Friday, April 30, 2010

Songs of friendship...

My friend, Hal, who does a GREAT radio show on Robin Hood Radio - the smallest NPR station in the USA (check it out at: is currently doing a show about friendship. And as I have been thinking about friendships over the years, I am struck by the following truths:

+ Most of my deepest friendships are grounded in a love of music. It seems that the songs help us communicate at a level deeper than words, time and place. And the people I resonate with - and often ache to be with - are musicians

+ My friendship and love of my wife, Dianne, is also rooted in music: we literally make music together in a little band, share ideas about songs that help us pray and live more fully and LOVE to go dancing to rock and soul music!

+ What's more, my oldest friendships go all the way back to guys I listened to play in garage bands and eventually played in my garage band, too. I learned to play guitar from a guy I befriended in our Confirmation Class. We started a band a few months later playing songs like "Steppin' Stone" and "Hang on Sloopy" and from time to time we're still in touch (mostly through Facebook.)

When I think about the folks I have became closest to in the various churches I have served, it seems that a band was always involved to express what was most true in my heart - and to just have fun, too. In Michigan, there was the Saginaw Rounders - singing folk music and political tunes like "Unemployment Blues" or "Titabawasee Jane" (about chemical pollution in the river) - in Cleveland there was Jubilee - a more traditional church group doing songs of justice and compassion.

In Tucson, we put together the mother of all bands - Stranger - an 11 member rock and soul group that did gospel, blues, jazz and lots of rock and roll - everything from David Bowie's "I'm Afraid of Americans" and Springsteen's "The Rising" to Carole King, Bessie Smith and the Judds. And now in the Berkshires, we're making sweet music with Between the Banks - a quartet that is just too much fun and very close to my heart - with GREAT harmonies and tunes like "One Voice" and Yvonne Lyons' "Come" and some of the best people I have ever known.

Even my daughters and I find that we still love to hear bands together - or sit in a little jazz club and take in the groove - or share tunes over the Internet as a way of exploring the deepest parts of our lives. Jesse was 2 when we first went to see Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger. And Michal and I celebrated her 13th birthday with a Springsteen concert. Just last week we all hung out to see the Wailin' Jennys and are planning a Rosanne Cash concert for Di's upcoming birthday. I have even made some new friendships over the internet by blogging about spirit and music (and some new friends from Canada are coming to stay for a bit this summer... and we'll go hear Yoyo Ma do the silk road tour music!)

So, I just wanted to acknowledge my love and affection for all my beautiful, musical friends: you have touched my heart deeply and fed my soul.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sunday, Sunday... oh wait I got that wrong!

This Sunday is going to be a full and beautiful day - makes me think of that old Mommas and Poppas tune, "Monday, Monday" with those sweet, close harmonies.

+ First, we will have some playful fun in worship with a hard idea: sin. Using my dream sequence involving St. Augustine, jazz singer Peggy Lee, Protestant Reformer John Calvin, rocker Bruce Springsteen and Jesus, we'll talk about how so much of our thinking about "original sin" has been confused with sexuality when it is really about alienation and estrangement.

+ Second, we'll have a visiting youth group - and old friend - from Brockton with us. After worship we'll meet with potential new members to our church and then have a free flowing conversation about how to do church in a context of great change - in our case, economic and social change after the departure of GE in the 1980s.

+ And third after the youth group departs for home, I will head over to the new theatre in town at the Beacon and watch a play based on the Vietnam War - as a part of the city's "Big Read" event - and then be a part of a panel concerning war and morality. What an ambiguous and nuanced subject, yes? (I got a call late this afternoon inviting me to be a part of the panel of Vietnam vets.)

I was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War - draft board awarded me non-combatant status - and then the draft board lost my paperwork and had me report for a pre-induction physical. I had fallen in love with a gorgeous young woman - and dropped 100lbs in the process - so my blood pressure was crazy. The draft board thought I was playing games to avoid the draft, so for a whole week I had to show up for tests at odd times of the day to prove that I wasn't a phony. And then their lost paperwork trumped my CO status and I was in limbo for 6 month - and then ineligible give the lottery.

Over the years I have spent some time with Vietnam vets with PTS syndrome - and been the pastor to families of active duty service people in all of the Gulf Wars - so it will be a fascinating panel... That means tomorrow will be a full blown SABBATH for Di and myself... and then onward to Sunday, Sunday.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Snowing in April...

For some reason I found myself awakening early this morning - not my usual drill - I guess I sensed that it was snowing. April 28th and it is snowing. This is not unheard of in these parts - and I can remember sitting in 8th grade French class watching big, wet flakes fall in early May - but it has been so warm of late that the snow comes as an odd surprise. Like this morning's Psalm says: our God will come and not keep silence; before the Lord there is a consuming flame and round about is a raging storm." (Psalm 50: 3) Well, the raging is ending and most of the snow is turning to rain as the morning matures.

Two thoughts are taking shape as I continue to read and reflect on the relevance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for this generation - especially in light of the recent immigration law in Arizona:

+ First, while the United States is profoundly polarized - and millions continue to suffer the effects of our volatile economy and respond with fear and shame - there is a stand-off between Left and Right in this nation that is not all bad. To be sure, it slows helpful legislation like health care and banking reform down to a glacial pace, but it also forces reasonable people into careful conversation and practical solutions rather than ideological action. This was clearly not the case in Bonhoeffer's day as the Nazis controlled the legislative process and used brute force and intimidation to beat back their opponents. And all the blathering of either MSNBC or Fox News has not changed this fact.

Yes, Tom Delay and his thugs used some of the Feuher's tactics in the process of stealing the election from Al Gore - and they would have gone farther had not the visual media been present. Yes, it is clear that a bold minority of hate-mongers long to duplicate the actions of the SS on American soil: fringe militias, the John Birch Society and other fear-based groups are growing. And there is a clear, focused and principled response to them, too. Over the weekend, thousands of church people and labor unionists gathered in Phoenix, AZ to protest the new immigration law. Phoenix mayor, Phil Gordon, has directed city attorney's to challenge the law in court. And so there is hope and action and truth.

+ Second, besides the exploitation of economic and racial fears, the manipulation of a diminished and confused Christian Church strikes me as a parallel to Nazi Germany that warrants deeper exploration. I am not suggesting that there is anything like the Reichbishop at work in the US. Nor am I trying to exaggerate the consequences of liberal theology that continues to preach an optimism about human progress without a serious grounding in the Cross. Barth has already done that work and besides it would be too obvious and shallow.

And at the same time, however, I am baffled and frightened by the "God, guns and Jesus" idolatry being promoted by Sarah Palin and her rogues gallery. Where are their pastors? Why are they allowed to get away with such demonic preaching and teaching? Is this one of the tragic consequences of the contemporary American church wherein denominational connections have atrophied and accountability and integrity vanished? As the old saying puts it, "Even the Pope has a confessor." Is this the result of a church leadership vacuum?

Bonhoeffer worked mightily to push the ecumenical church into calling Nazi ideology into question. While serving as the chaplain to the underground seminary for the Confessing Church, he led his students in study, prayer, confession and the celebration of the Eucharist. He publicly refused to cooperate with the corrupted "German Church" and demanded that his peers do likewise. And he named social sin clearly in his generation.

I see the theology of Palin and her ilk as idolatrous. Evil. Demonic. This is not a question of civility - which she mocks and denigrates - this is a challenge for those who claim to follow Jesus. Reinhold Niebuhr taught Bonhoeffer and others that too often the children of darkness know how to get things done while the children of light try to stay pure. Perhaps the time has come for interfaith and ecumenical groups to carefully name the dangerous and ugly idolatry of our time and refuse to cooperate with anything that legitimizes it?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Adam and Eve for our generation...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, May 2, 2010. To be sure they are a little like the up-coming episode of "Fringe" that takes on a gangster attitude - or the old Star Treks that would go back in time to put Shatner and Nimoy in Shakespearean garb or worse - but it was fun to try, too. And there is a long (and only partially successful) tradition of dream-stories in both scripture and church life. So... we'll see how it goes. When I told my wife today that I wanted her to sing part of Peggy Lee's "Fever" in worship, she burst out laughing. Then said, "I can't wait to figure out your connection... hmmmm maybe I can wear my new leather skirt!" Perfect. Join us if you are in town at 10:30 am on Sunday. We'd love to visit.

Please pray with me: Precious Lord, Alpha and Omega, First and Last, glory outshining all the lights of heaven: pour out upon us your Spirit of faithful love and abundant compassion, so that we may rejoice in the splendor of your works while we wait in expectation for the new heaven and the new earth you promise when Christ shall come again. Amen. (UCC Worship Ways)

Today’s message will NOT be linear – it will NOT be a sophisticated, well- reasoned theological explication of the story of Adam and Eve for 21st century sensibilities – nor will I try to squeeze some contemporary ideas into an ancient context. Because, you see, today’s message came to me in the form… of a dream – and a rather weird dream at that!

I suspect that it was inspired by that sweet, sweet scripture reading from the Apocalypse of John wherein it is revealed that: See, the home of God is among humankind. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.

I love that passage of the Bible – and trust that it is true – because it so accurately frames the whole Christian message:

• Scripture starts out telling us that in the beginning, the beauty of God’s creation triumphed and the Lord brought order out of chaos and existence out of the void. God made man and woman in beauty and promise and fashioned us to be companions for one another in love and trust.

• But then something went wrong and God’s beloved not only trusted themselves more than the Lord – that’s what it means to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – but they tried to hide it, too. In their guilt and shame they tried to fake it with God.

So before you know it, the beloved ones of the Lord are not only forced into experiencing the consequences of the actions out in the cold, cruel world, they are no longer in the garden. They acted like they knew better than God so the Lord said, “Fine – see what it feels like to live that way.” And ever since, people have been trying to find their way back home again, right? That’s why today’s scripture is so sweet: it tells us that God has been aching for that home-coming, too.

• In the beginning there was a sacred embrace – then we pushed God away and wandered alone and ashamed. But that isn’t the end of the story for the Bible closes with another embrace – a reunion or home-coming – where we will know once again that we are beloved.

• See, the home of God is among humankind. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.

But, as one of the theologians of the Berkshires, Arlo Guthrie, has been known to say: that’s not what I came here to talk about. Really – all of that theological, biblical background was just the inspiration for my dream – and it’s that dream I want to tell you about. And it is just as wild a dream as St. John had back on the island of Patmos.

• It takes place in heaven – whatever that really means – and in my dream it had something to do with the end of time as we know it: past, present and future were all rolled into one in this dream.

• What’s more, special relations were not all that important because while the sacred conversation in my dream took place in heaven, everyone was sitting around a campfire at night. Go figure…

But when I realized who it was sitting around that celestial and sacred campfire, then I really started to pay attention. First there was St. Augustine of Hippo – one time womanizer and student wild man who later became one of Christianity’s finest theologians – defining for us our whole notion of original sin based upon the Adam and Eve story. Jesus was there, of course, along with the great Protestant reformer, John Calvin of Geneva, but Calvin mostly let Augustine do all the talking.

There was an ancient, wizened Jewish story teller – who looked to be about 4,000 years old – and it seems that he was the man who collected all the early stories of creation from his people as they wandered in the wilderness. And then, as you might expect from one of my dreams, there were two musicians – the jazz singer Peggy Lee and the boss man of rock and roll Bruce Springsteen – and they both had honored and respected seats around the sacred fire in heaven.

And here’s the deal: they were all talking about sin – especially how St. Augustine got the essence of sin right – estrangement and separation from God’s love – but how he also messed us all up with his confused notions of sex in the story of Adam and Eve.

• The old Jewish story teller said, “Augustine, may I call you Auggie? Look, you were on to something when you located the mystery of sin back in the garden. That’s what I was trying to say in my story: there is a brokenness to all humanity that does not begin with us and that no one escapes!”

• Both Calvin and Augustine smiled and nodded in approval, but the old Jew added: “Put for the love of God, man, why did you have to put in all that sex stuff! What were you thinking?”

At this point, Peggy Lee jumped in protesting: “Now wait just a minute. If it wasn’t for Auggie’s confusion of sex with sin – and women with the source of all sin – I wouldn’t have had my biggest hit record back in 1958.” And with that, she snapped her fingers and started to sing “Fever.”

Now as the dream unfolds, Jesus is just watching all of this, never saying a word. After the song, Calvin tries to stick up for his theological mentor saying, “Ok, I will give you this. St. Augustine used mistaken and incomplete science – really faulty biology – when ‘he located sin’s transmission from one generation to the next in the act of sexual intercourse… to be sure, he fumbled in his sexual confusion. But nevertheless, he was on to something of the universality of sin and the need for divine grace… (because all the pain and wounds of the world cannot be blamed) simply on fate.” (James Nelson, Thirst, p. 69)

“Good point” says Bruce Springsteen who then stands up and start to snap his fingers. “What I hear you saying is that there is something in us – something mysterious and dark – that cries out to us in the night. It’s a kind of tension and we all know it… like we’re all tramps who feel that we’re born to run.”

Then he puts on his guitar – and out of nowhere the E Street Band shows up behind him in heaven – and he says, “It’s like everything that God wanted got all mixed up so that greed and sex and sin and cars became one confusing mess… that sounds something like this because if you're gonna preach today, man, you need a beat!”

After the Boss sat down, things got quiet – real quiet – and they let it all sink in around the fire. Eventually Jesus said something – and while I’m not sure I got it all right – I think he told his friends: “Look, I gave you a new way to come home, right? Love one another as I have loved you. Do you remember when I first said that?”

• Augustine quickly replied, “Yes, Lord, it was at the Last Supper.” To which Calvin added, “Right after you washed the disciples feet and you said that your love was a servant love that was costly.”

• Christ nodded with a smile and poked the Jewish story teller saying, “They were listening, this is good.” Then he added: “The story of Adam and Eve is NOT about sex – sorry Auggie – it’s about the fact that everyone experiences times when the goodness God put inside of us is corrupted – can we agree on that?”

“And,” he went on, “we are not entirely responsible for that corruption, ok? ‘It is not entirely of our choosing.’ (Nelson, p. 68) There is mystery involved – things no one can understand – but that are still true. So here’s the deal – here’s what I want you to do when you realize that you have fallen or wandered or sinned and tried to hide it from God – there are two steps.”

• First, you have to know that sin loves to be alone – it wants to keep you lonely and in the dark – so as long as you hide your sin like Adam and Eve, it will be in charge.

• Second, when you bring your sin out into the light – and you can do this with anyone who embraces you in my name, right – how does the story put it: whenever two or more gather in my name there am I in the midst of them? Whenever you bring your sin out into the light – call it confession, a fearless moral inventory, therapy – whenever you do this, God meets you sin with a loving embrace.

Not punishment or banishment, not fear or disgust, an embrace just like St. John said: See, the home of God is among humankind. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.

And then I woke up – a little frustrated I might add because I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask of this group – but I woke up. So I walked around with that crazy dream for a few days thinking: “This really is about the upside-down kingdom of God” only to stumble upon these words of theologian James Nelson:

We need not adopt Augustine’s dark suspicion of all things sexual to embrace the notion that something is passed biologically from one generation to the next. That fits with what we know about genetically based vulnerability to (all kinds of illness and disease…) the Christian tradition’s awareness of original sin, therefore, says that something beyond our own individual choices and actions has gone askew in the scheme of things. We don’t fully understand why. Blaming our mythic ancestors in Eden’s garden will not particularly help. Nor will blaming God or fate. But it does help to know that we are caught up in a mystery with which we must live as creatively and responsibly as we can. And, it helps to know that we cannot live this question all by ourselves. God’s grace and human companions are utterly necessary.

And that, Christian friends, is how I have come to understand Adam and Eve for our generation: they point to the mystery of real life – the fever in our pink Cadillac – the brokenness that is beyond our control and God’s gracious invitation to live into it all with creativity, love and responsibility. Oh, and one thing more: Adam and Eve begin the story being at home in God’s love, and the Bible ends the story by telling us that God’s love keeps calling us home until we respond. So how about singing one more old song with me as the start of our affirmation of faith?

Because, you see, an affirmation of faith is not really about intellectual or theological words, but rather the union of our heart and head in the celebration of grace: our homecoming with the Lord. And there isn’t a better song about that homecoming than this…

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home


Monday, April 26, 2010

One year ago today...

It was one year ago today that Dianne's beloved mother died. Hard to believe it was a full year come and gone: sometimes it seems like an eternity while at other times it doesn't even seem real. There is just no planning for grief, is there? Di felt wave after wave of fragility today - you can't plan for this kind of thing I reminded her when she called from work - so we'll ride it out together (I postponed my "praying the psalms" to live into our own lament.) Emily Dickinson had a unique take on grieving in her poem, "I measure every grief I meet."

I measure every grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if it weighs like mine,
Or has an easier size.

I wonder if they bore it long,
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine,
It feels so old a pain.

I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try,
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die.

I wonder if when years have piled--
Some thousands--on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse
Could give them any pause;

Or would they go on aching still
Through centuries above,
Enlightened to a larger pain
By contrast with the love.

The grieved are many, I am told;
The reason deeper lies,--
Death is but one and comes but once
And only nails the eyes.

There's grief of want, and grief of cold,--
A sort they call 'despair,'
There's banishment from native eyes,
In sight of native air.

And though I may not guess the kind
Correctly yet to me
A piercing comfort it affords
In passing Calvary,

To note the fashions of the cross
Of those that stand alone
Still fascinated to presume
That some are like my own.

In time's like this, I tend to drift back to Auden:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West.
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever; I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

So I will cook up our favorite comfort food of pasta and meat sauce, pour some red wine and see what the night holds for us both. (hadn't thought about this tune but... who can chart the path of grief, yes?)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Moving beyond a wooden Augustine...

My series on "Sin and Grace in the 21st Century" has been resonating with some and bewildering others. I can see that some folk find an invitation to rejoice in Paul's announcement that we are ALL sinners unsettling. (Thank God: I know it makes me uncomfortable.) I think that Bonhoeffer said better than any one else that most of the time the contemporary church teaches that we are not really sinners: Sin is for those people - those who are obviously wounded and marginalized - and we are insiders. Good souls.

In his training manual for pastors preparing to serve the underground church in Nazi Germany, he wrote:

Why is it often easier for us to acknowledge our sins before God than before another believer? God is holy and without sin, a just judge of evil and an enemy of disobedience. But another Christian is sinful, as we are, knowing from personal experience the night of secret sin. So should we not find it easier to go to one another than to the holy God? (Mostly) because we have been living in self-forgiveness and not true forgiveness...

As long as I am by myself when I confess (and forgive) everything remains in the dark; but when I come face to face with another Christian, the sin has to be brought out into the light... and sin hates the light. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of what is left unsaid, sin poisons the whole being of a person... and makes us more lonely... and the more lonely we are the more destructive the power of sin is over us.

(Until) we let the cross of Christ shatter our pride (and bring us into the light) we will remain afraid of going to the place where Jesus is truly found. We refuse to carry the cross when we are ashamed to take upon ourselves the shameful death of the sinner in confession... for in confession we affirm the cross (which is folly to most of us!) But in the profound spiritual and physical pain of humiliation before another believer, which means before God, we experience the cross of Jesus as our liberation and healing.

St. Paul reminds us that the Cross is folly for some and scandal for others - and without it we try to live as a God unto ourselves and sin's shame and power keeps us trapped.

So, next Sunday I'm going to try to update the wisdom of Augustine but in a way that is not obsessed or inhibited by his location "of sin's transmission from one generation to the next in the act of sexual intercourse. In spite of his enormously important contributions in other areas of theology, when it came to sex Augustine fumbled (in personal life as well as in theology.) Nevertheless, it was the universality of sin and the need for diving grace that he rightly wanted to articulate - the notion that sin is inevitable but not necessary. None of us escapes it, yet we cannot blame it on blind faith either." (James Nelson, Thirst, p. 69)

Which leads me to a fun idea that I hope will work: to highlight how Augustine's great fumble has tragically wounded us I want to use two GREAT cultural examples of Augustine's legacy: Peggy's Lee's incomparable "Fever" and Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac." (I understand there are Ani De Franco and Guns'n'Roses songs that play with the garden imagery, too.)

Both of these songs fuse the quest for sexiness with a sense of violating God's will in playful but provocative ways. And just as the almost superstitious Roman Catholic obsession with infant baptism has captured the culture - "we have to baptize our child as protection from hell should she die" - so, too our cultural confusion when it comes to the garden of Eden. Just listen to the way the Boss crafts this rambling sexual/spiritual riff on the ancient story: brilliant, funny and all too honest almost in spite of himself. Man, he even brings it all together by working in a CAR!

We shall see how it all shakes out in worship next week... maybe there are better tunes out there that celebrate this confused obsession... but I don't know them. Any thoughts?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

One voice...

Last night's Wailin' Jennys show was stunning: beautifully performed, tender and emotionally intimate, too. The concert accomplished a variety of musical styles and sounds - Appalachian claw hammer banjo, blues, gospel, folk and Beatlesque pop - that show-cased each person's unique gifts while also regularly blending their sounds into a powerful chorus. To my aesthetic, the Jennys incarnated a spirituality of what it looks (and sounds) like for creative and very different people to bring beauty into the world through collaboration. It is equal parts discovery and discipline, trust and playfulness with a whole lot of practice and humility added to the mix.

The show was opened by an American string band from Boston, Joy Kills Sorrow, who blended a ton of talent with a commitment to pushing the edges of bluegrass/acoustic music. Their MYSPACE page puts it like this: "Welding a vast range of musical experience to a deeply-shared common vision, the kaleidoscopic string band sound of Joy Kills Sorrow does not so much shatter the boundaries of various styles as it disregards them entirely." I was smitten: they had a PERFECT band name for my understanding of the intersection of art/music/theology - they had a blast playing together - they were clearly genre-benders - AND they were young performers not afraid of exploring tradition. You really should check them out: (

Then came the Jennys - and they delivered in spades. Bass player, Heather Masse, opened up with a quiet, contemporary ode to birds - The Bird Song - that was followed by Nicky Mehta's haunting bird song - Arlington - and they were off and running. Their commitment to being honest messengers of beauty and hope amidst the harsh realities of life resonated throughout the show. Take their song, "Avila," which is a little lament and a whole lot of affirmation - it aches and soars at the same time in the assurance that wounds are not the end of our story - and the chorus is one the whole auditorium can share, too.

Oh sweet peace, never have you fallen
Never have you fallen upon this town
Oh sweet peace, never have you fallen
Never have you fallen upon this town

I will not rest
Until this place is full of sunlight
Or at least until the darkness
Is quiet for a while
And we will not wait
For that murder to come calling
The night will simply fall
And the morning will rise

I was particularly moved by Ruth Moody's writing - her squeeze box, banjo and bodhran playing knocked me out, too - as she blended traditional Appalachian sounds with contemporary sensibilities in pursuit of personal and social peace. In my opinion, the majority of hipsters (and aging folkies) in the audience may be alienated from the trappings of modern religion, but they were not at all shy in singing her "hallelujah" chorus. It cut through ALL our pretensions and divisions as the Spirit is want to do:

They closed, as expected, with their anthem to unity - One Voice - but came back for a few encore tunes. Dianne suggested we use "One Voice" (which we're doing in worship tomorrow) as a combined choir/band/congregation song for Pentecost. And after experiencing how this song works through people of all ages, backgrounds and social perspectives, I know she is right.

And then the concert ended with the Jennys stepping away from their microphones to share the Irish song: The Parting Glass. In a hall of 3,000 people - with nothing but the simple majesty of three voices joined in harmony - the old words became new. There were small children and great grandparents - gay and straight - women and men of four generations together for a few hours. In this I give thanks to God for so much of life is about polarization and fear.

Last night, too, Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law the most punitive and fear-based immigration act in the United States. Roman Catholic Bishop Roger Mahoney - whom I knew back in the old Farm Worker organizing days - called this law a modern expression of Nazism. It will increase racial profiling, encourage social suspicion, empower law enforcement agents to act out some of their worst inclinations and exaggerate the very real problems that the whole Southwest has been facing for generations. It is a coldly calculated act of political manipulation that panders to the confusion of the white population without fixing any of the deeper social/legal problems of the Border.

Last night was the sound of solace - an encounter that nourished our souls and bound us together - so that we might live more gently as an alternative to the hatred. In the best sense of the word, we had church last night and I am grateful...

credits: 1)
2) ; 3)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Fret not... you belong!

Psalm 37 begins, "do not fret because of the wicked" and keeps getting better and better. Scholars say it is one of twelve acrostic psalms - a collection of aphorisms and wisdom saying arranged according to the Hebrew alphabet - that urges the young reader to nurture the elder's "long view of patience."

Tradition also invites us to "listen" to this psalm more as an insight from the Holy rather than a prayer of intention. Patrick Henry Reardon writes: So how does one pray such a psalm? To begin with, by respecting its tone, which is one of admonition, warning and promise. Surely prayer is talking to God, but it also involves listening to God, and this is a psalm in which one will do more listening than talking. It is a psalm in which the believer prays by placing his/her heart open and receptive to God's word of admonition, warning and promise. (Christ in the Psalms, Reardon, p. 71) In this we begin to hear insights for soul construction:

+ Do not fret...

+ Trust and do good...

+ Be still... and wait patiently...

+ Do not fret - it only leads to evil...

+ The meek (that is the patient) shall inherit the earth...

+ Wait for the Lord and keep to God's ways...

I know that I am not particularly good at waiting - I do not have the gift of patience - and I know more about fretting than letting it go. So why bother? I think it has something to do with trusting, knowing and experiencing that we belong to the Lord. Don Postema says it so well:

Most of us know that feeling of being alone, isolated. It's not the same as choosing to be alone once in a while, or being independent at times. It's the feeling that no one is near, that no one remembers, that no one cares for my soul (Psalms 142: 4) or that there is no one to live for. It's a feeling of deep isolation, of not belonging to anyone. And when we have that feeling, the cry, "to whom do I belong?" is one of distress and longing.

And so the wise elder of Psalm 37 encourages us to put take stock of our feelings but not to make them into idols. "Can a woman forget the infant at her breast," asks the prophet Isaiah? "Or a loving mother the child of her womb? Even these forget, yet I will not forget you... I have engraved them on the palms of my hand" says the One who is Holy (Isaiah 49: 15-16) I am very moved by the wisdom of another elder, Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk:

Belonging and alienation are words that speak to us today. We know what alienation is on the personal level, on the social level and on the religious level. Alienation means out utmost misery. The opposite of alienation is belonging. Translated into our terms, the message of Jesus is: you belong! You don't have to earn it, this ultimate belonging, it is a given fact. It's the most basic truth of your life. Don't you know that in your hearts?... Christ urges us - pleads with us - and pokes us to accept our belonging. Snap out of your alienation. Don't hang on to your private little self. Open yourself to the gift of belonging. All the joy of heaven is yours for the taking - no, for the giving of yourself. That is God's kingdom and conversion - and that is what Jesus preached.

And I have to practice letting go of my fretting so that I can receive the blessing of belonging. Today we began the day by eating muffins and reading the Times. Later we will nap and then join the kids at a Wailin' Jennys' concert: I need times to practice not fretting - then I feel alive - and live like I am connected.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ok time for a break...

Ok, it is time for a little break from my recent jag of "confessing church/ bonhoeffer" reflections. (After all, it is Earth Day and my buddy, Hal, is playing "Fresh Garbage" on his radio show after sharing Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell AND Quicksilver!) I recently found my way into two new volumes of poetry - one the new CD (I still instinctively want to say 'album' but...) by Natalie Merchant called "Leave Your Sleep" and the other The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz - and BOTH are treasures.

+ Merchant - who used to make me crazy (like a lot of wandering late 80s music did) - is on to something brilliant and engaging in this new work. Not only has she taken texts from a variety of poets - E.E. Cummings and Mother Goose to Gerald Manly Hopkins and Jack Prelusky - but she has also gathered a host of incredible musicians to help her explore an equally dazzling collection of musical styles to help her give shape and form to her ideas. And man does she do some creative explorations here...

+ And Kuntitz... Lord, is he powerful! In a LONG poem he calls "Journal for My Daughter" he writes:

Your turn. Grass of confusion.
You say you had a father once:
his name was absence.
He left, but did not let you go.
Part of him, more than a shadow,
beckoned down corridors,
secret, elusive, saturnine,
melting at your touch.
In the crack
of a divided house
grew the resentment-weed.
It has white inconspicuous flowers
Family of anthologists!
Collectors of injuries...

(He continues for 8 more short sub-sections - all of which speak of his love and memory of his beloved daughter - and concludes with this...)

The night when Coleridge,
bore his crying child outside,
he noted
that those brimming eyes
caught the reflection
of the starry sky,
and each suspended tear
made a sparkling moon.

Tomorrow night my honey and I will join daughter and son-in-law over the mountain for two feasts: first we'll enjoy dinner together and then head out to see/listen to/experience the incomparable Wailin' Jennys (one of the clear proofs that God is real and grace-filled!) It will be one of those sacred/simple blessings that I find myself cherishing more and more as these days rush on. And as the weekend matures, I will cut some grass, join a new couple in church for the baptism of their little boy on Sunday and sing the Wailin' Jenny's tune "One Voice" during worship.

Two weeks from today, Dianne and I celebrate 15 years of being married: we're headed to our new anniversary get away - Providence, RI - for a few days of resting, wandering book stores and art museums and who knows what else. Providence is a fun little city that feels like a refuge for us - chamber music at Brown University, funky shops and a chance to be near the ocean (the East Coast equivalent to the BIG SKY of Arizona_ - and it is only 90 minutes away.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bonhoeffer and the confessing church in the US...

Something is gnawing at me when it comes to the historic witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 65 years after his martyrdom - and 15 years after the bombing in Oklahoma City - I can't but think that there must be something more for people of faith to do than talk about civility in politics. Don't get me wrong, I celebrate that call for respect, careful thinking and honest rather than inflammatory speaking when it comes to the hard issues of this generation. And the recent "Covenant of Civility" is an act worthy of wider support. (For more information see: (

And yet... in the name of the truth, the state of Texas is currently engaged in an act of revisionist history designed to obscure the complexities of the American experience:

– To avoid exposing students to “transvestites, transsexuals and who knows what else,” the Board struck the curriculum’s reference to “sex and gender as social constructs.”

– The Board removed Thomas Jefferson from the Texas curriculum, “replacing him with religious right icon John Calvin.”

– The Board refused to require that “students learn that the Constitution prevents the U.S. government from promoting one religion over all others.”

– The Board struck the word “democratic” from the description of the U.S. government, instead terming it a “constitutional republic.”

And yet... our ability or willingness to laugh at ourselves has almost disappeared. Colbert and Stewart are doing their best, but there is more fear and disdain than humility in the body politic.

And yet... there is also precious little public conversation about social sin - born of greed or arrogance - and when there is (a la Glenn Beck) it is used to denigrate the cause of justice. The Palin/Bachmann political machine use pictures of Hitler for President Obama when they are the ones who support fascist solutions. Many tea-baggers fan the flames of race hatred only to cry "censorship" when called on their fear-mongering.

Makes me think back to the wisdom and insight of Sam Keen - Faces of the Enemy - the exposes how we go about dehumanizing others so that we can hate and then destroy them. (Please see:

Which keeps bringing me back to Bonhoeffer and his insistence on naming the demonic and finding ways to oppose it with his very life. Close to the end of his life, he put it like this:

We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize - before God! God compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation... where God would have us know that we must live as people who manage our lives without God. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us. The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually... for God is weak and powerless in the world and that is precisely the way - the only way - in which God is with us and helps us. Christ helps us NOT by virtue of his omnipotence, but by the virtue of his weakness and suffering.

We are called to be allies of the wounded - and give voice to the voiceless - yes?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The comfort of owning our sin...

NOTE: My sermon notes for Sunday, April 25, 2010 build on my exploration of what sin might mean to people of faith in the 21st century. I am grateful this week to Douglas John Hall and Dietrich Bonhoeffer for their insights on sin and grace. And also to Kierkegaard who notes that there is comfort in knowing that we are all in this together.

One of the most tender and challenging names for Jesus comes from today’s gospel where St. John portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In this he is telling us that Christ is our connection to God’s loving protection:

• He is the source of our hope and inspiration and he is the heart of authentic compassion.

• He gives shape and form to God’s word and invites us to listen carefully to the Lord: my sheep hear my voice – I know them – and they follow me.

Which is an upside down way of saying that because we are all like sheep – who regularly wander away and get lost over and over again – we need a good shepherd who will not only look out for us and love us, but also train us in the ways of staying safe. That is what salvation is all about – being safe, whole and made fully alive in God’s love – from the Latin word salvare for health and safety. Theologian, Douglas John Hall, puts it like this:

Salvation, as presented in the Bible and in the best traditions of the Christian faith, does not mean being saved FROM our mortality, finitude or human nature; nor does it mean being saved FOR an otherworldly state, immortality, heaven or all the rest… this distorts the whole Christian message… (Rather) Jesus’ most basic intention was to enhance life – to save us from death, understood symbolically and not only literally; and to save us for life… by being with us (in our hard and joyous times.) (Why Christian, p. 42)

That’s part of what our Resurrection faith is all about: that Christ is with us – within and among us – just as the great Shepherd’s Psalm proclaims.

• If the Lord is my Shepherd then… I shall not want – my needs will be cared for – yes? Because the Lord is my shepherd.

• He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters so that… what? My soul is restored –healed – and renewed.

And even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death – the dark and hard places of living – I will fear no evil because…? Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me – and protect me, too. So that I might feast upon the abundance of real and tangible blessings – even in the midst of mine enemies – anointed with sacred oil like ancient royalty – because my cup is full to overflowing with grace.

St. John is ever so careful to help us link the beauty and promise of the Shepherd’s Psalm with the blessed presence of Christ Jesus the Good Shepherd of the resurrection because… we all need help. We need a Good Shepherd – who can call us by name – and walk with us through real dark places. Who can guide and protect us with a sure and strong staff. And point to what goodness and mercy looks like in the realm of relativity so that we might dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Now, as I hope you can tell, I love me some spiritual poetry and imagery – and when it comes to evoking God’s truth - St. John is a master. Time and again he reminds us that we are like sheep that have gone astray – lambs that must be trained to hear the Shepherd’s voice – even periodically be rescued from trouble.

Last week John’s gospel used this same image when Jesus asked Peter: Do you love me?Remember? Three times he asked the one who had betrayed him, “Peter, do you love me?” And three times he replied, “Then feed my sheep – tend my lambs – care for and protect my wandering flock.”

And that’s one way of talking about the spiritual challenge – the way of beauty and gentleness – it is subtle, evocative and inviting. Do you love me – then feed my sheep. But there is another way – it is less poetic and more direct – maybe even blunt. And St. Paul wins this category hands down: while John speaks to us of listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd, Paul tells us that:

There's nobody living right, not even one, nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God. They've all taken the wrong turn; they've all wandered down blind alleys. No one's living right; I can't find a single one... We race for the honor of sinner-of-the-year, litter the land with heartbreak and ruin and don't know the first thing about living with others because we never give God the time of day. This makes it clear, doesn't it, that whatever is written in these Scriptures is not what God says about others but to us to whom these Scriptures were addressed in the first place! And it's clear enough, isn't it, that we're sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else? Our involvement with God's revelation doesn't put us right with God. What it does is force us to face our complicity in everyone else's sin.

Are you still with me? Do you see where I’m going with this? Both of our spiritual friends are telling us the same thing – sin is real and touches us all on the spiritual journey – but one voice is tender while the other is rough. One insight is poetic and the other didactic. St. John is inspirational and St. Paul is all about brass tacks. And I’ve come to trust that we need both voices in our inquiry into how we understand sin in the 21st century.

• Because sometimes I know that I need encouragement and motivation and other times I just need a kick in the pants.

• And my hunch is that we are much more alike in this than we are different, don’t you think?

So scripture and tradition gives us both voices – often together – so that we might actually HEAR the voice of the Good Shepherd and follow: most of us don’t need more information about God, we don’t need more facts and rules, we just need to listen and follow. So, on this Sunday dedicated to the Good Shepherd I thought it might be fun to listen to what St. Paul has to say about following because with Paul there is NO ambiguity

In my mind, St. Paul is a lot like my high school gym coach who used to say things like: “Gentlemen, you are all fine men for the shape you’re in – but LOOK at the shape you’re in. Hit the floor and give me 50.” No poetry – no ambiguity – no tissue paper feelings with Coach Bettino because he was NOT a sensitive, new aged guy: he was an athlete who was there to train other athletes.

And when it comes to sin, Coach Paul wants us to know a few key truths. First, sin is NOT a failure of willpower. It is neither a lapse in morality nor a disease we can be cured of; rather sin is part of the human condition.

There's nobody living right, not even one, nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God. They've all taken the wrong turn; they've all wandered down blind alleys. No one's living right; I can't find a single one... We race for the honor of sinner-of-the-year, litter the land with heartbreak and ruin and don't know the first thing about living with others because we never give God the time of day.

Everybody is included in this definition – no exceptions – which was good news for Paul because it meant that everybody was equal. Kierkegaard said that this was one of the curious comforts of sin – that we were all desperate for God’s grace together – so there is no one better or worse off than anybody else. We are ALL like sheep that have gone astray – every one of us.

• Can you see why this is good news? Blunt and very down to earth, but also liberating, too?

• What do you think?

There are no distinctions in this understanding of sin: we’re all in it together. Dietrich Bonheoffer put it like this:

In the presence of other sinners – other Christians – I no longer need to pretend… I am permitted to be the sinner that I am… honest and alive… And together we can stand before one another as the sign of God’s truth and grace… We can hear and embrace the confession of sin in Christ’s place and offer the forgiveness of sin just as Christ taught.

So first, when it comes to sin, we are all in this together: men and women, rich and poor, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat. In other words, we don’t have to fake it. Let’s just be honest and real and alive.

Second, Paul wants us to know that God’s reaction to human sin is NOT a lightning bolt from the sky – or any other form of punishment – but rather God allows us to experience the consequences of our broken behavior. And while this is an insight that is 2,000 years old, we still haven’t quite grasped it – and it could be so liberating.

In the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he says that there are clearly times when women and men want to be selfish. We want to live like animals – lost in our sensations – so God lets us live like animals until we wake up one day to find that we have become bestial. Listen carefully now because what Paul is describing is God’s wrath – which isn’t overt punishment, but rather a stepping back or withdrawal of God’s loving presence so that we might begin to feel and experience the consequences of our actions. It is relational – like a loving parent:

The basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and loving look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can't see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being. So nobody has a good excuse. And what happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn't treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.

So God said, in effect, "If that's what you want, that's what you get." And it wasn't long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god, and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us… Worse followed: Refusing to know God, they soon didn't know how to be human either…

And then just like my high school coach – not my English teacher poet – but my down to earth coach, Paul gives it to us no holds barred:

Sexually confused, they abused and defiled one another… all lust, no love. And then they paid for it, oh, how they paid for it—emptied of God and love… God quit bothering them and let them run loose. And then all hell broke loose: rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing. They made life hell on earth with their envy, wanton killing, bickering, and cheating. Look at them: mean-spirited, venomous, fork-tongued God-bashers. Bullies, swaggerers, insufferable windbags! They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives. They ditch their parents when they get in the way. Stupid, slimy, cruel, cold-blooded. And it's not as if they don't know better. They know perfectly well they're spitting in God's face. And they don't care—worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worst things best!

This is the tough love approach to grace – blunt and in-your-face – for Paul wants us to know that the REASON God steps back and lets us feel and experience the consequences of our actions is so that we’ll want to come home. Our feelings can be one of the ways we can listen for God’s presence – or absence – in our lives. For we trust that God really is still speaking.

First, we’re all in this together. Second, God lets us really have it our own way so that we’ll feel what God’s absence means. And then third, when we’re ready – and we really have to be ready over and over again just like sheep – when we’re ready to let the Good Shepherd name our sin honestly and forgive us inside and out, then we are cleansed. We trust by faith that Christ Jesus truly comes to us and makes us whole – releasing us from guilt and shame – and renewing us from the inside out – indeed saving us in the truest sense of the word – for abundant life. Here’s how Coach Paul puts it one more time:

With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, our fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ's being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. But those who trust God's action in them find that God's Spirit is in them—living and breathing God – from the inside out.

We can’t figure this out all by ourselves, my friends. We need a Good Shepherd. We can neither force God’s hand by bargaining with the Lord in our brokenness nor get clean and whole by obsessing on our guilt and shame. Left to ourselves, all we can find are the dead-ends – and if we stay all by ourselves dead-ends are all we will know.

And that is St. Paul’s last insight: we need each other – the body of Christ – to listen and weep and pray for one another when we are weary – and to laugh, too, so that we know that somebody else understands us – somebody else has been through this and made it to the other side.

• More than anything else the church has been invited by the Good Shepherd to be a witness to the grace that can set us free.

• To live as people of faith in community so that there is a light in the darkness when some of us have no room for faith or trust or even light in our hearts or minds.

A healthy and holy notion of sin binds us together in grace and liberates us from guilt and shame. And so we gather every week in the presence of the Good Shepherd who invites us now to open our hearts in prayer to share this song as witnesses…

2) jane laddick @
3) lee hodges, ibid
4) john boer @
5) margo schopf @
7) confusion @
8) serrano @

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bonhoeffer and more...

In his posthumous book, Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes something that rings very true to me 65 years later. And after a few recent conversations with colleagues who have become bored, burned-out and cynical - something very easy for clergy in times such as these - this reflection from one imprisoned for both his thoughts and deeds takes on a new twist:

I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose God needs men and women who make the best use of everything. I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us resist in all times of distress. But God never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on God alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future. I believe that even our mistakes and shortcomings are turned to good account, and that it is no harder for God to deal with them than with our supposedly good deeds...

Bonhoeffer sounds a lot like Dr. King talking about how the arch of the moral universe tilts ever so slightly towards the good. And what both martyrs make clear is that times such as these demand a unique and sustained resistance in which prayer and action are non-negotiable. Individuals have neither enough strength nor insight to carry-on as solitary opponents in our mean-spirited and seductive culture. Alcoholics discovered they needed encouragement and accountability to stay healthy. So why do so many clergy insist on trying to do ministry as islands unto themselves? Arrogance? Fear? Bad theology? No role models? What?

Probably all of the above plus the fact that most of us have not hit bottom... and until there is no place to go but up, we'll keep doing things the same old way and expecting different results. In the church - in our minds - in our lives, yes?

But that just makes clergy cranky, old farts who are more cynical and worn-out than inspirational. How did Jesus put it? "You can read the signs in the heavens but you can't see the signs of the times!" (Where is the artist formerly known as Prince when you NEED him...?)

PS - so our "praying the psalms" group met - such wise and faithful friends - who talked about how hard it is in our busy lives to make room for "listening to God" in prayer. And how weird some of the Psalms are, too. At the same time, some new words and phrases are becoming part of our inner vocabulary even as we struggle to find time for a new/old way of prayer.
+ Psalm 9: the Lord will be a refuge for the oppressed... God will not forget the cry of the afflicted... who never forsakes those who seek you.
+ Psalm 5: All who take refuge in you will be glad forever... you will shelter them... and defend them with your favor as with a shield.
+ Psalm 13: how long, O Lord, how long will you hide your face from me?
This is NOT the most popular study group I have offered - it takes commitment - but it is very, very sweet and the right thing at the right time.

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:...