Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The joy of friends...

My buddy in Tucson - don E - sent me this quote that touched my heart.  He, too, has known the ups and downs of loving hard people in a family - and it came at just the right time.  He writes:
"Sometimes there is great strength in naivete." I think if we could look upon those sometimes that we know so well and see them without the filter of life we could see who they are at that moment. Sometimes our experience gets in the way of our compassion and it is a gift to see those we love without the sweat of experience and remember that we truly love them, no matter of any experience. 

My head wrestles with those words tonight even while my heart sings their beauty.  Friends help keep me honest.  Peter in Canada rewrote a Bible drama I was working on - and made it so much better.  Hal posted some powerful words from a human rights activist in Afghanistan that cuts to the chase in that horrible war.  Andy helped me find a more beautiful way of playing my bass. Brian sent me his love - and some great chord changes. Sue sent me a blessing prayer before I left for Maryland.Ted called to take me to lunch.  And David sent me a quote about humor from his vacation that made me smile...

I am blessed by the joy of true and humble friends who know how hard it is to keep loving.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wandering in the Wilderness with Jesus for Lent: Forgiveness

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for April 3, 2011 - the Fourth Sunday of Lent - and the midway point of my series, "Wandering with Jesus in the Wilderness."  I am using a suggestion from David Lose at Working Preacher to shape this week's reflection in a multi-sensory way. I am using the text of John 9 as reworked by Eugene Peterson in The Message.  And I am grateful to the wisdom and insights of Ernest Kurtz in his Spirituality of Imperfection.  Should you happen to be in town, please join us at 10:30 am on Sunday.  (And if you are around this weekend, stop in Baba Louie's on Friday night at 6:30 pm for some jazz, too!)

 Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent – that means we have been wandering with Jesus in the wilderness searching for new insights about God’s love for 24 days – giving us only 16 more to go. That works out to only four more weeks until Easter, so we’re at the half way point, ok?

• To date I’ve invited you to consider three pathways to God – release, humility and gratitude – and today I want to explore a fourth: forgiveness.

• And because we’re at the halfway point of Lent – an oasis of sorts within the wilderness – I thought we might really get outside of the Sunday morning box a bit and create a fully participatory scripture lesson that gives us some insights into forgiveness in a totally non-linear and counter-intuitive way, ok?

• It is a learning style that uses all our senses – and by the grace of God today’s gospel lesson from the 9th chapter of St. John’s story is just about perfect for a multi-sensory reading. It is one of the stories about Jesus healing a man who has been blind from birth.

And in order to get into the text, here’s what I would like to do – and I’m going to need your openness and trust to make it happen:

• First, we’re going to distribute blindfolds to about half of the church while the other half retains their vision, ok? As my helpers pass them out, I’d like you to immediately put them on so that you enter the realm of sensory darkness.

• Second, those who have received the blindfolds, I want you to make a decision about when to take them off – it is up to you – but I need some to take off their blindfolds when the man in the story receives his sight and some to keep them on until the whole story is finished. Is that clear? It is your call – you’re all adults – but my goal is to have some people with no blindfolds, some people who experience the return of light and some people who stay in the darkness.

• And third, I need my crew of readers – who will take on some of the different voices in this story – to come on up to the front of the Sanctuary now so that we can share this with you with some zip!

Are you ready? Do you have your blindfolds in place? Are you ready to use all your senses for the sharing of the gospel? Ok, let’s see what takes place…

(Light some sweet grass incense…)

NARRATOR: Walking down one of the streets in Jerusalem, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked:

DISCIPLES: Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?"

JESUS: Jesus said, You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do. We need to be energetically at work for the One who sent me here, working while the sun shines. When night falls, the workday is over. For as long as I am in the world, there is plenty of light. I am the world's Light.

NARRATOR: And saying this he spit into the dust, made a clay paste with the saliva, rubbed the paste on the blind man's eyes, and said:

JESUS: Go, wash at the Pool of Siloam (Siloam means "Sent).

NARRATOR: The man went and washed—and saw. Soon the town was buzzing. His relatives and those who year after year had seen him as a blind man begging were saying,

FAMILY: Why, isn't this the man we knew, who sat here and begged? Others said, It's him all right! But still others objected, It's not the same man at all. It just looks like him.

NARRATOR: But the once blind man said:

BLIND MAN: Stop, everyone, it IS me, the very one! 

NARRATOR: So they asked him, How did your eyes get opened?

BLIND MAN: A man named Jesus made a paste and rubbed it on my eyes and told me, 'Go to Siloam and wash.' I did what he said and when I washed, I saw."

FAMILY: So where is he?

BLIND MAN: I don’t know.
NARRATOR: So they marched the man to the Pharisees. Now this day when Jesus made the paste and healed his blindness was the Sabbath. So the Pharisees grilled the once blind man again on how he had come to see.

BLILND MAN: Look He put a clay paste on my eyes, and I washed, and now I see."

PHARISEES: Some of the Pharisees said, Obviously, this man can't be from God. He doesn't keep the Sabbath. Others countered, How can a bad man do miraculous,God-revealing things like this?

NARRATOR: So there was a split in their ranks and they came back to the blind man and said:

PHARISEES: You're the expert. He opened your eyes. What do you say about him?

BLIND MAN: I believe he is a prophet from God.

NARRATOR: Well, the religious authorities didn't believe it, didn't believe the man was blind to begin with. So they called the parents of the man now bright-eyed with sight and asked his mother and father.

PHARISEES: Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?

PARENTS: His parents said, We know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. But we don't know how he came to see—we haven't a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don't you ask him? He's a grown man and can speak for himself!

NARRATOR: So they called the man back a second time—the man who had been blind— and told him:

PHARISEES: Give credit to God. We know this man is an impostor.

BLIND MAN: But he replied, I know nothing about that one way or the other. But I know one thing for sure: I was blind . . . I now see.

PHARISEES: They said, What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?

BLIND MAN: I've told you over and over and you haven't listened. Why do you want to hear it again? Are you so eager to become his disciples?

NARRATOR: And with that they jumped all over him. You might be a disciple of that man, but we're disciples of Moses. We know for sure that God spoke to Moses, but we have no idea where this man even comes from.
BLIND MAN: So the man replied, This is amazing! You claim to know nothing about him, but the fact is, he opened my eyes! It's well known that God isn't at the beck and call of sinners, but listens carefully to anyone who lives in reverence and does his will. That someone opened the eyes of a man born blind has never been heard of—ever. If this man didn't come from God, he wouldn't be able to do anything.

PHARISEES: They said, "You're nothing but dirt! How dare you take that tone with us! and threw him out in the street.

NARRATOR: When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out he went and found him asking, Do you believe in the Son of Man?

BLIND MAN: The man said, Point him out to me, sir, so that I can believe in him.

JESUS: Jesus said, You're looking right at him. Don't you recognize my voice?

BLIND MAN: Master, I believe, the man said and worshiped him.

JESUS: I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind.

NARRATOR: When some of the Pharisees overheard him they said, Does that mean you're calling us blind?

JESUS: And Jesus replied, If you were really blind, you would be blameless, but since you claim to see everything so well, you're accountable for every fault and failure.


Let’s talk about your experience of encountering the gospel story like this, ok?

• What did you notice – what details or gaps in the story – did you find?

• What senses did you use during the sharing of this story?

• Now let’s consider those blindfolds: what was it like for some of you to keep your sight? Regain your sight part of the way through the story? Or be kept in the dark until the end?

And here’s the really tough question: what does any or all of this tell you about forgiveness? Any ideas?

I think that there are at least these two insights:

First, like the man born into blindness who received the gift of new sight from Jesus, forgiveness is not something we can create or demand or control. It is a gift that comes to us from beyond. It is spiritual – a blessing – that cannot “be willed any more than sight can be willed into existence when we are blind.” (Kurtz, A Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 218)

• Do you know what I am saying here – that forgiveness is not something we can control – but rather a gift from beyond?

• We can want it – we can pray for it – we can be open to it – but we cannot control or create forgiveness. It seems as if there is just a sacred time table to forgiveness that is beyond our control.

And second, for some reason we are only able to experience and encounter forgiving another after we ourselves have first been forgiven. Hmmm…?

In the research that has happened in our generation into the way forgiveness works, it seems that most people have discovered that they were only able to forgive another after first experiencing forgiveness themselves. As one researcher put it, “The experience of being able to forgive was preceded by some experience of being forgiven.”

• It would seem that we can’t really deal with the darkness until we have first experienced the light. Nor can we share healing until we have first known something of grace.

• You see, to “truly forgive involves letting go of the feelings of resentment we often hold near and dear as well as all those dark visions that underlie our resentments… you know, where we see ourselves as being offended… or victimized… or wronged.”

• It seems that as long as we focus on the feelings of resentment we are distracted from the healing God wants to share and give. “For at the core of resentment is a way of seeing yourself as a victim… the perpetually wounded and offended soul… and this makes forgiveness impossible.” (Kurtz, p. 222)

That is why God comes to us over and over again in the ordinary events and people who fill our lives and gives to us the chance to experience being forgiven by another.

• A lover – a child – a spouse – a therapist or teacher – or employer – or even a former enemy.

• Because only after we ourselves have had our eyes opened by the light of God’s grace, can we let go enough to share it with somebody else.

Jesus said: “I came into the world to bring everything into the clear light of day, making all the distinctions clear, so that those who have never seen will see, and those who have made a great pretense of seeing will be exposed as blind." And from my perspective, that is the good news for today. So let those who have ears to hear – and eyes to see – and hearts to feel – do it by the grace of God.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I need your help...

Today I am going to ask for your help - financial help - with our peace-making through music project.  As some know, our jazz ensemble is heading to Istanbul, Turkey on June 13th for 10 days of people-to-people diplomacy.  To date, through playing a lot of local gigs and a ton of hard work by band leader Andy Kelly, we've raised enough to cover our air fare and ground transportation ($8K.) Now we're working on the necessary funds to lodge the band while in Turkey and will need between $2-7K.

Let me be clear about why I am asking you to help out in this way at this time because even $10-20 would be a blessing.  I believe that we are living in a time when compassion and creative, direct action by ordinary people can make a huge difference in the world.  Already we are seeing this in what has been called "the Arab Spring" for democracy and human rights. Bold and inventive people are standing up for what is just and right and dictators are crumbling.  Not all at once, to be sure, but like Sam Cooke sang, "a change is coming..."
For most of my adult life I have sought out ways to be an ally of this change through music making and people-to-people diplomacy.  With Cesar Chavez and the farm workers movement I learned the importance of singing together as a way of building both solidarity and courage.  I saw this from the side lines with the Freedom Movement of MLK in the 60s, but experienced and shared it in the 70s with the farm workers.  Same with the music making of artists like Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Holly Near, Si Kahn, John McCutcheon, Marvin Gaye, Paul Simon, Gil Scott-Herron, U2 and Bruce Springsteen: these singers practiced their craft in such a way that the soul was fortified while community was created. 

So, in every church I've served over the last 30 years, I've found a way to do three things:

+ create a musical group that performs not only in worship but also in the wider community on behalf of peace and justice concerns; in this way, soul work moves beyond the walls of the church.

+ create a space where local musicians - regardless of their spirituality - can gather to sing and play and help ordinary people experience the power and joy of group singing; this has taken shape and form in our annual Thanksgiving Eve gigs, but also in our Good Friday encounters, too.

+ create a way in Sunday worship to integrate the songs of our everyday experience with sacred liturgy; U2's "Beautiful Day" - Springsteen's "My City of Ruins" - Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" - and Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" are but the most obvious examples of how there really is NO difference between the secular and the sacred. 
And I have made a point of blending music in all of my peace-making work outside of the US, too.  In Costa Rica, it was the freedom songs of the civil rights movement; in Soviet Russia, it was the sacred songs of Christmas and Easter; in East Germany it was the folk music of Woody Guthrie; and now in the up-coming trip to a Muslim nation it will be American jazz.  The hour is crucial, it seems to me, for Americans to find creative ways of building relationships with those in Islam.  Too many Americans are too ignorant and fear-filled to let the status quo remain unchallenged.  Too many politicians are too arrogant to let their fear-mongering and posturing go unquestioned.

So with humility and not a little uncertainty, we are going to Turkey:  to put our values into practice, to live out our deepest faith commitments and to see what it means to build peace through music in a Muslim land.  If you have any interest in this project - if it touches your heart in any way - if you sense that something outrageous and gentle is needed amidst the hatred and war...

... please go to our secure website - and share a gift?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Istanbul NOT Constantinople...

I can't believe that in a little more than two months our little jazz ensemble is heading to Istanbul.  We are now getting gigs in that city with a day trip and concert lined-up in the ancient city of Nicea, too!  (That's Iznik in contemporary Turkey - a city first noted in 312 BCE.)  What's more, next Friday night we're doing a show and one of our new friends from the local Turkish Cultural Center is going to join us on the traditional ozan.

NOTE:  If you are in town, please come to join us Friday night at Baba Louie's on Depot Street in Pittsfield.  We start at 6:30 pm and will play three sets until 9:30 or 10 pm.  In addition to our Turkish friend, a few local rock and jazz musicians will be setting in for some surprises, too.  It will be a KILLER show.

Tonight we played a small concert - with conversation about peace-making through music - at a local mountain inn for about 40 people.  It was delightful to be with like-minded souls who were interested in both the tunes and the mission.  What's more, we were able to generate some serious dollars for our travels - and make some smokin' music on tunes like Brubeck's "Take 5," "Tenor Madness" by Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia" and "One Note Samba" by the father of Bossa Nova, Antonio Carlos Jobim of Brazil.  We rocked/funked out, too, to Joe Zawinul/Cannonball Adderley's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy."  And Dianne cooked on the sweet and sassy "C'est Magnifique!"

Part of me still can't believe that this trip is happening.  Three + years ago when I first met Andy - leader of the Jazz Ambassadors - we hit it off talking about music and how it can bring people together.  We also wondered out loud if we might ever be able to collaborate on a music and peace-making trip to a Muslim country as a small but tender antidote to the hatred and stupidity that so often dominates the American public arena when it comes to Islam.  Since then, our church has done three in-depth studies into Islam and helped raise money for Greg Mortenson's work in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  And since December, my church buddies have been coming out in serious numbers when the Jazz Ambassadors play local gigs to show their love and support.

And now it is getting close... Who would have ever imagined an "Arab Spring" of democracy and people's revolution in Tunis, Egypt, Libya with serious ripples in Syria, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen?  Who would have ever thought that our little jazz band was sensing something of the Holy Spirit in action?  And who would have dreamed we would have received such incredible local support?  It is humbling and energizing and I am a very grateful man.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Prayer for my family...

Just got back from a trip to Maryland to see my father and sister - both of whom have been very ill - and one who remains in very broken condition.  I am grateful for the prayers that you have shared and have wondered what I might say in return.  I have been at a loss until my buddy from Thunder Bay, Ontario hit the nail on the head by helping me recall the words of wisdom shared towards the end of the movie "A River Runs Through It."  This is so true on so many levels...

Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wandering in the Wilderness with Jesus as Gratitude...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Lent Three, Sunday, March 27th 2011.  I am just back from visiting my father and sister in the nursing home in Maryland.  There is much to say about their well-being but that is for another time.  For now, I have to get ready for worship and also a jazz gig tonight at 6:30 pm.  So, if you are in town, stop by for jazz at Baba Louie's in Pittsfield at 6:30 pm or worship this Sunday at 10:30 am.  Thank you, too, for your loving thoughts and prayers.  I am grateful for the writing of Ernest Kurtz in A Spirituality of Imperfection for some of the insights in this message.

I am a grateful man:

• I am grateful for the love of God

• I am grateful for a precious wife and healthy, loving children

• I am grateful for a creative and compassionate congregation with whom to serve the Lord our God

• I am grateful for the gift of music and the chance to play it with talented and open-hearted friends

• I am grateful for growing up in this era as an American with all the challenges and fears that includes

• I am grateful for relatively good health – and a warm house in the winter – and poetry to read at night and so very much more

A song by the Irish musician, Luka Bloom, puts it like this in “Holy Ground.”
I think by nature I am inclined towards gratitude – as Fr. Richard Rohr has noted most of us are a combination of one third conditioning, one third genetics and one third choice – and left to my own devices I tend to choose being grateful.

• But that hasn’t always been true – there was a time when I tended towards sarcasm in humor and cynicism in personal and political affairs – and left to those choices I know I would be a very, very different man today.

• And that is what I want to talk about with you today for the third Sunday of Lent: how I have experienced being set free from my fears and wounds by the grace of God – and why that matters.

• Why that has led me to embrace and seek out the gift of gratitude as a default setting in my heart – and why you might want to explore it, too.

In his book, A Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz has written that… “Gratitude is our response to a gift – the gift of release from bondage or oppression – that is reality and blessing that is never earned or merited.” Gratitude, therefore, is our response to God’s gift – a vision of life and way of seeing everything around us – as connected to God’s gift.

• Does that make sense? Do you know what I’m trying to say?

• I’ll share with you a few amplifications in a moment but let’s start with the foundation of gratitude being a way of seeing reality born of God’s gifts to us. What do you think of that?

Let me tell you why I believe that gratitude is born of experiencing relief and release from inward and outward oppression – a vision of life that springs from God’s gift of grace – as both lessons from scripture today suggest.

• In the story of Moses in the desert, what else can you say about being given water from a rock? It is a bold and beautiful gift to a hurting and thirsting people – a gift that evoked prayer and gratitude from Moses – because it was generous and healing and holy.
• Same thing is going on in the gospel of St. John when Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman: he is starting to offer her a gift – you know that Samaritans were despised as infidels by the Jews and a rabbi would NEVER strike up a conversation with an infidel woman in public – so that’s how this all starts. But then he goes on to forgive this forsaken outsider a lifetime of brokenness and confusion – and her response is so beautiful – she tells others how Jesus has set her free.

And how does the scripture end? Others were moved to faith and freedom by her story – she became an evangelist by gratitude – because gratitude is all about experiencing God’s grace and responding with joy.

Now some of you may recall that I have a special relationship to this story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman, right? Over the years I’ve told you my experience with it in the context of confession and Lent and my dear spiritual director, Fr. Jim O’Donnell, in Cleveland.

• Well, I’m going to tell this story again both because it is a good story that warrants repeating AND because it highlights a few key insights about gratitude in the Christians tradition.

• Tell story of it being Lent – and Fr. Jim asking me to make a confession – my resistance and protest that even though Fr. Jim embraced me as a beloved son of God while not Catholic – and his insistence that confession would cure the ills that hurt me - and my avoidance and eventual surrender - and ecstatic release upon the proclamation of absolution – and then his penance of living like the woman at the well after being forgiven by Jesus.  (sorry I am not writing the story out here...)

Now there are four insights I’ve gathered from this experience:

First, much in our lives works against an attitude of gratitude. I believe that God seeks to share release and renewal with us all, but God’s way is often hidden, obscure or the minority report in a culture built on rights and obligations. There is a story about a husband/wife and gift…

It seems that after attending a conference in a far away city, a man walked down the streets until he came upon a shop with an attractive cashmere sweater in the window. Thinking of his loving wife - who loved cashmere - he went into the store, purchased the sweater as a gift and asked for it to be gift wrapped. When he arrived home, he gave the gift to his wife who first looked at him in surprise - and then something of suspicion. Opening the gift, she exclaimed it was beautiful and then turned to ask:  "And what is THIS for?"  (Kurtz, p. 176)

As a culture we more often than not emphasize entitlement – demands – my rights rather than a sense of gift: and this deadens us to naming and claiming the gifts that are always around us in abundance.  What's more, we also have nourished a deep sense of suspicion which makes being open to God's gifts complicated.

Second, gratitude is more than a feeling – it is an experience that is real – but bigger than feelings that are often transient and ephemeral. (Kurtz, p. 177)

• Feelings come and go, right? They are fleeting while gratitude is a vision and a mind-set. One scholar put it like this:

Gratitude is grounded in remembrance – the remembrance of what life was like before the gift – so it is no accident that the words “think” and “thank” are from kindred roots… So to think – and thank – and remember are part of gratitude for they ground us in the truth of life without God’s gifts.

What do you think of these two insights: that much in our world deadens us to God’s gift – and – true gratitude cuts deeper than feelings and includes remembrance?

One of the early theologians of New England, Jonathan Edwards, who once led the church in Northampton and later in Stockbridge put it like this: “Those who have experienced God’s love and grace – the saints – have a new and inward perception or sensation of their minds, an entirely different sense of who they are since their sanctification.” (p. 177)

• That is, those who are grateful see life – and themselves – differently.

• In fact, they see what is available for everyone to see because they are actively searching for the heart of grace in everything.

This leads me to the third insight I want to share with you about gratitude: you cannot be grateful if you are stubborn about your pain or your sense of how God works in the world. If you aren’t willing to receive – if you insist on controlling everything – if you choose to avoid being surprised by God’s amazing grace…

• Well, let’s just say that God will let you have what you ask for: if you ask for nothing, like a wise and loving parent God will let you experience nothing.

• You want to do it your way? Ok… try it and see how you like it!

And fourth gratitude demands that we own and embrace the joy and the sorrow of real life: gratitude is NOT about always being happy – or seeing only the blessings – that is not only too hard and exhausting, it is also unreal.

• There is pain and there is sorrow – there is darkness and there is light – there is a time for war and for peace as the Bible tells us – and to see and cherish it all is part of being grateful. Anything less is false and sentimental…

• Noble Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, put it like this upon receiving the award for his writing on his experience of the Jewish Holocaust.

No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

Those of us who have been touched by God’s grace – released from the darkness and opened to the fullness of joy and sorrow in everyday life – have been called to Christ to tell our stories.

• Your words matter: they are one of the ways the miracle of God’s grace is multiplied – so keep telling them, ok? Tell them with words – or song – or art or deeds.

• Tell them so that you combat cynicism and all that deadens us to the gift. Tell them so that you remember and live beyond just feelings. Tell them to climb out of your stubbornness. And tell them to give voice to the wounded and alone.

All by themselves, your words and stories will not end suffering – but they will become part of a sacred chorus of hope - and in this you will be a part of God’s healing of the world – and that IS the good news for today.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

This morning's worship is interrupted...

This morning's worship was interrupted by the worship ministry team leader.  As I was about to share the benediction before the final song, Ted stood up and asked if he could make a special announcement.  Mostly I was stunned - this never happens at the close of worship - so I stood to the side quietly with my mouth hanging open while he went to the microphone.  "I hope this is important," I thought to myself wondering why he would do such a goofy thing - and then he asked the congregation to join him in prayer for Dianne and myself as we travel to be with family in the hospital.
"So often you do the caring for us," he said (or something like that), "but now we need to assure you that we will hold you close in prayer and ask the Lord's loving presence while you visit your family."  Then he shared a beautiful and tender prayer for traveling mercies, healing and an abiding sense of God's grace.  Again, I was stunned - not that this isn't a loving and tender group of people (they are) - but for the love of Jesus: this is New England!  We keep that stuff to ourselves, right?!?  And here we were offering loving care and support - in public - in the name of our Living God.

Afterward Dianne said to me, "I was surprised that you weren't weeping..." (my default position when loving things happen).  "Me, too," I thought but I was just too stunned - and grateful - to do anything but simply receive their blessing.  What a tender gift to give a pastor:  to pray for him. And then, just so that I grasped that our hearts really are being united in God's grace, the person serving coffee and tea in our old New England church parlor was one of the street drummers for peace. It blew my mind to see this one time "outsider" performing one of the totally sacred "insider" rites - using the historic silver coffee samovar - with lots of people in assistance.

The saints be praised... as Bobby Dylan once sang, "Some thing's going on all around you and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?"  But while Dylan's song was harsh and sarcastic, there was nothing harsh or cruel about today:  just the blessed surprise of grace being resurrected within and among us in healing ways. Like the old school evangelists used to say, "I just had to tell you this because as one hungry beggar to another: I've found a place that's sharing living bread."

Now, off to Maryland... to see my sister in the nursing home and try to help transition my father into a rehab unit until he is strong enough to return to his home.  We'll be back on Thursday - and ready for a jazz gig on Friday at Baba Louie's.  Made me think of this prayer by Paul Simon... we are ALL going to grace-land!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A renewal of covenant theology and the commandments...

Fr. Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation posted this reflection that deserves deeper consideration.  It resonates with Brueggemann's observation that the 10 Commandments are the sacred alternative to the rules and order of Pharaoh's consumption/addiction paradigm.

“Do not covet your neighbor’s goods” (Exodus 20:17) is almost impossible for the world to see as a problem. We call it the 10th commandment, but none of us take it seriously, even those who want to make it a monument on the courthouse lawn. I have never in 40-some years as a confessor, heard a single Catholic confess a sin against the 10th commandment. It’s almost impossible for us to see this as a moral issue, liberal or conservative, because it is called capitalism, and is the very air we breathe, and the shape of our entire world.

Now you see why the one thing that drove Jesus to violence was when “buying and selling” (Matthew 21:12) took over the temple space! He knows it’s the end of any real depth or spiritual understanding when everything becomes production and consumption of commodities. He knows that the Great Temple, true holiness, has indeed been destroyed, and we will no longer will be able to enjoy reality at the transforming level of divine Spirit or human soul. 
Dramatic and exciting church reforms are merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as long as our basic world view is still largely about “buying and selling.” We will make divine grace and mercy themselves into a matter of earning, losing, achieving, punishing, and meriting. The Gospel will be completely dead and gone, while we clergy will continue to discuss new translations of liturgical texts and the laity will argue about who is saved or not saved. Such a Titanic lie deserves to go under.

Rohr and Brueggemann echo an essay I was reading this morning by Wendell Berry entitled, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation" in which he notes:
+ Most of Western Christianity has lost any sense the CREATION is God's self-revelation - the FIRST book of the Lord - and to defile it - intentionally or in ignorance - is blasphemy of the highest order. The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof...

+ All of life is holy - we are holy creatures living among holy creatures - and we forget or deny this at great risk to ourselves and all creation.  I like the way Berry puts it when he writes:

If we are to remain free and if we are to remain true to our religious inheritance, we must maintain the separation between church and state.  Buy if we are to maintain any sense of coherence or meaning in our lives, we cannot tolerate the present utter disconnection between religion and economy.  By "economy" I do not mean "economics," which is the study of money-making, but rather the ways of human housekeeping, the ways by which the human household is situated and maintained within the household of nature. To be uninterested in economy is to be uninterested in the practice of religion; it is to be uninterested in culture and character... I do not believe that organized Christianity (currently) has any idea (of what a healthy household would look like...) But the current order is an economy firmly founded on the seven deadly sins and breaking all of the Ten Commandments.

It would seem that a renewal of covenant theology - and a radical sense of what is at stake in the commandments - has something to say to us in this era when our only option seems to be "the murder of Creation as our only way of life." (Berry)

Friday, March 18, 2011

The many changing faces of a pastor/poet/musician...

A few recent pictures of myself have been forwarded of late that make me laugh out loud for they show the many changing faces of my calling as pastor, poet and musician in a small community. The first comes from Ben Garver who captured this shot at last night's St. Patrick's Day gig at Baba Louie's in Pittsfield - in full Scottish regalia... (The photographer writes:  "I really love this picture - it has a real rebel feel.") Um.... well, yes.

The second hails from our trip to Cambridge before the start of Lent.  I was one of the featured clergy opening worship with a story of how I heard the voice of the Lord in the back of a 1967 Ford Mustang via Aretha Franklyn. Noting that after spending much of the summer of 1968 listening for the voice of God in popular music - and experiencing a sense of call while worshiping at the Potter's House ministry of the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC, when Aretha sang, "You better think about what you're trying to do to me... oh freedom!" I sensed God confirming my call into a new ministry using the arts alongside prayer and action. 

At the conference where this picture was taken, I was able to use the songs, "For What Its Worth" and "Oh Freedom" as part of our call to worship.  Then, we jumped in our Subaru and headed off to Cambridge for four days away with my honey in our annual pre-Lenten pilgrimage of refreshment and renewal.

And then there is this one taken by Di while we were resting over a pot of tea.  Over our almost 20 years of being connected, she has taken countless pictures of me sipping tea - or beer - in various places around the world. (I, too, have started to reciprocate having renewed my interest in the camera!) This was towards the end of a long day of walking and exploring and we were both worn out. When those times come, Dianne and I like to sip hot tea in a public place and watch the people go by - offering comments and observations as the Spirit moves us - or just being silent. 

After about 40 minutes of doing this, we headed off to another night of live music and more wandering.  On Monday of this coming week we will head off - again - for an unplanned trip to Maryland to see my father and sister who have both been hospitalized - again.  My father, who will be 80 later this year, has never taken good care of himself and continues to fade slowly away.  And my sister... well, she hasn't been well in a long time, too, and we need to see her as she makes a slow recovery.

I find these words from John O'Donohue spot on:

What dreams did I create last night?
Where did my eyes linger today?
Where was I blind?
Where was I hurt without anyone noticing?
What did I learn today?
What did I read?
What new thoughts visited me?
What differences did I notice in those closest to me?
Whom did I neglect?
Where did I neglect myself?
What did I begin today that might endure?
How were my conversations?
What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?
Did I remember the dead today?
Where could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?
Where did I allow myself to receive love?
With whom today did I feel most myself?
What reached me today?
How deep did it imprint?
Who saw me today?
What visitations had I from the past and from the future?
What did I avoid today?
From the evidence - why was I given this day?

Between a rock and a hard place...

Most of my blog writing these days avoids the political - not because I don't think that world events are not important or a part of the spiritual realm (THEY ARE!!) - but mostly because I don't think I can add anything insightful to the conversation.  There are already too many crude and rude voices - on the Left and the Right - filling the airwaves and blogosphere with mean-spirited and often truly stupid opinions.  So, mostly I keep my mouth shut and my eyes open...

This Lent, for example, we are listening and thinking about how to "Countering Pharaoh" using the insights and wisdom of Walter Brueggemann.  And brother Brueggemann offers a number of valuable challenges to me that demand I find a way to speak about the public context more boldly from time to time.  

For example, he asserts that the Ten Commandments are actually the counter cultural commitments the Living God requires of a covenental people who are committed to resisting the demands of Pharaoh.  Like the old Bob Dylan song says, "You gotta serve SOMEBODY... it may be the devil or it may be the Lord... but you gotta serve somebody." This is a non-negotiable in real life:  it may be your fear, your addiction, your illusion of radical independence, etc. but you WILL serve somebody!

To serve the Lord, of course, presumes that God's people KNOW the Commandments (our assignment for this week) for more often than not, this simply isn't so.  How else do you explain the state of Alabama posting the 10 Commandments in the state courtrooms as a sign of the status quo?  Or try this:  ask one of the aggressive public commendmenteers to TELL you the commandments.  They don't even have to do it in order - or say where to find them in the Bible - just ask them to tell you all ten... Well, you get my point:  it almost never happens.  (NOTE:  try both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, ok?)

So, all week long I've been sitting with Breuggemann's challenge as the tragedy in Japan goes from horrible to disastrous - and the rebels in Libya are beaten into submission and the UN finally found the will to step up on behalf of those opposing Pharaoh and issue a "no fly zone" - and right-wing governors backed by secret conservative money attack the working class in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.  And in today's NY Times there was a brilliant albeit chilling news analysis about how the United States is currently caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to dealing with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the freedom movements blossoming in Tunis, Egypt, Bahrain and the whole Middle East.  (check it out @

Three points are worth sharing:

1) Given the US addiction/dependence on Saudi oil, we are compromised when it comes to pushing the tyrants toward reform and freedom.   And even if we could break our dependence, it would take place in a way that would cool down the tepid economic recovery we are beginning to experience. Tom Friedman has been preaching this truth for 10 years: if we want to live into our highest values AND interact for justice in the world, we MUST break our addiction to Saudi oil.  But short-term political realities and economic truths will keep this from happening even though it is in our long-term interest.

2) Given the US support for the freedom movement in Egypt, relations with the Saudis are now at an all time low.  Both Secretary Clinton and Gates have had to cancel planned trips and King Abdullah is maintaining an angry and hostile reaction to Obama's call for modest reform.  For example, one Arab official has said: "King Abdullah will never allow Shia rule in Bahrain - never!" For the Saudis believe this will open Pandora's Box among the Shia minority in their own land.  So, NO reforms are on the table because even tolerance is seen as capitulation.

3) All of which strengthens the role of Iran in the region - another can of worms for both the US and Saudi Arabia - and we no longer trust one another enough to find a way through this impasse.  The Saudis see internal political reform for the Shias as strengthening Iran while the US believes that gradual reform for the Shias is the only way to avoid a full blown revolution. Consequently, both those who seek reform and operatives in Iran who seek to weaken the Shiite majority in Saudi Arabia are finding themselves cast together in a way that could bring a multitude of unintended consequences.

Clearly a US response from the bottom-up is in order - two parts of which are becoming clearer to me as Lent unfolds.

+ First, I need to help my congregation embrace a commitment to environmental action as part of our covenant within God's community.  To break our dependence of Saudi oil - and diminish our carbon foot print - is both an act of justice for those fighting Pharaoh in the Middle East as well as an act of hospitality for generations yet to come.  In today's post from the Ecumenical Carbon Lenten Fast there was this insight:

+ And second our growing understanding of God's radical hospitality within covenant could be strengthened.  Not in an ideological way, but more like this, which is not overtly political but deeply engaged with the issues of our day...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, March 20, 2011 - the Second Sunday in Lent - at First Church on Park Square in Pittsfield.  Come on by and join us at 10:30 am as I explore part two of our Lenten series:  Wandering in the Wilderness with Jesus.

Today we’re going to consider the importance of humility in our spiritual lives as we wander in the wilderness with Jesus some more during Lent: humility as individuals, humility before the Lord, humility as a faith community and humility as a pathway to greater spiritual vitality. Just look at what the lessons from scripture have to say to us about all of this:

• Abram and Sarai are called by God to leave everything they have ever known behind and head out for a new home in a totally new land – at the ripe old age of 75! They have NO idea where they are going to ultimately settle. They have no clue about how the Lord will provide for them on this crazy journey. And they have had precious little experience travelling through hostile lands by the seat of their pants. These are wealthy and settled land owners – people rooted to family, earth and tradition – who are being asked to become more like the wind than farmers of a huge estate.

• What’s more, they are old – heart-broken – and unable to produce progeny. Yet God says to them: Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you and I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing for many.

One of the founders of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin, once wrote that: It was not enough for Abram to worship God in his heart; he had to declare by outward profession – and action - his faith before others. That is to say, faith demanded of him humility: get over yourselves saith the Lord – let go of all your old habits and comforts – and set out on a new way of living that trusts God more than self.

And just so that we don’t miss the point, our New Testament lesson from St. John’s gospel offers us a true double-whammy about humility in the story of Nicodemus:

• Here a learned man who winds up looking like a fool while Jesus the peasant articulates the very wisdom of the Lord.

• One operates in the darkness – symbolic of ignorance and confusion – while Jesus serves as the light.  
What’s more, Jesus would have us know that unless we are willing to be humbly opened by God’s grace – literally “sired from above” – we will most likely miss out on the blessings the Lord aches to share with us. Because, you see, we’re so full of ourselves that there’s no room for God.

• That’s how Peterson reworks the start of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, you know? Blessed are you when you are at the end of your rope because with less of you, there is more room for God.

• He does much the same thing in John 3: Unless a person submits to the origins of God’s creation – the 'wind-hovering-over-the-water' creation – the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life – it is not possible to enter God's kingdom. When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within that body is formed by something you can't see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit. So don't be so surprised when I tell you that you have to be 'born from above'—out of this world so to speak by the love of God. You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it's headed next. And that's the way it is with everyone 'born from above' by the wind of God, the Spirit of God."

God is in control – and you’re not! Humbling, isn’t it? “In an era that fawns over the rich and famous – adopting as its rallying cry ME FIRST – humility as a spiritual path is both scorned and neglected.” Ernest Kurtz, A Spirituality of Imperfection, p. 186) See now why I asked you to find a story or a song that helped you laugh at yourself last week?

• We live in a world that denigrates humility while the Bible calls us to us wake up and accept that God is in control – the Spirit is in charge – and we have to get over ourselves!

• And there are really only two ways to encounter the spiritual wisdom of humility: humor and humiliation.

They both come from the same root word, hummus, you see, which means of the earth. Humor is the gentle path and I have to tell you that the older I get the more gentle I want to become. The world is already harsh and ugly enough so I don’t need to add any more insult to injury. That’s why I asked you to explore the gentle way of growing closer to God through humor…

Do you know that every authentic spiritual tradition has a collection of gentle, self-deprecating humorous stories that help us learn to laugh at ourselves – and let go – and trust that God really is in charge like Jesus said? That is really what being born again – or sired from above – is all about: it has to do with living as if you truly trust that God is God and you are not.

• You might have an ecstatic spiritual revelation – or not. It could simply come as a Zen-like “aha” moment – but what being born again is really about has to do with discovering and trusting that God is in charge and you are not.

• And sometimes the gentle path of humility can help…

I think of the ancient Sufi story – from the mystical Muslims of Persia, Turkey and Pakistan – who often use the character of Nasrudin – the holy fool – to make their gentle point. It seems that one afternoon Nasrudin and his friend were sitting in a cafĂ©, drinking tea as was their custom and talking together about life and love.

“How is it that you never married, Nasrudin?” asked his friend. “Well,” the old fool replied, “to tell you the truth, I spent the whole of my youth searching for the perfect woman. Once, in Cairo, I met a beautiful and bright young woman with eyes like dark olives. But she was unkind. Later, in Baghdad, I met a woman who was wonderful and generous with a soul like the saints – but we had nothing in common. One woman after another would seem just right, but then there would always be something mission. And then it came to pass that I met her one day – the woman of my dreams – she was beautiful, intelligent, kind, generous and merciful. We had everything in common – and with Allah as my witness I can say that she was perfect.”

“Well,” said Nasrudin’s friend, “what happened? Why didn’t you marry her?” Sipping his tea reflectively the old one paused and then said, “It is a very sad thing. It seems that she was looking for the perfect man…” (Spiritual Literacy, Frederic and Mary An Brussat, p. 431)

The gentle path of humor can be very wise and useful in growing closer to the Lord, yes? But sometimes the other path into God’s wisdom in humility must come in a harder way – humiliation – or let’s call it hitting bottom, striking out or crashing and burning. That happens a lot in the Bible – especially to Abraham – who is often too full of himself even when he thinks he is being faithful. Same with Nicodemus – the so-called wise religious lawyer – who comes to Jesus seeking insight but can’t understand anything of the spirit: apparently he needs to be taken down a few pegs before he can find eyes to see and a heart to trust that God is God.

• You see, if we’re unable to laugh at ourselves – if we can’t be honest and earthy about our feet of clay – our strengths as well as our sins – then often we’ll get ourselves into trouble.

• The greed of Wall Street bankers – the vicious hubris of Mubarak in Egypt – our obsession with our own pain – the agony of the addict whether to alcohol, oil, sex or cocaine – the self-righteous politician who moralizes about others only to be caught with his own pants down or the Type A go-getter who needs a heart-attack before she slows down…

Creation seems to have been constructed by God in such a way that if we can’t or won’t enter the blessings of humility through the gentle path, then we’re probably going to have to experience the harder way of humiliation and hitting bottom. The artist, Paul Simon, said it poetically in his reworking of the old Christian hymn, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” in his “American Tune.”

I don't know a soul who's not been battered.
I don't have a friend who feels at ease.
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered,
or driven to its knees.
Ah, but it's all right. It's all right.
For we've lived so well so long.
Still, when I think of the road we're travelin' on,
I wonder what's gone wrong.
I can't help but wonder what's gone wrong.

Now here’s a man who has been humbled – humiliated, too – married and divorced three times until he learned it wasn’t all about him. He’s been at the top of popular culture and ridiculed and shamed, too.I think it was the wisdom of humility that helped him write that song – he couldn’t have done it as a cocky young hot shot – and this depth empowered him to write this, too that is one of the wisest and most spiritual soul songs ever to be recorded…

You could be Abraham or Sarah – you could be Nicodemus or Paul Simon – you could be Bill Clinton, George Bush, Abraham Madoff, Elliot Spitzer, Charlie Sheen or Lindsey Lohan: without humility you are going to miss the blessings of the Lord and find yourself slip-slidin’ away.

So here’s the deal: whether it arrives gently or with a crash the wisdom of humility asks us to practice three inter-related truths so that we can live as those born or sired from above:

• First, we are fully human – earthy and holy at the same time – sinner and saint together – and anything less than this earthiness is destructive and dishonest.

• Second, our lives are the only ones we can change – and most of us have a hard enough time with that – so please there can be NO COMPARISONS allowed among the humble. No claiming your pain or joy – or ups or downs – are any better or worse than anyone else’s. They’re just yours – neither bigger nor smaller – better or worse – than the reality of anybody else – and anything less is also destructive and deceptive.

• And third, God has given us a choice – we can learn from the gentle or the harsh way – and if we don’t get it through humor… well, let’s just say most of us seem to need a combination of both to grow in the Spirit, yes?

This year, to enter and practice a Holy Lent is to embrace humility in all its rich fullness. Lord, may it be so among us all.

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:...