Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Entering the wisdom of worship with our lives...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, May 5, 2013.  This is part one of a four
part series re: worship.  Each week, in addition to the readings, I'll focus on the how and why of our worship tradition.  This week the emphasis will be on "centering and gathering" and we'll move on to engaging, reflecting and blessing.

There are three American idioms that I want to share with you at the start of my message this morning because we’re going to talk about worship on this feast day of Christ’s Ascension – and how we might do it with more intentionality and verve.  That is, I want to consider with you ways that we might worship the Lord our God more deeply, more faithfully and even more passionately as a congregation.

The gospel text for today tells us that before Christ was raised beyond our comprehension into the everlasting presence of God, “He opened the minds of the disciples to understand the scriptures.” Before they had been afraid – locked away in confusion and grief – but after their minds had been opened by the wisdom of Jesus, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  They were changed people – women and men who not only understood the love of God in new ways – but now also embodied this love.  They became witnesses – the living evidence that God’s love was greater than death and that Christ’s grace was bigger than our sins – witnesses.

So as I started to organize my thoughts about this worship in light of the Ascension earlier in the week, three old truisms kept popping up at me:

·      The first belongs to Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers in American baseball history, who played in both the segregated Negro League as well as with an integrated Cleveland Indians team, who said:  It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you do know that ain’t necessarily so!

·      The second is ascribed to Earl Landgrebe, an Indiana businessman who while serving in the US House of Representatives became a fierce partisan against the impeachment of Richard Nixon in 1972, who said:  My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.

·      And the third comes from NY Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who apparently told a television journalist during a debate that:  Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.

And there are two facts about worship that I want to draw to your attention today – facts and not opinions – essential truths about common prayer not incidental personal preferences or habits.

·      Fact Number One:  worship is like theatre.  As Kierkegaard once wrote authentic and faithful worship starts with the knowledge that God is the audience, the clergy and musicians are the prompters and coaches and the whole congregation the actors.  When the congregation becomes the audience – or the consumer – and the pastor and musicians become the actors… then something is rotten in Denmark and worship is reduced to entertainment and commodity.  The First Testament of Israel calls this idolatry – a sin – something that separates and distracts us from the love and grace of the Lord our God.

·        Fact Number Two:  worship is an offering we bring to God that paradoxically gives us back much more than we ever give up.  The preacher, William Temple, who once served as Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII spoke of worship like this:

Worship is the submission of our nature to God.  It is the quickening of the conscience by His holiness; the nourishment of the mind with His truth; the purifying of the imagination by His beauty; the opening of the heart to His love; the surrender of the will to His purpose – all gathered up in adoration and the most selfless expression possible…

In a word, at our most faithful we don’t come to worship to receive a blessing – or to hear
wonderful music – or learn from the message:  we come to worship to make an offering to the Lord.  God calls and we respond – and by grace alone when we respond in humility we are also blessed and nourished and healed.

Those are the two facts that shape worship – turning our attention away from ourselves and bringing an offering of gratitude to God – but all too often that’s not how contemporary people comprehend worship, right? 

·       How many times have you heard someone say:  “That preacher was totally boring; he didn’t help me out at all?” Or this:  “The music was really off – it didn’t touch me at all?” Or even:  “I didn’t get ANY thing out of that service?”

·      Have you ever heard those things?  I know I have – man, I’ve SAID them – and more than once:  I didn’t get ANY thing out of that worship. To which someone should have said to me, “Well, what did you BRING to it?  Did you enter the gates of the Sanctuary with praise or grumbling?  Did you come to church to look in the mirror or worship the Lord?  Do you understand that the celebration is NOT all about you but the very Creator of the universe we know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit?”

Maybe Satchel Paige was right:  It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you do know that ain’t necessarily so!  Take, for example, the first component of our worship on a Sunday morning.  Without looking at the bulletin, do you remember what we call this first part?  GATHER – think about that – what does it mean?  Right underneath this worship heading there’s a short description that says:  A time to shift gears from the hustle of our everyday lives and become centered in God’s love.

·        Hmmmmm…. a time to shift gears from the hustle of our everyday lives and become centered in God’s love. What do you think that means?  How do you practice being centered for worship – any ideas?

·        What do most people do, however, when they come into the Sanctuary for worship?

In our tradition, there are three things we do to help us shift gears from our usual busyness so that we can become centered in God’s love:  we listen quietly and carefully to the centering music, we participate consciously in the call to worship and we enter joyfully into the hymn of praise.  Three very specific practices that have been time-tested for millennia to help us shift gears and be embraced by God’s love – so let’s take a moment to consider each of these practices so that we might open our minds to the promise of God’s joy rather than be confused by our opinions and habits, ok?

First there is the centering music – instrumental sounds almost always played on the organ – and that is not an accident. I’m going to encourage Carlton to say something about the centering music he plays each week so as he’s making his way to the microphone let me add these two observations:

·       First, the sounds of the music played at the start of worship have meaning:  they are carefully designed to evoke something within you that resonates with God. They are NOT background, elevator or “wall paper” music, but a musical invitation connected to some aspect of God’s truth.  But you have to pay attention, right?  Jesus once told his disciples not to throw pearls before swine… you have to give some focus to the gift that is being shared musically or else you’ll stay caught in the busy-ness of your everyday life.

·       And second the centering music is almost always instrumental – no texts are involved – in order that you might go inward.  This is prayer time – quiet time – transition time not travelling music or background noise.

·        What else is going on for you during our centering music, Carlton…?

So first worship begins with music that calls us inward to be centered in God’s love:  did
you get that?  Worship BEGINS with our centering music, ok? Not with the spoken word, not with the call to worship, but with our centering music.  Second worship goes deeper with our shared call to worship that might more properly be called a corporate call to worship.  And there are two reasons why the call to worship happens next:

·      First, we have each been called by God into the body of Christ – not into our personal time of retreat – nor a private hour alone with the Lord – we have been called into the body of Christ. The very word church – ekklesia in Greek – means to be called or summoned out of one thing and into another.  In our case, we have been called out of selfishness and into community – out of busy-ness and into reflection and praise – out of ourselves and into Christ.

·      Second, because we’ve spent all week being beaten around by sin and fear and worry and brokenness, we need to recall the deeper promises of God.  The call to worship is like a reality check that says:  you may have been wounded, but God doesn’t make junk.  You are the beloved of the Lord coming into the presence of God so wake up, pay attention and rejoice in that peace that passes all understanding.

Are you still with me? This is what Jesus communicated to his disciples just before he was raised beyond our understanding on the Ascension:  he opened their minds to understand the scriptures and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem… then lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  And while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. So they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.

First we let God’s love center us in sound. Second we affirm together that we are God’s beloved and that the promises of the Lord are greater than our fear, pain, sin or wounds.  And third we open our hearts to the Lord in songs of praise.  Bono of U2 put it at least as well as Bach when he said:  Music introduced me to God – not belief in God – but an experience of God that filled and touched me in ways that were greater than myself.  We sing hymns of praise – not lament or confession – but hymns of praise at the start of worship:  do you know why?

·      Music is experiential – it puts into practice surrendering our hopes and fears to God’s love – and opens us to the Spirit in ways thinking and speaking and reading cannot.

·      All of God’s creatures sing in response to their creation:  birds do it, bees do it, coyotes, dogs and whales do it, too.  Scripture tells us that the angels in heaven sing songs of gratitude perpetually to the Lord. Why else do we start off worship with songs of praise?

The brilliant contemporary scholar and composer of church music, Brian Wren, puts it like this:  singing songs of praise to God is corporate, corporeal, inclusive, creedal, ecclesial, inspirational and evangelical all at the same time.  That is to say, singing together unites us in joy and faith and connects heaven to earth all at the same time.

Throughout the month of May, we’ll be considering what it means to live into the wisdom
of our worship each week so that we can worship God more deeply.  This week we focused on entering God’s love by gathering together.  As May matures we’ll also look at what it means to engage, reflect and bless, too.

We gather together to become grounded and centered in God’s love.  So let me ask you to think about this: 

·       What would happen if you came in to worship each week and let the sounds of God’s love speak to you in quietness?  Leave the visiting until coffee hour – or after worship – what would happen if you gave yourself 10 minutes to get centered in God’s love?  What would have to change?

·       What would happen if you joined your voice with others in the call to worship like it was a refresher course in grace?  A bold reminder that you were God’s beloved? 

·      What would happen if you sang the hymn of praise boldly – as a proclamation that heaven had embraced earth – and that God was the center of your life?

Jesus told his disciples:  You are my witnesses… and I am sending you into the world to pro-claim and show what the Father has promised through me.  Then he opened their minds to understand… and they returned to Jerusalem with a great joy.  Lord, may be so among and within us, too.

Monday, April 29, 2013

We have the God-given ability to... improvise...

Bruce Ellis Benson writes that after God calls us to be disciples, we are then called to become creative.  Romans 12 puts it like this:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Benson, in good interpretive fashion suggests one "small change of wording:  I appeal to you... brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living, sacrificial work of art.  Can you dig that?  WE are God's creation - created in the Lord's image - and part of that image is to be creative, yes?  Artistic and imaginative... dare I say ready, willing and able to improvise?  To improvise with our lives - and the God-given ability to be creative - is simultaneously an honor and a responsibility.

We are to give shape and form to the Creator - who is loving, just, grace-filled, creative, powerful and beyond imagination - rather than waste our gifts.  We are to create lives -

and actions and families and systems of governance and commerce and works of art - that deepen beauty and truth rather than perpetuate injustice.  We are to care for one another with our creativity rather than encourage selfishness and greed.
"For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life."  (Ephesians 2: 10)

And whether we realize it or not, much of this happens through improvisation:  searching for creative solutions while remaining within the confines of community.  More and more, I am certain that Marsailis is right:  what we do on the bandstand is what we might do in our ordinary lives.  We can be a selfish, pain-in-the-ass that nobody wants to make music with, OR, we can listen and improvise and try to create something beautiful and satisfying so that the whole gathering is blessed.
+ jenny armitage @  http://dancingfeatherstudio.com/blog/2012/10/30/jazz-improvisation-one/
+ www.graftoninnvermont.com

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The very sound of our music can move us closer to God...

Tonight my Director of Music and I spent a few hours with Martin Jean of Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music - plus perhaps 50 other clergy and music directors from around the Berkshires.  It was the annual "Clergy/Church Musician Appreciation Dinner" of the local AGO (American Guild of Organists.)  Each of the past five years I've had the privilege to attend these dinner/lectures - and I've learned a lot.  Sure, they can sometimes feel a bit rarefied, but my musical colleagues are wise and talented.  And some of the other local clergy are a hoot, too.  I have always been grateful for the chance to join with others as we listen and learn from some of the best minds in the country.

Tonight Martin Jean spoke about how the very sounds we create in worship help bring us closer to God.  As you might expect in a room full of clergy, the comments after his presentation tended to highlight vocal music - clergy are SOOO text obsessed - but my man wondered if the sounds of worship that evoke communion with the holy might also include instrumental music?  Dr. Dean obliquely answered in the affirmative - I think he was surprised by the question - but that just set off a post-lecture conversation about today's worship and what we both have sensed intuitively since we started working together two years ago.  Namely, that the very sound we create in our instrumental music invites worship participants to commune with the Lord.

Clearly that happened this morning... but until we can get a recording of what it sounds
and feels like to play 13th century chant on a recorder under an open, fluid jazz groove you are just going to have to trust me.  (Let me also say that Dianne gave birth to a world premiere as she sang Malote's "Lord's Prayer" at the close of worship to a sweet, sweet jazz chart. She is one INCREDIBLE artist and we all are honored to work with her.  As she experienced today, not only was there musical communication happening between the three of us as musicians, but there was an organic and nourishing connection made between the beauty of the past and the artistry of the present where both were honored and married as equals.) Clearly, instrumental music is a sensual style of prayer - helping us move into communion with parts of God's greatness - and we're on to something very creative.  Stay tuned over the next year as we take this deeper...

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A continuing conversation about SBNR...

Earlier this week my clergy support group met for our monthly gathering - a community of practices as we call it - and during our dinner conversation we decided not to read Lilian Daniel's new book When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough.  We decided instead to go with Richard Rohr's Falling Upward.  Truth be told, I like the foundational essay that probably landed Ms. Daniel a book contract. (check it out @ http://www.ucc.org/ feed-your-spirit/daily-devotional/spiritual-but-not-religious.html)  She kicks things off like this:

On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is "spiritual but not religious." Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. Next thing you know, he's telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don't see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition. Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn't interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.

Recently I said much the same thing at the close of our Lenten/Eastertide experiment in Centering Prayer.  Referencing Ralph Heintzman book, Rediscovering Reverence (which we used as a companion to our practice of centering prayer) I noted that I LOVE art museums - and concert halls of all types - but my aesthetic experiences are not personally or socially transformative.  They are private - wonderful, to be sure - but they begin and end with me.  And I am not the center of the universe.  Heintzman writes:

All of us have spiritual needs, but (some) try to meet them from non-religious sources, especially nature and art.  This is one of our many inheritances from the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, which highlighted nature and art as sources that could provide an antidote to the dehumanizing rationalism of the Enlightenment. Valuable as they are, however, it is at least open to question whether they can ever be enough, by themselves, without something more to give them (shape) and meaning.

Seeking spirituality outside a religious frame of reference is certainly worthwhile, as far as it goes. The problem is it may not go far enough... Non-religious spiritualities often miss the essence of spirituality, which is spiritual habits - spiritual disciplines - spiritual behavior and action in the world.  And in fact that's exactly why people prefer the non-religious kinds of spirituality.  Because they are easier.  They make fewer real demands. They don't make you change your routines, or your habits, or yourself.  They don't require a turning of the heart, an inner transformation as Thomas Aquinas called faith.

In a word, religious life is too hard, too demanding - intellectually and practically - and it is way too inconvenient.  Love my neighbor - or my enemy - as myself?  Share my time and resources with the poor on a regular basis?  I'd rather go to the museum... or yoga class... or the movies... or just sleep in, for God's sake!  Now, sometimes when I get on such a roll, I tell myself, "Shut f*** up, you old geezer!  You've been there and done all that before so let somebody else have some fun, too."  And, there is some wisdom and grace to keeping my mouth shut, so these days I mostly try claim this option.  But in a conversation with clergy colleagues, it just isn't the season for silence (well, ok, that's not entirely true either, but...)

So, I'm with Lilian as far as her opening essay goes.  But others who have read more of the book said, "Lilian is just too snarky as the book unfolds... and her analysis doesn't go anywhere helpful."  And so began a 30 minute conversation about what is really going on with the whole SBNR critique.  It was lively, informed and curiously generational.  That is, I found myself in the role of the old guy wondering about how privatized spiritualities teach the habits and practices of reverence while my post-denominational colleagues argued that SBNRs DO share spiritual practices that are as healing and transformative as those of the church.  I kept asking, "what is the evidence?"

Like another old guy, Huston Smith, I just don't see it. In his book, Religion Matters (2000) that grew out of a debate with New Age leaders, Smith suggests that the older distinction between religion and religious institutions might be a more helpful distinction than the current spiritual but not religious polarity:

I am concerned about the relationship between “spirituality” and “religion” and the way those terms are being used because it’s become increasingly common for spirituality to indirectly denigrate religion. People used to make a distinction between religion and religious institutions, and that is a valid distinction. But then spirituality came along, and everything spiritual was good and everything to do with religion was bad. Religion became equated with dogmatism and moralism. Of course, there are institutional problems with religions. There’s not a single institution that doesn’t have a dark side. Would you dispense with learning because of the institutional problems of universities? I was born a Methodist and have immersed my life in Christianity, not only conceptually but experientially, as deeply as I could. Christian institutions have committed all kinds of sins. You can’t tag any sins onto spirituality because it’s not an object, it’s an internal virtue, an internal state. So religion has gotten tarred, and within the academy, where I’ve spent my life, it gets very roughly handled.

He also notes that the blessings of the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movements, the fight against hunger and many other sustained acts of justice and compassion have been born of the organized, disciplined and faithful commitments of religion.  Religion, in other words, seeks ways to turn our words and experiences into deeds that look like the image of God, something personal aesthetic experiences cannot accomplish.

Ok, I am aware that I was raised and trained in the ebbing hours of denominationalism. And that I have cast my lot with so-called organized religion (although sometimes I smile because often there is precious little that is organized among us!)  I also know that having spent time trying to nourish my soul in private meant that I was my own confessor - and that's a slippery slope.  My gut is linked, however, to the SBNR challenge to much that currently passes as religion.  The current Alban Institute magazine, Congregations, includes a helpful summary of SBNR truths:

+ First, SBNRs are skeptical of abstract theologies and doctrine - me, too. 

+ Second, SBNRs are post-modern and challenge all institutional truth with a hermeneutic of suspicion.  Given the failure of so many institutions, this is wise, yes?

+ Third, this group want to experience what is true rather than be told what to believe.  They are kinesthetic learners in the best mystical tradition.

+ Fourth, SBNRs are highly aware of hypocrisy - especially moralizing - with good reason.

+ And fifth, they see most religions as broken and often mean-spirited when they ache for acceptance and compassion.

Each and all of these concerns are valid and insightful post-modern challenges to our overly linear and abstract modernist spiritual traditions.  I know - and try to apply - these critiques to my work in my current faith community.  And, each of these institutional concerns have equal validity for all of us on a personal level, too - SBNRs included - because we ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God - all of us without exception.

As our dinner conversation came to a close, I recalled out loud an email I received last year from the counselors at a local GLBTQ support group for teens.  They asked if I might come by the group and talk about bullying - especially religious bullying.  I did but found that mostly I needed to listen to the young people as they told me their experiences of religious hatred, violence and rejection. I found that all I could do for a time was weep...

In time, I offered up a few alternative readings of the scriptures that are often used to beat up "queer" kids  and  also shared that there are other people of faith who try to make compassion and forgiveness the core of our lives. Towards the end of our time together I said that the best way to see whether I was full of shit was not to take my words at face value, but rather to come and see what our community was like for themselves.  A few months ago, this group invited me back to join in a film they were making - a resource to share with other GLBTQ teens in the Berkshires - another small step for trust.  A few folk came to our Good Friday "Disorientation" meditation and then our Holocaust Memorial worship, too.  Little by little, our words are being tested and a growing connection is taking form.

I mentioned this to my colleagues saying, "You know, sometimes this very imperfect thing we call church makes a difference in the lives of those who have been wounded.  It gives them courage to know that there are institutional allies committed to love.  That's one of the reasons why I stay grounded in the church rather than embrace the easier, laissez-faire approach of SBNRs."  What say ye all?

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Lord's Day and all that jazz...

Currently I am reading a mixed bag of books that are bringing new and sweet insights to

me about the marriage of heaven and earth - and the common thread is jazz. 

Listen to the sound of my horn...
     this note you have longed to hear.
Listen to the sound of my horn, I say,
     this music you have hummed by ear.

I sound the time to rise for the fields.
I moan the rhythm as the congregation kneels.
     I am the note of air,
     the voice of your despair.
I cry long nights for you, my people.
I rise early, pull on my coat of cotton
     and my shirt of tears
     and a smile to mask my fears.
I tote water to sun-baked trembling lips,
     and I sing away the pain
     oozing from hips lashed by the chair of years.

But now, my people, I have a new song.
Listen America, listen every songless ear:
     Now the congregation rises,
     Now a burdened land sings.
     Now the air breathes fresh.
     Now the rain fills the buckets.
     The note makes a song.
     The pain washes away.
     And my horn of clay airs a long signal motif.

Listen to the sound of my horn, my people,
     this rhythm of years long past.
Listen to the sound of my horn, I say,
     Great music and I... have come at last!
(Henry Dumas, "Listen to the Sound of my Horn")

+ The first is a Jazz Poetry Anthology:  The Second Set, eds. Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa.  There are two volumes that span the scene since the early days through our current groove.  A wonderful collection that I find inspirational and challenging - often at the same time - like much of good jazz itself.

+ The second is Resurrection City: A Theology of Improvisation by Peter Goodwin Heltzel. This volume got a rave review in the Christian Century - and a blast of praise by brother Cornel West - but it is slow going for me.  Maybe if you are unfamiliar with Liberation Theology this book will be insightful, but I am still waiting for something to pop.

+ The third is Van Gogh: The Passionate Eye by Pascal Bonafoux.  It is visually lush and mildly insightful about this incredible but broken visual genius.  Last summer we saw the Van Gogh exhibit that was moving through North America while we were in Ottawa and I was blown away by the vibrant intensity of these paintings in their original state.

+ The fourth is Liturgy and a Way of Life by Bruce Ellis Benson - and I am loving this book! It is creative, passionate, learned and wise in a way that has grabbed my soul.  Unlike Resurrection City (so far), this slim volume is hard to put down.  One paragraph is illustrative:

One can read the renewal of the arts in the church - including new concerns about the arts in worship - as evidence that Christianity's complicity with modernity might be waning... Over the past couple of centuries, the church's worship... unwittingly mimicked the rationalism (and dualism) of modernity. Assuming with Descartes that humans are primarily "thinking things," worship has been centered on didactic teaching. A few songs merely function as a preface to a long sermon, the goal of which is the dissemination of information to brains-on-a-stick, sitting on their hands. The body has no role in such worship; it is worship for the proverbial brains-in-a-vat of philosophical fame. And because the body has no essential role in such worship, there is also no place for the arts which are inherently sensible - even sensual. One can sense this in the pragmatism of church architecture, or the stark minimalism of interior design in Protestant churches, where the only adornment was scriptural texts emblazoned on the walls.  In rationalist worship spaces, even the wall paper is didactic.

Well, there is a LOT more going on here - on multiple levels, too - and this cat knows and loves jazz.

+ The fifth is Better Get It in Your Soul:  What Liturgists can Learn from Jazz by Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush.  Half this book is a lesson in why the wisdom of jazz might matter to the contemporary church, and the other half a collection of jazz liturgies from Canterbury House in Michigan.  This is a practical and clear guide that can help pastors and congregations move from discomfort to experimentation - with a variety of helpful road maps to guide the path, too.

This Sunday in worship, we will be living into some of the wisdom articulated in these

various volumes in an organic way.  As my worship notes make clear, I'll be talking about the importance of "memory bank hymns and prayers" for the healing of our souls.  In fact, I would be so bold as to say these hymns and prayers are ways for heaven and earth to embrace and humans to sense/experience something of God's grace.

With that as our foundation, my musical director started to explore how we might weave various settings of the Lord's Prayer throughout the liturgy.  He wrote a chart taking a medieval chant from the Vatican as the "melody" while the piano and bass vamp and improvise freely.  The woodwind "voice" enters and exits with the melody as she feels it while the piano and bass keep things moving a la Miles Davis' "So What?"  We'll take about 10 minutes at the start of worship to set this up and let it ripen.  During my message, we will also say the Lord's Prayer as we know it and then chant it to a modern folk almost trance-like melody.  Then at the close of worship, we'll use another jazz chart my music director has written based on Malote's setting of the Lord's Prayer:  we'll improvise it instrumentally, have our vocalist sing it under the jazz chords and then play with it again on piano and bass.

Three things are going on here (and maybe much more) that should be noted:

+ First, there is a playful coherence to this liturgy that uses music, scripture, tradition and various styles of sound to support the theme.  Not "theme-itis" as sometimes happens in an oppressive or heavy-handed way, but gently and with a sense of humor and affection.

+ Second, this liturgy embodies collaboration:  as pastor/preacher I first wrestled with the scriptures in light of the congregation's context. Next my musical colleagues talked about my insights with me and found ways to deepen and strengthen them. We also took time to listen to all the musicians reactions during rehearsal to see if our "hunches" were on target or we needed to change direction.

+ And third, there will be a dialogical part to Sunday's message:  I want to know how the gathered community feels and experiences the totality of our creativity.  I want to know what they sense in doing the Lord's Prayer as a spoken prayer, as a sung prayer and as a meditation in music prayer.

Today is a good day for Sabbath rest - and then onward to the Lord's Day and all that jazz!
+ http://fr.ee/article/free-jazz-music-lessons-for-different-jazz-instruments
+ www.allposters.com
+ www.etsy.com

Thursday, April 25, 2013

All we can do is love...

I came across this day... and it felt right.
At the close of tonight's clergy support group I found myself close to tears remembering both those who have loved me in my darkest times, and, those I have loved.  Sometimes all we can do is love, yes?  We can't fix or help most people - hell, we can't fix or help ourselves most of the time - but we can share love.  Sometimes that means letting them go in love, sometimes it means sitting through the darkness in quiet prayer and sometimes it means trusting that the love is greater than everything else. 

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you...  give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

An afternoon of jazz, blues and funk: June 2 2013

On Sunday, June 2, 2013 @ 3 pm our emerging community of musicians will hold another in our ad hoc series of musical fund raisers for local compassion and justice groups.  It will be another chance for us to get together to make sweet songs in community, enjoy one another's company (these folk are the BEST) and welcome the wider town into our beautiful space for a bit of refreshment and renwal.

My hope is three-fold:  first, I pray that our creative community will have a blast playing some fun tunes together; second, I want to continue building safe public space for people to simply "be" and enjoy themselves; and third, I hope we can raise some money for BEAT (Berkshire Environmental Action Team - check them out @ www.thebeatnews.org/)  In times like these it is crucial for people of good will and peace to build loving and creative alliances. 

Already Steely Dan's "Bodhisattva" is running through my head - along with Chaka Kahn's "Tell Me Something Good," the Miles Davis "All Blues" with the call to community and justice lyrics and probably "We Are Family!"  (I want to do the Delgado Brothers' "Church of El Monte" too and maybe the Allman Brothers version of "Stormy Monday" or Bonnie Rait's take on "Burning Down the House.")
This quote by Leonard Bernstien sets up our concert - so please join us for the fun.

This is our reply to violence

to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before

Leonard Bernstein 

Sunday, June 2, 2013
3 pm
First Church
on Park Square - 27 East Street, Pittsfield, Ma
A blues, jazz, rock and soul afternoon
To benefit BEAT:  Berkshire Environmental Action Team
A Free Will collection will be taken
Information:  447-7351 – www.firstchurchpittsfield.org
an open and affirming congregation
(Original art lena karpinsky)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

And God shall wipe away every tear from our eyes...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, April 28, 2013.  This is an inter-generational Sunday. We shall see...

Whenever I lead the liturgy for a funeral or memorial service – whenever I am asked or

invited to be with those who are close to the end of their earthly lives – whenever I ponder my own mortality or pray for those in my own family who are no longer physically present, my heart inevitably takes me to this text from the book of Revelation:

Behold I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among the people. God will dwell with them; they will be his people and God himself will be with them – and he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be over, for the first things have passed away.

These words shape, guide and inform what I think and feel about death and they are always just below the surface for me when death is near– especially the words:  “… he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  Isn’t that a stunning promise? 

·      That there will come a time when God’s love will be so real for us that mourning and crying and pain will be over?  That there will be such deep intimacy with the Lord that God will tenderly wipe away every tear from our eyes and suffering and fear shall be gone forever?

·       I think that this experience is part of what the apostle John was getting at, too when he wrote that just before Christ went to the Cross, the Master knelt down, washed his disciples feet like a servant and told them:

Little children, I’m giving you a new commandment:  love one another. Just as I have
loved you, you also should love one another. For by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In my understanding, Jesus is talking about God’s promises here:  your love for one another can be like the love I have known with God, and, it can be like the love I have shared with all of you, too.  This is a love that is gracious and kind, slow to anger and filled with affection; a love, in other words, that can wipe away every tear from your eyes.  There are two places in the Bible where St. Paul describes this love with such penetrating clarity that I want to share them both with you before going any further.

·      In Romans 12 he writes:  Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor… Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  And If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

·       And then in I Corinthians 13: 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. Love 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, looks for the best, never looks back and keeps on going to the end.

Too many times people of faith try to fake this or take it easy saying, “Well, these passages from the Bible are just the ideal – not something we can really achieve in our daily lives – after all, this talk of love is like Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount.  Good and inspirational words, but come on, not really something we can actually do.” 

But that is all wrong – this call to welcome and share God’s radical love is the most real blessing in the world – and from time to time I’ve actually seen and experienced something of God’s tender love from ordinary, everyday, walking around, run of the mill women and men like you and me, who have tasted a little bit of God’s grace and want to share its sweetness with others.  I bet you have, too – I bet you have felt and been nourished by this love that will not let you go – this love that seeks to wipe away every tear from your eyes, right?


And do you know where I’ve tasted this love mostly profoundly?  When cherished loved ones are moving towards death. Time and again, I’ve seen sins forgiven and put to rest, the wounds of fear and hatred healed and God’s sacrificial love made flesh all around a death bed.  And more often than you might imagine, it seems that God’s abundant love and grace gets unlocked at these times with even the most stubborn and mean-spirited souls through singing.  The music and hymns of our faith – what some call our memory bank tunes – resonate so deeply in some of us that God’s love rises to the surface like Christ on Easter morning.

·      I can’t tell you how many times this has happened:  we’re standing around the death bed of someone watching and waiting –aching for our friend or loved one to let go and rest into God’s grace forever - and all human words feel inadequate and cheap.

·      So we stand together for a while in awkward silence until someone is inspired to sing:  Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now I’m found, t’was blind but now I see.  Or maybe it goes like this:  Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand, I am tired, I am weak I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light:  take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.

·      In those moments – when song becomes our best and only prayer – not only are the hopes and fears of the living unlocked in a way that can only be called gracious, but those who are dying also seem to sense the blessing, too.  In fact, over and again in those moments, people who haven’t spoken in days often join in the singing.  They may not be able to make much of a sound, but they move their lips and as the music ripens and it seems to set everybody free to start loving one another just as Jesus commanded.

I’ve encountered much the same thing with the Lord’s Prayer, too:  people who have had a stroke, for example, and can’t speak suddenly find a way to join in the sharing of the Lord’s Prayer when it is started.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  It unlocks something deep within them and I think unites heaven with earth.  In certain memory bank hymns and prayers we are empowered to cross over our divisions and become as intimate with God as Christ Jesus was one with the Father.

About 25 years ago, I remember hearing a Vietnam vet talk about what kept him sane and human during the weeks he was locked inside a tiger cage:  the 23rd Psalm.  He had learned it by heart in Sunday School – the Lord is my shepherd I shall not want… yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall not fear because Thou art with me – and he kept saying it over and over again in the worst of times:  The Lord is my shepherd… Thou setteth a table before me in the presence of mine enemies… Those memory bank words helped him stay connected to heaven when earth had become a living hell for him – and it saved his life.

Behold:  I will make all things new and God will dwell within them; they will be his people and God himself will be with them – and will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

But there’s a problem:  not only are many children and grandchildren never learning some of the great old memory bank hymns and prayers, but because our culture and tastes are changing so rapidly there are huge portions of the American church today where even our memory banks songs have become disposable.  New ones are being written all the time – some of which are lovely and we use some of them here – but none of which are sung over and over and over until they are deeply embedded in our souls.  Contemporary American culture – even in the church – has become addicted to new products, new songs, new and fresh ways of doing everything. 

·      So as much as I am all for keeping it fresh, without some grounding in tradition and memory bank songs and prayers, it is going to be hard to keep the faith alive in such a disposable environment.  

·       Let’s be real:  should WE ever find ourselves in desperate conditions like that tiger cage in Vietnam, we’re not going to be able to turn to our Smart Phones and dial up the 23rd Psalm or Lord’s Prayer.  If we don’t have it in here… we’re in trouble.

Over the next year we are going to be sharing both some new and some time-tested songs and prayers to help you embrace their blessings more deeply in your heart.  And this should matter to you old timers as much as folk new to the tradition because we ALL need help in unlocking God’s love within and among us.  Again the apostle Paul is instructive when he reminds us that ALL of us – every single one – have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  All of us need help with unlocking God’s grace and love – those who know the old songs and the old words – just as much as those who want to sing them in new and more inclusive ways.

So what I’d like you to try with me this morning involves singing two musical prayers:  one

is a simple, contemporary chant version of the Lord’s Prayer and the other is an African-American gospel setting for something we often call the Doxology.

·      This setting of the Lord’s Prayer is like a breathing prayer – it ebbs and flows in a gentle rhythm – that asks you simply to follow the leader.  Just sing back what the music leader sings first. 

·       You don’t have to look at any words – you don’t have to even keep your eyes open – just quietly follow the leader in trust and faith like breathing in and out, ok?

Share and sing “Our Creator” here

Now what was your experience of the Lord’s Prayer shared in this manner?  What did it feel like – what was going on for you during the call and response – what did you like and what was uncomfortable? Did you experience anything different by singing this prayer rather than simply reciting or reading it?  Anything else…?

Well, that’s one way to reclaim the Lord’s Prayer – it isn’t better or worse – it is just another resource.  Another important memory bank prayer/song is something some of us know as the Doxology:  almost always this is sung by the people standing up for it is a way of returning thanks to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  People in our Reformed church tradition usually sing it to a 16th century tune called “Old One Hundredth” which comes from Louis Bourgeois’ musical setting of Psalm 100 in the Geneva Prayer Book.  It has been around for 500 years and maybe those who know and love it in this form might stand and sing it now…?

Share and sing the Old Doxology here

Now what does singing that song and those words in that way evoke in you?  Did you know that originally those words were the chorus to another song – a tune written to help young boys and men learn to pray every morning, noon and night – a teaching prayer in song about the value and importance of grounding our whole day in prayer?  Nobody sings the old words anymore – nobody uses this song as teaching device either – because as yet another hymn puts it:  time makes ancient truth uncouth.  Times change and so do the needs of the church.

So try singing the old words to a very different setting – in a gospel style – that builds and grows ever more powerfully each time the chorus is repeated. 

·       In this take on the Doxology, the whole thing is repeated three times:  any thoughts about why three times?

·       And the closing verse repeats the Amen three times as well, ok?

Share and sing the Gospel Doxology here 

Now how did that grab you:  what was different about this style of singing the Doxology? 

·      How is it different from the old way?  What did it feel like as you were singing?

·      And what does it say about a congregation’s commitment to loving one another as Christ loved us when we know how to sing and pray in different styles and even different languages?

There is an old story about St. John the Evangelist, the apostle whose gospel we read earlier, that says at the end of his life he was constantly saying to his friends:  Love one another, for the sake of Jesus, love one another.  And when they got a little overwhelmed by his constant repeating of these words they asked him, “Father, why do you keep going on and on about loving one another?”  To which the old saint simply said, “The Lord Jesus told me that this is the more important thing – to love one another as I have loved you – and everything else is commentary.”

I believe we learn about God’s love best not simply by watching Jesus share love in the gospel stories, but by loving one another ourselves.  In this we learn how to become servants like Christ – how to listen and forgive – how to go the extra mile and honor those who have been wounded and broken. 

By practicing we also learn how to pick up our Cross and follow in obedience when we’d really rather take an easier road.  And we learn how to die and let God’s grace raise us up to new and everlasting life.

Every one of us needs help – and training – and encouragement.  Our songs and prayers can be great allies, beloved, as they link heaven to earth and the living to the dead.  And the more we practice and trust, the more we are able to experience that blessing that wipes away every tear from our eyes.  This is the good news for today for those who have ears to hear.


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:...