Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A certain resonance as the year closes...

A year ago today I was sitting exactly in this place writing from the warmth
and solitude of my daughter's farm.  I am doing likewise today and, God willing, will do so again next New Year's Eve. We walked in the cold and frozen woods yesterday after feeding goats and chickens and tending to the dogs. Right now the household is silent and I am reminded of something I heard on Krista Tippet's "On Being." Gordon Hampton observed that "silence is an endangered species" in our culture. Then he notes that real quiet is not so much a sound as a presence: "in fact, it is not an absence of sound, but the absence of noise." 

That was exactly my experience yesterday in the woods. And as we walked in the healing, cold silence I began thinking of this year past - its highs and lows, its major themes and challenges - which led me to make a list. It is not complete, of course, and maybe isn't even truthful. Still, it is what bubbled to the surface during my time in the quiet. (I also took a brief trip through last year's blog posts to see how my list compared to my written observations and there is a certain continuing resonance.) So here is what I discovered were major considerations for me in 2014:

Grief, grace and the paradox of proximity
Dealing with the death of dear friends
Ending one musical commitment and finding others
Honoring the blessings of being a grandfather
Relentlessly searching for solitude and silence as nourishment for ministry
Enjoying both Mr. E and Carrie Newcomer in Boston
The artistry of Joni Mitchell
Rethinking my early jazz influences
Sabbatical: preparation and hopes
Race hatred/white privilege
Inward/outward journey
My father’s illness and death
Loss as spiritual discipline 

From within the warmth of this old farm house this morning, I can see that it has been a full year - with much more grief in it than I realized. In that way 2014, like 2013, took its toll on my soul. At the same time, I sense that my grief and loss served as "soul food" for me on the road towards gravitas as M. Craig Barnes discussed in The Pastor as Minor Poet. For as I lived into this sorrow myself (and clearly am still doing so just a few months after my father's passing) and journeyed with family and church members into their own sorrow, I have discovered an unexpected sad beauty within our tears. It is a tender privilege to share the solace of trusting our anguish from within the safety and softness of grace. This year I have been blessed by it with Dianne, sensed it with Peter and have honored it with a few others whether we were in Tucson or Pittsfield or Maryland.

Looking backwards I see how this sojourn into grief also deepened my music making. I didn't play very many popular gigs this year; in cooperation with close musical colleagues, however, we did create some stunning art at Good Friday and Christmas Eve that had beauty and pathos. There was also a kick-out the jams rock and roll party this summer that was too much fun as it raised funds for our local eco-justice mission partner and brought together some of my favorite local rock and folk players. Whether it was the racial reconciliation between my congregation and our sister church born of bigotry 160 years ago, and addressed at our 250 anniversary; the ripples of fear and mistrust that still reverberate everywhere in the USA after Ferguson; or the relentless agony we all know as two very different peoples struggle to find a way into peace on one land in Israel and Palestine, there has been a very public aspect to my ministry this year in addition to my regular inward journey pissing and moaning.

One more insight strikes me as I look backwards through 2014: how much Dianne has loved and strengthened me. Her quiet wisdom and no-nonsense presence has been a rock.  Our lives are inextricably woven together in music, art, poetry, photography, worship, caring for Lucie, doing ministry, loving our children and friends and being present for one another in ordinary ways. This year's Christmas present was illustrative:  a two day quiet retreat with lots of time set aside for quiet walking, browsing book stores and conversation. I am so very grateful.

This poem by Wendell Berry, whom my daughter Michal turned me on to years ago, seems like the right way to close out my last posting for 2014 from her farm. In his collection of Sabbath reflections, A Timbered Choir, he writes:

Another Sunday morning comes
And I resume the standing Sabbath
Of the woods, where the finest blooms
Of time return, and where no path

Is worn but wears its makers out
At last, and disappears in leaves
Of fallen seasons. The tracked rut
Fills and levels; here nothing grieves

In the risen season. Past life
Lives in the living. Resurrection
Is in the way each male leaf
Commemorates its kind, by connection

Outreaching understanding. What rises
Rises into comprehension
And beyond. Even falling raises
In praise of lihht. What is begun

Is unfinished. And so the mind
That comes to rest among the bluebells
Comes to rest in motion, refined
By alteration. The bud swells,

Opens, makes seed, falls, is well,
Being becoming what it is:
Miracle and parable
Exceeding thought, because it it

Immeasurable; the understander
Encloses understanding, thus
Darkens the light. We can stand under
No ray that is not dimmed by us.

The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend.
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By wha it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.

Happy New Year - and many blessings of peace to come!

credits:  Dianne De Mott

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Solid food for Epiphany...

NOTE: Here are my worship notes for this coming Sunday - our celebration of the Feast of Epiphany - on January 4th.  Most of the liturgy will be given to our children's pageant, but this is a bit of solid food for the adults.  Blessings.

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany:  the meeting of East and West – the original celebration of the Christ Child long before Christmas became part of the Christian tradition.  It is the day when Gentiles embraced the wisdom of Judaism while Israel’s King Herod turned his back on the light of the prophets.

It is the occasion when we honor the mystery of God’s love being revealed to Zoroastrian scientists from Persia through the stars, not worship, Bible study or meaningful ministries of compassion and peace. It is a time when children can be playful in the Sanctuary with a pageant while adults contemplate the mysterious and amazing depth and breadth of God’s grace.

It is a time of awe and wonder and light – the celebration of comfort and joy, to be sure – but also so much more, as well.  One preacher described Epiphany like this.  One this sacred day: God reaches beyond shepherds at the bottom of the barrel to Wise Ones at the top. God reaches beyond people scared witless by God’s glory to those who observe the glorious star at its rising, and methodically, persistently and sincerely follow it to a king. And all along the way, God directs them, first by a star, then via a verse from the prophet Micah, and finally through their dreams. (Working Preacher)

In just a moment our children will share with you this year’s Epiphany Pageant and Tableau – our way of marking the close of the Advent/Christmas arc – and what they have to offer is a vital part of the story. But I also want to give the adults the other part of the story – three key thoughts to ponder about the significance of Epiphany – because this feast day is not about simply for children. It is also about how adults can learn to be surprised by the mysterious presence of God’s grace in our everyday, ordinary, walking around lives.  In Romans 12, St. Paul put it like this:

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

The ancient church, you see, celebrated their awareness that God’s word – the essence of holy truth – had become flesh – incarnated in Jesus Christ on Epiphany.  So, in that spirit, let’s consider these three insights as the Word speaks to our age.  With a passing nod to O. Henry, I’m thinking of this message as the three gifts of the Magi.

+  First, let’s visit with the Wise Men – the three Kings – the Magi.  As best anyone can tell they represent a paradox within the Christian story.  In their own land, Persia – modern day Iran – they were both scientists and part of a priestly caste of astrologers. They were considered astute and reputable guides to the holy. But they were not revered in Israel, right?  In the Holy Lands, the Magi were not only Gentiles – unbelievers – they were also star-gazers who were considered ignorant and superstitious. Yet they came to honor the Christ Child while the king of Israel plotted to have him murdered.  Call it mystery – or paradox – or challenge, but this part of the ancient story is very contemporary.  It tells us that so very often we who are supposed to get it, don’t!  We’re too busy, too certain of our own wisdom, too worried, too puffed up, too something… who knows? So God doesn’t wait for us, God shares the blessings of grace with everyone and asks us to catch up. That’s the first insight for Epiphany.

+  Second, after the Magi bring their gifts – and discern through a dream that King Herod is going to punish or trick them if they go back to Jerusalem and report in – the scripture tells us that they “left by another way.”  That is, they realized that they couldn’t go back home by the old route. The light had changed them, you see, they were no longer the same people, so they had to operate in a new and different manner. That, too, is something all too easily missed in this story:  after Christmas, after we take down the tree and all the decorations, then we want things to get back to normal. We’ve got meetings and things to take care of; we’ve got work to do and people to see and bills to pay. But the Feast of Epiphany says:  if we just do that – if we fail to make some changes and try to return to business as usual after the birth of Jesus – there will be trouble. In fact, let me suggest to you based upon this story that IF the Magi had gone back by their usual route, they would have become pawns of King Herod – servants of corruption, violence and greed – people who ignored the call of God’s grace on their lives. That’s the second challenge for us at Epiphany: how are we do advance the light of peace and justice in our lives after celebrating the birth of the Christ child? Business as usual is really not an option…

+ And the third gift of the Magi is equally challenging because what the Wise Men bring to the gospel of Matthew is Christ’s connection to Moses and the prophets.  The narrative in Matthew is a Christian midrash on the story of the early life of Moses in Exodus.  King Herod is the new Pharaoh – the oppressive king who held Israel in bondage – who plans to have Jesus – the new Moses – murdered. Because of the Magi’s visions and presence of God’s grace, however, that murder doesn’t happen.  In the gospel, the holy family escapes to… where?  Egypt (another descriptive detail to help us make the Moses connection) just as Israel’s Moses escaped slaughter by being hidden in the river until he could be rescued and cared for in secret. This foreshadowing using the images of Moses helped the early church see Jesus as the one who delivered his people from a cruel tyrant once – and continues to do so now. In fact, as the story matures, after the holy family returns from Egypt – and Jesus grows up to mature in wisdom and grace – what is the next major event in his story?  His baptism in the river that sends him into the desert wilderness for… how long?  40 days – not 40 years – but still the connection is clear, yes?

Now let me push the edge of this just a bit:  in the tradition, Moses is always
linked to the prophets.  He was the law giver, yes – or more correctly, the one who articulated God’s law for the people – but the law and the prophets were always intended to be about social justice in the Promised Land.  Israel was to be different from Egypt – free from the oppression of Pharaoh – a land NOT in bondage to idols but liberated to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, embrace the lonely and bind up the wounds of the broken.  By linking Jesus to Moses, the gospel of Matthew is telling us we, too, have been called to live a different way because of the Christ Child.  We have now been joined to both the light of the Lord’s grace AND the witness of Israel’s prophets of social justice.

The three gifts of the Magi – the invitation to follow the light even when it is surprising, the call to live a changed life because of the Christ Child, and the challenge of embracing the justice and compassion of Israel’s prophets – means that after Christmas we cannot go back to business as usual.  We must return to our ordinary lives by a new way:  arise, shine, beloved, for you light has come and the brightness of God’s love is shining through you upon the whole world. Let it be so, Lord, let it be so.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Stop - breathe - and give thanks.

From time to time I just need to stop - breathe - and give thanks. Here are a few pictures that put it all into perspective for me.

(Michal and her family at Christmas)

(Jesse and her family at Christmas)

(Our tree in Pittsfield)

We're off to the Plainfield farm later today to house-sit over the New Year. For my loved ones, my congregation, my dear friend and love, my dog and for the fullness of it all: I am grateful.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A sabbath of gentle surprises...

Today worship was full of surprises. First, my colleague and director of
music was ill and couldn't be present. Second, on what is typically a "low" Sunday (after a major feast day), the crowd is always smaller; a variety of guests are also likely to be present, too. And third, there is a flu bug infecting many in our community who might have ordinarily have been present, so participation was even more sparse than expected.

Still... it was a gas. My stalwart band of vocalists regrouped with me for some a capella Christmas carols. We pulled out our respective music books and added guitar to few others. And a key musician in the band stepped up to the plate to play both the offering and Eucharistic tunes with grace and verve. It was simple, joy-filled and refreshing.

My message was grounded in this simple and direct question: what rituals are life-giving for you and your loved ones during this season? The gospel text for today - Luke 2 - set the stage with the Holy Family following the purification ritual for Mary and the dedication of the first born son ritual for Jesus. I noted that our cousins in Judaism use rituals to: a) link themselves to their tradition and b) to let the tradition remind them of God's covenant and historic presence in their lives throughout history.

In the life of Jesus, for example, the scripture tells us that there were 2 or 3 rituals essential for an observant Jewish family to share with their children. As a male child, 8 days after his birth, Jesus was circumcised – that’s a ritual – so what is the meaning of this ritual?  It marked Jesus as part of the Jewish tribe – in the most intimate way it was a physical sign that Jesus belonged to a unique people. Is there a Christian ritual that is similar to this?  What about baptism?

Another ritual that is a part of the Christ child’s story is his dedication to the Lord 40 days after his birth.  This has two parts and both are interesting: 
According to Leviticus 12, after a woman gives birth to a son, she is impure for forty days: why 40 days? At the end of that period, she is to bring an offering to the temple, which the priest offers as a sacrifice, and then she is judged to be ritually pure again.

Do you recall the offering that was given for this sacrifice?  Two doves or pigeons – doves were too expensive for most folk so unblemished pigeons were used for the sacrifice – and why were blood sacrifices necessary? Blood was understood to be the essence of life – and when pure blood was poured on the altar it was believed to cover over the impurities that happened during daily life – so pigeons, doves, lambs, goats and bulls were often part of a sacrifice in order to cover impurities with the essence of life.

That’s the first part of today’s story about ritual – the cleansing of Mary – but there is another part: the dedication of the first born son to the Lord. Exodus 13:2, 12, 15 states that every first-born male (which “opens the womb”), whether human or animal, “belongs” to the Lord (cf. 34:20). While (clean) animals (Leviticus 27:27) would be sacrificed, first-born sons needed to be redeemed (Exodus 13:12-15.) Do you get the distinction?  The first born male animal given to the Lord would purify the people; the first born child would not be slaughtered but given over to another type of sacrifice. 

One text, Numbers 3:46-51, tells us that this sacrifice – this redemption – involved the payment of five shekels to the priesthood. But another text, perhaps and older one Numbers 3:11-13; 8:16-18 says that the tribe of the Levites – one of the 12 tribes of Israel and the specific tribe dedicated to the priesthood – now takes the place of the first-born sons of Israel as the Lord’s possession. Are you with me? The priesthood now becomes the rituals of redemption; it is a way of honoring the idea that the first-born son “belongs” to the Lord in a special way: in fact, it institutionalizes a way for the people of Israel to serve God. (thanks to Working Preacher for these insights)

Now here’s a deeper question:  Luke consciously chooses to tell us that Jesus and his family were devout Jews who honored their tradition and observed its rituals. Luke also wants to help his readers know one thing more:  that the rituals and commitments that shaped Jesus and Mary are much like that of two other important Jews:  Samuel and Hannah. Their story is in the background of what Luke writes – and the essence goes like this: Hannah had no child and prayed to the Lord for a son; she vowed that if she gave birth, this child would be dedicated to the Lord. So, when Samuel was born, Hannah honored her promises, brought the baby to the Temple where he was “lent to the Lord for all of his life” as he became a priest.

What our story wants to show is that Mary did the same thing with Jesus: she gave him to the Lord for life. In this we are told that the way of Jesus is set apart – holy – dedicated to the service of God in all things. So in our own Christmas rituals, let me ask you: are there some that link you to the goodness of God's grace - and others that just suck the life out of you?

I noted that in our small family we've quit trying to send Christmas cards out BEFORE Christmas!  As a clergy family, there's just too much to do. So while we love receiving cards and letters, we wait for the 12 days of Christmas - after all the busyness is over - to attend to this ritual. This way it is life giving, it connects us in love to one another and is is born of God's grace not social obligation or guilt.

Worship continued with Eucharist and then closed by singing an Appalachian setting of the Canticle of Simeon - one that we might want to use on a regular basis for worship - plus an a capella recap of "Joy to the World." It was a gentle way to rest within the Sabbath - and while I missed my colleagues and pray for their healing - I am grateful for the spirit of solidarity that brought us closer together, too.

Lord, bid your servant go in peace, Your word is now fulfilled.
These eyes have seen salvation's dawn, this child so long foretold
This is the Savior of the world, the Gentiles promised light,
God's glory dwelling in our midst, the joy of Israel.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Thinking about encouragement, humility and grace...

A professor of mine back in San Francisco once told me while discussing my thesis project on King and Gandhi that he always bought the books that grabbed his attention the moment he saw them. "The way publishing is going," he concluded, "what you want won't be available next month when you finally get off your ass to go back and buy it. Better to snatch it up in the moment even if sits on your shelf for a few years. It might be hard to move all those unread books, but at least you'll have it when you are ready, yes?" It took me a few more years to embrace the wisdom of his throw away advice, but by the time I was in seminary I had become a believer and grabbed up everything in sight.
I remembered Professor Weinstein's words this morning as I picked up a slim volume that has been staring back at me for two years:  Jazz Poems edited by Kevin Young. I put on my new/old copy of "Blue Train" and started to flip through it with a sense of wonder. You see, I am not a disciplined student of poetry. It takes a lot of effort for me to read the classics and I need a reading partner to tackle Elliot, Pound, Dante, etc. You might say I have monkey mind when it comes to poetry. But in a subsection called "Rhythm Section," I came across "Mingus at the Showplace" by William Matthews that grabbed me right out of the gate.

I was miserable, of course, for I was seventeen,
and so I swung into action and wrote a poem,

and it was miserable, for that was how I thought
poetry worked: you digested experience and shat

literature. It was 1960 as The Showplace, long since
defunct, on West 4th St., and I sat at the bar,

casting beer money from a thin reel of ones,
the kid in the city, big ear's like a puppy.

And I knew Mingus was a genius. I knew two
other things but as it happened they were wrong.

So I made him look at the poem.
"There's a lot of that going around," he said,

and Sweet Baby Jesus he was right. He glowered
at me but he didn't look as if he thought

bad poems were dangerous, the way some poets do.
If they were baseball executives they'd plot

to destroy sandlots everywhere so that the game
could be saved from children.  Of course later

that night he fired his pianist in mid-number
and flurried him from the stand.

"We've suffered a diminuendo in personnel,"
he explained, and the band played on.

I suspect that this caught my eye because it has something to do with a novice rubbing shoulders with a pro and taking away a small slice of humility. Notice the poet didn't quit. Even when Mingus glowered - and he was a big, glowering presence - the poet listened and took the critique seriously. Notice, too, the pro didn't denigrate the kid; he obliquely called into question the truth and beauty of the young artist's poem, but he didn't shut the kid down. Even when the inner demons that plagued Mingus got the best of him later in the set, the gift of humility shared with grace remained.

Four short months from now, we'll be on sabbatical. Incredible, but true. We will spend a week in NYC wandering into clubs and whatever Marsailis is doing up at Jazz at Lincoln Center. We'll take in the museums we've never visited, stop by St. Peter's for Sunday Jazz Vespers and make sure there's time to play with grandson Louie in Washington Square Park. Then it is on to Nashville for their "All That Jazz" vespers the following Sunday - plus some more wandering and listening. On our way back to Massachusetts we'll zip up to Pittsburg to spend some time with the music and story of Mary Lou Williams. Then it is on to a three month residency in Montreal where I can practice the upright bass, take extended time for quiet prayer and get in a whole lot more meandering. (And two jazz festivals, too!)

Another poem in Young's collection cuts to what I am feeling about this time of renewal: it is a journey into refreshment and creativity for sure, but it is also a time to clarify my limits as an artist and a person of faith. At this moment in my life I am keenly aware that there is a whole lot less time in front of me than behind. So I want to use whatever time remains in a way that encourages other young artists and people of faith to go deeper. To not quit. To learn from their discouragement the way the blues teach you to cry out while listening to what the anguish of living has to offer - and then making it your own. I want to help them hone their gifts and make them shine.

Miles was waiting on the dock,
his trumpet in a paper bag.

Lady was cold ~
wind lashed the gardenias
I stole for her hair.

We were shabby, the three of us.

No one was coming so I stared to row.

It was hard going ~
stagnant, meandering...

The city moaned and smoldered.
Tin cans on the banks like shackles...

To be discovered, in the open...

But Miles took out his horn
and played.
Lady sang.

A slow traditional blues

The current caught us -
horn, voice, oar stroking the water...

I don't know how long we floated -

our craft so full of music,
the night so full of stars.

When I awoke we were entering an ocean,
sun low on water
warm as a throat,
gold as a trumpet.

We wept.

Then soared in a spiritual.

Never have I been so happy.

(The Journey, Lawson Fusao Inada)

For the next four months we'll be getting ready - and leading our small flock through Epiphany into Lent and Easter. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Holy ground and jazz improvisation...

We got home from church last night at 1:30 am and I couldn't go to sleep until well past 3:30! The reason? An incredible sacred jazz liturgy with a stunning quartet of loving, talented, creative, inventive, sensitive and spiritually alive musicians. Damn, just when I think I've had the best musical encounter of my life (our Beats 4 BEAT concert last summer), ANOTHER comes along as a total surprise. Can there be any doubt that ours is a God of grace who comes to us? Three inter-related thoughts are spinning around my head (and they have almost nothing to do with visions of sugar plums!)
+ First, last night's "gig" was as much a time of creative worship for the musicians as it was for the congregation. Often when musicians "do" a liturgy, our role is very clear: play the charts and keep things moving. That certainly has it's place and as a worship leader I honor and practice my role as liturgical shepherd with gratitude. What happened over and over last night, however, was that I got a chance to be an active participant in worship rather than just a leader. Each musician had the opportunity to be fully engaged in the creation of beauty and depth in the music. In turn, this allowed me to both give and receive the gifts that were bubbling up and tumbling down from within the sacred. It was a time to be fully alive as both guide and pilgrim.

+ Second, this particular quartet cherished the jazz axiom of listening to one another carefully, strengthening one an other's gifts and encouraging new levels of creativity within a context of trust and respect.  The sound was spacious and clean. No one stepped on an other's sound. Everyone trusted the band leader - Carlton - who kept us focused. And each player worked to make certain that whatever was created during the moment not only took the listeners into a deeper experience but also helped their band mates find new levels of creativity. This was pure grace: to experience such reverence for the music and each musician was a holy encounter that I felt was soul food.

+ And third, the immediate tenderness and synchronization of the band's playing suggests new horizons for our community. We've known one another in various ways for 8 years. And we've played with one another in other settings, too. But when we came together for a three hour rehearsal this past Monday, something magical happened. And I am hoping we will find new ways to make this happen again. I am already imagining venues that are so outside the box - grounded in spirituality but without the limitations of a traditional liturgy - that my mind hurts. A time of prayer and jazz on Friday night at midnight. A feast of sound and silence to mark the changing of the seasons. A regular gathering for those "who only come out at night" and might never darken the doorways of our regular liturgies. Who knows...? 
In retrospect, there are two changes I would have made to last night's late jazz Eucharist: 1) We might have done more internal interpretation for the congregation about jazz liturgy; they needed to know that this was not going to be 45 minutes and out because improvisation takes time. (We will do better on this the next time around.) And 2) I could have streamlined some of the spoken liturgy and added another time for congregational singing. (This, too was probably only something to consider after the fact.) That said, it was clear to me that we exceeded our expectations in terms of depth and pure creativity. For a while that 250 year old place became holy ground in a new way... and for me that was the perfect way to embrace the promise of Christmas Eve as an adult.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Eve 2014...

Two worship celebrations down and one more to go! Earlier today I celebrated a quiet midday Eucharist with two friends. We found ourselves bathed in the joy and challenge of Mary's canticle (my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.) 

Then at 5 pm, I vested in my black robe for a very traditional liturgy of Carols and Candle Light Communion. It, too, was a joy - well attended and moving in a tender and loving way. There were lots of babies and small children sharing their little whoops and coos along with old timers and new friends from all walks of life.

A particular joy for me was sharing the readings with Ted and Ethan. When I arrived in the Berkshires, Ethan was a little boy. Eight years later he is a young man - an excellent musician growing in stature and skill every month - and a loving presence of hope to me in these trying times. To have him read with his poppa was one of the treats I have come to cherish doing parish ministry. It was awesome to hear the pipe organ accompanied by oboe, flute and soprano sax as Carlton and Charlie made the old songs come alive, too. I love celebrating a very traditional Christmas Eve liturgy with my church family - and our new friends. It is a comfort and a source of stability. 

Now we're chillin' - and will have a light supper - before returning in a few
hours for a totally out-of-the-box liturgy at 11 pm. This year we're working as a jazz quartet - sax, drums, piano and bass - exploring the darker texts just below the obvious stories in our celebration of the Christ Child's birth. Usually I don't push the envelope on this night - I don't phone it in either - but given my own losses and the shape of pain in the world, it felt important to honor the anguish, fear and sadness that is so real from Gaza and Bethlehem to Pakistan, West Africa, Staten Island and Ferguson, MO. There will be lots of improvisation on hymns of joy, dark and challenging carols and some original music, too. (Maybe we can record it and share it... we'll see!)  My reflection puts it like this:

Another paradox in the story that is sometimes obscured at Christmas ceremonies is this: without people like you and me sharing the presence of the Lord in the world – without allies of God crying out against the darkness, embracing the heartbroken in solidarity and trust and making freedom and forgiveness flesh – all we will know is the cruelty of those like King Herod who cause Rachel to weep yet again over the death of her children.

·   The gospel of Matthew tells us that after Jesus was born, the governor of Palestine appointed by Rome, a toadie, we know as King Herod, realized that the Three Kings weren’t going to return to him and rat out the Holy Family. In his fury he ordered the slaughter of all the male children of Palestine under the age of two.

·   That ancient text sounds all too much like our own headlines:  “A voice is heard in Ramah, or Gaza, or Pakistan, or Staten Island or West Africa or North Adams, weeping and great mourning, Rachel crying for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The old story is startlingly contemporary…
So we gather tonight in the darkness, not just for the sake of tradition, not just to remember what happened in Bethlehem then, but to embrace one another now. Tonight we reclaim a commitment to stand with all who are afraid or ashamed because, you see, hope is NOT a feeling – it is a decision – a choice we make “by either faith or moral conscience, whatever most deeply motivates you.” (Jim Wallis)

Tonight our voices are raised in songs of solidarity with all who gasp: I can’t breathe. Tonight we stand with the Holy Family who found a measure of hope when heaven touched earth, when the innkeeper acted in kindness and found a place for Mary to give birth to the Prince of Peace, when freedom and forgiveness became flesh for all eyes to see. Now it could be that you’ve never heard this part of the Christmas story before.  It takes some time as well as some silence and contemplation to come to terms with such an upside-down story. That’s why we’ve constructed this celebration with jazz – the creative marriage of tradition and innovation – a musical practice that shows us how to both honor what is old even while making it new.

At this moment in time, we sensed that all of us needed the space to let our souls be saturated with sacred silence, songs and stories that strengthen hope. So please understand that we’re going to take all the time we need to get this right – and you can, too.  Tonight is the feast of the Holy Child’s birth, so come let us adore him…

I found myself doing a jazz thing to some existing prayers - blending the old with the new - so that it spoke to this moment before we sang "Silent Night" tonight. 

All Loving God, filled with grace and awe,
   On this holy night you give us your Son, the Lord of the universe
   And the Savior of all people
As an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

In the first moments of his life you showed us the paradox of your love.

Open us to the mystery of his powerlessness
   And enable us to recognize him in these strange and challenging times.
You who are holy wished to be born into the heart of our brokenness
   To bring us forgiveness: 
   Lord, have mercy.
You who are strong wished to be born weak as a child in order to give us strength:
   Christ, have mercy.
You who are immortal
   chose to put on a body to die in order to give us everlasting life:
  Lord, have mercy.

Holy God, Loving God, Strong and Immortal God,
   Give the peace of heaven to our earth and
   Open the door of your mercy to us who are beggars of your love
For we pray through our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of holiness
   That the light of Christ that shines in the darkness
   Might be born anew in our hearts.

Thank you dear friends for reading and becoming my friend: I have found love and encouragement all over the world. Merry Christmas and lots of love to you all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Jazz, justice, holy fools and the birth of Jesus 2014 style...

NOTE: Tomorrow night is Christmas Eve 2014. How did that happen? This year - and this Advent - has raced by me in ways I am still trying to grasp. It has been a holy year, a hard year and a year of healing and hope. There is a deep sorrow within me this Christmas. My father is no longer with us. And for the first time in 37 years, I will not have the pleasure of sharing Christmas Eve with one of my daughters. As her family matures, it is time for other duties. There is also a new, sweet joy, however, as we will have the chance to spend a quiet and loving time with our other daughter and her husband on Christmas day feasting and returning thanks. That is a blessing too deep for words: to everything there is a season, yes? 

What follows are my worship notes for Christmas Eve 2014. As my friend and colleague, Carlton Maaia II, and I wrestled with a contemplative, late night, jazz Eucharist for the 11 pm feast, we were haunted and challenged by the escalating fear and violence of these days. He has written brilliant jazz charts for a number of traditional Christmas carols - from "Of the Father's Love Begotten" and "Lullay, Lully" to "Lift Up Your Heads Ye Gates," "Away in the Manger," and "Joy to the World" - and we'll play then in a quartet tomorrow. It will be a time of quiet introspection saturated with silence, song and stories. It is our small contribution to the redemption of our culture. If you want to be with others in the quiet candle light, join us.

The ancient Christmas story is remarkably contemporary – and startlingly relevant to modern people – if we are paying attention.  It can easily be sentimentalized, of course, stripped of its challenging invitation to become allies of God’s grace, justice and peace so that what once was a call to counter-cultural compassion now becomes a maudlin fable retold to excuse our obsession with shopping. You see, if all we want from Christmas Eve is a bit of comfort and joy, that’s possible:  we can sing all the old songs and hear the old stories just like they do on the holiday TV specials and be satisfied with the notion that all is well with the world.

But Christ wasn’t born because everything was well with the world:  God chose to enter time and space in history because sin is real, violence is all too natural and fear and shame cause people like you and me to do horrible things to ourselves and one another.

·   Left to our own inclinations and moral standards we can convince ourselves that slaughtering 145 innocent children in a Pakistani military school makes sense.

·   We can demonize petty criminals who don’t look like us so completely that we can’t even hear them gasp “I can’t breathe” as they lay in our streets.

·   We can rationalize our way into ambushing police officers in NYC, raping one another as a necessary consequence of war, murdering sisters and brothers in the name of the Lord and excusing torture as enhanced interrogation because we know in our hearts that we’re on the side of everything that is holy, just and merciful – and they are not.

So let’s be clear, beloved, Christ wasn’t born because all is well with the world: There is gloom and terror, plunder and addiction, fear and trembling everywhere we look.  What’s more, we have become a people grown weary with waiting for signs of your kingdom. Small wonder more and more of our youth are filling their veins with junk: there is an aching emptiness in our culture that cannot be filled with faster computers, bigger TVs or self-centered sex.

But to grasp a healing alternative we have to pay careful attention to the old, old story – giving ourselves both the silence and space to consider it fully – for within the old words are some important truths about why the Christ Child came to us in his unique way and why it matters today:

·   For starters, the old story tells us that Jesus was born into a refugee family: they were an unmarried, homeless Palestinian Jewish couple caught up in the oppressive whims of an imperial army occupying a foreign nation.  Just that reality alone tells me that God’s love is not bound by any of our pietistic or limited notions of conventional morality: God’s grace is SO much bigger.

·   But God’s truth cuts deeper still as the Christmas story ripens.  It tells us that the will of the Lord is never limited by ethnicity, class or religion, is always present when people suffer fear and injustice and is most regularly experienced throughout the world as freedom and forgiveness.

Let me say that again: the way God is experienced throughout the world most often takes place through freedom and forgiveness.  Theologically Janis Joplin and Kris Kristofferson got it wrong back in the day:  freedom is NOT just another word for nothing left to lose – it is the name of the Lord wherever people struggle against injustice, pain, hunger and degradation.  The same goes for forgiveness – it is the inward experience of social justice – when our hearts have been released from shame and fear the prison doors are blown wide open so that all that is captive within can be set free.

·   John Philip Newell, one time warden at the Iona Community in Scotland, paraphrased this sacred truth in his reworking of the Sermon on the Mount wherein Jesus promises:  blessed are the forgiving because they are free.

·   The Christmas story tells us that Jesus was born not to balance the books of commerce in some weird festival of conspicuous consumption; rather he came to bring freedom to our suffering and forgiveness to our souls. 

That’s why Christ was born into a cattle stall in Palestine: to show us that God is committed to coming to us even in those places we least expect the Lord. In our sin -- in our politics – in the ways we love one another. And just so that we don’t miss this truth, God comes as a helpless child – a defenseless holy fool – the Prince of Peace hidden as the least and most vulnerable among us.  No wonder the prophetic poet of Israel, Isaiah, told us that God’s way is not our way:  God’s way brings forgiveness and grace to our souls and then asks us to give away these gifts to others so that the miracle is multiplied.  

In compassion and kindness, in freedom and forgiveness the presence of the Lord is revealed to the world – and now this blessing is to be made flesh in us. That’s another paradox in the story that is sometimes obscured at Christmas: without people like you and me sharing the presence of the Lord in the world – without allies of God crying out against the darkness, embracing the heartbroken in solidarity and trust and making freedom and forgiveness flesh – all we will know is the cruelty of those like King Herod causing Rachel to weep yet again over the death of her children.

·   The gospel of Matthew tells us that after Jesus was born, the governor of Palestine appointed by Rome, a toadie we know as King Herod, realized that the Three Kings weren’t going to return to him and rat out the Holy Family. In his fury he ordered the slaughter of all the male children of Palestine under the age of two.

·   That ancient text sounds all too much like our own headlines:  “A voice is heard in Ramah, or Gaza, or Pakistan, or Staten Island or West Africa or North Adams, weeping and great mourning, Rachel crying for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The old story is startlingly contemporary…

So we gather tonight in the darkness, not just for the sake of tradition, not just to remember what happened in Bethlehem then, but to embrace one another now and stand with all who are afraid or ashamed. Tonight our voices are raised in songs of solidarity with all who gasp: I can’t breathe. Tonight we stand with the Holy Family who found a measure of hope when heaven touched earth, when the innkeeper acted in kindness and found a place for Mary to give birth to the Prince of Peace, when freedom and forgiveness became flesh for all eyes to see.

Now it could be that you’ve never heard this part of the Christmas story before.  It takes some time as well as some silence and contemplation to come to terms with such an upside-down story. That’s why we’ve constructed this celebration with jazz – the creative marriage of tradition and innovation – a musical tradition that shows us how to both honor what is old even while making it new. At this moment in time, we sensed that all of us needed the space to let our souls be saturated with sacred silence, song and storytelling. So please understand that we’re going to take all the time we need to get this right – and you can, too.

Tonight is the feast of the Christ Child’s birth – the challenge and promise of living into God’s freedom and forgiveness – so come, let us adore him…

As Rachel mourned the children King Herod said must die
Good people stood there silent, and no one questioned why
Why children had to suffer to save a king his throne
Why people stood by watching and let them die alone.

In every town and city the Herods of our day
Ignore the needs of children, so they can have their way
Good people still stand silent, few dare to pay the price
And mothers still are weeping at each new sacrifice.

Above their cries on anguish, a child's voice can be heard
the stable child of Mary, God's living, loving Word
Your children thirst and hunger, now tell us, tell us why
You let the Herods triumph and sentence us to die?

Forgive us, Holy Jesus, we did not see you there
Among the countless children committed to our care
Stir us to break our silence to give your love a voice
Till every weeping mother has reason to rejoice

(Words: Mary Nelson Keithahan; Music: John D. Horman, 1997)

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:...