Sunday, September 30, 2012

It is hard to receive, too... but equally blessed

Everyone has headed home now - and we are considering getting a new puppy.  Anniversary celebrations are funny things, yes?  In appreciation of my congregation's decision to honor my 30 years of ordained ministry, I put my "work" on hold Thursday night and entered into three days of reverie. The easy part was greeting old friends from around the country and dear family members and feasting with them on food, spirit, memories and conversation. Truth be told, I have been filled to overflowing by this banquet of love - and knew it would be sacred.

It started Friday evening when we all travelled to my daughter and her loved one's farm about 40 miles from us in the hill towns.  They are both excellent cooks, wonderful souls and generous hosts who welcomed us to an evening of mezze, wine, story-telling and reconnecting with two dear friends from Tucson.  By 9 pm, my other daughter arrived from Brooklyn and the party ripened.  On Saturday, still another cherished colleague from Cleveland had arrived and we spent the afternoon at our favorite tapas bar getting caught up.  I love this kind of revelry with people I know and trust and love:  it is soul food of the best type.

What is hard for me - harder even than I feared - is when I am the focus of all the attention. That's not false modesty (I pray) but at last night's party and roast, I was done hearing nice things about me after 30 minutes.  It was sweet - and flattering - and an honor I will carry with me for a long time. But after a while I wanted to say, "Ok, this is great but come on, can't we talk about something else!?!"

But a number of people had not only made a commitment to come a long way for this event, but they had worked hard on their public remarks.  And what I began to realize is that this celebration gave people both a shape and a form to express their gratitude and respect - and that is exactly what they did.  My man, don E, from Tucson sent a video (I will post it soon) of tender words that closed with him singing one of my favorite of his songs: "Here with the Broken." Linda and Larry shared something of the depth of ministry and compassion we experienced in the Southwest.  Sue, Jon, Rick and Paul shared  genuinely funny stories about my ministry here in Pittsfield - honest and beautiful words - that spoke to the love we, too have come to share.  My band mates sang a new song Brian wrote for this celebration - a bluesy gospel tune based on words he took from this blog over the years - as well as "In My Life" by the Beatles.  Andy, Sue, Steve, Ethan and Dick sang a short history of my life they had cooked up based on "The Ballad of Jed Clampett."  And a great meal was savored by about 80 people - including some of my local colleagues from the Berkshire Association.
So as uncomfortable as it was for me to be the center of attention, it slowly started to dawn on me that my job, at least for a few hours, was to suck it up, enjoy what I could and receive the whole thing with thanksgiving.  But let me tell you, while the old timers may have been telling the truth when they advised us that "it is better to give than receive," it is also true that for some of us it is much harder to receive than give, yes?  When we receive, we are not in control.  When we receive, we have to live with open hands and hearts.  When we receive we have to create space for others in real humility.  For when we receive, we have to live from the core of grace.

All of that was good for me to experience:  the music, the love, the gratitude, the kidding, the sharing and the gifts.  After all the words, my moderator, Dana, shared three gifts with me from the congregation.  The first was a plaque from the national church honoring my 30 years of ministry.  The second was an incredible home-made memory book of pictures telling the story of this ministry.  After only 3 pages I had to stop looking because I couldn't hold back the tears.  It is beautiful on so many levels.  And then they gave me a third gift:  first the formal, second the memories and third the artistic - a copy of Mako Fujimura's four gospels art work commissioned for the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.  This is one of the most awe-inspired art I have ever seen - we went to a gallery in Soho last winter to check it out - and now my people have shared it with me. 

It was now almost impossible for me to speak - usually not a problem as my friends noted later - I was overwhelmed with emotion.  Earlier I had written down my comments knowing I might be unable to share spontaneously - and it was a good thing I had.  Here is what I had written and what I read:

It is important for me to share two things with you tonight:  a poem and a debt of gratitude.  Most probably my list of thanksgiving and gratitude will take a few minutes – so be forewarned – because this is important for me to say out loud. There are four broad groups of people that I want to thank deeply and tenderly – your presence and love, your various ministries and commitments – have touched me deeply and continue to nourish me in ways I will never be able to express. 

·       First there are all the people who share ministry with me every day – my incredible staff of Carlton, Becky, David, Mark and Kelly – really know how to not only get the job done, but to do it with grace and finesse.  Every day I thank God for each and all of you.

·       Same goes for those from the wider laity of First Church who help us consider, plan and implement the work of Christ’s ministry in this place:  Dana and Scott, Sara and Ted, Jon and Frank, Merrilyn and Donna, Dorothy and David, Holly and Ed – and let’s not forget Ann and Virginia, too.  And let's not forget Paul Durwin who makes sure we get our message out to the town each week on tv. Each of you bring very different gifts to the table and I have experienced you sharing them generously and with the mind of Christ week after week – in season and out – in times of joy and also when our hearts are breaking.  You too are part of my daily prayers of thanksgiving.

That’s group number one – I told you it would take a little time – ok?  The second group I am indebted to are my colleagues and friends who are no longer a direct part of my daily ministry but have loved me and shared wisdom with me and help me discern God’s still speaking voice when I am perplexed or too tired or simply befuddled.

·       That group includes Larry and Linda Schloss from Tucson – and Mark Clark from the national United Church of Christ – who was once and always will be from Tucson.

·       It also includes my predecessor in ministry here – my colleague and friend, the Rev. Dr. Richard Floyd and his gracious and gentle partner in life Martha Floyd – as well as my colleagues in this community of practice – the Reverends Mark Longhurst and Liz Goodman.

I cannot forget two people who were there with me on the night of my ordination 30 years ago but who have now gone on to join that great cloud of witnesses:  The Reverend Dr. Sam Fogal and the Rev. Dr. Ray Swartzback.

Now group number three includes my partners in music – both at First Church and in the Jazz Ambassadors – because you all have nourished me and helped me realize sacred dreams of sharing beauty and hope and peace throughout the world.

·      To the Jazz Ambassadors:  Andy Kelly, Jon Hadad, Charlie Tokarz and Bennie Kohn…

·       To my musical mates at First Church:  first the choir – Ann and Kathy, Sara and Peg, Carol and Carol, Eva and Renee, Dianne, Sue, Jon, Scott, Brian and Carlton – every week you model for me commitment and compassion for one another and the body of Christ.

·       To my Between the Banks mates:  Brian - you are soul man number one - the blue-eyed brother who always brings me blessing; Dr. Jon I have been blessed that you play your Paul McCartney against my John Lennon in pursuit of beauty and joy; Eva - you are soul sister number one in my book and knock me out; David - man you ALWAYS know just what to play and just WHEN to play it;  Sue - from the day you joined the band with your quiet classical training I have wanted you to sing Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" and ache for that day to come to pass.  And Carlton - you da man - I have worked with a lot of ministers of music over the years but NO body touches my soul the way you play, brother:  NO body!

And lastly to my beloved family – who have found ways to love me in a complicated and all-too-public job – who have experienced my failings all too profoundly – and made room in yours hearts both for my absences when you were growing up or in need and my even my sins:

·       Michal – and now Winton – you bring me blessings – and great food – wonderful humor and a call to be still and intentional and quiet as you make your gentle mark on the world

·       Jesse – and now Michael – you light up my life:  you push me and hug me, you feed me and tell me you need me and you are solid and real and so filled with love

·        And Dianne – you have saved my life – and I will always be grateful whether we’re young or old, rich or poor, fat or skinny, fighting over music or singing in harmony:  I have seen God in you.

Then with lots of tears I closed with this poem from Mary Oliver:

Everyone should be born into the world happy
   and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Hallelujah, anyway I'm not where I started!

And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
   almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
      and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
   is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years?

Hallelujah, I'm sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.

After the party a few of us retired back to our home for more stories and some wine.  Then this morning we gathered for my musical/theological reflection on ministry.  It, too, was a gas. My dear friends, Hal and Terre, made a special trip up from Connecticut to be a part of the groove. And oh my God did the band play and sing with soul and conviction our rendition of "Don't Give Up" as a call to ministry here in this place and time.

Exhausting and exhilarting - sweet and complicated, too - this has been a full 60 hours.  At dinner last night, my daughters were talking about a farm puppy a friend wants to give away. Now that the feasting is over, we'll head out for a visit tomorrow and... who knows.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Poems that have blessed me...

Three other essential poems for me as I reflect on my 30 years of ordained ministry.  The first is by Kabir - 13th century Muslim orphan whose Arabic name means "the Great" as in the 37th name for Allah in the Quran - and goes like this in a Robert Bly translation:

Friend, hope for the Guest while you are alive.
Jump into experience while you are alive!
Think... and think... while you are alive.
What you call "salvation" belongs to the time before death.

If you don't break your ropes while you're alive
do you think
ghosts will do it after?

The idea that the soul will join with the ecstatic
just because the body is rotten -
that is all fantasy.
What is found now is found then.
If you find nothing now,
you will simply end up with an apartment in the City of
If you make love with the divine now, in the next life you
   will have the face of satisfied desire.

Kabir says this:  When the Guest is being searched for, it is
   the intensity of the longing for the Guest that does all the
Look at me and you will see a slave of that intensity.

That resonates well with my sense of Christ's reminder that the Kingdom is both within and among us - and very, very near.  The second is boldly incarnational, "Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop."  Strains of John 1 and Leonard Cohen's, "Anthem," waft through my soul as I enter the crazy one's wisdom.

I met the Bishop on the road
And much said he and I.
'Those breasts are flat and fallen now,
Those veins must soon be dry;
Live in a heavenly mansion,
Not in some foul sty.'

'Fair and foul are near of kin,
And fair needs foul,' I cried.
'My friends are gone, but that's a truth
Nor grave nor bed denied,
Learned in bodily lowliness
And in the heart's pride.

'A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.'

And then there is the tender mercy of Mary Oliver's take on "Hallelujah."  More and more I find I am spending time in the wake of her presence.

Everyone should be born into this world happy
   and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Hallelujah, anyways I'm not where I started!

And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
   almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
      and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
   is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years?

Hallelujah, I'm sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.

There you go... these feel right to me... especially mixed with pictures from Winton and Michal's farm house.  Onward to the party.

Friday, September 28, 2012

When I was a child...

For the longest time, like a child, I associated the "good things" in life with God and the bad, hard and broken times with... well, not God.  I wasn't raised with "Satan/devil" language - and I am still not comfortable with it - although through the years I have come to trust that it does have some limited value.  Still such dualistic thinking began to outlast its usefulness for me some 15 years ago.  Not that I had yet discovered helpful alternatives, but I knew intuitively that one cycle of images had to be buried and laid to rest before another would arise.

I suspect that is when I rediscovered poetry.  I can remember the moment like some born-again Christians can tell you the exact time and location when they received grace from on high.  It was a rainy, cold autumn evening in Cleveland.  My first marriage had ended and I was trying to regain my emotional and spiritual balance.  Dianne and I were wandering through a newly opened Borders when I came upon an anthology edited by Robert Bly, Michael Meade and James Hillman.  I had already been nourished by some of Bly's mytho-poetic writing so I started flipping through the thick paper back.  Two poems jumped out at me - and changed my life.

The first, by Rilke, read:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on his as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies, there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

Before I realized what was happening, I discovered that I was weeping.  Why? No idea - maybe it was the beauty of the words - perhaps Rainer Maria Rilke was describing what I was discovering - maybe I was being lured by God through my grief towards a new way of living.  Probably all of this and more; I just know that it felt like I had forgotten that church that was out in the East in the wild beyond all that was known and safe and civilized.  And now I was moving towards it.

Putting the book back on the shelf, I wandered around the bookstore trying to get my bearings for a few minutes.  Then I returned and read this poem by Michael Blumenthal:

There is a voice inside the body.

There is a voice and a music,
a throbbing, four-chambered pear
that wants to be heard, that sits
alone by the river with its mandolin
and its torn coat, and sings
for whomever will listen
a song that no one wants to hear.

But sometimes, lost,
on his way to somewhere significant,
a man in a long coat, carrying
a briefcase, wanders into the forest.

He hears the voice and the mandolin,
he sees the thrush and the dandelion,
and he feels the mist rise over the river.

And his life is never the same,
for this having been lost -
for having strayed from the path of his routine,
for no good reason.

THIS was me, too I felt - wandering, reading poetry, for no good reason, hearing new sounds and making new connections as the mist of the river awakened my senses - and my life WAS never the same.  I had to force myself to buy the book; after all, American men don't do poetry.  Bly writes in the foreword:

While our European-American tradition questions and argues, and has to teach poetry to sullen students in English classes, other cultures speaking Spanish, Russian, Arabic to say nothing of the many tongues of African and the Indian subcontinent, grow up inside poems, drenched through with poetic metaphors and rhythms. As we learn to criticize, to take a poem apart, to get its meaning, they learn to listen and recite...

We live in a poetically underdeveloped nation.  Men blame their own lives for the deficiency of the culture.  For, without the fanciful delicacy and the powerful truths that poems convey, emotions and imagination flatten out. There is a lack of spirit, of vision.  The loss in the heart appears a a loss of heart to take up the great cultural challenges that are part of every man's citizenship. It is in this sense that we have come to think that working in poetry and myth with men is therapy of the culture at its psychic roots.

Rumi helped me find a way past yes and no, good and bad, heaven and hell.  So did Mary Oliver and Billy Collins.  Sharon Olds and Eugene Peterson made me laugh at myself and risk  being open to mysteries I might never comprehend.  Joy Mead and Gunilla Norris speak of bread - how there is death and life together at the same time - and how that is the way God made it.  Same with Bob Dylan, Sarah MacLachlan, Bono and the Boss - and let's not forget Carrie Newcomer.

Knowing bread
is knowing the whole round
of life - shaped
from wood and roots,
bodies of dead animals
peat and grass
water and honey sweetness,
the best of earth's gifts
shaped into fleshiness,
so that we wonder
at its softness:
how it smells like us
salty and moist, good
for one last deathlike gesture
oven burial, home to warmth

then joy in the rising
the finished loaf
our own becoming.

We are what we eat.
(Joy Mead)

These days I trust my encounters with awe and the mystery of reverence are ripening within as replacements for relying on "God is good" thinking. It is less precise, this living with ambiguity and nuance and paradox and poetry, but it is more alive and real, too.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Emily Dickinson, Czeslaw Milosz and Cat Power go into a bar...

Being faithful to me is living in a way that is open to the awe, hurt, beauty and challenge of each moment.  Today, once again, I was reminded that even as I get ready to enter a weekend of celebration and merry-making, there are people in my community whose loved ones are dying - or battling addiction - or just making stupid and mean-spirited choices.  It reminds me of those I know who have died on Christmas Eve while the rest of us have been singing "Joy to the world - or those who have betrayed their beloved knowing all the while the agony it will cost - because living by faith is always paradoxical and complicated.

In one of the great prayers of the Church - the Great Litany - all sorts of paradoxical blessings are lifted up to the Lord:  ... may it please Thee to preserve all who are in danger by reason of their labor or their travel... may it please Thee to preserve... all women in childbirth as well as widows and those whose homes are broken or torn by strife... may it please Thee to forgive our enemies...  and so much more.

The poet, Emily Dickinson, put it like this:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -

And when they were all seated,
A Service, like a Drum -
Kept beating - beating - till I thought
My Mind was going numb -

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
The Space - began to toll.

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wreaked, Solitary, here -

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge
And Finished knowing - then -

In the early days of ministry this used to make me crazy - how could I enjoy my blessings knowing that others were suffering - and it is still very humbling.  It should be.  But over time, rather than go insane, I have come to trust that God is God so I don't have to be. Czeslaw Milosz puts it like this in his poem, "Faith."

The word Faith means when someone sees
A dew-drop or a floating leaf, and knows
That they are, because they have to be.
And even if you dreamed, or closed your eyes
And wished, the world would still be what it was,
And the leaf would still be carried down the river.

It means that when someone's foot is hurt
By a sharp rock, he also knows that rocks
Are here so they can hurt our feet.
Look, see the long shadow cast by the tree;
And flowers and people throw shadows on the earth:
What has no shadow has no strength to live.

As I start a weekend of basking in the love and encouragement of my family, friends and faith community, I also trust that God will be and is present to those who are in need of the Lord the most.  Resting in this truth is a great blessing and I give thanks to the Lord.

Laissez les festivies commencer!

Last night I came home from a long, hard meeting - and found this note waiting for me on FB:

I just came from a church meeting re stewardship where we all decided we needed to act on a leap of faith, we needed to imagine a better world, we needed to stop talking about busted boilers and leaky roofs and start talking about love... and we are (in the Stewardship Committee, of all places!) trying to imagine a vibrant future based on our faith rather than keeping our doors open as a burial society. Your commitment to your music, and mine to my music, keeps us alive and feeds us, and somehow we have to keep trying to impart faith and joy to others, and fight off the other models you cleanly describe (the church as an instrument of secular therapy, or the church as a service club like the Rotary Club, etc.) I read your posts and appreciate them so much...

It was the soul food I needed at just the right moment.  Another dear blogging friend sent me this note about my discomfort over the up-coming anniversary celebration that included these words:

For you, it is about waaaay more than a weekend celebration. You are contemplating your life’s journey as a person of faith, the highs and lows, times you were lost, then found, the people you’ve met along the way, for better or for worse, the adventures and misadventures, the successes and failures, times of insight, times of confusion .... so, so much and all of it emotionally laden. AND it’s about the details of pulling off the celebration and the service, being present and open to the moment as you see old friends, greet family and loved ones.  For the others, it’s about wanting to honor you and your ministry of 30 years.

And then my band mates sent me some words of encouragement including this:

I drove home with a sense of peace and joy and satisfaction that comes from being in the spirit, inspired and so glad to have shared in it with such beautiful people....I appreciate you all...thank you.  Maybe James, even though a personal celebration so well deserved, but also a way in which the light spreads beyond and brightens some of the darker corners of many other lives. You have attracted good things and its contagious!
To me, ministry has become a collaboration in trust and beauty, using one an other's strengths to fortify our weakness and combining our unique gifts into something greater than the parts.  This weekend that will be most clearly exhibited in the band's arrangement of "Don't Give Up."  Individual voices joining together, musical gifts creating a foundation with unexpected bursts beauty, solos, duets and choral singing interspersed with guitar, bass, piano and conga.  Jazz, rock, gospel mixed with breath-taking tension and release for me as the song moves from minor into major modes combined with a whole lot of improvisation, too.

Thank you for your words of encouragement - and tenderness - now it is on to the party!  Friends from Arizona arrive today and tomorrow; we'll venture to one of our daughter's farm tomorrow for mezze and then regroup at church on Saturday night for the "roast."  Then we'll sing and celebrate and share stories of faith, hope and love on Sunday.  I wish Peter and Joyce were here (but they'll be close in my heart.) Laissez les festivies commencer!

A few random pictures of joy and wonder...

Here are a few of the images I have collected over the past few months that continue to bring joy and wonder to my soul.  Maybe you'll like them, too.  If you are free on Sunday, September 30th @ 10:30 am, please try to join me in worship as I share songs, stories and scripture concerning God's grace as I've encountered it over the past 30 years of ministry.

The wedding ceremony for Tessa and Chris

A total blessing

My first loaf of bread with my trusty Brown Betty tea pot

An incredible sculpture, yes?

Nelson Mandela - in-freaking-credible

My brother

My daughter with Elvis' mike

My daughter in our garden

My honey in Quebec

In worship

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bad moon rising...

Tonight I came home from a long regional church meeting feeling sad:  so many churches are in so many different kinds of trouble.  Pastors and leadership in crisis, financial despair, no clear sense of a mission except keeping the doors open like a burial society rather than a community of faith - and so much more.  After the official business, someone asked me: Is it just the luck of the draw that some pastors "get lucky" or what?

My answer, based on four very different congregations - as well as serving the regional church in Ohio, Arizona and Massachusetts - boils down to this:

+ Some churches are toxic.  Thanks be to God I've never served one but let's be honest: some churches need to be closed ASAP.

+ Most churches, however, can be nourished into health if the leadership is willing to take risks built on faith AND the pastor has earned trust.  Most of the times pastors try to push programming without nourishing trust - it never works - because trust takes time.  Some-times pastors don't train and hold their leaders accountable to living by faith - and that doesn't work either.  And from time to time, the entrenched leadership is too afraid or caught in the glory days to be open to Christ's spirit of resurrection in the present moment - and that won't work either.

In the four different congregation's I've served in 30 years, I've learned that I must trust God deeply, I must train my leadership to take risks by faith and I must deliver on being trustworthy.  I have to preach and teach the way of Jesus without apology.  And I have to be certain both to avoid doing "therapy" in church (there is a time and place for it but not in worship or church administration) and find ways to manage discouragement - for myself and others. As I listen to congregation's in trouble, they often come down to:  a) lay leadership that isn't being faithful to Christ; b) clergy who are afraid or arrogant; or c) a vision for the church that is based mostly on secular models rather than the guidance of the Spirit.

Please don't get me wrong:  my churches have never been "successful" like the mega-churches.  But they have all grown in faith and numbers, they have all deepened their inner journey with the Lord and they have all found new and creative ways of bringing a measure of healing to the world.  The love of God in Christ can heal broken hearts, bodies and souls - and I've been blessed to see this in action. 

But tonight I am grieving for many of my friends, colleagues and their congregations:  the church is in trouble and only Jesus can make us well.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Sunday notes for anniversary reflection: redux...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this week.  They are, as some will notice, a further reflection on a posting I did last week about 30 years of ministry.  This Saturday my congregation will host a "gentle roast" in honor of my ordination; and on Sunday I will share this reflection in scripture, song and story.

I am a practicing Christian – that means I understand that even after all these years I still don’t have it right and need a LOT of practice – so truth be told, even though I’ve been practicing for 45 years I still feel like a total novice.  I made a conscious commitment to follow the way of Christ when I was 15 and sensed a call to ministry a year later.  And now that I’ve been ordained into Christian ministry for 30 years, it seems appropriate to take a little time to look backwards in reflection.  Not to be nostalgic or sentimental, mind you, but rather to see whether or not all this practicing has made any difference.

So what I’m going to do for about 25 minutes – and maybe a little longer (so be forewarned) – is share with you some of the things I think our still speaking God has made known to me during my time in ministry.  Using scripture, story and song I’m going to offer up a reflection on how I have been embraced and challenged by the God made flesh to me in Jesus Christ our Lord.  I know from the outset that not everyone will get what I’m trying to say.  I know that some will grumble that I took too much time doing it.  And I know that for a few – and I don’t know who you are – something will click and you’ll want to draw closer to God in Christ, too.  So today I want to speak to you.  

Frederick Buechner once wrote:  “There is no event so common place but that God is present within nit, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not… but all the more fascinatingly because of that… So if I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I have tried to say as a writer and preacher, it would be something like this:  listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell you way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace.”

St Paul said much the same thing in his admonition to the early church when he told them that if you haven’t been changed in your commitment to Christ over the course of your life time– if you haven’t matured in the Spirit – then something is wrong:  either you’re faking it or not paying attention to what the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus means in your generation or something. Eugene Peterson’s reworking of Ephesians 4 puts it like this:

Here’s what I want you to do…. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. Mark that you do this with humility and discipline—not in fits and starts—but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences…No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything… because we take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do.

So from my distinctly limited perspective, here’s what I’ve discerned, so far during my time in ministry, ok?

When I first entered Union Theological Seminary 33 years ago, I had two small children:  I had spent time working as an organizer with the United Farm Workers movement of Cesar Chavez, I had tried – and failed – to clean up the care provided to profoundly disabled children in a custodial care home, labored in a variety of gas stations and restaurants and believed myself to be fed up with both traditional politics and church.  While finishing my undergraduate degree in Political Science from San Francisco State University, I entered the heady realm of "sanitized Marxism" (a phrase I borrowed from Cornel West who later became my Seminary advisor.)

And by the time I arrived in NYC, I had studied the major texts of the New Left, read and re-read the essential Liberation Theologians of Latin America and was ready for the church to serve as the vanguard of social and spiritual change in America.

Like many young seminarians before me, Luke 4: 18-19 called out to me, when Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah to his home town neighbors: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.  Over the years, let me add, I’ve mellowed a bit about this passage and have now come to understand that this text really belongs to Jesus.  I wasn’t called to be the Messiah – he was.  So these days, I’m more centered in Micah: 6:8 – a passage that is not messianic but essential for all of us – when it declares:  Look, you know what the Lord requires:  so do it!  God has told you, mortal ones, what is good; and God has told you what Lord requires of you:  do justice, love kindness and to walk with humbly with your God.

But back in seminary, however, life was simpler, more black and white, less nuanced and personal for me.  So when I got to NYC I jumped into liberation theology:  I was their first exchange student to study Latin American liberation theology in Costa Rica, I travelled to Nicaragua to celebrate the first year of that country’s revolution and took classes in Marxist economics at Columbia along with my Bible work.

·       I served as co-chair of the student body, organized bus trips to DC to protest US policies in Central America, raised money in the Chapel to help arm the Sandinistas against the contras and helped bring Maggie Kuhn, head of the Grey Panthers, to speak at our commencement.

·       I had the privilege to serve as the last intern for the Rev. Ray Swartzback in Jamaica, Queens NY – an inter-racial, inter-cultural church that gave me a taste for what heaven must be like – who filled me with a fervor for preach what he called the gospel of confrontation and social justice.  And I was pumped up to make a mark on the world.

But things didn’t work out the way I expected because rather than being a time for social revolution, the United States went and elected Ronald Reagan.  Now for some this President was a hero, but for me he was a total zero who pandered to our lowest instincts.  And when it came time to leave seminary and serve my first church, I figured now maybe things would shake out in the real world.

My first call was as the Associate Pastor to First Church in Saginaw, MI - home of steel foundries and a major division of General Motors – and I was ready to engage the upside down kingdom of Jesus in radical and profound ways in that hard place.  I was certain that the challenging gospel of Jesus would be as revolutionary and energizing to others as it was to me.

·       But what I found were ordinary people in the Midwest struggling to keep food on the table in the midst of a recession, young teens obsessed and seduced by fashion and money and most folk with too little time left for challenging the status quo at the end of every hard earned day.

·       I was amazed - and often overwhelmed - at the weight of the pain and emptiness people carried with them every day.  

And as I listened to their burdens and shared their pain, I began to get in touch with my own demons, too.  Until I started ministry, I hadn’t really owned the depth of human pain that is always and everywhere just below the surface – and that sometimes comes screaming to the surface.

·       I once had to preach the funeral service for five small children who had burned to death because they had been trapped in the third floor of a broken down old house – and their parents had been too drunk to do anything except stumble out themselves. 

·        Let me tell you, nothing had prepared me for that kind of agony – or anger – and emptiness:  not liberation theology, not the gospel of confrontation, not intro to the New Testament 101 – nothing.

So in those early days of ministry I found I had to spend a lot of time waiting – and listening to both the pain of others and my own emptiness for something that resembled God’s still small voice from within the whirlwind – and what I discovered was that more than anything else I was being called into a ministry of presence.  I couldn’t fix or change most things – I could barely keep myself together – but I could be present with those who were hurting – and share a little compassion, a quiet embrace and sometimes a word of encouragement.

It was in Saginaw that I came to cherish the shortest sentence in the New Testament:  Jesus wept.  And it was there that I started to embrace what the prophet Isaiah once told his beloved own walking wounded: Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  

In those days, Bruce Springsteen's "Reason to Believe" became a hymn for me…

In Saginaw, I took 50 young teens – and their parents – to Russia as part of our people-to-people peace ministry; I changed my preaching style to more story-telling and less finger-waving; redirected our outreach money towards unemployed workers hit hard by the recession of the early 80s and tried to share a little bit of compassion with those who were not the elite.  And because during those days it was still possible to deepen our ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholics, I became a colleague with the Bishop, Ken Untner, hung out with the priests of the cathedral and even lived and raised my family in a former Catholic convent that needed occupants when the nuns had to give it up.  It was a challenging, but beautiful season to be doing ministry and Saginaw changed me.

I knew I wasn’t going to stay an Associate Minister forever.  So three years later, I was called to be the sole pastor for a small, inner city congregation on the West Side of Cleveland:  once an Irish and German neighborhood that had moved hillbillies from Appalachia through it before becoming home to a new generation of Puerto Ricanoes, I was in heaven. "This is where things are going to happen," I kept telling myself - and I stayed for 13 years trying to make it so.

·      On my first day at church, while unpacking my books, two completely dissolute and trashed men startled me by knocking on my office window and demanding to see the pastor…

·       In that congregation, I travelled to the former Soviet Union two more times to deepen our peace-making ministry, was elected twice to the Board of Education as part of an inter-racial reform team – serving as the Vice-President – experienced the slow disintegration of my first marriage, came to love and marry Dianne and rediscovered the importance of intimacy with Christ.

In time we integrated that small, tough church - developed some important ministries to the children of the hood, too – only to have the county hospital buy up all the land surrounding the church and level everything in a mile radius bringing to a sad close 10 years of neighborhood ministry.  Now you have to understand that I loved everything about Cleveland - it is a peasant town in the best sense of the word - filled with salty saints, dill pickles and pumpernickel bread. There are great pierogies, too along with collard greens, pico de gallo, the Cleveland Indians and some of the best microbreweries on the planet. 

·       During that era I had the privilege of helping a few folks begin their journey to sobriety.

·        I entered a small Roman Catholic prayer movement as the only Protestant during those days – celebrated the Eucharist in the projects with a priest and a nun – and made regular, silent prayer retreats as part of my inner renewal grounded in the way of Charles de Foucault. 

And once again, I heard God’s still speaking voice say to me very clearly:  now is the time to learn how to face your own failures – develop a passion for laughing at yourself with love and humility not shame – and trust that the Lord your God's grace is bigger than anything else in all creation.   It was in Cleveland that I was born again – and found myself singing a new secular hymn right along with Paul Simon:  a man walks down the street; he says "why am I soft in the middle now, why am I so soft in the middle now when the rest of my life is so hard?"

It was here, too that I discovered Psalm 131: O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.  It was a sacred time – and Cleveland changed me inside and out.

After 13 years, it became clear that I needed a change:  by this time Dianne and were married and were called to Tucson, AZ – a place as different from Cleveland as night is from day.  It is a wild and laid back community close to the Mexican border – a place of new beginnings - and I was certain that now I was finally going to prove myself as a pastor. No more fussing with the body politic here because this congregation had been through an internecine battle of epic proportions. So I began working 12-14 hours a day trying to bring healing and hope back into the place.  It was in Tucson that I started to see a pattern in my ministry:  rather than serving God as the social activist I thought I was, I realized that I had actually been called to a ministry of encouragement, healing and the renewal of broken hearts.  Who’da thunk it?

After five years in Tucson, there were visible signs of life and numerical growth among us. We had a ball doing creative ministry in this sweet and unique place:  we built strong youth groups, intense adult formation gatherings, brilliant and innovative music and I had the chance to mature and ripen as a spontaneous, story-telling preacher.  It was a blessing...

... and also a curse.  The intensity of my striving - my need to be successful and the demands of the congregation - almost killed me and nearly destroyed my second marriage.  You see, I am an addict – addicted to work – and because I am a very slow learner I didn’t realize what was happening within me and all around me.  And I almost destroyed my life in every way you can imagine.  So as my spiritual advisor cautioned, "Brother, the time has come for you to discover the right reason for staying in ministry. You've already unearthed all the wrong reasons for doing this work; now let's find the ones that bring real life."

So we began: I rediscovered the spirituality of music and went on to write my doctoral dissertation on how living into a musical spirituality could be soul food as well as prayerful. We put together a rockin' fun band, Stranger, and found ways to welcome in people from the fringe of society. The songs of U2 became essential to my ministry and I even got a chance to regularly play a few tunes at the Chicago Bar with our local favorite band, The Rowdies, notably: "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," "You Shook Me All Night Long” and “After Midnight.”

During those 10 years, our connection with the GLBTQ community was solidified and we became the spiritual home for some transgendered folk, too. We were straight and gay, young and old, rich and poor, women and men and children.

I developed deep and loving friendships in Tucson that I will treasure forever.  For it was here that the words of John 1 – God became one of us in the flesh and dwelt among us in truth and grace became my guide – along with this song:  play “One of Us.”

In time I realized that I was getting a little long in the tooth as my father used to say:  I was approaching 55 and knew that I could either stay in Tucson till I retired or do something else – but it had to be soon.  I’d seen what happens when ministers stay too long just waiting for retirement – everyone grows stale – and I loved Tucson and God and even myself too much to just coast.  So, in time the Spirit brought us here to Pittsfield. 

It was agony saying good bye – even though we knew it was right.  When we were trying to discern where God might want us to go next, Dianne didn’t even want me to look at this place:  we DON’T want to move to a dump like Pittsfield she kept saying.  (You see, she had worked in the area after GE left and saw how depressed it had become.)  But because the Spirit is bigger than us both – and in time we all realized it – five years ago we came to Pittsfield with joy.

And no sooner had we arrived than the stock market began to crash and the hopes of renewal in town and in church became even more daunting.  But there were three commitments Dianne and I made before leaving Tucson:

·      First, we agreed that we would not do ANYTHING in this ministry unless it was fun – and that really should be refined to say unless it led to joy – that was essential.

·      Second, we promised that we wouldn’t carp about the cold weather for the first year – and that was tough – really, really tough but we kept that promise, too – most of the time.

·      And third we said that we would trust the Spirit even when the evidence wasn’t clear, because God had brought us here for a reason – and it wasn’t to die.

So little by little, we looked for joyful ways to deal with the challenges:  we had prayer-filled dinners to discuss our financial crunch and build trust rather that fret and carp.  We brought a playful spirit to worship – remember the first joke I told you about the three clergy and bear?  We explored new and gentle songs while retaining the beauty of the past.  We wept together when Vicki Forfa died a death too, too early.  We honored and celebrated the legacy of Lou Stiegler, beloved minister of music for over 50 years, when it was time to finally retire – and we discovered that contrary to what many believed, the world and the church didn’t end with his departure.  Time and again we had to open our heart to the Lord in prayer and ask:  can these bones live?

And five years later – even though we’re still not entirely out of the woods yet – and some people don’t like everything that has happened – we can honestly say:  Yes, Lord, these bones can live. And they can sing – and serve – and celebrate – and laugh and cry. Because today we are not afraid.  Today there is a deep and vibrant faith community at First Church that is joyful and gentle and creative and open and affirming together.

Can somebody say AMEN – I mean that – it has been a real pilgrimage of faith for me – and you – over these past five years.  And I think it’s ok to say we don’t have it all together – because we don’t – and we get it wrong just as many times as we get it right – because we do – but we trust that God is in charge and act like God’s amazing grace is bigger than our failures or sin… and God is faithful.

More and more, you see, slowly to be sure – after all, this IS New England – we are learning to rest in the unforced rhythms of grace.  And as you can probably guessed, that is the passage from scripture that informs this phase of my ministry: Peterson’s retelling of Matthew 11: 28-30.

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.

Time and again  I have learned - and relearned with you - that resting in the unforced rhythms of God’s grace isn't about fixing what isn't ours to fix, it isn't about healing somebody else’s wounds and it isn't about trying to do and be everything all at once. No, the unforced rhythms of grace are about changing what we can, being present to God and one another in honest ways and entrusting all the rest to the Lord.  As the Serenity Prayer teaches:  to be at peace means distinguishing the difference between what we can do and what we cannot and surrendering it all to God – because we can’t do it all – we aren’t God – but we can practice letting go and trusting – trusting the unforced rhythms of grace – and that brings us rest.

In retrospect my ministry has been humbling.  It has been a gas, but filled with lots of brokenness, too.  I’ve been blessed to be loved by some of the best people in the world.  I’ve had the privilege to travel all over the world and enter into the intimacy of people’s homes and carry their trust.  I’ve been allowed to play music with some incredible people and have my faith in God restored.  So here are the three things I’ve learned in 30 years:

First, I still have to practice resting firmly in God's grace.  It doesn’t happen automatically for me.  I’ve seen everything fall apart - and I mean everything – when I try to make things happen just on my own effort.  So I know that resting in God’s grace is the way, truth and the life for me – but I have to still practice letting go – and think I will until I die.  God’s grace is truly greater than all my strength and all my sins and I God gives me rest when I live into this blessing.

Second, I need people of encouragement and joy to help me trust the Lord.  I really don’t need self-appointed critics or crab apples – no what I need are people who want to go deeper into Christ’s joy – and will do so with humility and patience.  Over the years I've realized this in the music I played – I used to be a solo performer – but over time I discovered that I wanted and needed to play songs together with others – and what is true in the band is true in my soul, too.  I need companions in joy.

And third, I’ve come to see that God never gives up on us.  Never – we may want to quit, we may shudder in fear and run away in confusion – but God does not give up – on us, on love on anything.

And here’s a song that expresses my sense about all of this as we enter a new season of ministry together in Pittsfield:  it is another secular hymn that embodies and expresses resting in God’s grace in community in the conviction that the Lord never gives up…

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 ...