Thursday, August 30, 2012

Random thoughts before a trip...

We are heading to Canada this morning for a short week of quiet, visiting, talking and reading - probably some bicycling in wine country, too.  It is both our planned end of the summer respite before the fullness of the fall; but also an unexpected blessing in time after enduring a variety of personal hardships this summer.  It is, you might say, our mini-retreat for reflection and renewal.

At some point I hope we can visit the Abbaye de Saint Benoit-du-Lac - a 100 year old Benedictine abbey - as I have long been drawn to the balanced spiritual order Benedict offers to those exploring spirituality.  Their wisdom is a part of what I sense is needed at this moment in time - not the totality - but a key part as they stay grounded in prayer and service amidst the busyness of contemporary culture.

Writing about the evolving nature of the Rule of the Community of Iona - another important witness - Norman Shanks observes that once our culture was grounded in church going:

Today it sometimes seems that shopping malls are the modern cathedrals and shopping is the focus, even the basic purpose, of life. Pubs and clubs are the meeting places for music and dance, while football and rugby stadiums see the enthusiasm of the masses. The majority of people are no longer in our churches.  So the challenge for all Christians is to get out into the marketplace and raise the cross where the people are...

... the challenge is to find a way of focusing our attention outside the institution and to resist the temptation to become preoccupied with the insistent, internal demands for more money, new roofs, more clergy, more children in the Sunday school and more young families in the pews. Journeying out requires the capacity to rise above the anxiety associated with encountering and embracing a potentially overwhelming outside world.

I would also add it requires being nourished from the inside out by a deep walk with God and community - both for encouragement and grounding - because most of us simply cannot sustain ministry in the world on our own.  The Benedictine rhythm suggests engagement and reflection - action and reflection - service on behalf of others and then love of self and God in solitude.

Being alone in the car with Di is a type of solitude:  sometimes we listen to music, other times there are pod casts (this trip will include a variety of French conversation lessons) and often there is both silence and conversation.  It isn't quiet the same as walking the road to Emmaus, but it is five hours of unfocused time.  And that is a gift that will be revealed as this trip unfolds. maintenant il est temps de ranger la voiture!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Demain nous partons pour le canada...

The bookselves are up, the walls have been painted and the floors washed:  la première partie de nos vacances est terminée!  Tomorrow we leave for the Eastern Townships of Quebec ~ 95% Francophone and rural ~ where we'll bicycle in wine country.  It is mostly a chance to totally chill both after the turmoil of Beth's death and before a new season of ministry begins.  And, truth be told, my fantasy of spending 5-10 of retirement outside of Montreal is still in high gear so we'll check out what this area looks like.  We'll even get a chance to make it to the bookstore where Louise Penny will be celebrating the publication of the new Inspector Gamache novel.

I'm still pondering what my church community has to say to my hip hop buddies - and I'll be writing about that after our return as I am getting a few clues - but for now I am going to have a glass of red wine, pack for our pilgrimage and watch the antics of the Republican National Convention.  These are bold and crazy times, beloved, times that George MacLeod of the Iona Community said need the sacrament of salvation - embodied grace and compassion - and that means you and me.

We're going to be staying in Farnham, a small community (population 8,000) founded by Loyalists who left the colonies during the American Revolution.  There is a major farm and wine festival happening as well as a well-travelled bicycle route through wine country.  It will be a little bit of living in a totally new way in a mostly French speaking world.  And then it is back to ministry - and a jazz gig on Thursday, September 6th.

Mais maintenant nous allons commencer les vacances...

In praise of C man...

Ok so we're going to be heading out to Canada tomorrow for a little quiet away-time break before a new year of ministry and mission begins at First Church.  In addition to my sister's unexpected death this summer, we've been slowly working our way towards a new and deeper vision for Christian formation for our children and families. (I will share more about that when we hire a new director after my return from the Easter Townships next week.)

We've also been working on ways to strengthen the finances of the church and reach out with greater compassion to those most in need.  And in the midst of it all, my musical director was able to help move the rehearsals for the Berkshire Theatre Festival youth production of "Oliver" to our facility.  Not only does this bring people from the Berkshires region into Pittsfield 5 nights a week, but it also continues to ally First Church with the artistic and economic renewal that is as the heart of our town's rebirth. 

God bless you Carlton - and God bless the kids and adults in the great production! Make your plans now for the weekend of September 7-9th at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.  It is going to be a total gas!  For details go to:

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two of three down...

In addition to my inner reflections this week, I am doing some home renovations.  And before those who know me well become alarmed, I'm just talking about book shelves, floor cleaning and wall painting.  I learned my lesson in Tucson 10 years ago when a small 30 minute bathroom plumbing chore became an big, all day, expensive pain in the ass involving contortion, unexpected blasts of water and at ton of cursing.  (Now, under other circumstances these things might actually be pleasant but...) No, if it is truly mechanical, it is always time for me to call in the experts.

Over the weekend I got my study reorganized, cleaned and my books sorted.  (DIanne had suggested that rather than build floor to ceiling book shelves I might consider getting RID of some volumes ~ quelle horreur ~ est ell folle?) Monday we played with paint chips, measurements and going to our local hardware emporium (all local businesses, mind you) and I jumped into the living room paint job last night.  I just finished it about 20 minutes ago - two coats, too - and washed the floors to boot.  Upon inspection my honey mused, "Once again, I ask myself why did we wait so long...?) (It has only been five years, mon cher, and it takes that long for us to settle in, yes?)

I like doing this kind of work in addition to my work as a pastor - mostly because I can see my results.  Same goes for cooking and baking and playing music:  with these things there is an end that can be experienced and enjoyed.  Not so with ministry... at least most of the time. 

I find that painting by myself these past two days has given me time to think about two questions that I want to explore for the rest of this week:  1) who do I think is my blogging audience (a blogging friend once asked me, "Who do you think you are writing for?"); and 2) what does my church have to say and/or offer to the young hip hoppers I hung with for a time on Saturday night?

I know that I started this blog as a way to reflect on music, theology and popular culture.  I am convinced that this is a lively topic - in many spiritual traditions - and I have enjoyed thinking about this over the past five years.  But I also know that sometimes this blog has become a vacation travelogue, a lover's argument with the church about real ministry, a spiritual journal for myself, a place to post my weekly sermons and I'm not sure what else.  So here's the only thing I know for sure about my audience:  it is mostly me.  And I hope that isn't too self-absorbed, but I think it is true.

And here's why I think that's ok in a terribly self-absorbed and even selfish culture:  when an artist is being most personal and honest, that's when we're also the most universal.  A sculptor who worked on the new Roman Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles once told me that and it echoed something the poet Robert Bly once said to me during the Tucson Poetry Festival.  Mostly we are basically the same.  To be sure, there are gender differences along with race, class, age and cultural distinctions.  And as much as a sensitive new age straight white guy from the middle class can, I try to honor and respect those differences.

But biologically and spiritually, we have much more in common with one another than we have things that separate us.  So, if I am being honest about my fears and doubts - or my questions about ministry - or my experience with a song or poem it is likely to resonate with others. 

So, perhaps the best answer I can give to the question, "Who are you writing for?" would be myself - and others who have found themselves burned out on religion but open to God's grace in the beauty, tragedy and humility of everyday living. This has become my spiritual journal in which I try to discern the deeper questions, challenges and blessings of my life - and hope they resonate with others. It has also become a place where I can play and experiment with visual and musical beauty; this feeds my spirit and sometimes speaks to others, too.


Monday, August 27, 2012


Part of my vacation discipline is reconnecting with the spirituality of Iona.  I have been a fan of George MacLeod since the late 70s and an Associate of the community for the past 7 years. To be faithful in this vow means that each day I will find a time for prayer and Bible reading, each week I will gather with others for worship and each year I will make a financial donation to the ministry of the community.  In the spirit of Iona, I have also found it essential to meet periodically with a "spiritual friend" for discernment, share 5% of my earnings with the wider church and gather monthly with other colleagues for what might be called "group spiritual direction" and study. 

For the next two weeks of vacation I have chosen to reflect on both Kathy Galloway's Living by the Rule and Chris King's Pathways for Pilgrims. To be honest, I need this kind of structure for strengthening my inner journey.  Don't get me wrong:  I am sometimes lifted outside myself when a piece of music comes together with beauty and groove - it is ecstatic communion with the sacred - and I value this experience beyond comprehension.  And I am also lazy enough to confess that without a structure for my prayer life, I will distract myself so successfully that daily prayer and Bible reading will get squeezed out of my calendar altogether.  I may come from a so-called "free prayer" tradition, but I need structure and order to stay grounded.

In today's reading from King's text there is talk of how pilgrimage is an important part of the spirituality of Iona.  Every week the residents and community members take a "pilgrimage round the island" that asks for a "prayerful consideration of the history of the place" as well as a quiet consideration of God's place in each pilgrim's heart.  I wonder what this might mean here, if, for example, people in my faith community and I made a pilgrimage around our downtown?  What would we see that would touch our hearts?  Move us towards action?  Inspire or confuse?

One thing that strikes me would be the paradox of living a life of faith:  there is always more work to be done than we can accomplish, there is always more beauty and pain than we can fathom to say nothing of more grace than we deserve.  Just walking downtown last week made me aware again of the brokenness and healing in our small city.  Fr. Richard Rohr has noted that he is "increasingly  convinced that all true spirituality has the character of paradox to it,  precisely because it is always holding together the whole of reality, which is  always “Both/And.” Everything except God is both attractive and non-attractive,  light and darkness, passing and eternal, life and death. There are really no  exceptions."

He concludes by saying that: "You and I are living paradoxes,  which everybody except ourselves sees. If you can learn to hold and forgive the contradictions within yourself, you can normally do it everywhere else, too."  And what a blessing that would be, yes?

On the pilgrimage at Iona they pray:

God of the journey, as we travel on
alert us to the things that matter
and open our eyes to every sign of your presence.
Give us a sense of direction,
or at least a sense of purpose,
a sense of wonder,
a sense that, in everything,
you are walking with us step by step,
gently leading us to the heart of things.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

So here's a paradox...

One of the challenges of ministry that has always tied me in knots is this:  leaders and members want us to "grow" the church - increase participation and deepen a sense of discipleship - so a great deal of our pastoral evaluation is based upon numbers (pledges, people in worship, membership, etc.)  At the same time, true discipleship - living into the life-changing commitment to Christ and the Cross - is the polar opposite of "successful programming," right? 

I would LOVE it if Sunday School and worship held as much importance in our people's lives as entertainment, music and sports - and I am committed to living into this challenge - but let's be real:  even Christ's closest disciples ran in the other direction when the Cross came into view.  So while I sometimes grieve the fact that soccer (and all the rest) is often more important to church people than nourishing authentic spiritual sacrifice, I know this is part of the upside down kingdom.  The way of Christ cannot be measured by numbers - only the heart - and the way of the heart is only known to the Lord. 

So, while I keep trying to find ways to lure people into the blessings of Christ's grace - trusting that God will do the rest - and sometimes even challenge the people I love the most  to put at least as much energy and money into the way of Christ as they do exercise and smart phones, most of the time I'm not surprised when this doesn't happen. It still sneaks up on me from time to time and bites me in the ass.  That's why every day I have to bring my frustrations and disappointments to the Lord in prayer in addition to the blessings and joys; otherwise, I will get resentful and burned out. And I can tell when I don't do this, too.  Peterson constantly reminds me:

Most of the individuals in our churches suppose that the goals they have set for themselves and the goals God has for them are the same thing. It is the oldest religious mistake: refusing to countenance any real difference between God and us, imagining God to be a vague extrapolation of our own desires, and then hiring a priest to manage the affairs between self and the extrapolation.  But I, one of the priests they hired, am having none of it.

But if I'm not willing to help them become what they want to be, what am I doing taking their pay?  (That is often one of the questions that comes up during annual evaluation, yes?)  Well, I am being subversive. I am undermining the kingdom of self and establishing the kingdom of God. I am helping them to become what God wants them to be, using the methods of subversion.

Peterson then quotes II Timothy 2:  Repeat these basic essentials over and over to God's people. Warn them before God against pious nitpicking, which chips away at the faith. It just wears everyone out. Concentrate on doing your best for the Lord, work you won't be ashamed of, laying out the truth plain and simple.

And, I would add, trusting that this is enough; for God can accomplish the sacred within and among us as only grace will allow.  And this is one of the humbling truths of the upside down kingdom, too.  The prophet, Isaiah, put it like this:

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it
shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off

I think Arcade Fire expressed this challenge perfectly in their "Modern Man" off the Suburbs CD.

(All images from Deviant Art)

Sunday morning has come and gone...

On the first Sunday of this round of vacation, I did what most Americans seem to do on Sundays:  sleep late, share a breakfast and the paper with my honey and then do a few odd household chores.  Feels good even though I miss being at church.

Last night I went out to see a musical buddy, Grahm Sturz, play at the Lion's Den in Stockbridge.(check it out @ )It was a gentle, mellow acoustic set that touched my heart.  The crowd was distinctly 50+ and way into the wooden groove. (Maybe we'll head down there sometime and do a set.) 

On my way home, I saw another club featuring the local blues rocker, Arthur Holmes, so I stopped in to check out his set.  He opened with a spot on take of "All Along the Watchtower" a la Jimi Hendrix. (Check him out @ ) This crowd was heavy into the beer and Saturday night is all right for fighting ambiance and hovered in their mid 40s.  Very different from round one.

So after 45 minutes I thought, "What the hell" and proceeded to yet another club in the hopes Whiskey City might be playing as I can always get down with some hardass country rock.  Instead there was a 20-something "luau dance club DJ" in process with lots of guys looking like Eminem and tons of slinky babes in 5" heels.  One young hipster kept coming up to be at the bar and talking to me about trying to score - even though he was married - until he finally got the nerve to ask, "So what's YOUR story, man?  Are you an artist or something?  I love your look and chicks did the salt-n-peppa thing you got going on. But what brings you out to a place like this?"  We talked for a bit about jazz and vacations and wanting to know the local night world before I headed home.  As I headed for the car, my new hip hop buddy said, "I respect what you're doing, man.  Be safe!"

All the while I was watching each crowd and digging the sounds of my own people, the harder blues groove souls and the hip hop youngsters, I kept wondering:  What does my church have to say and bring to their world?  That's the question that is going to haunt me for a while... and it is probably a good thing to ponder on a Sunday morning that has come and gone.

Fr. Richard Rohr writes: When we hold spiritual questions, we  meet and reckon with our contradictions, with our own dilemmas; and we  invariably arrive at a turning point where we either evade God or meet God. Mere  answers close down the necessary struggle too quickly, too glibly, and too  easily.

When we hang on the horns of dilemmas  with Christ—between perfect consistency and  necessary contradictions—we find ourself in  the unique place I call “liminal space.” Reality has a cruciform shape to it then—and we are taught best at the intersection of order and  disorder, where God alone can make sense out of the situation and we must  surrender. All real transformation of persons takes place when we’re inside of such liminal space—with plenty of questions that are open to God and grace and  growth.

Hip hop maestro, Jay Z is equally insightful...

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Ambiance of leisure...

Pastor Eugene Peterson has written that "pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure."  He calls it the "ambiance of leisure" that encourages both people in a conversation to listen for - and hear - the presence of Christ in one another. "Only in the ambiance of leisure do persons know they are listened to with absolute seriousness, treated with dignity and importance. Speaking to people does not have the same personal intensity as listening to them."

For years I know that I have felt more willing and able to listen and be fully present during my vacation times.  My daughters used to tell me I was more fun to be with on vacation and I know I heard them more deeply during those relaxed and unstructured days, too.  For 35 years I've been trying to get better at listening during my work time.  And while I've gotten a little better at it the humbling truth is that I still get tied up in knots sometimes over time.  I feel cranky and short inside and know I can't listen well at all when I'm busy. I work hard at keeping my daily calender as open as possible - and still find myself squeezed into the mold of this world at day's end. 

Peterson reminds us that from time to time Jesus would say to his friends, "Come off by yourselves; let's take a break and get a little rest." For there was constant coming and going. They didn't even have time to eat.  So they got in the boat and went off to a remote place by themselves."

The late Henri Nouwen used to speak about how being "busy" is seen by many as a sign of success and badge of importance.  People tell me all the time, "I know how busy you are..." Truth is I am less and less busy more and more - intentionally - so that I can stay present and able to listen.  But the squeeze of filling my calendar with stuff is an ever present challenge.  I think that's why I've flirted with early retirement over the past year.  I used to fantasize about being a monastic, too.  But the geographic solution never works because wherever I go, I still have to take myself with me.  (NOTE:  I will, however, start serious work on a Sabbatical schedule this year so that I have 3-4 months for rest, study and reflection in the next 18 months.)

So during this part of my vacation, I'm getting part of the house in order so that the stress of clutter is diminished.  I'm reading and listening to new music, too without any real order for the day.  And when I return to work after Labor Day I pray there will be just a little more carry over so that this season might be a bit more open to listening than the year just past.

Off now for a little Patti Smith break...

Come be my April Fool
Come you're the only one
Come on your rusted bike
Come we'll break all the rules

We'll ride like writers ride
Neither rich nor broke
We'll race through alleyways
In our tattered cloaks so

Come be my April Fool
Come we'll break all the rules

We'll burn all of our poems
Add to God's debris
We'll pray to all of our saints
Icons of mystery
We'll tramp through the mire
When our souls feel dead
With laughter we'll inspire
Then back to life again

Come you're the only one
Come be my April Fool
Come come
Be my April Fool
We'll break all the rules

Friday, August 24, 2012

Rest, watch and wait... God is in charge

Richard Rohr captured what was in my heart all day when he said:
Prayer is largely just being silent: holding the tension instead of even talking it through, offering the moment instead of fixing it by words and ideas, loving reality as it is instead of understanding it fully. We must not push the river, we must just trust that we are really in the river, and God is the current.

That may be impractical, but the way of faith is not the way of efficiency. So much of life is just a matter of listening and waiting, and enjoying the expansiveness that comes from such willingness to hold. It is like carrying and growing a baby: women wait and trust and hopefully eat good food, and the baby is born.

The great Baptist social justice theologian, Clarence Jordan, helped me grasp this truth  30 years ago about the Blessed Virgin Mary ~ and what holds true for her is certainly true for us:  rest and wait and trust ~ these are the key to growing in the Spirit.

Humility and challenge on TREME...

Confession:  I am a stone-cold fan of HBO's "Treme" for a thousand reasons ~ most importantly the way they show the intricate, complicated, non-linear, beautiful, offensive and life-changing ways that race and culture shape so much of who we are, what we say and how we live into our lives as Americans.  And I was blown away by the closing segment of season two wherein a variety of story lines overlapped to show  how caring for the common good involves feeding our better angels on humility

In this clip, DJ Davis, a rich white boy from Old NOLA money who loves the diverse musical culture of his city, has been told that his old timey jazz-funk-rap band has landed a new record contract.  Only problem is, the label wants him out.  This breaks his heart because he is a true musical pioneer, but his talent never quite matches his vision.  So, in his swan song before bidding his musical mates farewell, he satirizes his plight by adopting an ULTRA white persona on stage - almost George W Bushish - while performing the Godfather of Soul, James Brown's, "Sex Machine.  Freakin' brilliant.

At the same time, another story line involving a skanked-out, white guitar player who is slowly being brought to sobriety by working every day on a shrimp boat owned by a savvy old black man, brings the arch of his love story to a close.  In order for the guitar man to even think about dating a young Vietnamese woman, he must prove himself to her daddy - another shrimper - so he goes out on daddy's boat in the Gulf for three days.  And after the ordeal - during which daddy puts him through his paces - the father welcomes the dude into a Vietnamese karaoke family dinner so that a proper courtship across race, class and culture might begin.

What knocks me out about all of this is that
Treme explicitly exposes our fears of race and class while never exploiting them.  Sometimes the writers show us what can happen personally and socially when EACH of us does our own inner work.  This episode offers a vision of a stronger, more loving way to live than our current polarized, hate-filled and fear based existence.  At other times, however, we see how human fraility and even sin is too much take as people are murdered on the street or even take their own lives.

That's the beauty of this visual novel: it explores our quest for our better angels in a way that honors the hard and messy work of nourishing a multi-cultural life without sentimentality. It reminds us that even our mistakes can be used to grow more healthy if we're prepared to embrace them with humility. And it drives this home with music, art and culture - not only giving much of America a taste of the true New Orleans - in a way that is energizing, tender, often fun and harsh but never preachy. 

Like DJ Davis, we're asked to learn to laugh at ourselves in humility so that we all might make better music together. (And for those who might need a cultural comparison, here's the man himself singing: get uppa!)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Some tunes for TGE 2012...

Every year about this time I start getting a sense of the groove I want for our annual TGE event (Thanksgiving Eve for the uninitiated)  Here are some of the tunes that are making me smile...

+ After a country gospel a capella opening, I'm hearing one of our great women singers do this one with a variety of instrumental breaks.

+ Then without a pause, I think  we need to move here, too cuz we've got some soulful sisters who can really sing and I love me some Nina Simone...

+ At some point in the evening, I'm hearing me starting this off as well as something others taking a verse with a great jazzy gospel chorus...

This is a festival of AMERICAN songs - some of our newer friends forget this - but it is a sweet discipline that helps us reclaim something special for Thanksgiving. Can you tell I'm getting psyched?  I'll keep you posted for sure!

Thinking about Thanksgiving Eve 2012...

The Beatles' sang, "It's getting better all the time..." back in the spring of 1967 ~ the summer of love ~ and it has been wafting through my thoughts this morning as I start to think about our annual Thanksgiving Eve music gig.  Each year is different, each year is sweet and each year it gets better all the time.  There have been full blown hootenannies, rock and roll soirees and variety show venues over the past 30 years ~ and I have no idea who will be in and what kind of music will dominate TGE 2012.

Some of my long-time musical buddies are in for sure and others are sorting out their schedules.  We'll have a large mixed choir, some poetry, too and there are certain to be a few surprises that pop up right before our final rehearsal.  It is, as some of you know, part revival, part Prairie Home Companion and part Seeger Sessions with a few hymns scattered throughout for good measure.

I hope if you are in town you'll come out and join the fun.  We're raising monies for the Emergency Fuel Assistance Fund of the Berkshires ~ and inter-faith commitment of compassion ~ that makes a small but important difference in the lives of some of sisters and brothers in need.  And... it is a total gas!

One thing is for certain, it will feel like we're "open all night...gonna rock this joint!"

Thanksgiving Eve

November 21st 2012

Jazz, Folk, Funk, Rock, Blues Music Benefit

Emergency Heating Fuel Assistance in Berkshires

 First Church on Park Square

27 East Street, Pittsfield, MA – 413.447.7351


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Keep the car running...

Some songs take a while to grab me, yeah?  Oddly, ever since my sister's death, "Keep the Car Running" by Arcade Fire has been haunting me. It feels like an upside down, existentialist prayer to me... like Camus had access to the Book of Common Prayer, a hurdy gurdy and a muscle car.

There's a weight that's pressing down
Late at night you can hear the sound
Even the noise you make when you sleep
Can't swim across a river so deep
They know my name, cause I told it to them
But they don't know where and they don't know when
It's coming...

There's a fear I keep so deep
Knew its name just before I could speak...
Keep the car running

What grabs me is that it feels like tears and release - sorrow and grace - at the same time.  It also feels like God is saying:  you don't have to understand all of the complexities you are feeling, man... cuz even in that place where animals go when they die I am there.  So... keep the car running and keep in the race.  It is part St. Paul, St. Allen Ginsberg and St. Bruce Springsteen with a sacred Canadian aesthetic.  Only I'm singing/playing it at half this speed  so I can feel the ache...

Almost time to chill...

Today has been good and full - interviews for our new CE position - hospital visits, checking in with staff and lots more.  Then tomorrow it is... chill time!  I am ready.  At staff meeting, I shared an idea that popped up on the Iona Community overview I am reading: Pathways for Pilgrims - Discovering the Spirituality of the Iona Community in 28 Days (by Chris King.)  In a posting re: participative worship Brian Woodcock writes:

(At a staff meeting) I happened to mention the Taize Community, where teaching and group discussion is NEVER mixed with the worship. So I wondered whether worship there was a "heart thing" in its uninterrupted flow, whereas the other elements were more to do "with the head?"  (Eventually we decided to) split our morning worship into three parts.  Worship first - readings, prayers and music - then a "time to share" - news, notices, coffee, visiting and a passing of the peace - (finally) with a time to "explore" - when the sermon or teaching or discussion would take place.

Interesting idea, yes?  I think it is worth exploring more deeply and could be a creative model for different times throughout the year.  Well, my staff and I will let this simmer and brew for a few weeks while I am away and then we'll see where the Spirit leads.  (After 3 more hours of interviews - I am toast - and ready for a break.)  This benediction from Iona sings out...

Wherever we go,
may the joy of God the gracious be with us.
Wherever we go,
may the face of Christ the kindly be with us.
Wherever we god,
may the compassion of the Spirit of grace be with us.
Wherever we go,
the presence of the Trinity around us to bless and keep us.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Getting ready for some vacation time (part two)...

Part two of my vacation time this summer couldn't have come at a better time:  I have two more weeks to chill and regroup after a full and emotionally complicated summer.  For week number one, I'm going to do some house painting and home repairs with my honey - and watch a LOT of French movies, too.  Then for week two we head out to the Eastern Townships of Quebec for a look around the quiet country outside of Montreal.  We'll bicycle along the wine trail and see what grabs us (and maybe sneak into Ottawa for a day, too!)

Tonight our church band really wanted to get together - because of vacations and family tragedies we haven't played much this month - so away we go to band practice.  One of my dear buddies who has been out of commission re: singing for the past four months will be back with us, too so that will be extra sweet.  And what a wild ass night this will be given the range of songs we're working on:

+ Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" a la Herbie Hancock with vocals by John Legend and Pink.

+ An acoustic rendition of the Beatles' close harmony masterpiece:  "Because."

+ Carrie Newcomer's everyday life credo:  "I Believe."

+ Taylor Swift's tender:  "Safe and Sound."  And the Boss man's new gospel anthem: "Rocky Ground."

Talk about an eclectic evening - with maybe a pint thrown in afterwards!  Tomorrow, the last day before vacation, I have 4 interviews with great people interested in our Christian Education ministry. That will be exciting, demanding and rich - and important to try and nail down - before I head out of town.  This has been a deep and rewarding week and I am grateful.

A reworking of the Lord's Prayer from Iona says it well:

God in heaven,
your name is to be honored.
May your new community of hope
be realized on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today the essentials of life.
Release us from our wrongdoing
as we also release those who wrong us.
Do not test us beyond our enduring;
save us from all that is evil.
For you embrace justice, love and peace,
now and to the end of time.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Across the universe...

Random blessings keep coming my way - and random thoughts keep swimming in my heart and soul - as the season shifts ever so gently towards fall here in the Berkshires.  It is starting to get very cool in the evening, the humidity has taken a vacation and even some of the trees are starting to turn from green to red on the edges.

Today, I got this picture from a couple I had the privilege of sharing their marriage vows of renewal with on Saturday. They are dear to my heart and a blessing to our community - and when we played Alan Jackson's "Remember When" and they danced together in the Chancel... I was full to overflowing! (And this has GOT to be one of my favorite country songs ever!)
Here's a picture from another wedding I did this summer - and what could be more perfect than this setting?  OMG.  As I told one of my musical buddies afterwards, even if the liturgy sucked and my homily tanked, who would notice, right?  (Thankfully things did not go south in either category making the whole feast a total blast.)
The music was a gas - a cellist and violin - with Charlie Tokarz added on sax for "Ma Vie en Rose" as the processional - and the bride's dad (and my buddy Andy) joining two other male voices for the Beatles' "Here, There and Everywhere" before the vows... how sweet can life be?

Yesterday at worship, a retired concert pianist joined us and afterwards asked, "Is there any way I might be able to do a benefit performance to help support one of the ministries of the church?"  She knows folk from the Boston Symphony and would help pull it all together.  Last night, a friend from Wales sent me a killer song based on my favorite verse of scripture (living into the unforced rhythms of grace.) 

And today I received three totally excellent applicants for our new Christian Education Superintendent's job.  A new friend found my blog and asked this morning for some help composing a play list for her Sunday School's journey into contemporary songs with a spiritual content.

Man... I am buzzing.  Grateful. And in awe of the wild emotional roller coaster involved with a life open to Christ's presence in the ordinary events of real life.  I like the way St. Frederick Buechner puts it:

It is not a place, of course, but a condition.  Kingship might be a better word:  thy kingdom come, thy will be done is what Jesus prayed.  The two are in apposition.  Insofar as here and there, and now and then, God's kingly will is being done in various odd ways among us even at this moment, the kingdom has come already.

Insofar as all the odd ways we do his will at this moment are at best half-baked and half hearted, the kingdom is still a long way off - a hell of a long way off to be more precise and theological.

As a poet, Jesus is maybe at his be3st in describing the feeling you get when you glimpse the Ting itself - the kingship of the king official at last and all the world his coronation. It's like finding a million dollars in a field, he says, or a jewel worth a king's ransom. It's like finding something you hated to lose and thought you'd never find again - an old keepsake, a stray sheep, a missing child. When the kingdom really comes, it's as if the thing you lost and thought you'd never find again is you...

So, you see, unbelief is as much of a choice as belief is. What makes it in many ways more appealing is that whereas to believe in something requires some measure of understanding and effort, not to believe doesn't require much of anything at all.

I believe, Lord, help my unbelief.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Holding on and letting go...

Someone at church said to me this morning, "You look really beat... big old bags under your eyes."  And, yes it is true, I am really worn out.  Being with my dying sister during her hard and ugly death was rough.  Being with her in love given our profound differences and alienation was rougher still.  And trying to live into  her death trusting Christ's grace in the midst of our still unresolved conflict was the hardest of all.  It still is.  Nobody said resting or "abiding" in the Lord was easy - it isn't - and in this context (at least for me) it is exhausting. 

Let's be honest, I can be a stubborn man.  And my sister was a bitter and broken woman.  I not only hated many of the choices she made in her life - and challenged her on them - but then had to learn how to practice acceptance, too because she wasn't going to change. Come hell or high water - and it killed her - she hung on to her unhealthy commitments to the very end.  So part of me is still furious with her for being so pig-headed and selfish.  And part of me is trying to say, "Yes, that is true and it wasn't your fight to win or your life to live so give Beth over fully to God's grace because some things in life just can't be fixed."

That's the thing about grace:  it always beats the alternative of holding on to our fears and grudges and past sins because with grace I can trust that God will do the healing we could never accomplish here.  In grace, I can trust the unforced rhythm of God's love.  And in grace I can experience something of God's peace that passes my understanding.

But I have to surrender to grace and I think that's where my weariness is coming from:  sometimes I let go and rest only to turn around again and try to hold on to my anger and hurt.

Buechner got it mostly right when he observed that the good news of grace "breaks into a world where the news has been so bad for so long that when it is good nobody hears it much except for a few.  And who are the few that hear it?"

They are the ones who labor and are heavy-laden like everybody else but who, unlike everybody else, know that they labor and are heavy-laden. They are the last people you might expect to hear it, themselves the bad jokes and stooges and scarecrows of the world, the tax collectors and whores and misfits. They are the poor people, the broken people, the ones who in terms of the world's wisdom are children and madmen and fools. They have cut themselves shaving. Rich or poor, successes or failures as the world counts it, they are the ones who are willing to believe in miracles because they know it will take a miracle to fill the empty place inside them where grace and peace belong with grace and peace.

That's why I am so grateful that for the next two weeks, I have more vacation time.  So mostly I'm just going to chill - rest and read and pray - do some house work and repairs and some painting, too.  Then we'll bop around the Eastern Townships of Quebec for a few days, walking in small Francophone towns, sipping local wine and listening to local music.  I am ready - ready for a little retreat from the demands of death - ready for a little rest from grief. And ready for the unforced rhythm of grace.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Public and private commitments...

On and off over the past month - and certainly on and off for the past 20+ years - I've been having an irregular conversation with church people about the difference between public and private spiritual commitments.  It began when a once active worship member in Tucson said to me, "There isn't enough quiet, alone time for me in worship anymore."  Being a smart-ass in recovery I said, "Well, when you come to Protestant worship, you AREN'T alone... so what's the problem?"  To which she said, "I need more quiet time given the frantic pace of my life."  And I said, "Do you practice quiet time at home?  Do you have a regular discipline of intimate and personal prayer during the week."  And when she said no, I encouraged her to nourish that private commitment - and then added:  "You can't expect 60 minutes of Sunday worship to give you what you won't claim for yourself the rest of the week."  That pissed her off and she rarely came back.

My goal was not to piss her off, but to point out three inter-related truths:  1) there is a difference between our public and private spiritualities; 2) without a private commitment to contemplation public worship will often feel incomplete; and 3) without a public encounter with the wider Body of Christ our private meditations can become self-important and too comfortable.  We need both - the public and the private - to live into the promise of God's grace. 

This came up again last week in a discussion about helping children learn to worship when a parent said, "Sometimes there isn't enough quiet time for some of us in our current worship."  And that is probably true and needs to be tweaked, but it is also true that most of us don't make much quiet time for ourselves and God during the week as well. (reread my three points above... In an era that is over-scheduled and stressed out, attention to the inner journey is essential.

So when my friend, Black Pete, recently noted that the four spiritual practices I had written about yesterday did not include self-care and love I wondered if my old conversation was returning in another form.  But upon deeper reflection I think Pete got it right because unless self-care is part of our public spiritual commitment, there is no accountability for our private spiritualities.   No wonder the Rule of Life at Iona - and many other monastic communities - stress:

1) Daily prayer and Bible reading (time alone for quiet)
2) Sharing and accounting for the use of our resources (self-care and community care)
3) Planning and accounting for the use of our time (self and community care)
4) Action for Peace and Justice in the world (public)
5) Personal spiritual direction (private)

So in addition to the four practices of expressing gratitude, keeping promises, living truthfully and offering hospitality perhaps we should add nourishing salvation (noting that the root salve means health with spiritual and physical connotations.)  Hmmmm... more to consider, yes?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Saying yes and saying no...

About 10 years ago I started to reread and rethink the work of Dorothy Bass et al concerning "spiritual practices" that help us live into our faith.  (for more information go to: For a small congregation, Christine Pohl, suggests four practices that resonate with my heart and experience:

+ Expressing gratitude:  In worship and acts of service, in our private prayers and public commitments, gratitude guides our words, thoughts and deeds rather than complaint or obligation. What a huge difference this makes for both pastor and congregation. It is so easy to carp and whine about all that is not working - or not working well enough.  So I have taken to challenging my own inclination to piss and moan and those of my church leaders, too as a spiritual practice. 

Pohl puts it like this:

Small changes in practice can shift the culture of a community. One pastor I met decided to devote a major portion of a church's annual meeting to thanking everyone who had made a contribution to congregational life... Every meeting should have "far more positive affirmation than negative confrontation' and should include talk about how we see God working in one another.  As Jean Vanier observes: "Celebration is a sign of the resurrection which gives us strength to carry the cross each day."

And little by little we are growing together in love and acceptance.  What's more, those who can't seem to grasp the invitation of Christ in expressions of gratitude are finding themselves isolated and disempowered.  Nothing holds back a congregation from becoming its best self like a mean-spirit and gratitude gives us a way of moving towards the Spirit better than anything else.

+ Keeping promises:  Sometimes it seems as if the wider church has been mortally wounded by breaking faith and betraying fidelity.  No wonder trust in the Church is at an all time low throughout the Western world.  That means, I think, that we on the local level must own this abuse and find small, gentle and effective ways of rebuilding trust.  It will take generations, of course, but it can be done.  "Betrayal is devastating to our trust and sense of justice - and sometimes to our faith."

So we can, for example, manage our shared monies in a transparent way.  We can take appropriate and compassionate steps when leaders violate their vows.  We can hold clergy and laity accountable for their commitments.  We can refuse to shoot our wounded when we fail.  And we must stand up to congregational bullies of all varieties so that the local church is experienced as a safe and open place of refuge and hope.  

+Living truthfully:  This is one of the hardest practices to put into action because sometimes we don't always know what is true.  And sometimes being truthful in love causes people to leave the community.  I bumped up against this again this summer as we are working at finding new ways to strengthen Christian formation in our congregation. 

For the next three years we are going to resource parents and families so that they act as partners in the "domestic Church of Jesus Christ" and support and strengthen what takes place on Sunday morning.  This will mean that every week we prepare written resources for use in the home, include children in worship more than segregated Sunday School classrooms and expect parents to pray regularly at home with their children.  One of our new basic goals is to encourage families to eat at least one meal together each week and use some of our resources for a family discussion. 

Most parents are excited albeit apprehensive given their demanding and often over-extended schedules.  But some find themselves resistant because, of course, choices are going to have to be made.  Saying yes and saying no will have to be practiced.  And in a consumer culture driven by unbridled desires, I suspect we'll lose a few families.  That will be sad - and some leaders who are great bean-counters will complain - but not everyone who cries, "Lord, Lord" will enter the kingdom of God, yes?  In an era of making hard choices, living truthfully into Christ's grace is an essential spiritual practice.

+ Offering hospitality:  And I mean radical hospitality.  When I first started speaking of this practice some people thought that it meant "anything goes..." or that the leadership of the congregation should live like "a quivering mass of availability" (to paraphrase Hauerwas.)  But radical hospitality is NOT about being used up, but by welcoming and nourishing those who are wounded, forgotten and neglected.  Mostly I find that it is more about finding time to listen everyday or bring rest to one who is overwhelmed.

Often the best gift we can give another person is our time and attention. People come to life when they and their offerings are valued. This means that communities and the folk within them must be willing to receive.  Only as we recognize our own vulnerabilities and incompleteness are we open to what others can contribute.

Radical hospitality, of course, has led us to become and Open and Affirming congregation within the United Church of Christ.  But it has also called us to simply open the doors of the Sanctuary every noon and offer anyone a chance a chance to rest in the beauty of Christ's presence without qualification.  It has meant that our meetings and church dinners have moved from being stuffy to hyper-family friendly - same, too with refreshments after worship and even worship itself.  Radical hospitality has taken us into cleaning up the river, welcoming into worship musicians of all stripes and varieties and styles and  has even come to mean that our staff lives and acts as ambassadors of grace rather than just church professionals - our leadership teams have been invited do this, too.

Even when our theology hasn't caught up to our image of God, and that happens from time to time, we are committed to erring on the side of grace and gratitude. Pohl concludes with words that are both being made flesh in our ministry while constantly challenging us to go deeper:

When we offer welcome or live with gratitude, when we make and keep promises or live truthfully, we are responding to the practices of God. Our experiences of community grow out of the practices through which we echo the goodness, grace and truth we find in Jesus. We are not called to create ideal families, communities or congregations. Building faithful communities of truth and hospitality, however, is at the heart of our grateful response to the one who "became flesh and lived among us... full of grace and truth."

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:...