Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Come on up to the house...

Raised up... to serve

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, February 5, 2012.  For the next few weeks leading up to Lent, I will be reflecting on different aspects of our mission statement. This week I look at what it means to be a "gathered community."
To live as a person of faith is risky business. Faith asks us to move beyond our comfort zones into mission, it encourages us to place our addictions and
wounds in God’s hands in exchange for grace and it invites us to let go of our small realities so that we might live more fully within the awesome presence of God’s kingdom.  “Every day,” writes Eugene Peterson, “I am asked to put faith on the line."

You see, I have never seen God. And in a world where nearly everything can be weighed, explained, quantified, subjected to psychological analysis and scientific control I am asked to persist in making the center of my life
a God whom no eye hath seen, nor ear heard and whose will no one can probe.  That’s risky business…

To some this risky business seems foolish – to others it appears to be a waste of time – to some faith is just embarrassing and for still others it is downright offensive. That’s what St. Paul is saying to us in this morning’s reading from I Corinthians 4.

It seems to me that God has put us who bear his Message on stage in a theater in which no one wants to buy a ticket. We're something everyone stands around and stares at, like an accident in the street. We're the Messiah's misfits. You might be sure of yourselves, but we live in the midst of frailties and uncertainties.

You might be well-thought-of by others, but we're mostly kicked around. Much of the time we don't have enough to eat, we wear patched and threadbare clothes, we get doors slammed in our faces, and we pick up odd jobs anywhere we can to eke out a living. When they call us names, we say, "God bless you." When they spread rumors about us, we put in a good word for them. We're treated like garbage, potato peelings from the culture's kitchen. And it's not getting any better.  

Faith – a life lived in the real world but guided by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – is risky business.  And that’s fundamentally why God gave birth to the church – all churches and any church – Roman Catholic or Protestant, Anglican or Orthodox – liberal or fundamentalist, traditional or post-modern.

The church is, as we say in our mission statement, a gathered community: individuals who are bound together with other individuals and God to become a gathered community.  And that’s what I want to talk about with you today:  what it means to be a gathered community in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 

Throughout February – in anticipation of Lent – I’ve sensed it would be wise to carefully revisit and review with you just what our mission statement tells us about how God is calling us to  live into our faith.  Because, you see, there is some confusion about what it means to live together faithfully as God’s gathered community.  Our mission statement puts it like this: 
In community with God and each other we gather to worship, to reflect on our
Christian faith, to do justice and to share compassion.

And each of those points – gathering together in community, worshipping, reflecting, doing justice and sharing compassion – matters. So I’m going to try to give some shape and form to each of these five commitments over the next few weeks so that we might deepen both our conversation about and commitment to the risky business of being Christ’s gathered community of faith
in our generation, ok?
And there are two key insights I want to emphasize for us today that come from the story of Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law as it is recorded in the gospel of St. Mark. First, I want to explore what the Lord’s act of healing tells us about being a gathered community. And second I want to consider what this woman’s response to being healed might mean for us, too.

So what’s going on just below the surface of this story about a healing? Well, I think at least the following warrant some consideration:

+ First, it would appear that the “starting point of Jesus’ public ministry begins outside of the synagogue and in the home of a disciple” (Seasons of the Spirit, “Sustaining Ministry,” p. 150) in a place where the faithful have gathered.

+ They have not scattered to get their own fast food, they have not run off to consult their individual Smart Phones, they have not left one another behind to do their own thing: rather the set-up of this story is that the disciples have gathered together in community for a shared meal.

Now think about this out loud with me, ok?  When you put on a supper for your friends – when you have guests over for either a feast or even a spontaneous pizza – what are some
of the elements that go into making this meal good?  Somebody has to get the food, right?  And cook it – or at least pick it up and serve it, yes?

+ What else?  Somebody has to set the table – somebody has to pour the drinks – somebody has to clean up?  Anything else?

+ Somebody has to enjoy the meal – and give thanks for the gathering – and unless the party is a total bust, people are talking with one another and visiting and listening and a whole lot more.

That’s the first thing that happens in Mark’s gospel – and Mark is the first written gospel, too – so it tells us that the starting point of Christ’s public ministry is a gathered community of faith.  In fact, Jesus goes out of his way to gather the disciples together – calling them by name – and then inviting them beyond the synagogue into a home.  This is not about a bunch of spiritual tourists – who show up from time to time – or a random collection of strangers:  this is about a gathered community.

And interestingly, before the gathered community can be nourished what happens? Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is taken to her sick bed with a fever. Could it be that whenever the faithful gather in community some are in need of healing?  Some are wounded?  Some are afraid? We don’t know anything about her illness, just that she has been separated from the community and unable to do her work.

And she had work to do, right?  She was most likely in charge of getting supper on the table – nourishing the gathered community – or at the very least making certain the food was served. So what does the text tell us Jesus did when confronted by her illness?  He takes her hand and “raises her up.”
Hmmmmm… now things are getting interesting:  Jesus raises her up.  This is the same word – egeiro – that Mark uses at the end of his story when Mary and Salome and Mary Magdalene go to Christ’s tomb after the crucifixion and find that the tomb is empty.  Chapter 16 tells us:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so they could embalm him. Very early on Sunday morning, as the sun rose, they went to the tomb. They worried out loud to each other, "Who will roll back the stone from the tomb for us?" Then they looked up, saw that it had been rolled back—it was a huge stone—and walked right in. They saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed all in white. They were completely taken aback, astonished. He said, "Don't be afraid. I know you're looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the One they nailed on the cross. He's been raised up; he's here no longer. You can see for yourselves that the place is empty. Now—on your way. Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You'll see him there, exactly as he said."

Are you still with me?  Do you see what is being shared here about the healing Christ bringour gathered community? A healing that restores a person to their calling in the community – a healing that allows them to share their gifts and work fully – is like unto the Lord’s resurrection.  One scholar put it like this: “New strength is imparted to those laid low by illness, unclean spirits, or even death, so that they may again rise up to take their place in the world.” (WorkingPreacher.org, Sarah Henrich)

This is a powerful theme, beloved:  time and again Jesus goes out and gathers us together to restore us to our right place in the world.  That’s one of the insights for us to embrace about being together as God’s gathered community.  And the second comes by observing how Simon Peter’s mother-in-law acts after being raised up.

Mark writes that after her fever left her, immediately she got up and served them.  And once again the word Mark uses is instructive:  diakeno.  Sound familiar?  The word deacon comes from this verb – to serve – and Jesus uses it in Mark’s gospel to describe himself when he says:

You've observed how godless rulers throw their weight around," he said, "and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads.  It's not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage." The one who was laid low is raised up to… serve.

And we are called to serve in community because community is where our rough edges can be worn off. Community is where we bump into our own crankiness and selfishness and learn how to ask for forgiveness – if we’re paying attention. Community is where we are raised up to serve – a totally counter-cultural learning experience – that takes most of our lives to get right.  Most of us, on our own, don’t want to become servants. Or if we do, we want to serve on our own terms.  But that’s a club – not a church – not a gathered community of faith.

We have been gathered together – bound in community – raised up by the grace of God to serve.  Not to get our own way – not to control or demand anything from others – not be  a burden to our sisters and brothers or a pain in the butt:  we have been raised up and called together to serve. “Jesus came to her bedside and took her by the hand and raised her up – and the fever left her and immediately she began to serve them.”

Let us do likewise for this is the good news for today.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Slowing down and seeking peace...

Having just returned from four days away with our kids in NYC, I was surprised that I still took a 45 minute nap today!  We probably slept for 10+ hours each day that we were away, too but I was just played tonight, so I didn't fight it.

Now I am getting ready to lead part two of our conversation into Jaco Hamman's wonderful book, A Play-Full Life: Slowing Down and Seeking Peace. Last week 15 adults joined me for the start of this 10 week series and tonight we'll consider the "enemies of becoming play-full." Of particular concern is the demon "criticism" which Hamman calls "a corrupted form of playfulness" that "most often cultivates inferiority or shame."  Does that ring true for you?

The fruit of this corrupted form of playfulness, he goes on to note, is not peace and justice, but frustration, fear, and inner fragmentation.  What's more, corrupted playfulness can easily become part of such hurtful/harmful behaviors as addictions, eating disorders and interpersonal violence. (p. 22)

While we were away in NYC, we took in Martin Scorsese's brilliant movie, "Hugo." Not only is this a long, loving look at the beauty of the cinema, it is also a meditation on how  cultivating our imagination can be a sacred act.  And the restrained use of 3D made the magic of the movies come alive in delightful ways.  Sitting in a darkened theatre with 300 other people was communion for me for we all willingly gave up control for a time in order to be transported beyond ourselves.  We tenderly opened our senses to mystery, we let ourselves be teased and tantalized by technology and we hoped that the story teller might touch us at a deep level so that upon leaving we might be a little kinder as the result.

Being rested - and playfull with my dear family - has nourished me so that I can return to ministry refreshed.  As M. Craig Barnes has written:

My job is not to create a community of Gnostics who have turned their spiritual backs on the concerns of the material world. To the contrary, my calling is to help them find the spirituality of the material. Even the fig leaves belong to God. I cannot help them see that without first enjoying the very real, material things they spend their lives fretting over. The reason I enjoy the ordinary and invite others to enjoy it is that it contains portals which invite us to experience the holiness (of life) that lies just beneath all creation. (p. 31)

And I can do this best when I am well rested.  So, as one wise old monk once told me, "If you fall asleep while at prayer... maybe your prayers are being answered and what you really needed was a nap!"  May God's peace grow...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Man does this make my heart sing...

We just got back in from four days away with the kids - it was JUST what the doctor ordered for me - a time to rest (lots) and walk (even more) as well as soak up the beauty of my NYC family. We feasted and went to cafes, saw "Hugo" and took in some funky jazz, too.  And then, just to make my heart sing, this note from a colleague who worshipped with us this morning (in my absence) was in my email-box.  Blessing abound...

... so I came to your church this morning!

Eva greeted me and I learned you were in Brooklyn. I was disappointed not to see and hear you lead worship. But then it was such a great lay-led worship service with such spirit and enthusiasm, that I did not miss you because I caught your spirit and leadership! The four workshops--music, mosaic-making, meditation, and movement were inspired and we shared when we came back together. I loved the singing circle after the passing of the peace. And the invitation to sing hymns I did not know was warm and welcoming. Thanks for a great service.

Many of your parishioners came up to me during fellowship to greet me, not knowing who I was. It was fun to be incognito, but then I was found out.
What a warm and welcoming congregation, and connectional. I'll be back when you are there. Hope you had a great get-away with family.


Like I said, this makes my heart SING:  can't wait to share it with my church!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Heading out for a time away...

I had hoped for a little break after Christmas, but you can't always get what you want, yes? So now, a month later, we are outta here for four days with the kids. It is unlikely that I will be blogging during this time ~ too much fun walking around the city and playing ~ but I will be back with you soon. 

We've got a jazz gig set for the first Thursday in February at Patricks Pub in Pittsfield (show starts at 6:30 pm) as well as our Fat Tuesday Jazz and Blues Party benefit for the Christian Center on Tuesday, February 21st @ 7 pm.  And then... LENT starts.

So the time is NOW to get a break... see you on the flip side. Here's one of my all time favorite tunes by the incomparable Herbie Mann...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A blues and jazz party...

So we practiced a few tunes for our Fat Tuesday Blues and Jazz Party gig on Tuesday, February 21st - the day before Lent begins.  More and more local bands of all varieties - alternative, Appalachian folk as well as rock and soul and jazz - are eager to be a part of the fun.  It is likely we're going to have 30 musicians on stage!

Now two things strike me about this:

+ First, joy is infectious: people want to be a part of a good thing.  Our Thanksgiving Eve gig was not only a ton o fun, but great music and financially successful for those needing emergency fuel assistance this winter.

+ Second, doing blues and jazz creates an opportunity for ALL types of tunes to be a part of the mix.  I was fooling around with both "Jesus Just Left Chicago" a la ZZ Top as well as the country classic, "Satan's Jeweled Crown."  Man, they all fit - and given some of the cats we have playing with us.... I can't wait to experience what they come up with.

It made me think of what Eugene Peterson wrote about Psalm 126:

And now, GOD, do it again ~
  bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
  will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
  will come home laughing, with armloads of blessings.

It is clear that in Psalm 126 that the one who wrote it and those who sang it were no strangers to the dark side of things.  They carried the painful memory of exile in their bones and the scars of oppression on their backs. They knew the deserts of the heart and the nights of weeping. They knew what it meant to sow in tears.

But one of the interesting and remarkable things that Christians learn is that laughter does not exclude weeping. Christian joy is not an escape from sorrow. Pain and hardship still come, but they are unable to drive out the happiness of the redeemed.

A common but futile strategy for achieving joy is trying to eliminate things that hurt: get rid of pain by numbing the never ends, get rid of insecurity by eliminating risks, get rid of disappointments by depersonalizing your relationships. And then try to lighten the boredom of such a life by buying joy in the form of vacations and entertainment.

Well, it not only doesn't work, it also makes us angry, empty and addicted to distractions - or worse. As we talked about at last night's "play-fullness" study group, our journey through life is NOT about getting rid of pain, but embracing it in such a way as we are open to what it might teach us about compassion and trust and integrity.  Each person who gathered last night wants to become more play-full.  That is, open to the fullness of God's love in the midst of their real lives:  ups and downs, fear and hope, wounds and and healings.

Tonight we played funny blues - a psychedelic Delta thing with 13 bars - alongside Etta James' classic, "At Last" at the same time one of our guy's brother is facing serious cancer treatment and one of our singer's momma was in surgery at age 85.  We laughed and wept and sang and entered into a space of compassion that was palpable.  And needs to be shared as part of the healing of the world.  We are young and old, male and female, pro and amateur, classically trained and jivers and everything in-between.  Join us, if you can, for our BLUES AND JAZZ PARTY ON FAT TUESDAY.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Funny how slowing down... helps!

Today felt... sane.  Whole.  Alive.  To be sure there were a number of hassles, but because I am working tenderly at really making my schedule SLOW, even the interruptions were part of the blessings.  What's more, tonight our first adult study/conversation brought out a sweet collection of people eager to become more play-full in pursuit of God's peace and justice. We are reading Jaco Hamman's very insightful - and challenging - new book:  A Play-Full Life: Slowing Down and Making Peace.
Writer Christian McEwen put it like this in her new book, World Enough and Time:
We live in a culture that is obsessed with speed, a culture wracked by strange illnesses and persistent low-level fatigue. “How are you?” one friend asks another, and the answer is the same, across almost all categories of age and race and class and gender:  “I’m just so busy,” people tell each other, half-proud, half overwhelmed. “Really, I’m crazy-busy. How are you?” The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, spoke of this as “the frenzy of the activist that neutralizes his/her work for peace,” or the rush and pressure of modern life that has become… perhaps the most common form of innate violence.”

Last night, after all the angst of a month of losing control of my calendar - and fretting about our annual meeting - Dianne said, "You look ten years younger man... and you are finally back after being very distant for the past month."  I felt that, too and give thanks to God that I am in a more grounded place.

After a LONG sleep...

(NOTE:  This post grows out of my gratitude to Peter for his love, phone conversation and  gentle correction. You are rockin' my man. Dianne, too, for your patience and gentle presence.)

I have been blessed: by those in my family who continue to love and help me, by the churches I have served over the past 30 years, by the musicians I have shared songs with over the last 45 years and by the friends and colleagues who have come into my life to bring wisdom, balance and hope. 

I have been blessed, too, by the wounds and sorrows that have become part of my days: they have stretched my capacity for faith, deepened my commitment to compassion and grace and helped me own the gift of mostly keeping my mouth shut in times of most conflict - especially with loved ones.  To be sure, there are times to speak up - and dance and play and mourn, too - but more often than not, the most loving and healing thing I have learned is to shut up and listen. And when I listen to the wisdom of my heart as it relates to my ministry in this church a few things are clear (and this after a wonderfully long sleep last night!)

+ "Little by little" - my mantra for my staff - has led us into some huge changes that seemed impossible when this ministry began.  There is more faith than fear today, there is more grace than judgment, too.  There is LOTS more music of every variety - from classical German hymns to Oscar Peterson jazz and U2 and Lucinda Williams - created by the whole congregation, too. 

I have come to trust St. Paul's wisdom that "now we see as through a glass darkly."  We can't know the totality of God's plan - today we only see a bit of the light - so as we move forward the only constant is that more change and light come into focus. More darkness, too.  So one thing I have learned here is to move as gently and humbly as possible because not only is it likely that I only get a small part of what is taking place, but also that I need others to help me continue towards the light.  "Little by little" - or inch by inch as Arlo sings - or peu un peu a les Quebecois!

+ There is a hunger for questioning that is alive and well here, too.  A recent survey of young evangelical folk indicated that more and more 20 somethings are leaving their churches because there isn't room to ask questions.  And they have a ton of questions about sexuality, justice, economics, God and how to make living with integrity in these mean-spirited times.

Two years ago, we had a banner on our building:  Questions Welcome Here.  But those with the most questions didn't believe us.  They thought we were full of shit just like most other churches that want their dollars but not their questioning hearts.  We still have a lot of work to do when it comes to showing the wider community that it really is true that "whoever you are - and where ever you are - on life's journey, you are welcome here."  But... we're closer than before.

+ There is a willingness to become ever more open:  we became an Open and Affirming congregation this fall.  We have opened our Sanctuary doors to the community for prayer and respite every day between 11:30 am and 1 pm.  We don't lock as many internal doors - literally and figuratively - as before.  And we are eager to make flesh our call to be a people of radical and extravagant hospitality.

And there is a sense that we can risk failing in all of this, too.  In a conversation about money and budgets yesterday, one person spoke out of fear:  spending down our endowment seems terrifying - and perhaps it is.  But two others - newer people to the community - said: Our ministry is not what is in the bank. Our ministry is here - within and among God's people - so open your heart to what is already here. And share it... because as a person new to the gathering what is taking place is beautiful.

Another said, "If we lose our endowment, let's be clear: we will not lose our ministry. Or God's loving presence in our lives." And still another said, "And if we do close shop, could that ALSO be of the Lord?  Maybe, in the future, we will be called to be Christ's church in a new way..."

I truly am blessed to be a part of this journey towards God's amazing openness...

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Thoughts after a short nap...

We held our annual church meeting today ~ it was good and honest and full ~ the best any group of real people might expect. It was affirming and humbling, it was challenging and cautious; and it was a great time to gather with the congregation and talk about our goals for the next year. I was both touched by the deep affection we share for one another and how carefully people speak about their differences. Believe me, I've been in meetings (elsewhere) where people say stupid and even cruel things during church meetings.

During worship I led a discussion into the theology of our mission statement:  we have been called to GATHER ~ WORSHIP ~ REFLECT ~ DO JUSTICE ~ AND SHARE COMPASSION.  We are a community ~ not spiritual tourists who show up when we want something ~ we are pilgrims called to learn about and love the Lord together. During the annual meeting, however, my comments became practical and strategic. We have four goals in 2012:

+ to strengthen and deepen worship

+ to find better ways of caring for the wounded and lonely in our community

+ to become allies with others in exploring the "slow living" movements that offer an alternative to our broken politics

+ to learn how to move through our days as joy-filled evangelists who are comfortable about inviting others to share in our emerging community of faith

Now each of these goals needs time, energy and enthusiasm to ripen. What's more, these goals need to be seen as one of the ways we give shape and form to our mission in the real world.  Our words must become flesh, yes?

Serendipitously, while digging through a pile of "to be read" books, I recently recovered Charles Lemert's, Why Niebuhr Matters. It is a brilliant summary of this great teacher's insights. And because Niebuhr has been one of my favorite American theologians, I found his careful analysis about love and justice in community and individuals as helpful and sobering as ever.  "Love, as such, does not lead to justice. We cannot live together without a justice that includes all with whom we might join to form a communal society based on fairness that requires sacrifice... Collective action towards justice is not a native-born gift. (In fact,)Human nautre desires neither community nor justice. And when we arrive collectively at any degree of justice, we arrive exhausted by the journey and bruised by the conflict." (p.98)

Three inter-related thoughts from Niebuhr come to mind as I relect on this meeting after a short afternoon nap. 

+ First, because liberal congreations do not want to acknowledge the clash between love and justice, more teaching and preaching on this theme is in order. Liberals like to believe that we can work our way through any and all problems.  But Niebuhr is clear that this is naive hubris that can become dangerous.  As he wrote in the Serenity Prayer, sometimes there are things that cannot be changed.  That is why we must always ask God for the "grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, the courage to change the things which should be changed and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other." 

Liberals are always aching for the happy ending - and sometimes it simply cannot take place - that is one truth of the Cross. Our work together is hard - sacrificial - and I suspect that I need to help our leadership team explore this truth more profoundly. I am not saying, of course, that our challenges cannot be changed; just that a little bit of Niebuhrian realism is always a good thing. Perhaps we will read Lembert's book as the new year unfolds.

+ Second, although the work of translating the love we know in our individual hearts into an authentic community of compassion and justice is hard, it is always built on a TON of joy.  Krister Stendhal once wrote, "Joy is closer to God than seriousness. Why? Because when I am serious I tend to be self-centered, but when I am joyful I tend to forget myself."  Thus, Niebuhr speaks of human history as ironic.  Not tragic, but ironic.

Human history is the irony that we know things we cannot do; we do things we are unwilling to think... so life is not tragedy but irony, which can be shocking even when it makes us laugh with a weirdly human sort of joy. (p. 211) Finances cause some of us to lose all perspective and make decisions based on fear. I heard some of that today as we discussed spending down the endowment.  There were even a few who confused part of the endowment with our ministry saying, "Well, when that money is gone we will have to close shop." 

No, no, no... our ministry - our calling - is not the endowment.  Our community of faith is not what is in the bank. The money can help, but we have been called to be more than a savings account - and while we may look differently if the money is depleted - that is ok, too.  Because joy is God's antidote to fear and self-centered seriousness, we must be certain to feed our hearts as this year unfolds.

+ And third, we need to be careful to work on all of this with humility and a sense of humor. We are going to get at LEAST as much wrong as we'll get right.  I know I will.  Like Niebuhr used to teach:  the human condition is always about knowing more than we can accomplish. "Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”

What's more, as Paul taught in Romans 7, even when we can see the good we should do, we can't always pull it off.

I obviously need help! I realize that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it's predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.
I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn't that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.

So after we spoke about our fears - and our hopes - our growth and our challenges - after we gave thanks to God for the very faithful leadership of our ministries: we affirmed an ambitious but honest budget and committed ourselves to living into these four goals. (We also noted that there is still close to 3/4 of a million dollars in other church acounts... so we approved getting a new copy machine, too because ours is over 10 years old!)

I closed the meeting with the words of St. Paul who said challenges and fear can make us weaker - or can create more room in our hearts and minds for the grace of the Lord to grow - so the time has come to decide:  We can boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint us, because hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

And then I took a short nap!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Today I...


... I did not want to get out of bed ~ especially given the cold and snow.

... I heard of a treasured one's divorce ~ and wept complicated tears.

... I visited with next week's worship leader ~ and finalized details for a new "community" celebration that will happen while I am away.

... I finished my worship notes for tomorrow's Annual Meeting ~ and wrote letters to a few colleagues in my region about three key challenges facing our local churches.

... I shoveled a little snow, ate an avocado sandwich on rye bread, drank a pot of tea and went shopping for supper ~ even though I would have preferred a nap.

... I cleaned our kitchen (well, almost) ~ and drove Dianne to work.

... I practiced my bass lines for tomorrow's worship songs ~ and then read these words from the wisdom of Eugene Peterson:

God gets down on his knees among us; gets on our level and shares himself with us. He does not reside afar off and send diplomatic messages, he kneels among us. That posture is characteristic of God. The discovery and realization of this is what defines what we know of God as GOOD news ~ God shares himself generously and graciously.

For when the time was right, Jesus set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave and became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. (Philippians 2: 7-8)

The way I see it, practicing the awareness of God's grace in my ordinary life is mostly about showing up, yes? So now that today is coming to a close, I want to give thanks for it all.

 (I used to listen to this album OVER and OVER back in the day ~ and today is STILL sounds damn fine!)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Pacing the cage...

Old Jean Calvin was a wise old soul - an anxious old soul, too (and that causes us tons of problems today, but he had plenty to worry about) - but a truly wise old soul.  One of his insights is that when we come to truly know ourselves, we also come to know the Lord. (Or at least as much of the Lord as we can know at this moment in time.) And the inverse is equally true:  when we come to know God we also come to know something of ourselves.

Now most of the time I know enough about myself to "let go and let God." My inclination is to try and fix things - but most of the time I have come to know that I have neither enough wisdom, power or time to fix things - so after a period of anxiety (it varies) I am able to revert to the default mode of the Serenity Prayer.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.

As Niebuhr has written elsewhere, human beings are simultaneously blessed and cursed with the capacity for introspection:  it gives us just enough insight to believe that we are smarter than we really are - and that is a recipe for trouble.  So, mostly I have embraced this truth as part of the human condition and know that I have to regularly repent by returning to God's wisdom that knows the difference between what I can fix and what is beyond me.  In knowing myself, I come to know something of God.

What often triggers a delay in my repentance, however, is when I become overly busy with institutional tasks (not enough time for rest and reflection) or when church finances go south (and I feel judged.) Both cloud my vision and drag me down for a time - both make me resentful and exhausted - and I should know this by now:  after all, I've been doing it for over 30 years. But, it would seem that I am a very slow learner... I like when M. Craig Barnes writes:

"When a church board becomes anxious about the budget that's in the red, the pastor cannot react anxiously by taking on the role of a fund-raiser who fixes the problem. What is called for are the strange poetic statements to the congregation that it needs to give its money not because the church has needs, but because we need to be givers. "Fool, this night thy should shall be required of thee; then whose shall those things be which you have provided?" (Luke 12:20 KJV in The Pastor as Minor Poet, p. 24)

Both he and Eugene Peterson help me get out of my cranky/tired rut by reminding me that MY calling is NOT to fix things.  In fact, Peterson makes a huge distinction between the historic job of the pastor and running a church: one is about the cure of the soul and the other is about administration.  And while I have come to discover that there is a ministry of hospitality in good administration, "reducing pastoral work to institutional duties" robs this work of joy, integrity and depth.  It takes time - and quiet reflection - to be about the cure of a soul.  It takes love and prayer and patience, too.

And because most of our churches are filled with problems, sometimes it is easier to get into the mode of a fixer:  "It is satisfying to help make the rough places smooth."

The difficulty is that problems arrive in such a constant flow that problem solving becomes full-time work.  And if the pastor is useful and does it well, we will miss how the pastoral vocation of soul cure is subverted. Gabriel Marcel wrote that life is not so much a problem to be solved as a mystery to be explored. That is certainly the biblical stance: life is not something we manage to hammer together and keep in repair by our wits; it is an unfathomable gift. We are immersed in mysteries: incredible love, confounding evil, the creation, the cross, grace, God.

Peterson concludes - and this is very helpful for me - that the secularized mind is terrorized by mysteries. "Thus it makes lists, labels people, assigns roles and solves problems. But a solved life is a reduced life."

(For these tightly buttoned-up people never take great faith risks or make convincing love talk. They deny and ignore the mysteries and diminish human existence to what can be managed, controlled and fixed... Pastors cast in the role of spiritual technologists are hard put to keep that role from absorbing everything else, since there are so many things that need to be and can, in fact, be fixed... If pastors become accomplices in treating every child as a problem to be figured out, every spouse as a problem to be dealt with, every clash of wills in choir or committee as a problem to be adjudicated, we abdicate our most important work, which is directing worship in the traffic, discovering the presence of the cross in the paradoxes and chaos between Sundays, calling attention to the "splendor in the ordinary" and, most of all, teaching a life of prayer to our friends and companions in the pilgrimage. (Contemplative Pastor, pp. 64-65)

I have been a little run down - stressed and cranky - and I know why:  our annual meeting is coming up this Sunday.  And while most of my leadership team is very supportive, I have still been treating some of our realities as problems to be solved and managed. I have not been in repentance/trust mode. I have not been paying attention to what God is telling me through me.  But thank heaven for the Sabbath (today for me) and the chance to be still and know, yes? 

My triggers about tasks and finances are not the center of the universe, neither are my worries about the specifics of ministry the totality of God's grace. They are invitations to change directions and rest in God's presence.  Barnes retells a story from the life of Barbara Brown Taylor who discovered that she had been weeping on a regular basis.  She writes:

I realized (in my tears) how little interest I had in defending Christian beliefs. The part of the Christian story that had drawn me into the Church were not the believing parts but the beholding parts.  Behold I bring you good news of a great joy... Behold, the Lamb of God... Behold, I stand at the door and knock... Whether the narratives starred hayseed shepherds confronted by hosts of glittering angels or desert pilgrims watching something like a dove descend upon a man in a river as a voice from heaven called him, "Beloved," Christian faith seemed to depend on beholding things that were clearly beyond belief.

And so it is time to be still (some more) today and tomorrow and behold and know, too - not fix problems.  For as m chosen text for preaching on Sunday says:  What doth the Lord requre of thee but to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with thy God?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tuesday, February 21st ~ 7 to 9 PM

27 East Street, Pittsfield, MA 01201

A benefit for the Christian Center's Hunger Ministry in the Berkshires
This gig is going to be GREAT:  a follow-up to our Thanksgiving Eve show - it will feature local artists in a blues/jazz groove.  And we'll pool our talent and love to help the oldest emergency aid ministry in the Berkshires ~ the Christian Center ~ as they keep feeding the most hungry among us.  Watch for more details!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Higher ground...

How can one person be so blessed?  To be sure, I am almost running on empty these days, but some wonderful things are happening in my life.First, after our annual meeting at church, we're heading down to NYC to see daughter #1 and her husband for a LONG weekend. I didn't get much of a break after Christmas so this is pure R and R (rock and roll!)  There will be a time for MOMA and some jazz, lots of time for the wonderful company of my sweet family and a chance to chill without any responsibilities for four days! One of my most favorite things in the whole world is to wander about a city without any plan or agenda... and see where the Spirit leads.

Second, because we had such a gas doing Thanksgiving Eve, many of the musicians who played that benefit are going to do a "Fat Tuesday Goes Blues and Jazz" party at church on Tuesday, February 21st.  I just sent out the invitation last night to some folk and already they are confirming. This, too, will be a benefit - for the local emergency food center - but it will also be a whole lotta soul food for those who gather. I can't wait to bring this cast of artists back together again as they create a little taste of heaven.  (More on this in the next few days...)
And third, a small group of us from the Berkshires are going down to Nashville at the end of February for a "Jazz Liturgy" workshop.  My music director is one of the key presenter and we not only want to support him, but want to learn and reflect on how to take this music deeper in our context. Check it out @ http://www.scarrittbennett.org/programs/jazz.aspx

Tomorrow I will post about our up-coming annual meeting and my message for the congregation:  I will try to articulate what I sense our mission statement is calling us into for 2012 in light of God's love. In reality this, too, is a blessing - as well as a challenge - and I am getting excited about celebrating what has been happening within and among us as a faith community. Just today, at our midday Eucharist, we gathered and prayed and shared before feasting on the goodness of the Lord in communion. We shed tears about some hard times and offered to give them over to God, too. It was a microcosm of what is taking place throughout the whole congregation.

I read these words earlier today:  One of the reasons that people need pastors is precisely because God is always present, but not always apparent...The parish minister's soul becomes a crucible in which sacred visions are ground together with the common and at times profane experiences of human life.  Out of this sacred mix, pastors find their deep poetry, not only for the pulpit, but for making eternal sense out of the ordinary routines of the congregation. (The Pastor As Minor Poet, M. Craig Barnes.)

One of the things that I am going to have to pay attention to this year is pacing ~ finding and embracing a better balance between the public and private realms of my life ~ so that I don't get worn out. I can already feel it happening around the edges ~ especially after Turkey and then Christmas ~ that's why I'm getting out of town next week after our meeting. Practicing self-care is a constant challenge for me. And now that so much is happening, it is going to take more practice and discipline than ever before.

In writing this I feel like Siddhartha in Hesse's retelling of the Buddha's tale:  time and again he finds himself standing in front of the same river ~ at exactly same spot on the river bank ~ watching the water move past him.  And every time he realizes he is back at the river, he simultaneously realizes how much he has changed and how much he has stayed the same. For most of my life I have often tried too hard ~ crammed too much into too little time ~ flirted with and given into the addiction of workaholism.  And, while I am healthier and more balanced at 60 than I was at 25... it seems that once again I am back at the same river and the same spot.

The poet, William Stafford, speaks to this in a poem called simply, "Poetry." 

Its door opens near. It's a shrine
by the road, it's a flower in the parking lot
of the Pentagon, it says, "Look around,
listen. Feel the air." It interrupts
international telephone lines with a tune.
When traffic lines jame, it gets out
and dances on the bridge. If great people
get distracted by fame they forget
this essential kind of breathing
and they die inside their gold shell...

There are so many blessings in my life ~ and that means there is also a whole new way of learning to slow down, too ~ and they often seem to be wrapped in each others arms like lovers. Christian McEwen writes in World Enough and Time, it is essential to recall that "every piece of music is made up of sound and pause, sound and pause, which is to say that it also includes silence. The trumpeter Miles Davis was praised for creating good music because he opened up the space between the notes and stepped inside."   

And that seems to be enough for this day, yes?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A spirituality of radical hospitality in song...

This Sunday is our church annual meeting: tomorrow and Thursday I will craft my Sunday message re: mission and challenge (I had to be away from my usual prayer and study routine to be with a dear friend today.) So tonight at band practice we worked on a tune by Mary Chapin-Carpenter that is one of the defining songs of my ministry: Jubilee.

+ It speaks of radical hospitality and grace...

+ It honors the broken places in all of us in light of God's deeper love...

+ And it is simultaneously joyful and achingly sad...

We worked on it to reflect OUR experiences at this moment ~ and our happy/sad voices ~ and wounded/joy-filled realities.  After a tough and demanding day, I feel blessed and embraced by the love of God.

I sang this song at my mother's funeral ~ she was a complicated woman ~ and I give thanks to God that her suffering is now long past and healed.  This is one of those "secular" songs that speaks volumes to me about God's still speaking voice.

Monday, January 16, 2012

As MLK and OWS embrace...

As a part of my honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I have been thinking a great deal about the connection between MLK and OWS ~ and Psalm 85 keeps coming back to my mind. (This clip is LONG ~ over 20 minutes ~ but gives honor to Dr. King in just the right way.)

One translation puts it like this:
Love and Truth meet in the street,
Right Living and Whole Living embrace and kiss!
Truth sprouts green from the ground,
Right Living pours down from the skies!
Oh yes! God gives Goodness and Beauty;
our land responds with Bounty and Blessing.
Right Living strides out before him,
and clears a path for his passage.

Another gives us:
Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.
Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
Yea, the LORD shall give that which is good; and our land shall yield her increase.
Righteousness shall go before him; and shall set us in the way of his steps.

For the past 20 years I have been exploring and praying over the heart of this Psalm: it tells us that in God's time there will come a reunion that erases our false distinctions about the sacred and the secular. The essence of the holy will be inter-woven throughout the fabric of our humanity. It will be a time when hesed ~ deep compassion ~ is integrated with 'emeth ~ the very words we use to honor God ~ so that our words become living flesh in acts of radical solidarity and caring. Further, tsedeq ~ healing and right relations among people ~ will be joyfully intimate with shalom ~ peace ~ as they embrace and share a lover's kiss with all creation.

Now, given my passion for midrash, that sounds a lot what is taking place right now as MLK embraces OWS (or vice versa):  there is justice and compassion, peace and faith and truth swirling about in a creative,playful, deep and potentially healing way, yes?  Last night, for example, Bill Moyer's new show devoted the full hour to the consequences of our current debacle born of greed ~ and concluded with some reactions from a OWS participants.  Next week, the heart of his broadcast (in most locales 6 pm on Sundays) will be guided by OWS folk. For more information check it out @ http://billmoyers.com/)

Bill Moyers Journal: Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander from BillMoyers.com on Vimeo.For the first time in over 30 years, Americans are talking about greed and class and justice in new and healing ways.  So I see something of MLK being embraced by OWS in a way that makes God's heart dance.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Thank God for poets who take God's word seriously enough to be playful...

I give thanks to the Lord this day for poets who take God's word seriously enough to be playful: there are artists and musicians, dancers and painters, sculptors, photographers and word smiths who ALL know how to help us go below the surface into the realm of soul work.  As M. Craig Barnes puts it: "they have been blessed with a vision that allows them to explore and express the truth behind the reality. Poets see the despair and heartaches as well as the beauty and miracle that lie just beneath the thin veneer of the ordinary ~ and they describe this in ways that recognized not only in the mind, but more profoundly in the soul."

One of the poets who accomplishes such work every week in my Music Director, Carlton Maaia II: he knows how to make the piano and organ sing, he helps those of us bred in white New England sound soulful and he empowers the cautious among us to be bold in making joy filled music. He is brilliant, humble and a ton of fun ~ and I rejoice that he has cast his lot with us as we rebuild this community of faith. 

Another is my jazz mentor, Andy Kelly, who is the personification of hope:  he is a killer musician and a gentle warrior for peace who knows how to welcome and include everyone in the beauty of making music.  My band mates at church ~ Between the Banks ~ (Dianne, Brian, Eva, Sue, Jon and David) are another group of poets who bring light into the darkness.  And ALL of them were active in worship today giving birth to something I have prayed about for almost five years:  the blending of our traditional choir with the rock and jazz band!  It happened this morning ~ the integration of styles, theologies, ages and sounds into one chorus of hope and praise ~ that brought blessing upon blessing and gave shape and form to a vision of what it means to be God's people. 

I know that there are those who speak of growing the church by appealing to musical genres and other forms of segregation. In fact, I've been there and done that ~ and it works (to a degree.) It IS easier appealing to the lowest common denominator. But at this stage in my life I want something that feels closer to a community where MANY people gather together ~ old and young, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight, classical musicians alongside jazz and rock hipsters ~ and all the rest.  Because, as that old rascal, Clarence Jordan, used to tell the segregationist of his generation:  "You know, you better get used to singing next to different kind of people now.. because as it says in the Bible, when you get to heaven ~ and I'm talking about eternity ~ there will be "a great multitude that no one can count from every nation and all the tribes and peoples and languages will be standing before the throne of the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches... all singing together:  Salvation belongs to our God!"  So why not integrate now?!"  (Revelation 7: 9-10)

It is good and right that it happened on a day when we honored Dr. King.  He was the poet par excellence of my generation.  Barnes offers these words that I think are spot on:

The civil rights legislation of the 1960s was largely led by President Lyndon Johnson, who often battled a hesitant Congress to secure the passage of more just laws. He was a political realist and he did what it took to get the votes he needed. Whatever one may think of President Johnson or the other policies of his administration, clearly history has already awarded him the tribute of being a leader through this significant time.

But it fell to someone else, a poet, to inspire the nation to accept the dream of a color-blind society. Without the dream, the legislation would never have passed. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the country into that dream only by taking us into a painful discovery of the injustice that lurked in the corners of our hearts. That was the truth behind the reality. But the white majority culture didn't accept this dream easily. The African-American community, whom Dr. King had empowered with one biblical image of freedom after another, led the rest of of to it.  They began by marching in the streets, and after the nation watched them mercilessly attacked by police dogs, fire hoses and angry mobs, they marched into our hearts.  But it took a realist and a truth-teller ~ a politician and a poet ~ to make it real.

Barnes concludes his introduction with words that I take to heart ~ and will drive home to my congregation next Sunday:  "Pastors are not the only ones working on the Kingdom of God. But they don't help by abandoning their specific call to be poets and taking on the work of the realists and the engineers.  Someone, you see, has to teach the people how to dream."

So thanks be to God for the poets among us: may they teach us how to dream!

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:...