Thursday, February 28, 2013

Taking it slow as lent ripens...

Oh the joys of aging - and living in a small community.  I had to go in for an endoscopy this morning because of something called a Schatzki Ring - a narrowing of the esophagus - that causes difficulty in swallowing.  Like many men, I've avoided dealing with it for 7 years, but it is sometimes really troublesome so... (I'm still a little loopy from the meds, too!)  At any rate, while I'm lying on the stretcher, a colleague and retired clergy passes by, notices me and stops for a chat. (One of the prep nurses is already the mother and grandmother of another member.) And when I get into the prep room, my surgeon and I start talking about how his son is best friends with another little guy at church. 

So I'm chillin' out at home for the rest of the day while my head clears.  I have a jazz gig as a part of the downtown Arts Walk tomorrow that should be fun.  Earlier today I read this from Nouwen that speaks to me as we sneak up on the third Sunday in Lent:

One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God's forgiveness. There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins and prevents us from letting God erase our past and offer us a completely new beginning.  Sometimes it even seems as though I want to prove to God that my darkness is too great to overcome.  While God wants to restore me to the full dignity of being a beloved child, I keep insisting that I will settle for being a hired servant.

But do I truly want to be restored to the full responsibility of the son? Do I truly want to be so totally forgiven that a completely new way of living becomes possible? Do I trust myself and such a radical reclamation? Do I want to break away from my deep-rooted rebellion against God and surrender myself so absolutely to God's love that a new person can emerge?  Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring and renewing.  As long as I want to do even a part of that myself, I end up with partial solutions, such as becoming a hired servant.  As a hired servant, I can still keep my distance, still revolt, reject, strike, run away or complain about my pay.  As the beloved son, however I have to claim my full dignity and begin preparing myself to become the father.

Good stuff for a slow day of healing... time to fall asleep in front of the TV.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

What do portishead, arcade fire and herbie hancock have to do with good friday?

For the past 15 years, I have been creating experimental liturgies for Good Friday.  Not only to explore theologies beyond the medieval substitutionary atonement poetry and music that tends to dominate this holy day, but also to find new ways of telling the old, old story for this generation.  This experiment began in Cleveland when I noticed that a crowd of revelers was carrying on with great abandon at a local alt music venue while only 4 people showed up for our Taize meditation around the Cross.

Now let's be honest, at first I was offended and shocked that people would boogie and get trashed on Good Friday - but that just spoke to how sheltered I was in my spiritualized ghetto.  Why should Good Friday in 21st century American be any different than when Jesus was first nailed to the Cross:  few people noticed or cared then either, right?  So when I got over myself (and it took a little time and confession) I started to wonder: if the old ways of gathering around the Cross aren't communicating the deepest and most important truths of the faith, what else might work?  What, for example, might capture the attention of a hipster who has run out of gas at the bar scene?  Or a single mom (or anyone other lonely soul, for that matter) who has become tired of looking for love in all the wrong places?  What about those who regular come to Sunday worship but avoid Good Friday like the plague?  Our youth?  Those on the fringe?

When we got to Tucson, we tried some more Taize times - and those had a more healing and open groove than the traditional worship.  But they still felt incomplete - so when I first heard about the U2charist - using the music of U2 to create a communion liturgy - I wondered if we might be able to do something similar with the so-called "seven last words of Jesus."  What a great chance to jump back into this great music - and find the work of those who have been exploring U2 spirituality for some time - and learn it for our church band.  We wound up using some traditional scripture mixed with God: Part II, I Still Haven't Found what I'm Looking For, With or Without You, Love Rescued Me and When Love Comes to Town - and afterwards all bets were off.

We created one Good Friday liturgy based on lament and the blues - another on the face of Jesus in the Iraq War - finding poetry and scripture that made things pop.  And when we arrived in the Berkshires, I knew this was one emerging liturgical experiment that I needed to continue - and we have.  This year's theme - disorientation - is grounded in the words of the Easter Vigil exsultet - o happy fault, o necessary sin of Adam - which gained for us so great a Redeemer!   For me the theology of this night comes from the Paschal Mystery that God can create good from out of the worst suffering for those who look to the Lord and love God.  St. Paul says as much in Romans 8 and the whole arc of the Good Friday/Easter story points to the inextricable tension alive in our pain and God's grace.
So this year we're going to start off with the music of the Cure in their reworking of the Jimi Hendrix classic:  Purple Haze - but we'll add the prayer of the exultet over the top - before winding up with Antonio Machado's poem:  Last Night As I Lay Sleeping.  There will also be our take on "Mad World" and an apocalyptic version of "Keep the Car Running." There will be Portishead's "Roads" alongside Delta Rae's "Bottom of the River" and Glen Handsard's "High Hope."  I am getting excited not only for the artistic creativity of crafting these great songs, but how they deepen and make flesh the old, old story.

Two challenges:  first, this kind of reworking of liturgy takes some interpretation - only the most intuitive and edgy folk "get" it right out of the gate.  So I'm learning to add some written interpretation in our printed material and be fairly blunt, too in the opening welcome.  This is really a combination of performance art and prayer and takes a bit to time to embrace.  Second, readers, artists and musicians who aren't already grounded in experimental liturgy also take some time warming up to this kind of event.  Worship in this minor key takes a lot of practice and preparation. 

Thank God I have a core of artists and musicians who are energized by this quest.  Last night, after our first practice, I sent three drafts out of our publicity poster and invited reactions - and the responses I got resonated with my own.  Lord, it makes all the difference in the world doing this creativity with collaboratos and colleagues who GET it! So, we're off... I'll keep you posted as it unfolds.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

On tears, feasting and listening in lent...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, March 3, 2013 ~ the Third Sunday in the season of Lent ~ another time when children will remain in worship rather than go to Sunday School.  (We are trying a year of both Sunday School classes mixed with increased time in worship as part of our formation experiment.)  We are also celebrating Eucharist each Sunday through Easter.  If you are in town, please stop in and join the feast at 10:30 am.  This week's message is based on Isaiah 55: 1-3 and Luke 13: 1-9.

Sometimes I find myself crying:  they could be tears of joy and happiness when I feel really blessed by God’s love – or when I have some time to spend with those I really love in my family – but sometimes I have tears of sorrow and sadness where I’m weeping for all the pain and cruelty and suffering in the world and some of our lives.  Do you know what I mean?

My hunch is that some of you cry, too right?  I know it isn’t cool to say that out loud – we’re supposed to be tough and not let others get us down – but I bet that when something hurts – or makes you afraid – you still have tears… I think that our tears are one of the ways we pray to the Lord without words:  they speak what we are feeling deep in our hearts – they honor what is most true in our lives – and they open us to God’s grace in ways that we can’t explain.

No wonder the Bible tells us that from time to time Jesus wept:  he wept when some of his friends died, he wept over the city of Jerusalem because many of its people had become so hard-hearted, he had compassion – that is, he was broken hearted – for those who needed healing or food or forgiveness.  And he shed tears of joy in his songs and prayers – in his feasting – and in the love he felt for those who cared for him most deeply.

Jesus came from a long line of God’s servants who understood that tears can be some of our deepest prayers to the Lord.  And I say that out loud today on the third Sunday of Lent because we’re going to talk about how God fills our lives with gifts – blessings – everything we need – and sometimes the only way we can return thanks is with our tears.

Think about this:  have you ever been so happy about something you didn’t know what to say? Have you ever come through a really sad time – or hard time – or even frightening time and find that only your tears could speak for you?

In this morning’s first lesson from the poet and prophet Isaiah, God’s people had just come through a very hard time called “the exile.”  For 70 years they had been forced to live in Babylon – the land of their enemies in modern day Iraq – and they couldn’t go back to their homes or schools or places of worship.  They became strangers in a strange land – and they were sad, alone and afraid.

So during that time they wrote and spoke a lot of very sad prayers to the Lord – prayers filled with their tears – and they weren’t embarrassed or ashamed to cry out loud to the Lord because they knew that their tears were often their deepest prayers.  I think of two of the Psalms that come from this time:

+  Psalm 137:  By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows* there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ But how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

Psalm 126:  May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.  And those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying the bounty of their harvest.

 Well, in time, God’s people were allowed to return to their homes in Jerusalem and what do you think they did?  They cried tears of JOY – and through a party – a FEAST – and here’s how the poet Isaiah described what it felt like to be invited by the Lord to a feast after a time of suffering:

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

Now there are five special things about God’s love that are mentioned in this prayer of feasting that we would do well to remember – five clues that tell us how much God loves us – especially when we are feeling sad or afraid or all alone.  And that’s one of the reasons we read these prayers and lessons each week in church, right?  They are clues we can use when we’re NOT here but need to be reminded of God’s love.

+  First, the prayer tells us that EVERYONE is invited to the feast:  not some, not just those who deserve a party, not simply the favorites or the rich and cool people, everyone.  And why is that important to remember?  Because it includes YOU – and ME – and everyone else here – and all across the world.  God’s love doesn’t play favorites AND God’s love never gives up.

+  Second, the prayer wants us to know that God’s love can be like water when we’re thirsty or food when we’re hungry.  What do you think that means?  What does it feel like to be really, really thirsty?  And when you get a deep sip of cool, clean water… what does that feel like?  Have you ever been really hungry – aching – where your stomach and head hurt?  God’s love is about refreshing and nourishing us; it is about filling us when we’re empty and strengthening us when we’re weak.

+  Third, this prayer insists that beyond food and water, God’s love is like wine and milk that you don’t have to pay for!  Think about that:  bread and water are essentials – every culture and country throughout the world use bread and water to keep people alive – but what does wine represent in the Bible?  Not the necessities of life… but something special.  Something for a feast and a celebration.  That’s one of the reasons we use wine during Holy Communion:  the bread symbolizes the brokenness of our ordinary lives – the body of Christ – while the cup represents the banquet – the blessings – the joys poured out for us in celebration.  And what about the poet Isaiah’s reference to milk – why milk?  Have you ever had real milk with all the cream and fat in it?  Oh, Lord, it is so rich and creamy and extravagant!  Are you with me?  Here Isaiah is telling us that God’s love goes beyond our needs to love us generously – joyfully – beyond our imaginations and needs.

+  Fourth we’re asked to remember something hard in this prayer:  namely, that sometimes we forget how much we need God’s love and waste on time on things that don’t satisfy.  Can you name some of the ways people forget about God’s love and waste their time?  What are some of the wasteful things that we do in our ordinary day?  We can waste love, we can waste food, we can waste forgiveness and energy and we can even waste peace, right?  This part of the prayer asks us to remember all the different ways we waste God’s love – remember them and then choose another direction – by listening and following the way of love.

+  And that’s the fifth and final thought is this special prayer:  listening to the Lord.  The poet says LISTEN and EAT what is good – what’s going on here?  Listening and learning from God’s word is a way of being nourished, right?  Listening and hearing God’s love is a way to live life at its best.  Do you know the word ABSURD?  It comes from the Latin meaning “deaf.”  Unable to hear – or even unwilling to hear – suggesting that a life without meaning or purpose is one that does not or cannot hear the word of the Lord.

Sometimes when I am sad or afraid I try to remember the wisdom of this prayer by using my hand – each finger represents a promise – and it helps.  Do you every count using your fingers?  Well, you can pray using them, too:  1) God’s love is for everyone – including ME; 2) God’s love fills me with what I need; 3) God’s love gives me more forgiveness than I can imagine; 4) God wants me to learn from my mistakes; and 5) God asks me to listen and then live.

That is what Jesus is getting after in today’s rather odd lesson about the fig tree, too.  Here’s what I think he’s saying to us:

+  A fig tree is an important tree in the Middle East that produces a fruit that many people like to eat.  Americans prefer apples or oranges, but people in the land of Jesus loved figs.  So the tree represents something that nourishes others by the fruit it shares.  It is the job of the tree to share figs – and just to help make my point, let me share with you some… fig newtons!

+  What I think Jesus is saying is that people who listen to God’s word have a job just like the fig tree:  we are to nourish life all around us and help take care of people.  And maybe you can help me name some of the ways we do that – what are some of the ways you help take care of those in your family – or in our community?

Every week when we celebrate Holy Communion I am reminded of how much love God has given to us all – and how much love God asks us to share with the world.  And it often brings a tear to my eye because I get to see ALL of you – each and every one of you – the youngest and the oldest – those who are sad and those who are celebrating – those who are afraid and those who are rejoicing.  And every week that I get to serve you the bread of life broken in Christ’s name, my tears become prayers of thanksgiving because I get to listen to the Lord speaking through your faces and your lives.
So I’m going to ask you to try to do something a little different during Eucharist this morning – something that will make this season of coming to the table of the Lord a little more prayerful – a little more about listening for God’s love in our community.

+  And it is a simple thing:  can you practice being still together in community?  Listening and waiting quietly as you come forward and as you return?

The ancient ones used to use their body to help them listen:  when they came forward to receive the bread and the cup, they would treat it like a pilgrimage.  They would place their right hand in their left – palms open to receive a blessing – and they would let the celebrant put the bread of life in their hand.  In other words, they came to the table silently as pilgrims waiting to receive God’s love. And as they returned to their seats, they would walk in silence with hands folded in prayer in front of them as a sign of contemplation.  Reflection.  In this, they came to the table open and vulnerable, and returned filled and grateful. 

Do you grasp what I’m asking?  In this season of Lent we’re being asked to LISTEN and BE NOURISHED: we invited to the FEAST and asked to return to SHARE the blessing with the world by how we live.  And this needs quiet time – so would you try that with me for the next few weeks?  Come in silence with open hands and hearts, and return in the quiet of inward prayer?

Take a moment to see what that might mean to you as we ready our hearts to come to the table of the Lord and feast on God’s never ending love…  


Monday, February 25, 2013


Tonight we begin a short Lenten conversation/study @ 7 pm.  We'll be combining a conversation about awe and reverence with practicing Centering Prayer.  I like this quote from Raplph Hientzman from his book Rediscovering Reverence:

A religious life (like everything else, for that matter) is an answer to a question.  You have to ask the question before the answer can become relevant or meaningful. This persistent hunger for something more fulfilling than ordinary human satisfactions may begin to form such questions for you.  Another kind of experience that can do so is... reaching bottom or hitting some kind of wall in your life.  "In the experience of failure," Lezek Kolakowski observes, "in seeing Being defeated by nothing, the knowledge of being and of good emerges... and Sacred is revealed to us in the experience of our failure. Religion is indeed the awareness of human insufficiency, it is lived in the admission of weakness... thereby it is a cry for help."

This not only rings true for the season of Lent, but also my inner journey - yours, too?  It will be a short workshop - a total of just four weeks - given other commitments and the intensity of Holy Week.  But it still feels right - rather like the poem by Wendell Berry.

The longer we are together
the larger death grows around us.
How many we know by now
who are dead! We, who were young,
now count the cost of having been.
And yet as we know the dead
we grow familiar with the world.
We, who were young and loved each other
ignorantly, now come to know
each other in love, married
by what we have done, as much
as by what we intend.  Our hair
turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know. It was bitter to learn
that we come to death as we come
to love, bitter to face
the just and solving welcome
that death prepares. But that is bitter
only to the ignorant, who pray
it will not happen. Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening.  How sweet
to know you by the signs of this world!

These past few weeks have reawakened my need to call out to God for help - and rest in God's grace.  This feels like an odd little week by comparison: today was all about some administrative meetings and now my workshop, tomorrow will be given to writing/study and music, Wednesday is midday Eucharist and some Sunday School details while Thursday is dedicated to minor surgery - and a jazz gig on Friday.  I smiled when I heard the geese returning this morning as I took the dog out.  Sweet ripening, indeed.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Reclaiming a language of generosity...

This afternoon we hosted the movie, "Soundtrack for a Revolution" at church for about 50 people.  If you haven't seen it, it tells the story of the American civil rights movement through the use of music - blending old TV clips and songs with reworkings by contemporary soul artists.  It is brilliant - and heart-breaking - and encouraging and sobering all at the same time.
Marilynne Robinson writes in her most recent book of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, that "the language of (our contemporary) public life has lost the character of generosity."  Watching this film underscores this fact.  Not only have we lost the generosity in our language but:

The largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory.  On both sides the sole motive force in our post is now said to have been capitalism.  On both sides capitalism is understood as grasping materialism that has somehow or other yielded the comforts and liberties of modern life.  Capitalism thus understood is seen on one side as providential, so good in its effects that it reduces Scripture with its do-unto-others to shibboleth. The other side sees it as more or less corrupting and contemptible but beyond human powers to resist. (p. xv)

As I sat weeping over the heroism of those who have gone before me - and inspired me - cheering their heartfelt commitment to love and compassion in the cause of justice, two thoughts washed over me.  The first had to do with how important it is for faith communities to keep telling and retelling this story to families and children in each generation because it has almost been eliminated from our consciousness.  The second was a bit of encouragement to keep celebrating the ethics of "the beloved community."  Or as Douglas John Hall says, a way of living in the world that is based on I Corinthians 13.  To be sure, it will be denigrated but realists and other cynics, but that has always been true. And considering the alternative, we could do much worse.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

While on retreat this past week I rediscovered a well of tears that need to be wept; it seems as if personal, social and even cosmic grief is alive and well in my heart.  I also came to embrace this as a necessary albeit complicated part of my journey of faith. As some of my friends put it: Nous allons donc les larmes et le processus de guĂ©rison ... et la confiance dans le Seigneur.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Compassion and the vibe of the city...

Thomas Merton once said:  The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings - which are all part of one another - and all involved in one another.  I seem to recall this insight being related to his visit to NYC after a long time as a cloistered monk.  He could feel the whole of the place pulsating with life.

I know I certainly felt a deep and loving vibe as I just wandered through the city these past few days, too.  It was a good type of solitude and retreat - not too much alone time - but enough to get me refocused.  As I read and prayed three themes from scripture kept popping up:  rest, tears and waiting.  I had to laugh at myself because I've been searching for and wrestling with these truths for 40 years - and I guess I always will.  Now, from time to time, some people let me know that they are uncomfortable with their pastor posting such vulnerable truths about wrestling with demons, the blues and all the rest.  And on one level, I get it:  we all seek shelter in the storm.  But what I learned so long ago from Henri Nouwen - and others - is that what is most personal is also most universal.  So, I'm willing to take the risk of confusing some in the trust that others will be encouraged to keep at the journey even when it feels empty.

When I was wandering around one day, I came upon these guys at a subway stop and they were playing, "As Time Goes By" with grace, beauty and style.  I gave them a big tip, listened for a few more songs and shared a smile.  As Di says, "James can ALWAYS find some jazz no matter where he goes..." At another subway station there was a brass duet playing "Down By the Riverside."  I joined in singing with them - and we shared smiles, too. Life felt slow and real and simple. Now I'm home - and glad to be with my honey and our dogs.

My time away was filled with prayer and rest, tears and laughter and feasting with my dear daughter and her husband.  It called to mind this great old Joni Mitchell tune that not only expresses my profound gratitude and respect for street musicians but also captures some of the inner blues I've been wrestling with these days.  As Nouwen advises: Go with the feelings and let them move you towards inward compassion - trusting always in God's grace. Tonight I can say:  Amen, brother Henri, amen.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Bearing our weakness with compassion...

A few helpful and meaning-filled quotes from Thomas Keating that spoke to my heart yesterday:

+ If the Spirit asked us in the beginning to make a total surrender of every difficult person or situation, nobody could do it.  By leading us gradually - the way human things work - through growth in trust and humility, we are able to make deeper surrender of ourselves to God.  In this way we reach a new level of interior freedom, a deeper purity of heart and an ever increasing union with the Spirit.

+ The humiliation of the false self leads to humility and humility leads to invincible trust.  The Fruits of the Spirit enumerated in Galatians 5: 22-23 begin to appear and later the Beatitudes of Matthew 5: 3-10.

+ What is most disconcerting for souls who have been on the "spiritual" journey for 20 or 30 years is that each time we make a transition from one level to the next, we are likely to encounter the same temptations we had before we started the journey and we think, "I'm not getting anywhere."

+ To accept our "spiritual illness" and the damage that was done to us by people or circumstances is to participate in the cross of Christ and our own redemption… bearing our weakness with compassion, patience and without expect all our ills to go away is the best what to function within God's kingdom where the insignificant, the outcasts and everyday life are the basic coordinates.

Makes me think of Jung when he said that the Lord's invitation to meet God by caring for the hungry, clothing the naked, etc. also included the inner journey where we are to befriend our own loneliness, feed our own inner hungers and clothe our own nakedness tenderly and with affection. It is both an inward and outward journey that always needs as much careful compassion for our wounds as our anything we do unto others.

As I was waiting for the train yesterday there were two young girls with their mother.  As tweens are want to do, they were jabbering and flitting about making more noise than I was ready for.  At first they reminded me of a living video game as they literally bounced off the walls of the small waiting room - and the sheer volume of their shrieks and giggles was unsettling.  "God damn," I thought, "I'm on a journey INTO silence and they are making me crazy."  But that's not true; they weren't making me crazy.  They were just being goofy girls caught up in the excitement of a trip.  (Ok, they could have been a little quieter!)  

No, it was my inner agitation that was making me crazy - my neglect of solitude and self-care - and a deep sadness  that lives within me.  Keating writes that the desert fathers gave thanks for tears because they open the doors of the heart to God.  As those who practice Centering Prayer recommend, I am simply going to rest for a time in the Lord - it is not about finding answers at this moment - and from within the rest something will be revealed.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Getting ready for quiet reflection...

As I prepare for a few days away for quiet reflection during Lent, I keep thinking of these words by Joan Chittister in her book:  The Liturgical Year.  About this season she notes:

Lent calls each of us to renew our ongoing commitment to the implications of the Resurrection in our own lives, here and now.  And that demands both the healing... and the honing of the soul, both penance and faith, both a purging of what is superflous in our lives and the heightening, the intensifying of what is meaningful... Lent requires me to decide whether I, myself, do truly believe that Jesus is the Christ - and if I believe, whether I will live accordinly when I can no longer hear the song of the angels in my life and the star of Bethlehem has grown dim for me.

There is plenty of room for other faiths and traditions in this challenge - Chittister does not seek to squeeze everyone into one mold - and for this I am grateful. But make no mistake;  there is little wiggle room in her words for each individual Christian.  Do I truly believe Jesus is the Christ - and how will that change the way I live? She goes on to observe that "Lent enables us to face ourselves, to see the weak places, to touch the wounds in our own soul and to determine to try once more to live beyond our lowest aspirations."

This strikes me as the underbelly of graitide - a shadow truth - that gives depth to the joy and power of grace.  As one spiritual director used to say to me, "Never put whipped cream on bullshit."  Lent invites humble but grace-filled introspection.  It encourages deep trust, too as well as repentance and renewal.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Practice what you preach...

One of the things I LOVE about Henri Nouwen is that he is as bad as I am about practicing what he preached:  that is, his humanity was always showing as he tried to live a faithful albeit broken life.  Sometimes he hated the fact that he couldn't get it right - like me - and had to keep returning to the truth that only God can bless and heal and nourish us.

In his collection of Nouwen writings organized according to the liturgical seasons, Eternal Seasons, journalist Michael Ford writes:

Henri Nouwen was troubled by demons throughout his life. He knew that his temptation was actually to be so obsessed by his sins and failings that he could become stuck in a paralysing guilt. This led him to introspection. Guilt became an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent, he concluded, was the time to break down this idol and direct his eys to a loving God.

Somewhere I remember reading that Nouwen once visited Mother Theresa and begged her for her insights about living in God's grace.  And essentially she told him, "Shut up, Henri.  Be silent and spend an hour every day in the quiet."  I know that both listening and solitude are essential for letting go and hearing the still, gentle and healing voice of the Lord.  I preach it all most constantly.  My defining passage of Scripture is Matthew 11:28: come unto me all ye who are tired and heavy laden and I will give you... rest. And all of my life I have wrestled with practicing what I preach about rest and renewal. 

In this, Nouwen and I are soul mates.  He once noted that in every day we can bounce around from grace to despair  and back - and that it is often and mostly beyond our control.  For years I was practicing a measure of solitude every 6-8 weeks but this was interrupted during Advent - and I hit the wall earlier this week.  So... I'm outta here for three days of quiet.  See you again after Sunday.

(My man C shared this with me this morning and damn but it gets this season just right!)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Promises, ceremonies and gospel: lent two

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for the second Sunday in Lent.  Our children and youth will be with us in worship and we are celebrating Eucharist throughout this season.  Many thanks to the wisdom and insights of the Seasons of the Spirit crew and Carolyn Brown at Worshipping with Children @

Lent is a journey into gratitude:  it is both a choice to be made and a commitment to be practiced.  So if we want this season to fill us with grace – if we seek to “renew a commitment to Christ grown dull by lives marked more by routine than by reflection” – then we must make time for the Lord. (Chittister, p. 111, The Liturgical Year) 

Specifically, we must take time to trust the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.  Because you see, trusting God takes practice; it is not automatic but requires some rehearsal.  Especially in a culture like our own where spontaneity is celebrated and making it all by ourselves through personal initiative have become the hallmarks of successful living.  Even jazz artists like Wynton Marsalis note that all good improvisation is born of serious and vigorous practice.  

So listen to this – it is so sobering:  there seems to be a consensus developing among palliative care nurses who attend to those in the last 12 weeks of life.  When they ask their patients, “If you had it to do over again, what would be different?” five common regrets emerge:

First, I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself not the life others expected of me.  Second, I wish I had not worked so hard.  Third, I wish I’d had the courage to express my true feelings.  Fourth, I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends. And fifth, I wish I’d let myself experience more happiness.

Now I don’t know about you, but what I hear being articulated in this chorus of regrets is heart breaking:  it tells me that countless people feel they’ve wasted too much of their lives on things that don’t really matter.  No wonder St. Paul told those early believers in Rome who wanted to live in the way of Christ that they “must not be conformed to the ways of the world – squeezed into a  mold of social conformity – but rather be transformed by the renewing of you mind into a living sacrifice for the Lord.” (Romans 12)  Let your heart, soul, mind and body practice the habits of gratitude and love and you will learn to trust the Lord God in all things.

So let’s talk a little bit about trust – and taking the time to playfully practice it.  And I want to do this by asking our youngest people a few questions because I think you can help us all, ok?

·       First, do you know anything about making a promise?  What kind of promises do you make in your life?

·       Anyone play sports – what kind of promises do you make here?  Do you make promises in your family – like what?  Anybody involved in scouting?  Are their promises you make to be a good scout?

The first story in the Bible today talks about God’s promises and learning to trust them – but it is a weird story.  The two main characters are Abram and Sarai – they are both close to 100 years old – and God has promised that they will have a baby but it hasn’t happened yet.  So both of them are getting worried that maybe God isn’t going to keep this promise – and that’s frightening to them because they left their old home for a new country and everything on the way to their home seems upsetting. 
·       So God tells Abram to go outside and look at the stars – have you ever done that?

·       Have you ever tried to count all the stars in the night sky?  Impossible, right?

And that’s the first way God asks Abram and Sarai to practice trusting in the Lord’s promises:  look at the stars – I will give you more children than all of these stars – and today we are the evidence!  Did you know that?  We are part of the proof that God’s promises can be trusted because our Christian faith comes from Jesus – who was a distant relative of Abram and Sarai – and there are millions of Christians and Jews all over the world. 

Do you know anybody that goes to another church in town?  What’s the name of that church?

·       How about somebody that goes to a synagogue:  do you know the name of that house of worship?

·       Can you see the map we’re using during Lent?  Do you know the names of some countries where there are Christians and Jews?  

Sometimes it is hard to practice trusting God’s promises all by ourselves so we need to look for some clues and evidence – we need some help – and the first truth for today is that the stars in the heavens and each and all of you are part of the proof.  You are signs that God keeps God’s promises – and as a reminder, would you put a star sticker on your hand?

The second way God helps us practice trusting the Lord’s promises is through our ceremonies and times of worship.  In today’s story about Abram and Sarai when Abram was still worried, God created a ritual to help show just how serious the Lord was about keeping this sacred promise.

·       Have you and a friend ever said something like, “Cross my heart and hope to die?”  Those are serious words, aren’t they?   

·       So why do people say them?

Sometimes we use serious words and actions to make the point that we really mean what we say – and that’s what God did to show Abram that the Lord could be trusted.  Now I know it sounds rather strange and maybe even a little creepy to us, but do you remember what took place in the ceremony God asked Abram to perform in our reading?  Abram had to take some animals – a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtle dove and a pigeon – and what did Abram have to do with them? He had to slaughter them, cut them in half and put one side of their body over here and the other side of their body over there and wait. 
·       Now why in the world would God ask his friend Abram to do something like that?  Well, back in the day it seems that people who lived out in the desert would sometimes make a deal and seal it with a similar kind of ceremony – something that was a little frightening – and very serious.
·       And once they had cut the sacrificial animal in two – and put part of it here and the other over there – they would walk in-between the bodies.  And when they both got to the middle they would something like, “If I break my promise to you, may something like this happen to me.”

Back in those times this was called “cutting a covenant” – later that become “cutting a deal” that we say today – because this ceremony was another way God showed Abram just how serious God was about the promises.  And it is important to note that only God walked between the sacrifices – Abram was asleep or having a vision and didn’t walk through the middle – it was God alone who brought all the commitment to the ceremony.

·       Are you still with me?  A pretty wild ceremony, yes?  Very, very serious, too – but we still have serious ceremonies today that help us remember God’s promises, don’t we? 

·       Can you name some?  Ash Wednesday – Maundy Thursday – Good Friday - funerals… there is always a serious part to a wedding ceremony, right?  And even baptisms and Sunday morning Holy Communion have serious parts to them.

So religious rituals and ceremonies can be another way to help us take time to practice trusting God and loving the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – and what are some of the practices we do every week in worship that help us rehearse God’s promises?  Can you name some of the parts of our worship celebration that we do every week?

·       We sing hymns – old and new – and what messages are in these hymns?

·       We say prayers:  and what type of prayers do we say?

We greet one another with Christ’s peace… we say the Lord’s Prayer in unison… we read scripture… have a conversation about the meaning of the Bible for our time… the choir sings as we take up an offering… and all of these things have meanings beyond just doing them.

One of the practices we share every week includes reading the gospel – part of the story of the life of Jesus – and why is that important and valuable?  It has something to do with what Jesus shows us about God’s nature and love; it has something to do with practicing trusting the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.  You see, as Christians we believe that Jesus shows us as much of God’s love as we can possible comprehend.  So if we want to trust the Lord, we believe we need to spend more time with Christ.

Take today’s gospel as an example where Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem and tells us that time and again God wants to come to us like a mother hen aching to protect her babies but we push the Lord away.  It is God’s nature to care for us and protect us but because most of the time we’re too busy or distracted to receive this love Jesus winds up weeping for us like the Lord.  Isn’t that a fascinating insight?  That when we push God away, the Lord weeps?  Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote:

If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Christ’s lament.  All you can do is open your arms.  You cannot make anyone walk into them.  Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world – wings spread, breast exposed – but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.

Jesus could have chosen any other animal in the Bible to help us think about the Lord – the mighty eagle of the Exodus or the proud lion of Judah - but he spoke of a mother hen who brings a deep mercy and a fierce loyalty mixed with her vulnerability.  “And that is so typical of Jesus… he is always turning things upside down…”

… so that children and peasants wind up on top while kings and scholars land on the bottom. He is always wrecking our expectations of how things should turn out by giving prizes to the losers and paying the last first.  No wonder he chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get, that way our options become very clear:  you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.  Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story.  He will be a mother hen – like the Lord – who stand between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm.  She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles.  All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body.  (Barbara Brown Taylor)

And so we read the gospel every week to help us grasp the depth of God’s love.

·       We gather every week in community to take some time from the busyness to practice loving the Lord.  We give a portion of our day to the Lord in ceremony and story, in silence and the breaking of bread so that we might know the Lord’s love – and then make it flesh in our own time.   

·       We meet to experience, practice and rehearse God’s mercy – to be nourished by God’s grace from the inside out – and let it change us.  But like that momma hen, it is always an invitation – a promise – and we have to receive it and make time for the Lord lest we discover that all we have at the end is bitter regrets…

This is the second Sunday of Lent – 10 days into the journey towards the Cross – take a moment in the quiet of this place to see if you are using it well...

Monday, February 18, 2013

Be still...

Timing is everything - or so they say. And given Pope Benedict's decision to retire, the reading of Fr. Thomas Keating's book on centering prayer, Intimacy with God, is fascinating.  It was published in 2009, of course, but today as I read the first few chapters that celebrate the wisdom of Vatican II - and spent time with Keating's careful and compassionate dismantling of much that has shaped the Roman Catholic church's theology and practice for so many generation - I couldn't help but wonder about what will happen next for this part of the church. And when Keating's deep concern is put alongside Gary Willis' new book taking on the historicity of the priesthood to say nothing of the "nuns on the bus" movement...

Keating calls into question three time-tested truths, attitudes and practices of the pre-Vatican II realm that continue to find resonance within the existing leadership class.  The first he calls "the Western Model of Spirituality where external acts are more important than internal acts."  This would include fasting, bodily penance, almsgiving, scupulosity re: attending the Mass and a variety of other practices that once gave shape and form to the faithful.  We spoke about this for a bit in worship yesterday in anticipation of observing a Holy Lent.  The old school Prods among us barely practiced any acts of piety during Lent - maybe dime or nickel mission folders - while our life long Roman Catholics spoke of not eating meat on Fridays or giving up candy.  When I mentioned that a soul on Facebook recently queried, "What should I give up for Lent?" there was a lot of knowing chuckles because in popular culture the external acts have come to define the season.

The second attitude Keating challenges believes that "the self initiates all good works and God rewards them."  It doesn't matter that this is essentially the Pelegian heresy of the 4th century - the belief that human beings have full authority over sin and are not fully dependent upon God's grace - this practice posits a distant Deity waiting for us to please him.  "If we do well, it is thumbs up; if we fail, it is thumbs down."  All of which is the polar opposite of the Gospel that teaches "that God initiates all good deeds through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit abiding within us." And the third unholy attitude of the Pre-Vatican II Church that Keating calls into question is our "overarching concern about getting into heaven rather than exercising the love of God and neighbor here and now."

And just so that we don't miss this point, he offers this caricature of a "good" pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic gentleman:

He attends Sunday mass faithfully, never eats meat on Friday and contributes generously to the collection every Sunday.  He goes to confession and Communion at least once a year and expect that on his death bed a priest will be there with the Last Rites to anoint him so that he can at least get to purgatory and then after a brief detainment, shortened by means of masses offered for the repose of his soul, move on to heaven to be amply rewards for his exemplary Catholic life.  It might never have occurred to this man that it might be a sin to exasperate or dominate his wife, shout at the children, underpay his servants and employees or to disregard the poor just down the street or in his parish.  In short, he adheres to the dogmas and observes the externals of the Roman Catholic religion, but fails to practice the gospel.  The gospel, you see, is a life to be lived, not just a set of observances... And this caricature is not too far-fetched.  Before the Second Vatican Council there was a climate that favored bargaining with God... to avoid hell or to shorten purgatory... Excessive concern about future rewards or punishment tended to take ordinary people's attention away from their primary duty of manifesting here and now the love of Christ towards their neighbors. (pp. 5-7)

My confirmation group wondered last night why so many people leave religion - both Roman Catholics as well as Protestants - and they concluded essentially what Keating has described:  too often the externals get confused for the heart and soul of the faith in ways that keep our wounded hearts intact. I like how Henri Nouwen puts it:

Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift. My resentment tells me that I don't receive what I deserve. It always manifests itself in envy.  But gratitude goes beyond the mine and thine and claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift.  In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received. But I now realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and all I have is give to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.  (That means) I must make a conscious choice.

I bumped up against my resentments and weariness today and they reminded me that the time has come for some solitude and renewal.  No more "doing" for a bit and a little more "being" and trusting in God's grace... I'm working on a quiet retreat.  As an old school Prod I know my own version of "works righteousness" and bargaining with God.  And while I pray with and for my Roman Catholic sisters and brothers during this hard time of transition, I also recognize the ebb and flow in my own soul.  Perhaps for us all this is a time "to be still and know that I am God."

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:...