christ" rather than be fully shaped by our shallow and often wounded culture.

The snows are coming furiously now... blessings.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Following Joseph and Mary...

So there are still some presents to wrap - and the floor to wax - but while taking a break I came across two insightful Christmas Eve postings from Richard Rohr and Ron Buford: a Roman Catholic and a Protestant - a white monastic and a black lay person - with a host of other differences, too. But they "get" Jesus - and share his grace - and in this find more common ground than would otherwise be possible.

Kingdom people are history makers. They break through the small kingdoms of this world to an alternative and much larger world, God’s full creation. People who are still living in the false self are history stoppers. They use God and religion to protect their own status and the status quo of the world that sustains them. They are often fearful people, the nice proper folks of every age who think like everybody else thinks and have no power to break through, or as Jesus’ opening words put it, “to change” (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:17).

Why do we love and admire kingdom people like Mary and Joseph, and then not imitate their faith journeys, their courage, their non-reassurance by the religious system? These were two laypeople who totally trusted their inner experience of God and who followed it to Bethlehem and beyond. Mary and Joseph walked in courage and blind faith that their experience was true; with no one to reassure them they were right. Their only safety net was God’s love and mercy, a safety net they must have tried out many times, or else they would never have been able to fall into it so gracefully.
(Richard Rohr)

Dear Ron takes a different tact, but underscores the same truth when he writes:

It’s Christmas Eve and I ask you, “What exile are you bringing home for Christmas?” Is it easier to talk about making peace between Israel and Palestine, about international cease-fires, about bringing full marriage rights to same-gender loving people, about freeing Tibet and illegal aliens than it is to forgive someone who betrayed you, or a family member or friend who hurt, violated, embarrassed you or let you down?

You think making peace is easy. So, what exile are you bringing home for Christmas? It’s time. Bring an exile home. Make peace without conditions. Think you cannot do it?

Oh! Are you the exile? You can’t forgive yourself for something? God says, “It’s time to bring the exile home.” If this nation can put a Black man in the White House, with a mix of northern and southern states, then you and I can make peace – with ourselves, with others, with the world. It’s time.

God has taken away judgments against us. We have escaped disasters’ worst. Those who aimed to hurt us have not totally overcome us. Our fortunes are beginning to be restored . . . and you and I can make peace.

Gracious God: Help me do the thing I really do not think I can do. Help me make peace. I do not have the power or the will to do it. Please give me the strength, the courage, the wisdom, and opportunity to make a healthy and lasting peace with some exile in my life this holiday. Amen.

Ok, now it is back to work - and then worship - and a time to rejoice in the deep blessings of grace and the healing of peace-making within and among us all. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas letter 2010

Merry Christmas
It has been quite a year for Dianne and James: a blessed, full and challenging time of love and ministry – and 2011 looks to be just as complicated and wonderful. We hope that this letter finds you all well, rested and in reasonable health as we move from the waiting of Advent to the celebrations of Christmas. Our family will all be together on Christmas Day – Jesse and her husband, Michael, as well as Michal and her husband, Jay – for a time of feasting and reconnecting. And then later in January, we will be with Dianne’s sisters and extended family for a DeMott Christmas, too. In-between, we will head off to NYC to see an art exhibit by Makoto Fujimura, listen to some jazz at the Village Vanguard and wander the city with Jesse and Mike in Brooklyn.

Thinking back through this year brings a host of wonderful memories. James spent time again in NYC at the annual IAM Convocation (International Arts Movement) and camped out with the kids in Brooklyn. (This year Di gets to make the trek, too!) Dianne created some incredible worship/sanctuary tapestries for Easter 2010 that evoked beauty and the joy of Christ’s resurrection. It was a particularly special Easter as we invited all the clergy in the congregation – plus our in-care seminary student – to be a part of the festivities. Interestingly, my predecessor, Rick Floyd, is the father of our seminarian – so when she served him Holy Communion… let’s just say the Body of Christ felt a profound sense of joy.

Other highlights included:
• A study of Greg Mortenson’s THREE CUPS OF TEA – that resulted in a special fundraiser in June to support schools for girls in Afghanistan – a clear and creative alternative to the war.

• A Pentecost worship planned by the Congregation that included tongues of fire, LOTS of children and a version of “Message in a Bottle” that rocked the house in honor of God’s loving spirit. (check it out @

• In March, we were back in Tucson for a sweet wedding with the Schloss family – and that was a joy. They even got to visit us in early September, too. James got to visit Phil and Julie in San Francisco this spring – and we both hope to get there in February 2011.

• In August, our new friends Peter and Joyce from Thunder Bay, Ontario, spent a few wild and wonderful days with us – including listening to jazz at the Castle Street Grill and grooving to Yoyo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble at Tanglewood with David and Sue. It was a treat and blessing to have them with us and we hope to see them in the late summer.

• Then we headed out for a road trip to Nova Scotia that was a little bit of heaven and lots of good rest and loving. The International Busker Festival was happening during our journey – street performers from all over the world – and that meant Di and I were experiencing a little bit of heaven on earth. We can’t wait to go back!

• Dianne decided to leave full-time retail work at JoAnn’s in the fall because… life is just too short! She still is there 30+ hours each week but has a little more time for other more creative projects – including some sweet music arranging.

And now we are both playing part-time in Andy Kelly’s jazz band: the Sister City Music Ambassadors. We have dreamed of bringing a people-to=people peacemaking through music trip to a Muslim country – and Andy is helping make it happen. The tickets are purchased for June 13, 2011 – and we are starting to practice and play with the band all over the region.

Church continues to be a blessing as we are three years into our renewal work. We are turning the corner on decline – averaging 80-90 people each week – and have made serious inroads on getting the church finances in order, too. Our little band, Between the Banks, has gone through some changes, too, with Eva leaving for Las Vegas and Sue joining the ranks. But we have found a new groove and are having lots of fun. James now serves on both the Arts Council and Tourism Boards in Pittsfield. Three years after leaving Tucson, it was clearly the right decision to come to the Berkshires, and we give thanks for our new faith community and the costs and joys of being a part of the rebirth of this small city.

To be sure, there are times when we miss the desert sun – and we rejoice every time we go back – but this is now fully home and it feels like it in so many ways. We are even learning to cross-country ski (James for the first time) and rediscover the beauty of winter! We are close to our families – and see our daughters often – which is an unspeakable blessing.

So please know we have a guest room that is almost always available if you would like to head to this very gentle and creative place in the Berkshires. Here are a few pictures to give you another feel for the fullness of 201o.

With all our love,
James and Dianne

Like a soft sigh...

Brother Roger of the Taize Community once wrote: Prayer does not require superhuman efforts. Like a soft sigh, like a child's request, it keeps us alert. Has not God revealed to Christ's poor what the powerful of this world do not understand straightaway? This makes me think of 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. But I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother's breast; then my soul is quieted within me. O Israel, wait upon the Lord, from this time forth and forever more.

Yesterday our friends at Temple Anshe Amunim was violated when a swastika was etched into an outer wall. This is the second time such a desecration has occurred in six months. I give thanks to God for all the regional clergy and politicians who have names this vile act not merely vandalism, but a hate crime for that is what it is. We stand in prayerful and political solidarity with Anshe Amunim and its rabbi, Josh Breindel, as those on a quest for the light in the darkness. Their pain - and the ugliness of this hate crime - is a sober reminder of how truly hard it is to wait upon the Lord.

On the same day, I received from my dear friend, Peter, this link to another small sign of God's light amidst the darkness in the mission of Dawud Wharnsby. I am very interested in his mixture of poetry, music and peace-making as, indeed, it parallels the passion of my heart. (Please take some time to go deeper @

And tomorrow our children arrive and begin the Christmas festivities with us. It is snowing right now and the sun is out. Soon it will be dark again - and the waiting will be harder. And yet within the waiting and darkness, there is light: there are souls committed to compassion, there are friends making music, there are lovers clinging closely and families feastings and even strangers being embraced. The old master, Walter Brueggemann, put it like this in one of his collected prayers:

The threats do not wane,
The dangers are not imagined,
the power to undo is on the loose...
And yet in the midst, you speak your word. It is your word that cuts the threat,
that siphons off the danger,

that tames the powers.

You speak and all is made new.
You speak your true self abiding faithfulness,
of durable presence,
of long-standing reliability.
You give yourself in the utterance of "fear not,"
and we do not fear.
We do not fear, because you are with us,
with us - and so safe,
with us - and so free,
with us - and so joyous.

We diminish our lives in our feeble anxiety...
and you veto our anxiety;
We cheapen our neighbor with our frantic greed...
and you nullify our greed with your satiation;
We pollute our world in our lust for safety...
and you detoxify our mess.

Now come here - and in Kosovo,
here and in Littleton, here and in East Lake,
here and in Louisville,
here... and there... and there... and there.
Override the fickleness of it all,
and give us faith commensurate with your true, abiding self.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reflection notes for Christmas Eve 2010...

NOTE: Here are my closing notes for the Christmas Eve worship this year. As has become my custom, I don't really preach or teach on this night; I leave most of the discernment to the lessons and carols. But just before we leave - just before we move into total candle light and sing "Silent Night" - I offer a brief refleciton - and then a blessing. Here's what strikes me this year...

There is an old, old English Christmas carol that our Puritan ancestors in Great Britain not only banished in their day, but sent so far underground that it wasn’t reclaimed for the people until some 400 years later. We know it as the Sussex Carol that Ralph Vaughn Williams resurrected early in the 20th century – and it is a treasure. The first verse begins: On Christmas night all Christians sing to hear the news the angels bring… news of great joy and cause of great mirth, glad tidings of our Savior’s birth.

• Do you know it? It is one of my favorites – with a delightfully tricky syncopation – that goes on to proclaim the importance and promise of Christ’s birth.

• The carol ends like this: When sin departs before his grace then life and health come in its place – for out of darkness we have light which made the angels sing this night: Glory to God and peace to men, now and for evermore. Amen!

That is what we have been called to proclaim – and embody – because of Christmas: the joy of God’s grace, the light of God’s love within the equally real darkness and the way of Christ’s peace in a broken and wounded world. Joy, love and peace – almost sounds like an Al Green song, doesn’t it? Simple words and yet so hard to make flesh within and among us, too: Eugene Peterson, the man who brought us The Message version of the Bible, has written that:

In the fifty years of being a pastor, my most difficult assignment continues to be the task of developing a sense among the people I serve of the soul-transforming implications of grace – a comprehensive, foundational reorientation from living anxiously by our wits and muscle to living effortlessly in the world of God’s active presence. For the prevailing truth in North American culture – which is not all that different from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman culture of our biblical ancestors – is, to all intents and purposes, is to live in a persistent denial of grace.

Consequently, pastors are usually hesitant to say anything real to those who gather on Christmas Eve to hear the lessons and sing the carols, right? I understand that problem and over the years have tried to solve it – usually without much success.

• Sometimes I’ve tried to be prophetic and profound on this night – which never works – because people don’t come to worship on Christmas Eve to hear something new.

• Sometimes I’ve tried to tap into the zeitgeist of this season’s sadness and speak about a blue Christmas – and believe me that REALLY doesn’t work – because on Christmas Eve people don’t want to hear something sad.

• And I’ve even tried to go the popular culture route of being sentimental and sweet – retelling some of the cute and insipid stories of the season – but that usually leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth – mine included – like too much cotton candy at the fair.

So now on Christmas Eve I usually just let the ancient readings speak new truths to our hearts – make certain that like the angels we have lots of good Christmas songs to sing that bring news of great joy and mirth of the glad tidings of our Savior’s birth – and take a few minutes before we sing “Silent Night” to share the promise of Christmas with you in a nutshell. By grace I have come to trust that the rest is up to the Lord.

So here it is – the blessing of Christmas Eve – as I understand it in 2010: In Christ Jesus the Lord our God has clearly chosen NOT to “dwell with the high and mighty, but with the lowly, the unexpected, and those considered ‘nothing’ by this world.” That is to say, people very much like you and me.

Not because we deserve it or have earned it – not at all – this blessing comes to us as pure grace: a gift of love from the source of love. And just so that we might begin to grasp this blessing God comes to us in “weakness and vulnerability” – as a poor child – born to very ordinary parents in a sad and forgotten place.
(David Lose at

And here is the truly good news of Christmas Eve: If God can work in and through such ordinary characters as Mary and Joseph and all the rest, could it also be true that perhaps God can also work in and through you and me? The stories of the Bible have been passed on to us, I think, “to make sure we realize that it is not just human flesh "in general" that God takes on in Christ; it is our flesh. And it is not simply history "in general" that God enters via this birth, it is our history and our very lives to which God is committed.” (Lose)

Are you with me? Of course there is nothing new here – it is the old, old story of Jesus and his love – and yet…

… and yet we need to recall “that this story of long ago is not only about angels and shepherds, a mother and her newborn. It is also about us – all of us gathered amid the candles and readings, the carols and prayers. God came at Christmas for us, that we might have hope and courage amid the dark and dangerous times and places of our lives.”

And so we gather: to remember – to sing – and to be blessed again by the Word made flesh trusting that God might also enter us, too.

May he who by his incarnation gathered into one all things earthly and heavenly, fill you with the sweetness of inward peace and goodwill; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The culmination of my Advent series...

So one of my favorite blogs is by Banksboy - in the UK - who posted this totally righteous Advent meditation:

Here's an Advent meditation from 'ethical rap' artist Emmanuel Jal, endorsed by the peacemaking initiative The Elders ( in support of We Want Peace. Emmanuel has appeared at the Greenbelt Festival twice plus the stunning biographical film about his life 'War Child' (check out more here: (At the Greenbelt Festival there was) one of those Greenbelt 'moments', as, when the film show became very delayed, a member of the audience, Shaz Brown, volunteered to perform some of her stunning and earthy urban poetry while we were waiting, everybody there will remember how amazing that was...

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me... he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
Isaiah 61:1

Seeing the blessing through our tears...

In a short time I will be attending the funeral Mass of the mother of a friend - our drummer in the Sister City Music Ambassadors - who is a profoundly talented and soulful man. His smile can light up a room - or a heart - for he knows what it means to share compassion like bread on a journey. What's more, I have been moved by the way he expresses his grief.

Look, I (mostly) grasp that every person wrestles and deals with grieving in different ways - in nearly 30 years of ordained ministry I have seen enough grief to know that it comes in a variety of sizes and shapes - and yet I still find that some expressions of grief resonate within me in ways that evoke faith, hope and joy. Watching this youngest son drum through his tears spoke volumes to me. After worship was over, he said to me that while his mother's death was sudden and unexpected, he knew that she was at total peace and that brought him rest. I mentioned my experience of own mother's death five years ago at Easter, noting that with the passing of our mothers life is changed forever no matter what level of faith we embrace, and he smiled - gave me a hug -and said quietly, "Yes, yes that is true - but it is still ok."

And he is right: it is ok. We trust by faith that not only have our loved ones been restored to perfection by grace in life everlasting, but that they are now at rest in a unique and transformative way. I don't go in much for the sentimentality that infects most funerals - or death-talk - so as we played "Blue Skies" in worship yesterday, and other grieving hearts wept with the memories of other losses, I found all the sermon I will ever need when I noticed our drummer man keeping the groove while he smiled and gently wept at the same time.

And that is the holy paradox, yes? It is both/and - sorrow and joy - darkness and light - always together. One side of the equation - light - is completely true, but at the same time without the darkness, grieving without the darkness strikes me as incomplete. Likewise, when only the darkness is affirmed - the lonely agony without the blessings - it often feels to me like yet one more exercise in narcissism. To be sure, we are unique - precious in God's eyes and everyone grieves differently - but we are also always ordinary in the midst of real life, too.

St. Frederick Buechner put it like this:

"Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit," the collect goes, "that we may perfectly love..." if not thee, because we are such a feckless and faithless crowd most of us, then at least ourselves, at least each other.... (Sometimes) when (our secrets) are sad and hurtful secrets, like my father's death, we can in a way honor the hurt by letting ourselves feel it as we never let ourselves feel it before, and then, having felt it, by laying it aside; we can start to take care of ourselves the way we take care of people we love. To love our neighbors as we love ourselves means also to love ourselves as we love our neighbors. It means to treat ourselves with as much kindness and understanding as we would the person next door who is in trouble.

I would add that it also means that once we have honored our wounds, that we let them go in time and get on with being alive in the real and all too ordinary ways of life, too. Not just going through the motions, but fully entering each day with both the light and darkness - and returning thanks for it all.

Is it ironic that the "O antiphon" for today is: O Key of David, Sceptre of the house of Israel, that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth, come to liberate the prisoner from the prison, and them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death? Probably not...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

O come, o come emmanuel...

Fr. Richard Rohr wrote in today's Advent reflection that the reading from Isaiah is "precisely the quote that Jesus uses to announce the exact nature of his ministry in Luke 4: 18-19: "The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.”

In each case Jesus describes his work as moving outside of polite and proper limits and boundaries to reunite things that have been marginalized or excluded by society: the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the downtrodden. Jesus’ ministry is not to gather the so-called good into a private country club but to reach out to those on the edge and on the bottom, those who are “last” to tell them they are, in fact, first! That is almost the very job description of the Holy Spirit, and therefore of Jesus…and for that matter of us as bearers of Emmanuel, God with us!

That is what today's worship felt like to me: not only did we begin with Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" as our prelude - something way outside of the polite - but we then morphed into the Advent carol built on the Isaiah/Jesus connection - and the O Antiphon for today - O come, o come Emmanuel. The church was packed - something that doesn't happen a lot in our parts any more - and I think it became clear that LOTS of people are aching for a connection with God's gracious spirit - they just don't want all the harsh bullshit that usually goes with the church. And I'm not talking about people who are self-absorbed or addicted to navel-gazing. Just ordinary people who know intuitively that Jesus is good news, but have been put off by his messengers.

Like Gandhi once said, "This Jesus of yours I like. I do NOT like your Christians - they are so unlike Jesus.... The message of Jesus as I understand it is contained in the Sermon on the Mount unadulterated and taken as a whole... If then I had to face only the Sermon on the Mount and my own interpretation of it, I should not hesitate to say, 'Oh, yes, I am a Christian.' But negatively I can tell you that in my humble opinion, what passes as Christianity is a negation of the Sermon on the Mount... I am speaking of the Christian belief, of Christianity as it is understood in the west."

My jazz buddies helped us give this truth shape and form. We jammed and played - followed the charts and improvised - and celebrated the blessings of God's truth in beautiful and life-giving music. My church band buddies - Sue, Dianne, Brian and Jon - knocked us on our butts with their beautiful harmonies on "Bring In the Wonder."

And it just kept cooking... At one point, when Dianne began to sing Irving Berlin's, "Blue Skies," a woman whose father had died just one year ago found her tears flowing like a flood gate had been opened. She hadn't been in worship since then - and "Blue Skies" was her poppa's favorite song. "What a sweet connection we made today," she tenderly said to me after worship as she wiped away still more tears. Our drummer, John, was going to the wake of his beloved mother later this afternoon - with a funeral mass tomorrow - and he played though his tears, too, helping us all experience the healing and renewing power of beautiful music played with open hearts.

As worship unfolded, the band spoke about why they feel called to Istanbul - and music. The congregation got a chance to experience a whole new "soul music" for church. And the Spirit was blowing within and among us as we left yet a few more rules and inhibitions behind. I like the saying, "Jesus was in the house" - and I certainly felt him today. "O come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The memories of Christmas past...

Putting up the tree - decorating the shrubs with lights - and literally hauling out our suitcase of Advent/Christmas music ushers in a rush of memories of Christmas past. Mine are mostly gentle and loving, but that is not the case with everyone. There is reason why Advent is a time of the blues for so many, yes? Through years of quiet meditation, therapy, prayer and the blessings of time most of the painful memories of Christmas past have been resolved for me. Wise old New England Frederick Buechner put it like this:

I am inclined to believe that God's chief purpose in giving us memory is to enable us to go back in time so that if we didn't play those roles right the first time around, we can still have another go at it now. We cannot undo our old mistakes or their consequences any more than we can erase old wounds that we have both suffered and inflicted, but through the power that memory gives us of thinking, feeling, imaging our way back through time we can at long last finally finish with the past in the sense of removing its power to hurt us and other people and to stunt our growth as human beings.

This sacred work of time and memory and resolution has no obvious time table. Just because I want someone else to "get over it," neither means I'm right or their ready. And while some do become addicted to their wounds - and those wounded identities - time and grace move in their own unique and holy ways, so it is best for me to be silent - even as a pastor. I know that is true as a father (even if I don't always get it right.) Brother Beuchner continues:

The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are just as the glad and gracious things will too, but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination and regret that make us constantly stumble as we go, even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still choose and be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.

This is one of the reason why I remain so fiercely "incarnational" in my theology: God becoming flesh in Christ Jesus speaks to me of the deep healing that the Lord continues to offer through both time and memory. Like Bono said: Grace trumps karma... and I am grateful.

gobsmacked and surprised...

My current quest to unlearn the ways of privilege and power in favor of a holistic  spirituality of tenderness, solidarity and living small ...