Sunday, June 30, 2013

Joshua Redman is a monster... and a blessing!

Yesterday was another full day with our kids - who just left for a week in Cape Cod - so we wanted to take in a few of the sights before their departure.  Doing a few days of vacation with them is a ton of fun - a whole different kind of holiday - as they are GREAT adventurers.  They are up early to walk new markets (unlike us) and they are always up for new surprises.  I will miss them now that they've gone but will enjoy our slower paced wanderings, too.

At this stage in my life I am certainly more of a wanderer than adventurer - and that seems appropriate.  Age and physical stamina have taken up residency in my bones and unlike Springsteen I can't keep rockin' til the light of day any more.  As is becoming clear to me:  pacing is everything. How did St. Paul put it?  "When I was a child, I thought, acted and partied like a child; but now that I am well into middle-age... I have to pace myself?"  

The highlight of our time at the Jazz Festival yesterday was Dianne's birthday dinner at a local French pub and the Johsua Redman concert.  Both were a total gas in very different ways.  It would seem that one of my callings this trip is to eat different types of wild meat:  I started with wild boar and then moved on to caribou.  I don't know what other Great Northern carnivore delights await me, but I am open to them all.

Redman performed at the Maison Symphonique de Montreal with his own stellar quartet - piano, bass and drums - along with an incredible string orchestra.  At the heart of the show was his new CD, Walking Shadows, a work of art that is sensitive, rich, melodic and nuanced.  The interplay between the jazz quartet and orchestra enhances both ensembles in ways that is both playful and energizing.  Sometimes melancholy and other times wildly sensual, this record is a MUST have.

Time and again, Redman gave space to his bandmates to shine - and they truly did.  And the crowd did not want to let him go bringing him back for two boldly different encores.  The first, a loving interpretation of the Beatles' "Let It Be" had the audience enraptured.  And then they brought the tune to a close with the traditional ending - the descending coda - Redman paused for 8 beat and then attacked the closing again.  "That's the way to jazz up a Beatles' tune" I said out loud.  And again and again and again they played the closing tag for another 5 minutes until the people were on their feet cheering.  And after yet another demand for an encore, they wrapped things up with a fast bop blues that was a perfect way to bring it all home.

Today we're going to wander the market and the hood before heading back to the festival for a host of evening freebies.  Now it is rest time cuz it is summer time and the livin is easy.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

And so it begins...

Et il commence... we are getting our vacation groove on:  sleeping LATE, wandering Montreal, resting, chatting up new friends and enjoying our wonderful kids.  Our flat is in Little Italy - just a block from Marché Jean-Talon - a totally wonderful vegetable, meat, flower and everything in-between market that takes up a full city block. (Check it out @ http://www. marches  It is a great place to eat crepes, practice your French and watch people of all sizes, shapes and ages come and go.
Then it was off to Les Place des Arts - the arts center of Montreal - to both check out the scene and spend a rainy afternoon in le musee d'art contemporain ( that was showing a retrospective of abstract Canadian artists as well as two major exhibits by Michel de Broin (a creative soul with a wicked sense of humor and juxtaposition) and Eve Sussman's look at the collapse of the imagination in late Soviet communist culture.

After late afternoon naps - and a splendid dinner at the not-for-profit club affiliated with the Jazz Festival - we spent two hours with Ravi Coltrane and crew.  Two things struck me about his performance of wildly improvisational jazz.  First, it is simultaneously an emotional and intellectual encounter with sound, meter, tone and creativity.  This quarter was frenetic - giving each soloist tons of room to explore during their solos - but also playing hard and bold against each other, too.  And second, while some people don't enjoy the extended solo thing that is demanded from this type of jazz, it can be meditative if you let yourself get lost in the sound and the freedom.

We wrapped up the night by walking through the crowd of thousands at midnight - taking in the stunning light work cast upon massive buildings throughout the center of town - before turning in.  Today the rain has stopped and I suspect we'll start the day as tourists in the Old City before heading back to jazz land tonight for a romantic show with Joshua Redman and a string orchestra. 

Yesterday we put in six miles of walking - and today will be much the same. It is Dianne's birthday, too so who knows what might happen? Bénédictions à vous tous.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Winding down and turning off...

One of the hardest things for me to do is NOT check my church email when I am on vacation.  I don't know if other clergy have this problem, but DAMN it is hard.  I am such an addict!  That's why I've created two distinct address - and only one is for family and friends beyond work.

So, as hard as it is, I won't be opening that one for 14 days.  I once mentioned to a woman that I didn't listen to my phone messages on Fridays (when we were back in Cleveland) because I was trying to learn to honor the Sabbath.  And she copped such an attitude:  that is SO irresponsible for a minister - what if I should NEED you?  So I asked, what need might you have that couldn't wait 24 hours?  She couldn't come up with a good one but snorted:  I have NEVER heard of such a selfish thing.
I guess... but practicing self-care in ministry requires some boundaries - and learning to honor the Sabbath is a lost discipline I keep struggling to reclaim. It's like the old joke about the man who complained that he wasn't able to reach his pastor by phone one day; when the clergy replied that it was her day off, the man snarled:  well, the Devil never takes a day off.  To which the wise pastor smiled and said:  true enough and if I don't take a day off I would be just like him.

We arrived a few hours ago in Montreal - one of my favorite places in all creation - and in a short time we'll stroll the "hood" and then dine at Allep (one of the BEST Syrian eateries ever!)  Then, God willing, we'll all sleep late before heading over to Marche Jean Talon for crepes in the morning, museums and exploring in the afternoon and Ravi Coltrane at night. Laissez les bons moments de ces vacances commencent!    

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In the end, the love you give...

A total joy and privilege was given to me today:  I was asked to officiate at the memorial service for a dear friend's father.  My homily notes follow below but let me share these quick observations:

+ First, I hadn't seen some of the family members since 1972, but when we walked into the hall it was like time didn't matter.  Mercy, but I love these people.

+ Second, some of my oldest church contacts were present:  Don and Georgia Brown (and their dear daughter, Patti) who were our youth group leaders back in the day.  I was stunned seeing them all (they are about 90 years old) and still as sharp and loving as ever.  When I left, Mrs. Brown said, "God be with you always!" just as I recall.

+ And third, what a GREAT family Farnam and Irene Lefferts raised:  four bright, sensitive, loving and creative boys who have become incredible men and fathers.  Their testimonies and music made my soul rejoice.  What's more, because I have known them for over 48 years it was like a reunion filled with depth and love.  And when we closed the service singing "Amen" a capella with all those harmonies... it was a little bit of heaven.

REFLECTIONS FOR A MEMORIAL SERVICE: Farnham Lefferts – June 26, 2013

In the name and presence of all that is Sacred, I welcome you to this service of remembering – sharing – loving and releasing.  With the whole Lefferts family, we gather in sorrow and celebration to mark the passing of Farnham Lefferts:  husband, father and friend – musician, servant, and fisherman – ally of all that was creative, beautiful and true – child of God.

When we gather like this to reflect upon the life of a man who has touched so many other lives, it is essential to do so with care and compassion – with respect, humility and a holy sense of humor as well.   Because, you see, as the Beatles knew so well, in the end, the love you give is equal to the love you make.    
And if you look around this room – if you are open to what is taking place in this sacred moment – you have to know that there is a whole lotta of love in this place.  I think that’s how those old school prophets from another age, Led Zeppelin, put it, right?  A whole lotta love…?
And I’m talking about all types of love:  the love between husband and wife, the love born within father and sons, love shared between Creator and creation, a love celebrated between colleagues and artists, a love received when it was barely deserved and a love given with a generosity and depth that is beyond our wildest imagination. 
Indeed, in the end our calling is to honor the love – all of the love – perfect and failing, spoken and silent, cherished and mysterious.
In my spiritual tradition, there is an ancient poem that gives shape and form to the varieties of love we honor today that says in part:

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

So today one of our tributes in love is grounded in all the different ways – stunning and pure as well as flawed and imperfect – that Farnham Lefferts shared and received love over the course of a long and productive 86 years of life. 
There was love of God and country for he served his nation during WWII in the Navy.  There was love of truth, beauty and goodness on so many creative levels.
There was love of nature as a fly-fisherman in the Adirondacks.

And there was his deep love for his own family – and let me take a little time with this love.  Irene and Farnham shared life together as husband and wife for 62 years.  Such a commitment is almost unheard of in our generation – and we know that it took a great deal of dedication, sacrifice, patience and forgiveness for this love to last – but thanks be to God it did because this love created space for others to be nourished by love.
As a teen I used to LOVE to go over to the Lefferts house – the last time was about 1972 – but I always felt welcomed and safe there.  It was beautiful, of course, but more than the physical beauty, there was the tenderness of Irene and Farnham’s generous hospitality. And in every spiritual tradition all over the world, sacred hospitality is a living prayer – like the Sanskrit welcome NAMASTE that means “the sacred within me honors and greets the holy within your humanity – that’s what it felt like to hang at the Lefferts house:  safe and beautiful and saturated in hospitality.

So let me push this notion of love just one step farther:   Within the Lefferts home there was also the love shared between father and sons. I remember the first time I met Mr. Lefferts – and I have to call him that at least once today – because our first encounter goes back to 9th grade.  You see, I met Hal in junior high school – and thought he was the best guitar player in town – especially when I went into the Mather Junior High School gym one afternoon and Hal’s band was playing “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.  It blew me away – and he just kept getting better and better.
Well, one day we took the train from Darien into NYC so that he could buy some guitar gear at Manny’s Music Store on W. 48th Street.  Like many things from the “good ol’days” Manny’s is no more…but on that day it was popping and as Hal was buying something – it might have been a fuzz-wah pedal – the manager of the store wanted to know if we wanted to be introduced to Gene Cornish of the Young Rascals.  Their song “Groovin” was at the top of the charts and it was just too kewel for school to meet him.
And then we bopped over to Tiffany’s to say hi to Hal’s dad.  And this was just too awesome for me – I had seen the movie with Audrey Hepburn but never thought I’d go INTO Tiffany’s – but all of sudden there we were shaking hands with the main man.  And it was Hal’s dad – totally blew my mind – but here’s the really important thing beyond my shock and awe at meeting the President of Tiffany’s:  Mr. Lefferts looked at his young son, the guitar wizard, with love in his eyes. 

I still remember that look because unless I’m mistaken I’ve seen something very much like it whenever Hal speaks of his own beloved children.  And I’d be willing to lay wager that this is true for the wider Lefferts clan as well. On that day in NYC it was clear to me that at his core, this was a man who loved his children profoundly. And on that ordinary day when he took time out of his work to both welcome and listen to his son, he couldn’t help but gaze upon him with reverence. 

In just a moment you will hear more about this love from each of Farnham’s sons. And while it was shared uniquely between them – it was different for Hal than it was for Seth, different for Pieter than it was for Marshall as is true in every family – this love was real and deep and authentic.  So today we return thanks to God for all the forms of love shared in this family.

Can I get an AMEN for that?  Please know there we’re not going Pentecostal – and probably not everyone shares the same spirituality – but can I get an AMEN for the love that was shared in this family?

Now there are two other essential truths that must be named on this day:  the mystery of death and the invitation of grace.  Death changes everything, yes?  And if we are honest nobody is ever prepared for the emptiness death brings.  Sometimes it is agonizing and sometimes a relief – sometimes it stuns us into silence and sometimes all we can do is weep.  And while we know in our heads that death must come to us all eventually, it always takes our hearts longer to catch up.  That’s why for months – some times years – it is natural to be stunned over and again by the sting of death.

So the sacred song of love asks that we be tender and patient with those who are grieving.  They need time to take it all in and time to feel the magnitude of this loss.  They need time and space to comprehend how life has changed and how life should be lived differently now that Farnham has gone. It just can’t be clear all at once so death invites us to take all the time and space we need.  Another great mountain fly-fisherman, the writer Norman MacLean, put it like this at the end of his book A River Runs through It as he contemplated the meaning of his life in the context of death:

Like many fly fishermen in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops.
Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.

Death changes everything and invites us to wait patiently and reverently for the new ways we will respond to the invitation of love.

And finally, death asks us to make a choice:  are we willing to trust that there is a love greater than our limited understanding and experience that truly makes all things right?  In my tradition we speak of this as grace – the healing that comes from beyond whether we deserve it or not – that heals all wounds, binds all things together and forgives all failings.  We don’t have to understand it – it is, after all, incomprehensible. 

But death asks us to choose to trust grace for this is the only way to be at peace with our loved ones and ourselves. In every life, in every love, in every passing just below the surface there are always mistakes that can no longer be fixed – words that can no longer be spoken – hurts that can no longer be healed. And if we can’t trust that there is a love greater than our limitations, we will be trapped by regret and shame.  That’s why the great moral theologian of the 21st century, Bono from the band U2, tells us that in the end grace trumps karma.  That is the sacred promise:  grace trumps karma.

It is the assurance that there is a love greater than our imagination and stronger than our wounds.  And if we choose to become allies of grace, then death can share with us blessings more profound that our grief.

As I understand it, Mr. Lefferts – Farnham – gave much of his life to the pursuit of beauty – it was his living prayer – and in this he was an ally of grace.  In his core he grasped that in life, in death, in life beyond death the love you give is equal to the love you make.  May we find the grace to do likewise in our own way.

Please pray with me:

Into your loving care, Lord, we commend Farnham Lefferts as he journeys with you beyond our sight.  Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a son of your own redeeming.  Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace and into the company of the saints in light.  Amen.

Putting on a montreal groove...

I've got my Montreal-groove on today and can't stop listening to early Joni Mitchell cds.  We're off to the Montreal Jazz Festival soon - a place of refuge and renewal that feels like my second home - as I've shared countless times before, yes?  In addition to the free gigs - and surprises - we'll take in both Ravi Coltrane and Joshua Redman over the weekend.  And while the weather looks iffy during the first part of our trip, we are certain to find news ways of hanging indoors more than usual. 

Last night, for example, I found a link for the 11 Best Things to Do in Montreal on a Rainy Day: one even suggested sampling different types of Poutine (curried poutine, nordic meatball poutine, etc.)  I am eager to hit some of the art museums as well as Marche Jean Talon, a farmers' market just around the corner from our flat.  Last year it was a great place to practice ordering crepes from the sweet young people who make it all happen.  And the pay-off came in the form of crêpes fraîches avec fromage et champignons !

So, I'm packed already and need to put together our Montréal boîte tournée de livres, de cartes et de billets de concert.  We will likely be posting pictures and updates as we wander and explore.

Breaking with the past...

I did something unusual for me last week:  I gave up on being a part of the traditional Democrat/Republican thing and registered as a Green Party member. (check it out @ http://www. For most of my professional life I've been mostly an Independent.  Sure I have tended to side with the Democrats on social issues, although I've voted Republican from time to time in Ohio and Arizona, too.  And my heart truly resonates more with the New Dealer than with the Supply-Siders.

But as a person of faith - and one with a public identity - I've been very careful NOT to confusion my personal politics with my public role as pastor.  There was a day in my tradition - back in the good old days of Congregational theocracy - when the clergy regularly preached about who their flock should vote for and why it was a matter of faith to follow their lead.  But thankfully those days are long gone.  And I have been very circumspect about not putting bumper stickers on my car - or yard signs on my property - that encourages overtly partisan politics.

But today, while I am vigorously opposed to the narrow and often mean-spirited social and economic agenda of the Republicans, I am not all that inclined to want to be labeled a Democrat either.  In order to speak about truth and compassion, you see, I don't want to be lumped into either camp.  I want - and need - the space to offer a totally upside-down wisdom. So when I had to renew my driver's license and came to the place where it asks, "Do you want to register to vote?" I paused - and prayed - and said to myself:  I think the time has come for me to move into a more honest sense of politics even if it seems obscure and idealistic to others.  So I signed onto the Green Rainbow Party.
Most of my life I've been solidly pragmatic - I've been schooled in the Alinsky world of utilitarian politics - but even that wisdom has outlived its usefulness.  The greed and avarice of both Washington and Wall Street needs to be challenged. The unholy influence the NRA holds over our elected officials strikes me as morally bankrupt. And as much as I support President Obama - and admire his commitment to finding a middle course in most things (as well as his Niebuhrian understanding of what is possible for this moment in time) - my soul needs to step out of the rut and say:  we can do better.  We can live into peace and love in new and creative ways that the old parties can't even imagine.  We can embrace the values of our faith and push our politicians to make them reality. We can care for Mother Earth and one another much better than we've managed for the past 40 years.  And we don't have to sell our souls to the NRA or the highest bidder any more.  The time has come to start caring for people and the environment in new and creative ways - not out of fear - but out of respect, kindness and truth.

So, for me it is good-bye to the Democrats and fare thee well to the  Republicans:  I'm Bernie Sanders and Bill Moyers bound.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Passing through...

Today has been a mix of blessings. I spent the better part of the day writing the memorial service homily for the father of one my dearest friends. I have known the family since I was in 8th grade - that's 48 years - and am honored to have been asked to officiate and help out.  Now, in a short time, I get to welcome and introduce a stellar home-town boy who is now international pianist playing a concert at our church. 
And then tomorrow, after the memorial service, we leave for two weeks away in Montreal and Ottawa.  Our daughter and son-in-law will join us for part of the fun at the Jazz Festival and that will be a treat on many levels.

Funny how one day can hold so many competing feelings, yes?  Gratitude and grief, celebration and sorrow, longing and rest and everything in-between.  As I prepared and prayed over my writing task, I found myself using a prayer-psalm by Ed Hays called "The Psalm of Passing On."

Such an obscene expression: to die ~
   the polite never utter aloud
such vulgar, grave, dirty words.
   Neighbors do not die, they pass on:
friends and family do not die, they pass away.

"Died" is an ugly period-word
   that ends a sentence.
It closes the door with a slam,
   seals the tomb.
Yet in this "passing on" avoidance
   is found a mystical truth.

For death is the great passage,
   a passing beyond sickness
and the valley of disappointment,
   a passage through the womb of the tomb
   a passage over life's limitations.

Since death is for you, O God of the Passover,
   a voyage of returning,
a joyous triumphant homecoming,
   help me the next time I am told
that acquaintances have "passed on,"
   not cringe, but to smile
and to say, "Ah, yes they have indeed."

I don't think Hays is trying to be cute - just honest.  Death is an end, to be sure, but not just an end in our tradition. In this, passing on is more descriptive and active than euphemistic.  So, off I go to a concert - and then a memorial service - and then a vacation for rest and renewal.  All of it made me think of this tune by brother Lennie...

Monday, June 24, 2013

Actin' mad when I'm feelin' sad...

Last night I went to sleep confused:  part of me was rejoicing and part of me was grieving.  The whole day was like that - a mixture of celebration and sorrow - and it took the better part of the night to sort things out. When I came back from worship, you see, I was feeling "cranky" and a little out of sorts, but I couldn't say exactly why. After about 45 minutes of conversation, however, Dianne asked, "Why do you act angry when what you are really feeling is sad?" Hmmm  ... that's a damn good question, one a lot of men wrestle with, too. 

So I gave pause to why I was feeling so profoundly sad but acting so mad. It was only this morning that things became clear: I am grieving the life choices being made by a number of people I care about at church because these choices seem destined to end up in tragedy.  And as much as I love them, there's nothing I can do to fix or change things.  Such is often the pastor's dilemma: time and again, there are people in our congregations who are hellbent  on barrelling down the road of self-destruction with a "take no prisoners" bravado.  We can see the train wreck coming but because these loved ones neither request nor want our insights or words of caution, we remain silent. Yes, we hold them close in prayer and trust that maybe when their wounds get bad enough they will be open to a road less travelled, but there are no guarantees in this work.

Thank God it happens sometimes - but all too often it doesn't and good, smart, creative and loving people find themselves enslaved by "forces which have captured  (them) and prevented (them) from becoming what God intends for us to be.  (Indeed) we are as surrounded by – and even possessed by – as many demons as those whom Jesus encountered: mental illnesses, schizophrenia, paranoia, addictions, obsessions, destructive habits and I would add sin. 

Jim Nelson, in his book Thirst, writes that "sin is best described as profound estrangement. It is relational brokenness, separation from everything meaning full. It is alienation from ourselves, from those around us and from our environment.  It is separation from life itself." (67)  And the reason why I must include that complicated word once again comes from something else Nelson understands:  we need all the insights into our brokenness possible and no one school of thought has a monopoly upon wisdom.  "Theology adds critical elements beyond those provided by medical and psychological interpretations. For one thing, theology adds mystery to the equation - and science does not suffer mystery gladly. By its very nature science presses for answers, not for living the questions. But theology reminds me that now I must live into the the questions, accepting the fact that more facts will never be enough." (p. 70)

And here's the killer for me:  the reason we include the theological into the mix of all the other ways of living fully into life is that "when we try to understand why good things have turned bad, why relationships have gone wrong, it is more than idle curiosity. We want to know why so that we might draw on the healing resources that can restore life's goodness." (p. 60)  We want to know how others have learned from their mistakes - and what the mistakes look like before we make them. We want to be nourished by the wisdom of the ages and the insights of grace.  As Eugene Peterson has sadly noted, however, one of the forms of idolatry in our age is our obsession with adolescence so that we act like we are the only ones who have EVER known this or that type of suffering.  He calls it historical amnesia:

The adolescent, of course, has NO history. He or she has a childhood, but no accumulation of experience that transcends personal details and produces a sense of history.  His/her world is highly personal and extremely empirical... the result is that people have little consciousness of being part of a community that carries in its Scriptures, its worship and its forms of obedience a life twenty or more centuries in the making. (The Contemplative Pastor, p. 125)

Sometimes - often before I head out for retreat and/or vacation - I have a nagging desire to shout to those I love: please stop now before you crash and burn. But I wonder if anyone is listening to what I try to share on Sunday mornings?  You see, in scripture and experience, there is evidence that we can change direction. Christian tradition calls it repentance - turning away from the destructive and towards the source of life - and we can learn how to do this with practice. We can also learn how to become open to grace and forgiveness so that we actually benefit from our sins. It isn't automatic - it takes a long time - but even the wounds born of sin can be part of God's blessings if we are willing to honor and learn from them.  St. Paul wrote:  we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

And that's when it hit me: part of my sadness is rooted in my resistance to my own powerlessness. It makes me crazy and mad, but it is true.  And the other part of my sadness is my failure to hear God's loving whisper in my grief: let go and trust me more deeply.  It is hard for me to accept that even my sadness is a part of God's healing but such is the mysterious way of the Lord.

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 55)

1) Confusion by Roswita Szyska @
2) Confusion and Disorientation @

Sunday, June 23, 2013

I am NOT in charge...

The other day I was cutting the front lawn when this question passed through my head:  How do people expect their deepest values to be passed on to their children and/or loved ones if they can't/won't make time for consistent worship, prayer and study? I was a bit startled by the intensity of what I was feeling as this thought took up residence within me for the rest of the afternoon.  And I am still deeply concerned because while I broadly celebrate the disestablishment of civil religion in contemporary American culture, I can't help but fret over some of the consequences.

For example, there is wide spread confusion about the difference between church and a personal refuge or sanctuary - and the two are not interchangeable.  A church - ekklesia - is a group of people called out of their private homes into a public community.  A sanctuary or refuge is a quiet place for the self to both rest and experience renewal.  A church is public while a home is private, the community is engaged in shared worship and service while the refuge is dedicated to the self. Public people, of course, need retreat and I celebrate and honor taking private time as part of a healthy and sane rhythm of life.  But the distinction I'm talking about is all too often obscured in a culture addicted to personal satisfaction so that the whole notion of being connected strikes many as challenging.

It reminds me of the time a woman in Arizona scolded me for not allowing enough "quiet and personal time" for her in worship.  I asked, "How much time during your week do you give to quiet reflection and meditation?"  To which she replied:  "I don't have time for that during the week. I am a very busy person."  Hmmm... so I said, "I can appreciate the challenge of being busy but there is a deep difference between public prayer and private prayer.  One is for rest and renewal and the other is shared in community.  And whether you like it or not, when you are in church, you are part of the community." So she quit attending.  That wasn't my goal - and I wasn't trying to be a smart ass - but that's what happened in a culture geared to customer satisfaction and narrowly defined market driven outcomes.

You see, it is counter-cultural for us to realize that we are not the center of the universe. When St. John the Baptist said of Jesus, "The time has come to realize that I must decrease so that He might increase (John 3: 30)" he was on to a key spiritual truth. The Zen masters say much the same thing: when we are certain we know how life and faith works - and when we are too busy to sit in quiet community - we are too full of ourselves for the Spirit to lead us in any way that matters.  Consequently, we are invited to be emptied over and over again in order that the Spirit might fill us with life, grace and joy. In Peterson's reworking of the Beatitudes, Jesus says: 

You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought... You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family. You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

One of the truths I wrestle with in my current work as a pastor committed to the renewal of a struggling congregation has to do with accepting that all I can do is strive to be faithful and leave the rest to the Lord.  I can't fix things.  I may say stupid things from time to time - and do - and I may even get the message right from time to time (and that's been known to happen, too.) But I have precious little control over what individuals and families choose to do with their time, resources, expectations or commitments.  Indeed, as humbling as it is to me (and sometimes frustrating, too) all I can do is invite them to the feast and know that the rest is up to their openness and the guidance of the Spirit. 

Now I confess that I hate it when people choose to sleep in - or go to the movies - or play golf or soccer or whatever on a Sunday morning. I really hate it because I believe this is a bad choice for a person who is interested in going deeper.  And I know it is a bad choice for those who say they are committed to strengthening the church. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with movies or sleeping or sports.  It just gets back to my opening question set in the context of church renewal: how can we nourish faith and commitment without practice? How can families help their children learn about prayer? Or radical trust?  Or counter-cultural hospitality? Or waiting?  How can adults learn to share in the spirit of Jesus?  Or let their wounds rest in God's grace long enough that they discover they can also celebrate a love that is even greater than our pain?  How can we ever cultivate a capacity for awe and reverence without practice?

At a bare minimum, one hour a week isn't enough for faith formation - but it is more than many seem able to muster given competing schedules.  One hour a week isn't enough time to learn how to play an instrument - or exercise the body - or even read a book of any depth.  It really is frustrating to me because these same folk will act with incredulity when a church closes and a community is forced to quit.  "What happened?" they wonder. (I can't tell you how many times I've seen this take place over the past six years as the Roman Catholic diocese has closed 20+ churches in our region and people who haven't been to mass in 15 years act shocked.)

So  apparently one of the things I have to keep learning over and again here is my need to let go and trust in the Lord in all things. Clearly I don't do this very well because I keep having to learn it over and over again.  It is both frustrating and humbling to be such a slow student.  But it is a fact.  I really can't change people - I can't change their habits or reactions - why I can barely change myself. So I really should grow up enough to quit trying because God is Lord and I am not.  Today I sense that I can affirm the truth that St. Paul grasped when he wrote:

We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

Lord, please help me to draw closer to trusting this as my vacation time unfolds. (Can you tell this pastor needs a vacation?  We leave on Wednesday!)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

When the student is ready the buddha will appear...

The moon was particularly stunning last night - and I found myself mostly unable to sleep.  Between 3 and 4 am, therefore, I found myself looking through an old book by Fr. Ed Hays: Psalms for Zero Gravity - Prayers for Life's Emigrants. I have valued the "deep ecumenism" of Hays since the early 70s when a farm worker ally shared his mimeographed copies of the "letters from the forest" with me.

Of particular interest to me last night were the psalms/prayers/reflections re: communion.  Throughout the summer we'll be celebrating Eucharist again every week and holding "worship talk back" sessions after the liturgy.  In this we can critically reflect on the practice of the day and do a bit of formation, too.  What Hays wrote took me by surprise - his insights about the Lord's Supper are both incarnational and mystical - and invite people of faith to see how Eucharist can become the heart of all Christian formation.  It is our primary lens for how we live in compassion and justice as well as prayer and humility if we are willing to learn.  For example, he notes that:

+ All too often, keeping Christ's commandment to love one another as he loved us in the breaking of the bread has become a ritual that only clergy can initiate.  Hays asks:  "are those who are entrusted with the commission obedient disciples or copyright pirates? Jesus' words that enshrine the memory are indeed copyrighted today - that is, they are restricted to the clergy - but that has not always been the case... Indeed, it has been discovered that the first document making a distinction between laity and ritually ordained clergy didn't appear until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215."  That means that for over a thousand years the rigid distinctions of clericalism were held in check by a vibrant and engaged laity.

+ Another bold idea that Hays reminds us of is that if we only celebrate communion with our hearts and minds we are "living below the poverty line as only stingy lovers would restrict how much of themselves is available to their lover."  We have lips and ears, bodies and souls to share and nourish, yes?  We also have suffering to move through and joy to embrace.  In this, communion is more about waking up so that we might become fully alive rather than fulfilling a religious rule.  He also share both intimacy and awe with God, yes?

My friend and lover, I speak to you
   confident and assured.
For you are no high and mighty potentate
   adorned with grand and lofty titles,
   who demands abject adoration
   or else heads will roll.

You are no majestic earthly ruler
   that I need to address with deferential names.
Rather, you are my father, mother, friend and lover,
   and I am your child and beloved.
So what need do I have of elaborate court ritual?

I can't scrape and crawl before you
   when we're so intimate
   and do everything together.
So I kiss your lips and not your shoes;
   I hug not the ground, but you.

And then, in the very next poem, Hays reminds us of the ineffable and awesome truth of the holy, too.  God is simultaneously mystically intimate and awesomely other.

+  And then there this challenge by Hays that warrants consideration:  beware of the dogs!  "Beware of the watchdogs of religion, how viciously they bark and bite. Dobermans of dogma, thirsty for blood, Bible defenders, guard dogs of the literal. Beware of the growling, heresy-hunting dogs prowling orthodoxy's rigid chair-link fences." How have our habits - and the rules of our various traditions - cut us off from living fully alive and fully connected to our bodies and all of creation?  How has a narrow sense of ritual impoverished our imagination and conscience?

Two early morning thoughts took shape and form as the eve of Solstice rolled into our first day of summer:  First, when the student is ready, the Buddha will appear.  I knew there was one level for our summer communion series, but this new resource will take us profoundly deeper.  And second, there is another dog image that needs to be included in this mix as part of a radical invitation into balance: love dogs.
One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I’ve heard you calling our, but have you ever
gotten any response?”

The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.

“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I’ve never heard anything back.”

“This longing you express
is the return message.”

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.

Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.

There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.

Give your life
to be one of them.

In my fuzzy pre-dawn reading, I was shaken awake by this prayer/poem that is likely to be at the heart of this summer's series:  "Do This in Memory of Me" Psalm:

Beloved Jesus, Lord of the Meal, I rejoice
   that a mother and a father,
   laboring for their family,
   begin and end each day's work saying:
   "This is my body, this is my blood."

And adult child nursing a sick elderly parent
   with compassion and patient care says:
   "This is my body, this is my blood."

A volunteer giving time to a needy cause
   without thanks or acknowledgment says:
   "This is my body, this is my blood."

A preacher, with prayerful study, preparing a homily
   that no one may remember or be moved by, says:
   "This is my body, this is my blood."

A singer forgetting self and the audience,
   making love out of the music says:
   "This is my body, this is my blood."

Artist or teacher, dancer or doctor,
   auto mechanic or office worker,
   attending to each details or their work
   with full-hearted involvement proclaim:
   "This is my body, this is my blood."

Ten thousand thousand consecrations occur daily,
   as all heaven's angels chime in:  Holy, holy holy
   to the thunderous praise
   of a thousand silent silver bells.
Listen.  Listen.

In a few days we depart of sweet Montreal - I'm sure as we wander and listen to the music other truths will grab my attention, too.


Friday, June 21, 2013

If you want justice, work for beauty...

Everywhere I look I see growing evidence that people in our hard-working industrialized nations have become exhausted and angry about living under the dominance of unrestrained capitalism.  "Much like the Occupy movement in the United States," writes Simon Romero and William Neuman in this morning's NY Times, "the anti-corruption protests that shook India in recent years, the demonstrations over living standards in Israel or the fury in European nations like Greece, the demonstrators in Brasil are fed up with traditional political structures..." (see world/americas/ sweeping-protests-in-brazil-pull-in-an-array-of-grievances. html?hp  I would add to this list both the revolutions of the Arab Spring as well as the recent actions in Turkey.

(I LOVE this take on an old tune.)

Two domestic clues underscore this mounting frustration:

+ David Brooks' column, "The Humanist Vocation," speaks to what has been lost in a culture devoted to and obsessed by the bottom line.  "Back when the humanities were thriving, the leading figures had a clear definition of their mission and a fervent passion for it. The job of the humanities was to cultivate the human core, the part of a person we might call the spirit, the soul, or, in D. H. Lawrence's phrase, 'the dark vast forest.' This was the most inward and elemental part of a person. When you go to a funeral and hear a eulogy, this is usually the part they are talking about. Eulogies aren't resumes. They describe the person's care, wisdom, truthfulness and courage. They describe the million little moral judgments that emanate from that inner region.... (But) somewhere along the way, many people in the humanities lost faith in this uplifting mission."

Brooks observes that 50 years ago, 14% of college degrees were given to students who majored in the humanities.  Today it is only 7% and declining. "Most people give an economic explanation for this decline. Accounting majors get jobs. Lit majors don't. And there's obviously some truth to this. But the humanities are not only being bulldozed by an unforgiving job market. They are committing suicide because many humanists have lost faith in their own enterprise." ( see: 06/21/opinion/brooks-the-humanist-vocation.html?ref=todayspaper)

It would seem that the collective imagination of many of our most passionate and poetic minds have also been ground down by the relentless demands of the marketplace.  Turning a profit, making a deal and satisfying the bottom line have become the essential goals of our era.  Small wonder James Gandolfini's brilliant portrayal of mobster Tony Soprano resonated so deeply with so many:  he knew something was missing - he was empty and sad within - but he didn't know what else to do except keep on.  But it never worked because the harder he tried, the worse it became...

+ In Claire Needell Hollander's recent article, "No Learning without Feeling," she makes this case from the perspective of a public school teacher working in a Manhattan middle school.  She notes that it is one of life's sweetest joys "when my students cry, when they read with solemnity and purpose, when the project of making meaning becomes personal."  But given the demands and control of education by business and their allies, more and more emphasis and energy in the classroom has been given over to "teaching to the test." (see

My fear is that we cannot reckon with the disturbance we feel when reading Alice Walker's "Color Purple" is rated too disruptive to the analysis of student yearly progress to be read for a test. My suspicion is that the Common Core enumerates skills and not books because as a country we still feel that real works of art are too divisive. It is more comfortable to remain agnostic - to permit our teens to remain an education-product consumer group - fed skills-building exercises that help adults to avoid the hard truths our children have no choice but to face... The basis for higher-level lea ring - for philosophy, psychology, literature and even political science - is the emotions and impulses people feel every day. If we leave them out of the picture, reading is bled of much of its purpose.

Amen - but so goes the way of education in our era addicted to "soma."  As Neil Postman wrote in Entertaining Ourselves to Death:  George Orwell's prophesy turned out to be wrong (although the fact that a serious conversation recently took place in the Massachusetts State House about implanting cameras into our home televisions that can watch and rate our reactions during TV commercials should be a cause for caution) for we are not a nation of 1984 but instead Brave New World.

Even Pope Francesco I found it essential to speak to this truth in his first 100 days in office:  A savage capitalism has taught the logic of profit at any cost of giving in order to get, of exploitation without thinking of people … and we see the results in the crisis we are experiencing.  The pontiff also decried the “dictatorship of the economy” as well as the “cult of money. (see:

The up-coming NY Conference of IAM - the International Arts Movement - will address some of this in October.  The working title of the gathering is: if you want justice, work for beauty.  They, like myself, see the rising tide of discontent with the status quo as both a post-modern critique of unbridled capitalism - and the bland agnosticism it promotes in both spirituality and the arts - as well as part of the movement of the Holy Spirit in our era.  IAM founder, Mako Fukumura, offers some insights in his address: Lazarus Culture.

The nourishment of beauty - and truth and goodness - are a form of resistance. For what does it profit a woman or man to gain the whole world, but lose their soul?  Small wonder, then, that so much of the resistance from Occupy to Turkey and beyond is simultaneously deep and saturated with soul.
3) wendy fambro @ first church

gobsmacked and surprised...

My current quest to unlearn the ways of privilege and power in favor of a holistic  spirituality of tenderness, solidarity and living small ...