Sunday, July 31, 2011

Let my prayer rise...

Here is a jazz setting of Psalm 141 by the extraordinary artist, Deanna Witkowski, that we will use this Sunday:  Let My Prayer Rise. I had the privilege of hearing/meeting her at the IAM Encounter in 2010 in NYC and have been grooving to this for the past year.

This Sunday we're starting a four part series in worship concerning DEEP blended worship - AUTHENTIC blended worship - that brings into God's house ALL the sounds of praise - sacred and secular - using three key guidelines:

1) Speaking to ALL of God's people - those who are Christians as well as those who sing to an unknown God - by finding appropriate ways to bring secular music into worship.  (We're using three tunes by Paul Simon.)

2) Finding ways to build bridges between hipsters and oldsters - rockers and jazz folk - using the insight from Jesus that all who aren't against us...

3) And then the GREAT text from Philippians 4:8-9 (using Peterson's MESSAGE): Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

As some of you know, I've been buzzed by Paul Simon's new album - So Beautiful or So What - but I'm also digging Deanna's work, too.  And how about Bobby McFerrin's setting of the 23rd Psalm?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Visions of Johanna...

For some reason, this song has been swimming around my head all day:

Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet ?
We sit here stranded, though we're all doin our best to deny it
And Louise holds a handfull of rain, tempting you to defy it
Lights flicker from the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there's nothing really nothing to turn off
Just Louise and her lover so entwined
And these visions of Johanna that conquer my mind.

I love this crazy song - some say it is about Joan while others are certain it is an ode to Ginsberg - but I think St. Bobby is talking about the artist's quest to be open to the Spirit in pursuit of beauty in the flesh.  A challenge - a paradox - the heart and soul of living faithfully but "slant" like Emily Dickinson said, yes?  It feels like most of my ministry has been spent trying to find a way to do this song.  This verse just SLAYS me... STILL!
Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial
Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while
But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can tell by the way she smiles
See the primitive wallflower freeze
When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, "Jeeze
I can't find my knees"
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule
But these visions of Johanna, they make it all seem so cruel.

Any way...
... those old words have captured my heart once again because today was filled with preparations: an up-coming wedding and funeral, my father's 80th birthday, the hiring and orientation of a new music director, sorting out next steps for our Sunday School work, making plans for a new emphasis on "a ministry of presence" and visitation to say nothing of next month's worship series on "A Spirituality of Authentically Blended Worship." This will be a month pregnant with details waiting to come to birth as the fall unfolds. I want to give them all my prayerful attention.

So, to get some perspective - and much needed exercise - we headed into the woods this afternoon towards "Beaver Dam" in Beckett.  Quiet rolling hills where the stillness did it's work - and we dropped a few gallons of sweat!  For four years, we have been carefully working at a ministry of renewal.  There have been a few mountain top moments - a number of months spent wandering in the wilderness - and a few painful times in the valley of the shadow of death.  It seems as if we are now poised to take another important step towards spiritual and numerical renewal.  Our conversations are moving towards towards community trust and greater depth and our programming and planning are grounded in compassion and prayer.  What's more, there is an abiding sense that as we wait on the Lord, all things become possible.

All of this planning - preparation - and prayer made me think of another American genius, Scott Cairns, who has also been floating through my heart and soul today
Your petitions—though they continue to bear  
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.  
Your anxieties—despite their constant,
relatively narrow scope and inadvertent  
entertainment value—nonetheless serve  
to bring your person vividly to mind.
Your repentance—all but obscured beneath  
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more  
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.
Your intermittent concern for the sick,  
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes  
recognizable to me, if not to them.
Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly  
righteous indignation toward the many  
whose habits and sympathies offend you—         
these must burn away before you’ll apprehend  
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.
And now it is time to rest - a fix something sweet for supper - before heading to bed and then worship in the morning.  It has been a good day.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Sabbath thoughts as the leaves begin to shift...

It is a sobering fact but by late July the fire bush leaves are beginning to brighten and turn: autumn is just around the corner in the Berkshires.  Sure, I will live in outward denial for another month - and there will still be some hot and humid days - but the early signs are clear for those with eyes to see.  For some reason, this old tune popularized by Chad and Jeremy in 1965 keeps playing in my head...

We have let our garden lie fallow this summer - too many things going on in the Spring and early days of June to pay much attention - and I rather like the Biblical invitation to Jubilee on our own small scale, too.  So the the field is filled with wild flowers, beautiful weeds as well as a few misplaced day lilies of the deepest pink-orange I've ever seen.  A few gorgeous butter yellow lilies have joined the chorus, too.

July is about to end and I am just getting into the groove of midsummer.  Hmmm... isn't that just like the liturgical season of Ordinary Time.  (BTW I will soon be sharing a review of a delicious book compiled by Sarah Arthur entitled, At the Still Point: A Literary Guide to Prayer in Ordinary Time, published by Paraclete Press.  Check them out @ )  One of the many brilliant poems included in this volume, "Small Things" by Anna Kamiensk, captures both my dawning awareness that summer is about to end just as I am noticing as well as the wisdom of the long season in the church between Pentecost and Advent.

It usually starts taking shape
from one word
reveals itself in one smile
sometimes in the blue glint of eyeglasses
in a trampled daisy
in a splash of light on a path
in quivering carrot leaves
in a bunch of parsley
It comes from laundry hung on a balcony
from hands thrust into dough
It seeps through closed eyelids
as through the prison wall of things or objects
of faces of landscapes
It's when you slice bread
when you pour out some tea
It comes from a broom a shopping bag
from peeling new potatoes
from a drop of blood from the prick of a needle
when making panties for a child
or sewing a button on a husband's burial shirt
It comes out of toil out of care
out of immense fatigue in the evening
out of a tear wiped away
out of a prayer broken off in mid-word by sleep

It's not from the grand
but from every tiny thing
that it grows enormous
as if Someone was building Eternity
as a swallow its nest
out of clumps of moments

The moments are starting to clump for me today - my Sabbath - as I look at what has happened this week - this month/year - and what still lays ahead: Vacations plans have had to change, new staff has been hired at church, relationships and marriages of loved ones and friends have come to a close, dear and faithful people have died or moved far away, we travelled to Istanbul and revelled in the music and people and beauty, our various musical bands have taken a break and are now starting to reconnect for a new season of music, children have visited and feasted and returned to their homes, the callouses on my fingers have come and gone a bit, too (and are starting to come back!)

Another poem in Arthur's collection, this one by the Nigerian-American writer, Enuma Okoro, captures what is just starting to burn through my haze:

It is a hard art to learn,
catching quiet
by palms raised
cupped in
air shifting location
here and there like
trying to guess the pattern of falling leaves,
and hoping to feel
the soft descent of moments
when silence slips
between sounds.
This ordinary time is
gifted with days,
weeks of mundane grace
routinely following the liturgy
of hours anticipating creation
tuning its prayer and praise to the
rhytyhms of incarnate love.

I am used to the uproar,
the Holy drama,
the appetite's gnarled discord
of fasting and feasting on borrowed, time,
the knocking of angels,
the blubbering piety of waiting,
appointed seasons for guild and grief, tears of joy and disbelief,
the birth of miracles, the passion of virgins,
the mourning of a love so divine.

This ordinary time is
gifted in its quiet, marked passing
Christ slips about
calling and baptizing,
sending and affirming,
pour his Spirit like water
into broken cisterns,
sealing cracks and filtering our senses,
that we may savor the foolish
simplicity of his grace.
("Passing Ordinary Time")

The foolish simplicity of his grace - the bounty amidst what seems either barren or boring - is part of the blessing of this time, yes?  We will walk a little today - and prepare a new and tasty evening meal - and savor the quiet time of this Sabbath. And just below the surface, I will keep hearing what Paul Simon got so right when he released his new song cycle - "So Beautiful...or So What?" - as it keeps coming back to my soul these days much like the soft red on our fire bush tree.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Things I've learned from St. Bob...

"You get older... you start having hopes for other people rather than yourself."  St. Bob Dylan. Sounds about right to me - not that hope evaporates - but you realize it is NOT all about me; in fact, the hope rests in the fact that God is at work in ALL of us - and most especially others. That's one important truth I've learned from St. Bob.  I love all the phases of this cat's works - and I mean ALL the phases - but here are a few quotes that have really mattered over the years:

+ I will learn my song well before I start singing it:  OMG, this is essential in preaching, teaching, living, playing music and trying to be awake.  Sure, you can fake a riff for a chorus or two - and you can drift off for a moment or maybe even a month - but don't think you can create something beautiful and true without lots of practice, ok?

+ You gotta serve somebody:  Like the brother sings, "It might be the Devil or it might be the Lord but you gotta serve SOME body."  It could be your wounds, it could be your addiction, it could be the company store or your fear or your arrogance - it could be your nation, it could be your ideology - or it could even be your deepest love:  but whether you own it or deny it, you will serve SOME body.  So the corollary is: Why not serve the heart of creation that seeks to bring you rest and set you free?

+ Everything is broken:  Which is NOT cynical - just honest - and liberating, too.  If everything, yourself included, is broken, then you aren't in charge.  You can do your part and let God take care of the rest.

+ Every body must get stoned:  Gotta make time for the party - the feast - the joy of life, yes? Because otherwise the bastards WILL get you down and you become your own worst enemy.

+ You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows:  St. Bobby is the ultimate Trickster of rock and roll - he plays and messes with words and images - in order that we not take ourselves too seriously.  This is the path of humor and humility - and the older I get the more I love it - and need it.

+ I've already confessed, don't need to confess again:  Man, I love "Thunder on the Mountain" - some of the best new St. Bobby lyrics around - it was the theme of my installation at First Church.  Especially love, "gonna forget about myself for a while, go out and see what others need."  A call to compassion, joy, commitment and challenge so far as I can tell - with a rockin' back beat, too.

+ How does it feel:  How many layers are there in THAT question?  It is about hypocrisy, deceit, despair, trust, confusion, bullshit, confession and hope all mixed together.  It starts with a thunder crack on the drums and doesn't quit for six minutes and eight seconds.

I started listening to St. Bobby in the 6th grade when I had to do a report on American folk music.  His first album turned me on to Woody and Leadbelly.  His civil rights/peace anthem touched my heart and imagination, too.  And then he got wiggie on us with "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Maggie's Farm" and all the rest that led to "Just Like a Rolling Stone." I still weep tears of joys whenever "Visions of Johanna" comes up on my IPOD.

I think "Tomorrow Is a Long Time" is one of the sweetest loves songs ever written.  I get chills to "All Along the Watchtower" and continue to find wisdom, vulnerability, a tough street attitude to life and a wounded spirituality, too in his music.  St. Bobby was knocked on his ass when Jerry Garcia od'ed while in recovery.  The pix of him at the Marin Country funeral showed a man rethinking LOTS in his own life - and out of that death came a rebirth of music, presence and insight.

On this gorgeous afternoon in the Berkshires, I am grateful for all I have learned from this wizened, wise and broken saint.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Here's a little treat from Istanbul...

Since returning from Istanbul, we've been playing with technology and trying to find a good way to share the footage of the band in action.  We've had some computers die, some software failures and just the rush of time to deal with; but now things are starting to come together.  In fact, here are two very different settings of the band.

The first is at our final gig in Istanbul at the Barcode Cafe on the Asian side of the city.  It was a total gas and we hated to quit playing...

The second hails from a Beyoglu jam session at our flat with lots of Turkish friends.  It seems that the LiveGuitar Cafe, under new ownership, was just not up to publicizing our gig and pulled the plug at the last minute.  So, through the blessings of the Internet and cell phones, we let our friends know... and they all jammed into our apartment for a rockin' night.  This one features our buddy, Omer Sahin, singing the classic "God Bless the Child."

We made some sweet friends during that wild and crazy week - we learned a great deal, too - and hold our friends and that region in our prayers.  The Sufi poet, Rumi, put it best:

Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

For those who ducked: further reflections on Christ's tender grace...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, July 31, 2011.  They are prompted both by the texts of the Common Lectionary for the day as well as what I experienced last week in worship. In a "Zen" moment, I tossed some candy to people as a way of experiencing how to come into God's grace:  open and receptive like a child.  And while most folks immediately did just that, some ducked.  I've been wrestling with that reality all week long - in compassion and humility - because there are so many, many levels of meaning. I pray that this encounter will be more tender and that they might find a way into the feast rather than ducking.  We shall see...

(Begin by playing the guitar riff to Glen Hansard’s “Falling Slowly”)

Last week, I shared with you a Zen Christianity moment that I thought was going to be very effective – and in some ways it worked.

• I had an offering plate full of hard candy sitting on the communion table; and when the time came to share with you the “short” answer about “how do I receive the gift of God’s grace,” I simply threw the candy up into the air and let you figure it out.

• And as the Spirit always makes clear, you did figure it out: some of you did exactly what I thought you would do – you opened your hands to the gift and received it spontaneously – and took on a very playful attitude when you realized that you had received something sweet.

• It was a ton of fun and kind of wild – and most people – even those who didn’t get any candy – grasped what I was trying to say; namely, that the way you receive God’s grace is to open your hands and receive the gift that is given to you.

But there were some people who ducked – for probably a variety of reasons, too – you ducked when a gift was freely offered. And I have to tell you I didn’t expect that reaction. I really didn’t – it took me completely by surprise – and all week long it has haunted me.

• Just the very physicality of ducking speaks volumes to me without ever once exploring the deeper spiritual and theological challenges at work.

• I was humbled by my own ignorance and arrogance – given a little bit more insight into compassion, too – so today’s message is going to be VERY different. It is for those who ducked – and maybe regularly duck – whenever grace or fear or shame or even risks are thrown your way.

Today’s gospel lesson begins with these words: 

After Jesus heard the news about John the Baptist – how he had been tortured and executed – he had to get away by himself… Somehow the word got out, however, and when Jesus got out of the boat there was a huge crowd of people waiting by the lake. And when Jesus saw them – looked into their eyes and took in their wounds – he was overcome with compassion… and healed them.

I would like you to take a moment right now and let the truth of those words go deep into your heart and soul. Let them sink in like rain upon the parched earth; let the compassion of Jesus seek out and speak to those parts of you that know more about ducking than opening and receiving. If it helps, let this song/prayer encourage you to go deep….

I don't know you but I want you all the more for that
Words fall through me and always fool me and I can't react
And games that never amount to more than they're meant
Will play themselves out

Take this sinking boat and point it home we've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice: you'll make it now

Falling slowly, eyes that know me and I can't go back
Moods that take me and erase me and I'm painted black
You have suffered enough and warred with yourself
It's time that you won

Take this sinking boat and point it home we've still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice; you've made it now
Falling slowly sing your melody: I'll sing it loud

Falling slowly – an incredible prayer/song by Glen Hansard from Ireland captures in sound what so much of life feels like, yes? “Moods that take me – and erase me – and I’m painted black.” The crescendo and swell of the harmonies – the tender openness coupled with the tortured agony and lament – the image of the beloved falling slowly through life… and love… and God’s grace.

• That’s what Jesus saw and experienced when he looked upon the crowd by the lake and offered his healing. 

• He was moved to tears and filled with compassion when he saw beloved men and women falling slowly through life.

So let’s be clear that this passage in scripture is describing something of God’s nature in the tears of our Lord. For that’s what Jesus was sent to share and embody: God’s compassionate and healing nature. In Jesus we have been offered the clearest and most fully articulated vision of God’s love if we have eyes to see. And that’s an essential truth about reading the Bible: it has been given to us to help us grasp God’s true nature. But all too often, especially in our tradition, the stories of Jesus get turned on their head and become more about you and me than God.

• If we just had more compassion then we could bring more healing into the world.

• If we just opened our hearts more generously and shared our credit cards more faithfully we could end hunger in our generation.

• If we were just more like Jesus…

Do you know what I’m saying? Well, let’s be clear: the Jesus stories are mostly NOT about you and me. They are about God – and too often we take the gracious insights about God’s nature that are revealed to us in Jesus and make them a collection of morality tales about us. We change the emphasis in scripture away from a celebration of God’s unlimited compassion towards us into something that leaves many of us feeling empty, soiled and inadequate. It is no wonder some of us duck, yes?

The first insight I need for you to embrace from today’s gospel is what it tells us about God: when God sees us – each of us and all of us – there is compassion. There is grace, not judgment; there is a longing to heal, not hurt or condemn – and I think all of the Jesus stories in the New Testament underscore this truth. God is aching to share compassion with you. Now with this first insight there is also a challenge, too: 

• Do you know the Lord’s deep and tender compassion through abstract ideas about God or through Jesus? Have the words of God’s promise in scripture been made flesh for you from the inside out or are they still intellectual concepts?

• That is to say, have you encountered and been embraced by the one God raised from the dead: Jesus the Anointed – our Lord?

A lot of people become uneasy and uncomfortable when I talk like this; they are embarrassed or afraid to seriously nourish a spiritual relationship with Jesus. We think we’re smarter than that – that all that talk about a personal relationship with Jesus is part superstition and part mumbo jumbo that doesn’t make any sense to those of us alive in the 21st century – and when we think we’re smarter than God’s revealed love…

• So remember that knowing Jesus made all the difference in the world to Mary Magdalene: her life was healed and given meaning, shape, form and integrity through him. She was transformed from the inside out and became the first witness of the Resurrection, too.

• Same for Peter – who betrayed his dearest friend in fear – but was not only forgiven his shame, but empowered to become an ambassador of grace throughout the world. And don’t forget St. Paul, who very close to the end of his life was able to proclaim in Romans 8:

With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn't hesitate to put everything on the line for us in Jesus, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn't gladly and freely do for us? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us… so there is nothing that can separate us from God now through Jesus Christ: Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture… None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Perhaps you remember that once Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” In fact, chronologically this question comes immediately after today’s story about compassion and the miracle of feeding 5000 people. Jesus asked his closest friends and apprentices, “Who do people say I am and who do you say I am?” And the spiritual truth about God’s compassion is that unless we are open to meeting and embracing the Resurrected Jesus as more than a moral teacher or a compelling ethical myth-maker, we won’t have any reason NOT to duck. 

Brennan Manning in his little book, The Ragamuffin Gospel, articulates the challenge better than most when he writes: 

Who is the Jesus of your own interiority? Can you describe the Christ that you have personally encountered on the grounds of your own self? Only a superficial stereotyped answer can be forthcoming if we have not developed a personal relationship with Jesus. We can only repeat and reproduce pious turns of speech that others have spoken or wave a catechism under children’s noses if we have not gained some partial insight, some small perception of the inexhaustible richness of the mystery and compassion of God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Insight and challenge number one has to do with our intimacy with the Resurrected Jesus – it is something we cannot fake – and have to take seriously lest we remain trapped by fear or shame or doubt. The story starts with Jesus climbing out of the boat and responding with compassion when he sees the people – and how Jesus sees us is how God sees us, too.

The second insight is this: Jesus realized that the people had to be fed. It is a simple observation – so obvious we often overlook it – but the story is telling us something about God when we read that Jesus recognized that the people needed to be fed and made it happen. God’s heart, you see, wants to nourish and fill us; God’s soul aches to share with us blessings and abundance even in a barren wilderness. 

• And somehow, the story never gives us the details, but somehow the people are nourished so that there are 12 baskets of fish and bread left over.

• 12 baskets of food that are full to overflowing – 12 baskets representing the 12 tribes of Israel – a ton of food left over that is more than enough for all of God’s people, right?

But that’s only one of the details that tells us something about God’s love and compassion in this story: what do you think about the fact all these people – 5000 men plus women and children – ate food from a stranger? Think about that, ok? Preacher Sara Dylan Breuer has noted that we have to believe that most of these people followed at least some of the rules of a kosher kitchen to one degree or another.

And what is the point of keeping kosher? It is a way of making certain that what goes into you is of the Lord – that it is nutritious – and handled with care and kindness. And there are only two ways of guaranteeing something is kosher: either you prepare it yourself or you trust the provider completely. See where I’m going with this?

Nobody knew where all that food came from, right? How could they? Scholars have said that 5000 men – not counting all the women and children – represented a crowd larger than the most important cities of that era. So nobody knew where the food was coming from and nobody could prove it was kosher. But… they ate it.

Somehow Jesus evoked such trust from the people that they took a risk and didn’t duck because they felt loved and safe. They experienced so much of God’s grace from Jesus that for a time they let go of their fears and concerns and rules and regulations. Breuer writes:

Five thousand people -- not counting the women and children -- found their lives so transformed in encountering Jesus that all of their fears of dangers to be avoided gave way to enthusiasm for sharing the feast before them. Think about the kind of trust Jesus must have engendered in people to get that kind of response. That's real, life-changing spiritual power in Jesus' presence, a miracle at least as impressive as the multiplying loaves.

Trusting Jesus is essential: trusting Jesus to be who he said he was, trusting Jesus to be the Anointed One resurrected from death by the love of God, trusting Jesus to empower us with grace so that we can live by trust, too. And let me push this one step farther by noting that clearly the people at this feast trusted Jesus because not only did they take and eat the bread he had broken and blessed, but they shared the feast alongside of others they did know.

• How do you think the broken bread got to all those people?

• 5000 plus hands touched it – and passed it – not just to friends and neighbors but to strangers and probably even enemies.

On that hillside, over five thousand people were willing to receive not only Jesus and the bread that he blessed, but also the strangers with whom they shared it. Every one of them became, on that dusty hillside, one with every other. This was a completely spontaneous dinner, so there was no checking the guest list or asking for credentials. Distinctions between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, priest and tax collector – indeed, all the distinctions around which wars were fought between nations, families, and brothers – just didn't count any more.

The presence of Jesus, you see, evoked trust and destroyed fear. So, here’s the deal: we’re going to practice receiving grace in trust just the way Jesus shared it on that hillside in the wilderness by the lake. No tossing hard candy today, my friends.

Rather, I have a few loaves of bread – good bread – safe and earthy bread that I’m going to ask you to pass to one another. As we sing again in the presence and name of Jesus, take some of that bread and let it be both a sign and a prayer for you:

• A sign that you want to be nourished by God’s love in Jesus Christ.

• And a prayer that you are open to being filled by Christ.

There is an old, old invitation to the Lord’s Table that says:

Come to this table, it is open to all who confess Christ and seek to follow his way. Come to this sacred table and feast not because you must, but because you may. Come not because you are already fulfilled but because in your emptiness you stand in need of God’s mercy and nourishment. Come not to express an opinion, but to encounter a presence and pray for a spirit. Come to this table, then, sisters and brothers, to be nourished by Jesus and his love.

May the Lord be with you…

+ Christopher Matthew @

Monday, July 25, 2011

A spirituality of truly BLENDED worship...

As my worship series concerning "the unforced rhythms of grace" and living as "apprentices" of grace comes to a close (this Sunday, July 31st), another summer series has grabbed my imagination:  a spirituality of truly blended worship.  Five years ago, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on "a spirituality of rock" in which I teased out some of the theological,biblical and practical reasons why incorporating the "music of the people" in contemporary worship was faithful.  

Using the insights of Harvey Cox's Feast of Fools - the direct inspiration for the rock musical "Godspel" - my text, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, not only suggests liturgies and songs that congregations might use in their quest for God's "still speaking voice," but also offered a way to evaluate contemporary music.  After all, not all rock - or rap or country or jazz - brings beauty or blessing to worship - and some is destructive, too.  What I want to try to do in this summer series is synthesize my doctoral arguments into a form that is more accessible to those outside of the academy.  It is my hope that after four weeks I can accomplish three goals: 

+ First, I want the congregation to have a useful paradigm for evaluating how some contemporary songs of the spirit - sacred or secular - can be used to both listen for and commune with the Holy.  It is my belief that a still speaking God is alive and well on mp3s and popular music even if the evidence is more murky in our churches.  

+ Second, I hope to show why truly blended worship - worship that honors tradition as well as innovation by incorporating a variety of musical styles and traditions - is crucial to breaking down the increasingly segregated nature of modern life.  One of my mentors, Betty Pulkingham, once wrote:

The church is grappling with the depersonalization of our increasingly technological society, and trying to find ways to supply meaning and a sense of belonging for today's (peoples.) The mega-church offers yet one more place to be anonymous, a face in the crowd, so it really does not fill the deepest needs of people today.  And if we tend to think that huge choirs and elaborate ceremonial acts somehow impress people and make them think that God is a great and splendid being, we may need to think again."If this was ever so, it is not so now. People are not impressed by a ceremony performed by people whose lives do not reflect what their worship expresses. It is seen nowadays... that glory can be given to God only through the lives of those who truly worship the Lord." (M.E. Marshall.)

+ And third I believe it makes sense to give people some beautiful and living examples of how this works in practice.  So, in addition to speaking about the biblical and theological context for blended worship, our band will be playing songs from Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Bob Dylan, Sarah McLachlan and Joan Osborne.  There will also be examples for world music as well as the sacred realm of traditional church hymnody, too.

Given the fragmentation of our contemporary American reality - from politics to entertainment and worship - I believe it is essential to find ways towards common ground.  Again, Pulkingham cuts to the chase when she writes about how to live into our calling to be Christ's people in an age of division:

There are two parallel streams of thought that seem to travel to the (heart of this challenge...) On the one hand, a great concern for the transcendant beauty of worship; and on the other hand, an equally great concern for how music can reach ordinary people.  Is it too much to hope that our might be the century of integration of these two values with the Christian church? Do we see this as a part of the kingdom coming?

If only one style of music - or worship - is true, doesn't that make us fundamentalists who believe we have a monopoly upon wisdom (and style?) If only organ music and German chorales are sacred, are the vast majority of God's people to be considered heathens? What do we do with the fact "that the majority of the Christian world does NOT adhere to the Western aesthetic model" that is so often the guideline for churches in our tradition? Likewise, is the "worship and praise" expression of "seeker" churches the only alternative to traditional worship?  Do we give up our connection to our ancestors and a vital history just to attract people who like soft-rock?  Hardly... but so goes the conversation all too often. The depth and breadth of the Divine is so much greater than our attempts at segregation, don't you think?

So, off we go on this conversation.  I think our search for a new music director has helped push me towards tackling this need - playing with a jazz band in Turkey, too.  I'll keep you posted... in the mean time, check out what Paul Simon has to say about all of this here:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thinking about Trane...

Today I am thinkin' about Trane - John Coltrane - mostly because I'm reading a book by Ashley Kahn entitled, A Love Supreme: the story of John Coltrane's Signature Album.  But also because Trane is a man who met his demons and emptiness and found a way to weave them back into his art and life so that everyone became stronger.  We all know this isn't the way it usually works with artists.  For too many creative souls the darkness overpowers the light until it is literally and figuratively snuffed out. 

Not that there isn't wisdom and blessings from the darkness - clearly there is great insight and compassion that can be born in our individual and collective seasons of obscurity - but only if we are able to come up for air. Otherwise the light goes out forever...  Think of Jesus weeping in the garden and then pleading from the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Think of Thomas Keating - of Centering Prayer fame - observing that in the dark night there can be a blessing in disguise as the individual is stripped of any of the spiritual joy associated with prayer or acts of service.  Without "consolation" we find a way to live into virtue without the traditional rewards and encouragements.  Think of Mother Theresa who after receiving her call to minister to the poorest of the poor in India, never again felt the intimate reassurance of God's presence yet persevered beyond her feelings.  Both Thomas More and Gerald May have written insightful explorations of what the dark night might offer for those who are patient and faithful.

I rather like Loreena McKennit's reworked poetry from the writings of St. John of the Cross; she gave birth to a song that captures the potential of the dark night:

O, night thou was my guide!
O, night more loving than the rising sun!
O, night that joined the Lover to the beloved one!
Transforming each of them into the other.

Coltrane learned the songs of the Christian South growing up in a home where both mother and father were pastors' kids; he went to church often, too, and listened to his father make music in their home.  By the mid 1940s, Trane was listening to both the hard bop of Dizzy Gillespie's music as well as the smoother sounds of Johnny Hodges in Duke Ellington's band.  And then he heard Charlie "Bird" Parker and everything changed.

In time he worked with both Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk - two VERY different jazz cats - who taught him very different lessons.  With Miles, Coltrane played in one of the most important jazz quintets and gave shape and form to his wild side that was always in tension with the cool Miles Davis. Kahn puts it like this:

The Miles Davis Quintet was unlike anything Coltrane had experienced.  It was neither a jazz outfit offering standard repertoire not an R&B revue with stock arrangements, it was more a traveling workshop, perfecting and developing a group sound.  Miles used to say, "Trane, here are some chords but don't play them like they are all the time, you know? Start in the middle sometimes and don't forget you can play them up in thirds. So that means you got 18, 19 different things to play in two bars." And Coltrane would sit there, eyes wide open and soak everything up. (Kahn. pp. 20-21)

But junk took over while playing with Miles - and Davis fired Coltrane because he got tired "of all that junkie shit!"  This was not only a fall from grace, but also of employment and social status.  As Trane writes in the liner notes to "A Love Supreme," he made a deal with the divine: "junk for jazz."

During the year 1957, I experienced by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humble asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.

It was the "meet the Devil and the Crossroads" deal in reverse.  "I recovered faith," he said. "I had already lost and regained faith... and as I went through this personal crisis - and went cold turkey - I came out of it and all I wanted to do if I could would be to play music that make people happy.

And as Coltrane worked to reclaim his art, in time he hooked up with Monk,.  "Monk's hands-on guidance was a far cry from Miles's tight-lipped tutelage. Whereas the trumpeter had been one to feel his way into music in an almost anti-intellectual manner, to hit it and quit it, Coltrane found in Monk 'a musical architect of the highest order,' a fellow theoretician who shared his compulsive, analytical approach. 'Monk is exactly the opposite of Miles... (Monk) talks about music all the time... he'll spend hours if necessary to explain it to you... and showed me how to make two or three notes at one time on the tenor sax... because he just looked at my horn and felt the mechanics of what had to be done. (Kahn, p. 29)

Sure, with Miles the sax man played on some of the most important jazz recordings of all time - Kind of Blue and Milestones - but with Monk he met a soul mate who knew how to help the newly clean player live into his best self.  That's a key ingredient for helping someone let go of the darkness when the light has arrived.  Call is spiritual friendship, timing, mentoring or God's will, sometimes the right person comes into your life just when you need him/her. And if you have the courage to respond, blessings can grow.

Clearly with Trane, he had to hit bottom before he could rise again - but he also had to tap into a love deeper than himself and be encouraged by others, too.  And when that happened, he was able to weave his wounds into the very fabric of his new music in a way that brought happiness and hope to others.  His soaring solos are a celebration of freedom. His ability to redefine a standard in new ways changed jazz.  And his influence was contagious for people searching for freedom within and beyond themselves.

+ Patti Smith knew that Trane is what the true civil rights movement sounded like.

+ Roger McQuinn ached to make his 12-string Rickenbacker sound like Trane's trumpet.

And countless other musicians and artists find themselves going back to "A Love Supreme" for insights about how to blend spirituality and music in a way that isn't force or phony.  Coltrane's fusion is organic and holds great promise for us still mining this vein even 46 years later.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Thinkin' about Amy and John and Kurt and Jerry, too...

I was rattled when I saw the FB posting that Amy Winehouse had died at her London home. Rattled and saddened. Look, it is bullshit to be judgmental in this life time, ok? That is God’s work – and if God is anything like Jesus as my tradition teaches – then there is a whole lot less judgment going on for broken, wounded, loving and beautiful people like Amy Winehouse than we can ever imagine. And a whole lot more grace… “Come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden.” That’s how I take it and trust that God does, too.

Now let’s put this into perspective: a wacked-out Christian fundamentalist in Norway – that’s right, god damn NORWAY – just killed 93 people because he thought the Nordic world was losing its soul to multiculturalism and a creeping Islamic presence. THAT, dear people, is judgment – the judgment we bring upon ourselves – when we become so certain that we have a monopoly upon the truth that we’re willing to kill others to save them. Remember back in the 1960s when Ed Sanders and the Fuggs sang, “Kill for Peace?” Well, here we go again: a Viking Timothy McVeigh – a Christian Osama Bin Laden – what’s the difference? (Like my friend, Chris, suggested: let's have Congress open up a hearing into the actions of Christian fundamentalism, too, ok?)

(Yes, ok, this is a rant… I confess that it isn’t insightful, measured or even overly rational.)

The Right Wing in the US is willing to sacrifice the economy and our limp economic recovery – sending the bond market into a downward spiral and creating more economic uncertainty – because they hate President Obama. They think he is a socialist – they can’t get over that a Black man is in the White House – and they are addicted to the fear and mean-spiritedness of the Tea Partiers. The Democrats are caught between a rock and a hard place: they’ve sold out their principles for so long they don’t know which end is up – AND – they can’t let the ship of state go down in flames so they’ll take whatever half-baked scheme Eric Cantor et al come up with just to keep us afloat. 

And then there is the fact that Michelle Bachman is actually taken seriously as a presidential candidate. Lord, have mercy.

Three times before in my life I’ve been knocked on my ass by the death of a musical icon. Yes, I was in my early college prime when Jimi, Janis and Jim Morrison all died – I was sick and sad – but I saw that one coming. So the first rock and roll death that took me down was when John Lennon was assassinated. I was in seminary – my first year – and John was my childhood hero. He was my role model when Ross and I formed our high school band; I was John to his Paul. And he was gunned down outside his apartment – right across the street from my dentist, for Christ’s sake – shot down just when he was coming back into his groove. I wept – wept and prayed – and Ross called me after a long silence and we wept together.

During my ministry in Cleveland, Kurt Cobain, of Nirvana put a gun into his mouth one night and took his life, too. My kids – and some of my younger friends in local politics – had turned me onto Nirvana. I loved them – they sounded like what so many of us felt – and needed to feel in those days. And at the height of his popularity, he killed himself. I wept again – feeling both his emptiness and my own – and grieving that one of the broken saints of the Lord could not find a way out of the darkness. He was the genius of angst – and he couldn’t take it anymore.

I think that was when I started to seriously look at my own emptiness. Workaholism wasn’t cutting it any more – I was a minister so whoring around and getting trashed was out – so into therapy I went. It took me another 15 years to truly recognize that Augustine was right: there WAS a God-sized hole in my heart that I could try to fill with other shit but in was never enough. And then freakin’ Jerry Garcia of the Grateful dead OD’d while in treatment. Damn it all to hell! He was supposed to be getting better! He brought such joy and light into the world. Like Dylan, I was knocked on my ass by that death – and started to take my therapy and prayers a WHOLE lot deeper after that.

And now sad, sad Amy… I wept a little for her today, too. No judgment for her – she did the best she could – but she couldn’t find enough light. Not her fault because sometimes there really isn’t a way through the maze; at the very least, sometimes we run out of time before it becomes clear where we might go next, yes?

So for everyone out there who doubts and fears the empty times, I guess I just want to say that we really aren’t alone; there is a love that is bigger than our darkness and if you need to talk… give me a call cuz I’ve been there,too, ok?  And this IS NOT bullshit!

Rest in peace, Amy...

Amy Winehouse, troubled and addicted British singer, died yesterday.  She was 27.  We were in Istanbul when she cancelled her most recent tour after a shout-out to Athens when she was actually in Belgrade and being unable to carry her own singing.  When she left the stage and relied exclusively on her back-up singers, the crowd booed her off the stage when she tried to return.  And now she is dead. (see

Two thoughts about this sad turn of events - and then a prayer:

+ Some of our most talented pop icons are so wounded and broken that they cannot manage their inner emptiness.  It is no wonder that Elvis and Morrison and Jimi and Janis and so many others take to the bottle and the needle during their down time.  On the stage they are loved - and showered with wealth beyond imagination - but when the show is over, they have to go home with themselves.  And even when they aren't alone, after the buzz or the sex is finished they still see themselves in the mirror.

Before fame the self-medication is usually modest - or else nobody notices.  But when the stakes go up and the crowds and money are wild, the emptiness grows, too.  Clapton and Harrison and Lennon and Cobain  all turned to junk to bring an end to the aching sorrow and screaming silence. So did Coltrane and Bird and Miles and Hank and Michael and Frankie Lyman and so many others.  Some eventually find a way to sobriety and sanity but most don't.  And the crowds cheer as their heroes go down in flames.

+ I once heard the poet, Robert Bly, say that the time had come to bury the ugly and tragic myth that an artist has to be lonely and tortured to created great art.  Sure, angst is a powerful catalyst - but so is love and compassion and hope.  I used to say that mostly I have learned from my mistakes - and that is still true - but I also want to shout from the roof tops that I have also learned and matured from joy and blessings, too.

In my service book for a funeral there is is the follow affirmation before the prayers that seems right in lieu of sad Amy's likely overdose:

We believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and we know that in everything God works for good with those who love God and are called according to God's purpose. Therefore we are certain that neither life nor death, angles nor principalities, things present nor things to come, power, height, depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

I pray peace for Amy.  I wasn't a fan - I loved her wit and naughty smile - but didn't revel in her music.  It wasn't my groove.  But I did pray for her - just like I prayed for Brittney Spears and Courtney Love who also once looked like they were going down in similar flames - and my heart goes out to her today. The closing prayer in our funeral liturgy works here for me and stands as a call to compassion:  Rest in peace, Amy Winehouse, broken but beloved child of God.

O God, whose days are without end and whose mercies cannot be counted,
awaken us to the shortness and uncertainty of human life.
By your Holy Spirit, lead us in faithfulness all our days.
That when we have served you in our generation,
we may be gathered with those who have gone before,
having the testimony of a good conscience,
in communion with your faithful community,
in the confidence of a certain faith,
in the comfort of a saving hope,
in favor with you, our God,
and at perfect peace with the world;
through Christ Jesus our Redeemer.

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:...