Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Nashville update...

The conference on Jazz and Liturgy has just ended - and it was rich and sweet on many levels. The keynote address helped reinforce the importance of creativity and improvisation in worship planning.  The musicians were brilliant as they shared how training, listening and respect pays off in the creation of "live composition" in jazz worship.  And the conversation with colleagues from around the US was helpful as insights were shared and friendships initiated.  But what was worth it in spades was the love and trust that deepened between the 7 people from our church that traveled from Pittsfield to Nashville: we are going to KEEP going deeper in this vein because we have all been so enriched by the trip.

There is much more to say... but now it is time to check out the downtown scene on our last day away.  It is snowing in the Commonwealth but the storms have left Music City!

PS: we just cruised the clubs downtown and heard a ton of KICK ASS country music that was to die for. We travel in the morning...

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Random thoughts on a ministry to artists...

When I used to hear people talking about  their"ministry," I got spooked:  too often creating space and support for a ministry to the arts in those days was just a pretext for doing evangelism - and usually the most base and shallow type of evangelism at that. For about a year in 1970, for example, I played a coffee house ministry every Friday and Saturday night in Saginaw, MI for an off-shoot of Campus Crusade for Christ. I didn't dig their theology - in fact it mostly repelled me - but they were the only folk creating a safe space for street kids as well as other indie musicians.  So, I did it because I  believed that inspite of the theology, something beautiful was happening around the edges. 

I still believe this is true... only now I don't have to put up with theology that wounds. Or makes Jesus embarassed. And the beauty isn't just happening around the edges, but I think it is at the very core of what takes place.  You see, over the last 15 years, I have discovered that I am still doing a ministry to artists, only now this ministry isn't manipulative or oppressive or incidental. It is all about encouraging artists - and creating places for beauty in service to a love that is greater than ourselves - and I think there are at least four reasons that make this ministry different from the old way.

+ First, this is a ministry of presence.  When we do music - or host art displays or share poetry - we are conciously creating a space beyond the "business" so that artists can simply be creative.  It is a place to make connections and experience encouragment beyond the egos, too.  I think that is one of the reasons why people want to keep doing it with us:  it feeds our souls.

+ Second, this is a ministry grounded in beauty, truth and goodness - all theologies and religious differences are secondary - so this has become an encounter with joy and depth.  The artists who hang out - or play our various concerts - can share what they love the most in ways that make them happy at a deep level.  In doing this, bull shit and hustling are at a minimum for we are seeking common ground.  In this, I have experienced beauty truly bringing salvation - deep healing - to those who are in the house.

+ Third, this is a minisry where people move beyond isolation.  It blows my mind to see hard bop jazz players groove and support old-time folkies.  It makes my heart sing when those from the church world find ways to share gospel with secular artists who make the whole song cook so that everyone is lifted up.  And it sets my soul free when children and adults - Jews, Christians and Sufis - become a unified choir of love and respect in pursuit of beauty. Too often the grind of selling art isolates and wears us down, so this ministry is all about building everyone up.

+ And fourth this ministry recognizes that artists and musicians need to support themselves, too so we make certain to help folk sell their creations - and we go to their shows, too.  One of my mentors used to say that white clergy have to always earn their credibility in communties of color and I think the same thing is true when church people mix with artists.  If we're not buying their art - and supporting their musical shows - we're all talk and no action.

So these days I feel good about doing a ministry with our artists because it is mutual - it is respectful - and it is a way for us all to feed one another on the journey of life. Tomorrow 7 of the artists in my church head out for Nashville to be a part of a national conference re: Jazz and Liturgy.  Can you dig that?!?  Seven artists from this congrgation!  And we'll bring back insights and sounds for the other artists who can't go but have supported us with resources, love and prayers. And we'll study hard, too - and party hearty!

To my heart - and my totally upside down theology - this is what the prophets were talking about when they prayed:  there will come a day when your old men will dream dreams and your young shall see visions.  It is also what my hearts claims in this reworking of Isaiah 65:

Pay close attention now:
I'm creating new heavens and a new earth.
All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
are things of the past, to be forgotten.
Look ahead with joy.
Anticipate what I'm creating:
I'll create Jerusalem as sheer joy,
create my people as pure delight.
I'll take joy in Jerusalem,
take delight in my people:
No more sounds of weeping in the city,
no cries of anguish;
No more babies dying in the cradle,
or old people who don't enjoy a full lifetime;
One-hundredth birthdays will be considered normal—
anything less will seem like a cheat.
They'll build houses
and move in.
They'll plant fields
and eat what they grow.
No more building a house
that some outsider takes over,
No more planting fields
that some enemy confiscates,
For my people will be as long-lived as trees,
my chosen ones will have satisfaction in their work.
They won't work and have nothing come of it,
they won't have children snatched out from under them.
For they themselves are plantings blessed by God,
with their children and grandchildren likewise God-blessed.
Before they call out, I'll answer.
Before they've finished speaking, I'll have heard.
Wolf and lamb will graze the same meadow,
lion and ox eat straw from the same trough,
but snakes—they'll get a diet of dirt!
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
anywhere on my Holy Mountain," says God.

When I was 16, in high school, I had a calling into this ministry - and I am so grateful that those words have been becoming flesh over the past 15 years. On the eve of our trip to Nashville, I am a very grateful man...

Thoughts for Lent One...

NOTE:  Tomorrow - Sunday, February 26, 2012 - is the first Sunday in Lent.  Later in the afternoon I will leave for Nashville with a team from my congregation to be a part of a "Jazz and Liturgy" workshop.  Here are my worship notes for the first of five reflections on what it means to be shaped by the Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ.  It is my belief that a spirituality grounded in the Statement of Faith is necessary for our times for it offers a healthy alternative to both the harsh fundamentism that shapes so much of contemporary religion while suggesting a progressive faith that moves beyond the moral emptiness that defines so much of liberal Christianity in the 21st century.


One of the truths I have discovered over 30+ years of ministry is that most of the people who come to worship on Sunday mornings are uncomfortable talking about their Christian faith.  From serving God in congregations in Michigan and Ohio – as well as in Arizona and Massachusetts with time off for a stint in California – I have found these things to be true:

·         Many of us want to trust God more deeply

·        Most of us are simultaneously attracted to a life of compassion but confused and guilty about our own selfishness

·         And the vast bulk of us know what we don’t want to express as people of faith

But it seems that we have neither the language nor the training to clearly and persuasively articulate and embody our deepest spiritual convictions.  And this is true all over the Congregational and United Church of Christ.  One time at a breakfast meeting with the President of the United Church of Christ, John Thomas, he said to me:  “We have a long tradition of important and bold accomplishments. We have a proud and meaning-filled theological core. And most of our people don’t know it.”

·        So throughout Lent I want to share with you one way our tradition has used over the years to give shape and form to our way of doing and being the church. 

·        It is not the only way – that would be arrogant and untrue – and it may not be the best way. But it is our way.  And in times as profoundly confusing and troubling as our own – times when people like you and me ache to know of God’s loving and challenging presence in our ordinary lives – we need some tools.

·        We need some light within the darkness – some grace amidst the sin – some hope in our fear and some courage in our struggle for justice and peace

One of our finest traditional theologians, Roger Shinn, once put it like this:

Ever since Jesus of Nazareth called his first disciples, those touched by Christ have sought for ways to confess and express their faith.  They wanted to put their faith into words both to clarify   their own convictions and to tall others what had happened to them and why they         believed.  And we are no different 2,000 years later.

So let me introduce to you a resource that has been a blessing to me – and countless others in our tradition – something we call our Statement of Faith.  There are different versions of it floating around – one is posted in the back of your hymn book – another can be found in today’s worship bulletin.  And it is this statement that I’ll be exploring for the next month – so take a look at it, ok?


It begins with the words:

We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and to God’s deeds we testify: God calls the worlds into being, creates human beings in God’s own image and sets before us the ways of life and death.

·       Now before I unpack anything here, let’s be clear that we know the difference between a Statement of Faith and a Creed, ok?  Because, you see, our tradition is NOT a creedal church:  we listen and learn from the historic creeds, but they are not a test of our faith.

·         Do you know what that means:  test of our faith? 

It has to do with being judged by the church.  A creedal church uses a test of faith to define who is in and who is out – what membership means and looks like – and how we talk about God in Jesus Christ.  Now the upside of a creed is that it is definitive – think of either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed – that are used in some congregations after the sermon every Sunday.  There is real clarity in a creed – We believe in One God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and all things visible and invisible – very clarifying.

But there is often a downside to tests of faith and creeds.  One wise old soul put it like this:  Although a creed starts out as essentially a poem to express belief, the history of creeds has its painful side. Arrogant people have slaughtered their neighbors on creedal grounds. Sometimes thoughtful people have been barred from the church because they questioned its creeds, while lethargic folk went on reciting the creeds without any trouble. Servants of Christ, living in his spirit, have suffered persecution by spiteful people who fanatically held to every article of their unexamined but inherited creeds.

Are you with me here?  Do you get a sense why we chose to call our organizing principles a Statement of Faith rather than a Creed?  We wanted to learn and embrace the truth of the creeds but not have them serve as a test of faith – and why is that important?

·         Why is it important for us to avoid tests of faith?

·         And what do you think about that distinction?

Given this reality – what we sometimes call celebrating our testimonies of faith rather than tests of faith – it is important to remember that we are not just some “I’m OK, you’re OK” collection of touchy, feely spiritual seekers.  The United Church of Christ – UCC – does not stand for Unitarians Considering Christ – but rather we are contemporary believers seeking to follow the way of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

So please note that our Statement of Faith does not begin by saying that in the United Church of Christ anything goes; rather we start by saying:  We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and to God’s deeds we testify.   And there are some reasons for this…

First, we teach that our faith begins in community – we say WE believe not I believe – for we aspire to a faith shaped by the whole people of God.

·       Our way of being faithful recognizes that we cannot live like Jesus without the help, encouragement and presence of others.

·       Can you think of ways we help – or encourage – one another to be more faithful?

·      Same is true with correction and confession:  left to ourselves, most of us would not own our sinfulness – or our wounds – or our shadow side, right?

·       We need one another to see where we have missed the mark and caused one another pain.

·      And don’t forget that when we pray the essential prayer of our tradition – the Lord’s Prayer – how does it start?  Our Father – not MY Father – ok?

First, ours is a faith shaped and formed in community – we are no merely t a bunch of individuals waiting for the wisdom of God to come to us individually  – and we are not a New Age commune where any and everything goes.  We are shaped and formed into the image of God in community.  So we start by saying WE believe – and quickly move on to add that our belief is in God – not ourselves, not our nation, not our check books or our accomplishments – but… God!

·         We trust God…

·         And why is it important to state that right up front?

First ours is a faith shaped in community.  Second ours is a community of faith grounded in God.  And third we have some unique insights into God’s nature for we say:  WE BELIEVE IN GOD, THE ETERNAL SPIRIT, FATHER OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST…

·        What does it mean to you to call God the ETERNAL SPIRIT?

·      These words invite us to recall the beginning of the Bible, where the Spirit of the Lord hovered over the chaos and creatively brought order and shape and form and beauty into being?

·      To speak of God as Spirit also connects us to the prophets and to Jesus:  do you remember how Jesus defined his public ministry in his first sermon as recorded in Luke 4?  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor and release of the captives.

·      The Spirit of God is about Pentecost – and resurrection – it is about the dry bones who are brought back to life and vitality

·      What’s more, by speaking of God as the Eternal Spirit we are taught that our faith is connected to the faith that shaped and formed Jesus and the whole community we call Israel.  Ours is not an idol created out of convenience or fashioned in OUR own image.  Rather, God is the one who sets captives free in history, rescues the lost, restores sight to the blind and inspires joy in the living limbs of the broken so that they might leap and dance with amazing grace

And fourth we make certain to conclude this first insight by saying this Eternal Spirit is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is a confession and naming – a trusting and celebration – of the connection we have come to know and love between God’s Eternal Spirit and Jesus.  That's what it means to speak of Jesus as the Christ: he is our Savior – not just a friend or a spiritual guide – but our Savior born of the Lord. 

·      So what does that mean to you: to confess that the God we believe in has come to us in Jesus as a savior?

·      Well, think about what a savior does, ok?  A savior brings us salvation – from the world salve – which really means health in all of its bold, radical and profound implications – health.  Did you know that?

·       Our savior shows us the way of God’s health – physically, emotionally, spiritually, economically, personally and socially – because we are a part of a healing tradition with over four thousand years of experience and insight.


That’s enough for one morning, right?  Four clues and insights about our tradition born of the opening lines of our Statement of Faith:

·         We believe that we are shaped and formed by God in community

·        We believe that our community must be grounded in God not self or any other idol

·       We believe that God’s Eternal Spirit brought the world into being and is still available to us today

·        And we believe that this Eternal Spirit shaped and form Jesus to be our Savior

We will, of course, go deeper into the wisdom and spirituality of all of this as Lent unfolds.  We live in dark and demanding times.  There are competing – and even destructive – notions of religion swirling all around us.  And many in our own house are afraid and confused and on the brink of hopelessness.

·        I have found great solace in the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and trust that the grace of God that raised Jesus from the dead is available to each and everyone here today – and beyond our walls, too.

·        When Jesus arose from his baptismal waters, the Lord told us:  this is my beloved – and what was proclaimed then continues to be true for us today, too:  the body of Christ is God’s beloved.

Will those who are able, please stand and join me in confessing the core of our faith in community?

Unison: We believe in God, the Eternal Spirit, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and to God’s deeds we testify: God calls the worlds into being, creates human beings in God’s own image and sets before us the ways of life and death.

Leader:  God seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin.

Unison:  The Lord judges individuals and nations by a righteous will declared through prophets and apostles. In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord, God has come to us and shared our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to the Lord.

Leader:  God bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ,
binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races.

Unison:  God calls us into his church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be servants in the service of the whole world, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ's baptism and eat at his table and to join him in his passion and victory.

Leader:  God promises to all who trust forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the Lord’s presence in trial and rejoicing and eternal life in the kingdom of God which has no end.
Unison:  Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto him. Amen .

Friday, February 24, 2012

Lay down your weary tune, lay down...

Earlier this week, at our conversation and discussion of "Play-fullness" as a spiritual path, I asked the 15 adults:  "What did you do this week that was goofy?"  After an awkward moment of genuine confusion, filled with looks of mild distress, I wondered out loud if "perhaps we were all just a little too serious?"  And after another long pause and some nervous laughter I shared my own Billy Big-Mouth Bass - the mechanical fish - singing "Take Me to the River."

The next day was Fat Tuesday - filled with lots of goofiness and beauty - only to be followed by Ash Wednesday - a totally goofy day in the eyes of the world - wherein we own our mortality and the foolish wisdom of the Cross. 

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.

As I drove home quietly after the evening liturgy of the ashes, I found myself thinking about my personal paraphrase of the words of Jesus at the end of St. John's gospel. The Bible puts it like this:

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.’(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’

But I found myself reworking it like this: "When I was younger I used to think Stealer's Wheel's song, 'Stuck in the Middle with You' was my theme song - clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right - here I am: stuck in the middle with you.' I didn't want people to waste my precious time. But now, mostly by the grace of God, more often than not I find myself singing Sondheim's 'Send In the Clowns' because they are so often a blessing."

Imagine my delight upon reading today's reflection by Fr. Richard Rohr:

My dear friend, Dr. Gerald May, made a distinction years ago that I have found myself using frequently. He says spirituality is not to encourage willfulness, but in fact willingness. Spirituality creates willing people who let go of their need to be first, to be right, to be saved, to be superior, and to define themselves as better than other people. That game is over and gone and if you haven’t come to the willing level—“not my will but thy will be done”—then I think the Bible will almost always be misused.
I would like to say that the goal in general is to be serious about the word of God, serious about the scriptures. We have often substituted being literal with being serious and they are not the same! (Read that a second time, please.) I would like to make the point that in fact literalism is to not take the text seriously at all! Pure literalism in fact avoids the real impact, the real message. Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning in a spiritual text.
Both Origen and Augustine in the third and fourth centuries said there were at least four levels of interpretation to every scripture text. Recent fundamentalism, which says that literalism is in fact the truest meaning of the text, is totally inaccurate—and very late in coming. Literalism is the lowest level of meaning and if you just stop there you will never come to any real Encounter. You have engaged your own critical and self-protective mind, instead of bringing your mind into union with your heart. It will not get you very far. It will make you willful but not willing, and that makes all the difference.

So, come on, people of faith: let's get goofy - playfull - it is Lent!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Reflections on Fat Tuesday...

Fat Tuesday has come and gone - so has Ash Wednesday - and I have been basking in the afterglow of both days in gratitude.  When we returned home after the Fat Tuesday concert, I wrote this note to all of my bandmates:

Sipping a glass of red wine, basking in my gratitude for the chance to both do something beautiful for others AND enjoy your stellar musicianship:  I am a blessed man tonight.  And I am so grateful to each of you for sharing your time and talent.  I trust you had as much fun as I did making music.  I am of the conviction - like Dostoevsky - that beauty can save the world.  (Read Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Peace Speech if you think this is simplistic.) And you made a ton of beauty tonight.

Like Rob Fisch (one of our trumpet masters) said, "It was a gift to get everyone together in the same room - and the money we raised for the hunger center was gravy!"  Totally right - you each made this magical and sweet.

So a deep, deep thank you - rest well - and know I look forward to seeing you soon.

It is important to me to celebrate and honor the hard work and sacrifice my artist friends share with me. Then I added the poem by Jayne Cortez, "A Jazz Fan Looks Back" that I used to open the show:

I crisscrossed with Monk
Wailed with Bud
Counted every star with Stitt
Sang "Don't Blame Me" with Sarah
Wore a flower like Billie
Screamed in the range of Dinah
& scatted "How High the Moon" with Ella  Fitzgerald
    as she blew roof off the Shrine Auditorium Jazz  at the Philharmonic

I cut my hair into a permanent tam
Made my feet rebellious metronomes
Embedded record needles in paint on paper
Talked bopology talk
Laughed in high-pitched saxophone phrases
Became keeper of every Bird riff
every Lester lick
as Hawk melodicized my ear of infatuated tongues
& Blakey drummed militant messages into the
soul of my applauding teeth
& Ray hit bass notes to the last love seat in my bones

I moved in triple time with Max
Grooved high with Diz
Perdidoed with Pettiford
Flew home with Hamp
Shuffled in Dexter's Deck
Squatty-rooed with Peterson
Dreamed a "52nd Street Theme" with Fats
& scatted "Lady Be Good" with Ella Fitzgerald
as she blew roof off the Shrine Auditorium
Jazz  at the Philharmonic

And over the next two days I began to get back responses from my musical mates on Fat Tuesday - and they made my heart sing.  Here are a few:

+ From Mr. Piano - Carlton Maiia - my director of music:  Folks, of all the places I could've been last night - of all the things there are to do in this world - all the abstractions and ways of keeping busy and feeling important - there isn't anywhere else I would've rather been: not with anybody else, doing anything else, for any other reason.

It was truly a high point of feel-good music making in my life, and I thank you ALL for it, because it really was because of each and every one of you.  The organization, and leadership, and constant energy was a gift from Pastor James; the fabulous sound setup a gift from Paul and Sean and Rob; the chance to help a great cause, a gift from the Christian Center... Oh, the Christian Center! : they probably have no idea what a gift they gave us last night!!

+ From Linda Worster, my favorite folk artist in the Berkshires: I am with you all in gratitude and joy... Loving reading all these messages! There is nothing in the world to me that is quite so wonderful as looking around a room at people I am making music with. It is a true privilege and a gift. And then to join hearts for a great cause! HOOORAH!!! Looking forward to the next time!

+ From Dan Broad, the finest bass player in the region: I wholeheartedly agree with what all of you have been saying. We pulled off the concert without falling all over each other and played beautiful, soulful, heartfelt music! What great example of building community through music.

+ From Rebecca Leigh, the BEST R and B singer I have EVER heard: Wow. Last night was so much fun and a wonderful blessing (as always) to perform with you! It's an honor to share my love of performing with the best musicians in Berkshire County. Thank you for that. Can't wait until the next! Until then, be well. Much love and gratitude,

+ And from Dr. Jon Grenoble, church member and musical colleague: Thanks for letting me be a part of it all, to be able to live in a gracious small community and be surrounded by the depth of musical talent and dedication on that stage last night is really an exceptional blessing. Look forward to being with all of you again.

Two things deserve comment:

Second, we played two killer sets and people gave up their music with passion, verve and camaraderie.  Remember: of the 18 musicians on the stage, 6 run their own bands.  And there was almost no ego to deal with and NO sense of needing to upstage any one else.  It was truly an encounter in how music can build community - with and for the artists - as well as the wider Berkshire community, too.

And then, as icing on the cake, Jenn Smith of the Berkshire Eagle, ran this article in today's paper:

Berkshires After Dark: Rocking out -- at church
By Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff

Thursday February 23, 2012
PITTSFIELD -- I went to church on Tuesday night, and rocked out.

I always try to celebrate the spirit of Mardi Gras, so I couldn't resist when I saw a Facebook post about a Fat Tuesday Blues and Jazz Party.

The venue happened to be at the First Church of Christ Congregational on Park Square. They had a pre-Thanksgiving benefit concert there to raise winter fuel funds for the community. It was so successful and fun, the musicians decided to get together and do it again -- this time to not only raise Mardi Gras spirits, but also to drum up support for the Christian Center in Pittsfield by free-will donation.

As I headed over to First Church, I began to think of how churches and places of worship offer non-sacred, non-denominational entertainment in the Berkshires.

When I first moved back to Berkshire County in 2005, I remember that the First United Methodist Church in Pittsfield had an excellent concert series going, Common Grounds. I got to see nationally touring folk artist Dar Williams there, while sitting front and center in a pew.

More recently, the series was tabled and the artists who played there headed to North Adams and the Railway Café at Gallery 51.

This past fall, another church, the former St. George's in Lee, was converted to the Spectrum Playhouse, which began in January to hold concerts, plays, movies and a monthly comedic performance by the Royal Berkshire Improv Troupe.

this week, I went to the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge and met Yeejin Yuk, a 14-year-old pianist who will hold a concert there this Sunday at 3 p.m. While there, I also learned that the church has a music committee that will be sponsoring a March 6 concert at 7 p.m. with the Bowling Green State University Men's Chorus.
In Williamstown on Friday at 8 p.m., Tenores de Aterúe will sing four-part polyphonic Sardinian music as part of a regular concert series at St. John's Episcopal Church, 35 Park St.

And this Sunday at 4 p.m., there will be a creative semi-secular event called the Gospel Extravaganza Concert, featuring rap artist ZION, Bob Alonge, Rodney Mashia, Pastor Crystal Brown, The Messengers, The Gospel Gang and local blueswoman Robin O'Herin. Instead of in church, however, the music will be performed in the auditorium of Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington.

When I walked through the full parking lot and into the First Church in Pittsfield on Tuesday night, just before 8, I found first a lobby stocked with boxes of doughnuts, plates of bagels, coffee and soft drinks, and a basket of purple, green and gold Mardi Gras beads. The Rev. James Lumsden headed the event.

The band was just finishing a jumping rendition of the New Orleans classic "Iko Iko" as I walked down the aisle. A couple of women I didn't know smiled and waved me in to take a seat near them in the comfortable, padded pews.

About a dozen musicians were arrayed across the gilded altar, including several vocalists and guitar players, an upright bass player, drummer, even a trumpet player.

From where I was sitting, it was hard to see those playing on stage left, but I could hear them just fine. I got there just in time to hear a stirring rendition of The Beatles' "Let it Be."

The crowd was mixed, but mostly in the middle-age range.

I also appreciated that the focus was on the music, not on being preached to. But Lumsden couldn't help but remind the crowd of about 70 that on Sundays, the music is just as lively.

I recognized the sounds and faces of local artists like Carlton Maaia II, Rebecca Leigh, Andy Kelly, Linda Worster and Vikki True. There were many others there too, though forgive me, I can't remember all of them.

The songs were quite recognizable too, from artists like Tom Waits, Eric Clapton and Norah Jones.

Leigh's rendition of "The Greatest Love of All," popularized by late singer Whitney Houston, brought a standing ovation.

Another crowd-pleaser was a boy, who I later learned is Ethan Wesley, a guitar student of Andy Kelly's. Wesley took a few leads and solos, confidently playing some great blues.

Later in the evening, small balloons rained down from the balcony, tossed by a few youths. Another great round of applause and delight came when Lumsden announced $817 had been raised for hunger missions at the Christian Center.

I left at 9:22 p.m. to make my way over to some 10x10 On North Festival poetry at Y Bar. But Lumsden and the group were still revved up, playing Clapton's "After Midnight."

Although First Church and other like venues aren't regular popular nightspots, they are, on occasion, here to provide a unique break from the norm. Amen to that.

There is a groove going on here that is a total, stone-cold blessing.  And I am one very grateful man.

Faithful America takes on Franklin Graham...

I have to give credit to Faithful America for calling out Franklin Graham and his slandarous inuendo about President Obama's faith.  Check it out... and act if you can!

This week on MSNBC, Billy Graham's son refused to acknowledge that President Obama is a Christian, saying "I can't say categorically [that he's not a Muslim], because Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama."

This isn't the first time Franklin Graham has tried to cast doubt on the President's Christian faith. He's previously said that Obama was "born a Muslim," that the "seed of Islam is passed through the father," and that under Obama's leadership, "the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated every level of our government."

Graham is the president of one of the world's largest Christian relief organizations, Samaritan's Purse, whose mission is "providing spiritual and physical aid to hurting people around the world." Sign our petition calling on the Board of Directors of Samaritan's Purse to fire Franklin Graham immediately!

Franklin Graham's lies and fear-mongering about President Obama and our Muslim neighbors makes him unfit to lead a Christian organization. The Board of Directors of Samaritan's Purse should immediately replace him.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The readings for Ash Wednesday are simultaneously unique and ordinary: 

Unique in that they are focused in an uncanny way on our desire to please God:

·         Create in me a clean heart, O God

·         Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don't make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won't be applauding… Here's what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won't be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

And ordinary in that we know through experience how easily we are distracted, yes?  That is one of the humbling truths about Ash Wednesday:  it keeps coming back to us, year after year, reminding us that every year we start today with deep convictions and hopes only to find ourselves at Good Friday aware of the gap between our intentions and our actions. 

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?

They call this the human condition – one of the facts of life – which we know what would be good and true and just, we can think it and will it, but we can’t do it consistently. 

·         Do you know what I’m talking about?

·         Can you think of an example of this in your life?

One of the blessings of being in a faith community is that we all acknowledge this fact of life to be true:  we don’t have to like it, but spiritual depth and maturity begins in accepting the fact that we are unable to be consistently good and compassionate no matter how hard we try.  To fight this is both arrogant and naïve – to deny it is foolish – and to just throw up your hands in resignation is lazy.  For, you see, there is another way:  to learn about humility from our failures.

·         Humility – to be of the earth – hummus – that is one of the blessings of Ash Wednesday:  it calls attention to our arrogant, lazy, naïve and foolish ways with the promise of an alternative.

·         Not automatically, but slowly and with deliberate attention, we are invited into grace.

But here’s the thing:  to grow into grace means we have to give up our illusions of being boldly independent – and that is tough business especially for Americans.  But here’s another truth: “We are by our very nature, dependent beings.”  Brother Kevin Hackett at St. John’s Anglican Monastery in Cambridge, MA writes:

We come into this world utterly dependent on the care of others. We travel through this life dependent on engagement with others, however limited, for the basic necessities of life and well-being. And, we will leave this life, still dependent, and if we are lucky, in the care of others.

So much of the authentic Christian faith challenges the cultural status quo of popular American culture and politics – and yet the culture warriors keep attacking as if their narrow and punitive vision of the Lord was the fullness of God’s grace.  Or their American jingoism could honestly resonate with the sacred song of the Holy Trinity.

Our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons.

Last weekend Rick Santorum called President Obama’s vision of the world a “flawed theology.”  I understand that from a doctrinaire Roman Catholic sense they are the one true church.  But that was not Santorum’s point – he was questioning Obama’s commitment to eco-justice – by quoting John 3:16! “For God so loved the world – the cosmos – not simply human kind, but the totality of creation.” And then there is the hyperbole of both Newt Gingrich and the American Roman Catholic Bishops who charge that the President has become the most dangerous President in his opposition to religious freedom in recent history. Or Franklin Graham’s smear campaign that Obama is not a true believer?  Didn’t St. Paul admonish people of faith in Romans 12 to practice seeing one another as Christ?

If you preach, just preach God's Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don't take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don't get bossy; if you're put in charge, don't manipulate; if you're called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don't let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.

Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don't burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant.

Don't quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they're happy; share tears when they're down. Get along with each other; don't be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don't be the great somebody. Don't hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you've got it in you, get along with everybody. Don't insist on getting even; that's not for you to do. "I'll do the judging," says God. "I'll take care of it."

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he's thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don't let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

The attacks by these conservative religious leaders prove the point Niebuhr made about “moral man and immoral society” when he noted:  by grace and practice individuals can sometimes live into the call of agape love; but never in groups where competing self-interest rules like the law of jungle.  All the more reason, on Ash Wednesday, to spend time with Christ’s call to repentance in community:

We were created to be yoked to one another, literally dependent on one another, because we need each other. We were created by God to be interdependent not independent creatures. There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. There is no such thing as self-sufficiency. These are illusions, posing as ideals, false ideals that actually draw us aware from the very thing that I believe we desire most deeply and for which we were created and that is love. And love imposes limitations which fly in the face of our so-called independence. The limitations imposed by love, however, provide the medium for true freedom. This is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching, I believe. Jesus calls us to become our truest selves, and the key is humility—which has never been a virtue to which the American spirit has ever aspired, nor frankly, has it been one which comes easily to any Christian. For one thing, humility reminds us that we are creatures made from the red clay of the earth, the humus of decaying organic matter, the soil and dust from which we came and to which we shall all one day return 

Humility, unlike independence, reminds us that we come from a common source, and however we might seek to differentiate ourselves by use of the gifts that we are given by God, we all share and common end and purpose. If there is one true thing we can say of every living man, woman, and child, it is that we will all one day die. St. Francis of Assisi was said to have possessed the gift of humility, and it is also said that he is the most admired and least imitated of all the saints. There is a reason for this: humility reads more appealingly than it plays. Humility puts us on our knees washing the feet of others. Humility willingly rides a donkey to a stallion. Humility willingly shares the burdens of others. Humility willingly accepts limitations—our own and others. Humility offers us freedom from the need to distinguish ourselves, whether it be through the accumulation of wealth, the acquisition of prestige, education, social standing, prowess, or power. (Brother Kevin Hackett, The Community of St. John)

And so the prayer appointed for today says:

Most holy and merciful God; we confess to you and to one another – and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth – that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word and deed; by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved you with all our heart and mind and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others as we have been forgiven.  Have mercy on us, have mercy.

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:...