Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Oh... NOW I get it...

Today didn't look busy on my calendar. (Yes, I still use a traditional calendar that I write things on rather than an electronic one. Not only is it cheaper to replace when I lose it - which happens from time to time - but I usually select ones filled with visual art.  My current calendar features the artists from my spiritual home in Canada known as the "Group of Seven.") The only thing on the calendar was midday Eucharist.  "Hmmm" thought I, "maybe I'll head out and visit some folk in their homes."  It wasn't to be...

First, there were phone calls and emails to respond to this morning - and office details. Then, at Eucharist, only two folks showed up.  "Hmmmm" thought I again, "maybe we should shorten things today; after all there are only two people here today." But for some reason I skipped the logic and just followed our Iona-inspired liturgy - complete with lectio divina - and it was one of the deepest and most theologically satisfying conversations we've had to date.  As one of the women said afterwards, "I don't know why but today really touched me."  And I said, "Who knows why, right... but me, too!"

Then I had a catch-up meeting with my musical director - I LOVE this guy - both professionally and personally.  He is SOOO talented and sensitive - soooo creative and fun - and we both trust and respect what the other brings to the table.  So we talked about Sunday and Christmas Eve and plans for the unfolding new year.  I was buzzing when we finished. While we were meeting, a couple very interested in church membership called and wondered if we might meet later today - and seeing that my calendar was clear - we set it up. And just when I thought I might grab a bite for lunch another church member wandered in "just to catch up." So an hour later, we had talked deeply about love, faith, prayer, drinking, women, health, friends, music, spiritual and professional growth. Who knew, right!?

Then the couple interested in membership rang the buzzer... and this, too became a rich and challenging theological conversation about biblical interpretation, living into God's grace in Christ and questions about sexuality, ethics and the wounds of fundamentalism.  OMG... for a day that looked so simple when it started it became saturated in profound and complicated questions about faith, hope and love.

When I left my office the sun had evaporated from the golden Berkshires and our hills were shrouded in darkness.  Driving home I gave thanks for the Christmas lights and hoped that I might get ours up by this weekend. (We're taking a mini-retreat to Brattleboro on Friday.) And just to top the day off, I was blessed to find that the Jewish Biblical scholar, Amy Jill Levine, will be in Western Massachusetts for the weekend of December 17-18th and was looking for a place to share her insights and do a book signing - for free - so I jumped on the chance and now THAT will happen, too!

The day came to a sweet and gentle close watching James Taylor on "Spectacle," the show Elvis Costello hosts.  Taylor is such a loving and clear-headed artist - whose music has been part of the soundtrack of my life - that I just sipped my red wine and wept a few tears of joy. As I have written many times before, my dear and beloved mentor, Ray Swartzback, used to say:  Pastoral ministry is an emotional roller coaster.  There is nothing else in the world like it so hold on to your hat!  And today that was true in spades.

(filmed at Pittsfield's "Colonial Theatre" - a place I got to play in this past Saturday with my buds in the Jazz Ambassadors.)


Advent 2011 - Day 4...

Today the early sun is bright in the Berkshires.  The browns and greys of the trees behind my house are broken only by the deep reds of wandering vines. The wind is soft and life feels gentle as the day opens. But the news of the day shatters any illusion that all is well:

+ The police in Los Angeles and Philadelphia swept away the Occupy camps in those cities under the protection of midnight.

+ England is riddled with a public employees strike as their diplomatic staff retreats from Iran after the siege of the British Embassy.

+ Reports of increasing hunger are noted in the US as more and more children need free lunches.

The ugly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq wind down, the starvation throughout the Horn of Africa continues and the stock markets continue their volatility in this age of hyper-connectivity.  Small children in my congregation are taken to the Emergency Room, older people sit in their haunting loneliness and even members of my own family suffer the ravages of disease and addiction.  And once again, Psalm 79 stands as the reading for the day:

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
We have become a taunt to our neighbours,
mocked and derided by those around us.

So what I think today is:  Yes, this is an ancient song of lament over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  AND it is also a cry of the human condition whenever and wherever greed trumps compassion, fear wins out over trust and bottom line considerations are the extent of our moral imagination. No wonder Psalm 79 is also coupled with Luke 21 for today:

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

Scholars say these words of Jesus actually come from the faith community after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 of the Common Era. Josephus reports that over one million people were killed during this war, another 97,000 were taken into captivity and countless others fled throughout the Levant as yet another chapter in the Diaspora unfolded. It was a time as bloody and horrible as anything in this generation.

Small wonder that these facts, however tragic, bring to mind the insights of the Buddhist-Jewish poet, Stephen Mitchell, in his commentary on Job (Into the Whirlwind.)  Mitchell reminds us that war and devastation, starvation and cruelty are not the exception to the human story, but rather the rule.  What's more, he writes that relying only on the optimistic poetry of the Hebrew Prophets is cruel: suffering is a fact of life.  So to construct a sense of hope based solely upon God's final destruction of suffering someday is delusional and mean-spirited.

Mitchell, in my reading, suggest another course. We may never be able to understand suffering; and we will surely never be able to banish it from history. The challenge, therefore, becomes what to do with this truth?  Some choose to become cynical while others retreat into blaming God or finding scapegoats. Faith as portrayed in Job, however, asks that we live into our hurt, anger and fear so deeply that the truth creates room in our hearts for trusting God, too.  Like the mystic Meister Eckhart said:  Reality is the will of God - it can always be better - but we must start with what is real.  (Sounds like the wisdom of AA, too.)

A few days ago I wrote that fear is the oppositie of faith.  Well, that is true, but don't confuse faith with a moral quality, ok?  That happens too often so that our fears make us feel like a moral failure.  If Job tells us anything, it is that fear and suffer are real - not Buddhist illusions - but facts of life that tear apart real flesh and blood.

I have come to believe that because faith is not a moral quality, sometimes it is purely a gift from God - but a lot of the time it  is more like a muscle than a gift - it has to be strengthened and practiced if it will mature.  Fear, as the old pracitioners of spiritual discpline would say, gives us a chance to do our homework and strenghten the muscle of faith.  That's what hits me this morning...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Returning more time!

Tonight's band practice was a ton of fun... and then we went out for a glass of wine and conversation and lots of laughs.  As we were leaving I said, "Lord, what a GREAT group of people.  Were we ever blessed by coming here?!"  Totally true... to be sure, there have been times when I felt like packing it in - and there have been times when I've been humbled and challenged - but tonight was sweet and I am so very, very grateful.
So let me post a few more Thanksgiving Eve pictures because the whole experience was so much fun.  We shared insights and concerns - and made some plans for Christmas Eve tonight - and finally put the whole event to bed.  With one caveat:  we don't want to wait another year before doing something like this again!  Rumor has it that Fat Tuesday has our name all over it... hmmmmm. Here's a picture of Dr. Jon - one of the finest vocal musicians we've ever worked with - and totally wonderful spirit. His enthusiasm and encouragement really helped carry the night.
The following group of people - from my dear brother Hal to the "ad hoc revelation gospel choir" - are just a gas to work and sing with.  They were good sports who worked their asses off to get about 10 songs down in just a few weeks. I have been blessed to love them all and find ways for us to share in the joy of making music together. Thank you Ben, Scott, Steve, Carol, Dave, Hal, Sue, Renee and Dianne.

The poet, Robert Phillips, put it like this in "Instrument of Choice."

She was a girl
no one ever chose
for teams or clubs,
dances or dates,

so she chose the instrument
no one else wanted:
the tube.  Big as herself,
heavy as her heart,

its golden tubes
and coils encircled her
like a lover's embrace.
Its body pressed on hers.

Into its mouthpiece she blew
life, its deep-throated
oompahs, oompahs sounding,
almost, like mating cries.
Now here was a delight:  the great local horn player, Rob Fisch, joined us for both practice and the show.  In fact, he took many of these pictures.  As he told me when the gig was done, "This was a win-win for everyone:  the church gets better known in the community, we all raise funds to help our neighbors and great musicians get a chance to play together in joy and respect.  There are NO losers."  I sense he was right and treasured the chance to do this gig with him.

The poet Shel Silverstien wrote:

If we were a rock 'n' roll band,
We'd travel all over the land.
We'd play and we'd
sing and wear spangly things.
If we were a rock 'n' roll band.

If we were a rock 'n' roll band,
And we were up there on the stand,
The people would here us and love us and cheer us.
Hurray for that rock 'n' roll band.

If we were a rock 'n' roll band,
Then we'd have a million fans.
We'd giggle and laugh and
sign autographs,
If we were a rock 'n' roll band.
If we were a rock 'n' roll band.
The people would all
kiss our hands.
We'd be millionaires and have extra long hair,
If we were a rock 'n' roll band.

But we ain't no rock 'n' roll band,
We're just seven kids in the
With homemade guitars and pails and jars
And drums of potato chip cans.

Just seven kids in the sand.
Talk'n and waven' our hands.
And dreamin' and thinkin' oh wouldn't it be grand,
If we were a rock 'n' roll band.

One of our singer's grandchildren is now speaking of "nana's rock band."  Pretty sweet and part of the magic of doing this gig is bringing together LOTS of different kinds of musicians and making it all work together.

Two more pictures... first Grahm Sturz and Linda Worster - two of the finest local folk musicians around - and Andy Kelly and Brian Staubach Gentle souls, boldly talented who powerful voices and guitar styles that wake your soul from the dead.  I LOVE these people and am so glad they could be a part of the merriment. The poet Rumi wrote: Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.

"Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.

At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it's not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty."

Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment

melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn

and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy

and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender

and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.

A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect

because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes

is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying

that they do. Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.

Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,

who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!

No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.

But if someone doesn't want to hear
the song of the reed flute,

it's best to cut conversation
short, say good-bye, and leave.
As you can tell, my heart and soul were nourished by this gig and I continue to cherish it and give thanks to God for all its blessings.  But that's enough... all good things must come to an end and so it is with this, too.  Thank you.

Psalm thoughts for the 3rd day of Advent...

Hmmmm now here's something I didn't expect:  the Revised Common Lectionary I am using for the daily Psalms of Advent have us reflecting and reading THE SAME Psalm 3 days in a row. I double-checked the home page and that is true so... there must be some method to this madness, yes? No harm in that... especially as a way of slowing down.

So, on the second day with this Psalm, here are a few additional thoughts:

+ Last night, at our new members orientation, a couple very new to the community - long alienated from the Roman church but unsure of other options - wondered about the nature of this first psalm.  "What's the context?  Without it this psalm just seems like whinging." That gave me pause:  how many other folk need context and interpretation when it comes to the Psalms?  There is truly a biblical illiteracy in so many of our churches - even the strictly fundamentalist ones - for so many reasons.  For this alone, I am grateful that we'll be reading the same Psalm for three days in a row.  It gives me a chance to offer a few words of historical and theological context in my weekly all-church email.

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
We have become a taunt to our neighbours,
mocked and derided by those around us.

+ Peterson urges us to read these "psalms of lament" carefully so that we learn to savor and embrace the totality of our lives.  Don't try to jump ahead of the story he warns.  "Don't skip the hard parts, erase the painful parts, detour around the disappointments. Lament - making the most of our loss without getting bogged down in it - is a primary way of staying IN the story (with God.)"  As I reread Psalm 79 I find that I am drawn to all the bodies scattered in the streets - bird food - desecrated and defiled.  I think of the people in my town trapped and torn by addictions. I think of the thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians who have been slaughtered in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 10 years.  I think of sisters and brothers in Syria being gunned down.  These are real bodies and the lament makes me weep over their real deaths... and well it should.

+ I also hear U2 singing "40" - their take on the heart of the psalms of lament - and how this song of sorrow simultaneously becomes a prayer of hope when chanted together by thousands with heart and soul in an arena nee Sanctuary. I have experienced becoming part of "one body" with  25,000 strangers as we wept this Psalm together and it became a sustained cry unto the Lord.

Last night, another man at the orientation told me that after we shared U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" this summer, he had a sense that his faith was real:  fear is the opposite of faith he said - not doubt or questions.  I think that's part of this Psalm, too: wrestling with fear in the context of both a deep fidelty and confusion.

Tonight there is band practice - we'll work on a few things - and then go out afterwards for a brew:  more celebration than practice.  I think that living into the celebration is part of the balance these laments ask of us. Life is short and precious and often very hard.

Why waiting matters to me...

NOTE:  Here are this week's worship notes for Sunday, December 4th - Advent II 2011. I am working with the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary including Isaiah 40, II Peter and Mark I. This week's theme explores "waiting" while the next two weeks will look at why John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary matter to us as 21st people of faith.

In every age – in every culture and context – there are a few things that draw all people together beyond our differences. One is the fact that we all have to eat. Have you ever thought about that? Beyond the confines and complexities of your nationality, race, class, gender and religion, all people in all times and places have to eat.

• We don’t all eat the same foods, of course, but we have all been created in such a way that eating is essential. It is something we all share and hold in common and, as such, is worthy of theological reflection.

• Why did God make us this way and what does that mean for how God wants us to live? (I’ve been thinking about exploring this very question during Lent – the great Fast – as it is the discipline designed to ready us for the great Feast of Easter. We’ll see, yes?)

Well, another thing that we all have in common is that every person ever born – in whatever country or condition – hates to wait. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you are four months or four score and seven years old, we hate to wait. And the fact that this hatred seems to be a constant in the human condition has encouraged some theological reflection, too. 

• That is one of the reasons for the seasons of the church calendar, right? 

• Whether you pay careful attention or not, if you spend any time in a congregation that honors the movement of the Holy Spirit from Advent to Christmas, Lent to Easter, Eastertide to Pentecost and the long months of so-called Ordinary Time, you have experienced a unique vision for living.

Christian educator and author, Gertud Mueller-Nelson, puts it like this in her brilliant book, To Dance with God:

By celebrating through the structure of the Church year, we are given the forms we need to become whole… and the formulas to make whole every human experience… it takes some creative imagination, to be sure, and some practice… but through the celebration of these sacred mysteries we find new meaning in the inexplicable and a worthy container for what we realize in our hearts.

That is to say, the rhythm and movement of the Church year gives us a way to practice living into the grace of Jesus Christ so that what is ordinary might become extraordinary: what is human might become holy, what is broken might be blessed and what is afraid might become faithful.

Have I made that clear – am I communicating with you? What I’m trying to say is that living into the seasons of the spirit gives us a way of practicing a variety of sacred disciplines that are all designed to help us live into God’s truth in our everyday, walking around lives. That is part of why we read the prophetic word offered today by the Hebrew poet Isaiah when he proclaimed:

“Comfort, oh comfort my people… speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem, but also make it very clear that she has served her sentence, that her sin is taken care of—forgiven! "Prepare now for God's arrival! Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God. Fill in the valleys, level off the hills, smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks. Then God's bright glory will shine and everyone will see it… just as God has said.

God’s comfort comes both through the generous gift of grace as well as through our practice of the sacred but all too ordinary discipline that is at the heart of the Advent season: learning how to wait well. You see, Advent asks us why waiting matters as a person of faith: How might we use the fact that we all hate it to move closer to the Lord? It also asks us how waiting can actually create opportunities to share love and light with others within the darkness of our generation. 

Sixty years ago, from a Nazi prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these prescient words that still sound true to new century people:

Celebrating Advent means being able to wait: Waiting is an art that our impatient age has forgotten... Whoever does not know the austere blessedness of waiting – that is, of hopefully doing without – will never experience the full blessing of fulfillment. Those who do not know how it feels to struggle anxiously with the deepest questions of life, of their life, and to patiently look forward with anticipation until the truth is revealed, cannot even dream of the splendor of the moment in which clarity is illuminated for them.

And what about these words from four thousand years ago as articulated in Psalm 37? Beloved, be still before the Lord and wait patiently upon him… do not fret… but trust in the Lord and do good? Waiting, it would seem – and learning to wait well – clearly has something to do with solidarity and compassion, yes? It is one of the ways we realize beyond all our differences and divisions that we have a lot more in common with one another than we might think: waiting can be the Lord’s great unifier if we are paying attention.

Not long ago I read a blog by Rachel Evans – she is a creative, young evangelical woman – who was writing about the ways Christians in the United States might discover common ground rather than deepen our carping and complaining. In particular she was addressing the way liberals and conservatives so easily slip into the blinders of binary thinking – putting on the ugly either/or ultimatums of the world – rather than the paradoxical grace of Jesus when it comes to our questions about sexuality.

• “Don’t we ALL believe that Christ calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves?” she asked with a penetrating innocence. “What about the fact that we ALL sin and fall short of grace – don’t we share that in common, too?”

• And isn’t the entire Bible more interested in justice for the poor, peace-making among enemies, sacrificial love and grace-born forgiveness than being right about who shares your bed in love?

Her point was simple – and essential – for people of faith: when there are things we do not fully understand – and sexuality is a big one (and I mean ALL aspects of sexuality) – why not spend more time sharing the life of Christ that we do know and learning to wait on all the rest? Like St. Paul advised: Now we see as through a glass darkly – only later shall we see face to face – therefore three things abide – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of the three is… love.

The first insight of an Advent spirituality of waiting is that it encourages, deepens and invites holy compassion. St. Peter put it like this today:

Don't overlook the obvious here, friends. With God, one day is as good as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day. God isn't late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn't want anyone lost. He's giving everyone space and time to change.

The second insight suggests that waiting helps us practice surrender – letting go – trusting that God is God and we are not really in control. Again, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson has a sweet take on this truth. “Waiting, because it will always be with us, can be made a work of art – and Advent invites us to underscore and understand with a new patience…”
… the importance of seeking balance and harmony in our everyday lives. Much of our world is organized around the masculine perspective of getting things done. In fact, male or female, most of us connect waiting with wasting. But… and listen carefully: waiting – while unpractical time – is mysteriously necessary to all that is good.

As in a pregnancy, nothing of value comes into being without a period of quiet incubation: not a healthy baby, not a loving relationship, not a reconciliation, a new understanding, a work of art, never a transformation. Rather, a shortened period of incubation brings forth what is not whole or strong or sometimes even alive. Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating and gestating are all the feminine processes of becoming and they are symbolic of what we all need in order for our lives to have meaning and balance.

Are you still with me? Advent waiting asks us to enter the quiet of watching rather than controlling – baking and brewing rather than buying – so that we might make waiting an art. That is why we listen to the story of John the Baptist every Advent: Israel had waited for 1000 years for another prophet-poet to arise.

• Did you hear that? Not 10 minutes waiting in a grocery store line or 5 minutes when some computer puts your phone call on hold and you have to listen to insipid Christmas music. 

• One thousand years: that’s the time Israel waited between the prophecy as recorded in the last book of the Bible – Malachi – and the new revelation brought forth by the Baptist.

The second insight of an Advent spirituality of waiting has to do with letting go so that we become open to the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of self:

Don't overlook the obvious here, friends. With God, one day is as good as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day. God isn't late with his promise as some measure lateness. He is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn't want anyone lost. He's giving everyone space and time to change.

And the third insight builds on the others: if we sense that waiting can open us to compassion and show us that we are not in control, then we just might have eyes to look for the Lord in the most unlikely places. I’m going to speak specifically about why John the Baptist matters to us next week but let me cut to the chase about what Mark’s gospel tells us when it comes to the Baptizer. We want to hear a definitive word from the Lord. We want the sacred wisdom of the heavens with all the angels and Mark asks us to listen for God’s good news in a very different way. Bible scholar, Karoline Lewis, writes that in Mark’s gospel we don’t find God’s good news in Jerusalem – the heart of power and culture – but rather it appears:

Out in the in the wilderness where the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to meet John the Baptist…The opening of Mark's Gospel reminds us of the decentering of God's good news which is found on the edge...of everything. It goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be. We find ourselves not in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but outside of her city walls, in the margins, on the sidelines. The good news of God brings hope to those who find themselves in the peripheries of our world, but it also belongs there. God's good news of grace announces God's presence on the fringe, God's love that goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be and God's promise that there is no place on earth God will not go or be for us.

And while that can be maddening and confusing, it should also be good news for people like you and me. Because, you see, now it means there is hope for us – room for us – grace coming into our most unexpected, broken, wild and discarded places. 

There is much more to be said, but… let’s wait, ok? For such is the good news for today. Let us pray:

O God of hope, you call us from the exile of our sin with the good news of restoration; you build a highway through the wilderness; you come to us and bring us home. Comfort us with the expectation of your saving power, made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

4) lumsden

Monday, November 28, 2011

A few thoughts on Psalm 79 in Advent...

The Psalm for this second day of Advent, Psalm 79, is another aching lament:  the holy city of Jerusalem has been sacked, people have been left to rot in the streets and another massive group of Jewish citizens have been taken in shame into captivity in Babylon. This is the second enslavement of the intellectuals, religious elite and middle class of ancient Israel - and it is clearly devastating.

O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
   they have defiled your holy temple;
   they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of your servants
   to the birds of the air for food,
   the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
They have poured out their blood like water
   all around Jerusalem,
   and there was no one to bury them. 
We have become a taunt to our neighbours,
   mocked and derided by those around us.

How long, O Lord? Will you be angry for ever?
   Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?

I am struck by a few things in this psalm of lament.  The first begins with Eugene Peterson's observation that 70% of the psalms are laments - and our contemporary culture is very uncomfortable with such raw grief.  Peterson writes:

King David faced everything and he prayed everything. He neither avoided, denied or soft-pedaled any of it... The contrast with our contemporary culture is appalling. We have a style of print and media journalism that reports disaster endlessly and scrupulously: crime and war, famine and flood, political malfeasance and societal scandal... In the wake of whatever has gone wrong or whatever wrong is done, commentators gossip, reporters interview, editors pontificate, Pharisees moralize and then psychological analyses are conducted, political reforms initiated, academic studies funded. And there is not one line of lament.  

There is no lament because truth is not taken seriously, love is not taken seriously. Human life does not mater as life, God-given, Christ-redeemed, Spirit-blessed life.  it counts only as "news." There is no dignity to any of it - it is trivialized.
Not so with this psalm:  the mourner cries out in agony to the Lord, "How long...?" How long will you, O Lord, be angry with us for our sins?  When will grace come and compassion soothe our wounds?  How much longer must we endure both pain and shame?  How long?  I know that I wonder, "how long" while watching what other nations report about the American spirit.  Over the weekend the leading newspaper in Turkey ran endless reports about the greed and violence Black Friday evoked throughout the United States.  Add to this the American obsession with guns and violence - death as entertainment - and a vicious, ugly picture of my beloved America comes into focus.  And, sadly, it is a tragedy of our own making - and I pray, "How long, O Lord, how long?"

Second, it seems as if the time has come for American Christians to embrace the wailing tradition of lament that is such a part of the Jewish soul.  This psalm is prayed every Friday at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and I wonder if it ought not become required prayer for those of us who follow Jesus in the United States, too?  As Douglas John Hall has written, the disestablishment of mainstream Protestant Christianity is a blessing:  we can now let go of some of our cultural baggage and join Jesus with the broken and oppressed.  We are no longer part of the social elite so we are liberated to live into our conscience rather than protect our status.

This is much more complicated to do when your religion is still part of the establishment.  I think of the on-going controversy in London over the Occupy protesters at St. Paul's.  Clearly the existing church leadership heard the voice of Jesus in the presence and critique of the young, non-violent and counter-cultural  community encamped around the beloved cathedral. They welcomed them - and encouraged them - and fed and loved them.  But the city politicians - with tax revenue to be gained at old St. Paul's - would not let themselves hear Jesus lamenting, "When did we see they hungry and ignore you, Lord?"  They had too much to protect - and so the battle continues.

I think of St. Leonard Cohen...

And third I hear in this lament a cry for justice and compassion - this is bigger than simply one person's prayer - it is a petition offered for the whole people of God.  The poet Alicia Ostriker once wrote:  "When I can't stand political and journalistic rhetoric any longer, I turn to poems. I don't believe poetry is therapeutic, but I do think it is diagnostic. Poems clarify, whether we like it or not. Here are some I have gathered, from various sources. May they be useful to others." This one, by Stephen Dunn called "To a Terrorist," touched my heart. 

For the historical ache, the ache passed down
which finds its circumstance and becomes
the present ache, I offer this poem

without hope, knowing there's nothing,
not even revenge, which alleviates
a life like yours. I offer it as one

might offer his father's ashes
to the wind, a gesture
when there's nothing else to do.

Still, I must say to you:
I hate your good reasons.
I hate the hatefullness that makes you fall

in love with death, your own included.
Perhaps you're hating me now,
I who own my own house

and live in a country so muscular,
so smug, it thinks its terror is meant
only to mean well, and to protect.

Christ turned his singular cheek,
one man's holiness another's absurdity.
Like you, the rest of us obey the sting,

the surge. I'm just speaking out loud
to cancel my silence. Consider it an old impulse,
doomed to become mere words.

The first poet probably spoke to thunder
and, for a while, believed
thunder had an ear and a choice


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent thoughts...

And so it begins:  Advent 1 is upon us.  Here are some random thoughts as this reflective season ripens...

+ Last night I watched a TV broadcast of a local Roman congregation using the new Catholic Sacramentary.  It seemed rather stilted and awkward to me, but the young priest is very committed to being a good soldier so I'm sure he'll make it work.  Still, I was struck by the convoluted nature of the Eucharistic Prayer - very confusing - and the insistence on using the word "chalice" time and again. Man, did that strike a sour note in my soul. To hear Jesus supposedly speaking of the "chalice" not only sounded more like the current Magisterium than the Lord to me, but was waaaay too imperial for my maturing earthy spirituality.

To be sure, I am steeped in the language and theology of Vatican II with its "clean, simple and elegant" liturgy. And I am a totally Reformed pastor, too who resonates with the down to earth language of Iona. I guess the best I can say is that I trust the Lord more than any institutional manifestation; because in spite of the Church - Roman and Reformed and Orthodox - Christ is alive within and among us regardless of the words we use.  Good luck, sisters and brothers, it will be a LONG time before I can get my head and heart around the new words!

+ I have started an Advent discipline of praying the Psalms of the season.  Today began with Psalm 80 which has been described as a communal lament.  It is appropriate that Advent begin with a lament, yes?  Apparently, 70% of the psalms are laments - a fact that Peterson says escapes contemporary society.

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!

Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn
of our neighbours;
our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.

Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted.

They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;

may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon notes that three different times the Psalm asks God to restore or convert us.  "Neither conversion nor salvation is a once-and-for-all thing in Holy Scripture, where the often repeated command to 'repent' appears invariably in the Greek present imperative tense. This grammatical form means something much closer to 'keep on repenting."

I asked the people in worship this morning to join me in praying the Psalms of Advent - and a number took home the lectionary for this season - because this is yet another way we can be God's people together.  The Psalm speaks of God's people as both a flock and a vine - a community under the care of a shepherd - and a vine transplanted from the oppression of Egypt to the freedom on the Promised Land.  "What is the condition of our vine?" asks the Reverend Donald Collins.  This is not just a personal question - although it is fine to start there - but also a congregational and national inquiry, too?

As I watched the Fox News version of feminism last night, one of the female commentators said something like, "And just to prove how morally bankrupt the Occupy Wall Street movement is, imagine this:  they actually called for us to boycott Black Friday!  Stat home instead of shop!  Well, we NEED to be doing MORE shopping because our economy is in the dumpster and they are asking people to stay at home."  Imagine... NOT buying more unnecessary junk!  Imagine... NOT fighting with a stranger over a box of towels - or a $200 flat screen TV - in a big box store!  Imagine... NOT needing a security guard to pepper spray you while Christmas shopping because you act more like a badger with a carcass than women and men created in God's image!  Imagine...

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The saturday BEFORE Advent...

It is the Saturday before Advent and this morning I participated in the closing of "Pittsfield 250" with the "Good Neighbor" awards ceremony.  One of my band mates, Brian, was honored - along with 25 others - who quietly and lovingly care for those in need throughout the wider community.  The jazz band played a few closing tunes, too. Then it was off to church to clean the Chancel and join with about 8 others in getting the Sanctuary ready for Sunday:  Advent 1.  We will be doing a "hanging of the green" ceremony tomorrow that not only explains the why of each decoration (Advent wreath, blue paraments, candles, etc.) but also involves adults and children in actually decorating the church during worship.  It should be fun.

I love this season and will be praying the Psalms as part of my commitment to watching and waiting.  Anyone want to join me?  (Check it out @

There are some wonderful resources for Advent on the web and some of my favorites include:

+ Advent, Christmas and Epiphany @

+ The good folk at TextWeek @

+ Pause for a Thought from Iona @

+ Pray as You Go @

+ Churches for Middle East Peace @

I also hope to be reading some new poetry during Advent, too.  Here's one by Taha Muhammad Ali:

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people's hearts.

The preparations have been made ~ so let the waiting begin...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thanksgiving ripens...

Things come together... they fall apart, too but often they come together in ways that are magical and healing.  As part of my Thanksgiving commitment, I'm going to post a few of the comments my Thanksgiving Eve band mates sent me since we played together on Wednesday night. They are words of gratitude born of a shared sacred moment. We could never purchase or earn such a gift - only receive it openly and revel in its beauty while it lasted - and then return thanks. Here are their words (with a little commentary.)

+ "We couldn't do that again if we tried... even if we sat down right now to score what we think took place we could never do it again. It was sweet in the moment - and then gone." (A few instrumentalists talking about adding embellishments and riffs to a vocalist's tune that took us all into the heavens for about 5 minutes.)

+ "It was awesome last night... and I am berry thankful to be a part of that family and would love to participate more often if there is a place for that."  (An affirmation about the love experienced in this unique community of musicians.  And believe me, there IS a place for that more often so stay tuned!)

A host of the musicians expressed their gratitude for both great music and the loving community we encountered:

+ I truly love the sense of community I feel with you all... I am still flying high from the concert last night. Playing music with you all is profoundly sweet and I am thankful for the opportunity to share that with each of you. There were lots of amazing musical moments! Today, I feel full of gratitude... and thrilled that we were able to raise so much money for such a worthy cause.

+ Let me add my thanks to you all for the great people you are and being a part of such a collectively sweet time: an oasis - such a joy sharing in the music with you all. It gets better and better every year!   Be safe and have a meaningful and fun Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year...I look forward to seeing you next year or better yet, sooner!

+ Sun is up....Thanksgiving feast with family was bountiful and beautiful....and, our Rolling Thunder Revue is still playing thru my brain.  What a great night it was...and, what a great bunch of folks you all are.  Such a privilege to join you.

Well, it was a privilege - a great blessing shared and received with grace and awe - for like St. Paul (McCartney) said: "in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." Two other comments explored something that is close to my heart - the flow of a show - and Dianne and I have been laughing about this for a few days.  When we got home after the gig she said, "Most people have NO idea how hard you work on a set list, do they?  They just experience things flowing together so that it all builds to the climax. And they think it happen automatically or by accident.  Little do they know that you STUDY set lists!"

It is true:  I DO study set lists - and they've become an odd way of being prayerful about our gigs.  I want to discern what makes a show soar - or fall flat?  What do artists like Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, U2 or Over the Rhine know about that unique flow of trusting the Spirit and planning?  I diagram the set lists of successful concerts to visualize the arch of the emotions and music.  And then I pray - and diagram - the songs in our set list taking note of the individual artists and the group songs.  And I revise and revise and revise.

+ Words are not quite adequate to describe the joy and pride I felt in being a part of Wed night, so I won’t really try. All those gifted musicians coming together and the final results so magical... I’ll share and create music with the 2 of you anytime under any circumstances.  

+   I am so very happy that I was able to take part in the great music making with old friends and new. And a big shout out to King James for leading us through a heartfelt and seamless production(We were laughing afterwards that I ran the show like Springsteen - no ambiguity about when we started, when we ended or who was in charge - and how that really helped 23 musicians on stage play as one band!)

Check out Dianne's take on the gig @

One of my favorite poems, "A Man Lost by a River," by Michael Blumenthal brings it home:

There is a voice inside the body.

There is a voice and a music,
a throbbing, four-chambered pear
that wants to be heard, that sits
alone by the river with its mandolin
and its torn coat, and sings
for whomever will listen
a song that no one wants to hear.

But sometimes, lost,
on his way to somewhere significant,
a man in a long coat, carrying
a briefcase, wanders into the forest.

He hears the voice and the mandolin
he sees the thrush and the dandelion,
and he feels the mist rise over the river.

And his life is never the same,
for this having been lost -
for having strayed from the path of his routine,
for no good reason.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

The poet, Mary Oliver, has written a "Prayer" in the form of a poem:

May I never not be frisky,
May I never not be risque.

May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,

leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,

still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world.

How to express thanks on this day?  Last night's concert was one way that has become dear to my heart.  There were little girls dancing in the church.  Think about that:  little girls - the essence of the feminine - dancing - moving their bodies with innocent abandon - in church - a place that is all too often anti-feminine, anti-body and certainly uncomfortable with movement. (Old joke:  why do Baptists never make love standing up?  It looks too much like dancing!)  Little boys were playing instruments with old men. People were shouting and singing - clapping and praying, too - because this was a musical feast grounded in grace and beauty.

And at times, it felt almost magical. Everyone felt it - well, maybe not everyone because the show DID go on for two and a half hours - but almost everyone felt it and stayed around to the joyful conclusion. I know they felt it because not only did we raise more than $2000 for emergency fuel assistance (twice our goal) but people didn't want to leave.  Afterwards they hung out and talked and laughed and just went deeper into the groove. 

There was a palpable spirit of compassionate cooperation in the air and when it took shape in improvisation, the jazz guys - who are masters in their field - connected with the rockers and folkies and lifted ALL our souls into a higher place. The vocalists did the same thing as time and again they jumped into songs they'd never heard before with harmonies that were inspired. As one old timer said to me, "You can't tell me there isn't a love and power greater than ourselves after tonight because... I felt it!" 

We closed the show with all the singers and musicians singing couplets from both the Band's "The Weight" and Jim Boyd's "Million Miles Away."  That was so moving - and afterwards people said to me that hearing how each person interpreted their two lines - and then blended them into the whole - was soul food. I felt much the same way over and over.

For 30 years I have been doing these gigs - and this one was total grace.  (The other remains our post-Katrina benefit in Tucson - and I heard from some of that band last night, too via FaceBook!) Most of the time, in years past, I have gotten too tense about these gigs so that while I loved the final experience, they exhausted me.  And I sometimes became sharp around the edges. I remember one of the first shows in Michigan when I almost decked a guest singer. True, he was a total asshole with no social skills, but then so was I... and I was the band leader!  It was almost like being back in high school when I didn't know what to do with my "big" feelings that were all in competition with my other big feelings. (In fact, I once did deck two of my best friends back in the day. And while there was tons of "boy" energy flowing, there was also way too much tension inside me, too.)

Anyhow, these Thanksgiving gigs have sometimes evoked those old demons and fears where I emphasized the"performance" aspect too much and not trusted the practice and God's presence enough.  But when we came here I vowed that those old ways had to be put away - they may have once been useful, but now no longer served any good purpose - and as a sign and symbol of my repentance, I took off my watch and put it away.  I need to rest and trust the Lord rather than the clock and all it represents.

Trust - and rest - (and feasting and grace) have shaped these later days of ministry - and I am thankful for their presence in my life. Those two commitments were abundantly clear in last night's show.  We worked hard - a good 6 weeks of practice - but by show time the WHOLE group had never once played together.  And still it all came together seamlessly - even the few minor glitches turned into times for grace - so that we were all blessed.  And I mean that word - blessed - a word with origins in marking a place with blood to honor its sacredness.  We gave our time and effort for the greater good - our blood - and trusted that God would do the rest.  Bless eventually borrowed another meaning from the Old English, "bliss," and that was present, too: sharing and pronouncing a deep joy.

I am thankful that I have been given the grace - and the time - to grow deeper in trust and rest. Mary Oliver wrote another poem, "Hallelujah" that speaks to my new experience with our Thanksgiving shows - and our practice of this feast day - like this:

Everyone should be born into this world happy
   and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent life clamoring toward it.
Hallelujah, anyway I'm not where I started!

And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
   almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
   and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
   is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years?

Hallelujah, I'm sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.

Today, we're sitting around in our PJs, sipping tea, reading the NYTimes, napping and cooking a slow, quiet feast. It is a time filled with gratitude.

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:...