Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Arvo Part and Daniel Barenboim for Advent...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for the Second Sunday of Advent - December 5, 2010. This is part two in my series exploring the peace-making through music work that is happening all over creation. Last week I lifted up the importance of group singing and the experimentation of the "Playing for a Change" people. This week I highlight both Arvo Part and Daniel Barenboim. Then it is on to U2 and Sarah McLachlan and the Pittsfield Jazz Ambassadors! Stop by if you are in town on Sunday at 10:30 am.

Today we are asked to wrestle with and reconcile the message of two ancient Israeli prophets: the poetic peace-maker Isaiah, and, the social agitator John the Baptist. Both men are committed to God’s shalom – that marriage of the heavenly with the human so that all of creation can rest and prosper – but they come at it very differently, yes?

Isaiah speaks of the great reversal that takes place when we are open to God’s spirit within and among us: (The Messiah) shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness – that is, justice and peace – he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth… Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Not so much gentility and grace comes from John the Baptist who also speaks of the consequences of the presence of the Holy Spirit but with a very different flavor when he tells us: As you prepare for the Messiah, watch out – no phonies allowed – this is serious business. And if you think you can fake being ready – or rely upon your family or business background – forget it: Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Do you grasp this contrast – and the challenge – that we face in trying to reconcile these two very different approaches to peace? It is my hunch, and I’ve been working on this for most of my professional life, that we need both Isaiah and John if we’re going to be open to God’s shalom.
At one point in my life, my earlier hot-headed days, the Baptist was my man: he was kicking theological and political butt and taking names and I was certain that he was the spiritual paradigm necessary to help move us into God’s peace.

• I suspect most young preachers think that way – that’s just how we’re made – we have a unique insight into the mind of the Lord and are going advance the kingdom of God come hell or high water.

• John the Baptist, you see, is the archetypal wild man: a model for how to harness male aggression in a healthy and constructive way – a warrior who loves deeply – and cares for both the weakest in his community as well as the environment.

And men – as well as women – need to be in touch with what healthy and passionate energy for justice and compassion looks like; for without a constructive focus for this energy you wind up with youth gangs and their random acts of violence as well as fear and abuse in the home.

But in time it hit me that Jesus chose a path very different from that of his cousin John; in fact, while he borrowed some of the Baptist’s passion and perspective, his life’s work was much more like that of the poet Isaiah who was less of a rabble-rouser and more of a bridge builder.

• Think about it: if you know the John the Baptist story it ends with the wild man in prison where he has some of his helpers go to Jesus and ask: Are you really the Messiah? The one we have been waiting for?

• He is confused because Jesus pays NO attention to the armies of Rome in his ministry – all his attention is given to the poor and lame, the broken and maimed – and that concerns John enough to think that maybe he was wrong about Jesus. Do you recall that story in chapter 11 of Matthew?

Eventually Jesus tells the disciples of the Baptist to look at the fruit of his work and judge for himself: Go tell John what you see and hear. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor are given hope. Jesus closes that chapter with the words that have become the core of my ministry for the past 15 years – words that are almost the polar opposite of John’s – when he says: Come to me, all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Come to me and learn the unforced rhythms of grace. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me and I will show you the way to true life.

But Advent asks us to hold BOTH prophets together – maybe in tension or maybe in tandem – because maybe God’s shalom is NOT an either/or proposition? Maybe there are parts of our world – as well as our hearts – that NEED to be shaken up by John so that we do our part. And, at the same time, it is likely that there are other parts of each and all of us that ache for God’s comfort and joy?

Enter the peace-making activities of two men working in the world of contemporary music: Arvo Part and Daniel Barenboim. Do you know them? If not, becoming familiar with both their music and their witness would enrich your world and give you another window into how Christ is being born in the world often beyond our comprehension.

• And that is part of the Advent challenge, yes? To become quiet and attentive enough to see where God’s light is breaking into the darkness.

• Most of the time, you see, this is happening in obscure and often mysterious ways that we will not notice unless we are awakened to searching out the forgotten and hidden places.

Take the Estonian composer, Arvo Part, who has become one of the most important advocates of what I call the “inner journey” working in the world of classical music. He grew up and was educated in Soviet Russia in the 40s and 50s which meant that he was cut off from developments in Western music. So, when he began to compose, he was heavily influenced by both Shostakovich and Prokofiev – both brilliant 20th century Russian artists – but not those tuned into the musical experimentation and innovation of the 1960s.

So, after a decade of uneven recognition – and sometimes being banned outright by the Soviets for his sacred compositions – Part entered a time of self-imposed silence. He experimented – and prayed – and by the end of the 1970s started writing new music grounded in the old sounds of church bells and Gregorian chant.

Do you hear the meditative quality of this music? How peaceful it is at the level of the soul? This is part of the Advent truth – nourishing the soul and cultivating an inner peace – because “you can’t give what you ain’t got.” Or as they used to say on the streets: you can’t talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk! Sometimes John the Baptist types degrade the importance of quiet and beauty in pursuit of peace. Arvo Part shows why it is essential.

So does Daniel Barenboim who is more like John the Baptist in his more assertive pursuit of peace in the Middle East. He is an Israeli citizen, born in Argentina, who is a pianist and conductor. In addition to being a brilliant interpreter of Beethoven and Mozart, Barenboim formed the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with the late Palestinian intellectual, Edward Said, to combat ignorance. Barenboim put it like:

The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I'm] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to ...create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.

So every summer in Seville, Spain – a place that once honored the peaceful presence of Jews, Christians and Muslims – he gathers some of the best young Egyptian, Iranian, Israeli, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian musicians to practice and eventually perform together. He is certain that by learning to play and listen to one another – and create something of beauty and depth in the process – that potential enemies will learn how to become people of trust.

What’s more, every year he performs in Gaza as a commitment to opposing the ever expanding settlements of Israel that are the stumbling block for peace. In 2004, when Israel awarded him the Wolf Prize, he used the opportunity to criticize his government publically for their human rights abuses. In 2008, after a musical performance in Ramallah, he was given – and accepted – an honorary Palestinian citizenship as a further critique of the violence that Israel wages in the name of peace and national security.

Both musicians – in very different ways – have come to know profoundly what both Isaiah and the John Baptist mean when they say there will come a time when the whole earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. And it has nothing to do with personal salvation – or private notions that we are God are chosen – not at all. The full knowledge of the Lord has to do with what James Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim.”

• What it looks like, what it feels like and what it means to make another our scapegoat. To blame others for our failures – to curse others for our woes and bad luck – to lash out in violence because of our fears or confusion.

• Because, the prophets tell us, whenever we do that it results in Christ being crucified – the innocent betrayed and punished – for our fear and anger and rage.

No wonder the Advent readings ask us to wrestle with both Isaiah and John the Baptist, yes? The peace-making commitment requires BOTH the inward journey of resting in God’s love AND the outward journey of challenging and transforming injustice. So here’s what the witness of these two musicians say to me:

What are you doing to nourish your soul? What inward practice do you cultivate that reconciles the hopes and fears of all the years? What regular spiritual practice do you follow that fosters inner peace?

And what do you do with that inner work in the wider world that advances shalom and beauty? Not shrill carping – or politics as usual – but compassion and justice and beauty?

The way into the Jesus life demands we figure this out – for in this new unity is the good news for today.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Jamming is the way to mature...

Tonight we had our first Jazz Ambassadors practice in anticipation of heading to Istanbul in the summer of 2010. We're playing this Thursday night at Patrick's Pub in Pittsfield starting at 6:30 pm (the proceeds will go into the flight fund.) It was intense, fun, a little intimidating and very, very satisfying. Each of these guys are brilliant and creative - and Di and I are the jazz novices - but we held our own through: "It Don't Mean a Thing," "Moon River," "Paper Moon," "Blue Skies" and "Moon Dance."

It reminded me of what Victor Wooten wrote in his Carlos Castenada-like book, The Music Lesson, a fascinating look into going deeper into playing the bass: How do babies learn to speak a language? By spending lots of time off by themselves practicing verb tense or sentence construction? Not at all... they "jam" with experts and pros - listening to riffs they like and then copying them - and getting corrected as everyone moves the conversation along. Same was true for me tonight: I've been studying and practicing scales and turn arounds but tonight was jamming with the pros - and learning from my mistakes as we went along - which was intense and fun and very educational all at the same time.

(NOTE: any of you folks in Pittsfield who read this, why not come out for supper or just a drink on Thursday at Patrick's?)

On another note, in an extended theological riff in today's Washington Post, the former Dean of the Chicago Theological Seminary, Susan Thistlethwaite, wrote an insight article calling into question a political/theological clunker that is having a renewal in some conservative circles in the US: the myth of American exceptionalism. You might find her insights helpful, I know I did.

(The Washington Post political reporter Karen Tumulty wrote Monday about the growing use of the idea of "American exceptionalism" by political conservatives as a "battle cry from a new front in the ongoing culture wars.")

Sarah Palin and many other prominent conservatives assert that "God has granted America a special role in human history." It is this belief about America's destiny that they say is "under attack" by liberals who downplay America's distinctiveness. Are these leaders saying that America has a special relationship with God?

How do you interpret this?

"I heart America" is a dangerous sentimentalism that does not do justice to the ways in which the United States is exceptional, nor to the ways in which loving your country means trying to make it better. At worst, these conservative views of American exceptionalism risk confusing God and county and veering off into idolatry. In sum, a knee-jerk exceptionalism is bad theology and it makes for very bad policy. You end up blinded by the light of your own presumed virtue, and ignorant about the real use of power in the world.

There are aspects of the American democratic experiment that are truly exceptional. It is remarkable that people from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds can come together enough to agree that they will form their political union on some "self-evident" truths like freedom, inalienable rights, the rule of law, human rights, and a Constitutional government whose authority stems only from the consent of the governed--no divine right of kings needed. This experiment has been an "exception to the rule" of tyranny.

But God's providence doesn't guarantee this exceptionalism--otherwise, people and nations could not sin and the Bible is full of God's judgment on people and nations when they fail to love God and neighbor. Instead, what God's providence really means is God's work in creation itself and the provision of a world. Thus we are blessed, as are all creatures, and all nations by the generous hand of God in creating and sustaining the world.

In the same way, the United States is exceptional when it and its people live up to the values of this democracy. That's our real strength. But when you claim, as does Sarah Palin, that "God has granted America a special role in human history" without being in any way specific about what that role might be, or when it's operative or not operative, you ignore what's real about American exceptionalism--we're exceptional WHEN we live up to our values. But even worse, in this vague view of God's providence, you risk identifying the aims of God with the practical policies of the United States. Taken to an extreme, that means you can end up worshipping the nation as God. That's idolatry.

A "God-given" exceptionalism is really kind of lazy. It doesn't really require any work on our part does it? In that view, God does all the work of guaranteeing our exceptionalism--it's the idea that divine providence equals an outside force controlling human affairs. It's self-deceptive and sentimental feel-good religion (and politics) that has nothing to do with the Bible, and especially nothing to do with the biblical prophets. It ignores the role that sin plays in human affairs. In fact, sin is why we need democracy. We need democracy not because people are so good, but because we are so tempted by power that we need to balance power among the people and through different branches of government.

When we run on a myth of American exceptionalism that (roughly translated) means God's in charge of this country and guiding our role in history, we become blinded by our own presumed light. We disguise our use of power in the world as virtue and mistake our assumed pure intentions with outcomes. We make all kinds of serious errors and alienate others around the world who can see that this kind of exceptionalism is far from exceptional--it's business as usual.
Power in human affairs is never pure. The exercise of power always involves some degree of compelling people to do as you wish, either through diplomacy, or through the use of force or the threat of force. In neither case is the use of power totally virtuous--at best it is exercised to bring people together enough to find solutions we can live with to address some of the most pressing problems we face as a world.
The idea that God is in charge of America's actions insults God as Creator of all, blinds us to our real motives in the use of power, and ironically enough, hides from us the true basis of American exceptionalism. The myth of American exceptionalism makes us weak and vulnerable as a nation because we don't know where our true strength lies. This myth of American exceptionalism is naive about power and that makes it downright dangerous. Instead, our true exceptionalism and our greatest security comes from living up to our democratic values.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

I love Kathy Mattea...

I love Kathy Mattea: her music, her spirituality and her ethics. My sweetheart, Dianne, turned me on to her a number of years ago when Mattea was working in the heart of the Nashville mainstream. She had a bunch of great hits - and albums - that mixed beauty with truth and goodness in ways that were simultaneously commercial and creative. Her commitment to showing how the everyday light of real people is able to pierce the darkness for just a moment was a constant. And she had some killer bands who blended traditional Appalachian sounds with the contemporary country music that was selling like hotcakes.

One of her finest early songs remains, "Where Have You Been?" - a tune that tugs on the heart in a way that continues to strike me as tender but honest - and helps me renew my own love every time I hear it. It may be too sweet for some tastes, but sounds to me like a prayer...

As the industry and market changed, Kathy Mattea wrestled with how to stay true to her own musical calling and still be viable. A fascinating compromise - and one of my favorites from this period - is her smouldering version of Gillian Welch's "455 Rocket" - a song that I LOVE to perform - both because it is playful with sexual double entendres (a genre that always cracks me up) and a great vehicle for rockin' out in a Southern country groove (another genre that I adore which continues to make my old suburban, Connecticut friends - where I grew up - scratch their heads and smile.) She also released a HOT Christmas album mixing gospel, country and Celtic sounds in a highly satisfying way.

Sadly, after just one more album, the Mercury Record label refused to renew Mattea's record contract which was a short term bummer but a long term blessing; she, too, was feeling that the confines of contemporary country music no longer worked. She said:

Country music, as a format, seemed to be narrowing down again, at the time I was exposed to all this cool Celtic and world music... I began to feel like the next generation was coming up, and I could either choose to play in that arena, or go and see what else might be out there for me. I began to dream of making music without all these rules. I wanted to do more than just think out of the box--I wanted to see what I could do if there was no box!! I wanted to experiment with some of the sounds I had been exposed to during my trips to Scotland. Adding unexpected elements, like traditional Celtic instruments or more ethnic drumming to our shows has allowed us more diversity. I've always enjoyed making that kind of cultural and musical soup.

She now records with Narada Records calling it: "a really unique fit, my door into country music was always folk and acoustic-based. Narada is well-respected and there's a lovely synergy there between what I have been yearning to do and their philosophy as a company. Sometimes it can be a little frightening leaving what one knows so well. But these changes are exactly what make you grow as an artist - and most importantly - as a person. Your life is a series of landmarks and I've always tried to convey the internal and spiritual lessons learned by them in my music. It's a way of connecting your past to your future." (www.narada.com/kathy_mattea_bio.htm

compassion and justice. Her home website puts it like this:
Mattea’s childhood was steeped in the culture of mining and Appalachia, but despite having a wide range of influences and “being a sponge about music,” she wasn't exposed to much traditional mountain music. “I never thought I had an ear for singing real heavy Appalachian music,” she says. “I marvel at the wonder of someone like Hazel Dickens, I just never thought I could do that.”

Still, she dreamed quietly about one day recording an album like COAL. Mattea says she has been thinking about making this album since she was 19 years old and first heard “Dark as a Dungeon”. From there on out she quietly cataloged mining and mountain songs that she would someday record.

But the album was just a sketch of an idea until the Sago Mine Disaster, which killed twelve West Virginia miners in 2006. “I thought, ‘Now is the time to do these songs’. Sago was the thing that brought it all back to the surface,” she says. “When I was about nine, 78 miners were killed in The Farmington Disaster, near Fairmont in 1968. When Sago happened, I got catapulted back to that moment in my life and I thought, ‘I need to do something with this emotion, and maybe this album is the place to channel it’. And so I knew the time was right.”

It was a life-altering decision, one that would forever change the way she thought about music and singing. “This record reached out and took me. It called to me to be made,” Mattea says. “If you go through your life and you try to be open, you try to think how can you be of service, how can your gifts best be used in the world…if you ask that question everyday, you find yourself at the answer. And it's not always what you thought it would be when you asked."

She is an artist I respect, emulate and enjoy and now I can't wait to see her tonight in our own beautiful Colonial Theatre with some dear friends.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Peace-making through music: Advent One

NOTE: Worship notes for the first Sunday of Advent 2010, November 28th. This is the first in a four part series exploring ways to discover the birth of the Prince of Peace in some very unexpected places - much like Christ's first birth. If you can, join us for the fun at 10:30 am on Sunday.

“I want this Christmas to be different.” How many times have we heard this said? How many times have we said it ourselves? “I want this Christmas to be different?” More spiritual – less materialistic – grounded more in the grace of God or Christ’s comfort and joy than the busyness of these days, yes?

I am struck how Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, one of my favorite Christian Educators, puts it in her book To Dance with God: This year we want our Christmas to be different. We want to be touched this season – moved at a level that lies deep in us and is hungry and dark and groaning with a primal need. Like the receptive fields all around us, we lie fallow and wanting… willing and aching to receive the Spirit. (p. 60)

But here’s the thing: Christmas won’t be different if we aren’t different. Do you recall the classic definition of insanity? “Doing the same things over and over and expecting different results!” Our friends in AA get it precisely right when they tell us: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got!”

• Advent – and our gentle observation of it for the four weeks before Christmas – is God’s invitation to us to leave the madness behind or a season. It is a new way of living and praying through each day that allows the “Sacred to soak into our wanting humanity” just as the dew nourishes the soil. (Mueller-Nelson, p. 60)

• Walter Brueggemann, one of the finest Old Testament scholars in our tradition, writes: "Advent is an abrupt disruption in our 'ordinary time'…an utterly new year, new time, new life. Everything begins again… While the world around us wraps up another year hoping for increased consumer spending and waiting for annual reports on profits, the church has already stepped into a new time, to begin a season of hoping and waiting for something of much greater significance than profits or spending: for Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations and consider our life afresh in light of the new gifts that God is about to give."

Small wonder that the season often begins with the prophetic vision of shalom as recorded in these words of Isaiah.

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God… that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And God shall judge between the nations, and arbitrate for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

This is an invitation to reclaim God’s vision for our lives from the bottom line banality that infects us all. It’s like hearing Martin Luther King Jr. preach his “I Have a Dream” speech all over again. For you see the Advent challenge is really an invitation to “get this marvelous picture of peacemaking out of the realm of the imagination and into the realities of everyday life.” (James Limburg) It is a way to really make this Christmas different for the prophet is clear that what: “God wills for the world… is a center of justice and righteousness within and among us that will get our minds off our petty agendas and our penchant to protect our little investments.” (Brueggemann)

So, this Advent, I’ve sensed we need to do something new in worship: something that will give us eyes to see God’s mysterious birth in the most unlikely places – something that strengthens the Lord’s vision of shalom and moves the prophet’s “marvelous picture of peace-making out of the realm of the imagination and into the realities of our everyday lives” – something that is all about embracing the new heaven and new earth of Jesus Christ even as we “seek to live our lives right here, right now, in ways that are pleasing to God and utterly trusting in God's goodness.” (Kate Huey, www.ucc.org)

Barbara Brown Taylor says it so well: “(The spirituality of Advent is about waking up) every morning and deciding to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. And resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow." Search for – and be awakened to – God’s peace that is already here but all too often hidden from our senses because we’re too busy with agendas that have nothing to do with shalom.

And here’s what I want you to do with me this Advent: see if you can discover Christ’s often hidden and always mysterious birth taking place within the peacemaking work of music. All over the world – including right here in Pittsfield – there are musicians dedicated to strengthening God’s peace through making music. They are committed to the values of shalom as articulated by both the prophet Isaiah and Martin Luther King, Jr. and all too often we miss God’s presence within the music because we aren’t used to discovering God in unexpected places.

• Our theological imaginations are under-developed – our sense of sacred aesthetics has become boring – and our awareness of where the presence of the Lord is being born in creation is both too narrow and parochial.

• Fortunately there are Christian thinkers like Eugene Peterson in the Reformed tradition and Hans Urs von Balthasar in the Roman Catholic realm who refuse to be limited by religious provincialism. In Peterson’s most recent work, Practice Resurrection, he writes:

Once Plato formulated what he named the “universals” of life as the True, the Good and the Beautiful. He held that if we are to live a whole and mature life, the three had to work together harmoniously in us. But the American church has deleted Beauty from that triad. We are vigorous in contending for the True, thinking rightly about God. We are energetic in insisting on the Good, behaving rightly before God. But Beauty, the forms by which the True and the Good take shape in human life, we pretty much ignore. We delegate Beauty to flower arrangements and interior decorators… when Truth, Goodness and Beauty are organically connected. And without Beauty, Truth and Goodness have no container, no form, no way of coming to expression in human life. Truth divorced from Beauty becomes abstract and bloodless. Goodness divorced from Beauty becomes loveless and graceless. Thus, we need to reclaim a theological aesthetics… (Peterson, p. 6)

And I’m going to play with this throughout Advent and see where it takes us. Because of one thing I am certain: if you always do what you’ve always done…

Now here’s one of those upside down, hidden and unexpected places where I sense Christ being born within and among us: group singing. Specifically, group singing that celebrates our highest values and aspirations. Call it the gospel music version of the prophet Isaiah’s vision – or the theological equivalent of a Pete Seeger or Arlo Guthrie concert – but something holy happens in this kind of music.
About 100 years ago – well actually May of 1984 – on my first trip to what was then the Soviet Union, our group was waiting for a train in a busy station in the former GDR. It was a massive place and about four tracks away from us – waiting for another train headed in the opposite direction – was a group of Young Pioneers.

• Do you know them? They are the Communist version of the Boy and Girl Scouts – ideological, dressed in uniforms and dedicated to the values of their regime – but also a whole lot like Boy and Girls Scouts everywhere: young, fun and very helpful.

• So our group of about 60 US peace-makers is waiting for our train and their group of about 100 Young Pioneers in East Germany is waiting for their train – when we notice one another. And after some waiving back and forth – and flashing peace signs – they start to sing.

• And it wasn’t accidental that the song they chose was an American folk song about Christmas: children, go where I send thee – how shall I send thee. (Do you know it?) It’s an old African American Christmas gospel song that tells the story of the Old and New Testament leading up to the birth of Jesus.

• Well, they sang that to us as an invitation; we didn’t speak the same language but wanted to connect. So these young Communists had the wisdom and presence to sing us one of our own songs. And I have to tell you as we all joined in – raising US voices with German Communists ones – for a moment that old train station became a cathedral of hope.

And when the song was over we didn’t want the shalom to stop so… we sang another old African American song: Oh Freedom. And guess what? Those German Communist kids KNEW it, too!

Oh freedom… oh freedom… oh freedom over me
And before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free

I’m not saying that two songs sung in an East Berlin train station brought an end to the Cold War – that would be foolish and na├»ve – but we did experience something of Christ’s birth in that strange and unexpected place, ok? Same thing happened three years later on another trip to the Soviet Union: after spending the better part of a day talking with both religious and secular Soviet peace people, we were all waiting for our bus and there was no translator.

• At first it was awkward but then one of the Soviets started to sing a Christmas carol – I’m not kidding – she started to sing “Silent Night.” So we all joined in – each singing in our own languages – and it was like Pentecost: the spirit of God’s peace was palpable.

• So we sang “Joy to the World” – Christians and Communists in English and Russians – out on the streets of what was then Leningrad. And while it made our Communist tour guide leaders crazy – they wanted us to shut up – we kept singing. And in that moment discovered that we were much more alike in God’s eyes than different.

And I submit to you that something of the Baby Jesus was discovered in that moment, too. You see, singing together in a group about our highest values and God’s vision opens us to God’s presence in ways that defy reason – but are real. As we listen to one another – and blend and harmonize – we are practicing what Isaiah envisioned – and it changes us.

• Think of the role music played in the American Civil Rights movement. Dr. King understood group singing to be the sacred glue that held very different people together in pursuit of peace and justice.

• Do you know about the singing revolution in Estonia? The Estonians literally toppled their Communist oppressors through song – in the streets, taking over the national television station and surrounding the TV station with women singing when the generals tried to bring out the tanks.

No wonder that secular saint, Pete Seeger, has the following words stenciled onto the head of his banjo: this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender. Look, I am not telling you that ALL music opens us to Christ’s birth – that would be stupid and blind – because not every song strengthens our souls. But there is a form of music that not only feeds God’s vision within and among us, but strengthens us when we’re in the wilderness so that we can move peacemaking from the realm of the imagination into the realities of everyday living.

This Advent let me invite and encourage you to go beyond what you’ve always done so that you might experience more than you’ve always got at Christmas:

• This week let me ask you to check out an international foundation that has been using music to make peace throughout the world called: Playing for a Change. They unite musicians all over the world – Palestine and South Africans playing songs with musicians in New Orleans and Afghanistan – using contemporary technology to help us discover what we hold in common.

• What’s more, they work with local musicians and artists to create jobs and economic health in some of the poorest places on the planet. That’s what Isaiah was talking about – moving God’s vision beyond our imaginations into the realm of real life – and they are doing it.

I’ve prepared a small informational leaflet for you if you want to know more about this peacemaking through music project. It will bring you both joy and a sense of hope – and maybe you’ll be inspired to join in the song. After all, like the German mystic preacher, Meister Eckhart, said: 'What good is it that Christ was born 2,000 years ago if he is not born now in your heart?’
This is a small project - often unnoticed and considered foolish in the eyes of those with power and prestige - very much like Christ's first birth. Over the years I have become convinced that it is in these small, often hidden blessings that Christ is born within and among us. So I am less and less interested in the big, flashy projects and seek to give myself over to these small, Christ-sized projects that change the world person by person. I hope you will want to join me...
Welcome to Advent 2010… let the songs begin.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

We are roasting our turkey - staying in our pajamas - and celebrating the blessings of love, friends and a commitment to the common good. Thanksgiving is a sacred day for us - also a time of sweet refreshment after our annual Thanksgiving Eve concert (which was a rocking success raising almost $1,000 for emergency fuel assistance in our region) - so I was particularly touched to see the following Op-Ed article in yesterday's New York Times by Donald Hall.

My daughter, Jesse, turned me on to Hall's essays about 15 years ago - and over time I have found myself appreciating his poetry, too. Last year, his collected essays about the seasons of rural New England - Eagle Pond - helped me reorient myself to the wonders of living in the Berkshires. His writing also took me to the poetry of his beloved wife, Jane Kenyon, who passed from this life in 1995.

Here's one of his poems that I treasure called "Affirmation."

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything

I look forward to his new book about the role Puritanism has played in shaping American democracy. Like I told the crowd last night, "Puritanism has gotten a bad rap over the years - for both good and bad reasons - but we in the Congregational tradition know its wisdom: limited control of the clergy, radical democracy and a commitment to the common good. We could use a whole lot more of those commitments these days in the USA..." I hope you appreciate Hall's article as much as me. Happy Thanksgiving.

Peace, Love and Puritanism

Published: November 23, 2010
THANKSGIVING 1971, the 350th anniversary of the “first” of the harvest celebrations in Plymouth, Mass. Invited to speak to a local historical society about that long-ago event, I described the ritual significance of food to the colonists and the Native Americans who attended. Afterward, someone asked, “Did they serve turkey?”

This was no idle question, for it captured the uneasiness many of us feel about the threads that connect past and present. Are our present-day values and practices aligned with the historical record, or have they been remade by our consumer culture? Is anything authentic in our own celebrations of Thanksgiving? And isn’t the deeper issue what the people who came here were like, not what they ate in 1621?

To return to the first of these harvest feasts is to return to the puzzling figure of the Puritan, the name borne by most of the English people who came to New England in the early 17th century. What did they hope to gain by coming to the New World, and what values did they seek to practice?

The easy answers simplify and distort. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who came along a couple of centuries later, bears some of the blame for the most repeated of the answers: that Puritans were self-righteous and authoritarian, bent on making everyone conform to a rigid set of rules and ostracizing everyone who disagreed with them. The colonists Hawthorne depicted in “The Scarlet Letter” lacked the human sympathies or “heart” he valued so highly. Over the years, Americans have added to Hawthorne’s unfriendly portrait with references to witch-hunting and harsh treatment of Native Americans.

But in Hawthorne’s day, some people realized that he had things wrong. Notably, Alexis de Tocqueville, the French writer who visited the United States in 1831. Tocqueville may not have realized that the colonists had installed participatory governance in the towns they were founding by the dozens. Yet he did credit them for the political system he admired in 19th-century America.

After all, it was the Puritans who had introduced similar practices in colony governments — mandating annual elections, insisting that legislatures could meet even if a governor refused to summon a new session and declaring that no law was valid unless the people or their representatives had consented to it. Well aware of how English kings abused their powers of office, the colonists wanted to keep their new leaders on a short leash.

Tocqueville did not cite the churches that the colonists had organized, but he should have. Like most of their fellow Puritans in England, the colonists turned away from all forms of hierarchy. Out went bishops, out went any centralized governance; in came Congregationalism, which gave lay church members the power to elect and dismiss ministers and decide other major matters of policy. As many observed at the time, the Congregational system did much to transfer authority from the clergy to the people.

Contrary to Hawthorne’s assertions of self-righteousness, the colonists hungered to recreate the ethics of love and mutual obligation spelled out in the New Testament. Church members pledged to respect the common good and to care for one another. Celebrating the liberty they had gained by coming to the New World, they echoed St. Paul’s assertion that true liberty was inseparable from the obligation to serve others.

For this reason, no Puritan would have agreed with the ethic of “self-reliance” advanced by Hawthorne’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Instead, people should agree on what was right, and make it happen. Wanting social peace, the colonists experienced plenty of conflict among themselves. It was upsetting when this happened, but among the liberties they carefully guarded was the right to petition any government and to plead any grievance, a liberty that women as well as men acted on.

The most far-reaching of these Puritan reforms concerned the civil law and the workings of justice. In 1648, Massachusetts became the first place in the Anglo-American world to publish a code of laws — and make it accessible to everyone. Believing that the rule of law protected against arbitrary or unjust authority, the civil courts practiced speedy justice, empowered local juries and encouraged reconciliation and restitution. Overnight, most of the cruelties of the English justice system vanished. Marriage became secularized, divorce a possibility, meetinghouses (churches) town property.

And although it’s tempting to envision the ministers as manipulating a “theocracy,” the opposite is true: they played no role in the distribution of land and were not allowed to hold political office. Nor could local congregations impose civil penalties on anyone who violated secular law. In these rules and values lay one root of the separation of church and state that eventually emerged in our society.

Why does it matter whether we get the Puritans right or not? The simple answer is that it matters because our civil society depends, as theirs did, on linking an ethics of the common good with the uses of power. In our society, liberty has become deeply problematic: more a matter of entitlement than of obligation to the whole. Everywhere, we see power abused, the common good scanted. Getting the Puritans right won’t change what we eat on Thanksgiving, but it might change what we can be thankful for and how we imagine a better America.

Oh, and what did they eat? Although the menu in 1621 is nowhere specified, it certainly included venison, Indian corn, fish and “wild turkeys,” one species of the fowl that the Pilgrim Edward Winslow reported were accumulated in abundance just before the celebration.

David D. Hall, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, is the author of the forthcoming history “A Reforming People: Puritanism and the Transformation of Public Life in New England.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What a trip yesterday was...

The day started off with a visit from two old friends from seminary brought back together through the miracle of Facebook. We caught up and learned a bit from one another and then they headed off to Boston to share Thanksgiving with their extended family. It was truly sweet to see Carol and David again.

Then, last night, we practiced for tonight's Thanksgiving Eve gig - and my dear old friend, Hal, whom I haven't seen in 35 years came in and damn if it wasn't like old times! And man, did he cook with his singing and playing. I can't wait to get caught up with Hal and learn about life with his sweetheart, Terre, too.

We worked out some bugs in the set list - tossed a few clunkers - and added a couple of chestnuts. And then my little guitar dudes - Ethan and Zak - the REAL blues brothers brought down the practice house with their guitar licks on "Steamroller." My buddy, Ben, took this outstanding picture with Andy (and Hal in the background) that captures it all. (And Ben also brought some outstanding home brewed Porter, too!)

Ok... now onward to the show... blessings to you all.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Compared to what...

Damn but I love the new John Legend and Roots CD: Wake Up. I love Legend all by himself but when grooving with The Roots - and doing some incredible takes on soul/funk/hip hop songs - these tunes move on to a whole new level. Take, for example, their reworking of the Les McCann/Eddie Harris classic, "Compared to What," that first rocked the house at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival...

I'm getting ready to head over to our "dress rehearsal" for tomorrow's benefit show to raise money for emergency fuel in the Berkshires. ALL our killer musicians will be there tonight and it should be sweet. One family is bringing ribs, another his new home brew: there will be home baked chocolate chip cookies and wine and tons of music. In some ways, tonight's practice will be the REAL feast of Thanksgiving feast filled with heart and soul and celebration - food and music, too - and then we're on to the show tomorrow night!

I am grateful...

Monday, November 22, 2010


Some days you just KNOW you are blessed - and today was one of those days - and it is an awareness not born of my effort or worth but simply from a sense of God's deep and abiding grace. Today was filled with things to do, people to visit and pray with and errands to run. And my honey is harried with the demands of work and doctors and all the rest. But today - through the better part of it all - I felt infused with grace. At peace and at rest much as Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English mystic, said: "All is well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

Part of my awareness, I know, is connected to Thanksgiving: this feast day always heightens my sense of gratitude. And this year - as we prepare our Thanksgiving Eve music festival - I am surrounded with loving friends. What a treasure: deep and tender friendship bathed in music. I mean, how blessed can a man be? I am taken by the words of John O'Donohue when he writes:

May you listen to your longing to be free.
May the franmes of your belonging be generous enough for your dreams.
May yo arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart.
May you find a harmony between your soul and your life.
May the sanctuary of soul never become haunted.
May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time.
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.
May you never place walls between the light and yourself.
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world gather you, mind you and
embrace you in belonging.
(From To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings)

So, onward to cooking supper for my sweetheart - and writing my first Advent meditation on music and peace-making tomorrow - and our final rehearsal for Thanksgiving Eve with all my dear musical buddies. (And then some Thanksgiving shopping, too!) All shall be well... and all manner of things shall be very well.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Are you saved...?

I found this spiritual reflection by Bill Green of the United Church of Christ (USA) particularly wise. It is grounded in this passage: “God rescued us from dead-end alleys.” (The Message)

Am I saved? These days the question may be put more smoothly. In whatever guise, it lingers. And it does get to the heart of faith.

“Salvation” comes from a Hebrew root meaning “removal of constriction” and “breathing space.” For Christians, we grow into this under the influence of Jesus. The new life he inspires gradually frees us from what has gotten in our way—doubt, arrogance, excessive modesty, guilt or shame, anger including what the church itself can stir up. “Frees us” is not the same as “makes go away.” It means that trouble no longer locks us in. We’re no longer facing dead ends. The problems that remain, however serious, are no longer shackles.

Jesus did not constrain people all over again, this time in the name of God. He did not insist that people see things his way. Many didn’t. He didn’t argue. He simply states what he knows to be true and embodies it in his way of living. He shows that God’s love runs deeper than anything that gets in the way.

For us this may mean listening as closely to others as we wish we could be listened to ourselves. Amid all we think it’s important to say and do, we can remember that we’re in God’s business, just like Jesus, not our own. It doesn’t all depend on us.

Prayer: Gracious God, rescue me from doubt and hard feeling that become dead ends. In your spirit may I breathe more freely, and help others do the same. Amen.

I know one reason I was moved by Bill's words has to do with two articles I read today in the Sunday NY Times about young Jews conducting their bar/bat mitzvah preparations on-line. Don't get me wrong, I am all for using technology to advance compassion and integrity, but where is God's name is the community aspect of such an endeavor? Seems to me this simply encourages MORE privitized religion and spirituality and that is a dead-end, yes? Another high tech religious hoop to jump through that doesn't build up the common good.

Oh well, I also know I was responding to decorating the Sanctuary today after worship for Advent - another thing you can't do all by yourself with any integrity - and how joyful it was for a bunch of folks to just get together to help one another. As one little girl said afterwards, "Pastor James, I like this church. (It was her first visit.) I feel like I'm needed." Amen little chica, amen. (Thanks to Ben for the pix.)
Seems like old Sarah gets it in her foundation work and this John Lennon song made new...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

At the end of a long week...

At the end of a long week I find these words from John O'Donohue's book, To Bless the Space Between Us, so right:

No one knew the name of this day;
Born quietly from deepest night,
It hid its face in light,
Demanded nothing for itself,
Opened out to offer each of us
A field of brightness that traveled ahead,
Providing in time, ground to hold our footsteps
And the light of thought to show the way.

The mind of the day draws no attention;
It dwells within the silence with elegance
To create a space for all our words,
Drawing us to listen inward and outward.

We seldom notice how each day is a holy place
Where the Eucharist of the ordinary happens,
Transforming our broken fragments
Into an eternal continuity that keeps us.

Somewhere in us a dignity presides
That is more gracious than the smallness
That fuels us with fear and force,
A dignity that trusts the form a day takes.

So at the end of this day, we give thanks
For being betrothed to the unknown
And for the secret work
Through which the mind of the day
And wisdom of the soul become one.

This week brought the birth of a new son to Elizabeth and Piotr, the burial of old Thomas, the ups and downs of surgery and healing for Paul and his family, the purchase of a new/old car for James and Dianne, playing sweet music with bandmates, discovering the beauty of Grahm's unique musical gifts, lamenting my sweetheart's head cold, purchasing tickets for Istanbul, planning for Advent worship and weekly meditative concerts, celebrating a successful stewardship drive at church, writing my weekly sermon, practicing guitar scales, cooking dinner and watching British murder mysteries and just a wee bit of prayer, too. My conscious prayers this week recall with tenderness my friends who face the anniversary of death and loss as the holidays emerge - as well as prayers of joy for the healing at work in lives of other dear ones - healings in body, mind, soul and spirit.

Like O'Donahue says: it has been a full and ordinary trek towards the dignity of the ordinary and finds grace for our small fears on the road towards the unity of of mind and soul. (Here's one of the tunes we're starting to work on for Advent...)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Three thoughts for Christ the King Sunday...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for this week, Sunday November 21st, 2010. It is Christ the King Sunday and my reflections are grounded in an exploration of what that might mean for my community of faith. I am deeply indebted to the study and writing of those in the Girardian movement for this week's message as well as the on-line Biblical scholar Brian Stoffregen who offered an extended quote from Robert Capon. Given all the fullness of this week - births, deaths, weddings, funerals, hospitalization as well as practice for Thanksgiving Eve and buying a new car - I offer these notes without art or refinement. Sometimes that's just how it goes, yes?


In the life of the church – what we call the liturgical calendar – today is the last Sunday of the year. Next week, after our Thanksgiving we will celebrate the first Sunday in Advent – as this begins a new church year and a cycle of biblical readings and reflections. But today, Christ the King Sunday is the last Sunday of the year for the Christian faith community.

• And like many conclusions and transitions, Christ the King Sunday invites us to consider both what we have made of this past year, as well as how we have matured as people choosing to live under the Lordship of Christ Jesus.

• Americans of every Christian denomination – Roman Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox – are not very comfortable with the challenge of Christ the King Sunday not only because we don’t know very much about kings, but also because so much of our culture is obsessed with bottom line thinking. We want what we want, when we want it, for the lowest possible price – and that is a very different perspective on life from the one presented to us this morning in the gospel.

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

So let me see if these ideas might help us unlock the power and promise of celebrating Christ the King Sunday in all its rich fullness, ok? Specifically, let’s…

• First, talk about how we as Americans in the 21st century might get our heads around the whole notion of Christ as King because that is just totally bewildering to most of us.

• Second, play with the biblical connection between today’s story of the thief on the cross who receives a promise of Paradise and the Parable of the Rich Fool who receives a very different response from the Lord.

• And third, consider what it might mean to embrace the notion that both the kingdom of God and paradise are less about places and more about a living relationship with God and God’s people.

Are you with me? Three thoughts about Christ the King Sunday – kings, promises and relationships – and let’s see where they take us.


When it comes to speaking of kings, let’s face it: we don't often think in terms of kings or kingdoms anymore. Sure, we might enjoy the history channel – or even that sassy TV show on Showtime called “The Tudors” – but that’s about it. And I don’t think that the PC way of talking about this day – calling it the "Reign of Christ" Sunday – helps a whole lot either. It just replaces one obscure word with another.

• So what is it that most of us talk about these days when it comes to our context? Could it be "culture"? Everything these days is about "culture," don’t you think?

• We talk about a culture that promotes bullying – or greed – or violence against women – or children – or men – or people of color – or gays and lesbians. We speak of a culture of poverty – or ignorance – so narcissism.

• So what would it mean to reframe today as the "Culture of Christ" Sunday? Isn’t that intriguing? What do you think would shape a culture grounded in Christ – any ideas?

I know that I have used this before – and I’m saying this aloud so that you don’t think I am totally forgetful – but here is one way of articulating what a culture of Christ might include:

Jesus says that in his society there is a new way for people to live: you show wisdom by trusting people, you handle leadership by serving, you handle offenders by forgiving, you handle money by sharing, you handle enemies by loving and you handle violence by suffering. In fact, you have a new attitude toward everything and everybody… because in the Jesus society you repent not by feeling bad, but by thinking different.

Our church covenant is also another articulation of what it might look like to live as a part of the culture of Christ:

We covenant with one another and God to gather as a community of faith in the spirit and presence of Jesus Christ. We own our brokenness and failings, confess them to God and trust that the Spirit of the Lord will bring us forgiveness and renewal. We seek to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves. We promise to carry one another’s burdens, share the joys and sorrows of life together and do our part to strengthen this church. In grace, we ground ourselves in the insights of the Protestant Reformers and search for wisdom in the Scriptures, prayer, study and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We join others throughout the wider community in pursuit of justice and compassion for we understand that we have been called to be a light in the darkness and a source of hope to those in need. In the name of God. Amen.

Does that make sense to you? Is that a helpful way of reframing the importance of Christ the King Sunday?

A second thought has to do with comparing the way Jesus speaks about two very different people: the thief beside him on the cross and the rich fool from Luke 12: 13-21:

Someone out of the crowd said, "Teacher, order my brother to give me a fair share of the family inheritance." He replied, "Mister, what makes you think it's any of my business to be a judge or mediator for you?" Speaking to the people, he went on, "Take care! Protect yourself against the least bit of greed. Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot." Then he told them this story: "The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: 'What can I do? My barn isn't big enough for this harvest.' Then he said, 'Here's what I'll do: I'll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I'll gather in all my grain and goods, and I'll say to myself, Self, you've done well! You've got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!' "Just then God showed up and said, 'Fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?' "That's what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God."

Biblical scholars have noted that both stories speak of the moment of death – but with very different endings:

• The rich fool basically has had just himself as his only dialogue partner throughout the parable until God intervenes with a word about his consequences for trying to be in charge of his own life. The thief on the cross, on the other hand, receives a promise of Paradise for coming into dialogue with Jesus and giving his life over to him. (Paul Nuechterlien and friends @ http://girardianlectionary.net/year_c/xrstking_c.htm)

• Do you see where this is going? If we are filled with a culture of self – whether that is greed or selfishness or self-pity – than we are left empty. Like the Lord’s Prayer says, we will get as good as we have given; if we forgive others, we, too, will be forgiven. If we are open to Christ, however, then we will be filled.

• One writer was so bold to say that in the whole of the Passion Narrative, there is only one human being who realizes what’s really happening prior to the events of the resurrection. There is only one person, looking at Jesus on the cross, who does not see disaster. Tradition calls him Dimas. Luke calls him a thief.

It seems to me that these two contrasting stories make it clear the difference between a culture and life filled with self and a culture and life open to Christ – but what strikes you?

All of which brings me to my third thought having to do with the notion that both God’s kingdom and paradise are less about a place – in life or death – and more about a living relationship with God and God’s people. You see, for the thief on the cross…

Joining Jesus in paradise had nothing to do with dying. It had nothing to do with being raised from the dead. It had everything to do with seeing beyond the appearances to the truth, that God is victorious in the cross. It has everything to do with the thief’s realization that his own condemnation on the cross bore no relationship to his standing before God. In that moment, he became free. In that moment, he joined Jesus in paradise. We are called to make that same paradise a reality in this present moment, as Jesus did for Dimas. We are called to point to the reality of Jesus’ kingship in the here and now, not to point to it as some oft-promised reward for our perseverance. We can see beyond the lies of this world to the one beyond because we see the meaning of the cross. (Jeff Krantz and Michael Hardin @ www.preachingpeace.org/lectionaries/yearc-lastpentecost/)

Jesus tells him TODAY you will be with me in paradise. Pastor and biblical scholar, Brian Stoffregen, has observed that Luke uses that word – today – in a unique and important way:

• When the angels come to the shepherds they say: Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you (2:11)

• When Jesus preaches his first public sermon in his hometown synagogue – reading from the scroll of Isaiah about Jubilee and God’s justice – he says: Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (4:21)

• When Jesus is out in the world and comes upon the little man, Zacchaeus the tax collector, in the tree, he says: I must stay at your house today. (19:5) and when the meal is over and Zacchaeus shares his bounty with the poor, Jesus goes on to say: Today salvation has come to this house (19:9)

• And now, to the thief beside him on the Cross, he says: I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise. (23:43) (http://www.crossmarks.com/)

What’s all this mean – any ideas? Most likely it has to do with seeing and encountering the truth of Jesus – not our fantasies or projections about the Messiah – but really seeing and embracing Jesus as the Son of God. The pastor, Robert Capon, presents a wonderful picture of our typical American Messiah – and it doesn't look much like Jesus on the cross.

The true paradigm of the ordinary American view of Jesus is Superman: "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's Superman! Strange visitor from another planet, who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Way." If that isn't popular Christology, I'll eat my hat. Jesus -- gentle, meek and mild, but with secret, souped-up, more-than human insides -- bumbles around for thirty-three years, nearly gets himself done in for good by the Kryptonite Kross, but at the last minute, struggles into the phone booth of the Empty Tomb, changes into his Easter suit and, with a single bound, leaps back up to the planet Heaven.

This story has got it all – including, just so you shouldn't miss the lesson, kiddies: He never once touches Lois Lane. You think that's funny? Don't laugh. The human race is, was and probably always will be deeply unwilling to accept a human messiah. We don't want to be saved in our humanity; we want to be fished out of it. We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: He claimed to be God and then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It's not that we weren't looking for the Messiah; our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross. He would carry a folding phone booth in his back pocket. He wouldn't do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying."


Christ the King Sunday asks us to confront ourselves – not in guilt – but for clarity and discipleship sake by asking:

• In the past year, whose culture have you served more consistently? Christ’s or your own? Why do you think that is: is it easier – most satisfying – something you never thought of before?

• What difference does your faith in Jesus make – for you – and for others? Does it strengthen compassion and hope and justice? Or is your faith all otherworldly? Abstract? Selfish?

• And then what Messiah do you long for: a holy Arnold Schwarzenegger who rescues you from pain and gives you everything you desire; or, Jesus, who is most clearly identified sharing forgiveness and mercy from the Cross?

To confess Christ as King is NEVER easy, but it is the way to paradise today and always.

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:...