Saturday, April 30, 2011

An odd collection for the first Sunday after Easter...

After nearly 30 years of ordained ministry - and 43 years after I was called into ministry - I can honestly say that I am looking forward to the first Sunday after Easter.  Don't get me wrong: the whole drama and intensity of Holy Week is always powerful and important to me both personally and professionally.  What's more, I always discern something true for me and the people I am serving during this time, too.

But let's face it: there is nothing flashy or intense about the week AFTER Easter!  The rubric is that Senior clergy take that week off and the Associate Pastor gets to preach - and most people stay at home.  And I rather like that this year.  I will be starting a new sermon series grounded in some of the ideas in Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, so I'm looking forward to this celebration.  And we're going to celebrate the Eucharist AFTER the close of worship so that only those people truly interested in community need gather around the table.  As well as anyone who is curious or confused - there's a palce at the table for them, too.

And that brings me to two different writings that seem to me to be at the heart of my ministry in this post-Easter season.  The first is called "A 20 Point Plan for Church Renewal" that was reprinted from Diana Butler Bass's blog.  I love it - both the irony and the gentle loving - as it speaks to the anxiety so many of us in the post-modern, post-establishment era of the Western church face all the time.

Be genuine. Do not under any circumstances try to be trendy or hip, if you are not already intrinsically trendy or hip. If you are a 90-year-old woman who enjoys crocheting and listens to Beethoven, by God be proud of it.

Stop pretending you have a rock band.

Stop arguing about whether gay people are okay, fully human, or whatever else. Seriously. Stop it.

Stop arguing about whether women are okay, fully human, or are capable of being in a position of leadership.

Stop looking for the "objective truth" in Scripture.

Start looking for the beautiful truth in Scripture.

Actually read the Scriptures. If you are Episcopalian, go buy a Bible and read it. Start in Genesis, it's pretty cool. You can skip some of the other boring parts in the Bible. Remember though that almost every book of the Bible has some really funky stuff in it. Remember to keep #5 and #6 in mind though. If you are evangelical, you may need to stop reading the Bible for about 10 years. Don't worry: during those ten years you can work on putting these other steps into practice.

Start worrying about extreme poverty, violence against women, racism, consumerism, and the rate at which children are dying worldwide of preventable, treatable diseases. Put all the energy you formerly spent worrying about the legit-ness of gay people into figuring out ways to do some good in these areas.

Do not shy away from lighting candles, silence, incense, laughter, really good food, and extraordinary music. By "extraordinary music" I mean genuine music. Soulful music. Well-written, well-composed music. Original music. Four-part harmony music. Funky retro organ music. Hymns. Taize chants. Bluegrass. Steel guitar. Humming. Gospel. We are the church; we have a uber-rich history of amazing music. Remember this.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Learn how to sit with people who are dying.
Feast as much as possible. Cardboard communion wafers are a feast in symbol only. Humans can not live on symbols alone. Remember this.

Notice visitors, smile genuinely at them, include them in conversations, but do not overwhelm them.

Be vulnerable.

Stop worrying about getting young people into the church. Stop worrying about marketing strategies. Take a deep breath. If there is a God, that God isn't going to die even if there are no more Christians at all.

Figure out who is suffering in your community. Go be with them.

Remind yourself that you don't have to take God to anyone. God is already with everyone. So, rather than taking the approach that you need to take the truth out to people who need it, adopt the approach that you need to go find the truth that others have and you are missing. Go be evangelized.

Put some time and care and energy into creating a beautiful space for worship and being-together. But shy away from building campaigns, parking lot expansions, and what-have-you.
Make some part of the church building accessible for people to pray in 24/7. Put some blankets there too, in case someone has nowhere else to go for the night.

Listen to God (to Wisdom, to Love) more than you speak your opinions.

This is a fool-proof plan. If you do it, I guarantee that you will attract young people to your church. And lots of other kinds of people too. The end.

The second comes from the wisdom and lived experience of Maya Angelou who IMHO looks more and more like the Living God than almost anybody else (except, of course, Bishop Tutu.)  She writes about what I used to call "Johnny Cash" Christianity - a humble, gentle way of owning our wounds and God's grace without ANY of the preachy mean-spirited evangelism that so often poisons the water.

When I say ... "I am a Christian,"
I'm not shouting "I'm clean livin'."
I'm whispering "I was lost,
Now I'm found and forgiven."

When I say ..."I am a Christian,"
I don't speak of this with pride.
I'm confessing that I stumble,
And need CHRIST to be my guide.

When I say ... "I am a Christian, I'm not trying to be strong.
I'm professing that I'm weak,
And need HIS strength to carry on.

When I say ... "I am a Christian,"
I'm not bragging of success.
I'm admitting I have failed,
And need God to clean my mess.

When I say ... "I am a Christian,"
I'm not claiming to be perfect.
My flaws are far too visible,
But God believes I am worth it.

When I say ... "I am a Christian,"
I still feel the sting of pain.
I have my share of heartaches,
So I call upon His name.

When I say ... "I am a Christian,"
I'm not holier than thou.
I'm just a simple sinner
Who received God's good grace somehow.

1) Stephen Watley @
2) Mako Fujimura
3) Dianne De Mott 

Friday, April 29, 2011

Crazy days...

Today was to be a day of rest... funny how things change!  Di had to go into work at 8 am because of a scheduling glitch - something that happens waaaaaaaaay too often - and I spent the better part of the day getting a new modem - and then getting it connected.  Crazy - something so simple has become so complicated, yes?

I was working on a few notes when the local power company guys started working on the pole outside our house.  Ok, with the power off I decided to do a few errands.  When I got back, however, the router had been blown-out (or something.) So a very nice techie from Pakistan (I assume) suggested I simply return it to the local store and start afresh.  Ok, thought I, sounds like a plan:  but the local store gave me a TON of gear and wires and splitters and all the rest. So I came home to give it a shot and the phone service was out, too.  (To add insult to injury, my cell was in the other car that Di had taken to work.)

So, when my honey came home we set out to get the Internet reconnected to our house. About an hour later my lap top - and the Ethernet connection - was still not working.  So, we spent 45 minute on-line with "Shawn" (in some undisclosed non-English speaking nation based upon our on-line chat) before he sent us over to someone else.  I got Dianne's cell phone charged enough to call the local provider and spent another 45 minutes trouble shooting the Ethernet connection.  He was GREAT - and spoke my language, too - and had the patience of JOB.  And eventually - after a few glitches - we got things working again.

So, it was a funny and crazy day.  My honey is resting before dinner - I'm cooking steak - and we'll watch a little British TV, too.  Not at all what I had hoped for on this Sabbath.  Maybe tomorrow will work out better, yes?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Moving into Eastertide and contemplation...

During the few days after Easter, I find it valuable to rest and reflect on what has taken place within and among the faith community.  And while I have no definitive conclusions, I have been taken with the thought that there is a gap between our our practices on Sunday morning and our everyday habits.  This is not unique to 21st century small towns, of course, and has been an historic tension since the beginning, yes?

Still, I am curious what would happen if we in the Reformed tradition started celebrating Eucharist every week - on Sunday or not.  Would the connections between radical hospitality and sacred compassion become clearer for everyday living?  How would a more sacramental spirituality help us embody the presence of Jesus in the world?  Or even see Christ in all things?  So... we're going to find out:

+ During the six weeks of Eastertide - the season after Easter and before Pentecost - I am going to hold an informal Eucharist each Wednesday at 12:10 pm.  Working people, retirees and even some students would be able to be present for this 40 minute gathering of prayer, Holy Communion and sharing.

+ We'll evaluate this experiment after Pentecost to see if it has deepened our sense of practicing what we preach - that is, learning from the liturgy how to be bread for the world - because our current non-sacramental/idea obsessed practices don't seem to be doing the work.

Two ideas are behind this experiment:  Henri Nouwen's weekly Eucharist for all students and faculty while he was at Yale Divinity School during the 80s and John Calvin's contemplative theology of the Lord's Supper.

+ Nouwen - a Roman Catholic priest - was bound by the rules of his tradition to practice "closed communion" when it came to celebrating the Mass.  That is, only Roman Catholics could receive the sacrament of Christ's presence from him.  But Nouwen also understood that God's spirit was not confined to Roman Catholicism - nor was closed communion a meaningful expression of God's grace in an ecumenical seminary - so he creatively renamed the practice:  weekly Eucharist.  In this, he was legally authentic to his tradition's rules and rubrics while finding a creative way to share the presence of Jesus with those who were hungry and thirsty for God's grace. 

Same for me - but with a few variations. I am not limited by tradition re: who may come to the table or not.  Rather I have inherited a tradition that can be boldly and radically open.  But what often happens in our Eucharistic experience is a benign lack of imagination.  Many have not thought deeply about the ethics of the Lord's Supper.  What's more, because it has often been celebrated in a truly boring and/or accidental manner, people tend to go through the motions without listening or connecting.  Could our more intentional yet informal and more regular practice help change this?  I don't know but want to find out...

+ John Calvin could be helpful because he considered the celebration of the Eucharist to be an act of contemplation on God's Word made visible.  Borrowing from Augustine he knew that when he met Christ in communion, something mystical - not rational - took place.  He spoke of it as being lifted into the Lord's presence.

Thomas Merton, a later day contemplative, spoke of contemplation in this manner:

Contemplation is more than a consideration of abstract truths about God, more even than affective meditation on the things we believe. It is awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life. Hence contemplation does not simply “find” a clear idea of God and confine Him within the limits of that idea, and hold him there as a prisoner to Whom it can always return. On the contrary, contemplation is carried away by Him into His own realm, His own mystery and his own freedom. It is a pure virginal knowledge, poor in concepts, poorer still in reasoning, but able, by its very poverty and purity, to follow the Word “wherever He may go."

If, as others have said, contemplation is taking "a long, loving look at what is real" in order to discern God's presence, what might that mean for us as we contemplate Christ within and among us at the Lord's Supper?  It could be almost... Pentecostal in the best sense of that word, yes?  Again, I don't know but want to find out...

So, starting next Wednesday - actually this Sunday - we begin an Eastertide encounter with Christ in the Eucharist - and I'll keep you posted. (Part of the liturgy - from Iona - begins like this...)

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready. It is the table of company with Jesus – and all who love him. It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world – with whom Christ identified himself. And it is the table of communion with the earth – the first word of God – in which Christ became incarnate.

So come to this table, you who have much faith and you who would like to have more; you who have been here often and you who have not been for a long time; you who have tried to follow Jesus and you who have failed. Come for Christ Jesus invites us to meet him here...

For his life which informs our living, for his compassion which changes our hearts, for his clear speaking which contradicts our harmless generalities, for his disturbing presence, his innocent suffering, his fearless dying, his rising to life breathing forgiveness, we praise you and worship him.

Here too gratitude rises, for the promise of the Holy Spirit, who even yet, even now, confronts us with your claims and attracts us to your goodness. In Christ’s love, we join our voices together in the prayer he shared with us saying: Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day your daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Living in the light of the resurrection...

I love the old French carol - NOEL NOUVELET - that likely hails from the 15th century. I also cherish the English/Easter setting by John Macleod Campbell Crum from 1928: "Now the Green Blade Rises."  I love the lilt of the tune, the earthy lyrics and connection of the Christian story with the seasons of the earth.  To be sure, the theology of the hymn is off as there is NOTHING inevitable about Christ's resurrection.  If Easter were just another fertility rite instead of God's radical YES to creation despite all the evidence, I'd simply have another beer and go back to bed.
Perhaps that's why I was taken by Fr. Richard Rohr's writing for today that radically expands the meaning of Easter without dumbing it down.  He writes:

The voluntary self-gift of Jesus was his free acceptance of all creation—even in its weakness and imperfection. He chose to become brother to humanity, and he invites all who would be brother or sister to this world to join with him. The Risen Christ moves in both directions at once, toward God and toward us, and thus mediates and proclaims our Essential Nature. We are not separate from God, nor will we die. Both are on cosmic display in the body of Jesus.

We did not do the Gospel any favor, nor cooperate with God’s plan and intention, by making Jesus the sole example of resurrection, or that the resurrection was to prove that Jesus was good or Jesus was God. Jesus is a corporate personality, a stand-in for all of us, the Archetype of Life, history summed up in one glorious moment. (See 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 if you think this is just my idea!) Thus we can live in hope of the same resurrection for everything that has been tortured, dismissed, abused, denied, or cut short. Resurrection is God’s pattern for everything. Grace is everywhere.

In the Turkish daily that we're reading in anticipation of our trip in June, it was reported that a local Bishop in Egypt spoke on Easter of the resurrection coming at the wrong time:  there is no joy now, no sign of God's presence with us!  What gospel is this dude reading!  The blessing of Christ's resurrection is precisely the opposite!  God comes to bring hope and renewal at the worst possible time - beyond all obvious evidence - come on, Father!  Get with the 2,000 year old program, ok?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Good Friday 2011 - redux

This year's experimental liturgy on Good Friday - an on-going 7 year exploration of contemporary music, the Passion narrative (in various forms), visual art, poetry, prayer, silence and environmental art - was a high point in my opinion.  It was clearly one of the most effective and beautiful (and ranks right up there with our first U2 Good Friday and our last anti-war presentation in Tucson.) For me, it worked on three important levels:

+ First, for the first time we recruited a small cadre of local artists in the church to work on creating a worship environment that evoked "the garden of betrayal."  It probably helped that we had one of the hardest winters on record this year, because there was a TON of under brush to use - and our artists made great use of it al.  Creatively and powerfully, they transformed a big barren hall into an intimate and edgy indoor garden. Not only was it fun to work together, but it was exciting to see how the creative juices started to flow. Clearly, this collaboration paid off in spades and reminded me why St. Paul spoke of the faith community as a body:  we really NEED one another.

+ Second, my church band - Between the Banks - has been playing together for three years and really pushed the envelope.  We know and trust one another, we love and pray for one another; and we have now crossed the bridge from being friends to real colleagues in music and art.  These are connections of both head and heart - and I think our depth allowed us to sometimes encourage a band member to take some artistic and emotional risks. 

This year Brian pushed us iall nto some powerful revisions that gave us permission to take the music deeper.  Not only did his own composition, "In the Garden"  do this in ways that were both beautiful and bitter, but his musical and spiritual instincts helped us all taste the paradox in Christ's surrender to the Cross.  Dianne and Sue also brought some fascinating music to the mix - from Luka Bloom's "The One" and Benjamin Britten's "Lachrimosa" to "Bad Moon Risin;" done down and swampy in a minor key and Green Day's "Wake Me When September Comes" - and they sang with a new passion, too.  And with Andy bringing in the bottom on his acoustic bass... well, let's just say things were cookin!  Jon's sweet voice - and intuitive beauty for harmonies - took things to a new level.
+ And third, I have been in ministry here just long enough to have earned the trust of the new folk as well as the old-timers; togehter we are becoming a counter-cultural community seeking a new expression of Christ's love through creativity, imagination, art, liturgy and our real lives.  One of the comments I heard over and over - from those who have been avoiding church in their lives as well as from those who want more than the same old same old - is that they FELT this worship in their souls. 

The music was sometimes harsh, but the environmental art helped generate both serenity and openness.  The sacred story was both fresh and grounded in tradition so that our edgy combination of scripture, poetry, prayer and silence led people into an awareness of what betrayal means.  In a word, they were able to make this story their own - NOT by a pseudo-theatrical re-enactment of Christ's passion - but by experiencing some of the breadth and depth of authentic betrayal and anguish in our common tongue.

And now two conclusions have spontaneously emerged:  1) People are asking us to take this show on the road; and 2) Others are saying we need a REAL meditation space in our building.  It is going to be a total blast making each come to pass...

WHICH Jesus...

NOTE:  Here are this week's worship notes for the first Sunday after Easter:  May 1, 2011. I have been very touched by the challenge outlined in Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, that celebrates the radical dimensions of grace in a host of theological and pastoral contexts. I am going to use it to sublement the Lectionary readings during Eastertide.

Today I want to think and talk with you about Jesus: both the man from Nazareth – whom we know as a mystical rabbi from 1st century Palestine – as well as Jesus the Christ – our crucified and risen Lord. Because, you see, we live in a time when competing commitments to Christ take on dramatically challenging consequences.
• There are some believers, you know, who sense that Jesus has given them permission to assassinate abortion providers at the same time there are others who are living as hard core pacifists.

• Some members of the Christian family are so certain that they have a monopoly on the truth that they refuse to even break bread together with other baptized believers; just as there are those who are so confused about the unique importance of Jesus Christ that they bring no light into the darkness.

• There are Christians whose only concern is getting into heaven and have no interest in environmental or justice issues; there are people of faith who are so aggressive about peace that they become part of the problem rather than the solution; and there are a whole bunch of us who are so heavenly minded that we’re really no earthly good at all.

No wonder the gospel lesson for the Sunday after Easter is ALWAYS the story of Thomas and his doubts! In it, we are being asked to clarify and confirm which Jesus we are going to follow, trust and obey – because not every Jesus rings true to the God revealed in scripture and experience.

In his new book, Love Wins, Pastor Rob Bell puts it like this – and I warn you in advance this brother doesn’t pull his punches: “I believe that it is true that faithful people are called to respond to Jesus, but that raises an important question: which Jesus? Renee Altson begins her book, Stumbling Toward Faith, with these words:

I grew up in an abusive household. Much of my abuse was spiritual – and when I say spiritual, I don’t mean new age, esoteric, random mumblings from half-Wiccan, hippie parents… I mean that my father raped me while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. I mean that my father molested me while singing Christian hymns.
That Jesus? He continues:

When one woman in our church invited her friend to come to one of our services, he asked her if it was a Christian church. And when she said yes, it was, he told her about Christians in his village in Eastern Europe who rounded up the Muslims in town and herded them into a building, where they opened fire on them with their machine guns and killed them all. He explained to her that he was a Muslim and had no interest in going to here Christian church. That Jesus?

Or think about the many who know about Christians only from what they’ve seen on television and so assume that Jesus is antiscience, antigay, standing out on the sidewalk with his bullhorn, telling people they’re going to burn forever? Those Jesuses? There are some Jesuses… that should be rejected.
Are you still with me? Do you see what I’m trying to get at here? How we answer the question, “Which Jesus?” really matters. 

It makes me think of a story I told some of you earlier, but probably bears repeating for the whole church. About a month ago, the Lichtenstein Art Centre sponsored a GLBTQ art show that showcased the creativity of some of the young gay artists in the area. It was a beautiful and powerful installation.
One young woman displayed photographs of what her experience in Pittsfield meant to her – and in one of them was the front of our church. Her picture was of our banner – the one about GPS and helping you find your way if you are lost – which was supposed to be welcoming. In this case, however, it didn’t work because the young woman said, “Then there are the churches… this one used to have a banner that said, ‘Questions welcomed here” but we know that they don’t mean it… they never mean it when it comes to OUR kind of questions.” 

Then she added, “Later this same church had a banner about GPS and helping people find their way – but we’re not lost – so what are they talking about?”

Now two things struck me in this young artist’s words:

• First, her experience with the church of Jesus Christ has not been welcoming, helpful or compassionate; it has been judgmental and condemning. So even though she has never joined us for worship, I don’t blame her for lumping us in with the rest of the family. Obviously, the Jesus she had met was NOT a Jesus we would celebrate.

• And second, her words underscore the importance of our mission to share a loving, powerful, healing and compassionate Jesus with the world. One who brings the clarity of the resurrection into everyday life and empowers us to live into thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is already being done in heaven.

Listen to how St. Peter put it in his letter to the early church just 30 years after Jesus had been raised from the dead:

What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we've been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and that future starts now! You never saw him, yet you love him. You still don't see him, yet you trust him—with laughter and singing. Because you kept on believing, you'll get what you're looking forward to: total salvation.

With laughter and singing – did anyone else catch that – we show others the deepest nature of Christ by living in the world as Jesus once did: with laughter and singing – with joy and celebration, with hope and feasting – and sharing the bounty of God’s grace with others. For the future starts now, said the apostle, the resurrection and our deepest hopes start now. 

• And that brings me back to asking which Jesus we honor and share with world, ok?

• And this is where today’s gospel story of Thomas and all of his questions and doubts might be helpful.
First of all, the very fact that the official Bible story for today is all about a disciple who asked hard and challenging questions of his faith community should remind us that our questions and doubts are important, too. Doubt isn’t sinful – nor is it the opposite of faith – fear is the opposite of faith, but never doubt. In fact, the entirety of John’s gospel is written in such a way that doubt and clarity, fear and faith, light and darkness, life and death are always coupled together. Do you recall how John’s gospel begins? I like the old, old poetic words for this passage: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… all things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And that light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

So let’s set the record straight – at least for this community of faith and this faith tradition: questions ARE welcomed here! All questions. Hard questions. Rough questions – heretical questions – questions and doubts that will take a life time – or more – to resolve: ALL questions. How does our mission statement put it?

• In community with God and each other, we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion.

• To reflect is not passive – sometimes it isn’t easy either – for to reflect means to carefully review and consider and discuss and question what is at the core of following Jesus.

That is part of what our 4000 year old tradition born in Judaism teaches – a tradition that Jesus honored and revered – as one scholar puts it:
Discussion about hard things is divine. Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering, God is practically on trial in the poems of Lamentations and Jesus responds to almost every question he’s asked with… another question. “What do you think? How do you read it?” he asks again and again. (Bell, x)

There is even the wisdom from our Hebraic cousin in faith that says just as there are black letters on the page to tell part of the story, there is also all that white space, too, that “is waiting to be filled with our responses and discussions and debates and opinions and longings and desires and wisdom and insights. We read the words and then enter into the discussion that has been going on for thousands of years across cultures and contents. (Bell)

• Thomas is a model for us – he gives us permission to ask all the hard questions we have – and do so from within the community of faith.

• "Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won't believe it."

Now pay careful attention to this second point because it is just as important as our divine encouragement to raise hard questions: Thomas never talks about doubting; rather he speaks of not believing. Perhaps a better way to render his point would be to say that unless there is an encounter with the essence of Jesus who was raised from the dead – something that is real rather than imagined – I won’t trust it. Do you get the distinction?

• Literally Thomas says I will remain unbelieving – apistos – I will be without faith. And here is why: in John’s theology, belief – trust – or faith is NOT an intellectual construct, but rather an encounter or experience with God’s grace.

• Earlier in John’s gospel Jesus speaks of abiding – God abides in me and I abide in your – that is my essence rests within and among you and you experience it. Not sign off on a creed – you experience the peace of God from the inside out – and in this you abide in me.

And that is what the dilemma of Thomas is all about: he has not yet experienced the peace of Christ after the Cross. He has known and trusted Jesus when he walked the earth as a man. He has learned and grown as a disciple, too. But now he says that he won’t believe – or abide – in Christ until he experiences him.

I suspect that is true for a LOT of people – especially those who have been wounded by the ugly and mean-spirited things people say and do in the church – don’t you think? Take the classic description of salvation and see if you can find peace in it: “God loves us. God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely given, through no merit on our part. Unless you do not respond in the right way; then God will torture in hell forever!” (Bell)

• Not only is that offensive to the Lord our God made flesh in Jesus as Christ, it is untrue – and unbiblical.

• If THAT is what faith in Jesus is all about, then I’m like St. Thomas – or many who call themselves atheists today – no way! That is NOT a God I can abide in.

So what does Jesus do when confronted by Thomas’ questions and lack of faith? Condemn him to hell? Challenge him or shame him into submission? What? He comes and offers him peace: “come unto me, my man, and I shall give you rest. I know you are tired and worn out.”
“So take my peace – don’t be unbelieving – abide in me – rest in me – experience my grace.”

• And what happens next? The story says that when Thomas was embraced by Christ’s peace he worshipped him as Lord and Savior.

• We’re going to need to talk about Lord and Savior next week – and about some notions of heaven and hell, too – but for now let’s just say that when Thomas was embraced by Jesus, he could rest in his grace.

And THAT Jesus is calling to us today – to trust him – to rest in him – to abide in him – and serve him. That Jesus truly is a Savior – and that is the good news for those who have ears to hear today.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Learning and maturing in the second half of the journey...

In his book about male spirituality and initiation, Adam's Return: The Five Promises of Male Inititation, he suggests that in the first half of life men learn about challenging limits and succeeding.  If a young male isn't taught humility and service by wise mentors - if he isn't initiated into preserving the well-being of his tribe by learning that he is mortal - the first half of life is likely to be filled with unfocused wild energy that will wound others.

+ Call it the unbridled puer aeternus of Jungian archetypes, the smart-ass hipster in the back of the class, George Carlin's "class clown" or the local gang banger, we not only know what unfocused male energy looks like but we are suffering from it in a host of ways.

+ From sexual abuse and random acts of street violence to the perpetual adolescence of so many contemporary men - to say nothing of the epidemic of sweet, soft men with no fire in their bellies who believe that the only loving alternative to the anger and shame that surrounds them is to become "yogurt makers" - the evidence is clear:  men no longer are being trained to be tender warriors.  As the ancient Celts used to say, "a warrior must learn to dance before using the sword." 

Rohr clearly understands that most men have matured into what Robert Bly calls "a sibling society" where there is no leader, no standard by which to measure the self and no clear paths of initiation into serving the common good.  Instead, there is shame, scandal and the squelching of creativity as the FX television show, "Sons of Anarchy," makes so clear.  The alternative to straight, white middle class America is the tribe - in this case, a motorcycle club that was founded by a wild anarchist with a utilitarian bent.  They know how to initiate a young and unfocused male into manhood:  trial by fire.  Young "pledges" have to learn how to serve, they have to accept hierarchy and they have to trust the common good (narrowly defined, to be sure) over their own urges.

I've gotten "hooked" on "Sons of Anarchy" just like I did with both "The Sopranos" and "Rescue Me."  All three TV dramas are drenched in violence and over the top sex, but that is not what drives these programs.  That is window dressing - a means to an end - one of the ways to find a sustainable audience.  No, what is at the heart of each of these programs is the exploration of male initiation in a disintegrating culture.  Tony Soprano is on a vision quest at midlife - searching for integrity and meaning - when the only goals he knows are winning and fucking.  Same with Tommy (played by Dennis Leary in "Rescue Me") who is a NYC fire fighter wrestling with demons after the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th.
The same holds for "Jax Teller" in "Sons of Anarchy."  He has paid his dues to the club.  He had done time in prison for the common good.  And learned how to serve his leaders never ratting out the brothers. And now that he has become the number two biker - the heir apparent - he is beginning to wonder if there isn't more to life than drinking, fucking and running guns.  I am curious to see what the writers do with this show.  Both the "Sopranos" and "Rescue Me" cut to the heart - and my hunch is that will be true with "Anarchy."  (For those who don't get this, check out the final two episodes of "Rescue Me" where Tommy goes to rescue his former lover from the punches of her new female lover.  After setting free the damsel in distress, he taunts - and then begs - the butch lesbian to beat him. Falling to his knees after repeated punches, he breaks down and weeps.  Violence is the only way he has learned to connect with his feelings... truly must see TV!)

Rohr's second point is that only well-initiated men are able to face the challenge of the second half of life:  embracing their limits.  The all too obvious charachitures of men going crazy at midlife is only the most visible sign of the problem.  The heart attacks of 40 year old executives and line workers, the rampant alcoholism and addiction to pornography are more masked signs of the same illness.  And the legions of cynical old fools who are cranky and mean-spirited at the end of their lives is but another clue that men who have not learned how to embrace their mortality and wild energy for the common good wind up wasting their most valuable years.

For about 15 years I have been exploring this theme and sense that the time has come in this congregation to do something about it.  Already we've put together a young guitar player army, but this work must be more intentional.  What's more, it has to reach out and embrace both the wise old men of the congregation as well as the young dads and single guys without connections.  This is one of the prayer themes that continues to ripen - and I think the time has come to go deeper, yes?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

At the close of Easter 2011...

At the end of a very full and rewarding Lent, I bring my reflections on a theology of atonement to a close.  These words by Fr. Richard Rohr grow from the wisdom and insights for Rene Girard.  In a word, this understanding of Christ's atoning work on the Cross is radically different from other theologies - and resonates most closely with my own conclusions. And while I know atonement is always more a mystery than a clear conclusion - and while I still connect with parts of the other theologies - Girard's work speaks most profoundly to me in the 21st century.  Not only have I experienced it in the aftermath of September 11th, I have come to see how the addiction for "scape goats" and "blood lust" helps organize societies and focus religions - not in a godly way - but still very powerfully. 

Today the primary human problem, the core issue that defeats human history, is both revealed and resolved. It is indeed a “good” Friday. The central issue at work is the human inclination to kill others, in any multitude of ways, instead of dying ourselves—to our own illusions, pretenses, narcissism, and self-defeating behaviors. Jesus dies “for” us not in the sense of “in place of” but “in solidarity with.” The first is merely a heavenly transaction of sorts; the second is a transformation of our very soul and the trajectory of history.

The soul needed one it could “gaze upon” long enough to know that it was we who were doing the “piercing” (John 19:37) and we who were being pierced in doing it. Jesus’ body is a standing icon of what humanity is doing and what God suffers “with,” “in,” and “through” us. It is an icon of utter divine solidarity with our pain and our problems. . . .It is our central transformative image for the soul. . . .Don’t lessen its meaning by making it into a mechanical transaction whereby Jesus pays some “price” to God or the devil. The only price paid is to the intransigent human soul—so it can see!

On the cross, the veil between the Holy and the unholy is “torn from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51), the “curtain of his body” becomes a “living opening” (Hebrews 10:20) through which we all can now walk into the Holy of Holies, which on different levels is both our own soul and the very heart of God. Nothing changed in heaven on Good Friday, but everything potentially changed on Earth. Some learned how to see and to trust the contract between God and humanity. God has always and forever loved what God created, “it was always good, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). It was we who could not love and see the omnipresent goodness.

This old song by the grandfather of Christian rock, Larry Norman, still grabs me - I love the salty outlaw feel for it - even though I now reject the theology.  As my boys in the Dead say: "What a long strange trip its been..."  Happy Easter, my friends:  Alleluia, he is risen!

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter Sunday 2011

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011.  I am grateful to Rob Bell for his clarifying words re: the gospel's radical inclusivity born in God's grace.  And so begins another series exploring some of the themes set forth in Love Wins.  If you are in town, please join us for the feast at 10:30 am.

This is a powerful day, sweet people of God, a sweet and powerful day: Amen!?! 

• Our tradition calls it the Feast of the Resurrection – a festival of new life and a bounty of hope – born of God’s love.

• Our scriptures tell us that when the outsiders – the women who loved Jesus – went to the tomb of the Lord, they were greeted by an angelic messenger of grace who announced: “Fear not. I know you're looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross, but he is not here.”

• And our heart of hearts tells us that something bewildering and beautiful is happening today in Jesus Christ even if we can’t get our heads around just exactly what it might be.

You see, Easter isn’t something that makes sense. It is an experience – an encounter with God’s love – that is bigger than all the pain and shame and fear and confusion of the world and our lives combined! What’s more, this encounter with God’s love does NOT depend on us – and that’s the really good news – because, you see, Easter comes to the world regardless of what we think or feel or even how we comprehend the evidence.

• Did you know that?

• Easter is a gift – a blessing – that we neither control nor shape.
In the lofty language of the academy, one theologian put it like this:

Resurrection faith does not arise on the basis of evidence, of which the chief priests and soldiers had plenty, but rather comes on the basis of the experienced presence of the risen Christ – by the testimony of those to whom he appeared – and by his own continuing presence among his disciples. (Eugene Boring)

But let me give it to you in the everyday lingo of most of us who so often are just hanging on by our fingers tips - hoping for some truth about God – Easter comes to the world saying: Christ is risen whether we believe in Jesus or not. Easter isn’t about intellectual assent or sacramental integrity. Easter does not require our participation in a church. Or baptism or confession or right doctrine or conventional morality or Christianity or even a vague familiarity with the 10 Commandments; as preacher Rob Bell says: the good news is better than that!

• You see, those are all things that WE do – and they can be valuable – but the good news is really better than that…

• … Because the good news comes from God – not us – and it seeks to make us whole and fill us from the inside out with a love that makes all things new.

That’s what the story tells us this morning, isn’t it? That God has taken what was dead and discarded – forgotten and shamed – and restored it to new life just as God promised?

Look, the Jesus you are looking for Is not here - He was raised from the dead just as he said – so be on your way quickly. Go tell his disciples (in the old boys club) that Jesus is risen from the dead. In fact, tell them that he has gone on ahead of you all to Galilee where it all started… and if you get back there you will see him just as he promised.
Now that’s hard to believe for some of us – and trust – especially if we’ve been wounded or betrayed or just worn down by the harshness of real life. In a new book about his life in ministry, Love Wins, a young preacher from Michigan tells a story that has haunted me over the past two weeks because it clarifies just how hard it is to really trust that God’s love is bigger than our pain. He writes:

Every week after my Sunday message, I usually sit on the edge of the stage (it’s a big church) and talk to people after worship. And every week the same woman walks up to me and hands me a piece of paper. We’ve been going through this ritual for several years now. She smiles, and we chat for a moment or two, and then she walks away. The piece of paper she hands me is always the same size – about 4 x 5 inches –folded with writing inside in the upper left corner. I unfold it each week while she watches and then I read what she’s written on it. A number, with a few comments next to the number: sometimes the number is big like 174 but sometimes it is smaller. I remember once when it was 2. (And here’s the thing) the number is how many days it’s been since she last cut herself. She’s struggled with a self-injury addiction for years, but lately a group of people have been helping find peace and healing. But she still struggles, some weeks more than others. Not long ago she told me that every man she’s ever been with hit her. So when she hears about love it is NOT a concept she’s familiar with. (Rob Bell, pp. 165-6)

That makes sense to me, right? So how do we reconcile God’s unconditional love with everything we’ve experienced over and over again in our lives? Like that young woman with the knife – or the middle aged man with his Jim Beam – or a young person facing divorce – or the President trying to find the best course in the Middle East – or the widower who still grieves her beloved after all these years of emptiness: how do we come to trust God’s grace? I think the writer, Anne Lamott, hit the nail right on the head when she recently said on NPR:
I think that every year the world seems more and more like a Good Friday world than an Easter Sunday celebration. The writer, Barbara Johnson, once said, “We really are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” And it's excruciating, whether it's Japan, or Libya, or whether it’s your own best friends and their children who are sick, which is something that makes no sense when you think about a loving God. But Easter is a time when we get to remember that all the stuff that we think makes us of such value, all the time we spend burnishing our surfaces, is really not what God sees. God, he or she, loves us absolutely unconditionally, as is. It's a come as you are party.

So jump with me back to the Easter story because at its core, “what the gospel does is confront our version of our own story with God’s version of our story.” (Bell, p. 171) Think about that, ok? The gospel story – no matter what chapter or verse – confronts our version of our life story with God’s version of our story. And there are a few details from the Easter gospel story that deserve comment:

• First, the women – the outsiders – who in first century Palestine were not allowed to testify as witnesses in a court of law: They were chosen by Christ to tell the world the blessed thing that God had accomplished on Easter morning.

• And let’s be clear, this wasn’t accidental, because the story goes on to tell us that what the women saw and experienced were the same things presented to the male Roman Centurion guards, right?
They were all confronted with the same realities – from the earthquake and the rolled-back stone to the presence of the angel of the Lord bearing a message of grace – they all saw the same things – and heard the same words, too. But the women – representing all of us have suffered and known grief – they listened. And what was the angel’s message? “Fear not” – that’s key – fear not is something Jesus tells us over and over again in the Bible because fear locks our hearts to trust.

That’s why the wisest spiritual masters in every tradition tell us: “fear is a refusing to trust.” And refusing to trust leads us straight to… hell. Not joy – not the marriage of heaven and earth – not thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven or the comfort of Easter Sunday: it leads us straight to hell – do not pass go – do not collect $200 – hell.
• The women on Easter morning started out afraid – marginalized and grieving and taken for granted - but they listened. “Shema, o Yisrael” the old tradition says: Listen, the Lord your God is One…

• And in listening they were able to move from fear to trust – and trust is allowed them to discover “God’s retelling of their story” in a way that was healing rather than just clinging to the brokenness.

• The men – let’s not forget the men – they saw the same things as the women: they felt the same earthquake and heard the same invitation and, in their own way, probably knew just as much pain and shame as the women.

• But what’s the difference? They didn’t listen – they didn’t trust – and they ran off in fear – and stayed in that fear while the women were empowered by God’s love to return to their ministries! 

So remember: both were invited to the party but only those who responded in trust experienced the blessings.
So let me go out on a limb and say that the whole point of our feast this morning is NOT to give you more information about Jesus. And it has nothing to do with doctrine or denomination or damnation. No, the whole point of the celebration is to say:

• God has come to us all: women and men – and children, too. The fearful and the trusting – the apprehensive and the receptive – the hurting and the healing.

• And what God says on Easter is: You are free. New life is yours if you will receive it.

Now please understand: “Our trusting, our change of heart, our believing God’s version of our story doesn’t bring it into existence, doesn’t make it happen or even create it. God does that all by herself!”

• But trust is how we receive the gift – it is how we experience and embrace the joy – and move from the realm of Good Friday into Easter.

• Over the next 7 weeks I’m going to be talking to you each Sunday more specifically about how to receive this joy – this new life – so that you, too, can grow in peace from the inside out.

For now let’s just say that you have all been invited to God’s party to be healed; by fear you can reject it and be miserable – or not. Easter asks you not to put any limits on the Lord… because the good news is so much better than that. Christ is risen, beloved: thanks be to God.

1) Cross @
2) Resurrection @
3) Jesus @
4) Women at the tomb @

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday 2011

It is probably best to pause today in my reflections on the atonement and simply share this profound insight from the heart of Madeleine L'Engle.

I, who live by words, am wordless when
I try my words in prayer. All language turns
To silence. Prayer will take my words and then
Reveal their emptiness. The stilled voice learns
To hold its peace, to listen with the heart
To silence that is joy, is adoration.
The self is shattered, all words torn apart
In this strange patterned time of contemplation
That, in time, breaks time, breaks words, breaks me,
And then, in silence, leaves me healed and mended.
I leave, returned to language, for I see
Through words, even when all words are ended.
I, who live by words, am wordless when
I turn me to the Word to pray. Amen.

They mystery of God's grace continues to nourish and challenge me - and on this day especially - I give thanks for the presence within the silence.  If you are in town, please join us at 7:00 pm for this year's Good Friday experiment in liturgy, contemporary music, art, prayer and silence.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Thursday 2011

As a part of my Lenten reflection on the historic insights concerning the Cross and atonement, here are two additional comments:
+ First, from the moral theology of Peter Abelard (1079-1142).  As noted earlier, the two dominant understandings of Christ's atoning work on the Cross involved the repayment of a debt:  the earlier theology suggested that Christ paid Satan a debt for human sin - and in doing so outwitted evil and redeemed Hell in the process - while the wisdom of St. Anselm trusted that Jesus paid a debt to the Father out of love.  This "ransom" theology has dominated both the East and West and continues to influence and shape Evangelical thinking into the 21st century.

Abelard, however, took a more subjective and tender approach noting that the life and death of Jesus Christ gave to the world such a radical demonstration of the love of God that our hearts are moved to love God in response. It is this human response of gratitude that reunites our hearts with God's who then shares forgiveness as well as compassion by hearing our prayers.  He wrote:

Our redemption through the suffering of Christ is that deeper love within us which not only frees us from slavery to sin but also secures for us the true liberty of the children of God, in order that we might do all things out of love rather than out of fear - love for him who has shown us such grace that no greater can be found.

This subjective view of the atonement became popular during the Enlightenment, a time of intense skepticism towards anything transcendent or supernatural. ( Additionally, Abelard's insight came to guide much of the Liberal/Progressive Protestant spirituality of the Cross.  The Lenten hymn, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," is the best articulation of this theology.

+ The second part of today's reflection - and fourth in a series of five - has recently been popularized by Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar folk.  This perspective - which ebbs and flows from time to time - considers the Cross in mostly political terms.  Jesus was taken to the Cross because of his challenge to both the religion and politics of his day:  his articulation and embodiment of God's kingdom was a bold alternative to the kingdom of Cesar.  One consequence of such moral and social justice is the alienation from the status quo; and as other social reformers from MLK to Gandhi have experienced, once the powers of the status quo are pushed beyond the breaking point, they move to execute the cause - in this case Jesus of Nazareth.

Sometimes this perspective intuits a spiritual dimension to the Cross, but this dimension is considered symbolic in much the way Anselm's wisdom required a human response: when we consider the Cross, we are changed towards greater love.  Borg has written:

The cross in the New Testament also has a more personal and individual meaning as a symbol or an image for the path of transformation, for what it means to follow Jesus. It means to die and rise with Christ. We find this in Paul. "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." The cross there is an image for that path of spiritual and psychological transformation that leads to a new identity and way of being...metaphorically now, it means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God. It means that God accepts us just as we are and that the Christian life is not about getting right with God. God's already taken care of that. The Christian life becomes about something else, namely, living within this framework of radical trust in God and relationship to God that makes possible our transformation, and, ideally and ultimately, the transformation of the world.

There was a time when I was persuaded by both Abelard and the political symbolism of these two theologies - and I continue to be shaped by my subjective and emotional response to Christ's love on the Cross - but these insights continue to weaken in my emerging theology of the Cross.  To be sure, there is a call to justice - when I reflect on the insights of Rene Girard this will be clarified - but something deeper than subjective symbolism is at work in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

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:...