Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Hallow's Eve

I'm down with this...

I don't understand and that is enough for me...

At today's midday Eucharist we prayed for the departed and wondered aloud what that really means.  Our small group discerned that we love the language of the church and liturgy when it comes to death.  Not only is it comforting in its poetry, it also takes us far away from the "linear speech is the only true speech" addiction that inhibits contemporary conversation and malnourishes our imaginations.  One ancient prayer puts it like this:

By Thy resurrection from the dead, O Christ, death no longer hath dominion over those who die... So, we beseech Thee, give rest to Thy servants in Thy sanctuary and in Abraham's bosom. Grant it to those, who from Adam until now have adorned Thee with purity... and to all who have passed on their road to Thee, by a thousand ways and in all conditions, make them worthy of Thy heavenly kingdom.

I don't pretend to understand what it means to be given the rest of Abraham's bosom.  Sure I know it is a reference to a gospel story in which a rich man who has not cared for the poor begs for the comfort of Abraham while trapped in the firery despair of Hades - but I don't know what that really means.  Except it sounds timeless and saturated with rest.  We were all taken by the thousand ways part of the prayer.  That kept the mystery real and felt grace-filled, too.  Ralph Heintzman writes that we live in a time when we think that "everything (except linear truths) needs to be somehow translated before it can be called 'true.'"
In the language of poetry, the distinction between perception and value has begun to disappear altogether. A poetic symbol, as Coleridge famously observed, 'always partakes of the reality that it renders intellgible.' Religious language takes this tendency even further. In religious languange - at the other end of the spectrum from 'scientific' language - you can no longer distinguish the symbol from the thing symbolized at all... in religious language 'signs ARE - instead of simply representing - what they signify.'  This is because religious language is primarily the language of religious actions, acts of worship, ritual, prayer, meditation... religious words are not so much signifiers as transmitters - transmitters of the realities and the power toward which religious reverence is addressed... they allow us to participate in something... so that understanding and feeling merge into one.

Before moving to the table of bread and wine I noted that I give thanks that the church calls us - at least once a year and more if we're paying attention - to think about the mystery of death and life everlasting.  Like Paul Simon once sang, "I'm still crazy after all the years" and don't pretend to understand what is ultimately taking place.  But in prayer and community, Eucharist, song and liturgy my understanding and feelings merge into a real participation in God's comfort.  And that is enough for me.  Small wonder that Psalm 130 - de profundis - is often a part of Christian funerals:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

More thoughts about all saints day...

The ever-evolving nature of this holy day is intriguing to me and speaks to my own inner journey towards honoring both the terrifying and comforting presence of the Lord.  It would seem that early in the life of the church, certainly by the early 4th century and probably much earlier, too, the remembrance of a regional martyr was embraced as a sacred duty. As regions began to gather together to share these ceremonies of gratitude - feasts -and as the number of martyrs increased, it became necessary to name one day each year for all the saints to be honored. Originally this was the first Sunday after Pentecost - a date still in place in the Eastern Orthodox realm - but was sometimes observed on the Friday after Easter in the West.

Pope Boniface institutionalized "the solemnity of all saints" as a single day in 609 and Pope Gregory I fixed the date as November 1st for the Western churches.  As others have noted elsewhere, Gregory was borrowing from the Celtic observance of samhain - and other pre-Christian celebrations - as he added a taste of Christ to a variety of cultural celebrations.  Jack Santino put it like this:

In 601 A.D. Pope Gregory the First issued a now famous edict to his missionaries concerning the native beliefs and customs of the peoples he hoped to convert. Rather than try to obliterate native peoples' customs and beliefs, the pope instructed his missionaries to use them: if a group of people worshipped a tree, rather than cut it down, he advised them to consecrate it to Christ and allow its continued worship. In terms of spreading Christianity, this was a brilliant concept and it became a basic approach used in Catholic missionary work. Church holy days were purposely set to coincide with native holy days. Christmas, for instance, was assigned the arbitrary date of December 25th because it corresponded with the mid-winter celebration of many peoples. Likewise, St. John's Day was set on the summer solstice.

Two personal thoughts have been swimming around within as I've reflected on All Saints Day:

+ First, in a book we are slowly reading together at church, Rediscovering Reverence by Ralph Hientzman, he notes that so many of us in the affluent West live without an awareness of reverence in our lives. "... what modern societies have lost is not reverence itself, but rather the IDEA of reverence... This makes it very hard for us consciously to nourish or develop the virtues of reverence, so essential to the kind of society any of us would want to live in. And it also makes it hard to understand the roots of some the deepest, most persistent and most HUMAN forms of expression, such as religious practice." (p. 22)

So we create ersatz encounters with the supernatural and obsess over zombie and vampires.  Jung once predicted that a culture that does not nourish a sense of the sacred with a cycle of reverence, will manufacture pathological habits that mimic the real deal.  We don't fast any more, but we diet 24/7 and celebrate eating disorders in women (and increasingly in men, too.) We don't honor the Sabbath in any meaningful way, but we spend ourselves into debt taking vacations or hosting destination wedding ceremonies that force us out of the grind of making money and living at the call of others.  We know almost nothing of quiet contemplation, but weep uncontrollably at tender and beautiful commercials on TV or country songs that break through the din and force us to take stock of what really matter if even for 20 seconds.
Like Lou Reed sang in "Romeo Had Juilette" - "her perfume burned  into his eyes -
holding tightly to her thighs - And something flickered for a minute - and then it vanished and was

+ Massachusetts is about to vote on a ballot initiative known as the "death with dignity - question 2" bill next Tuesday.  To my mind, it is a poorly conceived proposition without clear protections for both patient and doctor.  I am voting no and encouraging others to do so, too.  In Sunday's NY Times, Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist at the University on Pennsylvania, had an OP-Ed column that was timely:  Four Myths About Doctor-Assisted Suicide." ( 

He notes:  while pain is often cited as the fundamental reason for choosing doctor-assisted suicide, the facts show that "patients themselves say that the primary motive is not to escape physical pain but psychological distress; the main drivers are depression, hopelessness and fear of loss of autonomy and control."  He goes on to debunk 3 other popular apologies for doctor-assisted suicide before asking:  "Whom does legalizing assisted suicide really benefit? Well-off, well-educated people, typically suffering from cancer who are used to controlling everything in their lives - the top 0.2%. And who are the people most likely to be abused if assisted suicide is legalized? The poor, poorly educated, dying patients who pose a burden to their relative."

I have been with well over 100 people in their deaths - and always they dying have a gift to share with those of us who continue to live in this realm.  It is often a beautiful and life-healing gift.  Sometimes, as in my sister Beth's recent passing, it was ugly and harrowing to endure.  And there were times, especially in the middle of the night sitting vigil to keep her company, when I wondered, "wouldn't it be better - easier - just to end this now?"  But I know from faith and experience that taking the easier road is usually not the way of Christ.  He spoke of the road less travelled and the narrow path - even when it means suffering - because something sacred is at work beyond our ability to comprehend.

Dr. Emanuel concludes his NY Times article with words that touch me as All Saints Day draws near:

Instead of attempting to legalize physician-assisted suicide, we should focus our energies on what really matters: improving care for the dying - ensuring that all patients can openly talk with their physicians and families about their wishes and have access to high-quality palliative or hospice care before they suffer needless medical procedures. The appeal of physician-assisted suicide is based on a fantasy. The real goal should be a good death for all dying patients.

I've seen good deaths - it has been a sacred privilege to be with loved ones as they cross over in faith - I've seen hard and angonizing deaths, too.  Let us not take the wide path but in love and compassion let us help all our saints move from life to death and even life everlasting in ways that bring blessings to us all. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Thoughts about all saints day as we await Sandy...

One of my hopes is that sometime in my active ministry, my faith community will reclaim the calendar of the Church in all its richness.  Not just the obvious fasts and feasts like Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter - would that there WAS real fasting and feasting, too - but also the lesser days of depth like All Saints Day and the quarter point times that help us embrace the seasons in new ways.  Too much of the sacramental was discarded and destroyed in the Reformation - especially by my over zealous forebears from the non-conformist tradition - and I often feel malnourished by the anemic way Protestants enter these sacred days. 

Most of us don't even pay attention to the ebb and flow of the church calendar and when we do it feels watered-down and abstract rather than earthy, embodied and mysterious.  Advent is rarely a time for slowing down because we are addicted to the over-consumption model we've learned from the Christmas-machine.  Lent, too, is rarely a time for prayer, fasting and caring for the poor because we've got schedules to keep and people to meet and obligations from dawn til way past dark.  And if we compromise the BIG days, it is small wonder that we don't even note the lesser and more nuanced times.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons I have come to cherish that my Celtic ancestors began their new year in the darkness of November with Samhain.  My blogging friend, Blue Eyed Innis, recently posted a link to a site noting the Celtic origins of Halloween and All Saints Day:

November 1st was traditionally known as samhain, literally translated the “end of summer” and pronounced something like sow-een. This was the end of the Celtic year, the start of winter, a time for reflection…One of the Celtic idiosyncrasies was the concept of beginning in darkness and working towards the light. As the year started with winter, the days started at sundown. Thus the night from October 31st to November 1st was part of samhain, known as oiche shamhna or “evening of samhain“.

Samhain was one of the four “quarter days” of the Celtic calendar, along with imbolc (February 1st, start of spring), beltane (May 1st, start of summer) and lughnasa (August 1st, start of the harvest). We do not have any undisputed information about how these festivities were conducted in pre-Christian times. Samhain seems to have been a specifically Irish tradition and first mentioned by Christian chroniclers. Feasting seems to have taken the best part of a week, a few days either side of the actual samhain day. (check it out @ http://thewiccangecko.wordpress. com/2012/10/26/samhain-a-very-irish-feast-the-roots-of-halloween-in-celtic-ireland/)

In this place - at this time of year - it feels like endings and beginnings are brewing.  Soon it will be dark at 4 pm.  There is already a chill in the air and the green of summer is long past. What's more, Hurricane Sandy is making her way inland today so at least for the next few hours there is a calm before the storm and we all lose power.  Later this week we anticipate gathering as a clan to remember the life, death and journey to life eternal of my sister Beth who died in early August.  Guess all of this is just conducive to  an All Saints/Souls Day kinda groove, yes?

What I value in the Roman Catholic sense of these two holy days - All Saints and All Souls - is the breadth and depth given to the mystery of death. While Protestants tend to treat both days as an unfocused albeit homogenized unity, a deeper mystery is at work linking the living with the dead - and the dead with the saints.  All Saints is a time to recall those who have already experienced and received the blessings of heaven in the life to come - what some theologians call the "Church triumphant" - while All Souls invites the living - the "Church militant" - to be prayerful for those who have died but not yet tasted the blessings of heaven - the "Church suffering."  Now I generally do not embrace the notion of purgatory as a place, but I do sense there is a process through which we all transition from life to death and life eternal.  And the poetry of these two days gives me a way to approach these mysteries without full or even deep understanding. I believe in the "communion of saints" - that great cloud of witnesses - that links heaven to earth in every way imaginable. And something deep within me aches to honor this mystery. 

I like what Fr. Richard Rohr has written:

Rudolph Otto in his book The Idea of the Holy says that when someone has an authentic experience of the Holy, they find themselves caught up in two opposite movements at the same time: the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium fascinosum, a scary mystery and a very alluring mystery. We both draw back from and are pulled forward into a kind of liminal space where we are not at home at all and yet totally at home for perhaps the first time.

In the mysterium tremendum, you know God as far and beyond—unreachable and beyond description! Here you experience God as dreadful and fearful, as the one who has all the power, and in whose presence I am utterly powerless. People at that stage tend to become overwhelmed by a sense of separation or alienation. If you stop there, you either become an atheist, an agnostic, or a loyal but distant soldier. The defining of sin and sin management becomes the very nature of religion.

But simultaneously with this dimension is an opposite feeling of fascination, allurement, and seduction, a being pulled and drawn into something very satisfying and inviting. This is the mysterium fascinosum. If you only have the alluring part without the deep reverence for this mystery, you get merely sentimental and emotional religion, usually without any real social consequences (“Sweet Jesus” Christianity, as it is sometimes called). Otto says if you don't have both, you have not had a true or full experience of “The Holy.”

As my sister, Beth, died she was clearly in a transition - and I don't believe it ended when she stopped breathing.  By faith I trust that she has been set free from all pain and suffering. By faith I also believe that this continued for a time after her death.  Like Henri Nouwen once said:  what we encounter in death is likely to be much like what we lived in life - and Beth's was a complicated and at times troubled and broken life.  So, beyond all reason, I found myself praying for her transition into light long after her physical light went out.  Some speak of this as prayers for the souls of the departed - and that works for me.

I like the way those @ Blog TheoLogika put it:

The Celtic New Year’s holiday is not a fall harvest festival in an urban culture in which 2% of the people produce enough food and fiber for the rest. The days are getting shorter in the northern climes. It is still 3 weeks to that least commercial of holidays – Thanksgiving. For all of our talk about spirituality, whether traditional or New Age, our cultural manifestation of these ancient festivals shows very little of the spiritual, whether Christian or Pagan. Our focus is not on the transcendent – the totally other. Nor is it on the immanent – the divine fire within. We are becalmed in a world with little dimensionality. And we wonder why everything seems flat, gray, and listless!

So this Wednesday, weather permitting, at midday Eucharist we will pray for the souls of the departed - and remember the saints, too.  And in this a new year WILL begin.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Another take at the blessed virgin mary in art...

A few friends have dropped me notes re: Barbara Nicolosi's comment re: Our Lady of Sorrows in Los Angeles as a "freak." Two thoughts occur to me:  first, I don't think the sculpture is "freakish" because of the androgyny - the art to follow plays with this theme in more creative and beautiful ways - rather this sculpture fails to satisfy because it looks like it was done by committee.  (Having just been through an ecumenical worship celebration that was written by committee, I am very aware of the limitations of this approach.  There were many important things that happened today - and I am grateful - but I find it almost impossible to create beautiful art without a cohesive vision and plan.)

Second, Nicolosi's charge also stems from the fact that the sculpture was intended to be inviting and filled with compassion; instead, she appears ready to do battle.  Now, true warriors have a deeply compassionate side and calling, too but my hunch is that was not the message of the artist.  Hence, the inability of the sculpture to evoke anything resembling the human face of God with a feminine blessing.

So I started to look for other images of Mary that work better for me... not all of them will touch your heart.  But, in my soul, they work better than the Los Angeles sculpture at the Cathedral church.

Miss Bugs "Virgin Mary"

Chris Ofilli's "The Holy Virgin Mary"

A stylized Virgin Mary:  A Bridge between Islam and Christianity

Watching for Us - Mary Chriss

"Something About Mary"

Perez Hilton's "Britney Spears-Starbucks Virgin Mary"
"Virgin Mary" Richard Bagguleu
Each of these images evokes a combination of complicated reactions for me.  As a Protestant who was not raised with much contact with the Blessed Virgin, I have come to honor and appreciate what she brings into the mix.  So I take her representation in art very seriously.  So what say ye all?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

More thoughts on what beauty is NOT...

Ever read an essay that gets under your skin in a good way?  Over the past few weeks, the presentation Barbara Nicolosi gave at the "Transforming Culture: A Vision for the Church and the Arts" conference in April 2008 in Austin, TX has kept me returning to her printed words over and again.  It is rich, insightful and challenging - and it speaks to many of the concerns I wrestle with as a pastor.  On Thursday night, for example, as my clergy support group met - using Craig Barnes' The Pastor as a Minor Poet as a catalyst for conversation - we all spoke about how our tradition was much better at words than worship.

Some noted that when the United Church strives to express diversity in worship, it not only feels forced but often is also experienced as inauthentic.  Like a bunch of mostly interesting ideas were gathered from around the nation, thrown into a bag and strung together and called worship. I think of the intellectually interesting but aesthetically foolish work of William Burroughs who periodically took a pair of scissors to his manuscripts, tossed them in the air and then taped them together as a final draft for publication. Sometimes a wild combination took place, but that's more about playing the odds of math than the pursuit of art and beauty.  (My old mentor, Ray Swartzback, used to dissect some sermons that did much the same thing; he called them "Box Car" sermons because they strung together with the loosest connection imaginable 2 or 3 good ideas that weren't really related.)

Others talked about how an overarching commitment to theological ideology also crowded out the beauty of the printed or musical word.  Around the clergy supper table, we then started to call out examples:  "Nearer My God to... YOU?" (instead of Thee) - "Be NOW My Vision" (rather than Be Thou My Vision) - and the funniest was the reworking of Martin Buber's classic, I and Thou, which became: "Me and You."  The new collection of United Church contemporary hymns falls flat with songs that are not musical and forced theology that doesn't evoke awe to say nothing of open hearts or compassion.

So it was back to Nicolosi's address wherein she observed:  "Tragically, in recent years we've made the arts something else. We've lost the value of just making a sign of praise back to God and his magnificent cosmos. Instead of it just being enough that their work be beautiful, we tell artists that they have to make it do or be other things."  Three are particularly odious:  political art, egalitarian art and creations designed to merely sooth and distract us from reality.  Her summaries suggest that each of these perspectives destroys beauty and squeezes the life out of our creativity.

+ Political:  Whenever we force art to "make a statement" we need to be clear that statement making is always "manipulative, (its goal) is to coerce, to get people to vote a certain way, to propagandize, to merely change behavior."  Her example is the new statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in Los Angeles. "The statue is of completely uncertain gender, with a female torso, but harshly cropped hair and distinctly masculine arms and hands... but it's worse than just androgyny. The image has black lips, Asian eyes, a Latino face and other scattered Anglo features... and it is ugly. I don't know about you, " Nicolosi said to one of her students, "but if you saw that kind of freak inviting you into its house...?"

I think of some of the heavy handed hymnody - from both the Left and Right - that make a point but is rarely done with beauty.  Brian Wren, the gifted poet and musician from England, is often able to balance the prophetic challenge with the creation of art.  He is the rare exception, however, and I have experienced Nicolosi's point as all too true. "In politics, you lose wholeness because the political only tells its own side of the story. As a result, people lose a feeling of being at rest in the complete truth."

+ Egalitarian: The second way art has been corrupted in the church is by "making it a tool of a sort of egalitarianism, in which we now consider the arts as something that is about making people have better self-esteem." We've all seen this in Soviet "art," but I bump into it all the time when people with good hearts but limited ability want to share their creativity in worship.  Now, don't get me wrong, there IS a place for this sharing, but it must be selective and in the spirit of celebrating the whole Body of Christ rather than simply show-casing a questionable song, painting, dance or poem.

Nicolosi writes:  "There is an interesting ratio that goes with this egalitariansim: the increase of self-esteem in the untalented people who get to perform stand in direct proportion to the flaying of the aesthetic sensibilities of a thousand others who have to listen and/or endure them... Somebody needs to say to the pastors who are making the rest of us suffer, "There are other ways to make people feel good. And it is profoundly unfair to make them feel great but leave others sitting there suffering through bad art."  We destroy any sense of beauty as evoking inner and external harmony - let alone joy - when art in the church becomes a form of self-help in the quest for higher self-esteem.

What we offer to God must be our best.  There are times when our varying degrees of best can be honored - and I have found it important to find ways for even the lowest common denominator to be included in choirs, gospel groups, children's celebrations or festivals of the Holy Spirit - AND at the same time I have come to insist that the norm for worship must be grounded in practice and talent and high standards lest the whole of worship be mired in suffering rather than joy.

+ Soothing distraction:  This is background music - fluff - visual art that doesn't awaken the senses or connect us to what is real.  It is sentimental and often trite be it music, liturgy, visual art or demeanor.  People are uncomfortable with silence, "so we've got to fill i up with sweet noise. Put something banal on that wall - have the kids make a felt banner - just fill up that space.  But when we do this, we suppress radiance - the prophetic voice of the arts - and the work communicates nothing worth hearing."

I've learned these truths the hard way:  I've encouraged untalented people to make visual art for worship - banners and the like - only to be presented with lovingly made disasters. I've wrestled with young (and sometimes not so young) musicians who have written songs that no one else can sing but who are certain that the Lord wants the congregation to share them on Sunday.  I've opened the role of liturgist up to people who are so shy they are unable to be heard or else who are so full of themselves that they force their personality and politics onto the word of God and everything in-between.  Always - and I mean always - when folk try to make art political, egalitarian or sentimental it is a train wreck.

So these days I exercise veto authority - in cooperation with a reasonably diverse group of artistically gifted lay people - on visual art projects.  I also limit the sharing of music by those outside our two worship collectives in cooperation with my director of music (who has equally high standards.) And, from time to time each year, I find a way for others with varying degrees of ability to share their gifts with the people of God, too.  Call this elitist, as some have, but I have come to resonate with Dostoevsky when he said that "beauty will save the world." 

Friday, October 26, 2012

I cried over beautiful things...

I slept late today - and then headed off to play a jazz workshop at a regional charter school.  It was a gas:  the young people were respectful and interested, the building was well-kept and attractive and the staff - teachers as well as administrators - were kind and fun.  And so another season of "jazz in the schools" comes to a close until late winter in the Berkshires.  It was wonderful to visit 5 different schools all over the region and share some jazz with students who might not ever have exposure to this art form.

When I got home, I was still beat from a demanding week.  So after a very lazy afternoon, we headed out this evening to get our fall pumpkins:  I LOVE me some pumpkins and it is always have fun going out to Cheshire to find some that speak to our souls.  I mean that - for me the aesthetics of pumpkins is all about soul - some just call out to you, "I NEED to go home with you!"  It made me think of the poem Robert Frost once wrote:

I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts.

The field of cornflower yellow is a scarf at the neck of the copper sunburned woman, the mother of the year, the taker of seeds.

The northwest wind comes and the yellow is torn full of holes, new beautiful things come in the first spit of snow on the northwest wind, and the old things go, not one lasts.

Pumpkins evoke autumn like nothing else does for me - and autumn is a beautiful foretaste of the quiet challenge of winter yet to come.  I cherish this melancholy season and revel in all its glory.

Next week, there will be more jazz to share at our monthly Patrick's Pub jazz party on Thursday.  I will be doing pastoral visits with those fighting cancer and other wounds, too. Who knows what the approaching tropical storm will bring to us?  And then it is off to Maryland for the memorial service for my sister Beth.  Like Frost said, "I cried over beautiful things knowing no beautiful thing lasts..."

(And as always, I'm digging Di's pictures...)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

One month from today: Thanksgiving Eve 2012

Last year at about this time, I wrote the following post re: our up-coming Thanksgiving Eve gig because I was so excited.  Yesterday, before band practice, I reread it and it still rings true.  I've made a few updates but this one is worthy of reprise...
As TGE 2012 moves closer - just a month away from today - I keep thinking about what makes this event so special.  I've been doing it in one form or another for 30 years.  Each year is different, each year is a blessing and each year brings surprises and joys I could never have imagined.  At the core of this gig, however, are three truths:

First, there is the sheer musicality of the event. Great musicians - some amateurs, some pros - all committed to beauty and musical integrity. Nobody is getting paid - this is a benefit for emergency fuel in the Berkshires for the winter - so it is ALL about the music. And saying that, I think that means two things, too. It is about being embraced by the sounds and at the same time supporting one another with our gifts. There is NO ego in this ensemble - and we've got nearly 20 performers! No prima donas, no divas, no hot shot ass hole's who are self-obsessed: just 25-30 people who have come to love one another through the music. And can these cats play - in almost any style - it is amazing! The theme of the show comes from Tom Waits' "Come on Up to the House," but the breadth of music is stunning: jazz, rock, folk, country, traditional and contemporary hymnody, a capella Americana, blues as well as a show tune or two. And when people who love one another bring their considerable gifts together for the sake of other, the music becomes transcendent (at least to me.) So, first there is the commitment and delivery of the music that makes this show special.

Second, there is the theology of this event. At the heart of Tom Waits' song is an invitation: come on up to the house. On every level, this show explores that invitation. This is a welcome extended to everyone - young and old, male and female, gay and straight, Christian and Jew and Buddhist and Sufi - where each person is cherished. That is true for the band - everybody plays in the group AND gets to share a few solo slots, too - and the audience is an integral part of the community of music. There are lots of places for group singing - a lost experience in much of privatized America these days. There is also the understanding that what we're doing is for the common good. That gives a bigger context than just playing another gig.. Sure, it is a total gas making beautiful music together with hot and loving musicians. That is a blessing in itself. But to do so for a cause greater than self is exhilarating. There is no other way to describe it but soul food that lifts the spirit into a place that nourishes hope and commitment. It is one of those mountain top times that gives me hope for the necessary but all too demanding descent into the valley.

And third there is the unspoken message of this event: the church CAN be an ally with artists in these strange and demanding times rather than a bastion of resistance. Like the sisters and brothers of OWS make clear, we NEED one another to challenge our culture of greed. We NEED one another to rethink our priorities. We NEED one another to create shelter from the storm. And in an understated way, this event pre-figures some of that as we model cooperation and compassion. True, it takes the form of music but running through each song - and then the totality of the concert - is a trust that a church need not be relegated to the sidelines of social change.  We can do this as a true partnership if we're willing to take some risks. 

So this is solidarity - not evangelism. This is what the Taize brothers often speak of as "a parable of hope" where the church becomes a festival of possibilities. My congregation used to be known as the bastion of so-called "high" culture - and it was. It was the church of the elite. But given the economic crash of the 1980s our town has changed and not only have many of the elites departed, but on so many levels we can no longer sustain a 1950s operation. Today we are a truly blended congregation where rich and old, gay and straight, old timers and guests mix in a way that seems somehow related to this event. This isn't about sharing just the highlights of a proud past, but embracing the sounds of this moment in time and welcoming everyone in to the house, too. There is a place of Handel's "Messiah" - and I love it. There is also a place for lifting our voices in "We Shall Overcome" and "Come On Up to the House" and a whole lot in between.

Playing music with this ensemble - like doing so back in Tucson - is a “taste of heaven” in the fullest sense of that expression for me.  I only hope that everyone else has much fun as I do.  Bless you all. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Who is missing on Reformation Sunday...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this Sunday, October 28, 2012.  It will be a unique Reformation Day as five congregations leave their respective Sanctuaries, process to the local Methodist church and celebrate Eucharist together.  It is the first time in the 200+ year history of our town that these congregations have gathered together at the Lord's Table. My reflection, however, is a reflection on who is still missing...

Today is Reformation Sunday in the Protestant tradition.  In the wider church this is just the 30th Sunday after Pentecost – the week before All Saints Day and a month prior to the Feast of Christ the King – nothing really special.  But for us, today is unique and set aside so that we might ponder certain truths – not belabor or reinforce worn out prejudice or hackneyed and now meaningless theological barbs – but rather to prayerfully wonder about what still keeps us separate and apart.

·       Oh I know that not all Protestant clergy look at Reformation Sunday this way; believe me, I am certain that some of my colleagues across the world will rant about how good it is that we are not Roman Catholic.  Others will go on ad nauseum about the purity of our perspective and the depravity of theirs.  And there will be a few knuckleheads who will use today as an excuse for Catholic bashing. 

·       But such small-minded selfishness is not of the Lord:  bigotry and carping never is no matter how sanctimonious it sounds.  We are people of a NEW covenant – a testament of grace – once described by the prophet Jeremiah like this: 

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

In just a few minutes we’re going to leave our Sanctuary and join with other like minded believers from around our town for the first shared Eucharist in Pittsfield’s history that welcomes Lutherans, Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists to Christ’s radically open table of grace.  But our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers will not – and cannot – join with us.  And that is NOT a cause for celebration – it is a tragedy – that should break our hearts.
So let me pause on this sacred day to share a few observations about what continues to keep us apart.  It is my prayer, you see, that even though I will never see it in my life time I trust by faith that Christ will find a way to make us all one.  And not in an oppressive or fearful way, but through love and openness and trust just as Jesus told his first disciples:  “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I have come to think that there are two fundamental differences that continue to keep Protestants and Roman Catholics separate, apart and often mistrusting of one another.  The first is actually a way of doing religion – a way of seeing and understanding the holy and the human – and the second is a way of organizing the church – and the first is probably the bigger challenge to overcome.  The theologian, David Tracy, puts it like this:  Roman Catholics and Protestants see symbols in very different and even competing ways.

·       The Roman Catholic “concept of religion is analogical.  To put it simply, Catholics use things they know to try to understand the things they don’t.  Roman Catholics seek to know God and the work of the Lord in the world through material things:  water, wine, bread, oil, incense, candles, icons and more.” 

·       This is a sacramental way of looking at the sacred where parts of the mysterious truth of the Lord are exposed in tangible, material things – the key example of whom is Jesus himself.  He is the word – or idea – of God made flesh.  Incarnational and sacramental theology believes that in Christ we see and grasp as much of God’s greatness as is possible in this life time.  There is still more to be revealed – now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face as St. Paul wrote – but for now Christ reveals all of God that we can comprehend.

Protestants, generally speaking, have a radically different perspective on symbols and how God’s truth is revealed and expressed.  Our way tends to focus on the individual’s reaction and response to sin and grace – it looks inwardly rather than towards the created world – with an emphasis on the mind and the heart.  Consequently, we use words – lots and lots of words – to describe the experience of being trapped in sin and liberated by Jesus.

·       Protestants are suspicious of material things because we have learned that they have been corrupted by sin.  So, in the early Reformed Church there were no such things as stained glass windows – or physical crosses and crucifixes – and never anything that wasn’t explicitly done by Jesus.

·       That’s why our way of doing church only celebrates two sacraments – baptism and communion – rather than confession and marriage and holy orders and last rites.  They weren’t “done” by Jesus so we don’t do them either. 

Do you see this contrast in visions?  Roman Catholics tend to be sacramental and Protestants tend to be abstract.  The Roman world searches for signs of God in the earth and flesh and the Reformers are in regular battle against sin. These are very different ways of exploring and experiencing the holy within our human realm – and I believe they are one of the fundamental reasons why our two traditions continue to have a hard time coming to the same table. 

Personally I resonate more deeply with the Roman or sacramental perspective of doing religion than many of my Reformed colleagues.  I am very much at home in liturgy, traditional prayer, smells, bells and all the rest.  Because I, too find value in seeing how the created order gives shape and form to God’s grace.  Where I have bigger problems is in the other distinction that separates us; namely what is called the organizational – or structural – or even political structure of the church.

·       Let’s be clear:  much of Roman Catholic structure is based on obedience and hierarchy; not so in the Reformed world where individual conscience and conversion is primary.  This has led to very different organizational structures and rules, yes? 

·       The Roman Catholic system is fundamentally a top down institution while the Protestant world is essentially democratic.  Of course there is freedom of conscience in Catholicism – and ugly clericalism in the Protestant Church - but this hierarchy vs. democracy difference is huge. 

·       None of us, for example, would tolerate being ordered to read a letter from our Bishop about who to vote for based upon a candidate’s position on abortion or same sex marriage, right?

·       Many of us are at home with the theology, language and ritual of the Roman Catholic Eucharist, too – and freely welcome all who see the solace of Christ to the table – but because we don’t follow the authority of Rome they are prohibited from sharing the body and blood of our Lord in communion with us.

There was a time after Vatican II when many of us thought we were going to find a way into closer cooperation and unity.  During the 60s and 70s there was real hope alive and many were celebrating Holy Communion together as well as sharing prayer and ecumenical acts of mercy.  But now Rome won’t even call our way of doing things a church:  we are officially ecclesial communities but not real churches.   Pope Benedict XVI put it like this:

"It is... difficult to see how the title of 'Church' could possibly be attributed to Protestant communities, given that they do not accept the theological notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack elements considered essential to the Catholic Church... because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood", Protestants have not "preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery.”

We worship the same God, sing the same hymns, follow in the way of the same crucified and risen Savior, use similar prayers, share a common confession and may even celebrate the Eucharist every week but… we don’t accept the authority of Rome.  And now with the revival of the Latin Mass things are moving farther and farther away from finding common ground.

So today we gather to find a measure of common ground elsewhere – with our Lutheran and Baptist and Methodist cousins – knowing full well that the Roman Catholic side of the family is still missing.  I am sad about their absence.  I rejoice that we’re going to do Holy Communion together as Protestants in a few minutes and trust that we might find new ways of cooperating in ministry for the 21st century, too.

But I am deeply sad that part of the family has to stay away - and look forward to the day when we can find common ground.  Mostly, however, I look forward to the time when we can sit down at the table of the Lord together and both say with humility:  welcome home – I missed you.  Let’s eat!  

Monday, October 22, 2012

What beauty is not...

In a few recent posts I've wrestled with the way that creating/sharing beauty is part of peace-making in the deepest sense.  Some friends have added helpful insights to deepen my comments and bring clarity to my thinking.  And after I reread Barbara Nicolosi's inspiring article, it seemed prudent to add this to the mix re: what beauty is NOT.

She is clear:  "I want to state unequivocally what beauty is not. It is not cute. It is not banal. It is not silly.  The beautiful is not sweet or nice. It is not facile. And it is not unthreatening." (For the Beauty of the Church, p. 109)  Here qualifications are essential - especially in a shallow but fast-moving culture such as our own.

I recall as we were driving from Cleveland, OH to Tucson, AZ on our move to a new ministry 15 years ago we passed a road sign in Missouri urging people to stop by the Precious Moments Chapel.  "In-freaking-credible," we all said out loud.  "Not only is that schlock sold the world over as art, now there is a chapel devoted to telling the story of Christ's passion and resurrection in pastels and cute faces."  My experience is that this type of kitch trivializes the deep feelings evoked by true beauty so that all challenge and nuance is neutralized.  What's more, confusing the cute for the beautiful minimizes the effort beauty requires.  It is not unlike settling for fast food instead of preparing for a feast.

And there is not much peace-making in fast food - or cute kitch - or the lowest common denominator, yes.    

Sunday, October 21, 2012

10th annual Pittsfield CROP walk...

When I began ministry 30+ years ago in Saginaw, MI one of my duties included drumming up support for the annual CROP Walk.  It is a money and consciousness raising commitment born of Church World Service that is part pilgrimage, part fund-raiser and part walking meditation on community and hunger. (check it out @ http://www. church world  In Saginaw, it was a BIG deal - we had hundreds of walkers - and raised thousands of dollars.

I can remember my very young children walking - and being pushed in walkers - as we made our way through urban neighborhoods and sugar beet farm land along with my youth group and many of their parents.  It was always a joyous way of being together to do something good for our neighbors in need and share some deep conversation, too.  Over the years, especially during my time in urban ministry, the CROP walks seemed to evaporate.  But now once again they are important and vibrant.

When I arrived in the Berkshires our local CROP Walk had fallen on sad times.  There was no one to coordinate it so I assumed the mantle of leadership - and brought some of our churches together for three years.  Then I had to take a break and no else picked it up so we were in danger of losing momentum.  Thanks be to God another good soul at my church sensed the importance and we were back on track today.  We had over 40 walkers - young and old and everybody in-between - and it was a total blast.  It was a gorgeous albeit blustery day in the Berkshires and it felt ecstatic to be a part of it all.  (My job was to drive the utility vehicle to pick up stragglers and/or act as traffic cop and make sure the cars were stopped at major intersections.)

I won't know how much money we raised, but it will be serious.  And we found a way to bring four congregations together - plus new friends from the wider community - in an act of generosity.  Someone asked me today in worship, "How do you start to "die to yourself?" That is, how do you begin the road of living like you're not the center of the universe?"  And I said, "You have already begun, my friend.  The first step is to get our ass out of bed on a Sunday morning and come to worship to be with others.  There are other ways, to be sure, but being a part of worship with others is a great start.  Keep practicing it... and the deeper ways will start to become clear."

I was blessed by the totality of this day - worship, fellowship conversations and the CROP walk - and now I'm going to take a rest and then cook up some fish for my sweetie.  Here are a few other pictures I took along the way...



Saturday, October 20, 2012

A pastoral tug of war...

The old saying, "When the student is ready, the Buddha will appear" continues to be true for me.  Not only has a new little (but quickly growing) puppy come into my life - helping me slow down and rest in the unforced rhythms of grace - but so, too with events, books and people.  Yesterday, for example, I read this from Eugene Peterson:

A tug of war takes place every week between pastor and people. The contest is over conflicting views of the person who comes to church. The result of the struggle is exhibited in the service of worship, shaping sermon and prayers, influencing gesture and tone.

People (and particularly people who come to church and put themselves in touch with pastoral ministry) see themselves in human and moral terms: they have human needs that need fulfilling and moral deficiencies that need correcting. Pastors see people quite differently. We see them in theological terms:  they are sinners - persons separated from God who need to be restored in Christ.  And these two views - the pastor's theological understanding of people and the people's self-understanding - are almost always in tension.

What I found valuable in Peterson's insight is simple:  I know myself to be a sinner - in this I am not at all different from the people I do ministry with and among - and most of the time I know the church to be a hospital for sinners, too.  But sometimes, when I get out of balance and the rush of expectations and needs start to feel oppressive to me, I forget this truth.  I can always tell when I am slipping out of balance because I start to resent the very people I have been called to love and challenge in the presence of Christ's grace. That is to say, when I give in to the contemporary understanding that the pastor must always be "a quivering mass of availability" (bless you, Stanley Hauerwas) - and then find myself pushing back and trying to get away - I know the problem is mine.

As a pastor himself, Peterson understands that this resentment happens all the time for those called to pastoral ministry.  Certainly in Scripture you can see this tension as far back as Moses and not much has changed.  Part of the problem, of course, has to do with the way being a pastor is different from doing a job.  Peterson writes:

The term pastor in our American culture does not name a vocation that carries with it a clear job description. This is probably right. Jobs have job descriptions. A job is an assignment to do that can be quantified and evaluated.  It is pretty easy to decide whether a job has been completed or not. It is pretty easy to tell whether a job is done well or badly.

But a vocation is not a job in that sense. I can be hired to do a job, paid a fair wage if I do it, dismissed if I don’t. But I can’t be hired to be a pastor, for my primary responsibility is not to the people I serve, but to the God I serve.  And as it turns out, the people I serve would often prefer an idol who would do what they want done rather than what the God revealed in Jesus wants them to do. In our present culture, the sharp distinction between a job and a vocation is considerably blurred. How do I prevent myself as a pastor from thinking of my work as a I job I get paid for, a job that is assigned to me by a denomination, a job that I am expected to do to the satisfaction of my congregation?  How do I stay attentive to and listen to the call that got me started in this way of life? This is not the call to help people feel good about themselves and have a good life or a call to use my considerable gifts and fulfill myself.  It is a call like Abraham’s, “to set out for a place… not knowing where he was going.” (Hebrews 11: 8) – a call to deny myself and take up my cross and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24) – a call like Jonah’s to “go at once to Nineveh” (Jonah 1;1) which was a city he detested – a call like Paul’s to “get up and enter the city and you will be told what to do.” (Acts 9:6)

How do I keep the immediacy and authority of God’s call in my ears when an entire culture, both secular and ecclesial, is giving me a job description?  How do I keep the calling- the vocation of pastor – from being drowned by job descriptions gussied up in glossy challenges and visions and strategies clamoring incessantly for my attention?  (Eugene Peterson, “The Pastor: Shaping an Identity,” in For the Beauty of the Church.)
I have discovered that I get out of balance and allow myself to become confused about my identity as a pastor almost every year during our Stewardship drive.  As much as I know within that I can't grow a church all by myself, I always feel inadequate whenever we attempt to raise a budget.  Why can't we do more?  Why are we stuck?  What haven't I done to express the joy of giving?  And I know that there are always some in the leadership team who are thinking the same things.  So even though my calling is fundamentally to teach and preach and equip the saints with the skill necessary for ministry, at key times of real pressure and judgment I find myself losing perspective and falling into resentment.
That's why yesterday's insight spoke to me so profoundly:  "If a pastor finds himself resenting his people (sic), getting petulant and haranguing them, that is a sign that he or she has quit thinking of them as sinners who bring "nothing in themselves of worth" and has secretly invested them with divine attributes of love, strength, compassion and joy.  They, of course, do not have these attributes in any mature measure and so will disappoint him or her every time."  OMG, I thought, this guy has been reading my mail!  He not only grasps what it feels like to fall out of balance in ministry, he has diagnosed the root cause.
An understanding of people as sinners enables a pastoral ministry to function without anger. Accumulated resentment (a constant threat to pastors) is dissolved when unreal - that is, untheological - presuppositions are abandoned. If people are sinners then pastors can concentrate on talking about God;s action in Jesus Christ instead of sitting around lamenting how bad the people are.  We already know they can't make it. We have already accepted their sin. We didn't engage to be a pastor to relax in their care or entrust ourselves to their saintly ways... We have come among the people to talk about Jesus Christ. Grace is the main subject of pastoral conversation and preaching.
This not only lifts a burden from my soul, it creates the freedom to celebrate when grace and faith actually do break into our ordinary lives.  There is always something new to learn and practice on the way into the Lord's unforced rhyhms of grace.  So, I'm heading outside to rake leaves and play with the puppy.  My sermon is ready, the pastoral calls have been finished, we're ready for tomorrow's CROP Walk, the music has been practiced and prayers have been lifted up.  To head into the Sabbath is to trust in the Lord... 

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:...