Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Gravitas and grace: maturing in faith...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, August 5, 2012.  I am using Ephesians 4 as the heart of this gathering with a little bit of wisdom from John 6: 24-35  and Isaiah 40: 1-2.  The wisdom of Eugene Peterson on this theme is deeply honored, too. If you are around @ 10:30 am, please join us for worship.

Earlier this week I came across a wonderfully insightful and humbling quote from the late Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens of Brussels.  During the annual ordination ceremony for new priests, the old Cardinal would prayerfully lay hands upon the man’s head in blessing and then whisper into his ear:  “Remember the Lord our God has called you into the ministry because he does not trust you to be a layman.” 

Think about that:  God knows and loves us all so much that, because we are beloved and precious to the Lord, we have each been called in unique ways to become our best selves.

St. Paul wrote:  Remember God handed out gifts above and below, filled heaven with his gifts, filled earth with his gifts.  To some were given the gift of being an apostle, a prophet or an evangelist – to others God gave the gift of being a pastor-teacher to train Christ's followers in skilled servant work – all so that we would work together within Christ's body, the church, until we're moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God's Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.

And that is what I want to explore with you today – maturing in the faith – so that we become fully alive in Christ and authentically active in the world as our best selves.  I’ve been thinking about this passage of Scripture for us for a long time – there are so many parts of it that are applicable to our life together – and they are all so beautiful.  In fact, I believe that for us these verses can be like the bread from heaven Jesus spoke about in today’s gospel:

“Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

So what I would like to share with you today breaks down like this:

·       First, let’s do a bit of Bible study about some of the insights being offered to us as bread from heaven in these words from Ephesians.

·       Second, let’s see what questions or concerns strike you as a challenge to being nourished by God’s heavenly bread.

·       And third, let’s consider a way that each and all of us might make these sacred words flesh in our own earthly lives utilizing four key Christian commitments or practices.

The first insight Paul wants us to embrace is that we have been called by God to both mature in the faith and live  in such a way that we spread joy wherever we go in the world:

Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

So let’s be clear about it means to mature in the faith and what it means to authentically live into our calling or invitation from the Lord, ok?  In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus tells his disciples:  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:48) Eugene Peterson’s reworking of the text, however, is more helpful because the Greek word, teleios, that is sometimes translated into English as “perfect” means to consummate with integrity or bring something to its most beautiful conclusion.  And so he rephrases the biblical text like this:  In a word, what I'm saying is: Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."

Not be perfect – without flaws or moral contradictions – but rather become your best self by grace – by giving and receiving blessings as joyfully as God gives to you.  Are you with me on this distinction?

·       Part of what it means to mature in the faith is to grow up: quit being childish – no more bullying or carping or gossiping or kvetching in self-absorbed ways.  In his commentary on Ephesians, Peterson puts it like this:  Becoming mature means refusing to live a reduced life, refusing a minimalist spirituality.”

·       The other part of becoming mature is to recognize your calling:  embrace your unique invitation from God so that you become your best self and multiply the miracle of joy.

“Our English word, derived from the Latin vocare for “call” is vocation.  And vocation… is a way of life.  A job is different.  A job is an assigned piece of work – it is necessary and important – but when the work is done, the job is over and we go back to being just ourselves, free to do anything we choose to do.  A vocation, by contrast, is comprehensive.” (Peterson, Practice Resurrection, p. 170)

·       It is a combination of gravitas and grace – depth, wisdom and compassion shared in a healing way that evokes and nourishes joy. 

·       The bard of Vermont, Frederick Buechner, got it right I think when he wrote:  Vocation is where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.
That’s the first insight I want to share with you today:  maturing or growing up in faith has to do with gravitas and grace – the marriage of our deepest gladness and the world’s deepest need – does that make sense?

The second insight from Paul’s wisdom is perhaps even more counter-cultural and challenging:  in Ephesians he tells us that we can’t discern our vocation or calling with any maturity all by ourselves.  We can neither discover nor even trust our deepest joy or gladness in isolation – that is just foolish and selfish – and we are incapable of knowing the world’s deepest need in seclusion.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

·       Did you catch that?  God gave us gifts and a vocation – a way of becoming our best selves as we share grace in the world – the Apostle tells us; but the only way these blessings are fully realized, celebrated and honored is in community.

·       Simply put:  Paul teaches that only by being a living and active part of the church can our gifts and vocation be revealed.

And let me be explicit about why I think this is so counter-cultural and essential:  we live in a world where “makeshift, do-it-yourself belief – or unbelief” reigns.  We want to be in control and in charge of everything.  We arrogantly insist that we know better than everybody else what is most important.  And, to quote one wise old soul, most of us are so impatient with the “complexities of community… we like to set ourselves up as freelance connoisseurs of transcendence, searching out experiences of ecstasy, taking photographs of sunsets, collecting books and music that inspire.” (Peterson, p. 168) Such is the status quo…

·       So we know how to be adolescents demanding our own way.  What we don’t know – and what takes a life time of practice – is how to live with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

·       We were called into one body and one Spirit. We were called into one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 

Our calling – our vocation – our maturation in gravitas and grace, it seems, is revealed only in community – and specifically within that community we know as the Body of Christ:  the church.  And this is made clear if we pay careful attention to the words Paul uses in his teaching – and this is where Bible study can be a total gas.

·        First, the Greek verb, to call – kaleo – is the root of the Greek word for church – ekklesia.  Paul wants us to know very clearly that the community of Christ – the church – is built upon God’s invitation and call for us to mature in gravitas and grace. 

·       Second, the health of our calling is intimately connected to the strength of our commitment to the church.  Seven times in this short passage Paul speaks about how we are to be one with the Lord and one with the Spirit, one in baptism, one in faith. “Good Jew that he is… (you see) Paul is reminding us of Israel’s central creed – the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 – “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” 

Everything is connected – everything begins and ends in the Lord – so if you want to live a life of deep integrity and indescribable joy you, too must be connected.  Your calling – your vocation – is where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need – and it is impossible to discern this in isolation or selfishness.

·        Did I state that clearly:  that your calling is connected to your intimacy with Christ’s community? That gravitas and grace do not ripen and mature in isolation? 

·       I’m not asking you if you agree – we can talk about that later – but I do want to know if I’ve been clear.

Now let me tell you how these two things – maturation and calling – take place in community because there are four time-tested practices or commitments of the Church that are guaranteed to change your life.  I don’t know if you have paid attention for the past three years, but there are four words that appear over and over again in our worship bulletin – gather, engage, reflect and bless – and they are the WAY we mature and ripen in gravitas and grace.  They are HOW we discern our calling and discover WHAT to do about it.  And the simple explanation goes like this:

·       The church gathers - we come together – we get up and come to worship, we find ways of serving together, we sing in community and all the rest.  We gather – we practice getting over ourselves – we refuse to live as if we are the center of the universe.  And this is counter-cultural all by itself – especially in our internet, plugged-in, hyper-individualized world. 

But it has always been a practice or discipline that trains us as disciples because at the heart of gathering is hospitality:  selfishness is banished, generosity is encouraged, bread is broken, wine is poured, songs are lifted, prayers are shared and a bunch of rich/poor, old/young, male/female, gay/straight people become… one.  First, we gather.

·       Second we engage:  we open ourselves to God’s word, to God’s people, to God’s world.  We open our minds and hearts – sometimes we open our checkbooks and purses – often we open our arms – and even on occasion our homes.  To engage is to go deeper in being the body of Christ using our heads and hearts, bodies, souls, spirits and resources.  Second, we engage

·       Third we reflect:  we take all of reality inside us and test it out.  Does this make sense?  Where does the whole blessed thing touch me?  Heal me?  Challenge me?  Make me uncomfortable?  Where do I need forgiveness?  Where does my church need strength and grace?  Call it contemplation, the inward journey or simple being still, we take time to listen and discern.  That is, we reflect.

·       And fourth we bless:  we share the grace – we aren’t stingy or selfish – everyone is welcome to the table. We know that others need nourishment and peace, grace and justice, hope and integrity so we go out from the gathering into the world to touch and heal and encourage.

The late Henri Nouwen used to describe these four practices of gathering, engaging, reflecting and blessing in Eucharistic language.  Like Holy Communion he said:

·       First we are taken – taken from the field like wheat and grapes – taken from our solitary and busy lives like disciples – and called beyond self into the Lord.

·       Second we are blessed:  the bread and cup are offered to the Lord at the table, our lives are given to God in community just as Christ was raised up and given to God in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.  We are blessed.

·       Third we are broken – the wheat must die to become bread and grapes must be crushed for the wine – what’s more the loaf must be broken to be shared and the wine poured out.  So, too we are broken because this is how life ripens and matures and nourishes.

·        And fourth we are shared – sent out in blessing and brokenness – to be bread for the world in so many unique and ordinary ways.

It doesn’t really matter whether you use the words gathering/engaging/reflecting and blessing or the more sacramental words taking/blessing/breaking and sharing, the practices are the same:  we come together in Christ’s community from out of our isolation – we are nourished and blessed and trained in community – and then sent back into the world to share God’s blessings. 

And here’s the last word from St. Paul in Ephesians that I find essential:  he begin his teaching with the words, “As a prisoner in the Lord… I beg you.”  He does not say:  I challenge you – I scold you – I implore you – or I argue with you.  No, he says:  I beg you…

·         Another translation of the Greek parakaleo would be:  I encourage you.

·       And if you’re listening carefully you will hear that root word kaleo (to be called) again in parakaleo: it seems that calling, community and encouragement are all wrapped together as one.

Like the prophet Isaiah said: most of the time in community our words must be about comfort, comfort O my people.  There is a time for teaching – a time for bold preaching, too – but mostly what we need is encourage-ment.  Speak tenderly to one another – with all humility and gentleness – with patience – bearing with one another in love.  Don’t hurry – listen.  Don’t carp – rest and trust.  Don’t fret – taste and see.

Gravitas and grace – maturation and sharing joy – take time and practice, beloved:  and in the flurry of days like these, I sense we are being called here more than ever before.  So let those who have hears to hear, hear.
1) greatbigcanvas.com
2) dkdemott: pittsfield
3) church year
4) mako fukimura

Monday, July 30, 2012

Got a chance to be on TV...

Got a chance to be on local TV this morning with John Krol:  Goodmorning Pittsfield. (Interested in the clip?  Check it out - on the sidebar - under Goodmorning Pittsfield @ http://www.pittsfieldtv.net/Cablecast/Public/Main.aspx?ChannelID=1)  It was fun because we got to talk about caring for the common good as part of ministry.  It is not just about administering the sacraments - or preaching and teaching - but being engaged and helping others be engaged in healing the wounds of our community.

As I was watching this later, I thought of something Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens of Brussels once whispered in the ears of "new priests at their ordination ceremony:  remember, God has called you to the priesthood because he does not trust you to be a layman (sic.)"  As M. Craig Barnes goes on to say, "Pastors are called to embody gravitas... wounds that have healed well, failures that have been redeemed, sins that have been forgiven and thorns that have settled into the flesh... and odd as it may sound, it's the scars on the pastor's soul that makes it attractive." (The Pastor as Minor Poet, p. 49)
Over 30 years there have been a LOT of wounds and scars - many have healed - and been explored and given to the Lord.  I think I will be reflecting on gravitas for the next few days.  The poet, Robert Bly, gives the quest for healing and gravitas this beautiful spin in something he calls "Time Runs Backward after Death."

Samson, grinding bread for the widows and orphans,
Forgets he is wronged, and the answers
The Philistines wrangled out of him go back
Into the lion. The bitter and the sweet marry.
He himself wronged the lion. Now the wheat
Caresses the wind with its wifely tail; the donkey
Runs in the long grass; and having glimpsed heaven,
The fox's body saunters the tawny earth.

After death the soul returns to drinking milk
And honey in its sparse home. Broken lintels
Rejoin the sunrise gates, and bees sing
In the sour meat.  Once more in the cradle his
Hair grows long and golden; Delilah's scissors
Turn back into two tiny and playful swords.
Samson, no longer haunted by sunset and shadows,
Sinks down in the eastern ocean and is born.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

When the Spirit says move...

Today, sensing that my prepared sermon notes just weren't what the Spirit ordered, I threw them away and went with a different theme.  It was a gas - after all, it was our 5th Sunday gig - and all bets are off on these experimental Sundays.  To be sure, some of the real old timers didn't make it to worship today, but we had a GREAT house anyway and a whole lot of fun. The question for today was:  how does your faith touch an other's life in a way that deepens grace?

There was conversation in worship - again - lots of laughter and some smokin' music.  After a long dry spell Andy joined us again on guitar (and that was sweet), Carlton threw us a Caribbean "hallelujah" to jam on (that was smokin') and we did "Alleluia, He Is Coming" in a reggae groove.  About 10 am, I checked in the with those helping me with communion, only to find that somebody forgot to tell them to bring the bread.  So Lauryn and John took off for the local supermarket and just before the call to worship, the Body of Christ appeared in whole wheat form.

Two things are going through my head at the close of the day:

+ First, we've come a long way in a relatively short time.  Yes, there are some who ache for the old days of formal worship and all the rest.  But as one young man said when asked, "What do we have to do to live into the extravagant welcome of Christ?" - and he was dead serious - you have to LIVE in such a way that people know you can be trusted to BE like Jesus.  That takes time he said - and he knows becausee has it has been ages since he went to church. And after all, my text for this morning was:

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘The wedding-guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made.

+ Second, it is critical to celebrate the small blessings - and today was one of them!  The quest for a faith community that is real - and can be trusted - is a life long commitment.  It won't be accomplished in my life time and I know it.  As Rennie Niebuhr said:  Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”  So returning thanks to God for the small signs of renewal are essential.

I love this community and give thanks to God that we can find ways to celebrate the joy of the Lord together.  We have our issues - and challenges - but the Spirit of the Lord told us today to move... and we MOVED!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

I support the nuns...

This past week I had the privilege of meeting with two representatives of the Inter-Vally Project. (check it out @ http://www.intervalleyproject.org/index.html) Project director, Ken Galdston, trained in the IAF model and holds an MA in management from Yale.  Local organizer, Wendy Krom, has worked on various North County projects and currently serves with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition (@ http://n bccoalition.org/?post=wendy-krom) Two thoughts kept running through my mind as we met and discussed the possibilities of building a congregation-based community organization in this part of the state:

+ First, Ken and I know a number of the same people given that the community organization network in the US is small.  From the late Jim Drake - once of the Farm Workers and later IAF - to Frank Pearson in the Southwest it was a little family reunion of sorts. And that was reassuring because not everybody who claims to be an organizer knows what that means. There are some local organizations, for example, that talk about organizing, but seem more interested in what I would call isolated public witness.  They may engage in forums or educational events, too but this isn't organizing. There are other groups that speak about being advocates for the poor and working class, but mostly engage in self-promotion and/or fund-raising for themselves. 

The Inter-Valley Project, on the other hand, is committed to building organizations that can bring morality and social justice concerns back into the public square with a measure of clout and credibility.  And their organizing process helps local congregations mature and grow stronger, too.  Three guidelines shape this type of work:

1)  Local leaders meet to discern common interests.  No issues or ideology from above is involved, just local pastors, rabbis, women religious and immans getting together to talk and listen to one another in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  For me this is ecumenism and multi-faith dialogue that makes sense because the goal is to discover what values we share and how to advance them within and beyond our local congregations.  Many times pastors and congregations take a while to get this, but it is a foundational truth in this type of organizing:  the organizer helps local folk learn how to become effective, they don't impose issues on anyone.

2) Local congregations meet to discern what the Spirit is saying to our communities and commit to training.  Through a series of conversations, research and testing the real issues touching the lives of real people are identified.  Again, there is nothing top-down about this work.  And once the issue is named and explored, plans are developed to move from idea to implementation.  There is leadership and planning training, lessons in accountability (like the fact that if you say "I will try to do this" that is bullshit because either you will or you won't) and constant evaluation. In Cleveland I worked with organizers from the Gamaliel Foundation in Chicago on education issues and In Tucson with IAF folk on economic development concerns.  (These guys are the real deal - check them out - @ http://www.gamaliel.org/Default.aspx and http://www.industrialareas foundation.org/)  It takes time to train and build an organization, too so nothing is rushed.

3) Local folk raise and fund their own organizations so that they maintain maximum control.  Applying the wisdom of the congregational church at its best, while there is often seed money to get a project started (Campaign for Human Development, etc.) dues are a part of the drill and local fund-raising is essential. This is yet another guarantee that helps keep the effort autonomous.

In September we will hold our first regional conversation with other leaders from congregations in the area to see whether we might find a way to work together.  I am very hopeful and look to contribute on every level to this project.  That's was my first, albeit complicated thought. 

+ My second thought was this is the kind of work I have always shared with American nuns - and hope to do so again.  The Vatican is coming down hard on these women religious, but they are not taking it quietly.  Not only have they organized a bus tour to educate people about their work for social justice (http://www.groundswell-movement.org/ support-the-nuns/) but they are clearly well-prepared to offer a faithful challenge on an organizational and theological level, too.  (see NYTimes @


These are the people who not only took Vatican II seriously, but they helped give it shape and form.  Even today it is one feisty nun who is spear-heading the local inter-faith group (along with a wise young rabbi!)  This has been my experience for nearly 35 years:  from nuns on the picket line with the Farm Workers, to peace activists in Saginaw, social justice and spirituality advocates in Cleveland and artists keeping the spirituality of Thomas Merton alive in Tucson, these women rock.  I just put their bumper sticker on my truck... and look forward to be an ally again in the work for true local social justice. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Sabbath notes...

One of the blessings of my current ministry is a small monthly gathering of colleagues from around the region called "a community of practice."  It is, in essence, an encounter with group spiritual direction.  There is a facilitator who sometimes guides or opens each gathering - she also cooks up a lovely vegetarian dinner, too - but the movement of the Spirit in each person's life sets the agenda.

Last night, for example, we talked about: how one of our members might fairly deal with a dead-beat renter, how to set boundaries re: receiving critical comments right after Sunday worship (self-care), how we are making sense of the latest eruption of gun violence in our violence-addicted nation, archetypal insights from the most recent Batman movie and changing thoughts about sin and atonement theology.  We are women and men, gay and straight, all serving small and sometimes struggling congregations - and each person is also an artist (of one type or another.) This fact was initially coincidence but has now taken root as an integral aspect of our group spirituality. 

The late "jazz poet," Kenneth Patchen, early influence on Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and collaborator with Kenneth Rexroth, Charlie Mingus and John Cage, put it like this in "The Artist's Duty."
So it is the duty of the artist to discourage all traces of shame
To extend all boundaries
To fog them in right over the plate
To kill only what is ridiculous
To establish problem
To ignore solutions
To listen to no one
To omit nothing
To contradict everything
To generate the free brain
To bear no cross
To take part in no crucifixion
To tinkle a warning when mankind strays
To explode upon all parties
To wound deeper than the soldier
To heal this poor obstinate monkey once and for all

To verify the irrational
To exaggerate all things
To inhibit everyone
To lubricate each proportion
To experience only experience

To set a flame in the high air
To exclaim at the commonplace alone
To cause the unseen eyes to open

To admire only the abrsurd
To be concerned with every profession save his own
To raise a fortuitous stink on the boulevards of truth and beauty
To desire an electrifiable intercourse with a female alligator
To lift the flesh above the suffering
To forgive the beautiful its disconsolate deceit

To flash his vengeful badge at every abyss


It is the artist’s duty to be alive
To drag people into glittering occupations

To blush perpetually in gaping innocence
To drift happily through the ruined race-intelligence
To burrow beneath the subconscious
To defend the unreal at the cost of his reason
To obey each outrageous inpulse
To commit his company to all enchantments. 

Being in careful, honest and tender conversation and prayer with my colleagues is rarely dramatic, but always nourishing.  Further, it reinforces my sense of calling as one who is committed to a gentle ministry of presence and the pursuit of beauty.  As I wrote while in  Ottawa, one aspect of beauty has to do with cultural resistance.  There is also the experience of God's radical and gratuitous grace in our embrace of beauty, too.  I think both truths - cultural resistance and an invitation to grace - is realized in the most recent banner we have been working on.

It evokes not only our commitment to Christ, but our response to God's grace:  we choose to live in an open and creative way by gratitude rather than obligation.  In Martha Nussbaum's new book, The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age, she notes that beyond our evolutionary origins of our fears, "recent psychological research suggests a number of specific ways in which fear may be inaccurate - or may be fomented in an inaccurate way."

One very common source of error in fear is what psychologists call "the availability heuristic": if we can readily call to mind an example of a problem that is vivid in our experience, this leads us to overestimate the importance of that problem. This heuristic is a frequent issue in thought about environmental risks. If people hear a lot about a specific danger - contamination from Love Canal, for example, or increased cancer risk from the use of alar on apples, they will tend to think that danger more significant than it is and underestimate the danger of alternatives that are not vividly depicted and that remain in the background. (p. 34)

In a post-September 11th America, it is small wonder then that not only are the images of the recent shootings played over and over again - fear is being fed and manipulated - but our fear-based politicians like Michelle Bachman find so many people ready and willing to be misled.  Saturated with anxiety and images of impending doom 24/7, instead of taking real action against Wall Street and those who play the rich off the working and middle class, those who are hurting the most - and rightly afraid for the future - find themselves part of a mob railing against women wearing the veil or neighbors building of a mosque.

As Mark Levine recently wrote in Tikkun Magazine, because Americans have been profoundly manipulated by fear - and because our commitment to the common good has been systematically dismantled - the violence that is always just below the surface sometimes explodes in inexplicable mass killings.  He notes that this rarely happens in Canada where there are many more guns but a living and viable social contract.

And so, on this Sabbath, I give thanks to God for living in such a challenging time.  I give thanks to the One who is Holy for a ministry of presence and the creation of beauty.  And I give thanks to the Lord for artists of all sizes, shapes and styles.  (Here's a winner from one of the shows we saw in Montreal taken from just about where we were seated, too.)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Batman, Tikkun and the blessing of colleagues...

Tonight at my clergy support group we spent time listening to one another and offering ideas of support, prayer and problem solving. I am so blessed by these colleagues.  We also spent a deep time talking about American violence, sin, popular culture and, of course, Batman. 

One of the things we discussed had to do with the archetypes in the Batman series, the complexity of Batman's life choices and the way he has wrestled with his demons and constructed a life of sacrificial altruism in spite of all the pain.  We also discerned that one of the reasons why the Colorado shooting may be so upsetting to so many Americans - after you factor in all the media obsession and fear-mongering - is that it exposes the REAL level of violence in American society that is always simmering just below the surface.

When I got home, a young man from our church who is in seminary, had sent me the following essay from Tikkun Magazine.  It resonates with my take on some of the current violence.  It is a good read and helps me go below the psycho-babble and obsession with details in the aftermath of Aurora.

Editor’s Note: Contributing Editor Mark Levine correctly highlights the shallowness of American media in understanding the recurrence of mass murder in our society. Levine, who helped organize our 1996 conference on the politics of meaning in Washington, DC. and has subsequently written about the Middle East, helps draw attention to how deeply violence permeates our society. What Peter Gabel and I would add to his analysis is the ways that people in a society based on individualism, selfishness and materialism are constantly in pain that results from the isolation and lack of mutual recognition and human connection that is an essential feature of capitalist societies (for a deeper analysis of this, please read Peter Gabel’s book The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning or my book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right). By obscuring these underlying issues, the corporate media gives a free pass to both sides in this debate to focus solely on guns and unattainable gun control (important as gun control really is) and diverts attention from its own role in helping create a society in which violence seems like such an easy and accessible path in responding to the spiritual violence built into the daily realities of life under global capitalism. –Rabbi Michael Lerner  RabbiLerner.tikkun@gmail ]

American Mass Murder: A Toxic Cultural Brew
 By Mark Levine

One of the recurring questions in Michael Moore's 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine is why Canada, America's "friendly" neighbor to the north, has among the highest rates and ease of gun ownership in the world, yet has much lower rates of gun violence than the United States. Moore travels to several major southern Canadian cities asking random citizens and local law enforcement officials their opinions. His conclusion, and one of the most powerful arguments of the movie, is that it's not the mere existence of guns, but the socio-economic, cultural and political context in which guns exist, that are primary determinants of the levels and kinds of gun violence in a society.

According to Moore's interviewees, Americans are both pumped full of fear by their political elites and media, and too quick to assume that violence is the appropriate response to a dispute. “They're afraid more easily,” one person explained. “They don't stop and think,” said another, assessing Americans' supposed proclivity to shoot first and ask questions later.

Such views might help explain the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and other more spontaneous acts of gun violence. But James Eagan Holmes, the alleged Aurora killer, apparently spent months methodically planning his crime. He didn't just “snap” and go on a killing spree in response to a perceived threat or insult.

What's more, there seems to have been no political, ideological or economic motive behind his actions. He is not a member of an oppressed group seeking revenge against the dominant society; nor is he some 1970s-style bourgeois radical (or the fin-de-siecle al-Qa'eda equivalent) acting in perceived solidarity with the oppressed masses. However terrorised were his victims, the shooting is not an act of political terrorism.

Whatever psychological diagnosis ultimately gets pinned ot him, Holmes and the act that will forever define him—as he hoped it would—were the products of a peculiarly American set of cultural experiences, values and motivation, which hold the key to understanding how and the United States seems to produce such a disproportionate number of people who engage in acts of seemingly senseless mass murder.

Locating the Violence
Americans are certainly no more prone to extreme violence than other cultures. In Syria today the leadership and tens of thousands of government soldiers have little compunction about kill many times the number of people Holmes killed every day merely to retain their political and economic power. The same can be said of most dictators, and many of the violent movements who oppose them.

War, civil conflict, and the violence routinely deployed by those in power to remain so have produced unspeakable brutality in the last half century, from Latin America across the global south to Southeast Asia. The four years of World War II produced three times the number killed in all the violent conflicts since. As a recent collection of family photos of SS guards, “Laughing at Auschwitz,” documents, people engaged in the most unspeakable horrors can lead seemingly “normal” lives, celebrating Christmas with family, drinking with friends and co-workers at the world's most infamous charnel house as if it was an automobile plant (http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/laughing-at-auschwitz-leisure-photos-of-camp-guards-shock-germans-a-507175.html).

The point being, the human proclivity towards unfathomable cruelty and violence knows no racial, national, religious or historical boundaries. But most of the violence described above was motivated by some sort of comprehensible political, ideological or economic motivation and thus “rational,” even if we might oppose the reasons used to justify it.

One of the paradoxes of the modern world is precisely that we try to carve out boundaries between legitimate or at least politically and morally comprehensible—and more to the point, sanctioned or at least excusable—violence from violence that is “totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct,” as one of the most famous lines from Apocalypse Now puts it.

Cinematic anti-heroes like Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz, or The Joker from Christopher Nolan's Batman (as whom James Holmes allegedly dressed during his rampage) are powerful precisely because they call into question the supposed boundary between legitimate, comprehensible and even sanctioned violence that is understood as necessary to achieving and maintaining social and political order, and nihilistic, “irrational” violence that threatens it. We judge them insane and terminate them with “extreme prejudice” not because their violence is so qualitatively different from that sanctioned by the state, but rather because it is so uncomfortably close.

Is there any wonder that many post-9/11 mass murderers, including Holmes, dressed in military style clothing, as if they're acting out a first-person shooter game in real life. How sane is it to create a culture that is so caught up in war that a staggering 7 percent of GDP, $1 trillion, is spent on it even as tens of thousands of people—that's several thousands times the number Holmes killed—die each year from lack of affordable health care and the country's infrastructure rots? And where the structural violence of an economic system based on rank greed and amorality is fully supported by at least half the population?

It's not surprising that people who suffer from some form of metnal illness or psycho-social disorders resort to military-style violence when they finally break from whatever bonds still connect them to society. It's literally programmed into our cultural DNA, today more than ever before. In fact, it's surprising that it doesn't happen more often.

Certainly the methodical murder of so many people seems insane to “normal” people, exponentially more so to the victims. But how different do the members of an Afghan wedding party whose loved ones have just been blown to smitherines by a US drone feel? How about the parents of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who died during the sanctions regime? Can they make any more sense of that than we can of this?

Are Americans as a society ultimately that much more sane than James Holmes? How many innocent civilians die each year in its name? And not just in foreign conflict. Two days after Holmes' massacre 14 people, most probably “illegal” migrant laborers from Mexico and other Central American countries, where killed when the pick-up truck into which they were crowded careened off a road and crashed into a tree .(http://www.latimes.com/news/ nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-texas-crash-13-dead-20120723,0,2632784.story).

Can a country that so depends on cheap foreign labor yet criminalizes and dehumanizes them, spends billions of dollars to build walls to (sort of) keep them out, and forces them to risk—and so often, lose—their lives merely to get to their jobs be considered sane or even morally competent? If you look at rates of obesity, prescription addictions, or the willingness to continue with policies that manifestly harm the majority of people supporting them, is the country not committing a collective crime against itself and the world around it?

Thriving on Chaos
Or do people like Holmes serve as a wake-up call to the society-wide psychological disturbance of the equilibrium between empathy and unchcked individualism and selfishness, the two contradictory impulses which have, depending on their balance, produced and destroyed countless civilizations before ours? Indeed, the American success story has depended more than most on a strategy of creative destruction, of encouraging the kind of reckless risk-taking and disregard for consequences that are at the heart of entrepreneurial capitalism.

America's history as a settler colonial enterprise turned global empire, whose expansion and development depended on the murder and dispossession of millions of native people and the enslavement of even more Africans, has made it one of the greatest examples of the benefits and consequences of the impulse to creative destruction. When it has been tempered by a concern for the common good, it enabled an unprecedented level of prosperity across society; when it is bereft of any concern for society at large, it produces precisely the predicament in which the US presently finds itself.

“Thriving on Chaos” is how business management guru Tom Peters described this strategy twenty-five years ago, as neoliberalism was being cemented as the official political and economic ideology of the United States. Those who care to look can easily see the consequences of such chaos on workers, communities, and ecologies around the world. But for those who, like Holmes—or his fictional doppleganger The Joker—can't turn chaos into “legitimate” profit or power, it can easily become its own end—the creativity becomes a means towards destruction, rather than the other way around.

And here is where we can return to Moore's primary point in Bowling for Columbine: The reason gun violence is so much higher in the US compared with its northern neighbor is precisely because Canadians are still willing to take care of their own, to provide adequate health care and other social services for the poor and working classes, to make the fuller dignity of people's life of equal value to the pursuit of profit by the few.

Ironically, Moore's argument is not that different than that of the gun lobby, which argues that issues like poverty, alcohol and drug abuse and endemic violence in the inner city are responsible for the epidemic of gun violence, not the mere availability of gun. (http://www.americanfirearms.org/statistics.php#15). If society “tackle[s] these issues... you'll solve, to a large degree, the problems of violence in society. But they go ignored.”

Of course, as far as we know James Holmes was not the product of the inner city, or of an abusive, disfunctional or even criminal environment. He's just a person who traveled the terrible path from slightly strange to insane, and because he lived in a culture where guns are readily available and gratuitous and amoral violence suffuses and is even celebrated across the culture, his insanity and complete disregard for others was expressed through mass violence.

In so doing, he offered Americans a glimpse of the darkets recesses of the cultural and economic logic of their society. Guns might kill people, and getting rid of them would certainly reduce the death toll. But as long as Americans suffuse their culture with violence at almost every level, there is no chance for meaningful gun reform, and young men like James Eagan Holmes will continue to turn their private mental illness into an occasion for cinematic murder and mayhem. 

Mark LeVine is Professor of history at UC Irvine, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, a Contributing Editor at Tikkun Magazine,  and author of numerous books, including the just published Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel, co-edited with Gershon Shafir (UC Press).

What every church should include in their bulletin...

Here is a welcome message from a REAL congregation ~ and I love it ~ let's hope we can DO it, too!
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

gobsmacked and surprised...

My current quest to unlearn the ways of privilege and power in favor of a holistic  spirituality of tenderness, solidarity and living small ...