Monday, October 31, 2011

More thoughts on the Holy Trinity...

So, I've been reading a few anthologies about contemporary Trinitarian theology of late and... No, really, I have!

In fact, I am coming to believe that a return to a radical encounter with God as Holy Trinity is essential for the soul of Christ's church in America. To be sure, I wrestle with the challenge of inclusive language - I embrace it fully - because it is a matter of justice to move beyond the constraints that our gender limitations impose upon our imaginations, our politics and our spiritual commitments. And at the same time, I ache for an inclusive form of language that points us towards the relational truths embedded in the old language. There is simply something missing from the contemporary Trinitarian construction - Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit - that the traditional words - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - grasp.  Better than most,  Sarah Coakley best expresses the problems and possibilities of this challenge in her essay, "Trinity and Gender Reconsidered" where she notes:

How do we speak of "gender" at all in relation to God, given the God, qua God, has no body? How does the human (male) body of Jesus, as hypostatically conjoined with the Word, the second person of the Trinity, relate to or give substance to the question of gender in God. How are we to negotiate the difference between gender stereotypes in a fallen world and "gender" as it might potentially be construed in some perfect form in God? More fundamentally, how are we to define - or think of gender - in the first place, especially in relation to, or in distinction from the physiological or chromosomal differentiations of "sex"?

Coakley does not offer new language - oh, that I wish she did - so the wrestling continues, yes? What she does provide, however, is a way of thinking that moves beyond and through our language limitations by paying careful attention to the importance of the Holy Spirit. (The whole essay in God's Life in Trinity ed. Miroslav Wolf is worth consulting, but here is the heart of her insight.)

If we think of the Trinity, then, not as a set of perfect mutual relations into which the (known) gender binary somehow has been interposed in a cleansed form, but rather as an irreducible threeness that always refuses a mere mutuality of two, then we reemphasize the importance of the Spirit precisely as Moltmann has urged, yet with a significantly different theological outcome for gender. Here we do not allocate the binary of "masculinity" and "femininity" to different "persons," or even to their relations, but instead step into a circle of divine desire (the sighs too deep for human words that signal the Spirit's gift of loving plenitude, drawing us to the "Father") which is necessarily beyond our comprehension and categorization, but is drawing us by degrees into the "likeness" of the "Son."  And since the Son himself, in the very act of incarnation, has transgressed the difference between the fundamental metaphysical binary of divinity and humanity, we may rightly see the incarnation, also, as a destabilization of other basic binaries...Christ is the very mingling of divinity and humanity. (pp. 140-41)

Coakley's bold insistence on the threeness of God is the key, yes.?  Her attention to the Spirit is unique in Western theology, too.  She doesn't resolve HOW we use gender-infected words in new ways, but rather points to how the Spirit - call it grace - radically interrupts our dualistic limitations.  This is one new insight that I trust is essential.

Another comes from the writings of Eugene Peterson who is much more traditional but no less helpful.  His emphasis on is rooted in the ancient orthodox metaphor of God in Holy Trinity as a sacred and mystical dance from the word perichoresis (peri = around and choresis = dance.) He writes of the Divine in a community of dance...

Our Greek theologian ancestors used a metaphor to refer to the Trinity. Perichoresis, writes Karl Barth "asserts that the divine modes of existence condition and permeate one another mutually with such perfection, that one is as invariably in the other two as the other two are in the one".  Imagine a folk Dance, a round dance, with three partners in each set. The music starts up and the partners holding hands begin moving in a circle.

On Signal from the caller, they release hands, change partners, and weave in and out, swinging first one and then another. The tempo increases, the partners move more swiftly with an between and among one another, swinging and twirling, embracing and releasing, holding on and letting go. But there is no confusion, every movement is cleanly co-ordinated in precise rhythms (these are practised and skillful dancers), as each person maintains his or her own identity. To the onlooker, the movements are so swift it is impossible to distinguish one person from another; the steps are so intricate that it is difficult to anticipate the actual configurations as they appear.

Again, no new language and yet this notion of Trinity is deeply counter-cultural: it challenges the core of our hyper-individualized culture - the kingdom of Self rather than the kingdom of God - and calls into question the values of the contemporary American church. Peterson continues in an extended quote:

By insisting that God is three-personed, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - God inherently relational, God in community - we are given an understanding that God is emphatically personal. The only way that God reveals God's self is personally. God is personal under the personal designations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and never in any other way: never impersonally as a force or an influence, never abstractly as an idea or truth or principle. And so, of course God can’t be known impersonally or abstractly.

We are not used to this. We are schooled in institutions that train us in the acquisition of facts and data, of definitions and diagrams, of explanations and analysis. Our schools are very good at doing this. When we study persons, whether God or humans, we bring the same methods to the work: analyzing, defining, typing, charting, profiling. The uniquely personal and particular is expunged from the curriculum; and that means the removal of the most important things about us - love and hope and faith, sin and forgiveness and grace, obedience and loyalty and prayer - as significant for understanding and developing of persons. The fact is that when we are studied like specimens in the laboratory, what is learned is on the level of what is learned from an autopsy. The only way to know another is in personal relationship, and that involves at least minimal levels of trust and risk.

Because of long training in our schools and an unbaptized imagination, we commonly bring these reductionist, depersonalized methods to our understandings of God. But when we do, we don’t come up with much, for God is totally personal, interpersonal, relational, giving and receiving, loving and directing. There’s nothing in Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is not communal. and so there’s nothing to be learned of Father -Son- Spirit except by entering the communion, entering the company of the Trinity: praying and listening, being quiet and attentive, repenting and obeying, asking and waiting.

Trained as we are in the schools, it is the easiest thing in the world to use words abstractly and to treat the gospel is information. But Trinity prevents us from doing that. Trinity warns us against supposing that we can lock ourselves in a room free of all people and distractions and just read, study, and meditate and then expect to know God. Trinity is our defense against every soul destroying venture into the Christian life that depersonalizes the Gospel or God or other people. 

Peterson, of course, posits this as an antidote to what he calls the NEW Trinity - my holy Wants, my holy Needs and my holy Feelings - and his critique resonates deeply. "We live in an age in which we have all been trained from the cradle to choose for ourselves what is best for us. We have a few years of apprenticeship at this before we are sent out on our own, but the training begins early. By the time we can hold a spoon we choose between half a dozen cereals for breakfast, ranging from Cheerios to Corn Flakes. Our tastes, inclinations, and appetites are consulted endlessly."  Isn't that part of what the Occupy Wall Street movement has discovered?  Isn't that a part of the historic Church's commitment to community, too?  Born of the sacred dance, God offers us an intimate alternative to the addiction of always having to decide

... what clothes we will wear and in what style we will have our hair cut. The options proliferate: what TV channels we will view, what courses we will take in school, what college we will attend, what courses we will sign up for, what model and color of car we will buy, what church we will join. We learn early, with multiple confirmations as we grow older, that we have a say in the formation of our lives and, within certain bounds, the decisive say. If the culture does a thorough job on us – and it turns out to be mighty effective with most of us – we enter adulthood with the working assumption that whatever we need and want and feel forms the divine control center of our lives.

As I sit back today dealing with a low grade but annoying stomach flu, I am reminded of a comedian who once summarized the old TV show, "Thirty Something" as a 60 minute improvisation on different people whining, "What about MY needs?" The Trinity is the alternative: God as the joy of "dancing around." It is about living beyond our obsessions in unity and integrity with God and one another.  And it is about NEVER, ever seeing any one or thing as a means to an end:  everything is relational - NEVER just business - ALWAYS deeply and powerfully personal. In the mean time, I still use both the old/new language - Creator as well as Father - and trust that in the dancing new light will be revealed in the old darkness. 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

At the close of a LONG day...

As this day comes to a close, I am feeling like I've been hit with that nasty stomach flu bug that apparently is knocking everybody on their ass for about 24 hours. Gonna chill in just a moment but wanted to not that in spite of the aches, this has been a totally beautiful day. As noted earlier, it began when my neighbor came to rescue me with his massive snow-blower. That meant I only had to devote one hour to snow removal instead of three!  This was a killer storm that looks lovely - and is truly stunning - but very deep, heavy and wet.

+ The snow kept a lot of people home from worship today - and that was too bad because it was to be our first "Fifth Sunday" inter-generational worship for All Saints Day and there were some special things planned - but the 40+ folks who did show up really made things pop!  Some of our little ones even dressed as modern day saints - people they admire - and my buddy Ethan came as... me!

+ I had lots of little helpers for worship today: two girls who helped me share the liturgy - one read scripture and the other joined me serving the Eucharist - and a few little guys helped me act out the Prayer of Confession along with a variety of adults. They were very serious but also spontaneous - alive and connected with the totaly of worship - which was a real ttreat for me and everyone else - God included, yes? 

+ And then during my "conversation about faith," this little guy told a story about his first time in church about 2 years ago. (NOT, let me repeat, NOT with us at First Church.) He said that after worshiping with the congregation for a few weeks, he went up for Eucharist with his dad. He was handed the host by the priest but when it was made clear that he had not yet been baptized (apparently during a mid-Eucharistic conversation?) he just tousled the child's hair and moved him along saying, "God bless you, my child." 

There was a collective gasp in the congregation when the story ended - but then his father added, "And he snatched back the bread, too!"  To which the church cried out, "Oh my Lord!"  I was so proud of this little guy for telling us this story out loud when I asked, "So what do you remember about your first time in worship?"  Can you believe it?  I get different theologies and traditions, but I had to ask, "Ok, in that moment do you think Jesus really cared whether this child was baptized?  Don't get me wrong, I believe and trust in the sacraments but taking the bread out of a child's hand at the Lord's table?!"  Man, that is just wrong.

Interestingly, when I finished my message and asked if there were any questions, two people asked, "So how do you come to receive Holy Communion here?" One man even said, "Is everyone really welcome here?" (He comes from a tradition that practices closed communion and told me afterwards, "You are all so used to being open and radically inclusive that you might forget that radical hospitality isn't normative in the Body of Christ... I am so glad to be with you."  I was blessed in spades by that conversation.

So, while the snow changed everything, it was all for the good.  Our guest musician was unable to join us so I got the children to help me sing and play the hymns on guitars.  We had little guys serving as ushers, too.  And when they seemed to wander away with the offering plates (they were actually making sure EVERYONE had a chance to make a contribution) we just improvised for a bit and sent an adult to shepherd them back on track.  It was precious - a truly inclusive and gently loving gathering where we opened our hearts to God and everyone felt welcomed. (Thank you to Ted and Sara and everyone who worked so hard to include so many: YOU guys are the saints!)

The report is in...

Well, the report is in - this time from my neighbor, Gene, who ought to know - and we got 18 inches of snow last night.  It is a freakin' winter, wonderland out there - and I ought to know! For the last hour, the two neighbors have been going at it with shovels and snow blowers. Mine is a weeny one purchased on the cheap after arriving in North Country from Arizona. Hell, what did I know from snow-blowers, right?  His is "the Beast" - something that requires a jumpsuit to operator and has all types of hand gears and attachments.  To say that after almost 5 years I have snow-blower envy would be... um all too true.  (And something I may have to deal with as this winter unfolds!)

We agreed, however, that we're going to split the cost of someone plowing our all too steep drive way for the rest of the winter.  And that made me think of this poem by Billy Collins called, "Shovelling Snow with the Buddha."  (BTW the roads are clear here - our people are professionals when it comes to winter - and while my organist is snow bound up on the mountain, worship will go ON no matter what Mr. Collins might think!  Pictures are from this morning...)

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over a mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm or slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside his generous pocket of silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck.
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

My, my, my what a difference a day makes...

Yesterday this Robert Frost poem worked...

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Today, however, needs something different... maybe something like this from Billy Collins.

Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows

the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.

In a while I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch,
sending a cold shower down on us both.

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news

that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed,
the All Aboard Children's School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with -- some will be delighted to hear --

the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School,
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and -- clap your hands -- the Peanuts Play School.

So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.

And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.

(I don't know why the pictures all clumped together here... oh well.  I'm back from shopping - checked in with our musician for tomorrow and told her not to risk making the trek in from the mountain - and now will settle back to enjoy the cold quiet.  And hallelujah: I'm going 1/2 in with our neighbor for someone to PLOW our driveway!)

It has been a long time coming..

Last week at band practice (for our TGE gig on November 23rd), after playing "Our House," about half the band was washed over by a palpable wave of nostalgia, joy and beauty.  And the next thing you know we were playing "Helplessly Hoping" and "Long Time Gone" as the presence of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young emerged from within the collective unconscious. (That's just what happens when you get a bunch of old hippies together, yes?)

Speak out... against the madness - damn - it still rings so righteous.  Well, anyway, as I've been reflecting on the joy and sacred presence in all of this over the past week, it suddenly hit me:  if you love these people so much "HOW COME YOU DON'T HAVE LINKS TO THEIR MUSIC ON YOUR BLOG!??!"  Hmmmm... I am a very slow learner and once again realize it HAS been too long a time comin', yes?

So, in the spirit of love and affection (and making amends to my brothers and sisters) I have added the following links under a special heading at the side of this blog:

+ check out the music of Hal Lefferts (and buy some of it, too)

+ listen to the beauty the Linda Worster lays down (she has just finished a new CD)

+ dig the creativity and spirit of my man Bert Marshall (he's got a CD for sale, too)

And while you're at it, take a listen to Anne Heaton, Lake Street Dive and Joy Kills Sorrow - three of my favorite indie artist/groups - as they are true genre benders in the best way.  I think you'll be groovin (whether you are an old hippie or not!)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Why music matters so much to me: part two...

Last night, as I was helping a colleague before our monthly clergy support group meeting, I walked by a little boy and his mother sitting in the hall of a neighboring church.  The little guy who I suspect was about 8 looked up to me, pointed and shouted:  "I know you?!"  Hmmmm... and when I asked how that might be true he shouted with equal enthusiasm:  "THE MUSIC!"  Apparently the jazz ensemble had just played at his elementary school the day before and he was still grooving.  So, we chatted together about how much fun it is to play and share music and his mother said, "Thanks for brightening his day."

The same thing happened earlier that day, too, when we played in one of the affluent middle schools.  Three different guidance counselors came over to us and said, "OMG what an important mission you guys have!  Not only are you bringing jazz education to young people who would NEVER hear it on their own; but you are also creating a space for them to just be at home in their own skins.  They don't have to worry about their peers - or the expectations of their parents - or their fears about failing the standardized tests.  They can just rest in themselves for a bit.  What a blessing!"  A blessing - not a break or a breather - not a nice diversion or distraction - a BLESSING!

That is how I experience the music I play and share - as a blessing - and it does my heart good when others encounter that reality, too.  As I shared in yesterday's post, music is a multi-dimensional prayer for me.  Today I want to explore two other truths for me that I have come to cherish:  music as a community of mutual support and music as a gift of compassion. Clearly those guidance counselors experienced - and named - the compassionate gift of music, yes? They witnessed how liberating and refreshing it can be - and it is always a gift. You can't force people to rest and be open to the Spirit - you simply put it out there with love and trust that as the Spirit moves over the chaos of creation it will touch those who are ready and receptive. Well, let's get focused...

Music as a community of support:  Please understand that the music I am considering in this posting is the music I play and share, ok?  This is music created, developed and experienced with a select group of musicians who not only spark my creativity and compassion, but also challenge me to grow deeper and better in music and life as they share their gifts of beauty and encouragement. 

This is different than singing in a church choir where any and everybody can join in.  Choirs have their own beauty - and I love singing in our choir - but it is a very different type of music making from that created by an intentional band. In a choir - and a church - I have to learn to make music with people with differing skill levels:  some can sing, some can't and some don't really try.  So the spirituality of music making here is learning to share and listen and embrace everyone - even those who don't strengthen the sound - it is about letting my rough places be smoothed by a common love.  It is about getting over myself and finding a place for everyone at the table.

Playing music in an intentional group is very, very different. First the musicians are selected and recruited - there is NOTHING random about this community - so the expectation going in is that it will be deeper and more intense.  And when I search out musicians I want to play with in a band, I am consciously thinking about three things all at the same time: 1) I want talented musicians in my group; 2) I want loving and tender musicians in my group; and 3) I want musicians who share my vision that music is prayer, community and compassion, too.

I've played with musicians who are not talented - and outside of a church context this mix is maddening.  It not only grates on my soul but wounds my ears.  So let's face it, there are varying levels of skill and commitment and not all work together. To everything there is a season - a time to make a joyful noise unto the Lord regardless of ability and a time to create something beautiful - a time to be together as a mixed bag and a time to play music with a high level of skill - and in the bands I want to play in, I am searching for beauty not the lowest common denominator.

(NOTE: For those readers with a mostly church focus let me clarify something here; in a church community there must be at least three layers of music sharing so that everyone has a place.  On one level there is a musical place where any and every person can participate regardless of their abilities.  In my congregation, I have created a summer ad hoc gospel choir that encourages and welcomes everyone so that each person can taste the joy of making beautiful music together.  This takes work - and a lot of balancing and practice - but on this level there is only welcome, ok?  Everyone has a place at the table of the Lord on this level.

Then there is the level of the choir - and this, too, is broadly democratic - in that anyone who wants to commit to practice can participate.  Now, sometimes there are those goofy, self-absorbed people who want to sing on a regular basis but won't/can't commit to rehearsals. Really!  I'm not kidding - and for the sake of beauty I believe you have to draw the line here. If you can't make ANY of the practice times, then you can't sing in this group. Ok? In the 21st century, however, choirs need more and more flexibility so that people who work at night or are away during the week can find a time for rehearsal - and this is vital towards being authentically open and hospitable. 

And then there is a third level of music making that involves hand-picked ensembles that share a different level of beauty and skill.  These groups practice hard and cultivate their gifts for the glory of God - and by nature are more exclusive than the other gatherings.  In my experience you need all three levels for both hospitality and worship aesthetics)

Ok, back to the three parts of community building through music that is the focus of this posting... In the hand-selected bands that I give my time to - where there are talented musicians - I experience both encouragement as well as challenge to become my best self personally and musically.  Back when I was a seminary intern, I was working on a youth worship experience with a small group of very talented teens and adults.  They wanted to use "Eleanor Rigby" by the Beatles - so one high school junior scored the string parts over the weekend and recruited a violist to make certain the ensemble worked - he had a HIGH concern for beauty.  Then we recruited some key vocalists who could sing the close harmonies of Graham Nash's "Cathedral."  And when it all came together in rehearsal - when the instrumentalists were listening and grooving carefully and the vocalists hit the mark - it was sublime.  And we all said to one another, "This is unlike making music as a solo performer... somehow by listening and cooperating, trusting and loving the whole is soooo much greater than all the individual parts."

And that type of sharing community feeds my soul:  creating beauty in cooperation with the Spirit and other talented artists.  Perhaps I might say that as a pastor this is where I experience worship.  On Sunday mornings, I am a worship leader - I am moved and touched by the Spirit, to be sure; but it is different.  In a musical ensemble, when it all comes together it is pure grace that I can only savor and honor and then let it go.
And that means I am VERY selective about who is part of the band, right?  Because in addition to their talent, I want and need people who are kind and open and authentically compassionate. 

I don't need prima donnas or musical bullies - I've been those people and need help in letting them die their natural deaths.  I don't need musicians who are only in it for the sake of the performance either; there is something truly healing that takes place each week when our band gathers to practice. We check in with one another, we laugh, we encourage and we leave knowing how to pray for the others.  It is a place of deep refreshment born of sharing sounds and affection.  How does the hymn put it? "I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I'll laugh with you?"  I experience that type of emotional intimacy with my band mates.  I trust them.  I honor them. I feel incomplete when they are not all present.  In many ways, they have become my living contact with the Body of Christ.

And when talented musicians come together with me to create beauty and joy - born of our trust and mutual love - the result is compassion.  The music we offer is about healing and hope.  It is about lament and challenge.  It is about the human experience seen through the eyes of faith. It is not about performance - even though we have high standards - because our music is not a product or a commodity to be bought and sold. It is a gift offered for the healing of the world.  And just as we have been strengthened and healed by the music, we trust that it holds that same gift for others, too.

So as I think about the three ensembles I play with - the Thanksgiving Eve band, the Jazz Ambassadors (who are ALL head and shoulders better musicians than me) and our church/community group called Between the Banks - each of these three realities are present.  Each band has pushed me to become a better musician.  Each band asks me to learn how to listen more and give more of myself, too.  And each band has pushed me towards a humility that I might not ordinarily own if just left to myself. 

I know that in planning and looking forward to the Thanksgiving Eve gig, I am very excited because it brings together some of my dearest musical colleagues who are also some of the brightest and most talented musicians I know. It truly is a little taste of heaven for me - bread for the journey - and all the rest. This is a time for serious practice with great artists - it is a time to be in the presence of loving and compassionate musicians - and it is a time to share our gifts and commitments with God and the wider community, too.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Deeper thoughts on why making music matters to me: part one

For the past two nights I have found myself "full to overflowing" with tears of joy and gratitude for the people in my life who share making music with me.  It has been a little overwhelming, but profoundly true:  they bring me such joy, wisdom, encouragement, challenge, hope and beauty that I physically feel blessed.  And I am talking about a genuine, palpable encounter with all that is "true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse." (Philippians 4:8)

So, once again I've started to think carefully about what seems to be taking place in these musical experiences and I sense that there are three broad truths:  I experience music as prayer, I enter into music making as a community of support and I share music as one expression of Christ's compassion.  And here's what I mean by prayer - community - and compassion...

Music as prayer:  I still remember vividly the first time I saw the Beatles on "the Ed Sullivan Show."  It was Sunday, February 9th 1964.  Like Little Steven Van Zandt of Springsteen's E Street Band, this was the moment when the heavens opened for me and life began to make sense.  I have often spoken of this time as my personal Pentecost - a time when the Holy Spirit communicated God's love with me in such a profound way that I was empowered to communicate that love to other's too - for that's what "speaking in tongues" is all about.  Sharing the grace of God in ways that communicate with others outside your tribe, group or clan.  Music - specifically the joyful and creative music of the Beatles - opened my eyes, heart and soul to what was best in life.  And at the same time, it gave me a way to connect my experience of joy and creativity with others.

A child asked me this morning, "So how long have you been playing bass guitar?" and I was reminded that I've been working at this bad boy for 45 years!  And for most of the 45 years, playing and sharing music has been a form of prayer for me - a way of being in communion with both the holy and the human - that has five discrete but inter-related parts.

+ One is ecstatic communion with the sacred - like a Sufi dancer - where playing music takes me into "a zone." In that place I am at peace and at rest with myself and the world while  also being completely engaged with the world, too.  It is a form of mystical abandon that can only be pointed towards with poems and pictures because it is totally experiential.  Think Coltrane or the Grateful Dead or Phish or trance or some ambient music and you're getting close!

+ A second prayer reality for me in music takes place through lament.  As Bono once said, "The Psalms are the first blues songs and King David the original blues wailer" in our tradition. The blues have always helped me express and experience the pain of the world, the sorrow of my life and the wounds of creation. The blues also help me share this sorrow with others and enter their hurt, too because sacred lament is never privatized and always a shared reality.  Think Miles Davis, Eric Clapton, BB King, the Allman Brothers, Nirvana or Billie Holiday and you're headed in the right direction here.

+ A third aspect of music as prayer happens for me through songs that point towards a "prophetic critique" of the world.  Like Isaiah's alternative vision of God's peaceful kingdom or Hosea's challenge to let "justice roll down like waters," there are musical equivalents that pose a challenge to the fear, greed and injustice of the status quo. There are folk protest songs - the most obvious connection with the Biblical prophets - but also trickster songs - think Zappa, Beck, Gil Scott-Heron and the best rappers - as well as portraits of an alternative community as found in the works of Sweet Honey in the Rock and Holly Near, the best of Jewel and Sarah McLachlan as well as the Eels and Jefferson Airplane.

+ The fourth prayerful truth that I've discerned in music is best expressed by the word "playful" - it has something to do with becoming my best self - learning NOT to take myself (or any one else) too seriously.  There is an aspect of joy here - and rest, too.  Learning to incarnate my broken but beautiful body with dance grooves is prayer in this sense.  Laughing at my foibles, too is a Zen-like prayer - and this is often where rap and country music shines.  Eminem is brilliant - so is Brad Paisley and Garth Brooks - and let's not forget the "shake your booty" brilliance of Cameo and Sly and the Family Stone.

+ And the fifth way I find music prayerful comes in the clearly "spiritual" songs that break into culture from time to time.  "Day by Day" and "O Happy Day" cut through the darkness on popular AM radio back in the day like true and holy light.  Same with some of the songs of Brooks and Dunn and Martina McBride.  Again, country music isn't afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve and I have been blessed over and over again by this truth.  Just dig the way that old tough Southern white guy, Trace Adkins, sings about surrendering to God in "Baptize Me in That Muddy Water" while being backed up with a Black gospel choir. Talk about counter-cultural! Or the way Brad Paisley challenges 21st stereotypes with his songs and videos.

There is more to say, but that's enough for today. Tomorrow I'll explore a little bit of what I mean and experience in music as a supportive community as well as a way of sharing something of Christ's compassion.  For now let me just return thanks to God for those songs and musicians:  my life has been changed. (Thanks, too, to Ben Garver's camera work over the years!  You rock my man!)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Poetry is language used with intensity...

I could be wrong, but I have a sense that this year's Thanksgiving Eve Festival of American Music and Poetry is going to be one of our best!  Those who read this blog often know that I've been doing music right before Thanksgiving ever since seeing Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in NYC at Carnegie Hall during my seminary years.  My daughters were tiny - 3 and 5 - but we ALL loved the gig.  And now, ever since that experience, I've tried to bring people together to sing and share American music in the spirit of that wonderful concert.  (Check out some of Pete and Arlo's recordings for a feel, ok?)

In Saginaw, MI I put together a very folky band called the Saginaw Rounders that brought people together - and that was sweet.  In Cleveland, OH one of my favorite times was when Dianne sang, "God Bless the Child" and my music director - who had been in undergraduate school with Dr. King - shared some great African American classical music - and some incredible rag time, too.  In Tucson, AZ the shows got bigger and more wild - my favorite being the benefit we did after Hurricane Katrina.  And now in Pittsfield, MA the groove keeps getting better and better.

And if last night's practice was a harbinger of things to come... watch out!  We've got country and gospel - we've got blues and folk - with hymns and folk anthems, too.  Add some great American poetry - and the original compositions that our indie singer/songwriters are going to bring - and as Frank Zappa once proclaimed on "Lumpy Gravy" - THIS IS GOING TO BE A VERY DYNAMITE SHOW, BARRY!  Sweet, sweet harmonies - incredible guitar, mandolin and piano - and a very mellow groove. (This clip from Gillian Welch is how this year's band is starting to feel... dig it!)

This morning I read these words in one of my favorite Eugene Peterson's anthologies:

Poetry is language used with intensity. It is not, as so many suppose, decorative speech. Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking - and our ears, dulled with too much chatter - miss around and within us.  Poets use words to drag us into the depths of reality itself, not by reporting on how life is, but by pushing-pulling us into the middle of it. Poetry gets at the heart of existence. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal. It is root language.  Poetry doesn't so much tell us something we never knew as bring into recognition what was latent or forgotten or overlooked.

This year - claiming the brilliant albeit emerging anti-greed critique of the Occupy Wall Street movement - we're sharing our take on this with the theme "Come On Up to the House." There will be poetry, there will be art and there will be sweet songs that proclaim:come on up and join this musical-mystical-poetic-creative-broken-joyful group of misfits who are searching for the best of life!  Come on up and don't waste anything that God has given you - the blessings or the sins - the hope or the darkness - the fears or the insights.  Just come on up to the house and find your seat at the banquet table of grace.

So dude - or dudess - if you are around on Wednesday, November 23rd at 7:30 pm - come on up to the house!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Really being church TOGETHER...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, October 30th.  This will be an inter-generational worship as well as the dedication of our Stewardship pledges for mission and ministry 2012.  The worship ministry team of First Church wanted very much to use the gift of a "fifth Sunday" do create a new worship experience.  They have recruited and shaped the form of this celebration to coincide with the close of our pledge drive.  There will be people of differing abilities and ages sharing Eucharist, young and old liturgists and an intentional sense of claiming the gift of God's community together throughout worship.  If you are in town, please join us at 10:30 am.

About 100 years ago, when I first started going to church I went with my mother and my aunts. It was an Episcopal church with a “high church” liturgy and I had no idea what was going on even though I was glad to be there with my family:  So, at first, I didn’t know when to stand up, sit or kneel. I didn’t know the prayers and songs that everyone else seemed to know by heart and felt a little awkward and left out. I didn’t know what to do with the prayer book or the hymnal. And I didn’t know what I was supposed get out of the whole thing so it just felt weird.

Now from that description of my earliest days in worship you might have noticed a few things that I want to talk about with you this morning about children and adults and worship:

• First did you notice that my family didn’t start taking me to church when I was just a baby? If they had even the things I didn’t understand would have felt natural to me as a child – just another part of our family’s rhythm of life like going to school, going shopping, going to visit grandma and poppa.

• Christian educator, John Westerhoff, writes that one of the best ways to help nourish a child’s awareness of faith is to bring him or her to worship as a baby. For in time, as our children become aware and engaged, they will be at home in the house of the Lord AND will want to belong: belonging is the key to a child’s faith, ok?

That’s why in today’s Bible story Jesus does three things when the crowd gathers to meet him: he feeds them, he has a conversation – not a lecture – with them and he tells them a story. Jesus is showing us how to nurture the faith of our children by encouraging the full participation of everyone in the community. Not just the adults – and not a segregated kiddie church – but the whole people of God together learning and sharing a sense of belonging to the Lord and God’s people.

• So let me ask you – children and adults – when did YOU first start to go to church?

• And who brought you?
Belonging is the key to a child’s faith – and I know that I didn’t really get into church and worship until I was in about the 4th grade. For those first few years it felt like I was a total outsider who was clumsy and stupid and I started whining and fussing about going to worship. But then, when we moved and started going to another church - and it became a whole family thing – with my dad singing in the choir and my brother and sister going with me to Sunday School while my mom went to worship, then it started feeling right.

When the whole family went together – and we met other people with children our own age – many of whom went to the same school, too – I remember feeling like I was starting to have a place that felt good and safe and special. I felt like I belonged.

• Are you with me?

• Belonging is the key to a child’s faith – that’s the first truth.

And the second is that we’re talking about a special kind of belonging: belonging to God’s people. I’m not talking about just belonging to the cub scouts or brownies – or a sports team or service group – or music lessons as important as all those things are, ok? No, I’m saying that a child’s faith is nourished by belonging to God’s people in community.

• As a part of a faith community, children learn that God is at the center of our lives – not our jobs, not our money, not our homes or anything else – God.

• As I’ve been saying to you over and over again this fall: we are about the kingdom of God NOT the kingdom of self – and that is a very counter-cultural commitment.

And children won’t learn this truth unless they feel like they belong – belong to God’s people – so how does this happen? So how do our children begin to feel like they belong to a community of the Lord?  Do you know that quote by the great – or not-so-great – Hebrew prophet Woody Allen? “Eighty percent of success,” he said “is just showing up.” And what is true in his field is at least as true for our children: showing up about 80% of the time is essential.

Now in saying that I’m not trying to be harsh or judgmental – people in the 21st century hate that kind of church – and I do, too. No, what I am saying is that if you really want to nourish a sense of faith in your children YOU as adults have to make a commitment to show up – and bring your children with you.

• Worship has to be at least as important as soccer – or baseball – or the science fair – or the prom, ok?

• Success is linked to showing up – and 80% of the time is a good goal – when it comes to a child’s faith.

Now let me ask you something about showing up: what are the ways we help our children feel like they belong to a community of God’s people when they show up? What are the things we do together that builds a sense of participation? Any ideas – let’s see if we can name some of them, ok?

• Music is one way we teach our children to participate – and where do we find the music of our faith?

• In the red hymnals – why don’t you grab one of them right now – and if you are seated with a child would you please help them find hymn number 304? 

“Jesus Loves Me” is a song every child should know – and it is a song every adult should help our children to know – so let’s make sure we are all literally on the same page…

Sing “Jesus Loves Me” a capella together

Let me tell the adults something: every week it would be a blessing if you helped a child find her or his place with the hymn book, ok? If we’re using the blue book, help them out. If we’re using the red one, make an effort to connect with them so that they can participate. And you can do the same thing with the worship bulletin, too.

• Learning how to enter the prayers – the silence – the offering – the passing of the peace and all the rest is another way we help our children experience a sense of belonging.

+ Do you hear what I’m saying? Showing up is crucial – so is being welcomed and encouraged.

That’s part of what Jesus was getting at when he told the people he welcomed about bread. Listen to this again:

Bread always has a story. One person helped the grain to grow, another person crushed the grain into flour, another person took the flour and baked it into bread. Then that same bread was eaten by someone else who was hungry. God loves each person in this story Jesus said. So, bread can help us remember how we are connected to one another and to the Lord every time we eat it. And when the people heard this truth from Jesus, they smiled and realized it was true.

What are some of the other ways we help one another feel like they belong here?

• Sunday School is one – do you know the names of our teachers? Let’s say them out loud and ask them to stand up: Janet Andrews, Nancy Tierney and Kelli Fyfe-Bruno.

• Can you think of another place where we help one another belong? At the communion table – where we actually take and bless and share bread – just like Jesus told us.

We call this communion – coming together with God and one another in community – and today we thought it was important to start making certain that all of God’s people helped out with the sharing of communion. So, we’re going to have some of our oldest members and some of our youngest members helping me serve communion.

• And did you notice who else was participating today? There were children and adults – old-timers and new-timers – boys and girls, women and men and all the rest.

• One of the gifts God has given to us is this community – lots of different people and different kinds of people – all here together. Not just parents and families, but single people and widowed people. Not just rich people but poor people and these working hard to keep things together and just scraping by. People with different abilities and gifts and strengths, too.

And there’s a reason for being together in community: together we can show one another God’s love. I can’t do it all by myself – neither can you. I don’t like or connect with some people – and while I try to love them – they need things I can’t give, right?

• But that’s ok because God has brought together others who CAN share love and listening and encouragement.  Knowing this is true, not only can I rest in God's love - I don't have to try to be God but can let God be God - but others in the community can be at rest too knowing that if they express a need someone here can and will meet them.  ((Now let me just add this caveat:  you have to articulate that need, ok?  No mind reading alowed or encouraged in the body of Christ.)

• In this way, we really are like bread – nourishment comes in different ways through different people – all to strengthen God’s love for us.

When we gather together – as God’s people – we are bigger than all our differences, all our wounds and all our fears. And that, beloved, is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A gathering of spirits...

Today was one of those days in ministry where everything was a surprise - and it was all good - just very different from what I had expected.  Isn't that often the way of the Spirit? (I love Bob Franke's commentary on scripture:  "The Spirit blows where she will... so beware of the man selling tickets!") I think back to the days when my children were little and I ached for a profoundly lovely and intensely "spiritual" encounter during our nightly Advent wreath ceremonies. But my girls were small - and human - and were more interested in lighting the candles than the ambiance or the mystery... and so things never measured up and I would always leave pissed off! I had such expectations back then - all of them unrealistic and inappropriate for little children (and maybe for myself) - mostly because I had such an aching need.

Thankfully, at almost 60, I don't feel the need to ache for my expectations so much any more.  Sure, I still have them - and love beauty and mystery, too - but most of the time when things don't go my way... well, that's mostly ok. I don't need to project my wound upon those I love. How does Psalm 131 put it?

O Lord, my heart is not proud :
nor are my eyes haughty.
I do not busy myself in great matters :
or in things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child upon its mother’s breast :
like a child on its mother’s breast is my soul within me.
O Israel, trust in the Lord :
from this time forward and for ever.

Well, the day started with three notes from people who shared worship with us yesterday - folks I was holding close in prayer - and each person sent me a word of encouragement and blessing. I was blown away:  yes, I felt that the Spirit was alive and present with us yesterday in a unique way - and so did they. 

Then, I read some of my Internet friends' blogs:  one of the most insightful commentators on the heart of the church these days is Blue Eyed Ennis.  I look forward to her postings and always learn something important.  She is wise and humble and has a wicked cool sense for music, too. Check her out @ utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+blogspot%2FNfXS+%28Blue+Eyed+Ennis%29

After spending some time with my totally wonderful secretary, Becky, I went off to a meeting that I was apprehensive about.  A colleague and I had a profound misunderstanding earlier this summer... and I was hurt and I know I was hurtful, too.  So, I really didn't want to talk this through, but knew it had to be done.  Well, it turned out tender and real and good.  I owned my shit - with tears - and it was reciprocated in the best possible way.  I left giving thanks to God.

And then, OMG, a man I worked with 20 years ago when I was a part of an inter-racial school board reform team in Cleveland - my old friend Chris - was coming through town with his bride of one year!  I haven't seen him in over 15 years! We once shared so much and fought so hard against corruption in the Cleveland Public Schools and for the poorest of the poor.  And then we went our separate ways... Thank God for Facebook... where we found one another again after too long... and we ate lunch and reconnected!  It was a total feast.  You can learn more about the work Chris is doing now @

My day ended with 10 people gathered in a circle wrestling with the lectionary texts for Advent 2011.  We only made it through Advent One - sin and darkness and watching - but it was rich and insightful.  Next week we'll try to get through the rest of the Advent texts in preparation for the counter-cultural challenge it offers to us all. 

All in all, it was a great day - a time of challenge and affirmation - a time of deep reunion and spiritual reflection - a time when I was surprised by grace!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Come on up to the house...

Back from a refreshing "wander" in Providence.  Wandering - with no plan except to discover the beauty and challenge of the moment - is food for my soul.  Spent a little time wandering through "Occupy Providence" and talking with one of the leaders who said, "Thanks, man, for wandering in and not being intimidated."  ("Damn," I thought, "these are my people!") Pictures to post of pumpkins and beautiful rivers, too.

I've started to work on the set list for Thanksgiving Eve. It is going to be a rockin' wildass sacramental event.  The theme - come on up to the house - says it all, too.

And as I was working on the set list I came across this poem by David Kirby that screams to be included in our  Festival of American Music and Poetry Thanksgiving Eve gig.  No insiders our outsiders here - no winners or loser either - just us in all our blessed, broken glory. It is called, "What Is Your Favorite Language?"

What's your favorite foreign language?" asks the cabbie,
and when I ask why, he says he knows "butterfly"
in 241 of them, so I say, "Okay, French!" and he says,

"Papillon!" and I say, "German!" and he says, "Schmetterling!"
and I'm running out of languages I know, so I say,
"Uh, Wolof!" because I'm reading a short story

where a woman speaks Wolof, and he says something in Wolof,
and the professor-y part of me wants
to say, You shouldn't call them foreign languages, you know,

because that means there's only one real language, but
I'd be saying that to him in our common
tongue, so it really wouldn't make sense unless I were chiding

him in, say, Wolof, a language in which he knows only
one word and I none. What's the best country?
Heaven, probably: as everyone knows, the cooks are French,

the mechanics German, the police English, lovers Italian,
and it's all organized by the Swiss, whereas
in Hell, the cooks are English, mechanics French, police

Germans, lovers Swiss, and everything is organized by the Italians,
which leaves out the Spanish,
though perhaps not, for the ancients say a man should speak

French to his friends because of its vivacity,
Italian to his mistress for its sweetness,
German to his enemies because it is forceful, and Spanish

to his God, for it is the most majestic of languages.
Hola, SeƱor! Okay if I put my suitcase
over here? Thank you for having me! Yes, I would

like to hear what they're saying in the other place, like "Dictators
over here" and "Corporate polluters
in this area" and "Aw, come on—another boring poet?"

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:...