Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bringing it all back home...

Last night we watched Joan Osborne rock the Infinity Hall in in tiny Norfolk, CT with her smoldering set of soul/blues songs.  Her new CD is called Bring It On Home ~ and that's what she did with each song ~ brought us to a place deep in our center that aches and needs to be nourished and loved. For me the blues unlocks that center better than most other types of music so I was grateful that not only did her cracker-jack band rock the shit out each song, but that together they gave us all a chance to go deeper within because of the tunes.

Yesterday, Fr. Richard Rohr spoke of this going deeper when he wrote about suffering:

Do you realize with what  difficulty surrender will come to a fixing, managing mentality? There's nothing  in that psyche prepared to understand the spiritual wisdom of surrender. All of  the great world religions teach surrender. Yet most of us, until we go through  “the hole in our soul,” don't think surrender is really necessary. At least  that's how it is for those of us in developed countries. The poor, on the other  hand, seem to understand limitation at a very early age. They cannot avoid or  deny the hole in reality and in their own soul.

The  developing world faces its limitation through a breakdown in the  social-economic system, and any access to basic justice. But we, in the  so-called developed world, have to face our limitations, it seems, on the  inside. That's our “liberation theology.” We must recognize our own poor man,  our own abused woman, the oppressed part of ourselves that we hate, that we  deny, that we're afraid of. That's the hole in our soul. This is our way through—maybe the only way, says the  crucified Jesus.

I think that is one of the reasons why the blues speaks to so many of us western affluent folk:  we need to be set free from our inner oppression. And the blues puts us in touch with our inner hurts in ways that many traditional worship liturgies do not.  Two nights ago, during a supper conversation with some dear colleagues, someone said, "I don't know why we keep doing this f****n crazy job?"  We then all added in our own shocking, funny, sad and wounded stories about how we too have been hurt and dismissed while serving a church as a pastor. And after a long pregnant pause, someone concluded, "I guess that's just how it goes for those of in the helping professions."

Now I couldn't put my finger on it then, but something felt wrong with that summary - it seemed something trivial and incomplete - so I kept my mouth shut. But while driving home from last night's blues-fest, I got it:  we are NOT in the helping professions!  We are not nurses or social workers or psychiatric counselors:  we are pastors called to shepherd folk deeper into the Body of Christ. And the only authentic way into this community is through the Cross.  The upside-down, embarrassing, cruel and absurd Cross that God uses to change hatred into compassion and death into resurrection life.
So, speaking from the perspective of the "helping professions" - or any other traditional career - being a pastor and serving the church DOES look f****n crazy.  Because it is - it doesn't make sense - and it never will.  Once again the words I've been pondering this Lent from the Apostle Paul seem the best to describe what is really taking place in ministry to and within the Body of Christ.

The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It's written,

I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head,
I'll expose so-called experts as crackpots.

So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.

(NOTE:  Please remember that Paul is speaking in a context where some of those in the Jewish tradition are challenging him and some in the Greek pagan world are offering up their philosophies to counter his words about the Cross.  This is not - and never should be - construed to be a diatribe about God's first covenant with Israel.) 

While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God's ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can't begin to compete with God's "weakness."

Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don't see many of "the brightest and the best" among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That's why we have the saying, "If you're going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God."

Onward to the absurdity of Palm Sunday/April Fool's Day!  Rohr adds these important and clarifying insights:

This common phrase used by Christians, and first used in the letters of Paul, has caused a lot of confusion. It is as if our sinfulness caused him to be killed and his dying caused God to love us. It leaves us very guilty, usually grateful, but not really empowered or transformed. Redemption is something we "watch" more than participate in.
The Western mind prefers to interpret things "instrumentally" that is, in terms of cause and effect This is what Scholastic philosophy called an "efficient cause", but it is not really helpful in understanding spiritual things. It is too linear, mechanical, and never gets close to the multilayered mystery of any event, least of all something as profound as this. Redemption becomes a kind of heavenly transaction between Jesus and God but we are not really in on the deal. It happened then but not also now. I might be grateful but I am not really engaged.
So try this: "Christ died for our sins" means that he died in solidarity with-- and in loving communion with--all human failure, mistakes, and absurdity--and thus made them non-absurd! ("With our sins" might be the more helpful preposition than "for our sins".) All human suffering and even our failures can henceforth be seen as part of the entire mystery of transformation into God. Thus he rightly renamed ("redeemed"?) the dark side of everything, which is what always discourages and defeats us. Now we can be both grateful and highly motivated. Life and death are both good! We are now participants instead of spectators. We are still very grateful but now gratitude is the very ground floor of our universe, because nothiing, absolutely nothing is wasted in the Divine Economy of Grace. All of your life and all of your dyings are indeed part of the deal!
"Let me tell you a secret: "We are not going to die, but we will all be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Failing to learn redux...

Tonight we're going to see Joan Osborne - one of Di's favorites - arranged by my "brother from another mother" Hal's radio station.  They were offering some seats to listeners and my honey jumped on it - Hal responded - so we're going.  And it is just what the doctor ordered because I can feel my inner bitch starting to rise to the surface:  it has been too long without a weekend break from ministry. 

You see, one of the things I've learned from some of my failures is that every 6-8 weeks, I have to get outta Dodge for some completely down-time - away from church and ministry - just to rest and renew.  Without that rhythm - engaging and retreating, action and contemplation, work and play - I get resentful.  Used to be that I wouldn't own this resentment until it bubbled over in mean-spirited and/or inappropriate ways - and then I would flee to my car for a 2-3 hour driving jag.  My soul was telling me to "get away and rest," but as is often the case with sacred wisdom, it was upside-down - and I didn't have eyes to see.  For as they say in AA, "wherever you run to you always take yourself with you," so running away never worked.  I needed a break, a real time of renewal not simply an  interruption in m stress.

So, after years of living in this trap, I learned the following rhythm for keeping me grateful and grounded in ministry:  every day needs some quiet and reflective time (and a little walking makes things better, too) - every week needs a Sabbath break - and every 6-8 weeks I need to spend 2 days totally away from all things church with my sweetheart. My spiritual director in Cleveland, Fr. Jim O'Donnell, used to call this the oasis rhythm born of Charles de Foucauld.

Eugene Peterson explains it like this:

The suggestion to DO something is nearly always inappropriate (for persons in spiritual direction) because most people seeking direction are troubled over some disorder or dissatisfaction in being - not doing... The sense of definition provided by clear-cut action provides tremendous satisfaction. But there is no growth in the spirit, no development into maturity. (And) pastors are particularly imperiled in this area because of the compulsive activism, both cultural and ecclesiastical, in which we are immersed simply by being alive at this time in history. It takes wary and persistent watching to avoid falling into this activist trap.

Jesus said:  Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me.  Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it... and I will show you the unforced rhythms of grace.

Thank God I've learned to listen to my inner bitch - and after Holy Week there will be some quiet and away time to rest in the unforced rhythms of grace.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Failing to learn...

My clergy network met tonight and among other things we talked about this article.  It starts out: (check it out @,0&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=headline&utm_campaign=FL_feature

Failing to learn
Many U.S. coffee drinkers prefer lighter roasts, so Starbucks set out to meet the demand. It took, according to Fast Company, "a multitude of beans" and 80 experiments with roasting time and temperature before executives were satisfied.              

Starbucks failed 79 times.

The stories of companies and individuals failing before wildly succeeding are legion. Consider Coca-Cola's "New Coke" experiment, and the Wright brothers' attempts at flying. IDEO, the design consultancy, coined a now-famous phrase that guides its work: "Fail often to succeed sooner."

Encouraging Christian institutions to "fail often" sounds like Albert Einstein's famous definition of insanity. One bishop, being urged to innovate, fail and adapt, said the clergy in his area are far too comfortable with failure -- failed sermons, failed stewardship campaigns, failed programs and, ultimately, failing congregations.

The challenge for Christian leaders is to rethink our notions about failure. 
All failure is not bad; what is bad, and what is hampering our institutions, is failing to learn from it. And that is what the bishop was talking about -- contentment with mediocrity rather than a passionate commitment to experiment, evaluate, adapt and experiment again, for the sake of the gospel.

All of which got me to thinking about the mistakes I'VE had to learn from:  I remember a therapist once said, "Ok, man, we've identified all the wrong reasons for going into ministry. Let's see if we can find the RIGHT ones for you."  So here are 8 different things I've learned from over 30 years of making mistakes:

+ First, change in a church - any church - always takes twice as long as I think it should.  What's more, it takes longer in a smaller church because you need a super majority to support the change.  Some clergy are hired to be a "change agents," but the culture of a congregation doesn't change over night.  What's more, while some changes could and should happen quickly, the deeper changes require lots of time and listening.  We just don't know what the Spirit is saying to the church at first so take your time.  Remember:  no matter how smart and creative you are, it always takes twice as long as I think it should. 

+ Second, the only capital we bring to a church is trust and love - and both take a long time to document.  Trust doesn't come with a title - or a degree - it comes from standing and delivering for people in need over time.  And people know whether or not you love them - they have great bullshit detectors - so NEVER act like you are the hired gun or the expert.  You are the pastor.  As the Alban Institute once wrote:  NEVER call your congregation idiots. They may have faults, they may be broken and troubled, but they are also children of God.  Even the so-called "clergy killers." I know some clergy who disdain and disrespect their congregations from the start - so they deserve to fail.  If you don't consistently show up at the hospital - if you aren't able to sing from your heart with dying friends - if you won't listen carefully and truly care for each individual, you won't make it. And you don't deserve to make it.  We earn the right to make changes only by trust and that takes time. Anything less is arrogance.

+ Third, always pay your own way because there are NO free lunches.  I have found that having friends in a congregation is possible - dual relationships can work - but never take too many freebies.  We have to pay our own way - we have to pick up the tab from time to time - so that people don't think they own you.  Because when you least expect it, if your congregation thinks they own you, they will call in the favor and it may violate your faith or integrity.  NEVER take a bribe - that is, NEVER let the big money people hold you hostage to a building campaign or pledge drive - ALWAYS choose integrity and freedom even if that means making due with a crap sound system and all the rest.

+ Fourth, honor a Sabbath and keep it holy.  If you are exhausted, you are no good to anyone.  Even God rested... so make sure to do likewise:  every week.  Get out of town every 6-8 weeks for a weekend away, too.  You need your rest - and so does your congregation!

+ Fifth, hire to your weakness rather than to your passion.  Your staff - who ever they are - needs to help you succeed in ministry.  Hire secretaries you trust and who can help you get to your appointments on time. Hire musicians who will make worship rock - and your sermons soar.  Don't hire too quickly - do reference checks - and stake the time to see each person in action. Your staff can make or break you - they have to want you to shine - and they have to want to work for the glory of God as a team ministry. No prima donnas need apply, ok?

+ Sixth, make friends with your shadow in the church.  Every congregation has people who piss you off and push your bottoms.  Ask them to help you.  Ask them to help you think through key changes - they can often see what you cannot - and invite them to assist you in  moving new ideas forward, too. It is humbling to own your shadow.  It is challenging to confess that you can't see the whole picture. But when you bring your shadow into your ministry by embracing your opponents, everyone wins.  Everyone.  (BTW, not everyone, however, wants to help so know when to shake the dust off your sandals and move on, too.)

+ Seventh, lead by example:  never ask your staff or your leadership team to do something you wouldn't do.  Wash dishes, clean up the floor after a potluck, give to the stewardship campaign sacrificially and show up at meetings well prepared.  I used to think that being present was enough - it helps, but it isn't enough - you need to model what discipleship looks like.  You need to show others what love and commtment in the midst of fear means. And if you honor your staff, leading by doing rather than ordering, you invite every one's insights to be considered. Oh yeah: listen, listen, listen at least as much as you speak, too.

+ Eighth, take the risks that advance the cause of ministry.  Sometimes clergy take risks to show how bold they are. Sometimes clergy take risks without the proper preparation.  And sometimes clergy take risks because they are bored.  Rarely do these advance the ministry of Jesus.  So do your homework.  Own your failures and learn from them.  And then offer new creative ways to help everyone go deeper in worship,strengthen the congregation's heart for compassion or discern the movement of the Holy Spirit.

And one last thing:  understand that sometimes we can neither fix nor solve a problem in a congregation or a life.  All we can do is faithfully love the person and entrust them to the Lord. In this, clergy people would be wise to live and embrace the Serenity Prayer. 

Tonight, I am grateful for sharing and praying with humble and honest colleagues who advance the cause of hope by learning from their failures.  Thanks beloved, thanks!

Two insights on the way to Holy Week...

Two very different articles have come across my desk in the last few days - and both deserve a deeper read.  The first, from the UK's The Independent, speaks of the importance of arts education in the lives of children as a key ingredient in healing and hope. (check it out @  I have included the heart of it here as Lord Putnam advocates for truth, good and beauty on a deep level.  Note, of course, that he has practical experience, too having been instrumental in the creation of films like Chariots of Fire and the Killing Fields. The social future for Britain looks so "bleak" that its only hope lies with its teachers and how they educate the next generation, Lord Puttnam will warn in a lecture today.
In a society blighted by violence and depravity among its youth, he will say: "If – certainly as I see it – the future looks increasingly bleak, almost a form of 'war' – then teachers, most particularly primary school teachers, are pretty well the only 'infantry' available to us.

"It's not that I simply want a more imaginative future – it's more the case that... there won't be much of a future of any sort unless we're prepared to become significantly more imaginative – most particularly in respect of the way in which we educate people."

Lord Puttnam will present the lecture at the Association of Art Historians' 38th Annual Conference today. Taking place at the Open University, Milton Keynes, it will be attended by 500 international academics, artists, curators, architects and musicians.
He will call for the nation to accept the role that the arts can play for individuals and communities, but say that it must find a way of paying for them: "Really great art can reach out to touch that spirit across generations, as well as across wholly differing cultures."
Over 30 years, Lord Puttnam was an independent producer who made some of the UK's finest films including Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, Local Hero and Midnight Express. He retired from film-making 15 years ago to devote himself to public life, notably education, the environment and media regulation. Chariots of Fire the uplifting, 1981 four-time Oscar-winning film about British athletes Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams has been digitally-remastered and will be released in cinemas for the 2012 Olympics.

Such is the power of the arts to change lives that the film deterred several suicides. Lord Puttnam reveals: "Over the years I've received at least a dozen letters from people claiming that the film actually persuaded them not to end their own lives; it gave them exactly the kind of lift they needed at a time of crisis." His direct experience backs extensive anecdotal evidence that engagement with the arts inspires "self-confidence, empathy and teamwork," emphasising that the arts "have a value both for the individual's self-development and for nurturing our sense of connection to others". He will also remind his audience that "one measure of any community wishing to regard itself as truly civilised is the quality and depth of its artistic achievement".

The second comes from my blogger buddy - Blue Eyed Innis - who posted rocker Nick Cave's comments on the gospel of Mark.  Cave is one of my favs and I appreciate the depth and passion he brings to the cause of Christ in these days of watered-down, PC drivel. Believe me, there is NOTHING watered-down about Cave, yes?  Check out his killer song, "Hiding" for starters.

An Introduction to The Gospel According to Mark
by Nick Cave

When I bought my first copy of the Bible, the King James version, it was to the Old Testament that I was drawn, with its maniacal, punitive God who dealt out to His long-suffering humanity punishments that had me drop-jawed in disbelief at the very depth of their vengefulness.

I had a burgeoning interest in violent literature, coupled with an unnamed sense of the divinity in things and, in my early twenties, the Old Testament spoke to that part of me that railed and hissed and spat at the world. I believed in God, but I also believed that God was malign and if the Old Testament was testament to anything, it was testament to that. Evil seemed to live close to the surface of existence within it, you could smell its mad breath, see the yellow smoke curl from its many pages, hear the blood-curdling moans of despair. It was a wonderful, terrible book, and it was sacred scripture.

But you grow up. You do. You mellow out. Buds of compassion push through the cracks in the black and bitter soil. Your rage ceases to need a name. You no longer find comfort watching a whacked-out God tormenting a wretched humanity as you learn to forgive yourself and the world..

Then, one day, I met an Anglican vicar and he suggested that I give the Old Testament a rest and read Mark instead. I hadn't read the New Testament at that stage because the New Testament was about Jesus Christ and the Christ I remembered from my choirboy days was that wet, all-loving, etiolated individual that the church proselytised. I spent my pre-teen years singing in the Wangaratta Cathedral Choir and even at that age I recall thinking what a wishy-washy affair the whole thing was. The Anglican Church: it was the decaf of worship and Jesus was their Lord.

Here, I am reminded of that picture of Christ, painted by Holman Hunt, where He appears, robed and handsome, a lantern in His hand, knocking on a door: the door to our hearts, presumably. The light is dim and buttery in the engulfing darkness. Christ came to me in this way, lumen Christi, with a dim light, a sad light, but light enough. Out of all the New Testament writings - from the Gospels, through the Acts and the complex, driven letters of Paul to the chilling, sickening Revelation - it is Mark's Gospel that has truly held me.
Scholars generally agree that Mark's was the first of the four gospels to be written. Mark took from the mouths of teachers and prophets the jumble of events that comprised Christ's life and fixed these events into some kind of biographical form. He did this with such breathless insistence, such compulsive narrative intensity, that one is reminded of a child recounting some amazing tale, piling fact upon fact, as if the whole world depended upon it - which , of course, to Mark it did. 'Straightway' and 'immediately' link one event to another, everyone 'runs', 'shouts', is 'amazed', inflaming Christ's mission with a dazzling urgency. Mark's Gospel is a clatter of bones, so raw, nervy and lean on information that the narrative aches with the melancholy of absence. Scenes of deep tragedy are treated with such a matter of factness and raw economy they become almost palpable in their unprotected sorrowfulness.

Mark's narrative begins with the Baptism, and 'immediately' we are confronted with the solitary figure of Christ, baptised in the River Jordan and driven into the wilderness. 'And he was there in the wilderness 40 days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him' (1:13). This is all Mark says of the Temptation, but the verse is typically potent owing to its mysterious simplicity and spareness.

Christ's forty days and forty nights in the wilderness also say something about His aloneness, for when Christ takes on His ministry around Galilee and in Jerusalem, He enters a wilderness of the soul, where all the outpourings of His brilliant, jewel-like imagination are in turns misunderstood, rebuffed, ignored, mocked and vilified and would eventually be the death of Him.

Even His disciples, who we would hope would absorb some of Christ's brilliance,seem to be in a perpetual fog of misunderstanding, following Christ from scene to scene with little or no comprehension of what is going on. So much of the frustration and anger that seems at times almost to consume Christ is directed at His disciples and it is against their persistent ignorance that Christ's isolation seems at its most complete. It is Christ's divine inspiration, versus the dull rationalism of those around Him, that gives Mark's narrative its tension, its drive. The gulf of misunderstanding is so vast that His friends 'lay hold of Him' thinking,'He is beside himself' (3:21). The Scribes and Pharisees, with their monotonous insistence on the Law, provide the perfect springboard for Christ's luminous words.Even those Christ heals betray Him as they run to the town to report the doings of the miraculous healer, after Christ has insisted that they tell no one. Christ disowns His own mother for her lack of understanding. Throughout Mark, Christ is in deep conflict with the world. He is trying to save, and the sense of aloneness that surrounds Him is at times unbearably intense. Christ's last howl from the cross is to a God He believes has forsaken Him: "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani"

The rite of baptism - the dying of one's old self to be born anew - like so many of the events in Christ's life is already flavoured metaphorically by Christ's death and it is His death on the cross that is such a powerful and haunting force, especially in Mark. His preoccupation with it is all the more obvious, if only because of the brevity with which Mark deals with the events of His life. It seems that virtually everything that Christ does in Mark's narrative is in some way a preparation for His death - His frustration with His disciples and His fear that they have not comprehended the full significance of His actions; the constant taunting of the church officials; the stirring up of the crowds; His miracle-making so that witnesses will remember the extent of His divine power. Clearly, Mark is concerned primarily with the death of Christ to such an extent that Christ appears consumed by His imminent demise, thoroughly shaped by His death.
The Christ that emerges from Mark, tramping through the haphazard events of His life, had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist. Christ spoke to me through His isolation, through the burden of His death, through His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow. Christ, it seemed to me was the victim of humanity's lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity.

The Gospel According to Mark has continued to inform my life as the root source of my spirituality, my religiousness. The Christ that the Church offers us, the bloodless, placid 'Saviour' - the man smiling benignly at a group of children or serenely hanging from the cross - denies Christ His potent, creative sorrow or His boiling anger that confronts us so forcibly in Mark. Thus the Church denies Christ His humanity, offering up a figure that we can perhaps 'praise' but never relate to. The essential humanness of Mark's Christ provides us with a blueprint for our own lives so that we have something we can aspire to rather than revere, that can lift us free of the mundanity of our existences rather than affirming the notion that we are lowly and unworthy.

Merely to praise Christ in His Perfectness keeps us on our knees, with our heads pitifully bent. Clearly, this is not what Christ had in mind. Christ came as a liberator. Christ understood that we as humans were for ever held to the ground by the pull of gravity - our ordinariness, our mediocrity - and it was through His example that He gave our imaginations the freedom to fly. In short, to be Christ-like. This essay originally appeared in the Pocket Canon

Gospel According to Mark, (C)Canongate, 1998

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Going beyond the obvious...

For about a month - since seeing Jonathan Haidt on Bill Moyer's new TV show - I've been thinking about his insights:  namely, how and why it is that liberals and conservatives don't understand one another better.

How do Conservatives and Liberals See the World? from on Vimeo.

At the heart of Haidt's research are two key insights:

+ In the West, as the NYTimes Review of Books puts it, "we think about morality in terms of rights, fairness and consent... (further) our moral systems are built upon six fundamental ideas: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity." (check out the book review @

+ There are also six additional principles that influence and shape our moral perspective: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation.  Curiously, liberals and conservatives tend to connect more deeply to different configurations of these principles.
That means, Haidt argues and my 30+ years of ministry supports, faith communities need to understand how all of this works.  He suggests that

... we acquire morality the same way we acquire food preferences: we start with what we’re given. If it tastes good, we stick with it. If it doesn’t, we reject it. People accept God, authority and karma because these ideas suit their moral taste buds. Haidt points to research showing that people punish cheaters, accept many hierarchies and don’t support equal distribution of benefits when contributions are unequal.

You don’t have to go abroad to see these ideas. You can find them in the Republican Party. Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.   (NY Times)

Over the years, I know that because I value and support faith and patriotism, valor, chastity and law and order some people have told me that they think I am a middle of the road Republican. Simultaneously, because I also resonate with the prophetic call to care, compassion and fighting oppression, others think of me as a radical Democrat.  In reality, I am neither - at least at this point in my journey - I am a follower of Jesus Christ who takes seriously our commitment to living as a part of the Body of Christ in the United States of America.  And like Haidt, I too have discovered that it is harder to get liberals to open their minds and hearts than conservatives:

Anecdotally, he reports that when he talks about authority, loyalty and sanctity, many people in the audience spurn these ideas as the seeds of racism, sexism and homophobia. And in a survey of 2,000 Americans, Haidt found that self-described liberals, especially those who called themselves “very liberal,” were worse at predicting the moral judgments of moderates and conservatives than moderates and conservatives were at predicting the moral judgments of liberals. Liberals don’t understand conservative values. And they can’t recognize this failing, because they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment.

Haidt isn’t just scolding liberals, however. He sees the left and right as yin and yang, each contributing insights to which the other should listen. In his view, for instance, liberals can teach conservatives to recognize and constrain predation by entrenched interests. Haidt believes in the power of reason, but the reasoning has to be interactive. It has to be other people’s reason engaging yours. We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s. Haidt compares us to neurons in a giant brain, capable of “producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.”

As a congregation - and faith tradition - we are getting ready to head into Holy Week - a time when everything is turned upside down in bold ways. Palm Sunday points to the insights of Renee Girard more than ever - especially the notion that Christ shows us what it looks like when violence is used to destroy a scape goat in pursuit of building community - and the Trayvon Martin headlines only underscore this reality. (check out this interview with Girard @

+ Holy Thursday - or the truncated Protestant version called Maundy Thursday - invites us to get over ourselves and learn to serve as Christ the Servant served us:  on our knees washing one an other's feet.

+ Good Friday takes the Girardian wisdom deeper and invites us to own our complicity in sin and violence and live on behalf of the most wounder.

And Easter - the Feast of Resurrection - underscores that no matter how deep and profound human sin and violence, God's love is greater.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

the "political" songs of springsteen...

Yeah, I've been on a Bruce jag of late and suspect this brings the series to a close with the "political" songs of the Boss man.  Ever since Ronald Reagan tried to rip Springsteen off by implying his lament, Born in the USA, was really an anthem to American jingoism, casual listeners have been confused.  And to be honest, the Boss clearly played with the visual ambiguities of this confusion at first to help catapult his Born in the USA album into mega-gold status.  Just dig the cover photograph...

At the same time, he never minced words when it came to explaining his point.  As he told Reagan: I guess you haven't been listening to these songs... especially this one.  Johnny 99 - from the bleak Nebraska album - that made it clear that Bruce rejected and denounced Reganomics as well as all the chest beating propaganda of that regime.

Most of the tunes from both Nebraska and Born in the USA were reflections on the end of innocence for the American Dream.  Of course, a few of the tunes from The River and Darkness pointed in that direction, too ~ think Factory, The River and Badlands ~ but the Boss took it to a whole deeper level with his next two recordings ~ and there was no turning back.  As the videos from that era make clear, here was a rock and roll Flannery O'Connor taking no prisoners.

I remember hearing him kick off the first night of his stint in Detorit to promote this album and the music was terrifying, electric, grounding and holy.  And he kept it up with the next box set - a retrospective of his live concerts to date - by including two powerfully political tracks:  a remake of Edwin Starr's WAR and his own bluesy lament about those fleeing the rustbelt for better times in the Southwest called SEEDS.  One challenged US foriegn policy in Central America and one expressed the human costs of supply side economics in the 1980s. This take from last year in London is just as raw as back in the day...

Another vein of political songs pop up in the Tom Joad cycle ~ the opening tune nails it in a Gutheriesque way ~ so does YOUNGSTOWN from that period.  A little later, the same aethetic is at work on an anti-war song: Devils and Dust that speaks to the horrible
ambiguity of fighting in a war you hate.  From time to time, Springsteen steps back from the rock and roll and nourishes a populist, folksinger thing with deep integrity.

Then there are two very different songs:  Death to My Hometown (from the new Wrecking Ball that also includes WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN and a variety of other political songs) and 41 SHOTS from the LIVE IN NYC concert.  Without being too obvious, the first updates Springsteen's lament at the end of Born in the USA when he talks about the economic and social collapse of his hometown from the perspective of a young man with small children.  The song, MY HOMETOWN, is a sweet and sad reflection ~ but by 2012 not only has his hometown gone through hard times it has been murdered ~ and this song is like a cry to insurrection.

It is probably best to close with AMERICAN SKIN (41 SHOTS) - Springsteen's reflections on race relations in America after the killing of Amadou Diallo ~ an immigrant street pedler ~ who was:

... about to enter his apartment building when he was approached by New York City police officers. Believing him to have matched a description of a serial rapist, they ordered for Diallo to show them his hands. Diallo allegedly made a charge for the building entrance, ignoring orders to stop. He then reached into his jacket, for what the officers assumed was a gun, and he was shot 19 times. The item Diallo was attempting to pull out was not a firearm or any other kind of deadly weapon. It was his wallet.

Though only 19 bullets hit their mark, the officers fired 41 shots… (Rock History 101 @

In our own turmoil over the murder of Trayvon Martin last month, this song is all to sadly real.

notes for palm sunday...

NOTE: This coming Sunday, April 1, 2012 is Palm Sunday.  As is our tradition, there is not much preaching/teaching this day.  Rather, we share in the fullness of the blessing of the Palms before pausing to take in the paradox of the Cross.  As I note in my introduction to the extended Passion Narrative reading, this is a chance for us all to go deeper during the week in quiet reflection.  There is a unique cultural irony in celebrating Palm Sunday on April Fool's Day, yes?  How much more foolish and upside down can you get:  a leader who willingly goes to his death to document the love of God?  Truly, the Apostle Paul got it right that the Cross is a stumbling block and embarassment to those seeking the glory of God.  But it is the way of healing and hope, too.  If you are in town, join us at 10:30 am.

This year I have placed the Passion Narrative at the close of worship – in a moment I will share it with you – and then invite you to leave worship in silence.  There are two reasons:

·       First, whether you know it or not, the wisdom of the faith teaches us that worship does not end today at the close of the liturgy.  Rather, one chapter comes to a close with the Passion Narrative – and then we pause for a few days – all the while in worship – until we gather again at 7 pm on Maundy Thursday. 

And that worship doesn’t end on that day either but simply pauses again – and resumes at 7 pm on Good Friday – and keeps going until the closing music on Easter Sunday.  So, this is a week-long spiritual reflection on the Cross.  Ok?  It doesn’t end today but continues until the closing songs of Easter Sunday.

·        And that is the second reason we leave today in silence:  everybody here – from the oldest to the youngest – from the most devout and faithful to the most bored and faithless – is asked to let God speak to you in a unique way this week.  And it can’t happen – or at least most of us are unable to hear the voice of the Lord for our lives – if we’re doing all the talking.

Or if we’re mostly distracted – or obsessed – or racing around doing things that don’t need to be done.  From Palm Sunday to Easter, you see, we’re asked to use our time in a different way.  “Slow down you move too fast,” sang Paul Simon back in the 60s – but the church of Jesus Christ has been singing this song for two millennia – and asks that we pay particular attention over the next 8 days.

And if we embrace this counter-cultural invitation during Holy Week – if we take time to be quiet and pay attention to the still, small voice of the Lord calling to us through the chaos of our culture – you can’t help but notice something startling:  like the Apostle Paul said, the story of Jesus is NOT about rags-to-riches.  It is NOT about boy works hard and makes good by overcoming the obstacles of poverty and oppression.

No the story of our Lord is about downward mobility – pouring himself out till he was empty in order that we might be filled with grace and hope and healing – it is a story of going to death on the Cross to show us the depth of God’s love.  And not just to retell the facts – Holy Week is not a liturgical History Channel – but we listen to the story again so that we might emulate it by the strength of the Holy Spirit.

And so let us be still now – let us let the Lord of April Fool's Day speak to us where we most need to hear it – and then leave in silence and go deeper into the silence throughout the week as we ponder the blessings given to us in the Cross of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior:  listen for the word of God in the Passion Narrative.

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus* by stealth and kill him;2for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,* as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.4But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way?5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,* and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her.6But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news* is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.11When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

12 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’13So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him,14and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”15He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’16So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

17 When it was evening, he came with the twelve.18And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’19They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’20He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread* into the bowl* with me.21For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’

22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’23Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it.24He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the* covenant, which is poured out for many.25Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’

26 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.27And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written,
“I will strike the shepherd,

 and the sheep will be scattered.”

28But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’29Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’30Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’31But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.

32 They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’33He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated.34And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’35And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.36He said, ‘Abba,* Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’37He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?38Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;* the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’39And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.40And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.41He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.42Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

43 Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.44Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’45So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him.46Then they laid hands on him and arrested him.47But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear.48Then Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?49Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.’50All of them deserted him and fled.

51 A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him,52but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

53 They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled.54Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire.55Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none.56For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree.57Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying,58‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” 59But even on this point their testimony did not agree.60Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’61But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah,* the Son of the Blessed One?’62Jesus said, ‘I am; and
“you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power”,
and “coming with the clouds of heaven.”

63Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘Why do we still need witnesses?64You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?’ All of them condemned him as deserving death.65Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.

66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by.67When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.’68But he denied it, saying, ‘I do not know or understand what you are talking about.’ And he went out into the forecourt.* Then the cock crowed.*69And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’70But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.’71But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, ‘I do not know this man you are talking about.’72At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate.2Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’3Then the chief priests accused him of many things.4Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’5But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked.7Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection.8So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom.9Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’10For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over.11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.12Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do* with the man you call* the King of the Jews?’13They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’14Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’15So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters*); and they called together the whole cohort.17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him.18And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him.20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

21 They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.22Then they brought Jesus* to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull).23And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it.24And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

25 It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him.26The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’27And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.*29Those who passed by derided* him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days,30save yourself, and come down from the cross!’31In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself.32Let the Messiah,* the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land* until three in the afternoon.34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’*35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he* breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’*

images:  Georges Roualt

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:...