Saturday, November 30, 2013

Preparing for Advent 2013...

After yesterday's quiet time for reflection and tea, I headed over to our Sanctuary this morning to help others set up for the start of Advent. I LOVE the Advent season - a time for contemplation - even if I'm not very good at it.  Like Jan Richardson says, one of the under-appreciated blessings of Advent is that it always comes back to us whether we're ready for it or not.  Like God's grace, its return is a call to repent and go a little deeper into the quiet.

We still had some cleaning up to do after the concert on Thanksgiving Eve - 20 mic stands to put away and amplifiers to move - as well as "dress the hall" in the deep blues we cherish during this season.  "Who is going to help you?" Di queried as I was leaving.  "Who knows?" I said hoping it wouldn't be just me.  And it wasn't:  I had 6 other great helpers and we wrapped it all up in under an hour.  That gave me time to revise my worship notes for Advent I and take the puppy for a romp out in the wetlands.

Walking through the brown fields that are sprinkled with a light, dry snow took me back to these words of Jan Richardson (whose book Night Visions we are using to guide Advent worship this year.) She writes:

Each year, early in the fall, the voices begin clamoring to tell us what we want... we rail at the commercialism of Christmas even as we sometimes get caught up on it.  But these voices will never tell us what we really want, what we really long for, what we desire with heart and soul. Those who have sat in the darkness know how the shadows give way to desire. Without sight, without our heads swimming with the images of what others tell us we want, we can turn our gaze inward and search our souls. What speaks to us? What calls to us? What dreams have we buried? What wounds cry out for healing? What longs to be born in us this season? What is the yearning which we have have not dared to name? Our desires reveal to us what we think about God, about ourselves and about the world... 

So into this season, I journey with questions:  what and whom do I desire?  Do my desires spring from a longing for wholeness or from a sense of inadequacy? Do they come from within me or from what others say I should want? Will the things I long for bring healing to others as well as to myself?  Will my desires draw me closer to God? Do I really believe the Holy One desires me, loves me unconditionally and longs for me?

It was comforting to decorate the Sanctuary with others who also love Advent.  They are humble and loving people who also have an artist's sensibility about how the visual can unlock the heart's deepest desires. So we cloaked the pillars in deep blue.  We placed the little tree behind the Communion Table. And added a massive wagon wheel before the Advent Wreath, reminder of the ancient practice of taking a wheel of the cart during the winter so that everyone would have to slow down and stay inside for a spell.

And so it begins for us all: o come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thinking about Dorothy Day...

When I sat down this morning with my tea to browse the NY Tiimes, I was stunned to find a full page ad entitled: BELIEVE.  Below the beautiful red script was the picture of four "personal grooming" products bearing the "Amazing Grace" label. Really? Amazing Grace firming body emulsion, fragrance, bath gel or whipped body creme brought to you by BELIEVE? Really?

Instantly my mind jumped to St. Lou Reed's blistering rant from his 1989 masterpiece, New York, where he sounds like a rock'n'roll prophet or even a plugged-in 21st century Pope Francis in "Strawman."

We who have so much to you who have so little
To you who don't have anything at all
We who have so much more than any one man does need
And you who don't have anything at all:

Does anybody need another million dollar movie?
Does anybody need another million dollar star?
Does anybody need to be told over and over
Spitting in the wind comes back at you twice as hard?

Let's be honest, the genius of marketing always contains its destructive shadow just as our own personal strengths embrace the seeds that can do us in, too.  Once when we were walking around Aberdeen, Scotland we came upon a shoe store ad at one of the local bus stops that showed a HUGE woman's spiked heel with the word REDEMPTION shining over the rest of the text. Now, I'm down with sexy shoes as much as the next man or woman, but I never quite grasped how a high heel evoked or advanced redemption.  Same with personal grooming products called Amazing Grace.
Grace is a gift - a sacred experience of forgiveness, love beyond all merit and joy - redemption is salvific, not a product to be worn or used by the highest bidder.  Sure, I know that marketing gurus are quick to jump upon a word or idea that has a "ping pong" effect - one thought leads to another and builds upon it to lead you to their desired product - and I'm not a religious prude.  In an aggressively capitalist culture such as our own, there really is nothing that is sacred:  stores are open 24/7, people WANT to go shopping on Thanksgiving and actually camp out in front of Wal-Mart to fight their way through the hordes in search of the cheapest flat screen TV.  I get all that (even if I find it distasteful and even corrupt.)

I also get that it is part of the calling of people of faith to offer an alternative.  We can't stop or change the culture's current obsession with greed and bottom line metrics.  But we can offer a loving alternative that both brings hope into the equation and offers a grace-filled critique, too.  Recently Pope Francis I did exactly that with his "Evangeli Guadium" wherein he noted many have become enslaved to the new idol of wealth.  "How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?" His written and spoken words are the clear articulation of the values he embodies in his ministry - and in this he offers both alternative and critique.

In Robert Elsberg's All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Time, today is set aside to remember Dorothy Day. In 1933 she founded the Catholic Worker with Peter Maurin as an alternative to both political socialism and market capitalism. She said: "The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?"

Mostly I am not a big Dorothy Day fan. Like hard bop jazz, I celebrate her contribution to the world intellectually but find it hard to digest more than a small dose at any one sitting.  I once went to hear a guest theologian at the Catholic Worker house in NYC's Bowery.  It was an opportunity to reflect together with a writer and thinker I valued. But the whole lecture was filled with the howling and scuffling of people who had come in off the streets for a meal and a bed.  It was like a scene out of Marat/Sade with deep theology being shared in the midst of bedlam and chaos.  I skipped the Saturday session in disappointment.

But I've worked with Catholic Worker folk over the years and love their profound commitment to peace, justice, compassion and simplicity. I have also learned not to romanticize the poor from Day and her comrades in compassion.  So, on a day venerated by our culture of avarice as Black Friday, it is somehow fitting that Dorothy Day should be the honored saint for my reflection.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving thanks for the 225 hours it takes to make our shows possible...

Once upon a time in Tucson, during a stewardship campaign, I shared an overview with the congregation of what it takes to bring them one Sunday morning worship.  In those days we did two very different celebrations - a 9 am rock and soul worship with our killer band Stranger, and, a blended worship experience with a cracker jack choir, organ, etc. - all of which meant there was over 25+ hours of preparation, writing, practice, prayer, power point and other logistics for a Sunday morning honoring God's living grace.  And this did NOT include pastoral visits, hospital calls, institutional meetings, staff time and all the rest that a poppin' congregation demands (and deserves.)
Now I don't know if this overview made a difference to the bottom line of the stewardship drive, but I know it was revealing to people who had come to expect excellence without really understanding what that meant for worship.  It was eye opening for me, too.
Well, as I have returned thanks to God today for the life I have been given - and as I continue to bask in the blessings of last night's Thanksgiving Eve Festival of American Music and Poetry - I've been counting up all the time our volunteers give to make this concert possible year after year.  Somebody last night, for example, was stunned to find out that our top drawer sound man is a volunteer.  And as I started to tally it all up, there are a TON of people who each give something of themselves to make this fun, beautiful and successful - and they aren't all in the band!

+ First, let me give thanks to Rob Dumais and Paul Durwin who do the sound and video recording.  Paul works with me every week to put on our weekly TV show, "Sunday Street," (a 25 minute presentation of my Sunday message plus special music).  He and Rob once worked together in industry and now they share volunteer time at the local cable access TV station.  Rob hauls his sound board, monitors and speakers in to the Sanctuary on the Sunday before the show - a two hour set-up enterprise - and then spend another four hours getting all the microphones set up for our "dress rehearsal."  He also joins us for one more band practice (3 hours) and gives 4-5 more hours tweaking the sound balance, working out charts, etc. so that when we do the concert, everyone sounds their best (2 more hours.) 
Paul brings in three camera crews (2 hours recruiting), sets up a director's box and lays cable early in the week (about 4 hours of organizational time.) Like everyone else, he arrives at 5 pm for a 7:30 pm show, gets all his gear and volunteers ready to tape the concert - and then spends 3 hours breaking down his equipment after the show is over.  Finally he gives another 4 hours of clean up duty on the Friday after Thanksgiving to return the Chancel to a clean state and ready for Sunday worship as well as 4-5 hours of editing after the show is finished.  For Rob that is: 19-20 hours of volunteer time; for Paul that is 21+ hours and for the three person crew it is another 5 hours.  Total volunteer time for the audio visual volunteers = 56 hours.
+ Second, there is my sexton, David Grusendorf, who has to clean up the whole place before the gig and then make sure things are ready for worship afterwards.  David spends about 6 hours getting things ready, gives about 8 hours to the day of the concert and then another 10+ hours after the show is over.  Total hours from the sexton = 28.

+ Third, let's remember the publicity folk. I most often have secretarial help with bulletins from Becky (5 hours), poster-making (2 hours), poster distribution (5 hours from 2 volunteers) as well as press releases (4 hours.)  Our modest publicity effort, therefore, takes at least 21 hours of mostly volunteer time to bring this to pass.
+ Four there is the band:  this year there were a total of 25 performers.  For the gospel choir group, we had three weeks of one hour rehearsals plus a 2 hour dress rehearsal and four and a half hours the day of the show.  If people listened to the music prior to practice - and some clearly did - that's another 2 hours.  For our three songs that is 11+ hours.  For the solo performers who joined our band, there was one 3 hour practice and then another supplementary rehearsal of 2 hours plus 4 hours on the date of the show.  Add that to individual practice - 3 hours - and that adds up to 12 hours. Bring the core band, Between the Banks, into the mix and that's another 9 hours of group practice, at least 4-8 hours of individual practice and 5 hours on the day of the show.  Total band commitment for the TGE 2013 show = 37 hours of volunteer time.
+ And fifth, just for kicks, let me quantify my time for this show.  In August I start to recruit the performers for the late November gig; over the four months I put in about 15 hours of communication - email and phone calls - to make sure I know who is in and who cannot join us. Then there are the conversations in early September re: what tunes people want to work on - that's another 4-5 hours - followed up by finding 2-3 tunes that would work with our gospel choir - add 6 hours to research, finding You Tube and printed music links.  It takes me about 10 hours to create a set list - and revise, revise, revise.  It takes 4 hours to make sure we all have copies of the music and another 4 hours to map out the stage set up.  Already that is 47 hours of planning work before we ever get to practice; add equipment set up to the mix - 4 hours - dress rehearsal - 4 hours - weekly practice - 4 hours - personal practice - 10 hours - gathering goodies and drinks for the show - 1 hour - day of show participation - 5 hours - and after show clean-up - 3 hours and the grand total for my work on this gig = 77 hours.  
Total commitment to make this two hour show happen is... 225 hours (when you add in poetry search AND copy girl last minute tasks!) That is about eight and three-quarter days. Sometimes well-intentioned people say to me:  God, that was fun. We should do this every few months!  I smile and say:  I am so glad you had a good time - knowing full well that NOBODY has an extra 225 hours to chip in to make this gig happen more than twice a year.  There is a LOT of planning, sacrifice and hard work given by nearly 30 people to make it all look like grace.
Today is Thanksgiving and I am totally blessed by all the people who give so much of their time, blood, sweat, energy and gifts to this cause. I am also blessed by all the people in our community who have stopped to tell me how much they enjoy these gigs.  I hope this overview gives some context to the effort my team brings to the table to make these concerts happen.  
The other day, Di and I were in the grocery store when one of the baggers stopped me to shake my hand:Man, I really love your sermons... I watch you all the time on TV."  As we left, Di said, "That's why you do this stuff... right?  People get it."  It also made me realize how much effort goes in to putting our stuff out there for others to take in.  And today I wanted to celebrate their effort: it is huge!
Blessings abound... onward to our spring show! (Most pix by Leo Mazzeo and/or Dianne De Mott)

Thirty one years and running...

Last night was the 31st year of doing Thanksgiving Eve gigs for me... and the concept still has juice:  the show is STILL running.  In a very different form in each city, to be sure, but always soulful and fun. This year was particularly chill as my motto was:  No more Bodhisattvas! (This was a reference to last year's show when I was trying to nail down Steely Dan's most excellent tune, Bodhisattva, and we just didn't have the time to practice it so that it hung together.  If we'd had 3 more days then maybe, but it had to be scrapped at the last minute.)
Last night had some HOT and rockin' moments:  the opening ska-like "Good Lovin'" with the HUGE chorus doing call and response was incredible, "End of the Line" sounded like the Wilburys had joined the band, "Candles in the Rain" was gospel at its best and "Sharp Dressed Man" was both smokin' and entertaining (guitarists donned ZZ Top beards while our young player, Ethan, strutted his stuff!) And let's not forget Andy Kelly bringing down the house with his solo take on Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke!" I would have loved to played this with him but without horns and adequate time to practice had to punt - but he nailed it with verve and good humor. Dave McDermott's nailed John Fogerty's "Born on the Bayou" too and I might add that our reworking of "Word Up" came out sultry and edgy just as I had hoped.
There were also tender and soulful moments of deep compassion: I reprised my acoustic reworking of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" and Jon Haddad added a tasteful harmonica break as we honored this rock and roll saint - Dianne and I sang our tribute to Linda Ronstadt who can no longer perform given Parkinson's and we were both moved to tears - Linda Worster brought the house down with her "Peace on Earth" a song our band performs and loves to share with her - and Bert Marshall played "You Pray for Me, I'll Pray for You" with all of its heart-breaking beauty.  Sue Kelly turned the Sanctuary into an intimate living room with her selection of poems and we had a children's sing-a-long that kept things sweet and light.
And then Brian Staubach, mild mannered insurance man by day, let out his blue-eyed soul again on his composition, "You Are a Friend of Mine" that was a true highlight.  It is a funk song with a touch of Motown that gave our vocalists a chance to "gospelize" it - and they did in spades. We brought in about $2,000 for emergency fuel assistance funds in spite of the shitty weather (the rain turned to freezing sleet at about 5:30 pm.) Still, about 100 people came out and we had a party for a good cause. (When we get the DVD ready, I'll post some clips after it airs on local public TV.)
Two more things about these shows that I have come to love:  First, as I've noted before, they are a family reunion of sorts.  Many of the musicians who join us from beyond the church community I only get to see once a year at our TGE gig.  And most of these same folk have been playing these shows with me since we first came to town. Like me, they have come to see this sharing of music as a way to strengthen the common good AND nourish our hearts in the process.  One of my friends from church said it best:  This is real grace in action - helping others and building community in a joyful celebration.
The second thing I love about these shows is that it gets to showcase different people from church who are NOT professional musicians.  In our culture the only time non-pros get a chance to make it happen in public is either karaoke competition or modern day gladiator bouts like "The Voice" or those other vote out the loser TV shows.  On our stage, bank tellers who can sing like Etta James, retail clerks who have the chops of Linda Ronstadt, insurance men who are every bit as funky as Little Steven, administrators who can do Mary Chapin-Carpenter OR Aretha Franklin, physicians who are every bit as precise as David Crosby get to put it out there with style and class - and have fun, too. It fills my heart to overflowing when creativity is kindled and honored.
So after thirty one years this show is still running - and I pray that it will until I'm too old and cranky to organize it all.  And then maybe someone else will pick up the mantle and keep the fire burning.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Come on up to the house...

One of the great blessings in my life happens on Thanksgiving Eve when we do our annual American Music and Poetry concert.  Just about 10 minutes ago, after a lunch meeting, I was stopped by a man who was at last year's show who told me he hoped to join us again this year. "I was blown away at the collected talent you had up on that stage." Me, too - it is a joyful and humbling experience to be surrounded by so many GREAT musicians who are also GREAT people!  (That is not always the case, right?)  But there are NO divas allowed - just players and singers who love one another and the music - and what to share it in an authentic celebration.
This year we're kicking things off with a take on the Rascals' tune, "Good Lovin'" - it has kind of a ska groove happening now.  We'll do some a capella country songs, our version of the Wilburys' "End of the Line," a smokin' take with our young player Ethan burning down ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man" as well as some gospel, original tunes and a few surprises.  Our local public television station will be recording the gig, too so I hope to be able to get a DVD made into clips for You Tube.

There are three things about this show that I love:  First, it is all American music - not because American music is the best - but because Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday.  So we've got Lou Reed tunes next to Linda Ronstadt ballads, rock'n'soul numbers followed by "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" with a bit of jazz and a capella hymns through in for good measure.
Second, this gathering brings together folk who have been doing the show with me for 6 years.  It feels like a family reunion of sorts and we have developed a deep affection for one another.  We back up one another's songs, we hold each performer in prayer as she/he is doing their thing and we revel in the beauty of working together for the common good.  I can't wait to see my dear friends again.

And third, the people who come out to these shows are always taken aback by how much fun they are.  Oh, there were a few old souls who thought they were going to a traditional Thanksgiving worship service - and they left bewildered.  But by now people come to rock and roll and sing out with abandon.  They come looking for the thrill of singing together in a sweet way.

All told, it is a gas for everyone involved - and we raise a few thousand dollars to help Berkshire residents who need fuel assistance during the coldest time of the winter.  So, if you are free tonight at 7:30 pm, come on up to the house, as Tom Waits put it, and we'll have a good time!
Post script:  the show was a GAS.  We'll have clips soon and pix, too. Here's a shot from our ZZ tribute with Ethan Wesley nailing "Smart Dressed Man."

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Advent One: nourishing vision for the night...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Advent One 2013 that begins this coming Sunday, December 1st.  We are using Jan Richardson's gentle Advent book, Night Vision, for a guide.  Let me invite you to visit her website @ and to hold her in prayer as she and her husband Gary go through the shock of his recent stroke.  The artwork in today's blog come from Jan's stunning creation.

As many, if not most, of you know I am an Advent-kind of guy:  I cherish its quietness, revel in its colors and music and often anticipate its dark mysteries.  Not everyone likes this season, I know:  none of us really enjoys waiting, most of us prefer the major key of our Christmas carols to the minor key found in most of our Advent laments and the culture as a whole favors the action of opening presents in contrast to the call to cultivate a contemplative heart. 

·   Nevertheless, right after our feasting at the wisdom table of Thanksgiving, our faith tradition still invites us to enter a holy Advent:  a time of watching and waiting – a season of stillness and serenity – a month of mostly simmering, gestating and percolating in preparation for the coming of the Christ child.  And we can embrace Advent with resentment or joy – hope or fear, disregard, disrespect or even contempt and avoidance – but no matter what we do, Advent always arrives.  Artist and pastor, Jan Richardson, writes: “The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before – and it is not possible to keep it from coming because it will.  That’s just how Advent works.”

·   Did you catch that?  We can choose to avoid and oppose it – we can opt to co-opt its challenge and smother the season with sentimentality – we can distract ourselves with busyness and bother but… no matter what we do Advent keeps on coming because that is just how Advent works.

Richardson goes on to say:  It is possible, of course, to miss Advent, to turn just as it brushes past you. And only later do you begin to grasp what it was you missed. That’s why we are invited to simply sit and stay – linger, tarry and ponder – wait, behold and wonder during the four weeks of this season.  “There will be time enough for running, for rushing, for worrying and pushing.  Why not just stay now… and wait… there is something on the horizon.”

So I’m going to try something that is both new and old simultaneously with you this Advent – something that is both startlingly contemporary as well as grounded in ancient tradition – that is, I am going to ask you to become contemplatives with me for a month.  To shut up more than speak – to accept and embrace what God is already doing within us rather than ask for new insights or help – to trust “the beautiful darkness that is the Lord already praying within us” whether we grasp or feeling anything at all.

·    St. Paul used to tell those he loved that God’s Holy Spirit was already “brooding and bringing new things to birth – helping us in our weakness and interceding with sighs too deep for human words” – even when we feel like God is a million miles away.  In a word, the great apostle was saying:  be still – and trust that God is already praying within you and loving you from the inside out whether you grasp this gift or not – or to be more  grounded in this moment: stop talking lest you miss the coming of Advent’s promise.

For that is what Advent is truly about:  a promise – God’s promise – that no matter what takes place in our life – good, bad or in-between – we will never have to face it alone.  That is what all our readings for today emphasize and it is what the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus all confirm:     “It us the promise that whether or not our immediate fears are realized, we were created for more than fear.”

Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God whose coming birth we
anticipate, has promised to come always to be both with us and for us.  And while this promise does not insulate us from an uncertain future… it does promise that we will not face that future alone. Come hell or high water – and this seems as appropriate a phrase as any to capture much of the gospel – Jesus will be at our side, granting us courage in the face of life’s adversities and remaining with us even through death, drawing us into new life. (David Lohse, Working

Now please pay attention to this because it is crucial:  God’s promise does NOT say that we shall no longer have fears nor does the promise attempt to “insulate us from an uncertain future,” ok?  We all know that life is uncertain – it can change in the blink of an eye – in ways that are completely beyond our control.

·   Sometimes it is joyful:  we get a new pet and laughter doesn’t quit – a new baby is born and our hearts are full to overflowing – we wake up to winter’s first snow, we sing a song that moves us to tears, we fix something that we broke.  What other surprises have brought joy into your life in new and even startling ways?

·   And we know that there are surprises that change our lives forever that are painful, too: the devastation in the Philippines, a divorce, a miscarriage, falling off the wagon into addiction, the loss of a job, a death all can happen in the blink of an eye and we are changed forever.  Can you think of other sad and painful changes that have touched your lives?

So we know what Jesus is talking about when he speaks to us of the uncertainty of life:

The Arrival of the Son of Man will take place in times like Noah’s. Before the great flood everyone was carrying on as usual, having a good time right up to the day Noah boarded the ark. They knew nothing—until the flood hit and swept everything away. The Son of Man’s arrival will be like that: Two men will be working in the field—one will be taken, one left behind; two women will be grinding at the mill—one will be taken, one left behind. So stay awake, alert. You have no idea what day your Master will show up. But you do know this: You know that if the homeowner had known what time of night the burglar would arrive, he would have been there with his dogs to prevent the break-in. Be vigilant just like that. You have no idea when the Son of Man is going to show up.

This is God’s call to contemplative living – and before you get all confused or agitated about the word contemplation – let me first describe it to you and then suggest an Advent practice that might help you practice trusting God’s promise.  Most of us don’t really understand what the word contemplation means; we know it has something to do with prayer – and maybe even something to do with monasticism – but most of the time we don’t think it really has anything to do with us.

And that would be where we are mostly wrong because the BEST description of contemplation tells us that contemplation is taking a long, loving look at what is real.  Period.  A long, loving look at what is real – in our lives, in our world, in your hearts, in our politics, in our use of money and time – a long, loving look at what is real.  So notice something here:

·   Contemplation has to do with what is real – it isn’t fantasy or foolishness – it isn’t abstract or artistic in a narrow sense – it is real.  God’s promise for our lives is grounded in reality.

·   But in order for most of us to trust this we must sit with this truth and look at it in a long and loving way.  Learning to trust God’s promise in our real lives takes time and silence and practice.

Do you know the word absurd?  It comes from the Latin word, surdus, “which refers to a kind of deafness, incongruity, not being capable of perceiving sound or meaning.” (Listening for the Soul, Jean Stairs, p. 61)  A grounded and trusting life practices quiet listening for the Lord – taking a long, loving look at what is real – while an absurd life is the polar opposite and is all about stumbling along “blindfolded, hearing impaired, closed” off to God’s presence and promise until nothing makes sense. 

If all we do in our day is react to surprises – if all our time is spent doing rather than discerning – if at the end of each 24 hours we are too exhausted to take a long, loving look at what is real then we have entered the world of absurdity.  And I know in my life and in many of yours there is way more absurdity and spiritual deafness than we want, right?

That’s one of the blessings of Advent:  it comes around whether we like
it or not – whether we’re ready or not – and asks us to step back from the absurdity and repent.  Reorder our days by trusting the Lord.  So I’m going to give you three choices this week to practice becoming an Advent contemplative along with me.  I am NOT saying I am an expert at this – I get it wrong just as much as I get it right – or like the old evangelicals used to say:  I am just one lonely beggar telling another hungry soul where to find bread, ok?  So here are the options:

·   First, use this Celtic Advent Calendar that continues through the 12 Days of Christmas to be a guide.  I’ve been using it for the past few days and I love it.   It is fun, it is real and it is all about strengthening God’s love and trust within us.  Today’s prayer, for example, tells us to “call a friend and tell them one thing you appreciate about them.” Earlier in the week the prayer was to welcome a new person at church or make a meal for someone in need.  This is an action-oriented way into the world of contemplation.

·   Second, use this sweet little book called:  The Art of Pausing – Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed by Judith Valente.  Every night I read a page after slipping into bed – they are very short – less than 150 words – and they invite me to pause and take a long, loving look at what was real in my day.  This is a doorway into contemplation for thinkers.

·   And third, take some time each week to sit in a room and turn off all the lights.  Jan Richardson says sitting in the darkness is a good place to begin.

It is a choice where you let go of all your external senses and learn to practice night vision – trusting the shadows, listening in the quiet – closing down all the distractions and simply resting for a time.  She writes:

There are other senses, you tell us Lord, and when the darkness obscures our choices, we must turn to the other ways of knowing that you have given us. In the daylight we can get by on sight, but for the nighttime… that is for our hearing, our tasting, our smelling, our questioning and our longing touch.  A thousand messages waiting for our sensing that you, O God, have given to us.

I don’t know what this will mean for you – that’s one of the things about contemplative prayer – you don’t know the answers before you start the quest.  You just trust.  Some will get bored, I suspect and quit.  Others will forget all about this until the music begins at the start of worship next week.  A few will try it and be pleasantly surprised and there may be more reactions. 

All I know is this:  God has given us the season of Advent to nourish trust.  Advent is about God’s promise to be with us and never abandon us no matter what.  I know that I need to practice living into this trust – and maybe you do, too.

Credits -
1) In Search of My Inner Savior
2) Where Hope Lives
3) No In-between
4) Magnificat
5) Winter Solstice

Monday, November 25, 2013

Sabbatical thoughts - part three...

Saturday night my sweetheart said to me, "Ok, tell me about all those tears?"  Not exactly in those words, but that was the intent because she has been concerned about me - a lot.  So for the next hour I let it all out.  And what I came to realize (in a very shortened way) is that for good or ill I have been carrying around 30+ years of heart-breaking stories in my heart.  My weariness is NOT about the past six years at First Church - although they play a part - but rather it is about the burden of accumulated grief.

And when I finally found THOSE words, she got it.  It is not just the wounds of an often dysfunctional family.  Nor is it the pressures of trying to do church renewal work for the past 20 years.  And it isn't just the grief of losing family members to death and addiction.  It IS carrying the memories and experiences of 30+ years of sharing the faith journeys of a variety of profoundly broken people.  And as much as I am able to compartmentalize, it has become clear to me that no matter how hard I try many of these wounds are still alive and traumatic for me.  Is that true for other pastors?  I don't really know... but I am going to find out

At any rate, beyond the limits of my current ministry, one of the
reasons why this Sabbatical has held such depth and pathos is that it has evoked all these stories and all this accumulated grief. Not in a grandiose way (I hope) but in a way that has helped me understand why my weariness feels so oppressive.  Small wonder that what I yearn for most is a time to be still - and prayerful - and practice music in my favorite place on earth:  Montreal.  It feels restorative - cleansing - and liberating.

The Lilly Foundation notes that a true Sabbatical can be life changing. Already the application process has been clarifying in ways I would never have imagined. Tomorrow (after my preparation for Advent I) I will sketch my hopes and plans for my part of the Sabbatical and why it matters to me.  Again, so many thanks for your notes and insights.

graphic - Jan Richardson

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The joy of christ the king sunday in pittsfield...

Today was one of those magical days in church-life when
EVERYTHING was filled with grace.  Let me confess that I know that not everyday is beautiful when it comes to being part of the so-called institutional church.  We are often clunky and embarrassing and even stupid and cruel.  But not today... today was a little taste of the God's kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  (And my soul was ready!)

+ First, my lay reader this morning was exquisite:  loving, committed, articulate and fully engaged.  Every time she read Scripture - and she had to read a LOT this morning - I found myself lifted into another realm.  Pure beauty on every level.

+ Second, the hymns made me weep:  I LOVE the old favorites and today on Christ the King Sunday we sang them all as we revisited the church year.  We sang, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" to evoke Advent as well as "Christ the Lord is Risen Today" to celebrate Easter.  One of my favorites, "Breathe on Me Breath of Life" was our Pentecost selection and we brought everything to a close with "Life Up Ye Gates" which is a stellar year end closer and a teaser for the Advent yet to come.  What's more, my Music Director (Maestro Carlton) and I got to groove for a time on his brilliant jazz arrangement of "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name."  And then I got the word that in our PIE challenge we made 468 pies and donated money enough to take us over 500!
+ Third, my sound guys - Rob and Paul - gave up seven hours of their Sunday to both set up for our 25+ person Thanksgiving Eve show and then tweaked the sound for a three hour plus rehearsal - and they were funny, on-task and loving throughout the whole gig!  Paul was giving children piggy-back rides as the evening dragged on for little ones. And Rob kept making the house mix sound like something brilliant.  These guys are unsung saints and I am so blessed to work with them.  And then my man, Ted, brought pizza, beer and water for all of us in rehearsal - what a God send, too! 
+ Fourth, we were finally able to find a place for one of the special needs adults who has been worshiping with us for the past three years. He sooooooo wants to sing, but he can't read well and has issues with his various medications.  But we found a place for him in the gospel chorus and when is saw him singing and swaying and fulling moving to the groove, it made me KNOW this was a blessed time.  Later in the hall as he was combing his hair over a bald head, he smiled and said, "A little Alberto VO 5 makes EVERYTHING work out just right!"  This is going to be hot!

+ Fifth, everybody rocked and rolled:  our musical guests bring us such love and depth of beauty, our regular volunteers give heart and soul to this gig and the professionals help us all take the music to a higher level.  As I noted earlier, there will be 25+ people when everyone is on the stage - and there is no filler here - everybody contributes to the beauty of the whole.

We've got gospel, jazz, rock and roll, folk, tunes from the American Song Book, sing-a-longs, funk as well as my tribute to St. Lou Reed. Dianne is going to sing a song in Spanish from Linda Ronstadt who can no longer make music given her Parkinson's.  And the tune she picked comes from the legacy of Daniel Valdez, whom I knew from the United Farm Worker Days, with Teatro Campesino.  It will be Pete and Arlo meet Springsteen, Lady Gaga and the Edwin Hawkins Singers - with just a little bit of Sesame Street, too.
I am weary - I am fried - and I am so, so very blessed tonight. Onward... or as we used to say with Cesar Chavez:  VENCEREMOS!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sabbatical thoughts - part two...

In the past 24 hours I've heard from so many of you sharing your love, tears and prayers - and I am deeply grateful.  But that wasn't my intent with my last post; rather, I was trying to put into words in a way that makes sense to me why this Sabbatical feels so important. Let me assure you that I am neither leaving ministry nor seriously considering early retirement from my current call, ok?  What's more, our emerging Sabbatical plan won't take place until the summer of 2015. Not only do we have a lot more work to do on crafting the proposal, but we want to hear from the congregation about their hopes and dreams, too.  And while 2015 seems like an eternity away, it will be here before any of us know it.

I had intended to write part two of this reflection before so many of you shared your thoughts with me - and now it seems even more important to do so for all involved - including me!  So here's another layer of this unfolding story....

First, the weariness I know is not unique to me:  ALL clergy who
have been doing ministry for a long time feel exhausted and even spiritually depleted.  That is why Sabbaticals for clergy were created; our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers know this far better than most of us in the Reformed tradition. Not only do they take extended retreats every six or seven years, but they also build into their schedules monthly and annual retreat time, too.  And this is NOT vacation.  It is quiet time set aside for reflection, rest and renewal. Over the years I have been uneven in my application of "oasis time" and that is one reason why I am so whipped.

But here's an uncomfortable truth:  all clergy - of every denomination - approach "burn out" if they stay in the ministry for more than 15 years. ALL clergy - male and female - rich and poor - gay and straight. It is a fact of life in ministry because it is NOT a job - it is a calling - and appreciating this distinction clarifies the weariness.

In a job, or a profession, even if it defines much of your self identity, you can still walk away from it. Not so with a calling. When your work is an invitation from God to serve God's people, that is something you do with your soul as well as your time and heart and mind.  A job is what you do to both earn a salary and express some of your gifts.  A calling to ministry is what you do with your life. And even when a clergy person "retires" from active duty, he/she still understands their essence to be shaped by God's invitation rather than a profession. People who know you also relate to you not simply as a professional, but as some one who has been set aside to attend to God's work here on earth. It is a demanding and all-encompassing identity from which you may run but you cannot hide.

Another reason why all clergy approach burn-out from time to time has to do with the way we spend our days.  Some time in every day is given over to remembering the people in our charge in prayer. This is a sacred privilege, a religious responsibility and a genuine burden all at once.  There isn't a week that goes by when I don't weep for two or three people or families in my congregation when I lift them up in my personal prayers.  Same goes for some pastoral visits or office meetings:  I can't tell you how many times I find my insides aching because I am so inadequate, the problems or wounds being shared are so enormous and there is usually nothing to be done except sit in loving silence and solidarity with those who are hurting. And it doesn't get any better after 30 years! In a way, I've been crying for 30+ year and I still can't fix most things. I still usually don't know what to say - and refuse to say stupid or pious things just to fill the space.  

What a double whammy, yes?  We're called to be deeply intimate with people who possess mind-numbing wounds - people who come to us seeking solace - and while we honor their courage in sharing their truths we simultaneously know there is nothing we can do to make things better. Nothing. We know that anything besides our presence is of the Lord - and our heart breaks over and over again at our impotence.  Such knowledge of our own powerlessness is honest and even healthy but it is also exhausting: healthy clergy understand that we can't fix anything, AND, it grieves us to acknowledge this fact. And I think that is mostly because we love the people we have been called to serve.  Love them sometimes more than some of our own blood family - that is certainly true for me.  

And the wounds and pains that are confessed to us! The anguished hearts and broken faces that look to us for hope!  The mangled souls and fear-filled bodies that ache for some sign of peace.  And most of the time, the BEST we can say is:  Come, Lord Jesus, come and bring your loving spirit into this moment.  The love and grief that are co-mingled in ministry grinds everybody down - it strengthens our sense of humility, to be sure - but at such a cost.  And this grief follows you home even when the television is on and the wine has been poured.

If Jesus was right that we see him best when we are in the presence of those in greatest need, then this old hymn articulates what it feels like to open your heart to authentic pastoral care:  we come to see and feel the wounded Christ in those we love.

O sacred Head, now wounded with grief and shame weighed down, now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown: how pale thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn! How does that visage languish which once was bright as morn!

So first there is a relationship with God that defines our days. Second

there is the cost and joy of discipleship that comes from sharing the real life wounds of the people you love. And then there are the soul-vampires who seem to delight in sucking life out of you whenever they can. All churches have them - they come in all ages, sizes, races and genders - and they are ALL vampires. Young clergy are particularly susceptible to soul vampires simply because they haven't figured out strategies for deflecting their bites. But even seasoned clergy cannot escape that sickening sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you are attacked or slandered - or simply misunderstood with no room for grace -- because it almost always arrives as an ambush. When you are most tired, when you are facing maximum personal stress, when you least expect it: BAM the soul vampire strikes and more often than not you are left dazed and weakened.

Now I've talked to clergy about this fact for years and almost everyone tells me that after asking God's healing in your heart - and after checking in with those who help you process the bullshit of ministry - most of us still go home and brood and fret. No matter how good we are at compartmentalizing - and I am a master - you still wake up in the middle of the night feeling like you've been ridden hard and hung up
wet to dry. This, too breeds exhaustion. And while I've learned to take on the soul vampires whenever they strike, their attacks are still emotionally draining and take a toll on the soul over the years.

And let's not even open the door to how all of this drives your family crazy.  It is no accident that most pastor's children stay as far away from the church as A is to Z. They've lived in fish bowls.  They've been held to different standards than everyone else simply by the accident of their birth.  They've had to endure meager salaries, hand-me-down clothes, gossip and slander about their parents often accompanied by sickly sweet smiles and soppy pseudo-religious language.  I am actually stunned that more PKs don't murder some parishioners.  And for good measure let's make sure to mention that while most clergy are both introspective and introverted, most congregation members are the polar opposite:  they want clear answers, gregarious leaders and programs that produce tangible and useful results.  My, my, it is enough to give your introverted minister a migraine - for life!

And yet, despite it all - the wounds, the pain, the confusion, the
judgment and emptiness - pastors keep doing this ministry because... we are called.  Over the past 30 years there have been three times when I seriously considered chucking it all away.  The first time was about four hours into my first call when I realized I had been manipulated and lied to about the nature of my ministry by the senior minister.  I hadn't really been called to help the church do urban ministry; I had been hired to be the senior pastor's servant.  If I had been single instead of married with two small children, I would have sung the country song, "Take this job and shove it" and found something else to do to keep body and soul together. Instead, I learned to make it work in spite of myself.

The second time came during my divorce when I reconsidered all my former commitments.  I thought something along the lines of massage therapy would be a whole lot less crazy making than ministry and actually did some research into that profession. The thought of bringing comfort to hurting people - and then leaving when my shift was over - sounded most excellent in those days!  And the third time was in Arizona when I had to surrender to my addiction to work that was killing me and everyone I loved.  As my therapist eventually said, "Well now we've figured out all the WRONG reasons why you went into the ministry, let's see if we can find some GOOD reasons to stay." And in time we did - and I am grateful because I love serving God and God's people in ministry even though it is exhausting.

Which brings me back around to the Sabbatical. My hope for myself is simple:  I want to rest, read, pray and practice the upright bass so that I become a better musician and a more balanced pastor. I sense that the hour is upon me for an extended time of renewal - not a retreat from my calling - but an extended break to revitalize myself.  It is my hope, you see, to deepen the ministry we've been given in his place. It is my honest desire to find new ways to serve these loving, beautiful and faithful people, too.  That's why the Lilly Grant process makes so much sense because it challenges the congregation to do some renewal work, too.  What would feed their soul during my four month absence? What would enrich their lives and expand their dreams of sharing compassion and hope in this community?

My prayer is that we can find this out together so that at the close of our joint Sabbaticals, we reconnect in new ways that give glory to God. So, there it is - part one of this posting must be integrated with part two - and then part three will be the actual proposal.  I will share what my part is starting to look like soon and over the next month we'll gain some greater clarity about the congregation's part, too.  So stay tuned for more... 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Sabbatical thoughts on a Berkshire sabbath.....

This has been a tough albeit clarifying week for me as I ponder
and explore options for continued ministry.  Seeking God's truth within my skin has never been simple for me - or probably anyone - so I agonize when I am in a discernment process.  Truth told, it probably started two years ago when, coming home from a few weeks in Montreal, I said to Dianne:  "I feel like I am ready for retirement." Now, we have a long-standing joke about both being BORN to retire. We like nothing more than to park ourselves in a new place and wander, watch and listen to what's going on.  We like to sit at open air cafes and sip tea or wine. We like to chat-up the locals and get their take on their home.  In a word, we were BORN for retirement.

Our finances, however, don't seem to agree with this assessment. So
we both continue to try to do creative and satisfying ministry until such a time comes when we can step back from the fray.  When I first raised the retirement issue in a deadly serious way two summers ago, and we both owned our financial realities as well as the continuing challenges and opportunities to grow deeper with the dear people of our current church, that started an exploration into what an extended Sabbatical might mean for heart and soul.  And after returning from Montreal this summer, I proposed we start the planning process in earnest.

Our church council endorsed the idea - this congregation has a long and satisfying history of pastoral sabbaticals - and it is built into my contract, too.  My suggestion, however, included bringing the church leadership into the planning process a la the Lilly Foundation grant process.  In a nutshell, this process involves deep rest and renewal for the clergy person AND a time of playful creativity and renewal for the congregation, too.  As one lay leader told me, while they celebrated the three sabbaticals my predecessor experienced - and they were ready for a little breather, too - they mostly hung on by their finger nails until he returned.  It was not a time of congregational joy - and this is one of the ways the Lilly grant is different. They grant funds for the church as well as the pastor to do the work of renewal.

So, we selected a small Sabbatical team and have been writing our shared proposal for the past two months.  Four weeks ago, we first met to review and critique my first draft - and it was tough going for me. Not because people were harsh, not at all; but rather because it soon became clear that some of my team doesn't really understand the level of my weariness. Part of that is just the nature of the beast, right?  As a rule I am not a whinger in public - it doesn't change anything and pisses people off - so why bother?  But it is also true that lay people are rarely welcomed into the deeper emotional life of their pastors - for good and bad reasons - so when they are, their reactions are often startling.

We've made two passes and rewrites on our application so far and each
time the final critique has made the document stronger.  But it has also caused me a few sleepless nights as I wrestle with what is at stake here for me.  You see, for me this Sabbatical is NOT simply another task in ministry.  It will make the difference between my continued vitality in ministry for the future, or, my decision to bite the bullet and opt for early retirement.  As I told one member: if an extended Sabbatical wasn't a real possibility, I would be preparing my resignation.  Not because I feel we're done with ministry together. But because I am worn out and need to step back for a time. This is a matter of the soul for me rather than just one more complicated task in the life of a local church. 

So my perspective on what matters is very different - in the actual time way and when I return - and this has made coming to common ground complicated. Again, it probably shouldn't be simple but there have been a few times when I've felt defeated and thoroughly misunderstood. Not by all, thankfully, but I sometimes sense that for some this application is one more task to be managed. I am grateful that my team members are wise, creative and dedicated professionals who know how to get things accomplished - and this grant will be no exception.  What I sometimes find excruciating, however, is how our very different reference points slows down our quest for common ground.

This is not a task for me - it is a life line - for while I love ministry - and THIS ministry in particular is very sweet to me - I know I am not a kid anymore.  I don't have the emotional, physical or spiritual reserves that once let me run on empty for months at a time. Now I carry the weight of my own wounds and the pain of others with me most of the time.  M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, says that all of this creates an attractive "gravitas" for a pastor.  He is right - and the legacy of 30+ years clearly helps me be a better pastor than when I first began - but it is also a burden.  As I wrote in a recent correspondence to my sabbatical team:

I am risking being very vulnerable with you about my deepest needs and concerns.  As a rule, I don't do this with the people I serve in a church; but we won't be able to make this work without it.  Most lay people don't have any deep appreciation for the weariness born of carrying an other's pain. So if I sound like I am carping from time to time, please invite me to first unpack my concern so that you can grasp where I'm coming from, ok? I can handle criticism after sharing my perspective - even if it is of the harshest type - but I prefer to do this in an environment that honors deep listening.

Clearly even the application process is part of the spiritual quest for

common ground, yes? I sense that we are building a deeper trust between clergy and laity by doing this.  I believe we are unlocking a new level of creativity and even sacred playfulness, too. But damn is it hard work - and this week I've felt it in spades.  There has been hard work taking place between other colleagues, too as we try to find a way to unlock emergency housing for the homeless poor this winter.  There has been hard musical work accomplished as we practice and prepare for our Thanksgiving Eve show next week.  And there has been hard emotional work done as two more babies were born into our wider families just last night.

It is a cold and dark day in the Berkshires. It feels like winter is just around the corner. In a few hours we will head into hill country to share dinner at our daughter's farm.  Our puppy will have a chance to run through the woods and fields in total abandon. We will rest together for a time with our loved ones around the supper table.  I give thanks to God for this Sabbath rest because tomorrow the hard work resumes.

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 ...