Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pushing the edges of the Glenn Beck movement...

Yesterday one of my favorite contemporary church writers, Diana Butler Bass, posted a blog from a colleague who actually went to Saturday's Glenn Beck rally in Washington, DC. He makes an essential observation:

As I walked toward the hushed sea of people spreading out from the Lincoln Memorial and down the National Mall to the Washington Monument what I found was more worship service than political rally. Despite the vastness of the crowd, the tone was reverent. Few spoke, and when they did it was in a quiet undertone so as not to disturb those around them; that most couldn’t hear the speakers was irrelevant. More important was that they were participating in a moment, a public declaration of faith and solidarity to collectively proclaim that the Tea Party is more than an occasion, it is a movement...

As individuals the people I met and saw at the rally appeared friendly and pleasant. Many returned my smile, I wasn’t ejected for appearing “too liberal,” and some were happy to talk to me for awhile so long as my intention wasn’t to report our conversation in an article that could be twisted by the ‘liberal media.’
But that’s just it. Individually, most Tea Partiers probably are nice people, trying to do what’s right, motivated by good intentions that extend from their faith in God and in their understanding of what this nation stands for. And individualism is exactly what the rhetoric of the rally was all about; from the website: “throughout history America has seen many great leaders and noteworthy citizens change her course. It is through their personal virtues and by their example that we are able to live as a free people. Our freedom is possible only if we remain virtuous.” Mirroring their Christology, salvation for themselves and for the country is an individual act.

Individualism is beneficial for leaders to peg success or failure of a movement on each person’s virtue rather than the power of the collective to effect change. Individualism is focused on personal attainment, personal happiness, and personal livelihood, and fails to see how each relies on a system that empowers, privileges, or dispossess either the individual or others in the process. As I discovered at the rally, to shift the conversation from “I” to “we” in speaking of a collective liberation was quickly flagged as anti-American and dismissed.

Since when did “we the people” become synonymous with Socialism? How can we convince people that “loving their neighbor” means more than just praying for them, that it means supporting a system that raises each of us up through access to education, health care, jobs, and a livable life? How can we encourage people to stop thinking of themselves as living in subdivisions and start living in neighborhoods? How can we shift from the Jesus of the comfortable to the “sell all your possessions” Jesus?

I am grateful for Diana's sharing of this blog (read the whole thing @ www.religiondispatches.org/archive/atheologies/3236/“me”_the_people:_a_day_with_the_tea_party) I am also certain that their very real pain - exploited and manipulated as it is by harsh and even cruel right-wing ideologues - is real and part of God's still speaking voice. I look forward to wrestling with the scriptures tomorrow in light of this reality for they speak of "picking up the Cross to follow" - not head out as an individual - as well as consider the "ways of life and death" for the whole people of God. I clearly do not resonate with the overwhelming "individualism" of the Beck experience and affirm what Bass expresses here...

Monday, August 30, 2010

A few very clear differences...

You have to give Glenn Beck and his crowd credit for tapping into both the economic fears and social anxieties that are ripe in the United States in 2010. There is no way to fake bringing 300,000 people out to the Lincoln Memorial as Beck did this past Saturday no matter what conspiracy theories you employ. And it should be abundantly clear that, once again, the United States is wrestling with one of our fundamental conundrums: shall we be a republic that truly values freedom of and from religion, or, shall we slip towards theocracy?

To be sure, Beck et al have TONS of right wing money at their disposal to rally the disaffected. Both the NY Times columnist, Frank Rich, and a writer for The New Yorker, Jane Mayer, have written responsible and insightful articles making it clear that amidst the sea of so-called populist angst and libertarian spontaneity lies:

... the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it, and have been doing so since well before the “death panel” warm-up acts of last summer. Three heavy hitters rule. You’ve heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans. But even those carrying the Kochs’ banner may not know who these brothers are. Their self-interested and at times radical agendas, like Murdoch’s, go well beyond, and sometimes counter to, the interests of those who serve as spear carriers in the political pageants hawked on Fox News. The country will be in for quite a ride should these potentates gain power, and given the recession-battered electorate’s unchecked anger and the Obama White House’s unfocused political strategy, they might. (For more information see both: The New York Times @ www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/opinion/29rich.html?_r=1&ref=frankrich and The New Yorker @ www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_mayer)

Money and media connections are part of this social tumult - to be sure - but not the whole story. And while the right-wing ideologues have been brilliantly successfull in exploiting middle class American fears, they are not the cause of these fears. Take, for example, the description of religion offered - and widely affirmed - at the Beck rally and the lies he tells about those who hold different insights.

+ Christianity is about personal salvation. Period. Nothing more, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. And let's be clear: by personal salvation Beck and his crowd means that your soul has been redeemed from hell and you are guaranteed a place in heaven for ever. (Please don't ask Beck to describe what personal salvation means to a Mormon - which he is - because it is extremely complicated and not at all grounded in anything resembling Christianity. See, for example, http://adailyscoop.blogspot.com/2008/11/lds-view-of-heaven.html or perhaps http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrees_of_glory.) To be sure, faith has a personal - that is, inward - dimension as well as a social - or public - reality. To focus only on a narrow and privatized theology of salvation is not only duplicitous and destructive, but it violates the very word salvation which is grounded in salve which means to heal.

+ Christianity has NOTHING to do with social transformation. Those who teach that God holds a special compassion for the poor and oppressed - as the Hebrew prophets of Israel and Jesus clearly teach - are either socialists or morally corrupt or both. In fact, Beck has been on a rant for months opposing any spiritual talk about "social justice."

No matter that Jesus ANNOUNCES his public ministry with these words in Luke 4: 16:

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

No matter that when the prophet Micah was asked to summarize the essence of his spiritual tradition he wrote in Micah 6: 8: God has shown you what is good - do justice, love mercy and walk in humility with the Lord your God.

So when Beck talks about restoring America - or redeeming America - be clear: it has nothing to do with caring for the poor, setting free those who are imprisoned or binding up the wounded. No, his restoration - irony of all - is much more Darwinian than the progressives he demonizes because he favors the survival of the fittest with perhaps individual acts of charity and pity.

The way of Jesus that I learned speaks of caring for the weakest among us - not only because such is at the heart of the Lord - but also because this is most likely where we will meet God. God comes to us hidden as a Palestinian infant in a peasant's cave. Or nailed to a cross among two thieves. Or walking beside me when I am filled with grief and confusion until my eyes are opened by the breaking of bread.

The God Beck preaches and celebrates is completely unknown to me - and most of the Bible.

Yet Beck's way - financed and fueled by some of the most ruthless right wing players in contemporary America - is gaining traction. This is a dangerous - dare I say an unholy - alliance that will only bring greater damage, fear and anxiety to those who are already hurting. So, while I respect those who say we should simply ignore Beck and his ilk, I think such talk is equally dangerous. Dr. King was clear: when evil men (and women) plot, people of compassion and justice must plan and organize.

I am convinced that there is a choice to be made in this generation - and it is very clear - we can stand with Beck and his fear and privatized heresies - or we can stand with God as Bono said so clearly at President Bush's prayer breakfast.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The fiddle and the drum...

One of my all-time favorite contemporary artists is Joni Mitchell. Over the years I have written about how her creativity ignited something within my soul that opened me to insights and emotions I didn't yet know how to express. I have also been intrigued with her highly personal and transcendent poetry as well as her genre-bending exploration of jazz, rock and folk music. Indeed, forty years ago when I was trying to find my own way into a spirituality of music, I took a cue from "the mayor of Greenwich Village" - Dave Von Ronk - and spent time working with Joni Mitchell's ballads - especially "I Had a King" and "Marcie" - because they were so honest, beautiful and haunting.

As a young man coming of age during the Vietnam War, her tune, "The Fiddle and the Drum" from the CLOUDS album, captured best my own sadness, anger, confusion and grief about the war, the country I loved dearly and my own protests against that war. I was never "anti-American" nor was I blindly pro-Vietnam during those ugly times. And I just couldn't get myself grounded in the harsh or rhetorical anti-war music of the day - the exception being Marvin Gaye's work on WHAT'S GOING ON - as they were often simultaneously mean-spirited and naive. Not so with Joni Mitchell...

Since those days her music has matured even as she has explored new directions or tangents. And even after officially resigning from the cesspool of the "music business" in 2002 - and doing battle with a strange disease known as Morgellon's syndrome - Joni continues to find a way to bring beauty and challenge back into the mix. Herbie Hancock, for example, has done new work with her old songs in 2007 on "River: The Joni Letters" and Joni herself brought out a new album - "Shine" - that is a jazzy prayer of protest about life in the midst of the Iraq war.

So it isn't unusual that Joni Mitchell comes to mind when reminded that this Saturday - August 28th - is the 47th anniversary of the first March on Washington, DC. I recall watching that march unfold on TV as a child - we had a friend of the family participating - and even at 11 was captivated by Dr. King's speech. Soon afterwards, I was turned on to the sounds of Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. In 1983, my young family and I went to DC with my seminary classmates for the marking of the 20th Anniversary of that event in the midst of the Ronald Reagan years.

And now... Glenn Beck and the tea-baggers are attempting to not only high jack the legacy of Dr. King, but rewrite history as THEY hold their own "Restoring Honor" rally on Saturday. Calling up the image of Dr. King - but misrepresenting his essence - this rally mimics the social propaganda perfected during the Third Reich. Remember, the Nazis took the images and holidays of the Christian Church and perverted and redefined them to fit Hitler's racist agenda. They literally stole the stories, songs and symbols of the Christian faith - discarded the Cross and all of its wisdom - and filled the empty shell of a church with anti-Semitic lies and jingoistic assurances about living into the will of God by conquering weak and inferior nations.

After the Holocaust, the cry of humanity became "never again." But as Ellie Wiesel has observed, not only has catastrophic and premeditated death and destruction been allowed to take place over and over again, but we seem unwilling or unable to stop it. And now, the heirs of the Nazi propaganda machine are at it again: they have replaced anti-Semitism with anti-Muslim hatred and fear - they have inserted "illegal immigrants" for the Jews, homosexuals and Roma of the previous generation - and they are exploiting the social/economic anxiety of the current recession in ways every bit as malicious, calculating and ugly as their Nazi forebears.

And please understand that it is not too shrill or exaggerated to make this comparison: Palin, Beck et al are careful and precise in exploiting fear and pinpointing scape goats - no less so than Goebbel's implementation of the Fuerher's insights in Mein Kampf:

Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. (...) All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed. (...) The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another. (...) The great majority of a nation is so feminine in its character and outlook that its thought and conduct are ruled by sentiment rather than by sober reasoning. This sentiment, however, is not complex, but simple and consistent. It is not highly differentiated, but has only the negative and positive notions of love and hatred, right and wrong, truth and falsehood...

Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively and, in so far as it is favourable to the other side, present it according to the theoretical rules of justice; yet it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favourable to its own side. (...) The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble. On the other hand, they quickly forget. Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare eessentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward. (...) Every change that is made in the subject of a propagandist message must always emphasize the same conclusion. The leading slogan must of course be illustrated in many ways and from several angles, but in the end one must always return to the assertion of the same formula.

The Beck/Palin machine knows how to exploit both our fears and our commitment to free speech. So let's be vigilant in holding their feet to the fire of truth. How did Dr. King put it so well in the face of resistance to his higher calling: When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.

Once again, Joni calls out to me with her unique wisdom, heart and soul...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Make your plans now...

Ok, so Thanksgiving in the USA is three months away but... the older I get the better at administration and planning I get, too. (Or at least that's what I tell myself and those who will listen.) At any rate, I am working on the line-up for this year's Thanksgiving Eve "evening of American Music and Poetry." As some of you know, I've been doing this on and off for just about 30 years and LOVE it. Last year we raised over $1,000 for emergency heating needs in the Berkshires - and I hope we can at least match that in 2010.

And this year, I've got at least TWO more GREAT musicians joining the show: Hal Lefferts - who is a stellar musician and individual, whom I have known since high school (we played together in a rock band called Creepin' Jesus doing Stones and Yardbirds tunes and later we had a little folk duet doing "One Toke Over the Line" and "Wild Horses" during a fun summer of love) - and Grahm Sturtz - another GREAT local musician who I had the privilege of officiating at his wedding. Sue Kelly will bring poetry - Andy Kelly, Bert Marshall and our band, Between the Banks, will bring tunes of joy and challenge - and there are a few other surprises waiting to unfold.

So, get your groove on and make your plans to join us at 7 pm on Wednesday, November 24th at First Church of Christ on Park Square (27 East Street, Pittsfield, MA

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Grace and freedom in eucharist...

NOTE: I am back to the weekly discipline of sermon writing and pastoral care after a glorious vacation this summer. Here are my worship notes for Sunday, August 29, 2010. This return to First Church will be particularly sweet as we are also sharing the music of the South African Freedom Mass during Eucharist. So, dear friends, if you are around I would love if you might join us.

The incomparable Mark Twain is reported to have once said, “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you do know for sure that ain’t exactly so!” Over the summer I can’t tell you how many times this wisdom has been exposed over and over again:

• From the duplicitous and mean-spirited manufacturing of lies designed to foment fear and hatred in the American electorate – think Ground Zero mosque or the Obama is a Muslim campaign – to the pathological arrogance of some of our politicians – Charlie Rangel, Rand Paul and Sarah Palin come to mind – old Mark Twain seems to be right in spades!

• “It’s NOT what you don’t know for sure that gets you into trouble, but rather it’s what you do know that ain’t exactly so!”

I think that is part of what St. Paul is trying to tell us in this morning’s text, too. In Peterson’s reworking of Romans 7 he says:

What I don't understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise… I obviously need help! I realize that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions that are holy. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time… And it happens so regularly that it's predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope.

In other words, so often I am at war with myself: sometimes I know what is good and holy but can’t make myself do it; other times, I think I am obeying the rules – religious or civil – only to find that my actions have made things worse; and then there are all the times when I am baffled and at a loss and seem to add insult to injury by just standing still.

Are you with me here? Does this resonate with your experience, too? It seems to be part of the universal human condition: We truly delight in the goodness of God while parts of us covertly rebel at the same time. And then, when we least expect it, we wound rather than heal and hurt rather than help.

• Paul calls this reality the consequence of sin. And when sin is in charge, no matter how hard we try, we cannot live into a life of God’s grace and love: We cannot keep covenant with God and one another, we cannot be consistent in advancing compassion and we cannot abide in faith.

• Sin corrupts our intentions, waters down our commitments and fills us with guilt, shame and confusion.

This is Paul’s first insight: left to ourselves we cannot consistently live in covenant with God and those we love. We may want to be faithful – we may try to get it right - but how does that old Mills Brothers song put it: “You always hurt… the ones you love?” It is the human condition – and we are at war with ourselves.

Thankfully, Paul doesn’t quit with just one insight – that would be a bleak existentialism – for the old saint goes on to say: “Thank God the Lord acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.” And this is Paul’s second insight: God interrupts the power of sin in our lives through Jesus Christ. He writes:

With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that 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.

And I trust that there is both a cosmic and a personal reality to the way Jesus interrupts and cleanses us from sin. On the grand and spiritual level, Paul wants us to know that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God showed the world that the grace and forgiveness of the Lord is stronger than death, fear and hatred. I love the way Clarence Jordan – spiritual forefather of Habitat for Humanity – put it in an Easter sermon:

By raising Jesus from the dead, God is refusing to take our NO for the final answer in life. God is telling us, “You can kill my boy if you wish, but I’m going to raise him from the dead and then put him right smack dab down again there on earth in the middle of you… For the resurrection of Jesus was God’s unwillingness to take our NO for the final answer of life. And let’s be clear: God raised Jesus not as an invitation to us to come to heaven when we die – although that is lovely – but rather as a declaration that God has now established permanent, eternal residence on this side of the grave – here and now – in our midst… So let’s be clear: on the morning of the resurrection, God put life back into the present tense – not the future or the past. God gave us not a promise, but a presence… not so much the assurance that we shall live someday but that Christ is risen today… and the proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not that empty tomb, but the full hearts of transformed disciples who have experienced the grace of Jesus: not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship – not a rolled-away stone but a carried away church!

Can I get a witness? Will somebody say: AMEN! That’s the big picture truth of Paul’s experience: God’s grace is bigger than all our sin and has been made flesh within the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Grace not only trumps karma as Bono likes to say, grace interrupts and cleanses us of sin.

• And none of this is dependent upon us: did you get that? This is all God’s doing, not ours – a free and eternal spiritual gift – that does not rely upon our having to get it right.

• Because, we know, to use Paul’s words again that: I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions that are holy. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time… And it happens so regularly that it's predictable.

Grace and forgiveness are all about God – and that is a blessing – a gift – a liberation really. And…

… and we have to nourish and honor and cultivate the consequences of this gift in our personal, ordinary everyday lives or else before you know it, the lure of sin will start to grow within our hearts and minds again. God’s grace – not our good intentions – has broken the power of sin and evil in the world and in our hearts.
Paul is clear that God’s grace and forgiveness is exactly what Jesus promised when he said: Come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest. (Or as Peterson puts it: if you are worn out and burned out on religion and trying to get it right all by yourself, come to me and I will show you the unforced rhythms of grace.)

And… we can’t let grace atrophy – we have to nourish and practice it once we have experienced it – so that it grows stronger within and among us. That’s what Christ’s table talk parable is all about: there are things we do everyday – like eating – that can either strengthen or diminish our gratitude for God’s grace. New Testament theologian, N.T. Wright, likes to remind us that in Luke’s gospel there are two key metaphors: faith as a journey and faith as a feast.

(Consequently) Luke's gospel has more meal-time scenes than all the others. If his vision of the Christian life, from one point of view, is a journey, from another point of view it's a party or a feast." (Luke for Everyone). And it doesn't matter whether the eating happens in Emmaus, an Upper Room, or the fields along the road (plucking up ears of corn); in the home of a despised tax collector (Levi, in chapter five) or even those of respectable religious leaders who invite Jesus to join them: like Simon the Pharisee, in chapter seven, and here, in chapter fourteen, where another, unnamed leader of the Pharisees offers Jesus hospitality for the Sabbath dinner.

And what practice – or discipline – or embodied prayer is Jesus encouraging here at this feast? What happens in the story? Jesus is invited to a feast and knows that all the rule keepers are watching him closely: for what? What are they looking for?

They want him to break the rules so they can condemn him, right? And what does he say and do? He not only brings healing to one hungry for new life, he encourages those who know how to keep the rules to look for a deeper engagement with grace in their ordinary activity than what is obvious.

The next time you put on a dinner, don't just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You'll be—and experience—a blessing. They won't be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God's people.

That’s probably enough for today, ok? Two insights:

• First, that we recognize and celebrate that it is God’s love - not our deeds – that free us from the chaos and shame of sin.

• And, second, that by returning thanks to God through acts of compassion and generosity in the world our gratitude strengthens the grace of Christ within lest it atrophy.

Historically, one of the key ways we practice this gratitude is by coming to the table – Christ’s table – for Eucharist – which literally means “thanksgiving” from the Greek word – charis – for grace. When we come to Christ’s table, we come to receive, yes?

The ancient tradition asks us to come with our hands extended – to look upon our hands as we come forward – because… our hands are empty. Nora Gallagher in her book The Sacred Meals writes: “This may be the smartest thing Jesus ever did. How can I make my people step into the unknown? How can I get them to let in some of God’s surprises? I know, I’ll figure out a way for them to put their hands out in front of them – empty.”
In this, “we see that we do not have all the answers… we do not have all the power… in fact, much of life is out of our hands.” (Gallagher, p. 45) So we come – in empty humility and authentic gratitude – to simply receive… and in this we nourish the grace of Jesus within and among us all.

This is the good news for those who have ears to hear. Would you please join me now in affirming the heart of our faith together?

You, O God, are supreme and holy. You create and give us life. Your purpose overarches everything we do. You have always been with us. You are God and are infinitely generous, good beyond all measure. You came to us before we came to you. In the life, death and raising of Jesus Christ you revealed and proved your love for us. You are with us now – for you are the Lord. You empower us to be your gospel in the world through your Holy Spirit. You reconcile and heal; you overcome death. You are our God and we worship you in spirit and in truth. Amen.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Putting this year's vacation into perspective...

This summer we shared a totally wonderful series of vacation days: our new and dear friends, Peter and Joyce, came to see us from Thunder Bay, Ontario - we joined our friends Susan and David for Yoyo Ma's "Silk Road Project" at Tanglewood - we journeyed a total of 1,200 miles on the way the BuskerFest 2010 in Halifax, Nova Scotia (stopping along the way in Maine as well as St. John, New Brunswick) - we got a chance to see our daughters at various times - and listened to a TON of great music. Most of all, this vacation was a gentle experience of taking the time to be with one another and do the things that nourish our souls.

+ Along the way, it became clear to me (again) that I need to stay grounded in prayer lest I get too cocky or distracted.

+ I noticed that more and more I am less and less interested in the glitz and huzzah of a lot of popular culture; rather, what intrigues and encourages me is music well played in pursuit of compassion and beauty. Sometimes that is jazz - we saw a lot of jazz this vacation and the skill and creativity of the musicians was truly food for my soul - often it is what we used to call "wooden music" - acoustic songs with simple and appropriate back-up support - and curiously enough a lot of the music I am loving right now is Canadian. Bruce Cockburn, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, the Tragically Hip, The Band and Steve Bell are speaking to me in ways that have really captured my imagination.

+ And I find that I am committed to an emerging sense of church in ways that are deeper and more counter-cultural than at any other time in my ministry. Not only do I sense that our local faith community is on the cusp of being a center for radical hospitality and compassion in these strangely intolerant times, but that we could be allied with countless other small faith communities who sense a similar calling, too. Communities that cut across tradition and denomination to include Jews and Muslims and Buddhists - communities that go beyond the confines of race and nationality - communities that quietly and creatively seek live out an alternative to the greed, violence and fear of this era. And while some Christians plot and plan for "Burn the Qu'ran" rallies - and Sarah Palin and so many within the Republican party take on a neo-Nazi agenda - I sense the presence of Christ crucified crying out. What's more, the broken Christ on the cross also beckons us to his Feast in solidarity with all the wounded as a parable of hope and healing.

This has been a rich time for rest and renewal. Tomorrow I head back into the work of serving my local faith community as "a minor poet" to use the words of M. Craig Barnes:

Today’s pastors — often expected to be multitasking marvels who can make their churches "successful" — are understandably confused about their role... (but) the true calling of a pastor is to assist others in becoming fully alive in Christ — to be a "minor poet." The pastor absorbs the wisdom of major poets — the biblical poets as well as the church’s theological poets — and distills its essence for parishioners... What the congregation needs is not a strategist to help them form another plan for achieving a desired image of life, but a poet who looks beneath even the desperation to recover the mystery of what it means to be made in God's image.

I look forward to this new year of ministry in a new and refreshed way. Like Barnes concludes: the calling of the pastor is not to make arguments, but to reveal mysteries.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Listening to Joni...

Today is a quiet family Sunday: late morning tea and muffins with the Sunday NY Times - sorting through family pictures - and listening to Joni Mitchell. Right now "I Could Drink a Case of You," from the almost perfect album: Blue.

Yesterday we spent part of the day putting up various framed "street art" I've collected from the assorted places we have travelled: an abstract in purples from Edinburgh, Scotland - a lithograph from Montreal - as well as a few prints from Canada's "school of seven" artists. Today we're working on a collection of pictures of Dianne and myself for the family wall. We've had shots of our daughters at their weddings as well as childhood vacations next to pictures of our parents - so now we need something that grounds us in the clan, too!

Listening to Joni - and sorting through family pictures - brought my mind back to today's column by Nicholas Kristoff in the Times. He is to my way of thinking one of the most thoughtful and compassionate contemporary writers working today. Often when it comes to things I hold dear - family, faith and community - Kristoff is my "go to guy" - and today he writes:

Osama abhors the vision of interfaith harmony that the proposed Islamic center represents. He fears Muslim clerics who can cite the Koran to denounce terrorism. It’s striking that many American Republicans share with Al Qaeda the view that the West and the Islamic world are caught inevitably in a “clash of civilizations.” Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who recruits jihadis from his lair in Yemen, tells the world’s English-speaking Muslims that America is at war against Islam. You can bet that Mr. Awlaki will use the opposition to the community center and mosque to try to recruit more terrorists.

In short, the proposed community center is not just an issue on which Sarah Palin and Osama bin Laden agree. It is also one in which opponents of the center are playing into the hands of Al Qaeda.

After posing the right question about this mean-spirited and manufactured controversy, Kristoff cuts to the chase:

These opponents seem to be afflicted by two fundamental misconceptions. The first is that a huge mosque would rise on hallowed land at ground zero. In fact, the building would be something like a YMCA, and two blocks away and apparently out of view from ground zero. This is a dense neighborhood packed with shops, bars, liquor stores — not to mention the New York Dolls Gentlemen’s Club and the Pussycat Lounge (which says that it arranges lap dances in a private room, presumably to celebrate the sanctity of the neighborhood).

Why do so many Republicans find strip clubs appropriate for the ground zero neighborhood but object to a house of worship? Are lap dances more sanctified than an earnest effort to promote peace?

Time and again I find that spending time with my family in quiet and loving ways opens my heart to how the distractions and fears that command so much energy and attention in our generation are mostly crazy and hate-filled. And listening to Joni work her magic with music and words reinforces how important it is for me to nourish the soul in these damaged and weary days. I give thanks to God for the privilege and opportunity for rest before getting back into the fray as a tender warrior for compassion and coexistence.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A sabbath poem at vacation's close...

My youngest daughter turned me on to Wendell Berry years ago - he is one of her mentors of sorts - and his words continue to bring me a sense of peace. In his collection, A Timbered Choir, Berry shares some of the Sabbath poems he has written since 1979. As the dust jacket notes: "For more than two decades, Wendell Berry has spent his Sunday mornings in a walking meditation, observing the world through his poetry. (This volume) gathers all of these singular works to date, embracing that which is elemental to human life - beauty, death, peace and hope."

That is the vision, seen
As on a Sabbath walk:
The possibility
Of human life whose terms
Are Heaven's and this earth's.

Last night my oldest daughter arrived from NYC by way of an overnight visit with her country sister. She, too, brings gifts and joys into my life but in very different ways from her sister. I thought of them both while reading the first poem in Berry's compilation:

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.

After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

As this year's vacation time comes to a close, I rejoice in the blessings... and now we're off to see the Degas/Picasso exhibit.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Praying the hours...

There are two ways to look at daily prayer: either you do it or you don't. For many years I practiced morning and evening prayer as part of my daily discipline. In time, I also included about 20 minutes of centering prayer. And then, after a long dry spell of just going through the motions, I found myself bored with traditional Christian prayer - so I began using music to both center and express my prayers - and that lasted for a few years until I mostly quit praying altogether.

Well, that's not exactly right: I still offered a quiet prayer of gratitude at night before going to sleep and I regularly found myself expressing short bursts of ecstatic prayers of joy or concern throughout the day. But there was nothing disciplined about it... and I was rather ambivalent about this fact. Oh, at first I felt guilty and slothful - and that was partially true - but in time I let go of the guilt and simply affirmed "that to everything there is a season..." Perhaps even a season for being undisciplined. Like my friend, Black Pete, recently put it in a great new poem:

Squalor and beauty
abide together:
I see the mixture,
live with it,
perhaps be it--
I fear purity.

Sometime last year, however, this began to shift: at first I found myself praying the Morning Prayer liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer more mornings than not; later I found that praying the daily Psalms brought some clarity and focus to my life. And as this summer matured, I found that I wanted to pray "the hours" - roughly morning, noon and evening prayer - but not in an elaborate or deeply formal way. But, rather, as a way of marking the hours of the day and drawing my attention back to the sacred. So I began using a lovely resource from England called: Pray as you go (check it out @ www.pray-as-you-go.org/) This is both sensual and challenging using the wisdom of Ignatian prayer as the foundation.)

And this has led me gently and quietly to adding Phyllis Tickle's helpful reworking of the traditional monastic order: The Divine Hours. She has made this grace-filled commitment simple by including ALL the prayers and readings in one place. Have you ever tried to pray using the Breviary? Or even the BCP? It isn't impossible, but it is complex - which can be off-putting to someone like me - so Tickle has removed the obstacle of flipping pages and searching for the correct Psalm or prayer. So now I can refocus my thoughts and hearts on God in a very tender way: reading short portions of the Psalm three times a day along with a hymn and the Lord's Prayer. It seems to be just what I was searching for at this moment in the journey.

And I think there are at least two reasons for my appreciation of "praying the hours" in this contemporary form:

+ First, they take me out of myself and wash over me with the sacred and time-tested words of my tradition. In this self-obsessed and market-driven culture, this is a good thing and I feel refreshed stepping beyond my own small world three times a day. It is a way for me to affirm: it is NOT about me! This morning, for example, was this short song from Psalm 62:

For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in the Lord. God alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken. In God is my safety and my honor; God is my strong rock and my refuge.

+ And second, these prayers and readings call me towards my best and most compassionate self rather than my usual compulsions, anxieties or concerns. They lure me towards the Sacred within myself, the world and creation. In other words, they help me locate the authentic center of true worship: God and God's grace.

Glory be to the Creator and to the Christ and to the Holy Ghost: As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen! Amen!

I'm still praying spontaneously each day, to be sure, and finding the presence of the Lord in music, too. But for now this seems to be a season for praying the hours... A spiritual director in Tucson told me that the whole point of prayer is NOT to go through the motions - although I think that sometimes even that has value at a subliminal level - but to be awakened. Thich Nat Han, for example, uses the ringing of a telephone to help him reclaim mindfulness. I am finding that these simple and short prayers are awakening me.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Reflections on fear and hatred...

I just returned from a week's vacation in Canada - a lovely time of renewal and reflection with my wife - during which time we walked and talked together in addition to listening to local jazz and participating in BuskerFest 2010 (a festival of street performers.) Each year we get away for a few weeks so that we might return to the work of ministry energized. One year that took us to London, another year to Scotland and for the past three years to Canada. I have fallen in love with both Montreal and Halifax and look forward to a trip to Thunder Bay!

I mention this because while we were at the street festival a number of the artists engaged the crowds in a gentle but persisting America bashing. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't ugly or mean-spirited - nothing like the ignorant venom that spills out of the mouths of those like Sarah Palin, Dick Chenney or Newt Gingrich - but it was real. And at the root of their jokes and jibes was a discomfort with American aggression. I know that isn't a nuanced or complete analysis - the US is also often magnanimous, generous and compassionate - but given the fallout of our two wars and the increasing hatred unleashed by the election of President Obama, an easy characiture of the United States is that we are a nation of bull-headed and arrogant bullies. And given the fevered lies being manufactured by the political and religious right concerning Park 51 - the proposed Islamic community center in NYC - people of goodwill need to clearly articulate our alternative values. Not only for the sake of religious tolerance - which is being tested once again - but also because balance and truth are antidotes to hatred and fear.

Now, I know that most people are not convinced by facts or a persuasive analysis of a problem. One old saying goes, "Don't confuse my opinions with your facts" while another says, "It ain't what you don't know that causes us problems, but rather what you do know that just ain't so!" Most of us change and mature because of experience and personal contact, right? I remember serving on the Community Relations Board in Cleveland, Ohio after being appointed by Mayor Michael R. White - and meeting my first Muslim. Sure, I had been doing urban ministry for about 10 years, but I am a lower middle class white boy from the suburbs and my childhood social circles never intersected with Islam until that time.

After all, I never knew an African American personally until 7th grade. There was a Jewish family living in our neighborhood, too, whose grandparents had lived through a death camp - there were numbers tattooed on their arms - but nobody talked about that back in the early 60s. It was uncomfortable and impolite. In time - mostly through college roommates and later through organizing with the United Farm Workers union - I broke out of my suburban captivity. But, still, until the early 90s I didn't know anyone who practiced Islam. In that, I suspect that I am not too different from many others of my class, race and generation. And even after working with Rasiq for two years on issues having to do with racial violence and Muslim store owners in Cleveland, I really didn't know much about Islam.

Truth be told, I still didn't until after September 11, 2001. My hunch is that I am not all that different from the majority of other Americans. But after the attacks, I began to read and study and learn. I began to seek out Muslim scholars and listen to their take on real life. By a strange quirk of fate, we wound up staying in the Muslim section of London for a month four years ago -where I read and talked some more - and for the past three years have been working with my church community to foster greater peace and inter-faith cooperation. For example, we raised over $5,000 in support of Greg Mortenson's "stones to schools" project of building schools for girls in Afghanistan. We have spent time studying and discussing the key beliefs and practices of Islam. And we will soon explore a mission of cultural friendship and music with an Islamic "sister city."

To be sure, there is a lot more that I need to do to broaden my appreciation for Islam - such is always the reality for someone as thoroughly American as myself - and I know that this quest will always be incomplete. At the same time, I also know that it is both ignorance as well as fear that is fueling the current anti-Muslim rage and such ignorance and fear must be challenged. The lies must be corrected lest they take deeper root. The misinformation needs to be clarified because the current crop of fear-mongers are shrewd, bright and well financed. And the fear needs to be engaged both intellectually and personally so that new relationships might be brought to birth.

I have been writing for the past 6 months about the similarities between Sarah Palin et al and the rise of Nazi ideology during the 1930s and 40s in Germany. Now that Newt Gingrich and his religious right buddies have joined the fray with their "Islam was born in the heart of hell" rants, the parallels are even more ominous. Remember, in the rise of Hitler:

+ The Nazis scape-goated the Jews during a time of economic collapse and anxiety...

+ They used some Christian words and theology to justify their hatred...

+ They physically bullied and beat those who challenged them...

+ And after they intimidated all but a handful of opponents, they implemented their hatred through legislation and propaganda....

The time has come for people of goodwill - Christian Americans as well as others who understand what is emerging from the "birthers," tea-baggers and fear mongers against Islam - to challenge the lies. And they are lies. Not mistakes - they are intentional lies grounded in the careful work of propaganda - that are potentially just as wicked and destructive as anything created by their Nazi fore bearers.

+ If you don't know the facts, now is the time to get up to speed. (Try this for starters: http://www.forbes.com/2010/08/12/america-mosque-controversy-politics-opinions-columnists-shikha-dalmia.html)

+ If you prefer a visual update, check this out: www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZpT2Muxoo0

But let's be clear: those who are fomenting this hatred - and exploiting the economic pain and anxiety of ordinary Americans - are not merely misguided. They are dangerous. They are mean-spirited. And it could get a lot worse before it gets better. Please also understand that we are no different from those advancing fear and hatred - we are all wounded and broken at some level - and we're all capable of living into our worst and most evil selves. Which is why we need one another for accountability and encouragement.

The late Martin Luther King, Jr. continues to help guide and shape my heart in these dark times: "In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends... therefore when evil men plot, good men must plan; when evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind; and when evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love... because hatred paralyzes life while love releases it; hatred confuses life and love
harmonizes it; and hatred darkens life while love illumines it."

As we heard over and over in Canada: this is not a time for bullies - American, Christian, Islamic or Jewish - this is a time for listening. This is a time for challenging lies and injustice. And this is a time to stand up for compassion and cooperation.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back at home...

We made it home tonight at about 8 pm after 8 hours of driving. It feels great to be back in our own digs - even though we already miss Halifax - but there is a garden to water and weed, music to be created and ministry to explore and embrace (after another week off for me!) I am grateful that our journey was trouble and hassle free: the weather was almost always sweet, our old truck kept on truckin' (with minor AC problems but no accidents) and all of the people we encountered helped us in small and great ways: people in the various clubs and eateries turned us on to great local beers and wines, folks in tea shops told us where to find the best local jazz artists and the performing artists we encountered were entertaining and insightful.

I have a number of thoughts to share - from the gentle but poignant anti-American sentiments so many of the buskers articulated to what it means to me to return to praying the hours - but that is for another day. For tonight, I am grateful for the whole experience... and here are a few of my favorite pictures from the trip...

day one:
Bath, Maine - the Chocolate Church Performing Art Centre

day two:
St. John, New Brunswick - teenage girls on the Boardwalk

day three
: Bay of Fundy National Park, New Brunswick

day four:
Halifax, Nova Scotia - BuskerFest 2010 - FlameOz and Wally

day five:
Peggy's Cove - Nova Scotia

As this vacation continues, I am deeply grateful for the chance to explore and share so much of life and love and creativity with my sweet wife. This has been a blessing.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Moving towards the USA...

We head out of Canada later today on the journey home - but not before prowling around Halifax a little more - and celebrating this great place one last time. We'll also tool through the forest and mountains of rural Maine on our way to Orno.

Most of yesterday was spent exploring the Atlantic coastline - particularly Peggy's Cove - which was stunning. Dianne says that this landscape is DEEP within her DNA: scubby little trees, marshes and the beautiful ocean. "All you can do here is soak up the solitude and raise sheep." She was here as a child and spent part of the afternoon scooting over the rocks she climbed 30 years ago.

While sending a video clip of the ocean and a lone piper to her sisters, Dianne got word that her nephew, Ben, had been taken into surgery for an appendectomy. It appears that all is going well but she has not yet spoken to family. Before we head out later today I pray there is a good update. NOTE: young Ben was just taken off the ventilator and seems to be getting on alright (but prayers are still appreciated.)

So we never made it to Bearly's - found another jazz club instead - and then walked along the Halifax boardwalk now that the buskers have departed. Stopped by the oldest Anglican church in Canada - St. Paul's - before calling it a night, too.

This has been a restful, invigorating and reconnecting time for us both - and our trip through Maine is something Dianne has always wanted to do. There is something about a long drive together that we both love - quiet and conversation, exploring new places, just spending time close together - and it is good that our vacation this year includes LOTS of driving time.

Once back home in Pittsfield, I'll have another week off for reading, guitar work, visiting with the girls and finding a way to display a ton of art work I've collected from around the world. I think I will also check out the local Word X Word festival of poetry and music. But now... on to packing!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sunday in Halifax town...

This is our last day in one of our new FAVORITE places: Halifax, Nova Scotia. We've been at BuskerFest 2010 and it has been a delight. Yesterday was a mostly "schleping" day of checking out more street performers before heading to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. This is a creative and diverse collection of fine art alongside folk art and First Nation creations. Additionally, the gallery has sponsored a hands-on artistic creation component for children with autism as well as a small gallery for local high school students. I was particularly moved by the exhibit called "A View from the Atlantic" as it gave me a feel for the importance the ocean on this little port city. (check it out @ www.artgalleryofnovascotia.ca/en/landing.aspx)

Later in the evening we headed out to Niche - a great dinner jazz club - and sat out under the stars taking in a sweet piano, bass and drums trio. Tonight we'll head off to the "blues jam" at Bearly's House of Blues and Ribs which the young proprietor of a new tea shop describes as "... um... well let's just say it is great but not high end!" Hmmmm.... sounds like just our kind of place. (NOTE: it was either Bearly's or the Madonna Festival Drag Show opening just down the road from out hotel and... well as I told Dianne, "I could go either way on this" it was decided that the blues would be the wiser choice! Check them out @ www.bearlys.ca/)

I just got back from "Busker Sunday" at St. Matthew's United Church of Canada. It was a lively and lovely worship celebration - a solid and engaging sermon re: living as fools for Christ and how counter cultural this really is (sound familiar?) - but the HIGHLIGHT for me was the incorporation of two of the church's ministry: a Brazilian drum ensemble, Samba Nova, and a circus ministry to at risk children called Circus Circle.

As director Mike Hirschback spoke, I was jazzed by the possibilities of the circus ministry back in Pittsfield. The director spoke of how troubled kids understand circus acts because they "are already on the edge just like the carnival." And as the young people learn more skills - and experience receiving attention for good and creative things - they also learn about humility and failure. After all, you can't practice juggling without failing - and your failures are all to visible - so you begin to learn that failure is part of the rhythm of life. And if you learn from your failures you grow in wisdom and skill.

It is a hands on, edgy and creative way of reaching out to some of the most forgotten and misunderstood creatures in God's broken world. I loved it and want to know more... (Check them out @ http://circuscircle.ca/) And now we're off to check out the coastline.

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:...