Wednesday, July 31, 2013

I LOVE our director of music...

There is an old joke that seasoned pastors share in the privacy of their own homes or studies that goes:  Do you know the difference between a terrorist and a director of music in a church?  You can negotiate with a terrorist!
Now I have been blessed over the years to have worked with some truly exceptional musicians who have also been genuinely wonderful human beings.  Sadly, this is not always the case.  And when it comes down to choosing side between a long tenured musician and a newly arrived/ appointed clergy person, I can't tell you how many pastors have wound up on the losing side of things.  (To be fair, I am sure that there are just as many stories from the realm of music ministers that cut the other way, too. All too many clergy can become pompous and officious with their staff - especially when challenged.)

That said, I give thanks to God almost every day for the man I get to work with every week:  Carlton Maaia II.  Not only is he young, talented, creative and gifted in ways that blow my mind, he is a deeply compassionate person of faith with a razor sharp mind and a wicked sense of humor.  Every week we find new ways of collaborating and creating the wildest mix of music and liturgy I've ever encountered.  What's more, we're blessed to do all of this with total freedom in the company of a cadre of dedicated and talented volunteer singers and players who love to make music together.  My sister-in-law put it like this:  When we agreed to come and play at your church I thought, "well, ok, we'll tough this out and just eat the sloppy musicianship.  But I would PAY to see you guys play - you are at the top of your game - and real pros!"

Take last night's band practice for Between the Banks (our house band for church.)  For the next three week's we're doing a "spirituality of jazz" series and this Sunday's emphasis is syncopation - listening for what the offbeat can contribute to the whole mix - discovering what is just below the surface.  We've reworked Paul Simon's old tune, "Slip Slidin' Away" into a jazz-gospel groove both because it swings AND points to the gospel in Luke 12.  We wanted some other syncopated tunes for worship so that the congregation gets the feel of what it means to emphasize the offbeat.

So my man reworked a Kyrie from Ghana into an up-tempo jazz waltz - and in this form the tune is smokin'.  He also brought in an ancient chant - Ubi Caritas - in Em that gives each of the players a chance to explore the bluesy side of things while the singers play it straight.  And just for good measure, we'll close worship with Dave Brubeck's "Travellin' Blues" because it swings like nothing else.  Now, it helps that C is also the music coordinator for the Scarett-Bennett Center's "Vespers... and All that Jazz" program in Nashville. (check it out @  What's more, he has been playing every week in church since his teens. (Check out his page @ http://  So, let's just say that that it is a joy every week to bring my old guy with an edge thing into the mix with his young man with a gift insights.

And thanks be to God the congregation gets it intuitively:  they LOVE the eclectic mix of sounds and styles that we come up with.  And that's a good thing because neither of us is interested in musical or any other type of segregation.  We are the WHOLE people of God:  young and old and in-between, classical junkies and rock and rollers who are fascinated and fed with jazz, hymns, chants and all the rest.  The brothers at Taize used to talk about their work as being a "parable of God's festival."  I feel the same way.

If you are around or in town this weekend, stop by for part one of "A Spirituality of Jazz:  Syncopation as a Spiritual Practice."  It will be a gas.  (I think I'm going to do a little celebrating ALL the great people I get to work with over the next few days because DAMN... they are REAL blessings in my life!)


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Slip slidin away: a spirituality of jazz part one...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, August 4, 2013.  They are part one of a three part series on "A Spirituality of Jazz."  I am grateful to the following authors for helping me find some clarity on this theme:  Robert Gelinas, Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Bruce Ellis Benson and Ted Gioia.  And, of course, my colleagues in the Jazz Ambassadors as well as my Music Director and friend Carlton Maaia II and my partners in beauty:  Between the Banks.

I love jazz – I have become a believer and a convert.  For so many reasons, I am discovering that the way of jazz – the spirituality of jazz – the freedom and discipline of jazz has opened me to a deeper way of listening and living in the world.  And as a person of faith I have come to realize that I need all the help I can get – and if you are honest you’ll know that you do, too. 

·      We can’t be faithful all by ourselves:  we need allies to help us go from the obvious to the innovative.  We need partners to help us learn how to listen and then respond with compassion and creativity.  We need touch stones to help us get back on track when we get lost.  And we need nourishment and refreshment along the way so that we have strength for the journey. The wise old teacher of Israel in the book of Ecclesiastes said that without soul friends to encourage us and honest guidance and wisdom to keep us balanced, left to ourselves we’ll get caught in the vanity of vanities:  we’ll stumble through life trying one quick fix after another only to realize when it is too late they all dust because we are not the center of the universe.

I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is vanity…

Jesus said much the same thing in the gospel for today: Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed and selfishness; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. No, what brings joy and creates value is the quality of our relationships – our enthusiasm for sharing – and our willingness to reach out and touch somebody with tender affection.  And if you are anything like me, you’ll have to confess that at least on some days you need help living beyond yourself – going the extra mile – sharing and being present for others instead of just obsessing on yourself, right?

·      Now you may think this is a leap, but what I’ve come to realize over the past four years is that jazz has some insights and tools that can help us live more faithfully and joyfully as people of faith.

·      So what I’m going to try to do over the next three weeks is share with you three key insights and resources from jazz that you can use in your everyday lives to not only become more effective in sharing love in the world, but to do so with a creativity that makes you swing.

·      Carlton told me that the king of bop, Dizzy Gillespie, wrote in his book To Bop or Not to Bop that jazz is essentially a rhythmic thing – and if you don’t get the rhythm right then you are in trouble.   

So today we’re going to talk about the way Jesus plays with something jazz
musicians call syncopation – later we’ll play with the call and response rhythm of jazz and the importance of improvisation – but day is all about syncopation.

One way of describing syncopation is playing the offbeat: finding and emphasizing something in the rhythm of the song that is always real but mostly just below the surface.  Jazz theologian Robert Gelinas likes to say that as a spiritual master Jesus was always looking below the surface of things.  He didn’t just take the obvious for the whole truth.  Rather he pushed to uncover the deeper truths that are always present, but not always realized or understood.  In a word, Jesus accentuated the offbeat.

And before I play with this notion and show you the syncopation of today’s gospel, I want to make sure that you know and feel what syncopation is all about. So I’m going to turn to the master and ask Carlton to show you – and play for you – some examples of what living with the offbeat means…

Carlton does his thing…

Syncopation is what makes jazz swing – it is what you feel when you move or dance to the groove – it is what helps you experience the music with your senses rather than just hear or think about it.  What I am trying to say is that playing and feeling the offbeat is how we move from the abstract to the embodied – and in theology we call this incarnation – where the word becomes… flesh!  Real!  Useful and meaningful in our everyday lives because it moves us!

Now in what I am calling a spirituality of jazz, feeling and moving with the offbeat is a practice or a spiritual discipline that we can use to give our faith shape and form.  Just as a jazz musician practices and plays with the offbeat in a song, we can do the same thing with both the words of Scripture and the truth of our lives. 

That is, we can learn to listen for what is not obvious but just below the surface in the words of the Bible and like Jesus tease out new and healing insights. And, we can learn to be attentive to the off-beats in our own experience and bring them to the surface so that God can use them for love and compassion.

So let me give you two examples of what I mean from this morning’s text.  As Jesus is moving towards Jerusalem – where he will face betrayal and the Cross before the blessing of the resurrection – he takes time to stop and share conversation and teaching with the people he meets.  In this story someone in the crowd who is clearly in the middle of a family feud over an inheritance wants to hear from a religious authority a word of judgment that he can use against his brother. 

But rather than emphasize the old tradition which would have given the man a formula to follow in this fight, Jesus cuts beyond the obvious and offers the syncopation of God’s creative kingdom.  First, he says with deep sympathy:  be careful, my brother, that greed doesn’t ruin your life.  And then he tells a story about a very successful farmer who winds up losing every-thing including his soul.  “You don’t want to wind up like this selfish fool,” Jesus concludes which must have stunned the crowd because it is such an offbeat insight.

·      Why do you think Jesus called the farmer a fool?  What is so offbeat and syncopated about this conclusion?

·      Clearly from the outside the farmer was a winner – and God knows we all love winners – so what’s going on?

Here’s my hunch:  from the swinging and syncopated perspective of God’s kingdom the reason Jesus calls the farmer a fool is…. this man lived only for himself.  Yes, he was successful – he needed to build new storage units for his bounty – but he didn’t share his blessings with anyone else. 

He just horded it all for himself only to find that at the end of the day his life over and nobody was able to benefit from the bounty of his blessings. He thought he would be happy having more – he believed that success was the way to security and peace – but all his vanity turned to dust.  As Jesus taught in another place: what does it profit a man or woman to inherit the world but lose their soul?

The offbeat insight of this story is that we can spend our whole lives living in ways that are so self-centered and self-absorbed that they never, ever matter.  And this is just one example of a life that had no room for God or creativity or joy or sharing with our neighbors – I’m certain we could name others.   But you grasp my point about why the spiritual practice of syncopation is so important:  it can help us listen for and play with the offbeat and go deeper.  Going beyond the obvious with the Bible is one way to let God’s kingdom voice join the conversation. 

The other way of playing with the gift of syncopation is to let those places in our own lives that we keep hidden away rise to the surface so that they might be embraced by God’s love, too. 

·      Let’s be real:  each of us has wounds and places buried below the obvious that we want to keep hidden, right?  I know I do and I suspect that is true for you, too?  These are our off-beats – truths we keep quiet about – pains we mostly deny and try to hide away.

·      But hiding our off-beats from God is a vanity that will only turn to dust:  it is foolish and wastes God’s grace and our time.  That’s where the upside-down logic of the kingdom needs to be brought to the surface in a syncopated way. 

Do you recall how St. Paul put it in II Corinthians 12?  He tells us that he had a handicap – a wound – something that caused him fear and shame that he could never get rid of no matter how hard he tried.  He says that he hated this wound – that at times it caused him fear and anguish – but no matter what he did it never went away.  Listen to the apostle’s own words:

At first I didn’t think of (this wound) as a gift and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that and then the Lord told me:  “My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own through your weakness.” Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take my limitations in stride, and with good cheer, knowing that these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks and wounds – are an opportunity to just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.

Now THAT’S some totally upside-down and syncopated thinking, yes?  This cat is totally out there… but grooving on the offbeat and bringing to God in love what was broken was the only way Paul moved from anxiety to peace.  And what was true for Paul can be true for you and me, too.

And as you probably expected, this is where I come back to jazz one more time – in particular a song with lyrics and syncopation that I have come to use as wake-up prayer almost daily. It is St. Paul Simon’s tune:  Slip Slidin’ Away – that we’ll share with you now – for two reasons:

·      First, it will give you a chance to practice clapping your hands – or snapping your fingers – or tapping your feet to the offbeat.  Spiritual disciplines need to be practiced so I want to help you get the groove of syncopation.

·      And second this song sounds like a combination of Ecclesiastes and the words of Jesus to me brought down to the nitty gritty reality of our everyday lives – especially the chorus – that goes:  slip slidin away, slip slidin away, you know the nearer you’re destination the more you’re slip slidin away.

It is a call to take care – to wake up –lest you spend your whole life working for things that turn to dust…  We’ll share it – you clap or snap or tap – and then we’ll be still together for a moment to see what the Spirit brings up within.

Slip slidin' away - Slip slidin' away
You know the nearer your destination the more you're slip slidin' away

I know a man he came from my home town
He wore his passion for his woman like a thorny crown
He said Dolores, I live in fear
My love for you's so overpowering I'm afraid that I will disappear…

I know a woman became a wife
These are the very words she uses to describe her life
She said a good day ain't got no rain
She said a bad day's when I lie in bed and think of things that might have been…

And I know a fa-ther who had a son
He longed to tell him all the reasons for the things he'd done
He came a long way just to explain
He kissed his boy as he lay sleeping then he turned around and headed home again…

God only knows, God makes his plan
The information's unavailable to the mortal man
We're working our jobs - Collect our pay
Believe we're gliding down the highway when in fact we're slip slidin' away

1) Gil Mayers, The Jazz Singer, @
5) Pedro Uhart @


Monday, July 29, 2013

Who am I to judge...

It has been six beautiful months since I began fasting from cable news - and my mental health has never been better.  Later this month, we will unplug from ALL cable TV and just use the Internet and Netflix to stay in touch with our brothers and sisters in the world.  Imagine:  no more manufactured culture war bullshit - no more foolish commercialism - no more ugly sexualized violence passing for "entertainment."

I was taken, however, with the story of Pope Francesco's comments about not judging gay priests.  This is a beautiful thing and worthy of commentary.  Is it the same as support marriage equality?  Of course not and only a zealot would criticize the Pontiff for not embracing the whole LGBTQ civil rights agenda.  As I have discovered in my own spiritual life, NOTHING changes quickly.  Not my heart, my soul, my prayer disciplines, my faith tradition, my habits...

One of my spiritual directors back in Cleveland said, "Man, just remember to light ONE candle every day - don't make a commitment to fast for a month and make a pilgrimage on your knees - just do one little thing at a time.  And over the course of a life time, you will have changed profoundly."  It reminds me of a song Arlo used to sing - one that my children and I worked into the ground - and one that might make sense here...

That's the blessing of Francesco's confession when he said: "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge them?" Has the Vatican changed - and all of Roman Catholicism?  No - not any more than my own United Church of Christ has changed just because some of us have become Open and Affirming congregations.  But these words are the polar opposite of his predecessor, Benedict, who was doctrinaire and rigid in ways that made me weep.

So today I give thanks - AGAIN - for Pope Francesco 1.  May God grant him many, many years. (read more here:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Some beautiful things are brewing...

Some very sweet things are brewing these days and will rise to the surface over the course of this next month:

In addition to celebrating Eucharist every week this summer, next Sunday we'll begin a "Spirituality of Jazz" worship series emphasizing three key jazz components:  a) syncopation b) call and response  and c) improvisation. I am indebted to jazz theologian, Robert Gelinas, as well as Peter Goodwin Heltzel, Bruce Ellis Benson and Ted Gioia for their comprehensive and loving explorations of jazz theology and history. 

I'll get to work with one of the most creative jazz musicians working in the church - Carlton Maaia II - as well as my bandmates in Between the Banks.  It will be a gas.  I've already outlined session one - syncopation - emphasizing how the offbeat is essential to making life and music swing.  (My focus is that a rich spiritual life cuts below the surface and brings our unexpressed tensions to God - the offbeat - for this is where healing, hope, humor and humility really take hold in our lives.)  We'll bring some reworkings of Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and Mason Jennings to worship as well as some new Taize/jazz settings, too.
Next Sunday, while worship is taking place, our friends at Live Out Loud in the Berkshires - a LGBTQ youth support group - will be sharing the premiere of their new film resource for young people in our area.  A few of us were blessed to be included in some of the filmed discussion and our moderator and a few others will represent us at the opening.  (check them out @ http://www. affirmative

+ The Jazz Ambassadors will play a gig this Thursday, August 1st at Patrick's Pub in Pittsfield starting at 6:30 pm.  It has been a while and it will be fun to rock the house - I'll be bringing the new upright bass, too just to add to the fun. And then at the end of August I'll be going on retreat and then vacation before the new program year starts.  We've got a lot of things happening in the realm of music, spirituality, solidarity and celebrating God's grace. 

And even though my guitar is STILL AWOL... life is good.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Exploring a jazz shaped spirituality...

The more I play with jazz - on my bass, in my mind, on my CD player or in a club - the more at home I become with what some have called a "jazz shaped spirituality."  As Robert Gelinas puts it, a jazz shaped spirituality embraces life not as a given but rather as an extended improvisation.  It embraces authentic syncopation - a groove that searches for the backbeat in our experiences (that which is not obvious) and teases out new or even hidden meanings from the sorrow and celebrations of each day.  And does so with a call and response rhythm that honors God's love as the core of creation; in a word, our life is a living response to God's great and mysterious grace.
Unlike some Reformed theologians, who emphasize right thinking and doctrine, I prefer the ambiguity of the word spirituality - mostly because spirituality has to do with our practices - and I don't believe that "right thinking leads to right living" (or as they like to say in the academy:  orthodoxy leads to orthopraxis.) I know too many "believers" who are totally down with the tradition's abstract thinking - they know all the right words - but remain the same mean, sad and selfish souls they've always been.  They look to be incapable and unwilling  of incarnating the Word of grace in their flesh - and incarnation is essential to the faith.   

I much prefer what my friends in the 12 Step movements say: our goal in life is "progress rather than perfection."  Or as my bass teacher told me a few weeks ago when it comes to playing scales: "don't rush this, man, do it slowly over and over so that you get the right feel and sound - then you can speed things up -but not until it sounds and feels right."  That's why in ministry I spend more time teaching and encouraging the small spiritual practices or disciplines that can reshape our lives than discussing doctrine.  Most people who show up on Sunday morning want something useful - something that will help them become the person they ache to be and the person God created them to be in their generation - and that means spirituality. 

Now there is always a tension in emphasizing practice because Americans are convinced that if we just work harder, know more, make the right connections we can fix everything.  Our cultural utilitarianism and addiction to perfectionism, however, is "the common form of works righteousness - the attempt to justify (or save) oneself by means of achievement."  As Jim Nelson puts it:

The sought-for-achievement may be moral goodness.  It may be the worldly success with its constant anxiety about performance. It may be the need to be the most needed.  Whatever the form, the dynamic is the same:  it is still self-centered and prone to be alternatively self-inflating and self-deflating. (Nelson, Thirst, p. 137)
Trusting thoroughly in grace, I still contend that those with their boots on the ground in the local church share the gospel in useful ways by attending to the practices of spirituality.  And a jazz-shapped spirituality is one way to help ordinary people playfully take up a life-long commitment to living in new and healing ways.  Two thoughts from Gelinas have already become valuable to me:

+ First, he writes that when "jazz musicians take the stage, they are there, in part, to take the risk of composing in the moment - improvisation.  Now the word improvisation derives from the Latin im and provisus, meaning "not provided" or not foreseen."  Improvisation then is the willingness to live within the bounds of the past and yet to search for the future at the same time.  Improvisation is the desire to make something new out of something old." (pg. 33)

That is one of the greatest challenges to me doing "church renewal."  Often, those who have hung tight with the church are both deeply committed to saving the institution and profoundly in love with the past.  What they rarely possess, however, is a willingness to make something new out of the past.  They don't want to sing in new ways, they don't want to create any new songs to the Lord, they don't want to change their practices of worship or hospitality and they don't really want any new people to sit in their time-honored seats.  Again, the  12 step folk know a lot about the consequences of holding on to the past in practice when they say:  if you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.  Improvisation honors the past in a playful and creative way while making something new that is alive for this moment in time.

Just look at what the jazz masters do with what has become known as "the jazz standards" of the American songbook:  every night these grand old tunes are cherished and then changed in ways nobody can imagine.  I think of what Miles did at the height of his career - or Bird - to say nothing of what Herbie Hancock is doing now to the new international song book of rock and pop.

I am struck by the possibilities for improvisation in the wisdom of St. Paul when he said:  We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which the Lord prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:10) Gelinas notes that the Greek work, workmanship, is poiema - the root of what we in English call a poem.  "What an amazing thought to think of oneself as a poem created by God..." (p. 48) I think of some of the best Beat poets - or today's hip hop wizards - taking the fabric of their lives and improvising in ways that brings something new to birth out of the old. 

+ Second is the notion of syncopation:  accenting the offbeat while exploring the tension.  Or discovering "the meaning that is always present but often missed because" we don't go deep enough into the groove. (p. 125) In the predominately Anglo congregations I have served over 30+ years, I have often done something I call "remedial clapping for white folks."  Learning to find the back beat - clapping on the 2 and 4 rather than the 1 and 3 - feeling the deeper groove and being playful with it.

As Gelilnas notes, when we look at Scripture and our everyday lives, we "usually discern and hear only the main beat... but there is much more to discover if we syncopate." (p. 127) If we learn to search for what is not obvious, what is both mysterious and gracious, what helps us incarnate God's love and move in life to a whole new rhythm.  I believe that living into the rhythm of our Open and Affirming commitment will help us to move in new and more gracious ways.  I know that being an ally with the LGBTQ community will help us see and hear the beat of the Lord in new and unexpected ways.  Same is true with our partnership with BEAT (Berkshire Environmental Action Team.)  "How can we sing the  Lord's song in a strange land?" laments the Psalmist; learning to listen for the syncopated beat is one crucial way.

Tomorrow we will start worship with an improvisation on a Kyrie from Ghana and we'll close with another based upon an ancient melody from Scotland.  I'm going to need to spend some time playing with these tunes today - practicing and listening - and becoming comfortable with the feel so that when we start to let things fly I am open to the new possibilities.  Que la fĂȘte commence!



Friday, July 26, 2013

Help bring my baby home to me...

Friends and others who read my blog:  here are the specs on my stolen guitar.  Any help in bringing my baby home to me will be greatly appreciated.

Taylor 614ce - Grand Auditorium - Big Leaf Maple - Serial Number: 6113

Content trumps style every time...

The always insightful - and often inspirational - writer, Diana Butler Bass, posted an article on FB this morning re: the growth of religious progressives in the united states. (check it out @ http://publicreligion. org/2013/07/the-growth-of-religious-progressives-and-the-future-of-the-american-religious-landscape)/) This certainly resonates with my experience in our small New England city where more and more people self-identify as "spiritual but not religious." They may have started life being raised in the religious tradition of their parents, but life circumstances and political realities have pushed them out of the fold and into the desert.

A recent survey conducted by PRRI and the Brookings Institution finds that Millennials (Americans age 18-33) are much more likely than previous generations not only to identify as nonreligious, but to be religious progressives.  (Even) younger Republicans are also less likely than older Republicans to be religious conservatives. More than two-thirds (68%) of Republicans 65 or older are religious conservatives, compared to less than half (46%) of Republicans under 40. Younger Republicans are twice as likely (15%) to identify as religious progressives or nonreligious than their older counterparts (7%).

My hunch is that this is as true among "millenials" as well as "gen-xers" - and this holds some challenging implications for our churches as Ms. Bass notes.

If millennials are religious progressives--as new research indicates--are churches and synagogues READY for them?  My take is "not quite." Too many churches are afraid to put progressive theology and social concerns out front. In addition, millennials twin their progressivism with what I'd call "open" ancient liturgy. And too many churches confuse their interest in liturgy with convention. But theirs is a beautiful, inventive combination -- geared toward the future while grounded in a hospitable rendering of the past.

In our on-going experiment in church renewal, I bump into this all the time -especially with those who choose to confuse style with liturgical content and function. Two examples come to mind:

+ After six years, on any given Sunday, there are now more people in worship who began their spiritual journey in liturgical churches - or no church - than those raised in traditional New England congregationalism.  This emerging majority seeks understanding, community and engagement during worship in contrast to liturgies emphasizing passive participation and/or quiet intellectual abstractions.  They want worship to be both God-centered AND useful in their ordinary lives rather than merely pretty and quiet.  

Two weeks ago, when we celebrated Eucharist by inviting people to come forward and gather with me in the Chancel around the communion table, the look of joy on the congregation's collective face as we sang was ecstatic.  Not only were we all physically close to one another - rather than spread out across a massive Sanctuary - but we could hear one another, too.  We could look in one another's eyes as we passed the bread and chalice to our neighbor.  We could touch and hold real hands as we prayed.  In fact, we could speak to one another, too.  Afterwards, most people told me how moving and important sharing Eucharist was in this way - we could actually feel like we were part of the Living Body of Christ - they said.  And, as I expected, after most had left someone else told me that there was no beauty to this Eucharist - there's too much bumbling and interaction - to which I said, "Why do you think we call it communion?"  There is a division between style and content that we must continue to address and resolve if our churches are going to be places of true hospitality and welcome to the next generation.

+ Reading scripture in worship:  why do we do it?  Many people who don't have much background in the Bible are perplexed both by the number of readings we share each week (usually the 4 from the Common Lectionary) as well as the actual words proclaimed.  That's why for the last five years we've been using more of Eugene Peterson's "The Message" than the New Revised Standard Version.  Some old timers like to remind me, however, that they miss the elegant poetry of other versions and wish we could return to the words they know and love so well.  Again, the challenge of style over content, yes?  So I've experimented - reading fewer lessons and pairing the NRSV with the Message, inviting people to bring their own Bibles with them to read along with me, etc. - but over time have found that this, too is a no win situation.  So, I've opted for content over style and emphasize texts that contemporary people can easily grasp.

This Sunday, I will be using St. Luke's retelling of the Lord's Prayer with the main point being:  Jesus gave us an OUTLINE for creating our own prayers rather than a formal POEM to be recited.  I am actually going to go through the outline's form and then invite us to rewrite the Lord's Prayer using the outline offered in scripture.  It isn't likely to be a pretty as the refined prayer handed down in King James language, but I hope it will be useful as people learn how to create and write their own prayers to the Lord.  We shall see...
There are a LOT of hungry and hurting people all around who want to be a part of a community of compassion.  Last night, listening to Mary Chapin-Carpenter and Marc Cohn in concert, I heard a vulnerable and wounded soul growing strong after facing the valley of the shadow of death - and inviting us to own our wounds, too.  It was a little bit of church in an old Berkshire theatre.  Her songs - and those of much younger artists, too - are one way of sharing the love of God and the hope of grace with those who are hurting and searching. 

The way I see it, in all things, content trumps style every time, just as grace trumps karma.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

All things must pass...

It is a lovely, gentle, cool day in the Berkshires - and my sadness about the theft of my guitar is starting to settle in.  At first, I was just stunned - I felt numb - and I kept pushing feelings away.  After all, this isn't the worst thing in the world, right?  Every day there is destruction in Afghanistan.  Yesterday there was a horrible train accident in Spain?  In terms of "relative deprivation," this is chump change.
And I know that... and still I am sad.  I don't know what the insurance company will make of this or if I'll be able to replace my old friend with one that plays with such resonance? Somebody said to me, "Remember man, things could be worse" as if that's consolation.  (People say the stupidest things when they are trying to be helpful.)  The lead article from the editor's desk of the Christian Century pointed this out in something called "words for the grieving."  John Buchanan writes:

My friend Kim Bobo... recently lost her husband of 31 years. In an article in the Chicago Tribune she offers advice on what not to say to someone who has lost a dear one, particularly when the death is sudden and unexpected.  (NOTE:  trust me I know the difference between a living being and my guitar, ok?  At the same time, trust me that we were intimate, too.  You non-musicians will just have to take that on faith.)  There are definitely some comments to avoid, Bobo observes.  Avoid saying:  God planned it for starters or God called him home, God knows you can handle it and God knows that your loved one was ready.... Also avoid saying:  I know just how you feel - and then following it with the story of your own experience of loss... a grieving person doesn't want to hear everyone else's death stories.  Avoid "these things come in threes... are you going to sell your house?... you should..."  Advice is just annoying.  (Rather) acknowledge the pain and shock... (

Sadness is natural - so in anger - and neither are to be avoided.  Not in an obsessive way for sure, but honestly.  Look, I spent more time with my guitar over the past 10 years than I have with almost any one friend besides Dianne and, save the callouses, they were sweet and beautiful and satisfying times, too.  George Harrison once sang, "All Things Must Pass," just as the Hebrew wisdom teacher observed that to all things there is a season.  For a bit of time, this will be my season to be sad - and quiet - until this season passes.  I am going to honor it - and my old wooden friend - rather than fake it or make myself too busy to feel it.

Some friends are taking us to see Mary Chapin-Carpenter and Marc Cohn tonight - just what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Some miserable SOB stole my guitar...

Over the years I've owned seven different guitars and three electric bass guitars and all but two have been stolen - and then replaced.  Last night - or maybe early this morning - some miserable SOB entered our Sanctuary and stole my sweet Taylor acoustic.  They even took the freakin' case, too!  It makes me heartsick.
Once, back in Tucson, three guitars were stolen at the same time.  It felt like I had been physically sucker punched and I know I walked around in a daze for a while.  These were my dear friends - allies in making music and celebrating all the highs and lows of life - and I'd lived with those guitars for decades.  Look, I understand the depravity of addiction and I know people do stupid, mean and totally f***ed up things to get a fix.  But taking my guitar from the Sanctuary where we are so clearly identified in this community with celebrating life and helping people in need?  That's low and mean-spirited.

The police were kind and helpful - same with the insurance folk - so we'll see. And my bandmates and musical brothers-in-arms have all rallied so that I can keep the songs rolling.  Made me think of one of my favorite Willie Dixon songs, "Little Red Rooster" but in a whole different way.  "If you see my baby... PLEASE drive her home to me."

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lord teach us to pray...

NOTE:  My worship notes for Sunday, July 28, 2013.  (How did this happen? Where has the summer gone?!) If you are around, there will be some sweet music @ 10:30 am.  Please join us.

When I look at the heart of American society today, as I frequently do in prayer; when I look at your lives and those of your families at the close of the day in my pastoral prayers; when I look at the brokenness of my own soul and my need for God’s grace and hope, I often pray:  Lord, thy kingdom come.  Not my kingdom come, not America’s kingdom come, not your or even our kingdom come, but “thy kingdom come.”

·      It’s an old prayer from a version of the Bible I no longer read – it comes from the King James translation of Matthew’s gospel published 400 years ago in 1611 – but I still use it because I know it so well.  It feels like part of my blood or DNA:  thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

·      John Dominic Crossan, a feisty old contemporary Biblical scholar, says that to pray for thy kingdom come – God’s kingdom to come – means that we both long for and work for the way of Christ on earth.  The way of peace and forgiveness, the way of equality and compassion, the way of sharing by all so that there is scarcity for none.  To pray thy kingdom come is to become an ally of the Lord’s counter-cultural movement and all its upside-down values.

And the reason I pray thy kingdom come over and over again – year in and year out – is because I can’t make it happen.  I have a part to play and work to be done, but mostly what I must do for thy kingdom to come is trust the Lord when I really want to be in control.  The late Henri Nouwen once put it like this:  “Frequently, I see many of us restlessly looking for answers to the problems of our lives, going from door to door, from book to book, or from church to church, without first having really listened carefully and attentively to the questions within.”  We want answers and solutions – results and progress – we want things to improve without first getting our bearings or being grounded in trust.  Eugene Peterson was even more blunt when he wrote:

(Throughout America…) most of the individuals (I meet) suppose that the goals they have for themselves and the goals God has for them are the same.  It is the oldest religious mistake: refusing to countenance any real difference between God and us, imagining God to be a vague extrapolation of our own desires, and then hiring a priest to manage the affairs between self and the extrapolation.

So Jesus teaches his disciples – then and now – to pray:  to practice trusting the Lord in all things while doing our small part to be open to the upside-down kingdom to come.  So I thought it would probably be a good idea this morning to do likewise – spend some time learning or even re-learning how to pray in the spirit of Jesus – so that we too might mature in trust. 

You see, I believe that the adults of a congregation need to have spiritual elders peppered throughout the community who know how to pray, who pray for one another regularly and who can train and show our children and youth how to pray.  But if sociologists are right – and my experience suggests they are – then it is true that many adults in our churches have never been taught how to pray.  And if the adults in a congregation don’t know how to pray, then we will never pass on this tool to our children.

·      St. Paul in his words to the early church in Ephesus put it like this: We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…

·      And one of the practices that mature people of faith know how to do is pray – pray out loud, pray in private, prayer for one another and pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is already present in heaven – ok?

So let me first give you a few words of background context for this morning’s Bible lesson and then we’ll do a little practice in prayer together.  Three important things to remember:

·      First, Jesus did not teach his disciples to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the King James Version that so many of us learned as children.  Those sweet words are poetry – ideas shaped and fashioned by the scholars and artists of Elizabethan England rather than the itinerant preacher of Palestine we know as Jesus of Nazareth – so while the sounds of the prayer some of us know so well are lovely, the whole point is not recitation, but rather learning a simple outline for constructing our own prayers.  The goal is not to look backwards and be frozen in time, but to master a form of prayer that we can bring into the present and perhaps the future, too.

·      Second, there are just three elements in the prayer outline Jesus gave us:  praise God, ask for what you need and open yourself in trust to living in ways that mirror’s God’s kingdom of forgiveness and mercy.  That order is important even though it is so simple. To praise God first is to practice humility – it means you know that God is God and you are not – so this is where we start:  by hallowing or honoring the Lord.  Next we simply ask God for what we need – and Jesus suggests there are only three real needs – “sustenance (daily bread), relationships (forgiveness) and safety (keep us from the time of trail)” (David Lose @ Prayer doesn’t have to be complicate or even poetic to be faithful.

·      Third, prayer is always grounded in trust.  Ask, seek and knock he tells us over and again because God is like a loving parent who yearns to provide.  The more we practice trusting, the more we “realize our utter dependence on God… and when we experience this we will know that we are loved by the One who created, redeemed and sustains all of life.” (Rhonda Mawhood Leed @ The Christian Century.)

Is that clear?  That the Lord Jesus Christ’s outline for our prayers is about being simple and direct in the spirit of trust?  Do you have any thoughts or questions or concerns before I go on to ask you to practice creating your own prayer?

Now let’s try something together first as practice before doing it on your own, ok?  I am going to ask you to use the outline Jesus gave his disciples to help me construct a group prayer:  we will simply work our way through the three steps – I’ll ask you to say out loud some of the parts that speak to you – then I’ll write them down.  So that together we create our own version of the Lord’s Prayer for this moment in time.  And then after we’ve done it together, I want to give you a bit of quiet space to construct and write your own prayer based upon your own words and your own needs.

·        First we begin with words of praise:  clear and direct words that say something about the Lord – Jesus used “abba” which we might translate as “poppa” to connote intimacy with the Lord – so what words of praise speak to you?

·      Second, in the spirit of hallowing God’s truths – living in a way that honors God – Jesus invites us to speak of our needs.  What are the essentials that we want to ask God to share with us today?  What do we need for sustenance?  What about the condition of our relationships?  What are we concerned or even afraid about?

·      And third, what words do you want to say to return thanks to the Lord in trust?  How do you want to close this prayer that expresses our trust in God's love?

Rephrase the community prayer out loud for the community

Do you see how that works?  Do you have any questions about the elements of prayer based upon the Lord’s Prayer? 


One of my favorite authors, Stephanie Paulsell, once said that each of us:

Need places to pray as if someone were listening, to study as if we might learn something worth writing on our hearts, to join with others in service as if the world might be transformed. Churches were born to be places where we learn to practice – with others – a continual conversion of life and a permanent openness to change.

So let us write a practice prayer unto the Lord now as we take it one step deeper.  In the safety and quiet of our Sanctuary, surrounded by the presence of Christ Jesus and the saints who have gone before us, let’s take a little time and in our own words, as we feel led by the Spirit, pray unto the Lord…

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare, should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the pris’ners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean in you and you in me?
Will you love the ‘you’ you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?
Please join us singing together in unison for the closing verse:

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never
be the same.
In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.



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 ...