Friday, May 31, 2013

Wrestling with words that work: sin, simulacrum and other sabbath ramblings...

Let me follow-up my periodic and meandering reflections on alienation (or sin) that I have been sharing on and off for a few months.  Words matter - words can help or hinder - and words regularly fail to express the fullness of a thought, experience or truth.  In her book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong speaks of the early church fathers searching for a way to most precisely describe the mystical truth of God.  Realizing the limits of language, they employed the poetic wisdom of simulacrum - creating a metaphorical likeness or image of the truth - that is always reasonable albeit incomplete. 

In doing this the mystery of the Sacred came to be described as Holy Trinity - three in one and one in three - or Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is both precision and imagination in this expression - depth and even playfulness, too. And while there is much more that could be said about God as Trinity - and often should be articulated, too - this poetic interpretation always points to a deep relational truth that lives beyond the limits of language.  Such poetry was never meant to be calcified - although that has happened - but rather was to be evocative in ways that opened the heart and soul of people to the blessings of the Lord that are experiential but never fully comprehended.

It is my contention that contemporary problems with theological language are rarely just the fault of our earliest imaginative poets. To be sure, these first century thinkers had as many blind spots and disconnects as do we in the 21st century. But that is up to each contemporary era to understand and correct -  to reform and remain reforming - throughout the ages.  Without this, the upside down values of God are buried under fear, rules and habit.  Small wonder, as Phyliss Trickle and Diana Bass have noted, that the church seems to need a profound revolution every 500 years in order to reclaim the creativity of our poetry from the confines of tradition.

Which brings me back to the word sin - and all of the baggage it carries.  The poet John Berryman wrote:  every generation is unwell in a new way.  Eugene Peterson goes on to note that one of the ways our generation is unwell has something to do with having "little consciousness of being a part of a community that carries in its Scriptures, its worship and its forms of obedience a life twenty and more centuries in the making." (Contemplative Pastor, p. 126) That is, not only are we certain that everything we are experiencing in life is totally unique, but that none of the old words apply or work.  Like Chrissy Hynde of The Pretenders sings: I'm special...oh so special!
But that's only part of the truth:  we are simultaneously made not only a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5) but also dust and ash to which we will return (Genesis 3:19) Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun as the wise old trouble-making preacher of Ecclesiastes observes.  "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."  Peterson pushes the implications of this further noting that people who are certain they are special:

... are subject to consistent trivialization. They find it impossible to tell what may be important. They buy things, both material and spiritual, that they will never use. They hear the same lies over and over again without ever becoming angry. They are led to entertain, and for brief times, practice, all kinds of religious commitment from magazine moralisms to occultic seances. In none of it do they show any particular perseverance. But neither do they show much sign of wising up - of developing a historical sense - of becoming conscious that they are part of a continuing people of God and growing beyond adolescent susceptibilities to novelty and fantasy. (p. 126)

That is why in the past 10 years I have found myself returning again to the old words of tradition like sin to describe part of the human condition.  I have to wrestle with them in my context - and sometimes point out their inadequacies as poetic simulacrum - but also own the fact that rarely are there better alternatives.  These words are time-tested and work reasonably well when given careful and compassionate contextualization.

About 20 years ago, for example, I realized that all my understandings about God were incomplete.  How could they be otherwise, right?  But it seemed to me that I could not adequately express the fullness of awe, power, mystery, love and judgment by simply saying "God."  So, for a year I quit using that word.  It was a helpful exercise.  It forced me to rethink what I wanted to communicate about the Sacred over and over again.  And then, after a year, I realized that God was the best word available to me to speak of the Divine.  It wasn't the only word I used, but it was the best short cut that remained reasonably true.

Like Rabbi Harold Kushner once said about the traditional words of his tradition: they are time-tested, dragged through the sands of history until all the dross has been worn off.  His context was being in community and rewriting the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy.  The first year they did this, the new words were fresh and exciting.  In year two, the new words were mostly ok but seemed a bit dated.  And by year three they were stale and one dimensional.  So the community chose to reclaim the ancient words because they had poetry, nuance and depth.  We've done much the same thing in our Sunday morning liturgy:  we use new and old versions of the Lord's Prayer, the Doxology and other traditional expressions. Sometimes the old ways just work better - not always - but when they do we should honor them and use them wisely.

So I wrestle with sin - and use it alongside some of the contemporary alternatives like brokenness and alienation.  Fr. Keating of centering prayer fame speaks about sin as "our false self" and that has resonance, too. Those who work in faith communities must be tender and clear because this tiny word has done such great damage.  And perhaps that is its power:  it can both unlock shame and guilt and bind it, too.  It can set the captive free or damn her to a life of hell.

I suspect that throughout time people of faith have wrestled with the double edged sword of this word - and it was no more acceptable or comprehensible by society in Paul's time as it is in ours.  After all, he spoke of the Cross as being "foolish to those who are perishing but to those who are being made whole it is the very word of God." (I Corinthians 1:18)

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

I think Peterson's contemporary reworking works well, too: While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.”

With all sorts of qualifications and explanations, I continue to find that many of the old words work better than almost all the new alternatives.  So I am curious to know your take on all of this:  drop me a note when you can.


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Everything is broken...

Most Thursdays are pastoral days for me at this stage in ministry.  My Sunday reflections have been written, the administrative concerns and assorted musical rehearsals of the community are over and next week's calendar has been sorted out and prioritized.  On this day, before my Friday Sabbath, I put together my weekly email note to the congregation and spend time visiting and listening to folk in the parish.  And having just completed the morning routine, I find I'm drawn to the wisdom of Psalm 36:

 Transgression speaks to the wicked 
          deep in their hearts; 
     there is no fear of God 
          before their eyes. 
For they flatter themselves in their own eyes 
          that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated. 
The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit; 
          they have ceased to act wisely and do good. 
They plot mischief while on their beds; 
          they are set on a way that is not good; 
          they do not reject evil.
Your steadfast love, O LORD, extends to the heavens, 
          your faithfulness to the clouds. 
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, 
          your judgments are like the great deep; 
          you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God! 
          All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 
They feast on the abundance of your house, 
          and you give them drink from the river of your delights. 
For with you is the fountain of life; 
          in your light we see light.
O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, 
          and your salvation to the upright of heart! 
Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me, 
          or the hand of the wicked drive me away. 
There the evildoers lie prostrate; 
          they are thrust down, unable to rise.

Patrick Henry Reardon in his Christ in the Psalms notes that this is a "meditative prayer contrasting (our) wickedness with the mercy of God." I am particularly taken with three key observations.  First, the Greek rendering of the Hebrew seems more direct in the opening verse:  Planning sin, the lawless man converses within himself; there is no fear of God before his eyes.  This is less obscure, yes?  That is, a worldview - a philosophy - an ethics of self shapes the reality of sin.

Second, sin matures and ripens in our lives when we banish any consideration of either the higher good or the reality of the sacred.  "Man (sic) does not simply fall into evil," Reardon writes, "his perversity is a veritable project of his mind, the object of an intentional strategy."  And third, just so that we cannot avoid getting the point of this comparison and contrast, the Psalmist lists seven different ways - the biblical number of totality - that those who don't rest in the Lord operate:

+ There is no fear of God before our eyes

+ We live by deceit

+ Our words are lies

+ We turn from good towards what is selfish

+ We ponder new ways to satisfy ourselves

+ We deliberately choose paths that are broken and hurtful

+ We rationalize away our cruel actions and thoughts

Why?  Because we have no fear of the Lord - literally no sense of awe nor any awareness that we are not the center of the universe.  Small wonder that our old friend Paul reminds us that if we are to serve God through Christ, we have to rearrange the very core of our thoughts.  Not only have all people sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3) but those who have another world in view must nourish it:

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. (Romans 12)

Why, you might wonder, am I so drawn to this psalm and yet another post on sin?  There seems to be a very popular notion among some of the people I've been meeting with of late that they are not touched by sin.  "If I just try hard enough I should be able to get things right," someone insisted to me yesterday.  Another said, "You know, I think all God (or whatever) wants is for us to live by the golden rule - to be kind and loving - that's what really matters."  There seems to be an obsession that we can actually live in a consistently kind and loving manner - to hell with the evidence in the daily news or even our own experience - many genuinely believe this delusion.

And then they wonder why their lives are a mess?  Or out of control?  Or
even empty and confusing.  My question, in these conversations, is often:  "Do you really think you are capable of doing what is loving and kind consistently all by yourself?  How's that going for you?"  At first there is a blank look - then most people reply with something like this - "well, ok I am not totally consistent.  But I want to be... and if I just try harder I know I can do better."  Well, sure, maybe a bit but not consistently or in a way that will really make any difference in the long run. So let's be clear:  wanting to and actually accomplishing something are worlds apart. It is either adolescent arrogance, simple stupidity or naivete that suggests otherwise - and probably some combination of all three, yes?

Again, older brother Paul cuts to the chase:  we know (what) is spiritual; but I am of the flesh... and I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. (That is, it is helpful in showing me what is wrong.) But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but the sin that dwells within me... I can will what is right, but I cannot (consistently) do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do... (What's more) I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells (in all I do.) (Romans 7)

To be sure, this old language probably needs some updating (check out the way Peterson rephrases in The Message) because modern people don't understand the distinctions St. Paul's Greek is making between spirit and flesh.  But his point is still true: all by ourselves we can't consistently do what is good, loving, kind and true. There is NO objective evidence of this in the world or our lives so to suggest anything else strikes me as bullshit.  And modern people, if we are anything, are bullshit averse... 

So, Psalm 36 strikes me as a good breakfast meal in preparation for a day of pastoral visitation.  It keeps me focused on what is most important for me as pastor.  Like Peterson writes in The Contemplative Pastor:

How do I keep my professional integrity in the midst of a people long practiced in comparative shopping (for solutions not faith)... an illusion-bashing orientation helps. Take a long look at the sheer quantity of wreckage around us - wrecked bodies, wrecked marriages, wrecked careers, wrecked plans, wrecked families, wrecked alliances, wrecked friendships, wrecked prosperity.  We avert our eyes. We try not to dwell on it. We whistle in the dark. We wake up in the morning hoping for health and love, justice and success; build quick mental and emotional defenses against the inrush of bad news; and try to keep our hopes up.  And then another kind of crash puts us or someone we care about in a pile of wreckage.

So, because we have another world in view - another truth beyond the obvious - we can't be deluded or deceived when we start out the day.  Psalm 36 is a good beginning.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Big weekend for commitments...

This weekend is a BIGGIE:  on Saturday our church council will spend time in prayer, study, conversation and discernment about how best to address a number of building related problems.  We could easily spend more than a million dollars on all the things that could be done and still not address ways to make the Sanctuary more user-friendly for worship.  So before we make any decisions about the really big-ticket items, we're going to try to understand how our building both helps and hurts our mission at this moment in time. In a word, where (if any where) is the Spirit calling us to pay attention when it comes to our facility.

Thankfully I have no idea where we'll be led.  If I did I wouldn't be able to sleep or do anything else.  But I don't so I will lead Eucharist, prayer and study and then we'll see what shakes out.  Later that evening, there is a small "house concert" being sponsored by one of the band members to help us bring Miche Fambro (Dianne's very talented brother-in-law) to the Berkshires.  He will also join us for Sunday afternoon's benefit concert.  A lot is going on this weekend.

Most of today was spent rethinking last night's marathon practice:  what went right, what was a train wreck, how can we do a better set-up for both the performers and audience (to say nothing of what should we do differently next time, etc)?  Thanks be to God I work with a seasoned musician who knows the world of theater, jazz, the classics of rock as well as serious art music and so much more.  We debriefed last night, re-figured the set list and then reworked the staging.  Now here's the thing:  some people don't spend any time with this stuff and I guess that works for them.  But if the stage isn't hospitable and lovely - creating both freedom and community for the band - everything feels off for me. 

Last night we were too spread out.  Now we're closer to the people and much closer to one another as well.  As C said, "It already feels better!"  It is amazing to me how much time and thought a good stage set up takes.  Same with a set list.  Tonight I feel much more grounded about this show in spite of all the other commitments shaking down this weekend.  Now, hard work and the guidance of the Spirit are in order for all this weekend's big commitments.

Why not stop by and share the fun:  Sunday, June 2nd @ 3 pm?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dazed and confused: notes for sunday worship...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this week.  It is a JAMMED 7 days with a church leader's retreat coming up - lots of concert rehearsal - and a benefit gig on Sunday afternoon.  To say that this week I am really grateful for Kate Huey's research and hard work in UCC Sermon Seeds would be an understatement. 

I am regularly astonished at how much I don’t know about the Bible.  I mean that.  Sure I’ve been wrestling with the Word regularly and faithfully for over 30 years.  Of course, I still look forward to my weekly study, prayer and writing time when I seriously try to engage the ancient text in light of our contemporary context.

·       But come on:  over and over again when I pay attention to our Scriptures, I am astonished, stunned and enlightened by something nuanced and beautiful – albeit it challenging – in the old, familiar words I’ve been spending time with for all these years.

·       It’s like ministry itself:  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Well, just when I thought I’d seen everything... some new problem or blessing pops up that I’ve never even considered before.

Back in high school there was a song by Led Zeppelin, "Dazed and Confused" and that might also be the title of today's message, ok? Because in today’s gospel from St. Luke’s pen, two astonishing things grabbed my imagination this week:  first, the story tells us that Jesus was astonished and challenged by the faith of a Roman centurion – I’ll say more about that in just a moment – but let that sink in, ok? 

·       A Roman centurion – a soldier from the occupying army of the empire – the enemy – the outsider par excellence – and the Bible tells us that, “when Jesus heard the centurion talk about his faith… he was amazed at him. And turning to the crowd that followed, Jesus said, "I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith."

·       This is something to pay attention to, ok?  That’s the first shocker for me…

And the second is the very clear but often forgotten reminder that the healing ministry of Jesus is NOT something new and unique.  Rather it is rooted in a deep Jewish tradition of compassion and grace – a tradition as old as the commandments – but which is often misinterpreted by modern Christians who haven’t spent enough time with the Hebrew Bible – including myself. 

·       Again, when I paid closer attention to this story, an ancient parallel from the Hebrew Bible popped out at me – specifically the healing ministry of the prophet Elisha who also healed an Aramean enemy officer of leprosy to show the grace and glory of God.

·       Scholars are clear that those who first heard this story – and others with ancient parallels – would have made the connections we have forgotten.  Namely that “God's tender mercies cannot be held in or held back, but instead overflow every border, every boundary we set to contain them.”

And rather than assume that this is some kind of new teaching from Jesus… the early Jewish Christians would see a connection between Jesus and the God of Israel who always seeks to be compassionate to all in the human family… In fact they would affirm that what Jesus is doing is at the heart of Jewish identity, and signals that the ministry of the church is in continuity with the ministry of Israel.  (Kate Huey, UCC Sermon Seeds)

Are you still with me?  Am I being clear on this point?  The ministry of Jesus is rooted in the ministry of Israel – AND – this ministry is ALWAYS about God’s amazing grace.

Now here’s some context and background that might help you share my amazement at this story, ok?

·       First, these healing stories about Jesus in Luke’s gospel are given to us – and the early church – to balance the skepticism expressed by the hometown people to Christ’s first sermon.  Do you remember that story – back in Luke 4 – about Jesus coming to his home synagogue, reading from the scroll of Isaiah 61 and then telling those who had watched him grow up that “today this scripture has been filled full with my reading and presence.” – do you recall that?

·       You see, we won’t be able to appreciate what Luke is telling us in today’s story unless we can also remember that other one.  So what happened after Jesus told his hometown crew that in their hearing that day, God’s promise that Spirit of the Lord was upon him and it had anointed him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and announce the year of the Lord’s favor to all people had been realized?

·       What did the people do?  First, the snickered – are you kidding me – this is Mary and Joseph’s kid – who does he think he is?  That is, they didn’t believe or take him seriously.  So Jesus told them some stories out of Israel’s past – specifically about how God led the prophet Elijah to once feed a starving pagan widow during a famine in Israel but brought food to no one else, and, how the prophet Elisha had once healed the Syrian military leader Naaman of leprosy but not the children of Israel when they were suffering – and that both acts were a sign of God’s grace as well as judgment, right?  And what did his hometown community do at this?  They tried to kill him by throwing him off a cliff.

Jesus reminded his people that God’s grace knows no boundaries or limits – that it isn’t theirs to own or control – for God’s Spirit blows wherever GOD chooses.  Now why would this news be so offensive even though it is grounded in Israel’s history? 

·       Can you think of examples from our own story as Americans that call into question our sanitized and even sentimental understanding of who we are?

·       Jesus was doing the same thing… reminding God’s chosen people that God is the center of all things – not them, their mythology or limited understanding of their own history – God who is compassionate beyond comprehension.

That sermon is the backdrop for today’s story when Jesus actually replicates the gracious healing of a military enemy once given to the world through the prophet Elisha.  Are you still with me?  Do you see how this is building?  Ok, so Jesus has now left his home town and gone into the city of Capernaum,  a border town in Israel, which was known as… the village of compassion.  Interesting, yes?  The village of compassion…

And when he gets into town there is a military presence in Capernaum that has been sent to make sure that taxes were paid and tolls were collected as demanded by Rome.  Apparently the soldiers of the empire were not actually Roman – they just served Rome – but they were Gentiles – outsiders in the service of Israel’s enemy.  And one of these outside Gentile enemies sends a message to Jesus to bring healing to one of his servants.

·       Now think about that for a moment:  what humility is involved in this request, yes?  Here a captain of the army who is used to commanding others and getting results not only requests help from the ranks of the oppressed, but does so for one of his servants or slaves.

·       Clearly, the centurion has chosen the way of love and compassion over the rule of intimidation and control, don’t you think?  The soldier’s servant is too sick to ask for help for himself – so the one who is in charge makes a request for the one in need – in humility and compassion the centurion acts beyond the rules and socially acceptable order of the day:  Jesus, only say the word, and my servant shall be healed.

·       Remember the song: won’t you let me be your servant?  One verse goes:  I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I’ll laugh with you; I will share your joys and sorrows till we’ve seen this journey through.  That’s what is happening in this story – and it is amazing to me – because it breaks down the barriers of race, class, religion, history and tradition.

The story concludes with two more amazing truths:  one, the centurion’s servant is healed – made whole and restored to community – in what can only be called a miraculous way; and two, Jesus reminds those around him that once again God’s grace is greater than our short and selective memory for just as God chose to bring healing in the ministry of the prophet Elisha, so too God chose to bring healing through Jesus.  

·       Now, I don’t know how you deal with or make sense out of the miracle stories – I’ve been all over the map with them – sometimes trying to find rational explanations of them that make sense to my 21st century mind and sometimes just giving them over to mystery and grace.

·       Mostly I prefer the later these days – mystery and grace – thinking that miracles are a reminder of who is really in charge.  One wise soul put it like this: miracles are not something that violates the natural order, the laws of nature that seem to undergird our existence in the material world.”

Instead a miracle is "the interruption of the true order – the order of the creator God – into the demonic disorder of the present world.”  Scholars seem to agree that the healings performed by Jesus are signs of the Reign of God drawing near, so every time we experience or witness healing, we too experience a taste of the Reign of God.  This story teaches us that we shouldn't occupy ourselves with who deserves God's grace and mercy and healing… because we hear that "the reign of God went in search of the outsider.  Rather it reminds us that it is so typical of God to be untypical:  crossing boundaries before us, the power of God moves us out of ourselves and of our narrow worlds. (Huey)

And so I’m amazed – amazed at what I didn’t know about the Jewish roots of this miracle – amazed at how broad and radical God’s grace really is – bigger than both my imagination and tradition – and amazed that in this cynical age I can still be amazed.  Every day, in ways most of us never see, God’s grace empowers us with courage and hope and faithfulness to such a staggering extent that we should be filled with amazement.  When I pause long enough to notice, it blows me away:  strangers reaching in this place reaching out to one who is sick with signs of love, nourishment and compassion.

·       People of modest means giving both of their limited time and financial resources so that ministry in Christ’s name might flourish…

·       Women and men who have been wounded and scarred by sin offering forgiveness in ways that can only be called miraculous…

·       Prayers raised up without others ever knowing – visits to the lonely that go unreported and undetected – love, dedication and compassion shared beyond what we can ever imagine.

Last week I asked you what YOU did to bring blessings to your ordinary life:  today let me push that deeper and ask when are YOU amazed by God’s grace in your life – in the world – in your heart.  Think about that, please, and your own faith will grow and be nourished just as our Lord’s was so long ago.

(I don't usually "DO" prayer and praise songs but I love these words and this version is the least "churchy" in all the worst understandings of that word.)


Monday, May 27, 2013

My people could us a little mercy now...

This morning I went over to our Sanctuary to spend part of Memorial Day in silence.  We decided to open our doors for the morning in case people walking about wanted a quiet and safe place for prayer.  Candles were lit and a few people came by to see what was going on.  It wasn't anything big or life changing - and that is as it should be.

Last night I found myself wrestling with one of those paradoxical truths that sometimes slips into my awareness:  mostly in ministry, I don't have anything to offer people who need peace except my time and presence.  I am thoroughly inadequate and really only have a ministry of presence to share.  Yes, from time to time I can make a referral; and I know how to pray with someone and even offer a few minor suggestions when they seem to fit.  But mostly, there is really nothing I can do to take away an other's pain except share it. 

Eugene Peterson, in his book the Contemplative Pastor, writes:
We set out to do something quite different (from playing a part).  We set out to risk our lives in a venture of faith.  We committed ourselves to a life of holiness. At some point we realized the immensity of God and of the great invisibles that socket into our arms and legs, into bread and wine, into our brains and our tools, into mountains and rivers, giving them meaning, destiny, value, joy, beauty, salvation.  We responded to a call to convey these realities in Word and sacrament. We offered ourselves to give leadership that connects and coordinates what the people in this community of faith are doing in their work and play, with what God is doing in mercy and grace.

And, at some point in time in ministry, we notice three things:  a) most people are too busy to listen for God's quiet word of grace in their lives - they want quick answers - that make life easier; b) when the pastor refuses to buy into this deception, some people get angry;  and c) there's nothing we can do about even that anger because ministry is not about us, but waiting upon the Lord.  I bump up against this all the time:  people want me to help them get better.  So I listen for a while - sometimes a long while - and then I wait.  In silence.  "Do something - helpful - and do it now!" is the unspoken plea that hangs in the air.  The tension is palpable.
So I ask, "Do you pray - do you make time to be still - quiet - so that you can listen for the Lord?"  Nothing.  "Do you understand that I'm not a counselor," I continue, "I am neither trained in that craft nor have any desire to practice it.  I know some good counselors... and they might have a role to play... but my work is different.  I have been called by God to point to the Lord - and mostly that can only happen when we stop - when we're quiet - and know how to ready our hearts for God's mercy."

I can't tell you how many people over the years reply:  Yeah, ok, I know I should pray but I need help now - as if that will push me into action with some secret, hidden solutions.  Damn, if I don't WANT to help them out.  I can feel their anguish.  Part of me wants to make it all better and take it all away.  But I know that I can't.  What's more, I know that the only thing that will last is if they learn to do... nothing.  To wait.  And rest.  To nourish trust.  And faith. One of the first passages of Scripture that I memorized as an adult comes from Romans 12: 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.

Peterson continues:
Most of the people we deal with are dominated by a sense of self, not a sense of God. Insofar as we deal with their primary concern - the counseling, instructing, encouraging - they give us good marks in our "jobs" as pastors. Whether we deal with God or not, they don't care over much.  Flannery O'Connor describes one pastor in such circumstances as one part minister and three parts masseur  ...  (So I ask myself) Is my primary concern (in ministry) m orientation towards God's grace, his mercy, his action in Creation and covenant? And am I committed to it enough that when people ask me to do something that will not lead them into a more mature participation in these realities, I refuse?

Yesterday in worship, I tossed aside my prepared sermon notes and spoke about the Holy Trinity - mostly that this is a sacred mystery that we can only grasp in community - and then went on to talk about how we in the church nourish community.  The last quarter of Sunday worship has to do with "blessing" - receiving and sharing blessing - so I asked:  What do you do in our ordinary, everyday life that brings a measure of blessing to the world?  How do you partner with God to advance blessings in your part of creation?  The reaction on many faces was fascinating:  what the hell are you talking about their faces said to me?  I'm too busy to even think about blessing?  Get real, man, and tell me something that will help!

But, for whatever reason, I kept at it:  don't look confused - and don't tell me some vague, abstract generality - think about how YOU share blessings.  WTF - was I speaking Russian - who knows?  In time, a few lights started to shine on select faces, but most still seemed to sit in what felt like darkness to me - and my heart ached for the rest of the day.  At the same time, I remembered that there is nothing I can do except ask the question, offer the invitaiton and wait until the Spirit is ready.

I think that's one of the reasons why I create so many musical opportunities - and other artistic ventures - in worship and beyond:  bumping up against beauty and truth can sometimes awaken a soul out of the darkness long enough to realize that alternatives exist.  What's more, seeing very different kinds of people share the creation of music and beauty during a concert offers another way of living beyond our solitary obsessions with getting ahead and making it all by ourselves. Music - and the creation of music - can be an embodied metaphor for living in a new way. 

It doesn't change much, I know:  how could it?  But, at the same time, it offers a taste of grace and a gentle invitation beyond the darkness - and that's enough.  This coming Sunday we're putting on "Beats 4 BEAT" - a musical benefit for the Berkshire Environmental Action Team that will simply be a Sunday afternoon of groovin'.  In fact, the old Rascals' song by the same name is how I feel this day will unfold.  For who knows:  maybe as we settle back in the beauty and the groove... a bit of mercy will be experienced? 


Sunday, May 26, 2013

A dream comes true...

Long story short: a few dear friends who have listened to my heart beyond my words have been conspiring for 9 monthss to get me an upright bass - and today it came to pass.  In-freaking-credible.  Now the fun - and hard work - of learning to make it sing begins, but what a blessing.

(Danny Thompson and Pentangle have long been my favorites as genre-blenders.)

Let me amplify:  ALL of my instruments have been gifts from my church friends who understood I had a musical calling but not resources.  When I was graduating from seminary, my mother-in-law gave me a sweet Martin electric bass that I still play from time to time.  When I was about to leave Saginaw for Cleveland, my friends Donna and David Minich helped the congregation share a gift with me that blew my mind:  a jumbo Guild acoustic guitar.  (It was the very one I used to visit on my days off...)  In Tucson, the congregation gave me an electric Rickenbacker for my 20th anniversary (another dream come true.)

And two years later when ALL of my guitars were stolen - still a heart breaking moment - this same congregation replaced my newer bass (a gift from the youth group) and repurchased a new Rick, too.  (The insurance for ALL three guitars helped me secure my current Taylor acoustic.)  And now my dear friends in Pittsfield have blessed me with this incredible upright bass.  It is very, very humbling and very, very sweet.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good...

Now here's a slippery slope I've been pondering all week long:  Voltaire is attributed to writing the aphorism, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" and as I look at a variety of world events and decisions, I can't help but what that means for us at this moment in time.  From my perspective we've become so enslaved to zero-sum thinking that our moral imagination has atrophied.  Indeed many seem unable to embrace the small blessings of life when they emerge because we want it all or nothing at all.  Two news stories are of particular importance to me:

+ First, the decision by the Boy Scouts of America to openly welcome gay and lesbian youth into the ranks of scouting.  I applaud this long over-due first step towards equality and look forward to the time when BSA - like the military and corporate America - welcome leadership from the wider LGBTQ community into the ranks of scouting.  While some on the Right see this as capitulation to cultural relativism, that was to be expected.  What concerns me is the Left's reaction that this action did not go far enough.

I agree it is incomplete.  It is neither fully just nor perfect - but it is movement in the right direction. After all, only 12 states support full marriage equality.  So this is a journey towards justice that demands a long vision.  (The same is true for common sense gun laws to say nothing of bringing a measure of healing to our culture of violence.)     

Back in Tucson, where the Mormon Church literally shapes what scouting looks like - and requires it for young boys in their congregations - we wrestled with how to be an Open and Affirming faith community with a long history of involvement in scouting.  Over a few years, we met with our local troop leadership to talk and educate one another and then we both petitioned the national leadership to make changes in their policy.  When it became clear, however, that the national organization would not budge, we arrived at an informal agreement between our local church and the troop that essentially amounted to the imperfect norm of the day:  "don't ask, don't tell."  Some ONA churches withdrew from scouting, others prohibited scouts from using their facilities and a few tried to create their own scouting alternatives.  Our actions were a modest compromise that allowed children of LGBTQ families - and openly out youth - to experience the fullness of scouting knowing full well that we had a long way to go.  In conversation with our LGBTQ families - not in a vacuum - we decided not to let the perfect become an enemy of the good.  My prayer is that this important change can be honored and celebrated so that the Boy Scouts can make deeper changes in the near future.

+ Second, President Obama's recent speech about shifting from our country out of a full-time war on terrorism mode.  As is the case with Obama, he always opts for a "third" way between the Right and Left being a true Niebuhrian.  He knows that no matter what path is chosen, there will be unplanned consequences. Further, no path is ever perfect and hubris is blinding; so, as in health care, so too in terrorism, he advocates a middle way that will make life better in small increments.  More than many presidents, this man appreciates the moral and ethical complexities of this moment in history.

Take the use of drones:  clearly they have been useful in a dirty situation.  And, at the same time, they have been deadly to innocent civilians.  Some have urged the President to stop their use completely, while others believe they should be used in an even more aggressive fashion.  I am very uncomfortable with the ease with which we can now slaughter our enemies - and any policy that involves death should make us all feel morally queasy.  Only a deep pacifist has clean hands when it comes to ethics and violence - and I am not a pacifist - and neither is Obama.  Rather he is charged with protecting the United States in the best way possible - and it seems that this would include the use of drones - and the ethical dilemmas they create.  I am eager to see Obama's proposed "court of review" come to pass as that would add some balance and accountability to the morally ambiguous conundrum. This would be a measured step the honors the gravity of using such deadly force.  There is much more that needs to be said about this, but my point is simply:  in a no-win situation, what is the best decision to make when all are bad?  That is, how do you move in a way that does not let the perfect become the enemy of the good?

The only way that I know to discern the deep wisdom of the hour is to engage in vigorous, respectful dialogue, research, prayer and study.  Hard ideological boundaries do not advance the cause of the common good. They are idolatrous for they posit a world in which only a select few posses true wisdom and truth. I would be eager to know your take on these two changes:  how do we support the movement towards compassion and justice in the public realm while refusing to let the perfect become the enemy of the good?  One clue for me is found in these words from Richard Rohr:

The two adjectives most applied to God by Franciscan mysticism were the goodness of God and the humility of God. Hardly any of us would say God is humble, but Francis did. He and Clare fell in love with the humility of God; because if God emptied himself and hid himself inside the material world then God, who was revealed in Jesus, was surely a very humble kind of God. This is a total surprise to history, and so much a scandal that most Christians would still resist it consciously or unconsciously.

Francis fell in love with the humanity of Jesus more than his divinity. It was Jesus’ humanity that he wanted to draw close to, and that he fell in love with. He just wanted to be the most humble man around, which was his “imitation of God” (Ephesians 5:1). Only in that humble state could he find God, because that’s where God had gone and Francis wanted to go where Jesus went and where God was hiding.Art historians say that even Christian art changed after Francis. Beginning with Giotto, there was a new interest in things ordinary, human, animal, mundane, and nature-based. Not just glowing divine icons, but now light shining through the ordinary world.

So you see the basis for a different kind of holiness. It’s not God from above. It’s now God from within—incarnationalism instead of transcendentalism.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Learning to dance with God...

Whenever we plan a public "gig" at church - inviting old friends and new to be a part of the musical mix - there is always fear and trembling.  Will people come?  Will the set congeal in a way that is not only beautiful and moving, but fun and satisfying for everyone involved?  Will the equipment work?  Will some one's feelings be hurt by my editorial decisions? And on and on it goes... and truth be told, we won't know any of the answers until after June 2nd when the deal goes down.

For the time being, therefore, I'm setting my anxieties to the side to celebrate what looks like a truly entertaining and fun show. What I had originally thought might be a blues and jazz gig has taken on a rock and soul persona.  Where I thought we might be horn rich, I now see that we're flush with killer guitars - and stunning vocalists!   And what I once imagined might be a small group of available artists has slowly grown to nearly 20+ that includes three of the young musicians from this year's confirmation group and my very talented brother-in-law making his Berkshire debut.

So, what Frank Zappa once prophesied at the start of "Lumpy Gravy" - 'the way I see it, Barry, this is going to be a very dynamite show!' - is likely to be true: this show is going to be a total gas.

Now putting these gigs together is a unique spiritual discipline for me because they always teach me something about trust and being open to the prompting of the Spirit . Truth be told, none of our shows end up the way I first heard them or conceptualized them in my imagination. I was certain we were going to be playing hard jazz and down and dirty blues. Hell, I thought we'd pull it together for Fat Tuesday. But schedules, health, family commitments, other musical gigs and the liturgical calendar all conspired against my first notion. So now, instead of "All Blues" we'll be playing "Natural Woman" and "Bad Bad World" - and that is just how it should be.  Working with who is available to do something creative is a living exercise in "letting go and letting God" because the alternative is deep frustration.  What's more, as Meister Eckhart taught, "Reality is the will of God - it can always be better - but start with what is real."  Shaping the artistic vision for these kinds of shows regularly invites me to practice the Serenity Prayer: there truly are all types of things that I cannot change.  

That's true for my role in conducting rehearsals, too.  It seems that I have been invited by the Spirit to call the players into community and share the broad outline of the vision - and then let them take it deeper according to their own gifts.  Talk about trust!  Most of the time, the wider band only practices once for the whole show; the core band - my partners in Between the Banks from church meet weekly for at least a month shaping close harmonies and song structures - but the whole ensemble usually is only able to meet once before show time.  (That is scheduled for this coming Tuesday, May 28th between 6-9 pm.)

Thank God all my musical partners hang up their egos and anxieties at the door and just let it flow when they arrive!  But here's the thing, in order for this "go with the flow" groove to happen, some careful groundwork must take place first.  Here is what we all need for this to work:  a) a clear road map (i.e. set list - which I will still tweak as the practice ripens); b) a working sound system in place and ready to go (nothing is more maddening than having to wait for the sound crew to set up while we try to practice); c) clear assignments re: who is to sing and play on what songs (like a wedding rehearsal, it becomes chaos if you negotiate details   at this late stage); d) food and drink (to keep energy up); and e) a commitment to moving the rehearsal moving along in a gentle and respectful way (because OMG can musicians.... wander when we're having fun.) Somebody needs to tell the guitarists not to "noodle" on their instruments in-between songs because that drives the vocalists insane.  And, likewise, singers need to be reminded not to chat or carp about anything while still facing their microphone (no coughing or sneezing into the mic either!)

Back in the early days, I knew how to bring people together - and I could help shape a vision for a show - but I was agitated and annoyed with doing all the organizational aspects of pulling it together. "People should just show up, do their part, give their best and get it on!" I used to think.  Maybe... but it rarely happens, so if I want something creative and satisfying to come to birth, I have learned to live into the gift of leadership.  (Something I find many still resist in music and the wider church to my deep frustration. Dianne recently told me, "You should simply make it part of your spiritual commitment NOT to participate in meetings or musical encounters that you can't share some of your leadership skills."  I think she is right.)
These days, like any party - or worship celebration - I know that before the music can become fun and satisfying, some careful preparations are in order.  Gertud Mueller-Nelson puts it like this in To Dance with God:

Ritual making and ceremony always requires a leader, someone who is not afraid to recognize his or her talent, insight or ability and who will step forward to use it.  Collective ceremonies don't just happen.  An embarrassment at stepping forward or a misconception that leadership is the enemy of democracy allows whole communities to remain unconscious and bereft of real richness... Making ceremony requires the vision of one who is willing and ready to take the leadership and to be as conscious as possible.  This person takes responsibility, be it for the spontaneous moment, or on a regular basis, to respond to the greater good of the community or family.

Doing this is one of my gifts. I am still learning, of course, to practice it with care and tenderness.  But I'm no longer afraid of it nor baffled that I must  embrace it with flexibility and openness.  There will always be fear and trembling before a show, but I think that's a good thing... and it will only grow within me until Tuesday's full rehearsal.  But even then it is just an invitation to surrender and learn to dance with God, yes?  What a treat. 

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:...