Thursday, June 30, 2011

A few more pictures from Istanbul...

Here is Dianne and myself at the Blue Mosque...

And here is a band shot high a-top the Barcode Cafe building on the Asian side of Istanbul...

And here is St. Sophia in Iznik (Nicaea) from about the late 300 CE - it had first been a church and later a mosque and is now a sacred museum...

And finally here are a bunch of kids eating freshly roasted corn from a street vendor in Istanbul...

Get up, Jonah...

I am working my way - slowly - through a number of books that are heady with analysis of the world, Islam, peace-making and all the rest.  From time to time, however, I find I need more than information and hard-headed critical thinking - I need refreshment.  Soul food.  Music and inner renewal. As T.S. Eliot lamented:  Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

This morning, for example, Frederick Buechner reminded me of a love that runs deeper than all known love when he wrote:

There are times for all of us when life seems without purpose or meaning, when we wake to a sense of chaos like a great cat with its paws on our chests sucking our breath. What can we do? Where can we turn? Well, you can thank your luck stars, say many among us, that the world is full of specialists who are working on all these problems; and you can turn to them, men and women who have put behind them all the ancient myths and dreams and superstitions and have dedicated themselves to finding solutions to these problems in the only place where solutions or anything else can be found - which is in the midst of the vast complexities of the cosmos itself, which is all there is or ever was or ever will be.

The existence of the Church bears witness to the belief that there is only one thing you can say to such a view and that is that it is wrong. There is only one answer you can give to this terrible sanity, and that is that it is ultimately insane. The ancient myths and dreams of a power beyond power and love beyond love that hold the cosmos itself, hold all things, in existence reflect a reality which we can deny only to our great impoverishment; and the dream of a holiness and mystery at the heart of things that humankind with all its ingenuity and wisdom can neither explain away nor live fully without goes on being dreamed.

Moments continue to go up in flames like the bush in Midian to illumine, if only for a moment, a path that stretches before us like no other path. And such moments call out in a voice which, if we only had courage and heart enough, we would follow to the end of time.

Buechner regularly fills my heart with solace and soul with food for the journey. I only read him in snatches these days - morsels from a collection called Listening to Your Life - but it is enough.  Another book that I am finding good for what ails me in Philip Yancey collection called simply:  Grace.  Much like some of Rob Bell's books, this is a pastiche of images, poems, stories and insights with an edge.

Along side a black page with a shiny silver mirror on it - with the words "the one Jesus loves" below the mirror - is this story from the life of Brennan Manning:

Once an Irish priest who, on a walking tour of a rural parish, sees an old peasant kneeling by the side of the road, praying says, "You must be very close to God."  The old man looks up from his prayers, thinks for a moment and then smiles, "Yes, he's very fond of me."

A colleague of mine, Belle Fox-Martin, recently preached and led worship for me while I was in Istanbul.  And when I returned she sent me a small collection of her photographs and poems and writings. One selection she calls, "I Wish That I Could Tell You," has also nourished the Spirit within:

I wish that I could tell you
that on the other side of your sorrow
there is a harvest.
I wish that I could tell you
that kindness is the only thing
worth breath or time in this world.
I wish that I could tell you
how the ocean saved my life.
I wish I cold tell you
(a thousand times over) thank you
and thank you again then watch
the shards of isolation - or is it fear -
pull out of your heart.
I wish that I could tell you
how much is carried on the wind.
I wish that I could tell you
that faith is already yours.

I need to be reminded from time to time, yes?  I need to stop and wait and listen, too.  These words and thoughts have fed me today - and I am grateful.

credits @ wisdom tree gallery

The unforced rhythms of grace...

NOTE:  Here are my sermon notes for this week, July 3, 2011.  After being away from worship for two weeks I was totally blessed to find that the lectionary readings for this Sunday included both Romans 7 and Matthew 11: 28-30 - two of my all time favorite New Testament lessons - which inspired me to construct a lectionary summer series on "the unforced rhythms of grace." That phrase is one of the insights Eugene Peterson gleens from his reworking of "come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden."  It is one a brilliant and poetic reworking of the ancient text in a way that makes it come alive - at least to me.

A few songs - including two of my own - strike me as valuable:  "Thank You" by Alanais Morisette and "Grace" by U2.  Others would be:  "Jubilee" by Mary Chapin-Carpenter, "A 1000 Beautiful Things," by Annie Lennox, "Beautiful Day" by U2, "Grace is Rising Now at Last,"Come On In" and "Grace Be My Guide" by... me.  (I hope to record my tunes over the summer - along with a few others - and we'll see where that goes, yes?)   So, here we go towards Sunday... BTW if you are in town at 10:30 am on Sunday, please stop by.

Today I am going to share with you a few thoughts about grace – it is not only my favorite theological concept – but I believe its primacy is what makes Christianity unique among all the religious of the world. Not that other faiths don’t celebrate the grace of God – they most certainly do – and not that Christianity is any better or more grace-filled than any other religions.

• Truth be told, that is not for me to say: that’s up to the Lord and I hope I realize that I am neither smart enough nor spiritually pure enough to ever make such a judgment call.

• But I do think it is true that grace holds a unique spot in the Christian faith that is neither incidental nor buried, but right at the core of everything Jesus said, taught and did.

How does today’s gospel lesson from St. Matthew put it: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it – and you will learn the unforced rhythms of grace.

I LOVE that expression: the unforced rhythms of grace – it comes from the poetry and wisdom of Eugene Peterson’s reworking of Matthew’s gospel and that’s really what I want to consider with you today. Because not only are the unforced rhythms of grace so profound, they are also salvifc - life-change and healing – the heart of hope and new life born of God’s love. And most people just don’t seem to get what’s going on when it comes to the unforced rhythms of grace.

• That COMBINATION of words – the unforced rhythms of grace – really throws some folks who say to me: what in God’s name are you talking about?

• So let me try to share with you three insights that might help: 1) Why people are so confused about grace; 2) What Matthew’s gospel tells us about grace; and 3) How we might reclaim the unforced rhythms of grace as the heart of 21st century Christian faith.
You see, I think my boy Bono and U2 were right when they sang: Grace may be the name of a girl, but grace is also a love that can changes the world because… grace makes beauty out of ugly things. Think about it with me… 

You see, most people don’t really want to trust God – we don’t like giving up control over our lives to live as if God were the Lord of heaven and earth - so we construct religions filled with rules and regulations. And rules and regulations require gate-keepers – morality police – judges and all the rest who get a kick out of deciding who is good enough to deserve God’s love. I mean that: we love being in charge of who is in and who’s out and we can’t seem to help ourselves – we almost do it in our sleep – we like it so much.

But grace is the polar opposite of control. Philip Yancey writes that:

Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more – no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminars or divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous cause. Because grace also means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less – no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder.

And what I’ve discovered over the years is that most of us hate that truth about God: we hate that God’s love is not under our control – because that means we’re not really in control – and we love being in control. Back in 1934, a delegate from the United States to the World Baptist Alliance in Berlin wrote this letter back home that I think makes this clear:

It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold; where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown. The new Germany has burned great masses of corrupting books and magazines along with its bonfires of Jewish and communistic libraries. What’s more Hitler is a leader who neither smokes nor drinks and wants women to dress modestly. He hates pornography.

See what I’m getting at? We love religions with clearly defined rules and moral codes – black and white lines to tell us who is in and who is out to say nothing of who is good and who is bad – because like Mark Twain said, “In the beginning God created man in his own image and we’ve been returning the favor ever since.” We love to define God on our own terms – terms that we control – so we can remain in charge.

And I think that’s the fundamental reason why people don’t get grace: it calls us to let go and let God – it asks us to trust that God knows more than we do – and act like God is in charge and we’re not. And we really want to be in charge… Well, that’s my first insight – so let me stop and ask what you think – how does that resonate with you?

• Don’t get me wrong, while I do think that God’s grace is such a counter intuitive spiritual insight that it is mind blowing…

• … I don’t think that is the major reason why people don’t get grace – I think it has to do with not wanting to give up control.

That seems to be part of what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 11 – and what St. Paul found himself bumping up against in Romans 7, too – the consequences of being stubborn and controlling. St. Paul is in anguish when he tells us that no matter how hard he tries to follow the rules and be a good boy, he still screws up – sometimes in spades – and does more harm than good trying to follow the leader:

It happens so regularly that it's predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me?

So let me try to give you the context for today’s gospel because I think it offers some deeper insight into both Paul’s lament and why Jesus insists that real rest comes only from being embraced by the unforced rhythms of grace. Our lesson begins with Jesus saying: How can we make sense of this generation when the people have been living like spoiled children whining to their parents?

• This isn’t Jesus meek and mild – or irrelevant and passive – this is the Christ calling his contemporaries cry babies – not adults who live in childlike innocence, right? He’s talking about those who insist on following their selfish, noisy, controlling ways.

• And he explains his challenge like this: The cry babies say, “We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.” Remember: John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. So let’s get clear: opinion polls don't count for much, do they?
I think Jesus is calling our bluff here: like a worldly-wise sponsor at an AA meeting he says John the Baptist came with a strict spirituality and you called him crazy so you could ignore him; and when I came with a spirituality of the feast and you called me a glutton and drunk so you could ignore me, too. But you can’t have it both ways, people, so quit trying to put limits on the Lord. You can carp and complain all you like, but God is the Creator of heaven and earth – and you are not – so quit acting like you are in the center of the universe!

• Are you with me here? I think he is saying: look, you say you want some sacred guidance so the Lord sends the Baptist and you reject him. So then I show up – the life of the party – and you toss me out, too because I don’t act like you think a minister or holy person should.

• But pay attention – the problem isn’t John the Baptist or me – the problem is you don’t really want to follow the Lord – you want to call the shots, right?

And these additional insights from Matthew 11 could be helpful in sorting this out – so let me invite your careful attention.

• After Jesus calls us out for being so stubborn the text tells us that out of nowhere he bursts into a spontaneous prayer thanking God that true spiritual wisdom is NEVER revealed to those who like to be in control: “Abruptly” Matthew’s gospel says, “Jesus broke into prayer saying: "Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You've concealed your ways from sophisticates and know-it-alls, but spelled it out clearly to ordinary people. Yes, Father, that's the way you like to work."

• So it would seem as if the sophisticated and wise Jesus is talking about “are those who felt that they were the privileged children of God” – those who practice control over who was in and who was out of favor with God – people who refused or were “unable to admit their powerlessness” (Brian Stoffregen) and kept trying to live like they were in charge of everybody’s lives.

Now here’s something fascinating to me: apparently the Greek text tells us that there are two types of understanding going on here. There is information or awareness – ginosko – and that type of understanding has to do with the facts and rules and creeds. But there is also revealed and even experienced sacred wisdom – epiginosko – that has to do with encountering the peace that passes all understanding – and that type of understanding doesn’t come from rules or study or anything external, ok? That wisdom comes straight from the heart of God – and apparently those who choose to try and live like their in control never open their hearts enough to let God inside – and they miss the blessings of grace. 

• Jesus says, “Come on – let go – and I will take away your burden.” Literally he’s talking about taking away the physical and emotional fatigue that grinds us down whenever we live like everything rests upon our shoulders rather than trusting God.

• I will give you rest – I will teach you the unforced rhythms of grace – I will bless you with a new way of living that frees you to trust God… but this new life requires a death – a loss of control – the putting of Christ’s yoke – becoming a disciple who is willing to learn and trust and not be in charge.

Most scholars say that Jesus was really speaking about apprentices not pupils – do you know the difference? So this is an invitation to become an apprentice of grace:

• To practice letting go – to practice trusting God – to practice welcoming forgiveness and living like God’s love is never earned.

• Can you see why they called such a gift “rest” – come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy-laden and I will give you rest?

The unforced rhythms of grace is living like God is God we are not: we are not in control, we are not required to earn God’s love and we are not obligated by our religion or anyone else to do anything but respond to God’s love with… gratitude – thanksgiving – trust.

Are you still with me?

I’m going keep coming back to this insight throughout the next few months because it is so important to reclaim. So much of Christianity is currently defined by fear and hatred and shame that we need a third reformation – a reformation of grace so that we can all become apprentices. Like a cartoon I came across last week put it:
• It showed a small child looking up at her father saying, “So, dad, if I keep the faith will I grow up to be as grumpy and hateful as you?”

• Lord, have mercy.

So here’s a way to keep reclaiming the deep unforced rhythm of grace right here – and it comes from St. Erma Bombeck who told this story shortly before her death. It seems she was in worship on Sunday and kept looking at a small child who was turning around and smiling at everyone.

He wasn’t gurgling, spitting, humming, kicking, tearing the hymnals or rummaging through his mother’s handbag. He was just smiling. In time, his mother jerked him about and in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theatre off Broadway said, “Stop that grinning! You are in church!” And with that, she gave him a belt on the bottom… and as the tears rolled down his cheeks added, “That’s better” and returned to her prayers…

Without thinking I found myself furious. It occurred to me that the entire world is in tears and if you’re not, then you better get with it…I wanted to grab this child with the tear-stained face and hold him close and tell him about my God. The Happy and Loving God. The smiling God – the God of grace… The God who had to have a sense of humor to have created the likes of us…

By tradition, one wears faith with the solemnity of a mourner, the gravity of a mask of tragedy and the dedication of a Rotary badge… What a fool, I thought: here was a woman sitting next to the only light left in our civilization – the only hope, our only miracle – our only promise of infinity. And if he couldn’t smile in church, where was there left to go?

No wonder Jesus said to us – then – as well as today: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it – and you will learn the unforced rhythms of grace. The time has come for us to reveal in the way of Jesus – and St. Erma Bombeck, ok? So let all of God’s people say: amen!

1) naked pastor @

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

So a few closing thoughts (more or less) on our pilgrimage to Turkey...

Ok, by now anyone who reads this blog regularly MUST be tiring of my thoughts and obsessions on our recent trip to Turkey!  It was all I wrote about for the three weeks BEFORE we left, it is all I wrote about DURING the trip and it is all I have written about since RETURNING from the trip a week ago today.  Yeah, it was life-changing and beautiful and a privilege and all the rest... but come on, right?  Get a life, man! 

My man, Mickey Hart (of Grateful Dead fame and drummer supreme) once wrote:  No human culture has ever existed without music. Music is a necessity. It is not just for survival or for entertainment. Music makes us human.  Leonard Bernstien once said: Music can name the unnamable and communicate the unknowable.  And old Ludwig Van put it like this:  Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.

So, in order to try to get a life and get back into my Berkshire groove, here goes...

+ The chance to travel and play music with an incredible cast of musicians and lovely human beings; not every band is wonderful - but this one is - and I am grateful.

+ Making contact with the very insightful folk from the US State Department; I hope we can find other ways to share American jazz together throughout the world.

+ Opening the Inter-Cultural Dialogue Festival in Beyoglu the same night we arrived in town: what a buzz to be playing on a sweet stage before 800+ people.

+ Rockin' the house at the Pasazade Cafe and Club Barcode in Istanbul; the band played some of our best gigs on those nights - and the crowds were supportive and great.

+ The hospitality and warm welcome from Ahmet and Eser when we played in Iznik; such caring and beauty the entire weekend.

Superstition in Sultanahmet from Tessa Kelly on Vimeo.

+ Wandering the city with the Jazz Ambassadors; a wild and crazy bunch of friends who made going to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia truly special.  Eating and drinking with these guys every night was a total adventure, too.

+ Getting into the Nardis Jazz Club our last night in town - and listening to Benny bring the house down!

Go Bennie Go from Tessa Kelly on Vimeo.

+ Wandering some of the back streets of Istanbul with my sweetie:  being in a foreign land exploring with Dianne is the closest thing I know to heaven.

+ The care of all our our host - Altan, Ahmet, Eser and the US State Department staff - who shared true Turkish hospitality with us in ways that made this wild trip easier.

+ Some of the conversations that took place after each gig - with band mates or our hosts - about building bridges across cultural and religious chasms.

+ The Istanbul Museum of Contemporary Art was both a must see and situated on the bank of the Bosporus:  the view alone is worth the price of admission.

+ The Turkish Lira to US dollar exchange rate was sweet.

+ The mixture of ancient and modern was stunning to my sense of aesthetics.

+ Meeting our jazz buddy, Omer, and hearing him sing "God Bless the Child." Pure heaven.


+ I missed getting connected with our World Board mission folk and regret that; I hope in future visits we can spend time together because they are key to any inter-religious dialogue.

+ Man was our part of the city wild at night!  This was way cool when we were out on the town, but when we were trying to sleep at 3 am... not so much.

+ It became clear that for any real inter-religious dialogue to happen we were going to have to cultivate people on the ground in Turkey who are interested in this work; playing jazz was a good way to open the door.  Going deeper is going to take a whole lot more work.

+ OMG is that a long plane trip!  And what's the deal with Spanish customs?  Those guys were like the Keystone Cops on crack!  Weird...

+ Not having a cell phone in Istanbul was a stone cold drag.  I am so used to just making last minute arrangements; next time we travel, this is a MUST.

+ The street hustlers got a little old - and insistent - as the trip wore on; we had to make them part of the game otherwise somebody might have gotten punched out.  As Rick Steves notes: these guys play on Americans being polite so... watch out!  Nothing dangerous, mind you, but a pain in the ass.

+ Feeling VERY uncomfortable with women in burqahs - we still have to unpack this a LOT - but given our feminist, Western context this was unsettling for a thousand and one reasons.

+ Not having comparable amplifiers and drums - this was a creative mixed bag really - but playing through a tiny amp really messed up our sound.  Next time...

Ok, ok that's enough, right?  Here's to life in the Berkshires!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Three thoughts keep swimming around my head: part four

So today I was back at church for the first time in two weeks - it was wonderful.  Oh sure, it would be a hoot to still be in Turkey - playing incredible gigs each night - and exploring that fascinating, beautiful, complex and challenging place.  And I very much hope we can find a way to make a number of return trips to Istanbul and beyond.  Part of my deepest motivation has to do with building bridges of friendship - and that takes time, presence and a ton of patience. Still, it was sweet to be back on my home turf checking in with my staff and congregation and getting ready for my buddy's wedding this weekend, the celebration of both Dianne and my birthday with our children and Eucharist (both on Wednesday at 12 noon and Sunday during 10:30 am worship.)

Today I want to wrap up my on-going three part reflection (in four parts) with what I hope is a nuanced look at why I think this trip mattered - and I do think it mattered - albeit in a humble and still deepening way.  A conversation with one of our hosts during dinner before our last gig illustrates why.  Our host, a successful business person in both Turkey and the USA, with a Ph. D. and many years of practical and academic work in both lands, continued to be curious about my role in the band.  After all, I am the cleric amidst the musicians - an oddity to be sure.

Earlier in the week, he had told me that he serves an international site answering questions about Turkey for potential tourists.  And when my calling was revealed - we were intentionally circumspect about my work - he said, "You could really help us all out if you would try to educate your congregation about Islam.  For example, I don't know how many times I get foolish questions like ' can Muslims drive during the fast of Ramadan?'"  He paused with disdain and then composed himself saying, "I mean really?  Where do people get this stuff?" (In a subsequent intra-band dinner we thought it could come from some Americans encounters with ultra-Orthodox Jews who, indeed, cannot drive during their sacred fasts - or on their way to Sabbath worship.  Who knows...?)

When I told him that my congregation has been involved in a series of educational events over the past three years - from studying the essentials of Islam and supporting the work of Greg Mortenson's work with building schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan to welcoming some recent Muslim guests from Pakistan during worship - he was pleased.  And when we got to sit next to one another again, he asked, "I think I know your answer to this question, but let me ask any how:  where do you come out on the creationism vs. Darwin question?"  He smiled at me and waited.

"Well," I said carefully not really knowing where this was going to lead, "while I appreciate and value the sacred poetry and mythology of my tradition - and find great spiritual insight in the stories of creation celebrated in Genesis - I know that these words are not scientific.  So, while I know that there is more to life than science and the obvious, I come out closer to trusting Darwin than creationism when it comes to facts.  I prefer the poetry of the Bible, to be sure, but do not believe it is the whole story."  He looked at me carefully - and then smiled like a Cheshire cat.  "I am surprised.  I thought you would have said you favored a strict reading of Scripture."

And then he said what made the whole trip for me:  "There is great value in meeting a clergy man like you - more in Turkey need such encounters - you give me hope that there is a way for modern life and faith to embrace."  (Our band members thought there are a lot of clergy in the US who might also benefit from a little less fundamentalism, but that was a conversation for another day.)  This people to people business - one conversation opening possibilities and hope between two people - is a slow and humble way of building trust. But it is of great value, too - especially in a place like Turkey that is experiencing a rise in what some are calling puritanical Islam.

They make a distinction and reject the word fundamentalist - preferring puritanical - for a few key reasons.  First, although there are beautiful exceptions (mostly in the West), Islamic jurisprudence - which makes no secular vs sacred distinctions - tends to be based on ancient fiqhs (interpretations of Shariah) that are rooted in the decisions made in the 14th century. "Classical jurists were unequivocal in declaring their rulings to be their own opinion which should not be accepted uncritically. They loathed the idea that a 'school of thought' should be formed around the juristic judgements... but that is exactly what happened." (Islam: a graphic guide)

Over time, a number of schools of though based on classical jurisprudence appeared and five now dominate:  Hanafi (in the Indian subcontinent as well as West Africa and Egypt), Malki (in North and West Africa), Shafi (in Malaysia and Indonesia), Hanbai (in Arabaia) and Jeferi (in Iran and Iraq.)  "Consequently," write Ziauddin Sardar and Safar Abbas Malik, "much of what goes under the rubric of Islamic law is in fact classical fiqh - time and space bound opinions and rulings - or fatwas - of early jurists. What this means... is that much of Islamic law is frozen in history... and has been so for almost eight hundred years."

I know what theology and law trapped in time produces; my own Calvinist tradition often gets caught in this quandary and we can see it played out in spades in the Roman realm, too. And while the heart of Islam - like my own Reformed world - celebrates the notion of "reformed and reforming," breaking with history is hard business.  Especially when that religious history is also culture bound to conservative and rural areas like it is in Turkey.  This is one reason to make the distinction between fundamentalist and puritanical Islam.

A second has to do with the willful commitment to looking backwards rather than towards the future.  If it is true, and I think that it is, that much of the theological conversation in Islam has been dominated by "time bound moral decisions" shaped by a 14th century context, an alternative would be to acknowledge this historical fact and explore renewal - or reformation - or the possibility of theological discourse in the 21st century.  But that doesn't seem to be where the majority of Muslim intellectuals in Turkey are headed.  Rather, they seem committed to looking to the past - and as the old axiom states with bold clarity, "If you always do what you've always done..."

This was explained to me in some detail a number of times by our respective hosts during our jazz tour of Istanbul.  I appreciate from the outset that our hosts are deeply committed to the secular divide in Turkey - they celebrate the separation of mosque and state - which is something that doesn't make any sense to most Islamist intellectuals.  The Islamist intellectuals of contemporary Turkey claim this is a false, modernist division because all of life - like all of God, is one, yes?  So how can there be a state - and a spiritual realm - this is a violation of God's will?  But, since 1922 this is also how Turkey has operated and our hosts are in the modernist camp. 

And here are a few ideas they shared with us about why they fear the continuing growth of puritanical Islam in Turkey:

+ We were told that given the dominance of the current President - Erdogan - who was just re-elected to his third term, both the police and the court system are now under the control of Islamists.  Is it a coincidence, then, that Turkey has imprisoned more journalists who question the government than China? They say not...

+ We were told that wives of aspiring bureaucrats and educators needed to publicly wear the hijab or else their husbands would not even be considered for advancement. Already there is a massive dispute about women being covered in the university; some say it is the only way rural women will be educated while others say this is a tactic for advancing puritancial Islam into public life.  It will be under consideration in the new constitution.

And we given a new insight into the battle of the head scarf - read Orhan Pamuk's brilliant novel Snow for a feel for this conflict - for it is not about style, but Islamist politics. Until 10 years ago most women who chose to wear a head scarf came from rural areas and wore a simple peasant's scarf like many rural women wear.  Now, in addition to more women garbed in a total burqahs, the vast majority of head scarfs in Istanbul are the hijab - not the peasant scarf - which, our hosts insist is a political and religious statement about puritanical Islam.  There has even been the introduction of something worn underneath the hijab - an extender of sorts - to make it more visible and "in your face" as our friends said.  They are worried what Turkish society will be like in 25 years as these incremental public acts of puritanical religion become commonplace.  (My wife likened it to the contemporary assault on Roe v Wade taking place in states all across the US; there is no longer a head-on assault but a gradual chipping away that cumulatively is very effective.)

What's more, these anecdotes are explored more thoroughly and empiracally in both Sena Karasipahi's study, Muslims in Modern Turkey: Kemalism, Modernism and the Revolt of the Islamic Intellectuals, as well as Mohamed Charifi's, Islam and LIberty: The Historical Misunderstanding.  Both authors suggest that the new Islamic intellectuals of Turkey - born of modernism and increasing democracy post 1980 - still "tend to see modernism as the new form of atheism, in which we worship the market, machines, money, theories of organization." (Karasipahi, p. 86)  Further, they reject the West as a whole: "In fact, they equate Western civilization with Christianity... whose profane concepts like democracy, secularism and modernism are not only incompatiable with Islam... (because) they believe that modernism originated in the West and has a Hebrew-Christian and Greco-Roman foundation which cannot be acommodated within Islam." (p. 7)

My colleagues from the World Board of the United Church of Christ suggest that the rise of puritanical Islam in Turkey is not growing.  In 2007 they wrote: The Turkish government, which is secular and democratic, is highly sensitive to religious extremism and cracks down swiftly on those who use violence or advocate the overthrow of the state. The Turkish military sees itself as the guardian of Turkish secularism and has not hesitated to speak out or even take action if it thinks civilians are not doing enough to prevent religious extremism. At the same time, a European Stability Initiative Report appears to raise more questions @

Now, please don't misunderstand:  I know that there are a number of creative and contemporary writers and thinkers working to encourage a renewal of Islam beyond the medievalism that continues to be dominant. I think of Karen Armstrong and Willow Wilson, Mary Margaret Funk and Huston Smith, Rick Steves and Steven Kinzer, Ed Husain and Lucy Bushill-Matthews, Marie Byrne and countless others from Bono and Yussaf Islam to Imam Feisal Abdul Raif and his spouse, Daisy Kahn.  I give thanks to the work of Eboo Patel @

There is a creative energy - and good work - but I know it is no more normative than progressive Christianity is in my onw land.  In Turkey, at least for now, there is a 90 year history of checks and balances.  What's more, the puritanical Islamist intellectuals of Turkey are not interested in political revolution. They teach that the heart must return to the true way and so have a very different commitment than Iran.  For this, I give thanks.

I also pray that we find a way to move towards a deeper and more varied dialogue in the coming years.  Jazz might be part of the bridge - I think it helps opens doors - but we're going to have to have more than three cups of tea to find ways beyond our very deep differences, yes? But cups of tea help - so does jazz - so does prayer. I am eager to take the next step... and give thanks to the work Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and others are doing re: JUST PEACE 2 @

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Three thoughts running around my head: part three

Today is the last day of my vacation.  Most of it was spent in Istanbul, Turkey with the Sister City Jazz Ambassadors.  (At the end of August, we will take two more weeks to travel to Thunder Bay, Ontario to visit our friends Peter and Joyce in Canada.) So for the past few days I have been taking time to reflect on and explore some of my inititial reactions to our experiences. Before leaving, I read both Phil Cousineau's The Art of Pilgrimage and Rick Steves' Travel as a Political Act.
While these are very different books, both offer guidelines for taking any trip into the deeper territory of pilgrimage.  Both authors agree that spending time at the end of the experience to savor and ponder all that took place is essential. Otherwise, like so much else in 21st century American living, we will be rushed from the intensity of travel to the fullness of work only to forget how our hearts were touched.  And a periodic shuffle through a slide show of our digital pictures on a cell phone will not be enough to explore the contours and hidden insights the journey holds for us.

"Integral to the art of travel," Cousineau writes, "is the longing to break away from the stultifying habits of our lives at home - and to break away for however long it takes to once again truly see the world around us. This is why 'imagination' is more important than knowledge as Albert Einstien noted and why the art of pilgrimage is the art of reimagining how we walk, talk, listen, see, hear, write and draw as we ready for the journey of our soul's deep desire... the deeper truths of a journey are there in the strange voices, the alluring spices in the market you never knew existed, the thrilling moment when your longing is finally fulfilled."  But it takes time and quiet listening for these truths to rise to the surface.

So let me spend a little time with the music - one of the key reasons we traveled together as a group - and one of the ways this trip was different from any other I've ever taken.  It seems to me that a few things were going on with our music and each is unique.

+ First, we were sharing a breadth of American jazz in Turkey.  Jazz is a uniquely American genre of music that has been embraced and reinterpreted throughout the world - but it is still American.  There are sounds from the slave era and the Black church, there freedom songs in both spirit and style, there is dance music and esoteric explorations of modal themes as well as blues and rock and swing.  We are not a "purist" jazz band - like many artists before the "be bop" generation - including the boppers themselves - so we take ALL styles of music and try to find the beauty, the swing and the soul of the song through improvisation.  Clearly, Herbie Hancock is one of the masters in this genre-bending type of jazz...

Guitarist and producer extradinaire, T-Bone Burnett, put it like this:

You know, there's this place where a river runs into an ocean and the fresh water and the salt water all get mixed together.  And that's what America is all about and that's what American music is all about and that's what rock and roll is all about.  Jazz, too, and it wasn't totality invented by anybody - it is not just black and white - it's Mexican and Appalachian and Gaelic and everthing else that comes floating down the river.

That means that Stevie Wonder is just as righteous as Miles Davis - that the cool sounds of a Bossa Nova (new wave) are likely be followed by the raucous honking sax of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" a la King Curtis and Ivory Joe Hunter - or that we will do "Blue Skies" in an Afro-Cuban style one day and a jazz standard version another - or that Andy will use a fuzz/wah wah pedal sometimes and a clean warm sound, too.  In other words, our jazz is about inclusivity and freedom not genre purity and snobbery.  Clearly there is division in the jazz world about this tension - check out the movie "Icons Among Us" for a taste of what this means - and we have chosen one path. 

So we are spontaneously intentional about this call to freedom and beauty - and I trust that as we grow more and more aware of what it means to play together - we'll get even better at both the freedom and the beauty.  Because that is part of what the audiences have responded to - the combination of freedom in search of beauty - a quest for joy and commitment not only in the song but in real life, too. "The quest for freedom with a small f," writes John Litweiler, "appears at the very beginning of jazz and reappears at every growing point in the music's history."

+ Second, our jazz is not simply about technical skill but also joy: while our guys are stunning players - and can riff and solo with incredible virtuosity - the goal of each gig is not ego.  It is about working together to have fun and create something both beautiful and joyfilled for ourselves and the audience.  You know the difference, right?  Part of the ossification of some types of jazz - especially since the 1970s - has been the over emphasis on technique with a subsequent loss of heart and soul. 

That was one of the things that jazz critic Ralph Ellison used to rant against in the 50s when some performers began to literally turn their backs on their audiences during a gig in pursuit of their own technique, sound or experience.  This made him crazy for two reasons:  first, it meant that the artists had lost touch with the early dance roots of jazz - and in doing so also lost touch with some of the fun in the music; and second, this disdain of the audience - especially when it involved black performers in a mostly white audience - was just another version of racial injustice.  Ellison likened it to a jazz re-enactment of the experience black men felt whenever they entered a white shop keepers store. and became invisible.  No matter the real offense - and it WAS a real offense - Ellison concluded that jazz needed to take us through the pain to something greater rather than simply perpetuate the hatred in another context.

Our hope is to keep in touch with the fun - as well as the beauty - so that our jazz experience unites the past with the present as well as the artists with the audience. Now, if you've seen our pictures, we are not black artists.  We're white guys - with a white female vocalist - who are careful not to rip-off the early Black jazz pioneers.  Our hope is that we pay respect to these artists who have touched our souls while bringing something of our experience to the music, too. 

Like Jesse Jackson used to say, "At some point it doesn't matter what ships brought us here, we're in the same boat together now."  Our jazz makes that statement whether we're reworking something from Gil Scott-Heron or Rumi.  We are at pains to give proper credit - that is a matter of justice - and at the same time see how the older inspirations might teach us something new, too.

That is why most of our songs are jazz - not rock or blues - songs that go back to Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong as well as Miles Davis, Dizzie Gillespie, Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk.  This is the jazz core - with some Brubek, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian sounds added, too - and we are committed to the core.  But not bound to it like a cover band - for that would violate the quest for both freedom and beauty, too, yes?  And all the time we are aware of how each song - not each solo, but each song - is working for us and the audience.  It is a treat when people get up spontaneously to dance - that's part of what is supposed to happen - people respond to the joy.  In another tune, it does our hearts good when people recognize the creativity and beauty of a solo improvisation - another part of the jazz world - with applause rather than dancing. With us, the sum total is greater than the individual parts - and there are some incredible individual parts, too.

+ And third there is a spiritual/political content to our jazz.  In the 21st century we are keenly aware that we don't live in a vacuum.  As white American artists we must take sides - we can neither remain neutral in the wake of hatred and fear born of American arrogance - nor can we claim that we haven't benefited from it, too.  At the same time, we have been wounded by the greed and fear of our culture and seek to offer an alternative.  One of my inspirations for playing freedom music on any type was the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Here is what Dr. King said at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1963:

God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.  Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith.

In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these.

Such is part of the spirituality of this music for me; another has to do with the creative process of working together to create something vibrant, new/old and beautiful.  It is one thing to be a solo performer - and this has its place and unique type of fun - but it has always been my greatest joy to make music together with friends and artists searching for a common goal. Always:  as a rock and roller in my first garage band, in playing with folk musicians for the past 40 years, in church choirs and ensembles and now with the Jazz Ambassadors and Between the Banks.  There is something prefigurative and hopeful about working together for beauty and joy in music.  Something that feeds my sould like almost nothing else.  Something prayerful and hopeful and very hard.

Beethoven put it like this: Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life. Although the spirit be not master of that which it creates through music, yet it is blessed in this creation, which, like every creation of art, is mightier than the artist."  

Quincy Jones put it like this:  You got twelve notes and those notes don't know the difference who's using them.  Some of 'em are black and some of 'em are white and that's just how it is.

And the poet Willis Conover put it like this:  Jazz is people talking, laughing, crying, building, painting, mathematicisng, abstracting, extracting, giving to, taking from, makin of... in other words: living!

And I think that's about as good as it gets!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Three thoughts are swimming around my head: part two

Ok, back from a memorial service, and ready to pick up on part two of the three thoughts swimming around my head posting: specifically, the story of St. Francis and the Sultan.

Here is how Wendy Hoke summarizes what Francis experienced at the outset of the Fifth Crusade in 1219 CE @  Apparently, Francis of Assisi wanted to be martyred.  He was sickened by the violence and destruction of the Crusades, he was horrified that it was be waged in the name of the Prince of Peace and he thought he might convert the Sultan of Egypt to Christianity.  Whatever the outcome, Francis was certain that it would lead to his martyrdom.  So, he and another brother set out to try and communicate with Sultan Malik-al-Kamil.

Francis entered the sultan’s camp empty-handed as a peacemaker. “He did not consider, whom he had been taught by Christianity to be his enemy, as his enemy,” said Franciscan Father Michael Cusato, director of the Franciscan Institute at New York’s St. Bonaventure University, “He approached all people, beginning with the leper, as his brothers. We know he did not insult their prophet or religion, but talked about why he is a Christian and why people find the right way to God. We know he didn’t insult the prophet or he wouldn’t have come out of there alive,” Father Cusato said.

According to historians, the sultan also was impressed with Francis as a servant of God and Francis came to have some appreciation for Islam. “What impressed him most about Islamic culture is that its daily rhythms are centered on prayer,” Father Cusato said. “And when he returns to Assisi he encourages Christians to have a mindfulness to prayer.”

Now there are a few insights that I take away from this story that are germane to our on-going peace-making through music work:

+ First, Francis was humble enough to change his mind and practice a ministry of presence rather than conversion.  When we first thought about going to Turkey it was with a sense of meeting Muslim musicians.  As we studied more - and encountered people of faith and music in Turkey - this quest became more nuanced and complex.  In fact, we had to change our focus to simply playing jazz with Turks because Turkey is a society in profound transition. 

Istanbul and parts of the West are highly secular while the majority of Anatolia is rural and religious.  Given the rapid urbanization since the 1980s, however, both the traditional people of the country side and those with a puritanical commitment to Islam are moving into the cities. To say that there is tension and polarization is only to hint at the complexities of contemporary Turkey.  What's more, once we moved beyond our initial enthusiasm and naivete, we realized that a respectful dialogue with musicians in a Muslim country would take time and trust.  So, this is phase one of a much larger commitment that requires patience and planning as well as the careful building of bridges.

+ Second, by being open to the Spirit he came to appreciate how prayer is at the core of a Muslim's daily life - a practice he sought to share when he returned to his homeland.  In another post I will share some thoughts about the complexity of the clash between contemporary secular Turkey and the growing edge of conservative Islam. I will also want to make some observations about the challenge of a medieval theological perspective on the cusp of the 21st century.  As Ziauddin Sardar and Zafar Abbas Malik note: The creativity and flexibility of Islamic thought came to a close in the 14th century with the rise of the ultra-orthodox and puritanical school of al-Ghazzali.  Over time, the increasingly narrow perspective of the ulama (religious scholars of Islam) came to redefine three key theological principles that had once served to keep Islam dynamic.

First, they reduced the concept of ilm from meaning "all knowledge both acquired in life as well as revealed by God" to mean only "religious knowledge." This reduced the worldview of Islam from the totality of creation to only the rarefied realm of the ulama.  Second, they transformed the meaning ijma from "the consensus of the entire Islamic community" to mean only the "consensus of the learned" (i.e. the uluama themselves.) And third they closed "the gated of ijtihad" meaning that independent reasons outside of the sanctioned religious pronouncements of the ulama were outlawed.

This had a devastating effect on Muslim society... (substituting) blind imitation for independent critique; reasoning, speculation and innovation were replace with repetition so that interpretation of the Qur'an was frozen in time... and Muslim thought became increasingly ossified and totally obscurantist for a once open society had now become closed.  (Islam: a graphic guide)

There is much to say about this - and I will in another part of this reflection - but at the same time I came away deeply touched by the commitment to prayer I experienced by the faithful in Turkey.  I was moved by the beauty of the mosques - the commitment to social justice - and the importance of the inner journey as the font of all social change.  Like Francis, I have seen a devotion unknown in my own realm - and there are parts of it I like very much.

+ Third at least for a short time his courage and creativity brought a break in the violence as both men saw the face of God in one another. We played jazz - we danced and laughed with new friends - and we made contacts that we hope will grow deeper bonds of trust in time. Last Saturday, in Iznik, one young woman caught a glimpse of how there is a connection between music and peace-making.  Today she sent us this message on Face Book:



We are not going to end human nature - and for one person (and those of us in the band) there is a vision for what life could be.  In this, our music is pre-figurative - like the Eucharist points to the feasting of all of God's people - and that is enough.  My friend, Black Pete, puts it like this on his blog with a quote from South African poet, Chris Abani:

“What I've come to learn is that the world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle, soft, almost invisible acts of compassion, everyday acts of compassion. In South Africa they have a phrase called ubuntu. Ubuntu comes out of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.”

+ And fourth both Francis and the Sultan had to risk being misunderstood - and go deeper than culture and fear - to find friendship.  When we started who knew the "Arab Spring" would be blossoming on Turkey's doorstep?  Who could have predicted 10,000 refugees from Syria finding solace and rest after the assaults of Assad?  Or the revolutions of Tunis and Egypt?  In the wake of these profound changes, our little jazz band seems foolish and irrelevant, yes?  But sometimes you have to risk being foolish - in my case a fool for Christ's peace and grace - to alter the status quo of fear and retribution.

And in a small and very humble way, that is what we did.  We have been changed forever - maybe some of our news friends have been, too.  And as we build on this first phase, who knows what beautiful and foolish things might be born?

It has been said that towards the end of his life, Francis began to write a prayer much like the Muslim prayer based on the 99 names of God.  Increasingly, this prayer from Francis resonates deeply for me.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury,pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen

(BTW: aren't Dianne's pix the BEST?!?!)

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

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