Thursday, November 29, 2012

Advent joy as self-giving...

NOTE:  I have revised and rethought my earlier posting...

Yesterday I shared a reflection from Sr. Joan Chittister in which she observed that true joy is grounded in three commitments:  giving yourself fully to life, living simply in the world and being honestly other-centered.  She calls to mind the words of Jesus who spoke about loving our neighbors as ourselves.  In this love there is an outward compassion for those who touch our lives, and, there is an equal tenderness that treats the self like the other. It is this outwards/inward rhythm that brings both rest and healing to our lives as we embrace one another. 

"The best people," teaches the Tao, "are like water: they benefit all things and do not compete with them. They settle in low places, one with nature, one with Tao."  At midday Eucharist yesterday, as we work our way through the Sermon on the Mount, we spent a little time with Jesus' admonition to turn our cheek to our enemies.

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.

What kept coming up in our conversation was the role WE play in advancing peace and healing:  we have clear choices - a measure of control, too - whether our challenges, pain and suffering lead us to violence or love.  "No more tit-for-tat living...rather let your enemies bring out the best in you."  I've realized that I do this best when:  1) I am reasonably well-rested (self care); 2) Publicly committed to nourishing compassion (in community with accountability); and 3) Grounded in acts of deep prayer and worship (turning my sights from self to God.)  Without these it is all too easy to excuse my cruelty and impatience.  It is all too easy, too to be hurtful and mean-spirited - hardly the joy of the Lord, yes?

And let me elaborate on these commitments or even joyful spiritual disciplines (as I've been thinking about them all day):

+ Self-care:  more and more this means not letting myself squeeze solitude and rest out of the day with all the good things things that are available to me.  It means pacing - I can only be reasonably attentive doing 2 pastoral visits each day.  I find them draining - and while I love to do them I have to limit myself else I am exhausted emotionally and even physically. That includes real sleep each night and sometimes a nap in the afternoon if I have to be out late.  It means not scheduling too much of anything into each day.  It means realizing that I already have all the time that there is, so I need to create boundaries of rest, reflection, walking and solitude into each day so that I can be fully attentive to the people I love.

+ In community:  Left to myself I am a master of wasting time and resources, so I need to be in community with those who will love me, help me notice my shadows and help me be accountable to the common good (including my own welfare!)  To date I have found four groups of people to help me with this:  a) my Community of Practice in the Berkshires - 7 colleagues from the region who gather monthly for dinner, prayer and conversation; b) my church council leaders who meet with me once a month before our business for prayer and study about God's guidance in our common ministry; c) my sweet-heart Dianne who can see what I cannot and who can say what I don't want to hear with love; and d) my bandmates in our church group: Between the Banks.  Practicing songs, sorting out liturgy and listening to one another week after week, these friends have become another small community of nourishment and accountability for me. Without faithful and loving partners in community, joy would often elude me.  Oh wait, there is one more:  our dogs - man do they ever make it clear when I'm grounded or unglued. In ways I would never have imagined they help me take a pulse on the state of my soul (even when I don't want to know.)

+ Turning my sights to God:  this happens in music and poetry, in film and the arts as well as worship.  Mostly Sunday morning is work - it is sacred and satisfying - but it is usually not worship or soul food for me as pastor.  No, I worship at midday Wednesday Eucharist.  I feel the spirit within when we go to hear - and sometimes play - beautiful music of all types. As I was coming back from a pastoral visit this morning I realized that if I don't spend time with at least one good poem each day I feel malnourished.  Same is true with the visual arts - or time in nature - because without regular encounters I am clearly depleted.

Chittister concludes:  "Settling in low places, being gentle with others and soft in our comments and kind in our hearts and calm in our responses - never heckling, never smother the other with noise or derision - is an aspect of spirituality that the world might well afford to revisit."  I know this is true for me and give thanks to God for the Advent disciplines as a prompt to move towards joy. 

Here's a poem by Robert Bly that caught my attention as the day unfolded.

I never intended to have this life, believe me -
It just happened. You know how dogs turn up
At a farm, and they wag but can't explain.

It's good if you can accept your life - you'll notice
Your face has become deranged trying to adjust
To it. Your face thought your life would look

Like your bedroom mirror when you were then.
That was a clear river touched by a mountain wind.
Even your parents can't believe how much you've

Sparrows in winter, if you've ever held one, all
Burst out of your hand with a fiery glee.
You see them later in hedges.  Teachers praise you,

But you can't quite get back to the winter sparrow.
Your life is a dog. He's been hungry for miles,
Doesn't particularly like you, but gives up, and
   comes in.

(The Resemblance Between Your Life and a Dog - Robert Bly)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Today I will experience joy...

Today at midday Eucharist I introduced chanting the Psalms for Advent to our crew –  and it was a tender and sacred moment.  It was a simple chant – I don’t know many chant tones by heart – and we had to practice it a few times, too.  But sharing this ancient text in chant opened both our hearts and Psalm 1 to us in new ways – a very appropriate  preparation for the start of Advent.  As some of you know, I’ve been playing with the Celtic Advent calendar – a full 40 days rather than the Roman/Western 28 days – and as Joan Chittister notes, “Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas but, unlike Lent, it is not period of penance. It is a period that focuses on joy.”  She then goes on to speak of joy like this:

Joy, the deep-down awareness of what it means to live well, productively, to live righteously (that is for justice and compassion) is made out of self-giving, simplicity and other-centeredness.  Ironically, in a world that finds religion dour, accuses it of being nothing but a list of dos and don’ts designed to limit our options and trammel our dreams, it is precisely the journey to joy…” that is what this part of the liturgical season is all about.  And we all clearly sensed a connection to this joy in the Lord at the close of today's Eucharist.  For me this is already becoming a season of self-giving, simplicity and other-centeredness and my heart is full.
Last night, Di and I had our first "date night" since our summer away in Canada.  Given my sister's death, church commitments, memorial services, her surgery, our respective work and music responsibilities, the arrival of a new puppy and the declining health of our old dog, it has been waaaaaay too long since we spent any quiet time together.  So we went to the movie: "The Life of Pi."  I really didn't know what it was about - nor did my honey - so were we ever knocked out!  It is a visually dazzling film about choosing which stories will guide your heart - and life - towards joy.  Who knew?  In stunning ways, the movie asks us whether we will get stuck in the "facts" or move towards a truth deeper than the obvious? 
Like Advent, it is an ode to joy - and after our date I was startled to read the way Chittister concludes her Advent reflection:
The essence of happiness... is having something to do, something to love and something to hope for. At the outset of the liturgical year, the church presents (us) with a a model: a Child who lives only to do the will of God, who opens his arms to love the entire world, who lives in hope of the coming of the reign of God by giving his life to bring it.
... no wonder the church years kicks off with this emphasis.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Worship fully: using our bodies, imagination and time to meet Jesus in Advent...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for the start of Advent 2012 on Sunday, December 2, 2012.  Throughout this season our faith community is practicing 3 simple commitments:  everyday we will take one minute to be in silence with those we love; every Sunday we will gather at the Lord's Table for Eucharist; and our children will spend more time with us this month in worship.

Everybody I know wants something more:  some people want more money, others want more time, some ache for more health while many yearn for more love.  There are lonely people and hungry people, sad ones and angry ones, people who want to understand life better and those who want to get away from it all.  That’s why I say that everyone I know wants something more.
·       Do you know what I mean?  I think it is the human condition – how we are deep inside – there is an emptiness that we think we can fill with more:  more stuff, more money, more fun – more, more, more.

·       Which is, of course, why God invites us into the season of Advent:  during the four weeks of Advent that lead up to Christmas we’re encouraged to become a little bit more comfortable with our emptiness.  We’re asked to learn how to wait – and watch – and listen and rediscover the love of God that is already present in our lives so that we don’t get trapped in worry or fear – so that we don’t get caught-up in addictions or actions that hurt others – because those things can never fill our emptiness.
You see, at the heart of Advent we’re being trained to meet Jesus in worship – to notice the presence of the Lord in the readings and at Holy Communion – as well as in prayer and acts of ordinary service.  Because Jesus wants to come to us during this season – that’s what Advent literally means – coming.  Jesus wants to bring us comfort and rest and peace.  He wants to share hope with those who are afraid and a way of living that offers meaning to those who wonder what the point of living is all about.  He wants to share with us the gift of God’s grace and the forgiveness of our sins, too.  He wants to meet us – and love us – and heal us.  All of us – children and adults – women and men – rich and poor – tired and lively – all of us…

That’s why God’s people in our tradition begin with Advent – it is a challenge and alternative to our hunger for more, more, more – a living collection of practices and resources that over time fill us with Christ and rub down our rough edges so that we become a little more lovable – maybe even likeable!  And it starts with learning how to… wait. 

·       During Advent there are ways for children to wait, there are also practices that adults can do, too.  And throughout the entirety of the season, the whole Christian community is encouraged to live as a quiet and tender alternative to the craziness going on all around us. 

·       When people go nuts over the latest sale at Wal-Mart, when men and women get trashed at the office party and do stupid and sometimes destructive things, when children beg and whine like dogs for the latest electronic gizmo, when nations beat their chests and rev-up their war machines yet again and the world looks like it is falling apart, most people think the time has come to duck and cover.

·       But what does Jesus tell his disciples – including you and me – in this morning’s reading?  Don't duck and cover.  Rather, "stand up, lift up your heads!" for when the foundations of creation appear to be crumbling this is precisely when God’s people must act with courage, compassion and faith.
And here’s the real challenge:  the upside-down wisdom of Jesus says that we best learn how to be courageous, compassionate and faithful when we know how to… wait:  wait with grace – wait with integrity – wait for the child to be born – wait for Good Friday to become Easter – wait for the bread to rise – wait for water to boil – wait to experience what is beyond the obvious.  That is why Advent is a sign of God’s love for each and all of us:  rather than give up in judgment, every year we get another season to practice, right?
So this morning we’re going to talk together about learning to wait to meet Jesus in Advent through the ordinary experiences of our lives.  Specifically I want to call your attention what some speak of as the art of worshipping fully – fully alive, fully engaged ad fully connected – to God’s grace that is coming to us all the time if we have eyes to see and hearts to feel, ok?  And there are three parts to this:  using our whole bodies, using our imaginations and using time creatively.  Are you with me so far?

The first way to learn to wait for Christ – and to worship fully – is with your bodies:  all of your bodies – your heart and hands, you soul and sight, your voices and your feet – as well as your mind.  So, would you please stand up – come on, everybody up – young and old and all of us in-betweeners, too – time to get on your feet!

·       And let’s practice doing three things at the same time:  clapping your hands (or snapping your fingers), singing some words to an Advent song and moving your bodies to the groove of the song. 

·       It is a song I’ve been sharing with you for a few years – “My Lord, He Is a Coming Soon” – and it goes like this… 

·       Now let’s sing and snap and sway to this song all together two times – just the chorus –and try to have some fun with it, ok?
To worship fully – and meet Jesus in the celebration – you have to use all your senses.  Music can help us learn to be alive in church if we let it – that’s why I wanted you to do all three things at once – but only if you actually do it playfully.  So, in a playful way, can you say out loud for me some of the ways we use our whole bodies in worship?

·       For example, sometimes we stand during worship, right?  When does that happen?

·       And sometimes we move around, too:  when does that happen?

·       What are some of the other ways we use our bodies in worship – and how does that help awaken us to God’s presence?

So the first practice in worshipping fully is to use everything we’ve got:  how does the old hymn put it?  Now thank we all our God… with heart and hands and voices? 
The second way we worship fully is by using our imaginations with the stories of Scripture – we are invited to really listen to them – and figure out where we might meet Jesus in them. Take today’s story from Luke’s gospel:

·       On one level it is totally wild – fantastic – and almost unbelievable:  The world is crashing all around us and Jesus comes down in a cloud. But what’s really going on here?  Why all the bold and challenging images?   

·       I think it has to do with reminding us that God’s love is bigger than anything we can understand.  It is fantastic.  It is beyond our ability to comprehend.  It is in every way out of this world while also being fully within this world in ways that are coming to each of us, too.
Does anybody here go to the movies – or watch movies on TV at home – anybody?  Maybe you’ve watched some of the Harry Potter movies?  Or Lord of the Rings? Or the Narnia stories?  Maybe you like Hunger Games or some of the science fiction things, yes?  I love them all – can’t get enough – because they tell us something we all ache to know:  that there is a love bigger than all our mistakes and sins that comes to us with healing and hope from some place way beyond our control.  And if you look carefully at the Bible in a playful way, you can see this, too – and not just in the story from Luke. 

One preacher, David Lose, put it like this:  While Luke claims in this passage that Jesus will come again to redeem and to save, Genesis claims that God the father of Jesus created heaven and earth in the first place and placed humanity at the center of this world to tend and care for it and each other, and both of these confessions are simultaneously incredible and true.  And it doesn’t stop here:

Exodus announces that God cares deeply about the way we treat each other – ridiculous, but true. And the prophets promise God’s comfort and mercy, even for those who have run away from God; unlikely, but also true.  In Mary’s song that we’ll listen to in a few weeks we hear that the day will come when the world is turned so that all who are hungry and poor and in need will be satisfied – beyond our experience, but true.

And Galatians proclaims that in Christ there is no distinction between slave or free, male or female, that all are one in the unity of Christ – extraordinary, but true. And Colossians declares that we are more than the sum of our past failures and shortcomings, that God has in fact nailed the record that stands against us to the cross; highly doubtful, but true. And at the end of all this Revelation promises that God will wipe every tear from our eyes and create a new heaven and earth and dwell with all of us in peace – sheer fantasy, but true! Do you see what I mean? From beginning to end the whole Bible makes extraordinary, otherworldly claims and promises about God that are simultaneously too good to be true and so good that when we hear them we just can’t help but believe they’re true, even know they’re true and live our life accordingly.

To worship fully is to listen for the promise of meeting Jesus in the Bible – and then open your hearts and your imagination to the Lord in playful ways – so that Jesus can surprise you with his blessings.  Let’s put it like this: even an old sourpuss like Scrooge was changed by God’s love but it took an enormous amount of imagination for it to happen.  So, don’t be like Scrooge – all serious and sour – use your imaginations and the good news will be yours.

I don’t know where I first heard this but it continues to be true when it comes to time:  “We already have all the time there is, we need to learn how to use it creatively.”  This is the third practice of worshipping fully – using time creatively – so that we come to rest in God’s love and power not our own.  The ancient spiritual masters call this contemplation which is NOT withdrawing from the world or becoming a self-absorbed hermit.  Rather, true contemplation means to take a long, loving look at the world to see where God needs you the most.

·       Let me say that again:  true contemplation is taking a long, loving look at the world to see where God needs you the most.  Needs you to lift up your head, needs you to act with courage, compassion and faith rather than duck and cover, needs you to use the time you have been give creatively and with imagination. 

·       I think that’s what Jesus was getting after when he spoke of the fig tree; it offers signs if you are paying attention.  In the spring it bears leave and in the summer it gives fruit – but only if you are noticing.
·       That’s why Advent asks us to periodically be still – to take a long, loving look at what is real – to learn how to see the signs of God’s call that are all around us if we are paying attention.

You see, most of us can’t change the world – but we can touch somebody’s life who needs us – if we notice.  If we are looking for where God wants us to go with love, then we can get there.  But it won’t happen if we’re too busy, too worried or too self-absorbed.  We have to take a long, loving look at what is real.  And that’s why this season we’re trying to claim just 1 minute every day to be silent – with those we love – and listen for what God wants us to hear.
That’s also why we’re celebrating Holy Communion – Eucharist which means thanksgiving – every week in worship, too.  So we can practice meeting Jesus at the table, meeting him in our imaginations and meeting him by what is revealed through our creative use of time. 
Beloved, Advent teaches us how to live fully – and worship fully – as we wait in life.  This is the good news for those who have ears to hear.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Moving towards the poetry of advent in my heart...

A few months ago I was at a regional church celebration that I genuinely wanted to embrace - but couldn't.  Not only was the liturgy wooden and artistically uninteresting, but the homily was what my old mentor, Ray Swartzback, used to call a "box car sermon:" -  a collection of unrelated anecdotes or ideas strung together with only the slightest connection.  One of the unrelated ideas involved the alleged deception present in the story of the "cellist of Sarajevo."

For those unfamiliar with Steven Galloway's novel of the same name, it is a work of fiction using aspects of the life of a real person,  Vedran Smailović, to link together the experiences of people during the siege of Sarajevo.  For me it was a powerful reflection on both the banality of evil and the way good people are ground down by the quotidian realities
of living through hell.  (For more on the actual musician, check out wiki/Vedran_Smailovi%C4%87) As the preacher prattled on about how wrong it was for the author to portray the cellist's story as true, I kept wondering:  hasn't this guy ever read any fiction?  I also asked myself:  does he understand metaphor or the way a work of art can play with the facts to point towards a deeper truth? 

Afterwards I kept thinking about the preacher's point (the only one I could remember) and the challenge of metaphorical thinking.  As I read the arguments on both sides of this novel - and appreciated the integrity of both - I discovered (small surprise) that I resonated most with the author.  He understood the paradox of telling this story - it is a modern morality tale - not a biography of the cellist.  You might find both sides helpful:

+ Steven Galloway's interview @

+ Walter Trkla's chellenge @

So why is this still gnawing at me?  Why haven't I let go of a boring worship gathering and an incomplete and rambling sermon?  God knows I've done it many times before!  My hunch is that it has something to do with preparing for Advent.  As I've written before, I believe poets (and artists) often get much closer to the human/holy truth than most reporters or technicians.  They help me ask why something matters and what I might do about it?  Advent calls me to nourish the asking - and waiting.  Joan Chittister puts it like this:

Life is not meant to be escaped, we learn, as the liturgical year moves from season to season, from feast to feast. It is mean to be penetrated, to be plumbed to its depths, to be tasted and savored and bring us to realize the God who created us in with us yet. Life, we come eventually to know, is an exercise in transformation, the mechanics of which take a lifetime of practice, of patience, of slow, slow growth... 

In the season of Advent, we are invited to step back from all that is frantic and controlling for a time: to develop within ourselves a taste for the spirit that does not die and will not slip through our fingers like melted snow... We all want something more (from life.) Advent asks the question, what is it for which you are spending your life? What is the star you are following now? And where is that star in its present radiance in your life leading you? Is it a place that is really comprehensive enough to equal the breadth of the human soul? (from The Liturgical Year: the spiraling adventure of the spiritual life)

So often my experience in public worship is that it is flat.  It is disconnected from the questions of life that lead to integrity, depth and hope.  The music is sentimental or else unsingable - wordy and preachy - without poetry.  The preaching is rarely thoughtful - it is almost an after thought quickly sketched on the way to this or that meeting - or else hurriedly outlined at midnight on Saturday.  The liturgists can't read - or are overly theatrical - the aesthetics of worship are ignored and the whole thing is an exercise in detached passivity.  (Ouch!) 

But there is nothing detached or passive about the Incarnation:  God has come to dwell and embrace us in our ordinary flesh.  The birth of Jesus - encountered in the liturgy - is intended to help come to understand "the Christ of faith who is still in us." (Chittister)

In the liturgical year, we come to realize, is the cry of the centuries to every new age neither to forget nor to forsake the vision of the first Christian age or the challenges of this one.... It is the life of Jesus that is the standard of the souls who call themselves Christian in every age, however seductive the errors of the age itself.

And so the liturgy - in beauty, metaphor, poetry and action - must lead us towards Jesus. Not an idea about Jesus, not a book report on the possibility of Jesus but to the Word become flesh within and among us.  Chittister concludes one chapter noting that "the continuing proclamation of the Scriptures, the centrality of the Gospels as the foundation of every liturgy and the ongoing reflection on those readings in homilies year after year do two things:  one of them is communal and the other personal."

First, the liturgical year reminds us as the church what kind of community we are meant to be. It convicts us as the church of the betrayal of those ideals when we are not a voice in the face of holocaust or not the protectors of its children.  Then we must all repent and begin again.

Second, the liturgical year implants within each of us individually the reprise of those moments that are the substance of the faith. It calls us to face the distance between the ideals we see in the life of Christ and the pale ghost of them we find in our own. It calls us to private and personal reflection on the place of Jesus in the daily exercise of our existence... for the liturgical year... is Jesus with us, for us and in us as we strive to make His life our own.

Enough rant on my part.  Last night, when I talked with our young confirmation guys, we got to one question, "What do you hope for?"  We had discussed what hope means - and what others in the world, including their parents, might hope for - and then I wondered what each of these young men might seek in hope.  After a bit of fidgeting and awkward silence, one boy said, "Nobody has ever asked me that before... it is going to take some time to really think about it."  The others agreed - and confirmation class ended. 

It is my deepest conviction that our public worship must help us ask ourselves - personally and as a community - what is it we truly hope for in this season?  Do our hopes conform to the life of Jesus?  Do our songs take us deep into the heart of the Spirit?  Do our prayers give us space for silence?  Do our homilies and sermons do more than waste time?  God, hope so... 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

At the end of the church year...

Today we celebrated a "lessons and carols" worship that encompassed the totality of the church year:  it was a good way to ground ourselves in the paradox of Christ the King Sunday.  It was also a helpful way to turn our attention to the coming of Advent. 

This year, more than many before, we're being very "chill" albeit intentional about embracing a contemplative spirituality during Advent.  In year's past, like many Reformed congregations, we've held Advent wreath workshops for young families and included a formal candle ceremony in worship.  But this year we're all trying to practice being quiet and reflective in tender ways.

+ As simple as it sounds, many have covenanted to spend 1 minute every day in quiet prayer with our loved ones.  This is a simple but revolutionary contemplative step that I celebrate given the fast pace of so many lives.

+ Others are exploring the commitments suggested by the Advent Conspiracy:  1) worship fully; 2) spend less; 3) give more of self; and 4) share love with all.

+ I am likely to also spend some time Spirituality and Practice e-course: Discovering What Is Enough @

I am particularly aware of the last invitation to love all tonight as our old dog, Casey, is feeling so badly.  He is almost 16 years old and we've had a joyous run with the old guy - and today he's been hurting and resting - reminding us that his days in this world are limited.  He is a gentle soul - with us - and a fierce protector.  I pray his passing - when the time is right - is gentle, too.

Having just returned home from my confirmation meeting with just the "boys" this week (the "girls" are traveling home from different places it seems) I am also aware of how rare it is for boys to be able to talk deeply about matters of the heart.  We did a little of that tonight in the middle of goofy talk and wild stories.  They are a good crew of young men and I am grateful for the chance to be in relationship with them as their faith matures.  It was a holy way to live into the promises of the end of the church year. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Poetry as a guide for advent...

A post from an old friend and colleague on Face Book included this quote that spoke volumes to me: "If you look at a testimony of love from 2,000 years ago, it can still exactly speak to you, whereas medical advice from only 100 years ago is ridiculous. And so as a historian, I write poetry. I'm profoundly committed to art as the answer. Indeed, I don't put science really as the way I get to any of my answers; it's just helpful. It's poetry that I look to. It's the clatter of recognition. Everybody has different ways, but I attest that poetry works pretty well."

The author is poet and historian, Jeniffer Michael Hecht, (check her out at: http://www., who has honed her gift into a tender celebration of human complexity.  With an ear tuned pitch perfect to our ordinary sorrows and celebrations, Hecht is simultaneously playful and profound.  One poem, "Love Explained," puts it like this: 

Guy calls the doctor, says the wife’s
contractions are five minutes apart.
Doctor says, Is this her first child?

guy says, No, it’s her husband.
I promise to try to remember who
I am. Wife gets up on one elbow,

says, I wanted to get married.
It seemed a fulfillment of some

several things, a thing to be done.
Even the diamond ring was some

thing like a quest, a thing they
set you out to get and how insane

the quest is; how you have to turn
it every way before you can even

think to seek it; this metaphysical
refraining is in fact the quest. Who’d

have guessed? She sighs, I like
the predictability of two, I like

my pleasures fully expected,
when the expectation of them

grows patterned in its steady
surprise. I’ve got my sweet

and tumble pat. Here on earth,
I like to count upon a thing

like that. Thus explained
the woman in contractions

to her lover holding on
the telephone for the doctor

to recover from this strange
conversational turn. You say

you’re whom? It is a pleasure
to meet you. She rolls her

eyes, but he’d once asked her
Am I your first lover? and she’d
said, Could be. Your face looks

It’s the same type of
generative error. The grammar
of the spoken word will flip, let alone

the written, until something new is
in us, and in our conversation.

This patience - this commitment to honoring contradictions - this willingness to look beyond the obvious in part of what Fr. Richard Rohr calls "living in the present." He writes: "Non-dual thinking is a way of seeing that refuses to eliminate the negative, the problematic, the threatening parts of everything."

Non-dual thinking does not divide the field of the naked now, but receives it all. This demands some degree of real detachment from the self. The non-dual/contemplative mind holds truth humbly, knowing that if it is true, it is its own best argument. Non-polarity thinking (if you prefer that phrase) teaches you how to hold creative tensions, how to live with paradox and contradictions, how not to run from mystery, and therefore how to practice what all religions teach as necessary: compassion, mercy, loving kindness, patience, forgiveness, and humility. You cannot really be present to the naked now except with some degree of non-dualistic seeing and thinking. Otherwise, you just write commentaries on everything, for or against.

As I pray about the emerging political chaos in Egypt, the paradox of political and spiritual authority (see the NY Times column by David Brooks ( opinion/brooks-why-we-love-politics.html), the challenges to peace in Palestine and Israel and the reality of life-threatening inequality in my own nation, it is essential for me to hold all of this together as parts of the whole.  Rohr goes on to suggest that those who follow Jesus - not worship him but follow him - enter into a way of living that changes our minds and hearts.  The way of Jesus invites us to be connected to the living and the dead - the Father and the Son by the Spirit - all at the same time.  And in this, we practice embracing the totality rather than merely "writing commentaries on everything" and taking one side or another.

The dualistic mind gives us sanity and safety, and that is good enough. But to address our religious and social problems in any creative or finally helpful way, we also need something more, something bigger, and something much better. We need “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), or a non-dual seeing of every moment, where both the obvious and the still-mysterious can exist side by side.

Such is part of my Advent commitment - to be a contemplative - who takes a "long, loving look at the real" and lets it nourish and change me.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving eve one more time...

Here's a sweet take from Leo Mazzeo at Arts Indie ( on our recent Thanksgiving Eve gig.  He writes:  To reach the fifth annual of anything is quite an accomplishment in this do or die apple, micro-fast social-networking era. To reach this milestone with such grace, dignity, and to be continually on the building path is doubly impressive. Hats off and congratulations to James Lumsden and a multitude of talented musicians, supporters, and enthusiastic well-wishers.

There's some momentum building after this show for our unique spirituality of music - and I am grateful to everyone who helps make it come together.  Another quote from the article put it like this:

Though there were pews, stained-glass windows, crosses, and the obligatory organ pipes present, the feeling inside had a definite sense of being in a house as well, and more importantly a home. From rough woven rugs, to the decidedly secular candles, to the kickoff “Come On Up to the House” by Tom Waits as a group effort led by bassist Lumsden, the communal aura was an arching theme throughout. Many of those sharing their talents are full-fledged professional local musicians, including Lumsden and fellow Pittsfield Sister City Ambassadors De Mott, Haddad, Kelly, and Tokarz, and many just highly talented enthusiasts. All had equal footing this evening, though, and all shone sweetly with equal brilliance.

It does my heart good to know that our deepest intentions for this gig were experienced - and embraced.  Please take some time to check out Leo's blog and support his important work in supporting the arts in our community.  And in the spirit of support:

+ Why not come out to hear Grahm Sturz on Saturday, November 24th at the Red Lion Inn @ 9 pm?

+ Or check out Charlie Tokarz playing with The Temptation on December 3rd at the Mahawie in Great Barrington ( barrington_ ma/events/show/ 274505607-the-temptations).

+ Linda Worster's home page is:

And don't forget the Jazz Ambassadors ( are playing in Bethlehem, NH on Friday, November 30th and doing a jazz symposium on Saturday, December 1st.  On Friday, December 7th the Ambassadors are @ Mission Bar and Tapas starting at 5:30 pm.

Thinking about a celtic advent...

I've been taken recently by the ancient Celtic practice of honoring an Advent that is really the 40 days before Christmas - an early parallel to Lent - rather than the revised 30 days of the Western and/or Roman realm.  That would start the season on the evening of November 14th - a rough connection in the Northern hemisphere to the diminishing day light - and continue until Christmas Eve on December 24th. (For more thoughts, you might enjoy exploring the Prayer Foundation/Celtic Advent posting @ http://prayerfoundation. org/advent.htm or The Contemplative Cottage @ http://contemplativecottage. com/2011/11/15/celtic-advent-40-days-of-joy/)

Don't get me wrong:  I'm NOT interested in lengthening any of the Christmas frenzy or consumerism.  Already marketers are positioning "holiday" gear in our stores as soon as Halloween ends.  And I'm only partially down with reclaiming the ancient "lighter fast" of the Celtic Advent.  One season of physical fasting is enough - and Lent is the right time - so what attracts me to 40 days of Advent?  Two insights:

+ First, just as the liturgical color of Advent has morphed from a penitential violet to a contemplative deep blue, so might the season become grounded in quiet introspection.  Once after a jazz worship liturgy a man said to me, "You know, I've never thought of 'Take 5' as a spiritual song before... but what would happen if every day I actually DID take 5?  Five minutes for quiet prayers of gratitude and listening?"  This year, our faith community is trying to practice taking one - one minute of silent gratitude with those we love - each day.  I hate to say it like this (because I fight the bottom line metaphors that our consumerist world have forced upon us to shape reality) but here goes anyway:  I think there would be a market for a more counter-cultural and introspective congregation that helps real people practice a way of "coming unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden."  And I don't mean a market in the sense of selling or manipulating consumers.  I mean a place that would resonate with the hearts of women and men who know they are too stressed out but don't know how to unplug from the madness.  I've been told that it takes about 40 days to create a new habit, so....

+ Second, practicing contemplation in a healthy way means "taking a long, loving look at what is real."  It is not escapist or privatized, but compassionate in the truest sense.  What would it mean for us to look with love upon the real pain of the world?  Not the manipulated crisis of a 24/7 cable news market, but the wounds of those around us?  Or the joys we encounter everyday in small ways?  What would it mean for us - and those we rub shoulders with - for us to practice looking at everything through the lens of love rather than fear or judgment?

Thomas More once put together a very helpful little booklet and CD grounded in the Jungian archetypes at work in the Advent/Christmas stories.  It is accompanied by a variety of sweet Celtic carols and tunes.  I think the time has come to pull that out and start my "long, loving look at what is real."  Want to join me?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The privilege of thanksgiving eve...

Every year just before our Thanksgiving Eve gig I get spooked - and anxious - both about the music and whether I've been a bear of a director.  Most of the time it is my shadow shit talking, but it is always good to check in and listen to what is being said, yes?  I don't have to embrace or follow it, but I've learned that I damn well better listen.  Because here's the thing:  it is complicated getting 25 musicians of differing abilities, genres, ages, perspectives and interests to move in the same direction with integrity and compassion. Thank God I don't have to choreograph them in a dance! 

Still, the task at hand is nuanced:  together we need to figure out how to give enough of ourselves to enhance each singer's song without stepping all over it. Sometimes a performer's exuberance gets in the way - he/she rushes a tune rather than rests into its groove - while at other times everybody loves the song so much they want to add just a little bit of their soul to the totality and it winds up muddy and cluttered rather than clean and beautiful.  And sometimes it turns into a total train wreck that we'd best let die a natural death - even when the song is a cherished one.  See what I mean?  Think of it:  jazz masters alongside novices, intuitive rock and rollers next to classically trained church singers, guitars, drums, horns, percussion, keys and bass with 15 vocalists - and some young artists, too.

So after doing this for 30 years, here's a few of the things I've figured out:

+ Like much of life and ministry, everybody shows up to the first practice with varying levels of commitment and preparation.  Note: about a month before we meet, I've already sent out practice video links, song lists, charts and cheat sheets.  And still some arrive without having opened their email even once while others have memorized most of the forms for each song.  Some musicians are so busy they can only make one rehearsal in five while others are there every night.  Some can read music and others play by ear.  Some want clear charts and printed scores for everything and some are intimidated by anything too formal. It is much easier having an homogenized chorus who only want to follow what the director requires - but that isn't our charism.  We've been invited to practice creating a musical community that not only integrates a variety of ages and musical styles into one performance, but we've been encouraged by the Spirit to do it in a way that is beautiful and soul satisfying.  Like the brothers at Taize have said, "we have been called by God to be a parable of festival and joy" for this moment in time.  So that's what we attempt in practice and performance.

+ You cannot practice editing by committee - musical committees included.  If everybody in the band has an equal say about the final set list then the lowest common denominator wins.  Some folk refuse to understand this and that's where I have had to learn to exercise a tender but clear role as director.  We talk about how each song fits - I ask all the players to bring some of their songs to the table - and after working with them for a time we discuss how they sit within the whole.  Most of the professional musicians have said to me something like, "Thank God somebody here is making a decision so that we can all keep moving in the same direction!"  Some of the amateurs, however, think I'm too harsh about cutting out a tune that is tanking - or asking some players/singers to sit back.  They believe it is all about heart: if your heart is pure then you should be able to do whatever you want to share.  But that's called a talent show - in a church - where you don't have to audition or really deliver beauty - all you need to do is show up.  And I believe that there is a sweet place in our churches for these kinds of performances.  I LOVE them.  But a benefit concert for the wider public is not a place for the lowest common denominator regardless of the purity of our hearts.  Helping everyone come to see the importance of having one musical editor - who works collaboratively but decisively - is another growing edge for everyone involved - myself included.

+ This kind of gig demands heart and soul - and careful listening.  Linda Worster, a highly skilled veteran folk singer, said the other night:  "sometimes you can feel the love on stage between the performers as we listen and support one another.  It is heavenly."  It is truly heavenly and magical when that happens - but it requires being fulling present - with a commitment to listening carefully to the music as well as the heart and soul of the featured performer.  Not every note needs to be played.  Often what is left out is more important than what is heard.  At last night's gig, sometimes it was a single mandolin fill - or a plaintive harmonica riff from what felt like miles away - or the delicate interplay of soprano sax and trumpet - or a searing and fluid guitar solo.  Thank God the core of our background singers are precise and understated:  they add to the whole without calling attention to themselves. And I think they are so successful because they are all excellent musicians who let themselves be opened by the Spirit heart and soul.

+ I've discovered that all my obsessing about set lists matters - this is not something that works spontaneously.  There has to be room for lots of improvisation - in the flow of the night - as well as in each song.  But I spend hours exploring the arc of each set - researching how other artists put together the flow of their concerts - and then testing it out with our musicians.  Last night I pulled two songs out completely because given the energy of the crowd and players those songs would have been a drag.  They are great tunes but they wouldn't have kept the energy flowing. It was sweet when our 12 year old girl singer whispered to my wife sadly, "You mean we're NOT going to do 'Hootchie Cootchie Man?'  That's too bad."  (Only in this church, right?) Same with a proposed jazz instrumental early in the night - it would have added nothing to the groove - so I tossed it and we kept on moving.  There are those who say just go with the flow - and at a party, a garage band practice or even some jazz clubs I'm down with that - but not in a concert venue with so many variables.

+ And then there is this - which might seem like a no-brainer - but isn't:  everybody has to encourage everyone else and have one an other's back.  No egos, please.  No divas or prima donnas either because we're all in this together.  Like Springsteen makes clear, we are a community joined together by music and affection, so each player better make sure that everyone else is supported, loved and helped to bring their best to the table.  I've worked in some ensembles where this wasn't true - the director was a loose cannon and some of the professional players were just brutal towards the amateurs - so the tunes might sound perfect but they were empty.  I've played in groups where the opposite was true, too: everyone had a ball but the music sounded like crap.  Our goal and commitment is to find a way to share both beauty and fun - and that requires a ton of encouragement and help.

One of the poems that Sue Kelly read last night, "Bless Their Hearts" by Richard Newman, brought the house down - and cut to the chase:

At Steak ‘n Shake I learned that if you add
“Bless their hearts” after their names, you can say
whatever you want about them and it’s OK.
My son, bless his heart, is an idiot,
she said. He rents storage space for his kids’ toys—
they’re only one and three years old!
I said, my father, bless his heart, has turned into a sentimental old fool. He gets
weepy when he hears my daughter’s greeting
on our voice mail. Before our Steakburgers came
someone else blessed her office mate’s heart,
then, as an afterthought, the jealous hearts
of the entire anthropology department.
We bestowed blessings on many a heart
that day. I even blessed my ex-wife’s heart.
Our waiter, bless his heart, would not be getting
much tip, for which, no doubt, he’d bless our hearts.
In a week it would be Thanksgiving,
and we would each sit with our respective
families, counting our blessings and blessing
the hearts of family members as only family
does best. Oh, bless us all, yes, bless us, please
bless us and bless our crummy little hearts.

After 30 years of doing these Thanksgiving Eve gigs in four different faith communities - Saginaw, MI - Cleveland, OH - Tucson, AZ - and Pittsfield, MA - the power and promise of building community through beautiful and soulful music continues to nourish my heart.  It has been a real privilege to do this for all these years - and I am grateful that this year's gig was clearly the best ever. 

I hope to have some video to post soon - especially of Ethan Wesley playing like an inspired bluesman during "Jesus Is Just Alright with Me."  In the mean time, dig some of Leo's pictures as they capture some of the joy. (And please check out his blog @

(all photos by Leo Mazzeo)


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:...