Monday, September 30, 2013

The season of creation: st. francis day...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday, October 6th,
during which we will honor World Communion Sunday as well as St. Francis Day.  For the first time at this church - and the first time in my ministry - we will share a blessing of our pets ceremony followed by Eucharist.  What follows is my reflection on this strange and crazy sacred holiday - one completely overlooked by the world - but one that is ripe with gospel insights in super abundance.

Here’s a confession:  for most of my adult life I have secretly wanted to be a Franciscan monk! I LOVE Franciscan spirituality, I cherish the wisdom and example of Francis in history, I totally dig Zefferelli’s cinematic interpretation of this ministry in “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” and I am both spiritually and aesthetically knocked out by the blessing of the animals liturgy.

·      Don’t get me wrong, I know that my adoration of all things Franciscan is mostly a romantic projection and I am well aware of the practical impediments to joining the monastery:  I am a Protestant, for God’s sake, and I love my wife profoundly – and my children, too!

·      Still there is a part of me that cherishes the innocence and tenderness of St. Francis of Assisi. I think the new Pope, Francesco I, was clear about in this by selecting the name of Francis for his new ministry. I know that as I have matured in ministry, I have looked to the witness of Francis as one of my guides:  Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…

And when our Sunday School material for this “Season of Creation” suggested that we join with other congregations in the Reformed tradition for a blessing of the animals liturgy, I thought to myself, “Hmmmm… I have wanted to do this at least ONCE before I leave this earth.”  So, with less time in front of me than behind, I had a conversation with both our Worship and Christian Education ministry teams about making this happen – and when they were almost as tickled and intrigued as I was – I took that as confirmation by the Holy Spirit and wet all of this in motion.

Now let’s be clear:  there is something totally crazy about what we’re doing today, right?  An Anglican preacher, Rhonda Mawhood Lee, has written:

Bringing animals into church is crazy.   (And every year when they join us on St. Francis Day) chaos lurks just beneath the surface.  We all wonder, will the dogs chase the cats, the cats chase the hamsters and the birds and spiders scatter to the four directions? Or more accurately, we wonder when will all that happen?  Celebrating St. Francis Day is risky, because there’s no way to know in advance what the proportion of growling to wagging, and hissing to purring, will be…

But the beauty of being so crazy on this day alongside of our animal companions is that in doing so we realize “that relationship always involves risk –  that the God who risked everything for us calls us into relationship anyway – with the Lord,  with all our fellow creatures, (with creation) and all the infinitely varied works of the divine hands.” ( sermons/ rhonda-mawhood-lee-go-little-crazy-st-francis-day)

In the Christian tradition – Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox or Reformed – this is known as being a Fool for Christ:  living in such crazy trust and faith that we take the way of Jesus to heart by letting his words become flesh within and among us.  That’s what St. Francis did in his era – and make no mistake – most of the people in his day thought he was crazy, too.  Because with a childlike tenderness and trust, he spoke truth to power, he loved those who hated him and he gave himself to the breaking down of barriers instead of building stronger walls of separation.
To my mind Francis put into practice the gospel lesson for today.  The people who valued order over compassion and common sense over the upside-down values of the kingdom of God didn’t want to waste Christ’s time with the children.  In that era, the little ones were not included in public worship or times of teaching because they had no value or wisdom to bring to the table.  They were noisy and easily distracted and better left at home in the care of their mothers.
·      And while our pets today won’t be impressed by this fact – or really anything else I say to you – let me push a bit deeper because it is likely that it was the mothers who were bringing the children to Jesus for a blessing.

·      Scholars tell us that the blessing most coveted in that time had to do with protection from the evil eye – a curse that malevolent souls put upon others – in order to cause physical or emotion pain.  It is a belief that still runs deep throughout Middle Eastern cultures.  When we were in Turkey a few years ago, everyone and their cousin had talisman like these to ward off the curse of the evil eye. 

·      In the time and culture of Jesus, because children were so vulnerable and defenseless, it is small wonder that their mothers wanted blessings against the evil eye, right?  Most of us don’t share fears about our children receiving a curse, but we still do everything in our power and understanding to make sure our little ones are safe and projected and that includes everything from vaccines to childcare and parent/teacher conferences.

So what we have in these few lines from Scripture suggests a three layered story involving the craziness of Jesus and his upside-down values:

·      First, Jesus welcomes and embraces both the children and their mothers to his circle of wisdom and protection.  He breaks down the barriers rather than builds higher walls.

·      Second, Jesus tells ALL the adults something essential about Christian living:  it looks crazy when evaluated through the lens of the status quo. To experience the blessings of God’s kingdom we must learn to live with a tender vulnerability and childlike trust in the Lord.

·      And third, this story is likely a parable about how the early Church differed from both the traditional Jewish and pagan cultures of the time:  Christians welcomed and even encouraged “participation by the whole family… as children were blessed as they became part of the whole community of faith.”  (New Interpreter’s Bible, Matthew, p. 387)

·      Are you still with me?  Do you see where I’m going with all of this in the light of the craziness of St. Francis?

Francis was a beautiful, crazy child of God – a fool for Christ – who hugged and kissed lepers, who called the birds his little sisters and the wolves his wounded brothers, who wandered the land singing to the sun and inviting us to listen to the songs of praise shared by the trees and plants and lilies of the field.  He was called crazy by his family who hated the fact that he chose the simplicity of Brother Poverty over the comfort of his father’s wealth. 

He was considered unstable by many church leaders who feared that his uncomplicated and child-like description of the Gospel would rob them of their power and influence.  And he was judged unsophisticated and imbalanced by the scholars of his age because Francis was not “burdened by the responsibility to tame or tone down Jesus’ message, he was free to respond by letting his whole life embody the gospel.” (Mawhood-Lee, ibid)

Francis lived like a vulnerable and open child.   And like a joy-filled child of God he didn’t see the barriers that so often keep us divided and antagonistic.  You see, he sensed that most of the time we separate ourselves from one another to maintain the illusion of safety.  We are afraid of so many things – shame, power, guilt, racial divisions, sexual exploitation, political loyalties – and so much more.

·      So Francis invited us to become friends – to give up our loyalties to the barriers and divisions that we think will keep us safe – and start trusting that God’s love in the cosmos is greater than any other force in all creation.

·      Like Jesus we all came into this world as helpless children who had no other option but to trust the generosity of adults for our care.  Like Jesus, we too have known suffering and fear and sometimes betrayal and isolation.

·      And if we have shared these truths with Jesus in a life like his, Francis asks us to trust like a child that we will share the blessings and renewal of a resurrection like his; so that whether we live or whether we die we rest in the love and grace of the Lord.

It is a totally crazy way to go through life – not unlike bringing our pets into this Sanctuary – but it is the way of Jesus who asks us to bless our enemies, bless our children, bless our intimacy with creation through our pets and trust that living like fools for Christ is the better way. Like you, I can’t do it all at once – I want to – but I know it is going to take me a life time to be so crazy that I can live like a child of God.  But I want to… and today gives me permission to take one more step on that journey. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Candles in the rain...

One of the things that I love the most about ministry at this stage in my life is that it is ALL about sharing grace.  I care about the well-being of the institution, but I don't give that lots of my time.  I figure Jesus has been in charge for 2000+ years and really doesn't need my meager insights, right? Besides, as Pope Francesco I makes clear:  there are ups and downs in the life of the church, but the heart of it all is grace.

Today in worship ALL our singers - my band Between the Banks AND our church choir - nailed the music with so much sensitivity and verve that I was in awe after worship.  (I hope to have a clip of this gig soon...) And then Carlton and I played a duet that blew me away; we didn't have an arrangement until last night and only ran through it once, but OMG it simmered and cooked with Spirit.  What a blessing on so many levels.

And then there is my man John L:  two years ago he and his beloved came to our Thanksgiving Eve concert because of an article in the local paper.  And when they read our Open and Affirming statement, one turned to the other and said THIS is the place for us.  So they became members and have helped keep the grace flowing in their own unique and beautiful ways.  As some know, we're getting ready for the Church World Service CROP Walk to Fight World Hunger next Sunday. (Make a donation here: http://hunger. /TR?team_id=95113&fr_id=17801&pg=team  And for the past two Saturdays, John has put himself out on a busy curb and already has collected almost $2,000 on his own! We're going to join him NEXT Sunday on Park Square to up the ante, but MAN is this one beautiful disciple?
So, as a gorgeous autumn Sunday comes to a close in the Berkshires, I am waiting to speak with my daughter in Brooklyn about how she's feeling in anticipation of the birth of her first baby; reveling in the photography of my other precious daughter as she captured fall in the hill country around her farm today; praying for my father who continues to be troubled and sick and likely to wind up in a nursing home soon; holding my dear brother in the Spirit, Peter, close to my heart as he and Joyce get ready for a time of caring for part of the world in the Middle East; and preparing for our Thanksgiving Eve show on Wednesday, November 27th @ 7:30 pm.

Here's the tune that grabs my heart at this moment in time...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The whole creation cries glory...

So here is a sweet word of poetry from one of the greats, Scott Cairns, who plays with words and wisdom in a way that rings true both to the testimony of Scripture and to the essence of God's grace.  The poetry of Cairns in these later days has become ever so much more nuanced - he was always witty in a tender way - but now he depth includes both the holy and the human.

For instance, the first poems from 1985 include some of my favorites, including "On Slow Learning."

If you have ever owned
a tortoise, you already know
how terribly difficult 
paper training can be
for some pets.

Eve if you get so far
as to instill in your tortoise
the value of achieving the paper,
there remains one obstacle -
your tortoise's intrinsic sloth.

Even a well-intentioned tortoise
may find himself, in his journeys,
to be painfully far from the mark.

Failing, your tortoise may shy away
for weeks within his shell, utterly
ashamed, or looking up with tiny,
wet eyes might offer an honest shrug.
Forgive him.

Here the theme of deep grace is obvious in an ordinary way.  What's more, you aren't sure that Cairns is being theological until the final two words: forgive him.  Then, if you have any background in the faith at all, the whole meandering set-up falls into place as a reworking of the Lord's Prayer:  forgive us our debts (sins/trespasses) as we forgive our debtors.

His later work, nourished as it is by deeper prayer as well as a sojourn into the Eastern Orthodox tradition, continues to be playful but with an even keener eye set upon the blessings of radical grace.  In the poem, "Adventures in New Testament Greek:  Apocatastasis" he writes:

Among obscurer heresies, this dearest rests
within a special class of gross immoderation,
the heart of which reveals what proves these days to be
a refreshing degree of filial regard.

Specifically, the word is how we apprehend
one giddy, largely Syriac belief that all
and everyone will be redeemed - or, more nearly,
have been redeemed, always, have only to notice.

You may have marked by now how late Semitic habits
are seldom quiet so neighborly, but this ancient one
looks so downright cordial I shouldn't be surprised
if it proved genesis for the numbing vision

Abba Isaac Luria glimpsed in his spinning
permutations of The Word: Namely, everything
we know as well as everything we don't in all
creation came to be in that brief, abysmal

vacuum The Holy One first opened in Himself.
So it's not so far a stretch from that Divine Excess
to advocate the sacred possibility
that in some final, graceful metonia He

will mend the ancient wound completely, and for all.

I chuckle with gratitude after both poems and enjoy the humble commitment to grace Cairns works to celebrate.  What tickles me about the second is that here, although the core rests in forgiveness as in the first, the scope of this gift is cosmic.  In the first, there is the implied hint of God's love as we feel for the turtle what the Lord feels for us; in the second we glimpse how grace illumines every created thing because we all flow forth from the sacred heart of Divine Excess.  I enjoy the early poems but rejoice in the later.

Friday, September 27, 2013

I have found my new guitar: blessing after blessing...

 1969 Martin D 35 Sitka Spruce and Brazilian Rosewood
So today is just one amazing gift after another:  it began by sleeping in - one of my favorite experiences - and then sipping pumpkin chai with Di (from my favorite tea shop:  David's Tea in Montreal.)  After a funky period of trying to get a prescription renewed (we'll see) we took a walk in a beautiful part of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail (see pictures below.) It was stunning and relaxing and filled with gentle beauty and lots of quiet.
So before doing some errands I said, "Maybe we can stop by Wood Brothers today and I'll start to play a few guitars.  We have most of the insurance money so while I won't make any commitments, let's give it a go:  I think I'm ready to start this process." Thinking this was like a first date after the death of a loved one, I went to the shop while Di did a few errands.
And I played three lovely new C.F. Martin guitars.  They were comparable to my stolen Taylor, but nothing to write home about, too.  Then the young clerk said, "Well, maybe you want to try this:  we just put it out on consignment."  He handed me a 1969 Martin D-35 constructed with Brazilian rosewood - now an endangered hardwood - but back in the day the finest wood with the richest and sweetest sound around. And when I played that bad boy it was like the scales fell off my eyes and everything else faded into the background.  OMG!  And when I added a dropped D and started to play my favorite country blues... I was floating among the angels.
So I said, "Well, I'm not really ready to make a commitment..." only to find Di had entered the store and was standing behind me.  Two or three others had gathered as I explored this guitar over and over - comparing it to the new Martins - and then playing the old master.  I still wasn't going to make a commitment when Dianne said, "You will regret not doing this forever if you don't act now."  The store owner said, "I could hold it for you for a few days if that would help..." 
And then it hit me: gifts this sweet don't come along everyday;when I get all the insurance money it will be almost exactly what was being asked, too. (And as I discovered doing some on-line research once we got home, this baby comes in about $3K less than the regular asking price!) How did Elvis put it? It's now or never... so I said softly:  "Ok, let me put a deposit on this so I can make sure it becomes mine." So I did - and in about two week I will be playing the sweetest guitar I have ever owned - one with as much depth and resonance as my old jumbo body Guild.  We're going to add a pick-up too so that it will be even better than the Taylor.  Here is how Artisan Guitars describe my new buddy:
It is said that at times during the 50's and 60's, Martin had a 3 year backlog in instrument orders! Nothing else sounded like a Martin and nothing else would do, it was the prestigious guitar to own. This backlog would lead Martin to build their new factory in Nazareth in 1964 where they continue to build today.
Introduced in 1965, the Martin D-35 featured a unique, 3-piece back. Brazilian rosewood was becoming harder to acquire and the three piece backs allowed the use of smaller pieces with no noticeable tone loss. Bob Johnson, who was hired in 1962 as a computer expert, later becoming a vice president of the company, came up with the idea of a three piece back, since Martin had a surplus of 6 inch sections. After a new bracing pattern was worked out, the D-35 was born! A favorite of Elvis, the D-35 was outselling the popular D-28 model within a few years of it's release.
The Martin 1969 D-35 was one of the last Martin's to use Brazilian Rosewood, resulting in a significant price drop in all models featuring Brazilian Rosewood. Brazilian Rosewood was, and is the most highly regarded wood for back and sides and was primarily used on the early pre-war guitars that we all love. Known for rich basses and crystal clear highs, as well as it's gorgeous figuring. This particular guitar has a wonderful crisp, dry tone. Very reminiscent of a 50's D28. Lots of definition and clarity with this one! With a sitka spruce top, it still remains highly responsive, perfect for fingerstyle players, or flatpicking lead lines.
I am still in shock - I had NO idea I was going to find this blessing - and now it will be coming home with me.  I remember the first time I heard Joni Mitchell - and then Steven Stills - playing a Martin:  pure heaven.  Today was just one incredible gift after another - and I am blown away!

Walking in the woods...

Today I spent the morning savoring my pumpkin chai from David's Tea in Montreal (one of my guilty pleasures.) Then we took a long walk with the puppy along a gentle wooded trail.
And now we're off to do a few errands - and stop by the music shop to start playing new guitars.  It is a long and tender process when it comes to replacing a stolen instrument as I am not soon to forget the feel and sound of my old friend.  I figure by about the end of October I'll have made the acquaintance with a new friend and then... we'll court a bit and see how it feels.  Autumn is a splendidly melancholy time, yes?

Thinking about peace and reinhold niebuhr on my sabbath...

Last night I finished the heady and insightful book by Daniel F. Rice: Reinhold Niebuhr and His Circle of Influence.  It literally kept me up way too late this past week both because it treated Niebuhr's thinking so carefully and because it clearly located him within his tumultuous social context. I also found the structural strategy Rice employed in presenting his case to be artful and illuminating: he explored the intellectual and personal relationships between Niebuhr and seven giants of his milieu including Paul Tillich, John Dewey, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and George Kennan.  This was a thoroughly researched collection documenting the influence a modern Neo-Orthodox Christian theologian had upon his secular peers.  

Moreover Rice shows how the evolution of Niebuhr's thinking matured and helped guide the American experiment with democracy during some of our darkest hours.  In the afterward, Rice writes:

At the start of America's longest war - the debacle in Afghanistan - I wondered why Niebuhr's insights had vanished from consideration.  It was as if they had been banished to some secret and well guarded, lead-lined bomb shelter in Idaho never to be revisited by scholars, politicians or people of faith. Indeed, their very memory seemed to have been erased from our public discourse like an eerie sci-fi  B movie.  And not much has changed in the ensuing twelve years:  we are still carping about American exceptionalism, we are still hop-scotching between naive military adventurism and sulking isolationism as the recent debates over intervention in Syria shows all too clearly, and we are still beating our chests about our unique moral purity when all evidence suggests something to the contrary.

Early in this book, in the chapter regarding Paul Tillich, Rice surveys the public and private insights Niebuhr shared re: the role of the United States in rebuilding Germany after WWII.  Sixty eight years later Niebuhr's fears warrant another hearing:

Niebuhr... voiced fear that there was 'a fateful significance in the fact that America's coming of age coincides with the period of world history when the paramount problem is the creation of some kind of world community.' Recognizing the urgent need for a workable system of mutual security in the postwar world in order to avert a return to international anarchy, we worried that the two contradictory impulses in American political history, which he labeled 'isolationist imperialism' might come together to produce an arrogant and irresponsible policy.  Niebuhr was already observing sings that 'the isolationists of yesterday are the imperialists of today' and were threatening to use America's emerging power as an instrument for avoiding mutuality and compromise. With all the other difficulties facing the achievement of a workable arrangement for postwar Europe  America's contradictory impulses and its inexperience in matters of foreign policy simply compounded an already complex situation.

In a word, American ignorance and arrogance were being wed to our theological naivete and moral superiority in ways that were excessively punitive to the vanquished.  In the years following WWII we created countless unnecessary political enemies and untold suffering for the innocent as we trumpeted our victory as the will of God. I believe that in 2013, the vanity of our fathers and mothers is still being visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.  A simple folk song cut to the chase:  when will they ever learn...?

American social and political conservatives in the 1980s tried to take the wisdom of Niebuhr hostage by insisting that their uber laissez faire policies dovetailed nicely with Niebuhr's insistence on political realism.  But such clumsy manipulation ignores Niebuhr's life-long commitment to economic equality and social justice.  There is no way Reinie could ever be squeezed into a supply side mold.  Nor could Niebuhr celebrate the current state of liberal politics wherein almost everyone is owned by corporate interests who buy and sell "deals" for short term profit without regard to the common good. Like Schlesinger once said about himself, Niebuhr was a political and theological cynic when considering any immediate problem, but a cautiously optimistic soul from the perspective of history. 

After all, Niebuhr trusted by faith that God's love ultimately shapes the ebb and flow of life.  Who else could have written the Serenity Prayer?
Sometimes on a Sunday morning Niebuhr's son, Christopher, is sitting in my congregation.  He lives in the area (after years of vacationing with the family in the Berkshires) and is active in our local Congregational/United Church of Christ association.  I give thanks for the chance to visit with him from time to time.  And today I give thanks for the living wisdom of his father, Reinhold, whose insights are needed today as much as ever before. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Christ in community...

NOTE:  Earlier today I shared this message with my congregation as a part of my weekly e-update.  It is an invitation to review their participation in Sunday worship as part of a living commitment to the counter-cultural values of Jesus.

One of the joys of serving God in pastoral ministry involves the privilege of being
with families through the seasons of life:  for over 30 years it has been my honor to have baptized some family members, journeyed with others through the challenges and celebration of life and then been with still others as they face both death and funeral celebrations   There have been graduations, sicknesses, troubles as well as ordinary time shared with meals, movies and music.  I remember telling one of my seminary advisers who thought I would be better suited for an academic career that I felt called to the ministry of being in communion with God’s people as community.  Because “if we can’t strengthen our hearts in the ordinary moments of grace, why bother with just extraordinary ones?”

My spirituality of pastoral ministry has ripened through the years and might be summarized like this:  1) We meet God in a unique way in worship so our time on Sunday morning must be creative, experiential and grounded in mystery as well as practical application.  2) We meet God in community so there can be no invisible or passive members; our practice of being faithful is expressed by caring for one another and building trust and love together as Christ’s body.  And 3) We meet God as we nourish our hearts and minds in prayer and study; each member of the body of Christ is called to develop a disciplined and ordered life that includes personal or private devotions.  There are other ways of being the Church, to be sure, but our practice is grounded in being together in community. We are not fundamentally a collection of individual seekers or mystics, but rather a living body:  the body of Christ.  I remind you of my perspective on ministry today for two reasons:

  • First, my hope is that as this fall ripens that you might take some time to revisit your habits and practices concerning Sunday worship:  how often each month do you come into community in worship?  What strengthens your participation and what keeps you away?  Are you at peace with this rhythm or are there ways you might go deeper?  For while we are not doctrinaire about worship attendance, the more you are present the deeper our community can become in love and compassion.

  • Second, worship is where we learn how to practice living into the counter-cultural grace of Jesus.  Liturgy literally means “the practice of the people” and what we practice is being open to God’s new way of living in the world.  St. Paul put it like this:  we are not to be conformed to the ways of the world, but rather to be transformed by the Spirit into people shaped by grace. (Romans 12)  From my perspective, I see a society living in ways that are out of balance with God’s loving grace – and people of faith have been called to offer those around us an alternative to the violence, fear and cynicism that so dominates in our culture. But nobody can give what they don’t have – we have to nourish a grounded and well-ordered life before we can share it with another – and worship is where it begins in our tradition.
Now I call this to your attention not to be a nag or a drag, but because I believe Christ is counting on people of faith to leaven and redeem our culture.  Bottom-line obsessions and idolatries have turned many hearts from the common good to a mean-spirited selfishness.  What's more, worship is one of the only places left in the United States where our emphasis is on nourishing awe, strengthening beauty and practicing compassion.
Tonight I met with my "community of practice" - a clergy support group that gathers for dinner, prayer, conversation and accountability each month.  I was not able to participate on a regular basis last year because of jazz gigs, health concerns and family travel.  It felt wonderful to reconnect tonight and I am grateful.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Thanksgiving Eve 2013: coming soon...

Thanksgiving Eve 2013
“The Lendin’ a Hand Concert”

Wednesday, November 27 – 7:30 pm
First Church on Park Square
27 East Street, Pittsfield, MA

A Benefit of American Music and Poetry for
Emergency Heat in the Berkshires
(Pittsfield Area Council of Congregations)

Musical Guests
Carlton Maaia II – Rebecca Leigh – Between the Banks
Andy Kelly – Jon Haddad – Bert Marshall - Linda Worster
Charlie Tokarz – Rob Fisch -  Grahm Sturz – Sue Kelly

and more!

Grace and gratitude on a busy day...

Today will be one filled with pastoral visits mixed with some music and a few
planning meetings, too.  Somehow it became too full already but that's how it goes, yes?  The Psalm reading for this morning said, "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go up to the house of the Lord.'" On the English Jesuit prayer site I visit, the invitation was made to consider how my heart is touched by gratitude - and how do I give shape and form to my gratitude?

Sitting in the autumn coolness of my study before a full day I mused:  I think I express gratitude to God by sharing my time and love with others in a patient and quiet way.  I know I express it often through music, but most of my time involves a simple ministry of presence:  sitting, waiting, listening and hearing.  Apparently the St. Ignatius of Loyola believed that the most offensive sin is ingratitude - and that resonates with me, too.

To express gratitude, however, means you can't be in a rush.  I have to be at rest within in order to be fully present for others.  And for me that involves a constant struggle with managing my calendar so that I don't feel swamped. It would seem that after all these years I would be better at this, but apparently I am a very slow learner.  The only "progress" I've made is knowing when life gets too full and owning that it is my problem and not somebody else's fault. And so the wrestling with time continues...

Fr. Richard Rohr wrote some wise words that have been encouraging to me. He asks:
How does one transition from the survival dance to the sacred dance? Let me tell you how it starts. Did you know the first half of life has to fail you? In fact, if you do not recognize an eventual and necessary dissatisfaction (in the form of sadness, restlessness, emptiness, intellectual conflict, spiritual boredom, or even loss of faith, etc.), you will not move on to maturity. You see, faith really is about moving outside your comfort zone, trusting God’s lead, instead of just forever shoring up home base. Too often, early religious conditioning largely substitutes for any real faith.
Usually, without growth being forced on us, few of us go willingly on the spiritual journey. Why would we? The rug has to be pulled out from beneath our game, so we redefine what balance really is. More than anything else, this falling/rising cycle is what moves us into the second half of our own lives. There is a necessary suffering to human life, and if we avoid its cycles we remain immature forever. It can take the form of failed relationships, facing our own shadow self, conflicts and contradictions, disappointments, moral lapses, or depression in any number of forms.
All of these have the potential to either edge us forward in life or to dig in our heels even deeper, producing narcissistic and adolescent responses that everybody can see except ourselves. We either “fall upward,” or we just keep falling.
Blessings to you as you move through this day with grace and gratitude:  may all your falling be upward!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Worship notes for ocean sunday: september 29th

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for this upcoming Sunday, September 29th.
We started the Season of Creation a week late so are hitting "Ocean Sunday" this week.  I am also preparing things early given a crazy week AND with the possibility that I will become a grandpa this week, too. We shall see...

“More than 25% of the Earth’s species dwell in the ocean’s depths.”  Nearly 97% of the Earth’s water and 95% of the Earth’s biosphere (the space on Earth that nourishes life) are connected to the ocean.  Sixty percent of our bodies are water.  Life and land have their origins in the ocean.  “And like marine life, we ourselves mature in the waters of our mother’s womb” on the way towards our birth. (Seasons of the Spirit Sunday School material, Season of Creation, Wood Lake Publishing)  Our baptismal liturgy speaks of the sacred waters of life like this:

We thank you, God, for the gift of creation called forth by your saving Word. Before the world had shape and form, your Spirit moved over the waters.  Out of the waters of the deep, you formed the firmament and brought forth the earth to sustain all life.  In the time of Noah, you washed the earth with the waters of the flood and your ark of salvation bore a new beginning. In the time of Moses, your people Israel passed through the Red Sea waters from slavery into freedom and crossed the flowing Jordan to enter the Promised Land.  In the fullness of time, you sent Jesus Christ who was nurtured in the water of Mary’s womb.  Jesus was baptized by John in the water of the Jordan, became living water to a woman at the Samaritan well, washed the feet of the disciples in water and sent them forth to baptize all nations by water and the Holy Spirit.

·      Our tradition and our very existence is saturated in waters – and today on what we are calling “Ocean Sunday” in the season of creation we have been asked to ponder and honor the truth of the Lord as expressed and experienced in the ocean.

·      And let me tell you something:  I am terrified of the ocean.  I love to walk beside it and feel very much at home along the ocean shore.  But the thought of going more than 10 feet INTO the ocean makes my head spin and my stomach hurt in ways I can’t begin to describe. And it is not just because I get sea-sick (which I do in the most tragic and unpleasant way).  No, the vast power and sheer physical enormity of the ocean unhinges me in ways are beyond comprehension.  The depth and breadth of the ocean terrify and mystify me.  The uncontrollable and unpredictable force of a storm at sea alarms me beyond all reason.  And the whole subject of unnerves me.

Did anyone see the movie, “The Life of Pi?”  It was beautiful – and insightful – and a truly wonderful story – except, of course, that whole sequence with the ship wreck.  Apparently there is a term for my fear – thalassaphobia – from the Greek word, thalassa, meaning sea and phobos meaning fear.  I don’t think I am totally phobic about the ocean because I love walking on the beach and adore sea food – and I really don’t think much about sea monsters – but let’s just say that there is no way on God’s great green earth that you are going to get me on a boat that does anything on the ocean but sit snuggly secured to its port, ok?

And that might be a good place to start to go deeper into today’s focus scripture from the book of Job.  Because the One Who is Holy gets just a little salty and agitated with our man, Job, who in spite of his miserable troubles and woes has come to think that the world really does revolve around himself.
After listening to Job’s complaints for five chapters – as well as the less than insightful inanities of Job’s friends – from out of the whirlwind the Lord of hosts says: Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man as I begin to question you – and I want some answers! ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined the measurements of creation—surely you know! On what were its bases sunk or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

·        Do you get a sense of the Lord’s annoyance at Job’s self-absorbed arrogance – and anthropocentric understanding of reality? And here’s the thing:  God’s rant goes on for another long four chapters:  Where you there, Job, when I shut the doors on the sea… 

… when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band and prescribed bounds for it and set bars and doors and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther and here shall your proud waves be stopped?”

·      Now do you get what is going on here?  Ordinarily we tend to think of the Sacred One, the Lord our God, as gracious and merciful, right?  We even sometimes domesticate God into a sweet and ultra-forgiving old grandpa.  Bt not here – no here we have a God who is every bit as powerful and mysterious as the ocean itself – deep and inscrutable – patient and nurturing, to be sure, but equally capable of unimaginable destruction, rage and awe.

·      The first insight about this scripture has to do with human humility:  God expresses to Job what his true place in creation actually is – and it isn’t very grand.  It is tiny – real and important – but hardly the center of the universe.  And apparently before Job can make peace with his troubles, he needs a reality check:  his egocentric world view and his inflated sense of place in the order of creation needs some adjusting. Are you with me on this point; have I been clear? 

Job’s “sense of justice is linked with his own estimation of his virtue?” (Seasons of the Spirit) “How come bad things are happening to me, Lord?  I’m a good guy, so what’s going on?  This isn’t fair?”  To which God doesn’t give much of an answer, right?  Rather, the sacred reply goes something like:  Are you kidding me?  Do you have any sense of how creation works?  Or began or is ordered since before there was time?  Tell me – if you do, then I will treat you as an equal – but if not then get a grip and understand where you fit in the fullness of the cosmos!  That is, how about some authentic humility, man?

·      What do you think or feel about that?

·      Does it challenge or call into question any of your notions about the Lord?

If respect and humility in the face of God’s power and authority is the first point, then the second is a reminder that there is a sacred order to the way God works that is as deep and diverse as the ocean itself:  it is bigger than our imagination; it is more wild than our ability to comprehend; and despite the terrifying destruction built into the rhythm of the cosmos, God’s order is greater still and sets limits to all things.

In fact, just as there are limits that God asks Job to acknowledge about his own ability to understand, God tells Job that the Lord has set creation in motion in a way that puts limits on even the ocean and the wind and land and all living things.  If you pay attention to the way this passage is constructed, just like the creation story at the beginning of the Bible you will see that there is an order and limit to all things:

·      First there is the creation of the earth – from out of the chaos of the oceans – in verses 4-7.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk,or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

·        Second there is the creation of the oceans – an act of order and limits – in verses 8-11.

‘Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it and set bars and doors and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?

·        And third there is the creation of light and darkness – yet another act of creation with ordered limitation – in verses 12-15.

Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place, so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth and the wicked be shaken out of it? It is changed like clay under the seal and it is dyed like a garment. Light is withheld from the wicked and their uplifted arm is broken. 

Do you see the sacred truth in the order the text itself emphasizes?  The theological insight here is that while there is a power at work that is astounding – and sometimes even menacing – built into our awe in the Lord’s creation is a balance that always preserves life.  There is a limit to even evil or destruction in the way of the Lord just as there is a limit to the cold and the heat, the water and the land, the day and the night. 

And even if we can’t see it – even if we are unable to experience this truth in our hearts – faith asks us to trust that it is true.  St. Paul reminds us that:  “Now we see as through a glass darkly, but later we shall see face to face.  The preacher in the book of Hebrews tells us that: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for…  The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd… for by faith we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.”

The poet of Ecclesiastes is even more clear when it comes to reminding us
that faith has to do with trusting God’s order and limitation when she writesTo everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up;  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance. 

·      What does that say to you about the nature of the Lord?  What are you thinking or feeling about all of this so far?

·      In reality as well as metaphor the wisdom our spiritual ancestors want to share with us about the ocean is that the wildness of the sea is meant to humble us, and, God has set limits on even its power and size.

·      It is the paradox of faith:  humility and trust – awe and respect – reverence and love.

And if we’re learning about both humility and trust in the Lord from the ocean, then even the Gospel story about Jesus and those out in the fishing boat underscores what Job and all of us must witness.  We want to believe that we can make it on our own – that if we just try hard enough and work long enough – then we can earn and get what we want.

·      But that wasn’t true for the fishermen in this story, was it?  They worked all night long doing heavy labor and still didn’t have much to show for it, right?  The text tells us that when they came in there was only a small catch.  Like Job, they did everything right and still were unable to come out as winners.

·      Jesus, of course, upsets all of this by showing them the “instability of their labor” and efforts by having them go back out into the deep and start fishing again.  The point isn’t so much about the miracle – although that’s fun – but the realization that what we control in life is really very small.  We have responsibility to do our part, but God’s mysterious order is much bigger and far more powerful than anything we can think or say or even do.

And when Simon Peter – like Job – realizes that God’s power is at work in the world in ways he cannot comprehend, he is set free to live in a new and faithful way that is in harmony with God’s order.  The way I read these stories is that when both Peter and Job let themselves be “guided by awe and reverence” then their lives were able to take on a whole new level of beauty and peace and even power. 

The ocean invites us to reclaim and celebrate awe.  It also asks of us in humility to own our responsibility for the ways we have wounded this powerful and mysterious friend with pollution and sin.  To date we have created 405 dead zones in the ocean where life can no longer be supported.  Because we have ignored the limits of God’s created order, dumping tons and tons of fertilizer run off into the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico now as a dead zone that is the size of the state of New Jersey.  But here’s the good news:  dead zones are not eternal.  They can be reversed. 

·      The Black Sea was once a complete dead zone, but between 1991 and 2001 – as the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union – fertilizers become too expensive to be used in excess.  And now a thriving fishing industry has returned to the once God forsaken place.

·      Pete Seeger and his Clearwater crew have done much the same for the Hudson River. And while the jury is still out on our treasured Housatonic River there is hope.

All around us are signs that when we live without humility and respect for the Lord’s limits, all hell breaks loose.  And that too is one of God’s limits:  when we live without care, when we treat everything – including people – as if it were a tissue to be used and then thrown away, all hell breaks loose.

·      We find dead zones in the ocean – beleaguered and wounded people gunning one another down in a perverted cry for help – cynicism and pollution becoming the order of the day.

·      The poet, Mary Oliver. Who lives near the ocean in Provincetown, Massachusetts put it like this in her recent collection:

The good citizens of the commission
cast their votes
for more of everything.
Very early in the morning

I go out
to the pale dunes, to look over
the empty spaces
of the wilderness.

For something is there,
something is there when nothing is there but itself,
that is not there when anything else is.

the good citizens of the commission
have never seen it,

Whatever it is,
formless, yet palpable.
Very shining, very delicate.

Very rare.

Beloved, there is a sacred and created order that we have been entrusted with that begins with awe.  We are the stewards of awe, the custodians of reverence, women and men called to honor the God we love by living in harmony with the cosmos.  Our ancestors said to us:  Bless the Lord, O my soul, for you, O Lord have set the earth on its foundation… and I will sing your praise by living in awe all the days of my life.

Lord, may it be so for us, too.

playing for our lives: a concert to combat local homelessness June 15 @ 7 pm

In an interview with Krista Tippett a few years ago, the late Jean Vanier gave contemporary people of compassion his antidote for despair:...