Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Trust in the Lord always...

The old spiritual master, Fr. Ed Hays, once wrote a fine little book called, Pray All Ways.  It is not only a sweet play on the words of St. Paul in I Thessalonians 5: 17 - pray without ceasing (or pray always) - but also a guide to shaping your life as a prayer.  As he notes in the introduction, "the spiritual challenge of the twenty-first century is an exodus out of the God-dwelling space of churches to experience God inhabiting all spaces... We are called not simply to engage in formal times of prayer... but to live in communion with Jesus through the different activities of daily life (that) are not distractions, but rich soil for prayer." 

The Table of Contents is illustrative:  it includes the prayer of napping, the prayer of our tears, praying with our ears, nose, eyes and feet as well as the prayer of our suffering, the prayer of the feast and the way hurrying is a hindrance to nourishing a sacred rhythm. Since first reading it in 1981, it has helped shape my experience of life as a prayer.  In Peterson's reworking of Romans 12: 1-2 he speaks of prayer like this:

So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

At midday Eucharist we spoke of Paul's encouraging words as one of the ways to enter into the peace Jesus promised when he said:  Come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy ladened and I will give ye rest. This rest is always available - and available in all ways - if we are open to letting God be God.  Three times today I was awakened to this blessing.

+ First, I had wanted to wrap up ALL my staffing concerns before heading out on vacation. And as of last Friday, it looked like that was going to be true - only to get an email (an EMAIL!!!) informing me that the person who had accepted a position in one of our ministries had decided it wasn't going to work out.  No clarity - no PHONE call - and no resolution to my challenge.  Like some of my church leaders said, "Oh shit!"  (And that is a completely accurate theological expression in this context.)

And as I sat with this "problem" over the weekend - and through the hurricane - I kept hearing Fr. Hays say:  "Let it go, man. I have come to give you rest - nor worry and anxiety - so let me take care of it.  You do YOUR part and let me do the rest." And as I was cleaning out some of the stacks of paper that accumulate by my desk, I came across this old affirmation that had somehow been lost.  It reads:

Dear James:  This is God. Today I will be handling ALL of your problems. I do NOT need your help. So, have a wonderful day.  I love you.

PS - Remember... if life happens to deliver you a situation that you cannot handle, do NOT attempt to resolve it yourself! Kindly put it in the SFGTD (something for God to do) box.  I will get to it in my time.  All situations will be resolved, but in my time, not yours. Once the matter is put into the box, do NOT hold onto it by worrying. Instead, focus on all the blessings that are present in your life right now.

If you find yourself stuck in traffic, don't despair: there are people in this world for whom driving is an unheard of privilege. Should you have a bad day at work, think of the man who has been out of work for years. Should you despair over a relationship gone bad, think of the person who has never known what it is like to love and be loved in return. Should you grieve the passing of another weekend, think of the woman in dire straights - working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week - just to feed her children. Should your car break down, leaving you miles away from assistance, think of the paraplegic who would love the opportunity to take that walk. Should you notice a new gray hair in the mirror, think of the cancer patient in chemo who wishes she had hair to examine. Should you find yourself at a loss and pondering what life is all about, asking what is my purpose: be thankful - there are those who didn't live long enough to get this opportunity.

And should you find yourself the victim of other people's bitterness, ignorance, smallness or insecurities, remember:  things could be words - YOU could be one of THEM! 

And as today unfolded, two other people contacted me who are interested in filling our ministry position:  it isn't resolved, but it is working out.

+ Second, as I was talking on the phone after a pastoral visit, a person said, "I have just learned this in my life but... unless I surrender things to God's will I am a mess."  NO fooling - she said that to me - and then went on to tell me that for most of her life she thought she was intended to FIX things.  Now, however, she realizes she is called to be present and share her gifts and leave the rest to the Lord.

+ And third, as I was starting to discern a theme for the day and maybe this phase of my life - I read these words from St. Frederick Buechner of Vermont.  "Have no anxiety about anything," Paul writes to the Philippians..." Now notice, Buechner continues, that "he does not deny that the worst things will happen finally to all of us, as indeed he must have had a strong suspicion they were soon to happen to him."
He does not try to minimize them. He does not try to explain them away as God's will or God's judgment or God's method of testing our spiritual fiber. He simply tells the Philippians that in spite of them - even in the thick of them - they are to keep in constant touch with the One who unimaginably transcends the worst things as he also unimaginably transcends the best.  "In everything," Paul says, "they are to keep on praying." Come Hell or high water they are to keep on asking, keep on thanking, above all keep on making themselves known. And God does not promise them that as a result they will be delivered from the worst things any more than Jesus himself was delivered from them. What he promises them instead is that "the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

We start two weeks of wandering vacation tomorrow - a time of rest and reconnecting - that we have both been eager for all summer long.  And now it is here.  We will play a jazz gig and then head out for a little away time in Quebec.  Like the women in the Wailin' Jennys say: "Don't worry - worrying is like praying for things you DON'T want." Rather, rest and trust and be in prayer in all things.  Today I was blessed...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

I woke up this morning...

Tonight, for some reason that I don't pretend to comprehend, I found myself watching a very powerful musical documentary about the music of the Civil Rights movement: Soundtrack for a Revolution (check it out: As one of the great Civil Rights songs puts it:  I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. And I wept and wept and wept watching this film.  And the more I think about it, my tears came not only because I cherish these songs, but also because I have been discovering a few more clues about what is really important in ministry. 

+ Earlier today the writer, Cathleen Falsani Possley, posted this clip from the PBS program, Religion and Ethics, in which Eugene Peterson is profiled. One of the things he says in his quiet but clear way is that America is so addicted to consumption that we in the church must challenge the notion that the United States is a Christian nation. To be sure, there are blessings here that I cherish; but we are a very sick and wounded nation and our values are the polar opposite of Christ's. What's more, we don't know the difference.
Peterson goes on to take issue with the rise of the mega-church - a place where there is no spiritual or ethical accountability - and the rise of the cult of the so-called gospel of prosperity asking: "I want to ask these preachers, "Do you have anybody in your church that DIES? Where is the prosperity in that?!?'"  He concludes to predict that the old mainstream church - the now disestablished and side-lined congregations - are really holding it all together given the addictions and fads of the past 30 years. As some know, I resonate on a deep level with many of Peterson's insights and think it is worth the 6+ minutes to watch. Check it out @

+ I've also been reflecting on the curious mixture of cruelty and kindness that often lives so close to one another in the church. Over the past few weeks, for example, I have experienced some real mean-spirited bullshit from some wounded souls (not from my congregation, thanks be to God) as well as some truly sanctified kindness. Once again, I find myself saying, "No good deed goes unpunished" as something that is both true and humbling. I have also reclaimed the wisdom that there are times when I simply have to shake the dust off my sandals and keep moving no matter how sad or painful that feels.  Some folk are just too toxic or stubborn for me - and I need to leave them to the Lord. (Truth be told, I think some of my tears were about that, too.)

Well, tomorrow is my last day at church for two weeks! On Thursday, before we head out of town, I get to play with my jazz mates again at Patrick's Pub - and that feels like a soul medicine I have been missing for too long. Serendipitously, it will be a concert for peace-making and we'll have some of our Sister City friends from Nicaragua present as well as a few young musicians from the wider community. That will be healing for me - and I will make certain to throw in some of the gospel freedom songs that I cherish during this gig.

And then, as Chuck Berry - and later Bruce Springsteen - said, "It is bye, bye New Jersey I've become airborne... cuz you can't catch me!"  Canada, here we come!

Monday, August 29, 2011

A beautiful day...

As is so often the case after a storm, today is a stunningly BEAUTIFUL day:  blue skies, no humidity, lots of sun and a cool breeze. This is one of those "emotional roller coaster" days as my buddy Ray Swartzback used to say:  it began with a rescheduled baptism for a three month old boy and will include a visit with a dear older saint whose brother of 8 decades died over the weekend.  Life and death - and maybe a pastoral visit to the home of a young Asian family before tonight's Christian Education planning meeting, too.

Over the weekend, amidst the storms, the person I thought we had hired for our Sunday School sent me an email informing me that her life had become too complicated to add this position to the mix.  Shame as I had just sent out "thanks, but no thanks" letters to some other great folk. Then the hurricane arrived - it was less intense but still destructive - followed by today's baptism and talk of funerals. And in yet another fascinating gift, over the weekend my dear old mentor's daughter sent me a note that she was close by and had hoped to join us in worship (but the storm brought that to a close.)  As Ray used to say:  "Man-eee day!"

I have felt him close this weekend and give thanks to the blessings he continues to share with me 30 years later. He taught me about riding the emotional roller coaster of ministry in the local church in ways that were practical and spirit-filled.  He also taught me about self-care - and as we get ready for some away time in Canada I am grateful in spades!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The celebration of the Lord's day...

Ever since I was a student-intern with Ray Swartzback during my days at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, I have loved the expression celebration of the Lord's Day for Sunday worship.  And this Lord's Day, Sunday, August 28th we are not together in one place for worship because Hurricane Irene has forced the entire Eastern seaboard inside. Ironically, this was to be a day for the renewal of our baptismal vows - and the baptism of a small child, too - but flooding is keeping us apart.  (I will likely meet the parents, grand parents and a few family friends tomorrow in the Sanctuary to perform the sacrament if the weather permits.)

After finishing up our storm preparations last night, I gathered together a few of my treasured prayer books in anticipation of our vacation time.  As I have noted before, vacation time away with Dianne is a time of true retreat and renewal for us:  lots of wandering without a clear plan, equal amounts of time discovering new live music and a ton of sleep and rest.  I have also used this time over the years to reclaim a spiritual discipline that has fallen by the way side in the hustle of the past year - and this year's winner seems to be returning to the quiet daily prayer of the Community of Iona. 

As an Associate Member of the Community, I vow to keep the rule of Daily Prayer and Bible reading as a Devotional Discipline. We are also invited to be accountable for the use of our personal time, money and energy to our local faith community in pursuit of Christ's love, justice and compassion in the world. So every year at about this time as I review the year past, I discover that I have cut corners in my inner journey and my devotional discipline  has suffered.  This year, I want to deepen my connection to Iona and the spirituality of the Community - it is both Reformed and Celtic - and feeds my soul on so many levels.

So, because I can't be at worship with my community - and becuase today FEELS so much like Iona - I'm going to pray the Iona Liturgy with you on-line as a return to commitment.  Please join me if you feel so inclined...

Call to Prayer
God says:  I will woo you and lead you into the wilderness and speak to your heart.
Blessed be God forever: The world belongs to the Lord, the earth and all its people.
How good and how lovely it is to live together in unity. Love and faith come together,
justice and peace will kiss, and faith will spring from the ground as justice leans down
from heaven.
Sing out my soul, sing of the holiness of the Lord; who has delighted in a woman, lifted up the poor, satisfied the hungry, given voice to the silent, grounded the oppressor, blessed the full-bellied with emptiness, and with the gift of tears those who have never wept; who has desired the darkness of the womb and inhabited our flesh. Sing of the longing of the Lord, o sing out, my soul.

Loving God, maker of all: have mercy on me.
Jesus Christ, servant of the poor: have mercy on me.Holy Spirit, breath of God: have mercy on me.

Quiet Prayers
Lord of all life, I lay my life before you.
I give my life to you from whom nothing in me is hidden.
You are before me, Lord, you are behind.
You are around me, Lord, you are within.
I bring the faith that is in me and the doubt,
I bring the joy that is in me and the sorrow,
I bring the hope that is in me and the despair,
I bring the hurts that I carry and the wounds that I have caused.
To join these faiths and doubts, joys and sorrows, hopes and despairs,
Hurts caused and carried to the faiths and doubts,
Joys, sorrows, hopes, despairs and hurts of my sisters and brothers.
Do not cast me away from your presence
And do not take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your liberation
And sustain in me a willing spirit.
For you have shown me the paths that lead to life
And your presence will fill me with joy.

A time for quiet reflection

Word and Wisdom:  readings for the day

With the whole church I affirm that I am made in God's image,befriended by Christ, empowered by the Spirit.With people everywhere I affirm God's goodness at the heart of humanity,planted more deeply than all that is wrong.
With all creation I celebrate the miracle and wonder of life,the unfolding purposes of God
forever at work in ourselves and the world.

Prayer for the Iona Community
O God, who gave to your servant Columba the gifts of courage, faith and cheerfulness, and sent people out from Iona to carry the word of your gospel to every creature; grant, we pray, a like spirit to your church even at this present time. Further in all things the purpose of our Community, that hidden things may be revealed to us and new ways found to touch the lives of all. May we preserve with each other sincere charity and peace, and if it be your holy will, grant that a place of your abiding be continued still to be a sanctuary and a light. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Universal Prayer for Peace
Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth.Lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust.Lead me for hate to love, from war to peace.Let peace fill our lives, our world, our universe.

Prayers of the Community
O Lord of power and promise, you gather and scatter your people to the ends of the earth;
But wherever we go, we are never beyond the reach of your love.Gather me together now with the Iona Community as I share in our common prayer...

A time for gratitude and concern

Living Wisdom
God in heaven, your name is to be honored. May your new community of hope be realized on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today the essentials of life. Release us from our sins as we release those who do us wrong. Do not test us beyond our enduring; save us from all that is evil.For you embrace justice, love and peace now and to the end of time. Amen.

Quiet Prayers

Gathered and scattered: God is with us.
In suffering and hope:  God is with us.
Now and always: God is with us.
As I pray these words - and recall the people I serve and love - I also renew my baptismal vows in the midst of this flood.  I pray that as Bobby and Cate leave for seminary they will know of our love and the Lord's presence in their lives.  I pray that as Rebecca returns to seminary she will grow deeper into her calling.  I pray that as our students and teachers go back to their classrooms they will be safe and filled with an awareness of the sacred trust they share.  And I pray that the people of First Church - and all who are enduring this Hurricane - are safe and loved.  Now and forever, in Christ's name. Amen.

(for more information about Iona go to:

When the rain comes...

So worship has been cancelled for tomorrow:  the worst of the storm is supposed to hit us about 9 am.  Let's see if we lose power.  We've purchased emergency supplies, have put up sandbags around the garage, dug a trench for the expected run off, pulled out the batteries and flash lights, stocked up on wine, books and candles.  Now we will rest and be prayerful as the day breaks.

My friend, Carol, sent here prayers and started me thinking about songs... and that is always trouble, yes?  Clearly CCR starts the list with "Who Will Stop the Rain?" and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" but I keep singing "Rain" by the Beatles (one of my all time favorites.)

Then I think of these - what else am I missing - drop me a note, ok?  Blessings to you all as we ride this out.

+ Somewhere Over the Rainbow

+ Fire and Rain

+ Singing in the Rain

+ Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain

+ I Can't Stand the Rain

+ Thunder Only Happens When Its Raining

+ Purple Rain

+ Rainy Day People and Early Mornin' Rain

+ I Can See Clearly Now

+ Ain't No Sunshine

+ Hurricane

+ Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain

+ Rainy Day Women # 12 and 35

+ Box of Rain

+ Bus Stop

+ Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again

+ Stormy Monday

+ Rhapsody in the Rain

+ Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head

+ MacArthur Park

+ A Hard Rain's a'Gonna Fall

+ Rainy Days and Mondays

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Seeing and being seen...

NOTE:  It is weird to be sitting in my Berkshire study today in anticipation of a major storm that holds the potential to be wildly destructive. It could be the worst in our area in over 50 years is the prediction, but now it is sunny and sweet. Very, very strange...

So, last night we went to see a production of "My Name Is Asher Lev," at the Barrington Stage (check it out @ We have been Chaim Potok fans for many years - and this book is a favorite. The story is near to my heart - Dianne's, too - as a young, religious artist wrestles with how to nurture his gift while remaining true to God.  This rendition, written and directed by Aaron Posner, was faithful to the story and deeply engaging.   Each of the actors were brilliant and precise as they played their respective roles - one Asher Lev and the other two various characters Lev encounters including his mother and father. Three parts of the story were particularly gripping to me:

+ The saga of how one generation not only misunderstands the other, but also personalizes this ebb and flow of embracing the other only to run away.  In this story, young Asher Lev has an uncanny ability to draw and paint - something his politically engaged Hasid father cannot comprehend - and poppa regular interprets the young artist's calling as a personal repudiation of everything he holds near and dear.  It was agonizing to watch this timeless battle between father and son.  It was equally wrenching to see the ripening artist come to grieve over the pain he has caused his parents: not only did this journey towards artistic maturity cause anger and alienation, but his life's work - two family portraits utilizing a contemporary crucifixion -  was so outside the norm of the Hasidic aesthetic as to bewilder and shame those he loved most deeply.

+ The mentoring of young Asher by an older, secular Jew - with the explicit blessing of his community's Rebbe - was tender and insightful.  But the old religious leader embraced the child's sacred gift - and sought out the best teacher - even while knowing this act would cause problems in the artist's home and the wider spiritual family.  It also caused a crisis of identity for Asher Lev, too:  he had to physically leave his traditional home in Brooklyn for Paris before he was given "eyes to see and ears to hear" what was going on within his soul.  Once away from his tradition, however, he found a way to embrace and challenge it in pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty.  That this meant acknowledging and interpreting the presence of darkness and evil in his art rocked his traditional foundation - and opened him to something more profound.

+ And his willingness to become a "genre bender" was something I was delighted to see having forgotten this part of the story completely.  In a word, Lev realizes that only his interpretation of Christ on the Cross is agonizing and beautiful enough to show others the world of his family's love and agony. The crucifixion - so artistically outside the Hasidic heart but so intricately woven through the tapestry of their history, too - became the only way to express the artist's deepest truth.  So he paints his mother on what appears to be the cross panes of the window she waited at for most of her life in her Brooklyn home - with his father and himself attending her agon.

Such an expression, of course, repelled his parents - who eventually come to sense that his paintings are true but only in the most painful ways - who become mute in his presence by the end of the performance.  But they are also able to physically embrace him as a person of integrity.  The final soliloquy reasserts that Asher Lev is a practicing and faithful Jew who is also an artist in the modern world.

It seems that at the core of this play is the quest to learn to see and be seen.  One of the finest writers in the United Church of Christ, Anthony Robinson, recently put it like this in a daily reflection that appears on-line.  Robinson begins with a quote from Exodus:

"The people of Israel, groaning in their slavery, cried out for help and from the depths of their slavery their cry came up to God. God heard their groaning and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the people of Israel and God knew . . ."

Is there a difference between looking and seeing? Or between seeing and really seeing?Here, as the Exodus story begins, we read that God "saw." The Hebrew word is ra'ah. It does not refer to a look or a glance. It means to begin to move toward another with kindness or sympathy. God really saw the suffering slaves in Egypt. He moved toward them.

In a novel I was reading recently a woman who had been a waitress for fifty years, which is an awful long time to be on your feet like that, was asked about her memories of a particular customer, a naval officer. She says, "He actually saw me, if I can put it like that." The implication was that few of her customers, few of the other high-ranking officers where she worked, did actually see her. She was not seen by the others as a person.

There's seeing and there's really seeing. There's eye contact and there is moving toward another with kindness or sympathy.Often privilege and power, rank or status, as well as plain-old self-centeredness, keep people from really seeing or really hearing another person.

How remarkable, then, that our God and God's power is not like that at all. Our God sees, really sees, the suffering and the lowly. Our God's power is not manifest as distance or not getting involved or sending orders. Our God enters in, moves toward us, in kindness and sympathy. God doesn't just look, God sees.

Prayer:  God, forgive me for the many times when I only look but do not see. Grant me grace today to really see and to move toward another person in kindness. Amen.

My small clergy group - two rabbis and two pastors - spoke of this, too when we gathered last week.  How do we remain awake and engaged enough to see both ourselves and others as we truly are? There were no clear answers, but talking about the challenge was helpful - and brought us closer, too.  We are all wrestling with balance and rhythm in our lives no matter how long we've been clergy; that truth in itself is almost enough to evoke some inner peace, yes?

As this "program year" comes to a close for me I am thinking a great deal about the call to see and be seen - for my ministry, of course - but also for the faith community in our "new year."  Let's see where this takes us after the storm, yes?

photo credit:

Friday, August 26, 2011

To be continued...

Yesterday I had planned to travel to Connecticut to be on my friend Hal's afternoon radio, WTF, to talk about our recent trip to Turkey.  It is Robin Hood Radio - the smallest NPR station - and you can find it at:  Hal does an INCREDIBLE live show that mixes the best of contemporary music of all types with the vibe of the best FM radio programming of the late 60s.  Whenever I can, and it isn't often enough these days, I listen between 2 and 4 pm each afternoon.

Well, my dear brother recently had surgery - so we have postponed this conversation until next Tuesday - in the hopes that he will feel better.  Maybe you can tune it for the fun as I am sure there will be some surprises.  I have a stack of Turkish music to share and we will see where the Spirit leads us. 

Being back in my office, however, gave me an opportunity to speak with a local Berkshire Eagle reporter who is working on a story about how September 11th has changed us as clergy - and has altered the work of our churches.  It was a wonderful time to reflect on that horrible event and I think I made three points:

+ First, living and pastoring through September 11th has made clear to me that one of the gifts that Christ gave the world is what it looks like when governments and religious leaders turn their power into the fear of the people.  Specifically, Jesus shows the world what it looks like when fear and hatred is manipulated for social cohesiveness:  find a scape goat, focus all your anxiety and anger upon him/her and then make sure you use violence - and lots of it - in a way that promises redemption.  Not only will the nation come together - as it did - but leaders can manipulate that fear to advance goals that would otherwise be challenged and resisted.

This is, of course, the insight that Rene Girard discerned in his anthropological and theological writings, that might be summarized like this:  a) There is a "mimetic desire" at work in human society - that is, imitation is an aspect of human behavior that not only affects learning but also desire - and imitated desire is one of the leading causes for conflict. b) The origin of sacrifice - and the heart of human culture and religion - often revolves around a scapegoat mechanism; religion manages and controls the violence that our mimetic desire creates by given shape and form to which scapegoats should be annihilated. c) The Bible reveals the two previous ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism as one of the gifts Christ gives to the world:  This is what such organized violence looks and feels like from the perspective of the innocent victim; God is now seen NOT as the source of the violence, but the very victim in the hope that the violence will cease.

Talking about the rise of both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the reporter brought to mind my duties as pastor to the men who deployed to those wars and the on-going relationship our faith community had with them.  I was blessed by that time - challenged and enriched beyond my comprehension - as we struggled to find ways of being supportive to our soldiers and critical of our government.

+ Second, in the 10 years since the terrorist attacks on American soil, it has become clear that most Christians in the US are profoundly ignorant about Islam.  We are unaware of the breadth and depth of theological reformation that is taking place, we know nothing about the foundations and core practices and don't know what to do about the straw men and women we are shown in the mainstream media.  Consequently, the churches I have served in the past 10 years have set out on a journey to:  a) learn about the basics of the Islamic faith; b) find ways of supporting common ground; and c) speaking out in supportive of our Muslim sisters and brothers as cousins who share Abraham.

We have raised money for Greg Mortenson to build schools for girls in Afghanistan, we have publicly challenged the Islamophobia of hate mongers and made certain to bring a more nuanced and compassionate voice to other public conversations.  We also chose to change the name of the former Pittsfield Area Council of Churches to the Pittsfield Area Council of Congregation.  This has not only created seats around the table for our Jewish neighbors, but also our Muslims ones, too.

+ And three we have supported and participated in the Peace-Making Through Music journey to Turkey where we met new friends, shared American jazz and talked a lot with people about common ground.  Next steps need to be worked on, of course, but this was a life changing encounter that will only ripen over the next few years.

So, one public door closed yesterday, but another opened - and now I STILL get to go see Hal and do his gig, too.  We will be away when the 10th anniversary of 9/11 takes place here - we will be in Montreal - and that, too, will bring its own unique blessings.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Damn but I love this album...

Ok, so it isn't his BEST known work - maybe not even up there in the Top Five - but, damn I love this album: Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud.

It comes from the 1958 Louis Malle film noir of the same name - or "Elevator to the Gallows" in the US release - and as one critic put it:  this is the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear.  Listen... and weep." It was recorded in one session in 1957 or 58 and just gets under your skin.

Ok, so maybe I know a little bit about the blues today - and the weather is in a low pressure funk just before Hurricane Irene blows into town - but I still listen to this CD when the sky is blue and the sun is high.  In-freakin-credible!

Urge for going...

Since our trip to Istanbul, I've been wiped-out!  And I mean REALLY wiped out - physically tired and mentally worn down - in ways I hadn't expected. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret the trip in any way - it was the experience of a life time to be playing jazz for peace with my mates - and we lived 2 or 3 days every 24 hours we were there.  But damn... it has taken a toll and I am looking forward to my time away with Dianne profoundly.

Yesterday, for example, I was rattled to discover that earlier this month I had written down the wrong date on an important legal document.  It wasn't the end of the world, of course, and I later made the corrections, but clearly I hadn't paying attention and my weariness took its toll. Simple but stupid mistakes that inconvenience others happen from time to time, right? But this one has caused me to rstep back and eflect more seriously about the cumulative effect a number of wounds have taken within me this summer.

+ It began when both my sister and father were hospitalized at the same time; she continues to be very ill and bed-ridden while his health has stabilized and returned.  Her situation is so tragic on so many levels it breaks my heart as there are no good options left for her.

+ Then a marriage within the family came to an end and we began the work of grieving and rebuilding with love and respect.

+ Later a dear mentor and his wife moved from our church to take up residence closer to their family in Florida - and this left a little hole in my heart.

+ A long-time friend and colleague went into a professional tail spin and pushed away those who care while another colleague's husband was arrested on charges too dark to describe. Each of these felt like a body slam.

What's more, since Istanbul I've been working hard to hire two new key staff at church before the program year begins.  I guess what my mistake said to me is, "Take a break, man! You can't keep running on empty - so pay attention!"  Don't misunderstand, there have been sweet blessings this summer, too - Brian and Robyn's wedding, the music and growth at church, the return of Eva from Las Vegas and more - but it is true that to everything there is a season.  And that season sounds a lot like rest for me...

Vacations with Dianne are more like retreats:  we go away to places where no one knows us and just walk and rest and read and find interesting music to heal our souls.  No agenda but wandering.  One of her friends asked, "Didn't you just go away out of the country?" to which she replied, "Yes, and it was great, but it wasn't a vacation.  It was a working 10 gig!" And for two introverts...

Strange as it might seem, getting ready for this time away made me think of this prayer:

O God, you have made heaven and earth and all that is good; and in Jesus Christ you show us that the secret of joy is a heart set free from selfish desires. Help us to delight in simple things and to rejoice always in the richness of your bounty; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I love this prayer...

I love this prayer - and need it, too - so share it with you as this day comes to a close:

God of mercy:
Help us to forgive as you have forgiven us.
Help us to trust you even when hope is failing.
Help us to take up our Cross daily and follow you in your redeeming work;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The spirituality of authentically blended worship: part four...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes in my the last of four reflections on the role of popular music in blened worship. It has been fun - and helpful - for me to share the music and the ideas.  After Sunday, we'll be away for a time taking vacation rest in Canada.  Then we'll be back at it for Sunday, September 18th with our new staff!  So, if you are in town THIS Sunday, August 28th please stop by at 10:30 am.

This morning I want to share with you a way – or style – or even discipline – for discerning God’s presence in your life that is so very different from our traditional mode of “doing theology” that some are frightened by it, others dismiss and ridicule it as a trivial waste of time while still others say it feeds their souls like nothing else can.

• Over the past few weeks, of course, I have been offering you a taste of what this spiritual smorgasbord has to offer our morally and ethically malnourished culture.

• Like the ancient Hebrew poet said in Psalm 34: we have been invited to taste and see – interesting choice of words, yes? – taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Blessed is the one who trusts him. Blessed are those who live in awe of our God, dear people of faith, for there is no want or hunger for those who are awe-struck and worshipful.

This is the approach I have been trying to share with you throughout the summer – a taste and see style – that is more poetry and experience and encounter than didactic teaching. But “to everything there is a season,” sang another Biblical poet: “A right time for birth and another for death, a right time to plant and another to reap… a right time to destroy and another to construct… to cry and to laugh, lament and to cheer, to embrace and be a part.”

So let me be more explicit with you now so that you might be able to distinguish why this new style of discerning the Lord is valuable – maybe even life-changing for you personally – and how it restores balance and awe to our religious tradition. The theologian, Paul Tillich, put it like this: when it comes to discovering and following the Lord in our lives there are two styles of faithful living. Both are born of truth and both are holy but they comprehend and respond to the Lord in very different ways.

Tillich labels one style moral faith – a way of living that sees God entering creation through human acts of love and justice – and we hail from this tradition. Moral faith “measures the world by standards of God’s perfect justice and love” and is profoundly aware of the gap between the Lord’s purity and human sin. “Moral faith gravitates toward law-generating, activist and utopian expressions of piety.” (Kelton Cobb, p. 109)
The other he calls ontological faith – from two Greek words meaning the study of what is real – for it is a more sacramental approach to discerning the presence of the Lord. Here “ultimate reality is expected to be encountered through concrete things, persons and events – water, bread, wine, marriage and community… it is a way of meeting the holy in things that are beautiful or awe-inspiring.” (Kelton Cobb, Theology and Popular Culture, pp. 109/220)

• Do you grasp the difference? Does this say anything to you?

• In Tillich’s terminology moral faith responds to God’s terrifying nature – the abyss – the incompressible otherness of the Lord who created heaven and earth.

• While ontological faith celebrates a God who comes down – it is the sacred within the secular – the holy within the human. And all that is “plain, finite and real… can serve as receptacles for the transcendent beauty of the divine” in ways that are deeply reassuring.

Our nation – as well as our region of the country and faith tradition – is rooted in a moral faith. It is not coincidental, for example, that as the Puritans sailed away from their old world, John Winthrop taught them that they had entered a new moral covenant with God. Specifically, he told them that they must embody “the counsel of the prophet Micah… who has called us to do justice, love mercy and walk with God in humility.” He told them:

We must delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body… And should we live up to the obligations of this sacred covenant, then the Lord would be pleased and allow us to shine like a city upon a hill.

That was in 1620 – and what does OUR church mission statement for the 21st century say? It is printed at the top of your worship bulletin and says: In community with God and each other, we gather to worship, to reflect on our Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion. We clearly come from the moral faith side of the family, yes? And to my mind that means that in addition to all the blessings of this tradition, we also have some blind spots and failures that can keep us from discovering God’s reassuring and grace-filled presence in ordinary life.

Specifically, I think this is true when it comes to recognizing and claiming God’s gracious presence in whatever is good, true and beautiful. You see, with hearts and minds trained to see what is broken first – to emphasize sin, injustice and our separation from God – we don’t often know what to do when we come upon holy ground in our ordinary lives. This is where the story of Moses and the burning bush might be helpful.

• Moses comes upon holy ground in the wilderness as he is doing his everyday job. Now remember that the reason that Moses is up in the mountains in the first place is because he has murdered an Egyptian soldier and is on the lam.

• He isn’t on spiritual retreat, he isn’t preparing to accept the Nobel Peace prize for moral rectitude and he isn’t thinking about social justice. He is tending his father-in-laws sheep and hiding from the law.

Now we don’t know for how long the bush was burning; but eventually Moses notices the presence of an angel of the Lord taking shape and form as a burning bush – he sees something very ordinary that suddenly becomes extraordinary by God’s grace – and it not only grabs his attention but awakens him to awe and beauty. And in this awakened state, Moses hears the Lord say: “Take off your shoes, man, for this is holy ground.” So what do you think it means for Moses to recognize holy ground and take off his sandals?

• First, it is an act of humility, yes? You take off what is soiled and physically honor what is holy. When we were in Turkey and visited various mosques, everyone had to take off their shoes before entering holy ground. It was a sign of humble reverence in the presence of the sacred.

• But taking off your shoes has another meaning, too: it is something people in various cultures do when they return to their homes, right? Any idea what that might mean in this story?

Biblical scholars have wondered that given Moses’ history maybe God was giving him a home: “This is a man who has never really been at home anywhere. Raised by his Hebrew mother, he was adopted by Pharaoh's daughter (2:9-10) and given an Egyptian name (see the discussion on Exodus 1:8-2:10).”
Although he tries to intervene to help his kinfolk, the Hebrews (2:11-13), he ends up murdering an Egyptian and being rejected by his own (2:14). He flees Egypt and the mess he had created there, only to be identified as an Egyptian by the women he meets at the well in Midian (2:19). From the adopted son of royalty, Moses is now shepherding flocks (a less than prestigious job!), working for his father-in-law. (Amy Merrill Willis,, Aug. 28, 2011) But here at the foot of the mountain of God, Moses the "alien," has at last found a true "home” but not with humans but with God, the God of his ancestors, "the God of Abraham...of Isaac...of Jacob" (Dennis Olson,, Aug 31, 2008)

One of the blessings an ontological or sacramental faith can offer us in our moralist tradition is how to be awakened to the wonder and presence of the Lord in the midst of the ordinary. And I find music to be one of the ways this happens best. It isn’t the only way, of course, but it sure works for me and it seems to work in a unique way for the people who make music with me, too. So let me ask you – as band mates and friends committed to making beautiful music in this place – what do you find surprising about making music in this ensemble? (Give folks time to share their observations…)

Here is an example from the music of Sarah McLachlan. I would like you to listen to both the lyrics as well as the harmonies in this song. Sometimes we moralists JUST pay attention to the words – like the preacher who picks a hymn because she likes the text but the tune is unsingable – that’s part of the problem. So pay attention – be awakened – to how both fit together here.

Engaging music like this is one way to learn how to listen with our whole selves: it is a style of discerning God’s presence in awe and beauty that brings balance and a sense of peace to our constant striving for justice and peace and all the rest we in the moralist tradition know all too well. In fact, without this ability to rest a while in God’s beauty and awe, we can burn out and become part of the problem rather than a part of the healing.

And that takes me to the second story for today where the wisdom of Jesus shows us one who is constantly moving back and forth between a moral and an ontological faith.  In Jesus I see a way of practicing a spiritual rhythm of living that celebrates both resting and acting in the Lord: he challenges and soothes, he engages the world publically and then retreats into solitude for a time, too. Jesus is the Word made Flesh – the essence of God in a human body – who not only exposes the sacred in the ordinary but also asks us to put compassion into action.

Today’s text shows us Jesus meeting in quiet with his apprentices. He has just been out in public challenging the leaders of his day about their spiritual and ethical lethargy – he has been living into a moral faith – but now he retreats into a reflective mode. Listen carefully again to his words to those who love him dearest: 

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?

First the burning bush, now the Cross: I know I’ve told you this before but let me say it out loud again. One of the truths about the Cross – not the only truth, but a very important one – is that the Cross has two beams, right? One connects us with God – it is the vertical beam – representing our connection with the Lord. The other, however, connects us to the community – the horizontal beam – and it speaks to us of encountering and serving God as a part of the body.

Now here’s the thing: some of us are totally down with the vertical connection – we’re grounded and rooted and energized in our communion with the Lord – and it is a beautiful thing to behold. But we aren’t so hot at the whole community/body of Christ reality.

I know… I’ve seen it: we get impatient or abrupt or even rude and evasive with one another sometimes. And there are some of us who don’t even consider the horizontal component of the cross: for us it is ALL about me and my needs and how is the church or God going to take care of what I need.

To be fair, there are also those who very much embrace the call to community: we celebrate the body of Christ and really know how to offer generosity and joy to others. We just don’t know how to find that for ourselves – we often feel cut off from God’s grace and forgiveness and hope – right?

Once again, here is where the spiritual discipline of music has brought me a measure of peace and insight into the way of Christ and his Cross – and I’m thinking particularly about the art form known as improvisation. When you improvise you practice denying yourself for a time – losing yourself for the sake of the greater whole – and then when it feels right giving it your shot of creativity and beauty. And this seems to hold true whether you’re talking about musicians or actors, comedy or theatre, poetry slams or mixed media performance art.

Pastor Donna Schaper recently wrote that: “The secret to improvisation is to go only as far as you have to and not a step or second more. Your goal is to make everyone else look good while carefully listening to what the first chord told the second chord to say… so good improvisation chooses who it will listen to—and takes the next step.” Did you catch that? 

• There is playfulness necessary for dealing with the pain. There is a rhythm for being engaged in the way of the Cross that requires letting go and joining in, losing ourselves and being found as a part of God’s loving improvisation in the song of life.

• So let me ask my band mates about this: what have you gained as people of faith by playing together in this ensemble? What insights into the rhythm of faith have you discerned?

Here’s what that feels like to me:

Two stories this morning – the burning bush and the call to follow as well as the stories of some of our musicians – and they all speak to me of the jazz of meeting Jesus in community: There is a groove or rhythm to our faith that needs both the moral and the ontological components for real health and integrity. There is a call to improvise playfully with the Lord throughout the ups and downs of faithful living.

And to do it all in such a way that the beauty of the Lord not only inspires and comforts us, but also empowers us to be present with the wounded who are crying out for compassion and justice. Jesus insists that all of this comes together in the Cross – and that, dear people of God – has to be the good news for today.

Monday, August 22, 2011

What's up with this...?

What's up in popular culture when it comes to discerning the presence of the Lord?  Clearly there is a yearning for an encounter with life beyond life - however you want to make sense of that - in that three of the top 10 TV shows in 2010 have to do with the supernatural and vampires? (True Blood, Vampire Diaries and Supernatural.)  And let's not forget the 2011 winner: The Walking Dead?  The supernatural is an upside and sometimes immature impulse to know about the spiritual - especially when the traditional world of religion is so vapid and corrupt.

+ And what about "Lost?"  It is a great TV adventure in which linear time as we know it disappears, everyone is sorting out a distant or broken past relationship with a loved one that causes confusion while everyone also encounters a love greater than our wounds that makes sense of life even without answering all our questions.  I see the theme of "grace trumps karma" all over this bad boy.

+ There are also five crime shows that are making the critics' list:  NCIS, Bones, Breaking Bad along with Luther and Law and Order: UK.  Each in their own way reinforces our sense that life, while not fair, is governed by a drive towards justice.  And even when that justice is dispensed by very broken souls - and these are all wounded healers - there is a sense that the force of good is just holding back the tides of chaos.  And what about "Justified?" (my personal favorite...) A 21st century Dirty Harry doing battle with both chaos and history with a sense of humor and a ton of humility.

We're going to start "Treme" tonight - perhaps the cream of the recent crop - that speaks a whole lot about life in post September 11th America, yes?  "Moral habits that originated in religious communities," writes Kelton Cobb, "now travel down two different roads: one still within religion and one in its secular diaspora of cultural spirituality."  He continues:

With respect to doing a theological analysis of culture, it is important to remember that the moral habits that now travel in secular diaspora in the West were originally conceived as responses to theological convictions about the nature of God, the human condition, covenant, grace and salvation.  That raises the possibility that if one digs around in our culture's moral habits - which are found in the non-profit institutions it supports, the mythic stories it tells itself, its founding documents and the exemplary persons it promotes as worthy to emulate... - a theological layer might be uncovered.  (Cobb, Theology and Popular Culture, p. 129)

I see a nation that is deeply alienated from the Christian truths of our collective past but profoundly hungry for a redeeming spiritual experience, too.  We are self-absorbed and addicted, but like "Mad Men" we bored with ourselves and clear that "things" are not the answer at the same time. I sense a people literally "lost" who sense that God's grace is available but are clueless about where to turn for help. To say nothing of a nation yearing for justice in the economic and moral chaos who also know that  it is fleeting. 

Douglas John Hall has observed that now that the old church has been disestablished by secular culture, maybe the true Jesus can be shared with a people groping in the darkness?

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:...