Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Exploring the sacred in the secular...

Our band is going to lead a retreat this Saturday for the local American Baptist church called: How Do You Sing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land? At the core of this day of music and prayer has to do with exploring and listening for the sacred in what is often called our secular culture.

Part of the inspiration is rethinking the old "By the Waters of Babylon" song from Psalm 137...

The other part comes from a life-long experiment in listening for the holy in culture that Cathleen Falsani puts like this:

I have a favorite T-shirt that reads, "Jesus is my mixtape." When I bought it, I thought its slogan was charmingly quirky, but over time it has acquired this transcendent quality, a motto that sums up my belief that everything - everything - is spiritual. At the center of that everythingness, as a pastor friend of mine likes to describe it, is a universal rhythm, a song we all play, like a giant, motley orchestra. Sometimes in tune, sometimes off-key. We call it by different names. Still, it remains - if only we have ears to hear it - the eternal soundtrack that plays in the background of our lives.

It will be a blast to be in a sweet, rural retreat center by a lake singing, talking and learning with 50 new friends. After opening with a time of Taize worship - and a follow-up discussion - we'll use a liturgy from the Community of Iona and talk about world music. And then we'll wrap things up with my own liturgy fusing some poetry by Emily Dickinson, Scott Cairns and Marie Howe with songs by Annie Lennox, U2 and Cat Powers. I spent all day working out the art presentation in Power Point form which is one of my favorite visual ways of praying ever!

And now it is time to call it a day.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fret not - let your faith take you deeper

NOTE: My worship notes for Sunday, October 3, 2010. This is World Communion Sunday in my tradition - also very close to St. Francis' Feast Day, too - and I am bringing my series on the feast of God's love to a close in two more weeks. This message considers what the feast of God's grace has to offer us when it comes to the stages of fath (a la James Fowler.) I am also concerned about how the pendulum has swung too far towards the primacy of feelings in our corrective to the more sterile and academic faith concepts of a previous generation. The two primary texts are Psalm 37 and Luke 17: 5-6.

There is a little tune by Yusuf Islam – those of us of a certain generation know him better as Cat Stevens – that is both a prayer for calming the soul and a call for deeper faith. In a way, it mirrors parts of all our readings for today…

I listen to the wind – to the wind of my soul
Where I’ll end up well I think, only God really knows
I sat upon the setting sun but never, never, never, never…
I never wanted water once: no, never, never, never

I listen to my words but they fall far below
I let my music take me where my heart wants to go
I swam upon the devil’s lake but never, never, never, never…
I’ll never make the same mistake: no, never, never, never

Verse one says that even when we don’t know where the Lord is leading us, do not fret for it is God’s nature to provide. Psalm 37 advises that we take delight in the Lord so that God can give us the desires of our hearts, because God will not let us down regardless of what our feelings might suggest.

• And verse two notes that when our understanding of the Lord is incomplete – when we feel like the disciples who cried out, “Lord, give us more faith” – the grace of God replies “be still before the Lord.” There is no such thing as “more or less faith.” Rather, there are stages of faith that even our mistakes can help us comprehend.

Behold the tiny mustard seed – or in our world the poppy seed – which represents the first stage of faith. In time, this little kernel can mature and cause great things to happen, but not all at once. In fact, it usually takes a lifetime of practice doing ordinary and unspectacular things before we ripen and bear fruit, yes?

We have mistakes to make. We have small and regular acts of fidelity and service to share with one another. We have ordinary people to love when they – or we – are unlovable. And we have hearts to nourish and train at the feast of God’s grace that are often restless and bored and not just a little selfish. We have, in other words, stages of faith to explore – not more faith or less – but stages of faith.

And the more we learn to rest – or trust – in the Lord, the greater our capacity for experiencing and sharing God’s peace. “Do not fret” the Psalmist urges three times in nine verses, because it always leads to trouble.

• Literally the word “fret” in Hebrew – charah (חָרָה) – means to burn or kindle oneself into a fit of anger and agitation. Did you hear that? It is less about worrying and more about getting “all worked up” or even infuriated from the Latin word infuriato meaning to become maddened into a fury.

• Now unless I miss the mark, most of us don’t have to practice being agitated or working ourselves up, right? It is organic. In fact, some of us may have already matriculated from the university of under-graduate anger and are ready to start an advanced course in irritation and resentment.

Small wonder the poet counsels the polar opposite – fret not and take up waiting patiently for the Lord – for this how our faith matures and grows deeper. In fact, the scholarly consensus on Psalm 37 is that “the real danger isn’t the emotions of getting intensely worked up or even consumed by the problems of the world. No, it is the self-harm we do to our relationship with God that results from bringing this state of being onto ourselves!” (Robert Morris, Hebrew and Middle Eastern Studies at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina @ )

Don’t get me wrong or misconstrue what I am saying:

• Arguing with the Lord is not the problem here: think of Abraham challenging God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if he could find even 12 just and loving people amidst all the wickedness.

• Nor is being angry with God a sign of infidelity: consider Job’s outburst and tirade when he was at wit’s end or even Christ’s cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

It isn’t anger or confusion that is the spiritual problem of Psalm 37. Rather, it is what happens when we consistently let our emotions carry us away from trusting in God’s love. Remember that when Abraham challenged the Lord’s judgment, when Job screamed about his experience with God’s absence and when Jesus cried out in agony and despair as the nails pierced his flesh: they were expressing a lover’s argument with the Beloved. They may have wept and cursed and felt abandoned, but they also trusted…

… and trusting God in the midst of trouble is very different from letting our emotions become the Lord of our hearts, don’t you think? Sometimes it happens to us all – it is another stage of our faith – where we have to call everything we knew as a child into question and maybe let it go. How did St. Paul put it in I Corinthians: when I was a child, I spoke like a child and thought like a child and acted like a child… but now that I have grown-up I have… what? Put childish things away.

Questioning and arguing with God – wrestling with doubt – is a natural stage of faith development. What’s more, we all get caught up in our feelings from time to time. Like Cat Stevens sang, “I swam upon the devil’s lake” but then quickly adds, “but I’ll never, never make that same mistake.” Such is a part of growing deeper in faith.

Not so with letting ourselves become enslaved or even addicted to our feelings and fears until they take over and take charge. For then we are no longer in a lover’s argument with the Lord – we’ve given up trust – so that fretting has become our master. Are you with me here? Do you sense the distinction between sometimes get caught up in fear and anger – which can help us go deeper into faith – and being addicted to fear and anger so that they consistently replace trust?

To go deeper in faith – to nourish trust – the wise, old poet of Psalm 37 gives us two assignments: practice being still before the Lord and learn to wait patiently for God’s presence – and neither is as passive as they sound in our English translations.

+ You see, to be still before the Lord – literally to be struck dumb in awe of God – damam דָּמָם – is an act of contemplation, ok? It is learning to look for God’s presence in the ordinary events of real life and respond in wonder.

+And to wait patiently upon the Lord – chuwl חוּל – is to pause in longing expectation – to tremble before God’s grace – knowing that the fear and anger and injustice we see now is NOT God’s final word.

Dare I say that to wait patiently on the Lord is to nourish a sacred sense of imagination so that we might see the world as God intends for it to be rather than accept the mess we have created?My hunch is that this was the faith Jesus was describing to his disciples when he spoke of the mustard seed. They wanted MORE faith – they wanted clarity – and certainty – and maybe even the assurance that they were making progress. One preacher put it like this:

Like many of us we want faith to make everything better. Some seek a mystical (and trans- formational) experience, a faith that works like a drug to help us get through life’s ordinary challenges. Some aspire to faith as an antidote to struggle. With enough faith, the televangelists tell us, all doubt and illness and even economic hardship can be conquered. ( )

But Jesus says: No… no, no, no, no – never, never, never, never. Faith is NOT about more or less – it is like a tiny seed with stages of growth – and you can go deeper or remain shallow. Faith is cultivating a deeper relationship with God – learning to trust more profoundly – rather than looking for a new drug or a quick fix. And most of the time that means doing very ordinary and simple things: like being still so that you nourish awe instead of complaints or waiting patiently in creative imagination.

Fr. Ed Hays of the Community of Shantivanum – which means Forrest of Peace – once put it like this: to grow in faith and move beyond the tyranny of our feelings means we must learn the wisdom of our wounds. God gave us feelings, you see, for a reason and we best not neglect or deny them. But feelings are not God and until we learn the wisdom of our wounds they may enslave us. So like the wise, old the Psalmist, he notes: whenever our broken hearts or wounded souls tell us to do one thing, it is usually God’s grace that we do the opposite.

• If our fear kicks in and tells us to run away, it would be best to stay put and engage; if our anger impels our tongue to lash out with cruel words, it would be better to shut up and listen then make things worse.

• If we are afraid to take a stand and seek to slink away into the woodwork, it would probably be better to stand up for the cause of justice and grow in courage.

And if we don’t know what to do and doubt God’s presence – or even wonder what it is that God might be asking from us – rather than act in ignorance or arrogance, it would be best to wait upon the Lord and practice some creative imagination. For then – in God’s time rather than our own – we will grow and mature in faith. And that is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

So sweet...

We had a so sweet weekend in Boston that was centered in seeing the Eels in a small venue. What knocked me about about the show was:

+ Mr. E knows his people: Geeks and nerds and other freaks with a pain-filled soul who are also searching for joy - and sometimes finding it - filled the Royale Theatre. And it felt like a home-coming and a safe place for celebrating, too.

+ Mr. E knows rock and roll: three different times he covered some ICONIC (and I almost never use that term) 60s masterpieces within the context of his own tunes. They included "She Said Yeah" from the Rolling Stone's "December's Children," John Sebastian's "Summer in the City" and Billy Stewart's 1966 version of "Summertime." In-freakin'-credible. In a way, it was like a millennial version of Frank Zappa - another musical genius with a huge heart - who played with rock and roll and art in ways the unlocked hope for my generation of freaks. It was a delight to behold.

+ Mr. E has a great sense of humor: not only can he sing about the woes of the world with pathos - as is his greatest gift - but he can throw in a chorus that puts it all into perspective: God damn right its a beautiful day. (And this show he set his song to a Beatles-like "Twist and Shout" background; other times it has been "Louie, Louie.")

+ Mr. E has a big heart: he knows the world is broken - he knows his heart (and sometimes his mind) is broken, too. But that doesn't mean you quit - or complain - you keep searching for the blessing and light amidst it all. What's more, when you share your broken heart, it helps heal the brokenness of other broken hearts in ways that can't be explained - just experienced.

My sweetheart LOVES Mr. E's music. It was a transcendent time for her - and for this I give thanks - and I was knocked on my ass a few times myself. And I give thanks to God for this, too. With songs exploring pop-hooks, the summer of love and how love can overcome pain, at one point Mr. E shouted, "Yeah I know it just turned fall... but fuck it: its always summer in my heart." Can I get a witness?!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Istanbul not Constantinople...

Well, it looks like one of my dreams and prayers is going to come to pass sometime in the Spring or Summer of 2011: I have been asked to be a part of the Sister City Jazz Ambassadors as we exploring partnering with a Muslim nation. The Sister Cities website puts it like this:

Sister Cities International recognizes that in order to secure a more peaceful future, we must encourage better understanding and cooperation between the West and the Muslim world. Sister Cities International is in a unique position to play a vital role in bridging the gap between the Muslim world and the West through the "citizen diplomacy" movement. We engage communities in a broad range of programs and activities that involve these citizen diplomats around the world.

The Muslim World Partnership Initiative seeks to provide U.S. communities and communities in the Muslim world opportunities for positive direct engagement with one another. The Muslim World Partnership Initiative will encourage mutual respect, understanding and cooperation through Sister Cities partnerships, educational outreach and joint programs. This Initiative will encompass several goals:

+ Strengthen the existing Sister Cities partnerships between the U.S. and Muslim world and form new partnerships.

+ Demonstrate through these Sisters Cities partnerships that mutual respect, understanding and cooperation can be built and sustained between the United States and the Muslim world.

+ Tell the remarkable stories of these partnerships and programs to help inform and educate the American public about the positive impact of citizen diplomacy.

People-to-people peace-making has always made the most sense to me. It is slow, to be sure, and takes a long time to bubble-up into public policy. But building relationships and respect with real human being is the only lasting way I know to subvert hatred and fear - and interestingly, this is how much of my public ministry has unfolded:

+ Back in the Cold War, I was a part of a number of people-to-people encounters with the former Soviet Union - travelling throughout Russia four different times in 8 years - and leading both a 50 person youth group and a state-wide coalition of adults.

+ In Cleveland I was appointed to serve on the Community Relations Board - a city agency empowered to improve race relations in that profoundly segregated city - which eventually led to being a part of the inter-racial School Board reform team.

+ And in Tucson I found myself called into similar work building trust and relationships with sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ community.

And now a chance to move forward in the peace-making work between Islam and the West in the 21st century. In her moving spiritual autobiography, The Butterfly Mosque, Willow Wilson writes about the true heart and beauty of Islam - and how countless souls in Egypt and throughout the Muslim world are working against the fears of fundamentalism. In a recent interview, Wilson said that the biggest problem facing young Muslims today is:

Despair. I’ve fallen prey to it like everyone else. Too many of us are convinced there is no hope–that we really are casualties in a battle between East and West, Islam and jahil, right and wrong. There seems so little room to be a whole person, so little room to make human mistakes and be forgiven. I think young Muslims suffer terribly as a result. I pray that Allah delivers us from this time of trials and puts peace in our hearts.

She also notes that Islamaphobia is the mirror image of Muslim fundamentalism - the same demon - only with a Western face. Just as Islam must wrestle through the challenges of reclaiming the peace and beauty of Islam from within; so we, in the West, are charged with creating alternatives to the fear and hatred in our camp. This observation, for example, is profound as she explores:

... the roots of anti-western malice. Military conflicts are a superficial exterior for what Islamic extremists really abhor; they are philosophically outraged, she says, by the sheer accessibility of western culture: the fact that everything a person could want, from consumer goods to emotional highs to sex to spirituality. [… T]his clashes irreconcilably with Islam, where the things that are most precious, most perfect, and most holy are always hidden.

And so we start to plan - and practice - for our way of fighting back the fear - through respect and relationship. As a child, the only thing I knew about Islam was the Ali Bab stories - sanitized to be sure - a few Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movies and this song from 1953.

Stay tuned... In šāʾ Allāh (إن شاء الله)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mr. E takes Boston...

For about 8 years, my baby has LOVED Mr. E - Mark Everett - and his band - The Eels. Over the years, our various bands have done some of his best tunes: Souljacker, Wooden Nickels and Hey, Man, Now You're Really Living. But, sad to say, we've never had a chance to see the fabulous Mr. E in concert...

... until now! Tomorrow we head to Boston for two days of R and R (rest and relaxation as well as rock and roll) with a Friday night grounded in everything Eels. I am so happy for Di that we'll get to groove to her all-time favorite contemporary artist. And I am soooooo ready for a break with my honey. Here's the man's latest tune from his most recent CD and damn if it doesn't say it ALL!

Damn... I love this song, too!

Singing the Lord's song in a strange land...

On Saturday, October 2, 2010 I will be leading - and our band will be supporting - a retreat for the local Baptist church called, "Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land." There will be three distinct worship encounters and conversations from Taize prayer, a liturgy from the Wild Goose Group in Iona as well as our own God Is Still Speaking the Sacred Word in Secular Songs experiment.

It will be a blast... here's my short introductory essay about our experiment that will include a reworking of tunes like: I'm a Loser, Satisfaction, One of Us, 1000 Beautiful Things, 40 and Things the Grandchildren Should Know.

My life’s work is exploring the ways that music becomes prayer. It is an experiment that sometimes uses traditional liturgical language combined with so-called secular/popular music to tease out the connections between the holy and the human – but it is equally at home with poetry, dance, painting, sculpture and film, too. It is always concerned about integrating the ordinary with the extraordinary in pursuit of God’s incarnate word.

My Pentecost, you see, was that unique moment in 1964 when the Beatles first performed on the Ed Sullivan TV show. Like Little Steven of Springsteen’s E Street Band, I, too, was transformed by that night – enraptured and filled with a new sense of meaning and hope – when those boys from Liverpool took the stage. And while many in the church would not consider “Twist and Shout” a call to worship, it was as palpable for me that night in our Massachusetts living room as it must have been for the first disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. And from that time to this I have been learning how to blend and incorporate the sounds of the streets with the invitation of the Spirit.

I experienced my call to ministry when I was 16 – at the Potter’s House ministry in Washington, DC – in 1968. That was 40 years ago which means that I have been wrestling with ways of integrating art and music, poetry and spiritual renewal in the church for as long as Israel wandered in the desert. And one of the essential truths of this wandering is that I have discovered that there really is no such thing as secular and sacred. Cathleen Falsani puts it like this:

I have a favorite T-shirt that reads, "Jesus is my mixtape." When I bought it, I thought its slogan was charmingly quirky, but over time it has acquired this transcendent quality, a motto that sums up my belief that everything - everything - is spiritual. At the cent of that everythingness, as a pastor friend of mine likes to describe it, is a universal rhythm, a song we all play, like a giant, motley orchestra. Sometimes in tune, sometimes off-key. We call it by different names. Still, it remains - if only we have ears to hear it - the eternal soundtrack that plays in the background of our lives. (p. 39 )

That is what I have discerned, too: the deeper I go into the prayer of music the more I discover that everything is spiritual. What’s more, because everything is spiritual I have been haunted by the importance of connecting the center of life with the periphery and the fringe. I was a white, suburban kid, for example, who sensed a calling to the black city.

And the deeper I embraced this journey, the more paradoxical it became: I found myself living and working with Latino farm workers in the Central Valley of California, marginalized gay dancers in LA, African American politicians and clergy in urban Cleveland, radical priests in St. Louis, screwed-up rock'n'rollers all over the place, lesbian clergy in Tucson, woodcutters in Mississippi, friends in all types of 12 step meetings to say nothing of worshipping in Episcopal cathedrals, Black Baptist store front churches, bars, picket lines and seminaries. And all the while there was a growing sense that people like me - straight, white and middle class - could be part of God’s banquet of freedom with the excluded rather than the traditional gate-keepers if… if Christ’s table really was open.

One of my seminary advisers, Dorothee Soelle, calls this "class suicide," but it never felt like death to me (maybe because she was such a dramatic German and I am waaaay too Celtic.) Rather, it felt like a dance or a feast that I had to earn a right to attend, to be sure, but a dance and a banquet of freedom nevertheless. It was about joy and grace, not obligation and judgment.

So now I am convinced that one of the authentic movements of the Holy Spirit in our time – a true way of listening to a still speaking God at a time when fewer and fewer people are interested in traditional worship – has to do with the prayer of music. Not only are we aching for a true encounter with the holy, but we no longer trust our historic institutions. Again, Falsani is helpful when she notes that the crying need of this generation is to be embraced by God’s grace:

Why grace? Because some days, it's the only thing we have in common... because it's the oxygen of religious life, or so says a musician friend of mine, who tells me: "Without it, religion will surely suffocate you!" Because so many of us are gasping for air and grasping for God, but fleeing from a kind of religious experience that has little to do with anything sacred or gracious. Because you can't do grace justice with a textbook, theological definition, but you can get closer by describing it with music and film, pictures and stories...

If Dostoevsky was right that “beauty can save the world,” I suspect it has something to do with the way beauty in general – and music in particular – can cut through the words and culture so that real people can experience the blessings of faith, hope and love – grace – and then turn that experience into ethical and compassionate living. Frederick Buechner said: "Pay attention to the things that bring a tear to your eye or a lump to your throat because they are signs that the holy is drawing near."

I believe he is right – and that is my hope and commitment. The poet, Scott Cairns, puts the challenge well in his poem:

He is angry. He is just. And wile
he may have died for us,
it was not gladly. The way
his prophets talk, you’d think
the whole affair had left him
queerly out of sorts, unspeakably
indignant, more than a little
needy, and quick to dish out
just deserts. I saw him when,
as a boy in church, I first
met souls in hell. I made him
for a corrupt, corrupting fiction when
my own father (mortal that he was)
forgave me everything, unasked.
“The Spiteful Jesus.”

Like so many others, I have found the “other Jesus” – the one grounded in grace and compassion – in these songs that are prayers. I hope you can, too.

I'll keep you posted. Tomorrow we head into Boston for a little time away before the fullness of autumn in the church REALLY takes off.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The feast as a way into Christ's character...

NOTE: Here are my weekly sermon notes for worship on Sunday, September 26, 2010. They are rooted in both our unfolding series re: the Feast of God's love and the lectionary texts including I Timothy 6 and Luke 16. Please join us for worship if you are in town at 10:30 am.

Today we’re going to talk about God’s feast and how it can help us grow into women and men who make Christ visible to our world. That is, we’re going to consider how the Lord’s feast nourishes Christian character in practical ways. St. Paul told young Timothy:

Brother, run for your life from all this. Pursue a righteous life—a life of wonder, faith, love, steadiness, courtesy. Run hard and fast in the faith. Seize the eternal, the life you were called to, the life you so fervently embraced in the presence of so many witnesses… The time has come to show the world what it means to quit being so full of ourselves and obsessed with money… so that we can build a treasury that will last and gain what is truly life while we still have time.

And what was true 2000 years ago for a young man is NO less true for you and me in 2010: if we truly want to take off spiritual distractions, social distortions and the disease of consumerism that plagues our culture and soul, then God has given us an alternative in Christ Jesus. But here’s the rub: it takes practice allying ourselves with the way of Christ – it takes a life of nurturing and nourishing his radical alternative – because the old ways are so deeply engrained within us.

• Do you hear what I’m trying to say? Are you with me on this?

• If you want your core – your heart and essence – to be like Christ, it is not enough to intellectually or emotionally embrace Jesus as Lord: you have to cultivate a Christian character.

And somewhere over time this notion of cultivating the content of character in Christ – what we used to call it discipleship – has been lost or at least obscured. We don’t talk anymore about “fighting the good fight” or “picking up our Cross to follow.” Now we speak of our rights or building self-esteem.

• At other times we speak of the bottom line – effectiveness and efficiency – or else its television and the realm of popular culture and entertainment: in the 21st century it is rare for even people of faith to speak about discipleship.

• Our language reeks of the dominant culture – almost never expressing what it might mean to consider the common good – rather than what’s in it for me?

Theologian and liturgical scholar, Marva Dawn, speaks to this truth and why it matters for Christ’s people in our era with unusual passion and clarity. Drawing upon Neil Postman’s “horrifying expose” of what an entertainment-obsessed culture means in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, she writes that today we are flooded with information that is meaningless, infatuated with ideas that are disembodied from context and constantly craving more from our distractions so that our entertainment has become almost addictive in its intensity.

US society in the age of the tube has not degenerated according to George Orwell’s 1984 – though Orwell’s prophetic visions have been fulfilled in some modern totalitarian states. Rather, television has taken over in the way presaged by Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. As Postman summarizes it, ‘no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history… instead we have come to love and adore the technologies that undo our capacity to think… so much so that we now are accustomed to learning good ideas and then doing nothing about them…(we find ourselves) saturated with information that requires no meaningful action. (Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, pp. 19-21)

I think sister Dawn is on to something that we need to consider: to my way of thinking she hits the nail RIGHT on the head when she states that our fixation with the marketplace and entertainment has led many of us away from depth into the realm of trivial selfishness. Call it impotence and irrelevancy – or whining and disappointment – she is spot on with these concluding words about the contemporary church:

(Without true intimacy and relevance) the Church is affected, too… living far apart from each other, members of a congregation do not hold each other as their primary community. Consequently, churches often do not experience the deep intimacy that could characterize our times together. We might know some facts about each other, but we do not actually know who a fellow congregant really is, so we talk about the trivia that fills our culture when we gather. We do not know how to share what genuinely matters or how to speak about the truth. And lacking in sincere intimacy in congregational fellowship, we often then put false pressure on worship – or the pastor – to produce feelings of intimacy for us. (p. 28)

No wonder St. Paul told his young protégé, Timothy, to run like hell away from all of this! “Instead of the dominant culture, man, put on a life of wonder and faith – steadiness and courtesy – depth and integrity and then you will find yourself growing in the wisdom and blessing of Christ our Lord.” Paul understood that if you want to cultivate an alternative to the chaos, emptiness and death you had to cultivate sacred and godly habits and practices.
Theologian Marcus Borg says much the same thing as St. Paul only using contemporary expressions:

No matter how good our parenting was, we all grow up wounded. Our socialization and life in this culture confer conflicting and conflicted identities.” Not only are we not whole, but many of us have a low, sometimes desperately low, sense of self worth… so the formation of Christian identity, therefore, always involves a transformation… a moving – or conversion - from the broken and wounded identity given to us by the world to our more authentic selves created in the image of God. Christian character is about nourishment and practice and compassion and justice… (Marcus Borg, The Heart of God, p. 190-192)

Whether you favor Marcus Borg or St. Paul – post-modern biblical exegesis or time-tested orthodox theology – what we’re talking about is cultivating a Christian character by consciously challenging the status quo. I love St. Paul’s words in Colossians:

Chosen by God for this new life of love, dress yourselves in the wardrobe God has picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It's your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it... (Colossians 3: 12-14)

Now, would you agree with me, that Paul is talking about how important it is for a person of faith to learn a clearly defined set of practices that help us grow into the love and faith of Jesus? Is it clear that living into the way of Jesus is NOT automatic? It takes practice? Well, then, it seems to me that Paul wants us to know about a few key practices, yes? And from I Timothy he offers six – righteousness, wonder, faith, love, steadiness and courtesy – each of which deserve a comment:

+Righteousness: this has nothing to do with self-righteousness, ok? This practice is springs from the word dikaiosyne meaning the way of integrity and justice; so we’re talking about cultivating a way of being in right relations with people, ok?

+Wonder: literally the Bible speaks of godliness from the Greek eusebia – which is all about discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary – or the holy within the human. It’s the practice of finding God’s voice in rock and roll or high culture – at the movies or even in the harsh realities of real life – its learning to see the Word being made Flesh in our context.

+Faith: A constant spiritual practice from the Greek pistis having to do with trusting that God is God and we’re not. Faith is living like the world doesn’t revolve around me. Another way of saying this is that this practice asks us to live like Good Friday is not the end of the story because we trust that the darkness will become the light of Easter in God’s time – but not ours.

+Love: better rendered here as compassion – agape – because there is nothing erotic or ordinary about this commitment; it has to do with sharing both the suffering and joy of sisters and brothers equally in good times and bad. It is neither moody nor trite.

+Steadiness: is a critical practice in our self-centered and fickle times and means patient endurance from the Greek hypomone. It is the antidote to our mania about the bottom-line or self-absorbed fears and anxieties.

+Courtesy: literally meekness – as in the meek shall inherit the earth – from praotes. But courtesy cuts to the chase in our ear for it is the practice of sharing authentic tenderness rather than always demanding your own way - or complaining - or whining – or even calling attention to yourself.

These six practices show us how to move from impotent busyness and fear towards tender patience and compassion. When we do this, you see, Christ becomes visible and real to a broken world through us. Now, let’s be honest: these practices neither heal nor transform us over night and they take a lifetime to strengthen and mature. But without them, we remain trapped in the emptiness of our dominant culture and do nothing to challenge its cruelty – which is where the feast comes in.

Jesus spoke of a feast in his parable today, didn’t he? A feast in which one soul remained aloof and indifferent to the suffering of another; a feast where one person is clothed in the finest purple linen possible while the other is covered in ulcers and sores; a feast in which one eats the finest foods available without thought while the other scrambles with the dogs under the table in the dirt for crumbs.

And after a life time of such feasting – and neglect – both souls die and go to their eternal reward. And what happens – how does Jesus describe what takes place next? The self-centered soul – in this case a rich man but there are a lot of ways of being self-centered – finds himself cut off from God and in agony, while the beggar is embraced into the bosom of Abraham for eternity. And what does the rich man ask for after his life is complete – and let’s try to be specific?

First he cried for mercy – for compassion – right? He wanted to have in death what he had never practiced in life: mercy and God’s compassion. And what does Father Abraham say? Remember how you lived without mercy while you were alive? Well, what you reap now is what you sowed then and mercy is not in your cards.

So another cry goes up – this time for a messenger from the dead to warn his family about the need to start practicing the mercies of God – and what does old Abraham say to that? Forget it, man: for 2,000 years you’ve had Moses and the prophets and if THEY aren’t good enough then, NOTHING is going to help now.

The way I see this story, this feast is a nightmare – intended to awaken us from either our enslavement to a selfish, empty and cruel culture – or else challenge us to get over our whining and go deeper into Christ’s character. It is one of the stories that Jesus told when he was cranky, I think: it is right and true but just a little frightening.

• No wonder St. Paul said start running – and put the practices of Christian character into action. No wonder Marcus Borg said conversion is for both liberals and conservatives – so get to it.

• Jesus gave us a wakeup call about the practice of grace because we only have one life to live – and we could blow it.

Once, in another moment of frustration, the Lord was asked by the religious scholars of his day for a sign from heaven and said: Look, when evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A self-absorbed and distracted generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah."

As my musical buddies come up to help me, we’re going to share with you a sign of the times as a call to practice. The pumpkin has NOTHING to do with Jesus or Christian discipleship – it is just a sign of these autumn times – but if you put it on your desk or someplace you are likely to see it every day… it could encourage to start putting on the character of Christ.

I was a sailor, I was lost at sea
I was under the waves Before love rescued me
I was a fighter, I could turn on a thread
Now I stand accused of the things I've said

Love comes to town I'm gonna jump on that train
When love comes to town I'm gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I've seen love conquer the great divide

If you know ANYTHING about God’s love – if just one part of Christ’s life rings true to your heart – if you have just the slightest sense that the world is in chaos and filled with cruelty: then the call from God is to join the alternative. Practicing the way of wonder and integrity, trust and compassion, steadiness and courtesy is what that alternative looks like in the way of Christ.

So… let those who have ears to hear: hear.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Exploring rhythm...

In this morning's email was a daily "spiritual reflection" that included these words from Martin Copenhaver:

Everyone is talking about balance these days. We want more balance in our lives. We complain about the lack of balance. We strive for the right balance between our work lives and the rest of our lives. Magazines provide carefully balanced lists of suggestions about how to get more balance. But, frankly, to me the whole concept of balance sounds exhausting, like balancing on one foot or balancing a tray of full glasses while walking on a rocky path—I can do it, to be sure, but not for long. I don’t know of anyone who can stay balanced for very long.

But balance is not a biblical virtue. Instead, the way of life that is commended in the Bible is more about rhythm than it is about balance. There is the rhythm of the week, six days of work and one day of rest, set within the larger rhythms of the liturgical year. Jesus spent time in intense engagement with the people around him in rhythm with time alone or with close friends. And then there is the basic spiritual rhythm of breathing in and breathing out. Indeed, there is a “time for every matter under heaven,” which is an ancient affirmation of the place of rhythm in our lives.

When we strive for balance it is like standing on one foot. When we respond to the rhythms of creation, it is more like taking part in a dance—first one foot, and then the other. Which one sounds more life-giving to you?

What a refreshing and helpful insight this was to me - especially given how tired I've been these past few weeks. I've been striving for an artificial balance - which depends a great deal on me - rather than getting my life into something closer to God's sacred rhythm. I've been too busy (I've said) for prayer, I haven't had time for quiet walking and blah, blah, blah. No wonder I feel out of wack!

There are two things about Martin's words that really resonate with me:

+ First, the whole nature of rhythm - while not unrelated to balance - cuts deeper (for me.) As a bass player with lots of experience on rhythm guitar I know how essential it is to find and keep hold of a groove. Without it, the song falls apart, yes? So, now I have yet another clue about my ever-deepening relationship with the Sacred. Like Micky Hart of the Grateful Dead has said: it is a groove-thing, man. (Here's a clip from yesterday when Ben stopped by my study before worship only to find us running through Annie Lenox's song, "A Thousand Beautiful Things.")

+ And second, this groove-thing has an intimate, social and cosmic reality to it: I have often taught "breathing prayers" to people before surgery so that they might calm their anxieties and get closer to the One who is Holy while waiting in the recovery room. I practice it myself - but it doesn't stop with me - in fact, it really isn't just about me at all. There is a rhythm to interacting and taking time away, doing justice and feasting, waking and sleeping and all the rest.

No wonder this came my way this morning: I am taking the first half of the day for quiet refection and rest both because my time has been so full but also because the second half of the day is jammed. Today I give thanks to God for colleagues who can awaken me to new ways to be healthy and holy AND for God's groove-thing...


Sunday, September 19, 2010

A new year of mission and ministry...

Today we kicked off a new season of mission and ministry at First Church on Park Square: we started by gathering on Public Square with our Baptist and Methodists friends for prayer and song before heading back to our respective sanctuaries. It looked to me like we had about 50+ people - adults and children - for this morning's ecumenical celebration - a good beginning for a full year.

During worship we had over 25 children today - and LOTS of energy. I was feeling a little ragged leading music on the Square, practicing with the choir, getting our Sunday School registration moving and getting the band rolling, too. Hard to feel grounded when being pulled in three or four directions at the same time. And then, while welcoming the children, a little guy from China - Nicholas - just touched my heart by simply being Nicholas. And all the stress seemed to vanish so that I could be fully present in the joy and blessings of the day. There really is something to be said about greeting each moment as a child...

One of this year's commitments is strengthening our ministry to families and children. A number of folk have left the Roman Catholic tradition for a variety of reasons and found themselves joining us; they are looking for a strong foundation that celebrates the best of the Christian tradition with our unique emphasis on compassion and community. Others have found that our blend of the arts and the call to justice resonate with them. And still others have noted that at the core of our worship and prayer life is a sense of God's abiding joy. As I have written on many occasions, this ministry is shaped by the words of Jesus (reworked by Eugene Peterson) in the 11th chapter of St. Matthew: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.

We distributed a beautiful little book of Psalms for Children to our elementary children this morning. One of our members discovered it while searching for resources for her grandchildren and it felt right sharing this treasure with our children and families today. The beauty of the book - in addition to the art work - is that each Psalm is carefully synthesized to its essence in simple and comforting language. These tender reworkings of the Psalms called to mind Christ's words in Matthew 18:

The disciples came to Jesus asking, "Who gets the highest rank in God's kingdom?" For an answer Jesus called over a child, whom he stood in the middle of the room, and said, "I'm telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you're not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God's kingdom. What's more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it's the same as receiving me.

But if you give them a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you'll soon wish you hadn't. You'd be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck. Doom to the world for giving these God-believing children a hard time! Hard times are inevitable, but you don't have to make it worse—and it's doomsday to you if you do.... Watch that you don't treat a single one of these childlike believers arrogantly. You realize, don't you, that their personal angels are constantly in touch with my Father in heaven?!

Strengthening this ministry to children and families has taken on a new dimension for me. I firmly believe that the BEST way to equip children with a true faith is to equip their parents because children mostly become what the adults embody. At the same time, in this era of fear and hatred, I sense a unique obligation to share God's loving grace with our littlest ones, too. Not everybody grasps the importance of creating a safe place of faith for our children. Not everyone sees it as essential given all the other justice demands... but I do and this year we will give LOTS of attention to it.

We also kicked-off our Adult Formation ministry, too, with the "Living the Questions" series. The introductory material notes: People know that at its core, Christianity has something good to offer humanity. At the same time, many have a sense that they are alone in being a "thinking" Christian and that "salvaging" Christianity is a hopeless task. What is needed is a safe environment where people have permission to ask the questions they've always wanted to ask but have been afraid to voice for fear of being thought a heretic.

Tomorrow night I begin a series concerning justice and human sexuality... it is going to be a full and sweet year of mission and ministry.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Autumn in the Berkshires...

Today FEELS like autumn in the Berkshires: cool with full sun, trees beginning to show their fall colors and gardens giving up their final tomatoes and eggplants and herbs. I am off to do a wedding for a young couple in a few hours after sharing breakfast and the NY Times with my sweetheart. Later I'll stop by the home of a young family to see my little guitar-buddy's new Ovation and break bread before calling it a day.

Autumn is always a mixed bag for me - maybe you, too? I cherish the very real shift in the sun's light and the bold and subtle colors of the hills all around me. I am smitten with pumpkins - can't get enough of them - in all their rich oranges and round/oval-ness. They speak to me of mystery and imperfection and beauty within the most ordinary of things. Mary Oliver writes:

Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.

How two hands touch and the bond will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.

Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
"Look!" and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.

What a mysterious and beautiful time this is - autumn in New England - I love it. I can't wait to rake leaves and roll in them like I did as a child. Or turn under the garden and fill it with this year's compost. Or carve my first jack'o'latern. Or sip the first apple cider of the season.

At the same time, however, almost woven into the awe, there is a melancholy, too. Maybe you've felt it in your time - a sadness deep within the bones and soul - that is connected to the light and the earth and the season but also cuts much deeper. Again, Mary Oliver helps me give shape to this without fully comprehending:

The lonely
stand in the dark corners
of their hearts.

I have seen them
in cities,
and in my own neighborhood,

nor could I touch them
with the magic that they crave

to be unbroken.
Then, I myself,

said hello to
good fortune.

came along
and lingered
and little by little

became everything
that makes the difference.
Oh, I wish such good luck

to everyone.
How beautiful it is
to be unbroken

I had to take a few pictures from my study window today because the view is changing: what once was wildly green and lush is morphing into browns and yellows that are more brittle. Next weekend we will be in Boston - another autumn ritual - and the season will ripen. Ever since I can remember, autumn has sounded like this to me... there but for fortune, indeed.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

To keep beauty and compassion alive...

Last night I kept thinking about what role the Church of Jesus Christ has in keeping beauty and compassion alive in these dark times. Clearly, I am a Christian Humanist in the Gregory Wolfe school - check out IMAGE journal @ or the artist Mako Fujimura - check out his work @ -or T.S Eliot or even Flannery O'Connor. The integration of truth, goodness and beauty is one of the greatest needs in the United States these days...

+ I watched the Republican candidate for governor of New York, Carl Paladino, talk about his role of bringing a baseball bat to Albany and politics. To be sure, there is anger and fear all about, but he is a true barbarian - and many of his tea-bagger consorts are equally troubling. They are unable to give a wise or reasoned expression to the mood of the country. Instead, they have become masters of exploiting anxiety and throwing gasoline on ignorance, prejudice and stupidity. Just listen to Rand Paul, Sarah Palin or the new media darling, Christine O'Donnell, talk about the so-called common good if you think I am too harsh. It is a frightening time.

+ Equally troubling is the mean-spirited nonsense that Newt Gingrich and Glen Beck are spreading. They are clearly the new Visigoths tearing down the walls of Western civilization from inside. When Gingrich, who intellectually knows better, says the President's vision is shaped by a Kenyan anti-colonialism, he is simply dressing up the ugly dog of questions surrounding Obama's birth certificate (and all that implies) in fancy clothes. And when Beck paints the President as a liberation theologian who isn't interested in personal salvation, he has obviously forgotten Obama's lengthy study of Reinhold Niebuhr and his articulation of social sin. These two liars know how to parse enough truth into their propaganda to do Goebbels and the Third Reich proud.

Which brings me around the the role of preserving truth, goodness and beauty within the Church. Some, Hauweraus et al believe that there is no point in trying to redeem the world because the world, by definition, is fallen and sinful. Their goal is to build up faith communities who offer a clear and vibrant alternative to the status quo. And I resonate with that deeply. At the same time, like the Celtic monasteries of old, I sense that the churches are being called as the repositories of our best art and highest social ethics, too. These may be our new "dark ages," but the darkness will never completely vanquish the light.

Thomas Cahill wrote about the way the Celtic monasteries once kept alive reading and art while holding safe the sacred manuscripts of culture until such a time as they might not be burned. To my way of thinking, these are times not unlike those of old. It brings to mind what Alexander Solzhenitsyn stated so powerfully in his Nobel Prize speech:

Dostoevsky once let drop the enigmatic phrase: “Beauty will save the world.” What does this mean? For a long time it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment certainly, given uplift—but whom had it ever saved?

However, there is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart. One can construct a political speech, an assertive journalistic polemic, a program for organizing society, a philosophical system, so that in appearance it is smooth, well structured, and yet it is built upon a mistake, a lie; and the hidden element, the distortion, will not immediately become visible. And a speech, or a journalistic essay, or a program in rebuttal, or a different philosophical structure can be counterposed to the first—and it will seem just as well constructed and as smooth, and everything will seem to fit. And therefore one has faith in them—yet one has no faith.

It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm. In contrast, a work of art bears within itself its own confirmation: concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one. Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power- and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. And so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.

And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world,” but a prophecy. After all, he was given the gift of seeing much, he was extraordinarily illumined.

And consequently perhaps art, literature, can in actual fact help the world of today.

In this context, advancing - advocating - and celebrating the arts in church is a joy-filled mission and calling, yes?

credits: Images by Makoto Fujimura

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Old friends and new responsibilities...

Earlier today I had the chance to reconnect with a colleague I used to know 30 years ago while in seminary: she is now a successful pastor, mother and mentor in New Haven, CT. What a trip to find that our young seminarian at Yale is doing and internship with my old friend. It is a blessing. What's more, the young person at seminary is SOOOO grounded and wise! It was a treat to visit and get caught up today as we prepare for the next steps in the United Church of Christ "discernment for ministry" process. What a privilege to be with a young person exploring the next steps of ministry.

It was a stunning autumn day in New England: full sun, clear skies with just a hint of fall color in the trees and the promise of winter just around the corner. Driving two hours to New Haven each way gave me a lot of quiet time to reflect on ministry - my own, the ministries of old friends and the new ministries that are still being discerned - and I was grateful for the solitude.

Tomorrow will be a full day of sorting out funding and programming possibilities and problems at church, preparing for a Saturday wedding and taking time to soak in the beauty of the day. We may even have to host the community "street art" program if it rains - which looks likely.

But that is for tomorrow. Today I am simply grateful for old friends, new responsibilities, the privilege of ministry and an awareness that God is in charge, so I don't have to try to be!

photo credit:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

God's feast as a counter-cultural vision...

NOTE: Here are my notes for this Sunday - September 19, 2010 - a time of worship and reflection shaped by Amos 8: 1-12 and Luke 16: 1-13. I believe this is our third week into our time of rethinking what "the Feast of the Lord" might be saying to our church and era. So, if you are around, please join us at 10:30 am.

Today’s gospel lesson has to be one of the weirdest, most challenging and spiritually perplexing parables to be found ANYWHERE in the Bible. Don’t you think that is true?

• Jesus starts out telling us a story about Bernie Madoff – or maybe it was Goldman Sachs – really celebrating the ruthless and totally aggressive actions of a corrupt financier. Let’s be clear: this man has not only has embezzled from his firm, he has cooked the books, too.

• And as the story unfolds Jesus not only asserts that this high powered, flim flam man has something to teach us about faithful living, but he goes on to say that the time has come for people of faith to get hip.

Streetwise people are so often smarter about how the world works than those in the church. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. So I want you to become smart in the same way—only I want you smart for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you into creative survival, concentrating your attention on the bare essentials, so that you'll live, really live, and not complacently just getting by on good behavior. No, I want you to have life and life in abundance!

Isn’t this a trip – a uniquely disorienting story of faith – yes? Usually scholars and attentive people of faith can come to some consensus about Christ’s parables. Sure, they are explosive as Eugene Peterson likes to say – much more about detonation than explanation – but this parable – unique to Luke’s gospel – leaves the best minds of our tradition bewildered. Theologians are all over the map about what this might really mean. Which prompted one wise soul to write that this passage is proof that we are saved by grace rather than understanding or good works because it is so off the wall.

So let me say right out of the gate that I am not going to make any claims about finally figuring out the definitive meaning of this parable when those far brighter and more creative than me have been perplexed about it for 2,000 years. That would be hubris – and there is nothing attractive or faithful about that. In fact, the older I get the more I find myself taking refuge in Psalm 131:

Oh Lord, I am not proud; I have no haughty looks. I do not occupy myself with great matters nor wrestle with things that are too hard for me. No, I still my soul and make it quiet – quiet like a child upon its mother’s breast – resting my soul in the comfort of your love.

Still, I have a few ideas about what Jesus might have been trying to help us grasp in this odd parable. Frank Ramirez, a Church of the Brethren pastor in Pennsylvania, has been helpful in this regard suggesting that when Jesus does not condemn the con man – but lauds his behavior instead – this is a “backwards template for the way we as children of light ought to be taking care of one another! (AWAKE, Pentecost 2 2010, Year C, p. 14) It is a counter-intuitive example about the way creative people of faith might incarnate God’s compassion.

• You see, Jesus wants us to take care of each other as well as shrewd and calculating entrepreneurs take care of their investors. That is part of what it means to be a member of a faith community – we take care of one another – rather than just looking out for number one.

• Ramirez writes: Why then does it seem as if people of faith have such a hard time putting up with one another? Why are there often such profound tensions in our churches when we ought to be showing the world how to get along?

Now, this isn’t a new question – grumbling and selfishness have often plagued God’s people – and we would do well to keep this in mind. This morning’s word from the prophet Amos, offered to Israel 800 years before Jesus was born, isn’t exactly subtle when it comes to God’s displeasure about the way people of faith often treat one another in community or in society. Amos tells us that the Lord said:

I'm calling it quits with my people Israel. I'm no longer acting as if everything is just fine. The royal singers and choirs will wail when it happens." because Master God has said so. "Corpses will be strewn here, there, and everywhere. Hush! Be still! And listen to this, you who walk all over the weak, you who treat poor people as less than nothing, who say, "When's my next paycheck coming so I can go out and live it up? How long till the weekend when I can go out and get trashed?" And those who give little and take much, and never do an honest day's work. You who exploit the poor, using them— and then, when they're used up, you discard them… watch out because I’m taking stock of your sin!”

We know from the stories of Moses that God’s people often murmur and complain, right? We know from the stories of Jesus that not much had changed in his life some 2,000 years later. And we know from our own experience that some 2,000 after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus faith communities still find it hard to consistently express God’s compassion for the world. And this is where today’s weird parable just might be helpful to us in a totally upside-down kind of way.

First of all, if it is true that our parabolic con man is an inverted – or even backwards template – for what true discipleship looks like, then Jesus is telling us something about the counter-cultural nature of his community. This accountant who cooks the books, you see, is a total slave to the values of his culture: he is manipulative, shrewd, self-serving and almost completely oblivious of the social consequences of his actions. He lives as if he were the center of the universe. So as long as he remains fat and happy, who cares what people or Mother Earth experience in the wake of his selfishness? And this isn’t ancient behavior:

• Think of the political leaders from both Palestine and Israel who are currently trying to find common ground for peace after decades of selfish and violent behavior. Brother Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas need all the help they can get as they try to rewrite history on the back of their shared experience of manipulating the fears of their people for short-term political gain.

• The same might be said for many of our own politicians – or the giants of Wall Street – who have confused avarice for compassion and short-term thinking for the common good. I’m told that it is likely that there will be over 4 million foreclosures in 2010 on top of the 3.9 million from last year.

So what does God’s alternative look like? You see, if our con man is really to be instructive, then he must point towards something healthier and holier – a vision of God’s way – rather than the confines of a bottom line culture obsessed with the market place. Thankfully, scripture is filled with sacred alternatives – and the most counter cultural is the Lord’s feast – a vision for us that fills both the Old and New Testaments. Often theologians speak of this as the “messianic banquet” that simultaneously heals the wounded and shares God’s vision for the fullness of life.
In her book, Breaking Bread, Sara Covin Juengst, writes:

The messianic banquet was a familiar image in apocalyptic writings. Jesus used it to remind his disciples of the origins of hope: not only would they receive deliverance from the bondage of sin, but also a sense of joy and gladness because wherever God’s table was found, the Lord was the host. There would be a feast of fat things – no more tears – and no more death. There would be unity and hope because we were now united in God’s grace.

Three passages from the Bible might be instructive for us: First, from the prophet Isaiah in chapter 25: 6-8 we hear that on:

This mountain, God’s abode, the Lord will throw a feast for all the people of the world, a feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines, a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts. And here on this mountain, God will banish the pall of doom hanging over all peoples, the shadow of doom darkening all nations. Yes, God will banish death forever. And God will wipe the tears from every face. The Lord will remove every sign of disgrace from the people, wherever they are for such is the promise of God’s grace forever.

Second, listen for the counter-cultural word of God’s feast in Luke 14:

One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move. Right before him there was a man hugely swollen in his joints. So Jesus asked the religion scholars and Pharisees present, "Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath? Yes or no?" They were silent. So he took the man, healed him, and sent him on his way. Then he said, "Is there anyone here who, if a child or animal fell down a well, wouldn't rush to pull him out immediately, not asking whether or not it was the Sabbath?" They were stumped. There was nothing they could say to that… So he turned to the host. "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.

And third that vision of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb of God in Revelation 19:

At the end of time when God has called together all the people from the four corners of the earth – all the tribes and all the nationalities together – there is a feast with the whole choir of heaven and earth singing “Hallelujah” together in harmony… and the Angel of the Lord will say: “Blessed are those who are invited to the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb of God.”

Now what do these three passages from scripture share in common? What alternative vision do they offer about life lived in the presence of God’s feast?

• Part of the vision is about joy, yes? “The idea of the messianic banquet is sensuous and lovely and filled with joy because it ushers in the end of sorrow.” (Holly Whitcomb, Feasting with God, p. 10) To live into the alternative of God’s love, therefore, is to find ways to celebrate within the midst of everyday and ordinary life.

• There is also something boldly inclusive about this feast, don’t you think? It is for ALL the people – not just Congregationalists or Catholics – nor only for Jews or Christians or Muslims either. How does Isaiah put it? “On God’s holy mountain there is a feast for all the people of the world.”

• And here’s another essential: the messianic banquet shows us that when we break free from the confines of our culture, then “the old order of living is dismantled and a new vision is both proclaimed and embodied… a vision that is more holistic and healthy, more humane and compassionate.” (Whitcomb, p. 11)

All of this from that one weird, perplexing but radically upside-down parable of a con man who worked creatively to take care of himself and his self-centered buddies: if those who are selfish and streetwise can do this, Jesus says, why can’t you who are the children of light? Sometimes it is because we don’t know the alternative to the obsessions of our culture.

And sometimes – and I think this is true for many of us – sometimes we are just too wounded to see beyond our hurt. For whatever reason, when we are profoundly broken or wounded, our vision is restricted – we lose the ability for a while to see anything but the darkness – even when the light is available.

• This means that those of us who can see the light – and the joy and the bounty available to us all at the Lord’s banquet table – need to live into the tender beauty of the feast all the more intentionally.

• How did the old timers used to put it: we need to be witnesses? Witnesses don’t have to proselytize – or become wildly evangelistic – ok? What does a witness in a courtroom do? They simply tell the truth as they have seen it as clearly and honestly as possible. Same for those of us able to live into the feast of the Lord: we have been called to speak of the joy and the inclusivity and the counter-cultural blessings of breaking out of the prison of our self-centered culture simply and honestly.

And when we do that we join Christ in advancing God’s banquet in the world: So here’s what I want you to do right now: we’re going to share a song – and as we do we’re going to distribute a small candle to you – there should be at least one for everybody.

• I want you to take that candle home with you: and sometime during the next week I want you to either light it for yourself if you find overwhelmed with the darkness.

• Or give the candle to someone else who might need a vision of the light. Don’t preach to them or even say a whole lot – maybe just something like, “I’ve been thinking about you this week and thought you might like this” – ok?

Father Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM put it like this:

Somewhere each day we have to fall in love, with someone, something, some moment, event, phrase, word, or sight. Somehow each day we must allow the softening of the heart. Otherwise our hearts will move inevitably toward hardness. We will slowly become cynical without even knowing it—that's where too much of the world is trapped. So create and discover the “parties of your heart,” the places where we can enjoy and taste the moment—the places where we can give of ourselves freely to what is right in front of us. For if you're not involved in giving your thoughts, your emotions to others, "for-giving" reality, as it were, taking will usually take over. One style or the other eventually predominates in almost everybody’s life. So ask God to give you the grace to fall in love with something every day. Then you'll see rightly, because only when we are in love do we understand. Only when we've given ourselves to reality can we in fact receive reality.


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:...