Saturday, December 31, 2011

The completion of another year...

Yesterday, while standing in the check-out line at the grocery store, it hit me: tomorrow is New Year's Eve!  How did that happen? I've never been much of a NYE party guy - in Tucson it was a hoot to go to the Chicago Bar and hear the Rowdies ring in the year with great rock and roll - but that's about it.  For most of my almost 60 years I've been chill when it comes to partying the night away like it was 1999.

(God I LOVE Prince...)

But that doesn't mean I ignore the chance to be reflective on the year, ok?  And while I am often weary with all the year-end lists ~ except VH1's various retrospectives of "one hit wonders" ~ I still find that pausing to look backwards and inwards a helpful exercise of faith. In his year end words for December 31st, Eugene Peterson writes about heaven in Living the Message: Daily Reflections:

(Heaven)... is an immersion in the realities of God's rule in our lives that has the effect of reviving our obedience, fortifying us for the long haul and energizing a courageous witness.  By using the stuff that is in our lives right now - places and people, sights and sounds - the invisible and visible parts of our lives are connected in a fresh way. Heaven is an affirmation and confirmation that the beauties and sanctity's of the visible creation - tree and rock, Jesus and Eucharist - are not illusions that trick us into what cynics think of as the naive, useless and silly practices of love, hope and faith, but are realities that are in strict correspondence with what has been begun in us and will be complete in us...

This is not a long (eternal) weekend away from the responsibilities of employment and citizenship, but the intensification and healing of them. Heaven is formed out of dirty streets and murderous alleys, adulterous bedrooms and corrupt courts, hypocritical synagogues and commercialized churches, thieving tax-collectors and traitorous disciples: a city - but now a holy city.

And so on this grey and damp morning in the Berkshires I think back to the realities of this year past for signs and glimpses of the holy within the human... signs of God's presence within and among us:

+ the intense, humbling and rewarding challenge of jazz immersion that gave birth to not only new musical skill and friendships but a peace-making through music tour to Istanbul.

+ the movement towards greater lay participation in our worship planning and the choice to become and Open and Affirming congregation on many levels.

+ the beginning of a regular Jewish-Christian conversation about faith and practice with three other clergy (2 rabbis/2 ministers - 2 women/2 men.)

+ the joys and sorrows of loving and standing with adult children as they mature.

+ the deepening friendships I have made with my blogger-buddies ~ and a few FB friends, too!

+ the movement of the Spirit leading another young person into full-time Christian ministry from within our community.

+ the evolution and ripening of our church band, Between the Banks, and our Thanksgiving Eve show.

+ the agony of family tragedies that have no solution except trust and prayer.

+ the on-going experience of growing into deeper love with Dianne after all these years.

+ the absurdity and blessing of caring for an aging clown dog who is still vibrant, annoying and goofy after 14 years.

+ the year of protest: from the Arab Spring to the Occupy Wall Street presence that continues to wave the banner of freedom and hope.

The poet, Mary Oliver, writes:

We shake with joy, we shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two,
housed as they are in the same body.

And so we come to the completion of another year... (this is what 2011 has felt like for me on so many levels.)

Friday, December 30, 2011

The humor and humility of Epiphany...

NOTE:  Here are my Sunday worship notes for the Feast of the Epiphany.  They are a bit late - in theory I wasn't going to do much work this week - but some how that didn't quite work out. It was all good, but I'm going to lay low for the next few days before jumping back into things after New Year's.  I just finished my reflection for Sunday worship - and I have to say that I am really grateful to Amy-Jill Levine for the opening essay in the Jewish Annotated New Testament. She writes some important words in "Bearing False Witness: Common Errors Made About Early Judaism." 
Her sixth point really nailed me: "... a problem of substantially vague rhetoric re: the claim that Jesus ministers to the 'outcasts and marginals." Many pastors and teachers do not explain: cast out by whom? Cast out from what? marginal to what?"  She unpacks this in a helpful fashion before concluding: "It is therefore important that pastors and teachers be more cautious when they use terms like "marginal and outcast." (p. 503) I hope I can live into this challenge and overcome some of my own unknown anti-Jewish thinking.

That said:  Happy New Year to you all and I'll see you sometime next week! (BTW no graphics this week ~ sorry!)


Today is both the celebration of New Year’s Day AND the Feast of the Epiphany – and to my way of thinking this is a fascinating combination:

• One day is filled with resolutions – personal promises and plans about how we hope to live into the New Year as better people – so the emphasis is on us – you and me – and our happiness.

While the other speaks of a God who is so completely in charge of justice and compassion in the world – albeit it in mysterious ways – that whether we notice or not – whether we cooperate or not – whether we acknowledge it or not – the will of God triumphs over the darkness.

• One day is about the kingdom of self and the other about the kingdom of God

And I would go so far as to say that having these two celebrations on the same day lets us see in stark contrast what is at stake for living by faith. Clearly the message of Epiphany says something about the way of the Lord trumping the glitter of New Year’s Day in every conceivable way, but we can be stubborn people, yes?

• We know that most of our New Year’s resolutions will become dust by week’s end and we’ll have forgotten why we made them in the first place.

• We know, as St. Paul confessed so powerfully in Romans 7, that within ourselves we don’t have the power to do the good we desire.

What I don't understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can't be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God's command is necessary. I need help… For if I know the law but still can't keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. In so many ways, my decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it's predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me?

There are whole industries built upon our willingness to delude ourselves: 

• If you watch television at all, right now all the fitness gyms and clubs are saturating the airwaves with plans to help you get rid of the effects of all that pumpkin pie, egg nog and chocolate you ate over Christmas.

• And what about the political shenanigans taking place out in Iowa? Think of the billions of dollars being spent in pursuit if illusion…

So we know all of that – we know our ability to lie to ourselves and let others confuse our expectations with God’s will – we know about sin and pride – and yet… and yet… not much seems to change, right? Gertrud Mueller-Nelson is helpful when she tenderly puts it like this in her book, To Dance with God: So often we say to ourselves, “I want Christmas this year to be different…”

We want to be touched by the season – moved to a level that lies deep in us and is hungry and dark and groaning with primal need. Like the receptive fields all around us, we lie fallow and wanting… We ache to receive the Spirit – to be impregnated like the Virgin Mary – by God’s love

… only to discover that nothing has changed. We wanted it – we ached for it – we may have even prayed for it but… nothing has changed.

Well, Epiphany offers an antidote to this disappointment – especially when it falls on New Year’s Day – because in a humorous and humble way it gives shape and form to the classic definition of insanity. Do you know it? 

• The classic definition of insanity is doing the same old things the same old way – over and over again – and expecting different results.

• If we want Christmas to be different – if we want our politics to be different – if we want our souls and loves to be different we can’t do the same old same old. Rather, like the Magi in the Epiphany story, after they worshipped the baby king we’re told that they returned home by a different way. They changed. They let themselves be transformed. They lived into the future in a new and different way.

So let me suggest for you three clues about moving beyond the insanity of the status quo into the humorous and humble way of Jesus made clear by the Magi, ok? They are:

• First, let’s talk about who the Magi really are and what they symbolize.

• Second, let’s play with the genuine humor and humility of these symbols for our generation.

• And third let’s see if we might grasp how WE are to return by a different way after encountering all of this, ok?


The Magi – the Wise Men – the Three Kings: who are these people and what do they symbolize? Well, right out of the gate let me tell you that the Magi are not learned and respected spiritual scholars from the orient, ok? As Amy-Jill Levine told us when she was here before Christmas, these characters are oddballs – misfits – some of the forsaken and forgotten who had NO respect in first century Palestine.

• They show up in the oral tradition like comic relief actors – they amplify the story – but in a funny way so that we get a little break from all the heavy action.

• So let’s be clear: although the Victorian sentimentality is dominate in our retelling of the Christmas story, the Magi were soothsayers and astrologists – more akin to the weirdoes on the Psychic Hotline than professors of theology at our learned universities.

• They were pagan outsiders from Persia who were searching for meaning in the tea leaves and the stars rather than the word of God – and most of Jesus’ ancestors would have rejected and neglected whatever they said…

And that is an important clue about why Matthew includes them in this story: you see, Matthew is making the case that Jesus is the natural descendent of King David – in the family and lineage of the Messiah of Israel – so he very carefully constructs a story about how blessings have come to Israel from among the least likely places. Are you with me? He wants to show his audience that deep within the Jewish experience God has raised up blessings from the least expected people and places.

Matthew begins his story with Christ’s family tree – he connects Jesus to David – which is important, but within that family tree he also has some characters that if we were writing about ourselves we’d probably edit out:

• He includes a number of women, for example, who were not Jews but helped save Israel (think of Tamar - a Gentile proselyte to Judaism - or Rahab - a Canaanite prostitute faithful to Joshua's spies)

• He also includes a couple of kings who where were tyrants and apostates – religious villains not heroes...

And Matthew does this for two reasons: first, he wants to remind the Jewish Christians he is teaching that within their own story there are already examples of blessings coming to Israel from the most unlikely places. In this, Jesus isn’t unique – rather he is yet another example of how God brings hope and light out of the worst times, ok?

And second, Matthew wants his people to know that even when there is sin and corruption – even when the kings of Israel collaborate with God’s enemies – God’s power is stronger than their actions. God uses Moses to lead the Jews from slavery to freedom – God raises up prophets to speak truth to power – God brought forth water from a rock and shared manna in the desert.

• And that is part of what the Magi are telling us: these strange souls – more like Rodney Dangerfield or Chris Rock than Bishop Tutu or Mother Teresa – are part of God’s mysterious way of bringing hope and healing to the world.

• What’s more, they know the Jewish story better than the existing King – they pay attention at a time when the existing King of the Jews, Herod , had to call in his advisors and have them explain what the Magi were talking about: do you get that? Do you see why that is important?

• This is a slam on King Herod – and King Cesar, too: the REAL king – the everlasting king – Matthew is telling us is… Jesus – who doesn’t look anything like a king. Who is a baby – helpless – innocent – in need of nurturing.

In Matthew’s telling of the story the Magi speak of tradition – in an upside down way – and they speak of God’s grace coming to the people – in an equally upside down way – and they do so with humor and humility. In this, they point us towards the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of self – a distinction we might notice clearly today, too.

• The kingdom of God is not puffed up – full of ourselves – prideful. Rather, the kingdom of God is a community where everyone is welcome to the feast table and everyone has a part to play – and both of those elements – welcome and responsibility – are essential.

• Sometimes people want a seat at the table of grace without sharing their gifts: that is selfishness. Sometimes people want a seat at the table but want to be in control: that is pride and greed. And sometimes people want a seat at the table so that they can con and manipulate others: that is sloth and gluttony. 

• See where I’m going with this: the kingdom of God turns our sins and confusion upside down and welcomes us all but also asks us to share and participate as fully as we are able.

And I have come to believe that the best way to be trained in the wisdom of kingdom living is through humor and humility. The salty old Roman Catholic, G.K. Chesterton put it like this: the test of a good religion is whether or not it can laugh at itself. And I think that is just about right: only those who are willing to engage with humility can laugh at themselves, right?

• Tyrants and bullies don’t laugh at themselves – so you don’t want them running your religion; idiots and gas bags can’t laugh at themselves either – nor can the walking wounded.

• It takes a lot of experience – and failure and reflection – to laugh at yourself – and in an oddly upside down way that’s part of what the Magi are telling us: we have a religion built on those who sometimes look and act ridiculous as they live quiet lives of faith.

• St. Paul called them fools for Christ in I Corinthians 4: It seems to me that God has put us who bear his Message on stage in a theater in which no one wants to buy a ticket. We're something everyone stands around and stares at, like an accident in the street. We're the Messiah's misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties. You might be well-thought-of by others, but we're mostly kicked around. Much of the time we don't have enough to eat, we wear patched and threadbare clothes, we get doors slammed in our faces, and we pick up odd jobs anywhere we can to eke out a living. When they call us names, we say, "God bless you." When they spread rumors about us, we put in a good word for them. We're treated like garbage, potato peelings from the culture's kitchen. And it's not getting any better.

In fact, Paul said those who follow the way of the Cross look to be fools in the eyes of the world – those who are learned and respectable and powerful – but we who aren’t interested in the status quo, we can follow the Crucified One with humor and humility because we have been loved from the inside out by God’s grace.

In another place, Paul describes being foolish for Christ like this: We continue to shout our praise even when we're hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we're never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can't round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

And a bit later he says: Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody. Don't hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you've got it in you, get along with everybody. Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. "I'll do the judging," says God. "I'll take care of it."


Epiphany invites us to be fools for Christ – to join the other sacred and holy fools including the Magi – who come to love and serve the Lord. And here’s where it all comes together, to be a fool for Christ means we know that we can’t make it happen: like St. Paul said at the outset, if we base our response to Jesus on what we can do and will and create… we will fail. Sin is just too great. That’s why the story of the Magi is good news: it tells us simply that if we just come – if we respond to the invitation and open our hearts – God will meet us – and touch us – so that when we leave… we will leave by a different path.

That is what it means to come to the table of Holy Communion. An ancient invitation brings it all together when it says: Come to this sacred table not because you must, but because you may. Not because you are fulfilled, but because n your emptiness you stand in need of the Lord’s mercy and assurance… not to express an opinion but to seek a presence… not to be in charge but to pray for the Spirit of the Lord… not as a lonely individual but with sisters and brothers who are tired and heavy laden… and are being called to the bread of life.

And that, beloved, is the good news for Epiphany for those who have ears to hear: come.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

And they returned by a different way...

This Sunday will mark both the START of a New Year AND the liturgical Sunday for Epiphany. The gospel text for the day has to do with the arrival of the Magi to greet the baby Jesus ~ who were not revered wise people but astrologers of left overs from the Psychic Hotline ~ and who leave Christ to go home "by a different way."  They left different...

I've loved that play on words for decades and think it has something to say for our generation. And while I don't know where my conversation for Sunday will lead us (this has been mostly a down-time and non-working week and I haven't yet prepared for worship) two thoughts from Fr. Richard Rohr bear sharing.

+ First, he observes that only a religion that is able to laugh at itself is healthy.

G.K. Chesterton is a great hero among conservative Catholics, because he wrote a book called ORTHODOXY.  Yet he said many things that contemporary conservatives in both our church and our politics would very much disagree with.  Among the best. he said that:  "The test of a good religion is whether or not it can laugh at itself."   The lack of self critical thinking, the inability to laugh at oneself or one's group, the general inability to ever appreciate what is right in front of us, is for me the most unattractive thing about fundamentalists, retro Catholics, and ideological Republicans.  If they have the truth, they surely are not enjoying it!  Nor do they make it very attractive or desirable for the rest of us.  The impossible burden of "conserving" the whole truth does not leave much time for smiling, it seems.

+ And second, only those religious people willing to risk intimacy are trustworthy.

I think that many of us men, celibate men even more, are very afraid of intimacy.  I would define intimacy as the ability to mutually share one's needs, one's wounds, or one's weaknesses with another person.  The sharing of our inner or interior world ("intimus" in Latin) is always a risk, usually a fear of rejection, and thus many of us never go there.  It might change our self image.  But I am going to make a rather absolute statement:  people who risk intimacy are invariably happier and much more real people. They feel like they have lots of "handles" that allow others to hold on to them, and that allow them to hold onto themselves!  People who avoid intimacy are always, and I mean always, imprisoned in a small and circular world. 

These two truths resonate with me at the deepest level:  I no longer trust people who can't laugh at themselves ~ and ~ I am very guarded with those who won't/can't risk being open and honest.  If my own wounds have taught me anything over the years it is that everybody hurts, almost none of our wounds are unique and their weight can become a little lighter if we're willing to carefully and appropriately share them in humility. 

Some of us "lead with our wounds" as one feminist used to say ~ that is, we let our brokenness define and shape us ~ when the truth is that we are bigger than the pain. Others retreat into self-pity or bitterness ~ they want somebody else to fix them ~ when healing can only come from the Lord.  And still others never find God's healing grace because... they aren't really looking. They may be busy, but they aren't looking for God.

That's one of the insights of Epiphany:  the Magi find the "new born king" because they were paying attention and took the time to start the search.  As my theological mentors in the Grateful Dead used to say:  keep on truckin!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bring on the wonder...

As is often the case here, the week between Christmas and New Year's is slow and quiet. We listen to music, read, take long walks and mostly chill. For years it seemed as if the totality of both Advent and Christmas were realized for our family in these seven days: finally we were able to enter the wisdom of the liturgy without the demands or pressures of the season.  In Tucson, we actually headed out of town on Christmas morning so as to avoid any hint of "work" during this time of personal renewal and reflection.

This week will be comparably chill ~ although I was more fully embodied and connected to the rhythms of Advent and Christmas this year during worship for some wonderful reason than in times past ~ so I don't feel a need to "get away!"  But I still won't really "work" much this week. It is time for a rest. 

We will, however, stay connected to our community during this down time by participating in a special benefit for our friend and city council person, Pete White.  His mother's house burned down the week before Christmas ~ and those who love him are hosting a benefit tonight to raise emergency funds.  A ton of local musicians ~ including our church band ~ will share tunes as the emcees encourage buying raffle tickets, etc.  This is one way to combine doing good with both acts of compassion and prayer.  Like Fr. Richard Rohr wrote in this morning's email reflection:

Christian revelation is  always pointed, concrete, and specific. Our word for that is “incarnational” or  enfleshed.  Walter Brueggemann calls it  brilliantly “the scandal of the particular.”  Christianity is not a Platonic world of ideas and theories about which  you can be right or wrong, or observe from a distance. Incarnation is not something you measure or  critique or analyze, but Someone you meet!

This pattern reaches its  fullness in the enfleshment of the Divine in one ordinary-looking man named  Jesus.  We dare to believe that God  materialized in human form, so we could fall in love with a real person, which  is the only way we fall in love. It is almost   impossible to give your life  warmly for an idea, a force, an energy, or a concept.  We are programmed to give our lives away to other persons.

One of the truths I have experienced over and over this Advent/Christmas-moving-towards-Epiphany season has to do with the "scandal of the particular." There are times when it is very, very hard for me to love some people ~ family, members of the congregation, neighbors ~ and that doesn't even open the door for those who are enemies or evil. (Yes, evil, too, is not an abstraction but a cruel and dangerous embodied reality.) There are times when it is equally hard to love myself. And at least half the time I fail ~ not because I want to (as St. Paul states so clearly in Romans 7), but because that's how I am ~ imperfect, cracked and always being redeemed in the flesh.

For decades I hated and feared my cracks and brokenness but now I'm learning to love them. (Well, maybe not love but at least own and try to give them a hug.) In his book, A Play-Full Life, Jaco Hamman, encourages us ~ individually and in community ~ to not only embrace the wisdom of our failures, but to let them move us towards a measure of healing.  This won't happen quickly, but it won't happen at all if we avoid the scandal of our particularity.  As C.G. Jung used to say, the call to feed, nurture, visit and cherish the stranger in Matthew 25 is not only social, but also deeply personal.  "When did we see thee hungry and feed thee, Lord...?"

One of the things I find helpful to do during this week of quiet time, is to review the year for signs of blessings and curses ~ and then try to grasp what healing they both might be luring me towards. Like Gertrud Mueller-Nelson notes:

Emmanuel means "God is with us." Here, where myth and history intersect, he stands in our midst and we are none of us too poor, too broken, too sinful, too reject by the world to know his glories. In the very depth of our humanity we discover the power of the Sacred and every human experience is transformed. For the Word is made flesh and dwells in our midst, dwells wherever we are willing to recognize him.

So bring on the music, bring on the song... let's see where the journey towards Epiphany might lead us?

I can't see the stars anymore living here
Let's go to the hills where the outlines are clear

Bring on the wonder
Bring on the song
I pushed you down deep in my soul for too long

I fell through the cracks at the end of our street
Let's go to the beach, get the sand through our feet

Bring on the wonder
Bring on the song
I pushed you down deep in my soul for too long

Bring on the wonder
We got it all wrong
We pushed you down deep in our souls for too long

I don't have the time for a drink from the cup
Let's rest for a while 'til our souls catch us up

Bring on the wonder
Bring on the song
I pushed you down deep in my soul for too long

Bring on the wonder
We got it all wrong
We pushed you down deep in our souls, so hang on

Bring on the wonder
Bring on the song
I pushed you down deep in my soul for too long.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas thoughts...

After Christmas Eve round one ~ a loving celebrations with children and families ~ there was round two ~ with another 100 people and GREAT songs and scripture (using Brian Wren's new liturgy.) This setting of "lessons and carols" updates the theologies and speaks of God's love conceptually featuring Psalms of grace, prophetic calls for justice and a sense that in Christ God has truly taken up residence within and among us. We left worship feeling fulfilled and nourished ~ and arrived home to a mini-feast of lentil soup, potato pizza and salad greens (prepared by our sweet children!)

This morning, Christmas Day, another 60 souls braved the wilds of downtown Pittsfield to join us for carols and  holy communion.  We talked about the lectionary readings ~ and in particular Isaiah 52 ~ that celebrates God's grace inwardly and outwardly:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

One commentator has written:

The poet-prophet uses this transferred epithet to express the joy that lies in the message of peace. The prophet’s reference to the feet, rather than the voice or the face, draws attention to the journey of the messenger in two ways. First, the agent of God is on the move, but moves step by step. God’s purposes are slow but sure. The evidence of God’s coming may be lowly, even dirty like human feet walking a dusty road, but still God’s coming is a most beautiful event as is the news of it. These are also aspects of the Christian understanding of the incarnation of God in Jesus.

Secondly, the news of peace is coming from the mountains. The word ‘mountain’ is common in Second-Isaiah, especially as a place of rejoicing (cf. 40:9; 44:23). The levelling of mountains by God is a common metaphor to represent overcoming obstacles especially in a new exodus back from exile to the land (40:4, 12, 15; 42:15). However, the mountains of Isa. 52:7 may have a more literal meaning. Along the eastern flank of Babylonia are the mountains of Persia. It was over these mountains that the liberator of God’s people, God’s ‘anointed’ one, king Cyrus, was to come (45:1).

Cyrus is the only non-Israelite who is given the title meshiach ‘anointed’ (Messiah) in the Bible. News of his advent and his conquests reached the Judean exiles some years before they were finally free to return home. Those in exile could see God’s action unfolding in the context of imminent political events.

We prayed for those who are trapped in violence ~ noting Syria and Iraq ~ lifted up friends and loved ones trapped in addiction or plagued with grief and returned thanks for our blessings. But mostly we sang Christmas carols ~ a liturgical form of stump the band where people call out their favorites and our organist gives them a shot ~ for like the ancient prophet today felt like a day to shout and sing for joy as we celebrated the presence of God who rebuilds what is in ruins in every sense. 

The kids made us breakfast after worship ~ and then it was on to sharing gifts ~ before a short late afternoon nap.  Now there is more food preparation before an early evening feast and a walk about to look at the holiday lights.  It has been a festival of music, joy, feasting, prayer and remembrance ~ and I am grateful.

1/2: lumsden

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve ~ round one...

We're doing two Christmas Eve gigs tonight and round one is finished.  Over 100 people showed up for our No Rehearsal/Everyone Welcome Christmas Pageant.  And then we all crowded around the communion table.  It was mildly chaotic and a whole lotta fun.

One little girl told her momma:  can we come back here for more?  And another young momma said to me, "I have never experienced a church like this before. OMG it was so much fun!" She was stunned... so I smiled and said, "Isn't that part of the blessing of Christmas?  Joy?"  She gave me a hug and walked off smiling.  It was a great first round ~ and now we're about to practice for round two with jazz, traditional carols, folks songs for peace and a sweet new inclusive liturgy by Brian Wren.

More on the flip side...

A few words from my friends on Christmas Eve...

From Blue Eyed Ennis comes two moving insights on the mystery of God's grace made flesh.  The first is from Mary Oliver:
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.

How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.

 How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.

 How two hands touch and the bonds
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.

Then a restatement of the Ave Maria (from the Italian):

Woman of waiting
Mother of hope
Woman of smiles
Mother of silence
Woman of the margins
Mother of Love
Woman of rest
Mother of the journey
Woman of the desert
Mother of Breath
Woman of the evening
Mother of memories
 Woman of this moment
and Mother of the past
Woman on Earth
Mother of Love
 Ave Maria : Hail Mary

Ora Pro Nobis : Pray for us

From Fr. Richard Rohr comes these words that get it just about right, too:

In 1847, a parish priest in  France asked a simple wine merchant in his church if he would compose a poem  for the Christmas Mass. He wrote the words to the music that became O Holy  Night and will be sung with great solemnity and emotion in many halls and  churches throughout the world tonight. It deserves to be.

I offer this song because of  one truly inspired line. It says that when God came among us in the shape and  form of Jesus, suddenly “the soul felt its worth!” Yes, that is it! We  cannot mirror ourselves; we all must be mirrored by another. When God mirrored  us through the entrance, invitation, and eyes of Jesus, the certainty of our  redemption was once and for all given and accomplished. In Franciscan  eyes, we needed no further blood sacrifice to reveal God's intentions toward  us. We were already saved by the gaze from the manger.

The poet goes on to sing further of “a thrill of hope”  and a “new and glorious morn.” Again, well said, as poets and musicians so  often do! I am sure much of the conscious or unconscious sentiment of this  feast is that tonight and tomorrow, on some wonderful level, the soul finally  and forever does feel its worth!

Let me close with the insights from the St. of Vermont:  Frederick Buechner:

The Word became Flesh, wrote St. John, "and dwelt among us full of grace and truth." (John 1: 14) That is what incarnation means. It is untheological. It is unsophisticated. It is undignified. But according to Christianity it is the way things are.

All religions and philosophies which deny the reality or the significance of the material, the fleshly, the earth-bound, are themselves denied. Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground (Exodus 3: 5), and incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here.

And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth but our bodies and our earth themselves. Jerusalem becomes the New Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven like a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21: 2). Our bodies are sown perishable and raised imperishable (I Corinthians 15: 42)

One of the blunders religious people are particularly fond of making is the attempt to be more spiritual than God.

God's grace to you all:  tidings of comfort and joy and Merry Christmas, dear friends, Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Slow down you move too fast...

As life would have it, I find I'm reading two books of a similar theme at the same time: World Enough and Time by Christian McEwan is subtitled, "on creativity and slowing down," and A Play-Full Life by Jaco Hamman is also subtitled, "slowing down and seeking peace." Both are inspirational in the best sense of that word ~ and both speak to what I have been discerning in my heart and life for the past five years.  These texts simply articulate what the Spirit has been doing... hmmmmm.  I know that both books will become fodder for my writing after Christmas, but let me share this quote from Jaco in anticipation of Christmas Eve:
One answer to the question: what did Jesus do? is, he walked. Being a peasant, Jesus rarely had the luxury of riding horses or even donkeys. He lived a slow life. A play-full life is lived at the right speed. It is to have enough time to live with joy and in community with others... Most of us live the FAST LIFE... Carl Honore calls it the velocitization of life. We want our red lights to be green; our morning commute to be congestion free so that we can speed along at seventy plus miles and hour; our air travel to be on time. We want to be able to drive up and buy what we need. We want overnight shipping of our online purchases and we seek fast processors for our computers and fast Internet access. We want many channels to surf on television; recorded television shows without advertisements breaks; constant alerts from our Smartphone; our phone directory on speed dial; our emails to be answered immediately; the stock exchange to rebound quickly; our weight loss program to show great results in seven days or less; and, of course, we want fast food.

I see myself named in almost everything in that sad list ~ and felt myself fighting against what I have embraced throughout today.  Stupid ass drivers making annoying decisions on the road, sluggish pedestrians getting in my way of completing my last minute errands, controlling and manipulative traditions, lists to be made and accomplished and so much more.  And over and over again I had to force myself ~ sometimes out loud in the car ~ to pray St. Paul Simon's prayer:  slow down you move to fast... you got to make the morning last. 

And so it goes:  the call is offered and received but conversion is more about my little choices everyday rather than the big one, yes?  And I am dying and being reborn in each of those little choices to slow down and pay attentin so that my life is lived at the right speed.  Fr. Richard Rohr, in commenting on the Vesper antiphons for this day helps when he tells us that the O Antiphon for yesterday ~ Rex in Latin ~ means king, but not our usual understanding of king:
Jesus'  kingship is not a lording it over us “as the pagans do” (Luke 22:24-27). The  true Messiah will utterly redefine power and authority as servanthood (John 13:4-15),  good shepherding (John 10:11-18), and uniting the group in love (John  17:20-24). Ken Wilber says that there is an authority that dominates, and an  authority that protects life and growth, as exemplified by good parents. I am  afraid most of the world is still waiting for this kind of authority, even in  the churches. To this needed, and oh-so-desired kingship, we still say COME!

And today on the eve of the eve,  the  Vesper antiphon is the final invocation before the feast begins  tomorrow at sunset, as is the Jewish custom. The word, of course, is from that  central prophecy for Christians from Isaiah 7:14: “A virgin/maiden shall be  with child, and will give birth to a son, and she will call him Emmanuel” (which means God-with-us). God-with-us is a divine promise first to Israel, and through  them to all of us, of God's unilateral faithfulness to humanity and God's  eternal initiative toward all that is created. That's why we Franciscans  said that Christmas was already Easter! Note that in the original text in  Isaiah these words are spoken to pious and foolish King Ahaz. Yahweh has told  him to “ask for a sign” (7:11). Ahaz is holier than God and refuses to do so,  and so Yahweh takes the initiative, admitting that old Ahaz is “trying both  human and divine patience” (7:13) and gives him a totally compelling sign  anyway. In other words, Yahweh is going to come as an uninvited,  unrecognized, and even unexpected guest, which is pretty much the eternal  pattern.

To put it even more plainly,  Yahweh says I am going to be with you whether you know it or not, ask for it  or not, or enjoy it or not. God is GIVEN once, and for all, and forever, to  the human species and to the whole created world! That is the meaning of  Incarnation, the meaning of Emmanuel, and the first and final meaning of  Christmas. (Maybe without fully knowing why, we centered in on a very prophetic text when we sang and quoted Isaiah 7:14, but like so much of the Bible, the text gets even more powerful when you read it in full context.) Now read  it in the context of your own life!

Lord, may it be born and nourished within and among us...

I think a change would do you good...

This year we are breaking with tradition ~ a personal and professional change ~ by moving away from the traditional Kings College "lessons and carols" worship for Christmas Eve. Don't get me wrong, I love the beauty and awe of this liturgy, but the theology is outdated. It is also not real given our increasingly inter-dependent world. So, I've chosen to experiment by using Brian Wren's careful and compassionate reworking of the King's College  lessons and carols with something he calls "a service of songs and scriptures" in Advent, Christmas Epiphany Liturgies and Prayers for Public Worship (check it out @

Two key differences between the old and new are important to note:

+ First, the theology of this new liturgy articulates a way of being faithful that involves co-creation. Not that God isn't God, but rather these words make it clear that we have a critical role to play in advancing compassion and justice in Christ's image. That is to say, being faithful isn't simply about right doctrine, it is also about right action. He articulates what I have noted as a generous orthodoxy - with some radical and demanding consequences.  Wren puts it like this...

+ Second, the early 20th century sentimentalism of the King's College liturgy has been changed to include the harsh and sobering realities of violence. Wren also situates the words of worship in a multi-faith, post-September 11th world that is takes seriously the insights of post-modern thinking, too. For example, he makes much greater use of the Psalms and the wisdom of St. Paul, like the inclusion of Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works vindication
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger for ever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.

So I think a change would do us good:  it is clearly the right time.  I think the closing blessing brings it all home:

Go in peace.
May the love that made the stars,
be your guiding light.
May the love revealed in Jesus
be your hope and inspiration;
and may the love of the ever-present Spirit,
give you courage, joy and hope,
now and forever. Amen. 

If you are in town... why not join us?  (Worship starts at 7 PM with 30 minutes of stunning music that is truly eclectic:  some classical hymns, some jazz, some contemporary settings of old tunes and some country/folk/gospel, too.)

3) ibid

NOTE: for great insight and art please visit the site of the brilliant artist Jan Richardshon @

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dayenu in Advent...

Last night ~ at band practice ~ I experienced a little of the sounds of heaven on earth: my church band, which keeps getting tighter and more creative, worked on two songs that left me in awe.  The first, Over the Rhine's incredible "Trumpet Child," features Dianne on vocals with Jon on harmonies; Carlton nails the jazz piano and our friend, Charlie, is sitting in on sax.  But we also have a young trumpet player, too and "Edge" is simply all over his part leaving me full to overflowing.

Then we worked on Linda Worster's hauntingly beautiful, "Peace on Earth." And once we got the PA/guitar amp in balance, the singers' three part harmonies lifted me beyond this realm. I hope we can record this tune ~ and do it with Linda sometime soon, too ~ because it truly is heavenly.  And when the singers gathered around the piano with the sax and worked out some jazz settings for Christmas carols on Christmas Eve all I could do (after moving some poinsettias) was sit and soak it all in: "this is what heaven sounds like," I kept thinking to myself, "beauty upon beauty."

Tomorrow I'll do an early morning Christmas show with some friends, follow up on details for Christmas Eve, stop by the hospital to visit a friend's mother who is slowly letting go of life, do choir practice and close the day with drinks with Andy and Sue.  That sounds like a sweet way to welcome the Solstice. I'll even get a chance to see one of my daughters as she passes through town on her way to Cleveland for the holiday.

Today at midday Eucharist, when we read the Psalm 124 we all agreed it sounded like the Jewish Passover prayer: dayenu.  It would have been enough...

If God hadn't been for us —all together now, Israel, sing out!—
If God hadn't been for us
when everyone went against us,
We would have been swallowed alive
by their violent anger,
Swept away by the flood of rage,
drowned in the torrent;
We would have lost our lives
in the wild, raging water.

Oh, blessed be God!
He didn't go off and leave us.
He didn't abandon us defenseless,
helpless as a rabbit in a pack of snarling dogs.

We've flown free from their fangs,
free of their traps, free as a bird.
Their grip is broken;
we're free as a bird in flight.
God's strong name is our help,
the same God who made heaven and earth.

For a moment, I felt like it would have been enough to let go of life after last night's music... but God's grace is greater and there was today ~ and tomorrow ~ and soon Christmas Eve. Dayenu!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A different type of day...

Usually Tuesdays are set aside for study, prayer and writing in my semi-ordered life.  But with Christmas coming this week ~ and a very different set of liturgies to celebrate ~ I'm not going to preach this year.  So I embraced today as a very different type of day...

+ First, I spent time with Brian Wren's new liturgies for Advent/Christmas/Epiphany.  I cherish them as they are grounded, creative, provacative and nourishing all at the same time.  We will be using his "Service of Songs and Scripture - Year B" for our late worship this year.  I will also be using his short Holy Communion liturgy for our midday Eucharist after the New Year. One of the Eucharistic prayers goes:

Holy One, Holy Three – Spirit, Son and Father – you unfolded time and space and created us to love and be loved, to live on this earth and tend to it for your glory. With all our heart:
We praise you and thank you.

Holy One, Holy Three – Author, Word and Breath – you chose your covenant people and revealed yourself as holy, incomparable and elusive; as liberator, judge and compassionate, forgiving love. With all our heart:
We praise you and thank you.

Holy One, Holy Three – Lover, Beloved and Source of All Love – you became human in Jesus, whose love goes beyond our limits, reaching out to good and bad alike and calling us to practice peace, mercy and kindness; to forgive as we have been forgiven; and to love even our enemies. With all our heart:
We praise you and thank you.

Holy One, Holy Three – Giver, Given and Gifting – as we share this bread and cup, we remember how Jesus died for us, bore our sins in his body on the tree, defeated the powers of this age and lives among us here and now, breaking our dividing walls and giving us good news. With all our heart:
We praise you and thank you.

+ Second, I played some music at a local nursing home with my buddy Andy.  Nursing homes are sad places this time of year ~ sometimes any time of year ~ so it was a little bit of mercy to share the sounds of the season with these dear old friends.To say that it was a hard crowd to work ~ most folk were unreceptive ~ would be an understatement. And for an entertainer that is hard going.  But by the end, we were able to create a groove so that some folk were up and dancing and singing along.  Hard work but also soul food.

+ Third, Andy and I shared a pint ~ as good Irish men are want to do ~ and talked about the year past and the year to come.  I love this guy and he has been so wonderful to me on so many levels. I have grown to care for his family, too ~ I'll have the privilege of celebrating the wedding of his daughter in August. I've played a St. Patrick's gig with his son. And, of course, shared Istanbul with Andy and his dear wife.  So this was a little soul food too ~ and the Killian's Red was an unexpected bonus!

Now I'm headed off to eat Mexican with Di before band practice tonight.  We're gearing up for some sweet, sweet Christmas Eve music with my church mates ~ and were blessed as well to have the Master of the Universe, the Big Man of the Saxophone himself, Charlie Tokarz joining us. It will be a joy to rehearse with these fine players and plan for this special night.  What's more, I just got a note that one of our young seminarians is home from Yale and will join us tomorrow at Eucharist.  Then we'll have a chance to connect ~ and spend a few hours in conversation. Dig these lyrics...

The trumpet child will blow his horn
Will blast the sky till it’s reborn
With Gabriel’s power and Satchmo’s grace
He will surprise the human race

The trumpet he will use to blow
Is being fashioned out of fire
The mouthpiece is a glowing coal
The bell a burst of wild desire

The trumpet child will riff on love
Thelonious notes from up above
He’ll improvise a kingdom come
Accompanied by a different drum

The trumpet child will banquet here
Until the lost are truly found
A thousand days, a thousand years
Nobody knows for sure how long

The rich forget about their gold
The meek and mild are strangely bold
A lion lies beside a lamb
And licks a murderer’s outstretched hand

The trumpet child will lift a glass
His bride now leaning in at last
His final aim to fill with joy
The earth that man all but destroyed

Today has been the day when Advent's waiting started to shift for me towards the deep, deep joy of Christ's gentle birth:  rejoice, rejoice...

Monday, December 19, 2011

The magnificat and the 23rd day of Advent...

What does it mean to pray Mary's "magnificat" in all of its radical fullness? Yesterday, during our adult Sunday School class, Amy-Jill Levine - our guest teacher - mentioned the wisdom and insight of Walter Wink's "third way of Jesus" as one clue. Some may know that Wink's insights have been influential in South Africa's struggle to oppose injustice in the most ethical way possible.  He once said:

The problem of using violence (is that it) always turns you into the very thing you hate. We want so badly to oppose the palpable and flagrant evil of Bosnia and Somalia. Yet when we go in shooting and killing, etc., we find ourselves imperceptibly sucked into the very kinds of behavior we went in deploring. We find ourselves trying to get Aidid and operating as a death squad chasing him down. Before long, we are going to find ourselves engaged in ethnic cleansing. I have already heard a congressman speaking of the people of Somalia as infidels although they are God-believing Moslems. Pretty soon we dehumanize the enemy and we turn into the very thing we are opposing.

And Wink draws spiritual insight from a key teaching of the ministry of Jesus:

One of the most misunderstood passages in all of the Bible is Jesus' teaching about turning the other cheek. The passage runs this way: "You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. And if anyone takes you to court and sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well. If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two."

This passage has generally been understood by people as teaching non-resistance. Do not resist one who is evil has been taken to mean simply let them run all over you. Give up all concern for your own justice. If they hit you on one cheek, turn the other and let them batter you there too, which has been bad advice for battered women. As far as the soldier forcing you to take his pack an extra mile, well are you doing that voluntarily? It has become a platitude meaning extend yourself.

Jesus could not have meant those kinds of things. He resisted evil with every fiber of His being. There is not a single instance in which Jesus does not resist evil when He encounters it. The problem begins right there with the word resist. The Greek term is antistenai. Anti is familiar to us in English still, "against," "Anti"-Defamation League. Stenai means to stand. So, "stand against." Resist is not a mistranslation so much as an undertranslation. What has been overlooked is the degree to which antistenai is used in the NewTestament in the vast majority of cases as a technical term for warfare. To "stand against" refers to the marching of the two armies up against each other until they actually collide with one another and the battle ensues. That is called "taking a stand."

Ephesians 6:13 says, "Therefore put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand (antistenai) in that evil day and having done all to stand (stenai)."

The image there is not of a punch drunk boxer somehow managing to stay on his feet even though he is being pummeled by his adversary. It is to keep on fighting. Don't retreat. Don't give up. Don't turn your back and flee but stay in there and fight to the bitter end.

When Jesus says, "Do not resist one who is evil," there is something stronger than simply resist. It's do not resist violently. Jesus is indicating do not resist evil on its own terms. Don't let your opponent dictate the terms of your opposition. If I have a hoe and my opponent has a rifle, I am obviously going to have to get a rifle in order to fight on equal terms, but then my opponent gets a machine gun, so I have to get a machine gun. You have a spiral of violence that is unending.

Jesus is trying to break that spiral of violence. Don't resist one who is evil probably means something like, don't turn into the very thing you hate. Don't become what you oppose. The earliest translation of this is probably in a version of Romans 12 where Paul says, "Do not return evil for evil."

(see: The Third Way @

So the question that begs asking:  how much of this did Jesus learn from Mary? To be sure, the Magnificat is St. Luke's literary and/or story-telling way of linking Mary's life with that of other strong and faithful women:  Think of Miriam, Deborah or Hannah singing praises to the Lord. There is also a close affiliation with the Jubilee wisdom of the prophet Isaiah running through Luke's gospel, too and Mary's song echoes themes Jesus will proclaim at the start of his public ministry.

But there is something of Christ's radically non-violent third way going on here, too that refuses to cooperate with evil or simply ignore it.  When your dignity and "favor" come from God - not your power or social status but the Lord - then you can stand firm against evil without cooperating with it.  You can live as the Lord's favored one ~ Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee ~ as the prayer tells us.  Let's celebrate the revolutionary third way of Jesus who was born of Mary.

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:...