Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Eve 2013...

Today is New Year's Eve day and I am thinking about my friends Peter and Joyce.  They are in the midst of serving a tour as peace-makers in Jerusalem.  I hope you will go to Peter's blog @ http://walkinginbethlehem.blogspot.com/ and keep on top of his encounters. He gives a loving, human face to the current occupation of Palestine. (It is also my hope that in January we can do a skype-link during Sunday worship and, Inshallah, bring them to the US after they return.)

For those who don't know, Peter and I first became blogging buddies about four years ago.  Joyce was a pastor with the United Church of Canada and Peter worked with First Nation peoples.  We discovered a common love of music through the Internet - a questioning and very challenging faith, too - and, in time, we became "ether friends." Then they took a trip South and visited Di and myself in Pittsfield for a few glorious days.  We played music, gabbed, went to Tanglewood and church and grew closer as the days have become years.  And now, in retirement, they are serving God's people in Jerusalem. (Please, take some time to read Peter's postings for more vibrant details, ok?)
What grabs me this morning is the juxtaposition of their work and mine.  Let's just say that the beauty and quiet I am celebrating today as we move into our winter retreat part two stands in contrast to the tragedy they confront every day. And maybe what really pulls at my heart is that this weekend marks the Feast of Epiphany.  In the West this has become the celebration of God's grace shared with the gentile nations beyond Israel. We know of the Magi - or Wise Ones - so after we sing, "We Three Kings" life goes on.

But this story is filled with wisdom and challenge.  In popular culture, for example, an epiphany is considered to be something of a sudden and unexpected "aha" moment.  It could be an out of nowhere insight into a personal problem.  It might be a surprise revelation about a relationship.  Or even a satisfying solution to something that has been vexing you for a long time.  In reality, however, epiphanies are rarely a sudden gift from beyond, but the result of a great deal of thought, study, conversation, prayer and reflection. It may feel like a sudden aha, but the truth usually cuts much deeper.

That's part of what the gospel story in Matthew 2 about the Magi suggests: the wise but mistrusted travelers from the East not only journeyed for a long time before reaching Bethlehem, but they also spent years of prayer and practice in their own religious tradition before they were able to trust the sacred signs revealed in the star.  So let's be clear: the Wise Men didn't just show up. They worked hard, they overcame fear and prejudice and they prayed deeply as a part of their sacred journey. As Peter sometimes writes:  there are hints of God's presence all over the place in the midst of this mess.

In my worship notes for this feast, there are three insights that I have found valuable:

+ First, the Magi were religious scholars from the East - literally from modern day Iraq - who were honored in their own home, but feared and mistrusted in by those in Israel.  Remember, many of Israel's invaders and conquerors came from the East. So the Wise Ones evoked fear, hatred and mistrust.  And while it is true that Father Abraham once hailed from the East, too his descendants had long ago broken any ties with their immigrant past. Part of what we honor today is that the Magi were faithful risk-takers eager to seek out and share something of God's grace in new ways.

+ Second, the Magi were agents of humility.  They realized that they needed the kindness of strangers in order to survive their trip. They were dependent upon radical hospitality to stay alive. What's more, they accepted that they didn't have a monopoly on wisdom for they had to consult and cooperate with Jewish scribes and priests to understand the meaning of the star. Not only did they have to own their own limits with humility, the also had to honor a religious tradition very different from their own. If you will, the Magi were practicing and encouraging religious tolerance and respect millenia before it became politically correct.

+ Third, the Magi show us something about what it means to be generous guests.  They showed respect to their hosts, they brought the Christ Child gifts and they invited everyone at the manger to join in their worship of the Lord regardless of history or racial background. One way of reading the text suggests that when the Wise Ones were overcome by joy at finding the Christ Child, they fell to their knees and worshiped God. Not necessarily Jesus, but God as they knew the Holy One. They invited those where were there together with Mary and Joseph to join in the prayers.  Together we see people of different religious, ethnic and cultural traditions worshiping the presence of God in their own ways.  

I am holding Peter and Joyce close to my heart today as they honor and incarnate the wisdom of the Magi in their own unique ways.  They, too are risk-takers for understanding and compassion - humble people of God's spirit who are encouraging religious tolerance and cooperation - strangers in a strange land practicing generosity and humility.  God be with them.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

On the fifth day of Christmas...

Worship this morning was so gentle and soft - perfect in a gentle and
healing way - especially given the paradox of our family Christmas traditions and the text for the slaughter of the innocents!  A few people who joined us for Christmas Eve were present today, too.  As well as a number of folk without families who were clearly feeling alone and even afraid.  It was truly right to be back in community today.

We will be heading back to the country farm for winter retreat part two late in the afternoon tomorrow.  There are end of the year appointments to schedule, liturgies to finalize and pay checks to be deposited, yes? There is our Subaru to be taken to the shop, too and groceries to purchase so that for the next three and a half days, we can just chill, play music together, read and rest and periodically feed then animals.  Next Sunday we're doing the Christmas/Epiphany pageant and there will be a wonderful gaggle of children involved.

Yesterday as we hiked through an old back road, we came upon two different burying grounds.  In one there was the headstone of the first minister of the Plainfield Congregational Church who instructed over 300 souls in the way of the Lord but also led 50+ men into the full time Christian ministry. We saw the gravestones of children who died all too young and some old timers who lived well into their 100s.

It was a beautiful and tender morning and I am grateful to God for our life together.

NOTE: In the very near future I will post a link to this year's Thanksgiving Eve Concert link.  It came out GREAT - and I want you to have a chance to groove on all the fun.  More soon...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Trusting grace: our winter retreat cuts deeper...

Today is the fourth day of Christmas and our winter retreat continues to ripen (although we will slip back home tomorrow for worship and then return late in the afternoon on Monday.) It is valuable for me to take time at the close of this season to see what shapes and patterns have emerged in both my personal and professional lives during the past year. Fr. Richard Rohr writes:

When we celebrate New Year’s Day, and maybe Easter too, we celebrate a symbolic rebirth of time. We somehow hope for God to do new things with us and for us. We wait for the coming of grace, for the unfolding of Mystery. We wait for the always-bigger Truth. Such humble waiting and open-ended expecting allows us to fall into what Thomas Merton called “a hidden wholeness.” 

One does not create or hold onto such wholeness (holiness?) consciously—it holds onto us! Our common code word for this hidden wholeness is quite appropriately “God”! When we agree to love God, we are precisely agreeing to love everything. When we decide to trust God, we are also deciding to trust reality at its deepest foundation.

But we cannot just wait. We must pray too, which is to expect help from Another Source. Our prayers then start both naming us and defining us. When we hear our own prayers in our own ears and our own heart, we start choosing our deepest identity, our biggest future and our best selves. We fall into our own hidden wholeness. 

As I try on this retreat to discern what I have heard in my own prayers from last year, I am aware of a few truths from my hidden wholeness:

+ First, I continue to wrestle with trusting that God's grace is sufficient. At my core, I often fret and worry - and it is exhausting. As some of my 12 Step friends continue to remind me:  If you are feeling NUTS, it is because you are Not Using the Third Step. For those unfamiliar with the spirituality of imperfection found in the 12 Steps, number three is: I made a decision/commitment to turn my will and life over to God as best I understand the Lord. 

Since 2001 I have been learning to trust God's grace and apparently I am a very slow learner. Small wonder I keep returning to these two portions of Scripture - Psalm 37 (do not fret) and Matthew 11: 28-30 (come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy-laden) - as touch stones. This year, as I have tried to come to terms with a profound exhaustion, I have had to accept that both my surrender to God's grace and my understanding of faith require a daily decision to trust that the Lord's grace is sufficient for the day. I know this in my head but apparently not deeply in my heart.  So I keep returning to the words of St. Paul in Romans 12:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.

+ Second, I have come to know both great joy and profound sorrow this year.  Last Advent was shaped by the massacre in Newtown and I know that I have grieved that tragedy deeply throughout most of the year. I have also been remembering and wrestling with a number of the sad deaths I have experienced throughout ministry. I don't fully know why I haven't been able to let go of some of these deaths. But when my old friend Michael Daniels died this fall in Cleveland, a wild rush of grief bubbled up and continues to spill out in ways that are beyond my control. One of my prayers this year has been to rest and trust that this grief will lead me to some place of deeper wisdom and compassion.  "But now we see as through a glass darkly..."

Simultaneously, there has been sweet joy. I have grown closer to my two adult daughters, opened my heart in new ways to Dianne and had a ton of fun. Our time in Montreal was delightful. The birth of my little man, Louis Edmund, was sacred. The musical events we worked on this year - the soberingly beautiful Good Friday liturgy and our two benefit concerts in June and November - were among the most artistically satisfying in my life.  And developing my Sabbatical proposal with key church leaders has been challenging, insightful, rewarding as well as illuminating. I have been blessed with colleagues at church whom I love and enjoy sharing the work of ministry. My abilities as a musician have ripened, I started to seriously work on upright bass and was able to realize some creative jazz liturgy projects, too.  What's more, I am in reasonably good health.  

Time and again, I find myself going back to Peterson's reworking of the Beatitudes as a way of holding the paradox of joy and sorrow together: 

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought. You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat. You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for. You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

+ And third this year has helped me find a new groove in that which is small, hidden and quiet. When we discerned that God was calling us to Pittsfield seven years ago, I had only a tiny clue about why. I knew it had something to do with a different type of ministry - and a different style of doing ministry for me - but I had no idea what that might actually mean. This past year, however, another clue was revealed during midday Eucharist. For me these days ministry is mostly about presence rather than programs.  It is about listening and loving rather than radical social change. It is about inviting and encouraging others to trust that the gentle love we receive from the Lord is the best gift we can share with one another.

In an article the Alban Institute published, The Jazz Church, N. Graham Standish shares an insight that I have been learning and living over these past seven years.  His articulation of how a congregation is like music has helped me grasp how my ministry has changed.  He writes:

Congregations are often structured like the music that either their worship leaders tend to play or their members tend to listen to. Each form of music has its own structural rules and principles that seem to transfer to the operation of their congregations.  For instance, many mainline congregations are "classical" congregations that cherish traditional hymns and choir anthems. Typically these congregations are structured like classical music itself. Like a symphony orchestra, they have a conductor (the pastor), first chairs (music director, education director and board members), second chairs (teachers, committee members) and the rest.  In this kind of congregation, everything has its place and time, and like an orchestra, the congregations pushes towards uniformity and clear roles. The conductor's role is to provide order, clarity and discipline while those in the orchestra perform their roles with competence and precision.

Standish goes on to summarize other types of musical congregations: Top 40-like evangelical communities that crank out hit after hit, Folk music congregations that are small and intimate, Country music churches that deal with the struggles of a hard life, Rhythm and blues congregations that offer uplifting and emotional worship and the Alt music church that mixes up a new/old groove born of post-modern ironies. The "jazz church," however, encourages a style of worship and service in the greater community that celebrates innovation born of tradition (playing the melody and improvising), playing both solo and support and blending mistakes into the groove.  He writes:

The value of playing on the mistakes has wide-ranging application. It requires looking at ministry from a perspective other than the "success-failure" angle that so many people in modern American life use. Playing on mistakes looks at ministry more from an "explore/learn" perspective that allows us to risk and discover new possibilities from our lives.

When we arrived in Pittsfield from Tucson, I knew the orchestral style of ministry all too well and was searching for something more real for me and more professionally satisfying for everyone involved.  In time we discovered a collaborative type of ministry that, like a small jazz ensemble, encourages both leadership and servanthood.  There is a lot of listening involved in this type of ministry - not just in developing our various musical offerings, but also in the direction and programming of the church - for we are about living as Christ's body.  Sometimes there are those who don't grasp the nuances of this musical metaphor - how it genuinely drives our decision-making and servanthood - for they think I am being mono-minded.  But when you talk with our leadership teams and listen to how we "do" ministry, these jazz concepts keep popping up over and again.  Not that we only play jazz music - we are far too eclectic - but we move to a jazz groove.

In a jazz congregation, the pastor and everyone else know when it is their role to be front and center, and when it is their role to step back, support and listen.  When I am managing an activity - preaching, teaching or doing something else that requires my direct leadership - I take charge.  But when we put on a play or a concert... I can intentionally take a back seat when that is best, too. (There are times) when my roles is simply to support and not be seen.  

Walking quietly in the woods gives me time to pull all these truths together and sort them out.  Earlier this year, I was so wiped-out that I thought the time had come to take early retirement.  But as the year has ripened I have come to see that my exhaustion was partly born of grief and partly born of fretting.  Indeed, the wisdom of my wound was helping me make a deeper commitment to grace.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Winter retreat deepens...

After arriving at our daughter's farm yesterday - and after Di left for work back in town - I pulled together my worship notes for this coming Sunday.  It is the first Sabbath since Christmas - many families will be away given school vacations - and I expect participation to be "light." That said, it is also one of the most fun days of the year because those who make it up and out to church really want to be there. In some ways it feels like a "snow storm Sunday."

My worship notes begin:

I don’t know if any of your pastors have ever shared this with you before but for those of us who WORK in the church – pastors, musicians, sextons and secretaries –our time for watching and waiting and slowing down as advocated in Advent happens AFTER Christmas Eve.  That’s not a complaint or even a problem, it is just a fact.  For the four weeks BEFORE Christmas Eve, in addition to encouraging you to practice contemplation, we are writing liturgies, decorating Sanctuaries, visiting the home-bound, practicing music and preparing publicity announcements. 

And while there is SOME Advent contemplation taking place in those weeks before the Feast of the Incarnation – CHRISTMAS – at least for me, the quiet anticipation of the season doesn't really happen until all the worship celebrations are over. That’s why most pastors take an extended time away from their congregations after Christmas: it is our time to pause and return thanks, connect with family and rejoice in the good news that has been born for us in the Christ Child. In fact, most pastors are away from their regular posts on both the first Sunday after Christmas as well as Easter, right?

This year, I had the chance to head up to our daughter Michal’s farm in Plainfield:  we shared Christmas dinner there with her sister and our new grandson and then returned for a few quiet days of post-Christmas Advent contemplation.  About the only thing I HAD to do was make sure the goats were fed and inside each night and that the chicken coop was opened and closed with the sun.  A totally beautiful and silent retreat…

Yesterday was so wonderfully quiet - and cold - with soft snow flurries arriving throughout the early evening.  After feeding the goats (Audrey and Ingrid) and getting the chickens settled for the night, I sat in front of the wood burning stove and just let the fullness of Advent/Christmas sink in.  For me, the Advent/Christmas season was full of activity, but it also felt like an integrated whole in both prayer and worship. That isn't always the case. Sometimes, Sunday seems totally divorced from everything else that is taking place in my life.  But this year our call to become Advent contemplatives seemed to take root.

Of course it is all too obvious that having a new grandson has made me all too aware of time - how precious it is - how quickly it is passing. So to be able to celebrate his first Christmas with both my daughters and their loved ones was a profound gift to me.  It was a privilege to be able to introduce Louis to the congregation on Christmas Eve, too and then share a time of feasting and gift-giving in the warm love of those dearest to my heart.  We always laugh so hard whenever we get together both because we know one another so well AND because my daughters' partners are so bright and quick witted.  Most of the time, I can't keep up with them so I sit back and just soak it all in with gratitude.

In a few minutes we're going to take the dogs for a hike in the woods. Our puppy, Lucie, LOVES to run in the wild and Michal's little English shepherd, Sage, is quite the scamp, too.  It is cold and sunny today and being out in the woods by the stream is always a little bit of heaven for me. Later, Di will finish up a quilt for some friends at church I will do some more writing before bringing the animals in for the night. There is a deep and healing rhythm to being in this place that is just what I needed for this winter retreat.  

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Winter retreat...

We are now at my daughter's farm in Plainfield - hill country - where it is always 10 degrees colder than our home and much more snowy! It is about 25 miles away but feels like a world removed.  First, it is silent. Ain't nothing happening in these hills except fields laying fallow, snow falling and winter animals trying to stay alive. Second, it is totally dark. All the stars are out tonight on this wintry cold night in late December. And third, nobody knows us here.  In Pittsfield, after seven years we see loved ones and more everywhere we go:  it is part of the charm and grace of being in a small city.
Here, where we don't work or live, we are totally anonymous. It is just what the doctor ordered after the fullness of Advent and Christmas Eve. I was blessed to have my daughter, son-in-law and new grandson stay with us for three days this years.  And, joy upon joy, we all gathered at this farm with my other daughter for Christmas dinner and gift giving. And now that the family has gone their separate ways, the country folk needed house-sitters for their sojourn to Boston.

After Christmas we NEED to escape into solitude.  Back in Tucson, we would head for the hills outside of Bisbee.  Being at this farm today as the snow fell softly and the sun began to hide behind the hills, felt like a prayer come true.  My only tasks for the next few days is feed the goats and the chickens each morning and evening and make sure they get back into their respective shelter before sundown.  We will walk in the woods, be still, read, write and reflect on all the ups and downs of 2013 while we are here.  And after worship on Sunday, we'll head back here for another three days of solitude.

Mary Oliver put it like this:

The snow
began here
this morning and all day
continued, its white
rhetoric everywhere
calling us back to why, how,
whence such beauty and what
the meaning; such
an oracular fever! flowing
past windows, an energy it seemed
would never ebb, never settle
less than lovely! and only now,
deep into night,
it has finally ended.
The silence
is immense,
and the heavens still hold
a million candles, nowhere
the familiar things:
stars, the moon,
the darkness we expect
and nightly turn from. Trees
glitter like castles
of ribbons, the broad fields
smolder with light, a passing
creekbed lies
heaped with shining hills;
and though the questions
that have assailed us all day
remain — not a single
answer has been found –
walking out now
into the silence and the light
under the trees,
and through the fields,
feels like one.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas eve day in the Berkshires...

Jesse, Michael and Louis arrived yesterday afternoon - and our easing into the joy of Christmas Eve has started.  We played and talked and laughed and had an early dinner.  At one point I got to share a few tunes with my grandson while his momma bounced with him and got him ready for bed.  I used to sing this to her when she was his age and I have to say that there were a few times when I was overwhelmed with joyful tears while I sang.

Now it is on to wrapping gifts and worship tonight at 5 and 11 pm. Tomorrow we head out to the kids' farm for a Christmas dinner that can't be beat. It is cold and sunny this Christmas Eve in the Berkshires and all is as it should be in our house. Here's a shot from earlier today that gets it just about right.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

What in the name of God did you bring..?

Truth be told, these days when I look out into the congregation and see someone yawning wildly - or looking bored - I rarely go to that place of worrying about what I have done wrong. God knows, I used to do this; in the early days of ministry, I would second and third guess myself - and then lose sleep the following night, too worrying about what I might have done better. Today, however, two thoughts swim through my consciousness when I see someone whose demeanor suggests they really wish they were some place else: 1) I wish they were some place else, too. REALLY. Please don't act as a drag on the rest of us as we try to come before the Lord with gratitude and humility. And 2) what in God's name are you bringing to the plate besides your body? An open and humble spirit? A desire to grow and mature as a disciple of Christ? An aching for grace? (Confession: this happened this morning during worship after the whole crew was working hard and doing a great job. I looked up and noticed this dude stretching and yawning and calling way too much attention to his boredom. So I wanted to literally help him out - and these two thoughts jumped into my head - but instead I turned away and focused on the other 80 people eager for a sign of hope. Ain't worship in the 21st century grand?)

Those who read this page from time to time know that at this stage in ministry, I can get cranky. And these days, when someone has the gall to say to me, "I didn't get very much out of that service" my heart screams: WELL WHAT IN THE NAME OF GOD DID YOU BRING TO IT IN THE FIRST PLACE?! I rarely reply with these words - although I have from time to time - but that is what resonates in my heart.  
You see, NOBODY on my staff goes through the motions: not my secretary, music director, Christian educators, custodian or my self. Every body gives 110% whether we're sick or well, whether there is a foot of snow on the ground or beautiful sunshine, whether our own families are falling apart or celebrating love unbound. That's no bullshit. Not only are my staff true professionals, they are also people of faith, hope and love.  And Sunday morning is where we bring our gifts, craft, skill and love together as an offering to the Lord. So when I see some body dozing off - or yawning with bored indifference - for the sake of Christ and his servants I want to ask: WTF? Drink too much last night? Not get enough rest? Working too hard? What's going on that you don't bring your best to Sunday morning, too? From time to time, I also think: ok, dude, I guess you needed a safe place to take a rest - maybe this is an answer to prayer - but most of the time that seems unlikely.

I know that middle class, white liberal Protestants aren't supposed to be so freakin' evangelical, but come on! One of my conservative buddies back in the Jesus Freak days of the 70s used to quote the late Keith Green: You are having a hard time getting UP on Sunday morning? Don't you know that Jesus went to the CROSS under much worse circumstances?  Come on: Get over it! (Or something like that...)
I know, I know I shouldn't be quite so snarky. But then my attention shifts to the least quoted book of the Bible in liberal circles, Revelations, wherein the angel of the Lord says to the beleaguered church in Laodicea: I know your works - you are neither hot nor cold - and I wish that you were one or the other. So in your lukewarm nature I spew you from my mouth. (Notice that the text says spew - not spit, that is way too nice - but spew, that is, vomit.  Clarence Jordan of Koinonia fame used to say that those who couldn't take the language of the gospel full tilt were Kleenix Christians.  In other words, too delicate and too lukewarm.)

Today, people in worship were mostly grounded in their hunger for grace. (exception noted above) One local artist who wrestles with all of this loved that the message was about listening to our lives - particularly our fears. Another noted that there was a peace and gentleness about the whole season of Advent this year.  And still another told me that she had been wrestling with depression throughout Advent but today's worship helped her realize that even her darkness was acceptable to the Lord. I give thanks to God for the people who come to worship to share their love with God and be opened by the Spirit.

And then after I finished up our Christmas Eve liturgies, I read this about Senator Jim Inofe:  "One of the most partisan Republicans in the Senate, Oklahoma's Jim Inhofe, said Sunday that his "attitude" toward Senate Democrats has changed as a result of the outpouring of sympathy he received from colleagues after the death of his son. Perry Inhofe, 52, was killed in a plane crash in November. "I probably shouldn't say this, but I seem to have gotten more -- well at least as many, maybe more -- communications from some of my Democrat friends," Sen. Inhofe told host David Gregory on NBC's "Meet the Press." "And I'm a pretty partisan Republican." (check it out @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/ 12/22/jim-inhofe-democrats_n_4489794.html)

Thanks be to God:  I am constantly shocked by the crazy places that signs of grace pop up - and I never imagined it in Inofe! But God is constantly surprising me.  And I am a big believer in sharing the good news through acts of compassion. This is how I think we get beyond the polarization of this or any other moment. And brother Inofe, in his darkness, sensed a little of the light because even those who oppose him were willing to share a bit of grace and understanding.  How did my favorite evangelist from Muscle Shoals, Otis Redding, put it:  You got to try a little tenderness?

So today, as the sun evaporates behind the Berkshires, I give thanks to being surprised by the gospel as well as all the broken souls who come into the presence of the Lord with vulnerability and humility. Clearly the birth of the Lord is coming...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

As advent draws to a close...

This will sound naive - even inconsequential to some - but over the years the way we have come to embrace and celebrate Christmas has shifted.  Once, as a child of the 50s and 60s, I was all about BIG gifts. I wanted THINGS and the more things the better the holiday.  And cooking up a big feast was important to me, too.

I can remember being at my parents' home in Charlotte, NC one Christmas - this is where I learned the glitzy side of the holiday - and the house was a-buzz with frenzied activity.  We had our historically ugly and over decorated tree with tons of tinsel and colored lights.  And my mother insisted on yet another of the staged faux impromptu family pictures in front of the fireplace drinking mugs of eggnog. 

At some point it all became too much for me so my brother and I scooted out to take a long drive.  We opened the car windows and let the cold air blow around us as we drove through Charlotte listening to Christmas radio. After about 20 minutes a calm descended on us both and "The Little Drummer Boy" was playing. Away from the chaos, this song felt like an aural oasis because there was no going to worship in those days.  (My parents, like so many, had their feelings hurt when no one noticed their absence during one of my mother's regular illnesses and injuries. Of course, they didn't notify the pastor.  They just nourished their grudge and stayed away.)

We drove home about an hour later and the house was quiet for the night.  So we went to bed.  The next morning there was more chaos and frenzy for about 20 minutes of gift giving - and then it was over. I immediately headed up the stairs and crawled back into bed thinking, "There has GOT to be something more..." but I had no idea what it might be; so I fell into a disgruntled sleep before enduring yet another Christmas dinner fraught with tension and disappointment. Man, was I glad to go to work at the gas station that night when 10 pm rolled around.

Sad thing is, however, that I carried those crazy habits with me into my adult life.  I always spent more than I had, ached for some new thing and seemed to need a bit of drama to make the day complete. I had hoped to give my children an alternative celebration but didn't really do a very good job of making it happen. Even in my early days of being a pastor I found all the busyness simultaneously exciting and exhausting.  And I would create my own disappointments over how the family Advent ceremonies were not spiritual or mystical enough for my tastes given my addiction to drama.  Poor, poor pitiful me: everything was wrong... and I was not a person anyone wanted to be around as Christmas Eve drew nigh.

Today I understand that many of us bring our childhood angst with us
into our adult holidays - there is nothing special or unique about my experience - and no matter how hard we try, it follows us like a shadow. What I've had to accept, therefore, is the only way out of this morass involves gently giving-up the old, unsatisfying ways and habits and spending quiet time with the emptiness they create.  It is like standing beside an empty grave before lowering the casket; it is quiet mourning and surrender. Only when I can place the old ways in their grave is there space to celebrate a new Christmas that is soothing and nourishing.  

Christmas Eve worship is now mostly carols and readings rather than another tortured sermon.  It is candle light and Holy Communion in the light of the sacred story. And both before and afterwards, there is precious little frenzy.  We send e-cards to loved ones - and write letters to others after the buzz has worn off the week following Christmas. We get out of town after Christmas Eve, too, for a week of quiet and unstructured time together.  We connect with our kids and then go into retreat mode.  And mostly we don't buy a lot of stuff - some books and music, some feasting and a couple of Dianne's home made scarves - and saturate our home with a lot of candle light and quiet.

This morning, Fr. Richard Rohr's reflection on nourishing the mind of the mystic spoke to me of our personal shift from busyness to quiet. The blessings of Christmas - and all of the liturgical holidays - are gifts that come to us from God and cannot be controlled, created or purchased. So now the invitation and challenge is to rest and wait and welcome the grace as it arrives in unexpected ways. Yesterday, for example, three different people gave us parking lot gifts - they had one or two hours left on their receipt they didn't need - so they passed them to us saying, "Have fun. Merry Christmas!"

Hugh of St. Victor (1078-1141) and Richard of St. Victor (1123-1173)wrote that humanity was given three sets of eyes, each building on the previous one. The first set of eyes were the eyes of the flesh (thought orsight), the second set of eyes were the eyes of reason (meditation orreflection), and the third set of eyes were the eyes of true understanding (contemplation). They represent the last era of broad or formal teaching of the contemplative mind in the West, although St. Bonaventure (1221-1274)and Francisco de Osuna (1492-1542) are some rare examples who carry it into the following centuries. But for the most part, the formal teaching of the contemplative mind, even in the monasteries, winds down by the beginning of the fourteenth century. No wonder we so badly needed some reformations by the sixteenth century. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that the loss of the contemplative mind is at the basis of much of the shortsightedness and religious crises of the Western world. Lacking such wisdom, it is very difficult for churches, governments, and leaders to move beyond ego, the desire for control, and public posturing. Everything divides into oppositions such as liberal versus conservative, with vested interests pulling against one another. Truth is no longer possible at this level of conversation. Even theology becomes more a quest for power than a search for God and Mystery.
Today I'll clean the house a bit (the kids from Brooklyn are coming up on Monday) and print out a few things for worship tomorrow.  I'll run through the jazz charts with my music director after worship, too and then wrap some gifts. Probably walk with the puppy in the field behind our house at some point and listen to a few tunes.  More than likely I'll pop in "A Charlie Brown's Christmas" DVD and savor that before calling it a day.

Loving and embracing Christmas with a mystic's quiet heart would never have come for me if I kept up my childhood habits.  What's more they wouldn't have slowly ripened in an organic way for me as an adult without first letting the old ways die and resting in the emptiness that followed.  That's part of what Advent has come to mean - waiting and resting in the darkness for a new and more healing presence - trusting that God's grace is on the horizon if I am open to receive it.  Brian Wren wrote an Advent hymn that speaks to all of this in me:

God of many Names
gathered into One,
in your glory come and meet us,
Moving, endlessly Becoming;
God of Hovering Wings,
Womb and Birth of time,
joyfully we sing your praises,
Breath of life in every people -
Hush, hush, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Shout, shout, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, sing, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, God is love, God is love!
God of Jewish faith,
Exodus and Law,
in your glory come and meet us,
joy of Miriam and Moses;
God of Jesus Christ,
Rabbi of the poor,
joyfully we sing your praises,
crucified, alive for ever -
Hush, hush, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Shout, shout, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, sing, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, God is love, God is love!

God of Wounded Hands,
Web and Loom of love
in your glory come and meet us,
Carpenter of new creation;
God of many Names
gathered into One,
joyfully we sing your praises,
Moving, endlessly Becoming -
Hush, hush, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Shout, shout, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, sing, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Sing, God is love, God is love!

Friday, December 20, 2013

A day of christmas wandering...

One of my favorite things in the world is to walk around book
and music shops with Dianne.  We've done it ALL over the world - from London and Moscow to Montreal and San Francisco - and it is always a taste of heaven for me.  We're geeks - mostly we love books, music of all types, art, sculpture and coffee houses - so our ideal time is wandering places where these types of things tend to exist.

Today, after working out some of our never-ending expenses, we snuck off to Brattleboro, VT - a 90 minute ride from home - where there are at least FIVE independent books stores and two music shops.  As most of our loved ones know by now, besides some of Di's creative handiwork, when it comes to holidays we're going to share books and music.  I was thinking that both my daughters received books among their first gifts.  And now we have a grandson!

There simply hasn't been time to do any real shopping or planning until today.  It was a quiet and lovely time to ride together and talk about what's been going on in our busy lives.  And then wander through the shops finding surprises for our children and their loved ones.  And because finances are tight, we stayed within our budget (mostly) and had a grand time.

Things are simple in our household - pretty lights, a tree and lots of CDs with Christmas music from around the world - and lots of Advent worship before the fullness of Christmas Eve.  This year we're doing two celebrations on Christmas Eve - one with participation from children and families  and the other using Brian Wren's "songs and scriptures" - both with candle light communion.  Then it is off to the farm in Plainfield for a Christmas dinner that can't be beat with daughters, grandson and loved ones.  We'll watch over the farm for the week after Christmas, too as they kids head out for away time.

Things are truly starting to slow down and get grounded now - and I am grateful.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rethinking how we "do" church in 2014...

In a recent posting from the Alban Institute - a think-tank, consultation
center for clergy and congregations of all shapes and varieties that has been active for 40 years - two critical insights were shared about how contemporary people think about church affiliation.  For nearly 20+ years, of course, traditional notions of membership have been non-starters. Not only is there a profound mistrust of institutions, but people are much more interested in relationships than outmoded legalisms. Want to know the vibrancy and strength of your congregation?  Look instead to worship attendance.

And while that continues to be one metric, even that is changing as our culture becomes ever more fast paced. For example, most people under 50 who attend worship now understand "participation" to mean their presence at something church related once every six weeks. It could be a mission event, worship, a study session or a meeting. Now I must confess, while I grasp this shift intellectually, I am still wrestling with how to embrace it.  Clearly, my mind and soul are of another generation.  Sarai Rice puts it like this:

“Active” membership does not equal weekly attendance. When I was a child, being an “active” church member meant attending church every Sunday, with the possible exception of the one Sunday that we vacationed with a relative. When my children were small, “active” would probably have meant attendance three out of four Sundays a month. Now, people consider themselves “active” who may attend as infrequently as once every 6-8 weeks. They still feel loyal to their particular congregation, but the combination of Sunday as a time to relax and as a time to travel means that “active” looks very different. In addition, adult ability to volunteer weekly in the way that former attendance patterns supported is also a thing of the past, even though many congregations persist in believing that their inability to recruit teachers is a failure of discipleship rather than the inevitable result of a shifting cultural norm. http://www.alban.org/conversation.aspx?id=10363)

I am down with flexibility re: membership and participation, I totally affirm measuring the vibrancy of the congregation through worship participation but I think Sunday morning matters.  For me, Sunday worship is where the community comes together to both practice being the Body of Christ and returning thanksgiving to God.  It is a communal act - not entirely private - and is the historic ground upon which the Church has been built over the centuries.  So, I find giving up the centrality of Sunday complicated.

But my discomfort with this new trend is also an opportunity to rethink some of my assumptions as a church leader - including the sanctity of Sunday morning.  You see, it is slowly dawning on me that what so many people are actually doing with Sunday morning - resting, taking time for family activities, etc - may be a deeper Sabbath than my imagination grasps.  So rather than fussing about why people aren't present on Sunday morning, why not explore the following?

+ First, how can we in the church create/shape/write home liturgies for honoring the Sabbath that help people mark their time as sacred? They need not be present in the Sanctuary to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, right?  So why not explore and then create resources to help them rest in God's love with intentionality?

Worship does not equal Sunday morning. Again, this is nothing new, but other-than-Sunday worship opportunities are increasingly being adopted by congregations for a variety of reasons. Some church buildings, for example, house multiple separate congregations that must schedule their activities so as not to conflict with one another. Many congregations are realizing, however, that Sunday morning is simply not the best time to try to get everybody together. Organized sports are one explanation, but even more importantly, families view Sunday morning as prime time to relax together, with church not always being viewed as the best way to relax. Furthermore, this behavior is not limited to families with small children—even adults increasingly view Sunday morning as a time to settle back and relax or golf or spend time with grandchildren. (Rice)

+ Second, if Sundays are truly becoming a secularized Sabbath of sorts, perhaps the time has come to rethink our community worship. I refuse to surrender to simply connecting on-line for community building - although increasingly I believe this to be a vital resource for us, too - so what would "worship" look like for us at another time of the week? What would a radical rethinking of timing and experience look like that acknowledges contemporary realities and creates authentic worship for our people?  And I don't just mean copying the Saturday afternoon Mass; rather, I mean finding a way to honor the Lord, connect with the community, deepen our faith and strengthen the ties that bind.  What would that look like?  A 6 pm simple meal for all ages followed by a time of song, prayer, conversation and Eucharist?  

+ Third, as Jean Stairs and Dorothy Bass state so clearly, the time has come to help one another reclaim the "practices of our faith" rather than the disciplines.  Practices connotes a life-long encounter - I practice the upright bass - and avoids any sense of guilt, shame or pressure.  Practices invites us to grow deeper without any sense of false hierarchy, too.  It is a way to deepen our faith without becoming dogmatic.  (See Sarah Drummond's article @ http://www. alban.org/ conversation.aspx?id=9116)
Small groups and faith formation does not equal Sunday School in church buildings. Increasingly, small groups off-site are taking the place of Sunday School on Sunday morning. These groups are much more likely to happen in people’s homes or in coffee shops and at the beginning or end of the work day rather than on Sunday. (Rice)

I don't pretend to know any better than any other old pastor how to make this shift with integrity and verve, but it is becoming clear to me that it is essential.  And rather than be afraid of it, I want to find a way to embrace and celebrate the possibilities. I also know that I don't have to reinvent the wheel as minds greater than mine have been doing some of this for the past 20 years, too. So after Christmas, this will be one of my key priorities.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Beloved, pray for us...

In her lovely and insightful book, Listening for the Soul, Jean Stairs talks about pastoral integrity and credibility as precarious essentials for doing authentic pastoral care.  Man, is she ever right - AND - man is it ever a tight rope to walk. When you practice quiet time and reflection, some in the church call you a slacker. When you work yourself ragged, others worry that you are not taking care of yourself. When you wait and practice discernment, some grow cranky and demand immediate answers if not solutions to their problems.  And when you offer advice after it has been requested, others get hurt feelings and do the exact opposite.

What I have discovered, however, is that if I practice regular quiet time and prayer - if I study and reflect and always make time for music - then my soul stays reasonably healthy. Last night I read this passage from I Thessalonians that really struck home because it emphasizes a key truth:  ministry matters only when we're in it for the long haul - and some days are better than others.

We urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the
faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. Beloved, pray for us.

Tomorrow I will finish up my Advent home visits with our members who aren't able to get out much any more.  It is a privilege to check-in with these saints and I try to make it happen 2-3 times each year. Today we celebrated at midday Eucharist the 1 year anniversary of someone who last year at this time was in the agony of cancer treatment. (Last night was the 27 year anniversary of another member's sobriety.) I'm working on some jazz charts that we'll play on Christmas Eve - beautiful and meditative - and I need to beef up my chops so that I do the music justice.  It is very satisfying to be able to spend an hour each day listening and practicing these tunes - they are embodied prayers for me.

Life has been too full - and money too short - so we'll finally get away on Friday for a bit of Christmas gift collecting in Brattleboro.  And then it is the fullness of Advent IV and then Christmas Eve.  We'll all be together for worship and then head out the next day for the Plainfield farm for Christmas dinner.  Beloved, pray for us...

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Worship notes: advent four...

For the past four weeks I’ve asked you to quietly and personally play
the role of the contemplative for Advent:  my hope has been that you would take a long, loving look at what is real and then playfully but faithfully see what the Lord might be saying to you through your everyday, ordinary, walking around experiences.  Frederick Buechner calls this invitation into contemplation listening to your life:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

The apostle Paul says much the same thing in Romans 12 when he tells his disciples:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Each week during Advent our tradition has offered some Bible stories to serve as gentle guides for us as we listen to our lives. 

·   +  At the start of December we were confronted with the apocalyptic advice to stay awake – to practice contemplation – because no one knows except the Father when the Lord will break into our awareness so we listened to our habits and thoughts together.

·   +  On the second Sunday of Advent John the Baptist came to us in all his fury urging us to pay attention to the tension in our lives – to let go of some of our busy work so that this year our Christmas might be different – and we listened to our “to do lists.”

·   +  Last week Mary sang her song of embodied prayer and brought to light the deep promises of God’s healing grace that can be experienced in our flesh – and we listened to what our bodies might be telling us about God’s coming at Christmas.

And now there is the story of Joseph – his fears, his faith and how he discovers a greater fidelity born of compassion – and how that might guide us in our listening and contemplation. It would be so very, very easy to not listen to the fears of our lives as recorded in today’s gospel in our pursuit of the joys of Christmas.  Nobody does this well…

And yet I choose to believe there is value in honoring the last Sunday of Advent as we listen to our fears along with Joseph.  I know that I need to spend a little more time in the darkness to feel in my flesh something akin to Joseph’s quest for God in the midst of his anxiety.  You see, truth be told, this story could have turned ugly very quickly given the choices Joseph saw before him.  But like many of us in this season, he took the time to listen to his life and let God speak to him through his fears.

So let’s tease out a few of the contemplative insights in this story before unwrapping the gifts of Christmas, ok?  There are two fascinating clues about listening to the fears of your life that are buried within the details of this story but they take a bit of amplification.  If we simply read through the text as a prelude to the feast of Christmas, it would be easy to miss them – and that would be a loss.

So first consider what we’re being told in the word Emmanuel.  It literally means “God is with us” and is found in both the Old and New Testaments.  The prophet Isaiah tells his king that a child shall be born in the midst of a war to save the people from their sins and his name will be Immanuel; over 500 years later an unnamed angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that the child to be born of Mary by the Holy Spirit will also heal the sins of the people and he, too shall be called Emmanuel.  Now whenever we get a double-dose of a name on a Sunday morning, it is a not too subtle invitation to pay extra attention – even if we’ve heard this story over and over again – because something important is going to take place with this sacred double whammy.

·   +  And my hunch is that it has something to do with what Jesus reveals to the world:  Jesus will be the clearest sign of God’s nature and love that human eyes can take in.  Not the only sign, right?  There are obviously other signs in the world that would include the beauty and awe of nature as well as the march of justice in history.  What’s more, other religions have insights about the Lord that are sacred and true and we, ourselves, have had personal experiences that have opened our hearts and minds to the truth of God.

·   +  But most of these other signs that reveal something of the Lord – especially in nature and history – can be ambiguous and subjecting and open to interpretation.  But there is no ambiguity in God’s word made flesh in Jesus. It is pure love and grace from start to finish because the whole point of Jesus is “to reveal and redeem – to show us as much of God’s character as we can take in – and save us from our sin.” (Arland Hultgren in the Working Preacher)

·   +  I love the way Jesus himself speaks to this in last week’s reading when he tells his cousin, John the Baptist, if you wonder about the essence of God and my role in revealing the way of the Lord, look at what is happening:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

In his anxiety over how to best respond to Mary’s unplanned pregnancy
– and all the social repercussions that could follow – Joseph’s fears awaken in him a need for guidance.  That’s what the unnamed angel represents – God’s guidance in the midst of Joseph’s confusion – and as Joseph listens the angel confirms that Emmanuel is coming.  God is with us is coming. The clearest embodiment of God’s grace is coming – without ambiguity or question – and when Joseph wakes up from his fear, he is able to trust the way of the Lord and embrace Mary fully as his beloved and pure wife.

·   +  Are you with me on this point?  Was I clear in stating that the first insight into Joseph’s story has to do with Emmanuel – God coming to be with us – in a bold and unambiguous way?

·   +  I’m not saying all doubt and fear goes away in our real lives when we live by faith.  No, what I want to say is that when Joseph’s fear is most intense, God reveals to him a sign of profound comfort and joy.  I think the first insight is that Joseph’s fear gave him permission to trust the wild power of God’s unambiguous grace.

Sometimes, you see, people like you and me are just too damn smart for our own good.  We think we can figure out solutions to all of our problems.  After all, we have advanced degrees. We are smart and creative people.  But sometimes no matter how smart we are we can’t fix our problems or solve our fears.  We need a power and love GREATER than ourselves to do that and I sense that this is part of what Joseph’s story is telling us:  Emmanuel is coming to be with us if we’re willing to receive him.

Another insight in Joseph’s story of listening to his fear begins with the first words of Matthew’s gospel – in the genealogy – that part of the story most of us skip over.  But like the upside-down nature of the gospel itself, even in the words we think of as boring or irrelevant, there is often something sacred hidden within them.  The wise Jewish scholar who visited us a few years ago, Amy Jill Levine, suggests that the reason Matthew puts all those obscure names in the start of the gospel is because they gave Joseph a clue about how God’s coming can overcome our fears.

·   Specifically, Dr. Levine points out that in this genealogy there are the names of five women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (wife of Uriah) and Mary – and each of these women not only link Jesus back to his royal roots in King David but also point to a way of being “unconventionally righteous.” 

·   You might recall that Joseph is described as a righteous man – a faithful Jew who was committed to both justice and compassion – and that was one of the reasons why he was afraid and worried.  In his religious tradition, a woman ought not to be pregnant before she came into the home of her betrothed.  So because he was a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, he planned to dismiss and divorce her quietly. 

Apparently St. Matthew has spent a little time listening to the life of Joseph so he asks us to also listen to the lives of these five women because they were both unconventionally righteous but completely faithful to the Lord at the same time. Preacher Nanette Sawyer puts it like this:

Each of these women acted boldly and against convention in order to bring about some kind of justice… Tamar, whose husband died, was denied the protection of marriage so she tricked her father-in-law into giving her children, one of whom was Perez, an ancestor of King David. Rahab, a prostitute, was the mother of Boaz, another ancestor of King David. Ruth lay “at the feet” of Boaz and became the mother of Obed, who was still another ancestor of King David. See a pattern here? Bathsheba was taken from her husband Uriah by King David and became the mother of King Solomon, the next king in David’s lineage… (All of which) brings us to Mary, pregnant when she shouldn’t be, appearing to be un-righteous by conventional standards (yet who is clearly) doing the right thing (by carrying Jesus to birth.)

·   And here’s the kicker:  Joseph is being asked to become just as
scandalously righteous as these wild women of the Bible.  Because of his fear the angel of the Lord is able to push him toward just their type of radical compassion when it comes to Mary.

·   So this seemingly irrelevant genealogy is actually telling us that sometimes when we’re afraid we’re able to see a vision of Lord’s love that is greater than convention. In his fear Joseph is being invited to become a living part of that radical and upside-down grace that stretches all the way back the Exodus and continues into the very birth of Jesus. 

The time has come to be faithful and bold like these women, dear man, is what I hear the angel in Matthew’s gospel telling us through Joseph’s story.  And by listening to his fears, Joseph was able to do a truly healing and beautiful thing.

Now most of the time, I don’t think of my fear as an invitation from the Lord to become a person of unconventional compassionate.  I hate feeling insecure and anxious.  There is just nothing good about those feelings… except, of course, they can lead us deeper into God’s grace. 

The story of Joseph wrestling with his fears, however, gives me an alternative to either shame or denial.  His testimony is that God – Emmanuel – who is with us will not leave us alone. The 16th century mystic, St. John of the Cross, said:  "Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light and safer than a known way.” 

And so when Joseph awoke from his fear, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.  He took Mary to be his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had born a son whom they named Jesus.

2) Mary Sullivan Nativity @ fineartamerica.com
3) St. Joseph @ www.sjcpenfield.com

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:...